WCG #12: Why would a loving God send anyone to Hell?
- This issue of the nature of ultimate judgement is extremely divisive within the church.
- We will be exploring FOUR VIEWS of the nature of "eternal judgement." As such, the answer to the question why God would send people to such a place as "Hell" is quite different depending upon which view of final punishment you adopt.
- You are not being asked to be fully convinced of any of the ideas that we’ll be presenting. In fact, if I do my job, you won’t be totally attached to any one of these views.
- Some people view some of the positions we will discussing as “trying to make the Gospel more palatable.” While that certainly could be some people’s motivation for adopting a particular position, that does not make the position wrong, and it is wrong to caricature all those sympathetic to a certain position as such. That would be an ad hominem fallacy. All of these positions are ultimately the result of careful attempts at figuring out what scripture really says.
The Words for "Hell"
The Afterlife in the Old Testament
Hope for the World to Come
A Metaphor for Final Punishment
- Before we dive into the different views of final punishment, we need to actually stop for a second a define the general idea of Hell and how you see it crop up throughout scripture.
- Our word “Hell” in English carries with it so much baggage, and whenever we see the word in scripture we instinctively re-insert all of our presuppositions back on to the word itself. But the word Hell does not appear in any of the original writings.
- There are actually four seperate words that are rendered in English as “Hell.” These are sheol, hades, gehenna, and tartarus. “Tartarus” only occurs one time and is referring to something very specific, so that won’t be the subject of our discussion today. We’ll be focusing on the other three.
The Afterlife in the Old Testament
- Sheol is the word that is most commonly translated as Hell in the Old Testament, and that’s a real shame... because the meaning of the word is extraordinarily different from modern conceptions of Hell. Its analog in the Greek is the word “Hades.”
- In ancient Israel, the Jewish people did not have a concrete view of what the “afterlife” would be like. The focus of their walk with God was almost exclusively focused on blessings and curses in the present physical life.
- They referred to the ethereal / unknown state of the dead as “Sheol.” The word itself can also literally be translated as “grave,” and it is rendered that way in quite a few instances.
- But Sheol is not merely the physical grave. In their cosmology the Jewish people saw Sheol as a shadowy spiritual realm, in some sense “beneath the earth” (though this is likely symbolic imagery connected to where bodies are buried).
- The connection between the “realm of the dead” and the actual physical grave is sometimes so strong that in quite a few instances it's exceptionally difficult to parse the two apart. There are even some who argue (though we won't be pursuing this view here today) that Sheol is entirely metaphorical of the grave itself.
- However, the way Sheol is presented consistently and repeatedly throughout the Old Testament is nothing like the underworlds of other pagan mythologies.
- Sheol is NOT a place of knowable conscious experience (either of bliss or of suffering). It was a shadowy spiritual place that is, in quite a few instances, synonymous with the simple idea of death itself. It is a place of silence and sleep. It was the terrifying and unstoppable destiny of every human being, which could not be known until it was experienced. It was the great silent unknown.
- It seems as if (especially early on) that the Jewish people simply did not have any kind of developed understanding of the afterlife. As such, Sheol is described in many different ways that are almost always metaphorical or poetic in nature.
- The writer of Ecclesiastes stresses this point, saying that universality of death made all life meaningless. There was no concept of a place for the “wicked” and a place for the “righteous.” All go down to Sheol. All die.
- If the Jewish people did have a view of retributive justice in the afterlife, then much of the book of Ecclesiastes makes no sense. The whole point of that book is that all living things - the good, the bad, the smart the wise... they all die. There is nothing else that is known.
- The reason the Jews did not have certainty in regards to the afterlife was because of the way they viewed life in the first place.
- The idea of an immortal soul bound to or inhabiting your body is an idea that is foreign to the Bible (especially the Old Testament).
- The word translated “soul” - nephesh - throughout the OT literally means “living being” or simply “a person.” Both animals and humans are described as nephesh. We do NOT “have” a nephesh, we ARE a nephesh - a living, breathing, physical being.
