Review of Holy Hell, by Derek Ryan Kubilus

Holy Hell

A Case Against Eternal Damnation

by Derek Ryan Kubilus

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2024. 189 pages.
Review written March 27, 2024, from my own copy, purchased via
Starred Review

For many years now, I’ve been collecting and reading books about Universalism. It started from reading the sermons of George MacDonald, not realizing he was a Universalist. Then I checked what he was saying against Scripture, especially noting the “all” verses, and became convinced that yes, the Bible teaches God will save everyone. And then I started reading modern writers on the same topic. It is not possible to overstate the amount of joy this change in views has given me. Every time I read another book showing why universal salvation is biblical, I give myself renewed permission to believe this wonderful, joyful teaching.

Holy Hell is the first time I found one of these books so close to publication date, though. I was actually researching Christian publishers when trying to find a home for my own book, Praying with the Psalmists, when this then-upcoming book caught my eye.

And this book, like so many others on Universalism, made my heart happy. Derek Kubilus’s approach is not horribly academic, but he does base his arguments on what the Bible says, including the information about misleading ways we translate the Greek text of the New Testament into English. I’d heard that in other books, but I do like the way he puts it, taking a pastoral tone. He’s a United Methodist pastor, which also made me happy, because since 2019, I’ve been a member of a United Methodist church.

This book has all the basics for a universalist book, explained in a way a layperson can understand. I think my favorite part was his treatment of the parable of the sheep and the goats, because that was still a niggling point I wondered about. He points out that a God who praises people for visiting other people in human prisons is not the same God who would put people into an unending prison. Here’s how he puts it:

Notice that the King does not say, “I was innocent and you came to prison to visit me.” He does not seem to care about the particular guilt or the innocence of the one who is incarcerated. He simply identifies himself with whoever might be in prison, saying, “I was in prison and you visited me.” As the last detail mentioned in a series, the fact that sheep go to visit prisoners carries the most emphasis in the text. Caring for those who are imprisoned actually epitomizes what it means to be a sheep. Yet, some will argue that we are to understand this passage to be saying that God imprisons souls in a torture dungeon and withdraws God’s presence from them for all eternity! Are we to believe that God is praising the sheep for their enduring presence with those who are in prison, and at the same time, God withdraws God’s own eternal presence from those whom God sends to prison? If that were true, then Christianity would simply be a terrible religion worthy of our rejection, because the Christian God would be the biggest hypocrite of all.

Another thing I liked about this book was his chapter about expanding our circles. Becoming a universalist has challenged me to be more loving and more inclusive to those I’d like to dismiss. Here’s a bit from that chapter:

Exclusion is easy. Walking around thinking that we are the special ones, that we are justified simply by virtue of who we are or what we believe, some identity or another, is comforting. Cutting more and more people out of that circle isn’t a problem as long as we stay nestled safely inside of it.

Expanding the circle, however, is a “hard teaching.” Expand it too far and we start to wonder if there’s anything special about us at all.

By that measure, universalism might just be the hardest teaching because it expands the circle all the way.

I marked many quotations in this book, so it’s going to be showing up on my Sonderquotes blog. Check out those to get more of an idea.

But if you’re wondering at all, if you think universalism might possibly be true, I highly recommend this book along with all the others on my Exploring Universalism page. This one is a great place to start!

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Review of Grace Saves All, by David Artman

Grace Saves All

The Necessity of Christian Universalism

by David Artman

Wipf & Stock, Eugene, Oregon, 2020. 147 pages.
Review written January 5, 2021, from my own copy purchased via
Starred Review
2020 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#3 in Christian Nonfiction

I am amassing quite a collection of books about why Christian Universalism is biblical and why it makes sense and why it paints a picture more worthy of God. This is another wonderful addition to that set.

One thing I liked about this one was that I read it in the year it was published, and the author has read almost all the same books I have read – they are even listed in the back as “Recommended Reading” and are cited in many different places. (And I got a few ideas for additional reading.) He even listed all the ones I’d read in the last year, so he’s as up-to-date as I am.

