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.

Review of Gooder’s “Heaven”

I enjoyed reading Heaven by Paula Gooder. It was obviously very well researched, yet still entirely accessible to an amateur theologian like me. In the introduction she notes that most people, even non-believers, have an opinion about heaven but unfortunately it is rarely discussed in depth—hence this book. The book taught me new things and helped bring together, and process, the scattered ideas and opinions that I’d picked up over the years, from Sunday School, artwork, pop culture, and general Bible reading.

[Heaven] lifts our vision from the mundane realities of our everyday lives and reminds us that beyond the daily grind of our existence there is another, unseen reality. … A reality that is as real – if not more so – than our everyday lives. Heaven suggests an answer to the familiar human feeling that there must be more than this, and prompts us to wonder whether there is indeed more in heaven and earth than can be dreamt of in all our philosophies.

Paula Gooder, Heaven, p. x

The book lifted my spirits and made me appreciate how heaven is closer and more relevant to everyday life than I’d realised.

Believing in heaven should mean that we carry with us a vision of the world as God intended it to be and strive with everything that we have to bring about that kind of world in the place where we live and work.

As a result, rather than feeling esoteric and irrelevant, believing in heaven becomes a vital part of the way in which we live out our lives. It challenges us to see … heaven and earth exist side by side … God can and does intervene and … God’s justice and love finds its proper place in earth as in heaven.

Paula Gooder, Heaven, p. 102-103

I love how Revelation 21 describes heaven and earth becoming one in the end—a process we anticipate and participate in now—”Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”.

[The] biblical language of heaven challenges us into an act of poetic imagination which takes seriously the reality of God … ruled by love, compassion, mercy, justice and righteousness.

A good theology of heaven challenges us to re-imagine who we are and what the world might be.

Paula Gooder, Heaven, p. 106

Reflecting on Revelation 4-5, Gooder points out that when we worship God, we are united with the hosts of angels, and all those who have gone before us, worshipping God!

Worship, at least occasionally, should be one of those times when heaven opens and we see that our words are not ours alone, but are joined together with heaven’s eternal worship before God’s throne.

Paula Gooder, Heaven, p. 67

Those are just a few of the gems in the book. It also covers Hebrew cosmology, the descriptions of God’s throne and court, cherubim, seraphim, angels, archangels, fallen angels, visions, revelation, ascent into heaven, life, death, intermediate states (Sheol, Paradise, etc.), and resurrection! However, for the sake of space, I won’t cover those topics but just the three pages that discuss hell.

A brief excursus on hell

This book is about heaven and not about hell, but so many people are interested in hell (in the idea, not going there, that is!) that it is worth a brief note here. By and large there is little evidence in the Bible for the full-blown doctrine of hell that we find in later texts. However, as with so much we have explored in this book, there are hints and seeds of ideas that make it easy to see how the fuller idea grew up.

Paula Gooder, Heaven, p. 94

She notes five strands:

1. Sheol/Hades

Gooder explains that, in biblical times, Sheol was where everyone went when they died. Although it isn’t described as a place of punishment, she suggests that there is the idea of being “cut off from God’s presence”. I’d want to push back a bit with verses like:

If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!

Psalm 139:8, ESV

2. Punishment by God for sins committed

Gooder rightly notes that throughout the Bible there are examples of people sinning and God responding with punishment. She goes as far as saying Daniel 12:1-3 introduces the concept of “eternal punishment”. I don’t think aionios (or olam) in Daniel 12:2 should be translated as “eternal” for the reasons I discussed in Is Aionios Eternal? Rather, I believe God’s correction of sinners—in the age to come—will only continue until they’re saved.

3. Gehenna

Gooder gives a good, albeit short, explanation of Gehenna (an actual, physical valley just outside Jerusalem) and it’s connection to shameful child sacrifices to Molech in the OT.