- When God breathed into Adam he “became a living nephesh.” The Jewish concept of a person was that they are the composite of a material essence (the dirt / your physical body) and some kind of energizing life-giving immaterial essence (the ruakh, or spirit). That is what a human is.
- To them, we are not merely physical, but our physical body is an essential part of what we are. If our body dies, then we don’t go flying off somewhere... we’re just... dead. We lose an essential part of who we are, and - if we’re still around to “experience” at all - we’re less than a shade.
- Now I'm not saying that because the ancient Israelite's understood this as the way things work then that it makes it a universal truth. I'm just providing the framework from which they reasoned. Working with what they had, it makes sense why you wouldn’t know much at all about the nature of life after death, if there is such a thing.
Hope for the World to Come
- But as you progress through the Old Testament and into the New, things start to get a bit more interesting. You start to get visions and hints at something greater and more hopeful.
- This scary unknowable state of death - Sheol - may not be permanent or even the full nature of death after all. You start getting hints of a “World to Come” - a better and perfected world that was a return to the original Garden-of-Eden-like state. This “Paradise” - as it came to be called - was typically described as being ushered in by some great king / messiah.
- Isaiah 26:19, “But your dead will live, Lord; their bodies will rise - let those who dwell in the dust wake up and shout for joy - your dew is like the dew of the morning; the earth will give birth to her dead.”
- Daniel 12:1-2, “Your people shall be delivered, every one whose name shall be found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life and some to shame and everlasting contempt.”
- Principally, Jesus is described as that prophetic great king ushering in the new future kingdom, through the actual return to perfect won’t occur until the literal end of human history when he comes back. Throughout Jesus’ ministry he makes many allusions to this future moment when there will be some kind of massive judgement. At that time, which he sometimes calls the “End of the Age,” some will be brought into the true and perfect kingdom... and others... well...
- Matthew 12:40-43: “As the weeds are collected and burned in the fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will weed out His kingdom every cause of sin and all who practice lawlessness. And they will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their father.”
- Notice that we still haven’t learned anything concrete about that strange “Sheol” place. The focus has been shifted to the rescuing OUT OF Sheol, and that's the way it stays for the rest of scripture. The resurrection and judgement on the “last day” becomes a primary focus of Jesus' ministry and the writings of the apostles. This leftover gap is what theologians like to call the "intermediate state."
- Some view this intermediate period (where one is "apart from the body" in some sense) as a kind of conscious disembodied bliss (for believers) or torment (for nonbelievers). This is typically viewed as a "foretaste" of final judgement.
- Others take literally and seriously all of descriptions of Sheol in the Old Testament as a place of silence and sleep. In that sense the intermediate period would be "experienced" as a kind of unconscious sleep where it would seem like you were falling asleep under anesthetic and waking back up... seemingly moments later... at the Resurrection.
- Others propose that the relationship between time and causality is probably not quite that straightforward in general - that the reason this is so ill-defined is precisely because the nature of the relationship between the when and the how of resurrection cannot be adequately answered in human words. Perhaps, because of God's time-transcending nature, there really isn't a gap to plug in the first place. We all die and are instantly together at the Resurrection. This would retroactively explain why Sheol was never quite adequately described.
- Dabbling in matters of the intermediate state is certainly interesting, but it is a discussion you are likely to find little resolution on. Many of the different positions involve interpretations of several passages that could easily swing either way.
- The writers of the New Testament were nor principally concerned with such a thing. Whatever it was, it was temporary. What mattered much more to them was the eternal state, that which persists forevermore. That's what we'll be focusing on today.
A Metaphor for Final Punishment
- We see this idea of a future judgment reflected in the apocalyptic book of Revelation, when those whose names aren’t found in the “book of life” (those who have not accepted the free gift of salvation in Christ Jesus) are cast into something rather forebodingly called the “Lake of Fire” - which is described as the second death. It’s here that we finally see a fulfillment of all of those Old Testament prophecies of a time when there is a resurrection of the dead and a final judgement. Death doesn't have the final word and justice is dealt out in its fullness.
