Sarris & Rankin Debate—Will Hell Eventually Be Abolished? part 1

Below is my transcript of George Sarris‘ 15-minute presentation in the above video of the Mars Hill Forum debate titled, “Will Hell Eventually Be Abolished?”


Host: The format for tonight’s forum is each of the speakers will present for 15 minutes, then they’ll have a discussion between two of them for about 20, we’ll take an offering at that point and after that, we’ll have Q&A for half hour or so. So that’s the form and we’re going to start with George Sarris.

George Sarris: I want to start by asking you three questions.

First question is: how much are you worth? And I don’t mean that in a financial sense like how much is your net worth, I mean how much are you worth as a person? How much are you worth to those who love you? How much are you worth to God who created you?

Second question is: I want you to think of some people that you know and love, how much are they worth? Again not in a financial sense but how much are they worth as a person? How much are they worth to those who love them and how much are they worth to God who created them?

The third question: I want you to think of some people you don’t like, or some people that may have hurt you, or whose lifestyles you don’t approve of. How much are they worth? Again how much are they worth—maybe not to you but to others who love them and everyone is loved by someone—how much are they worth to God who created them?

The basic message of my book is that in God’s eyes you and every one of them is priceless. The question John and I are discussing tonight is “Will hell eventually be abolished?” So it would seem appropriate to begin by asking what is hell? That word has been defined in different ways down through the centuries: from a place of literal fire; to a kingdom of darkness ruled by the devil and his demons; to what is the most common definition today: separation from God.

But for most people holding to the traditional view of Hell, two components are primary: First, hell is a place or condition of conscious misery and second that misery will never ever, ever, ever, ever end! I said that a little dramatically because in my experience most people—Christians today—have never really thought through the implications of what they say they believe. Punishment for sin is not the issue. We see sin punished all the time in this life and God has made it clear that there is punishment in the age (or ages) to come. But punishment that never ends is a completely different matter. It brings to mind cruel tyrants who torture their subjects who don’t do their bidding. Endless conscious misery is the most horrific thing you can possibly imagine and if you really believed it was true, you would be weeping almost every moment of every day over the fate of those who are lost and especially those you know personally.

I wrote my book to show that that understanding of Hell was not the teaching of the early Church, it is not the teaching of the Bible, and is contrary to what the scriptures reveal about the nature and character of God. What the early Church believed is important because they were closest to Jesus and the Apostles, they read the New Testament in their native tongue, they had the greatest impact on the surrounding culture of any time in history, and they established the faith that we now profess. They were the ones who wrote the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed to explain clearly what true Christians believed. They were the ones who formulated the doctrines of the divinity of Christ and the Trinity. And they were the ones who set up or who put together the 27 books that we call the New Testament. During the first 500 years after Christ, the dominant view within the leadership and laity of the church was that God will ultimately restore all of his creation.

Clement of Alexandria was one—born around AD 150. For him to believe that God was unable to save all was unthinkable because that would mean God is weak. To believe that God is unwilling was also unthinkable because that would mean that God is not good. For Clement, God is the Lord of the universe who will ultimately bring about the salvation of the universe.

Another leader in the early Church was Gregory of Nyssa. Gregory added the phrase, “I believe in the life of the world to come”, to the Nicene Creed, and is still revered as one of the greatest of the early Church fathers. Gregory explained that in due course evil will pass away into non-existence, it will disappear utterly from the realm of existence. Divine and uncompounded goodness will encompass within itself every rational creature—no single being created by God will fail to achieve the kingdom of God.

Even Saint Augustine—the most influential supporter of endless punishment in the early Church—acknowledged that in his day some, indeed “very many”, deplore the notion of the eternal punishment of the damned and their interminable and perpetual misery. Conscious suffering that never ends was not the teaching of the early Church.

And it’s also not the teaching of Scripture, even though most people today think it is. Four different words in the Bible have been translated to the English word “hell”: Sheol, Hades, Gehenna, and Tartarus.

Gehenna is the one most commonly translated that way in modern versions. Gehenna was well known during the time of Jesus as a specific location near Jerusalem that had been associated with child sacrifice in the past and was then most likely used as the common dump of the city. It was a place people could actually visit. And it spoke to Jesus and his listeners of repulsion, shame, and horrible death—instead of experiencing honor like their ancestors whose bodies were treated reverently when they died, those cast into Gehenna would experience the immense dishonor associated with those whose bodies had been thrown out into a dump to become an object of scorn for the masses. In an honor-shame culture like that in the ancient, and even modern Near East, that would be a fate worse than death. Gehenna didn’t mean punishment beyond the grave—endless punishment—in the Old Testament, during the time of Jesus, it didn’t mean that in the literature outside of the Bible, and it didn’t mean that for Jesus and the Apostles in the New Testament.

