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Why I Don’t Believe in Eternal Hell: The Scriptures!

In an online debate I was recently listening to, I heard a former Christian claim that the New Testament actually portrays God worse than the Old Testament, because only the New Testament teaches the doctrine of eternal torment in hell. He said that this doctrine amounts to “infinite punishment for finite crimes,” an idea which is cruel and terrible beyond description.

I actually agree with this conclusion, but the thing is, the Bible doesn’t really teach eternal torment! For the purposes of this post, I don’t really care if you believe the Bible is divinely inspired or superstitious nonsense; I simply hope to show is that the Bible itself makes a much stronger case in favor of the idea that all people will ultimately be reconciled to God through Christ, than the idea that anyone will be eternally tormented.

Im going to examine a few of the Bible’s passages which seem to most clearly and powerfully teach the ultimate reconciliation of all people, and in an upcoming post I’ll examine the most popular verses that are used to support eternal, conscious torment.  Genuine, divine love, 1 John says, actually casts out fear, but it is fear which lies at the root of many of the ideas about God we have created. There is much we have to learn.

On to the scriptures:

Philippians 2:9-11 ESV: Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, (10) so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, (11) and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

1 Corinthians 12:3 ESV: Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says “Jesus is accursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit.

1 John 4:15 ESV: “Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God.”

Revelation 5:13:  “And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”

 

Most Christians know the first passage, which says that EVERY knee will bow and tongue confess that Jesus is Lord.  (The passage from Revelation 5 says the very same thing).  To me, it seems this verse by itself should settle the question of whether or not all are reconciled to God in the end, and settle it in the affirmative!  Does it not state that everyone eventually comes to salvation, since everyone eventually confesses the Lordship of Jesus Christ and brings God glory?   As a matter of fact, it DOES say that, and says it plainly!  I’d also point out that while there are scriptures that seem to teach eternal torment, this verse is just as, if not more, plain and powerful than any of them.  An interesting question, which I won’t get into here for the sake of space, is why Christianity doesn’t accept that this verse teaches ultimate reconciliation.  

A friend of mine pointed out to me that this verse from Philippians 2 powerfully aligns with 1 Corinthians 12:3, the second passage above, which says that ONLY “in the Holy Spirit” can someone truly confess the Lordship of Jesus.  This means that those in Philippians 2 who are kneeling before Christ and confessing his Lordship and bringing God glory (which is ALL people) are “in the Holy Spirit.” Therefore, to believe in eternal torment, you are forced to claim that even though EVERYONE will “confess Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the Father” and will be “in the Holy Spirit,” they will still be eternally tormented.  Really?  That’s quite a claim, and is not at all what this passage is saying.

1 John 4:15 adds even more, going so far as to say that those confessing Jesus Christ are both indwelt by God and dwelling in God!  That is such a mind-blowing statement!  Here’s the truth: what we are reading about in Philippians 2:9-11 is the ultimate reconciliation of all people, since John tells us that in the confession of Jesus Christ as Lord that EVERYONE will make, they have come to dwell in God and be indwelt by God!  If these (all people) are in God and God is in them, but they are still eternally tormented, does that mean God is then going to eternally torment Himself?!  No, but what could such a radical statement as this mean other than they are reconciled and united with the Father!  They are sons and daughters!  As 1 Corinthians 15:28 (ESV) says:

“When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all.”  

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2 Peter 2:9 KJV: “The Lord knoweth how to deliver the godly out of temptations, and to reserve the unjust unto the day of judgment to be punished…”

This verse places people into two categories: the godly and the unjust.  Interestingly, it does NOT say either group, even the unjust, will be tormented (nor does it mention a thing about eternity).  Instead, it actually teaches the unjust will be chastised and corrected.  

Correctly interpreting this verse hinges on the meaning of the word “punished,” which is translated from the Greek word kolazo, which does not mean inflicting some sort of pain as a “repayment” for evil (which is very un-Christlike and therefore un-Godlike anyway).  Instead, kolazo means chastisement in order to correct. Eternal torment cannot be “corrective,” as it never changes or ends!  