- This final punishment of the unsaved - the one that happens at the end of history - is what Jesus is referring to in almost every instance that you see the word “Hell” translated in the Gospels. The word being used in these instances is not Sheol or Hades but instead “Gehenna," and this is quite a significant distinction. This is a fascinating word because (AND THIS IS KEY) it refers to a real literal place.
- When he gave all of his recorded illustrations and warnings about the nature of final punishment, Jesus was teaching in and around the city of Jerusalem. Outside of Jerusalem is a place called the “Valley of the Sons of Hinnom” - transliterated as Gehenna - where ancient Canaanite worshipers used to sacrifice children to the pagan god Moloch. It was declared a cursed and forsaken land and was associate with all sorts of horrible, sinful, defiling, and ungodly stuff.
- Later on in Jeremiah 7, it and became a place where the casualties of a battle between the Israelites and the Chaldeans were tossed into it because there wasn’t any room anywhere else. The bodies of the dead would become “food for the birds of the air, and the beasts of the earth.”
- In Isaiah 66, God warns the Israelites that there will be rebellious individuals in the future who will be subject to God’s judgement. They will be visible as dead bodies outside of the city, with worms that eat them that will not die, and a fire that burns them that will not be quenched. Jesus quotes this passage when describing the fate of those in Gehenna.
- It is these images that Jesus is drawing upon, and that his listeners would have been intimately familiar with. As he's walking around Jerusalem issuing warnings about having one's "whole body be thrown into Hell (Gehenna)" you might even imagine him gesturing in the direction of the valley.
- This is an accursed place of punishment and death that was cut off and outside of the city. At that time it may have even been used as a garbage heap and place to throw dead bodies and would have been a place you actively avoided walking near. This would have significantly strengthened the imagery.
- Jesus is evoking these images of a literal accursed land cut off from / outside of the city of Jerusalem to paint a picture of the fate of the lost at the "End of the Age." In other words, there is going to be some kind separation between those who inhabit the metaphorical New Jerusalem (symbolic of the whole Kingdom of Heaven and way creation was always meant to be) and those cast into the metaphorical "Outer Darkness" or the "Accursed Valley of Hinnom." There are those in the wedding banquet and those cast outside. There are those grafted onto the true vine and those fit to be trampled underfoot.
- Do you see the point of all of these images? It's a promise that there will be, at some point, divine judgement dealt at some point in the future, finally fulfilling all those OT prophecies.
- So there we have it. The Lake of Fire / Gehenna / “Hell” is the final punishment of the unsaved - a total and final cutting off from God’s presence and plan. It doesn't seem at all to be a happy place. But... what exactly is it like?
- Do you think there is any sense in which it is justifiable for God send people to a place of final and everlasting punishment?
View #1: Eternal Conscious Torment - The "Traditional" View
- In this first view, which is the most commonly held and espoused, Hell is a place of literal eternal conscious torment - a place explicitly designed by God for the punishment of beings who reject him.
Fire and Brimstone?
- But it is worth immediately clarifying that very, very, few studied biblical scholars who hold this view are going to claim that they know much of anything at all about what this eternal conscious experience will actually be like... just that it isn’t desirable.
- Well wait... what about fire and brimstone... hot pokers and knives?
- All of these images we typically associate with Hell (as some kind of subterranean torture chamber) are primarily derived from Greek and Medieval mythologies finding their way into Christian culture. The Church, as a body of fallible human beings, is not free of outside influence. When trying to discern the truth of difficult matters like this, we have to look at what the Bible actually says, not what people have said that it says.
- The primary agent to blame, at least in our modern times, is the famous work of literature Dante’s Inferno. While certainly an extraordinary accomplishment of poetry, it also is responsible for embedding in the minds of generations to come the image of Hell is a graduated realm of nightmarish torture.
- The Bible itself very few descriptions of Hell that can be reliably interpreted literally.
- All of the references to Gehenna as a place of everlasting punishment and fire are distinctly connected to that areas actual history as a place of death and decay. The idea of the “worms that will not die” and “fire that will not be quenched” finds its origin in the aforementioned Old Testament prophecy to Israel.
