Although it has a long history within the church, Universal reconcilliation is a viewpoint that was relatively unknown by most people just a decade ago. But in recent years it has experienced something of a revival due in most part to some of the emergent church leaders who have embraced it or at least certain forms of it. For those who do not know, the theory is that all people will eventually be saved, even those who rejected Christ in this lifetime. The most popular variation on this is that after death people still have the opportunity to accept Christ so maybe not everyone will eventually be saved but the door at least remains open for them.
So hell is seeing more by Universalists as a sort of purgatory where the fire is refining and purifying people, burning away that which is unfit for heaven. Despite its minority status, the Universalist thread has existed throughout Christian history. Origen (185-254AD) and Clement of Alexandra (150-215AD) were both early advocates. Gregory of Nyssa (335-390) who was called the "father of fathers" is quoted in his book Sermo Catecheticus Magnus saying, "The annihilation of evil, the restitution of all things, and the final restoration of evil men and evil spirits to the blessedness of union with God, so that He may be 'all in all,' embracing all things endowed with sense and reason...". More recent examples would be include Isaac of Ninevah in the 7th Century, William Law and John Murray in the 18th century.
Here are some of the texts used by Universalists to support their view.
Colossians 1:19-20 For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross.
John 12:47 And if anyone hears My words and does not believe, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world.
1 Timothy 4:10 For to this end we both labor and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe.
At a glance these scriptures may surprise you, but in the context of what the bible says as a whole on the topic they do not seem to hold much weight. Consider John 12:48 which follows the John 12:47 verse posted above.
John 12:48 ...He who rejects Me, and does not receive My words, has that which judges him—the word that I have spoken will judge him in the last day.
And I am in total agreement with Colossians regarding God having reconciled everything to himself. Yet in 2 Corinthians 5:20 we see that we still need to reconcile with God from our side.
There are also some interesting verses in Jeremiah to consider. In chapter 31:40 there is a prophesy that Gehenna will one day be restored and be holy to the Lord. The chapter (from verse 31) is undoubtedly referring to a future period when the new covenant is already instituted. Under the Rabbinic interpretation of Gehenna discussed in the previous post that may lead people to think that God will cleanse people in hell.
Probably the biggest reason Universalists give for believing in Universal reconcilliation is that God is love and therefore the thought of eternal judgment (annihilationism) or eternal torment (infernalism) seems to be totally against Gods character. This does appeal to our logic but it has no scriptural support. Scripture is very clear about judgment in the afterlife with a sense of finality (2 Peter 2:6 9, Jude 7, Mathew 25:46, 2 Thes. 1:9). I would argue that the idea that God would force people into the Kingdom against their will contradicts love and the idea of free will as well.
Something really interesting in all of this though is Jeremiah 7:31 and 19:5. Both verses contain rebukes against those who sacrificed their children in the fires of Gehenna, both verses go on to say that the idea of building a place like that for that purpose has never even entered into Gods mind or heart. There are certainly scriptures that refer even to the lost as children of God (Acts 17:28). Isn't this exactly what we believe God does in our hellology (I’m coining that word right now)? Maybe there is something that we are missing which more adequately explains judgment without making God look like a torturer? Maybe hell is a place God is seeking to warn us about rather than throw us into? Certainly he wants to give us life but outside of him there is none.