"The Lord is compassionate and gracious,
slow to anger, abounding in love.
He will not always accuse,
nor will he harbor his anger forever;"
There is only one satisfactory answer when it comes to the problem of evil.
That answer is this: Justice will be done. There will be a judgement day. Those who caused others unnecessary suffering, and those who allowed others to suffer when they could have done something about it, will be made to suffer (unless they repent while on this earth). While suffering, they will come to see their sin as it actually is—as God sees it—and consequently loathe themselves for what they have done. God will humble the proud. They will see what lengths God went to to show them how much he loves them, despite their indifference to him. Having seen these things, they will welcome their suffering and choose to repent. (Even in prison a person has a free will.) They will also forgive those who hurt them. Only then will they be at peace with God. And in time all they have hurt will completely forgive them. Sin and death will be destroyed; evil will be no more. All things will be made new.
No other answer completely satisfies the victims of cruel and oppressive individuals, ideologies and governments. And no other answer completely satisfies compassionate people who see no good purpose in someone suffering forever.
Now you may think the Bible teaches something different. If you do, I strongly suggest you read The Inescapable Love of God by Thomas Talbott and Grace Saves All: The Necessity of Christian Universalism by David Artman.
So what does the Bible have to say about the subject?
The following sermon takes a look at three answers that all seem to have biblical support.
The answers to these questions are not as simple as most imagine because people--often well meaning people--read into the Bible what they’ve been taught. They don’t realise that they are even doing it. (See chapter one of the book Hope Beyond Hell by Gerry Beauchemin. free audio)
For example, the verses which say there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” do not say that there will be “eternal weeping and gnashing of teeth.” People assume that the suffering is eternal because of what they’ve been taught about the nature of Hell. There are very few verses which seem to indicate the suffering is eternal. On the other hand there are a lot of verses which say God’s mercies endure forever and that he will make all things new.
Now it does matter what you believe about Hell. (If you think God is a monster you will be unlikely to trust him.) But it does not matter as much as many well meaning people imagine.
Nowhere in the Bible does it say you have to believe a particular doctrine about the nature, purpose, or duration of Hell to enter God's Kingdom. (See David Bentley Hart’s book That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, And Universal Salvation. A review of his book can be read here.) You can believe that people suffer eternal torment in Hell, or that some will cease to exist in Hell, or that some will repent in Hell, and still go to Heaven. Take courage; God is very good.
None of us can imagine God to be better than he is. He is the greatest conceivable being.
The person who lives in fear of God's punishment doesn't know how much he loves them. See here.
Love is expressed in many ways. The parent who loves their child expresses it in kindness, but sometimes it will be expressed as punishment. Their kindness, as well as their punishment, is for their child's good.
“...according to Aristotle, “there is a difference between revenge and punishment; the latter (kolasis) is inflicted in the interest of the sufferer, the former (timōria) in the interest of him who inflicts it, that he may obtain satisfaction.” 105 And Plato likewise argued that a person’s “soul is improved if he is justly punished”; 106 Plato also appealed to the established meaning of kolasis as evidence for the idea that virtue can indeed be taught:
If you will think, Socrates, of what punishment (kolasis) can do for the evildoer, you will see at once that in the opinion of mankind virtue may be acquired. No one punishes the evildoer under the notion, or for the reason that, he has done wrong—only the unreasonable fury of a beast is so vindictive. . . . He punishes for the sake of prevention, thereby clearly implying that virtue is capable of being taught. This is the notion of all who punish others either privately or publicly. And Athenians, especially your fellow citizens no less than other men, punish and correct all whom they regard as evildoers. And hence we may infer them to be of the number of those who think that virtue may be acquired and taught.107
At the time that Plato and Aristotle wrote, then, it seems pretty clear that the Greek word kolasis had an established meaning and that, unlike timōria,” it signified a means of correction. The Greek scholar William Barclay went so far as to declare that “in all Greek secular literature kolasis is never used of anything but remedial punishment.” 108 The etymology of the word is especially intriguing, according to Barclay, because it “was not originally an ethical word at all. It originally meant the pruning of trees to make them grow better.” (Thomas Talbott, The Inescapable Love of God (2nd ed), Cascade Books, 2014).
So here’s my question. If the punishment spoken of in Matthew 25:46 is to satisfy God’s justice and has no benefit whatsoever for those who are suffering, why wasn’t the word timōria used instead of the word kolasin? (Kolasin is the direct-object form of the noun kolasis.)
“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. See here.)
Most Christians would think very differently about the nature, purpose and duration of Hell if their translation of Matthew 25:46 read
“Then they will go away to the correction in the age to come, but the righteous to the life in the age to come.”
Every time a translator translates a part of the Bible he brings his theology with him. Here’s an example.
21 In that day the Lord will punish
the powers in the heavens above
and the kings on the earth below.
22 They will be herded together
like prisoners bound in a dungeon;
they will be shut up in prison
and be punished[a] after many days (Isaiah 24:21-22, NIV).
The footnote [a] says:
[a] Isaiah 24:22 Or released
Why didn’t the translators put “released” in the text and put “or prison” in the footnote? Because they made the text fit with their theology. (Chapter 5, “Presuppositions and Interpretations”, in Confessions of a Tomboy Grandma: On the Eternal Destiny of the Human Race by Diane Perkins Castro lists many similar examples. "Presuppositions and Interpretations" was made available as a PDF by permission of the author.)