The primary meaning for kolazo given by the popular and respected Strong’s Greek dictionary is: “To lop or prune, as trees or wings.” According to Greek scholars, kolazo was originally a horticultural term for pruning, which is the practice of cutting off certain parts of a plant to promote its health and fruitfulnessNo one prunes a plant to “punish” it, but to benefit it.  Over time, kolazo came to denote a similar idea with respect to people – “pruning” them (which is admittedly painful) so they will come to live properly.  The point is, the intention and ultimate outcome of kolazo is correction and restoration – especially since the one doing the pruning is a loving and wise Father!  

Interestingly, the Greek language does have a word, timoria, which means punishment in the sense of vengeance or repayment for evilArisotle, the famous Greek philosopher (who I’m pretty sure knew ancient Greek better than you or I), made this distinction between these two words in Rhetoric 1.10.17: “But there is a difference between revenge (timoria) and punishment (kolasin); the latter is inflicted in the interest of the sufferer, the former in the interest of him who inflicts it, that he may obtain satisfaction.”  So, kolasin is in the interest of (that is, beneficial and corrective) to the one being punished, while timoria is “beneficial” only to the one doing the punishingPaul, when describing his persecution of the believers in Jesus, used “timoria” to describe his actionsHe certainly wasn’t concerned with the well-being of those he was persecuting, but with meeting and satisfying his own thirst for perverted justice and revenge.  But God, and certainly love, is not like thatGod is love, remember? He’s not wrath…and He never has been. Love is always ultimately merciful and restorative.  Hence the use of the word kolazo. Though many have strayed far from it, the source and heart of the universe is one of love and restoration. How glorious!

Here is how this verse more accurately reads: “The Lord knoweth how to deliver the godly out of temptations, and to reserve the unjust unto the day of judgment to be corrected…

 

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1 Timothy 4:10 ESV: “For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.”

This verse says God is the savior of “ALL PEOPLE,” as many other verses say. And that’s what it means. Period. It also says that those who believe are “especially” saved. But what does that mean? The Greek word for “especially” is malista, and it means “chiefly, most of all.” It does NOT mean “only.” So the ones “chiefly” saved, the ones “saved to the uttermost” as Hebrews 7:25 says, are those who believe. But they are not the only ones saved – ALL PEOPLE are ultimately saved.  Believers are the ones who, in this life, recognize their inheritance as sons and daughters through Christ and are freed from ignorance, self-focus, and fear to commune with the Father and manifest His love.  They lose the things that hinder the Life of the Spirit within, seeking to grow in their salvation, and they will not have to undergo the painful purification of fire that awaits many.

 

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Mark 9:43, 45, 47-49 ESV:  (43) And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. (45) And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. (47) And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, (48) ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’ (49) For everyone will be salted with fire.”

Verse 49 alone should cause some very serious reconsideration of the idea that Jesus thought of hell as a place in the afterlife where unbelievers are eternally tormented in fireChristianity often uses verses 43-48 to support this doctrine,  but in my experience verse 49, which is essential to understand Jesus’ point, is almost always neglected. In this critical verse, Jesus plainly says EVERYONE will be salted with the very same fire he was just associating with hell! (Pay attention to words/phrases like “all men,” “everyone” and “all,” as they are used surprisingly often).

Look again: Jesus speaks of the “unquenchable fire” of “hell” in verses 43 and 47-48, and then immediately, in verse 49, says EVERYONE will be “salted” by this fire!  So if the fire of hell is eternally tormenting, then was Jesus teaching that everyone will eternally burn in hell for eternity?  Obviously not! So, if we actually care about what Jesus meant, more than trying to support what we already believe, we have genuinely consider that what Jesus meant by “hell” and “fire” is different from what modern Christianity says.

I’ve written about the word “hell” extensively in recent posts, but please allow me to give a very brief refresher. First, the English word hell” is a very bad translation, because it has meanings that the Greek word it is translated from never had. In this passage, the Greek word translated as “hell” is Gehenna, which literally means “The Valley of Hinnom;” a valley near Jerusalem which is mentioned several times in the Old Testament and is still in existence today.  Yes, the “hell” Jesus spoke of was a nearby valley, not any afterlife destination! According to the Bible itself, this valley was used by the ancient Israelites to conduct pagan human sacrifices in fire, and King Josiah ordered the items Israel had used to worship foreign gods to be destroyed there. There is also some evidence that in Jesus’ day, Gehenna was used as garbage dump where trash and dead bodies would be burned. 

