I saw you in the documentary movie Hellbound?
What caused you to reject the doctrine of eternal conscious torment?
First, to readers who’ve not seen the documentary, created by my friend Kevin Miller, here is a trailer:
Now to your question, and my answer here is very abbreviated, but here are the highlights in which my convictions shifted in stages over decades.
First, I grew up with the assumption of hell as eternal conscious torment (ECT). As a child, I took it seriously and literally, and I inherited it as a given within the Baptist tradition of my faith family. While I was convinced that I was heaven-bound, I found the thought of my beloved unchurched cousins being tortured in the Lake of Fire forever traumatic and the imagery in my mind unbearable. And their blood was on my hands, no less! My only recourse was to evangelize them, and I seemed unable to do so.
Later, as a youth pastor and evangelist, I concluded that if there is a hell, I could at least lighten the blow to my own heart (sort of) by realizing (1) God doesn’t want anyone to go to hell (2 Peter 3:9) and (2) nobody HAS to go there.
Better news still, in 1989, a book titled Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue was released in which John Stott, my favorite Evangelical theologian at the time, confessed that he no longer believed in ECT! His position was a sort of annihilationism (or conditionalism, as it’s now called) where the ‘saved’ enter eternal life but those who don’t respond to the gospel are not tormented with flames for all eternity, but simply cease to be. That is, the lost “perish” or are “destroyed” (both biblical words), whether at death or on the day of judgment.
It’s still not great news, since most people in that model still perish, but at least God can’t be accused of being too cruel or too impotent to avert the ECT of the majority of his beloved creatures. I can’t quite express the psychological gravity of Stott’s permission to embrace the conditionalist alternative, because it completely freed me to change positions and still feel that I was being a faithful Evangelical. If John Stott could let go of ECT, then so could I, without feeling I was on the slippery slope to liberalism. It also allowed me to see God as just in his judgments rather than monstrous.
Fast-forward nearly twenty years. I had a series of many private meetings with two types of people who wanted to talk about their “red line” for faith.
One group was comprised of prospective believers–people who had not yet committed to following Christ but who had definitely “met” him through our ministry. They would say, “I’m totally into Jesus but I cannot become a Christian.” Why not? “Because I just cannot bring myself to believe in hell. I can’t imagine the Jesus I’ve encountered sending my parents/spouse/children/best friends there. So if that’s what Christians believe, I can’t become one.”
The second group was made up of lifelong believers–people who had been following Christ for as long as they could remember. Now, many of them were saying, “I’m still totally into Jesus but I can no longer be a Christian.” Why not? “Because I can no longer believe in hell. I can’t imagine the Jesus I’ve known and loved all my life sending my parents/spouse/children/best friends there. So if that’s what Christians believe, I’m out.”
In both cases, Jesus was not the problem. The deal-killer, in their minds, was a belief in hell (as ECT). I told them that I didn’t believe in ECT either; I didn’t think it was an essential of the faith, but that we could double-check the Scriptures to be sure. Out of that study, I wrote Her Gates Will Never Be Shut: Hope, Hell and the New Jerusalem.
My conclusion in that book was that both the Scriptures and the early church describe the final judgment and our eternal destiny with a wide array of imagery, criteria, and outcomes that cannot easily be harmonized without preferring some biblical texts and negating others. The visions (and our interpretations of them) vary so dramatically (from infernalism [ECT] to conditionalism to universalism) that I wrote, “We cannot presume that all shall be saved or that even one person will be lost. Rather, we put our hope in Jesus” … and this hope is not doubtful or wishful, but rather, “is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” I called this position “hopeful inclusivism” and it echoes what I saw in two major contemporary theologians: Hans Urs Von Balthasar and Metropolitan Kallistos Ware.
Now, another twelve years later, I discovered that my use of “hope” confused some people, since they still imagined me wavering about how it all ends. As if maybe I think ECT is a real possibility for some. To make matters worse, I confused others by resisting the label “universalist” while affirming the particular universalism I see in teachers like Robin Parry or David Bentley Hart. I have not adopted the “universalist” moniker simply because a great many (probably most) universalists today have abandoned what I regard as essentials to the gospel (though Parry and Hart have definitely not). So many universalists not only ditch ECT–they also discard sin, Jesus, the Cross, judgment, and the necessity of a willing faith response. Again, universalists such as Parry and Hart remain faithful to these essentials, but when so many universalists no longer even believe in Christ or his gospel, the label itself can be used as a pejorative with which to misrepresent and dismiss me without hearing me out.
Therefore, I currently use the language of UR (ultimate redemption or ultimate reconciliation) to say that, along with Parry and Hart, but also Clement, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Isaac of Syria, and Maximos the Confessor, I affirm that, in fact, I am convinced that the New Testament does foresee (in a good number of ways) that all shall be saved–by Christ, via the Cross, through judgment, and upon a forthcoming faith response where every knee joyfully bows and every tongue gratefully confesses that Jesus Christ is Lord.
That’s my conviction. But I want to close by saying that my conviction in ultimate redemption is NOT a doctrine. Just as ECT is NOT a doctrine. The dogmas of the faith were set forth in the Apostles’ Creed (Latin West) and the Nicene Creed (Greek East), and they did not include any statement about hell, other than its conquest, or of any destiny other than “the resurrection of the dead and the life of the age to come.” So in my view, to impose any view of hell (including ECT) as a doctrine that must be believed and confessed is actually a formal heresy, by creating a dogma where there was none. The Bible and the first Christians allow for diverse convictions without reifying any one of them into a dogma of the faith.