Traditional Christians seem to raise two main objections when presented with the idea that eternal, conscious torment does not exist. The first is something like: “if everyone goes to heaven, why would anyone bother to avoid sin and live for God?,” and the second is something like: “if there is no hell, why did Jesus have to suffer and die on the cross?”
The first of these questions I find simpler to answer, and is what I’ll focus on in this post. The first thing I’d point out is that it seems odd that we would need a promise of pleasure or threat of punishment in order to live for God – especially since we say that the Christian life is the best and most joyous life to begin with. Of course, it is perfectly normal, even healthy, to want to avoid pain (hell), or to desire pleasure (heaven). But the issue is, these are NATURAL, NORMAL desires, which have NOTHING to do with spiritual enlightenment or Truth1, operating according to the Spirit instead of the soul2, or connecting with the life of Christ within3. Even the wildest animals and the most wicked people desire to avoid pain and obtain pleasure. Surely the life of the Spirit of God goes deeper than that!
Over the years, as I have sought wisdom, it seems to me that there is a much higher and truer reason and way to “live for God,” “follow God,” “obey God,” “live righteously,” “deny our flesh”, or whatever other term you want to use, and that reason is this: because we have come to see and experience that the divine nature of Love, which was in Christ, is in us too – in fact this nature is our TRUE IDENTITY! We see that we are in Him, and He is in us, and we are, right now, Sons and Daughters of God! This realization, I believe, is both the beginning and the foundation of a genuine life of faith. When we are enlightened to realize our ALREADY-ACCOMPLISHED union with God, and the ALREADY-ACCOMPLISHED crucifixion and burial of our flesh/old nature, we cannot help but increasingly and naturally manifest the eternal, resurrected Life and nature of God, which is our Life and nature too. Most if not all of us have at one time lived from a false identity such as “sinner,” “wretch,” “natural human,” etc. As a consequence, we have formed and conformed to lifestyles and ways of operating which are not in line with Truth. Furthermore, a false identity has made us vulnerable to indoctrination and has made us live from experiences, natural understanding, and fears. When we have our true identity correct, from the core of our being, all the false ways of thinking and living begin to lose their hold and influence. If the issue isn’t simply wrong behavior, but a need to become aware of and connect with our true identity, then rewards and punishments make a lot less sense and essentially become pointless. How much sense does it make to punish someone if they are already what they should be, just ignorant of it? Maybe a short illustration will help:
Imagine the child of a good and noble King was stolen as an infant by a band of thieves. Soon, he was sold as a slave, and as an adult he ended up with a group of beggars who survived by begging and stealing. After a long search, another of the King’s sons found his brother begging in a dirty alley. The searching son is grieved to see his brother, a prince and beloved son of the King, not only living as a filthy beggar, but seeming to accept it!!! At this point, the searching son could make great promises to his brother about how cleaning up his act will lead to a reward from his Father the King at some unknown point in the future, or he could threaten his brother with the fearful punishment that his Father will impose on him if he continues to live as a beggar, even though he was raised that way. The searching brother could also try to shame the lost brother into changing by pointing out how ugly and terrible his life as a thief and beggar is.
A bit of thought reveals a few reasons that this would likely fail to produce real, lasting change. First and foremost, the brother who had been stolen would still believe he is a thief and beggar, and so would likely revert back to the ways of his false identity. Along with that, the lifestyle he grew up in would have become deeply ingrained. Maybe begging and stealing were the only things that kept him alive in the harsh and uncaring environment he lived in.
I believe a far better strategy for the searching son to use would be to simply lead, or at least invite, his brother to come to the Kingdom, where the ignorant prince, though still believing he is a beggar and thief, and acting as such, was already accepted and wanted. In the Kingdom, this “beggar” would be loved, kept safe, taught the King’s ways, and perhaps most importantly, treated as the royalty that he truly is, whether he accepts it yet or not. In such a scenario, it’s easy to see how the beggar prince could, over time (or even quickly), become convinced of his identity, unlearn his fear-based ways and come to see the benefit and beauty of a higher way of life, full of purpose and glory. While the life of a Son of God does require sacrifice and hardship, I think everyone, on some level, recognizes that sacrificial love, extravagant kindness and compassion, and steadfast conviction are all admirable qualities. That’s why the most pervasive and lasting stories and movies all share a similar theme – sacrifice for the good of others, courage in the face of evil and danger, a deep purpose beyond the self, and the resurrection of a lost truth or beauty. These things are ingrained into mankind.
A beautiful truth is that even before the “stolen son” accepts his identity and begins to act as a noble son of the King, he is still a son and remains accepted and loved by his Father and family. Even as I write this illustration, I am seeing that one of the most transformative things that can happen is for this lost son’s family to show him patient, sacrificial love and acceptance, with no strings attached. Eventually, I believe he will begin to adopt the noble ways of his household naturally and effortlessly, with no reward or punishment necessary, because his true identity has never changed.
For human beings, I believe the real “problem” isn’t a lack of something we need, but being unwilling or unable to see or believe who we are in Christ and what we already have been provided. The Kingdom of God and the way of Truth can’t and won’t be established by an increase in the natural human desire to avoid pain or gain pleasure. Instead, they will be established by the application of acceptance and love, coupled with the proclamation of Truth, by the sons and daughters of God, which have the power to dissolve the pride and fear that create a callous over the human heart and prevent people from letting go of the false identities, mindsets and resulting lifestyles that they have built or have had thrust upon them. This, I believe, is what Paul had in mind when he wrote that the only “enmity” we have with God is in our own ignorant minds, and the primary problem is a calloused heart:
Ephesians 4:17-18 ESV: “Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.”
Here are a few scriptures that attest to the ALREADY-ACCOMPLISHED AND THEREFORE PRESENT union with God and death of our flesh:
John 14:19-20 ESV: “Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.”
