One thing that can frustrate a Universalist to no end is the fact that Universal Reconciliation seems to be one of the clearest doctrines in Scripture yet most Christians can’t seem to see it at all. Most Christians interpret certain parables, metaphors and other biblical figures of speech as teaching Everlasting Torment (often refered to as ET) in hell for all non-Christians even though these passages are clearly teaching something completely different (what they’re actually teaching is not what I’m getting at right now so I’ll save that discussion for another time).
The thing we have to keep in mind (and this is something I have to continuously remind myself of) is that it is not their fault that they are interpreting Scripture this way. The fact that we have had centuries of indoctrination in the concept of ET aside, I believe that God has predestined most Christians to believe in ET in order to fulfill His ultimate purposes for creation. I’ll get more into the idea of God’s sovereignty when it comes not only to our salvation but also to our theology at a later point, I just wanted to get that out there for now.
A lot of people have asked me over the years, “what if you’re wrong about Universalism?” I could go (and have gone) into all sorts of reasons as to why I believe I’m right, but truth be told I could be wrong. I mean, I believed in Everlasting Torment in hell for about 20 years and then decided I was wrong about that, so I could someday decide that I’m wrong about this as well. All of the philosophical, theological, and Scriptural reasons why I believe in UR aside though (and there are a lot of reasons), if I am wrong I’d rather err on the side of mercy than on the side of wrath. I would rather make the mistake of believing that God is more loving than He really is than the mistake of believing that He is more wrathful than He really is. I would also rather make the mistake of believing that God had a properly thought out plan that ends well for everybody before He even started creation than make the mistake of believing that He was willing to leave the eternal destinies of humanity up to chance and our flawed abilities to make good choices.
I know some people (some are friends, so if any of them are reading this post, please keep in mind that this is not a criticism) who, while believing that UR (Universal Reconciliation) is the most accurate (or likely the most accurate) soteriological model, don’t actually like to be refered to as “Universalists.” This is mostly because “Universalism” is often used to refer to the concept that all religions are the same and all paths lead to God (also, many don’t want to be confused with those in the Unitarian-Universalist denomination). While this is a valid (and common) meaning for the label “Universalism,” I believe that the teaching that Christ saves everyone is a perfectly valid meaning for the label as well. By the definition I personally use for the word, if you believe that everybody ends up in the same place at the end of time you are a Universalist, whether you believe that everybody gets there through Christ (as I believe) or you believe it’s through whichever religion they happen to follow.
That said, for those believers in UR who prefer not to be labelled Universalists, everyone has the right to call themselves whatever they want. It is only a word, after all, and as Humpty Dumpty put it in Through the Looking Glass, “When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
When Jesus spoke about “hell” in the Bible, the word He really used in most cases was “Gehenna” (the Bible wasn’t originally written in English. Actually, the English word “hell” is a bad translation that probably shouldn’t be in the Bible at all). Gehenna, also known as the Valley of Hinnom, was actually a place outside Jerusalem where refuse and dead bodies were burned, a fitting picture of judgement. Here is a photograph of that valley today, the one Jesus used as a image of judgement with fires that would never be extinguished:
I find this to be a good reminder of just how everlasting “hell” will actually be. The burning garbage dump that Jesus used to warn people of impending judgement is now a pleasant area one might enjoy an afternoon picnic in. Gehenna reminds us that while judgement exists, and can even be harsh for a time, the end result will be positive.
Be sure to visit the site Photographs of Hell for more pictures of what “hell” looks like today.