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.

It’s no wonder that hell is the watchword for religious terror. By tempting the darker angels of our nature, the very idea of it undermines the principles of mercy and forgiveness. You don’t have to be a terrorist to be crippled by the idea of hell, however. Couple "Not to worry, for God will punish her eternally" to the sound adage, "Hate the sin and love the sinner," and it becomes a noxious bromide.

It is impossible to hate a person and pray for him at the same time. Visualize in your mind someone who causes you profound pain. Remind yourself that your enemy is a child of God. If that doesn’t break the spell, remember (and not with a smirk on your face) that he too will die one day. Then do something truly godlike. Pray that before your enemy dies, he will experience a taste of true peace and happiness.

Loving our enemies demands sacrifice (a word that means, "to make sacred"). We sacrifice self-righteousness, bitterness, and pride, knowing that such an act will cleanse our souls and make our lives right with all that is holy. At our most reverent, having resisted the temptation to damn our enemy to hell, we go one step further and pray for her immortal soul. We try to be perfect, as God in heaven is perfect.

If, following Jesus’ lead, we open ourselves to the workings of grace when we forgive our enemies, how could God imaginably entertain a plan of selective redemption based on a retributive justice system with no possibility for parole? If we, mere humans, can unlock our hearts by praying for someone who has inflicted unforgettable damage on us, would God damn to eternal hellfire every creature who has failed life’s course?

God may not actually be love—the mystery of creation is too deep for human equivalents to approximate—but we know from experience and the spirit of the scriptures that love is divine.

None of us is too good to be damned, but God is too good and too loving to damn us. There is no hell.

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