Last month I was asked to write an article for an e-zine, Engage.Mail. This online publication is a produced by Ethos, the Evangelical Alliance Centre for Christianity and Society. Here is my introduction:
In March 2016, one of the world’s largest Evangelical publishers, Zondervan, produced a second edition of Four Views on Hell, which included Eternal Conscious Torment, Terminal Punishment, Purgatory and, for the first time, Universalism. The editor states that all four contributors are committed Evangelicals who affirm biblical inspiration and authority and the existence of Hell, and who base their view primarily on Scripture and theological reasoning, rather than tradition, emotion or sentimentality.
In this article, I explore the practical and ethical implications of the Evangelical Universalist view of hell on our understanding of justice and judgement, imitating God, punishment, God’s character and evangelism. It is beyond the scope here to make a case for this view, and for this I recommend Gregory MacDonald’s The Evangelical Universalist (2012), as well as the Four Views on Hell mentioned above. The latter was recommended by Dr. Paul Williamson as further reading during the annual lecture series on ‘Death and the Life Hereafter’ organised by Moore College, an influential Evangelical college in Sydney, in August. Williamson said that, while he doesn’t agree with the last three views, he believes their proponents are Evangelicals who deserve to be respectfully engaged.
I go on to look at:
Judgment and Justice: what do they look like?
Imitating God in all our actions?
Our perception of hell’s purpose/nature and our view of punishment now
Hell and God’s abilities, character and response to evil
In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternalaiónios fire.
Jude 1:7, NIV
I agree with what Burk wrote about this passage up until the end of this quote:
the fire that rained down on the infamous cites was an example of “eternal fire,” or “fire of the age to come,” invading the present age.
Denny Burk, page 37
However, after admitting here that word aiónios can (I’d say probablyshould, see Is Aionios Eternal?) mean “of the age to come”, he frustratingly suggests that the fire is everlasting because life “of the age to come” is everlasting. If I said:
The highlight of the year to come will be my long service leave and lowlight of the year to come will be my sick leave.
Does that mean my long service leave will be the same duration as my sick leave? I see no necessity to interpret it that way… Indeed it seems the probability of any two future events having identical durations is low.
As I tried to show in Immortal Worms & Unquenchable Fire, there are plenty of examples in the Bible of God’s fire achieving things. It doesn’t have to be interpreted as an end in-and-of-itself. For example, fire is described as refining and purifying. Sometimes the fire’s purpose, the good that it brings about, is not explicitly stated when the fire is used. For example, with Sodom and Gomorrah, we only discover this much later, in Ezekiel.
I [God] will restore their fortunes, the fortunes of Sodom and her daughters and those of Samaria and her daughters. I will also restore your fortunes among them, so you will bear your disgrace and be ashamed of all you did when you comforted them. As for your sisters, Sodom and her daughters and Samaria and her daughters will return to their former state. You and your daughters will also return to your former state.
Ezekiel 16:53-55, HCSB
It’s also pertinent to consider how long Sodom and Gomorrah physically burned? Was it days? Weeks? If we traveled to the site today it’s certainly no longer burning! I think this should inform our interpretation of “eternal” fire.
The next passage Burk looks at is Jude 1:13. I find most English translations very irritating in how they “translate” eis ton aión as “forever”. For example:
wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars, for whom the gloom-of-utterzophos darkness has been reserved forevereistonaión.
Jude 1:13, ESV
1Samuel 27:12 and Malachi 3:4 are examples in the LXX where the words can’t literally mean forever, and indeed some translations realise this:
Achish trusted David and said to himself, “He has become so obnoxious to his people, the Israelites, that he will be my servant for lifeeistonaión.”
1Samuel 27:12, NIV
And the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will please the Lord as in days of oldtonaión and years gone by.
Malachi 3:4, HCSB
If we look at each word in word, here’s what we find:
eis: to or into (indicating the point reached or entered, of place, time, fig. purpose, result)
Although Burk mentions that the darkness is “forever”, I’m glad doesn’t base his argument on eis ton aión. Instead he notes that verse 6 also talks about darkness:
And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternalaidios chains under gloomy-darknesszophos until the judgment of the great day
Jude 1:6, ESV
Burk comment on this is that:
The black darkness suggests the same fate [for the false teachers] as that of the fallen angels who were being “kept in eternal bonds under darkness” (v. 6) until the final judgment.
