Eternal Punishment or Pluralism?

In this era of common grace, neither salvation nor condemnation are consummated. But God in his patience is not ignoring human rebellion; when Jesus returns, he will separate all humanity as sheep and goats, the former “into eternal life,” the latter “into eternal punishment” (Matt. 25:31, 41, 46). The Bible’s images of the last day are apocalyptic, but that does not mean they are unreal.

Contemporary views on salvation and condemnation may be classified as follows.

  • Pluralism—All religions are paths to God.
  • Inclusivism—Salvation comes through Christ but not exclusively through explicit faith in him.
  • Particularism—Salvation comes only through faith in Christ.

Most Christians who demur from particularism embrace inclusivism, which tends toward universalism without necessarily denying the possibility that some may be lost.

The concept of apokatastasis,or universal salvation, was taught in the early church by Origen but condemned by an ecumenical council. It has had some admirers throughout church history, although perhaps not going as far as Origen in positing the eventual salvation even of Satan. Some have located their universalism in God’s sovereign grace (verging on fatalism). Barth’s doctrine of universal election in Christ logically leads to this conclusion, although he would not explicitly endorse it. Moltmann is less reticent to advocate universal salvation. Arminian inclusivists, such as Clark Pinnock, believe that all God’s attributes are subservient to his love and that his will is the salvation of every person. Unlike for Barth and Moltmann, this means that salvation is in part dependent on the exercise of free will and that saving revelation can be mediated apart from the gospel.

There is no biblical warrant for pluralism; though redemption progresses and expands its scope throughout history, idolatry is never tolerated. As for inclusivism, apostolic preaching announces forgiveness for all who believe but also warns that apart from faith in Christ there is only a fearful expectation of wrath. While the reality of human rejection and rebellion is treated too lightly by inclusivists like Barth, human choice is given ultimate significance by those like Pinnock.

Still, we cannot conclude that God absolutely cannot save apart from explicit faith in Christ, for the following reasons.

  1. God is sovereign in his mercy and its exercise.
  2. Believers should not doubt the salvation of their infants whom God calls out of this life (see, e.g., 2 Sam. 12:23).
  3. We have no knowledge of what God may do in special cases (e.g., those who are mentally unable to understand his Word); we do not know what God might choose to do in any given circumstance, but we know he has promised to save all those who call on the name of his Son—alone—for salvation.

The doctrine of annihilationism does not question the scope of God’s mercy but questions the nature of the punishment of hell (annihilationists may be particularist or inclusivist). This view interprets Scripture as teaching that unbelievers are raised on the last day for final destruction rather than for everlasting, conscious torment. Because they are destroyed forever, Scripture can still speak of the everlasting nature of hell’s torments. Annihilationists claim that the notion of everlasting, conscious torment stems from the Greek idea of the intrinsic immortality of the soul. They argue for conditional immortality, granted only to the heirs of everlasting life. Various passages of Scripture speak of death and destruction as the ultimate fate of the wicked (e.g., Matt. 10:28; John 3:16).

Jesus’ language concerning the final separation of the saved and the lost describes punishment and life as equally “eternal” (Matt. 25:46). If everlasting life is unending, conscious joy, then the burden of proof lies with annihiliationists to explain why punishment should be understood as otherwise in duration. The critical point to be made from Scripture with respect to eternal punishment is not its degree or its duration but its horrifying reality as God’s personal judgment that is final and forever.

When Christ returns, cleansing the land in a final judgment, everything will be holy to the Lord. Revelation 21–22 describes the New Jerusalem as similar to the temple in Ezekiel’s vision (Ezekiel 40–42), except that it is immeasurably more glorious and, crucially, it will be the final dwelling place of God with his people. The “Lord God Almighty and the Lamb” will be its temple (Rev. 21:22), and all who dwell there will eat freely from the Tree of Life, no longer suffering the curse or its consequences. The city and the temple encompass the heavens as well as the earth (Isa. 65:17; 2 Peter 3:13), built of countless living stones fashioned by God’s own hands (1 Peter 2:4–8) and filled with the knowledge and worship of the triune God.

Scripture’s portrait of heaven is far from bodiless spirits floating on clouds, playing harps. Nor should the apocalyptic language of 2 Peter 3:10–13 be taken to mean the literal disintegration of the present cosmos; Peter points us to the world’s radical transition from one condition (this present age) to another (the age to come). The hope of bodily resurrection underscores our anticipation of the final state as the redemption of nature rather than its oblivion. This creation will be wholly saved, yet wholly new.