Can a Good God Allow People to Dwell in Hell Forever?

Opening Statement by Kalen Fristad

Mars Hill Forum #96
Bangor Baptist Church, Bangor, Maine
October 16, 2005

As I have thought back over the first four debates between John and myself, I have found it very interesting that John's positions have evolved from one debate to another. I guess that shouldn't be surprising since John has stated that universal salvation was not an area of expertise for him and he didn't read my book or any other book on the subject of universal salvation before the debates. So it could be expected that, as he has gone through the debates, he would learn more about the issue, and as a result adjust his positions to be consistent with his new insights.

Interestingly, John has taken three different positions regarding the prospect of unsaved people being converted beyond death, and thus to be able to experience heaven. In the first debate, John's emphatic position was that there would be no chance of conversion in the next life, that a person must be converted before death or he would spend eternity in hell.

The second and third debates were held on the same day. At that time, John took the position that unsaved people would have a chance to be converted shortly after death, but that opportunity would last only for a short time. I was very surprised to hear him say that, after emphatically rejecting that possibility during the first debate. I was glad, however, to hear of his new position because it was more compatible with my belief that unsaved people will have many opportunities for conversion after death.

I found it even more intriguing that at our fourth debate, John unveiled a third position regarding the prospect of unsaved people having a chance to accept salvation beyond death. At that time, he said he believed that the unsaved would have opportunities for conversion beyond death up until the time of the judgment.

Of course, we don't know how long that might be before the judgment takes place. It could be a short time or a long time. But regardless of how long that might be into the future, we can conclude that many unsaved people who have died in the past have already had a long time for God to work on them, to convert them, to save them. For example, the unsaved people who died at the time of Christ have already had 2,000 years in which to accept God's free gift of salvation. Those who died during the time of Abraham have already had about 4,000 years to get saved. It seems to me that that amount of time would be sufficient for God to get most people saved, perhaps enough time to get everyone saved.

So John, with each debate, you have moved closer to my position. The only difference between you and me now is that, while you believe people, after death, can be saved any time up until the judgment, I believe that if everyone is not saved before the judgment there will still be opportunities for conversion after that.

My belief is consistent with the fact that Christians during the time of the early church commonly believed that God will eventually save everyone, even if that process takes beyond the time of the judgment. In the sixth century, however, because of the influence of the theologian Augustine, the church turned against the teaching of universal salvation. Then about 300 years ago, the teaching that God will eventually save everyone began a strong come back. Since that time, millions of Christians have embraced the teaching of universal salvation. And it has been espoused by many prominent Christian theologians, including: Friederich Schleiermacher, Paul Tillich, Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Leslie Weatherhead.

So the belief that God will eventually save everyone is not a new idea. It was well established and widely believed during the time of the early church, and has been endorsed by millions of Christians and church leaders during the past 300 years.

Now, I know that there are several passages of Scripture that speak of hell, and faithful Christians often conclude from those passages that suffering in hell will be without end for many people. I, along with many others, have come to a different conclusion. And that is that while those passages do teach of hell, I believe that the suffering of individuals in hell will come to an end. I believe God will ultimately save everyone, including rescuing people from hell when necessary.

There are many reasons why others have believed in universal salvation, and why I believe it. One reason I believe this is because many passages of Scripture tell us that all will be saved. For example, according to John 12:32, Jesus says "I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." Romans 5:18, "Therefore just as one man's (Adam's) trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man's (Christ's) act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all." Also, 1 Corinthians 15:22 reads, "For as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ." Colossians 1:20 tells us that "God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things." It seems to me that those passages clearly teach that all will eventually be saved.

1 Peter 3:18-20; 4:6 tells us of Christ going to preach to unsaved people who died during the time of Noah in order to convert them. I think it is very significant that that passage says Christ went to preach to people who died during the time of Noah. Those people, according to the story of the flood in the book of Genesis, were the most wicked people that ever lived on the face of the earth. We are told that Christ went to rescue them, preach to them, to convert and transform them so they could experience heaven. Note: the passage doesn't say that Christ went to rescue basically pretty good people, those who weren't quite good enough to get into heaven. No, he went to rescue the most evil people who ever lived. It seems to me that if there is hope for those most evil people, there surely must be hope for anyone else who might find themselves experiencing hell in the next life.

Consistent with Christ going to preach to the dead to rescue them, we read in Philippians 2:10-11, "at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." The phrase, "under the earth" is a clear reference to the abode of the dead, and to "confess that Jesus Christ is Lord" is what it means to be a Christian. So, we have people after they died coming to confess Jesus Christ as Lord.

In the parable of the lost sheep, according to Luke 15:1-7, the shepherd represents God and the sheep represent people. The shepherd had 100 sheep and one got lost. So he went out and looked for that lost sheep until he found it and brought it home. We might ask, why was that one lost sheep so important to the shepherd? Shouldn't he be content that he still had 99 percent of his sheep? No, he wasn't content until he had found that lost sheep and was bringing it home in the midst of the rejoicing. Jesus is telling us that is what God is like. God is not content with even 99 percent being saved. It is of enormous significance that this parable doesn't say that the shepherd looked and looked until he finally gave up and went home without the sheep, but that he looked until he found it. So too, God keeps looking until he is able to bring the very last lost sheep home.