The important thing to understand is that those Jesus knew that those he was speaking to would NOT have thought of anything like our idea of “hell” when thinking of Gehenna.  It went without saying that Jesus was NOT claiming that all unbelievers or wicked people would end up burning eternally in this small nearby valley.  Jesus’ hearers would have understood he was using Gehenna metaphorically for a place of wickedness and destruction.

Another very important distinction to understand the reason Jesus said EVERYONE will be touched by the fire of hell is because it is not wicked individuals, but wickedness which is destined to be consumed in fire.   Consider this: if we believe heaven/the Kingdom of God is a place of pure love and perfection in the Spirit, where people truly love each-other as themselves and honor God in all things, then it’s clear that selfishness, oppression, and all other impurities must and WILL be eradicated. It’s also clear that even “believers” have things that need to be eradicated, given up or changed in order to fully walk in love. In the verses above, Jesus was (as he often did) using a familiar thing – the nearby valley of Gehenna, which was associated with fire and destruction, as a metaphor for the destruction of wickedness that must happen within EVERYONE. Paul, as you will see below in the passage from 1 Corinthians 3, writes about this very same idea in even more detail.  

Even if Jesus wasn’t talking of eternal torment, his words are undeniably serious and sobering. His primary point seems to have been that it’s better to willingly make even drastic sacrifices and painful changes during one’s natural life, than to enter the age to come with impurities and hindrances that both slow your progress and have to be burned up anyway. This is a serious thing, but far, far different from: “quit sinning or the God of love will ensure you are eternally tortured.”

Last, a quick point about the word “unquenchable.”  It does not mean “never-ending.”  Unquenchable fire simply means that this fire cannot be stopped, put out, or “quenched” until it consumes all that it can.  In verse 48, when Jesus mentions the worm that doesn’t die and the fire that isn’t quenched, he was actually quoting Isaiah 66:24, and seems to be prophesying the coming destruction of Jerusalem and it’s temple – an event which he talked of several times, said those in his generation were going to experience, and which took place in 70 AD.

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1 Corinthians 15:20-22 ESV: (20) But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. (21) For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. (22) For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.

Romans 5:18-19 ESV: Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. (19) For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.

These are other verse I feel are stronger in favor of ultimate reconciliation of all men than any in favor of eternal torment.  They strongly support (actually outright state) that all people will be “made alive,” “justified,” and “made righteous” in Christ.  EVERYONE.  Yes, it’s true!!! To say you believe these passages but simultaneously say you believe in eternal torment in hell, you essentially have to claim that Paul meant for the “all” or the “all men” who died in Adam to somehow be different than the “all” or “all men” who will be made righteous, justified, and alive in Christ. Such a conclusion is plainly not true. So if all men are ultimately made righteous and given life, how are they condemned to hell to be eternally tormented? THEY AREN’T!   These are plain and powerful passages, my friends! It’s time to look at scripture in a new light.

What I believe Paul is basically saying is that Jesus’ obedience was like a reversal of the events of the Garden of Eden, which brought about the self-awareness, fear and sense of separation from God that plague so many still todayHere’s the key thing though: our condemnation in Adam wasn’t about our choice, and neither is our righteousness in Christ!  This is absolutely the truth that the Bible declares!!!  

Think about it: whatever it means that all were condemned in Adam, did you have a choice in it?  Did you do anything to bring it about? Could you resist it? No, no, and no.  You weren’t born yet, and even if you were, it still wasn’t up to you. In the exact same way, Paul says that being made alive in Christ is not about our choice or even our actions, but about what God in Christ has done.  There are limitations to the power of our choice and things we simply cannot avoid or change.  Trying to resist or change the finished work of Christ in bringing righteousness to all men is like trying to resist gravity or stop the sun from rising. It’s beyond our capability (deeper, actually) and thank God for that! If all were condemned in Adam, then since the cross, all men are, right now, righteous, made alive, and justifiedThat’s what Paul wrote!

