Final Judgment in Christian thought

Part I - The Resurrection and the Last Judgment in Christian thought and doctrine

Doctrine has always brought debate, just as truth creates division (1 Corinthians 11:19).

When it comes to the vital doctrines of Christianity, as the church we need to fight to save our understanding of the writings of the authors of our Bible, just as was essential from the early church fathers and onwards. Whether trying to understand the Beginning and God’s knowledge of good and evil, or grappling with the End and God’s final salvation and judgment, today we need to keep challenging one another over what is written. It should not surprise us that internally the church has debated every single one of its doctrines and in doing so has fought to preserve itself over the centuries.

And so it can be help to our debate to draw perspective from historical theology: we can trace how Christians throughout the church’s history have understood what today we have controversy over, and look at what debates have taken place. We need to examine how the present is shaped by the past and how we are reacting in the present to our modern challenges.

In recent times, there may be no doctrine that has brought more controversy to the Evangelical movement than the last Judgment.

The End of Evangelicalism?

Conditionalism teaches that immortality is a gift given only to believers, so that either at death or final judgment, unbelievers simply pass into non-existence.

Annihilationism maintains that while hell itself exists eternally, the punishment of those who are destroyed there eventually ceases to exist.

Universalism has escalated in popularity, claiming that all people will eventually be saved either because no one will actually enter hell or because God will give everybody in hell a second chance to repent, and also ensuring that they all do.

Liberalism has challenged the traditional understanding of the New Testament’s teaching by claiming that descriptions of heaven and hell are figurative, and in fact refer to our subjective experiences in this life.

Aware of these growing challenges to Evangelicalism [and of Evangelicalism?], this article presents a historical survey of the church’s teaching on this doctrine. How has God’s final judgement been understood across the history of Christian thought since the ‘children’ of the Apostles?

The doctrine of Last Judgment is tied very closely to the final resurrection, so we are forced to consider that too in our survey. In this article (Part I), I’ll focus on Resurrection to Final Judgment. In Part II of this article, I’ll focus in particular on the nature of Hell.


Against the early developing Gnosticism and other heresies the Fathers such as Ignatius naturally were forced to defend the ‘bodily’ resurrection, something that was necessary too for Jesus and the Apostles.

Although Ignatius’ The Didache seems to miss the concept of a universal resurrection [including unbelievers], The Epistle of Barnabus includes everybody in an end time judgement of all of humanity by the resurrected Jesus (Barnabus, 5).

Polycarp agreed. But Clement of Rome went one step further in arguing for the ‘reasonableness’ of the final resurrection based upon God’s nature and power as Creator (I Clement 24-26).

Justin Martyr

Against Platonism, the Apologists such as Justin Martyr, Titian and Theophilius, followed Clement oF Rome by focusing on arguing for the reasonableness of the resurrection.

Justin Martyr argued from the doctrine of God that since God is omniscient, the bodily resurrection is achievable (First Apology, 18). And taking another step, he also argues that the resurrection is reasonable from what we know of human biology: since human creation from our seed (semen) would be just as unbelievable as the resurrection unless we ourselves, being after Adam, had already seen it happen in the past (First Apology, 19).

Titian also defended the resurrection on similar grounds against the metaphysical difficulties (To the Greeks, 6). Theophilus argued that the resurrection is as logical as it is reasonable that a seed should ‘rise’ into a plant (To Auto, 1:13). Athenagoras also mounted a defence using logic in On the resurrection from the Dead.

But the Apologists did not only defend the resurrection. They also began to defend the validity of the future judgement. Reacting against a philosophical fatalism of their time, Justin Martyr for example argued that since we were ‘free’ to choose to do either right or wrong, it is only just that we be judged in the future for the decisions we made (First Apology, 57; Second Apology, 7; 9).


By the second and third centuries, against a more developed Gnosticism, the early Western theologians Irenaeus, Tertullian and Hippolytus defended the bodily resurrection against the Gnostic doctrine of resurrection, which denied the bodily resurrection by teaching that the ‘flesh’ could not inherit salvation.

In refuting these ideas, Irenaeus showed that one’s doctrine of God determines how one understandings the resurrection. The resurrection should actually require less power from God than what he had already displayed in creating the world (Against Heresies, V.3.2). He also used logic to argue that the resurrection followed directly from the fact that both righteous and unrighteous deeds are done in the body; thus both reward and punishment for those acts must involve the body (Against Heresies, II.29.2).

Irenaeus also began to use logic in arguing from the nature of God:

For God is superior to nature, and has in himself the disposition [to show kindness], because he is good; and the ability to do so, because he is mighty; and the faculty to fully carry out his purpose, because he is rich and perfect (Against Heresies, II.29.2)


Tertullian also argued that judgment stems from the doctrine of the nature of God. He made the step to reason that the purpose of the resurrection was judgment. God’s judgment arises from his essential being [his fundamental nature], which is both good and just, causing him to reward what is good with good and to punish what is evil with evil.

And here Tertullian adds a significant point. God’s judgment must be ‘complete’ and ‘absolute’; his judgment is final:

Our position is, that the judgment of God must be believed first of all to be plenary [complete], and then absolute, so as to be final, and therefore irrevocable; to be also righteous, not bearing less heavily on any particular part; to be moreover worthy of God, being complete and definite, in keeping with His great patience. (Concerning the Resurrection of the Flesh, 14)

For Tertullian, God does not repent after judgment; the final separation of the righteous from the wicked will be permanent.