- Many of the instances of Hell’s descriptions in the gospels are connection either to a specific parable (and follow the image of the parable itself), or are connecting to an image that was easily known to that culture. For example, when Hell is described like “chaff being burned up with unquenchable fire” - that was an image that made sense to a person of that agricultural society. Chaff was the leftover stuff that you didn’t want to eat. You would burn it up to dispose of it.
- The book of Revelation is saturated with Old Testament allusions and images, and in virtually all instances are calling upon previously established images (not necessarily painting a clear view of what literally is happening).
- In the end, it’s simply impossible to interpret all of the passages about Hell literally. While there do seem to be a lot of allusions to “fire” there are also a fair number of descriptions of Hell as a place of darkness. Jesus himself calls the ultimate fate of the wicked the “outer darkness.” How can it be both a place of fire and a place of darkness?
- It is also described as a pit, an abyss, a lake, death, destruction, a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth, and a few more. The sheer variety of these descriptions should lead one to thing... huh... yeah... I don’t think it can quite by literally all of those things at once.
Divine Justice for a Cosmic Crime
- But apart from all that, the Traditional view sees Hell as an unavoidably negative state that is thrust upon unbelievers against what is (almost certainly) their will. We may not understand quite what it is, but it seems to be bad - indescribably bad, even.
- How in the Hell (pardon the pun) can this possibly be considered just? How can a finite amount of punishment here on Earth possibly justify an infinite unending torment, regardless of what it is?
- These questions were given a documented contemplation as early as Saint Augustine. He, and many other after him, have discussed this idea of the ultimate cosmic blasphemy that is our decision to try and be our own Gods.
- The idea is that we spend every moment of our lives utilizing Gods grace and life-permitting power to stay alive and do everything we want to do... but then we use that same power and breath to curse God’s will and try to live on our own.
- God is the truest and highest and holiest authority - the reasoning goes - and so he is the only being truly deserving of total respect and devotion. He is, as we’ve discussed, the very nature of existence itself. There is nothing higher, and we would be but nothing if not for his continued grace.
- By rejecting God we’ve rejected the mind of existence itself - an ultimate infinite crime.
- Because we are finite and limited beings, the only way for us to absolve an infinite debt is for us to endure an infinite punishment. We deserve to be cut off from all that is good in reality, for all of that is good is connected to God.
- Jesus, being God himself, was an infinite being and the only entity in the cosmos able to take upon the full consequences of sin without it breaking him forever. He was the only being who could truly stand in our place - and is now the only way out of the fate we deserve.
- To the well-studied traditionalist, the question of “Why would a loving God send anyone to Hell?” is almost a non-sequitur. The default state of all human beings is rebellion against the nature of existence itself. That is no joke. Hell is what we all deserve right now. The real question is... “Why would a just God permit anyone to come into Heaven?”
- Can you think of any other ways we might be able to understand the nature of eternal punishment, beyond the "traditional" view?
View #2: A World Devoid of God - Seperationism / Involutionism
Storytime: Heaven as Hell
Where Eternal Independence Will Always Lead
The Desirable Hell
- Let’s imagine a world where a man dies and wakes up in an infinite blank space. In this world he can do anything he can imagine.
- Dude gets bored. Begins to imagine random material things, and they become real. Realizes anything he wants he can have. Watches thousands of hours of Netflix shows he missed in life.
- Goes on world's most wonderful materialistic splurge. Gets lonely so he creates his own friends and family. Tries to fix them by removing all the their quirks that annoyed him in life. But then he realizes that it's not really them. But when he returns all his friends to their "normal" state... it’s like nails on a chalkboard. Every tiny imperfection drives him crazy.
- Gets rid of them all and then completely descends into hedonism.
- If I’m god... what did God do? Creates his own universe and creates beings with ‘free will’. But they all hate him (because they’re selfish bastards like him). Can’t give everything they want all at the same time due to contradictions and gets really frustrated.
- Decides to take away their free will so they do exactly what he wants them to do (so they praise and worship him). But there is a nagging sensation that it’s not real... none of it is genuine worship. He can no longer stomach the sound of their worship. Despises them to the point where he draws pleasure from harming them (but they still praise him no matter what he does). He turns their world into a living Hell.
