The Dangerous Doctrine of Hell
by Albert Emanuel
Criticism of Traditional Hell
1. Augustine: The Father of Hell
2. Calvinist and Arminian Hell
3. The New Sanitized Hell
4. The Craig-Bradley Debate
5. Did Jesus Pay the Penalty for Sin
Criticism of Alternatives
1. Heretics Teach Alternatives
2. Emotionally Charged Language
3. The Evangelical Turncoats
4. The Tough Question
Defense of Eternal Death
1. The Death Penalty for Sin
2. Does "Aionios" mean Eternal
3. Is "Punishment" Forever
4. The Gehenna Controversy
5. Lazarus and the Rich Man
Objections to Universalism
1. Defining a Universalist
2. The Meaning of the Word "All"
3. Is Hell for Rehabilitation
4. Postmortem Salvation
1. David Powys Research
2. Final Thoughts on Hell
This article seeks to answer the following questions:
1. Is God's plan of salvation a blueprint for success or a recipe for disaster.
2. Is God's system of justice inferior to man's system of justice.
3. Can the traditional doctrine of hell be reconciled with the love of God.
4. Is hell literal, metaphorical, or mental.
5. Is the fate of the wicked eternal torment, annihilation, or rehabilitation in hell.
6. Does the bible teach postmortem salvation.
7. Is Universalism true or will some be lost.
8. Will evil be destroyed or exist forever.
There are three competing theories on hell. First, there is the traditionalists' position that the wicked will be tormented for eternity in hell. Second, there is the annihilationists' position that the wicked will suffer eternal death. And third, there is the universalists' position that hell is a temporary place for rehabilitation.
The subject of hell is an intellectual, philosophical, spiritual, emotional, and moral challenge. Determining the fate of the wicked is a complicated problem. While it would be arrogant to decide who will be saved and who will be lost, we can discern from scripture God's teaching on the fate of the righteous and the wicked. It is difficult to deal with the problem of hell because it is such an emotional issue. Human sensitivity would incline us to adopt the universalists' position because we would prefer that the wicked be rehabilitated in hell rather than tormented or annihilated for eternity. But if the bible teaches that the fate of the wicked is eternal torment or death in hell, then as Christians, we are obligated to accept it.
Thinking about the traditional doctrine of eternal torment in hell brings an overwhelming sense of horror. Is this ultimate nightmare a reality or an invention of the human mind. The idea of an eternal hell with no escape is morally intolerable. It should be deeply troubling to Christians. Any doctrine that offends our moral sensibilities should be questioned. And those with a troubled conscience about the traditional doctrine of hell should be made aware that biblically based alternatives do exist.
Criticism of Traditional Hell
The traditional doctrine of hell has come under fire from within the ranks of orthodoxy. Both Catholic and
Protestant theologians are questioning whether or not the bible teaches the doctrine of eternal torment in hell. Disturbed by this trend, traditionalists are accusing modern scholars and theologians of reinventing hell and using compassion as an excuse to preach a soft God. As the fires of hell are being quenched by popular opinion, traditionalists are striking back and stoking the flames. They are determined to keep the fires of hell burning for eternity. Traditionalists adamantly insist that the wicked will suffer eternal conscious punishment. They lament the departure of evangelicals from the historic doctrine of hell and zealously defend their belief in eternal torment. But being obsessed with conformity to tradition can blind a person to the truth. We need to take a second look at the traditional doctrine of hell and determine if it conforms to scripture.
Augustine: The Father of Hell
Perhaps no theologian in Christian history has been more responsible for embedding the traditional doctrine of hell into the Christian mind than Augustine. According to him, the unrighteous will be resurrected and given immortal bodies that are capable of experiencing mental and physical suffering. He turned theology upside down by teaching that the wicked receive eternal life. But the bible never offers immortality to evil doers.
Augustine's worst heresy was teaching that some humans were predestined to be saved and others
predestined to be damned. Protestant reformer John Calvin became the champion of Augustine's doctrine of double predestination. This doctrine compounds the horrors of hell because it means that God deliberately predestined humans to be eternally damned. It implies that God literally created humans for the express purpose of tormenting them in hell for eternity. The Catholic church rejected Augustine's doctrine of double predestination for obvious reasons. But why the church retained his other doctrines on hell remains a mystery.
The doctrine of eternal torment is bad enough, but to add the belief that God predestined humans to be
damned in hell does nothing less than make God evil. This diabolical doctrine is still being taught among
hyper-Calvinists. It comes as no surprise that they are among the greatest defenders of eternal torment. The cruelty and viciousness of their doctrines are unsurpassed. The belief that prior to your existence, God decided whether you would be saved or damned takes evil to an unprecedented level. Those predestined to damnation have no chance for salvation. They are created to be vessels of evil and then forced to pay the consequences. Their fate is arbitrarily decided. They have no choice in the matter. The implications are horrifying. How could any Christian in his right spiritual mind teach such an evil doctrine. It completely crushes and obliterates the love of God. We can only conclude that Calvinism is a spiritual sickness and a psychotic form of Christianity.
Augustine taught that the "second death" spoken of in the book of Revelation was deathless. For him, the
second death was somehow the second life. But he never taught that the first death was deathless. Why would the second death be any different. The problem was Augustine's theology. Because he believed in eternal torment, he was forced to change the second death into the second life. Scripture had to accommodate his theological presuppositions. He can rightly be dubbed "the father of hell" because his teachings on the subject had a decisive influence on Catholic and Protestant doctrine. It brings a cautionary note that we should beware of the church fathers. Could it be that heretics created orthodoxy.
Calvinist and Arminian Hell
The majority of the Protestant reformers adopted the traditional doctrine of hell. Luther and Calvin staunchly defended eternal torment and propagated this pernicious doctrine. Even when Protestants were divided into Calvinists and Arminians, they both retained the traditional doctrine. But the voices of universalists were being heard in some quarters. A few protestant pastors objected to eternal torment and taught that hell was a temporary place of rehabilitation. Most were quickly ostracized or forced into silence. Liberal theologians launched an assault on the traditional doctrine of hell but their influence was largely confined to academic and theological circles. Most of the criticism directed at the doctrine of hell was located outside of orthodoxy and could be conveniently labelled heresy. But when it started coming from inside the evangelical camp, it became much more difficult to handle. Prominent evangelical theologians began to publicly question eternal damnation and offer bible based alternatives. The modern war over the doctrine of hell started with much fanfare. The first shots were fired by theologians like Clark Pinnock who employed shrill rhetoric to emphasize his objections. The following quote illustrates the degree of disgust Clark felt towards eternal torment.
"Everlasting torment is intolerable from a moral point of view because
it pictures God acting like a bloodthirsty monster who maintains an
everlasting Auschwitz for his enemies whom he does not even allow
to die....Anthony Flew was right to object that if Christian really believe
that God created people with the full intention of torturing some of them
in hell forever, they might as well give up the effort to defend Christianity."
(Four Views on Hell, p. 149)
John Wenham made a similar statement that strikes at the heart and core of the matter. Traditionalists find his strong language most offensive. But emotionalism does have a place in the debate over the nature of hell.
"Unending torture speaks to me of sadism, not justice. It is a doctrine
which I do not know how to preach without negating the loveliness
and glory of God. From the days of Tertullian it has been the emphasis
of fanatics. It is a doctrine that makes the inquisition reasonable. It all
seems a flight from reality and common sense....I believe that endless
torment is a hideous and unscriptural doctrine which has been a terrible
burden on the mind of the church for centuries and a terrible blot on her
presentation of the gospel. I should indeed be happy if, before I die, I
could help in sweeping it away."
(The Case for Conditional Immortality, p. 185-87)
The sobering words of Clark and Wenham sink deep into the soul. You sense that there is something sick about the traditional doctrine of hell. Disgust and repulsion is the normal human reaction. The orthodox doctrine of hell is a stumbling block for potential believers and a sharp sword for critics of Christianity. If it does not have a strong biblical basis, then it should be discarded.
