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.”