Tim & Jon: Is Hell really outside creation & rationally chosen?

I love The Bible Project. Truly, it’s the best online Bible resource I’ve ever come across. I’ve been a monthly supporter since the early days, I’ve watched most of their 134 videos and soon will have listened to all of their podcasts. Jon Collins and Tim Mackie are easy to listen to, full of interesting insights, and express a genuine curiosity and desire for truth. I particularly love the way their work paints a beautiful, grand, biblical metanarrative showing God’s wonderful intentions for humanity in Eden, the amazing lengths He’s gone to throughout history (and especially through Jesus), and anticipating an exciting, joyful, glorious future with God in the New Creation.

However, I find that the clearer the biblical metanarrative is presented, the more jarring Eternal Conscious Torment becomes… So I was intrigued when Jon Collins and Tim Mackie discussed this in their Day Of The Lord Part 6 podcast episode. The context is that they have been discussing and comparing the OT warrior savior images (e.g. Isa 63) and modern movies (e.g. The Magnificent Seven), with the NT warrior savior images (e.g. Rev 19:11) and the Cross. They conclude that:

Tim: [In Revelation, John is] constantly taking aggressive, violent, Old Testament “Day of the Lord” imagery and saying the Cross was the Day of the Lord. It was the fulfillment of those images and it did not involve God killing his enemies—it actually involved the Son of God allowing Himself to be killed by them.

I think it’s inescapable. This is why readings of the book of Revelation that, I don’t know, help people look forward to some future cataclysm of violence, where Jesus comes of the sword cutting people apart—to me it’s not just a misreading of Revelation, to me it’s a betrayal of Jesus. Because what you’re saying is, “Oh, Jesus used the means of the cross but that was just like his way of being nice for a little bit but really he’s…”

Jon: “Ultimately he will use [death and] the threat of death as his true power to bring justice.”

Day Of The Lord Part 6 (24m 8s)

(As an aside, this is similar to what William Cavanaugh said to me in Was God Violent To Jesus? Is Jesus Coming Back Mad As Hell?—Cavanaugh Interview)

What they discuss next is what I’ll focus on as it raises many questions.

Tim: Yeah. And I’m not saying that there isn’t a reality to final justice, where people suffer the consequences of their decisions if they don’t yield to Jesus—I’m not saying that. But what I am saying is the New Testament is transforming these violent images of the Day of the Lord in a really important way—that had gone largely unnoticed by the modern Western Church. Because we love Denzel Washington [hero in The Magnificent Seven] strangling the bad guy to death.

Jon: Yeah, it feels good.

Tim: Yeah, it’s satisfying.

Day Of The Lord Part 6 (25m 29s)

I believe strongly in the reality of final justice (indeed it’s one of the reasons I started this blog) and that there are unpleasant consequences to giving our heart to anything other than our loving Father. I think seeing evil being stopped is satisfying, and rightly so. However, an issue arises when the method of stopping an evil (e.g. a “bad guy”) is evil (e.g. strangling someone). Our conscience should make us feel conflicted about that “solution”. Thankfully, there is a method of stopping evil that isn’t evil—that method is love—doing good to those who sin against you, melting their hearts, transforming them from foe to friend—rebel to follower of Jesus.

Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.

1 Peter 3:9, BSB

If your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him something to drink. For in so doing you will be heaping fiery coals on his head [melting his opposition?]. Do not be conquered by evil, but conquer evil with good.

Romans 12:20-21, CSB

Tim continues:

Anyhow, that’s how the Day of the Lord comes to its completion in the last book of the Bible. It’s this paradox. Here he defeats the armies of evil and then (in chapter 20) Babylon, Death, the Beast (the dragon), they’re all cast into the Lake of Fire. They are assigned—they’re quarantined—to a place of eternal self-destruction, and that’s the defeat of evil. And you could say that’s a violent image, but it’s interesting, it’s people being consigned or handed over to what they’ve chosen, something that they’ve chosen, which is destruction.

Day Of The Lord Part 6 (26m 4s)

Respectfully, there’s a huge difference between quarantining something and defeating it. Quarantine may be a necessary step to stop the spread of a plague but it’s only when it’s completely eradicated that it is defeated. Leaving evil quarantined is even worse than quarantining a plague and walking away:

  • it’s an affront to God’s holiness.
  • it’s a thwarting of His good purpose for humans, their telos, that He first articulates in Genesis 1-2 and ultimately in Christ.
  • it’s a denial of the praise and honour God rightly deserves.
  • it’s a failure to bring restorative justice, leaving countless broken relationships festering, unhealed forever—victims never receiving apologies, nor closure.

Eternal self-destruction is even worse than suicide, it’s never a rational choice, it’s a sign of a severe, unhealthy delusion about what is good and what is evil. It’s what God has been working to fix since Genesis 3, which they seem to acknowledge in other episodes:

Tim: … the Old Testament becomes a story of the family of Abraham but all within that larger story of what is God going to do to rescue the world from itself…

The Bible as Divine Literary Art (35m 3s)

But back to the episode I’m focusing on:

Jon: Yeah, how did how did Butler talk about it? He talked about it as creating a place for that to exist but not inside of creation.

Day Of The Lord Part 6 (26m 50s)

A very confusing suggestion, because far as I know, there’s only one thing outside of creation, and that is God Himself… everything else is part of, within the category of, God’s creation. “Creating a place”, surely makes it creation?