According to Calvinists, the elect are saved but the rest of mankind is doomed to eternity in hell. If the majority of humans are destined to be damned, what does that say about God's plan of salvation. It seems like a failure. But why would God devise a plan that for the most part doesn't work. You would think he could create a plan that saves at least the majority of mankind. If Calvinists are right, God only intended to save the elect and if Arminians are right, God offers salvation to the world but the majority of mankind never makes it into the kingdom. Both plans seem like an utter failure. Surely God is capable of devising a plan that works. Believers in universalism claim that God intends to save all mankind. The appeal is obvious. It provides a happy ending to a brilliant plan. But is universalism true and can you make a compelling case from scripture. I will address that questions later on in this article.
Other voices within the Christian community raised the same issues regarding hell. A committee of protestant scholars and theologians echoed what Clark and Wenham were saying. They were addressing the question of whether endless torment in hell is just.
"This question often packs a strong emotional punch....What useful
purpose could be served by God's sustaining the unrighteous in
continual torment? The question is regularly cited by conditionalists
as a starting point for their own abandonment of the traditionalist
position....The argument in each case is forceful one: it asks what
love and justice could possibly be manifest in everlasting, unrelenting
conscious torment, and responds that there surely is a grave
disproportion between the crimes committed in a single lifetime and
punishment administered for all eternity." (The Nature of Hell, p. 102)
If the traditional doctrine of hell is true, then it paints an ugly portrait of God. He becomes an evil monster who operates an eternal concentration camp. I shake my head in disbelief that the traditional doctrine of hell has survived for centuries among the orthodox. Even adherents admit that they wince at the thought of eternal hell. Anglican theologian John Stott makes a poignant comment regarding this emotional issue.
"I find the concept intolerable and do not understand how people
can live with it without either cauterizing their feelings or cracking
under the strain." (Essentials, p. 314)
The tide is turning against the traditional doctrine of hell. And while most of the dissent is within evangelical circles, a few Catholic theologians like Hans Kung are speaking out on the subject. We can only hope that these voices are being heard by the bishop of Canterbury and the bishop of Rome.
The New Sanitized Hell
Evangelicals sanitize the concept of hell by saying that it means separation. What the bible describes as
torment, death, and destruction has been reinterpreted to mean some sort of separation from God. Soothing words like "separation" are used to create a soft concept of hell and smooth out the rough edges of scripture. Physical death is replaced with a vague type of spiritual death. This public relations effort to downplay the horrors of hell allows adherents to retain the doctrine without being accused of teaching cruelty. Traditionalist Christopher Morgan admits that "while the idea of separation is certainly correct and included in the New Testament concept of banishment, separation alone does not do justice to the force of this picture of hell". He notes that "separation could imply divine passivity". But God does not deal with the wicked in a passive manner. He casts them into the lake of fire where they experience mental and physical pain until they are consumed.
The sanitization of hell was also motivated by a desire to conform to the current therapeutic culture. Christian psychologists are not only changing the vocabulary of salvation but also excluding any elements that might infringe upon a person's self-esteem. Sin is redefined as merely a personal problem that requires therapy. The concept of hell is either rejected outright or watered down to a feeling of psychological distress. God is being reinvented as the cosmic psychologist who offers therapy instead of punishment. But that is not what the bible teaches. Hell isn't a therapeutic rehabilitation center for the wicked. It is the place of final judgment.
Repulsed by their own doctrine, some advocates have reduced hell to a smitten conscience or sense of loss. But they still maintain that it lasts for eternity. This sanitized and modified hell does little to alleviate the suffering of the wicked because the unending torment of a guilty conscience and the everlasting pain of emotional anguish are worse than physical discomfort. Thus, treating hell as a metaphor and reducing it to mental anguish does not significantly diminish the punishment.
Critics object to the duration of hell but traditionalists refuse to reduce the time factor. Instead, they concentrate on limiting the degree of pain that the wicked suffer. Apparently the sense of loss caused by separation from God is sufficient to satisfy the requirements of justice and a bothered conscience is enough punishment to make hell a place of unhappiness. It creates the image of a merciful hell where disturbed humans are housed. Traditionalists give their doctrine a make-over by minimizing the negative aspects of hell. This cosmetic change makes hell more acceptable and limits criticism. But the sanitized version of hell and the biblical version of hell cannot be reconciled. Sanitizing hell does not solve the moral problem that eternal torment creates and soft peddling hell dodges the issue and leaves the problem unresolved.
The Craig-Bradley Debate on Hell
It is almost painful to read the debate on hell between Christian apologist William Lane Craig and atheist Ray Bradley. The problem is that Bradley is right most of the time and wins the debate hands down. How ironic that an atheist is right and a Christian is wrong on the subject of hell. Craig's convoluted reasoning is embarrassing. He contends that "God doesn't send anyone to hell". Then who does? Are we to believe that the wicked voluntarily go to hell. And surely Craig must be jesting when he says that "it is a matter of free choice where we shall spend eternity". Actually, God makes the final decision, not humans. The wicked will be thrown into the lake of fire against their will. They have no desire to be sent to hell and suffer punishment. The sentence is imposed by God. The wicked would never choose incarceration in hell or voluntarily submit to punishment.
Humans make a choice between good and evil and based on their decision, God determines their fate. But humans do not choose hell. God judges their actions and determines their final destiny. If the wicked had a choice between entering or staying out of hell, their decision would be obvious. Craig places God in a passive role and makes humans the masters of their fate. But that is not the picture the bible presents. God holds the keys to heaven and hell.
Craig presents clever intellectual and philosophical arguments for the doctrine of eternal torment. His brilliant debating skills are legendary. But Bradley crushes every argument with the hammer of logic and the fallacies in Craig's twisted reasoning become glaringly obvious.
The nauseating explanations that Craig offers for eternal torment make your eyes roll in your head. He seems to be suffering from theological deficit disorder, a disease that causes a person to ignore reason and scripture. Craig would have us believe that "in a real sense, hell is self-perpetuating. In such a case, every sin has a finite punishment, but because sinning goes on forever, so does the punishment". But his "do it yourself" theology gets him in trouble. He admits that finite sins deserve a finite punishment, but then he is faced with explaining why the wicked suffer in hell forever. Craig waves his theological wand and supplies the magical answer. The wicked will commit an infinite number of sins in hell and therefore are deserving of infinite punishment. He has invented the self-perpetuating hell. It sounds almost as believable as the perpetual motion machine. Should we ask Craig to back up his assertions or supply him with medication for his theological deficit disorder.
After reading the debate, you almost want to run out and kiss an atheist (in this case Bradley) and thank him for defending true Christianity against William Lane Craig. Atheists seem more enlightened on the subject of hell than traditionalists. Thank God that atheists like Ray Bradley are available to refute apologists like Craig.
Did Jesus Pay the Penalty for Sin
Traditionalist Robert Peterson makes a rather strange comment regarding the death of Christ and the payment for sin.
"This does not mean, however, that he literally endured never-ending
punishment. If he did, he would be on the cross forever and wouldn't
be able to save anyone. Instead, he suffered the equivalent of eternal
punishment; his temporary anguish was equal to the eternal
condemnation due sinful human beings." (Two Views on Hell, p. 175)
Peterson paints himself into a theological corner. He believes that the penalty for sin is eternal punishment in hell, but acknowledges that Christ did not pay that penalty. Then he uses mental gymnastics to extricate himself from an untenable position. He claims that Christ's temporal punishment is the equivalent of eternal punishment. But he never explains how temporal can equal permanent.
If the penalty for sin is eternal punishment in hell, then Christ would be required to pay that exact penalty. But a penalty that is never-ending is impossible to pay. Therefore, the traditional position on hell is a denial that Christ paid the penalty for sin. The fact that Christ was put to death proves that the penalty for sin is death, not eternal punishment in hell. The traditional position provides no savior because the penalty of eternal torment in hell can never be paid. Christ would be required to spend eternity in hell for the sins of mankind. The absurdity of the traditionalist position becomes apparent. And Peterson's argument that temporary pain is the equivalent of eternal punishment is theology at its worst. It is remarkable that a professor of theology cannot understand the simple truth that the penalty for sin is death.
