Questions?


On Dec 5, 2011, at 3:50 PM, Sheila C__ wrote:

Dear "Alistair Workman,"

I am having a crisis of faith and came across your Website after Googling "eternal hell." I have been a Christian all my life but I can no longer accept that God is a torturer and that hell is eternal. I have been reading your Website (but have not read it all) and other "Universalists" sites and one thing none of them, so far, has addressed: If hell is NOT real...then why did Jesus talk more about it than heaven? And he described it as a very bad place where there will be "weeping and gnashing of teeth." So maybe hell is not eternal, and maybe it is not a lake of fire, although there is some evidence that both might be, but it sounds pretty bad based on JESUS' own words (below).

Forgive me if I have missed this on your Website...but how do you explain all of these teaching of Jesus on the afterlife of unbelievers (a.k.a. hell)? Do you just ignore HIS very words? And if there isn't an eternal hell...then what are we SAVED from? Saved from annihilation just doesn't seem that big of a deal or worth all the fuss.

Your insights and opinions will be appreciated...I am not looking for an argument...I am looking for help.

Sincere regards,
Sheila

Thanks, Sheila, for this lovely letter. I"m so glad to discuss these scriptures with you. I apologize for taking so long to get back to you.

Let me just say that what you are experiencing is not a crisis of faith, but an awakening to the depth of God's love and an awareness that the scriptures, on the surface, are in conflict with each other. Somehow we need to find out from God's word, without twisting it, how to harmonize the character of love that we see in God, with the concepts of hell that have long been held in the traditional Christian church. It's not enough simply to choose which texts seem more powerful... we've got to find out how God's word agrees with itself, and keep adjusting our understanding until we have a clear picture of the entire mind of God.

I'm going to take your scriptures in a different order:

Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (Matt 10:28 NIV)

Let's start here. Notice what Jesus says. He's talking about the Greek word Gehenna -- which concordances define as the valley of the sons of Hinnom. It was a place, and in the minds of Jesus' hearers also had a metaphorical meaning. It is the ultimate penalty for willful, intelligent disobedience, I believe, and is the term Jesus uses when describing the final judgment of God. The translators don't help us when they fail to distinguish it from the more common Hades (old Testament, Sheol) which is the condition of Adamic death.

More on the distinctions later. But notice that Jesus defines this condition, which in Revelation is equivalent to the term "lake of fire". He says it is the destruction of the soul and body.
The DESTRUCTION of the soul and body.

Hmmm. Two things should jump out at you. First, that the soul is destroyed there, doesn't keep on living eternally. And the body too. Nothing left, right?

The second thing that should jump out is that this ultimate judgment (Gehenna in the gospels, Lake of Fire in Revelation) is not a place of torment, but destruction. Note that the lake of fire is twice defined, in plain language in the scripture itself, as "the second death." And note that "death" and "hades" are thrown there. This is important, because you can't torture death, but you can destroy it. How does one destroy death? By removing from its grasp all those who have gone there. By resurrecting all the dead who have ever lived, just as Jesus and the prophets has told us God will do. And when there are no longer any souls in oblivion, awaiting a resurrection, Hades is destroyed, too. It's been cast into the lake of fire.

So I'm trying to begin here to build a case that says this:

  1. When everyday people die ... the children of Adam, also called the "children of wrath", they "fall asleep" and become unconscious in a death from which they will be awakened. This is Adamic death. It is a temporary condition, and all people who have ever lived will be awakened out of it by Jesus during the Millennium.
  2. But there are a few people who, when they die, are judged finally, and found unworthy of any future opportunity of life at all. They die the "2nd death" as it is styled in Revelation. Jesus in this passage is warning the Phasisees and other religious people that if they have a relationship with God, they need to attend to their ways and guard their hearts. Because if their sins are willful, if their hearts are perverse in rejecting God and sinning against full light and knowledge, they could find themselves destroyed in body and soul upon their death.