Tim: Yeah, if somebody refuses, like Pharaoh, to acknowledge Jesus as their Lord (using Pharaoh as an icon or Babylon), then God will honor the dignity of that decision and allow people to exist in that place.

Day Of The Lord Part 6 (27m)

Pharaoh’s “refusal” is a contentious issue—I highly recommend reading Talbott’s discussion of Romans 9:17-18, in light of Romans 11:32 (p19 of chapter 5 of his book, which is freely available here). Anyway, even assuming Pharaoh freely rejected God, I don’t think it’s honoring to let someone essentially put themselves into a state of neverending suicide. I don’t think it’s a real, informed, rational decision. So I don’t see it having any “dignity.” Again, it’s a topic that Talbott has comprehensively addressed in his book, The Inescapable Love of God, but if you don’t have time to read or listen (there’s a great audiobook!), then I encourage you to read his Free-will Theodicies of Hell post (which I drew on in Engaging Orr-Ewing: How Could a Holy/Loving God Send People to Hell?).

Jon: Yeah, “confinement”, I think was the term.

Tim: Confinement, yes. But what God won’t allow is for that evil to pollute or vandalize his creation anymore. And so the end of Revelation is the New Jerusalem and then outside the city are… “So wait I thought they were in a Lake of Fire?” (in chapter 20) But then (in chapter 22) the wicked are just outside the city… So these images are that God will contain those who choose evil. And the point is that he won’t allow them to ruin his world anymore.

Day Of The Lord Part 6 (27m 17s)

I’m really not convinced that evil can be adequately confined in that way because humans (and God) are so deeply interconnected, we’re relational beings. When loved ones suffer, we suffer, God suffers. That suffering is polluting and vandalizing—it’s ruining any chance of harmony—of the promised Shalom. How can someone possibly be happy while their son, their mother, their husband, or their best friend is still destroying themselves? (And for some believers, all their family and loved ones are non-believers) If they are just outside the open gates, they can probably see, hear, and smell(?!) their torment.

At the end of Revelation, the only thirsty audience the Spirit and the bride (Christians) have are the wicked outside the gates. Perhaps, when the Spirit and the bride say, “Come!”, everyone who is thirsty actually comes!

Overcome evil with good

Engaging Orr-Ewing’s “What does love cause us to feel about perpetrators?”

A few years ago, I lived in the inner city in London, my husband was a pastor there, and I had a very good friend who at that time was the same age as me (late twenties). We were very different, from very different socioeconomic backgrounds, she had five kids, lived on quite a high floor in a block of flats. She also had about four dogs. None of the dads of her children were still around, in fact, one of them was in prison (he was a crack dealer, very violent man, she had a restraining order against him). She became a Christian and we became very good friends—we met weekly.

One day, her ex-partner (the father of one of her children) got out of prison and he came to her apartment and broke in and beat her virtually to death. I’ll never forget seeing her. When I saw her—it was just incredibly shocking—she was unrecognizable. Now, in that situation, what did I feel—what did love cause me to feel about the perpetrator of that violence? Love meant that I cried out for justice for her.
Amy Orr-Ewing, The Ring of Truth (12m 53s mark) or my transcript

Love causes us to cry out:

  1. for the evil to be acknowledged rather than ignored.
  2. for the evil to be stopped rather than for it to continue.
  3. for the awful damage done to be healed rather than for it to consume the victim. And,
  4. for the perpetrator to fully comprehend the evil, violence, and damage done, and to respond in genuine repentance, to completely turn their life around, dedicating the rest of their life to making amends and seeking to see domestic violence end everywhere.

I would suggest that d) is actually the only way to completely stop evil, because until d) occurs, the evil and hatred continues to fester and grow in the perpetrator. Tragically, unless the victim can reach the point of gracious forgiveness (which doesn’t mean ignoring the evil or allowing it to continue) the evil will continue to cause them harm, potentially consuming them with hatred. (This doesn’t to imply the onus is on the victim to act, nor that the responsibility for reconciliation is on their shoulders).

When d) occurs obviously it’s easier for the victim to forgive but sometimes it’s actually the victim’s forgiveness that causes d) to occur. How many perpetrators have turned around because of Jesus’, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”, or because of Gladys Staines’ remarkable forgiveness of her family’s murderers, or Mandela’s forgiveness, or Eric Lomax’s?

But our forgiveness today can’t just be conditional on repentance, which may not occur in this life. It has to be freely given whether or not it’s going to provoke immediate repentance. It is actually for the victim’s own healing and peace that they forgive. Ultimately, it’s the only—albeit extremely difficult—way forward (and this may not be possible until Christ returns).

It is quite easy to put ourselves in the position of someone like Orr-Ewing, witnessing the awful wrong perpetrated against her friend. We recognise that feeling of righteous anger that she refers to. What is more difficult to do is to put ourselves in the position of someone who dearly loves the perpetratorperhaps his mother or brother? What would the love of the perpetrator’s mother cause her to feel? Surely, she would yearn for a), b), c), & d) to occur? This doesn’t mean she is callous towards the victim in this scenario. She wants the wrongs righted. She is angry and ashamed of her son. At the same time, she longs for him to repent and be changed, and to somehow undo the damage he has caused. This is the position of our heavenly Father. He deeply loves all His children—victims and perpetrators—those who love Him and those who still hate Him. The righteous son and the prodigal son. His love doesn’t discriminate.