Criticism of Alternatives
Traditionalists are fighting back and trying to stem the tide of defections from the doctrine of eternal torment. They are accusing dissenters of cowardice for not preaching the truth about hell. And they are playing the "guilt by association" game by linking defectors with heretic groups. Traditionalists have mounted an attack against the invasion of heretical doctrines into the church. Prominent Calvinist theologians are at the forefront of the battle. They are determined to win the theological war and keep the traditional doctrine of hell intact.
Heretics Teach Alternatives
Alternative's to traditional hell are often dismissed because they originate with heretical groups. The doctrine of eternal death is viewed with suspicion because it is held by Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses. Traditionalists believe that any doctrine taught by an organization classified as a cult should either be dismissed outright or kept at arms length. Some traditionalists play the "association by doctrine" trick. If you accept a doctrine taught by a cult, you are identified as a possible heretic. But what happens when a prominent evangelical theologian accepts a doctrine taught by cults. His impeccable orthodox credentials make it difficult to associate him with heretics. How do traditionalists classify an evangelical who rejects the doctrine of eternal hell and sides with the cults. Is he an orthodox heretic?
When prominent evangelist John Stott gave his tentative approval to the doctrine of annihilationism, critics refused to call him a heretic because they feared a backlash from the evangelical community. Stott is a much loved and highly respected theologian. When it comes to Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses, traditionalists are quick to yell "heretic", but when a prominent theologian from within their ranks adopts a doctrine taught by cults, no one would dare call him a heretic. Their response was reduced to lamenting that he had departed from tradition.
A strange turn of events in taking place within evangelical circles. Orthodox theologians are being corrected by cults. Those branded heretics have become their teachers. Maybe evangelicals should take a hard look at other doctrines they hold. Perhaps there is more to be learned from those labeled heretics. Some cult member should inform them that the bible doesn't breathe a word about the Trinity or say a thing about humans having an immortal soul. I wonder what else the orthodox can learn from heretics.
Emotionally Charged Language
Advocates of the doctrine of eternal death are often criticized by traditionalists for using "emotionally charged language". Can shrill rhetoric be used in argumentation and does emotional language have any place in debate. Jesus used highly charged language in numerous social situations. I doubt if Christians would criticize Christ for employing rhetorical devices and engaging in emotional outbursts of a righteous nature. Expressing anger and outrage at an opponent's position has a valid place in debate. Can we not follow Christ's example and use the same techniques.
Traditionalists do not think of God as an eternal torturer and resent the accusation that their doctrine on hell makes God worse than Hitler. But, in fact, the doctrine of eternal torment does make God into a hellish monster. Traditionalists seem unwilling to face the implications. If they carried the doctrine of eternal torture to its logical conclusion, they would have to admit that God is an eternal torturer.
We cannot completely remove emotion from the debate because the fate of the wicked is an emotional issue. Emotions should and clearly do play a role in the decision to abandon the traditional position on hell. Clark Pinnock rejects the traditionalists view "in part out of a sense of moral and theological revulsion to it".
"The idea that a conscious creature should have to undergo physical
and mental torture through unending time is profoundly disturbing,
and the thought that this is inflicted upon him by divine decree offends
my conviction about God's love. This is probably the prime reason
why people question the tradition so vehemently in the first place.
They are not first of all impressed by its lack of a good scriptural
basis (that comes later) but are appalled by its awful moral implications".
(The Conditional View, p. 164-65)
The traditionalists' argument that highly charged emotional language is inappropriate in the debate over hell has no validity. Calling their God an eternal torturer might inflame the debate, but it accurately describes who they worship. When it comes to criticizing and condemning the doctrine of eternal torment, emotionally charged words are appropriate. By employing shrill rhetoric to stress the ugly and disgusting aspects of traditional hell, we can effectively speak out against it. And the use of emotional language to stir up moral indignation against the doctrine of eternal torment is entirely appropriate.
The Evangelical Turncoats
When prominent evangelical theologians went public with their objections to the traditional doctrine of hell, it triggered an alarm in the Christian community. Traditionalists fought back with fiery denunciations but stopped short of using the term "heretic" when referring to dissenters within their own camp. The controversy could not be contained. It spread like wildfire across the evangelical landscape. Traditionalist Christopher Morgan details the defections.
"But the year 1974 serves as a benchmark in the debate over
annihilationism in evangelical history. That year evangelical
publisher interVarsity Press published John Wenham's 'The
Goodness of God', in which Wenham questioned the historical
view of endless punishment and proposed annihilationism. Also
in 1974, InterVarsity Press published Stephen Travis's 'The Jesus
Hope', in which he questioned whether annihilationism might be
the better alternative. Two years later 'Christianity Today' included
an article by Edward Fudge defending annihilationism called
'Putting Hell in Its Place.' Fudge's thorough book on the subject
came in 1982 and was alternative selection of the Evangelical
Book Club. In 1987, 'Christianity Today' allowed Clark Pinnock to
declare his belief in annihilationism in a short article entitled 'Fire,
Then Nothing'." (Hell Under Fire, p. 198)
In 1988, John Stott shocked the evangelical world with his tentative acceptance of annihilationism. He pleaded with evangelicals to reconsider the historic view of eternal torment.
"We need to survey the biblical material afresh and to open our
minds (not just our hearts) to the possibility that scripture points
in the direction of annihilationism and that 'eternal conscious
torment' is a tradition that has to yield to the supreme authority
of scripture....I do not dogmatize about the position to which I
have come. I hold it tentatively. But I do plead for frank dialogue
among evangelicals on the basis of scripture. I also believe that
the ultimate annihilation of the wicked should at least be accepted
as a legitimate, biblically founded alternative to their eternal
conscious torment". (Evangelical Essentials, p. 319-20)
Christopher Morgan catalogues the defections within the evangelical community.
"Other distinguished evangelicals continued this trend. In 1989,
Phillip Hughes resigned from Westminster Theological Seminary
and espoused similar views in 'The True Image'. In 1990, Michael
Green adamantly opposed the historic view of hell in his
'Evangelism through the Local Church'. Robert Brown followed
in 1994, Nigel Wright in 1996, and Earl Ellis in 1997."
(Hell Under Fire, p. 199)
Edward Fudge mentions the names of evangelicals who were reconsidering the traditional doctrine of hell.
"A growing number of respected biblical scholars now publicly
question the traditional notion that God will keep the lost alive
forever so he can punish them without end. These include such
luminaries as F. F. Bruce, Michael Green, Philip Hughes, Dale
Moody, Clark H. Pinnock, W. Graham Scroggie, John R. Stott,
and John Wenham. These men represent evangelical
scholarship at its best." (Two Views on Hell, p. 21)
I have gone to considerable lengths to reveal the names of evangelicals who have abandoned the traditional position on hell to illustrate the fact the this phenomenon is not restricted to a few unknown scholars and theologians. We are witnessing a major change of doctrine among prominent evangelicals. The belief in eternal torment is being discarded and replaced by annihilationism. The fact that many mainstream evangelicals now embrace the doctrine of eternal death is a major step forward in correcting the errors of tradition.
The Tough Question
What if traditionalists are right that hell is a place of eternal torment and what if Calvinists are correct that some are born to be damned. Would you still worship God? Or would you reject him, knowing full well that it would seal your fate and force you to suffer eternal torment in hell. Would you be wiling to forfeit your salvation to protest against an immoral God. Or would you accept God's will in order to obtain salvation.
This would be an extreme example of being caught on the horns of a dilemma. Is it worth spending eternity in hell to protest against God's injustice or would you accept his will regardless of whether you agree with it or not. Traditionalists are willing to worship God even if he does torment humans for eternity. They assume that eternal torment is just punishment for the wicked. For them, there is room in God's love for an eternal hell. Some even think that eternal torment glorifies God because it shows his eternal hatred of sin.