Origen redeveloped early Eastern theology on the doctrine of the resurrection and judgment. He leaned towards Platonism, though wanting to defend the Scriptural idea of a bodily resurrection. Aware of the difficulties of what he perceived to be crude literalism in the popular Christian presentation of the doctrine of the resurrection, he sought to find a middle road between the Gnostics spiritualism. Consequently, he argued that the soul existed without a body before sin entered the world, and that the resurrection would transform the body into a spiritual ‘material’/’substratum’, retaining not its original ‘material’ but only it’s ‘form’ (Against Celsus, 7.32)

Similarly on the doctrine of judgment, Origen sought a compromise between the classic popular Christian belief and a new doctrine of universal salvation. For Origen, judgment was the fundamental motive for right living in this life and clear evidence of human free will. Unlike Tertullian and others who went before him, Origen believed that following judgement, after God’s separation of the righteous and wicked, the unrepentant will finally come back to God. Accordingly, he argued for a universalistic understanding of the final restoration (Greek, apokatastasis)


Origen attracted fierce criticism. Eustathius of Antioch and Epiphanius began an anti-Origen movement, popularising the heavy challenges of Methodius of Olympus against Origen’s dualism between body and soul, and other aspects of his modified doctrine of the resurrection (The Discourse on the Resurrection, 3: II-IV).

Jerome, originally a disciple of Origen, became possibly his greatest critic, and succeeded in convincing most of the church against his ideas, arguing that his doctrine was tantamount to a denial of the resurrection. He also agreed with Turtullian that after the resurrection, judgment will bring a permanent separation of some to eternal life, and others to eternal shame:

They who slept in the dust of the earth shall arise, some to life eternal, others to shame and everlasting confusion [Dan. 12:2] (Jerome, Against John of Jerusalem, 33).

Most Fathers after Origen held to a universal and bodily resurrection, albeit a renewed version of our original bodies. Few, like Gregory of Nyssa, followed Origen completely [Gregory was a student], although some others sought to explore further how the resurrection would happen. Cyril of Jerusalem suggested that the resurrected body of the righteous would have different qualities to the wicked, which would burn in hell eternally:

We shall be raised therefore, all with our bodies eternal, but not all with bodies alike: for if a man is righteous, he will receive a heavenly body, that he may be able worthily to hold converse with Angels; but if a man is a sinner, he shall receive an eternal body, fitted to endure the penalties of sins, that he may burn eternally in fire, nor ever be consumed. And righteously will God assign this portion to either company; for we do nothing without the body. We blaspheme with the mouth, and with the mouth we pray. With the body we commit fornication, and with the body we keep chastity. With the hand we rob, and by the hand we bestow alms; and the rest is like manner. Since then the body has been our minister in all things, it shall also share with us in the future the  fruits of the past (Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, 19).


Augustine also believed that both the righteous and the wicked will be resurrected and clothed with immortal and incorruptible bodies, though like Jerome, the wicked will receive a body fit only to suffer eternally.

Thomas Aquinas

During the Medieval Period, Thomas Aquinas agreed with Augustine, Jerome and Turtullian who had gone before him in maintaining that although all people without exception will be raised from the dead, only the righteous will receive bodies that are glorious and incapable of suffering; the wicked will receive ignoble bodies and passible (Summa Contra Gentiles, Ch 96, 1).

John Calvin

Martin Luther seemed to say little about the resurrection and final judgment. However John Calvin had a lot to say. For Calvin the primary purpose of the Second Coming and the Resurrection was the Final Judgment.

The reformers were very cautious to speculate about the nature of the End, having reacted against the errors they perceived in Catholicism’s doctrines of purgatory. Calvin reminds us that the resurrection is a mystery [1 Cor 15:51], and that repeating the speculation and ‘philosophy’ of the past will only send us back into error (Institutes, III.25.8)

Calvin recognised that the doctrine of the resurrection of human flesh was ‘difficult’, and that trusting the philosopher’s theories of the ‘immortality’ of the soul would be much easier. But he based his theology on the doctrine on the resurrection of Jesus and the doctrine of God’s power (Institutes, III.25.3)

Calvin contended that our resurrected bodies will be both the same and different; the same substance but of different quality. Both the righteous and the wicked will be raised [John 5:29; Acts 24:15] (Institutes, III.25.8). And both will face Final Judgment [2 Corinthians 5:10].