But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children [imitators] of your Father in heaven. For he causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. … Be perfect [in your loving], therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Matthew 5:44-45,48, CSB

God instructs us to imitate His love of those who show Him enmity. How does “love your enemies” influence our view of justice? It may well still include punishment but unless it results in d), I can’t see true healing, reconciliation, harmony, and Shalom ever occurring.

Finally, we must remember that we’re all sinners—perhaps not perpetrators of domestic violence but it’s hard to avoid being complicit in some sort of violence in this world—don’t we all nail Jesus to the cross? There’s also some link between the forgiveness we give and the forgiveness we receive:

forgive us our sins, as we also forgive those who sin against us. … For if you forgive other their offenses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others their offenses, neither will your Father forgive your offenses.

Matthew 6:12,14-15, MOUNCE

Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.

Ephesians 4:32, NIV

Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.

Colossians 3:13, NIV

I also think there’s some link between our cry for justice and the justice that is brought upon our own sins.

For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged

Matthew 7:2a, NIV

So I think we should to cry out for justice but justice that moves us all towards God’s Shalom.

Jesus is Justice
Jesus is Justice

The Ring of Truth, the Keeper of the Holy Quran, & a Visceral Struggle—Orr-Ewing interview

The Ring of Truth is the first part of a two part interview of Amy Orr-Ewing by the Centre for Public ChristianityI’ve transcribed it and posted it in three posts:

  1. A surprising conversion, an unusual childhood, & an apologist’s apology.
  2. Can a loving God judge evil & hold people to account?
  3. The Ring of Truth, the Keeper of the Holy Quran, & a Visceral Struggle (below)

Justine: Amy is not only a prolific speaker, she’s a writer as well. One of her recent books is called, Why trust the Bible?

Image result for amy orr-ewing why trust the bible

Amy: The Bible describes the real world as we know it. It has the ring of truth, this is not a sort of religious mythical bubble that we need to jump into, that only makes sense internally if we just close our minds to the real world that we experience. The Bible is trustworthy because it diagnoses the human condition that you and I experience. It speaks of it in real terms—with empathy about the darkness and violence of this world—and it introduces us to the God who’s entered this real world in the person of Jesus. So I think we can trust the Bible in those kind of existential terms.

The Bible describes the real world as we know it. It has the ring of truth…

But secondly, historically it is my experience through studying the manuscript tradition—through studying the historical process of the transmission of the Bible—that this stands up to rigorous scrutiny. That the source material for the Bible is vast. That where there are differences between manuscripts, those differences are not covered over in English or other language translations. There’s an openness about the process of transmission and I think that makes it trustworthy.

Justine: It’s also a book that you’ve seen has had an impact in some quite surprising places. I read that you went to Afghanistan when you were 19—you have all these wonderful stories in your biography—and you presented the Bible to someone in that circumstance didn’t you?

The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan
The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan

Amy: Yes, while I was a theology student at Oxford I was also not just studying Christian theology but studying Islamic thought as well and a small team of us went to Afghanistan. We ended up going the weekend after the BBC had been in town doing their groundbreaking documentary on the Taliban. We got the opportunity as theological students to interview the Education Minister, the Religion Minister, and the Foreign Minister and the Keeper of the Holy Quran (the Religion Minister). And in the process of that interview in their military headquarters we also gave them Bibles, saying, “We think this is the most precious gift one human being can give another.” And they were all heavily armed, we did wonder what was going to happen next, let’s put it like that, and you could cut the atmosphere with a knife. But the Keeper of the Holy Quran took hold of the Bible and looked at it and he said, “I know exactly what this book is, I’ve been praying to God for years that I could read this book. Thank you for bringing me this book, I’ll read it every day.” And that just struck me as amazing, that at the heart of one of the most violent regimes the world has known, there was someone who was wanting to read the Bible but had never had the opportunity.

At the heart of one of the most violent regimes the world has known, there was someone who was wanting to read the Bible but had never had the opportunity.

Simon: That is very surprising! Now Amy, while we might come to accept that the Bible is trustworthy in the way that you’ve described it, is it relevant? I mean, what does the Bible have to say to a complex modern society or even my own life in that place?

Amy: My experience is that the Bible has relevance today because it introduces us to the person of Jesus, who came in history, was God incarnate—God making himself known to us in human form—and that truth connects with our reality, the reality of our brokenness, of our anxiety, of our pain, of our sin, of our shame, because in Jesus, God deals with the human condition by going to the cross and offering us forgiveness, offering us new life.

It’s interesting to me that the primary image that Jesus used for what it means to come to know God is the image of birth. Now, as a mother of twins and another little boy, it strikes me as odd that a single, 30 something year old, ancient near-eastern male would invoke the image of birth. Birth is overwhelmingly, excruciatingly painful. It’s a visceral struggle for life over death. There’s blood, there’s guts, there’s gore in the process of birth, and Jesus says coming to know God is so real that the image I’m going to use to describe this is: it’s like being born. There was no life and now there is undeniably this screaming baby, there’s life! How much more relevant could things get? God is saying that coming to know him is like being born all over again. This is ontological, this is real, this is visceral, it’s undeniable when this has happened.

Jesus says coming to know God is so real that the image I’m going to use to describe this is: it’s like being born.

Justine: From the Center for Public Christianity, you’ve been listening to Life & Faith with Justine Toh and Simon Smart. Amy Orr-Ewing joins us again next week to talk about Dorothy L. Sayers, one of the first women to graduate from Oxford and a force to be reckoned with.

Amy: She disliked the idea of arguing for women’s equality on the basis of calling women a class. So she’s saying we’re not a special class of human we’re actually human.