The passage most often used as the clearest statement in the entire Bible that punishment in hell is endless is Matthew 25:46. In that verse, Jesus himself says that the wicked will go away to “eternal punishment” but the righteous to “eternal life”.

The first thing to point out in that passage is that the word translated “eternal”, doesn’t mean “never-ending”. It actually means “the end is not known”. It refers to a period of time longer or shorter, past or future, the boundaries of which are concealed, obscure, unseen, or unknown. For example, numerous times the Septuagint—the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament that Jesus and the Apostles used—the same adjective in this verse, “eternal”, is used to describe the statutes governing the sacrifices and offerings made by the priests. They were said to be “eternal statutes” but they didn’t last forever, and were never intended to last forever. The Old Testament sacrificial system was designed to be replaced one day by the new covenant in Christ. In Micah chapter 4 verse 5 (and 17 other places in the Septuagint), the phrase “forever and ever” literally means “to the age and beyond”.

The second thing to note is that when the same adjective is used twice in the same sentence it does not necessarily mean the same thing each time. For example, if an NBA basketball player we’re standing in front of one World Trade Center in New York City, you could honestly say, “a tall man is standing in front of a tall building,” but no one would think you thought that the man in the building were the same size! The adjective tall derives its meaning from what it refers to. In the first instance to a man, in the second to a building. In Matthew 25:46, the adjective that Jesus used [aionios] “eternal” refers to two completely different things: life and punishment. Eternal life is the divine life that comes from God—that life never ends. Eternal punishment is the divine punishment that comes from his hand—the duration of that divine punishment may certainly be temporary, lasting as long as it’s necessary until it accomplishes its purpose. The verse should be translated, “the wicked shall go away to the punishment in the age to come and the righteous to the life in the age to come”.

So what does the Bible actually teach about the salvation of mankind? We’ve been so accustomed to thinking that only a few will ultimately be saved that we often completely overlook the message that is at the heart of Christianity. Jesus Christ is the savior of the world not just the savior of part of the world. The angel who appeared to the shepherds on the night of Jesus birth did not say, “I bring you good news of great joy there will be for some of the people,” he just said, “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” When speaking to the crowd after his triumphal entry, Jesus said, “when I am lifted up from the earth will draw all people to myself.” In Romans, Paul said, “as in Adam all die so in Christ all will be made alive.” The Apostle John told his readers that, “Christ is the atoning sacrifice for our sins and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” The message at the heart of Christianity is that Jesus Christ came to redeem all mankind. Endless conscious suffering in Hell was not the teaching of the early Church, it’s not the teaching of Scripture, and it’s also contrary to what scripture reveals about the nature and character of God.

It’s not uncommon to see a bumper sticker on a car or graffiti on a wall that says, “God loves you”. They’re so common that it’s almost become a cliche but is it true? Does God really love you? The religious leaders of Jesus day didn’t think so. They thought God only loved people like them. So Jesus told them three parables to show them God’s heart. The Good Shepherd is not satisfied with the restoration of 99 percent of what is his, he seeks until he finds the one lost sheep. The woman with ten silver coins is not satisfied with 90 percent of her wealth, she searches until she finds the lost coin. The prodigal son’s father waited until his son returned after completely messing up his life. He welcomed him joyfully and his son was restored. “God is not willing that any should perish but desires that all will come to the knowledge of the truth.”

Scripture says there is no wisdom, no insight, no plan that can succeed against the Lord. No plan of his can be thwarted—nothing is impossible with God. What Scripture reveals about God that his love is unconditional, his power is irresistible, and he never gives up.

Let me close by making a few observations about free will, since that’s a major focus of John’s position. Only God has absolute free will, only he is free to accomplish all that he desires. He gives each person some free will but always within limits and in the context of his absolute free will. For example, none of us was given the freedom to choose when we were born, where we were born, who our parents would be, what our physical stature or mental capacities would be, whether we’re male or female, or even when and how we will die. We have no control over many of the factors that directly impact the situation and decisions that we make every day. Joseph didn’t choose to be made second-in-command in Egypt, God arranged the circumstances for that to happen. Jonah ran away from God but God’s will prevailed and Jonah found himself in Nineveh proclaiming the message that God had given him. Scripture is clear when it says, “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, he directs it like a watercourse wherever he wishes. The mind of man plans his way but the Lord directs his steps. Many are the plans in a person’s heart but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.” God is not helpless in the face of mankind’s free will. God specifically said that “he desires that all men be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.” God specifically said that “one day every knee will bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue will freely and joyfully confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.” Will hell eventually be abolished? Yes, it will. When all is said and done, all those who were created by God will walk through Heaven’s doors and “God will be all in all” after “the restoration of all things” the final word will once again be, “God saw all that he had made and it was very good!”

