Hell's Ramparts Rebuilt
Text: Matthew 16:13-18
I have often heard it said that long ago Universalism had
one great cause to uphold, one great battle to fight, and that was to conquer
the terrible doctrine of eternal Hell. All the major Protestant Churches taught
the doctrine in the 1800s when Universalism undertook to explode it. And they
were successful. They became the 6th largest Protestant denomination in the
country, and with the rise of Modernism, the doctrine of Universal Salvation
had permeated the whole Protestant community. But there was a certain irony in
this. This meant Universalists were now doomed to be
a church without a cause. Like the Maytag repair man, just sitting there with
nothing much to do. Universalism had seemingly worked itself out of a job. So
it began to turn its attention to more worldly matters, devoting itself to the
Social Gospel--again, just like all the other Protestants! So inevitably
Universalism lost its distinctiveness and shrank to a colorless also-ran
powered mainly by inertia, plagued by self-doubt. What is our raison d'Ítre?
Just to go on existing for the sake of existing? Like a tapeworm?
And yet I see the situation quite differently. Is the
battle fought by Hosea Ballou and the others truly a
thing of the past, a glorious but fading memory? Our error is in not seeing
that the mainline denominations, the ones who did slough off their belief in
Hell many years ago, are no longer the mainstream. They are mostly still
liberal, but they are no longer the mainstream! They have been marginalized, they are fast becoming a marginal minority,
like Universalism itself, while the more aggressive fundamentalists hold the
field. The Evangelical factions within the United Methodists, the
Episcopalians, the Presbyterians, are organizing to take over the old
denominations. And worse yet, the liberal bureaucrats in charge of those
denominations are only too willing to let them do it!
They know their funds are shrinking, so they are willing to fill the pews any
which way they can!
Like it or not, the fundamentalists, Evangelicals, Charismatics, are the mainstream now. And they do believe
in Hell. And they preach it! As in the old days, the bullying with the carrot
of heaven and the stick of eternal damnation resounds from the pulpits of the
land. Based on the Matthew text we read, a biography of John Murray, the
founder of American Universalism, was called Hell's Ramparts Fell. Now they
have been rebuilt, while we weren't looking! Like Britain
after World War One, we let down our arms, in our complacency, and now we find
ourselves facing a greater threat than before, and
It seems clear that we Universalists
are like the loitering laborers in Matthew's parable of the Workers in the
Vineyard: the farmer is surprised to find them hanging about the village square
smoking and playing dice. "Why aren't you men working?" he demands to
know. They answer, "Because no man hires us!" "Yeah?
Well, consider yourself hired!" "Behold, the fields are white unto
harvest, but the laborers are few." Here we have been for decades sitting
about, muttering, as if trying to excuse our torpor, that there is no longer
any work for us to do. It is time to stop goldbricking! Our old job awaits us
again! We must assault Hell's ramparts with the battering ram of reason and
polemic, as we once did to great effect.
Let me tell you just why this is important. You may think
all the old doctrinal debates that characterized 18th and 19th century
Protestant theology, including Universalism, are quaint and irrelevant, like
medieval scholasticism: how many angels can dance on the head of a pin? But if
so, you fail to realize that the rest of the world does not share our
sophisticated view of the matter. There are plenty of people who preach and
believe in Hell. And because they do, there are genuine, real world
consequences. It is worth debating, worth our taking the time to challenge it.
Here are three reasons.
First, and most importantly, believers in Hell, by
ascribing cruelty to God (he is willing, they say, to torture people forever
and this simply because they are infidels) are redefining their notion of
morality so as to make "goodness" compatible with cruelty and
torture! If your God is your moral standard, and it must be, and your God
tortures unbelievers in Hell eternally, then your standard of goodness is
compatible with the most terrible sadism.
Look, this is not clever sophistry on my part, as if I am
exploiting an unintended consequence of their belief system, an embarrassing
implication they never notice because they in fact do not countenance cruelty.
I only wish it were so! But sadly, many do see the implication and embrace it!
Look at the Inquisition! "We're burning you for your own good! Hell is a
lot hotter, and this way you'll get the pain out of the way here and now!"
Look at John Calvin, who not only had Michael Servetus,
a Unitarian forbear, burnt at the stake, but afterward published a tract
explaining his theological justification for doing so!
Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson
do not say what they say because they are mean men. In fact, a friend of mine
lives right across the street from Falwell, sees him buying cat food in the supermarket. And my
friend, a secularist, attests that Falwell is a
friendly fellow! You see, his cruelty is a result, not of his personality, but
of his theology! The fruit of the Spirit is bigotry, I guess.
Second, the Hell belief retards morality, even apart from
the danger of perverting it as I've just described. It keeps people in the
earliest stage of moral development: doing the "right" thing because
they fear punishment of Hell if they don't. If you think that, you will never
get to the point of doing what is right for its own sake. You won't have the
luxury for that! And you will never come to trust your own moral
judgment--because there is no margin for error, Hell being the consequence of a
mistake. So you'll play it safe and play by the rules that the Hell-monger
gives you. You know, the Grand Inquisitor. God becomes a pedantic teacher: you
don't want to get an F, so you stick to rote memorization, and forget about
creative thinking of your own. If Hell awaits you, you'd be a fool to do it any
other way. For this reason, Kant correctly saw that a belief in Hell does not
promote moral character but instead must always undermine it.
The Trinitarian Church Father Tertullian
of Carthage once wrote a treatise
against the so-called Heretic Apelles. Apelles, a Marcionite, rejected
any belief in Hell. Tertullian scoffs at this.
"If there is no Hell to fear," he says, "then why not kill? Why
not steal? All you can answer is 'God forbid! God forbid!'" Pathetic! What
was Tertullian--two years old? Hosea Ballou was once riding with a fellow itinerant preacher, a
Baptist preacher. They were passing the time in friendly theological debate.
The Baptist offered a standard argument against the leniency of Universalism:
"Brother Ballou, if I were a Universalist, and
feared not the fires of Hell, I'd hit you over the head and steal your horse
and saddle." Ballou answered, "My brother,
if you were a Universalist the idea would never occur to you!"
Third, and this may well be the
best point of attack as we challenge Hell-believers to take responsibility for
this thing that they believe: to ascribe to God the invention and maintenance
of a pit of eternal torture is blasphemy! If you say this, my friend, take
care! You are maligning and defaming God! With a God like this, who needs a
devil! Do not blaspheme against the Divine Spirit!
I refer to the famous passage where Jesus warns his
hecklers not to blaspheme. He says, "I tell you the truth, every sin that
men commit shall be forgiven them, except for the blasphemy against the Holy
Spirit." And what, pray tell, is that? I suggest that one blasphemes the
Spirit insofar as one denies that men shall be forgiven for every sin that they
commit! If God is the loving father of the Prodigal, if God tells us to expect
no forgiveness unless we, too, forgive our enemies--then how can we make him
over in our own hateful image as a malicious sadist who nurses his grudge (and
this against petty creatures whose sins can never harm him anyway!) throughout
out all eternity!
Let us rise to the old challenge again! Challenge
fundamentalists to account for themselves! Admonish them for blaspheming God!
And this does not even require that you yourself believe in God! Even the
atheist sees it is better to believe in a noble God than in a devilish one!
Don't ask them to change more than they can be expected to change. If they want
to believe in supernaturalism and superstition, let them. It's none of our
business. But it is our business not to let hate-mongering go unchallenged.
Take the offensive and take the high ground! Unmask the nightmare of Hell for
what it is! It is not simply as Rationalists that we must condemn Hell belief;
Christians should have an even greater urgency to condemn it, and thus to
deliver the name of God from the slander of reproach that he is a torturer and
a terrorist worse than Adolph Hitler! We need not tell them, "Reject your
religion and accept our Rationalism." We need only ask them to be true to
their religion and believe that "God is love." "And where love
is perfected," as 1 John tells us, "there is no fear."
But does not modern Universalism concentrate on this
world, not the next? We have no certain belief in life after death at all, so
what right have we to speak against Hell? Haven't we
made ourselves ineligible to speak on the subject? Like a
heterosexual pontificating about homosexuality which he knows nothing about?
No, simply because the key doctrine of Universalism is not that everyone is
going to go to Heaven. No, the central doctrine is that nobody is going to go
to Hell! We are not particularly confident that everyone is going to be saved
because we are not sure anyone is going to be saved.† But what we are certain of is that no one
will be damned! And that is still a timely and welcome message. Indeed it has
never been timelier. And the time is now.
Robert M. Price
drafted in April 1995
preached on October 15, 1995
written up November 4, 1995
Copyright©2007 by Robert
Carolina Web Design