But as to why the wicked will raised, only to be condemned eternally, Calvin argued from Scripture that firstly the reason is that God’s grace is ‘universally’ offered and overflows to everyone – to the ungodly too in the resurrection, rendering them with even less excuse for their wickedness (Institutes, III.25.9; Sermon on Daniel 12:2, Translated by Quistorp, 1955, p. 144). But secondly and principally, the wicked will be raised because Jesus is the offended party, who raises his enemies in order to satisfy his justice:

Thus the wicked often experience the beneficence of God, not in ordinary measures, but such as sometimes throw all the blessings of the godly into the shade, though they eventually lead to greater damnation. Should it be objected, that the resurrection is not properly compared to fading and earthly blessings, I again answer, that when the devils were first alienated from God, the fountain of life, they deserved to be utterly destroyed; yet, by the admirable counsel of God, an intermediate state was prepared, where without life they might live in death. It ought not to seem in any respect more absurd that there is to be an adventitious resurrection of the ungodly which will drag them against their will before the tribunal of Christ, whom they now refuse to receive as their master and teacher. To be consumed by death would be a light punishment were they not, in order to the punishment of their rebellion, to be sisted before the Judge whom they have provoked to a vengeance without measure and without end (Institutes, III.25.9)

At the centre of Calvin’s doctrine of judgement is his understanding of God. God is the God of reprobation, and this is seen as part of his restoration. His retributive judgment rectifies God’s moral order in his creation.

Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant believed that although ‘pure reason’ left us without any knowledge of God, ‘practical reason’ allows us to believe in a God of retributive justice, because without penal judgment there would be no reason to live morally.

Freidrich Schleiermacher

Freidrich Schleiermacher on the other hand maintained that Christ’s final ‘separation’ of the righteous and the wicked cannot be taken literally because evil still exists within believers, who do live wickedly in life. Rather than a ‘great divorce’, judgment will remove all evil from the consciousness of the church. However Schleiermacher confessed to not knowing what to do with the Last Judgment:

The idea of the Last Judgment, then, we are unable to state in a final form which perfectly satisfies both demands. None the less, in view of its almost universal prevalence in Christendom, we must try to elicit its essential meaning (Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, 1928, 162.3)

But Schleiermacher despised the notion of retributive justice, as do modern liberals, rejecting the notion that moral order needs to be restored, supposing this teaching springs from the Christian ‘temper’ (The Christian Faith, 162.3). However for Schleiermacher, although the consummation will purge all evil from the church, evil must still exist somewhere. Thus he admits that his judgment brings about no true and final ‘restoration’.

Brian Hebblethwaite

Schleiermacher was followed by John Robinson who wrote the controversial In the End God (1950) and Brian Hebblethwaite, who in The Christian Hope (1984) echoed many of Schleiermacher's ideas and added that the Judgement will occur in some kind of purgatory:

On such an understanding of judgment, we shall do well to play down the picture of God or Christ as Judge. A range of alternative models, the healer, the therapist, the patient lover, the counsellor, all seem more appropriate for bringing out the primary interest of divine judgement, namely the restoration of the creature and the integrity and the winning of his love, despite what he has done or made of himself in the past. (Hebblethwaite, The Christian Hope 1984, p. 215)

Here also appears to be where Rob Bell’s message of Love Wins was originally coined, a motive which comes out also in Gregory MacDonald's [Robin Parry] recent The Evangelical Universalist. Like Schleiermacher, Hebblethwaite cannot tolerate the idea of punitive retribution, and replaces it with a purgatory of restorative correction. It was Hebblethwaite who ahead of recent Universalists taught that the doctrine of retributive punishment is inconsistent with the doctrine of divine forgiveness.

The doctrine of God behind Hebblethwaite’s new purgatory is a God who though concerned about the ongoing wickedness of the wicked who persist in rejecting Christ, is nonetheless resolutely determined to forgive them rather than punish them.

While this may apply of those wicked for whom Christ justifies at the cross, it ignores the side of the gospel that teaches that at the cross Christ also judged those whom reject this sacrifice prior to death; these unbelievers stand condemned already [John 3:18] and will be excluded from his face upon his return [2 Thess. 1:9] for no other sacrifice [or resurrection for that matter] is available [Heb 6:4-6; 10:26].

But for Hebblethwaite, all will be 'well' because the love of God will win over and against his justice, affecting his judgment, which must restore by correction the reprobate to righteousness, or God be not God at all.



These notes have borrowed significantly from the excellent lecture material prepared by Rob Smith, Sydney Missionary Bible College, Eschatology, 2010.

Hearing the case for Universalism

According to the growing form of Evangelical Universalism, all people will eventually be saved, because God will give people a second chance in hell. It is a difficult subject to approach maturely as Christians. John Stott wrote, “I find the concept [of hell] intolerable and do not understand how people can live with it without cauterising their feelings or cracking under the strain” (Essentials, p. 314).

How can we handle this topic? It requires of us both loving sensitivity and hard theology; we need at the same time gentle tenderness for one another and a firm resolve to get to the truth.

Why it matters?

Universalism goes against the traditional understanding of what the Bible teaches about hell as eternal punishment, which has been affirmed by orthodox believers since the end of the apostolic era. For example the historic statement in the final sentences of the Athanasian Creed reads:

[Jesus] ascended into heaven, he sitteth on the right hand of the God the Father Almighty, from whence he will come to judge the quick and the dead. At whose coming all men will rise again with their bodies; And shall give account for their own works. And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting; and they that have done evil, into everlasting fire. This is the Catholic Faith; which except a man believe truly and firmly, he cannot be saved.

Article 37 of the Belgic Confession (1567) on the Last Judgment is a more modern example, affirming the same classic understanding of ‘everlasting punishment,’ portrayed in such texts as Matthew 25:14. A better known example is the Westminster Confession (Ch. XXXIII, par. II).