- Makes it now so they fully experience the pain he has created, but it only brings him temporary joy. Nothing he does matters. He created them and they are entirely his. None of them really exist.
- He has continually created and destroyed many universes, repeated this cycle an uncountable number of times.
- He eventually creates himself in one of these worlds, and gives himself the perfect life. Enjoys this at first... until he gets jealous of this other version of him. So then he takes away all of those blessings... but that version of himself is still content and having a good time. So then he starts cursing and torturing him. Makes things worse and worse.
- Creates billions of himself to torture. Grows so numb to the idea of pain that he starts to stick his own finger into the fire to feel pain again... as he’s felt nothing but numbness for billions of years.
- Willingly walks into a lake of fire of his own creation.
- In eternity, this all happened within a split second.
Where Eternal Independence Will Always Lead
- While considered by most people to be a sub-point or a "version" of Traditionalism, we believe that it has enough differences (at least from a philosophical perspective) to warrant its own categorization. Most people call this view "Seperationism," but we prefer a term of our own creation which we think is a bit more precise: "Involutionism." To "involute" is to turn inwardly upon oneself. Its the opposite of "evolution."
- The point of previous story was to show that, apart from God, even if you were your own God and have a perfect world all to yourself... eternal time will always lead to endless misery. You don’t even need a specific understanding of God or the afterlife to realize this is the case. Many atheists criticize the Christian view of Heaven because this is what they think it is, and they realize the problems that “eternal materialistic bliss” will always cause.
- The key point here is that when we desire to be apart from God, to have ultimate authority over ourselves and to truly be able to do whatever we desire, we fail to realize that such a situation would be Hell. There is nothing that can create a more perfect Hell then our own fallible pursuit of our own “perfect Heaven.”
- We were brought into existence through the will of God and our reason for being here is to live in unity with God. Any departure from that will never provide us with eternal satisfaction.
- Any state of affairs where we are not in harmony with the only force that can give us perfect fulfillment and meaning - stretched out to eternity - would undoubtedly become Hell. No premeditated torture is necessary.
- In other words, the very nature of Sin is the idea that we can play God, but this is fundamentally flawed. If we are made God, we would create Hell. It’s easy to say “I could manage on my own” but you have to remember that right now YOU AREN’T MANAGING ON YOUR OWN. In the present life, God is sustaining everyone regardless of what they believe.
- Imagine this Earth with all goodness stripped away from it, where all of the moral evil of humanity was left to run rampant with no restriction. That would also undoubtedly be Hell.
- The core idea of Involutionism is that the nature of Hell is here on this Earth right now. It is the inherent emptiness and lack of fulfillment that we feel in the here and now... stretched out to eternity.
- Over and over again throughout scripture, God punishes people by “turning them over to their sin.” He allows the depravity of their own actions to reach their fullest consequences. We are by nature incapable of finding fulfillment in anything apart from God, and we mess up over and over again. When we face final judgement, there will be some to whom God says “I will give you what you want.”
The Desirable Hell
- To the Seperationist, to become eternal torment all Hell “needs to be" is a quarantine. There need not be any premeditated pain added into it by God. It just needs to be the place outside of God’s presence and fulfilling life (the valley outside the metaphorical New Jerusalem). Regardless of how it starts out, it will by nature of what humanity is (and cannot be apart from God) become eternal conscious torment.
- From the perspective of someone who has rejected salvation, it might rightly be said that they would (at least initially) prefer Hell over Heaven. If your choice is between a kingdom where you reign supreme and in which you can do whatever you want... and a kingdom where you are supposed to submit to the will of God... what seems more appealing on the surface?
- Now of course, we can keep saying that "You were made to be fulfilled by God's will. He knows you better than you know yourself!" but it may simply be that, to the unrepentant heart in this eternal state, such a genuine transformation or realization is functionally impossible. We are like addicts to pride and self-righteousness. Pastor Tim Keller describes Hell as a "freely chosen identity based upon something other than God going on forever."
- In The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis paints this picture by saying: "In the long run the answer to all those who object to the doctrine of hell is itself a question: 'What are you asking God to do?' To wipe out their past sins and, at all costs, to give them a fresh start, smoothing every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But he has done so, on Calvary. To forgive them? They will not be forgiven. To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that is what he does."