And each book takes its own approach. This book takes the approach of looking at Grace, and I found that lovely. Here’s how the Introduction begins:

Grace is amazing. About this all Christians agree. Yet nearly all forms of Christianity put significant limits on grace. Those forms of Christianity which proclaim that grace alone actually saves typically don’t believe God gives grace to everyone, while those forms of Christianity which proclaim God gives grace to everyone typically don’t believe grace alone actually saves. Is the Christian understanding of grace necessarily divided between these two grace-limiting options? Must grace either be that which saves alone but doesn’t go to all, or that which goes to all but doesn’t save alone? Or, is there another way? Can one be a Christian and understand grace to save alone and go to all? Can one be a Christian and believe salvation by grace alone is for everyone?

I will argue here that being Christian does not require one to limit either grace’s power or scope. It’s quite possible, I will contend, to be Christian and to believe grace is God’s way of finally saving everyone. Grace can be understood to be God’s remedy for all human sin, not just part of it. Grace can mean God perseveres with us until we’ve all seen the light and freely responded in faith. Grace can mean God is with us not just if we get things right, but until we get things right. How long it takes for us to get things right is not the primary issue for God. Whether it happens in this lifetime, or in the age to come, or in the ages to come after that, is not what really matters. The primary issue for God isn’t how hard it will be for us, or how long it will take us. The primary issue for God is our final return home. And, like the father of the prodigal son, God will be vigilant until we all make our way home from the far country.

Even though I will be arguing here that everyone will finally be saved by grace alone, what we do still matters very much. We each still have our part to play. And neither will I be downplaying the consequences of sin. We are granted terrifying freedom to bring tremendous misery upon ourselves and others. What we do matters greatly. But no matter what we do, God’s grace can be understood to include God’s commitment to be with us, even in the form of judgment and hell, until we eventually see the light. I will argue that God’s perfecting love is continually with all of us, through whatever hell may be necessary, until all of us are finally healed and home. What makes grace truly amazing is God never giving up and never failing – God being able to save even those for whom there is apparently no hope. I maintain that it’s possible to be a Christian and to have this understanding of grace.

Unfortunately, most people don’t know it’s possible to be a Christian and to believe grace is God’s way of ultimately saving everyone. They don’t know where to find biblical evidence for this understanding of grace. They don’t know this way of understanding grace was common in early Christianity. They wrongly assume they can only be Christian if they also believe God will not, or might not, save everyone. Through this book I hope to help correct these false impressions and assumptions.

As with all the other books I’ve reviewed on Universalism (see the list on the side of this review page), this author fills the book with biblical references supporting what he says. Universalism is biblical! He also spends a whole chapter talking about how the early church supported Universalism. Universalism is authentic Christianity!

The author calls this kind of belief about grace the Inclusive approach. At the start of the main text, he lays out a five-point biblical framework for this approach:

1. God is a loving parent to all.

2. God sincerely wants to save all.

3. God, in Christ, covers the sin of all.

4. God is sovereign over all.

5. God will be all in all.

This book sums up Christian Universalism simply and clearly in a way that’s easy to understand. Plenty of biblical support is cited, and the author finishes up with his own story of how he came to this view, so it’s got a personal touch as well.

I liked reading this book to have one more clear argument in favor of Christian Universalism. But above all, I was happy to read it because it glories in the amazing inescapable grace of God that indeed saves all. Praise God!

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Review of Jesus Undefeated, by Keith Giles

Jesus Undefeated

Condemning the False Doctrine of Eternal Torment

by Keith Giles

Quoir, Orange, California, 2019. 193 pages.
Review written September 30, 2020, from my own copy, purchased via
Starred Review
2020 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #1 Christian Nonfiction

I’ve been a Universalist since 1998. I believe that God is going to save everyone. I do believe there is a hell, but that it doesn’t last forever, and is for correction. Just as terrible experiences in this life sometimes are what it takes to set us right. At the time, I came to that view from reading George MacDonald and the New Testament, but at first I didn’t know of any living Christian who agreed with me, which was a lonely feeling.

But over the years, I’ve found more and more writers who agree with me, including many alive today! I’ve studied the Scriptures and feel more and more confident that this is the most consistent way to interpret the New Testament, and the most in line with the meaning of the original language. I even learned that this is what the early church of native Greek-speaking people believed, and that it wasn’t until Augustine, who didn’t speak Greek, that the majority view changed and eternal punishment was popularized.

