Author’s note. The views expressed by the different men in this story, do not reflect the views of the author, though my current views are most similar to Jack’s, who represents C.S. Lewis. Each man in the bible study represents a real man who holds one of the different positions. The purpose of this article is to compare the views that have been held on hell through out history. Please compare these thoughts with God’s word and make up your own mind on this critical issue
by Jesse Jost
“Welcome to our Discover the Word Bible study. Today we are going to look at this whole critical issue of Hell. This doctrine, which is of the utmost importance to the Christian life, has come under fire in recent years, as more and more Christians are letting their likes and dislikes determine their theology rather than submitting their minds to the authority of Christ and His Word.”
So began Robert Peterson, pastor of the Community Church. He and five other men from the leadership of other churches had been meeting regularly to discuss what God’s Word revealed about reality. All six men agreed on the infallibility of the Bible, and all six were willing to submit their minds to the final authority of the Scriptures.
Charles, the youngest member of the group, spoke next. “I am really glad we are looking into this whole issue of eternal damnation. I don’t know why, but for most of my life I have ignored this whole topic. Sure, I believed it, but I never really stopped to think about what it actually meant. Recently, I heard some pretty compelling teaching on how a believer can lose their salvation. This really sobered me. I also read a novel about what Judgment Day will be like. In this book, it was scary how many people lived this life thinking they were going to Heaven only to have Jesus say to them, ‘Depart from me, I never knew you.’ I was terrified by the thought.
“So I looked in the Bible and read all of the parables that ended in someone being banished to Hell. What stuck out was that in each of the parables the cause of being sent to hell was not wrong beliefs – like I had believed all my life – but rather disobedience. This seemed to fly in the face of all I have been taught about the importance of being careful to insist that works not become part of our salvation message. I thought the important thing was to confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord. If you did that you had eternal security. But then I read that Jesus says that not everyone who says ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of God. There it is: Obedience is critical to salvation. I then began to worry if I had done enough obedience to qualify for Christ’s salvation. I wondered where the line is.”
Charles paused and looked around the group. “Seeing all this clear teaching on obedience being necessary for admittance into Heaven, has made me question what I believe about God’s love. I have always been taught that nothing I can do will make God love me any more, and nothing I can do will make him love me any less. I thought that God loves us not because of what we do, but because of who He is. Well, I am having a hard time reconciling this picture of God as a Father with this picture of Judgment Day where God callously sends billions of people to an eternal hell.”
He spit out that last phrase again for emphasis – “an eternal hell!”
“That doesn’t sound like Father-love to me,” he continued. “I am a sinful man, but I couldn’t banish one of my sons to eternal, never-ending damnation, just because he doesn’t do what I want! If God sends some to Hell and saves others, I can’t see how He loves us for who He is; it looks more like He loves us because of what we do, and that is a terrible burden!”
Realizing that he was raising his voice, Charles stopped. There was silence in the room.
Robert, the group leader, spoke seriously, “I think God is showing you a hard truth that the church has lost sight of – that God doesn’t love everyone. In fact, there are many Old Testament references stating that not only does God not love everyone, but He hates workers of iniquity, and is angry with the wicked every day. Charles, we do not deserve God’s love; we are sinners and enemies of God. The wonder is not that God does not love everyone, but that He loves any of us. And He does love the elect! On the basis of His good pleasure only, He has chosen a few to sovereignly save and love with an everlasting love. Rather than getting angry with God for not loving everyone, we should fall on our knees and thank him that he loves us! We do not deserve it. God doesn’t owe salvation to anyone. He is God and we are not. God is just – the wicked deserve hell for ignoring God in this life and not being thankful for the good gifts he has lavished upon them.”
It was evident that Charles was not buying this. “Robert, do the wicked really deserve eternal Hell?”
“Yes. In our fallen minds, we can’t grasp how horrible even one sin against a holy God really is. God gave them a chance and they chose to rebel. He gave them free choice and they chose to rebel.”