But whichever side of the ‘fence’ we sit on [and there are not simply two sides to this fence], we need to agree with John Stott when he says:

“Our emotions are a fluctuating, unreliable guide to truth... As a committed Evangelical, my question must be—and is—not what does my heart tell me, but what does God’s word say? (J. Stott, Essentials, p. 315)

As the Bereans did, I need to search the Bible to determine whether or not these things are true (Acts 17:11).

Hearing the Universalist case

We need to listen to the Universalist case, and answer the significant challenges highlighted by Universalism.
Origen is the father of this growing movement, as the first promote of an outright doctrine of universal salvation, who went against the Apostolic Fathers (e.g. Ignatius), the Apologists (e.g. Justin Martyr), early western theology (e.g. Irenaeus, Tertullian) – all who maintained that hell was an ‘eternal’ punishment of retributive justice where God repays evil for evil.

Origen taught a doctrine of universal ‘restoration’ (Greek, apokatastasis); that the anguish in hell would cause people to realise how wrong they had been; the punishment of hell would be remedial; and hell would have an end.
Origen’s writings show that his doctrine of God shaped his understanding of hell. He believed that if God was truly good then he must save everybody. His doctrine was also shaped by his hermeneutic: Although knowing they can be read other ways, he read all texts that speak about ‘all things’ coming under Christ in a ‘universalistic’ way (E.g. he read 1 Corinthians 15:24-28 which says that everyone will be made ‘subject’ to Christ as meaning that everyone will finally be saved). 

However, Origen admitted that his universalism was a risky doctrine, and that his beliefs should not be spread. This was because he believed that the threat of eternal punishment was given in the Bible because it was the only thing that could motivate people to be godly in this present (Against Celsus, 6.26)

Not many at all in history, both in his time or after him, supported Origen’s views until the nineteenth century, when key liberal theologians laid the ground work for the current popularisation of universalism.

Friedrich Schleiermacher was the first modern theologian to teach universalism. He was a liberal philosopher, teaching firstly that although some texts do certainly appear to teach ‘eternal’ punishment, if read that way they contradict other passages that teach God’s total victory over evil and salvation for all. His other main argument was philosophical, contending that the existence of hell would ruin heaven, which would therefore not be heaven at all.

Next to Schleiermacher, in more recent times John Robinson (1919-1983) might be next in line as a proponent of universalism who has sparked it’s now widespread popular appeal. He was also a liberal scholar and wrote a number of controversial books, one that mounted the case for universalism (In the end God, 1950).

Robinson pointed to the many ‘universalistic’ texts and argued that these must be given ‘priority’ over the others that appear to describe the future prospect of an eternal hell. His second main argument was also a philosophical one. He argued deductively that since God is both all good and all powerful, it follows by necessity that God will eventually save everybody.

It is a serious argument. In its favour it upholds the seriousness of sin; it has a strong doctrine of the atonement; it places significant importance on both judgment and hell; it affirms justification by faith in Christ alone; and it upholds both the mercy and justice of God. 

While there is good and significant cause to challenge the validity of Universalism, whether the basis of Origin’s doctrine or the approach of Schleiermacher and Robinson, we also need to feel the weight of what the Universalists are saying. Universalism’s argument is serious, and not easily contended with by Christian theological reasoning. But we primarily need to hear what the Universalists are saying because it is only by understanding the issues pointed to that we ourselves will actually come to ‘realise’ what the Bible teaches about hell.

The ‘Universalist’ texts

There is a long list of texts used in support of Universalism. Here are the key ones, but there are many others.

Romans 11:32:  For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.

1Corinthians 15:22:  For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.

2Corinthians 5:19:  that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.

Philippians 2:10-11:  so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,  (11)  and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Colossians 1:20:  and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

1Timothy 2:3-4:  This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior,  (4)  who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.

1Timothy 4:10:  For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe. Romans 5:18

Hebrews 2:9:  But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

But the Universalist’s case does not only come down to long lists of ‘universalistic’ bible verses. There is a significant theological point at its heart. The Universalist’s case stands on the nature and love of God. And they contend that God’s nature is incompatible with the existence of an ‘eternal’ hell: In other words, as some of their leading proponents have expressed, ‘if eternal hell is real then love is eternally frustrated’; ‘if eternal hell is real, heaven is a place of mourning’ and so ‘heaven can only be heaven if hell is empty’. Or again, ‘God cannot be faithless to his love no matter how faithless we are to him.’

And if that weren’t enough, the Universalist case also debates an ‘eschatological’ issue. They point to the nature of the ‘End’ (Greek, apokatastasis panton; ‘restoration of all things’). The Bible from beginning to end certainly does foretell the ‘restoration’ of all things. This is something that the prophets spoke about and the New Testament echoes: In the end everything will be reconciled, rectified, restored and remedied – surely then it follows that hell in the end must be emptied, right?

The argument is fleshed out by Jurgen Moltmann [another leading proponent of Universalism], who said: “In the divine Judgment all sinners, the wicked and the violent, the murderers and the children of Satan, the Devil and the fallen angels will be liberated and saved from their deadly perdition through transformation into their true, created being, because God remains true to himself, and does not give up what he has once created and affirmed, or allow it to be lost.” (The coming of God. London: SCM, 1996, p. 255).