Galatians 2:20 ESV: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
Romans 6:4-6 ESV: “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.”
Ephesians 2:4-6 ESV: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ–by grace you have been saved– and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus…”
1 John 3:1 ESV: “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him.”
1 John 5:20 ESV: “And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.”
1 Corinthians 1:30-31 ESV: “And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
2 Corinthians 5:14 ESV: “For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died…”
Please, don’t make people more aware of sin and death – that’s like trying to resurrect what is buried and gone! Paul said that ministering “do’s and don’ts” (law) is ministering death. Don’t threaten people with eternal torment – it doesn’t exist, and misrepresents the love of God! It’s also not needed or even useful. Instead, love them and point them to the love and Life of God within them. Be patient with them, bear with them, and speak Truth to them. Many have undergone terrible things at the hands of ignorant and wicked people, and have a hard time overcoming this. I know that loving some people is difficult, but it’s the only way. Sadly, even the world is beginning to figure this out, before much of the visible church is!
- Ephesians 1: 17-18 (ESV): “…that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints…”
- Hebrews 4:12 (ESV): “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
- 1 Thessalonians 5:23 (ESV): “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
- Colossians 1:27 ESV: “To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.”
- Colossians 3:3-4 ESV: “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your[a] life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”
In two recent posts, I have outlined several reasons I don’t believe in the idea of “eternal conscious torment.” The two most prominent ones I discussed are: first, because I find “eternal torment” to be starkly contradictory to the teachings and practices of Jesus (who we are told is the exact representation of the Father), and second, because the Bible’s uses of the word “hell” NEVER meant an afterlife destination of torment in the first place – in fact, the Greek word consistently translated “hell” actually means a valley near Jerusalem which many believe was used to burn trash and dead bodies. In this third post, I’d like to look at the issue from another angle: if there is no eternal hell, then why did Jesus die? What are we saved from? What is the gospel?
I doubt you’ll be shocked to learn I do NOT think the gospel of Christ has anything to do with believing in Jesus to avoid hell or gain entrance into heaven when we die, and I don’t think the scriptures, interpreted properly and looked at fully, support that idea at all. I believe the “gospel” is all about the establishment of the KINGDOM of God – that is, the heart and way of God, based on love and unity, being recognized and received among the “elect,” then declared and ministered until in the ages to come it spreads over the earth. That is true “good news” for ALL men, as the angels proclaimed at Jesus’ birth!
Here is the first use of the word “gospel” in the New Testament:
- Matthew 4:23 ESV: “And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people.”
Do you see that? In healing diseases and afflictions, in ministering Life and giving hope to the downtrodden, Jesus was embodying the Kingdom. That is, he was making manifest the heart of God – the love and restorative justice and kindness that are at the core of who God is (and which is the opposite of what the law was). Prior to this, most people in Israel (which are the ones Jesus was sent to, by the way), were totally immersed in the law of Moses, and were hindered from experiencing God on a deeper level by the “religious leaders” who used the law for their own status and profit. The law was harsh and unbending, and these religious leaders, often referred to in the Bible as “pharisees” and “lawyers,” were blind and corrupt. The Good News that Jesus came declaring and ministering had to do with being freed from this law and those who tried to selfishly enforce it, and to begin instead to commune with God in spirit and truth and freedom. Glory!
It’s also interesting that Jesus and the apostles proclaimed the gospel BEFORE Jesus died on the cross. How? Because the gospel isn’t what so many of us were taught in western Christianity! Here’s one of a few passages that shows this:
- Luke 9:1-6 ESV: “And he (Jesus) called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. And he said to them, “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money; and do not have two tunics. And whatever house you enter, stay there, and from there depart. And wherever they do not receive you, when you leave that town shake off the dust from your feet as a testimony against them.” And they departed and went through the villages, preaching the gospel and healing everywhere.”
Just what do you think this “gospel” was that the disciples were preaching while Jesus was still with them? One thing is for sure: they weren’t preaching anything about Jesus’ death as an atonement for sin enabling us to go to heaven, because scripture records they found out Jesus was going to die on a Roman cross much later, and they were horrified and dismayed by the news! Peter actually tried to prevent Jesus from going to the cross and was rebuked by Jesus himself, who called him satan (see Matthew 16:21-23)! No, it seems clear to me that what they were proclaiming was exactly what they had seen and heard Jesus proclaiming: “the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” The miracles and healings were both confirmation and manifestation of the Kingdom itself – proof that God was FOR men, not against them like the law often was. Repentance has to do with seeing God as Father rather than “Judge” and accepting one’s sonship, letting go of contradictory mindsets and behaviors formed from fear and self-preservation.
If you read some of the apostles’ messages in the book of Acts, you can see them declaring that through the messiah Jesus Christ, there was no need to go to temples built by human hands to worship God, and there was no need to look to priests to minister to God on one’s behalf (see 1 John 2:27 to see this declared plainly). There was also no need (and never really had been) for animal sacrifices, because one perfect sacrifice had been made for all. The gospel was (and is) that rather than reaching out to God through outward observances, God has come to us in His son to show us what He is like. For the Jews, they were also told that soon the entire law-and-temple system would be taken away, once and for all (which happened when the curtain in the temple ripped from top to bottom and the Romans tore down the temple to the last stone).
The apostle Paul, who wrote most of the New Testament and whose writings are read all over the world each Sunday, was not among the initial twelve disciples, yet he also understood the Kingdom (again, the heart of God expressed on earth) as the central component of the gospel. He wrote, among other things: “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking (outward observances) but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” I’m not meaning to minimize the cross of Christ. Paul had a greater view of the cross than any other author of scripture, and wrote about its meaning in tremendous depth and mystical truth in several places, such as Romans 6. Yet even Paul seems to have understood that the cross was part of the larger purpose of the Kingdom of God.
