Martin Muntz

REL 319

Prof. Westblade

December 1, 2003

The Fires of Hell Extinguished?

Charles Chauncy’s Universal Salvation vs. Jonathan Edwards’s Everlasting Hell


In eighteenth century New England, the Boston pastor Charles Chauncy anonymously wrote The Mystery Hid from Ages and Generations purporting to demonstrate the doctrine that the entire race of mankind would be rescued from the tortures of hell by a wonderfully good God. Jonathan Edwards, America’s foremost defender of Calvinist orthodoxy, was himself very concerned with whether the tenets of his faith preserved the benevolence of God,[1] but nevertheless remained convinced and committed to the doctrine of a very real, very awful everlasting hell. This being the case, the New Haven pastor could not help but write a response entitled The Salvation of All Men Strictly Examined in which Edwards attempts to refute what he considers the very dangerous doctrine of universal salvation. While Chauncy’s death did not allow him the opportunity of a rebuttal, these two works are worthy, though neither perfect nor unbiased, explanations of the pros and cons of these respective theologies.

One of Chauncy’s most foundational claims is that the atonement of Christ is not limited only to a few that God chose beforehand. Rather, he argues from Romans 5:12-21 that the Christ’s redemption, or “the justification of life[,] is directly said to have come upon the same all men that were under the judgment to condemnation” through Adam. Thus, if the doctrine of original sin is to be accepted as true from the passage, Chauncy would argue that the doctrine of a universal atonement must also be accepted.[2]

Assuming that it is the case that the Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement must be discarded in favor of Chauncy’s unlimited or universal atonement, then as soon as one person were to be everlastingly condemned to hell for his sins, Christians would be forced to reach one of two possible conclusions. The first possible answer to this scenario is to argue that Christ did die with the intent of saving mankind universally, but that God’s intention was thwarted. While this solution maintains the goodness of God, it certainly would bode unwell for any Christian who wished to maintain God’s sovereignty. Therefore, the other solution is often adopted: Christ did not in fact die for everyone and some people are actually “objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction” (Rom. 9:22).

If, however, one accepts the possibility that hell may not be everlasting, there is a possible third solution. Perhaps hell does not consist of everlasting judicial punishment, but is rather a place of remedial punishment, designed to break those condemned to hell and bring them to a point of true repentance in Christ. If this is true, it is at least possible, if not simply a matter of time before mankind universally is united in loving faith to Christ. This would be consistent with the fact that both Scripture and common sense indicate that there are those people who refuse to turn to Christ in this life and as a result are damned to hell in the next state of existence, while at the same time upholding the doctrine of the unlimited atonement.[3]

Edwards, of course, rejects unlimited atonement, so it is certainly understandable that the two New England pastors should reach different conclusions given the very different presuppositions from which they begin. There are, however, instances where Edwards seems to miss the great impact which the doctrine of universal atonement has upon Chauncy’s theology. As a result, he sometimes accuses Chauncy of logical inconsistency where none exist, while at other times he simply overlooks several possible solutions to a valid criticism. Perhaps the best example is when Edwards presents Chauncy’s assertion that punishment “will be in accordance to the deserts of the sinner” alongside his rejection of all punishment which is not remedial or disciplinary.[4] Edwards takes this as evidence that Chauncy’s hell is motivated by the fulfillment of justice just as the hell of Edwards’ theology. Believing he established this, Edwards then attacks Chauncy’s claim that human sin cannot be infinite: even a single sin is an awful affront against an infinitely good, infinitely great God. An offence against so great a being can only be justly repaid by an equally infinite punishment, and therefore Edwards argues, hell must be everlasting.[5] Given the assumption that not everyone will receive the gift of everlasting life, Edwards has a very solid argument strung together.