We also read in 1 Timothy 2:4-6 that God "desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Jesus Christ, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all." The Bible not only tells us that God wants to save everyone but that God always gets what God wants. Job 42:1-2, "I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted." Ephesians 1:11, "In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him, who accomplishes all things according to his council and will." All of that tells me that if anyone is eternally lost, that means God has been defeated. And I don't believe God could ever be defeated.

Jesus referred to God as "Father", so we can appropriately think of God as our heavenly parent. We know that no mentally healthy earthly parent would punish his or her own children without end. So how can we believe God would do such a thing? Also, with earthly parents, if a child chooses to reject his parents and to go astray and lead a life which brings misery to himself, any loving parent wouldn't abandon the child in his misery, but would continue to do everything he or she could possibly do to lead him back to a life of happiness and fullness. God, being infinitely more loving and compassionate than even the best of parents, would also surely not abandon any of God's children in hell, even if it was a hell of their own choosing.

Another reason I believe there will be opportunities for conversion even beyond the judgment is because I believe that God's grace, by virtue of its very definition, cannot come to an end. Because of that, I'm convinced that there can never be a cutoff point for God's saving involvement with people, whether that be at the time of death or judgment day or any other time. I believe in the grandeur of God. God is great and wonderful and powerful, more powerful than the devil or any other force, or all other forces put together, that might lead us astray. God is powerful enough to save everyone.

I believe God is everywhere present, including with people in hell, being there for the purpose of saving all lost souls. I believe God is all knowing and uses that unlimited knowledge and wisdom to reach out to all wayward people to save them. I believe God is present in a loving and personal way with everyone, that God's unconditional love is the most powerful force in the world, and that God never gives up on anyone, but works continuously in everyone's lives until all are saved.

So, I have many reasons why I believe God will eventually save everyone. And with the understanding that all will eventually be saved, if some aren't saved before the judgment, then it seems to me that they will need to be saved beyond that time.

So John, while you believe in opportunities for salvation, for people who have died, up until the time of the judgment, I believe God's grace and saving power extend even beyond that time until all are saved. What this means is that, on this point, it seems to me that we agree more than we disagree. You have made a quantum leap in going from the belief that people must be converted before death or spend eternity in hell, to endorsing the belief that people will have the opportunity to be saved soon after death, and then to believing that there will be opportunities for conversion even until the judgment. You have taken two giant steps from your original position. If you take just one more step, you will be in complete agreement with me.

It appears to me that John's position has evolved in another area as well. That is, in regard to how extensively God is involved with each one of us personally in bringing about our salvation. During the first three debates John stated that God was the sovereign of the universe and, as an expression of love, had given humans the gift of free will at the beginning of time. Beyond that, I understood that, when it came to the issue of whether people went to heaven or hell, God's personal involvement in their lives was minimal. John strongly emphasized that people of their own free will decide to go to either heaven or hell. And I got the impression that, in that whole scheme of things, God was perceived to be little more than a helpless spectator, as people, through the exercise of their own free will, either condemned or saved themselves. In fact, he gave the impression that it wouldn't be proper for God to be too involved in reaching out to people, to overcome people's resistance to becoming saved, and drawing people into God's loving embrace because God might violate their free will, and that wouldn't be proper because it could make people slaves of God.

I was quite shocked by what I understood John to be saying in the first three debates. I wondered if I could have misunderstood what he had said. It seemed to me that he was saying that God is either absent or insignificant in the process of converting us, and humans, by contrast, are very powerful and self-sufficient, that they either condemn or save themselves of their own free will. Think about that, an absent or insignificant God and powerful and self-sufficient humans. I'm sure you know that teaching is not orthodox Christianity. It's humanism.

In our fourth debate, though, I heard John saying something very different from what I had understood him to say previously. He talked about God being very much involved in helping to lead people to accept salvation. Now, I don't know if I just misunderstood what John had said previously, or if he was in reality saying something very different. Either way, I'm very happy that John believes that God is very much involved in people's lives, loving, and nurturing, and inspiring and leading them to accept the gift of salvation.

The reason this is so important to me is because the belief that God is very much involved in people's lives is central to the teaching of universal salvation. That is because it means that God is on our side. If God were against us, we would need someone to save us from God. But God is not against us. God is for us, so who can stand against us? God wants to save us all, so who or what can prevent that? God is with us like a loving parent, whose love for us as his children never waivers. In spite of what we might do, and how we might go astray, God just keeps loving us and loving us, and loving us until we, of our own free will, respond favorably to that love, accept God's forgiveness, and commit ourselves to lovingly serve God forever.

So John, the close involvement of God in our lives is another foundational teaching of the doctrine of universal salvation on which we are in substantial agreement. So, as much of a shock as this might be to you, it seems to me that we are closer in our views than you might realize.

Opening Statement by John Rankin

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