- Lewis also brings this up in The Great Divorce. He talks about this idea of the “gates of Hell being locked from the inside," and that “Hell is a state of mind... And every state of mind, left to itself, every shutting up of the creature within the dungeon of its own mind--is, in the end, Hell. But Heaven is not a state of mind. Heaven is reality itself. All that is fully real is Heavenly.”
- And the famous one: “There are only two kinds of people, those whom say to God ‘Thy Will be Done,” and those to whom God says, “Thy Will Be Done. All that are in Hell choose it. Without that self-choice, it wouldn't be Hell."
- Anyone in this state will turn inwards upon themselves, regressing inwards infinitely, until there is nearly nothing left of them, till their sense of self is practically non-existent and all that remains of their personhood is a mere shade. How can this happen? The same way we become addicted to substances and bad behavior here on Earth. When we pass into the eternal state... the question becomes... what is the nature of attempted self-contingency (the nature of sin itself) when now actually given full reign over what it always wanted in the first place?
- More quotes from The Great Divorce:
- "The whole difficulty of understanding Hell is that the thing to be understood is so nearly Nothing. But ye'll have had experiences ... it begins with a grumbling mood, and yourself still distinct from it: perhaps criticizing it. And yourself, in a dark hour, may will that mood, embrace it. Ye can repent and come out of it again. But there may come a day when you can do that no longer. Then there will be no 'you' left to criticize the mood, nor even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself going on forever like a machine."
- “All Hell is smaller than one pebble of your earthly world; but it is smaller than one atom of this world, the Real World. Look at yon butterfly, If it swallowed all Hell, Hell would not be big enough to do it any harm or to have any taste. All the loneliness angers, hatreds, envies, and itchiness it contains, if rolled into one single experience and put into the scale against the least moment of the joy that is felt by the least in Heaven, would have no weight that could be registered at all. Bad cannot succeed even in being bad as truly as good is good. If all Hell’s miseries together entered the consciousness of yon we yellow bird on the bough there, they would be swallowed up without a trace, as if one drop of ink had been dropped into the Great Ocean to which your terrestrial Pacific itself is only a molecule.”
View #3: The Natural Fate of Contingent Beings - Conditionalism / Annihilationism
- This position has been, by and large, a minority view across Christian tradition and history, but it is starting to gain some serious tracking among modern scholars, theologians, and philosophers. I used to think it was a ridiculous / heretical fringe position myself because that’s what I had been told. But upon much further research I was genuinely blown away by how much biblical support it has.
- The central theme of annihilationism is that when a contingent being is ultimately, finally, and fully separated from the presence of God as the natural consequence for their sin (their desire to be outside of God’s will), they will actually DIE. Not just physically, but their truest immaterial self (whatever you might think that is or how that works) is gone forever. They cease to exist.
- Hell (Gehenna / The Lake of Fire) is the thing which destroys. It is the fire which burns up the chaff. What happens to chaff when it is burnt up? It’s gone! That’s the whole point of that analogy! The fire is unquenchable because it cannot be stopped before it utterly destroys the things thrown in to it. While these are still likely symbols, you can see a clear theme.
- Conditionalism hinges around a biblical doctrine known as “conditional immortality.” Chris Date sums this doctrine up as the idea that “life is the creator’s provisional gift to all, and while this gift of life will be ultimately be granted forever in the for of immortality to those who meet the condition of being saved (hence the name), it will be revoked forever from the lost in the eternal punishment of final and everlasting death - a deprivation of life, accompanied by the destruction of body and soul, a total and permanent loss of conscious being.”
- This almost poetically aligns with all the ideas we discussed last semester of God as the very nature of existence itself. He is the will of reality, and he has graciously called us into being and sustains us at every moment. When we try to push away, if we truly got what we wanted and were separated from God, we would cease to be. But God continues to pour into us and sustain us in the present.
- It is the claim of Conditionalism that at the time of final judgement, those who have persisted in their desire to be apart from God will be given exactly what they want. They will not be permitted to be a part of the Kingdom of True Existence, and will consequently be cast out... into non-existence.