While Chauncy may very well be wrong on his assessment that sin must be finite, however, Edwards completely overlooks the premise of Christ’s unlimited atonement in claiming that Chauncy’s doctrine is self-contradictory. If Christ did indeed atone for all mankind universally, then the infinite debt each individual owes is paid for. Given this assumption, Chauncy is correct in concluding both that hell must not be everlasting and that the only reason for future suffering is for the purpose of discipline and to bring those in hell to a point or repentance. If, as Edwards argues elsewhere, it can be proven that the doctrine of unlimited atonement cannot be consistent with the true intent of the passages Chauncy examines, then Chauncy’s premise, and therefore his entire argument simply cannot hold together. Still, for the sake of argument, the remainder of this paper will continue under the working assumption that Chauncy did correctly interpret the scripture and that unlimited or universal atonement is a true doctrine.

Under this assumption, however, the concept of a finite, remedial hell does have several complications beyond the controversy of universal versus limited atonement. Perhaps one of the most pressing for any Christian who holds the Bible in high esteem is a number of Scripture passages which have traditionally been translated and interpreted to mean that hell is in fact everlasting. In the English translation of the New Testament, six verses use the express words “eternal” or “everlasting” when referring to the future state of the wicked.[6] Chauncy himself admits that if the translation and interpretation of these passages is indeed correct, then any doctrine of universal salvation must be discarded.[7] Chauncy also argues, however, that the Greek words aiwn and aiwnioV (which have been translated as “everlasting” or “eternal” in the passages in question) do not necessarily mean everlasting, and instead are more correctly understood to mean “a period of duration, without taking into its meaning, [the duration’s] precise length, or determining whether it is bounded or unbounded.”[8] Even Edwards admits that these words do not necessarily indicate an everlasting or eternal duration.[9] Therefore, this allows one to argue that it is at least possible that these six passages were simply misinterpreted and mistranslated.

As Edwards points out, however, one passage (Matt. 25:46) refers to both heaven and hell with this exact same word, in the very same verse and sentence.[10] This would imply that if this word should be translated as some very long, but finite period of time, then both heaven and hell must necessarily come to an end. However, if Chauncy is correct in his assessment that the Greek words only signify a “period of duration” and that these words do not necessarily indicate whether the object it describes is “bounded or unbounded,” then the length of this duration must be determined from something outside of this Greek word itself.[11] Therefore, “with respect to the happiness of the righteous, and the misery of the wicked; they can neither of them be certainly fixed to this or that precise duration whether longer or shorter, limited or unlimited, MERELY from the joining of the word aiwnioV with them.”[12] Rather, the length of time intended by these words must be determined by “the nature of the thing spoken of, or other passages of scripture that explain it.”[13] [14]

As Edwards points out, however, this merely begs the question. The dilemma remains because one may still wonder why it is that the next state of the righteous should be considered everlasting by nature when hell is not.[15] In response, Chauncy answers that perhaps the next state of existence will not be everlasting for the righteous, just as it will not be everlasting for the wicked. Instead, he argues that the next “age” will end when all those condemned to hell are finally freed and all things are redeemed by Christ and put under the Lordship of the Father.[16] However, while heaven and the next age may come to an end, this does not necessarily mean that the gift of life will end. In Revelation, for example, there is the mention of a “new heaven” and a “new earth.” It may be that these passages indicate as Chauncy argued, that the heaven immediately following a Christian’s life on earth would end, but be replaced by another when all things are finally redeemed. In response, Edwards does not argue that there is some sense in which Christ’s kingdom will be resigned to the Father, but he does claim that there are “abundant” scriptures which indicate “that the kingdom of Christ is to be without end,” thus causing trouble for Chauncy’s interpretation of a finite rule by Christ.[17]

While this may or may not be true, however, this last argument causes difficulty for Edwards. Previously in the debate over whether the Greek words were better translated “everlasting/eternal” or “ages/finite duration,” Edwards had criticized Chauncy for not being able to give certifiable reason for the everlasting nature of heaven when he considered hell to be of finite duration by its very nature. Now, however, Edwards himself is asserting exactly what he demands of Chauncy. This indicates perhaps that Edwards was falling back into his own interpretation of the words aiwn and aiwnioV as “everlasting,” or that he simply provided the answer to his own question and demonstrated Chauncy’s point to work out consistently. It is certainly doubtful that he intended to prove Chauncy’s point for him, so the other possibility is that he began to use his own interpretation of the Greek words in question. If this is the case, then Edwards seems to be guilty of assuming his interpretation of the Greek when the interpretation of these Greek words is the immediate point in question.