That's the warning Jesus is giving. If you follow his drift he is talking to people who know who he is, have witnessed his miracles, and have therefore a greater responsibility.

Now let me look at some more scriptures with you to establish these points as clearly taught in scripture.

Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.” …Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life. (Matt 25:41-46 NIV)

Clearly, Jesus is talking about the same situation here. Only he is not warning those who were acquainted with him during this age of the church. If you follow with the full account in Matthew 25, beginning in verse 31, note that he is talking about the judgment of all the nations when Jesus is sitting on his glorious throne. Now, other scriptures plainly say that when Jesus comes he arrives upon the scene when the world is in the midst of trouble and rebellion, and immediately resurrects his followers, who then join him in the work of judgment and correction of the nations.

Nations and systems are dealt with as well as individuals. The devil is thrown into a "bottomless pit" where he cannot deceive the nations at all. His angels are finally and irrevocably judged, that is, receive their fate based on their actions to that point. False systems like the Whore of Revelation, the "Beast" and the "False Prophet" -- all of which I will argue are human creations that we commonly call churches -- but are really systems of deception -- will cease to exist as people lose their belief in those systems and the ideas they hold. This is a process of torment to the systems but is certainly not torture of human beings... and the end of those systems as described in Rev 20 is their full destruction AS SYSTEMS OF BELIEF AND POWER.

And then there are the people themselves, who Jesus died to redeem. That's what this passage is referring to.

Remember that Jesus and the prophets have elsewhere said that the age of Messiah's reign is 1000 years long. And Revelation 20 is clear that there are two resurrections, so to speak. The first is an immediate resurrection to life of those who had already proven themselves worthy of life during their lifetime on earth. In John 5 Jesus refers to this as the "resurrection of life". 1 Cor 15 refers to it as the resurrection to which faithful Christians ascend -- glory, honor, and immortality. Rev 20 states that the rest of the dead of the world don't truly live until the full thousand years are completed. However, we should not think of them as not awake and functioning during that time.

Many scriptures convey the notion that folks today ... everyday people who do not have the inner life of God working in them through the Gospel -- are included in the term "the dead". They are dead in trespasses and sins. They are dead in the sense that they are under the Adamic curse, and are born dead, so to speak. That's all of us until the power of the resurrection enters our hearts and lives through saving faith in Christ. This explains some of the enigmatic comments of Jesus such as "let the dead bury the dead", etc.

But I digress. My point is that during the Millennium people ... ALL PEOPLE ... are being raised right and left, and are as alive as anyone we see around us today ... living and learning as humans but not fully entered upon eternal life until they pass the test that Jesus describes in this passage ... they have to go under the rod of the shepherd, and be separated into either sheep who will keep on living forever, and truly become alive at that point ... or they must be sent to eternal death --- the second death -- as Revelation 20 and this passage describe it.

Before looking at the specific words Jesus uses to describe this final, fatal condition of those who fail the test, lets notice what he says about those who he will accept for eternal life, and those he will reject.

The sheep are unconsiously good. Their goodness does not consist so much as obedience to a list of righteous deeds, as an inner love which causes them to do good for others, and place others ahead of themselves in their thinking. That's why they are a little mystified as to why Jesus put them in the sheep pen. "When did we give you water?" etc. They are loving and it's part of their character. These are the kinds of people God wants in his universe.

And then there are the goats. They are unconscious of their lack of love. They are focused on themselves, and never really notice that around them are people who need water, need food, are stuck in prison, etc. And so when Jesus says, "I was sick", they say, "When were you sick?" "When did I miss the chance to nurture you?" Their selfishness is just part of them, and they haven't been humbled and filled with empathy as they should have been from the experience of life in a fallen world... and in the end, after repeated correction and teaching they will ultimately have proven by their SINS OF OMISSION that they are not worthy of eternal life.

And so they will depart.

They won't live with the righteous, in eternal life, in society and family and fraternity and love. They will cease to exist in the 2nd death.