The question is whether or not the New Testament ever tips into understanding Gehenna as a place of eternal destruction. Wright argues clearly that Jesus’ warnings about what would happen in Gehenna were not, as a rule, about the next life but about this life [now] … Others would see Gehenna language as being very close to language about a future fate for the wicked. On balance I would take the second view, as texts like ‘do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell [gehenna]’ (Matt. 10.28) seem to have a ring of eternal punishment about them and to have transformed Gehenna from ‘just’ a physical place into the manifestation of a future potential fate after death.

Paula Gooder, Heaven, p. 95

I like how Gooder often gives an alternative view, such as Wright’s, before her own. In this case, I suspect Jesus was both warning of the consequences of sin on earth (e.g. destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD) and the consequences in the age to come.

The context of Matthew 10:28 is Jesus commissioning His disciples and letting them know they will face persecution. However, God will be with them (v20), will help them (v19), knows them intimately (v30), cares for them even more than sparrows (v31), and will save them in the end (v22). Therefore, they don’t need to be afraid of people (v26, 28) and instead acknowledge Jesus before all (v32). Interpreting v28 as threatening the disciples suddenly with eternal punishment is surely at odds with His love for them expressed in the surrounding verses-? Keeping in mind that:

There is no fear in love [dread does not exist], but full-grown (complete, perfect) love turns fear out of doors and expels every trace of terror! For fear brings with it the thought of punishment, and [so] he who is afraid has not reached the full maturity of love [is not yet grown into love’s complete perfection].

1John 4:18, AMPC

4. Lake of fire

Gooder gives a brief overview of the lake of fire image mentioned in Revelation and how it is linked to the idea of the second death.

5. Accounts of tours of hell

A final element, found more often outside the Bible, is the growth of accounts of tours of hell which can be found in Jewish and Christian texts from the second century onwards. Both Himmelfarb and Bauckham see these as growing naturally out of the heavenly ascent texts that we explored in the previous chapter, since a number (including 1 Enoch 22) seem to include the place where the souls of the wicked are held prior to resurrection.

Paula Gooder, Heaven, p. 95-96

I haven’t considered these much before so I’d want to read examples before commenting.

Gooder concludes the excursus with a helpful point to remember:

The New Testament seems to come from a time when ideas about a future punishment were shifting and changing rapidly; it certainly contains no fully formed, elaborate view of hell such as we find in later texts. But the Bible – and the New Testament in particular – does contain concepts which eventually grew into a more elaborate view.

Paula Gooder, Heaven, p. 96

I’m glad I had the opportunity to read Heaven and I suspect I’ll refer to it when the topic arises. I recommend the book to anyone interested in the Judeo-Christian view of heaven.

"Heaven" by Paula Gooder

Should We Fear God?―Conclusion of Burk’s Case

Denny Burk wrote the biblical and theological case for Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT) in Four Views on Hell: Second Edition. In this post I’ll finish engaging with his chapter.

There are numerous objections to the traditional doctrine of hell

Denny Burk, page 42

Perhaps that’s because the “traditional doctrine” isn’t what Scripture presents…

The weight of the scriptural arguments … should be enough to settle the issue even if our lingering objections are never fully resolved in this life.

Denny Burk, page 42

I think that’s cheeky given that the debate about Hell has been ongoing since the Early Church. Hopefully, this blog series has at least shown the scriptural arguments for ECT aren’t strong enough to settle the issue.

Augustine once reproved those who act as “if the conjectures of men are to weigh more than the word of God.” He thunders, “They who desire to be rid of eternal punishment ought to abstain from arguing against God.”

Denny Burk, page 42

I agree we don’t want to argue with God, but surely any non-Augustinian Christian could equally say Augustine is putting his conjectures above God’s word and arguing against God?

Fear
Fear (D Sharon Pruitt)

Next Burk says we should consider the implications of ECT, and gives two:

First, the biblical doctrine of hell teaches us whom to fear. God is not only the treasure of heaven. He is also the terror of hell. … If you have been frightened of hell because you are frightened of the devil, you are not fearing the right person. The Lord Jesus himself teaches us this,

“Do not fear those who kill the body, but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28).

