What I Learned While Making a Documentary About Perspectives on Hell
In 2019, after becoming convinced of the truth that Christ will save all people, I wanted to learn more about Christian universalism. There were lots of great books out there—works by David Bentley Hart, Robin Parry, Thomas Talbott, and many others—but there seemed to be a lack of quality videos online that covered the topic. There were very few interviews with Thomas Talbott available, for example.
I decided I wanted to try and interview some of the best representatives of Christian universalism around today, and make a documentary where universalism is looked at positively and is held up against the two other major views that are generally believed by Christians: annihilationism and, of course, eternal torment.
It took me about one year and nine months to complete the project. Here are a few of the things that I noticed along the way.
Who Wants to Defend Eternal Torment?
I reached out to many of the well-known proponents of the “traditional” doctrine of hell and I rarely received a response. When I did, people were usually too busy or not interested in being interviewed. It is possible that many people simply didn’t see my messages, but I think there may also be another reason that I had a hard time finding someone to defend the view of eternal torment. When it comes down to it, it is a very hard view to defend. It can sound quite insane to say God created a universe where people (perhaps most people?) will be tortured for infinity. While the doctrine of everlasting suffering for those who die outside of Christ is formally accepted in many churches today, I think people are embarrassed by it and a bit squeamish about it… as they should be. In the end, I was only able to interview one person who believed in a hell of everlasting torment and had written a book on the topic.
Annihilationists Are Eager To Talk
It was not very difficult, however, for me to find defenders of annihilationism (also called conditional immortality) who were willing to be interviewed for my project. Although the teaching of annihilation—that “hell” is a temporary state of suffering followed by non-existence—is not as fear-inducing as eternal torment, it is a far cry from universalism. Annihilationists, it seems to me, feel that they are often left out of the conversation on the nature of hell. The debate is not simply eternal torment vs. universalism. There are three views to consider and they would like people to know that. I ended up interviewing three representatives of conditional immortality from three different countries and including them in the finished documentary. It is true that the annihilation perspective, like universalism, has been around since the days of the early church and is also often thought of as heterodox if not outright heretical by many churches today. However, I believe that once the three views are looked at in-depth, universalism is the most coherent understanding of God’s plans for the universe.
Universalism: Hiding in Plain Sight
When I first started to work on the documentary, I was living in Japan and teaching English at a couple of elementary schools. Christianity is not very big in Japan—the estimates are that about one percent of the population call themselves Christians—and I figured there would not be much for me to find there to include in the documentary. After a quick Google search, however, I found out that there was a Universalist church in Tokyo, planted by missionaries from the United States in the 1800’s (when the Universalist Church of America was a distinct Christian denomination). So much for the common criticism that universalism discourages missionary efforts!
So while I was still in Japan, I did an interview at the church in Tokyo and also interviewed an American minister with the Christian Universalist Association who lives and works in the city. I was already making progress before starting the big trip I had planned to work on the documentary!
Once I had finished my work contract in Asia and bought a car in the United States, I drove to different churches, universities, offices, and homes interviewing people about theology and collecting various perspectives, with the major focus being Christian universalism.
While you won’t see many churches with both “Christian” and “Universalist” in the name, I was somewhat surprised to find universalism being taught in many Christian contexts. It may go by another name such as the “Victorious Gospel,” “Ultimate Reconciliation,” or even the ancient-sounding “apokatastasis.” I visited a Charismatic Episcopal Church, a traditional Trinitarian Universalist church, a non-denominational evangelical(ish) church, and many others. I interviewed Methodists, Lutherans, Anglicans, Eastern Orthodox, and people from other denominations who believe that God is ultimately going to reconcile everyone back to him.
There was a certain diversity in the theology of the universalists who I interviewed, too. Some use the word “hell” to describe the temporary and painful (but remedial, or at least educative) state that awaits those who reject Christ when they die; others reject the term “hell” altogether. Some believe that Satan is a personal being, an individual, while others hold to a symbolic Devil as a representation of evil and the temptations that can entice us. Some hold to a more Arminian understanding of free will, while others believe a more Calvinistic model of freedom is accurate.
There were many other points of divergence in the perspectives of the universalists I interviewed, but, even so, there really are many people who believe God will save all human beings and who take the Bible seriously, trust God deeply, and strive to follow Christ daily.
There are believers in Christian universalism all over the place! We just might not be part of the same organizations, we might not use all the same terms, or we might reach a few different theological conclusions. But I was glad to find so many people to talk to, and if the documentary I made helps even one person trust God more, fear everlasting torment less, or see Jesus a little better, then it was well worth it.
[The documentary “Love Unrelenting” was released on YouTube on March 20th, 2022]