y first exposure to Biblical theology came through The Bible in Pictures for Little Eyes. Many nights, Mom and Dad would read to my younger siblings and I; these stories introduced me to Jesus. I heard the Gospel in simple terms: “You and I have done bad things and God should punish us. But God doesn’t want to do that because He loves us. God sent His dear Son Jesus Who wanted to be punished for us. . . . This is how much Jesus loves you. He died for you” (from the story of John 19:16-24 in The Bible in Pictures for Little Eyes by Kenneth Taylor). The book never mentioned hell. Mom and Dad only briefly spoke of a place of punishment for the bad people who do not love Jesus. But I was not worried about going there because I loved hearing about Jesus, and I tried hard to obey His commands.
As I grew older, I learned the importance of expressing my belief in Jesus. My Grandma died of cancer when I was four. I was confused and a little scared about where she went. Why couldn’t she come back to us? Was I going to the same place? My mom assured me she was going to Heaven to be with Jesus. To make sure I would go to Heaven too, I needed to pray and tell God I believe Jesus died for me to save me from my sins. After the conversation with Mom, I eagerly went to my room and whispered, “God, please save me! I believe in You, Jesus! I want to live with You in Heaven!”
Around the same time, I memorized Mark 16:15 so I could remember that Jesus wanted me to tell other people about Him. Over the next few years, I became passionate about being a “missionary.” The first person I tried to convince to believe in Jesus was my younger brother. I used every tactic I could think of to plead with him to pray the sinner’s prayer. I began paying attention to the references to hell at church; I drew on my increasing knowledge in my conversations with my brother. “Listen,” I warned, “you don’t want to go to hell! It’s dark and there is a fire that will burn you forever!” When I heard the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace (Daniel 3), it struck me as a powerful illustration of hell. “If you don’t believe in Jesus, you will be like the wicked men who were burned up in the furnace! But you won’t die; you’ll be like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and always be alive in the fire!” He did eventually express belief in the Gospel, but his faith was a result of God’s Spirit and certainly not my dire warnings.
I never doubted my salvation. I was confident in Heaven as my eternal destination. My parents and all nine of my siblings follow Jesus, so I was not concerned about those I love going to hell. In line with the teaching I heard at church, I viewed eternal conscious torment as the only biblical option. I simply understood an eternal hell for most of humankind as part of the package of orthodox Christianity, right alongside the Gospel of a loving God Who came to earth to save me.
Yet I’m not sure the idea of an eternal hell ever took deep root in my heart. I started journaling at 13. Throughout high school, I regularly wrote about my desire to live for God to bring Him glory; I never mentioned hell as motivation for witness or holy living. In fact, although I wrote out many of my beliefs, I never even mentioned hell.
In high school I read C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. The salvation of Emeth in The Last Battle captured my heart and mind. It was clear to me that Lewis was suggesting a wideness in God’s mercy that was greater than I had dared to imagine. However, I could see no reason to dispute his vision. The glory of Aslan was magnified, not diminished, by His mercy to Emeth. Without even fully realizing it, I became a hopeful inclusivist.
After high school, I attended a small, fundamental Baptist college in Iowa, where I studied theology and missions. Most of my professors were Calvinistic yet prided themselves on avoiding the label and stigma of “Calvinist.” I carefully followed their lead, calling myself “a tentative four-point Calvinist” (Limited Atonement being the point I rejected). However, my confidence in my views began to erode as I slowly realized the doctrine of soteriology is far more complicated than I wanted it to be.
My best friend was a committed five-point Calvinist. Our passionate arguments over limited atonement did not sway him, but I began to find my own thinking changing. I felt I could not argue with the straightforward logic of Calvinism. It seemed to be backed up by rigorous Biblical exegesis, and those teaching it were so passionate. I especially looked up to John Piper, moved and motivated by his urgent emphasis on the importance of missions. He dogmatically denied the possibility of a wider hope for the unrepentant who have never heard the Gospel. I shelved my musings on inclusivism, feeling this flirtation with heterodoxy would be completely incompatible with my new, but strongly held Calvinism. I eventually decided to attend Piper’s school in Minneapolis.
