A question put to me after the New Horizons seminar on ‘Hell and a God of Love’ has alerted me to a possible misunderstanding of what I said. I apologise for unclarity on my part and take full responsibility for it.
It was put to me that it sounded as though I were taking the same position as Rob Bell in Love Wins, leaving open the strong possibility of universalism. Let me clarify: this is not my position.
I think that the difficulty lay in the fact that I was not aiming to concentrate directly on the doctrinal question: what should we believe about hell? I was asked to address the issue from an apologetic, and not a doctrinal point of view, i.e., to consider how we might answer critics who said that belief in hell was inconsistent with belief in a God of love. What I said was that there have been and are different views in the Church about the nature of hell and that I needed to give some time to noting what these were and why people believed them. So I gave a brief review. I had forgotten that, in your programme notes, I said that I would be weighing up the strengths and weaknesses of these views in their own right, along with tackling the main apologetic question.
What I tried to say was that there are different interpretations of biblical texts (whether we should take some sayings literally or as images, e.g.) and that I thought that Scripture is probably not be designed for us to resolve and be definite about some of these disputed questions about human destiny. I also said that this should not at all affect our actions and that, on any valid interpretation, nothing should detract from the seriousness of biblical warnings about the consequences of our actions. I also said at the beginning of the seminar that, although I saw it as my responsibility to describe different positions – because people are simply not informed about them – I did not believe that just ‘anything goes’. However, because I wanted to focus on the apologetic question – how is belief in a God of love consistent with belief in hell? – I did not try to work through the relative strengths and weaknesses of these different theological positions.
You will remember that, in dealing with the apologetic question, I underlined the retributive component in justice and that, faced with people who rage against or sorrow over injustice in our world, we could turn the question around and ask them: ‘If we believe in a God of justice, and you say that justice is so important, how should we not believe in some form of hell?’ I tried to tease this out a little in an apologetic context. But because the idea of ‘hell’ has been alternatively regarded as (a) unending or as (b) of finite duration before annihilation or (c) as preceding the final salvation of all (this last, I said, is arguably more like purgatory) I obviously had to set out these positions.
All I am doing here is noting one or two relevant points that I made, but my main purpose is to make clear that I was not implying that universalism is just as acceptable as any other position. I do not believe that Scripture or theological reflection on its basis supports universalism and my article on ‘Universalism’ in the IVP New Dictionary of Christian Apologetics (ed. C,Camphell-Jack etc, 2006) makes this clear.
Stephen N Williams