But what about the Scripture’s affirmation regarding the eternal duration of hell? We began by insisting that we must let the Scripture’s themselves inform us of what God’s love is like, or not like. As Evangelicals we are not interested in playing off our ideas about the different attributes of God against the others in order to ‘harmonise’ the Bible’s teaching or make it ‘reasonable’. What does God’s word say?

We have already listed some of the texts used in support of Universalism. But to build any doctrine, we need to look at what all of God’s word says together.

Jesus’ teaching on ‘hell’

The background to Jesus language on hell is the Valley of Hinnom, southwest of Jerusalem, later called the valley of Topeth. Children were sacrificed to Molech there (2 Kings 23:10), and it later became the ‘garbage dump’ of Jerusalem. Fires were burning there continually to consume the refuse. And in the intertestament period the valley became a symbol of eternal torment. When Jesus came on the scene, he picked up both this language and image and in his message brought a fearful warning about being thrown into the fire of gehenna, the Greek word for the Hebrew, ge hinnon (‘valley of [the son of] hinnom’) (In English, ‘hell’).

Jesus’ teaching on ‘hell’ was both prolific and significant. In exploring this topic, we need to begin by looking carefully through every one of the passages in which Jesus teaches on hell.

See Matthew 5:22, 29-30; Matthew 10:28 (cf. Luke 12:5); Matthew 11:20-22; Matthew 22:13 (cf. 8:12; 25:30); Matthew 25:41, 46; Mark 9:47-48 (cf. Matt 18:9); Luke 12:46-48.

In Jesus’ teaching, hell is a real condition and location; hell is fearful and terrible; hell is a place of ‘destruction,’ hell is a place of eternal punishment; hell is a place of varying degrees of punishment; and hell is avoidable, a point reflecting one of Jesus’ main purposes for speaking about hell.

The rest of the NT’s teaching about eternal punishment

The other authors of the New Testament continued this emphasis within Jesus’ core message about God’s kingdom, though somewhat dropping the ‘jargon’ and simply describing a place of ‘eternal punishment’. In coming to grips with the Bible’s teaching about hell, we need to follow Jesus’ teaching into the rest of the New Testament.

See Romans 2:6-10; 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10; Hebrews 6:1-2; Jude 7; Revelation 14:9-11; 20:10, 14-15.

To the Apostles, God’s judgment is both just and retributive; God and Christ will actively punish sinners in hell [as a side, this means hell is not the absence of God]; the punishment will involve torment; and the punishment will be eternal.

The problems with universalism

There are significant reasons to challenge the validity of Universalism. The main problems with universalism are that it confuses God’s desired will with his decreed will; it exalts God’s mercy at the expense of his justice; it ignores the teaching that a person’s final state is fixed at death; it ignores the wider context of the various ‘universalist’ texts which must affect how read ‘reconciliation’  

(See 2 Corinthians 5:19-20 with 6:1; Philippians 2:10-11 with 1:28 and 3:18; Colossians 1:20 with 3:6);

And it ignores anti-universalist statements in Scripture

(See Daniel 12:1-2; Isaiah 34:8-10 with 66:24; Malachi 4:1; Matthew 7:13-14, 22:14, 25:41-46; Luke 13:24; 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9; 2 Peter 2:4, 9; Revelation 20:10).

Bruce Milne has given a similar critique in Know the Truth that applies also to my brief summary here:

‘This critique does not imply any obscuring of the ultimate, cosmic triumph of God’s purpose, nor of the fullness and perfection of Christ’s redemptive work. At the end every knee will bow (Phil. 2:10) and God will be ‘all in all’ (1 Cor. 15:28). Within that perfection will lie the doom of those who will bow the knee only by constraint, not in joyful, adoring surrender’ (B. Milne, Know the Truth, p. 337).



These notes have borrowed significantly from the excellent lecture material prepared by Rob Smith, Sydney Missionary Bible College, Eschatology, 2010.

A God of love?

Or the God of horror?

‘If God exists, then he is horrible’. Atheists claim that the existence of such evils as war and suffering provide evidence against the existence of a good God.

‘If eternal hell exists, then God is horrible’. Universalists point to the existence of a God who is love as evidence against the existence of an eternal hell.

As humanists, atheists critique what the Bible makes known of God in comparison to what we know of human love. Without any other standard to measure reality against than themselves, they feel the existence of a loving God is incompatible with the existence of evils such as natural catastrophe and disaster.

Universalists, though vastly different in their starting point, end up doing something similar. Questioning the traditional understanding of that the Bible makes known about God, they compare the doctrine of hell against what we know about love from a human perspective. Again, without any other standard to critique God’s word against, they appeal to human reason to justify their position that the existence of an eternal hell is incompatible with the existence of a good God whose nature is controlled by perfect love.

Human love vs. God

Part I of this article explored the cost of human love demonstrated on the first Anzac Day, which has defined Australia. Human love – extraordinary human love – is perhaps the most inspiring of all human experiences. How does the love of God measure up against such an extraordinary story? How can a God who threatens retributive justice in terms of eternal conscious torture claim to love? Wouldn’t he, rather, be the God of horror?

The New Testament does in fact compare the love of God against human love. But it finds that in comparison even extraordinary human love does not come close, does not even compare, to the love of God. And the reasons tell us as much about ourselves as they do about the unique love of God.

A right to be loved?

