For several years now I have been convinced that no one will end up in “eternal, conscious torment” (ECT), and lately I tend to believe that everyone will be reconciled to God through Christ someday, in some fashion. Any view similar to this is sadly considered heretical and dangerous today, although it seems to me that, in comparison with “eternal torment,” to believe that all will be reconciled, or at least that the wicked will be destroyed, is far more God-exalting, scripturally honest, and consistent with the belief of the majority of early Christianity, prior to the heavy influx of pagan ideas and practices beginning in the 300’s AD.
Many who read this might say: “the Bible teaches plainly about eternal torment, hell, and the lake of fire, so anything like universal reconciliation is clearly wrong.” I am well aware that the Bible mentions these things, and I intend to look in depth at scripture in posts to come. The truth is, the Bible is not as plain, literal, and clear-cut as people like to think. If it is, how can you explain the vast differences in belief and doctrine among good, intelligent, Biblically-devoted people?! All I’m saying here is that while the Bible does mention hell, torment, gnashing of teeth, the lake of fire, etc., a closer look reveals there is no solid basis to teach that all “unbelievers” who die end up permanently and unendingly in what amounts to sadistic eternal torture. That doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences, by the way.
I don’t ask or expect you to believe something just because I do. All I ask is that you keep an open mind and heart to the possibility that the particular way you now believe is misguided. After all, hasn’t that been true of all of us more times than we would like to admit?! Isn’t refusing to even consider a reasonable alternative view an unhealthy, cultish trait? Keeping a pliable mind and heart, which seeks truth above comfort, familiarity, sentiment, and tradition is the only way true repentance can take place. And repentance is necessary to progress in one’s salvation.
Like many my age, I grew up reluctantly believing that eternal torment in hell is the fate of millions. I accepted this mind-bogglingly terrible idea primarily because I trusted those who taught it to me, I was familiar with a few scriptures which seemed to support it, and I was almost never exposed to other viewpoints. A few things contributed to changing my belief about hell: first, I began to read scripture on my own, with a desire to learn rather than to support my current beliefs, and I began to read and talk with those who saw differently (and deeper) than me. I saw scriptures that actually contradicted eternal torment, and supported the idea of universal reconciliation, which in my experience no pastor or teacher had ever mentioned. Also, as I got older, I had some personal experiences and met others with personal experiences of the all-encompassing love and mercy and compassion of God. The biggest factor, perhaps, was that I continued taking seriously the Biblical account of the person and ministry of Jesus Christ, who in Hebrews 1:3 (MLV) is said to be: “…the brightness of (the Father’s) glory and the exact representation of his essence…” Jesus even said of himself: “he who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).
I think most would agree, it is no minor detail that the words and the actions of Jesus (again, the exact representation of God as a human) are completely contrary to the idea of any sort of eternal torment or punishment (not to mention, the idea of “eternal punishment” doesn’t even make sense, considering men are extremely fallible and vulnerable and live such short lives). It’s certainly true that in Jesus’ zeal for God’s Kingdom, he was sometimes harsh (though always correct) when speaking to the Jewish religious leaders, who like many religious leaders still today, continually misrepresented, hindered, and opposed the truth of his Father, thereby keeping his precious brothers and sisters under needless bondage and prevented from receiving their inheritance as sons of God.
Despite these stubborn, prideful and greedy hypocrites opposing all he and his Father stood for and did, continually resisting the truth and ultimately torturing and murdering him, Jesus never once retaliated with violence or harm – in fact, he consistently taught and lived out that we are to love our enemies and persecutors. When one of Jesus’ closest followers cut off the ear of someone arresting him, Jesus rebuked his friend but healed his enemy. Some of his very last, painful breaths were used to plead for the forgiveness of those actively torturing and killing him.
Sure, we can explain this away, as many have, by saying that Jesus was only showing God’s mercy while on earth, but that later he will show His wrath. But that’s not what Jesus himself said. He said if you have seen him, you have seen the Father – that the two were one. He said that he spoke and acted from what he heard and saw from his Father. The Bible DOES mention wrath in a few cases – but this wrath was tied to the breaking of the law, and we are not under the law! This wrath also does not necessitate eternal torture! I see no genuine, honest way of reconciling the plain accounts of God in the flesh teaching and living out truth and mercy with the idea that this same God has designed a world in which eternal torture waits for those who don’t “accept” His son, or who fail to meet some other standard.