While in Minneapolis, I volunteered to help Somali refugees study to pass their citizenship tests. My new friends introduced me to their rich Somali heritage. Islam is inextricably woven into Somali culture; to be Somali is to be Muslim, as the saying goes. I eagerly embraced opportunities to discuss our faiths. I had studied Islam in my world religions class; I knew the Biblical proof texts that prove the divinity of Christ, the anecdotal stories that expose the falsehood of the Quran, the contextualized Gospel presentations that appeal to Muslims. Yet at every conversation I was met with either passionate, articulate rebuttals or gracious disinterest.
My conversations filled me with questions: Why have the Somali suffered so much? I thought God is supposed to be near the brokenhearted (Psalm 34:18); why then has He allowed Islam to blind the minds of so many Somalis to keep them from seeing the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ? Will God really allow my friend to lead a life of tragically misguided piety, then cast him into an eternity of unrelenting torment? How can these actions be considered loving in any sense?
At first, I consoled myself with the idea that God’s ways are higher than mine. His justice is perfect, mine is twisted by my own sin and rebellion. If He is glorified by sending Muslims to an eternal hell, so be it. I must submit and worship. But I could not escape a growing sense of uneasiness with the traditional view.
I wrote in my journal:
"I’m like Abiathar (1 Samuel 22:11-23). My King has spoken to me: ‘You will be safe with Me’ (v. 23). But my pain and fear are not gone. For Abiathar it was his family and friends who were brutally murdered (v. 19). For me, it is my precious Somali friends who are on their way to eternal separation from Christ. How am I supposed to have peace?"
After wrestling with these questions for several months, I attended an event focused on addressing the humanitarian crisis facing the Horn of Africa. It proved to be a turning point in my journey. At the end of the night, I journaled my raw thoughts:
"When I sit beside my Muslim friends, I am overwhelmed by the double burden of walking with them as they seek to serve their suffering brothers and sisters in the Ummah Islamiyyah and remembering their supposed common destination of eternal torment. When it comes to the physical pain and suffering on this earth, my exclusionist friends tell me, I am right to feel deeply disturbed. But when it comes to hell, I should applaud God’s justice; hell makes God’s grace to us more precious. The disconnect strikes me as enormous. Is it truly possible to look at a picture of a severely malnourished Somali Muslim woman—to look into her eyes—feel moved to tears at her condition and then feel peace believing her inevitable death will usher her into an eternity of pain and grief? I find such a belief, in the words of John Stott, “intolerable, and do not understand how people can live with it without either cauterizing their feelings or cracking under the strain.”
At last, I returned to the question of inclusivism. This time, though, I realized my Calvinism surprisingly opened the door to a much more confident inclusivism. Salvation is entirely a gift from God. We are not saved because we mustered up some faith, we are saved because God’s Spirit applied the work of Christ to our hearts. The deciding factor in an individual’s salvation is not something they say or think; it is God’s sovereign decision before the dawn of creation to draw them to Himself. Thus, we cannot determine who will be in heaven or hell. Much more than sin and death, the gift of grace through Christ overflows to the many (Romans 5:15). Surely most of humanity will sing praises to the Lamb—a great crowd no one can number (Revelation 7:9).
This reasoning should be familiar to Christians. After all, many—if not most—Evangelicals believe God will save infants. They believe God can save infants apart from a conscious response to the Gospel on earth. He will count them righteous in Christ, saved by His sacrifice alone. In this sense, most Evangelicals are inclusivists. I assumed, then, most of my Christian friends would agree I could hold to inclusivism and remain a theologically sound Evangelical.
I was not prepared for the immediate and firm pushback from my closest friends. They accused me of letting my emotions dictate my theology. They warned me I was starting down a slippery slope that would lead me away from Biblical Christianity. Their replies confused and frustrated me.