So I am now firm in my beliefs about this, but I still enjoy reading new books about universalism as they are published, because they simply make me happy. This is truly Good News! God the Father truly loves everyone, and reading about that makes me happy.

Each book also brings something new to the discussion. People interested in learning more about universalism can start with any of the books I list on the side of this review. This one would make a great starting place, presenting the alternatives and why universal reconciliation fits with Scripture. I like the way he also quotes many of the church fathers to make his case.

There are basically three views of hell you can get from the New Testament – Eternal Suffering, Annihilation (Conditional Immortality), and Universal Reconciliation (Patristic Universalism).

But what if all three views were “Biblical”? What if all three views based their doctrine on the “clear teachings of Scripture”? What if they were only affirming certain verses in the Bible that conformed to their view and had developed elaborate explanations for why those other verses didn’t teach what they appear to teach?

Well, I’m here to tell you, I think that all of those statements above are essentially true. Because, after looking at all three views, I can tell you that all three are certainly Biblical, (meaning they base their teaching on the Bible), and all three views assume to take a “clear teaching” approach when it comes to the verses that support their view (while arguing that opposing verses require more discernment to understand).

Obviously, either one of them is the correct view, or they are all wrong. But, they cannot all three be right. Hopefully we can all agree on these points.

So, I will fully admit that – whatever view you embrace – you must make a decision to accept a certain set of verses as authoritative and to dismiss another set. Neither of these three Christian views of Hell are iron-clad. Someone can always say, “But what about this verse?” and you will either have to explain why that verse isn’t saying what it appears to say or admit that you don’t know what it means, while you still hold tightly to the view you’ve decided to embrace.

To be fair, the Christian church took over 500 years to even attempt to divide over this teaching.

That’s from Chapter 2 of this book, “Always Three Views.” Keith Giles goes on to show us the main verses supporting each of the three views, but then why he thinks the strongest case is made for universal reconciliation.

I think my favorite chapter is “The Fruit of Universalism,” because it reflects the joy that’s come into my life since I adopted this view. Here’s a bit from that chapter:

The more I’ve studied the doctrine of Universal Reconciliation, the more I’ve started to notice something about those who embrace the view: they tend to be more loving and accepting of those who are unlike them.

Maybe it’s because when you realize that everyone is equally loved by God, and that God is really intending to bring everyone to repentance, and that, one day, every knee will bow and every tongue will gladly confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, well, you kind of relax and enjoy being alive.

See, instead of seeing people as “saved” or “lost,” and grouping everyone you meet into the “Christian” or “non-Christian” category, you may start to see people as simply people.

Not only that, but you also begin to see them as God sees them. You slowly recognize that everyone you meet – regardless of their beliefs or spiritual condition – is someone who is dearly loved by God. You also start to understand that everyone you meet is indeed your brother or sister, and you realize that we all have the same Heavenly Father.

This really starts to change the way you treat other people. It starts to bear good fruit in your life. It even makes it easier to love others as Christ has loved you, without conditions or strings attached.

Eventually, you begin to recognize that God loves everyone much more than you could ever love them; even your own family members who may be far from faith in Christ at the moment. You start to realize that God has a grand design in motion to draw everyone to Himself, eventually. We get to take part in that, if we can learn to abide in Christ and collaborate with the Holy Spirit in this process. But, we can also enjoy a newfound sense of ease with this process. Because now we’re not fighting the clock or worried about closing the sale. Instead, we’re trusting in God’s ultimate victory which is inevitable and unstoppable.

I hope that some find this excerpt intriguing. When I first realize what George MacDonald was saying, I didn’t think I could believe universalism because the Bible didn’t teach it – but MacDonald clearly thought it did, and he had studied the original Greek text. So I do appreciate that Keith Giles shows the reader that there is strong evidence that indeed one day in Christ all will be made alive.