Justine: You won’t want to miss the conversation. Sign up for our newsletter at PublicChristianity.org or subscribe to our podcast on iTunes—just type “Life & Faith” in the search box to find us. While you’re there, please leave us a rating or a review, we want to know what you think of the show and it helps other people find it as well.

Can a loving God judge evil & hold people to account?—Orr-Ewing interview

The Ring of Truth is the first part of a two part interview of Amy Orr-Ewing by the Centre for Public ChristianityI’ve transcribed it and posted it in three posts:

  1. A surprising conversion, an unusual childhood, & an apologist’s apology.
  2. Can a loving God judge evil & hold people to account? (below)
  3. The Ring of Truth, the Keeper of the Holy Quran, & a Visceral Struggle
Amy Orr-Ewing by Alex Baker Photography
Amy Orr-Ewing by Alex Baker Photography

Justine: You’re listening to Life & Faith from the Centre for Public Christianity. As an apologist, Amy often finds herself defending the Christian faith. She comes across all sorts of pat dismissals of faith: “Science disproves God”, “All religions are the same”, “How can God be good if there is so much suffering in the world?” But as soon as I asked her about the objections to faith that she must come across daily, she was quick to call me out on describing them as “pat”. She actually takes each objection seriously, she listens, she takes the time and care to engage with every question that comes her way.

Amy: I would try and be careful not to ever minimize someone’s objection to faith as something “pat”. I think that most of the articulations against God are actually pretty heartfelt. We live in a culture that’s very apathetic about religious things so when people do articulate, “How could there be a God of love and this horrendous abuse has happened to me or my child or my friend?”, I think that’s a real objection that is both intellectual and personal, and that deserves the time for us to at least try and respond to. Another question that we find a lot in the West is that whole search for meaning in significance and purpose, “Why am I here?” and “Is this enough, is the material, sort of materialistic life that I’m living is that all there is to life?”

We live in a culture that’s very apathetic about religious things so when people do articulate, “How could there be a God of love and this horrendous abuse has happened to me or my child or my friend?”, I think that’s a real objection that is both intellectual and personal, and that deserves the time for us to at least try and respond to.

Simon: Let’s talk about one of those, some people want to talk about the character of God, and they often draw the distinction between this God of the Old Testament who—in some people’s minds—appears sort of violent and angry and a fearful kind of presence, and then the New Testament where they say it’s all lovely and kind and merciful. What’s the challenge there, of course, is trying to match up those two. Now, of course, the people who wrote about that God of the Old Testament thought he was good but how do you address that quite complex problem?

Amy: I think that lots of people have this idea that in order to be loving God couldn’t also hold people accountable or judge evil. But actually when we dig into that preconception, I think we discover that most of us don’t really believe that. Let me give you an example: A few years ago, I lived in the inner city in London, my husband was a pastor there, and I had a very good friend who at that time was the same age as me (late twenties). We were very different, from very different socioeconomic backgrounds, she had five kids, lived on quite a high floor in a block of flats. She also had about four dogs. None of the dads of her children were still around, in fact, one of them was in prison (he was a crack dealer, very violent man, she had a restraining order against him). She became a Christian and we became very good friends—we met weekly. One day, her ex-partner (the father of one of her children) got out of prison and he came to her apartment and broke in and beat her virtually to death. I’ll never forget seeing her when I saw her—it was just incredibly shocking—she was unrecognizable. Now, in that situation, what did I feel—what did love cause me to feel about the perpetrator of that violence? Love meant that I cried out for justice for her.

See love and justice go together, and when we read the Old Testament we see a loving God who is also a God who judges evil—that’s actually the same as the God we read about in the New Testament. Now in the Old Testament one of the means of his judgment, within a very limited time period, is war. Now, we can say, “Well, we don’t like that idea.” We read it today through our sort of Western eyes and think that doesn’t make sense to us. But I think if we understand it within a framework of a loving God who judges evil perpetrators on behalf of the victim, it begins to make a bit more sense.


Amy Orr-Ewing gives a longer response to this important question in an article that I engaged with: Engaging Orr-Ewing: How Could a Holy/Loving God Send People to Hell? I’ve also engaged her pertinent question, “What does love cause us to feel about perpetrators?”.

How Long is Forever?

My transcript of the above:

Eric: Hey there folks. It’s Hell Week on The Eric Metaxas Show. Chris Himes it’s Hell Week.

Chris: Yeah, I thought it was just the thermostat but no, it’s the theme.

Eric: We’re talking about hell. It’s such a serious topic that I have to joke around. We’re talking to George Sarris. George, we just have a few minutes left in this program, we’re going to have you back for a second program because there’s just so much talk about. So tell us—people are listening all over America, all around the world—what else do we need to know about hell?

George: The biggest issue that most people have relates around Jesus’ words in Matthew chapter 25 verse 46, where it says, “Those who are following God will go into life everlasting and those who are not will go into punishment everlasting.” So the real issue is the word of “everlasting.”

Eric: Okay. And, by the way, you’re Greek, I’m Greek, just so happens the New Testament was written in Greek.

George: Amen.

Eric: So what is the word?

George: The word is aion. It does not mean never-ending. What it means is, “the end is not known”. Not never-ending, the end is not known. For example, if you’re in the middle of the ocean and you look around, you say, “Wow, there’s no end to this ocean, it just goes on and on.” There is an end, you just don’t know where it is.

Eric: So it means “seemingly endless”?