Thank you.


God willing, I’ll get an opportunity to transcribe the rest of the debate over the next week or so…

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.

Engaging Orr-Ewing: How Could a Holy/Loving God Send People to Hell?

Amy Orr-Ewing
Amy Orr-Ewing

Amy Orr-Ewing, in her article How Could a Holy/Loving God Send People to Hell?, begins by pointing out that many people are shocked that anyone still believes in hell. Despite that, she says there are serious questions we need to consider:

Is it part of the profile of a loving God to punish people? How could that be fair?

To answer these questions, Orr-Ewing rightly notes that:

Most people want to live in a society where administrators operate the legal system justly and fairly. When we are victims of a crime, we long for justice. Our loved ones want justice on our behalf if they care for us.

Similarly, when our loved ones are victims of crime, we cry out for justice for them and Orr-Ewing shares an example from her own life. Reflecting on this, she makes a profound statement:

Love and justice are inseparable. To ignore evil or injustice would not be loving, so a loving God must also be a just God.

Yes, but doesn’t this also imply that a just God must also be a loving God—that His justice includes the ultimate good of the ones being judged?

“The problem of evil is the problem of love.” If love is to exist, we must freely give and receive it, or else it is not love. If this freedom is possible, withholding love is also possible. Selfishness, violence, and injustice are the result of the abuse of love’s freedom.

I think this is a strong argument.

Why must God’s judgment involve retribution and punishment in hell? Is this not outmoded and vindictive?

I think some theologians and preachers sadly do express a retributive punishment that is vindictive. However, I think retributive punishment can be non-vindictive when the punishment is done for the ultimate good of both the victim and perpetrator—namely their reconciliation.

Retribution is an important factor because, in a real sense, it connects the punishment with the sin. It means that punishment is not arbitrary or random, but rational and consequential.

I’d also add, that retribution should be purposeful—aiming to achieve something worthwhile.

If one of my boys hits his brother over the head and then bites his leg, he knows I will remove him from the room for time out. He endures this separation for a minute or so because he has acted aggressively. Even as a toddler he understands that his actions lead to punishment.

While this example shows that wrongdoing rightly has consequences, it’s already more developed than a simplistic “eye for eye” retribution. I suspect that Orr-Ewing would also encourage (or even insist upon) an apology from the offending toddler. Because her goal is not just to punish the toddler but to heal the relationship between the siblings.

Wrongdoing must be recognized as such both by the perpetrator and the world around us. This is the function of punishment.

I think punishment can be involved in achieving genuine comprehension (see Engaging Shumack: justice and the death penalty).

Hell is the ultimate punishment. It is the destination of those who refuse to recognize their own sin for what it is. Their assertion of the self over others and God, defies divine justice. Hell is the ultimate consequence of egotism.

I think Hell is an inevitable—very sobering—consequence and punishment for the egotism Orr-Ewing describes. At the same time, I don’t think it’s “ultimate” because God doesn’t allow the evil of egotism to continue unaddressed forever. Instead God hides everyone (including Himself) from the egotistic person (“Outer Darkness”), which shatters their delusion of superiority and independence.

The idea of eternal suffering as a result of temporal sinning seems disproportionate if people do not fully appreciate the seriousness of sin. But a biblical view of sin positions it as serious. The worth of people, created as we are in the divine image and given the capacity and opportunity to make moral choices, shows how serious it is to abuse this human dignity by sinning. This applies to one’s own life, to others, and ultimately, to defying the Maker himself. We underscore further the seriousness of sin in the Christian worldview when we reflect on the cost Jesus paid to deal with it.

I think sin is so serious that Jesus died for everyone so that sin won’t eternally infect His creation, particularly all His immeasurably valuable and irreplaceable image bearers!

Orr-Ewing’s appeal to free will being the cause of evil, including people egotistically refusing God, suggests she would agree with C. S. Lewis’ statement, that “The doors of hell are locked on the inside” (The Problem of Pain, 130). However, his “Checkmate” chapter (below) reveals there is much more to the story.

Title titled
C. S. Lewis, Surprised By Joy, 247

He describes his own conversion, which demonstrates that even when people make free moves, God will always checkmate them in the end.