I see the cross more as a demonstration and result of the gospel, rather than the gospel itself. Assuming this is true, and the “gospel” is about the Kingdom/rule/way of the Spirit of God being received inwardly and lived out on the earth, the question still remains of why Jesus “had” to suffer and die, and what it is we are “saved” from. I think I will save those questions for my next post, so I hope you’ll check back. God bless you!
If we believe that the Biblical phrases “Kingdom of God” and “Kingdom of Heaven” refer to the same thing (which I think is essentially true), then we can draw some important conclusions. First, I’ll briefly try to show why I think these phrases are often, if not always, synonymous.
In Matthew 19:23-24, Jesus uses both phrases when speaking of the same thing. He says: “‘assuredly, I say to you that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’” Matthew 4:17 records Jesus’ first words after beginning his ministry as: “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Mark 1:15 records these same words as: “…the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” These examples show that “Kingdom of Heaven” and “Kingdom of God” often, if not always, refer to the same thing.
Interestingly, the phrase “Kingdom of Heaven” is only found in Matthew’s gospel. Some say this is because Matthew was writing to a Jewish audience, and was respecting the Jews’ tradition of using the name of God as sparingly as possible, using the word “heaven” instead. The terms God and heaven aren’t as different as they might seem, since the writers of scripture understood “heaven” NOT as a specific place believers go, but as something like: “the higher ways of the divine, based on love and unity,” as opposed to the lower ways of natural man. In that sense, “heaven” is not a “place” we will go to, but a spiritual life/power/realm which first comes to us and to which we then can begin to conform.
So having established that, (for those who are willing and able to hear it), I want to briefly share and expound on something that came to me while I was half-asleep and still in bed a few days ago. Maybe it’s unusually profound, maybe not, but I want to get it down and share it.
Luke 17 (NKJV): “20 Now when Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, He answered them and said, “The kingdom of God does not come with observation; 21 nor will they say, ‘See here!’ or ‘See there!’ For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you.”
The pharisees, that is the religious leaders and scholars and experts of Jesus’ day, were often perplexed by Jesus. I think they probably felt toward Jesus both curiosity and interest, and jealousy and resentment. They would often ask him questions, sometimes to try to get him to make a “mistake” that they could expose. In this passage, they are asking him when the Kingdom – that is, the reign, of God would come. They expected that it would come in some sort of a violent overthrow of the existing political powers, and be established as a physical and domineering hierarchy, with Jews at the top. STill today, most Christians look for Jesus to return and physically kill and overthrow those they view as “wicked.”
However, what Jesus told them was very different than they expected. He told them to quit focusing on things that can be outwardly observed, because the rule and reign of God won’t arrive that way. Instead, he taught that the rule and the reign of God -that is, the establishment of his Kingdom – is first and foremost invisible, inward, and spiritual. What what may be going on in the outward world which we can “observe” is a separate issue (though not a trivial one). Sadly, in our day and age, few have heeded this truth that Jesus was sharing. Although the Roman government remained largely brutal, and the religion of the Jews remained corrupt and murderous, Jesus was saying that he walked in the Kingdom of God, and that anyone could do the same, by his Father’s grace, if they were willing.
The primary thing I want to point out is that if, as Jesus said, the Kingdom of God is something spiritual and inward, then the same is true of the Kingdom of Heaven. Remember, the two terms are interchangeable. Despite this, most Christians are quite focused on “going to heaven” when they die…not realizing that Jesus said heaven is an inward kingdom, and that it is here and now that we are to begin to dwell in heaven. Paul understood this as well, saying that we are “seated in heavenly places in Christ Jesus” right now (Ephesians 2:6).
Yes, Jesus, the firstborn from the dead, is the one who made this possible. Yes, it is in him that sins are forgiven, and in him that we are seated with God in heavenly places – RIGHT NOW. I believe the sooner we realize this, realizing that heaven is a reign which has come to us, a reign characterized by radical love and mercy and forgiveness and reconciliation, the sooner we will begin to see these ways of heaven invade our lives, families, and world. If we’re always waiting till later or till we die, we won’t expect or seek to establish and live in the Kingdom NOW. But we have to! Let’s bear with one-another, be patient and kind with one-another, until we all come to the unity of the faith and true maturity, that the body of Christ will truly rise and minister Life once again (Ephesians 4:13, Romans 5:17). I am certain this will not be instant, elegant, or easy. I am even more certain, however, that love will not fail as it eventually dissolves all things formed in the mind of man, all fear-based understandings and ways, and instead rejoices with the truth and abides in the Father through Christ to the ends of the earth, and even beyond. Amen.
Before I get into the meat of this post, I’d like to say a few things. First, that I truly regret using the term “universalist” in my initial post, the chief reason being that I am not really a universalist! I still believe Jesus Christ alone was and is THE savior – I just believe that this salvation will eventually encompass everyone. If a title or label is needed for what I believe about the ultimate destiny of mankind, a better and more accurate one is probably something like “ultimate reconciliationism.” I also regret using “universalist” because it seems that all labels and titles, whatever they may be, almost always do more harm than good; stifling humble, helpful dialogue and fostering knee-jerk reactions, polarization, defensiveness, hostility, etc. Therefore, I feel my use of the universalist “label” was a significant (and stupid) mistake on my part, and I have edited it out of my original post.
I also want to say that I underestimated just how daunting a task it is to refute the idea of “eternal conscious torment.” For one thing, it isn’t a single idea at all, but a compilation of several ideas, which include: this torment takes place in what the Bible calls hell, people who die “unsaved” go to hell instead of to heaven, one’s eternal destiny is immediately and permanently determined at the time of physical death, torment in hell is conscious and never-ending, this torment is due to God’s wrath against sin, Jesus’ purpose was to save us from hell, and the Bible is quite clear in affirming all of these things.
