How can doctrine that seems to prevent universalism birth it? Here’s a thumbnail sketch, however rough and ready.
Suppose for a moment that the logic of hell obeys the illogic of the sin that constructs it. I say “illogic” because of the curious way sin exists. If evil be the privatio boni , then sin’s existence is exhaustively vampiric. That is, it feasts and depends entirely upon the blood of its host—the good. Sin therefore has no proper act, only a perversion of a good act. The sinner, it follows, is at once sin’s creature and its host: the one on whom, both with and without her consent, sin feeds. In this frenzy discerning sin’s creature from its host will be nearly impossible. She will do what she hates—only not she, but rather the sin courting and colonizing and consuming her (Rom. 7). Only death, natural or baptismal, brings division and therefore clarity (Rom. 6:21–23). And when it arrives, the sinner descends immediately into hell’s eternal flames.
What smolders there? Her “works” ( opus arerit ), for she herself shall be saved by fire ( salvus erit … per ignem ) (1 Cor. 3:15). What are these works? Presumably the opera carnis , works of the flesh: sins (Gal. 5:19-21). Together these incarnate the corpus peccati , the body of sin, which Christ must destroy to free us from sin (Rom. 6). This is vetus homo noster , our old man, the one who sinned in Adam and dies on Christ’s cross (Rom. 6:6; 5:12), the very same whose members Paul exhorts us mortificate, to slay (Col. 3:5–6). Christ himself parables a splitting-in-two (Matt. 24:51; Lk. 12:46), an uprooting of plants not planted by God (Matt. 15:13), an amputation of a traitorous eye to save the body (Mk. 9:43; Matt. 5:29–30). So construed, the dominical division between sheep and goats divides not sets of persons, elect versus reprobate, but rather very selves (Matt. 5:32–33). What descends to hell, that is, is not she—not, that is, her hypostasis which binds body to soul. No, it’s rather the sinner: the shadow or wraith or false self her sin has fashioned from whom purgatory’s flames have painfully rent her. More, the shadow’s eternal destruction guarantees her beatitude; as Ambrose knew, Idem homo et salvatur ex parte, et condemnatur ex parte .34 Only when the former things are passed away ( prima abierunt ) shall God dry all tears and pronounce death no more.