Settle down, kiddies, and listen to crazy ol’ Uncle Walter’s latest deviation.
Two or so years ago I got a notion in my head that I should look up a theology book which fully examines the concept of Hell. Common Biblical interpretation is that difficult passages are to be interpreted by passages that are clear and understood. In this case, I knew that while God is a God of justice, his overwhelming characteristic is love. There is no verse that says “God is justice” though I definitely acknowledge that a price must be paid for our sins. But what was bothering me was how could a just God exact a payment of eternal suffering as payment for twenty, forty, eighty or even one hundred years of sin. In college I was taught that such doubts fail to have a properly elevated view of God’s sinlessness. Perhaps. However God has placed reason in humans and any child could see the “unfairness” of being punished from now to forever for a life-time of sin.
I didn’t do any such research. However someone with holds at the library with my last name had a book on hold titled Love Wins and it was on this very subject. I couldn’t check out the book as the person had it on hold but did some searches and found that it was a book (written, it seems, for the Christian version of Oprah’s audience) that puts forth a Universalist view of salvation in that everyone gets in. Even a cursory reading of the New Testament dispels this view. There was book entitled Heaven Wins written in rebuttal but the reviews state that there wasn’t much exegesis in the text, just heavy handed affirmation of the typical view that sinners burn forever in Hell.
However I managed to find, or God put in my path, the exact book for which I was seeking. The Fire That Consumes by Edward William Fudge, written in 1982, is a massive 466 page volume which fully examines all aspects of, well the subtitle is “A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment.” I’ll state right off the bat that I had hoped that the conclusion would incorporate our Creator’s mercy and love but maintained that if it could prove that sinners are punished forever in a lake of fire then I would have to abide by this ruling.
As you may have guessed, I am quite relieved and overjoyed to find that this doctrine of eternal punishment is without merit, either in the Bible, Jewish beliefs, the beliefs of early Church founders, and even in more recent giants of faith such as Martin Luther.
Allow me to summarize.
The word used in the New Testament that is translated “eternity” is Aionios. There is no clear derivation of this word it is used so rarely in extra-Biblical texts that scholars are uncertain as to its exact meaning. King’s James translators made this word about endless time and this has stuck. However if the use of the word is examined it turns out to be more of an adjective to describe a quality. For example, “eternal judgement” (Heb. 6:2). One is not literally judged from now to eternity. However one is judged once and the ruling stands for all of eternity. “Eternal Redemption” (Heb 9:12). Christ’s work is done. He redeemed His sheep once but the result of this redemption stands forever – no one can take His sheep from His hand. “Eternal Destruction” (2 Thess 1:9). How can something be destroyed forever? Well, sure, God can make some kind of miracle but that seems rather malicious. Instead the destruction occurs and is never to be reversed. The same goes for “eternal punishment” (Matt 25:36) in that the punishment occurs, a punishment of an amount and duration perfectly in line with the penalty due, not to gain righteousness but as a payment. Once this punishment is completed there is destruction.
Yeah, I can hear my old theology teacher arguing right now, upset as he was twenty years ago that F.F. Bruce was softening his position on the traditional view of sinners burning in Hell forever.
Now the author also goes historical. What about our common Christian concept that the soul lives forever? That’s right out of the Bible, right? There’s gotta be something about that in the Old Testament…. Or maybe it was Plato a couple hundred years before Christ who came up with the idea, and only then as a way to illustrate his peculiar notions about learning (when we learn we are actually remembered from a global consciousness). Plato’s later followers took this idea and systematized it. Christians in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, in attempting to defend the concept of the resurrection took this accepted Greek view of the immortal soul and applied it to Christianity. This view was mostly accepted up to the reformation when Luther had fault with it, and so did the Ana-Baptists. Calvin believed in immortality, but even then he couched it with thoughts that since God created each soul then God could, if He chooses, destroy he soul. Because Ana-Baptists were the outsiders Luther didn’t defend his position against Calvin so as to have unity in the church and thus the immortal-soul view won. God alone is the giver and sustainer of life. The thought that the body and soul (and spirit if you’re into that kind of thing) can be divided is a Platonic idea. You will not find it in the Bible or in Jewish philosophical writings. There’s more to this, granted… this paragraph is just a summary of a chapter that was a summary of many books.
That’s right… just one chapter. I’m only eighty-eight pages in (six chapters out of twenty) and there has been Biblical and historical evidence in abundance that God does not punish for all eternity those who reject His perfect gift of salvation. Like most things that contradict traditional views this book has been ignored. “Just pretend it’s not there and it will go away.” What are people afraid of? That if people aren’t scared of going to Hell then they won’t get saved? Did Christ browbeat people with threats? Or did He live the ultimate example of a caring, loving, accepting human and this acceptance drew people like a magnet? The saying is that you get more flies with honey than vinegar and it is absolutely true. You get better results from your kids by praising what they do correctly than by angrily correcting them. The same goes for employees. It’s simple human nature to respond positively to positive words and actions.