For no one is cast off
by the Lord forever.
Though he brings grief, he will show compassion,
so great is his unfailing love.
For he does not willingly bring affliction
or grief to anyone." ~ Lamentations 3:31-33
For verification of how widespread this belief was in the early Church see A Larger Hope?, Volume 1: Universal Salvation from Christian Beginnings to Julian of Norwich by Ilaria Ramelli.
“But doesn't the Bible clearly teach eternal punishment?"
If the word which is translated as "eternal" in Matthew 25:46 was always translated as eternal, then I would say those who claim that the Bible teaches eternal torment have a very strong case. But it is not. The Greek word I am referring to in Matt 25:46 is the word aiônion. (Its lexical form is aiônios.) In the Septuagint (Koine Greek text of the Old Testament), there are many examples where aiônion does not mean eternal and is not translated as such. Strictly speaking, the Greek words aiônios and aiônion only mean “enduring forever" when referring to God and the life he gives (otherwise they refer to an undefined period of time, e.g. an age). It is also worth noting that the doctrine of eternal life is not dependant on Matt 25:46. Even if the verse did not exist, the doctrine would not be in doubt.
‘Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die...”’ (John 11:25, 26a).
Because we know that those who believe in Jesus will never die, translators are right to translate the words zoen aiônion in John 3:16 as “eternal life.” And we know God’s Kingdom never ends, therefore we should translate aiônion basileian in 2 Peter 1:11 as “eternal kingdom.” But what good reason do we have to translate kolasin aiônion as “eternal punishment”? The only reasons a translator would translate kolasin aiônion as eternal punishment is if they came to the text believing that the Bible teaches eternal torment, or if they believed that the word aiônion can only mean eternal. (I sincerely believe that most translators are trying to be faithful to the text; but they mistranslate the word because they are using lexicons which fail to give the full range of meanings of aiônios. The root of aiônios is aiôn. Aiôn means “age” or “eternity.” Aiôn is a noun and aiônios is an adjective. In both words aiôn holds the same meaning. See also.)
For examples of how aiônios and aiônion are used in the Septuagint and in Ancient Greek literature see Terms for Eternity: Aiônios and Aïdios in Classical and Christian Texts by Ramelli & Konstan. ( Terms for Eternity is a scholarly work. Gerry Beauchmin's book Hope Beyond Hell is for the layman.)*
*The text above is an extract from the page Why Hell?
Ultimately this is not a debate about the authority of the Bible. This is a debate about the interpretation of Scripture. See The Inescapable Love of God (2nd edition) by Thomas Talbott.1 (See also chapter 5, Presuppositions and Interpretations, in Confessions of a Tomboy Grandma: On the Eternal Destiny of the Human Race by Diane Perkins Castro. "Presuppositions and Interpretations" is made available as a PDF by permission of the author.)
“But if Hell is not eternal, Jesus would not have suffered and died on the cross to save people from going there.”
If you believe that, how would you answer the following question?
Suppose that all those who go to Hell suffer no less, and no more than 100,000 years, Do you believe Jesus would have suffered and died to save people from going there?
Most parents (because they love their children) would willingly suffer a painful injustice to keep one of their children from going to prison for ten years.
How much greater is God’s love? His love for us is perfect. He was willing to suffer and die on the cross to save you, and me, from suffering in Hell—even if that suffering only lasted a single day.2
God is not merely good—He is the greatest conceivable being.
Unfortunately, some Christians are not willing to take a closer look at Scripture because they find the doctrine of eternal torment appealing.
“At that greatest of all spectacles, that last and eternal judgment how shall I admire, how laugh, how rejoice, how exult, when I behold so many proud monarchs groaning in the lowest abyss of darkness; so many magistrates liquefying in fiercer flames than they ever kindled against the Christians; so many sages philosophers blushing in red-hot fires with their deluded pupils; so many tragedians more tuneful in the expression of their own sufferings; so many dancers tripping more nimbly from anguish then ever before from applause." - (Tertullian, De Spectaculis, Chapter XXX)
“ The view of the misery of the damned will double the ardour of the love and gratitude of the saints of heaven.”
“ The sight of hell torments will exalt the happiness of the saints forever. . .Can the believing father in Heaven be happy with his unbelieving children in Hell. . . I tell you, yea! Such will be his sense of justice that it will increase rather than diminish his bliss. (Jonathon Edwards,"The Eternity of Hell Torments" (Sermon), April 1739 & Discourses on Various Important Subjects, 1738]
Why do some people take such pleasure in the suffering of others?
