A Journey From Annihilationism to Universalism to Hell

When Eugene Peterson recommends a book on pastoring, you should listen. So when Peterson recommended David Hansen’s The Art of Pastoring, I eagerly picked it up.

Hansen’s book is an excellent account of his pastoral ministry in rural churches in Montana. What impressed me most about Hansen’s account is that he seems to have embodied Peterson’s priorities for ministry. Most, if not all of his time was spent in prayer, visitation and study. Bill Hybels would not approve.

Hansen gives a fascinating account of his theological wrestling with the doctrine of hell as a pastor. In seminary he latched on to John Calvin and his meditations on divine sovereignty. But, Hansen couldn’t quite stomach the thought of reprobation so he became an annihilationist, eventually becoming a full blown universalist. Hansen claims it almost destroyed his ministry. Read below:

There is an important place in the ministry for honest questioning over doctrinal issues. But I’m not proud of my tossing and turning over hell. Some pastors wear their agnosticism about hell as a badge of honor. I’ve tried it. I’ve acted as if struggling to believe our Lord’s words were a virtue. But I always found that when I became proud of my doubts, they suddenly became the sin of unbelief. For me, finally, waffling over hell became the sin of unbelief …

My newfound Calvinism threw a wrench into my doctrine of eternal punishment. Here before me was the ultimate horror: God choosing people to go to hell. I loved Calvinism but could not tolerate its dark side. I would not give up on Calvinism, so hell suffered in the balance. I ran into annihilationism. This teaches that there is no eternal hell; nonbelievers are simply annihilated at the last judgment. Annihilationism manages to steer clear of universalism and the offense of eternal hell. It lightens the burden on Calvinism, since souls not chosen do not suffer forever, they simply cease to exist. I embraced annihilationism wholeheartedly. But I couldn’t preach it. I accepted a call to a Baptist church where everybody believed in the existence of hell. I tried to explain my view to some people, but they got lost in my arguments. Annihilationism sounds logical; it is built on some points of biblical anthropology. But the big problem with annihilationism is that it isn’t really in the Bible. You can deduce it from some Bible texts, but it isn’t in plain sight. Biblically, universalism stands on steadier ground than annihilationism …

Barth is famous for denying throughout his life that he was a universalist. He knew that universalism is patently unscriptural. In his doctrine of predestination, however, he radically reinterprets the traditional Reformed doctrine of the predestination of individuals into the predestination of the One Man, Jesus Christ. For Barth, Jesus is the Elect Man. All persons are elect in him. This throws the possibility of universalism wide open. Although Barth denied being a universalist, in response to questions about the possibility of universal salvation he consistently replied: “Why not?” Barth’s happy “Why not?” metamorphosed in my mind to “Absolutely yes!” I began to see people in a different light. I began to see everyone around me as heavenbound. It felt good. It gave me a happy feeling. (That should have been a warning sign: my generation of theologians loves to believe doctrines that make us feel happy.) What was unhappy was that I was a secret universalist. I preached sermons hinting at the possibility of universalism, but I was too insecure, too unsure of my new theological view, to share it widely. Pastors don’t talk about it. I knew pastors with universalist ideas, but very few would talk openly about it; most were afraid to admit it. That confused me. Here’s this happy doctrine-everyone gains eternal salvation-but almost no one will talk about it. Why not? I couldn’t answer that question. All I knew was that I didn’t want to talk about it. Universalism relieved some of my theological tensions, but it made my ministry frivolous, pointless. I discovered firsthand in my pastoral work what J. S. Whale said about universalism in his book Christian Doctrine: “It is illogical to tell men that they must do the will of God and accept his gospel of grace, if you also tell them that the obligation has no eternal significance, and that nothing ultimately depends upon it. The curious modern heresy that everything is bound to come out right in the end is so frivolous I will not insult you by refuting it.” My faith devolved into a mild pantheistic pluralism, and I began to despise it. It was paltry, toothless. With the major paradoxes, like the doctrine of hell, taken out, my faith was as flabby as a week-old helium balloon. My ministry became futile and pathetic; I was of no use to anyone. Something happened I never expected. My anger toward my parishioners increased. I would have thought that dethroning the “angry” God of the Bible would have made me into a kinder, gentler pastor. Just the opposite actually occurred.

I became more resentful of people who hurt me. Pastors are like football quarterbacks: they need to be able to take a hard shot from their opponent and get up smiling. But I lost my durability. I got prickly over the normal bumps and bruises of pastoral work These bumps and bruises come most of the time from Christians. I didn’t think that because they were bumping heads with me they should go to hell. It’s just that there’s something about eliminating the God of judgment that makes us into judges. When I gave up on a God of vindication, I became my own self-appointed vigilante. The area of ministry that my new eschatology affected most was my preaching. At first it didn’t change much. I tried to continue preaching Christocentrically. But I became more and more interested in preaching psychological insights. It didn’t occur to me that I was becoming a syncretist. Yet slowly I edged Christ out of my preaching. I stopped preaching evangelistically and began to offer “relevant” social and psychological interpretations of the Scripture. The only reaction I got, even from my liberal listeners, was that my preaching was getting boring …

What I see at first is a crowd, a public gathering. What I’m looking for is an assembly of people made in the image of God, called by the Holy Spirit this very morning to hear the holy Word. That shift of vision from public crowd to holy assembly is the source of the energy to preach. The fire is lit in my belly as I see what the congregation really is, lost people, and what I really have to bring, the life-giving Word. With everyone saved, though, there was no longer a line to be crossed from death to life. All I could see and all I could preach was what we should be doing. We should love one another. We should free one another from dysfunctional entanglements. We should be less prejudiced. We should feed the poor. But all I could say was “We should.” I lost the ability to say “You must.” Since in the end it didn’t really make much difference how people lived, it didn’t make much difference what I preached, or if I even preached at all. My thinking had become frivolous, my theology one of wishful thinking. My words became inconsequential. My religion was reduced to a self-help methodology, a happy way to cope with life. I became a moralist, a counselor, a two-bit pop psychologist. I took serious steps to leave the ministry. But I felt as if I needed to think through my faith one more time before I junked it all …