Denny Burk, page 38
However, this is puzzling because doesn’t it say the fallen angels are only in darkness temporarily, until judgment? Does that mean the false teachers are only in the darkness temporarily too?
Anyway, Burk goes on to look at the image of “darkness” in Matthew, and how it’s connected to the “fiery furnace” and “weeping and gnashing” images:
I tell you that many will come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Matthew 8:11-12, HCSB
So he [the king in the parable] said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without wedding clothes?’ The man was speechless. Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him up hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
Matthew 22:12-13, HCSB (cf 25:28-30)
Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the end of the ageaión. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fieryfurnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Matthew 13:40-42, ESV (cf v48-50)
Sobering stuff. It’s not surprising that the Pharisees were very offended (Matt 22:15, 26:3) that Jesus’ parables implied they weren’t entitled to be at the feast, that their complacency and negligence was going to result in their blessing/invite/talent being taken away from them and given to those they disdained, even evil people off the streets (Matt 22:10) and Roman centurions (Matt 8:10)! As we now know, Israel was indeed thrown into the “fiery furnace”―God allowed the Romans to burn Jerusalem to the ground in 70AD. Like Sodom and Gomorrah, the natural consequences of rejecting God’s ways―becoming smug, violent, and unloving―was severe and left them weeping and gnashing in the dark.
While I believe the impending earthly “hell” was Jesus’ primary concern for His immediate audience, I think the parables can be applied further. At times, each and every person is unloving in all manner of ways―from subtle disregard of those in need, to blatant smugness, lust for power, and violence. Jesus even warned His 12 disciples about these things so none of us should be complacent and reliant on our righteousness.
However, for those who are trying to heed Jesus, particularly those who are already weeping in the dark, I believe that thankfully the Bible promises that one day there will be no more tears or darkness anywhere, and that those who have been cut off will be grafted back on.
He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will no longer exist; grief, crying, and pain will exist no longer, because the previous things have passed away.
Revelation 21:4, HCSB
On that day the sources of light will no longer shine, yet there will be continuous day! Only the Lord knows how this could happen. There will be no normal day and night, for at evening time it will still be light.
On that day life-giving waters will flow out from Jerusalem, half toward the Dead Sea [the Lake of Fire 1] and half toward the Mediterranean, flowing continuously in both summer and winter.
And the Lord will be king over all the earth. On that day there will be one Lord—his name alone will be worshiped.
Zechariah 14:6-9, NLT
Did God’s people stumble and fall beyond recovery? Of course not! They were disobedient, so God made salvation available to the Gentiles. But he wanted his own people to become jealous and claim it for themselves… And if the people of Israel turn from their unbelief, they will be grafted in again, for God has the power to graft them back into the tree.
Good morning! I’m Alex and I’m going to give a 20 minute talk on the topic of, “Hope in the face of suffering and doubt”. I’ll look at three true accounts of amazing hope and resilience in awful situations. They are quite heavy but I hope you’ll stick with me. I’ll then look at two contrasting approaches to dealing with doubt.
The first account is of Jim Stockdale.
Jim Stockdale was an Admiral for the United States military. He was held captive for eight years during the Vietnam War. Stockdale and his prisonmates were regularly and severely tortured, and never had much reason to believe they would survive the prison camp. While he was there he noticed something very surprising about the prisonmates who succumbed and died. Counterintuitively, it was always the most optimistic.
They were the ones who said, “We’re going to be out by Christmas.” And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, “We’re going to be out by Easter.” And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.Jim Stockdale, interviewed by Jim Collins
Being in a prison camp would be a desperate situation, making it much harder to be rational so I don’t want to be disrespectful of them. But in hindsight, they held an unhealthy type of optimism that fails to confront the reality of the situation. The expectation of immediate release probably made it easier to begin with, but when they were eventually forced to face reality, it had become too much and they couldn’t handle it. While Stockdale didn’t talk about the pessimists in the prison camp, I’m assuming they would’ve also struggled to survive.