The words Jesus uses to describe this are illustrative of that simple cessation of life. He uses the words that traditionalist translators render as "eternal punishment". Eternal is the greek word aionios, and it means, literally, agelasting or indefinite. I won't argue that in this context it can't be thought of as everlasting... though I have friends who would say it never means "forever". Regardless, the important word is kolasis -- rendered punishment in the traditionalist translations such as KJV, NIV, etc. Thayer's says it literally means correction, punishment, or penalty. It's only used twice in the Bible -- Matt 25:46 and 1 John 4, where it refers to the impact of fear on our lives and actions -- a curtailing and a limiting.

We learn more, however, when we look at the root word, kolazo. It literally means to lop or prune, as trees and wings. Farmers would cut off a branch of their olive tree or grapevine, not to torture the vine but to end its growth. The part that was left would become more fruitful. The part that was cut off would die, and be put in a pile and disposed of. Compost heap kinds of stuff.

Chickens, ducks, and geese would have kolasis done to their wings, not to torment them, but to keep them from flying away.

This etymology is why 2 Peter 2:9 describes the correction and limitation that is inflicted on the unrighteous by their life circumstances until they are dealt with later, in the day of judgment. Note that the unrighteous (which is most people in reality) are kept by God in the condition of correction and limitation until the day of judgment, when they truly get good instruction and a full opportunity to learn from their past.

Now one more thing on this: The goats do not have a final judgment rendered against them because of whatever they did in this life. It doesn't matter if they were Joe Sixpack or Attila the Hun ... they did some good things and they did some bad things but by and large they were unfinished creatures when they entered the grave. But Revelation 22:12 is clear that when the judgment period begins, they will be judged or evaluated "according as his work SHALL BE." Check it out in the BLB, look at the verb tense, and you'll see that the translators, especially NIV, got it wrong by making it past tense. Folks will be judged according to how their works SHALL BE during the millennium. Yes, there'll be accountability for the past, a record of acts and character flaws that will need to be addressed. But no one will come from the grave with a foregone conclusion held against them. EVERYONE will have a full and fair opportunity to learn from the past, and tons of superhuman helpers to show sympathy, encouragement, and tough love when needed.

Now let me add a couple of other scriptures which show, in my view, that I am right about viewing the day of judgment -- the thousand years of Jesus' rule on earth -- as a time for joy and learning and restoration.

Psalm 96 is a song for the whole world to sing... that the judging of the earth is righteous, it is happy for the heavens (the righteous angels, and also, biblically, the spiritually awake among men). The sea are bibliically the restless masses of mankind ... they will roar their approval and, in Revelation 21, in the end there won't be a sea of the restless, tired, meek of the earth... they'll all be dry land as it were. The field, which Jesus in his parables likens to the world at large, are exultant, and all the trees -- the stalwart members of society -- are singing for joy. Why, because finally -- FINALLY, God (with Jesus in the lead for the Millennial period) is bringing to pass the judgment -- the establishment of fairness and opportunity for all that the prophets have reassured us will come.

Isaiah 26:9 states that when God's judgments are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world will learn righteousness.

Isaiah 25 states that it's like a feast for ALL people.

Isaiah 35 states that even the ignorant and fool will not err in that time... righteousness will not longer be a narrow way but a highway that has no stumbling stones on it.

Rev 21 says God will ultimately dwell with him, and all their tears will be wiped away. That is not a promise to the church... they are pictured in that passage as the bride, the lamb's wife.

And in John 5:19-30 Jesus talks at length about judgment. Clearly he is not referring to final sentencing or torment or "damnation" or "condemnation" as some translations render it in some of the verses. To use the word consistently in that passage, it must mean "a period of trial, testing and opportunity" rather than "a moment of decision in your case."

Read the passage carefully and you'll see what I mean... Jesus says unequivocally that all evaluation or selection is being entrusted to him by God. He says that his evaluation is just or fair, and that if the dead hear his voice (again, they are dead after their resurrection until they receive the final judgment of life eternal at the end of the millennium) they shall live. If they don't "hear", that is, respond appropriately and obey and get their hearts in line with love during the Millennium, then the final decision at the end of the millennium will be the opposite of life.