- This processes of destruction may be a painful and undesirable one, but it will ultimately end. All evil and sin will be annihilated once and for all, and all that will remain in the cosmos is goodness and the will of God.
- We find support for conditional immortality all across scripture. From as early as Genesis 3, we are told that a consequence of Adam’s sin is that “to dust you shall return” and he is cast from the Garden so that he will not eat of the tree of life and “live forever.” That tree of life makes (at least a symbolic) reappearance at the other end of the Bible, when the saved in the New Heaven are described as eating its fruit. They have been fully reunited with God’s life giving power and will never again die.
- The repeated theme of scripture is that God sustains us and all things at all times. We cannot exist independently. If once is to maintain the traditional view of Hell, one would have to say not merely that God casts people into Hell, but that he actually sustains and holds them there - granting them some perverse kind of eternal life - so that they can actually experience torment forever. This seems to go against the repeated claims that eternal life is a gift only to the saved.
- To get out of this, some traditionalists claim that instead the human soul has some kind of “inherent immortality” - that our soul was created by God such that it doesn't need him to sustain it. Aside from the fact that this has literally zero biblical support, it can be shown historically that this idea of an immortal soul (which certainly influence Anselm and Augustine's arguments) came from Greek philosophy and not Christian or Jewish tradition.
The Wages of Sin
- Like we mentioned before, there is no concept of retributive punishment in the afterlife in the Old Testament. All they knew of, as a consequence of sin, was physical death. This fate of destruction and death is what is projected, repeatedly, on to the “ultimate fate” prophesied in both the Old and New Testaments.
- This is why, to the Conditionalist, the Lake of Fire is described as the second death. It is the place where, as Jesus says, “both the body and the soul” can be destroyed. It’s not just physical death, its God’s final judgment upon the lost that ends them forever.
- It goes back to the way the Jewish people thought about life. We are not immortal ghosts in the machine. We are spirit-filled nephesh that rely every second on the life-force of God. When he revokes that, we cease to live.
- Over and over again, frequently and consistently, the final fate of the lost is described in terms that refer to death and destruction:
- Romans 6:23, “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in christ Jesus”
- John 3:16, “for god so loved the world, that he gave he one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
- The “undying worms” and “unquenchable fire” that we mentioned previously are referring back to the prophecy in Isaiah, which, might I remind you, is talking about dead bodies.
- The whole idea of Gehenna is that is a place where dead and worthless things go. “It is better to gouge out an eye that to have your whole body thrown into Gehenna.” Why would your body be thrown into Gehenna? Because you’d be dead!
- “Eternal punishment” and “Eternal destruction” do not have to mean that the punishment is eternal in experience or that destruction occurs forever. Permanent cessation of existence would be an eternal (or everlasting) punishment and and eternal (or everlasting) destruction. It will never be undone. It is permanent and final.
- So often we see references to “fiery furnaces” and we immediately think of torment in flames. But think about what happens when you actually throw things into furnaces. What actually happens to things put into fire? They are destroyed.
- The plain literal reading of almost every final punishment text in scripture is speaking of final destruction. To maintain an idea of conscious torment, traditionalists will usually posit that the “death” and “destruction” described are metaphorical and nature. This is by no means inherently unreasonable, but to many Conditionalists this is precious coming from a group that is usually so committed to “reading the Bible as it is.”
- This makes waaaay more sense of the repeated declarations that Christ “died in our place.” The entire idea behind sacrificial atonement is not one of “taking the place of another person’s suffering” but “taking the place of their deserved death.” The focus of the NT is not on Christ’s physical suffering, but on the sacrificial power of his death. In Conditionalism, when Christ died on the cross it really was substitutionary.
- The primary texts used against Conditionalism are Revelation 14 and Revelation 20, but the difficulty with these texts is the highly symbolic language that fills every other item around these passages. We’ll be coming back to these passages in a future week, but in short just know that there are good reasons to see those texts as talking about final destruction as well.
