Hell – what does the Bible say?

This page last updated October 16th, 2023

Not a nice subject, but it needs to be looked at.

There are three main views held by christians today. Examination of the historical evidence and Jesus’ teachings on the subject show that one of these doctrines cannot be true, and another is most likely what Jesus taught.

4 words

The English word ‘hell’ comes from an ancient German word hel or helle, meaning “a nether world of the dead”, and has sometimes been used to translate 4 words in the Bible:

Sheol: This word occurs almost 30 times in the Old Testament, and was once translated as ‘hell’. But most translations these days use the words ‘death’ or ‘grave’, and the IVF Bible Dictionary says that the meaning is ‘the state of death’. The Old Testament says nothing about ongoing punishment, and says nothing about ‘hell’.

Tartaro: This Greek word, meaning ‘abyss’ or ‘pit’, is used once in the New Testament (2 Peter 2:24), where it describes sinful angels being held for judgment in the abyss. It says nothing about people.

Hades: This Greek word is used 10 times in the New Testament and means the same as Sheol – the state of death. Again, it is generally no longer translated as ‘hell’ and says nothing of ongoing torment.

Gehenna: This is the main word translated as ‘hell’ and is used a dozen times in the New Testament as a name for a place of destruction or punishment of the wicked.

Other references to fire and punishment

There are references to punishment that don’t mention the word ‘hell’. Prominent among these are:

  • Jesus spoke of ‘eternal punishment’ (e.g. Matthew 25:41,46).
  • Paul spoke of punishment and death (e.g Romans 1:32).
  • Revelation speaks of the punishment of the ‘fire that torments’ (Revelation 14:9-11) and the ‘lake of fire’ (Revelation 20:14-15).

Meaning of gehenna – a place or an image?

Gehenna is the English version of a Greek word Ge’enna, which comes via the Aramaic Gēhannā from the Hebrew Ge Hinnom, which literally means “Valley of Hinnom”, referring to a valley outside of Jerusalem. The origin of this name can be seen 11 times in the Old Testament (e.g. Joshua 15:8, 2 Chronicles 28:3) as Gei Ben-Hinnom, the “Valley of the son of Hinnom”.

The Valley of Hinnom had a number of nasty associations in the Old and New Testaments – it was a place where worshippers of Canaanite gods sacrificed children, half a millennium before Jesus, it was the location of a rubbish tip where refuse was burnt, and the location of tombs. By the time of Jesus, it was used as a picture of Gehinnom, the place of purification after death, and perhaps of punishment or destruction of the most wicked.

Most of the NT references to ‘gehenna’ (11 out of 12) are from Jesus – the only exception is James 3:6 which uses ‘hell’ as a synonym for ‘evil’ and says nothing of punishment. Paul doesn’t use the word at all. So we must consider what Jesus meant by the word.

The afterlife in the Old Testament

The Jewish scriptures in the christian Old Testament say very little about any life after death. For most of the Old Testament, life ends at death, that’s more or less it. There was no real concept of reward or punishment.

Sheol, was sometimes seen as a place where the dead sleep or have a shadowy existence, but this isn’t considered to be life, and the dead either cannot, or shouldn’t, be awakened.

But there are glimpses of something more. Some of the Psalms and the prophets see hope, not based on an immortal soul, but on the goodness of God. However the details aren’t at all clear.

Daniel (probably one of the last Old Testament books to be written) talks of the dead waking, “some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2).

So there is no concept of hell in the Old Testament, and only a vague idea of an afterlife or judgment, reward and punishment.

Afterlife in second temple Judaism

However in the period of several centuries between the end of the Old Testament and the time of Jesus, Jewish rabbis and thinkers thought long and hard about these matters. The books in the Apocrypha and other writings (often called pseudepigrapha, writings in the name of famous Jewish figures but not actually written by them) contain a lot of these ideas.

Scholars have identified about 18 different beliefs about the afterlife in this period. The most commonly held by the time of Jesus were:

  • Human beings are composed of an immortal soul and a body which disintegrates at death.
  • Resurrection would occur at the end of the age, when the soul and body would be re-united. The Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection, but most other groups and teachers did. Few believed that the soul continued to live without the resurrection of the body.
  • Some believed that only the righteous would be resurrected, but most believed that all would be resurrected and face judgment. In this way, God would bring justice – vindication for the righteous and punishment for the wicked.
  • There were various beliefs about what happened between death and the resurrection at the end of the age. Some thought the soul slept in Sheol, others that the righteous would exist somewhat like angels or spirits, while others thought there would be an initial and a later resurrection.
  • Gehinnom was the place where souls or people would undergo purification and eventually move on to Olam Ha-Ba or Gan Eden (more or less heaven, paradise or Garden of Eden). This purification was thought to last no more than a year. Most rabbis thought that only the very wicked would not eventually escape Gehinnom for paradise. Most commonly it was believed the very wicked would be annihilated or would waste away, but some thought the wicked would continue to be punished.
  • The non-Jews weren’t often considered in all this, though some believed the righteous gentiles would be treated the same as righteous Jews.

Thus Gehinnom was more like the Catholic purgatory than the Protestant hell. And the most common belief was that most Jews would experience purification of their sins and ultimately paradise, and the very wicked would forfeit their life.

What did Jesus mean?

It is clear that Jesus believed in resurrection, as did most rabbis. He also believed in God’s judgment, though he gave hope that this would be merciful, certainly for those who suffered injustice in this life.

When talking about the judgment in the age to come, Jesus would have used the word Gehinnom or the Aramaic gehanna. He would have known the common usage of these words, as outlined above. We cannot know for sure how much he accepted the common views, but the prevailing views are the obvious starting point.

On that basis, we can examine which of the main views today (everlasting punishment, resurrection of the righteous and universal salvation) most fit his teachings (and the rest of the New Testament).

Everlasting punishment

This view, commonly called Eternal Conscious Torment, has been the most common belief among christians for most of the history of christianity. It is based on a literal (and actually inaccurate) interpretation of the words ‘eternal fire’ and ‘eternal punishment’ in Matthew 25:41, 46, and several verses in Revelation, for example 14:9-11: ‘tormented … for ever and ever’. Thus the two key points are consciousness of punishment and unending duration.

It is worth noting that in none of the 10 occasions that Jesus mentions the threat of ‘gehenna’ does he infer that it is everlasting, and in several he suggests otherwise. Thus while the idea of judgment is fundamental to Jesus’ teaching, the idea that punishment endures forever can be inferred from only one or two sayings, and, as we shall see, is not the most obvious meaning even there.

The images of ‘unquenchable fire’ (Mark 9:43 – Greek: asbestos) are also used to support this view, although it is recognised that “the primary thought of asbestos is not one of duration … but … absolute immutability.” (RA Cole).

Proponents also refer to the parable of the Rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-37), where the rich man, alive and in torment has a conversation with Abraham in heaven, a picture based on a contemporary Jewish belief that there were two sections in Sheol (the state of death) – one for the righteous and one for the wicked. However no-one takes the possibility of such a conversation literally, so it is difficult to apply other parts of the parable literally either.

Two passages in Revelation speak of torment “forever and ever” (Revelation 14:11, 20:10). This is as close to everlasting punishment as the Bible gets, but:

  • the word “gehenna” is never mentioned,
  • neither passage specifically says people will be tormented forever – in 14:11 it is the smoke which rises forever, and in 20:10 it is the devil, the beast and the false prophet who are punished,
  • the terrible imagery of Revelation (lake of fire, second death, etc) suggests destruction rather than continuing torment, and
  • it is unwise to take the apocalyptic symbolism of Revelation too literally, here and elsewhere – these passages can be interpreted differently.