Another direction Chauncy takes is to look at several passages which seem to indicate that all things will be subjected to Jesus Christ.[18] If Chauncy is right in his interpretation of these scriptures, then sin must necessarily be included in the category of “all things” brought under Christ’s subjection.[19] For sin to be truly conquered, he continues, there must come a point where there is no one left who wants to sin, and certainly those in hell will continue in their sin by “the unsubdued unconquered enmity of their hearts.”[20] Therefore, as long as there are people in hell, there are people who will sin against God. Chauncy then concludes that for sin to be destroyed and thus subjected to Christ, there must be a point where everyone, even those in hell, turn away from their sin and turn instead to God in faith.

Edwards replies that when the psalmist claims that all Christ’s “enemies shall be made his footstool,” it does not exclude the possibility that this enemy could be subjected by being “overpowered, taken, imprisoned, and put entirely under the power, or under the feet of the conqueror” without being annihilated.[21] After establishing the possible validity of a rival interpretation of these passages, he goes to assert that sin must continue to exist in order for it to be subjected to Christ. There is no way, he argues, to continue subjecting something which no longer exists, so if sin is to always be subjected to God, must continue to exist.[22] Therefore, in relation to sin, Edwards would argue that these passages indicate merely that sin will be brought under God’s control in such a way as it will no longer be able to “dishonour” God or to do “injury to his kingdom, to his chosen people, or to the intellectual system.”[23]

Chauncy, however, would respond that the very existence of sin is, in fact, a continued blemish and a “dishonour” unto God. If, as Chauncy would claim, God did not decretively will sin but rather allowed it to occur, then God’s good nature and his desire for the good of all his creation is thwarted as long as sin continues to exist. Thus, the very existence of sin, however low it is crushed, remains a “dishonour” to God and an “injury” to the world God created and originally pronounced good. Chauncy would agree with Edwards that sin cannot “in its nature be reduced to a cordial submission to Christ,”[24] so he would conclude it must therefore be utterly destroyed in order to do away with the “dishonour” of sin. For this reason, Chauncy argues that as long as people remains in hell, they will be subject to God in the sense which Edwards described, but “they will still continue [to be] the enemies of God” and sin will continue to reign in a part of God’s kingdom, be it even the most remote corner of the universe.[25] Therefore, Chauncy would argue that sin must finally be destroyed by the redemption of those condemned to hell.[26]

Which of these two theologians are correct is truly hard to say, especially since this is in no way an exhaustive summary of their arguments. Given their respective interpretations of scripture, both have developed very consistent, logical doctrines. It has been said, however, that ideas have consequences; the trick is being able to see the consequences for what they are and the ideas from which these consequences come. If investigation of the Bible seems to indicate that Chauncy was indeed correct as to the “idea” of unlimited atonement, then most of Chauncy’s conclusions are certainly sound. On the other hand, if Edwards’ was in fact correct that the Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement is upheld by Scripture, many of his arguments are indeed able to dismantle Chauncy’s position.





Chauncy, Charles. The Mystery Hid from Ages and Generations. New York: Arno Press, 1969.

Edwards, Jonathan. “The Eternity of Hell Torments.” The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. II. (pp. 83-93). Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2003.

Edwards, Jonathan. “The Future Punishment of the Wicked.” The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. II. (pp. 78-83). Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2003.

Edwards, Jonathan. “The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners.” The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. I. (pp. 668-79). Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2003.

Edwards, Jonathan. The Salvation of all Men Strictly Examined. New Haven: Printed by A. Morse, 1790.

Marsden, George M. Jonathan Edwards: a Life. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.

