Some of you are reading this title and already thinking I’ve gone theologically ‘soft’ to make Christianity more appealing, taking an easy-to-swallow theology. I want to preface this by saying that the church does not make any theology that it does not teach easy to swallow. I seek only the truth here and knowing the deplorable way Christians treat heretics has kept me silent for some time. However, I believe in taking a productive stance toward truth-seeking and I will not keep this, or any other dissenting views, to myself anymore. The amount of time and energy I have invested in this subject has given me an understanding that I hope you can all benefit from. I can only hope to recreate for you the anxiety and excitement I have experienced in my journey with this.
A couple years ago I had a conversation with my brother, who had quit his faith, about why Christianity made no sense to him anymore. Evangelical culture is pretty quick to assess that anyone who walks away from faith was either never a Christian or just wants to forsake their conscience, but I don’t treat my brother or anyone that way and I’m thankful this conversation led me down a path I never really knew was there.
Our church tradition tells us a story of how the first man sinned, thereby imbuing the rest of humanity, for the rest of time, with ‘original sin’. Since all humans have this original sin, we are now unable to be with God, so when we physically die, we would be separated from Him forever. This form of separation is most popularly viewed as being burned and eaten alive simultaneously for billions and billions of years (a literally unimaginable amount of time), while being totally conscious of every ounce of pain with no hope of rescue. Many Christians, in the face of how ridiculous it sounds, have taken to saying that this is all metaphor (you’re not ACTUALLY on fire), conveniently forsaking their usual belief that the Bible should be interpreted literally.
I’ve observed anecdotally that a good percentage of converts come to Christianity out of fear; they don’t want to be tortured forever or they want to be accepted by their community. Putting aside for a moment how disturbing that is, let’s look at some other implications of this:
- Anyone who hasn’t heard the gospel is guaranteed eternal torture because they still have original sin. Some people include infants in this group.
- Anyone who wasn’t able to understand the gospel is guaranteed eternal torture. This includes people who were mislead by church authorities.
- Anyone who dies and then realizes their error will never be forgiven no matter what they do or believe after death.
- God has intentionally created a race of billions (possibly trillions) of sentient beings knowing the majority of them would be tortured for eternity without respite. Somehow (without explanation), God gets glory from this?
Some ‘good news’ this is. Welcome to church. I used to believe this without hesitation. There was no other option. The Bible taught this and that’s how it was. My brother couldn’t cope with it any more, so when he told me how important to him this was, I gave it a closer look.
It only took a little bit of reading to find out just how scripturally weak the idea of eternal hell is. I will be linking to resources, from which I have taken all of this information, in this post that you can investigate for yourself.
The most central scriptural piece of evidence to our current tradition of endless hell is one of translation. The Hebrew word olam and the Greek word aion/aionios/aionion are, in many of our current English translations of the Bible, translated as eternal or endless in reference to hell (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8). From Marvin Vincent at Union Theological Seminary:
“Aion, transliterated aeon, is a period of longer or shorter duration, having a beginning and an end, and complete in itself. Aristotle (peri ouravou, i. 9, 15) said, “The period which includes the whole time of one’s life is called the aeon of each one.” Hence, it often means the life of a man, as in Homer, where one’s life (aion) is said to leave him or to consume away (Il v.685; Od v.160). It is not, however, limited to human life. It signifies any period in the course of the millennium, the mythological period before the beginnings of history. The word has not “a stationary and mechanical value” (De Quincey). It does not mean a period of fixed length for all cases. There are as many aeons as entities, the respective durations of which are fixed by the normal conditions of the several entities. There is one aeon of a human life, another of the life of a nation, another of a crow’s life, another of an oak’s life. The length of the aeon depends on the subject to which it is attached … The adjective aionious in like manner carries the idea of time. Neither the noun nor the adjective, in themselves, carry the sense of endless or everlasting.”
Olam is even more ambiguous, as it was once translated as ‘heroes of old’ and was also used to describe Jonah’s three days in the belly of a fish.
In order to believe that eternal hell exists for humans, you must also believe that the authors of scripture used a word that meant one thing while actually meaning something totally different.
You must also believe that ‘hell’ was a concept that the early church understood the same way we do. Hell is often translated from the Greek Hades and the Hebrew Sheol and Gehenna. Hades was a Greek concept meaning “the invisible one” and was representative of physical death. Sheol was ‘the pit’, which is a Hebrew concept of physical death. However, when we usually think of hell, we think of Gehenna, which was the burning trash pile outside of Jerusalem. That is what the concept was for the early church, seeing the fire as a ‘second death’. Eternal punishment was not the taken meaning for this when the concept was first introduced, it has been built as a tradition since Augustine.