“But really, the wicked as you put it, do not choose to come into existence. And as you taught last time, we are born into sin; we are depraved human beings, enslaved to the bondage of sin. No one can choose God unless God first chooses to draw him! Where is the justice in that? We don’t choose our existence; we don’t choose where we are born, or what influences we will have in life. We are born with an inability to choose God, yet He commands us to choose Him without giving us the sovereign grace that we need in order to make that decision to come to Him. And yet we are still supposed to make the right choice!
“You say God lets the wicked have their free will, therefore He is just in punishing them. Well, Satan is not such a gentleman when it comes to respecting free will! He shoves lie after lie down people’s throats. He prevents people from hearing the truth that could save them, and he distracts them all the way into hell. It seems like the deck is stacked against the non-elect. And yet you say that God is just in creating these people against their will; doesn’t give the grace they desperately need; lets Satan deceive and torment them in this life, making their before-death experience hell; and then, despite not enabling them to obey, punishes them with conscious, never-ending hell for all eternity because they didn’t obey!! I don’t see ANY justice in that. In fact, what I have just described makes Hitler look like Mother Teresa!”
“Be careful,” Robert warned. “You are infringing on blasphemy. The thing to remember is that God loves you with great tenderness even though you don’t deserve it. And as you watch the wicked receive their just deserts by roasting in hell for all eternity, it will make you abundantly grateful that God chose to love you, even though you deserved the fate of the wicked. Rest in God’s love for you, Charles, and let God be God.”
But Charles wasn’t finished yet. “I don’t see how I can love a God like that. Suppose you walked into your room and saw your dad beating the living daylights out of your younger brother – beating him to a pulp and then throwing him down a well and locking him in there forever. How would you feel if your dad washed the blood off his hands and tried to give you an affectionate hug and tell you how much he loves you? How would you feel? Aren’t you still upset about what you saw? Don’t you bristle at the touch of one who just beat your sibling? But your dad explains, ‘Son, your brother broke my rules. Since I am completely holy and can’t tolerate one sin, I had to beat your brother and banish him from my presence. I cannot look upon evil.’
“Can you love a father like that? Yet that is what you are asking me to believe about God! Personally, I don’t see how some sins in this short life, merit never-ending torture.”
Robert, somewhat exasperated, replied, “We are not asked to LIKE the doctrine of hell, but we are asked to proclaim it. Jesus spoke more about Hell than He did about heaven, and He said that Hell is eternal. I am just proclaiming what He says. If you don’t like it, argue with Jesus, not me.”
At this point, Clark spoke up. “I think there is something both of you are missing. You understand Hell to mean never-ending, conscious torture, but I think that Scripture paints a different picture. The idea that the soul is eternal by default is a pagan idea not found in Scripture. God said that the wages of sinning is death but the gift of God is eternal life. God said that Adam and Eve would die when they ate the fruit. Ever since Eden, our souls have been mortal. It is only when Christ gives us life that we gain an immortal soul. I think that the language Scripture uses bears this out. Jesus repeatedly says that only if we believe will we be given eternal life. He did not say that we have eternal life already and that the only matter at hand is whether our after-death destination is heaven or hell.”
Robert objected, “But Jesus said that wicked would be sent to eternal punishment.”
“Yes,” Clark said, “The punishment is eternal, but the punishing is not eternal. In other words the sentence is eternal but the consciousness of it isn’t. Jesus said that some will be beaten with few stripes and some will be beaten with many stripes and that some judgments will be more tolerable for some than others. Tell me, how is this possible if Hell is automatic, eternal punishment? How does it get any worse than that? Jesus also says that we are to fear God, who can kill the body and the soul in hell. Over and over, Scripture says that the end of the wicked is destruction and that they will perish.”
Robert opened his Bible and read from Revelation 20. “Look, Clark, it says that the devil is thrown into the lake of fire, where he and the beast and the false prophet will be tormented day and night forever and ever.”