I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England … a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape. The words compelle intrare, compel them to come in, have been so abused by wicked men that we shudder at them; but, properly understood [my emphasis], they plumb the depth of the Divine mercy. … His compulsion is our liberation.

C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 228–29

Looking back he realised that because he chose God it was free choice—an overwhelmingly superior choice. Had he rejected God, it would’ve have been because he was enslaved to a sick, sinful delusion.

… before God closed in on me, I was in fact offered what now appears a moment of wholly free choice. I say, ‘I chose,’ yet it did not really seem possible to do the opposite. … You could argue that I was not a free agent, but I am more inclined to think that this came nearer to being a perfectly free act than most that I have ever done. Necessity may not be the opposite of freedom…

C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 224

Imagine a firefighter at the top of a ladder imploring someone to escape the flames. Surely if the person “chose” not to come, they’d be considered insane—not pejoratively but literally unable to make a rational free choice? Because of this, the firefighter may need to drag them to safety so that they can come to their senses. Likewise, our loving Father doesn’t abandon us to our own misguided “choices” but instead shatters our delusions, frees us from our enslaving sin, and heals our minds. In doing so, God comes inside, lifts us up so together we can unlock the door. (I highly recommend reading the article Free-will Theodicies of Hell, where Thomas Talbott fleshes this out).

Jesus is a king because his business is to bear witness to the truth. What truth? All truth; all verity of relation throughout the universe—first of all, that his father is good, perfectly good; and that the crown and joy of life is to desire and do the will of the eternal source of will, and of all life. He deals thus the death-blow to the power of hell. For the one principle of Hell is “I am my own…

George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons—Kingship (emphasis mine)

Lastly, consider the context of Lewis’ MacDonald quote at the start of his “Checkmate” chapter. Before MacDonald wrote, “… the one principle of Hell is ‘I am my own'”, he explained that Jesus reveals all truth universally, including the truth that the glorious goal (“the crown”) of all life is to choose (“desire and do”) the will of God, thus defeating hell—all the deluded, sinful, egotistic pride.

John Dickson & Simon Smart discuss hell

Below is my transcript of the second half of the Life & Faith hell series.


Simon: Hi, it’s great to have your company. You’re listening to Life & Faith from the Centre for Public Christianity. My name’s Simon Smart. In recent weeks we’ve been talking about a rather unpopular subject—I have to say—the judgment of God and particularly the notion of hell. We discussed a documentary out of North America called Hellbound?, which has been getting a lot of attention. The film picks up this question of hell and discusses the fact that this is not only a topic that people avoid thinking about and talking about these days but there’s a growth within the Christian Church of a view that would question the traditional view of hell as eternal punishment.

Now the documentary Hellbound? really comes down at the end on this idea of the victory of God’s love that will overcome whatever sin and hardness of heart that exists towards God and that because this, eventually, all people will find their way towards a loving relationship with God in eternity. This is a very big, a very serious, and it seems to us, an important question. So we want to spend some more time thinking about that and to do that we’re joined by my colleague—who hasn’t been in the Life & Faith chair for a while—Dr. John Dickson, biblical historian, ancient historian. Good to have you in, John.

John: Thanks but I’m not sure this is the best topic to get me in on but thanks for the favor.

Simon: It’s a hospital pass possibly. Now let’s get straight into it John. Do you believe there is a hell and if so why?

John: Well, yes and no. I don’t believe in the hell most people think of when they use the word “hell” but I do believe in the hell that I’m pretty sure Jesus himself believed in and taught about. So it’s a mixed situation and part of the problem is that people have picked up their ideas of hell, not from Jesus and that tradition but from pop culture—from Simpsons cartoons where the Simpsons go to hell—and criticisms. You know critics caricature the idea of hell and we go, “Oh man, I’m not sure I believe in this anymore”, and we sort of diminish the whole word.

Simon: Yeah, there’s been a tradition of this from Dante’s Inferno, Michelangelo’s Last Judgment—a big painting in Rome—and these are the sorts of images you’re talking about in a sense—that have educated the culture in their ideas of hell?

Last Judgement (Michelangelo).jpg

John: Yeah, the difference is when Dante wrote about hell and the classical painters depicted it, they were actually trying to make serious points in metaphorical language and in the imagery of painting but they were trying to convince us how serious it was. The difference now is hell is mocked and joked about so that, you know, the Simpsons can find the devil in hell and all this. And there can be skits about it and and it’s laughable. So both images are helpful actually but now we face the problem that hell is a thing to be mocked, not a thing to be terrified of.