George: Well, not necessarily even “seemingly endless”, it just means “the end is not known.” For example, Jonah, when he’s in the belly of the great fish, he says, “The earth beneath him barred him in forever” (according to the English versions) but what it means is “The earth beneath barred me in for, I don’t [know], for this extended period but I don’t know what it was.” It was only three days—that’s how long he was in the belly of the great fish.

Eric: Right.

George: It talks about the sacrifices in the temple of the Lord will go on forever. No, they just went on until there’s no more need for them—when Christ came there was no more need for those sacrifices at all. In fact, if aion actually meant “never-ending”, the Jews of Jesus day would have had an unanswerable objection to Christianity because they were told, according to their scriptures, that the sacrifices in the temple were to last “forever” but they didn’t, they lasted only until Christ came. The reason [they didn’t make this objection] is because the word “forever” didn’t really mean forever in the original language.

Eric: Now that’s the Hebrew obviously.

George: That’s correct—that’s olam. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, they used aion in place of olam in just about every single place. So they’re pretty much synonymous at that point. It means “an age”. What Jesus is saying, by the way, in Matthew chapter 25 verse 46, is that, “There will be punishment in the age to come, there will be life in the age to come.” But they don’t have to be the same. If I said to you, “Dwight Howard is a tall man he’s standing before the Empire State Building, which is a tall building.” Does that mean the Dwight Howard and the Empire State Building are the same height? No, the word “tall” is a relative term relating to what it’s modifying. The same thing with aion, it’s a relative term, depending on what it’s referring to. If you’re referring to God it’s referring to something everlasting.

Eric: So it doesn’t necessarily mean “infinite”?

George: That is correct. It means “the end is not known.”

Eric: Okay. Wow! Speaking about the end, this is the end of this program. We’re going to do a second program with George Sarris. The book is Heaven’s Doors: wider than you ever believed. Thanks for listening.

Hell: Has It Always Been Forever?

Transcript of George Sarris‘ latest video (above):

You are going to die. It makes no difference if you are rich or poor, wise or foolish, educated or uneducated, successful or unsuccessful. You are mortal, and you are going to die!

Most of us don’t want to hear those words. But whether we like it or not, you and I, and everyone else, will someday end up just like those buried here—dust to dust, ashes to ashes. For that reason, death has always occupied the minds of the living. And, more particularly, what happens after we die? That is a question that everyone thinks about at one time or another. That is the question everyone wants to know the answer to.

Coupled with the reality that we will all die is the fact that life just isn’t fair. Some people inherit great wealth and live in luxury every day. Others are born into extreme poverty. Some, through treachery and deception rise to positions of tremendous power and authority. Others through no fault of their own, experience cruelty and severe suffering as a result. Some people grow up in families where the message of God’s saving grace through Christ is heard every day of their lives. Others never hear that message—not even once before they die.

Because of these inequities in life, almost everyone agrees that, somehow, something has to be done in the world to come to even things out. And, most have concluded that there is some kind of balance scale on the other side on which humans are weighed. Those who are good will go to an eternity of bliss in Heaven. Those who are found wanting will be punished forever in a place of anguish and misery—a place called Hell.

Contrary to popular opinion, however, the idea that Hell will last forever has not always been the teaching of the Christian Church. In fact, during the first five hundred years of its existence, a prominent view in the Church—and, according to some scholars, the majority view—was that Hell is temporary in its duration, and that it actually has a positive purpose. It is one more tool that God will use to defeat sin and death completely, and ultimately restore all of His creation to the perfection He intended.

These early Christians believed that God doesn’t defeat evil by simply shutting it up in a corner of His creation and leaving it there forever—like some kind of cosmic graveyard keeping those who are there imprisoned throughout eternity. Rather, He will destroy evil by transforming the hearts of evil-doers—ultimately making them into those who love goodness. At the very end of time, God will actually get everyone He created into heaven.

Wow! Can God really be that great? Is God’s grace really that powerful? Does God’s work in the hearts of men and women actually extend into the age to come?

Most people today don’t think so! But, some very important and influential early Christian Church leaders did.

One was a man known as Clement of Alexandria. Clement was born in Athens about AD 150—within a couple of generations of Jesus and His disciples. He believed that God is absolutely good, and absolutely sovereign. For him, to believe that God is unable to save all was unthinkable because that would be a proof of His weakness. To believe that God is unwilling was also unthinkable because that is not the attribute of a good Being. For Clement, God is the Lord of the universe, and He has arranged all things with a view to the salvation of the universe.

Clement of Alexandria
Clement of Alexandria

Clement saw God as a devoted Father. Earthly fathers don’t punish their children to hurt them. They chasten their children with a view to correcting them. And, that’s what God, our Heavenly Father, does. Punishing for the sake of punishing would simply be returning evil for evil. God doesn’t do that. He chastises for the good of those who are chastised.

Those are pretty bold statements. But, Clement believed in a very bold God—a God whose sovereign power coupled with His unfailing love for all enables Him to ultimately bring about the complete restoration of all.

Another one of the early Church Fathers who believed in ultimate restoration was Gregory of Nyssa. Gregory died around AD 395 and is still revered as one of the greatest of the early Church Fathers. In fact, the Seventh General Council of the Church held in the year 787 honored Gregory by naming him “Father of the Fathers.”