“I don’t know if the devil and the beast are demons. In Revelation, sometimes we can’t know for sure whether something is to be taken literally or figuratively. Here it says that the lake of fire was created for the demons, so maybe they will survive. But notice at the end of the chapter when the rest of the unsaved are thrown into the lake of fire, it is called the second death. I believe that refers to their final destruction; God finally annihilates them after they have been duly punished. Perhaps their remains endure and the fire endures forever, but I don’t think the souls themselves do.
“I also have another reason I think annihilationism is consistent with Scripture. In 1 Corinthians 15, we read that Christ will reign till He has defeated every enemy and then He hands the Kingdom over to the Father so that ‘God will be all in all.’ How can God be all in all if there are still millions raging against Him in Hell? And the Bible says that all people will praise Him, but how can those in conscious torment praise Him?”
Robert ignored the question. “Why would God resurrect the wicked if He were just going to annihilate them a little later?”
“I’m not sure…perhaps so that they can be punished for their sins. I know it wouldn’t be just for Hitler to die peacefully in the arms of his mistress and then slip into oblivion. No, God’s justice demands that he be punished. But God is merciful; He will not punish forever.”
Robert was clearly upset, “Clark, you are taking Scriptures out of context and twisting them to meet your human desires. The Bible cannot be more clear that Hell is eternal, conscious torment! You need to surrender your mind to the Bible! Hell is eternal!”
There was a long, awkward silence. Finally, George broke the tension. He was the eldest member of the study group. George had been a pastor for many years, but lately had been spending all his time writing or being out on the streets trying to reach people for Christ. He was clearly respected as the evangelist in the group. Opening his Bible to 1 Timothy 4:10, he handed it to Robert. “Read this and tell me what it means.”
“For to this end we labor and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially those who believe.” Robert shrugged. “I guess this means that if you believe, God will save you.”
“Is that what it says, Robert?”
George gave each man an intense look, “On this grave doctrine of Hell we must let the Scriptures be our guide, not the traditions of men. Many Christians have wrestled with this doctrine of eternal damnation because it just does not seem consistent with God’s unconditional love or his justice. Yet they continue to believe in it because of how our Bibles have been translated. They see that Jesus talks about eternal damnation so they believe it, and through this framework, they interpret the other passages that talk about the eventual salvation of all men.
“Many people have wrestled with the same questions you have raised, Charles. Some have chose to ignore them, some have chosen to reject the infallibility of the Bible, while others have walked away from the faith altogether. They were simply unable to reconcile the two pictures painted in the Bible: a God who loves everyone, and a cruel God who sends most of his creation to an eternal hell.
“But there is another way to view this. Most people miss it entirely because they don’t know the original language that the Bible was written in. The word that is translated ‘forever’ or ‘eternal’ is aionias, which simply means ‘age-abiding,’ referring to an indefinite period of time. But it doesn’t necessarily mean ‘eternal.’ In fact, when Paul talks about a ‘mystery that was hidden from ages past,’ he uses the word aionias. If there can be ‘aionias past,’ then aionias doesn’t always mean ‘eternal.’ Satan is referred to as ‘the ruler of this age’ or, ‘this aionias,’ and we all agree that Satan will not rule forever! We read that Jesus will reign ‘forever and ever,’ or ‘aionias and aionias.’ This cannot mean ‘forever and ever’ as we understand it, because Paul speaks of an end to Jesus’ reign, when he hands it over to the Father.
“There is a Greek word, aidos, that truly means ‘forever.’ Paul uses it in reference to the eternal Godhead in Romans 1. So we see that the New Testament writers had a word that meant ‘eternal,’ but they used a word that just meant ‘age-abiding.’ We don’t know how long hell will be. We will have to look at the rest of Scripture to understand the doctrine of hell.”
The men sat in rapt attention. George was the guy who spoke more of God’s wrath than anyone else. He was the one who most diligently warned others about the dangers of sin and false doctrine. They were shocked to hear him question the endlessness of hell.
Robert was the first to speak. “George, Jesus said in the parable of the sheep and the goats that the wicked go to ‘everlasting – or aionias – punishment, but the righteous to aionias life.’ Thus Jesus said that hell would last as long as heaven, so by making hell temporal, aren’t you also making heaven temporal?”