At the time of Augustine, the popular philosophy regarding the second death (LW, 107) was one that took the original Greek koalsin, which is the same word used of pruning trees, quite literally. We have since translated this into English as ‘punishment’. From Aristotle’s Treatise on Rhetoric:
“Now, between punishment (τιμωρια, timora, also translated as “revenge”) and correction (κολασις, kolasin) there is a difference; for kolasin is for the sake of the sufferer, but timora for that of the person inflicting it, in order that he may be satiated.”
This correctional or pruning concept for the benefit of the sufferer, often described by Jesus as a fiery affair, was known as purgatorialism. In purgatorialism, you must be purged of your unrighteousness before you can stand in the presence of God. St. Augustine regarded it as a scriptural concept, but amicably held onto the idea of eternal hell. Putting aside for a moment that the early church primarily viewed purgatorialism as the proper way to view hell, the fact that Augustine and other church leaders, like St. Gregory of Nyssa, held these opposing views simultaneously and still remained united is amazing when compared to our culture, where a church splits over whether or not the music has too much electric guitar. I believe it is a noble pursuit to endeavor to be like the early church and its example of community.
As it stands, the strongest advocate in history for eternal hell himself admits that purgatorialism is scriptural. I also want to remind you that just because Augustine believed something doesn’t mean that you should. Western church tradition has become imbued with the legacy of Augustine and we now treat anyone who doesn’t believe in things like eternal hell as a heretic and defiant towards the truth. To say that eternal hell is scriptural is ignorant, to say that it is the only right belief on hell is ignorant to the point of being significantly damaging.
The Bible is filled to the brim with language that talks of God’s desire for all to be reconciled to Him. It speaks of all Peoples coming to worship Him. All Peoples will be purified. All the nations to the end of the earth will bow before Him. These passages are problematic if we believe God is unwilling or unable to save everyone. With purgatorialism there is no conflict between the scriptures that tell us that God is like a shepherd that won’t rest until we, the lost sheep, are found, and the idea we have imposed upon scripture: that the unsaved at the time of physical death will be tortured forever.
In my time spent researching this, I have felt an excitement and a burden, that I didn’t even know I was carrying, lifted . If eternal hell was true, my very existence causes me guilt and sorrow. I learned many ways to justify to myself the endless torture of billions of people so that I could live with the fact. I had to justify to myself that the people around me deserved what they were going to get, when I deserved heaven, even if I didn’t totally understand the scope. There was no Good News about it and no good explanation, since those of us not going to hell didn’t really deserve it or do anything special. As I entertained for the first time that maybe people won’t be damned to eternity in hell, I began to feel some horrible thing inside me fall apart, being replaced by peace. Did I dare believe this was true?
The Good News is that nobody has to be separated from God.
Even saying that is like a sigh of relief.
I strongly suggest you peruse the pages referenced in this post if you want to learn more. There is an immense amount of theological and linguistic information available about this subject. I also strongly recommend reading Love Wins by Rob Bell. It gets a lot of crap from white tower theologians (who all seem to hold to Augustine church tradition), but do the research for yourself. I checked every single one of his scripture references and saw nothing wrong. It is a very compelling book.
There is no reason why so many should turn away from God because of such an ignorant doctrine and there is no reason why so many should turn to Him in fear of it. My brother, in his intellectual honesty, has brought both he and myself closer to God in learning of this.
If after reading this, you are still left with the question, “Then what is the point of doing good or being a Christian at all if there is no consequence for unchecked sin?”, then I will walk you through it.
- If the only reason you do “good” things is because you are expecting some divine reward, then you don’t understand what good means. Everyone wants to do good things because good is a set of preferences. These still hold true regardless of any afterlife.
- Since we are humans and we are imperfect, to rely on God and become a person who is transformed into His righteousness and perfection should be the ultimate goal. It is God’s perfect sovereignty that enables Him to achieve good, therefore to transform ourselves into someone who is in harmony with Him is to be in harmony with the ultimate good.
- Do you want to be a person who stands before God with Jesus at your side declaring you righteous or do you want to stand before God as He sighs and declares “This is going to hurt me a lot more than it’s going to hurt you.”? Purgatory is not fun. As Tim Keller says, Jesus talks about it more than any other topic, so we should pay attention.
LW, Love Wins by Rob Bell. 2011
Stan Rock (with more references inside)