Refuting ECT is also difficult because it has become an integral part of the belief system of millions, and a major driving force of the entire system of Christianity. Because “eternal conscious torment” is such an inconceivably absurd and terrifying thing, it seems to have come to permeate and underlie nearly everything Christianity understands about the nature and character of both God and man, the purpose of Jesus’ incarnation and crucifixion, the meaning and message of the Kingdom of God, and the “good news” itself.
Now, if it’s true that eternal conscious torment is a man-made idea which is out of line with the Spirit of love and the heart of God (which I firmly believe to be the case), then it is both inevitable and necessary that it not only be removed, but also replaced. I am greatly in favor of this, actually. HOWEVER, I do think this should be done carefully and with a desire to avoid harm or division whenever possible. For this reason, I am taking pains in these blogs to explain and support what I believe to be true, rather than only exposing and tearing down what is false. This will require some time and work, but I feel this topic, and whoever reads this, deserves it. I will do my best.
The Biblical Words for Hell:
Maybe a good place to start is by looking at the word “hell” itself. In the original languages the Bible was written in, the words which have been translated into English as “hell” mean nothing like “an eternal destination of torment.” Even in English, “hell” didn’t originally mean that, originating with a root word simply meaning “a concealed place. In my research, it seems the earliest uses of “hell” in the English language simply referred to the invisible place where everyone, good and bad, went to reside after death. The association of “hell” with torment seems to have come later, likely due to the influence of pagan ideas and religions (which have had a far greater effect on Christianity than most realize).
You may not know that a total of FOUR very different words are translated “hell” in the KJV Bible (twice that of most other modern translations such as the ESV and NASB, which only translate two words as “hell”). Understanding that the KJV translated hell far more liberally than other translations is worth knowing, because the KJV, by a very large margin, was the most commonly used Bible translation in America well into the 20th Century. Thus, it has been hugely influential in the formation of Christian doctrine and practice in the western world, and thus into the rest of the world where American and European missionaries traveled and evangelized.
If you use a bit of common sense, the way “hell” has been translated should bother you – why take four (or even two) different words, with different meanings and contexts, from very different languages, locations, and time-periods, then translate them all with a single English word as if they all mean exactly the same, THEN insist “thus saith the Lord”!? I honestly think such a scenario is nothing less than a tragedy, as there is almost no way NOT to “muddy the waters” and cause confusion and error on a large scale, which is exactly what has happened. Translation issues aren’t that big of a deal if, for example, you’re trying to insist that unicorns are real (yes, unicorns are mentioned in the KJV), but when you are talking about insisting that God’s word declares that billions of people will end up in eternal torment for wrong beliefs, you are talking about an idea with the power to create great fear and control over people.
In the KJV, three of the root words translated “hell” are Greek, found in the New Testament: these are hades, gehenna, and tartaroo. The fourth is the Old Testament Hebrew word sheol. As I indicated earlier, among all translations in common modern use, ONLY the KJV translated either sheol OR hades as “hell,” (though the New King James Version (NKJV) translates sheol, but not hades, as “hell”).
Regarding the Hebrew sheol, I feel that “grave” is probably the best English translation, because it means “place of the dead,” with no extra meaning of what this place is or isn’t like. The KJV actually does translate sheol as “grave,” but only about half the time. It seems the translators used “hell” whenever they could, but were forced to use “grave” in the instances where “hell” was too obviously a bad translation. Could this one word really mean “grave” and “hell?” Those are extremely different! Interestingly, the Old Testament contains zero mention of torment after death, and in some cases even says there is no consciousness after death at all! (see Ecclesiastes 9:10 below, for example). My point is, sheol cannot and does not mean what we think of as “hell,” in part because there was and is no such concept as “eternal conscious torment” in ancient Israel, or even in Judaism today.
- Ecclesiastes 9:10 ESV: Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.” -Not exactly the “eternal conscious torment” of “hell.”
As for hades, a Greek word used in the New Testament, it seems that all modern Bible versions chose to leave this word untranslated because, as with sheol, the translators recognized that it clearly does not refer to a place of eternal torment, but simply to the invisible residence of those who have physically died. The use of hades in the Bible itself, as well as in other Greek writings from the same time-period, show this to be the case quite clearly. Even the KJV translates hades as grave, but only in a single instance, where “hell” simply wouldn’t fit. Giving further support to the notion that hades is not a place of eternal torment is the fact that the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Old Testament used widely in Jesus’ day, translates the Hebrew word sheol with the Greek word hades, indicating the two were understood to be synonymous. The New Testament itself also shows this: Acts 2:27 records Peter quoting from Psalm 16:10, and uses the word hades to translate sheol.
Another very interesting point about hades is that it is not a Christian word or concept at all, but originates in Greek mythology, hundreds of years before Christ. It seems to me that the Biblical writers used such a word and idea from Greek mythology NOT because it is a literal place created by God, but very simply because it was the commonly-used word in that time and place to refer generally to the “place of the dead.” That’s it. Again, it seems the authors of the Bible were simply using the primary word in their language to convey “the place of the dead” to their readers. They didn’t intend to mean “a place of eternal torment after death,” as “hell” has come to mean, because that’s not what hades meant! It is the modern religion of Christianity, not Christ and the first apostles, which is fascinated with the afterlife, to the detriment of life NOW.
