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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), and lately I tend to believe that everyone will be reconciled to God through Christ someday, in some fashion.  Any view similar to this is sadly considered heretical and dangerous today, although it seems to me that, in comparison with “eternal torment,” to believe that all will be reconciled, or at least that the wicked will be destroyed, is far more God-exalting, scripturally honest, and consistent with the belief of the majority of early Christianity, prior to the heavy influx of pagan ideas and practices beginning in the 300’s AD. 

Many who read this might say: “the Bible teaches plainly about eternal torment, hell, and the lake of fire, so anything like universal reconciliation is clearly wrong.”  I am well aware that the Bible mentions these things, and I intend to look in depth at scripture in posts to come.  The truth is, the Bible is not as plain, literal, and clear-cut as people like to think.  If it is, how can you explain the vast differences in belief and doctrine among good, intelligent, Biblically-devoted people?!  All I’m saying here is that while the Bible does mention hell, torment, gnashing of teeth, the lake of fire, etc., a closer look reveals there is no solid basis to teach that all “unbelievers” who die end up permanently and unendingly in what amounts to sadistic eternal torture.  That doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences, by the way.

I don’t ask or expect you to believe something just because I do.  All I ask is that you keep an open mind and heart to the possibility that the particular way you now believe is misguided.  After all, hasn’t that been true of all of us more times than we would like to admit?!  Isn’t refusing to even consider a reasonable alternative view an unhealthy, cultish trait?  Keeping a pliable mind and heart, which seeks truth above comfort, familiarity, sentiment, and tradition is the only way true repentance can take place.  And repentance is necessary to progress in one’s salvation.

Like many my age, I grew up reluctantly believing that eternal torment in hell is the fate of millions. I accepted this mind-bogglingly terrible idea primarily because I trusted those who taught it to me, I was familiar with a few scriptures which seemed to support it, and I was almost never exposed to other viewpoints.  A few things contributed to changing my belief about hell: first, I began to read scripture on my own, with a desire to learn rather than to support my current beliefs, and I began to read and talk with those who saw differently (and deeper) than me.  I saw scriptures that actually contradicted eternal torment, and supported the idea of universal reconciliation, which in my experience no pastor or teacher had ever mentioned.   Also, as I got older, I had some personal experiences and met others with personal experiences of the all-encompassing love and mercy and compassion of God.  The biggest factor, perhaps, was that I continued taking seriously the Biblical account of the person and ministry of Jesus Christ, who in Hebrews 1:3 (MLV) is said to be: “…the brightness of (the Father’s) glory and the exact representation of his essence…”  Jesus even said of himself: “he who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).

I think most would agree, it is no minor detail that the words and the actions of Jesus (again, the exact representation of God as a human) are completely contrary to the idea of any sort of eternal torment or punishment (not to mention, the idea of “eternal punishment” doesn’t even make sense, considering men are extremely fallible and vulnerable and live such short lives).   It’s certainly true that in Jesus’ zeal for God’s Kingdom, he was sometimes harsh (though always correct) when speaking to the Jewish religious leaders, who like many religious leaders still today, continually misrepresented, hindered, and opposed the truth of his Father, thereby keeping his precious brothers and sisters under needless bondage and prevented from receiving their inheritance as sons of God. 

Despite these stubborn, prideful and greedy hypocrites opposing all he and his Father stood for and did, continually resisting the truth and ultimately torturing and murdering him, Jesus never once retaliated with violence or harm – in fact, he consistently taught and lived out that we are to love our enemies and persecutors.  When one of Jesus’ closest followers cut off the ear of someone arresting him, Jesus rebuked his friend but healed his enemy.  Some of his very last, painful breaths were used to plead for the forgiveness of those actively torturing and killing him. 

Sure, we can explain this away, as many have, by saying that Jesus was only showing God’s mercy while on earth, but that later he will show His wrath.  But that’s not what Jesus himself said.  He said if you have seen him, you have seen the Father – that the two were one.  He said that he spoke and acted from what he heard and saw from his Father.  The Bible DOES mention wrath in a few cases – but this wrath was tied to the breaking of the law, and we are not under the law!  This wrath also does not necessitate eternal torture!  I see no genuine, honest way of reconciling the plain accounts of God in the flesh teaching and living out truth and mercy with the idea that this same God has designed a world in which eternal torture waits for those who don’t “accept” His son, or who fail to meet some other standard.