“Not necessarily. Jesus literally said the wicked would face age-abiding punishment while the righteous would receive age-abiding life. Only God knows how long that age is. There is the possibility that one use of the word could mean a temporary state and the other forever. But aionias is a time word, so it is possible that time only lasts till all has been reconciled. Then when Jesus hands the Kingdom over to the Father, time ends and we enter an eternal state where God is all in all. Only God knows. Such knowledge is so far removed from our realm of experience. Your question is a good one, though.
George turned from Robert to Charles. “You asked earlier how God could judge us for not choosing Him when He clearly tells us that we cannot even come to Him unless the Father draws, or literally, drags us. It is true that we cannot save ourselves. We are dead in our trespasses, if we are saved, it must be all of God. Thankfully, Jesus said that if He was lifted up, in other words, crucified, He would draw, or drag, ALL men to Himself! Jesus said that the Father had given Him power over all flesh and that He would give eternal life to as many as the Father had given Him. How many did the Father give Him? John 3:35 says the Father has given ALL to the Son.
“Listen, guys. Peter says that God is not willing that ANY should perish, and Paul says that God wants ALL men to be saved! Let me ask you, can God’s will be thwarted? God says clearly that it can’t! God loves every single person that He has created. John says He loves the whole world! He has no pleasure in the death of the wicked. God is love, and He says that His mercy endures…how long?”
Several answered, “Forever.”
“Yes! Here’s more: Jesus said that He came to do the will of the Father, and if, as we see, God wants all to be saved, then isn’t that what Jesus set out to do? It is not God who wants to kill and destroy; it is Satan who wants to do those things. Jesus came to destroy the work of the devil! God is full of power, love, and wisdom. Do you think that God would create men whom He knew He would not be able to save? Paul said in Ephesians that God made known to him the mystery of His will that He purposed in Himself, and that will is that in the fullness of times, God will gather ALL things into Christ. Now rebellious souls in hell do not sound like they are in Christ!
“Paul also says that every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is LORD, to the glory of God the Father. Now no man can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit. These men have surrendered to His Lordship! Are you getting the picture? No wonder the angel told the shepherds that he was bringing good tidings of great joy that would be to ALL men!
“Hey, I’m just getting started here. The writer of Hebrews says that Jesus tasted death for everyone! Study Romans 5. What Paul says there is that we were reconciled to God, not when we believed, but when Christ died. Therefore, God can reconcile us to Himself apart from our belief. He also says in the same chapter that ‘just as by one man’s offense condemnation came to everyone, so also by one man’s righteous act, the free gift, justification, came to ALL men.’
“Paul also says in 2 Corinthians, that all is of God and that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, and now we been given have the ministry of reconciliation. Men, the Scripture is full of the promise that eventually all men will be saved; it is stated explicitly and implicitly. Yet because our Bibles have been translated incorrectly, we reject the obvious interpretation so that we can squeeze the doctrine of eternal damnation into the text. If you need convincing, correctly interpret eternal punishment to mean age-abiding punishment and then see how many times God says he wants all men to be reconciled to Him. Jesus painted a picture of how He feels about humanity in the Shepherd who isn’t content to have only a few sheep in the fold, but will not rest until every sheep is safely in the fold. God is unlimited in power, unlimited in love; He will not rest until He has reconciled every soul to Himself. He has promised; He will not fail. I say ‘amen’ to Paul’s word, ‘rejoice always, and again I say, rejoice!’” The old man’s passion left him spent. He leaned back in his chair to rest.
But Robert was not persuaded. “George, if all men are eventually saved, what is the use of preaching the gospel?”
“Robert, why do you preach the gospel, when you also teach that all the elect will be saved regardless of what we do, and that there is nothing we can do to save the non-elect?”
“I don’t know who the elect are.”