We started in Part I by describing the essence of love in terms of giving. We measure the degree of love by the costliness of the giving to the giver in comparison to the worthiness of the receiver. The more it costs the giver and the less worthy the receiver, the greater the love.

It should not be surprising then that the Bible explains the love of God first in terms of our unworthiness to be loved at all. We have in fact lost all ‘right’ to be loved and actually incur his hatred. And the reasons might be as hard to accept for modern ears as any ancient truth.

Does God not have a responsibility to love all of his creatures? Don’t we all have a ‘right’ to the love of God as children to their Father? To be sure, the Bible does maintain the God has certainly loved all he has made.

But we need to start by asking whether love can be ‘deserved’. If love is in essence a ‘gift’, we might wonder whether love can be ‘deserved’ at all.

All relationships generate certain rights and responsibilities. And each different relationship in the world determines what different duties exist to give what gifts.

A married person has both the right to receive love and the responsibility to give love because of the promises they have made. Though the love given and received is indeed a free gift, it is nonetheless a duty to give it. But, if their spouse fails to love them in the most basic sense, such as by committing adultery, the covenant relationship is broken and they lose that right. In fact, the offended spouse has every right to divorce. In this case, failure to uphold the responsibility to love that this relationship generates creates in turn the right to permanently and formally ‘separate’. In fact, in the Law of God in the Old Testament, it might come as a shock to us to learn that such crimes would be deserving of death.

A Father has the responsibility to love his child. Likewise children have a duty to honour and obey their Father. But again, this relationship can be broken, if for example a son becomes rebellious and hardened against his Father. What lose of rights should his failure of responsibility incur on such a son?

Depending on our worldview and understanding of Fatherhood and what it requires, we will answer differently. As modern people, we might wonder, ‘what would I do as a Father in that situation?’ We aspire to be faithful fathers, and for us that might mean absolute tolerance, regardless of what our children do or become.

But how might ancient people and cultures answer? Failure to obey the voice of one’s Father in many ancient cultures was absolute dishonour. In this situation, the son will lose all ‘right’ to be loved by his Father and even to be called his son. In fact, it may come as an even greater shock to read that in the Law of God in the Old Testament, hardened disobedience of a son to his Father was a capital offence.

Deuteronomy 21:18-21  "If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they discipline him, will not listen to them,  (19)  then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives,  (20)  and they shall say to the elders of his city, 'This our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.'  (21)  Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones. So you shall purge the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear, and fear.

What such references show us is that our modern concepts of such things as Fatherhood, even of Love, are unlikely to apply backwards to God. In fact, the Bible makes the claim that our Fatherhood is derived from God’s, not the other way around. If we want to think about God and his Fatherhood, and ourselves as his children, we need to reverse the order and make his revelation the starting point.

I have said elsewhere that where we arrive at in our reaction to what the Bible makes known about God will be affected by our view of Scripture in the first place. If we believe that the propositional revelation of the Bible is the authority in all matters, then no matter how hard we might find it to digest, we will believe that the true God is both the God revealed by the Bible and that this God is good. If we believe that God is transcendent – that his ways are vastly higher than our ways and so unknowable by ourselves – then we will not put our confidence in reason or natural theology. Our dependence will be on special revelation. If we believe in the Bible’s view of human sin, we will completely distrust our thoughts and desires and emotions which will always distort the truth about God because of our sinfulness.

The Bible tells us both what we would otherwise not know about God and also what we would otherwise not believe about God.

God as Father

The greatest of all relationships in the world is that which exists between us and God. The Bible makes God known as Creator and as Father. As Creator he is good and loving. As Father he is faithful but also Just.

And this is where we have a problem. Because we are disobedient children: stubborn and rebellious; corrupt, crooked and twisted.

Deuteronomy 32:3-6  For I will proclaim the name of the LORD; ascribe greatness to our God!  (4)  "The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he.  (5)  They have dealt corruptly with him; they are no longer his children because they are blemished; they are a crooked and twisted generation.  (6)  Do you thus repay the LORD, you foolish and senseless people? Is not he your father, who created you, who made you and established you?

As wives, we would be unfaithful, adulterers; deserving only of hatred God would have every right to divorce us completely. As children, we deserve only death.

God then is not bound to love us at all; he owes us no right to do good to us whatsoever. As his creatures, as his property, we do continue to owe everything to him who made and owns us and continues to sustain our lives and give us many good things. Though we do not, we do have duty to love him, and a responsibility to serve him. But we all fail to do this in the worst of senses, with willful disobedience and dishonour of God as our Father.

Do we then deserve his love? We deserve only his judgment.

God as Judge

The passage above describes God first in terms of his justice, and his own faithfulness to that justice (Deuteronomy 32:3-6). By his nature, God brings judgment to ‘pay back’ what is deserved by our wickedness.

God’s judgment has been defined as his ‘just rectification of his moral order’. Justice which characterizes God’s judgment is not reconciliation to some universal norm, but it is an intrinsic expression of God’s own character (Deut 32:4)

Again and again the Old Testament portrays God as Judge (Ps 50:4; 75:7). But it also portrays him as the Father of us all, and often in the same context. Deuteronomy 32:3-6 is an example (compare verse 4 and verse 5-6).