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Review of The New Testament: A Translation by David Bentley Hart

The New Testament

A Translation

by David Bentley Hart

Yale University Press, 2017. 577 pages.
Review written October 18, 2020, from my own copy.
Starred Review

It seems so presumptuous to write a review of The New Testament! Rest assured this is a review of this particular translation in order to recommend it to other students of the Bible.

I was interested in this translation because of reading the author’s book on universalism, That All Shall Be Saved. The translation came first, and I’ve found that many proponents of universalism have an in-depth knowledge of biblical Greek. This author is no exception.

He does claim to have approached the text without theological bias, admitting that there will always be some, but trying to be faithful to what is written. Here’s a segment from his Introduction:

I should note that this is not a literary translation of the New Testament, much less a rendering for liturgical use. If it conforms in any degree to any current school of translation theory, it is certainly that of “formal,” rather than “dynamic,” equivalence – though, in fact, I believe that no translator should entrust his or her choices to the authority of any “theory” whatsoever. Again and again, I have elected to produce an almost pitilessly literal translation; many of my departures from received practices are simply my efforts to make the original text as visible as possible through the palimpsest of its translation…. Where the Greek of the original is maladroit, broken, or impenetrable (as it is with some consistency in Paul’s letters), so is the English of my translation; where an author has written bad Greek (such as one finds throughout the book of Revelation), I have written bad English.

I’m writing this review after finishing the entire book – for many months, I’ve read one two-page spread per day as part of my devotions. I may start up again on this, but I will also keep the book on hand for times when I’m curious about how this author renders the original Greek, to get another perspective on a biblical passage and, I think, a clearer idea of how it was written in the original text.

I have to say that in all my reading of this book, there was one verse that made me cry out in delight at his clear rendering. It was Philippians 2:10-11 –

So that at the name of Jesus every knee – of beings heavenly and earthly and subterranean – should bend, And every tongue gladly confess that Jesus the Anointed is Lord, for the glory of God the Father.

The insertion of the word “gladly” means you can’t pretend this verse means that one day God’s going to force knees to bow.

But I also enjoyed the many footnotes (Really!) with explanations for why he translated things a certain way. And I especially enjoyed the section at the back titled, “Concluding Scientific Postscript.” It includes some particular notes on the Prologue of John’s Gospel and some details in the Greek that can’t really be expressed in English. Then he includes notes on translating nineteen specific words, beginning with aionios, “which in most traditional translations is rendered as ‘eternal’ or ‘everlasting,’ except in the many instances where such a reading would be nonsensical.” He goes on for several pages about why this is not an appropriate translation, referencing extra-biblical Greek sources as well as the Greek-speaking church fathers, besides giving other reasons for his choices. Of course this is a crucial point for universalists, and he makes a strong case. The second word he looks at in depth is gehenna, and he explains why “hell” is not an appropriate translation for that. The rest of the words do not apply so particularly to universalism, but it’s all tremendously interesting and enlightening, and gives insight into what the Bible says.

David Bentley Hart finishes up this volume with these words:

I do hope this translation will, for many readers, help to cast new light on his or her understanding of the origins and contents of Christian faith. And I repeat my assertion, which may seem slightly incredible, that I have tried not to advance my theological or ideological agenda, but rather to capture in English as much of the suggestiveness and uncertainty and mystery of the original Greek as possible, precisely in order to prevent any prior set of commitments from determining for the reader in advance what it is that the text must say (even when it does not).

Why review this book? To let other students of Scripture know about this amazing resource. I hope some of you will seek out a copy to aid in your own study.

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Review of Raising Hell, by Julie Ferwerda

Raising Hell

Christianity’s Most Controversial Doctrine Put Under Fire

by Julie Ferwerda

Vagabond Group, 2014. 293 pages.
Starred Review

I first came to believe that God really will save everyone, that it’s literally true that “at the name of Jesus every knee will bow” and that “as in Adam all die, so in Christ will all be made alive” from reading writings of George MacDonald in the 1990s and then checking with Scripture. Since that time, I’ve discovered many more books by people who believe the same thing, and I’ve reviewed them on my website. Each one has something new to offer, and together they bolster my picture of a great big triumphant God of love.