Stockdale approached the incarceration and torture with a different mindset. He accepted the reality of his situation. He knew he was in a hellish place, but, rather than give up, he did everything he could to lift the morale, and prolong the lives of, his fellow prisoners. Despite prisoners often being in solitary confinement, he created a tapping code so they could communicate with each other, creating a vital lifeline. He also developed a mental strategy that helped them deal with torture. He described his ordeal:
I never lost faith in the end of the story, I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.Jim Stockdale, interviewed by Jim Collins
This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.Jim Stockdale, interviewed by Jim Collins
I don’t know if Stockdale was a Christian but I think his approach was like Jesus’. When Jesus was tortured and executed, He was very aware of what was going on, He wasn’t in denial, He accepted His situation without any delusions. Yet – He never gave up trusting God!
And Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into Your hands I entrust My spirit.” Saying this, He breathed His last.Luke 23:46 HCSB
Not only is Jesus demonstrating His trust in His Father, He’s also quoting Psalm 31, part of the Bible that His hearers would have been familiar with. The Psalm is all about trusting in God when you’re in awful circumstances. When there’s terror all around us, God is our rock, our foundation. God never fails, He is always faithful, His love is eternal and infinite. The Psalm ends with:
Be strong and courageous, all you who put your hope in the Lord.Psalm 31:24 HCSB
Like Stockdale and Jesus, our hope can empower us now, in the hardships we go through. Because we are assured that God will make everything right in the end.
Jesus was also the ultimate example of resilience in that He even “bounced back” from death. The Apostle Paul tells us that Jesus’ resurrection means we no longer have to fear death. The resurrected Jesus also gives us a glimpse of what the New Creation will be like. We have the hope of life with Him in it. Again this hope doesn’t mean we are disconnected from reality now. Paul was aware that he was constantly in danger and was very familiar with the reality of suffering.
Five times I received 39 lashes from [the] Jews.
Three times I was beaten with rods by the Romans.
Once I was stoned by my enemies.
Three times I was shipwrecked.
I have spent a night and a day in the open sea. On frequent journeys, I faced dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my own people, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the open country, dangers on the sea, and dangers among false brothers; labor and hardship, many sleepless nights, hunger and thirst, often without food, cold, and lacking clothing.2 Corinthians 11:24-27 HCSB
And yet Paul can still write one of the most reassuring statements in the entire Bible:
… in all these things we are more than victorious through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that not even death or life, angels or rulers, things present or things to come, hostile powers, height or depth, or any other created thing will have the power to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord!Romans 8:37-39 HCSB
So far I’ve only looked at the hope and resilience of three men but obviously these qualities aren’t limited to men! Two whole books of the Bible are dedicated to women who had remarkable perseverance and trust in God, Ruth and Esther, and there are examples in the NT too, such as Mary, Jesus’ mother (more examples).
We’ve looked at examples of impressive hope and suffering but before I move on the next section, I think it’s really important to point out that hope isn’t just a quality restricted to these heroes, nor is it something only for full-on situations. Anyone can put their hope in God and what He has promised. And doing so should be beneficial when we go through any challenge of life. It could be something smaller, like school holidays with energetic kids, or something larger like exams, illness, injury, or loss of employment or loved ones. In my personal experience, when I’m going through a rough patch, thinking about who Jesus is, what He’s already done and what He promised to do, really does help me put one foot in front of the other.
Now I’m going to look at another possible threat to hope, which is doubt.
Often the more important something is to you, the more likely you are to have doubts about it. Our hope in Jesus is certainly very important to most of us here. So it’s not surprising we sometimes have doubts about it. There are lots of examples in the Bible of people doubting but I’ll just look at the most famous one. One of Jesus’ disciples, Thomas, doesn’t believe the others have really seen the resurrected Jesus. But Jesus appears to them all and says,
… Thomas, “Put your finger here, and look at my hands. Put your hand into the wound in my side. Don’t be faithless any longer. Believe!”
“My Lord and my God!” Thomas exclaimed.
Then Jesus told him, “You believe because you have seen me. Blessed are those who believe without seeing me.”John 20:27-29 NLT
In this case Jesus relieved Thomas’ doubt but He does seem to imply that immediate relief isn’t always the best thing for us. I find that very challenging.
