A recent article by Shawn Bawulski in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (March 2013) helpfully restates an interpretation of hell known as reconciliationism (“Reconciliationism, A Better View of Hell: Reconciliationism and Eternal Punishment”). This is not universalism. At final judgment, all evildoers will be reconciled to God’s purposes in the sense that they will be subdued, conquered, and stopped from hostility and resistance to God. By contrast, believers have already surrendered to Jesus voluntarily. Nonbelievers will finally bow to Jesus because no other option is available to them when he confronts them at the final judgment.
Passages such as Philippians 2:10-11 (“every knee will bow”) tell a crushing defeat of all God’s enemies. Ephesians 1:10 has all things “in heaven and earth” united to God through Christ. Colossians 1:20 uses the term “reconciled” comprehensively in a way that cannot mean “saved” or restored to relationship with God. We can understand the meaning to be put back in place as a creature made to honor the Creator. All things are ruled by God, but at present God permits defiance as it suits his purposes. We look forward to the end of anything violating God’s rule.
Recent proponents of this view during the last decade are Henri Blocher, Andy Saville, Bawluski, and Stephen Williams. Saville notes that a handful of theologians in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century argued for the view as well (including James Orr, contributor to The Fundamentals). While the relative novelty of the view might make us suspicious about it, I think that it has solid biblical and theological merits to commend it.
An important contribution in this view is how we should understand the reconciling and uniting spoken of in these passages. Proponents suggest that at final judgment, evildoers will be stripped of the power to continue resisting God. Their illusions about themselves, their sin, and God will be eliminated. For the first time, they know the full weight of their sin, and then go into everlasting despair and self-contempt with that knowledge.
It is traditional (such as with Shedd) to explain the everlasting duration of punishment in hell as due to continued sinning by the people there. While being punished for sins during their earthly lifetime, they continue to hate God and incur more penalties. Critics of the conservative view of hell (everlasting conscious punishment) have pointed to this claim of continuing sin as an inappropriate cosmic dualism. The New Creation is a permanent outpost of good, and hell continues to be the camp of those who hate God and curse him forever. God’s creation never gets over sin. Evildoers who continue to revile God are not reconciled to his justice since by their continuing sin and hatred of God they defy it.
The conquest of sin is a vision that makes sense of the “reconciled” and “unite” passages without taking them in a universalistic way and sets aside the cosmic dualism problem. God defeats sin absolutely, for all time and everywhere. God would do this by stripping evildoers of the power to continue defying God. Use your freedom properly, or lose it. By comparison, our justice system works this way with respect to some freedoms by incarcerating criminals. There seems to be no biblical or theological requirement that God maintains the freedom of evildoers to sin after final judgment. By comparison, most people admit that resurrected believers will be fulfilled in their freedom so as not to be capable of sin any longer (since death is no more, and death is the consequence for sin, thus sin is no more).
Perhaps Mark 4:25 can be read along with this guess at the stripping evildoers of the freedom to sin. Jesus says, "For whoever has, to him more shall be given; and whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him." (NASB)
I think we can imagine evildoers in hell as having been broken from their lifelong defiance of God and having suppressed the truth about God and their sin. They admit that they are wrong, and God is right. They confess that they are getting what they fully deserve in exclusion from all goods and whatever they are suffering as punishment for their guilt. Their condition is irreversible, so regret at this point is not a repentance and faith to receive forgiveness. Knowing there is no hope is part of the horror.
This explanation allows us to affirm that evildoers have value for God. For God, people in hell will continually honor him as the righteous Judge (in parallel to the way people in the new creation will honor him as the gracious Savior). Evildoers will continue to have purpose and value as God’s image bearers who acknowledge Jesus as Lord. They continue to live with created dignity by the way God holds them accountable for their evil actions. Their choices are important. Their freedom was real. Hell is God’s way of holding them responsible for the tremendous gifts of freedom that he created for them. Perhaps this is a manifestation of God’s love to maintain their dignity as vanquished criminals who suffer for their deeds.
By comparison, annihilationism entails that evildoers are worthless to God, mistakes that were a temporary blight on creation. God extinguishes them forever because he has nothing left that he can do with them for any purpose or value. Universalism ultimately overturns creaturely freedom by absolute inclusion of all people in saving relationship with God. By contrast, the traditional view of hell affirms creaturely freedom to have made important choices with durable consequences for enjoyment or pain. This is the terrible magnitude of freedom.