Traditionalists cling to the doctrine of eternal torment because they believe that the bible teaches it. Some find it repugnant, but consider it God's will. They don't understand why God would torment humans for eternity, but believe that he has his reasons. They don't know how God can maintain his love, justice, and holiness while tormenting humans in hell, but believe that it must be possible. If traditionalists were certain that the bible does not teach eternal torment, they would abandon it immediately. They are not immoral Christians who take glee in tormenting the wicked. Traditionalists honestly believe that the biblical case for eternal torment is solid.
Defense of Eternal Death
The doctrine of eternal death has a strong biblical basis and maintains the righteous character of God. It avoids the moral problem of endless torment and the cruelty factor in rehabilitation. It provides swift and merciful justice for the wicked and bring finality to the problem of sin. By contrast, the traditional doctrine does not bring closure. It perpetuates sin for eternity. The doctrine I advocate considers hell a place of termination, not perpetuation. It bring matters to a decisive end. When the wicked are destroyed, Christ will achieve total and final victory over sin and evil.
The Death Penalty for Sin
I teach the biblical doctrine of eternal life for the righteous and eternal death for the wicked. Scripture maintains this simple and powerful contrast. The soul that sins shall die, but the gift of God is eternal life. This verse will prove to be decisive in determining the fate of the righteous and the wicked. God does not offer the gift of eternal life to the wicked. It would be a curse to be given eternal life in hell. From the traditionalist perspective, eternal life can either be a gift or a curse, depending on who receives it. But the bible does not turn the gift of eternal life into a curse. It contrasts the gift of life with the curse of death. Humans will either live in heaven or die in hell.
The following scriptures provide solid evidence that the wicked will receive eternal death.
"The wages of sin is death but the gift of God is eternal life
through Jesus Christ our Lord" (Romans 6:23).
"For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten
son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but
have eternal life" (John 3:16).
"There is one lawgiver and judge, the one who is able to
save and destroy" (James 4:12).
The contrast between life and death, salvation and destruction, surviving and perishing, is self-evident in these verses.
Jesus spoke about the fate of the wicked. He said: "Fear him who is able to destroy body and soul in hell" (Matt.10:28). Notice that he said just the opposite of orthodox doctrine. Jesus never said to fear him who is able to torment and torture humans in hell for eternity. He clearly implied that the destruction of body and soul in hell is the ultimate fate of the wicked.
The apostle Paul said that the wicked would be "punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord" (2 Thes. 1:9). We should take note of the fact that he does not say that the wicked will survive in hell. Paul makes it clear that the wicked will experience a destruction that lasts forever. He includes the duration of the destruction to make certain there is not question about how long it lasts. The fate of the wicked is complete destruction forever.
The theme of death and destruction for the wicked is repeated in numerous places in the bible. The apostle Peter said that those who brought damnable heresies into the church would "bring upon themselves swift destruction" (2 Pet. 2:1). Paul talked about the enemies of the cross "whose end is destruction" (Phil. 3:19). But traditionalists disagree with scripture and teach reconstruction rather than destruction. They believe that the wicked will be given reconstructed immortal bodies that can endure the flames of hell. But the bible consistently teaches that the fate of the wicked is everlasting destruction and eternal death.
The book of Revelation describes the destruction in hell as the "second death". But traditionalists would have us believe that God provides the wicked with a second life in hell. This illustrates the absurdity of the traditional position. They magically transform the second death into the second life. But John patterned the second death after the first death and the association between the two leaves no doubt as to what he meant. The difference is that the first death is temporary and the second is permanent. It is apparent from scripture that the second death is eternal death, not eternal life in hell.
The author of the book of Revelation makes it clear that the wicked "shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone: which is the second death" (Rev. 21:8). If God intended to give the gift of eternal life to the wicked and then use that gift to torment them for eternity, he would have inspired John to use the words "second life". God would not call it the second death if he meant the second life. Traditionalists are twisting God's word. When he says "the soul that sins shall die", they say it means "the soul that sins shall live". And what God calls the second death, they call the second life. Isn't this akin to saying that black is white.
Traditionalists are trapped by their own theology. The doctrine of the immortality of the soul forces them to invent an eternal hell. Apparently even God stands helpless before the almighty and indestructible soul. If the wicked are immortal, then their punishment must be eternal. But scripture trumps theologians. The word of God clearly teaches that the soul can be destroyed. Traditionalists need to repudiate their orthodox paganism. They often sound more like Plato than Christ.
I have presented a brief sketch of the case for eternal death. It should be sufficient to alert readers to the
possibility that the orthodox doctrine of eternal torment is false and that the unorthodox doctrine of eternal death is a legitimate biblical alternative.
Does "Aionios" mean Eternal
Now we enter the war over the meaning of words. The fiercest fighting is taking place on the exegetical
battleground. Theological swords are clashing over the definition of Greek words.
Let us briefly enter the "aion" war, which, at the current rate, could last longer than eternity. The Greek noun "aion" means "age". But how long does an "age" last. In some contexts it implies a limited duration and in others it suggests an endless period of time. The battle lines are drawn around the adjective "aionios". Traditionalists claim that in most contexts the word cannot mean anything less than eternal. Thus, "zoe aionios" means "eternal life" and "kolasis aionios" means "eternal punishment". Most experts on New Testament Greek consider "aionios" the equivalent of "eternal". However, we must be cautious not to build an entire doctrine on the meaning of one obscure word.
When the bible talks about the "present age" and the "age to come", it does not specify the length. The phrase "eis tous aionas ton aionon" occurs frequently in the book of Revelation and can be translated "unto the ages of the ages", which suggests an endless period of time. But strictly speaking, "aion" is an age that has a limited time period. The context in which it is used determines the length of time. Thus, the expression "unto the ages of the ages" could imply "eternity". But I remain hesitant to declare "aion" the equivalent of "eternal" even in a context where it suggests that very thing. The obscurity of the word "aion" and the difficulty in discerning its contextual meaning makes me cautious. But I concede that in certain contexts "aionios" does imply "eternal".
Experts believe that in some contexts the word "aionios" refers more to the quality of time than the duration. God's existence is outside of time and therefore cannot be limited by the concept of time. Eternal life is a quality of existence. The life of God is different from the life of man. God has no beginning and no end. "Aionios" could suggest "quality of time" because the life of God cannot be defined by "duration of time". Furthermore, eternal life is timeless, so how can the expression "zoe aionios" contain the element of time. Perhaps it means quality of life, not quality of time. This further complicates the problem of defining the word "aionios". We do not know for certain if it means "eternal", but for the sake of argument we will assume that it does.
Traditionalists are quick to point out the many instances where the word "aionion" appears to mean "eternal", but when you confront them with the scripture that talks about the wicked experiencing "eternal destruction", they are forced to change tactics because this verse disproves their argument that the wicked suffer eternal conscious punishment. They start playing games with the meaning of the word "destruction" and claim that the wicked are not completely destroyed. But if "aionion" means eternal and the wicked suffer "eternal destruction", who will be left to endure conscious punishment. Paul says that the wicked will experience "olethron aionion", which means "eternal destruction". You cannot be destroyed and exist at the same time. If the wicked suffer "eternal destruction", they cannot be conscious for eternity.
Traditionalists are like Houdini. They always find an escape hatch out of their predicament. In this case, they redefine the meaning of the word "destruction". Apparently the wicked experience destruction but continue to exist. They are constantly and continuously being destroyed throughout eternity but the process is never completed. Traditionalists who take this position are being disingenuous. Their crafty explanation is an insult to genuine exegesis. John Stott comments on this absurd definition of the word "destruction".
"It would seem strange, therefore, if people who are said to suffer
destruction are in fact not destroyed; and as you put it, it is difficult
to imagine a perpetually inconclusive process of perishing".
(Evangelical Essentials, p. 316)
The traditionalists idea of perpetual perishing and never ending destruction raises their argument to the height of absurdity. D. A. Carson would have us believe that those who suffer destruction will be destroyed, but from that it does not follow that they cease to exist. Only a theologian could concoct an explanation like that. Carson is the author of a book on exegetical fallacies, but in this case, he fails to notice his own fallacy. New Testament translator R. F. Weymouth offers a strong rebuttal to Carson's position.