Another issue I have with eternal conscious torment (apart from scripture, which I promise I will get to in posts to come) is that it is thoroughly toxic to human beings. At best, I feel it hinders intimacy with God and encourages the development and presentation of a false identity as fearful servant, which greatly hinders intimacy and freedom, rather than our true identity as sons and daughters, with intimacy and joy and freedom. The false identity of “fearful servant” often leads to apathy, confusion, frustration, powerlessness, spiritual blindness, and devotion to traditions. More specifically, the idea of eternal torment fuels many negative mental states, including anxiety, doubt, religious foolishness, fanatacism and even psychosis.
Maybe you have heard of Andrea Yates, the mother from Houston, Texas who in 2001 drowned her 5 young children in their bathtub while her husband was at work. Now, apart from any religious beliefs she did or did not have, there is no question that she was very mentally ill and had been for at least two years. No sane person, regardless of their belief about hell, would do what she did. It was inexcusable and terrible beyond words. HOWEVER, one reason she gave to police for killing her children was that they had been acting badly and she didn’t want them to end up in hell. She is on record saying her children were being “unrighteous” and that “they didn’t do things God likes.” Therefore, she said, she believed that if they died as children: “in their innocence, they’d go to heaven.” The sickening reality is that the (false) idea of eternal torment, if you are brave (or mentally compromised) enough to truly and fully consider it, is so terrible it can create a twisted logic that can actually justify killing children, which in Mrs. Yates’ mentally diseased state she was actually able to carry out.
This twisted logic is actually quite simple and quite sound, but it requires the addition of one other mainstream Christian idea, known as the “age of accountability.” This idea basically says that children under a certain, undefined age will go to heaven when they die even if they do not “believe in Jesus.” This popular idea has even less scriptural basis than eternal torment, but was made up and is adhered to by those who cannot let go of the idea of eternal torment but also cannot stomach the thought of children going there (a good question is why it’s so much easier to accept teenagers or adults going there). So, with that in mind, the logic goes like this: If it’s true that those who die as children are guaranteed to go to heaven – a place of eternal peace and comfort and happiness with God – but those who die after childhood have a very real chance of going to hell – a place of eternal torture without hope – then it is far better to die as a child then run that risk.
By this logic, a strong case could be made that Mrs. Yates actually acted in a very “sane” and even “loving” manner by sacrificing her reputation and freedom to make SURE that none of her children ended up in eternal torment by killing them as children. HOW SICK AND PATHETIC IS THAT???!!! Here’s one terrible outcome of eternal, conscious torment: if this truly is the immediate and permanent fate of all “unbelievers” who die, then the best options are to either never exist at all, or, if you have the misfortune of being born, to die a quick and painless death as a young child. I’m sorry, but IF the premises of eternal hell and the age of accountability are true (thankfully I’m convinced they aren’t), then Mrs. Yates’ logic was sound.
I have personally known people who, though they would never harm their children themselves, actually prayed that God would kill their children, because they saw them making choices or choosing a lifestyle they felt would end up landing them in hell, to suffer eternal torment. That line of thinking is madness. Is the best that the Body of Christ and ministers of God can offer that death as a child is ultimately “safest?” Of course not! Especially not on this side of the victory of Christ on the cross, which the Bible says “reconciled the world,” was a victorious sacrifice offered “once for all,” and which “took away the sin of the world”? Again, is eternal torture in line with the love and healing and compassion of Jesus, or the revelation of the Father given by the apostles in the Bible, who is said to be kind and merciful even to the unrighteous, and who scripture plainly says will be All in all? No! Not at all!
The walk of a believer is spiritual, and based on one’s identity as a son, with freedom and joy. It’s time we join this inevitable progression out from following the ideas of flesh conceived in fear and ignorance, as familiar and comfortable as many of them have become to us, and into the truths revealed by the inward Spirit of divine love and demonstrated in Jesus and the apostles. This will mean change. It takes some courage, but the one who leads us is the best guide there is, and there is ultimately nothing to fear! Will you join me? I could use your help. Bless you.