Gregory of Nyssa
Gregory of Nyssa

Does God punish forever with terrifying pain? Gregory didn’t think so. He explained that the thoughtless or immature think this, and fear it—with a good result—it motivates them to flee from wickedness. However, those with more maturity understand the true purpose of after-death punishment—it is a remedial process instituted by a good God to, in Gregory’s words, bring back man, His peculiar creature, to the grace of his primal condition.

Gregory was convinced that evil, in the end, will be completely defeated. God isn’t going to just pack it up, stick it in a corner of His creation and let it go on forever. Evil will become non-existent. Divine goodness will prevail. God is not a loser, and in the end, no single being created by God will fail to achieve the kingdom of God.

Wow! That is a powerful God! With ideas like that, no wonder the early Christians ended up taking over the Roman Empire!

What is Hell?

My transcript of the above:

Eric: Hey there folks—it’s The Eric Metaxas Show. It’s Hell Week on The Eric Metaxas Show. Chris Himes did you know it’s Hell Week?

Chris: Hell-o—I can’t stop.

Eric: Yeah. We’re talking to George Sarris. The book is Heaven’s Doors. I want to be real clear, even though you take what some people call the Universalist position, you’re not saying, “Hell does not exist”?

George: That is correct.

Eric: Okay. If somebody says, “You’re going to hell”, what is hell?

George: Hell is a place where you experience the consequences of your actions—just like it is here on this earth. One of the major people in the early church was a guy named Theodore of Mopsuestia, and his basic position was that sin leads to misery. So eventually if you continue to pursue sin, you will become totally miserable. At that point, you’re open to experiencing the love and grace that God offers—and God doesn’t give up.

Eric: Okay. So let’s pick a name out of a hat: Adolf Hitler?

George: Why don’t you talk about the Apostle Paul?

Eric: Why?

George: Because he’s a great example of that. He actually persecuted Christians and put them to death.

Eric: But…

George: But what did God do? He didn’t just punish Paul, he transformed Paul. The goal that God has for mankind is not just to punish, it is to transform.

Eric: Ok. But I’m saying if the goal is to transform Hitler…

George: He doesn’t get transformed in this life so God has ages (because scripture talks about not just an age to come but ages plural to come).

Eric: Aionion

George: He has ages to work in Hitler’s life to bring him to a point where he understands his need for grace.

Oil On Canvas
“Cain or Hitler in Hell” by George Grosz

Eric: Okay. So the thing is that you’re saying that, “Yes, hell is actually hell but it is to bring the worst sinner ultimately to repentance.”

George: That is correct.

Eric: But you still say that hell is horrible?

George: Yes. I mean, if you do some crime and you’re put in jail, just because you don’t get the death sentence, doesn’t mean that jail is really a wonderful place to be. Depending on how long you’re there, is not a comfortable place to be, this is intense, it’s severe. The the punishment, the consequences of whatever it is. Just talk to a recovering alcoholic or talk to somebody that’s been involved in some kind of sin in their lives. Were they happy? No, they’re experiencing all kinds of negative consequences—breaks up of marriages, breaks up of relationships with their children, physical diseases or problems that come along, etc. Those are not positive things at all but at some point, if they can acknowledge their need, then God’s saving grace is available to them in Christ.

Eric: What do you say to somebody who says the scripture says clearly, “Once we leave this life, that’s it”?

George: Where does it say that? The only verse that I’ve ever been able to come across it says that… where it says, “It is appointed unto man once to die and then the judgment.” It doesn’t say what the judgment is. [It] just means that once you die you come before God and then God makes a decision. Is he going to send you to hell for however long it is? Are you going to go to heaven? Those are judgments that God makes but it doesn’t say anything about the fact that God is going to stop being God. He’s not going to stop being gracious. The grace of God continues on into the ages to come. Why is it that people would believe that God is willing to forgive Adolf Hitler right up to the very point of, you know, five seconds before he dies if he repented—truly repented—then he would be saved and he brought into heaven, but five seconds after he dies, “Sorry too bad”? God doesn’t change!

Eric: Okay. So what do your detractors say? In other words, answer some of the things that the detractors of this view would say to you if they were sitting here?

George: The first thing they would say is that, “Scripture obviously teaches this because it says in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus that whoever’s in hell can never get out of it.” First of all, it doesn’t say that. Number one, the word that is used there for hell is actually Hades—it’s not hell—and Hades, as a place of punishment, will empty itself. That death and Hades will be thrown into the lake of fire—that Hades will release those who are captive in it. When Jesus talks about the gates of Hades not being able to withstand his church, the gates of Hades are not offensive units, they are defensive. The Christian churches on the attack against the gates of Hades. We are going to destroy the gates of Hades and of hell and of death, and we’re going to bring deliverance from it.

Eric: See this is, I confess, that I hope that’s true and I think every Christian has to hope that’s true too.

What is God like?

My transcript of the above:

Eric: Hey there folks. This is The Eric Metaxas Show. Chris Himes we’ve got something very special for our listeners today.

Chris: Ah, do we?

Eric: Yeah, we do. What the heck, this is Hell Week on The Eric Metaxas Show. People don’t realize that this is what we like to call Hell Week on the show because we’re serious Christians; we take the concept of Hell very seriously.

Chris: Sure.

Eric: But the question is, “What about it?” George Sarris, welcome on the program.

George: Thank you very much, it’s a delight to be here!

Eric: George I’ve known you for a long time and the reason we’re having you on today is first of all because I’ve known you for a long time—you have a lot of credibility with me. The book you have written (it just came out) is titled Heaven’s Doors and then the subtitle is Wider than you ever believed. I read the book and I was very impressed with the way you dealt with this. I want to ask you your story. How in the heck did you come to write an entire book on the subject of hell?