“ ... the satisfaction we feel when wrong comes to grief. Why do we feel this satisfaction? Because we hate wrong, but, not being righteous ourselves, more or less hate the wronger as well as his wrong, hence are not only righteously pleased to behold the law’s disapproval proclaimed in his punishment, but unrighteously pleased with his suffering, because of the impact upon us of his wrong. In this way the inborn justice of our nature passes over to evil. It is no pleasure to God, as it so often is to us, to see the wicked suffer.” ~ George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons
Do you take pleasure in the suffering of others? If you love a person you desire their happiness, not their suffering, no matter how wicked they are. Suffering may be needed to help open their eyes, but love never punishes more than is absolutely necessary. A good parent, only ever punishes for their child's good; a good parent only ever punishes because of love.
“ To regard any suffering with satisfaction, save it be sympathetically with its curative quality, comes of evil, is inhuman because undivine, is a thing God is incapable of. His nature is always to forgive, and just because he forgives, he punishes. Because God is so altogether alien to wrong, because it is to him a heart-pain and trouble that one of his little ones should do the evil thing, there is, I believe, no extreme of suffering to which, for the sake of destroying the evil thing in them, he would not subject them. A man might flatter, or bribe, or coax a tyrant; but there is no refuge from the love of God; that love will, for very love, insist upon the uttermost farthing.” ~ George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons
The doctrine of eternal torment is delicious; it appeals to the worst in human nature. Many who believe it think they will go straight to Heaven when they die; and those who reject their message will suffer in Hell forever. They have projected onto God their own twisted view of justice, and in the process misrepresented the God whom they claim to worship. (God's justice is not like man's justice. See Grace Saves All: The Necessity of Christian Universalism by David Artman and David Bentley Hart’s book That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, And Universal Salvation. See also.)
God takes no pleasure in the suffering of anyone.
Do you believe the doctrine but are uncomfortable with it? How do you know that that's not the Holy Spirit trying to get you to take a closer look? 3
Are you really sure that God will not make you repent of some things after you die?
Such a thought certainly does not tickle the ears.
But what about all those verses which say God will destroy the wicked? Does conditional immortality have more biblical support than universal reconciliation? See Destruction, Apollumi, and Restoration. (See also How One Biblical Annihilationist Became a Biblical Universalist.)
So what does this all mean for Christians? Will they still share the gospel if they believe that all will be saved in the end? They should; because they believe that people are only saved from Hell through hearing the good news. A person has to hear the good news before they can respond to it. If we believe in Christ, and we believe that some will be saved from going to Hell, and others will be saved out of Hell, we ought to tell people about Jesus. (Particularly if we believe Hell is a place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. How can we say we care if we don’t tell people about Jesus?)
If the majority of today’s Christians believed that God will ultimately reconcile all, what effects might it have on the Church? Robin Parry explains here.
1. If everyone involved in this debate read chapter 4 in The Inescapable Love of God, there'd be a lot less heat and a greater willingness to listen to what others have to say.
2. Some argue that once a person is locked into an eternal state of being, they cannot change, and therefore, cannot repent. If this is granted, it does not change the fact that the Bible teaches that Hades will be destroyed. It is not eternal, and therefore exists in time. (The Bible also teaches that there is at least one age—perhaps more—to come.) Might it be possible to suffer in time (perhaps till the end of time)—repent, and then in the timeless state at the end of time, spend eternity with God? Peter Hiett certainly thinks so. See here.
3. David Artman (a minister), who after finishing his Doctor of Ministry degree in 1996, firmly believed that universal reconciliation is not the view of Hell which has the most Biblical support. He believed this because he thought he had heard the best arguments for universal reconciliation and they came up short. He wrote: " The topic of my thesis for this degree touched on the three main understandings of hell in the history of Christianity—those being: hell as a place of eternal torment, hell as a place of final annihilation, and hell as a place of restoration." But after further research came to a very different conclusion. He tells his story in his book, Grace Saves All: The Necessity of Christian Universalism (a sample from the book can be read here). Preston Sprinkle, who coauthored Erasing Hell with Francis Chan, first concluded that eternal torment is biblical; but after further research also came to a different conclusion. It is only a matter of time before he (and those who have come to the same conclusion) realise that when a wicked person repents, and is finally made like Christ, that wicked person ceases to exist (see Bearing the Curse of Hell—Preston Sprinkle).