Seeing that sheol and hades are usually (and ideally) NOT translated “hell,” this leaves us with two words which ARE consistently translated as “hell” in nearly all modern translations: Gehenna (about 12 times) and tartaroo (once). You may have heard of hades and sheol, since many Bibles leave them untranslated, but Gehenna seems to be less known – since it’s almost always translated “hell,” the only way to have heard of it is to look at the Greek language, which few care to do. Whenever Jesus speaks of “hell,” the word is always Gehenna. Excuse the pun, but what the hell is Gehenna? Before I explain what it is, allow me to show you a fairly recent picture of it:
Gehenna (“hell”) Today
This is not a joke – that is truly a picture of Gehenna, i.e. “hell”! I am capitalizing Gehenna because it is the proper name of a physical place, pictured above. Gehenna is one of those physical locations which is named after a person or family; very much like how the state of Pennsylvania is named after William Penn, or how America is named after the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci. A simple biblical dictionary reveals that the Greek word Gehenna is a shortened word, adapted from two Hebrew words: ge (valley) and Hinnom (the proper name of some ancient person or family). Gehenna, which is translated “hell” in virtually all Bibles, literally means “the valley of Hinnom,” or “the valley of the sons of Hinnom.” That’s right, Gehenna was, and still is, a literal geographical place; a valley on the outskirts of Jerusalem very near where Jesus lived and ministered, which you can visit today, and which those alive when the Bible was written (especially in and around Israel, where Jesus ministered), would have been very familiar with. No doubt many who heard Jesus speak of Gehenna had personally seen it with their own eyes. Not only that, but the Old Testament, the only “Bible” the first believers had, mentions Gehenna (the valley of Hinnom) multiple times, which would have made it even more familiar to them.
I don’t want to be redundant, but feel it’s important to stress is that whenever Jesus mentioned Gehenna (“hell”), those whom he was actually talking to, and those who read his words not long after he lived, would absolutely NOT have thought about some after-death destination of eternal torment – not at all! They would have simply thought of the familiar nearby valley (we will look at some of Jesus’ words below). What comes to mind for a 21st Century American when they read of “hell” in the Bible is MUCH different from what Jesus had in mind, and what he intended for his hearers to have in mind. This is no small matter!!! Again, what we think of as “hell” is NOT what Jesus meant! In warning about the fires of hell, Jesus clearly wasn’t saying anyone was going to consciously burn in the small Valley of Hinnom, much less be eternally tormented there after they die. Those are ideas which are entirely fabricated in the darkened mind and imagination of man – carnal in origin and spiritually damaging in effect.
Here is one more picture of Gehenna/hell, taken in 1948:
Gehenna (“hell”) in 1948
At this point in my first draft of this post, I began to explain that Gehenna is connected with fire in the New Testament writings because it was used in Jesus’ day as a dump for trash and dead bodies, which was kept perpetually burning to dispose of its contents. I have heard this for years, and read it myself in more than one “authoritative” source. However, upon further research, it appears this is only a theory, and that the most ancient source that describes Gehenna in Jesus’ time as a perpetually burning dump was a Jewish Rabbi named Kimhi who wrote around 1,200 AD. Not exactly a first-hand account. So while the theory of Gehenna being a perpetually burning dump may well be true, it’s not a certainty, and I don’t want to present it as such.
IF the “burning dump” theory is false, it seems plausible that the connection between Gehenna and fire has to do with the fact that the Valley of Hinnom was the location of pagan sacrifices, including human sacrifices, committed in and by ancient Israel. This would likely have been known by nearly all Jews in Jesus’ time, and it seems they would have easily, even automatically, connected Gehenna with abomination, idolatry, and death. It is mentioned in such a capacity many times in the Old Testament. A couple examples are:
- 2 Chronicles 28:3 (NASB): “Moreover, (King Ahaz) burned incense in the valley of Ben-hinnom (literally “the sons of Hinnom, or Gehenna) and burned his sons in fire, according to the abominations of the nations whom the Lord had driven out before the sons of Israel.”
- Jeremiah 7:31 (ESV): “And they have built the high places of Topheth, which is in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom (Gehenna), to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind.”
This is a very important thing to realize: unless we truly think that millions or billions of people are going to be eternally tormented in this small valley in Jerusalem, which is obviously ridiculous, then we have to recognize that, at least on some level, Jesus’ warnings about the fires of Gehenna (hell) are not literal, but (like many things in the Bible) used as a spiritual metaphor or representation. That’s just a fact.
All this said, it’s worth noting that the Bible is actually shockingly silent about Gehenna. For instance, Paul, who single-handedly wrote 2/3 of the New Testament and whose letters are preached from constantly in churches all across the world, NEVER used either Gehenna OR hades – the two primary words translated hell in the Bible! Read any of his letters, in any translation, and you will not find the word “hell” even once. You can even read his speeches and teachings that are recorded in the book of Acts – hell is completely absent. Even for those who choose to insist: “Paul taught about hell, he just never named it,” it has to be admitted that this strange. Similarly, the entire gospel of John has ZERO mentions of it, and the gospel of Luke has just one. These things, especially the total absence of Gehenna in any of Paul’s writings, seems almost inconceivable to me if Gehenna/hell is THE place of eternal, conscious torment (the worst thing imaginable) which Jesus personally came to deliver all mankind from, and if the Bible is the only place where we can reliably learn this.
In fact, besides one use of Gehenna by James (which we will look at and which clearly has nothing to do with eternal torment), Jesus is the only one who used this word in the entirety of the Bible! Again, this is almost impossible to believe if hell is truly a destination of eternal torment that awaits all unbelievers, and which believers are specifically called to rescue men from by preaching and warning? The answer to this conundrum is that hell isn’t a place of eternal conscious torment that awaits unbelievers – we have simply been misled! There’s no shame in that, though. In fact, it’s great! If we realize we’ve been misled, we are then enabled to receive the truth! The real shame, if there is any, isn’t in changing, but in realizing we were stubbornly wrong for so long.