One day, my Reformed roommate asked me: “Do you feel better now that you are an inclusivist?” “Yeah, of course,” I answered. “Well, I wouldn’t if I were you,” he went on, “because you still believe some individuals will suffer in hell for eternity. If anything, you’ve just made God seem completely arbitrary.” His words intrigued me. My initial defensiveness was replaced by a liberating sense of freedom. I already disappointed my family and friends with my inclusivism; I had nothing to lose by taking a deep dive into the theological conversations around hell.
For the first time in my life, I felt completely free to explore different views on hell; I wanted to approach the Bible with an open heart and mind, without outside pressure to adhere to a certain understanding. I studied Scripture passages, read blog posts, listened to podcasts, and pored over Four Views on Hell (Zondervan, 2016).
Before this I was only partially familiar with annihilationism. Christian universalism was an entirely foreign concept to me. As Preston Sprinkle encourages in his introduction to Four Views on Hell, I sought to sift through the various views with a loose hold on my own convictions, willing to reexamine and reform my thinking in the light of Scripture. Like Preston Sprinkle, I found Robin Parry’s essay to be a “game changer.” Parry’s belief in the ultimate reconciliation of all humanity filled me with a wild, earnest hope.
I wrote about my longing in my journal:
"I want to believe in the loving Father Jesus revealed Who loves even His enemies. I want to believe Jesus was telling the truth when He said He did not come to condemn the world, but to save (John 3:17). I want to believe that just as He will use all things in my life—every single disturbing, embarrassing, painful, frustrating detail—for my eternal joy (Romans 8:28), He will ultimately do the same for all of creation (Colossians 1:19-20)."
Can these things be so? I reread the Scripture passages speaking of God’s plan for redemption. There it was, over and over: the LORD does not enjoy bringing affliction or suffering on humanity, He will not reject forever (Lamentations 3:31-33). He does not hold on to His anger forever (Micah 7:18). He will draw all people to Himself through Christ (John 12:32). He has imprisoned all in disobedience so that He may show mercy to all (Romans 11:32). All shall be made alive in Christ (1 Corinthians 15:22). Everything will be subject to Christ, so that God may be all in all (1 Corinthians 15:28). Everyone will one day joyfully confess allegiance to the name of Christ (Philippians 2:9-11). For God wants everyone to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4-6).
But what about the passages that speak of judgment and destruction? I realized, contrary to any caricature I may have accepted, Christian universalists do not ignore or dismiss these verses. Judgment follows death—for Christians and non-Christians alike (Hebrews 9:27). All that which is sinful must be consumed by the ever-burning flames of God’s holy presence (Isaiah 33:14, Hebrews 12:29). Everyone will be salted with fire (Mark 9:49).
Hungry for more, I carefully read The Evangelical Universalist by Robin Parry and Her Gates Will Never Be Shut by Bradley Jersak. One by one, my remaining questions and objections melted away as I explored the rigorous Biblical exegesis and rich historical theology underpinning the gloriously good news of God’s plan to bring all of creation into eternal fellowship with Himself.
At last, I wrote in my journal with joyful confidence:
"Christians face constant temptations to limit the scope of God’s work. But God is always doing more than we can ever ask or think (Ephesians 3:20). He will rescue every wandering sheep, He will find every lost coin, He will welcome every prodigal son, He will save every devout Muslim, He will forgive every arrogant atheist, He will enlighten every thoughtful Buddhist, He will give hope to every despairing agnostic, He will bring back every worldly Christian, He will deliver His people from their sins."
I do not know what my future holds, but I am excited to continue following the Savior of the world (John 4:42). I am God’s coworker (1 Corinthians 3:9). I am not working against God, trying to save people He has condemned to eternal wrath; I am working with God, trying to share His love with those whom He is drawing to Himself (John 12:32). I long for the day when “at the name of Jesus every knee will bow—in heaven and on earth and under the earth—and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11, CSB)!