Those who were already righteous (victorious Christians) when the time of resurrection comes, are resurrected instantly to eternal life. (that's the first resurrection). And those who were doing the evil deeds of normal people during their time on earth, come forth in the millennium to a "resurrection of or by judgment or trial". Their resurrection proceeds as they respond to the lifegiving influences of the Millennium. At the end, if they follow the light, they'll be fully resurrected.

I could go on but I know you don't have time to read a book... :-)

 

Now let's look at the scriptures that don't describe eternal judgment or "Gehenna" at all, but refer to suffering and tough lessons learned by folks in this world, as a result of the changes God promises to bring about.

I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matt 8:11-12 NIV)

Here, for example, Jesus is warning the religious establishment that there will be weeping and regret when they realize that the humble and righteous who God is seeking will gain power and authority in Messiah's reign, and they won't be there in that picture. They'll have to go back to square one and learn the lessons of humility. That sense of loss and disappointment is what is meant by weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Then he said to his servants, “The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. Go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.” So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, both good and bad, and the wedding hall was filled with guests. But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes, he asked, “How did you get in here without wedding clothes?” The man was speechless. Then the king told the attendants, “Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." For many are invited, but few are chosen. (Matt 22:8-14 NIV)

Same with these parables as well:

But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, “My master is staying away a long time,” and he then begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards. The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matt 24:48-51 NIV)

And

For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matt 25:29-30 NIV)

Then Jesus went through the towns and villages, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. Someone asked him, "Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?" He said to them, “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, 'Sir, open the door for us.' But he will answer, 'I don't know you or where you come from.' Then you will say, 'We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.' But he will reply, 'I don't know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!' There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out. People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last." (Luke 13:22-30 NIV)

 

All of these are about lost opportunities by the supposed leaders of religious thought. The Pharisees of Jesus' day prefigure in this sense the leaders of Christendom at the time when things begin to get sorted out just before the reign of Messiah. I believe that day of reckoning is right now, and huge numbers of nominally Christian folks are experiencing this sense of loss and darkness ... and many at the end of this era will be amazed to discover they were ignoring the spirit of Christ among individuals all around them. I don't think there's a single denomination that has it all right... the truth is in many places and God is working with all kinds of individuals around the world. But the common denominator is the mind and heart of Christ -- love and humility.

Now here's another passage entirely: this is a parable about the "Rich Man and Lazarus".

...The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham's side. The rich man also died and was buried. In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, “Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.” But Abraham replied, “Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.” He answered, “Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father's house, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.” Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.” “No, father Abraham,” he said, “but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.” He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead." (Luke 16:22-31NIV)

Who is Jesus talking to in this one? Clearly, to the Pharisees again, the authority figures in Judaism. What Jesus is doing is warning them about what is going to befall the Jewish people during the time between the 1st and 2nd advents of Jesus.

Up till that time, the Jewish people had been rich spiritually speaking. They had worn purple, which signifies royalty. They had feasted on the writings of the Law and Prophets, and the only food for the gentiles ("dogs") were the crumbs that fell from his table. Note there's not a single word of condemnation of the actions or lifestyle of the Rich Man. (Unless you think being rich is a sin) :-)

The Jewish nation soon died -- lost its nationhood as a result of the Roman invasion 37 years after Jesus' death. Then, the nations -- gentiles were exalted. Where? Not to heaven but to "Abraham's bosom." In other words, the Christians who now were coming primarily from other nationalities beside Judaism could now participate in the Abrahamic promise as Paul describes in Galatians 3.

There is a gulf fixed between them, and the Jews, who are nationally speaking in Hades -- oblivion -- see the flame (literally, brightness) of the gospel and are envious of the apparent blessings and favor from God that these folks receive, while they are being scattered, losing their land, being 2nd class citizens and vagabonds all over the world. They are tormented by this because as individuals they are alive and conscious -- but as a nation they are dead.