Critics of eternal conscious torment say:

  • it is cruel and unjust (infinite punishment for finite sin is unjust),
  • it is wrongly based on the Greek idea that the soul is immortal (a view not taught in the Bible, though taught by some rabbis) and therefore there is no alternative for unrepentant people (as if God couldn’t mercifully end their life if he chose, rather than continue to torment them),
  • it is based on very few passages, most of which should be interpreted differently, and
  • it ignores other contrary passages.

If combined with a belief that only those who specifically turn to Jesus can be saved (exclusivism), as it often is, this view condemns the majority of people who have ever lived to everlasting torture.

Nevertheless, proponents such as Professor AW Gomes say: “The language is unambiguous, emphatic, and conclusive …. sufficient to settle the argument forever.”

The resurrection of the righteous

Commonly named “Annihilationism” or “Conditional Immortality”, this has been a minority belief through the history of christianity, but is gaining ground in the past few decades (e.g. prominent christians such as John Stott and Michael Green endorsed it). It agrees with the traditional view that those who don’t repent will be judged, but teaches that those who fail God’s judgment are not punished forever, but rather forfeit their life and the opportunity to be resurrected into the new heaven and the new earth.

Support for this view comes from the following considerations:

  • When Jesus speaks of ‘eternal punishent’, the words do not mean the punishment endures forever as we might think. The Greek word aionios (from aion = ‘age’), translated as ‘eternal’, does not mean ‘forever’ but ‘in the age to come’. Even proponents of the traditional view agree on this (e.g. JI Packer: “‘eternal’ (aionios) in the New Testament means “belonging to the age to come” rather than expressing any directly chronological notion”). They argue that if the age to come continues forever, then so must the punishment, an argument that seems quite unconvincing to me.
  • Jesus speaks not of unending torment but of ‘destruction’. When in Matthew 10:28 he warns of the one who can kill or destroy body and soul in hell, the Greek word used, apollumi, has the primary meaning ‘to destroy fully’ (Strong’s Concordance), and the Bible dictionaries give the following range of meanings: destroy, abolish, ruin, lose, perish, kill. Furthermore, the word ‘destroy’ is used in at least 8 other places in the NT in this context. However critics argue that despite these definitions, apollumi in the NT means ‘ruin’ rather than ‘annihilation’, but I find this argument hard to sustain when I look at the passages (see References below).
  • The Bible nowhere speaks of souls being eternal, but rather says humans will ‘return to the dust’ except if we are resurrected to new life.

Commenting on Matthew 25:41 & 46 in his Tyndale Commentary on Matthew, Professor RVG Tasker sums up this view: “aionios is a qualitative rather than a quantitative word. Eternal life is the life characteristic of the age (aion) to come, which is in every way superior to the present, evil age. Similarly, ‘eternal punishment’ in this context indicates that lack of charity and of loving-kindness, though it may escape punishment in the present age, must and will be punished in the age to come. There is, however, no indication as to how long that punishment will last. The metaphor of ‘eternal fire’ wrongly rendered everlasting fire in verse 41 is meant, we may reasonably presume, to indicate final destruction.”

Thus this view, sometimes named “annihilationism” or “conditional immortality”, accepts that the Bible teaches of God’s judgment, but sees that judgment as being limited in scope, as befits both the finite nature of the sin and the limitless nature of God’s love. I prefer to name it “the resurrection of the righteous”, for this emphasises that we humans will return to dust unless we are resurrected by God’s grace.

It is more or less a middle view between the other two more extreme views, and believers in both the other views seem to accept conditional immortality as an acceptable “second best” alternative.


Universalism holds that, in the end, all will be saved because of God’s great love for us. The view has been a minority view in christianity from the early days (Origen and Clement believed this) and is growing in popularity today. It is often held that those who refuse God’s love in this life will go to a purgatory or hell where God’s love will be further revealed to them until, eventually, all will respond, repent and enter eternal life.

This view is based on several thoughts:

  • Quite a number of passages speak of “all” people or the “whole world” being saved. Typical is 1 John 2.2: “he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world”, but others include 1 Corinthians 15:22 and John 12:32.
  • Another strong NT theme is the final reconciliation of “all things (Colossians 1:20, Romans 11.32) when God will make “all things” new (Revelation 21:5).
  • God is said to want everyone saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4), and if he is sovereign, he achieves what he wants.
  • This view is the one most similar to the first century Jewish view of hell as purging for a limited time followed by restoration, and therefore possibly what Jesus had in mind.
  • In response to the passages that talk about God’s justice or punishment, proponents of universalism argue that restorative justice is far more effective and loving that retributive justice, and so God only punishes to bring us to recognise our need of his forgiveness.

However critics say that (1) the sayings of Jesus discussed above indicate the possibility of separation from God, (2) the word “all” doesn’t always mean absolutely everyone or everything, but can mean just everyone in a certain class (e.g. Mark 1:5: “The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to [John the Baptist]”), (3) universalism doesn’t take enough account of people’s freedom to choose and to continue to reject God, and (4) giving the unrepentant and unbelieving time in hell to experience God’s love goes against the idea that we are not immortal, and won’t survive death unless God resurrects us.

What may we conclude?

After surveying the evidence, I am drawn to the following conclusions:

1. The truth is uncertain

Whatever view we hold, the picture is not crystal clear, and we would do well to hold our view with humility about details rather than unjustified certainty.

We should be careful how we discuss our views, and proponents of the traditional view need to be very careful they do not appear vindictive.

2. Gehenna in Jesus day was more like a limited time purgatory than an everlasting hell

This seems to have been true for most Jews, and while Jesus’ teachings don’t support the purgatorial aspects, he didn’t teach everlasting torment either.

3. The traditional view is least likely

The traditional view (unending punishment) may initially seem strong, but it is based on surprisingly few unambiguous passages.

  • It rests most strongly on a few verses in the highly symbolic book of Revelation.
  • The sayings of Jesus, which seem at first sight to support this view, turn out not to.
  • It is telling the Paul, the early church’s greatest evangelist, never speaks of hell.
  • It wasn’t commonly believed by Jesus’ contemporaries and he didn’t correct them.
  • It appears to be unjust (do finite sins deserve infinite punishment?) and entails the conclusion that the majority of human beings will suffer forever while the elect few enjoy eternal life – and yet God is love!
  • It is sometimes only sustained by appeals to not think we can know more than God, when in fact the question is knowing what God actually says.

I think eternal conscious torment cannot be supported.

4. Universalism shouldn’t be ignored

Universalism is attractive (we should all desperately want everyone to be saved), but while it has some Biblical support, there seem to be more passages that teach contrary to it. The New Testament speaks with some ambiguity, but I feel it is fairer to the text to accept a weaker use of the word “all” than to weaken the widely taught idea of a judgment.

Universalism wasn’t commonly believed in Jesus’ day. However it was commonly believed that most Jews would reach paradise after purification in Gehinnom, a process similar to what universalists today believe.

5. The resurrection of the righteous is much to be preferred

The middle view seems to me to make most sense of the Biblical evidence, and fits best into the first century Jewish views, provided we see God as taking a very compassionate view. Jesus’ hearers would most likely have assumed a view like this and his brief teaching on the subject best supports this view.

The resurrection of the righteous is (I think) more realistic than universalism and more compassionate than the traditional view.

No view is entirely satisfactory as each has passages that appear to support it and others which appear to oppose it. But the resurrection of the righteous seems to explain more and require less of a stretch when considering difficult passages.

A final view?