Of course, there is still evil in the world, because there is a difference between being made righteous in God’s sight and given Life, and actually knowing this and walking accordingly. It seems to me that our choice, to the extent we have it, is to begin to willingly let go of the fear and hurt and self-preservation and unbelief and indoctrination (all of which are spiritually classified as “death”) that we once walked in, to seek and allow for the expression of the divine righteousness and Life that is already within as our true nature.

Those who resist the accomplished, present reality of reconciliation with God and cling to lies and to what is dead are not bound to be eternally tormented, but they will have to undergo much “fire” to burn away the death and darkness they clung to, leaving them with little left, they will have forfeited much of the glory they could have manifested, and they will hinder others from seeing the glory of God in them.

 

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John 12:32 ESVAnd I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

2 Corinthians 5:14-20 ESV:  For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded (deeply recognized) this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; (15) and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for (actually AS) themselves (no longer identifying with their previous, false identity of a sinner, separated from God, which “died”) but for (AS) him who for their sake died and was raised (we are the body of Christ, right?). (16) From now on, therefore (because we have concluded that “all have died”), we regard no one according to the flesh (we don’t “regard” that which is dead, even though many remain in it). Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer (no longer as a flesh-and-blood man!). (17) Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation (no longer to be identified as a mere human).  The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. (18) All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself (God made peace toward men) and gave us the ministry of reconciliation (to remove fear and bring about peace from men toward God); (19) that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation (this message: God has reconciled with us – there is no wrath or judgment, only love – so reconcile with Him and live from the divine Life within). (20) Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

Bear with me a bit as I try to unpack this and show how it relates to universal reconciliation.  Let’s start with John 12:32, which hinges on the understanding of the word “draw.”  It’s easy to say that “draw” means “invite,” and therefore that Jesus was saying all would be “invited” to him, but those that reject this invitation will be damned.  However, as we saw in the previous verses from 1 Corinthians 15 and Romans 5, Paul wrote that all people, apart from their choice or will, will be made righteous and made alive in Christ, just as all were condemned in Adam. This lines up perfectly with what Jesus was saying, because in saying all men will be “drawn” to him, he was saying that everyone, apart from their own will, were and will be included in the cross of Christ. Jesus didn’t just “invite” men to the cross, they were drug there.

The Greek word for “draw” is helkuo, and is probably best translated as “drag.” Helkuo is used six times in the New Testament, and I looked at each of the other 5 times it is used. Four of them have to do with being apprehended and taken against one’s will (such as being captured and drug to jail), and one was in reference to a sword being “drawn” (taken and used) by its owner.  In none of these cases does “draw” involve any choice at all!  It always references a force at work which is stronger than the subject’s will.  Once again, I believe the death of Christ at the cross is even stronger than the stubborn will of men, and that even without their acceptance, as Paul said later: “one died for all, therefore all died.”  It wasn’t and isn’t a choice!  

The longer passage above from 2 Corinthians 5 deals with this same idea of ALL being included in the cross of Christ.  I believe 2 Corinthians 5:14 in particular contains a CENTRAL truth, spoken from the perspective of the mind and heart of God: since Jesus died for ALL, then ALL have diedAgain, this is just like the previous passage which says that in the same way all were condemned in Adam, all will be made alive in Christ. The most holy and righteous person “died” in the cross of Christ right along with the most wicked.  It’s stated plainly, but it helps to understand what it means! 

In looking at the underlying Greek text and thinking about this idea many times over the last decade or so, I believe a more literal, accurate and deeper way of interpreting and understanding this statement isn’t that Jesus died “for” all, but that Jesus died AS all.  Just as Adam was somehow a representative of all, so was Jesus Christ. Think about it: how else could Paul make the claim: “Jesus died = all died,” unless Jesus died AS all!   If Jesus only died “for” me, then I could dispute that “I died.”  But I can’t really dispute that “I died” if Jesus died AS me, even in a representative sense.  Paul wrote about this in many other places, including Colossians 3:3, which says: For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”  Do you see the pattern? Paul didn’t say that we needed to die, or that some died, but simply that allhave died.”  This is deep and amazing stuff! 