Jesus’ Warnings About Gehenna/Hell:
It’s sometimes said that Jesus spoke about hell more than heaven, but this seems to me to be absolutely false. In fact, in the ESV version of the Bible, the word “hell” appears in the four gospels a total of 12 times, while the word “heaven” appears 132 times!!! Other translations have similar numbers. I don’t want to get into the idea of “heaven” too much here (maybe in the future), but I do want to mention that the Greek word translated “heaven” is ouranos, which literally means “the expanse of the sky,” and is used numerous times in scripture to refer simply to the physical sky. Most of the time, ouranos/heaven is used a spiritual sense, referring to the “higher” rule and way of God/Spirit, as opposed to the more base, corrupt “lower” kingdoms and ways of the world. Most of Jesus’ parables were directly about the “Kingdom of Heaven” which he indicated was both present and future. It seems to me that Jesus was describing how believers should act as CURRENT citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, and declaring that in doing so, we will literally be bringing heaven to earth. In that sense, Jesus famous statement “the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” makes more sense: Jesus was literally embodying what spiritual citizens of heaven live like, and then called those who would listen to him to likewise love one-another and and walk in the Spirit.
More on that later, perhaps. My point is that in a similar way, I am increasingly convinced that when Jesus spoke of Gehenna (hell), he absolutely did not mean a physical place we go forever when we die, but was using a familiar physical place, which was associated with corruption and fire, as a spiritual metaphor to illustrate the destructive, consuming fire that will burn ALL MEN. Yes, I said ALL people will undergo the fires of Gehenna/hell – Jesus clearly said so himself, as you’ll see below. I am also reminded of John the Baptist saying that Jesus will “baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.” That fire isn’t for “unbelievers,” but everyone! The fire Jesus baptizes with, I believe, is the same fire represented by Gehenna. The fire of Jesus is a fire of love. Love NEVER torments as a means of justice, and never causes pain without purpose or end. Perfect love consumes, without fail.
In looking at the Biblical writings, it seems Jesus mentioned hell/Gehenna on four unique occasions (sometimes more than once per occasion): the sermon on the mount in Matthew 5 and Mark 9, when speaking of the persecution his disciples would face in Matthew 10, when warning about avoiding stumbling-blocks in Matthew 18, and when proclaiming woe to the Pharisees in Matthew 23. I would again point out that those who Jesus was speaking to, being familiar with the nearby Valley of Hinnom, would have clearly understood Jesus was not speaking literally, but using a familiar place of corruption and pagan fire-sacrifices to make a spiritual point about the “fiery destruction” that awaits their own inward corruption.
I also noticed that only once, in Mark 9:43, did Jesus connect Gehenna with anything resembling “eternal.” It’s not surprising that this one occasion is most often used by those who want to say that Jesus taught eternal conscious torment. When this verse is looked at by itself, it’s easy to see how it came to be understood as something like: “avoid sin at all costs or you risk being eternally burned in hell.” I don’t think that’s what it means at all, however (not to mention, doesn’t that contradict traditional gospel message of “saved by grace through faith, not of works?). Here is the verse:
- Mark 9:43-44 (NASB): “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life crippled, than, having your two hands, to go into hell, into the unquenchable fire, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.”
As a general rule, it is unwise to make a point using a verse separated from its context. Allow me to quote the larger context of this verse, because there are some fascinating, shocking and very illuminating things that can be seen:
- Mark 9:42-50 (NASB): “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe to stumble, it would be better for him if, with a heavy millstone hung around his neck, he had been cast into the sea. 43 If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life crippled, than, having your two hands, to go into hell, into the unquenchable fire,44[where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.] 45 If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame, than, having your two feet, to be cast into hell, 46 [where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.] 47 If your eye causes you to stumble, throw it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, than, having two eyes, to be cast into hell, 48 where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched. 49 “For everyone will be salted with fire. (Did you catch that???) 50 Salt is good; but if the salt becomes unsalty, with what will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
There are some really important points I’d like to make here. First of all, when Jesus mentions “unquenchable fire,” he’s not describing a physical place, but is actually quoting from Isaiah 66:24, using the words of Israel’s prophets to make a point, as he did many times when speaking to Israelites. But more importantly, notice what Jesus says in verse 49: EVERYONE will be “salted” with this fire! What this means, if you can accept it, is that the ”unquenchable” fire of hell will burn EVERYONE. This is what Jesus said, quite clearly in fact. Does this mean everyone is going to be eternally tormented? Of course not! What it means is that this fire is spiritual, not physical, and serves to purify, not to eternally torment. One might ask: how could “unquenchable” fire mean anything other than “never-ending” fire? Unquenchable seems to simply mean that this fire cannot be avoided and cannot be snuffed out until it entirely consumes whatever it is burning. In that sense, it is very much “unquenchable.” In Greek, the word translated “eternal” means “lasting an age” or “an undefined, long period of time,” not “never-ending into all eternity.” In a future post, I intend to look at the meaning and original words and true meaning behind “unquenchable,” “eternal,” and “everlasting.”
So if Jesus isn’t speaking of literal fire, then what IS he talking about? In the New Testament, fire is often used to represent purification and refining. In actuality, I believe this Fire is the presence of God/perfect love Himself. Here are a few examples:
- Hebrews 12:28-29 (NASB): “Therefore, since we receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service (not composed of wood, hay, or stubble) with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire.”
- James 5:2-3 (NASB): “Your riches have rotted and your garments have become moth-eaten. Your gold and your silver have rusted; and their rust will be a witness against you and will consume your flesh like fire.”
- Jude 22-23 (NASB): “And have mercy on some, who are doubting; save others, snatching them out of the fire; and on some have mercy with fear, hating even the garment polluted by the flesh.”