God’s judgment is not in tension with his Fatherhood (e.g. 1 Peter 1:17). It might be to us, and it might be hard for us to imagine God as both Father and Judge. But because God is the Creator of us all, he is by origin both our Father – whom we owe every duty to honour and obey – and Judge – who will require repayment of just retribution for our failure to honour and obey him.

God as love

In view of this knowledge, it would come as a shock to us to learn that we had been loved by God at all. But that’s only the beginning.

In Romans 5:6-10 the Apostle Paul describes the enormous magnitude of the love that has actually been shown to us by God, which can only be understood firstly by contemplating just how ‘undeserving’ and ‘unlovely’ we are to him in the first place.  

Deserving hatred

The passage describes us as both ungodly (verse 6); sinners (verse 8); and in fact enemies of God (verse 10). As law-breakers; we are criminals before God because every day we break his holy commands. As rebels, instead of loving God as is our duty, we love other things instead.  And by living our own way to please ourselves, we treat ourselves as God in rejection of the very Father who bore us. We have become that senseless, corrupt rebellious son. And this makes us God’s enemies, in the worse of all positions: we are under God’s holy anger; we deserve only his ‘wrath’ (verse 9).

World War II

During World War II, after Germany had moved all the Jews who were living there into ghettos, ready to send them off to concentration camps, one of the commanding officers in the German army found a Jewish man still living in his original residence. So outraged was the officer that he took a grenade and  – with his gun pointing at the man lest he should flee – pulled the pin and stretched out his arm to throw it into the house.

But at that very moment the man pulled a rope from behind him that released a trap right under the officer, and as it grasped his leg the grenade flew straight up and exploded above the officer.

When the man came to stand over his enemy he found him still alive and his gun was still intact. Without hesitation he reached out and took the weapon from his enemy who was now blind, deaf and dumb, and without arms or legs.

The situation that officer was now in could be compared to our situation before God. In Romans 5:6-10 we are described as ‘weak’ or powerless before God (verse 6).

The officer no weapon in his hand; he had no hand to reach out; he had no words to beg for mercy; he had no mouth to speak; he had no leg to flee; he had no sight to see his predicament; he had no ear to hear and no way to respond to his enemy.

He now lay under one who was rightly filled with anger, and he weak and powerless can do nothing to save himself.

It is an illustration of the devastating position of our own weakness and powerlessness before the Almighty God – rightly angry – of whom we are nothing more than sinful, ungodly enemies.

The God who has loved us (already)

It’s only when we understand the Bible’s description of our utter unworthiness before God that we will be able to understand what the Bible claims about the love of God. What Romans 5:6-10 says is that God has demonstrated his love, he has proved it beyond all doubt, and he has shown it to end all question and suspicion. And he shows it in comparison to the pail dimmer of human love.

Romans 5:8:  “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

While we were still in that devastating situation before God, we were the most undeserving, with no right but to his hatred.

But what did God give us, his enemies? God gave a gift, and at the most expensive cost to himself. God’s gift to us is a person; it was Christ himself that he gave (verse 6 and 8); Christ the only Son of God (verse 6 and 10). God didn’t send prophets, or angels, who were of less value to him. He sent his Son – who is himself one with the Father. And so in Christ, God was giving us everything–His very own self.

But unto what did he give himself up to? He gave himself to die on a cross. God himself didn’t come to us in the person of Jesus and give us his sympathy, or advice. This was love in full action; this was a love that had God going further than we can really comprehend: The very life-giver himself, giving his life up to death at the hands of his own creatures.

And what type of death? His was not some painless, humane type of death. It was to a horrific Roman crucifixion on a cross – an instrument of torture reserved for the worst and lowest of all criminals.

Why? Why did Christ have to die? Was it because we were deserving; was it because we were lovely. We have already realised the contrary. But his death was for us what our sins deserved (verse 8) Christ died for us – who are sinners -- because sin and death must go together. Death is God’s penalty for our sin.

But here the sins were ours; but the death was his. His death, on the cross, was in our place; he was bearing the penalty that our sins deserve. He died our death, so that the penalty of sin on our heads could be paid, that God’s justice could be satisfied, and his anger and hatred removed, and we no longer be his enemies.

Now, by Christ dying for us, we can have peace with God. We again can receive the ‘right’ to call him Father. That is love. That is love without comparison.

Proof of God’s love

God has proved his love for this world in the death of Christ for world (John 3:16). It was God’s own demonstration. For although as unworthy as is possible, yet God himself gave us the most costly gift there is: He gave his own Son up unto the full fury of his own judgment against our sin. And in doing so, he -- who is the most worthy of all – gave us everything. And there is nothing left for him to give.

Where atheists and Universalists go wrong

God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). Here is something absolutely, unimaginably, amazing: God has proved his love already; he has poured it out for the entire world. When we look at the cross and his death for the world, we can actually know for sure not only that God is love, but also the perfect extent of that love.

So we don’t need to doubt or question anymore.

Although the Bible does maintain that God is the God over war and suffering in the world (Romans 1:18), atheists need look no further than the cross to see that God’s love is compatible with these realities. For there was the greatest display of supreme love through suffering and death. It was in the horror that the unique and incomparable love of God was displayed.