George: Yeah, that’s a very good question. I guess my life really got transformed in 1969. I was a junior in college, back then, during the height of the Vietnam war era and God touched my heart—transformed it. And I was really excited about this great God who I heard about and so I ended up going on Campus Crusade for Christ staff for four years after that. And then I went to seminary—wanted to be an educated layman.

George Sarris
George Sarris (Photo: HeavensDoor.net)

And so anyway, I went to seminary but there was an issue that bothered me, “Why would an all-powerful, all-wise, all-loving God, either cause (if you’re a Calvinist) or allow (if you’re an Arminian) billions of people to suffer consciously forever??” It just didn’t seem to make sense to me. So I decided to use that topic as an issue for a research paper and what I discovered was absolutely shocking to me! During the first five centuries of the Christian Church the dominant view was that God was ultimately going to restore all of creation.

Eric: Now, I’d never even heard that until I read your book!

George: There were basically six centers of Christianity back then: two of them (Alexandria and Caesarea) followed the teachings of Origen and they favored Ultimate Restoration; two of them (Antioch and Edessa) followed the teachings of Theodore of Mopsuestia—who most people have never heard of.

Eric: Gesundheit.

George: Thank you very much. One (which was Asia Minor) followed Irenaeus and he believed in Annihilation, and then only one (northern Africa) followed the teachings of Tertullian and Augustine.

So the dominant view was really that God is going to ultimately restore all creation.

Eric: So Tertullian and Augustine believed in conscious eternal punishment?

George: That is correct.

Eric: Okay, so they did but Irenaeus did not.

George: That is correct.

Eric: And Origen did not.

George: That is correct.

Eric: Okay.

George: Nor did Gregory of Nyssa. Gregory of Nyssa was a major person. In fact, when the Nicene Creed was finalized, he actually added the phrase, “I believe in the life of the age to come” to the Nicene Creed. And he was probably the strongest supporter of Ultimate Restoration of any of the Early Church Fathers.

Well I wrote a paper (got an a-minus in the paper) in my seminary. I kept it as a private hope for a long time because nobody thought this is gonna work. And then in 2007 decided to look a little more carefully into the issue. I knew at some point that I’d have to do that and, as I did, I ended up writing the book. And it was just exciting to me because I had a look into all those issues. What about the the phrase of Jesus where he says to Judas that, “it would be better if you had never been born”? I mean how’s that fit into this whole idea of Ultimate Restoration? How about repentance is impossible? Or in Hebrews, “it’s impossible for someone who has once known God to then be returned.” So I had to deal with all those various issues.

Eric: So these are scriptures that people who don’t believe in your view would use to say, “how can you possibly get around the scripture?” and since you believe in the inerrancy of Scripture, you had to deal with that.

George: That’s correct. And I became convinced that scripture actually teaches that God is ultimately going to restore all of creation. That was what was an amazing thing to me—that God is not this weak individual. If you’re an Arminian, God is weak—he wishes that he could save everybody but, “son of a gun, I just can’t!”—or he is cruel, if you’re a Calvinist, it’s because God could have saved all but he chose only to save some.

So I thought, I don’t see God as being cruel, I don’t see him as being weak. I see him as being all-powerful, all-loving, all-wise. Why could he not accomplish what he set out to do?

Eric: Ok, now the people who take the Armenian or the Calvinist view, they would never say he’s weak and they would never say he’s cruel. Just to be clear, they would put it differently but I think your average person thinks that and says, “I don’t get this.”

If this is true, why have I never heard about it?

Below is my transcript of this interview excerpt:

Eric Metaxas: Hey there folks, it’s The Eric Metaxas Show. This is “Hell Week” on the Eric Metaxas show. This is my second show with my old friend George Sarris—fellow Greek, fellow born again Jesus freak who believes in the inerrancy of the Bible. George welcome to the program.

George Sarris: Thank you very much.

Eric: Your book, as we said earlier, is titled Heaven’s Doors, and you said in a last program that most Christians believed the view that you believe, for the first five hundred years of the Church. So what happened so that we have this current view that hell is a place of conscious, eternal, never-ending punishment?

George: That’s a good question. The simple answer is that politics entered the picture. You’ve got to remember the first three centuries of the church, Christians were persecuted. So if you’re going to be a Christian, you had to be pretty serious about your faith. Then Constantine made Christianity the preferred religion of the Empire, and from that point on, what you had are people that get into positions of leadership who have mixed motives: some of them are sincere, for sure, some of them are not quite as sincere.

You come to the 6th century with a man by the name of Justinian the first. Justinian’s was the Roman Emperor. He wanted to restore the glory of the Roman Empire and he felt that it was important to have no resistance to what he believed, and so therefore he wanted power. And Eric, in all seriousness, if you have the power to kill somebody on this earth, and to torture them, and do all kinds of mean things to them, that’s a great amount of power. But if you not only have power to do that on earth but you also have the power to tell them if they will be suffering, like that, consciously forever, that is phenomenal power!

As the church moved into the Middle Ages in the West (not so much in the East, by the way. The East never lost view of this particular understanding of Scripture) you have the Inquisition. If people didn’t believe what you believed, you tortured them and then some of them were put to death. But if you want to keep power, that’s a great way to keep power.

Eric: I want to give my audience a sense of what you’ve been through, just by bringing up this this topic. Since I know you, I got to hear about this, and you write about it in the book. What happened?