- Matthew 3:11 (NASB): “As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
The fire of God, which according to Jesus ALL will be “salted” with, most certainly DOES unquenchably burn and consume, BUT, it only burns and consumes what is of the flesh, what is impure. I believe flesh burns away in this fire in a similar way that darkness is dispelled in the presence of light, and lies vaporize in the presence of truth. A primary message of Jesus (and the apostles) was to call men to repent of law-mindedness, embracing their identity as Sons of God, walking in the Spirit rather than by their traditions and darkened natural minds. In other words, it seems to me that Jesus and the apostles were calling men to embrace the reconciliation which was already accomplished – not to “attain” it somehow. The issue seems to be for us to let go of carnal ways of thought and action (which include a lot of our religious thinking and ways)! Think about this: how many of us have any way of understanding and living that isn’t totally pure and spiritual? Maybe it’s “good,” but still man-made? How many of us also have been hypocritical or selfish? How about misled, yet stubborn? All of us! Therefore, either in this age or in the ages to come, how many of us must and will undergo the “fire” of purification? All of us – just as Jesus said! Scripture teaches that the Kingdom of God is present and destined to increase, and we know that ultimately there will be no wickedness in it. The unquenchable fire, I believe, if for this purpose. It’s not about our personal destiny, it’s about the Kingdom of God!!!
A common reaction to this line of thinking is: “if everyone goes to heaven, why even follow God at all?” There are many reasons I don’t like that logic, and I won’t get into them all here. One obvious answer is that even if the fire of God is ultimately purifying, that doesn’t mean it’s pleasant, right? Having one’s entire life and identity revealed to have been based on a lie and without substance, then burned away is no trivial matter. I also tend to agree that some people, who have greatly resisted the Spirit of God and been a source of stumbling and harm to others, will have to undergo more “burning” than others – there is more flammable “wood, hay and stubble” there – again, no trivial matter!
Another point is that scripture teaches that through Christ ALL men have ALREADY been reconciled. This can’t change, because Jesus died and rose for all, AS all. The fire of Gehenna and the lake of Fire in revelation can’t prevent this, and you don’t torture someone you are reconciled with. Instead, it seems to me these fires serve to burn away what isn’t in line with that reconciliation. In fact, everything that opposes God isn’t “real” anyway, if you define “real” as: “part of the New Creation.” The old isn’t going to be tortured, it’s destined for destruction by fire.
This seems to be what Paul was speaking of in this passage:
- 1 Corinthians 3:11-15 (NASB): “For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work. If any man’s work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.”
Getting back to the passage from Mark 9 about being cast into hell, I also noticed that Jesus seems to be making one overall point using several metaphoric examples. His basic point seems to be this: “it would be better” to undergo physical drowning, amputation or even death rather than to cause or experience spiritual “stumbling.” Without question, this is a very sobering point! HOWEVER, I think we all realize Jesus isn’t saying anyone who is a source of stumbling is going to be drowned in the ocean with a huge rock around their neck, or that the way to avoid hell is to literally amputate your extremities or rip out your eyes – both of those are clearly figures of speech to emphasize his point. Therefore, we have no more reason from this passage to say that people who “stumble” will be literally cast into Gehenna to burn forever than we do to say that anyone who causes stumbling will or should be thrown into the ocean with a huge rock around their neck. Both of these things, which Jesus mentioned together, are metaphors: physical examples used to make a spiritual point.
Other Uses of Hell in the New Testament:
Outside of Jesus’ occasional mentions of Gehenna in the gospels, the word appears precisely ONCE in the rest of the New Testament. I have to point out once again, if Gehenna/hell is THE place of eternal torment that Jesus came to save us from, couldn’t we expect at least Paul, Peter, or John to tell us about it by name at least once? Anyway, here is the single non-Jesus use of Gehenna in the rest of the New Testament (notice how it is clearly metaphoric):
- James 3:6 (NASB): “And the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell (Gehenna).”
Of course, the valley near Jerusalem is not actively inflaming anyone’s physical tongue. Once again, Gehenna is chosen as a metaphor because it was a familiar and connected with fire and corruption. What James seems to be saying is that our “tongue” (our thoughts put to speech) is, similar to fire, very powerful and destructive, being capable of quick and pervasive misery, both to ourselves and others. To avoid being agents of such destruction, we must be sure that our speech is kept in check by and is in accordance with the Holy Spirit. Our minds must be renewed to see the greatness and fullness of the Reconciliation, Love and Truth that has been at hand for at least the last 2,000 years.
Finally, the last and only other use of the word “hell” in the New Testament (outside of the KJV’s poor translation of hades), is found in 2 Peter 2:4, which reads:
- 2 Peter 2:4 NASB: “For if God did not spare the angels who sinned, but cast them down to hell and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved for judgment…”
In this verse, the word translated hell is the Greek word tartaroo, a form of tartarus. This is the only use of this word in the entire Bible. Like hades, tartarus is not a Christian word or idea, but originates in Greek mythology, long before Christ. In Greek mythology, tartarus was considered to be the lowest level of hades, serving as a prison for divine beings such as the Titans. Once again, it seems to me that Peter was not trying to make a literal “doctrine” about tartarus – a place that is thoroughly pagan in origin and meaning. Instead, it seems most likely that, exactly as with hades, he was simply using a word and idea which would have been very familiar to his audience in order to make a larger point about the chastisement of the wicked.
I will end with that! I hope this was helpful and enlightening. Do some more research yourself if you want, but please take these things seriously. As I said last time, what is at stake is the way we understand and represent God’s nature and character, and those tend to permeate into our emotions and relationships. I intend for much more to come on this overall subject! Bless you all.