I am therefore drawn to the view that Jesus used the images and thought forms of his day to make it clear that judgment would indeed come to those who deserve it, unless we/they seek his grace. That is an immutable fact (that is the meaning of the ‘unquenchable fire’). We are mortal, and our life ‘should’ end at death, but the grace of God is that those who seek him will receive resurrection into a new, eternal, life. The images of the ‘lake of fire’ and the ‘smoke of their torment’ in Revelation are disturbing, but they are symbolic, and interpreting them literally creates problems (e.g. death is thrown into the lake of fire, suggesting a final end).

But God is merciful, and holds out forgiveness for all who will receive it. It is notable, as RA Cole observes, that Jesus only spoke of hell to his followers or to the religious leaders, but offered forgiveness and the hope of heaven to acknowledged ‘sinners’. We could well follow his example.

It is said that this view removes the incentive for people to believe. I believe quite the opposite is true:

  • God is a God of love, and does not wish to scare anyone into his kingdom. Rather he offers it lovingly to all, and seeks to woo us.
  • The traditional doctrine of hell is a barrier to many people who believe it is unjust as well as unloving.


Bible verses which mention gehenna: Matthew 5:22,29,30, 10:28, 18:9, 23:15,33; Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Luke 12:5; James 3:6.

NT verses which mention ‘destruction’: Matthew 10:28; John 3:16; Romans 6:23; James 4:12; Philippians 3:19; 2 Thessalonians 1:9; Hebrews 10:39; Revelation 20:14.

Key verses to consider: Matthew 10:28, 25:41,46; Mark 9:43-47; Luke 12:5, 16:23; Revelation 14:9-11, 20:10.

First century Jewish views:

Websites presenting the traditional (Eternal Conscious Torment) view: JI Packer, AW Gomes, Christian Courier.

Websites presenting the Resurrection of the righteous (aka conditional immortality or annihilationist) view: Christ Victor Ministries, Jewish not Greek, Theopedia.

Website presenting the universalist view: The Christian Universalist Association, Eric Stetson.

Wikipedia on Gehenna, Annihilationism.


  1. You said, “Proponents also refer to the parable of the Rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-37), where the rich man, alive and in torment has a conversation with Abraham in heaven, a picture based on a contemporary Jewish belief that there were two sections in Sheol (the state of death) – one for the righteous and one for the wicked. However no-one takes the possibility of such a conversation literally, so it is difficult to apply other parts of the parable literally either.” Yet at the same time, as far as I can remember, Jesus’s parables were not like say “The Tortoise and the Hare” where circumstances are understood to be purely allegorical. The thing that bothers me is, why would Jesus use/perpetuate the idea that the dead exist in a conscious state somewhere. His parables are made up stories to be sure, but he never seems to go as far as stretching the boundary between reality or real experience and fairy tales where unreal things happen. It just dosen’t sound like the same thing as a camel going through the eye of a needle saying. At the same time I think an eternal hell is the most hideous unjust concept that has ever been thought. But If you take away the notion that Jesus did not mean that the dead are conscious somewhere, there seems to me barely an iota of a reason left to tell the parable.Everything in the parable seems to be about two states of being namely suffering and comfort. It is further reinforced by the idea that the situations of the two men in life are reversed in the afterlife. I don’t think that would make any sense if both were in a state of non-conscious death.

  2. G’day Tony, thanks for your comment. We are agreed about much it seems.
    “The thing that bothers me is, why would Jesus use/perpetuate the idea that the dead exist in a conscious state somewhere. His parables are made up stories to be sure, but he never seems to go as far as stretching the boundary between reality or real experience and fairy tales where unreal things happen.”
    I’m not sure I agree here, because there are cases where he does indeed seem to build his argument from current views that we would think to be true.
    1. Jesus commonly used non-literal (‘pesher’) interpretation of the Old Testament (see Interpreting the Old Testament.
    2. In John 10:34-35 Jesus deflects criticism of his own claim to be one with the Father by quoting the OT to say that some OT people were ‘gods’. I assume he didn’t mean this literally.
    Like I said, if the discussion between Abraham and the rich man isn’t literal, why should the rest of the trappings of the parable? So for the moment, I feel comfortable with what I wrote. Thanks for you interest.

  3. […] and science & evolution. Are we sure we have our teachings right? In the case of hell (see Hell – what does the Bible say?) and evolution, I believe many christians clearly have them wrong. In other cases, we may also be […]

  4. Stumbled on this post. Although you know by now where I stand, theologically, this is the best, most balanced post on this subject I have ever read.
    Excellent job.

  5. Reading through your posts about hell, unklee. Very well thought out. I’ve been reading a bit about grace and hell lately, and I really appreciate the time you took to outline these points 🙂

  6. Regarding The Rich Man and Lazarus, although the issue of hell especially its’ duration are not crystal clear in the Bible the following questions are rather knotty, I think.
    1.Jesus used a commonly held view of hell where the unrighteous went to a not so nice place and the righteous went to Abrahams bosom or Paradise. Even if the story is complete fiction Jesus was propagating the idea that there is a realm in the afterlife where some people supper.
    2.Why would Jesus perpetuate such an idea if it was false? He often corrected people’s views or enlightened them about spiritual matters.
    3.If this was a commonly held view of hell how would people know he didn’t mean there was a literal hell?
    4.You said some of the elements of the story don’t seem plausible so the parable must not refer to literal events. But I’m not sure we can say what may not be possible in a spiritual realm like hell. My best guess is that such a realm might be rather like some accounts of NDE’s where time and space are at least skewed if not moot.
    5.Jesus told one of the thieves crucified with him that they would be together that day in paradise.
    6.There are a couple of places in the NT that suggest when Jesus died he descended to hell and freed spirits that were there.
    7.Why did Jesus give the beggar’s name, Lazarus, when he could have simply referred to him as a beggar? (I have sometimes wondered if there was a connection between this Lazarus and the one he raised from the dead)

  7. Hi Tony, thanks for your comments. I would agree with most of what you say. Specifically….
    1. Yes, I agree. But since Jesus used the words “destroy” and “destruction”, that means the end of life for the “unrighteous”, not everlasting torment.
    2. End of life for the unrighteous was apparently the most commonly held belief at the time.
    3. See #2.
    4. This is where I most disagree. I am basing my view on the nature of parables. The good samaritan and the prodigal son may indeed have been historical events, but there is no indication that this was so, and it is unnecessary for the parable to be able to teach us. So the same applies to the rich man and Lazarus. Can you imagine christians sitting up in heaven enjoying eternal life, while all the time having conversation with friends and relatives who are suffering deep and eternal torment by fire?
    5. Yes.
    6. Yes.
    7. I don’t know. There is no indication that the “real” Lazarus was dirt poor with dogs licking his sores, etc.
    What conclusion do you come to from all that?

  8. My conclusion is that you make a good case. Most people I think are repulsed by the idea of an eternal cosmic torture chamber although some think it’s necessary and that a punishment of limited duration would be letting sinners off easy. Christians who object to the idea of annihilationism seem to believe that a quantitative (eternal suffering in hell) rather than a qualitative punishment (merely eternal death) is necessary according to God’s justice. The idea being that a resurrection then mere execution soon afterwards seems to be letting people get away with their sins in the sense that they won’t pay for everything tit for tat; sort of like the OT idea of an eye for an eye, etc. What about Hitler people say. Shouldn’t he experience the pain of every single life he is responsible for harming and killing? If the punishment is limited, somehow God has to squeeze in a proportional punishment for sins during a limited amount of time . Of course it’s impossible to get into God’s mind as to how that works. I feel rather like Dante thinking about this and wondering if the choice is between experiencing a hyper-intense pain for a brief period or a slow roast forever. Either way sounds quite horrible but a never ending hell seems so horrible that it calls into question the nature of a God who would allow a universe where such an outcome was inevitable for some souls and I am still somewhat bothered by the fact that Jesus used such an idea.