And although the Bible does point to the existence and future reality of an eternal hell, it also points to proof of God’s love at the cross where Christ himself went through hell for a world that is headed there. He suffered the sentence of hell for enemies who will continue to reject his incomprehensible love demonstrated for them. 

By questioning the traditional understanding of that the Bible makes known about God’s eternal judgment, Universalists hope to see the supreme love of God displayed at the end of history when God will eventually empty hell of every remaining rebel.

But the Bible’s focal point is very different. The end of history came at the middle of time. Between BC and AD the God who is love shined the magnifying glass on one man dying upon a cross, and said ‘here it is; this is me’. There he gave everything, for there he gave himself; and there is nothing more that can be given.

Retributive justice and true universalism

Is God a bad judge? Liberals react to the classic doctrine of God’s judgment on the grounds that it makes God to be immature, or crude. Rather than retributive justice, they hold that God’s judgment is always corrective and rehabilitative. Universalists react on slightly different but similar grounds: the orthodox doctrine of final judgment contradicts the love of God. Like for the liberals, judgment is restorative in universalism.

1. God is the God of retributive justice

The Bible is clear that the true God is a God who ‘pays back’. He does not only exercise correctional discipline; he also serves out retribution and revenge.

Romans 12:19: Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord." (Cf. Deuteronomy 32:35 and Hebrews 10:30).

2Thessalonians 1:6-8:  since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, (7) and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels (8) in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.

God’s nature demands that the moral order of the creation must be restored. It’s not just for practical purposes that retributive justice is needed. Re-balancing or rectifying evil with just retribution is necessary because God is a good God of order. His justice pays back what evil deserves, and in this sense, it reconciles evil to him.

2. God is the God revealed by Scripture

Our belief at this point will be affected by our view of Scripture. If we believe that the propositional revelation of the Bible is the authority in all matters, then no matter how hard we might find it to digest; we will believe that God is a God of retributive justice.

Similarly, our view of God will depend on our view of Scripture. If we believe that God is transcendent – that his ways are vastly higher than our ways and so unknowable by ourselves – then we will not put our confidence in reason or natural theology. Our dependence will be on special revelation. Also if we believe in the Bible’s view of human sin, we will completely distrust our thoughts and desires and emotions which will always distort the truth about God. And so the Bible must tell us both what we would otherwise not know about God and also what we would otherwise not believe about God.

3. Retributive justice is reasonable

Despite what we have said about human reason, there are nonetheless human reasons why retributive justice is both right and logical. Everyday humans cry out for justice, for retribution, for the righting of wrongs by rightful punishment on wrongdoers. We are justified to set up war courts and investigate human rights atrocities and be outraged when criminals escape just punishments. Morality is meaningless if there is not a final righting of wrongs.

4. God is the God who has reconciled all things in Christ (already)

The good news of the gospel is that by dying on the cross for the sins of the whole world, Christ has already restored the moral imbalance in the moral order of the universe.

Colossians 1:19-20: For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, (20) and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

God’s own love has already caused him to take upon himself the breakdown in creation caused by the proliferation of evil, so that now and forever sin and Satan and the world stand condemned, but God’s people are freed by his grace.

So love has already won. God’s love has already conquered his justice because the good God does graciously justify the wicked at immeasurable cost for the most undeserving (Romans 3:26).

Future and final judgment is yet to come as a fulfilment of the judgment now that has already taken place. At the cross, Christ has borne sins already for those who believe and condemned all those who reject him. So when he appears a second time, it will not be again to bear sins, but to bring salvation to those waiting and final judgment to whoever does not believe.

Romans 1:18: For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.

John 3:18: Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.

The last judgment has already been pronounced over the one who either believes or rejects Christ. This is because Jesus’ first coming and dying on the cross was, in a very real sense, the final judgment:

John 9:39: Jesus said, "For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind."

John 12:31 Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out.

God has reconciled all things in Christ (already) because final judgment and salvation happened at the cross.

5. God is the God who will reconcile evil through eternal judgment

Judgment remains a future reality because, though at the cross Jesus permanently condemned sin, the world and Satan, he nonetheless presently waits to implement his final reign over them. God will effect a final unification of all things in Christ, including evil elements in creation.

Ephesians 1:9-10  making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ  (10)  as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

Eternal hell, reserved for the devil and all those who follow him, is not evil in itself because of the simple fact that God’s retributive justice is both good and right. In this sense, everlasting punishment restores the moral order in creation because it balances wickedness with punishment, and so actually cancels evil because ‘good’ fully and finally triumphs.

We have said that just punishment of wrong reconciles it to God because his righteousness reigns over it; it restores evil to good; it disarms rebellion to peace. Consequently, eternal retribution is a permanent solution to the problem of evil.

But God’s judgment is actually a loving act and is consistent with the God who is both love and light. As C. S. Lewis argued, it is good for evil to be judged because for it to otherwise evade retributive justice would in fact excuse what is wrong, thus perpetuating evil. So God’s judgment of evil is an act of love towards his creation as well as to himself.

As a result, God’s judgment advances his glory because it brings a final reconciliation of the goodness of all things. In this sense, a full and true universal reconciliation of all things to God is fulfilled as much through God’s final and eternal judgment as it is through his everlasting mercy. 



These notes have borrowed significantly from the excellent lecture material prepared by Rob Smith, Sydney Missionary Bible College, Eschatology, 2010.