"The Lord is compassionate and gracious,
slow to anger,
abounding in love.
He will not always accuse,
nor will he harbor
his anger forever;"
slow to anger, abounding in love.
He will not always accuse,
nor will he harbor his anger forever;"
What is the nature and purpose of Hell? What does the Bible have to say about it?
The answers to those questions are not as simple as most imagine because people--often well meaning people--read into the Bible what they’ve been taught. They don’t realise that they are even doing it.
For example, the verses which say there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” do not say that there will be “eternal weeping and gnashing of teeth.” People assume that the suffering is eternal because of what they’ve been taught about the nature of Hell. There are very few verses which seem to indicate the suffering is eternal. On the other hand there are a lot of verses which say God’s mercies endure forever and that he will make all things new.
Now it does matter what you believe about Hell. (If you think God is a monster you will be unlikely to trust him.) But it does not matter as much as many well meaning people imagine.
Nowhere in the Bible does it say you have to believe a particular doctrine about the nature, purpose, or duration of Hell to enter God's Kingdom. You can believe that people suffer eternal torment in Hell, or that some will cease to exist in Hell, or that some will repent in Hell, and still go to Heaven. Take courage; God is very good.
None of us can imagine God to be better than he is. He is the greatest conceivable being.
The person who lives in fear of God's punishment doesn't know how much he loves them.
Love is expressed in many ways. The parent who loves their child expresses it in kindness, but sometimes it will be expressed as punishment. Their kindness, as well as their punishment, is for their child's good.
“...according to Aristotle, “there is a difference between revenge and punishment; the latter (kolasis) is inflicted in the interest of the sufferer, the former (timōria) in the interest of him who inflicts it, that he may obtain satisfaction.” 105 And Plato likewise argued that a person’s “soul is improved if he is justly punished”; 106 Plato also appealed to the established meaning of kolasis as evidence for the idea that virtue can indeed be taught:
If you will think, Socrates, of what punishment (kolasis) can do for the evildoer, you will see at once that in the opinion of mankind virtue may be acquired. No one punishes the evildoer under the notion, or for the reason that, he has done wrong—only the unreasonable fury of a beast is so vindictive. . . . He punishes for the sake of prevention, thereby clearly implying that virtue is capable of being taught. This is the notion of all who punish others either privately or publicly. And Athenians, especially your fellow citizens no less than other men, punish and correct all whom they regard as evildoers. And hence we may infer them to be of the number of those who think that virtue may be acquired and taught. 107
At the time that Plato and Aristotle wrote, then, it seems pretty clear that the Greek word kolasis had an established meaning and that, unlike timōria,” it signified a means of correction. The Greek scholar William Barclay went so far as to declare that “in all Greek secular literature kolasis is never used of anything but remedial punishment.” 108 The etymology of the word is especially intriguing, according to Barclay, because it “was not originally an ethical word at all. It originally meant the pruning of trees to make them grow better.” (Thomas Talbott, The Inescapable Love of God (2nd ed), Cascade Books, 2014).
So here’s my question. If the punishment spoken of in Matt 25:46 is to satisfy God’s justice and has no benefit whatsoever for those who are suffering, why wasn’t the word timōria used instead of the word kolasis?
But what about the Bible's teaching on eternal punishment? Shouldn't I be concerned about that?
If the word which is translated as "eternal" in Matthew 25:46 was always translated as eternal, then I would say those who claim that the Bible teaches eternal torment have a very strong case. But it is not (see Eternity in the Bible). Strictly speaking, the Greek word aionios only means eternal when it is referring to God. (It is worth noting that the doctrine of eternal life is not dependant on Matt 25:46. Even if the verse did not exist, the doctrine would not be in doubt. There are many other verses which clearly show that those who trust God will not die.)
“Then they will go away to the correction in the age to come, but the righteous to the life in the age to come.”
21 In that day the Lord will punish
the powers in the heavens above
and the kings on the earth below.
22 They will be herded together
like prisoners bound in a dungeon;
they will be shut up in prison
and be punished[a] after many days (Isaiah 24:21-22, NIV).
The footnote [a] says
[a] Isaiah 24:22 Or released
Why didn’t the translators put “released” in the text and put “or prison” in the footnote? Because they made the text fit with their theology.
