From the Renovaré Newsletter Archive

The selection below is from a July 2003 Renovaré newsletter. Download a PDF of the original newsletter.

Dear Friends,

Time and eter­ni­ty. That is the theme we have been work­ing on. Remem­ber the touch­stone con­cept from Dal­las Willard: We are unceas­ing spir­i­tu­al beings with an eter­nal des­tiny in God’s great uni­verse.” In the last Per­spec­tive we thought togeth­er about time. So, now on to eter­ni­ty. And specif­i­cal­ly to that aspect of eter­ni­ty dubbed hell”.

Hell — an uncom­fort­able notion, to be sure. I don’t mind telling you that I am the most uneasy about this aspect of our theme. I wish I could avoid dis­cussing it alto­geth­er. I’m eager to get on to the sub­ject of heav­en. But if we are to take the bib­li­cal rev­e­la­tion seri­ous­ly we must wres­tle with the sub­ject of hell. My dis­com­fort (yours too, per­haps) is sim­ply beside the point.


As I was start­ing to work on this sub­ject a pub­lish­er sent me the gal­leys for a new book on Uni­ver­sal­ism, the notion that every per­son will even­tu­al­ly be saved. Now, Uni­ver­sal­ism is grow­ing in pop­u­lar­i­ty today, for it fits neat­ly into the mod­ern non-judg­men­tal live-and-let-live mood of our cul­ture. And it has been a minor (very minor) cur­rent in Chris­t­ian his­to­ry. So I thought I’d see how per­sua­sive the argu­ments might be in this new attempt to dust off an old heresy. How utter­ly dis­ap­point­ing! The same tired argu­ments and the same weak sen­ti­men­tal­i­ty about God’s mer­cy win­ning out over God’s jus­tice. It remind­ed me of the prophet­ic com­ment of William Booth, founder of the Sal­va­tion Army, just before his death in 1912 that he saw com­ing to the Church for­give­ness with­out repen­tance, sal­va­tion with­out regen­er­a­tion … a heav­en with­out a hell.”

In set­ting forth their case Uni­ver­sal­ists inevitably make the per­son and teach­ing of Jesus the cen­ter of their appeal. Jesus’ love and grace and com­pas­sion, and his assur­ance to us of God’s uncon­di­tion­al love and grace-filled accep­tance. All true real­i­ties, to be sure. But, and here is the fatal flaw in all Uni­ver­sal­ist teach­ing, this Jesus to whom they appeal so ardent­ly is the very one who teach­es more emphat­i­cal­ly about hell than any­one else in the entire Bible. This is a real­i­ty we sim­ply can­not get around. Jesus — the com­pas­sion­ate Jesus, the for­giv­ing and accept­ing Jesus — nev­er flinch­es when it comes to the sub­ject of eternity.


Through­out his preach­ing Jesus holds forth two — and only two — pos­si­bil­i­ties for human exis­tence: ever­last­ing hap­pi­ness in the pres­ence of God or ever­last­ing tor­ment in the absence of God. In the judg­ment of the nations record­ed in Matthew where we hear those famous lines, I was hun­gry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me some­thing to drink, I was a stranger and you wel­comed me, I was naked and you gave me cloth­ing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you vis­it­ed me” we also read that the Son of Man wel­comes the right­eous into the king­dom pre­pared for you from the foun­da­tion of the world” and says to the wicked “‘you that are accursed, depart from me into the eter­nal fire pre­pared for the dev­il and his angels.’” And Jesus’ final sum­ma­tion to this sto­ry: And these (the wicked) will go away into eter­nal pun­ish­ment, but the right­eous into eter­nal life” (Matt. 25:31 – 46). Now, we can legit­i­mate­ly argue about whether the eter­nal fire” is lit­er­al or metaphor­i­cal, but we can­not argue over whether or not Jesus is intend­ing to teach us that there are two final pos­si­bil­i­ties for human exis­tence. He did not leave that mat­ter open for debate.

This fact is rein­forced in the Gospel of John which, although it actu­al­ly says very lit­tle about hell, does record Jesus’ words, the hour is com­ing when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out – -those who have done good, to the res­ur­rec­tion of life, and those who have done evil, to the res­ur­rec­tion of con­dem­na­tion” (John 5:28 – 29).

We sim­ply can­not sneak around the fact that Jesus teach­es that there are two out­comes to human des­tiny: the res­ur­rec­tion of life … the res­ur­rec­tion of condemnation.”

Jesus’ word about the real­i­ty of hell is unam­bigu­ous. In the sto­ry about the rich man and Lazarus, the rich man, after death, is described as In Hades, where he was being tor­ment­ed” and lat­er in the sto­ry this place is described as this place of tor­ment.” I’m sor­ry, I wish I could make the sto­ry sound bet­ter. Or have a hap­pi­er end­ing. You remem­ber, I’m sure, how the rich man pleads with Father Abra­ham to have mer­cy on me” and is told that this is not now pos­si­ble and that between you and us a great chasm has been fixed” (Luke 16:19 – 31).

Equal­ly unam­bigu­ous is Jesus’ word that not all will enter the King­dom life which, of course, includes heav­en as its nat­ur­al out­come. When a fear­ful dis­ci­ple asks the Mas­ter, “‘Lord, will only a few be saved?’” Jesus replies, “‘Strive to enter through the nar­row door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able’” (Luke 13:23 – 24, see also Matt. 7:13 – 14).

