If heaven is fullness of being and the upper limit of human existence, hell may be taken as loss of being and the lower limit. Loss of being need not mean annihilation, but includes every declination from a genuinely personal existence and every divergence from the fulfillment of authentic potentialities for being. Thus hell, like the other eschatological ideas, can stand for a present phenomenon and can in varying degrees be experienced here and now. To talk of hell as a “punishment” is just as unsatisfactory as to talk of heaven as a “reward.” Hell is not some external or arbitrary punishment that gets assigned for sin, but is simply the working out of sin itself, as it destroys the distinctively personal being of the sinner.
Whether in fact anyone ever comes to the point of utterly losing his personal being, or of falling away altogether from the potentialities of such being, may be doubted. If this should happen, then we would be committed to a doctrine of “conditional immortality,” as we have already mentioned. This utter limit of hell would be annihilation, or at least the annihilation of the possibility of personal being. Since salvation is itself personal, and must therefore be freely accepted, God cannot impose it upon anyone, so we must at least leave open the possibility that this kind of annihilation might be the final destiny for some. Yet since we have refused to draw a sharp line between the “righteous” and the “wicked,” and since we have suggested that even for the man made righteous, heaven is not finally attained, but each heaven opens up new possibilities of perfection, so on the other side we seem compelled to say that the sinner never gets to the point of complete loss and so never gets beyond the reconciling activity of God. Needless to say, we utterly reject the idea of a hell where God everlastingly punishes the wicked, without hope of deliverance. Even earthly penologists are more enlightened nowadays. Rather we must believe that God will never cease from his quest for universal reconciliation, and we can firmly hope for his victory in this quest, though recognizing this victory can only come when at last there is free cooperation of every responsible creature.
–John Macquarrie, Principles of Christian Theology, Revised Edition, SCM Press: 1977, pp. 366-7.
One of the striking things about this passage is that, although it was written over 30 years ago, Macquarrie barely considers the so-called traditional doctrine of hell to be worth discussing (“Needless to say, we utterly reject…”). Despite all the brouhaha around Rob Bell’s recent book, it’s worth remembering that universalism in some form or another has been a live option in Christian theology for some time. And many of the giants of 20th-century theology (Barth, Niebuhr, Tillich, Rahner, Von Balthasar, etc.) seem to have rejected hell, at least if we understand hell as “eternal, conscious torment.” (Did any major theologian of this era defend the traditional view?) This shift was no doubt partly because they all rejected biblical literalism and partly because of a certain moral revulsion toward the traditional view, even though none could be called theological liberals in any straightforward sense. And I would say Macquarrie belongs firmly in this camp too. The fact that Macquarrie dismisses the idea of hell as eternal punishment so readily also suggests that this had become something like a consensus, at least in certain theological circles, by the latter half of the 20th century.