Well done, Mr. Galli! Mark Galli is the former editor of Christian History magazine and current (and long-time) managing editor of Christianity Today. He ministers in an evangelical Anglican church in the Chicagoland area. And he has just provided us with what I think is a helpful and charitable reflection on the significant minority position, among Bible-believing, gospel-teaching Protestants.
The position? That the traditional Christian doctrine of “conscious, eternal punishment” for the damned is out of kilter and should not be held as orthodoxy. Here’s a bit of Galli’s reflection, which was spurred by a recent book by the celebrated (and vilified) American pastor Rob Bell, and can be found in its entirety here:
As noted, on one end of the spectrum is universalism—the belief that all people will eventually be saved. But this is not necessarily a sentimental universalism, where God simply lets bygones be bygones. The period of suffering and torment may take eons, but eventually even the most notorious sinner—even Satan himself—will be restored to God, but only as through fire. Various forms of this view have been ascribed to early church theologians, like Gregory of Nyssa (though Eastern theologians dispute this), and even to evangelical heroes like devotional writer William Law (most famous for his A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life) and pastor and fantasy writer George MacDonald. William Barclay was also a universalist; though he was clearly a liberal, his commentaries on the New Testament were widely and profitably used by evangelicals for decades.
That being said, universalism has been a decidedly minority view in church history and contemporary evangelicalism. CT’s statement of faith (signed by all editors annually) is more or less standard in our world, and is unequivocally non-universalist: “At the end of the age … the righteous shall enter into the full possession of eternal bliss in the presence of God, and the wicked shall be condemned to eternal death.”
Still, it is only fair to acknowledge that a handful of devout Christians, many of whom evangelicals respect, have solved the judgment/salvation tension by affirming that, yes, unbelievers will endure punishment, but it will not be eternal (though it may last a very long time).
Second, we have those Christians who affirm eternal punishment, but who don’t believe it is experienced consciously. John R. W. Stott and others have tried to reconcile the seemingly universalistic texts in the New Testament with the reality of hell by exploring annihilationism, the idea that the impenitent will be destroyed in hell.
I recommend this piece as a helpful reflection on an important topic.
For an excellent, in-depth review of the book, see this post by my friend Edwin Woodruff Tait.
- rob bell attacks hell? (jude3project.org)
- Bell’s Thoughts on Hell (unreasonablefaith.com)
- Who the Devil is Rob Bell and Why Does Anyone Care if He’s A Universalist? (zwingliusredivivus.wordpress.com)
- Thank you, Ken Curtis: A pioneer in the popular communication of Christian history passes (gratefultothedead.wordpress.com)