- The beauty of this position is that, at the end of all temporal things, all evil and sin will be gone forever, and death will be gone forever. There are no humans in some dark corner of existence experience eternal suffering in any sense.
View #4: The Remedial Punishment - Universalism / Restorationism
- This final position is one that is commonly misunderstood as claiming that “Hell doesn't exist.” There are some people who go around saying such a thing (that upon death we are all immediately in Heaven), but this is extraordinarily difficult to align with statements in the Bible.
The Purpose of Hell
- The well-studied Universalist position starts with the idea that the Greek word for punishment - kolasis - is normally not associated with an ethical or retributive punishment, but with restorative or remedial punishment. It might be better translated (for modern connotative purposes, not literally) as “corrective discipline.”
- The word rendered as "eternity" or "everlasting" - aionion - is a unique word in Greek that can refer to the "going on forever" idea that we immediately think of, but it can also be used to describe a much more nebulous idea of "pertaining to the eon or age." The argument is that what we are describing can be better understood as the "punishment of the age to come" and the "life of the age to come." In this sense, "eternal punishment" does not have to mean "punishment going on forever and ever." It is locating the when of the punishment, not its duration.
- In Universalism, Hell is a place of conscious punishment (likely in the Seperationist / trying to be your own God sense) for those who have not accepted God but... God’s sovereignty and love will eventually and ultimately win all people back to himself. It is possible for individuals within Hell to recognize their desperate need for God within their unfulfilling independence. There are a finite number of lost individuals and an infinite amount of time to work with, after all.
- Some humans find abundant life on this side of the grave - they are called “the elect,” “the saints,” “the firstfruits.” Others may face a fearful judgement and retribution, but - in the end - they will join the company of the redeemed.
- By the end of all things, all that will will have been drawn to God.
The Purifying Fire
- Another primary argument is that fire all throughout scripture is used as a metaphor for purity and purification. The Holy Spirit is described like wind and fire, and we are told that as Christians we are “baptised with fire.” But it is through our incorporation with Christ (becoming one with Christ) that this processes of purification does not destroy us. For Christians, they are purified through Christ.
- Universalism is acknowledging the reality of Hell, but essentially just saying that it’s the extremely undesirable alternative to the far easier means of salvation on this side of the grave. Hell is the purifying fire of God’s presence, and it is extraordinarily painful to those who are still trying to live apart from God.
- There are many passages which seem to strongly imply universal reconciliation. Stuff like “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” “I will draw all men to me,” “He died for all,” “God was with Christ, reconciling the world to himself,” “The Grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all,” “For all died in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.”
- If God desires all men to be saved, does he get what he wants?
The Extended Invitation
- It is still faith in the power of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ (professing him to be Lord and Savior) that rescues people from this undesirable state of cosmic separation.
- It’s not that anybody gets to Heaven without Jesus, It's just the the opportunity for salvation by faith in Christ has been extended indefinitely past death.
- For some this decision might be nearly instant, for others it might take years, decades, or even eons. How is time even supposed to work in this eternal realm, anyways? But ultimately, all will be saved.
- For the Universalist, the mere prospect of eternity guarantees that the desire of God to save all will come to pass.
- Universalism isn't committed to any one particular idea about what the temporal experience of Hell would be like. Some see it the traditional sense - sort of like a prison designed by God. Some see it in the Seperationist sense - a place where we get what we want and after enough time realize it’s not what we want.
- You see part of this idea expressed once again in The Great Divorce. One of the individuals who takes the bus-ride to Heaven does stay there and changes from a shade to a beautiful heavenly entity. However, in that story most of the individuals stay behind, many of them not even leaving the bus. To C.S. Lewis, there would eventually come a time when the fate was sealed. This wouldn’t be an arbitrary moment, but when the individual Hell had regressed so far inwards that they were no longer themselves, and there was no longer anything left to save.
- “Full” Universalism would be sympathetic to such an idea, but would say that God will eventually save everyone. All will eventually freely choose God.
- To many Universalists, any possibility of post-mortem salvation (given the nature of eternity) means that all will necessarily be saved.
- Do you think any of these views are correct? Where do you stand?
- What might you put forth as an alternative / differing perspective?