Can everyone be saved through Jesus Christ? The Rev. Heath Bradley, associate pastor of preaching and Christian education at Pulaski Heights UMC in Little Rock, Ark., thinks so.
In his new book, Flames of Love: Hell and Universal Salvation (Wipf and Stock Publishers), Mr. Bradley builds a theological framework for the doctrine of hell that relies heavily on the Christian perspective that God is loving and merciful. He spoke recently with special contributor Amy Forbus.
First off, let’s clarify what may be one of the big questions for readers. Do you reject the existence of hell?
No, I strongly affirm the existence of hell. What I reject is the claim that hell is never-ending torment for the purpose of retributive punishment.
Hell has been understood in different ways in our Christian tradition. The dominant tradition has held that hell is endless torment for all non-Christians, or “the wicked.” There are two minority strands in our tradition, however. Some Christians have held that hell will destroy or annihilate the wicked, while others have held that hell serves the purpose of correcting and purifying the wicked so they can be united with God. I fall in this last camp.
Let’s talk about another “h” word: heretical. Has anyone called you a heretic yet?
Yes, they have. I think many people are quick to label universalists as heretics because of two main misunderstandings of this position.
First, people often mistakenly equate universalism with pluralism. Pluralism is a very liberal approach to religious truth that says that there are many paths to God, Jesus isn’t unique, and everything is OK because God is nice. Christian universalism is actually quite conservative in that it holds that Christ is the only savior and affirms a day of judgment from a God of holy love. But it holds to the hopeful conviction that ultimately all will be saved through Christ.
Second, many people seem to have the understanding that the church at some point has declared universalism to be a heresy. The key ecumenical council in this regard is the Second Council of Constantinople in 553, where Origen, an early Christian universalist, was condemned. However, it was not belief in universal salvation as such that was condemned.
Gregory of Nyssa, who was one of the final editors of the Nicene Creed, was a universalist, but was so highly regarded by the early church that he was given the title “father of fathers.” So, if universalists are heretics, then we would be forced to conclude that one of the most revered formulators of orthodox doctrine was himself a heretic.
How did you get interested in this topic?
I grew up in a United Methodist church, and I don’t recall ever hearing a sermon on hell—although, I confess, I didn’t always pay attention—but it is just a part of the air you breathe in the Bible Belt. It has troubled me deeply as long as I have been aware of it. I think it must deeply trouble anyone who really thinks about it.
One time a woman came to see me to talk about some “spiritual issues,” and she told me that when she was a little girl she would often cry herself to sleep at night, sometimes crying so hard that she would throw up, because her best friend was not a Christian and her church told her he was going to a never-ending hell. That actually seems to me to be an appropriate response to this doctrine. But should the good news of Jesus cause little girls to cry so hard they throw up?
I began really seriously questioning the existence of an everlasting hell when I was working on a master’s thesis in the area of philosophy of religion. I started out trying to argue against Christian universalism, but the more I studied and prayed about it, it seemed to me that Christian universalism just had stronger arguments philosophically, biblically and theologically.
That was a decade ago, but I decided to write a book on it last year because it started really troubling me that some people I know are not Christians because they think that to be a Christian means you have to believe that God will send all non-Christians to everlasting torment.
I believe that you can be a biblical, orthodox Christian and still believe that God will ultimately save all people through Christ, and I want others to know about this perspective. There is an evangelistic impulse at the heart of this book. I believe that God is love and I feel compelled to share that message. In writing the book, I also had in mind more “liberal” Christians who have left behind any conviction of judgment and belief in an afterlife. While I believe we need to rethink the dominant view of heaven and hell, I don’t think we can completely discard them and still have authentic Christianity.
If you believe everyone gets to heaven, why is it still important to evangelize?
In the book, I talk about five reasons why I think evangelism is important within Christian universalism, but here I will just point out one: hell exists. I can’t emphasize enough that within Christian universalism there is still an integral place for divine judgment and for warning people about the destructive consequences of rejecting God.
The word that Jesus used for hell, gehenna, originally referred to a garbage dump southwest of Jerusalem. This place of waste and destruction became a symbol for the reality of postmortem punishment for ancient rabbis. It is a powerful image, to be sure. To be told by God on judgment day that we have wasted the lives we have been given would hurt like hell, and we should do all that we can to help others (and ourselves) avoid that.
What if you’re wrong in this belief?
Well, that would be a first! Seriously, I could be wrong about this and I know that. Lots and lots of very intelligent and faithful Christians think otherwise, and that gives me pause. I came to this position through years of studying the best arguments against it, and I just think Christian universalism makes more sense biblically and theologically than the alternatives.
If I am wrong, then I have a hard time imagining that God would be upset with me for having too much confidence in the power of his love.
The Rev. Bradley writes on a variety of theological topics at his blog, thesundaydrivehome.blogspot.com. Ms. Forbus is editor of the Arkansas United Methodist, where this interview first appeared.