Another issue I have with eternal conscious torment (apart from scripture, which I promise I will get to in posts to come) is that it is thoroughly toxic to human beings. At best, I feel it hinders intimacy with God and encourages the development and presentation of a false identity as fearful servant, which greatly hinders intimacy and freedom, rather than our true identity as sons and daughters, with intimacy and joy and freedom.  The false identity of “fearful servant” often leads to apathy, confusion, frustration, powerlessness, spiritual blindness, and devotion to traditions.  More specifically, the idea of eternal torment fuels many negative mental states, including anxiety, doubt, religious foolishness, fanatacism and even psychosis.

Maybe you have heard of Andrea Yates, the mother from Houston, Texas who in 2001 drowned her 5 young children in their bathtub while her husband was at work. Now, apart from any religious beliefs she did or did not have, there is no question that she was very mentally ill and had been for at least two years.  No sane person, regardless of their belief about hell, would do what she did.  It was inexcusable and terrible beyond words. HOWEVER, one reason she gave to police for killing her children was that they had been acting badly and she didn’t want them to end up in hell. She is on record saying her children were being “unrighteous” and that “they didn’t do things God likes.” Therefore, she said, she believed that if they died as children: “in their innocence, they’d go to heaven.” The sickening reality is that the (false) idea of eternal torment, if you are brave (or mentally compromised) enough to truly and fully consider it, is so terrible it can create a twisted logic that can actually justify killing children, which in Mrs. Yates’ mentally diseased state she was actually able to carry out.

This twisted logic is actually quite simple and quite sound, but it requires the addition of one other mainstream Christian idea, known as the “age of accountability.”  This idea  basically says that children under a certain, undefined age will go to heaven when they die even if they do not “believe in Jesus.”  This popular idea has even less scriptural basis than eternal torment, but was made up and is adhered to by those who cannot let go of the idea of eternal torment but also cannot stomach the thought of children going there (a good question is why it’s so much easier to accept teenagers or adults going there).  So, with that in mind, the logic goes like this: If it’s true that those who die as children are guaranteed to go to heaven – a place of eternal peace and comfort and happiness with God – but those who die after childhood have a very real chance of going to hell – a place of eternal torture without hope – then it is far better to die as a child then run that risk.

By this logic, a strong case could be made that Mrs. Yates actually acted in a very “sane” and even “loving” manner by sacrificing her reputation and freedom to make SURE that none of her children ended up in eternal torment by killing them as children.  HOW SICK AND PATHETIC IS THAT???!!! Here’s one terrible outcome of eternal, conscious torment: if this truly is the immediate and permanent fate of all “unbelievers” who die, then the best options are to either never exist at all, or, if you have the misfortune of being born, to die a quick and painless death as a young child.  I’m sorry, but IF the premises of eternal hell and the age of accountability are true (thankfully I’m convinced they aren’t), then Mrs. Yates’ logic was sound. 

I have personally known people who, though they would never harm their children themselves, actually prayed that God would kill their children, because they saw them making choices or choosing a lifestyle they felt would end up landing them in hell, to suffer eternal torment.  That line of thinking is madness.  Is the best that the Body of Christ and ministers of God can offer that death as a child is ultimately “safest?” Of course not!  Especially not on this side of the victory of Christ on the cross, which the Bible says “reconciled the world,” was a victorious sacrifice offered “once for all,” and which “took away the sin of the world”?  Again, is eternal torture in line with the love and healing and compassion of Jesus, or the revelation of the Father given by the apostles in the Bible, who is said to be kind and merciful even to the unrighteous, and who scripture plainly says will be All in all?  No!  Not at all!

The walk of a believer is spiritual, and based on one’s identity as a son, with freedom and joy.  It’s time we join this inevitable progression out from following the ideas of flesh conceived in fear and ignorance, as familiar and comfortable as many of them have become to us, and into the truths revealed by the inward Spirit of divine love and demonstrated in Jesus and the apostles.  This will mean change.  It takes some courage, but the one who leads us is the best guide there is, and there is ultimately nothing to fear!  Will you join me? I could use your help. Bless you.

 
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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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