I believe Jesus was saying that ALL people, in a spiritual sense, and apart from their will, would be “drawn” into him at the cross, and that this means his death was to be, in some sense, as ALL men.  There is no eternal torment for anyone, because all have already died!  You don’t (and can’t) torment what is dead.  You burn it up and get rid of it.  So if “you” died, then who is the “you” that now lives?  The truth is, the only “life” in any of us is Christ, the Spirit of God!  It’s in there, and connecting with it and hearing the Father is the essence of why Jesus came and what he was about.

After claiming that Jesus died as all, beginning in verse 16 Paul says: “therefore,” (meaning “because”), Jesus died and therefore all died, God has reconciled the world to Himself and is not counting people’s trespasses and sins against them!  God is not counting sin against who?  Against the ALL MEN who died in Christ This forgiveness of sin is the outcome of Christ’s death as all!  If God is not counting anyone’s trespasses against them, where is this supposed wrath and eternal torment coming from that Christianity seems to feel obligated to constantly bring up?  It doesn’t exist, not as we think of it.  Paul plainly wrote elsewhere (like Romans 4:15) that wrath was a result of the law, which is taken away and which no one alive today was ever under to begin with.  No law = no wrath.  

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1 Corinthians 3:11-17 ESV:  (11) For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. (12) Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw– (13) each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. (14) If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. (15) If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. (16) Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? (17) If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.

I don’t see this passage mentioned very often, but I feel it is one of the primary writings in the Bible that deals with both the way the purifying fire of God works, and with the outcome of the things we do while in these physical bodies.  I’ll admit it’s not the simplest passage, but what does seem plain is that Paul meant for what he wrote to apply to ALL people, since he uses the terms “no one,” “anyone,” and “each one.”  While Christianity typically teaches that unbelievers will be “eternally lost” and tormented in hell for their sins, Paul says here that there are only two results based on the actions “anyone” takes in this life: to receive a reward, or suffer loss but be saved.  If those are the two outcomes, and if even those who suffer loss and whose work is “burned up” are saved, then where is eternal damnation?  The answer: only in our imagination.

I chose this passage because in it Paul seems to clearly refute two common ideas about hell which Christianity teaches.  First, contrary to the teaching that the “fire” of judgment day is reserved for the wicked and unbelievers, Paul (just like Jesus) plainly taught that it applies to EVERYONE.  Second, contrary to the teaching that this fire is a source of punishment and retribution, Paul says that it serves to “disclose” and “reveal” the true motives and substance of our works; saying that the fire will “test what sort of work each one has done” (v. 13).  When Paul writes that “each man’s” work will be “revealed by fire,” the Greek word for “reveal” is apokalupto (from which we get the English word “apocalypse”), which means: “to uncover, to disclose, to make known.” Here is the point: revealing the true nature of men’s hearts and eradicating impurity there, NOT punishment or vengeance, is the purpose of the “fire” mentioned many times in the New Testament.  This includes the lake of fire in Revelation and the fire of gehenna (hell) that Jesus spoke of.  

Christianity often interprets things written in the Bible as physical, when the author is simply using physical things to represent spiritual realities.  This passage is one such case.  There is no physical fire being discussed here – how can physical fire burn up “works,” or “test what sort of work” men and women have done?”  Does someone being saved “through fire” mean they only get second and third degree burns instead of burning to death?  Of course not. These are metaphors. I believe deeply that “fire” represents nothing other than the pure Spirit/presence of God Himself, a presence of love at such an incomprehensible intensity that everything except what was forged in and by this fire to begin with will be “burned up.Like the author of Hebrews wrote: “our God is a consuming fire.” The only “work” that survives is work that was forged in the fire to begin with – that is, work that was done from and in union with the Spirit of Christ within. 

With regards to those who suffer loss as their work is burned up, it’s enlightening to know the word “loss” in the passage above is the same root word Paul uses in Philippians 3:7-8 (ESV) in which he says:  “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.  Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ…” This “loss” isn’t being eternally tormented in hell, as Paul himself said he experienced this “loss,” though he experienced it willingly, while in his physical body.