As if this exchange were not enough Jesus next adds, “‘go away from me, all you evil­do­ers!’ There will be weep­ing and gnash­ing of teeth when you see Abra­ham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the king­dom of God, and you your­selves thrown out” (Luke 13: 27 – 28).

I could go on, but per­haps these sam­ple pas­sages make suf­fi­cient­ly clear Jesus’ teach­ing on the mat­ter. The epis­tles only rein­force Jesus’ out­look. Paul says that those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.… will suf­fer the pun­ish­ment of eter­nal destruc­tion, sep­a­rat­ed from the pres­ence of the Lord and from the glo­ry of his might.” (2 Thess. 1:8 – 9). And John’s Apoc­a­lypse sim­ply sec­onds and thirds the teach­ing: the dev­il … was thrown into the lake of fire and sul­fur, where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tor­ment­ed day and night for­ev­er and ever”, and then adds, as for the cow­ard­ly, the faith­less, the pol­lut­ed, the mur­der­ers, the for­ni­ca­tors, the sor­cer­ers, the idol­aters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sul­fur, which is the sec­ond death” (Rev. 20:10, 21:8).

Now, if you are hop­ing for a kind of mid­dle ground between Uni­ver­sal­ism and the tra­di­tion­al view of the eter­ni­ty of hell, the best place to look is Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved”? Balthasar pro­vides a sophis­ti­cat­ed the­o­log­i­cal argu­ment for hop­ing that God’s omnipo­tent love finds ways of, so to speak, out­wit­ting human resis­tance. He does this with­out falling into the Uni­ver­sal­ist trap of assert­ing as a fact that every­one will be saved or that hell will be emp­tied at the end of time. He takes Jesus’ state­ments on hell seri­ous­ly but would hold that they are mina­to­ry rather than predictive.


One of the very first ques­tions that aris­es with any dis­cus­sion of hell is, Who will be there?” The answer is quite sim­ple, All those whom God, in his great wis­dom, knows could not stand heav­en.” Remem­ber, the puri­fy­ing fires of heav­en will be far hot­ter than the fires of hell! Con­sid­er, my friend, what it would be like to live a sin­gle day with­out guile. How about an eter­ni­ty with­out guile! Are you, am I, still inter­est­ed in heaven?

Jesus, of course, is the way to heav­en. He is the way pre­cise­ly because, in turn­ing toward him and accept­ing him as our life, he leads us into a with-God” life in the king­dom of God. It is here under God’s lov­ing rule that we learn to do the will of God and to grow in grace” as Peter puts it (2 Pet. 3:18). As we grow in this with-God life we dis­cov­er that heav­en is sim­ply a minor tran­si­tion from this life to greater Life … for it is all life with-God.

Con­verse­ly, hell is away-from-God” life. And there are some peo­ple for whom life away-from-God is the only life to which they are suit­ed. This is why we can well say that peo­ple choose hell, for they choose to be the kind of peo­ple who would not be at home” in heav­en. Hell, you see, is the ulti­mate expres­sion of God’s respect for his creature’s free­dom to choose. Hell, in the final analy­sis, is God’s best arrange­ment for some peo­ple. It is giv­ing to cer­tain peo­ple what they ulti­mate­ly desire.

So we can be con­fi­dent that God will take care of the pop­u­la­tion of hell. We can be sure that those who are in hell are suit­ed for it in every way, just as those in heav­en are suit­ed for it. God will see to it.


This either with-God” or away-from-God” kind of life is, I think, a use­ful way of think­ing about heav­en and hell because it takes us out­side of all of the debates about the fur­ni­ture of hell (Is the ever­last­ing fire” lit­er­al or metaphor­i­cal? What is meant by out­er dark­ness”, or gnaw­ing worm”, or tor­ment­ing thirst”, or weep­ing and gnash­ing of teeth”?) and instead helps us to focus on an essen­tial dif­fer­ence — per­haps the essen­tial dif­fer­ence — between these two forms of exis­tence: com­mu­ni­ty or iso­la­tion. When we speak of heav­en we are talk­ing about the blessed com­mu­ni­ty most ful­ly expressed in the glo­ri­ous famil­ial fel­low­ship of the Trin­i­ty — Father, Son, and Holy Spir­it. And heav­en is God’s ulti­mate way of say­ing, Wel­come to the fam­i­ly!” Con­verse­ly, hell is a way of talk­ing about ever deep­er iso­la­tion and ever greater self-centeredness.

Lov­ing com­mu­ni­ty or self-cen­tered iso­la­tion — that is the choice giv­en us by the real­i­ty of heav­en and hell. Which will I choose? Which will you choose? And choose we must? There sim­ply are no oth­er options giv­en us. For instance, it will come as a gen­uine shock to some peo­ple when they dis­cov­er that they can­not cease to exist. That option is not open to us, for we are indeed unceas­ing spir­i­tu­al beings with an eter­nal des­tiny in God’s great universe.”

Peace and joy,

Richard J. Foster

Text First Published July 2003

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

View Selections & Learn More >