Raising Hell is the first book I’ve read about universalism that’s written by a woman. (About time!) This book is for laypeople and brings an emphasis on how you can study the Bible for yourself – how you can check for yourself on whether these things are true. She references many Bible study tools available to anyone with internet access. She says in the Introduction, “Raising Hell is intended to be the starting place, the opening of a most important conversation that I hope continues well beyond this book. One of my goals within these pages is to teach the reader how to do their own research by using a large variety of scholarly, historical, and informative resources that are easily accessed by anyone and everyone.”

Before I get into this, let me mention that, like all the books I’ve read on universalism, she has great arguments for universalism. Let me pull out some quotations I like:

This one’s from the Introduction:

Universal Reconciliation is the belief that all people for all time will eventually be reconciled to God – that this lifetime is not the “only chance” to be saved – but that there is only one way to God, through Jesus Christ.

Through a very intentional plan that reaches into future ages, I believe the true Gospel is that all people for all time will be willingly and joyfully drawn by the unconditional, irresistible, compelling love of a Father into a relationship with Him through His Son. In the end, every knee will have bowed, and every tongue will have confessed Jesus as Lord, giving praise to God (see Romans 14:11, Philippians 2:10).

Like most universalist authors, she makes good points about the character of God, particularly looking at the parables in Luke 15 of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son:

Throughout this book, we are going to explore how understanding the message of these parables and learning the heart of the Father will deliver the fatal blow to any such notion of an everlasting hell, or even the more palatable version of “eternal separation from God.” As we piece together a remarkable story, we’ll find that it can’t be possible that He would turn away even one son or daughter, and that every person, given enough time to “starve among the swine,” will come to the realization that home is where they belong. Even before they can round the bend for home, they will be welcomed with the happy reassurance that the eyes of their true Father never stopped searching the horizon, ready to run to them with loving, open arms. If Jesus’ words are to be our instruction in the matters of life, then we can have assurance that love is the healer of all things. Our Father will ultimately never give up on nor ever reject – ever!

She talks about how her own quest began by noticing significant translation differences between different versions of the Bible, in many cases contradicting one another. This helped her realize that the English Bible we read – whatever version we choose – is not going to perfectly translate the original language. And the first word she looks at which is very suspiciously translated is hell.

The notion of hell is suspiciously missing from the OT as the destiny for most of mankind, unless you read the KJV or TM (The Message), both of which include the word hell over thirty times. Do KJV and TM know something others don’t? Why the inconsistency? . . .

In the rest of the popular modern versions, the literal translations, and the Hebrew and Greek texts, there are NO references to hell in the OT, or of the concept of everlasting tormenting flames – not one.

Then she looks at the New Testament.

Red flag alert. There are essentially three different Greek words that translators inconsistently pick and choose to translate as “hell” — Hades, Gehenna, and Tartaroo, but not one conveys hell as we know it and teach it today.

She looks in detail at the references where these are mentioned and how they can easily – and more naturally – be translated differently.

She also looks at where the idea of eternal hell came from. It wasn’t prevalent in the church until Augustine popularized it. He spoke Latin instead of Greek, and our early English translations were translated from the Latin rather than from the original Greek, so our understanding has drifted from what the original writers were talking about.

After looking at teachings on hell in the first part of the book, the second part looks at the character of God and the important teaching of the Bible that love never fails. The focus on fire is over and over combined with talk of a refining, purifying fire.

Is it not the same with our own children, each their own yet fully out of us? When I think of the bond earthly parents have with our children, I know it is utterly impossible that God would ever ask us to lose a part of ourselves forever, any more than He would ever intend to give up a part of Himself. His answer is not damnation, but regeneration of all His children into purified sparks!

Jesus always esteemed children because He came to show the heart of the Father toward His children. A true father’s love cannot be earned, and it cannot be done away with. Just as we would never give up on our children, God will never give up on His children; His love will not fail them.

The third part of this book looks at Hebrew themes carried throughout both the Old and New Testaments. This is where she covers the word that all universalist authors bring up, aion, which is incorrectly translated “eternity” in many English versions.