God is the saviour of all (1 Tim 4:10); he will reconcile all (Col 1:15-20); and he will be all in all (see 1 Corinthians 15:25-28). When the Bible uses the word "all" in these verses, it means all without exception, not all without distinction. (F.F. Bruce was mistaken. See here.)
God always judges fairly. And he never punishes more than is necessary. It’s God’s perfect love that makes him Holy. It’s his love which sets him apart. If he was not perfectly loving, he could not be perfectly just. (For an in-depth look at what that means, see That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, And Universal Salvation by David Bentley Hart. See also MacDonald's sermon Justice.)
Why not a leaflet about Hell?
The restoration of all things is good news. It was not regarded as heresy by the early Church. Many would argue (and with good reason), that it was the dominant view in the early Church.
Dr Ilaria Ramelli (at the forgotten gospel conference) explains why the view was so prevalent in the early Church. Her research into this topic is second to none.
According to the prophet Isaiah, every tongue will swear allegiance to God.
“I have sworn by Myself,
The word has gone forth from My mouth in righteousness
And will not turn back,
That to Me every knee will bow, every tongue will swear allegiance” (Isaiah 45:23, NASB)
It’s not a mere confession that he is Lord, it’s swearing allegiance to the rightful king.
In the Bible God never accepts coerced worship; it must be from the heart. Only that brings glory to God. The only way every knee bowing to Jesus and confessing he is Lord will bring glory to God, is if every one of those confessions comes from a grateful heart (Phil 2:10-11).
But doesn't the Bible talk about eternal death?
I know the old Bradley will be destroyed forever. The old Bradley will die an eternal death. The dying process is painful and will continue to be painful while I'm in the process of dying. It will be painful till it is over. The old Bradley will cease to exist and the new Bradley will be like Christ (perfectly brave, honest and kind). I will no longer be selfish. This is necessary because I will not, in fact cannot, enjoy the kind of unbroken intimacy that Jesus enjoys with his Father until I am eternally dead. And I cannot enjoy perfect eternal unbroken intimacy with others until I have died such a death and they have died such a death. All things will be made new. (If this is true, a great many of the arguments used to support conditional mortality can be used to support universal reconciliation.)
Does this mean I'm sure I'm going to go straight to Heaven when I die? No it does not. But I am sure of my final destination. I know God loves me. If he punishes me it will be for my good.
Below is a lecture by Robin Parry about how we should approach the Bible regarding the subject of Hell. It is one of the most interesting lectures I've ever heard.
The above lecture is really just an outline. For a more detailed look at Robin Party’s view on interpreting the Hell passages see Hermeneutics and Hell: Biblical Interpretation and Universal Salvation.
"All Christians are universalists about creation—God created all things, through his Word. And creation is not simply about origins (everything comes from God), but about purpose and destiny. Created things have an end, a destiny, and that end, as the beginning, is God. The end of creation is there in its beginning: creation is from God, for God, and oriented towards God, reaching towards its potential and completion in God. So the question of universalism and hell can be framed in terms of whether or not God will bring all creation to the goal for which he intended it." —Robin Parry
In the following talk Robin explains what Christian Universalism is, and is not. Universal Salvation: A Whistle-Stop Introduction
God's mercies endure forever.
Whether we like it or not, when there seems to be a tension between certain texts, we all use some verses as trump cards to reinterpret those verses which don't sit well with what we have come to believe. This is not really a problem. We must use the majority of scripture to interpret the minority. But do we actually do this when looking at what the Bible says about God's will and his purpose for Hell? When it comes to this subject the vast majority of Christian theologians use a handful of verses, which seem to support eternal torment, to reinterpret the many many verses which at face value, support universal reconciliation. Is the subject of Hell an exception to the rule? Regarding Hell, should we use the minority of scripture to interpret the majority? For example, Calvinists reject the plain meaning of verses which Arminians site in support of their position; (Arminians say that God loves all people and that he desires to save all people.) Arminians, in order to reject what the Calvinists say about God ultimately achieving all that he desires, have to twist the scripture which Calvinists site. (Calvinists believe that God will save all those he desires to save.) Between them they reject the plain meaning of well over 100 verses. This they do because they refuse to take a close look at a few verses which seem to support eternal torment, but don't (see Reading into the text ). We can take at face value all the verses which Calvinists use to show that God will save all those he desires to save, and we can take at face value all the verses Arminians use to support their position that God desires to save all people, without twisting scripture.
Here is a part of an interview with George Sarris. His book, Heaven's Doors is a great introduction to universal reconciliation. It's heart warming, persuasive, and easy to read.
Some of the debate above is about how we should interpret the Bible. One of the speakers has failed to realise that the character of God is the interpretive key for understanding the Bible. Knowing God's character is the key to understanding his Word. If you don't know what he is like, you will probably misinterpret what he says.
The following video is aptly titled "Her Gates Will Never Be Shut."
This truly is good news.
Perhaps you think people who teach what is being taught in the videos above are false teachers. If so, how did Jesus say to deal with such people? If someone in your church told you that they believed that in the end God will reconcile all people, would you go and tell the pastor? Or would you take the course of action Jesus recommended when dealing with a person you have a problem with? See here.
If you'd like to look into this, but you're not prepared to spend any money doing so, I highly recommend listening to the free audio book, Hope Beyond Hell.
For a fair-minded look at the three different views of Hell, which seem to have biblical support, see All You Want to Know About Hell by Steve Gregg.
*If you'd like to print hard copies of the leaflet Why Hell? please contact me.