“That is not a good enough reason. The reason we should reach the lost is because we are commanded to, and because right now these people are still lost, still under the bondage of sin. Jesus wants us to liberate them and help this hurting world find reconciliation with its Creator.”
Charles was intrigued, “George, are you saying there is no hell?”
“No, Jesus is too clear that those who reject Him in this life – those who take the broad road of selfishness, who refuse their Savior – will die and face the judgment of a holy God. But if God says He will eventually save all, then He will continue to seek such people even after they have been sentenced to hell.”
“But in the story of the rich man and Lazarus, Lazarus says that the gulf between heaven and hell was fixed and no one could cross it,” objected Robert.
“That was not a story of heaven and hell. It was a picture of the temporary state. It was also a picture of the afterlife before Christ died on the cross and made a way for us to be reconciled with God. God’s punishing in hell is consistent with His love in that the purpose of the punishment is to soften the sinner and burn away the disease of self-centeredness.”
“Now you’re sounding like a Roman Catholic,” said Robert.
“No – what the Catholics believe is that those who have already trusted Jesus for salvation still need purgatory to be sanctified. But those who trust Jesus have every sin already forgiven; they don’t need purgatory. What I am talking about is punishment that draws the rebellious to God.”
“Well, if all were going to be saved we just needed a little time in hell to burn away our sins, then why did Jesus need to die? Aren’t you diminishing the work that Christ did on the cross?”
“No. There was no other way for man to be reconciled to God, no other way for men to escape the hell they find themselves in, in this life or the life to come. No one can find life except in Christ; there is no other way to be saved except through Jesus Christ. I am not diminishing the work on the cross. Those who say that Christ’s blood is only effective for a few do the diminishing. I believe that Christ’s blood atoned for – or took away – not just our sins, but also the sins of the whole world, just like John says.”
“But, George, God’s justice demands that there be a hell, otherwise sin will go unpunished!”
“Every sin was already punished at Calvary.”
“Look,” Robert continued, still very perturbed, “If God let everyone into heaven, the place would become corrupted.”
George smiled and gently replied, “If God let you and me into heaven right now we would corrupt heaven. We first need to be recreated.”
“It’s not fair that God lets everyone be saved! What about the martyrs who spilled their blood, and those who have been persecuted for Christ? Contrast them with those who live their life in the pleasures of sin their whole life…is it fair that God save them equally?”
“Robert, the martyrs and those persecuted will be richly rewarded, but as for those who live in sin…just remember that a self-centered, sinful life is not fun, but bondage! Sin enslaves; it is a cruel task master. Those trapped in sin are those that Jesus came to rescue. Look at the Pharisees. They were upset that Jesus extended His grace to sinners. However, keep in mind that those who continue to reject Christ will face the fires of a Holy God. There is a broad way which leads to this destruction of judgment. But out of the ruins of these punished sinners will come a humbled soul that will magnify God’s grace for all eternity. They will be saved, ‘but as by fire.’ Pray that we do not waste our lives in this way.”
George looked earnestly at each man in the room. “There is not one argument against universal salvation that isn’t also an argument against our own salvation. We wanted nothing to do with God; we were His enemies, dead in our trespasses! Yet God, in His mercy, chose to sovereignly save us and overwhelm us with His grace. God can save whoever He chooses; He does not need the cooperation of our free will. He clearly says that He wants all men to be saved, therefore, all will be saved.”
Jack, who had been quiet the whole time, finally spoke up. “George, I respect your wisdom and Bible knowledge immensely, and I have wrestled with this subject for many years. I love your ideas and I find them very compelling. If these things are true, then my soul would rejoice and be exceedingly glad, yet I don’t feel quite ready to accept these ideas. It still strikes me as a possibility that hell is eternal. Not because God does not want all to be saved but because He has granted us free will. God is all-powerful, but He will never use that power to contradict himself. He cannot lie, for example. Only an all-powerful Being could create beings that are free to reject Him. I see that forced love is not love. We have the freedom to reject God in this life and it is possible that we will continue to reject God in the next life, and as long as we remain in rebellion, our disease of self-will must be quarantined. Hell is locked from the inside, so to speak, and will last as long as there are rebellious creatures, which might be forever, only God knows.”