  9. Hi Tony, yes I agree with all of that. I didn’t say much of that on this page because (1) I think we cannot really know much about how God thinks unless he reveals it to us, and (2) I wanted it to be what the Bible says. But I too feel the conventional view of hell is inhumane, unjust and a travesty of God’s character.
    Thanks for your comments.

  10. Hi! I’ve been trying to find things on ‘hell’ for a friend of mine. She and her husband have lost both of their sons recently, and I’m afraid she’s buying into the teachings of her church. This, I’m sure is weighing heavily on her mind and heart. I’m sharing your blog post with her, hoping that it’ll help give her some comfort. But it has reopened a festering sore of my own. Why are evangelicals so attached and drawn to the idea of hell? Is it really nothing more of a scare tactic for their desire to see the lost saved? Or do you feel that there is some deeper, psychological, need for some people to fear punishment? I know you’re busy, but sometime when you have a few seconds, maybe you could help me understand? THANKS!!!

  11. Hi Jack, thanks for reading, and for your comment.
    I really feel for your friends, it must be awful to lose two children. I hope this page does help them, but I think it would offer only partial reassurance, at best. I think disposing of false ideas about hell is only the first step, we need to also remember the positive love of God.
    My blog post Hell and Rob Bell (written as the same time as this page) is a slightly summarised version of this page, and may be a more helpful thing to read. Can only christians be saved? may also offer some comfort, for I believe “God’s mercy is wider than we may sometimes think”. I think I will write something more directly on this topic, and refer to your comment here if that is OK?
    I don’t think hell is a “scare tactic” much these days, though it may once have been, and may still be in some places. I think christians really believe it, and feel they have to warn people. But it does seem as if some people are “attached and drawn” to the idea, and some even seem to be glad of it, not so much out of a need to fear punishment, but out of a need to feel in the end that their side “wins” and those (in their eyes) foolish people who refuse to believe in Jesus will one day be proven wrong. Such an attitude seems very unloving to me.
    Finally, you may be interested in two recent posts, Rob Bell: heretic, visionary, or …..? and Universalism is the new black?. I don’t agree with all the views of Rob Bell and the universalists, but they do rightfully stress God’s great love, and there may be something there that will help you comfort and encourage your friends.
    Please write again if there is more that you want to say or ask. Best wishes.

  12. Jesus did not descend into hell, He went to “sheol” or “hades” where the spirits of the dead reside.
    There are other ancient writings that mention this event and even expound on it a little more.

  13. Good analysis here! I would critique one portion though; universalism can follow common sense and even a train of basic logic. Tossing judgment literature aside for the time being (I’ll bring it back in a moment), let’s look at what we know about God. God’s love and forgiveness is new every morning and it is unconditional. Nothing that we could ever do can separate us from God’s unending love. Repentance is not required to be forgiven (it’s unconditional). Now we can throw in judgment literature. Jesus often spoke of a place of judgement, but as you have said, it is not eternal and is most likely only for a period of time according to most scripture. Now imagine this for a moment, what if when we die and go to judgement, we are judged based on our reception of Christ and if we did not receive Him, then we go to hell. What if hell is a smelter? Hell is generally seen as a place of fire even in Biblical literature, but “eternal fire” Christians twist it into Dante’s Inferno rather than what scripture says. Now what if that fire was a refining fire that destroyed our bad and refined our good; much like a smelter destroys rock and dirt, but refines the precious metal. 1 Corinthians 3:11-15 seems to reference this. Hell seems to be a place where we go to have our wrongdoing burned away and our good-doing refined and made pure. Now this doesn’t mean that everyone will be refined, I suppose if you continually reject Christ, even in the refining fires, then you will not have any good to refine. Just food for thought.
    P.S. It is interesting to know that the Greek word for repent is metanoia, which literally translates to meta – to change and nois – mind, so metanoia means to change one’s mind. This differs from the English definition of repent, which means to feel remorse. We aren’t supposed to feel sorry for what we did and apologies, we are supposed to “be transformed by the renewing of [our] mind[s].” Romans 12:2.

  14. Hi John, I think universalism is very attractive (I really wish or hope it is true, and I think every christian should hope it’s true) and your idea of refining is possible – I think it is Rob Bell’s suggestion in Love Wins and it is similar to the Catholic doctrine of purgatory. I feel that there are too many things against it in the end to actually choose it, but I understand it’s attraction. Thanks for your comment.

  15. Hi SS, thanks for commenting. Did you read my page before your left your comment. If so, did you notice that you have used a few mistranslations of the original language in your article? For example:
    *The Old Testament doesn’t have a word for “hell”, only for Hades, which is not the same. Hades was simply a name for the place of the dead, or the grave.
    * If you checked out the actual meanings of the words Jesus used, you would find that it isn’t so easy to say the doctrine of annihilation is false. Many times Jesus used the word “destroy”, which means exactly what it says, and when you see th word translated “eternal”, did you know that it doesn’t mean “forever” but “in the age to come”. So what you mistakenly think means punishment forever actually means “destruction in the age to come”.
    Did you also note that Paul never uses the word “hell” (Gehenna)? If what your page says is true, why would the first and greatest christian missionary never mention it?
    Can I suggest that you read a little more and check out these things?

  16. I understand the comment that Paul did not use the word for hell. But, he does speak frequently of “wrath”. Is this noted anywhere?

  17. I know you think the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man has logic problems so to speak, that disqualify it as a story about literal realities. It would be interesting to hear how you interpret it. I found the following at carm.org which raises pertinent questions. “Some say that this is a parable. However, if it is, it is unique because no other parable actually names a person. It isn’t a story. It is history. It really happened. But many who believe in no consciousness after death will say it is still a parable. The question is then if it is a parable, what is it teaching? If hell fire is false and if self-awareness after death is also false, then Jesus is using false doctrines to teach a truth. Parables illustrate truth. If it is a parable, what does the consciousness after death symbolize? Also, what does the agony in flame symbolize? Are they not real? Of course they are.” To which I would add the rich man is presented as suffering. I guess the biggest question is how long it lasts which I take it you leave an open question.

  18. Hello to both of you. Thanks for visiting my website and commenting.
    “But, he does speak frequently of “wrath”. Is this noted anywhere?”
    I haven’t mentioned “wrath”, if that’s what you mean, because I was talking of something else. The wrath of God doesn’t imply there is a hell, it simply describes how God feels, not what he does. And the Bible dictionaries tell us that “wrath” doesn’t mean quite the same as we often take it (i.e. angry and judgmental), but is more along the lines of “the emotional response to perceived wrong and injustice” (Holman Bible Dictionary) or “displeasure, indignation, anger, wrath” (Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. So the sense is more of “putting right” than “punishment”.
    This fits with Jesus, who we believe is the most complete revelation of God’s character that we can see. He showed very little anger towards normal “sinners” and reserved his judgment mostly for the religious who misrepresented God. I think we need to be careful here.
    “It would be interesting to hear how you interpret it.”
    Anthony, I think your source hasn’t got it right. The story reads like a parable and is introduced like other parables. I can’t see why we should believe some arbitrary interpretive “rule” like “parables don’t mention names”. Who says? In favour of it being a parable and not an actual story are the details – does anyone really think that people in Hades can see people in heaven and have conversations with them? Do we think Abraham is a spokesperson for heaven? Do we think our eternal destiny is determined solely by our wealth and how we use it? They are all part of the story.
    As for Jesus not using “false doctrines” to teach, what about the parable just before this where a dishonest man is praised (Luke 16:8)?
    So I think it is pretty clear this is a parable, and can’t be used to teach about hell, or it will teach us a number of wrong things. I interpret it to be teaching the need to have a fairer distribution of wealth, something Jesus also mentioned in Matthew 25:31-46. It is an important matter, and I think more on God’s heart than conservative christians often think, but I don’t believe it alone determines our future.
    What do you both think?

