That even the wicked shall at last
Be fitted for the skies;
And, when their dreadful doom is past,
To life and light arise.
I ask not, how remote the day,
Nor what the sinners’ woe,
Before their dross is purged away;
Enough for me, to know
That when the cup of wrath is drained,
The metal purified,
They’ll cling to what they once disdained,
And live by Him that died.
–Anne Bronte, Extract from “A Word to The ‘Elect‘” (1843)
I try to avoid doctrine. I have studied it, believed it, found it wanting, rejected it. It is the proverbial wineskin which becomes unworthy of new wine. I am interested in the essence of things, and doctrines, or more specifically, dogma, gets in the way of new truths.
But I now need to make an exception to my post-modern, neo-bohemian ideals. I want to take a good look at a doctrine which I have come to understand as a sort of Mother of all Doctrines. Ladies, Gentlemen, and all created things, this concerns you; I speak of the Doctrine of Universal Restoration. It goes by many other names too, like Universal Salvation, the Doctrine of Inclusion, Radical Grace, or Apokatastasis.
If you have had a look at my blog entry “A Worthy Worship 6 : In work, play, church, world, in all”, which concerns dualism, you will remember I suggest that dualism the root of all that separates us from G-d; you might if you wanted to camp it up, call it the Cardinal Sin. And Eternal Damnation is the ultimate dualism. You can’t get more separated from G-d than by being in never ending torment for all eternity.
In a nutshell, UR is the belief that all things, that is all people and all of creation, will one day be restored by, and reunited with G-d through Christ. A flagship scripture (amongst many) suggesting UR is from 1 Tim 4:10: “we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, and especially of those who believe”.
This implies, then, that no-one will suffer eternal punishment. All of the writers I have read espousing UR are adamant that there will be judgment, however. It’s just that the judgment has the purpose of restoration not punishment. The doctrine was generally accepted by the early Church via the likes of Origen. But after the Roman Coup whereby the church was taken over by Empire, by the Roman Empire, it was declared a heresy in the 6th Century.
The notion of “hell” – the threat of Eternal Damnation – took over as the official Church’s position on the destination for all who didn’t tow “God’s” (That is, the Church’s) line. The doctrine of Eternal Damnation ensured that the people remained loyal and kept the Church in its place of power. The underlying tool? Fear. The sale of indulgences was perhaps the height of this manipulation. Hell could be avoided, for the right price. And by consigning your loved ones to purgatory, the market could be milked even further – not even death was not the final word.
For example, John Calvin describes hell as: “Forever harassed with a dreadful tempest, they shall feel themselves torn asunder by an angry God, and transfixed and penetrated by mortal stings, terrified by the thunderbolts of God, and broken by the weight of his hand …” And the Reverend C. H. Spurgeon: “When thou diest, thy soul will be tormented alone; that will be a hell for it, but at the day of judgment they body will join they soul, and then thou wilt have twin hells, thy soul sweating drops of blood, and thy body suffused with agony.” (Both quotes taken from Tentmaker article The Inventors and Perpetrators of Hell)
Amazingly, the idea and threat of Hellfire remains very strong today in the “Christian” and even “Post-Christian” world. It is in fact a fundamental feature of our psychology, even if it exists as residue, it is woven into the fabric of Christianised society. It lurks deep in the recesses of our makeup, a fundamental Archetype. According to an msnbc online poll of 17684 responses (as of the time of writing) the question “Do you believe in Hell?” received 60% yes, 31% no vote.
To start to get a grip on the subject, we need to take a close look at the Biblical usage of the English words/concepts, “Hell”, and “Eternal” (As is Everlasting punishment/damnation). As translated in the King James Version, the New International Version, and others, “Hell” is an amalgamation of several quite separate words, Hades, Tartarus (Greek), Sheol and Gehenna (from Hebrew). “Hell” itself is from the Anglo Saxon “Helan” and simply means “concealed”, as in helmet, hull, hold, cell, or cellar. See the pithy handbook “Martin Zender goes to Hell”. And the word translated “Eternal” (“Ainos”), meaning timeless, was originally a word meaning the opposite, that is, an Age, or A time.
This look at Scriptural origins is of course is a small scratch on the surface of a very large and very perilous affair. But I have done enough scratching to be convinced that there is something to the doctrine of Universal Restoration. A good deal of information on the belief, scripture, people past and present, is to be found on Tentmaker minstries website . A good summary is to be found on wikipedia , which lists around 10 of the most representative scriptures from each camp.
One of the most high profile cases of “UR conversion” in recent times is that of Bishop Carlton Pearson, a conservative 4th generation Pentecostal preacher based in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Read and watch his story . His is a testimony to what I call “Costly Universalism”, a man who had the world at his feet, discovered UR, was actually branded a heretic, lost 90% of his congregation, his church building, and his ministry, but not his soul. But his real importance, it seems, is only now emerging. He will deliver a keynote address at the upcoming Conference entitled “Sacred Activism and the Power of Inclusion” in May 2007. I have a feeling in my bones about this movement. Take a look at this slideshow on to get a taste of prophetic sociology. But I digress…
As an Evangelical by tradition, the implications of UR fascinate me. If the Kingdom of God is to include everybody and everything, there can be no end to the celebration. Worship, in fact all of life, becomes all encompassing. Most of the categories that preoccupy us so drop away; religion, race, nationality. We are freed at a deep level from a defensive to an inclusive, generous approach to life.
Is the ultimate reason for Gods love the escape from hell? It seems ridiculous that a Creator, who is and gives Life, would define themselves in such negative terms. Is this my logic taking me for a ride? Is it wishful optimism? Or is it an intuitive, gut feeling about the nature of things?
How is it possible to aspire towards unconditional love while even the merest threat of eternal damnation hangs over our, mine or anyone else’s head (for we are all connected), or simply lurks in the recesses of our minds? So long as that threat is there, we cannot truly and freely love, our quest is in vain, for it is not a love which conquers all.