[1] Edwards believed that the millennial reign of Christ would be a time of immense regeneration for almost all who lived in the millennium and that viewing the entire history of humanity as a whole, comparatively few people would be condemned to hell. George M. Marsden writes that in his millennial theology, Edwards “was indirectly commenting on an issue that greatly bothered him and many of his contemporaries. If, as he argued, God was essentially love, how could the Lord condemn some to an eternity of suffering in hell? Edwards’ millennial logic did not resolve the fundamental issue, which he addressed in other venues. Still, if God damned far fewer than one person in a thousand God’s overall governance of the universe looked far more benevolent than if only a select few people would be saved.” (Marsden, George M., Jonathan Edwards: A Life, 335-336.)

[2] Chauncy, Charles, Mystery Hid from Ages and Generations, 82; also see his interpretation of Romans 5:17-19 (p. 22-29)

[3] Chauncy, Charles, Mystery, 9.

[4] Edwards, Jonathan, The Salvation of All Men Strictly Examined, 6.

[5] Edwards, Jonathan, The Salvation of All Men Strictly Examined, 97-100; Edwards, Jonathan, The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners.

[6] Edwards, Jonathan, The Salvation of All Men Strictly Examined, 251; Chauncy, Charles, Mystery, 258-59; Matthew 18:8; 25:41, 46; Mark 3:29; II Thessalonians 1:9; Jude 7.

[7] Chauncy, Charles, Mystery, 256.

[8] Chauncy, Charles, Mystery, 269; (italics Chauncy’s).

[9] Edwards, Jonathan, “The Eternity of Hell Torments,” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards Vol. II, 83.

[10] Edwards, Jonathan, The Salvation of All Men Strictly Examined, 261.

[11] Chauncy, Charles, Mystery, 269.

[12] Ibid, 269 (stress Chauncy’s).

[13] Ibid, 268.

[14] As an example to demonstrate his point more clearly, Chauncy refers to Romans 16:26 which calls God QeoV aiwnioV, or the eternal God. “[W]e cannot argue that his duration is boundless and unlimited merely because this epithet is applied to him…yet, we may reasonably construe it…because he is previously known to be a subject capable of this kind of duration, and the word aiwn allows of this construction” (Chauncy, Charles, Mystery, p. 268.). Therefore, simply calling both heaven and hell aiwnioV does not necessarily mean that they are both bound to exist for the exact same period of time. Rather, the length of time will depend upon “the nature of the subject” (Chauncy, Charles, Mystery, p. 269).

[15] Edwards, Jonathan, The Salvation of All Men Strictly Examined, 261.

[16] Chauncy, Charles, Mystery, 282-283.

[17] Edwards, Jonathan, The Salvation of All Men Strictly Examined, 261.

[18] Chauncy, Charles, Mystery, 171-177; Psalm 8:5-6; Hebrews 2:6-9.

[19] Chauncy, Charles, Mystery, 178-179.

[20] Ibid, 183 (emphasis is his).

[21] Edwards, Jonathan, The Salvation of All Men Strictly Examined, 216.

[22] Ibid, 216-217.

[23] Ibid, 217-218

[24] Ibid, 216.

[25] Chauncy, Charles, Mystery, p. 183.

[26] Another potential solution which neither Edwards nor Chauncy explored is the possibility that “sin,” though often referred to as a thing, may not be a thing at all. Dr. Michael Bauman argues, for instance, that the “will” is perhaps not a thing, but rather a word that is more appropriately used to signify an action: humans do not have a will, but rather humans will (Dr. Michael Bauman, REL 213: History of Christian Thought I at Hillsdale College, 18 November 2003).

It may be possible that this distinction could be drawn between the use of “sin” as well. Perhaps humans do not have sin, but rather humans sin; perhaps “sin” should not be used as a noun, but rather is more properly understood as a verb. If this is true, the whole dilemma of how all things will be subjected to Christ suddenly would take on a very different dimension. There certainly may be very real problems with this explanation, however, not the least of which is that the Bible does seem to use the word “sin” in a way at odds with this particular answer.