So what should we do when we doubt? Should we suppress it or express it? Can we ever relieve our doubts or should we just settle for uncertainty?
Last year I got to go to two talks. One was by Peter Rollins. He is a very provocative and controversial Irish philosopher, writer, storyteller and public speaker. He is also a prominent figure in Radical Theology. The other talk was by John Dickson. He is an Australian writer, historian, minister, lecturer and public speaker. He is also a founding director of the Centre for Public Christianity.
Both are highly educated, intelligent, thought-provoking and effective communicators. I particularly appreciated their humility, approachableness and willingness engage with my questions and objections.
Coincidentally they both talked a lot about doubt. They spoke about acknowledging that we are all deeply flawed people in a broken world. And that God hasn’t revealed everything yet:
For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. 1 Cor 13:12 NIV
At times we all have doubts about big questions―be that the existence God or His character, the correct interpretation of the Bible, about who we are, or why we suffer. It was refreshing to hear them acknowledge this because sometimes there can be pressure to “have it all worked out”, or stigma that doubt implies we don’t have enough faith to be saved.
But once we’ve acknowledged our doubts, what do we do next?? At both events this question came up, and both speakers acknowledged that it depends on the type of doubt. If someone is plagued by psychological doubts and despairing to the point of feeling depressed, we should be sensitive, take their concerns seriously and support them as best we can (which may include talking to a GP). However, if the doubts are straightforward intellectual doubts, Rollins and Dickson offer two contrasting approaches.
My impression from Rollins’ talk, and the conversations with him afterwards, is that he is comfortable leaving many things unresolved, as doubts, as mystery. He suggests that in our consumerist, hedonistic culture we are too quick to give neat “answers” and to seek to instantly satisfy every desire. He goes as far as saying:
… the Good News [is] that we can’t be satisfied, that life is difficult, and that we don’t know the secret. Peter Rollins
I think Rollins is wrong about what the Good News is (it actually sounds like Bad News to me!) and I think Jesus is “the secret”. But I think Rollins’ is right that life is difficult and we don’t have all the answers concerning our present circumstances. Indeed, often the more we learn about something, the more we discover how much more there is to learn―things are more complex than we initially think. I suspect God deliberately leaves ambiguity around some things to encourage the virtues of patience, trust, humility and perseverance.
In contrast to Rollins, Dickson recommended reading and researching more, as most questions have been pondered and discussed extensively by someone before. I think this is good, biblical advice.
“An intelligent heart acquires knowledge, and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge.”Proverbs 18:15 ESV
But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity [the New Creation].2 Peter 3:18 HCSB
It’s important to note that acquiring knowledge should be done to God’s glory, in humility and in conjunction with growing in grace.
Dickson suggests that God, primarily through the Bible, does offer answers to some of our doubts now, and it promises that in the future there will be a resolution to all suffering and doubts. This means we can have hope now.
In The Weight of Glory C. S. Lewis describes humanity as having a sort of longing for a far-off country, which some people dismiss as nostalgia or romanticism but which he thinks comes because we were made for heaven [the New Creation]… he says, “almost all our modern philosophies have been devised to convince us that the good of man is to be found [now] on this earth.” But Lewis says we are never satisfied with earth as it is, with all its discord and sadness. Christians look beyond the pain, for “all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumor that it will not always be so”.John Dickson, A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible, 214
The Bible tells us to expect suffering, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to us when our lives become difficult but I do think it is easier to endure suffering and doubts, if we believe that, ultimately, we are promised a good outcome. I put this to Rollins but he wasn’t convinced. My impression is that he thinks we risk not fully living in the now if we are focussed on desiring the future.
… [we should set] aside questions regarding life after death to explore the possibility of a life before death.Peter Rollins
I think Rollins is half right. There is the stereotype of religious people being, “So heavenly minded that they are of no earthly use”. That is to say, people can be so caught up debating religion and doing religious rituals, that they neglect to practically care for people! We do need to heed Rollins concern, and even more importantly Jesus’ warnings, about falling into this trap.
