A couple years ago, a good friend told me that he'd come to believe that hell is not real, but rather has been fabricated in literature and in church tradition. For my money, I tend not to dwell on the afterlife very much, because it is so thoroughly unknowable. That being said, I had (and have) a difficult time conceiving of the purpose of church or the life of faith if we are not judged for our actions and rewarded accordingly. On top of that, I'm inherently rather conservative when it comes to the church, and I viewed universalism as a jarring departure from orthodox theology.
This summer, someone gave me a copy of If Grace is True, by James Mulholland and Philip Gulley. This 2003 book is subtitled "Why God Will Save Every Person." Pretty straightforward, pretty bold. I have only read the introduction and the first two chapters, so I can't really engage with the text. When I find the time to finish it, I will, because I'm interested to see how the authors make their case. It looks like it will dive into Scripture, but it regards Scripture and church tradition as derivative of particular people's particular experiences with God; what we need to do is begin "trusting our experience with God." And while the church told these authors that God condemns people to hell, they have experienced a God who is loving.
Then, I was listening to a December episode of This American Life entitled "Heretics". It tells the story of Rev. Carlton Pearson, a prominent Pentecostal megachurch leader in Tulsa who lost most of his church, his friends, and his prestige when he began to consider the doctrine of hell, and found it incompatible with the God he knew and loved. His turning point, he says, came when he was watching televised coverage of the Rwandan genocide, and God told him that even though they did not know Christ (actually, Rwanda is overwhelmingly Christian), they would not go to hell: God would not condemn those who suffer on earth to suffer also in the afterlife.
So, the prevalence of Christian universalism in America has kind of crept up on me. It came into sharp relief with two Pew Forum surveys in 2008. It turns out that 52 percent of American Christians believe at least some non-Christian faiths can lead to heaven. To be clear, this is not universalism per se: they are just saying that they believe a "good" Jew, or Muslim, or Hindu, might show up in heaven. A New York Times opinion piece gave a decent overview of the later, more specific study. Over half of white mainliners and white Catholics (plus more than a quarter of white evangelicals) even believe that people with no religious faith can get into heaven. There are even hints in this theological direction in William P. Young's wildly popular The Shack.
The reason I'm suspicious about this trend is that we shouldn't draw conclusions about what God must do based on who we think God is. In other words, we know God to be purely good and unfailingly loving. We know that in Jesus's incarnation and atoning sacrifice, redemption has been realized for both Jew and Gentile. We know that the magnitude of God's grace exceeds the magnitude of our rejection of God. But none of that leads necessarily to the conclusion that God wills for all to be saved, or that God needs all of us to be saved in order for God to be complete, or happy, or something like that. On the balance, I think the Bible discourages us from making that kind of leap.
The real challenge for our faith is to imagine that some people, and possibly we ourselves, will go to hell, and yet to maintain the confession that God is good, and just, and righteous, and loving.
To reiterate, I take this kind of stuff pretty lightly. We can't even say that we see through a glass darkly on this one. And I know, a lot of what we believe about hell today comes not from the early church, but from men like Milton, Dante, and Jonathan Edwards. Furthermore, some people I really respect, including Karl Barth and Sam Wells, could (arguably) be described as "hopeful universalists". But even they would acknowledge: when we talk about the afterlife, we're engaging in extreme speculation. It will always be a mystery, and I'm pretty glad for that.