George: Yeah, it was kind of intense there for a while. When Rob Bell came out with his book in 2011, I’d been working on [my book] for a while (I’d actually completed an initial draft) but it was an issue nobody even thought about, nobody even talked about. He brought it into the forefront. I was working with a Christian ministry (had been working with them for 10 years) and I felt, well, I’d better let the leadership of the ministry know what I’m thinking. I was starting to write a couple of blog articles to try to correct misinformation so I sent the the manuscript out to the man in charge of the ministry and within three days I was terminated because of “doctrinal aberrations”.

My church—my wife and I (and our family) had been actively involved in our church for 20 years—when a person within the church wrote to the elders, saying, “How can George Sarris continue to be a member of this church when he obviously doesn’t believe the statement of faith?” And so one of the elders took me out and we talked for a while and decided that it would be best for my wife and I to leave that church.

George Sarris
George Sarris (Photo: heavensdoors.net)

I was part of a Bible study—a couples Bible study with my wife and I—when they found out what I believe they asked us not to return. We were involved in a ministry to international students at the University of Bridgeport, when I explained to the person in charge that this is what I thought, I was asked not to return again.

I have a pastor friend of mine in the Denver area who had been, I think, pastor of one of the largest churches in his denomination, and he made people aware that he believed that God was good and he was going to ultimately restore all. He was brought up on charges, tried, and defrocked. One of the biggest questions that comes up is, “George, if this is true, why have I never heard that before?”

Eric: Yeah.

George: My answer is intimidation led to fear, which resulted in ignorance in future generations.

Eric: Okay, we’re out of time. We’re going to be right back talking to George Sarris about Heaven’s Doors and hell.

Does the Bible support Christian Universalism?

Below is my transcript of this interview excerpt:

Eric Metaxas: Hey there folks, it’s The Eric Metaxas Show. I’m talking to George Sarris. His book is Heaven’s doors: wider than you ever believed! George you said you have some scriptures you wanted to share?

George Sarris: Yeah, I think that it’s important because most people will go to certain scriptures that talk about Hell and they think that it means never ending—when it doesn’t—but they miss a lot of descriptions that are actually in favor of, or at least speak to, the fact that God is going to ultimately restore. For example:

Christ is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.

1 John 2:2

Christ came to seek and save what was lost—did he succeed or did he fail?

For as in Adam all die so in Christ all will be made alive.

1 Corinthians 15:22

For God has bound all men [translated “everyone” in NIV, NLT, JUB, et al.] over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.

Romans 11:32

And a very well known one:

at the name of Jesus every knee will bow—in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth—and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Philippians 2:9-11

The word that is used there for “confessed”, by the way, means positive confession, it means voluntary confession.

Eric: Okay, that’s the key right there because that’s the first thing comes into my mind and I know there a lot of listeners saying, “wait a second, the demons will confess this” but you’re saying there’s a different word for confess?

George: That is correct. It’s a word that means praise and plus the fact that God doesn’t like hypocrites. He doesn’t like people that stand up in the inside while bowing down on the outside. What he wants is true confession—he doesn’t want somebody [pretending]. It would be to God’s shame to say that he’s like the Roman emperors who forced people to say, “Yes, God you are wonderful. I love you.” It’s like a mechanical computer, it’s not a person.

this is good and pleases God our Savior who wants all men [translated “everyone” in HCSB, GNT, NRSV, et al.] to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus who gave himself as a ransom for all men.

1 Timothy 2:3-6

Eric: But wouldn’t people say that’s as a potential ransom? In other words, that he gives himself but he doesn’t force us to accept him?

George: Right, except that it doesn’t say, “a potential ransom”, it says “a ransom for all men”. Now that’s not applied until it’s accepted—that’s understood. By the way, the only thing I’m really saying that’s different than what most Christians believe, is that God doesn’t stop being God. He doesn’t stop his grace at the moment of death. That’s the bottom line. Why would God not continue into the age, ages, because scripture talks about ages plural.

Eric: In our last program you quoted the verse from Hebrews, “It’s appointed once for man to die, then the judgment.”

George: Right.

Eric: I’ve heard that quoted over and over, and people treat it as though that settles the issue. So why do you say that that scripture doesn’t settle the issue?

George: Because judgment doesn’t mean that you’re going to be eternally punished forever. It doesn’t say anything about Hell being forever. It just means that, yes, God makes a judgment, “You’re not allowed to come into my presence right now because you have not accepted the grace that I’ve given through my son Jesus Christ. Therefore you have to go to hell to experience increasingly the consequences of your actions.” But it doesn’t say that he’s going to stop being gracious to them when they’re in hell. There’s nothing in scripture that talks about that being the case.

By the way, you mentioned earlier (in fact one of the big issues that always comes up), “Well, God is also just. He’s not just loving, he’s also just.” Well what that does is bring up a bigger problem, that is, is God conflicted internally? Does he have a problem—that his justice and his love are kind of warring at each other throughout eternity? No! His love (working through justice) or his justice (working through love) are what caused Christ to die on the cross for our sins. That’s why he accomplished his purposes. God is loving and he’s just, and he’s all-powerful and he’s all wise, and he does what he wants to do and that has been revealed. What he wants to do is to save everyone. “It is God’s desire that all should be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” and he’s able to accomplish it.


The next post asks, “If this is true, why have I never heard about it?”

 Heaven's Doors: Wider than you ever believed!