Who destroys soul and body in hell? Is it the devil? Of course not. The devil himself is being punished there. Who is the one destroying soul and body in hell forever? God “afflicts” the wicked in hell, and the Lord Jesus deals out “retribution” to his enemies (2 Thess. 1:6-8). Going to hell means being left in the presence of God’s wrath forever (Rom. 2:5-8). Hell is scary because

“it is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31).

Denny Burk, page 42-43

I find the direction Burk goes here disturbing. Matthew says God is “able” to destroy, not that God ever does, and it’s in the immediate context of encouraging the disciples, the opposite of inducing fear (v22 “persevere, endure, saved”, v23 God knows you are being persecuted, v24-25 you are following in Jesus’ footsteps, v26-27 “don’t be afraid” God will bring justice, v28 “Don’t fear”, v29-30 God cares for you even more than sparrows).

Romans 2:5-8 talks about wrath but it doesn’t say it’s forever.

Jesus spoke with authority, performed miracles, and garnered a lot of respect, however I don’t think His relationships were based on fear. Likewise, God frequently describes Himself as “Abba Father”. Awe, respect, reverence, obedience, and the apprehension we have before undergoing surgery (Heb 10:31), but the type of fear we have for the devil―fear of his hatred and desire to poison, torment, and destroy―surely isn’t healthy between a parent and child? We are told almost 150 times in the Bible not to fear. For example:

There is no fear in love [dread does not exist], but full-grown (complete, perfect) love turns fear out of doors and expels every trace of terror! For fear brings with it the thought of punishment, and [so] he who is afraid has not reached the full maturity of love [is not yet grown into love’s complete perfection].

1John 4:18, AMPC

Moving on.

Second, the biblical doctrine of hell compels believers to see the urgency of evangelism. Have you considered the great mercy of God toward you in Christ? Have you begun to fathom what he rescued you from through Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross? If his mercy was big enough and wide enough to include you, is it not sufficient for your neighbor as well? Shouldn’t the terrors of the damned move you to share the mercy of God with those who have not experienced it while there’s still time? Perhaps Spurgeon has said it best:

Oh, my brothers and sisters in Christ, if sinners will be damned, at least let them leap to hell over our bodies; and if they will perish, let them perish with our arms about their knees, imploring them to stay, and not madly to destroy themselves 1 . If hell must be filled, at least let it be filled in the teeth of our exertions, and let not one go there unwarned and unprayed for.

Denny Burk, page 43

I’ve been more motivated to evangelise since becoming an Evangelical Universalist for lots of reasons, one of which is that it now feels less hopeless, that even when people I evangelise die in apparent non-belief, I know that God can still use whatever small word or kindness I’ve given them. Also most non-universalistic forms of Christianity are overwhelmingly depressing, when you really consider the billions of our brothers and sisters ending up utterly ruined and wasted, either by torment or annihilation.

Having said that, I can almost agree with Burk if I consider hell from my reformed perspective―a place that God uses for reforming, correcting, pruning, purging, surgery, etc. I think there is urgency, that living in bondage to sin is destructive, and that the addictions and idols of this life don’t truly satisfy. I also think it’s good to consider the great, wide mercy of God and Christ’s amazing sacrifice―doing so was one of the reasons I left Burk’s view.

I like the quote of Spurgeon. It seems to be a reflection on:

The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

2 Peter 3:9, NIV

However, this raises the question, given God loves people even more than Spurgeon, why didn’t we see Jesus 2 with “arms about their knees, imploring them to stay”? I think the most plausible answer is that He knew their rebellion was only the first chapter in their story―that in the end, all shall be well.


1. Although Burk’s ECT emphasises God afflicting people (see earlier quote that starts with ‘First’), rather than people ‘destroying themselves’.
2. Nor the Prodigal Son’s father.