By George W. Sarris
“Historic? I’m not sure it’s too strong a word. I can’t think of anything quite like this!”
That’s how Dr. Jerry Walls described the second Rethinking Hell Conference that was held at the prestigious Fuller Theological Seminary June 18-20.
It brought together scholars, pastors and laypeople from the US, Canada and as far away as the UK to discuss an issue that has been the subject of debate and division during most of the history of the Christian Church:
What happens to sinners after we die?
Three very different views have existed from the early church to the present day – each represented by respected leaders . . . and each claiming the authority of Scripture for its beliefs.
The Traditional view states that the righteous will go to heaven, and the wicked will experience endless, conscious suffering in hell.
With Conditional Immortality, eternal life is conditioned on salvation, and only some will meet that condition. The saved go to heaven. The rest die, perhaps suffering for some time after death, until they finally cease to exist. This view is sometimes called Annihilation.
The third view says that hell is a place where the wicked will be punished, but that punishment has a remedial purpose. After a period of time, they will be restored to fellowship with God. This view is generally called Universalism or Universal Restoration.
The conference was sponsored by the Conditionalists, with this year’s theme – “Conditional Immortality and the Challenge of Universal Salvation.” Five main speakers included recognized authorities supporting each of the three views.
Oliver Crisp, Professor of Systematic Theology at Fuller, presented the Traditional view of hell. “This is an in-house discussion,” he said. “We are not talking about how people are saved, but how many are saved.” The scope of salvation is wider than often thought, but the tradition handed down to us teaches that some will be in hell forever.
Jerry Walls, Professor of Philosophy and Scholar-in-Residence at Houston Baptist University, continued the Traditional view, stating that some will suffer forever in hell on the conviction that mankind has an inviolable free will.
“We cannot entirely eliminate the possibility that some will choose to harden themselves in sin for all eternity,” said Walls, author of Heaven, Hell and Purgatory: Rethinking the Things that Matter Most.
David Instone-Brewer, Senior Research Fellow in Rabbinics and the New Testament in Cambridge, UK, presented the Conditionalist view by examining Jewish literature dating from before, during and after the time of Christ. He said that in the Qumran community, punishments were followed by destruction.
Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Taylor University, Jim Spiegel presented the philosophical case for Conditionalism. He described six philosophical problems with the Traditional view and suggested that Universalism was more problematic from a Biblical perspective.
Spiegel said that if hell continues forever, evil continues forever. The annihilation of the wicked brings a permanent end to evil.
Describing himself as an Evangelical Universalist, Robin Parry, PhD in Old Testament from the University of Gloucestershire and editor for theological publications at Wipf & Stock Publishers, likened the creation/redemption story to a puzzle where the piece describing hell doesn’t quite fit in with a loving, all-powerful God. He described hell as a hospital where God annihilates evil, not evil-doers.
“God doesn’t create trash,” said Parry, author of The Evangelical Universalist, “and He doesn’t trash what He created.”
I had the privilege of speaking at one of 16 breakout sessions that offered attendees an opportunity to participate in smaller groups. The sessions representing one view were held simultaneously so people could hear arguments for all three.
Topics ranged from “The Biblical Tour of Hell” . . . to “An Orthodox/Catholic Eschatology: the Hopeful Inclusivism of Hans Urs von Balthasar and Metropolitan Kallistos Ware” . . . to “Is God Creation’s Biggest Loser?”
A gracious and humble spirit was evident with each of the main speakers, the breakout session speakers and with the participants. It was clearly felt by all who attended.
What was most amazing to me was the number of people – from speakers to conference organizers to participants – who admitted that they had been challenged by what was said to rethink their view of hell . . . which, after all, was what the conference was all about.
Several said they had been unaware that a prominent belief in the early Church was that God would ultimately restore all of creation.
A number mentioned that they had never heard a Biblical case for universal salvation.
Almost all agreed that a belief in the ultimate restoration of all was not outside the bounds of faith.
And several acknowledged that they were “hopeful” that it was true.
Traditionalist Jerry Walls ended the conference with these words, “Universalism is the best story. It’s the only one where true, lasting bliss pervades. It’s the only one with a perfect ending.”