Then there's an interesting conversation. The Rich Man says he has 5 brothers. Can they be warned? And God responds, they HAVE MOSES AND THE PROPHETS ... if they won't respond to Moses and the prophets, they wouldn't respond even if someone came and rose from the dead.

Clearly Jesus is saying, you, Judah and Benjamin, the 2 tribe kingdom of Judah (which is historically the group Jesus visits) are one of 6 brothers. The other 5 are already awol, away from the promises of God. They are the 10 tribes ... the 5 brothers of the parable. They still have Moses and the prophets to the extent that they remember their Jewish roots. But just as most of the Pharisees didn't believe in Jesus even though he was doing mighty works and was resurrected right in front of their eyes, so it is with the 10 tribes. They made their choice and have separated themselves from the Jewish nation and thus the Abrahamic promise of becoming blessors of all mankind.

Now, other scriptures make it clear that the hades experience of the Rich man was temporary. It's already over, and now they are arising, shining, and their light has come. The time of blessing Zion again is here, and the nation of Israel is back on their land, and God is preparing them for usefulness in Messiah's kingdom, right around the corner.

So I'll argue that applying that parable to anything about the destiny of the world of mankind is totally bogus.

Now here's another parable of Jesus:

Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn. (Matt 13:30 NIV)

This one also has nothing to do with hell. It's about the history of the Christian church, and describes the apostasy that overtook it early in its life ... false seeds were sown, and imitation wheat overtook the whole field. God's plan was to let the true wheat grow in the midst of the apostasy until the end of the age (not world... look it up). We've been in the end of the age for the last century or more. And the destruction of tares which we see and which George Barna has been documenting (this is now the post-Christian era) does not refer to torment but simply the elimiination of false claims by only nominally Christian believers. The number of truly regenerate, Christ followers, has always been a small minority. I've read comments in missionary journals where pastors talk about 5% of their congregations really being serious about their walk with the Lord. The rest are leaving in droves now... the tares are being burned as a result of the fiery troubles of the present time, and the onslaughts of unbelief that make Christianity a mockery.

I have no doubt that Tim Tebow is a righteous and pure-hearted man of God... and he's an example of the mockery that people in general are inclined to heap on those who claim to be devout Christians these days.

Is this happening simply because people are bad and Christians are good? I don't think so. If you look at the nations where Christianity has historically been most prevalent, you see a corresponding resistance to Christianity among the populace. I think the main reason for this is that most Christians really do fail to pass the smell test. Folks learn from experience, and they learn to generalize that most Christians are more than they claim to be. Even the best of us sometimes stumble into sin, and that just adds more fuel to that fire when it happens.

And then there's something else at play here. God is judging Christianity. You can read about this in Revelation 18, Isaiah 63, and elsewhere. The "Vine of the Earth" is the human part of Christianity, the rotten part, which needs to be burned up (not torment of the individuals, but the destruction of the false institution.) And a big part of what is false about traditional Christianity is the claim that if folks don't repent they'll burn forever.

No way would God do that, He is much better and much more powerful than that. He's got blessings up his sleeve for the whole world ... and at the moment traditional Christianity is being judged and exposed so that everything false in it ... especially the bad ideas that make God into a monster ... will be rejected and set aside.

In summary, there is not an eternal hell. Hell, hades or sheol, is the condition of those who are dead, awaiting the resurrection. In the near future Christ will visibly take the controls of human society, and announce a true new world order (not the bogus ones various self-important nations have tried to do with force of arms or the power of money in the last century). In that order righteousness and fairness will truly be in charge, the poor will be blessed, the meek will truly inherit the earth, the proud will be cut down to size. People will plant their own vineyards and live in their own houses. And no one will make them afraid. That's what God's word says is going to happen, and I believe it. I can hardly wait.

OK, that's enough for now, I think. Let's have a dialog going forward, shall we?

Blessings,

Alistair Workman