  19. Hey UnkleE, I’m back again.
    I would like to further state that there is redemption after death because there are several scriptures that say Jesus preached to the dead when He descended to Sheol. This would remain consistent with what I have asserted (some sort of refining fire), but not annihilationism or the traditional eternal torment. This isn’t me saying “I’m right, you’re wrong”, but is me presenting a further argument.
    Also, here is a very intriguing video that I thoroughly enjoyed and I think you will too. http://youtu.be/F27jxwHDrzM

  20. Hello again John,
    I don’t know if there really is redemption after death, but if there is, I don’t think it rules out the other two views. After all, there could be time after death before the judgment is carried out. I checked out the video, it was interesting and he seemed like a pretty reasonable person, but he made what I think is a simple mistake right at the start, equating the OT Sheol with hell.
    I can’t help feeling we shouldn’t claim too much certainty about this. I feel what I wrote on this page is the best I can think of, but I wouldn’t want to argue about it.

  21. Considering scripture along with Hebrew culture tell us that when we die, we sleep in Sheol/Hades (the Grave) until all are resurrected on judgement day, I think that is reasonable. The issue is that I also think it is reasonable to make the assertion that Judgement day has already come and gone. If Jesus truly went to Hades/Sheol as scripture claims He does and took the keys (shattered the gates/destroyed it), then the prophecy in Revelation of Hades/Sheol being thrown into the lake of fire (which could be heaven) already happened. This is reinforced with the fact that one of the gospels claims that the dead were raised when Christ was raised. If this is true, then God’s Kingdom truly is coming to Earth and we are in the building stage. We are not awaiting God’s return, but are facilitating it by building. This is further reinforced by the fact that the world is getting better and better as time progresses. I didn’t agree with him calling Sheol/Hades “Hell” at first, but if you pay close attention, you hear him say that it is actually the grave and not “Hell” in the way we think of it.
    I understand that, but I think it is important to have these types of discussions concerning what we think and what others think along with the reasoning behind such thoughts. I don’t think it is honest to agree to disagree without having a thorough discussion first.

  22. Hi John, I’m fine with having the discussion and I’m fine with disagreement. But I think you are reading too much into the text.
    “when we die, we sleep in Sheol/Hades (the Grave) until all are resurrected on judgement day ….. If Jesus truly went to Hades/Sheol …. then the prophecy in Revelation of Hades/Sheol being thrown into the lake of fire (which could be heaven) already happened.”
    I don’t think it is sensible to try to construct timing of these events. Why assume that time is the same when we leave this life? (The physicists tell us that time was created at the big bang.) Once that connection is uncertain, we can’t really make the connections you make here.
    “one of the gospels claims that the dead were raised when Christ was raised”
    I don’t recall this. Have you a reference?
    So I think it is important to address the issue of everlasting torment vs destruction vs universalism, but I think most everything else is speculation, and we’re better off addressing other issues. Perhaps we agree there?

  23. I very may well be reading too much into the text; however, if there is continuity and the pieces fit, then I see no issue with reading into the text. Jesus said on the cross that it is finished, not that there is more yet to come. Jesus proclaimed throughout His life that the Kingdom (Heaven) has come to Earth and told us to pray that Earth is as Heaven.
    Sorry, the dead were raised when Christ died (Matthew 27:45-54). I think it is as the man in the video I shared with you said: Christ began the song on the cross, continued to sing it in the grave, the Earth shook, Hell’s gates were shattered, and the dead walked among the living, then Christ breathed His last.
    Theology itself is speculation. Everything concerning any religion is speculation and metaphysical. Every detail of every belief is worth addressing because everything we believe shapes how we act.

  24. UnkleE, I think I am starting to lean in the direction of the parable being more of a parable and less literal. However it is hard to know where to draw the line between about what reality any of the particulars do or do not at least point to. I could say it’s just a parable so nothing corresponds to a literal reality. The parable obviously teaches against the rich who don’t help their fellow man in need. It also seems to teach there will be consequences for that and seems to imply that those like the rich man with suffer a punishment that they wish they could get some relief for but Jesus indicates that there will be no reprieve granted from the punishment to be meted out at some point after death. Would you agree with that at least? However I am stumped by the idea of the rich man asking if Lazarus could be sent to the house of the rich man’s father to warn him and his brothers. That implies there is a place of punishment happening while the history of the world is still going on. It is thought provoking why Jesus would create this temporal juxtaposition of the realm of the living and the dead as if such a possibility might be possible. I also am not sure what to make of the rich man thinking that Lazarus could be sent back (as a spirit or resurrection?) to warn the rich man’s family.

  25. Hi John, I’m sorry, I somehow missed your comment before.
    I think your idea that Jesus has finished everything, Judgement Day has passed, etc, is an interesting one, though I think I prefer the more common interpretation. Many scholars say Jesus was mistaken in predicting the kingdom would come in that generation, but I’ve always thought that it did come, though not completely. I think your idea that it is complete is going too far, but again, it’s not something I think is core.
    I am ambivalent about how much we should speculate. By nature I’m a theory person and these sorts of discussion are quite attractive to me. But I have become convinced that Jesus gives us some plain teachings (e.g. love enemies, forgive, care for the poor, spread the word and live worthily) that we are not yet obeying very well, and I think they deserve more attention. But I wouldn’t want you to think you weren’t welcome here to discuss whatever you choose. If it’s important to you, please feel free!

  26. Hi Anthony, I’m glad you’re working your way to a solution of these issues.
    I tend to be fairly loose about a lot of these matters. I think christians often build enormous doctrinal buildings on fine shades of meaning of Greek words, as if there’s certainty about the exact meanings and as if we know that the NT authors were as particular in their choice of words as we are in our analysis. Expect a post on this shortly.
    So I’m inclined to say the parable teaches one or two broad lessons and the details of the story are incidental. Note that if we said the details of parables reflect true teachings, then in the parable in Luke 16:8, Jesus could be seen to be praising dishonesty, and in Luke 12:46 he praises brutal murder. It may be that the parable supports the teaching you suggest that there will be no second chance after death (though I would not say that) but I think the other details you mention (heaven and hell concurrent with this life, and someone coming back to warn us) are more than I can believe.
    I think we approach these questions the wrong way in western christianity. Jesus promised the Holy Spirit would guide us into truth, so I think we should be praying for the Spirit’s wisdom and guidance, collectively, on questions like this. Expect the same post to cover this.
    I hope you continue to work these things out with the Spirit’s guidance.

  27. Thanks for the link, but I’m afraid I don’t read the Bible like Matt does. I think he applies 21st century precision and epistemology to first century people who thought and spoke differently. There are many examples in the Bible to show the writers were often more “figurative” or “loose” with their meanings than he seems to allow.
    Thus he makes hard work for himself trying to explain things like Jesus’ words to the dying man, when the simpler explanation is that both men were dying, Jesus was short of breath and in agony, and he simplified his words. We couldn’t reasonably expect a detailed theological exposition in that situation.

