There Is No Hell

When we project an appetite for vengeance on God, we pervert the divine image.

The difference between Universalists and Unitarians (the old joke has it) is that Universalists believe that God is too good to damn them, whereas Unitarians believe that they’re too good to be damned. I am a Universalist.

For all my many failings, the day I wake up dead I won’t be in a cattle car on the fast train to Satan’s fiery pit. Nor will you. And neither will Old Scratch himself. If he actually exists, the devil too will be saved. In the good news of universalism, God is a loving God who will not rest until the entire creation is redeemed. All creatures will be saved. There is no hell.


It’s easy to understand why hell was invented (if quite late in the biblical record). Eternal damnation solves the sticky part of the problem of evil: Why do good things happen to bad people? Reserving a corner of hell for all who escape well-deserved punishment here on earth balances the moral ledger sheet. Justice is done. Otherwise, not only is life unfair; the afterlife becomes unfair as well.

The problem is, when we project our retributive logic onto a cosmic screen, we pervert the divine image. We predicate hell on the irreverent presumption that God’s appetite for vengeance—an all-voracious version of our own nagging hunger—must be satisfied. "She’ll get hers in hell," we say. That balances our ledger, but it turns God into a jailer.


The idea of purgatory makes perfectly good sense. I can imagine the utility of corrective punishment. But eternal hellfire demeans everything I believe about God. More important, it eviscerates the heart of Jesus’ gospel.

Jesus was anything but a biblical literalist. He teaches by parable, not by citing chapter and verse, and gets into holy mischief by repeatedly breaking the letter of scripture. Love is the sum and substance of all the law and the prophets, he teaches. He enjoins us to forgive and love our enemies. "Your enemy be damned," is no part of his gospel.

"Be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect," Jesus instructs his disciples. That perfection can be summed up in three words, each an expression of divine love: justice, mercy and forgiveness. Standing alone, justice might allow for the creation of hell, but mercy and forgiveness render it morally impossible. We can sift a spoonful of evidence for hell from the scriptures, even as we can ladle out dozens of arguments for slavery. Neither, however, meets the requirements of the biblical Spirit, whose imperative is love.

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