However, unlike Rollins, Jesus doesn’t say the solution is to abandon talking and thinking about the future, about God’s Kingdom, about His New Creation. Rather we should be “heavenly minded” in the way God wants us to be―being inspired by His grace, His love, His promises, rather than our works.
Regarding “the possibility of a life before death”, I think the Bible does encourage us to live meaningful lives now, in this non-ideal world but I don’t think needs to be at the expense of hope and the desire to see the ideal realised after death. For example, after I’ve grieved the loss of a loved one, I can be at peace and continue “exploring” life but surely that doesn’t mean I have to give up my hope of being reunited in the New Creation.
The fact that humanity has longings [for God and an afterlife] that are satisfied by the teaching of the Bible is no more an argument against the Bible than the physical thirst can be thought of as an argument against the reality of water… perhaps this “match” between human longings and the Bible’s message arises because the one who made us for himself stands behind the Bible, as water for our thirst… in Jesus Christ all of our longings for God, for each other, and for the redemption of creation are [or will be] satisfied…John Dickson, A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible, 215-217
So to summarise, reality is extremely difficult sometimes. We will have doubts, some of which we can’t resolve yet.
So what do you hope for?
As Stockdale discovered, we need to be wise about what we hope for. Stockdale’s hope, or his “end of the story”, was, understandably, surviving the prison camp.
However, God’s “end of the story” is even better, when “the time comes for [Him] to restore everything [in the New Creation], as he promised” (Acts 3:21 NIV).
This can give us great hope and inspire us to persevere now.
I think this is a fitting conclusion.
May the God of hope fill you [now] with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Romans 15:13 NIV
I don’t want to be insensitive but when I was reflecting on the gut-wrenching image of the drowned refugee boy lying facedown on the beach, I couldn’t help but wonder “Where is he now? Was his hellish life on earth a mere meaningless foretaste of endless misery in the next, or is he living peacefully with God?” I know that when a loved one of mine has died I’ve been comforted by believing that they will be restored in the new creation and we will eventually be reunited.
For many Christians the answer to these questions is simple, “Did they believe in Jesus?”. In this particular case, Aylan1 probably didn’t – he was most likely a Sunni Muslim2… Most Christians can’t stomach the idea that God would send children to Hell and would suggest that Aylan did make it into Heaven because he hadn’t yet reached the “age of accountability”3 .
I certainly hope Aylan hasn’t gone from hell on earth to a literal Hell But assuming he was spared, that raises the question, “Will he ever be reunited with his mother and father?”. His mother, Rehen, who sadly also drowned, had reached the “age of accountability”. It’s hard to imagine Aylan ever being truly happy if he’s never reunited with her. In an attempt to solve this dilemma some Christians have suggested that, “Perhaps God obliterates from their minds any knowledge of lost persons so that they experience no pangs of remorse for them.”4 However, as Talbott rightly points out, “In the case of those whose entire family is lost, this would mean, I presume, that God expunges from their minds every memory of parents and other family members; and I doubt that Craig has any conception of how much of a person’s mind that would likely destroy.”5
After all, Humanity is interconnected:
Biologically we are all one species, indeed one race6, who are all distantly related to one another.
Physically we all share this planet, this global village.
By agape love, which is the self-sacrificial love that God shows us and asks us to display. It includes both our mind and our emotions. Talbott insightfully points out that in order to truly love someone, one must love those whom they love7. This creates a strong network of links between everyone.
Spiritually, Christians also believe we all share in the image of God, that our Creator breathes His life into us8. Some would go as far as saying that we are all children of God, even those who don’t live in the light of that relationship (still wallowing in the Prodigal son’s “pigpen”9).
Considering these things, I think our response to anyone in hellish circumstances, should be primarily compassionate (taking priority over our concerns about our economy, culture, etc.). Christians in particular, ought to imitate our Father in showing empathy and giving them refuge10. I think this should apply both now (e.g. with refugees fleeing war and persecution, and those locked up in indefinite detention centres) and in the age to come (otherwise I’d suggest that if Hell never ceased, it is the ultimate “indefinite detention centre” – a depressing thought indeed). As we open our hearts and doors11, we anticipate the day when the gates of the New Jerusalem (heaven come to earth, God dwelling with Humanity) will never be shut12.