  28. Great post! Personally I feel that the traditional view of hell, together with penal substitutionary atonement theory have done a great disservice to God in terms of who He is and how we present Him to others.

  29. Hi Wesley. I certainly agree about the traditional view of hell. I know at least one person who would have been unable to continue as a christian if they continued to think it was true that many people suffered forever.
    I am not so anti PSA as you. I don’t agree with those who think it is the only way to understand the atonement, but I’m inclined to think that all theories of the atonement have some truth, but all are in a sense imperfect analogies of the truth that God knows.

  30. As you indicated from the beginning in your post, you do not think scripture is crystal clear on the topic.
    And the longer I listen to this conversation on the matter I sense a fundamentalist reaction rising within myself. You primarily are saying that we need some way to understand the context about scripture and even the context of Jesus own words. This is starting to remind me of the fact that so many things have been and still are unclear to Christians to the point that various sects and even holy wars have resulted.
    How can it be that God has been so inept at being clear? Many will claim it’s because only true Christians truly filled with the Holy Spirit will have the proper discernment, bla, bla, bla. At this point I think I am leaning to the interpretation that despite any symbolism/ metaphors used, the references to Hell and then the Lake of Fire do in fact give a sense of something that goes on and on and on forever, and that’s what makes it so horrible. I think it is the scriptures themselves that have given this impression from the earliest times and thus the traditional view. Sure, it is possible to refer to a verse such as “fear him who is able to destroy both the body and the soul in Hell” but why fear being destroyed thus if it is annihilation. It would be over and done. Also, the Rich man in Hell, though a parable does seem to indicate a period of time of ongoing suffering. I guess it is couched in the 2 compartment conception of Hell at the time, namely Abraham’s bosom and a place of suffering for the unjust, but basically, Jesus doesn’t refute the idea of a hopeless ongoing place of suffering after death for the unjust. I’m sure you won’t agree but that is honestly the message I am perceiving from the Bible.

  31. Hi Anthony,
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. yes, you are right, I don’t agree, but I can cope with disagreement. 🙂 Just a couple of comments:
    1. I don’t think God has been “inept” at being clear. I think rather that God, like any good parent, knows that it takes time and maturity to understand things fully. He reveals a certain amount, but if the exact truth on many matters was written once for all in the Bible, either they couldn’t have understand it back then, or we couldn’t now. I think christians have understated the role of the Holy Spirit and have placed the Bible (a mere book) above the Spirit (one member of the Trinity). So we will constantly need to grow in our understanding and correct old misunderstandings and half understandings. That seems to me to be a more organic, natural and humane process than a fixed unchanging book. Of course some parts of the Bible are fixed and unchanging (e.g. the gospels), but many ideas change and develop and grow within the Bible, so I see no problem with further understanding now.
    2. If we understand eternal = in the age to come, and the words used almost always imply destruction, then I think the few references (e.g. in Revelation) that appear otherwise are the minority. That seems to be the way modern western christianity is going.
    Thanks again. I’d be happy to discuss more if you wished.

  32. It’s been a while since my first comment, and seeing some new comments reminded me why I wrote in the first place. I don’t particularly want to have the afterlife figured out, but I want to accurately present the gospel message. With the ambiguity surrounding the traditional hell interpretation, I’ve been made to wonder what’s going on.
    I see the problem with universalism, though as you said it’s very appealing. And I don’t think annihilation fits quite biblically.
    I brought up wrath because Paul spoke of “judgment to come.” Acts 24:25 when talking to an unbeliever.
    Also 1 Thess 1:10. I Pet 1:10.
    Question- how do YOU present the gospel to an unbeliever?

  33. Hi, I prefer to omit the old fashioned “wrath and judgment” language of a century ago, because I think it gives a wrong impression. As a christian I believe Jesus gives us the best possible picture of God, and he never used such language to the weak and doubting, but only to the religious people. Instead he offered the ordinary people something positive – forgiveness, acceptance, healing, involvement in a community and a part in a glorious mission.
    So I try to do the same. I say Jesus is looking to change the world to be more as he would want it, and we have the opportunity to join him in this. We will find there will be things we need to be forgiven for, but he will do that if we ask – nothing we have ever been or done can stop that forgiveness, healing and renewal if we seek him with a whole heart. He calls us to commit ourselves to a radical obedience that will be costly, and to serve a hurting world. And he gives us his Spirit to empower, guide and change us so we can play our part in this mission.
    What do you think?

  34. First let me say I really liked your response. I t does ring true in the way that life and scripture seems to unfold over time.
    I think this comes down to trying to parse the meaning of everlasting and forever and ever in combination with the horrific idea of an eternal hell or Lake of fire for which some justifications have been put forth by those who have tried to reason it out theologically. Even if it could be shown to be just in some way that to me puts God in the position of ultimately being responsible for such a state of affairs. As if he couldn’t come up with a better reality than to create beings many of which he knows in advance he will have no choice but to condemn to eternal torment because of the very parameters he built into his view of justice which couldn’t allow things to be any other way. I think that is more or less what has to be assumed if one does believe in the eternality of the punishment. The question of course is does eternal or forever and ever refer to the effect or duration. I’m still trying to get past the use of those terms when scripture could have just as easily been inspired to say that punishment will be meted out according to one’s sins until they are consumed and utterly destroyed. Instead scripture refers to the punishment as eternal and forever and ever or everlasting without making the distinction that it in some sense comes to an end which destruction normally means. It’s almost like scripture is trying to emphasize that this is no ordinary destruction or punishment but one that goes on forever.

  35. Hi Anthony, thanks for continuing the discussion. I agree with your thought that “As if he couldn’t come up with a better reality than to create beings many of which he knows in advance he will have no choice but to condemn to eternal torment “.
    But I don’t believe we have to do too much to understand the word “everlasting”. The Bible is written in Greek, but Jesus, who made almost all the references to hell, spoke in Aramaic and Hebrew. The Greek word often translated as everlasting is aionios, which appears to translate the Jewish idea of the age to come. It is usually translated as “eternal”, but the meaning isn’t everlasting but of or in the age to come. So what we sometimes translate “everlasting punishment” is better translated as “punishment in the age to come”. As far as I can see even the traditionalists agree on this point – they just say that it will be everlasting as well.

  36. I am starting to read some on the aion issue and I am beginning to be a little if not completely convinced that understanding it as eternal is somewhat of an ambiguous meaning in the process of translation. I don’t really know but if the authors of New Testament wanted to convey a sense of eternal never ending punishment it seems to me that that perhaps using aion and its derivatives as they did, would also work just as well for meaning that. Especially if early Christians using Greek scrolls understood it that way. I’m not sure if anyone has written on that. All I know is there is a traditional view of Hell and if it is wrong it would be helpful to know how and why they got on the wrong track. I am beginning to look at Christianity in a new way. Not only are things like the Trinity beyond a rational understanding but many other matters that one would think should have a clear cut answer seem to be vailed by a semantics problem or lack of clarity. Devout people have come up with such divergent views over the ages and that both troubles and disturbs me. If Christians are supposed to give reasons for there hope but some things are so cloudy, it puts them in a difficult position. It creates the very atmosphere where wrong doctrines can so easily be created because people can and have rationalized / justified any number of things based on scripture. I feel I have more to say, that so many doors in my mind are opening that I hardly know where to begin. I just wanted to add these thoughts for now. I can see that opening the Hell door has led to so many others that I know I will need to continue to think on these things.