"My mind fails to conceive a grosser misinterpretation of language
than when the five or six strongest words which the Greek tongue
possesses, signifying 'destroy', or 'destruction' are explained to
mean an everlasting but wretched existence. To translate black as
white is nothing to this". (Two Views on Hell, p. 63)
The howling dogs of theology like D. A. Carson are hell bent on preserving eternal torment even if it means twisting scripture into a pretzel and completely abandoning logic. The "vocabulary of destruction" permeates the New Testament. The word of God teaches the total and permanent destruction of the wicked. Carson's gross misinterpretation of the word "destruction" does considerable damage to his reputation. He should correct his own exegetical fallacies before writing a book on the subject.
Is "Punishment" Forever
This exegetical argument centers on the meaning of the word "punishment". The Greek word "kolasis" means "punishment" or "penalty". Thus, the expression "kolasis aionios" can be translated "everlasting punishment" or "eternal penalty". Jesus said that the wicked "shall go into everlasting punishment but the righteous into eternal life" (Mat. 25:46). Traditionalists claim that everlasting punishment requires conscious awareness of being punished. But scriptures does not insist upon conscious awareness. Paul clarifies the nature of the punishment by stating that the wicked "shall be punished with everlasting destruction" (2 Thes. 1:9). Destruction constitutes punishment that lasts for eternity and does not require conscious awareness.
Is it necessary for a person to be constantly conscious of being punished in order to satisfy the requirements of justice. Is punishment solely based upon the amount of time and degree of pain a person consciously suffers. It only takes a few minutes to put a person to death, but the consequences are eternal. Being deprived of life is punishment. It was the death of Christ that paid the penalty for sin, not his conscious awareness of being punished. Had Jesus not been resurrected from the dead, he would have been deprived of eternal life, which is the ultimate punishment. Obviously, a person who experiences eternal death cannot have conscious awareness.
Traditionalists can't seem to comprehend the fact the being deprived of life is eternal punishment. Even though the dead have no conscious awareness, they are still being punished. Are traditionalists suggesting that the death penalty does not constitute eternal punishment. It most assuredly does. While the wicked are being put to death, they will experience conscious awareness of their punishment and realize that they will cease to exist for eternity. But their punishment does not cease when they lose conscious awareness. The fact that they will remain dead for eternity shows that the punishment is everlasting.
The Gehenna Controversy
The battle over the doctrine of hell is centered upon a place called "gehenna", where the wicked experience the "second death". According to Hastings Dictionary of the Bible, gehenna is "a transcription of the Hebrew "Ge-Hinnom", the name of the valley to the south of Jerusalem where Kings Ahaz and Manasseh where said to have offered their sons to the god Molock (2 Ch. 28:3, 33:6, Jer. 32:35). Polluted by Josiah in the course of his reform (2 K. 23:10), it is thought subsequently to have become the city's garbage dump, where dead animals were thrown and refuse burnt. Its sinister associations and the smoke that continually ascended from it made it an appropriate symbol of woe and judgment" (p. 319). The bible tells us that "gehenna" is the place where the wicked are punished with death and destruction.
Many have assumed that during the time of Christ the Valley of Hinnom was a place where garbage was burned with sulphur and the dead bodies of criminals were incinerated. But that might not be the case.
L. Bailey comments on the evidence.
"The often repeated description of the Valley of Hinnom as a public
garbage heap and incinerator, into which unclean corpses were
thrown, is apparently without archaeological foundation and seems
to have originated with David Qimhi's commentary on Psalm 27
(ca A.D. 1200)." (Gehenna in IDB, Supplementary Volume, p. 353)
Regardless of whether or not the Valley of Hinnom was used as a garbage dump and a place to dispose of dead bodies, it invokes the image of "gehenna", where the fires of hell will consume the wicked. Most likely the Valley of Hinnom is a type of the real "gehenna", which is located in an entirely different place.
Because Revelation 14:11 and 20:10 are considered to be the "Achilles heel of the annihilationist perspective", I will make a considerable effort to the explain the meaning of those verses. The thorniest scripture is Revelation 20:10, which teaches that "the beast, the false prophet, and Satan will be tormented day and night forever and ever". Traditionalists claim that this verse refutes annihilationism. But can their claim be substantiated.
The first point to keep in mind is that "gehenna" is the place of the "second death", not the second life. Playing theological games with the word "death" and construing it to mean anything less than actual death or pulling the figurative trick and claiming that the second death is merely symbolic points to a desperate effort to salvage a weak argument. The second death is literal and takes place in "gehenna". Therefore, the torment cannot last forever.
The second point is that Satan is a spirit being who is not subject to physical death in "gehenna". The fact that he can survive in hell does not prove that humans can. Nor does being cast into hell mean that a human receives the same punishment as Satan. We should not confuse Satan's punishment with that of humans. Nor should we assume that humans will be punished for the same length of time as Satan. God can leave the devil in "gehenna" for an indefinite period of time before he decides his ultimate fate.
The third point is that the identity of the beast and the false prophet is not clearly delineated. We do not know for certain if they are humans or demons. If they are humans, then it could prove to be a problem. I doubt very much if the beast is a mere symbol of an evil system. Most likely, he is a real person. But the identity of the beast remains a mystery. Likewise, I am reluctant to make the false prophet a mere symbol of a false religion. He appears to be a real person, but his actual identity is not disclosed. Because the bible does not provide sufficient information to settle the matter, the question regarding the identity of the beast and the false prophet should be left open.
Revelation 14:9-11 tells us that those who worship the beast will be "tormented with burning sulphur" and "the smoke of their torment rises forever". Clark Pinnock makes an important observation.
"While the smoke goes up forever, the text does not say that
the wicked are tormented forever. It says that they have no
relief from their suffering as long as the suffering lasts, but it
does not say how long it lasts." (Four Views on Hell, p. 157)
Revelation 14:11 mentions that the wicked "have no rest day nor night", which seems to imply unending
punishment. But some traditionalists admit that it has more to do with activity than time. Gregory Beale states that "there will be no rest as long as the duration of suffering continues". Thus, this verse cannot be used to prove that the wicked will be tormented day and night for eternity.
Lazarus and the Rich Man
The story of Lazarus and the rich man makes no reference to the second death and the final fate of the wicked. The setting is in "hades", where the righteous and the wicked are temporarily placed until the day of judgement. Clark Pinnock is careful to differentiate between "hades" and "gehenna".
"The story refers to hades (the intermediate state between death
and resurrection) not to gehenna (the final end of the wicked),
and is not strictly relevant to the subject."
(Four Views on Hell, p. 157)
Even some traditionalists agree that the story of Lazarus and the rich man is irrelevant to the subject. The picture of human torment in "hades" has no connection with the final fate of the wicked in "gehenna". The following quote is from traditionalist Robert Peterson.
"The parable points to the intermediate rather than the final state,
because the rich man in hell pled with Father Abraham to send
someone to warn his five unrepentant brothers lest they too come
to share his fate. Such a request would have been impossible
following the resurrection of the dead and last judgment."
(Hell Under Fire, p. 167)
It is important to know what the story doesn't say. It does not give the duration of the torment and makes no reference to "gehenna". The story of Lazarus and the rich man is not an actual account of hell and cannot be cited as supporting evidence for eternal torment.
The exegetical battle between traditionalists and annihilationists resulted in a stalemate. Because the matter cannot be settled by exegesis, we must find another way. I suggest that the issue be decided on the basis of the character of God. We must ask some direct and difficult questions. Does the orthodox doctrine of hell contradict or compliment the character of God. Is a God of love capable of tormenting and torturing humans for eternity. We must rise above the exegetical wars and take the subject to a higher level in order to determine the true doctrine of hell.