To understand what this loss is, think about this: what exactly did Paul lose in knowing Christ?  It’s nothing as simple or shallow as sinful actions or physical possessions.  No, first and foremost, he lost his treasured identity as a holy and zealous Pharisee – an upholder of the law of Moses and an opponent of all that opposed it.  According to Paul himself, before he met Christ, being a Pharisee was his entire identity and existence, and no doubt he was 100% convinced he was on God’s side and ready to die for what he believed.  But on the road to Damascus, he encountered the fire of God’s presence of love, and allowed it to begin to consume the lie of who he thought he was.  Later, Paul was able to see and say, in Galatians 2:20 ESV:

I (false identity/adamic-life/self) have been crucified with Christ.  (I now see that) It is no longer I (false identity/adamic-life/self) who live, but Christ who lives in me. And (now that I see this,) the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in (many translations: “the faith of”) the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”  

The loss that Paul suffered in order to gain Christ is the same thing Jesus talked about when he spoke of cutting off your hands or feet or plucking out your eyes in order to enter the Kingdom of God or to “enter life.”  It has to do with shedding what is dead and false in order to walk in Life and truth.  In the same way, I believe everyone, including Christians, must lose any identity apart from a son or daughter of God and member of the body of Christ on earth, and then allow the Spirit to lead them.  This is separate and above any religion. It’s an inward Life, the same that was in Jesus.

This loss that is required can happen now, willingly, or later, in the lake of fire.  When scripture speaks of the wicked being “consumed” and “destroyed,” the words themselves tell you there is an end to it. This process of “burning up” in order to be saved is what it is speaking of.  In this way, the two outcomes for “anyone” are to receive a reward, or to suffer the loss of what was impure and carnal in order to be saved through this fire.  In a very real sense, the fire isn’t retribution, it’s salvation!   Obviously, to see your work survive and receive a reward is far preferable than watching and feeling all you did and all you thought you were burn up, but nevertheless, salvation ultimately reaches ALL.

 

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Hebrews 1:3 ESV:  “He (Jesus) is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature…”

John 14:9 ESV:  “Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?”

Luke 6:32-36 ESV:  “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. (33) And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. (34) And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. (35) But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. (36) Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.”

These verses speak for themselves, really.  First, we are told that Jesus Christ is the radiance of God’s glory and THE EXACT IMPRINT of His nature.  Jesus seems to have known this, as he said that to see him was to see the Father.  Nowhere in all of history can we get a clearer image of God than in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.  So then, perhaps Jesus’ most important and all-encompassing teaching was what is known as the “sermon on the mount,” or the “beatitudes.”  In this sermon, Jesus teaches over and over that those who express the divine nature will love their enemies radically – they will be kind and do good to those who oppose them and do evil and harm to them.  In doing this, Jesus said they are being like God who is also “kind” to the “ungrateful and evil.”  Jesus NEVER said this kindness ends at physical death, to be replaced by its exact opposite!  God doesn’t change when we die. Our physical bodies are just shells in the first place!

Of course, love desires to see men repent of wickedness and begin to follow the way of love and unity as soon as possible, and love may expose hypocrisy and wickedness (as Jesus did very forcefully). But there is no good reason to think there are basically two Gods – a merciful one before physical death, and a wrathful one after. Jesus never taught this. Jesus didn’t even condemn or punish someone who was caught in the very act of adultery – a terrible sin in his day! 

I know that God can do what He wants, no matter how I feel about it.  But here’s something to think about – the self-sacrifice, mercy and love that humans find beautiful, and which are part of nearly all of humanities’ oldest and most treasured stories, is part of the divine nature within us all!  In other words, mercy and love and bravery are beautiful and appealing to us, because they are divine qualities that the divine within us rejoices in!  Didn’t Jesus say to be merciful, as God is merciful?  Fear, hate, greed, oppression and the like are ugly to us because they are contrary to our truest, deepest nature.  So if it’s the divine within me that finds mercy beautiful, something that isn’t merciful isn’t divine

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Posted by on August 12, 2018 in Uncategorized

 

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Why I Don’t Believe in “Eternal Hell,” Pt 2: Hell Itself

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 sheolAs 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.

Gehenna:

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 tartarusa 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. 

 

Footnotes:

    1. 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;”
    2. 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.”
    3. 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.”
 
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Posted by on November 19, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

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Why I Don’t Believe In “Eternal Hell,” Pt. 1: Introduction

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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.