- 2 Corinthians 5:14 ESV: “For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died;”
- Hebrews 2:9 ESV: “But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.”
- Hebrews 10:2,10,12-18 ESV: (2) “Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? (10) And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. (12) But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, (13) waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. (14) For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. (15) And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying, (16) “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds,” (17) then he adds, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” (18) Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.”
For several years now, I have been convinced that no one will end up in “eternal, conscious torment” (ECT) in hell, and a bit more recently I am becoming convinced that everyone will be reconciled to God through Christ at some point. Sadly, any view similar to this one is still considered heretical and dangerous by mainstream Christianity, and those who adhere to it are considered outcasts. Yet it seems to me that, in comparison with the idea that the vast majority of people are going to be eternally barbecued with no hope, the idea that God’s mercy truly does last forever and that all will be reconciled to Him someday, or at least that the wicked are destroyed, is far more God-exalting and supernaturally loving. Not only that, but I believe the “ultimate reconciliation” view is more scripturally honest and consistent with the belief 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 any teaching along the lines of 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 honest truth is, however, that the Bible is not as plain, literal, and clear-cut as many Christians tend to insist. If it is, how can you explain the vast differences in belief and doctrine among good, well-meaning, intelligent, Biblically-devoted people?!
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 un-endingly in what amounts to sadistic eternal torture. Maybe there are consequences and punishment, but it’s not that.
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?! Haven’t we all believed something strongly, only to later realize our error? I certainly have. Isn’t a refusal 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 no pastor or teacher I had listened to 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 in human form) 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 the longest anyone could “sin” would be something like 90 years, and humans are extremely fallible and vulnerable to begin with).
It’s certainly true that in Jesus’ zeal for God’s Kingdom, he was sometimes harsh (though always truthful) when speaking to the Jewish religious leaders, who (like many religious leaders still today) continually misrepresented, hindered, and opposed the truth of his Father. Jesus knew that it was religion’s rules and pride and self-awareness and sin-consciousness that kept his precious brothers and sisters under needless bondage, hindered from receiving their inheritance and walking in true freedom as sons of God.
Despite these stubborn, prideful and greedy hypocrites opposing all he and his Father stood for and did, and despite them at every turn resisting the truth and ultimately torturing and murdering him, Jesus never once retaliated with pain or 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 love and radical forgiveness 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 of belief or practice.
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.
Sometimes, I will send a text to myself when I have a thought I don’t want to forget. The following quote is an expanded version of one such text I sent myself while thinking about the nature of love:
Love is “unfair,” in favor of the beloved. Love looks like a suffering servant – it’s the strong bearing with the weak, it’s putting others above oneself, it’s choosing mercy instead of judgment, it’s speaking grace and life in the face of death. Because love doesn’t “know after the flesh,”1 it cannot and does not react or respond; certainly not with evil. Love, being founded in the nature of God Himself, CANNOT be changed or overcome.2 Love isn’t painful in and of itself, but until the world is matured and perfected, love must and will take the form of suffering servanthood. We must know this: if the Kingdom/Reign of God (the expression of the nature and will of the Spirit) is ever to be manifested on earth, it must do so through the body of Christ on earth! As such, those who are Christ’s cannot repay evil with evil – not even a slight evil with an even slighter evil. As should be obvious, repaying evil with evil, violence with violence, anger with anger, selfishness with selfishness, insult with insult, etc. simply perpetuates evil. To end this cycle, someone has to absorb blows and insults, without returning them. Someone has to walk in a higher plane than reasonings and reactions based on ego and fear; demonstrating the nature of God by showing KINDNESS to those who are undeserving, by speaking truth and life in spite of persecution, by both proclaiming and demonstrating God’s nature and mind. This, by the way, does not mean pointing out “sin” any time you see it. Doing that is actually administering DEATH. It means showing and offering Life.
As I’ve said many times before, I am optimistic for the future. I am confident that death will be swallowed up by life, light will banish darkness, truth will prevail over lies, Christ will replace Adam, and love will overcome fear. In fact, I am certain of these things, because I am certain that in Christ, from the foundation of the world, they have already been accomplished! Time and space place inescapable constraints on flesh and blood, but they have no such constraint on Spirit, where the end is known from the beginning and both past and future are merely parts of one whole. In the Spirit, death IS swallowed up by life, and love IS the foundation of all things. Just how and when these things will manifest in time and space, I don’t know. But I am confident they will. Now, I am very aware that there is much I don’t know! I am just increasingly confident that Christ has fully prevailed, so therefore NOTHING can stop the manifestation of love and truth and Life!
It bears repeating: true love often involves suffering. Love suffers because it absorbs the various abuses that stem from fear, ignorance, and unbelief, but never returns them. Paul wrote that Christ’s body is to “overcome evil with good.” Love overcomes evil in the same way that light overcomes darkness, and truth overcomes lies. Love suffers yet overcomes, because it doesn’t change or cease when things are difficult or when opposition is strong. Jesus, the greatest man to ever live, allowed himself to be abused, beaten to shreds and crucified by prideful religious fanatics and a callous military and political system – in order to save them all!
I’ll end with this: what if the “salvation” Paul wrote of has more to do with aligning ourselves with and then bringing the “Kingdom of God/Heaven” to earth than it does with going to “heaven” when we die!? What if, as the body of Christ, WE are the only ministers of salvation this world has – a world that still remains in darkness and needs it! What if love is the necessary foundation, without which any preaching is useless? What if the way we minister this salvation is no longer primarily by “preaching,” but by sacrificial LOVING, even if that means physical death! Are we willing, or willing to be willing? Our Spirit is.
Be blessed my friends, thanks for reading.
- 2 Corinthians 5:16
- 1 John 4:7, 1 Corinthians 13:8