What is my eternal fate? And what about loved ones who are non-believers? Are they doomed to eternal separation from God if they should die before coming to faith?
Up until the time of Augustine (around 400 A.D.), many of the early Christians believed in universal reconciliation (often referred to as the Larger or Wider Hope), meaning that all created souls will one day turn to God and be welcomed into His loving heart. It’s worth noting that this was a time of the most intense and horrific persecution by the Romans! These Christians must have been sorely tempted to wish that their oppressors roast forever in hell, but their understanding of the Gospel and the epistles, as they read them in the original Greek, convinced them such was not the will of God.
Augustine took the Church in a decidedly different direction, one that was especially embraced by the Reformers. While a foreign concept to many in the Reformed church, throughout the past two thousand years there have been profound thinkers in all of the major denominations who believe that Scripture teaches, or at least allows for the possibility of, universal reconciliation (Anglican and Orthodox theologians in particular tend to be less dogmatic on the subject).
Is this “Christianity Light?” Do these men and women fail to take sin seriously? Do they deny the existence of Hell? By no means! For a believer in universal reconciliation, God is a Consuming Fire, whose wrath against sin is both terrible to behold and an unspeakable blessing. We are dead in our sins, and it is from our sins we must be saved—whatever that takes.
The question of whether our chance to repent and turn to God ends at the moment of death, which would obviously rule out the possibility of universal reconciliation, comes up a few times in my novel Hearts Set Free. Here’s a brief bit of dialogue between two of the characters, with names deleted.
“Jesus said that He, the shepherd, would not rest until He found His lost sheep—even if only one had strayed. Time ran out for you; but I cannot believe that death, the enemy which our Lord defeated at the Cross, is any obstacle for Him.
“I could not have asked for a better, more loving father than my own” she continued, “but our Heavenly Father is a thousand-fold greater yet. Jesus said that blessed are they who have not seen, and yet have believed; but still, He appeared to Thomas, and let him place his hand into His open wound. The Bible tells me that our Savior wants all men to be saved, and to come to a knowledge of the truth, and so I believe that He reveals Himself to every man. Whether a man might then turn from Him, in the full knowledge of His glory, I can scarcely imagine, for he would then be no different from the demons, and would have willed his own damnation.”
“How I would like to believe that a man might still repent, even after death!” I said. “Yet, ‘it is appointed unto men once to die, and after this the judgment.’”
“Judgment, indeed,” she replied. “A man might well be made to repay the last farthing owed. The Psalmist wrote that unto thee, O Lord, belongeth mercy: for thou renderest to every man according to his work. Surely the judgments God renders are merciful because, however terrible, they serve to bring men back to Him.’”
One truth rang out clearly: that it would be well worth it for a man to suffer the worst of torments, if only it led him to despise his sins and turn to God! But was it too much to hope?
Doesn’t Scripture Clearly Tell Us the Answer?
It’s easy enough to find verses—proof-texts—which appear to support any of the three major doctrines of what happens to us after death: eternal conscious torment, annihilation, or universal reconciliation. Similarly, Thomas Talbott points out that there are ample verses in Scripture to support each of the following statements, which I quote below from his book The Inescapable Love of God:
All human sinners are equal objects of God’s redemptive love…[He] sincerely wills or desires to reconcile each one of them to Himself…
Almighty God will triumph in the end and successfully reconcile to Himself each person whose reconciliation He sincerely wills or desires.
Some human sinners will never be reconciled to God and will therefore remain separated from Him forever.
Obviously, these statements cannot all be true! A Calvinist would agree with propositions 2 and 3, but disagree with 1 (because God wills and predestines the reconciliation of the elect only). An Arminian would agree with 1 and 3, but disagree with 2 (God respects man’s free-will decision to turn away from Him). A believer in universal reconciliation agrees with proposition 1 and 2, but not with 3 (God does indeed respect man’s free will, but, given enough time, we will all eventually be drawn to Him).
While it’s necessary to study the verses that support any one given position, what’s more compelling is to understand how each doctrine relates to the grand, overarching story of Scripture, and how each doctrine deals with the verses which seem at first blush to support an alternative position. Zondervan’s Four Views on Hell provides a lively debate for those interested in hearing the pros and cons of each side.
For those unfamiliar with the Scriptural underpinnings of universal reconciliation, I recommend three excellent texts:
The Evangelical Universalist, by Robin Parry (writing as Gregory MacDonald)
The Inescapable Love of God, by Thomas Talbott
Universal Reconciliation: A Brief Selection of Pertinent Quotations, by Michael Phillips