Objections to Universalism
The doctrine of universal salvation is gaining a foothold in evangelical churches. It offers a positive alternative to the traditional doctrine of hell. Repulsed by the concept of eternal torment, evangelicals are taking a second look at universalism. It has some attractive features. Universalism offers a guaranteed salvation and teaches that hell is for rehabilitation purposes. It provides a happy ending to God's plan of salvation. Not one soul is lost, which affirms that God is love. But why would some Christians reject this perfect plan and speak out against it. The strongest objections are that universal salvation is not biblical and that the entire doctrine is built on the meaning of one word. I will briefly examine universalism and determine if it is based on the word of God. It is difficult to resist the temptation to embrace universalism, but we must exercise restraint before accepting a belief that seems too good to be true.
Defining a Universalist
Not all universalists are cut from the same cloth. David Powys explains the differences.
"Universalism is a very broad term covering both those who hold
that all will be redeemed through the saving work of Christ
(Christological universalists) and those who hold that all will find
salvation, with or without Christ (religious pluralists). In broad
terms those who have adopted a universalist stance in reaction
to the traditional orthodoxy tend to be Christological universalists.
Those who have come to universalism with little or no reference to
traditional orthodoxy (e.g. Cobb, Hick, Kelsey, Kung, Anderson)
tend to be religious pluralists." (Hell, A Hard Look at a Hard
Question, p. 60)
When I write about universalists, I am referring to Christological universalists, not religious pluralists. I reject the belief that salvation can be obtained outside of Christ. The exclusiveness of Christianity must be maintained at all costs. "Christian absolutism" is under severe attack, but it clearly has a solid biblical basis. If all religions lead to salvation, then the sacrifice of Christ was unnecessary. And if you can be saved without believing in Christ, then why bother being a Christian. Easier paths to salvation can be found. Why would God put his son to death when you can be saved through Buddhism, which requires no human sacrifice. Religious pluralism is bereft of biblical support and creates more theological problems than it solves.
Two famous Christological universalists are second century theologian Origen and twentieth century theologian Karl Barth. Origen obtained his ideas about universalism from neo-platonic philosophy and theories about reincarnation and the transmigration of souls. After repeated cycles of existence, humans will finally obtain salvation. Barth took no dogmatic position for or against universalism. He wrote that " universal salvation remains an open possibility for which we many hope" (Church Dogmatics, IV.3, p. 478).
Modern theories about universal salvation have been heavily influenced by secular ideas of justice. The death penalty and incarceration for retributive purposes are shunned in most western cultures. Punishment is solely for rehabilitation. The idea that the wicked will suffer eternal punishment is unacceptable to universalists. And the thought that even one person will be lost is unbearable. They believe that God's infinite love and power will bring the wicked to repentance. But some reject the concept of hell and the idea of rehabilitation through punishment. While all universalists agree that every human will be saved, they differ on how God intends to accomplish that purpose. I focus on universalists who believe that hell exists and is for rehabilitation purposes.
The Meaning of the Word "All"
"For as in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive" (I Cor. 15:22) is the axiomatic verse for universalism. They teach that in this context the word "all" means "every single one". For them, the parallelism makes it self-evident that all those who die in Adam will be made alive in Christ. The meaning of the word "all" is critical to their interpretation of this verse. The reason they believe that "all" means "every single one" is because all die in Adam. If "all" means "every single one" in the first part of the verse, then it must have an identical meaning in the second part of the verse. On the surface, their interpretation appears to be plausible, but when you dig deeper it becomes a faulty exegesis.
Is it true that "in Adam all die" or are there exceptions. Scripture tells us that "Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven" (II Kings 2:11). Apparently Elijah was taken directly into heaven without first dying in Adam. Other exceptions are Christians who will be alive on this earth when Christ returns. Rather than experiencing death in Adam, they will be instantly transformed into immortal beings. Thus, the word "all" in the first part of the verse does not mean "every single one".
The key to understanding this verse is not found in the adjective "all" but rather in the preposition "in". Those who are "in Christ" will be made alive, but those outside of Christ won't. While every human is automatically "in Adam" by birth, not every human is automatically "in Christ". Unless you believe in Jesus, you cannot be "in Christ". Those who reject Jesus are excluded from being "in Christ". Universalists claim that eventually all humans will be "in Christ", but that remains a conjecture.
I could site other examples where universalists misinterpret the word "all", but suffice to say that rarely does "all" mean "every single one". Universalism is structurally weak because it stands or falls on the meaning of one word. There is an important lessons to be learned. Don't build a theological mountain out of a scriptural molehill.
Is Hell for Rehabilitation
Many universalists claim that because God's love is unconditional, he would never subject a human to eternal torment or eternal death. Therefore, hell must be for rehabilitation purposes. But does God love unconditionally and is unconditional love superior to conditional love. Christ's statement "repent or perish" is the epitome of conditional love. And keep in mind that God refused to reconcile himself to the world unless a human sacrifice was offered. The fact that he put his son to death shows that his love is conditional and does encompass the death penalty. By contrast, unconditional love would never require a human sacrifice or include severe punishment. If God's love was unconditional, he would have forgiven our sins without the sacrifice of Christ. And he would never inflict even temporary punishment upon sinners because it would be a condition of love.
Scripture clearly shows that God's love is conditional. He respects himself and creates boundaries between good and evil. He places conditions on salvation and requires submission and obedience. Unconditional love is a false form of love because it means that others can commit evil with impunity and not fear punishment. It forces God to love humans no matter how evil they are. It means that he cannot impose conditions upon entrance into his kingdom. No self-respecting God would ever love humans unconditionally. If universalists would contemplate the problems inherent in the concept of unconditional love, they would soon abandon the belief. Unconditional love insults God's dignity and completely ties his hands in dealing with evil.
Some universalists appear to worship a one dimensional God who is exclusively love. He is the kinder, gentler God of humanists and psychologists. Other universalists begrudgingly accept the existence of hell and claim that it involves temporary punishment for rehabilitation purposes. But they fail to realize that even temporary punishment in hell is salvation by coercion. It appears more like a forced repentance than a voluntary one. This "conversion by cruelty" approach seems out of character for a God of love.
If a person does not want to be saved, why try and coerce him. Would it not be better to respect his decision not to participate in God's plan of salvation. God does not punish people into repentance. He is not a tormentor or torturer. His methods are just and holy. The universalists approach is cruel and barbaric. It suggests that if you apply enough pain, all mankind will be saved.
Both the traditional concept of eternal hell and the universalist concept of remedial hell are repulsive. They are reminiscent of the inquisition. But God does not use such undignified methods. He wants voluntary repentance. God will not keep tightening the screws until the wicked repent. Universalists are advocating another inquisition. How much cruelty will it take to get the wicked to repent. Will God stoke the fire and make it burn with greater intensity to guarantee that all will be saved. Will he make the pain unbearable for the sake of salvation. Surely a God of love would not lower himself to that level.
Universalists need to face the fact that they are advocating extreme pain and suffering as a means of salvation. They have their own cruelty issues to sort out. What if the wicked refuse to repent. Will they be forced to spend eternity in hell. If that be the case, then we are right back to the traditional doctrine of hell. Universalists offer no evidence that temporary detention in hell will guarantee repentance.
Punishment doesn't always work. Some humans never learn their lesson. God punished Israel but their
repentance was short lived. Humans are stiff necked and hard hearted. The story of Israel shows the failure of punishment to achieve its objective. God realized that unless he gave humans a new heart, he could not change their behavior. Scripture does not say that those in hell will be given a new heart.
The western world's system of justice does not work. Using prisons for rehabilitation purposes is a miserable failure. The recidivism rate is between seventy and eighty percent. The majority of criminals are repeat offenders who are returned to prison within one or two years of being released. What makes universalists think that physical suffering and mental torment in the concentration camps of hell will succeed in bringing the wicked to repentance. I remind readers that the presence of Christ on this earth did not bring the nation of Israel to repentance. His miracles proved to be ineffective. Even his resurrection did not convince the majority of Jews to repent. Universalists need to present hard evidence that using hell for rehabilitation purposes will succeed where other methods have failed.