Charles cut in, “But is it really fair to send people who have had a miserable life down here and have been deceived, to a place of such horrible torture?! I mean, now that they are being tormented like that, is that really going to make them repent and want God?”
“Charles, Hell is an appropriate punishment for the crime, because the punishment is the crime! Let me explain. The crime that sends us to hell is our rejection of God. We shut him out of our life, ignore him, and basically banish him from our lives. Hell, the punishment, is just the completion of what we started on earth.”
“But why make it a place of torture?”
Jack replied, “I don’t think hell is torture…a place where God or Satan stands over you with a whip. Don’t get me wrong, hell is miserable, hell is torment, but only because it is the absence of God. Everything that is good, pleasurable, or beautiful, is that way because it comes from God. If God steps out of the picture, so does everything good and pleasurable. A person in hell finally receives what he wanted – to be the sole master in his little kingdom. But man is nothing apart from God. Perhaps in the total removal of all that is good, man might finally see his depravity and how desperately he needs God. If the person in Hell calls upon the name of the Lord, he will be saved. Paul says that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.
“I agree with George that God has done everything in His power to save every human and that He loves each of us with an everlasting love. While I desperately want all men to be saved, I have come to the realization that, ultimately, the knowledge of who will be saved belongs to God alone. His warnings of hell and long-lasting punishment are serious. They need to be faithfully proclaimed. Their purpose is to refine us, not just to satisfy our casual curiosity about who will be saved. Our God is a consuming fire and the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. So rather than judge God for who will be saved and who will be punished – which are questions we don’t have an answer to – we should leave this topic in the hands of One who is all-good, all-just, all-powerful, and all-loving. God will do justly.
“When the disciples asked if many would be saved, Jesus didn’t answer them. He basically said to strive because the way to life is hard, but the way to destruction is easy. Instead of judging God, we need to let these warnings about judgment and punishment motivate us to greater levels of purity and holiness and let the fear of God singe away our desire for self and sin. We also need to remember that on this topic of Hell, God is not the enemy, we are. Sin, self-will, and rebellion are the problem. Jesus died not merely to save us from God’s wrath but from ourselves and the power of sin.
Jack gestured, “Men, out there is a hurting world trapped in the deceptive clutches of the enemy and the misery of self-will.
“We do not know how long hell will be, but we do know that it will be terrible. God says that today is the time to make a choice and calls everyone to repent. Paul wrote some of the clearest promises in Scripture about our final victory, yet even he warned the church at Ephesus night and day with tears. We must not only exhort the unbelievers to flee from the wrath to come, but also our Christian brothers and sisters to cling to Jesus who is the Author and Finisher of our faith. Charles, you asked where the line is as far as how good we need to be or how much knowledge we have to have in order to be saved. There is no sliding scale of good works or knowledge. The dividing line is whether you know Jesus or not. And it’s not about your level of knowledge about Jesus either, but whether you know Him as a friend. I believe you can know Jesus without knowing his name or the doctrine of the Trinity – as was the case with Old Testament believers and some of those who have never heard the gospel. I also think you can know much about Jesus and not know him as a friend. A real abiding relationship with Jesus is eternal life. We can do nothing without Him. This life is wasted apart from living it for Christ. The lost urgently need to be warned about future punishment, but more importantly they need to know that God loves them with an unconditional love and longs to set them free and recreate them with a nature that will glorify God and bring deep abiding joy to their lives. God is not a cosmic ogre, cop, or kill-joy. No, the pictures God gives us of Himself are those of a father, a good shepherd, and a mother hen. God even cares and watches over the sparrows, and we are so much more valuable to Him than any bird is. He wants us to trust Him and rest in His love. Notice that Paul says the kindness of God brings us to repentance. Right now the world around us is empty, and lonely, and in chains. Jesus died to save them and reconcile them to Himself and give them abundant life. Get out there and set the captives free!”