 
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Posted by on October 8, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

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Liable to Judgment (The Tongue Pt. 1)

Power of Words

The things we say and think are incredibly, incredibly important.  Our words, which express the thoughts of our heart, have such tremendous potential to edify or damage the heart of others that Jesus said even his own disciples could be “liable to the hell of fire” if their words tore down their brothers or sisters.  As I looked closer at what Jesus and the apostles had to say about the tongue, I was honestly surprised how radical some of their statements were.  I quoted a few of their statements below, with my commentary in blue.  As you read, keep in mind that Jesus’ “new commandment” to his followers was to love one-another as he loved us.  This “law of love” is much deeper than the written law of Moses which was the central focus of Israel before Christ.  The primary difference between the two is that the law of love deals with the heart, not just outward behavior. (I wrote a lot more about that recently, here and here).

(Matthew 5:21-22 ESV): (Jesus said) “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you, everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”  Notice the escalation in the offenses and punishments: first anger resulting in liability to judgment, then insult resulting in liability to “the council” (literally “the Sanhedrin,” a religious court in Jesus’ day), and finally an attack on a brother’s identity making one liable to the hell of fire.  To understand what “the hell of fire” refers to, we have to understand what is meant by “hell.”  The Greek word translated “hell” is gehenna, which comes from a mixture of two Hebrew words, meaning the “valley of Hinnom.”  In my opinion, “hell” is a very confusing translation of this word, carrying ideas with it that are very different from what Jesus meant. This illustrates why it’s vital that you seek for yourself and not just “be carried along”1 with what you’re taught.  The valley of Hinnom was a literal place in Jesus’ day, just south of Jerusalem (more info about it here).  It was previously used as a place of idol worship and sacrifice, but in Jesus’ day it was used like a landfill, where dead bodies and trash would be dumped and burned.  Gehenna/hell was therefore used by Jesus as a familiar physical illustration of a spiritual place or state where filth and death would be burned up and destroyed.

(Matthew 12:34-37 ESV): (Jesus said) “How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”  Again, our words (and thoughts) reveal the true state of our heart and affect the heart of others, hence their importance. Jesus particularly warns against “careless” words, or “idle” words in other translations, but neither really brings out Jesus’ meaning very well.  The Greek word translated “careless” is argos, which means “idle, inactive, unhelpful.”  Jesus’ point is that we will be held liable for every useless, unhelpful, unedifying, or harmful word we speak, especially toward others within the body of Christ.  In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul describes love, saying in one place love doesn’t reckon wrongdoing against someone, but it believes and hopes the best for them; viewing them (and speaking to them), I believe, not according to their actions, but in light of the radical shift that was made at the cross of Christ.  God is looking for His spirit within us to bear the fruit of love, and what we think and say (to others and to ourself) not only reflects what’s in our heart, but can help edify or damage the potential for His love in another’s heart. 

(James 1:26 ESV): “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.”  I think what James is saying is if you believe in your heart that you are religious (pleasing to God by your works) yet speak things that aren’t edifying and founded on truth and love, then you’re deceived, because God considers the heart,2 and “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.”  In other words, no matter what you claim or think, if your tongue isn’t bridled to only speak what is edifying and true, then your heart is corrupt and your religion (outward service to God) is worthless, period.   In my next post, I want to look at the most extensive passage on “the tongue” in the New Testament, found in James chapter 3, and I want to examine the interesting fact that both Jesus and James make a connection between the tongue, hell, and fire, to see what they meant.  Should be very interesting and enlightening.  God bless you.

  1. (Ephesians 4:14 KJV): “That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive…” Luke 16:15: “And (Jesus) said unto them, Ye are they which justify yourselves before men; but God knows your hearts: for that which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God.”
  2. (Luke 16:15) And (Jesus) said unto them, Ye are they which justify yourselves before men; but God knows your hearts: for that which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God.” https://www.biblegateway.com/quicksearch/?search=God+heart&version=KJV&searchtype=all&bookset=2&resultspp=100
 
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Posted by on May 12, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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Laodicea

(Revelation 3, ESV):  14 “And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: ‘The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation.  15“I know your works (labor): you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! 16 So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. 17 For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. 18 I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. 19 Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.”