Do universalists expect God to be eternally patient with those who refuse to repent. Will he leave them in hell indefinitely or insist upon a timetable for repentance. God is long suffering towards humans but at some point in time even his patience will be exhausted. Universalists leave out the details of the plan to rehabilitate the wicked. Will God use persuasion or coercion. Will he intensify the suffering to get better results. Will he allow the wicked to commit acts of evil against each other. Rather than rehabilitation the wicked, hell will most likely solidify their opposition to God and increase their desire to commit evil. I think that hell will only compound and perpetuate evil.
A careful analysis of the plan of salvation suggests that God anticipated the possibility that some might be lost. The curse of the second death points in that direction. While the potential exists for everyone to be saved, that potential might not be realized. Perhaps universalists think that God will perform countless miracles or use irresistible techniques of persuasion to bring all humans to repentance. Maybe when they behold his majesty and experience his benevolence, their resistance will weaken and their rebellion will cease. But we must not be naive about human nature and the depths of evil to which it can descend. A person could reach the point where sin becomes so embedded that it cannot be removed. A state of permanent sinfulness is a possibility. Perhaps some are beyond repentance and rehabilitation would be a wasted effort.
I get the distinct impression that some universalists feel sorry for the wicked. But feeling sorry for evil doers is a case of misplaced sympathy. Making excuses for their behavior or blaming others for their predicament does little to solve the problem of evil. God will take vengeance upon the wicked because innocent victims are crying out for justice. I don't think that universalists comprehend what they teach. Universalism guarantees the salvation of Adolf Hitler. Let the impact of that statement sink in for a minute. I doubt very much if Jews who died in the holocaust or survived the horrors of the concentration camps would want to spend eternity with Hitler. Some universalists even sympathize with the devil and think that eventually he will be saved. This is a stark illustration of the absurdities of unconditional love and universal salvation.
Universalism is a "doomed to be saved" theology. In other words, we will all be saved whether we like it or not. But this belief conflicts with human free will and voluntary repentance. Human choice is a critical factor. God's plan of salvation does not guarantee that "all people will finally accept his love". Sending the wicked to hell for rehabilitation purposes seems like an exercise in futility.
Christological universalism advocates postmortem salvation. The purpose of hell is to rehabilitate the wicked and guarantee the salvation of mankind. I have already shown the flaws in this method. And I find no evidence in scripture that hell is for remedial purposes. The wicked had their chance for salvation before they entered hell. This is the second death, not the second chance. Hell is a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth, not the beginning of a lengthy rehabilitation period. The universalists plan for postmortem salvation shows that God's love is anything but unconditional. He punishes the wicked with extreme pain until they repent of their sins. How many might respond to torment and torture is an open question.
Now we must deal with a dilemma. What is the fate of those who never heard of Christ and were not given a chance for salvation. It is difficult to imagine the majority of mankind perishing in hell through no fault of their own. Will they be afforded an opportunity to be saved through postmortem salvation. I cannot find any support in scripture for an afterlife where you obtain salvation. Perhaps it is a part of God's plan that was not revealed in the bible. Paul said that we see through a glass darkly and know in part. But you would think that a doctrine as important as postmortem salvation would be contained in scripture. It would explain why some are not called in this lifetime and how God intends to bring about their salvation. But I cannot find any scriptural clues that point in the direction. The bible appears to be silent on the subject of postmortem salvation.
We are faced with two alternatives. Either God intends to save the vast majority of mankind in this life or he has a plan for postmortem salvation. If salvation is limited to this life, then God would use different criteria to judge non-Christians. Did they follow their conscience and live according to natural law or did they pursue a life of evil. But this would mean that you can be saved without believing in Christ, which clearly contradicts scripture.
If God does not intend to save the majority of mankind in this life, then postmortem salvation becomes a
theological necessity. Otherwise, we would be tempted to conclude that God's plan of salvation is a miserable failure. Why would he devise a plan that results in the majority of mankind being lost. It seems to contradict the love of God. While I reject the universalists method of postmortem salvation, I am open to a form of postmortem salvation that does not involve punishment in hell. God could resurrect those who have never heard of Christ and give them an opportunity to be saved. This would not represent a second chance for salvation. It would be the first time they heard the gospel and had a choice to accept or reject Christ.
The Catholic doctrine of purgatory is a form of postmortem salvation. Purgatory is an intermediate place where the righteous are cleansed of sin before entering heaven. It expanded the range of those who would eventually qualify for eternal life. Without the existence of purgatory, individuals not deemed worthy of heaven would have been sent to hell. The Catholic Church teaches that God created this intermediate place to prevent those who did not deserve eternal torment from being sent to hell. Purgatory was viewed as a compassionate gesture on God's part. It is significant that half of Christendom believes in some form of postmortem salvation. And it is
worth noting that C.S. Lewis accepted the existence of purgatory.
While postmortem salvation should be given serious consideration, the barbaric form advocated by universalists should be rejected. We cannot conclusively prove that a plan for postmortem salvation exists, but it appears to be a necessity if God wants to save the majority of mankind. To have more lost than saved would cause us to question the love of God. I conclude that postmortem salvation is a theological possibility but beyond biblical verification.
Before I end this section, allow me to make a few observations concerning universalism in general.
I suspect that the psychological reason why people want to believe in universalism is to guarantee their own salvation. It removes all possibility that they might perish and alleviates any anxiety about salvation. They want to take the risk out of God's plan. But it could foster an attitude of complacency and create a lukewarm approach to Christianity. And it could remove the sense of urgency to spread the gospel and reach the lost. Universalism seems more like a "subjective personal preference" than a carefully argued hypothesis. The lack of biblical support suggests that it amounts to nothing more than wishful thinking.
Studying the subject of hell has been a profoundly disturbing experience. I am appalled by the traditional
doctrine of eternal torment and disgusted with the universalist concept of salvation by coercion. If the wicked do not repent, then universalists will be forced to accept the doctrine of eternal hell and admit that not all humans will be saved. Thus, universalism is potentially another form of the traditional doctrine of eternal torment. By contrast, the true biblical doctrine of hell teaches that no humans will be tortured for eternity. The wicked will be put to death and the torment will end. Hell will not exist in the new heavens and new earth.
David Powys Research
David Powys book "Hell, A Hard Look at a Hard Question" deserves special attention because it contains a comprehensive analysis of the subject. He was awarded the Doctor of Theology for "The Hermeneutics of Hell". His book is an abbreviated version of that dissertation. Powys' rigorous examination and thorough discussion of this difficult subject makes his book a must read. He discerns the fate of the wicked in the Old Testament, the synoptic gospels, the Pauline corpus, and the Johannine literature. He discusses relevant intertestamental writings: the apocrypha, pseudepigrapha, dead sea scrolls, and rabbinic tradition. And he includes early Christian perspectives as well as modern thinking on the fate of the wicked. Powys' tentative conclusions carry considerable weight and should be taken seriously. Here is a summary of his findings.
"To the extent that the fate of the unrighteous is discernible within the New Testament, it is construed
chiefly in terms of loss of life and/or consignment to death."
"When the theme of loss of life and loss of relationship are found in combination they indicate the
predominant New Testament stance on the question: the unrighteous will cease - relinquished by
the source of life, their lot will be death without end."
"There is not certain support within the New Testament for an expectation of ongoing conscious
suffering for the unrighteous."
"There is little or no New Testament warrant either for the expectation that the unrighteous will
undergo ongoing postmortem retribution, or that the unrighteous will be made righteous and
"The tentative findings of this study is that the unrighteous will have no life after death, save
possibly to be raised temporarily to be condemned. The unrighteous, whoever they prove to be,
will find that God respects them in death as in life - true to their own choice they will have no part
in the restored kingdom of God, indeed, severed from the source of life, they will be no more."
Powys' exhaustive research and detailed analysis deserves respect and his tentative conclusions are of the utmost importance. His book makes it evident that both the traditionalist and universalist position lacks biblical support. The preponderance of biblical evidence strongly suggest that the fate of the wicked is eternal death.