Eternity had no place in the mind of the early Hebrews, probably because neither their Scriptures nor their dealings with God included any such concept. In fact, the Scriptures in Hebrew and Greek were solely written with the perspective of generations or long periods of time (eons or ages), unfolding like a chapter book. About the closest you get in the Scriptures to the concept of never-ending is the word for “immortality,” (athanasia) which literally means “un-death.”

Julie Ferwerda has lots to say about the mistranslation of aion for “eternity” or “forever,” or actually many other words that are used. But I do love it when she points out something I noticed when I did my blog series, A Universalist Looks at the New Testament: Very often, eonian life is talked about in the present tense, as something we are receiving right now. After a list of many verses like this, she says:

There are many more such verses you can look up, correcting them with eonian life and the proper verb tense to experience the greater truth that Jesus came to give us life right now — not just later – and that people’s lives are markedly improved when they believe, understand, and live the true Gospel message.

She does talk about the specific ages and covenants and harvests she sees in Scripture. I’m not sure I would get so specific, though her application of some Old Testament concepts of harvests and the Jubilee is fascinating. I am sure that I do agree with this:

We are living in a plan of ages, but the purpose of these ages – at least the ages we know about – is going to come to an end, as will all of the eonian (temporary) elements in them. The Scriptures do not provide detail as to what happens after the Story of the ages is complete, when all prodigals have been reconciled to their true Father, but we do know that all forms of death will have been destroyed and God will be “all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28).

Her perspective also sheds great light on the problem of evil. With her big picture view, she is able to bring me where I can see it like she does:

I have come to regard the problem of evil like a tension in a compelling novel, juxtaposed to the ultimate, euphoric resolution. In any good novel, the reader longs to find resolve, but has to wait until the final chapter to see how it is accomplished. In our Story, I believe God’s expression of love is exponentially expanded, not diminished, through the necessity of evil. Evil does not reign supreme or have the final say, but is only a limited, temporary tool or a means to an end of a great, full circle, happily ever after.

She sums up so nicely the effect believing in universalism has had on my own life:

When you realize that God fills everything and nothing is outside of Him, suddenly life around you becomes less dangerous, more hopeful, promising, and beautiful. The skies look bluer, the trees look greener, every single person you meet is more valued – even the filth and pollution is less oppressive, and darkness is less suffocating.

Thank goodness I don’t have to try to play God anymore. I can completely trust Him with my kids, my marriage, my finances, my health, and my future. I can simply trust Him in all things because His unchangeable plan has already determined that everything will work out in the end. In other words, if it hasn’t worked out yet, it’s not the end.

Like her, I find this teaching is full of joy:

This is the kind of Gospel – where no one is a throw away – that breeds life, and joy, and continuous wonder. This Gospel births a sincere, deep love for people, and the excitement to share the truly unconditional love of God with everyone. It is so gratifying to know that every single kind word or deed offered will someday result in the growing of a seedling or the bearing of fruit from a person created in the image of God. No effort will ever be wasted or insignificant. The joy and energy this realization has brought into my life is positively captivating and simply impossible to fully articulate.

The final section of the book contains resources – resources so the reader can study these things for themselves and figure out if these ideas are true. She lists several online resources, gives a chapter called “Simple Steps for Identifying Mistranslations,” and another chapter that looks at commonly misunderstood concepts in Scripture – with their Strong’s number so you can look up the original Greek word involved.

Several more resources are offered. One that especially gratified me is the final list, titled “Modern, Well-Known Commentaries of Aion and its Derivatives.” She gives quotations from nine different commentaries that agree that aion does not carry the meaning “unending.” These begin with Ellicott’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Lange’s Commentary American Edition, and six more.

Why does this gratify me? Well, not long ago two different people – one a stranger on Facebook and the other my former pastor – pointed me to one particular Greek dictionary that said that aion can be translated “eternal,” and they said that was the final word on the subject. I didn’t have a resource those arguing with me would recognize as equally authoritative. Now I have nine.

I always hesitate to write a long review about a book that makes a persuasive case for something – lest you think that reading my brief summary of the argument is as good as reading the book itself. But in this case I wanted to give you a taste of the good things contained in this book. And like Julie Ferwerda, I challenge you to examine these ideas yourself. This book offers a wonderful jumping-off point.

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