Many Christians believe that Laodicea, as the final church addressed by Jesus in the first chapters of Revelation, represents the “last days” church age in which we are living now, in which “lukewarmness” is rampant.  Be that as it may, I do think the church of Laodicea closely mirrors many believers today, and so the indictments and counsel Jesus gave her are very relevant for us here and now.  I actually think this is a vital word for our day when properly understood.

I have been taught and believed that Laodicea means “lukewarm.”  But it’s doesn’t.  It literally means something we would almost consider to be the opposite.  Laodicea means “people of righteousness,” or “a just/righteous people.”  It is a combination of the Greek words laos (a people) and dikaios (right or just).  As we will see, Laodicea’s righteousness was only in their own eyes (self-righteousness) and maybe in the eyes of others (outward righteousness),  but not in the eyes of the Lord (inward, true righteousness).  I believe God sees righteousness differently than Christians often do.  At the cross of Christ, everything radically changed in terms of what God desires, what pleases Him, and how we should relate to Him.  The Laodicean, “just and righteous” church and anything it may represent is one of which Jesus Christ has not one positive thing to say.

Much is often made of Laodicea being “lukewarm.”  The thinking goes that to be lukewarm means to be apathetic, as evidenced by little or no involvement in ministry, minimal bible study and church attendance, rationalization of sinful activity, etc.  But here’s the main problem with this line of thinking: it’s simply not what Jesus said lukewarm is.  If you read closely, you’ll see Jesus explained exactly why he finds Laodicea to be lukewarm.  This is a conditino that makes him nauseous and ready to vomit. Look at the emphasized part of Jesus’ words below:

(Revelation 3): 16So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. 17 For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” 

Jesus calls them lukewarm and nauseating because of the self-confident, complacent attitude of their heart and their lack of perception of their true state.  Laodicea says (in their heart): “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.”  This literally translates as: “I am rich, have an abundance, and have no need whatsoever.”  Let’s remember, Jesus said his words were “spirit and life” (John 6:63).  Jesus was concerned only with the Kingdom of God; his Father’s will being known and done on earth.  I believe all of Jesus’ words and teachings were, first and foremost, speaking of spiritual realities.  He came to declare and pave the way for the spiritual kingdom of God, who is Spirit (I wrote of this idea more fully in my very first post on this blog).  The spiritual realm is deep within the “inner man” of each one of us, where the Kingdom is.  The natural, literal/physical mindsets and interpretations of scripture that are prevalent today have contributed to the spiritually emaciated and blind state of so many believers, no matter how outwardly “righteous” they are.

If this is the case, then Laodicea isn’t lukewarm because of their riches and lack of need materially, and they aren’t lukewarm because of their lack of good works.  Their lukewarmness is attributed to their belief that they are spiritually rich and without need.  Laodicea (the righteous people) have come to a place where they are so blind they have no sense of their pitiful condition and desperate need.  The scary part is they probably are totally convinced of their spiritual “wealth,” while Jesus says they are, literally “undergoing a testing, pitiable, thoroughly destitute, blind, and naked.”  Such is the true state of Laodicea, the “righteous people.”  When Jesus’ words are seen correctly, as spiritual states, the horrible and ghastly reality of Laodicea’s condition becomes apparent.  More could be said of each of these states, but the basic meaning of each is sufficient to get the Lord’s meaning.  

Much of Christianity today teaches us to pray a “sinner’s prayer” in order to be saved, and that once that’s done, heaven is assured.  That’s really the goal of Christianity – to get to heaven and to avoid hell.  It’s not ultimately about God, it’s about SELF.  God is in the picture, but ultimately, only as a means to serve self.  And sure, self is thankful!  The righteousness of Laodicea is a self-righteousness that is based on self-confidence, believing that one has “arrived” and needs nothing else.  Laodicea says in their heart they are “rich” by believing in Christ, have “abundance” by doing good works, and “lack nothing” because they are saved and assured of going to heaven.  But it’s all deception.

It’s hard to overstate how precarious and scary the condition of Laodicea is, especially because those within Laodicea don’t realize their true state (ask God to give you light on your true condition, reader).  However, Jesus doesn’t leave them helpless, he gives them counsel to return to true righteousness.  In my next post I plan to look closer at the counsel he gives.  God bless you.

 
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Posted by on March 9, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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