  37. Hi Anthony, I think it is good that you are thinking deeply about this. Doubt and questions can be the gateway to new understandings. My understanding of eternal etc came from a Professor of Greek, quoted in the post, and it certainly was a revelation and help to me.
    I think we can approach the Bible in several different ways. The more traditional evangelical way is to assume it is a recipe book for life and belief spoken out by God and written down faithfully by the writers who were effectively scribes. Then if it fails to fit that expectation (because it is unclear or contains apparent mistakes) then faith can be lost.
    But I think those “problems” with the evangelical view should rather be a sign that the view was wrong, not the Bible. I think the evidence indicates that God inspired the Bible in a more subtle way, because God is working on earth in a way that doesn’t destroy our autonomy and freedom. But the cost of that great gift of freedom is that we get more things wrong, and we struggle more. That is indeed worrisome, but if God is OK with that, then I feel I have to be as well.
    I think it is really exciting to see you write “so many doors in my mind are opening that I hardly know where to begin. I just wanted to add these thoughts for now. I can see that opening the Hell door has led to so many others that I know I will need to continue to think on these things.” I would be very interested to discuss more with you about some of these things. If you are interested, please feel free to use the email link at the top.
    Thanks, Eric

  38. Hello again. I am sorry for the long delays between things I post. I’m thinking on these thoughts, though.
    I’m getting back to your response to my question on how you present the gospel. I and my husband read it and appreciated it. I still have many questions though. Here are 2.
    1. I understand the positive kind message to the regular people. But, those people were mostly Jews, if I’m not mistaken. They had some understanding of God and sin. I would imagine the Sermon on the Mount was given to people who already had some fear/respect for God already, yet they were oppressed. I understand, too, about the Pharisees and Sadducees. They certainly had a boast in God, but what an indictment when Jesus says in Matt 22:3, “Therefore do whatever they tell you and observe [it]. But don’t do what they do, because they don’t practice what they teach.”
    I just wonder if solely using Jesus’ model is accurate when we are preaching the Gospel to Gentiles. In America, we have some very secular Gentiles at that. So, perhaps, the take away I have is to really try to evaluate who I’m talking to.
    Even speaking to the Samaritan woman at the well, though her life was immoral, she had somewhat of a knowledge and somewhat of a respect for the things of God.
    I don’t know. I guess my question would be, what are your thoughts on that line of thinking?
    2. This is the one that is just not sitting well with me. You mentioned you prefer not to use the old fashioned “wrath” type language. But, if that is how the apostles shared the Good News, I want to be very careful to not minimize that. I have been open to other arguments than the traditional hell, but I don’t think it wise to dismiss a coming judgment.
    Here are some….
    Rom 2:5, “But because of your hardness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment is revealed”
    Rom 5:9 Much more then, since we have now been declared righteous by His blood, we will be saved through Him from wrath.
    Eph 5:6, Let no one deceive you with empty arguments, for because of these things God’s wrath is coming on the disobedient.
    Col 3:6 Because of these, God’s wrath comes on the disobedient
    I Thess 1:10 and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead-Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.
    This one seems clear to me as Paul preached to Gentiles. What did he talk about? Acts 24:25 Now as he spoke about righteousness, self-control, and the judgment to come, Felix became afraid and replied, “Leave for now, but when I find time I’ll call for you.”
    Some other verses….
    Rom 14:10 But you, why do you criticize your brother? Or you, why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God
    Hebrews 6:2 teaching about ritual washings, laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.
    In John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, I think Christian becomes a Christian from hearing the message, “Flee from the wrath to come.”
    I did not grow up in a Bible believing home, but at 13 I heard I, even then, wondered what the purpose of life was. I had some emotional holes because my dad was pretty emotionally absent and my mother worked a lot, but what I heard the Luke 18 parable of the Pharisee and publican, God opened my eyes and I saw that Jesus was the answer! It wasn’t that I was afraid of hell because at that age, I really didn’t think much of dying. It was that “God be merciful to me a sinner” was what my heart was hungry for. My sister, only a year older, heard that if you don’t want to go to hell when you die, ask Jesus to save you and He will. She did, and has not questioned that at all. We are in our early 50s now. I, on the other hand, have had doubts and questions at various times in my life. I have read people who have de-converted and have been plagued by “what if they’re right.” But the Lord always restores me. I have investigated various Christian apologetics ministries (William Lane Craig and Ravi Zacharias, for example) and heard many testimonies that have helped calm my fears.
    But I think this hell discussion is interesting and very important. At least for me to try to clearly present an accurate gospel to people who don’t know the Lord.
    Thank you for having this forum for discussion. I will read any responses, but might not respond myself for a while! I’m slow in my processing.
    God bless.

  39. Hi, thanks for this thoughtful comment. I made the edit rather than leave two comments there. I’ll respond shortly. Thanks. Eric

  40. Hi, I’ve a little more time now.
    1. I think you are onto something here. Many years ago (about 45 actually) I heard a minister discuss why Jesus seemed to have a different approach in his teaching to Paul. I think there are many possible reasons for this, but he suggested one which has stuck with me.
    He said that Paul was speaking to a pagan culture that had no monotheism to speak of and pretty lax morality. They needed to hear a message and many were willing to hear it because it was new. So plain speaking of the basic story of Jesus, especially his death and resurrection, was required, and Paul gave it to them. But even then, his approach was tailored to his audience – speaking to Jews he built off the Old Testament, speaking to philosophical Greeks, he built off Greek philosophy and poetry, and speaking to kings and Roman authorities he told his own story.
    But Jesus was speaking into a religious culture that had know of God for centuries, was full of religion (the Pharisees had invented numerous rules to supplement the Law) and the people were burdened down with poverty, Roman occupation and all these laws. They had heard it all before. So he spoke indirectly, he used parables, he appealed to people’s hearts and offered them hope more than doctrine. But to the religious authorities, he argued in Jewish rabbinical style.
    I think all this shows us that there’s many ways to share the good news about Jesus, not just one like many of our western evangelical churches have limited it. We should choose under the guidance of the Holy Spirit which approach to use. But it seems likely to me that our culture is more like the religious burdened heard-it-all-before society that Jesus spoke into.
    2. I said in an earlier comment that in the NT, “wrath” doesn’t quite have the meaning it has for us today but: “the emotional response to perceived wrong and injustice” (Holman Bible Dictionary) or “displeasure, indignation, anger, wrath” (Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. So the sense is more of “putting right” than “punishment”.
    I think there is no doubt that we all come under the judgment of God, both now and in the age to come, but I feel (not very certainly) that we have misunderstood this term a little too. Judgment can mean “punishment”, but can also mean “discernment”. In the end, if there is life in the age to come as christians (including me) believe, either everyone receives this gift of life, or only some do. Since I believe God respects our choices, I think some won’t receive it because they don’t want to know God, but others will receive it.
    But how does God decide? He must decide perfectly and he must decide lovingly, and that decision is his judgment on us. The Bible portrays God as being angry about things, and Jesus being angry in the temple, but we know that behind that anger is love – the Bible says “God is love” but it never says “God is anger”. So I think that if God judges that some don’t choose eternal life, I think he will make that choice with tears, just as Jesus wept over Jerusalem.
    That is how I see it, but doubtless much of that is uncertain. Thanks again for your comment. What do you think?

  41. Great post. Especially the concluding remarks. I am sure if most people spent time studying the topic annihilation would be far more popular a position and accepted.

  42. Thanks. I think many christians fear that they need to keep to the traditional doctrine, otherwise people are not being warned. But I think the traditional doctrine makes it harder for people to believe in a loving God.