God always judges fairly. And he never punishes more than is necessary. It’s God’s perfect love that makes him Holy. It’s his love which sets him apart. If he was not perfectly loving, he could not be perfectly just. (For an in-depth look at what that means, see the sermon Justice. )
So why a leaflet about Hell?
Why not a leaflet about Hell?
The restoration of all things is good news. It was not regarded as heresy by the early Church. Many would argue (and with good reason), that it was the dominant view in the early Church.
Dr Ilaria Ramelli (at the forgotten gospel conference) explains why the view was so prevalent in the early Church. Her research into this topic is second to none.
According to the prophet Isaiah, every tongue will swear allegiance to God.
“I have sworn by Myself,
The word has gone forth from My mouth in righteousness
And will not turn back,
That to Me every knee will bow, every tongue will swear allegiance” (Isaiah 45:23, NASB)
It’s not a mere confession that he is Lord, it’s swearing allegiance to the rightful king.
In the Bible God never accepts coerced worship; it must be from the heart. Only that brings glory to God. The only way every knee bowing to Jesus and confessing he is Lord will bring glory to God, is if every one of those confessions comes from a grateful heart (Phil 2:10-11).
But doesn't the Bible talk about eternal death?
I know the old Bradley will be destroyed forever. The old Bradley will die an eternal death. The dying process is painful and will continue to be painful while I'm in the process of dying. It will be painful till it is over. The old Bradley will cease to exist and the new Bradley will be like Christ (perfectly brave, honest and kind). I will no longer be selfish. This is necessary because I will not, in fact cannot, enjoy the kind of unbroken intimacy that Jesus enjoys with his Father until I am eternally dead. And I cannot enjoy perfect eternal unbroken intimacy with others until I have died such a death and they have died such a death. All things will be made new. (If this is true, a great many of the arguments used to support conditional mortality can be used to support universal reconciliation.)
Does this mean I'm sure I'm going to go straight to Heaven when I die? No it does not. But I am sure of my final destination. I know God loves me. If he punishes me it will be for my good.
Below is a lecture about how we should approach the Bible regarding the subject of Hell. It is one of the most interesting lectures I've ever heard.
"All Christians are universalists about creation—God created *all things, through his Word. And creation is not simply about origins (everything comes *from God), but about purpose and destiny. Created things have an end, a destiny, and that end, as the beginning, is God. The end of creation is there in its beginning: creation is *from God, *for God, and oriented *towards God, reaching towards its potential and completion *in God. So the question of universalism and hell can be framed in terms of whether or not God will bring all creation to the goal for which he intended it…?" —Robin Parry
God's mercies endure forever.
Whether we like it or not, when there seems to be a tension between certain texts, we all use some verses as trump cards to reinterpret those verses which don't sit well with what we have come to believe. This is not really a problem. We must use the majority of scripture to interpret the minority. But do we actually do this when looking at what the Bible says about God's will and his purpose for Hell? When it comes to this subject the vast majority of Christian theologians use a handful of verses, which seem to support eternal torment, to reinterpret the many many verses which at face value, support universal reconciliation. Is the subject of Hell an exception to the rule? Regarding Hell, should we use the minority of scripture to interpret the majority? (See "Go to Hell?! A debate about the eternal state of the wicked" for more about how large parts of the Bible are ignored to make the Bible fit with different theological perspectives.)
Here is a part of an interview with George Sarris. His book, Heaven's Doors is a great introduction to universal reconciliation. It's heart warming, persuasive, and easy to read.
Some of the debate above is about how we should interpret the Bible. One of the speakers has failed to realise that the character of God is the interpretive key for understanding the Bible. Knowing God's character is the key to understanding his Word. If you don't know what he is like, you will probably misinterpret what he says.
The following video is aptly titled "Her Gates Will Never Be Shut."
This truly is good news.
Perhaps you think people who teach what is being taught in the videos above are false teachers. If so, how did Jesus say to deal with such people? If someone in your church told you that they believed that in the end God will reconcile all people, would you go and tell the pastor? Or would you take the course of action Jesus recommended when dealing with a person you have a problem with? See here.
If you'd like to look into this, but you're not prepared to spend any money doing so, I highly recommend listening to the free audio book, Hope Beyond Hell.
See also TEUS 1.2 - "That All May Honor the Son" (Try to overlook the banter and philosophical rambling. If you hear him out, I'm sure you'll agree with me that this is one of the best (perhaps the best) Bible studies on the subject. It is certainly one of the most thought provoking.)