Final Thoughts on Hell
How do traditionalists reconcile God's final victory over sin with their belief in constant and continuous evil in hell. Must God resign himself to the existence of eternal evil and settle for a partial victory by confining sin to the fires of hell. The traditionalist position offers no ultimate eradication of evil and no prospect for total victory. This is hardly a satisfactory ending to God's plan of salvation. It sounds more like a stalemate than a victory.
In the book "Hell under Fire", traditionalist Christopher Morgan makes the rather disturbing statement that "through punishing non-Christians eternally in hell, God will vindicate his majesty, display his power, glorify his justice, and indirectly magnify his grace" (p. 218). You would have to be suffering from spiritual insanity to make a remark like that. In truth, eternal hell destroys God's grace, diminishes his justice, and degrades his majesty. Only Satan would have the desire to torment and torture humans for eternity. I suspect that he is the source of this hideous doctrine. It is one of his masterpieces of deception. He wants God to look evil in the eyes of man.
In the same book, traditionalist Robert Yarbrough admits that "the doctrine of eternal conscious torment strains our sense of justice" (p. 90). Actually, the strain is so great that our sense of justice breaks down. Most humans instinctively know that eternal torment is not just. But Yarbrough is blinded by his belief that the bible teaches eternal torment and determined to defend his position regardless of the moral and spiritual implications. It begs us to ask the question: How many heretics will it take to straighten out a traditionalist on the subject of hell.
I am not trying to get rid of hell or have it removed from theology. The bible teaches a literal hell where the wicked are put to death. I do not seek to minimize God's hatred of sin. He is a consuming fire and takes vengeance upon the wicked. This is not an attempt to sanitize God and dress him up in a new image. Nor is it a desire to indulge in sentimentalism. And I have no intention of conforming to the current culture by transforming God into a humanitarian who is held captive by human standards. Nor do I want to play the role of a "mercy theologian" who is trying to rescue the wicked from eternal torment. I am attempting to restore the true doctrine of hell to its rightful place in theology.
Traditionalists complain that death isn't sufficient punishment because the pain lasts but a short duration. They accuse annihilationists of letting evil doers off the hook and taking the sting out of hell. But putting the wicked to death is not letting them off the hook. Most criminals prefer life in prison to the death penalty. Augustine, a strong advocate of eternal torment, made an insightful comment regarding the death penalty.
"Where a serious crime is punished by death and the execution of the
sentence takes only a minute, no laws consider the minute as the
measurement of punishment, but rather the fact that the criminal is
forever removed from the community of the living."
(The Fathers of the Church, A New Translation 1954, pp. 369-70)
The focus should not be upon the degree or duration of suffering. God has no desire to extend the punishment beyond what is necessary to eliminate the wicked. His goal is to remove evil from the world. Traditionalists should take to heart the following comment by Edward Fudge.
"The fact is that the bible does not teach the traditional view of final
punishment. Scripture nowhere suggests that God is an eternal
torturer. It never says the damned will writhe in ceaseless torment
or that the glories of heaven will forever be blighted by the screams
from hell. The idea of conscious everlasting torment was a grievous
mistake, a horrible error, a gross slander against the heavenly
father, whose character we truly see in the life of Jesus of Nazareth."
(Two Views of Hell, p. 20)
Universalists claim that the death penalty is unjust because God would never require infinite punishment for finite sins. I strongly disagree. Eternal death is a just sentence for an unrepentant sinner who continually does evil. God's love does not require him to tolerate evil for eternity. Nor does his love restrict him from administering the death penalty. It is an act of love to protect the citizens of heaven from the corruption of sin and it is the ultimate act of justice to rid the universe of evil.
It is not a matter of paying an infinite price for a finite sin. The real issue is what to do with an evil person who refuses to repent. What purpose does their existence serve. Is eternal unhappiness worth living for. How long can an evil person exist before self-hatred and self-destructiveness dominate his thinking. Ending an evil person's life would be an act of mercy, not an act of cruelty. Living for eternity in an evil state of mind would be a futile existence and facing a future that looks like the blackness of darkness would lead to eternal depression.
It is the sacrifice of Christ that makes the love of God compatible with the death penalty. If every human accepts Christ's sacrifice, then all will be saved and universalists will get their wish. But those who reject God's gracious offer of a substitute to die for their sins will have to pay the penalty themselves. This is the height of fairness. God displayed his love and justice by sacrificing his son for the sins of the world. His sense of justice far exceeds human standards. What human court provides a substitute to die for criminals. What human court offers forgiveness and drops all charges against a convicted criminal because of remorse on his part. God's form of justice is unheard of in the criminal courts of mankind. He is more than fair. His justice exceeds man's justice. Humans will receive a just and fair trial in the court of heaven.
The traditional doctrine of eternal torment is neither just nor fair. Clark Pinnock comments on the ethics of God.
"Under gospel ethics, the traditional view of hell in inconceivable. It would
amount to inflicting infinite suffering upon those who have committed
finite sins and goes far beyond an eye for an eyes and a tooth for a tooth."
(Four Views on Hell, p. 152)
The doctrine of hell must pass the moral test of the Sermon on the Mount. If the traditional doctrine is true, then God does not love his enemies. To torment and torture humans for eternity would be the supreme act of hate. God does not teach "love your enemies" and then practice the opposite. He loved his enemies by putting his son to death for their sins. God practices what he preaches. He provided a savior so that humans can avert the death penalty. But those who reject Christ must die for their own sins.
F. W. Farrar, Canon of Westminster Abbey and chaplain to Queen Elizabeth, called the traditional doctrine of hell "blasphemy against the merciful God". No decent and respectable God would torment humans for eternity. Granting eternal life for the purpose of torment and torture is worse than evil. How can a Christian church teach such utter blasphemy? I believe that this horrible doctrine is psychologically damaging to the Christian mind because it promotes cruelty and insensitivity.
No matter how many sins your children commit against you and how grievous their faults, I doubt very much if you would condemn them to everlasting torment and torture to satisfy your desire for vengeance. No parent in their right mind would do that. Their conscience would forbid such cruelty. It goes without saying that God is more righteous than humans and would never commit such a act. The concept of eternal torment is utterly repugnant to God. He does not indulge in "spiritual barbarism".
The more you think about the doctrine of eternal torment, the more disturbing it becomes. Many who are saved will most likely have a friend or relative who is being tormented in hell. The inhabitants of heaven will suffer mental anguish knowing that their loved ones are being tortured. It would become intolerable for a parent to think about their child being constantly tormented. It would crush every chance of happiness in the kingdom of God and produce an eternity of heartache and grief for the saved. If you contemplate the thought of a loved one being tormented and tortured for millions, billions, and trillions of years, you will have little choice but to admit that the traditional doctrine of hell is horribly evil.
In his book "Life in Christ", Edward White cites a statement by Reverend Rudolf Suffield, formerly a Roman Catholic priest, regarding the doctrine of hell.
"We found it difficult to avoid violating the conscience, when we told them to
love and revere a God compromised to the creation of a hell of eternal
wretchedness, a God perpetuating what would be scorned as horrible by
the most cruel, revengeful, unjust tyrant on earth" (p. 8)
The traditional doctrine of hell lowers respect for God, questions his integrity, casts suspicion upon his
character, makes his love seem partial, removes him as a standard of morality, and creates a picture of a cruel, sadistic monster who delights in torturing his enemies.
I conclude that the traditional doctrine of eternal torment is horribly wrong and must be repudiated. Only the spiritually blind would fail to notice the contradiction between the love of God and eternal hell. This disgusting and abhorrent doctrine has not place in Christianity.
Authors note: If you are a member of a church that teaches eternal torment or "separation", then confront your pastor and demand answers. No Christian in his right spiritual mind would tolerate a pastor that teaches the hideous and horrible doctrine of eternal torment or eternal separation. Consider the fact that your financial contributions are supporting and perpetuating a false belief. And if you are sponsoring missionaries, then you are indirectly responsible for deceiving others into believing lies about God and hell. Have the courage to take a stand on this issue. If your church refuses to change their doctrine on hell, then move to another church.
Copyright (C) 2007 Albert Emanuel