  43. A very nice concise and balanced treatment. However I’d want to push back against your stance that Universalism’s central claims are contradicted by logic and common sense.
    It’s not clear to me which principles of logic have been transgressed. As for contradicting common sense, this position might be problematic given a strong Libertarian view of human agency. However on a less robust libertarian or view of agency, or some form of compatabilism, it isn’t difficult to see how Universalism’s claim would work: in the end, the beatific vision of God’s immeasurable love and beauty is efficacious in dispelling any existing false beliefs, base desires or negative emotions that hinder us from receiving his call to repentance and reconciliation. Irresistible grace for everyone.
    Of course some form of temporary suffering of the soul, to purge it of its false loves may be an appropriate intermediary step between the transition from this earthly life to the hereafter. Purgatory if you like. Such a doctrine can go some distance toward making sense of those passages about judgment. True, this doctrine goes beyond strictly biblical theology, but one might think of it as tenant of philosophical philosophy aimed at enabling us to make coherent sense of various biblical passages (i.e. which seem to assert that God’s love fully encompasses all of his creatures, that His son’s salvific work is for everyone, and yet that some individuals will undergo judgment).

  44. Hi Tad, thanks for your comment and for your occasional “likes” going back a way.
    When I first wrote this, I don’t think I knew any universalists, nor was I coming across them on the web unless I looked for them. But that has certainly changed, and I have friends who are universalists, or tending that way, and I regularly read blogs by universalists. So I certainly have a lot of sympathy for that view, and for what you say here. And I certainly wish it was true, or hope it is true.
    But my feeling is still that the preponderance of Biblical teaching still favours the fact that not everyone will be willing to submit to God, and reason still suggests that (1) if God gave us choice, it is inconsistent to over-ride it, and (2) if God didn’t give us choice after all, then why bother creating this world, why not just create us perfect and in heaven?
    But I am happy to hear the alternate view, as you have expressed it, and to keep on considering. Thanks.

  45. Thanks for your prompt and thoughtful reply Eric. I’ve enjoyed following your blog over the past couple of years. You have a rare talent for distilling quite a lot of material down into concise and approachable pithy summaries. Also I’ve found your treatment of the topics you cover to be even-handed and your conclusions reasonable.
    So on the point about the preponderance of biblical data, I don’t deny that there certainly are several passages that seem to teach that not all will submit to God. However a couple of points:
    (a) as your own research has shown, this is one of those doctrines for which there just isn’t all that much biblical data to go on. Furthermore, again as you point out, what biblical data as exists is often figurative, and the language some of it is couched in has more than one viable sense. So really, we are dealing with tentative data at best.
    (b) as is sometimes the case this may be one of those situations in which there are a diversity of points of view within scripture about a given topic (consider for example some of the other passages you allude to which seam to indicate that Christ’s salvific work is for all). Alternatively one might think that the NT writers did hold a more or less unified view of the final judgment and the appearance of variance in their writings on the matter has some other explanation (e.g. imprecision in the exposition, or situational features which prompted different authors, or the same author at different times, to emphasize different points to different audiences). Either way, the “appearance” of diversity of teachings here creates conceptual space for differing theological positions each of which can legitimately claim to have a biblical basis.
    Regarding your second point, ah, I see now where you take the inconsistency to lie. OK let’s tackle that first horn of the dilemma:
    1. If God gave us a capacity for free choice (whatever that happens to be) and then systematically undercuts each and every one of our choices then yes, it is quite clear that this would be undermining the very point of giving us such a capacity in the first place. That said I don’t think if follows that “any” instance of God undercutting a free choice of ours thus counts as undermining the intention behind the capacity.
    It seems reasonable to suppose that God may on occasion has good reasons for either restraining or guiding our choices that supersede whatever reasons he has for allowing our choices to go unchecked. This seems particularly compelling when we consider that God is likened to a supremely wise and loving heavenly father who has his children’s best interests at heart. As any good parent knows there are just some choices one does not allow their child to make (e.g. you don’t hand them a loaded gun and say “I wouldn’t recommend playing with this but hey, that’s up to you”). Sometimes you have to intervene to prevent your child from harming herself, or somebody else. If we think nothing is amiss in mundane cases like this, why should divine restraint pose any more of a threat?
    As a matter of fact off-hand I can think of a handful of occasions in which we are told that God does in fact constrain the will of his children in just such a manner. Take Jonah for example. God had to drag him kicking and screaming to Nineveh in the belly of large sea creature.
    It just doesn’t seem plausible to me that whatever goods God might hope to achieve by abstaining from interfering with human choices overrides the importance of preventing his children from utterly destroying themselves.
    2. Thus far we’ve been speaking of God’s influence over human choices as if it were a sort of interference with those choices. However this need not be the case. Depending on one’s view of human agency (and as you probably know there are quite a few views on offer) God’s influence over our will might actually serve to enhance or enable our faculties for choice, rather than to constrain them. If for, instance, we follow Thomas Aquinas in thinking of the will as a sort of rational appetite which of necessity aims at certain general ends, the most basic of which is “goodness”, then it becomes clear that divine influence serves to aid the will in achieving its ends.
    In case you are unfamiliar with Aquinas’s view, here’s the oversimplified and un-nuanced version. According to Thomas we are creatures with certain natural ends or goals that are not of our choosing. All of our activity is goal directed in the sense that it is aimed at achieving either these ends, or subsidiary ends which together are constitutive of our final end. The most general of these ends is “goodness” (i.e. ultimately we direct our activity toward ends that we consider to be “good” under some description). Choices are made regarding what are considered to be the best means of satisfying these ends. On the Thomistic view once the soul truly grasps its final end (and the means whereby to attain it), it cannot do other than to pursue that end. Yet cognitively limited appetitive creatures that we are, we are bound to make mistakes about such matters. We might for instance err about what in fact are the best means of satisfying our ends, or we might misconceive of what ultimate “goodness” actually consists in. All too often the immediacy of our appetitive urges clouds our judgment. Thus, while we pursue courses of action we believe to be “good’ under some description or other, they may not (and in fact rarely do) actually satisfy our actual ends.
    OK, so granted that picture of the will, were God to come to our aid to enable us to accurately conceive of our ends and how to satisfy them his doing so would count as an empowering rather than a disabling act upon our will. And what is our final end if not everlasting communion with God? So the thomistic view provides a theoretical framework that allows for the sort of non-coercive “irresistible grace” I mentioned earlier.
    So in sum, I think there are ways around the first horn of the dilemma you suggest.

  46. Hi Tad, thanks for your kind comments. I appreciate the opportunity to discuss with you.
    1. I agree with you that we are dealing with uncertainty, with matters that are are sometimes written in symbolic or non-literal language. So I am certainly not dogmatic about this, as I have said on this page. So I agree with your statement: “the “appearance” of diversity of teachings here creates conceptual space for differing theological positions each of which can legitimately claim to have a biblical basis”.
    2. You say some passages suggest “Christ’s salvific work is for all”. I agree with that (I think the contrary view, expressed in doctrines like limited atonement, is quite wrong and not taught in scripture). But that could mean it is available for all, or that it actually benefits all with saving all (like the rain falls on the just and the unjust).
    3. You address this matter: “If God gave us a capacity for free choice (whatever that happens to be) and then systematically undercuts each and every one of our choices then yes, it is quite clear that this would be undermining the very point of giving us such a capacity in the first place. “ But my point was a little different. I have no problem that God may sometimes constrain our choices. My difficulty is why create this physical universe with all the suffering and evil that results, most of it because of bad human choices, and then over-ride those choices or prevent them being carried through at the end? If everyone is going to be “saved” and we just have to wait in purgatory long enough to give in to God, then why not just start from that point?
    I’m not saying that is an unanswerable point, only that it helps tip the scale (for me) to the other side.

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