Simon: The concept of God’s judgment and hell are increasingly unpopular these days it would seem. Do you think this is true among Christians, as well as those outside of the Church?

John: I think so, and for similar reasons. When people criticize the judging God, I think Christians feel really bad and so question whether they believe in the judging God. So they’re definitely Christians who are upset about this or nervous about the notion of God’s judgment but the problem is, if you keep reading your Bible, Old or New Testament, you’re confronted with the God of judgment. There’s no getting around it. And the Bible actually is quite proud of the God who will right the wrongs of history, which is the main category for judgment language. It isn’t, you know, the school bully language that you hear in the popular media. I mean, we shift the emphasis onto a sort of school bully and we all hate that idea of judgment but if you think of the God of judgment more of like a Justice Commissioner, who’s seen the injustice of the world and is coming to right wrongs, then your thinking about judgment is far more like Jesus thought about it—far more like the Old Testament prophets thought about it.

Simon: Let’s hear what people on the street are talking about when they’re asked about the notion of hell.

Vox pop: I agree, I think, with the highest post of England of the church that recognizes that hell exists within you—throughout your life—and that’s something you struggle with.

Vox pop: I think hell is a man-made concept so I think it plays on the fears that everyone has—it’s part of being human really. And certain religious groups like to play on the fact too because it suits their purposes—they get more followers, it gets them more money, gets them more power.

Vox pop: I think we create that because we need it for our own self belief. Both heaven and hell, to be honest, I think is what we aspire to. I do think there is a higher being out there that looks after us and created us but I reckon once were gone were gone. If we come back maybe our souls come back and are sort of around—one likes to believe that.

Vox pop: I think it’s the man-made thing to create a supernatural kind of police force to bring people in line. I mean it has its place in society. I do believe that’s the social benefit. Whether or not it exists, I can’t prove either way.

Simon: We’re talking today about judgment and the notion of hell on the back of this documentary we’ve been talking about called Hellbound?. John we often hear that the Christian gospel is about good news. What’s the good news when we’re talking about judgment and hell?

John: Well it’s two parts of good news. One part is that God sees the injustice of the world, He hears the oppressed’s cry, for someone to make things right. And he is coming to make things right. This is why the Bible can actually say “hallelujah” for the judgments of God and you certainly see that in the final book of Revelation in the Bible—there’s great praise for the God who finally comes to overthrow those who have oppressed the poor, who have shed blood around the world and so on. So if you think of it like this, that it’s actually a sign of God’s love for the oppressed that he is coming to bring his justice on the oppressor. In a weird way judgment is a great sign of God’s love because it’s that he loved the massacred indigenous people of Tasmania, that he will bring those who perpetrated those judgments to justice and there’s a sense in which love fuels that judgment. So judgment itself is good news. The other part of the equation is…

Simon: You know, when we’re included in that judgment, that’s when we have a slightly different interpretation, right?

John: It is but you’ve gotta start where the Bible starts with this and rather than avoid it because you don’t want to be included in those who are judged. You better just start with what the Bible literally says, that God is coming to overthrow the evildoer, those who trod down others and so on. And go, “Yeah that’s right!” and then start to feel the creeping awkwardness that maybe I’m included. But I was going to say is, the good news of the gospel message is not just that judgment is coming because that’s righting the wrongs of the world but that there is amnesty. God has declared an amnesty so that all who turn to him for forgiveness, will—because of Jesus death—be forgiven. So not only is judgment good news, the good news is that we can be forgiven.

Simon: Now this film doco, Hellbound?, comes down pretty clearly—especially the latter half of it—with this sense that, you know, the God of the Bible is not a God who requires sacrifice but was a God of love and mercy but those two things aren’t necessarily antithetical are they?

John: That’s precisely the problem with this way of thinking. It sets two ideas against each other and just counts on us going, “Oh wow, so it’s either love or judgment. Yeah, I’m going with love!”—who wouldn’t! The problem is the Bible never plays that kind of game. Like I was saying before, it’s precisely God’s love that fuels his judgment against those who oppress those he loves! So love and judgment actually are intimately connected with each other and the Bible will frequently talk about God’s judgment and love. In fact, unless God is both judgment and love, the death of Jesus means nothing because the traditional explanation of Jesus death—from the very beginning—is that he bore judgment because God loves us so much. So I think you lose the heart of the Christian faith, if you can’t hold together these two ideas at the same time. Buying just one and not the other, is a terrible mistake.

Simon: So John, where does the concept of hell come from?

John: Well, it comes from the Bible, and in particular Jeremiah. There are two long passages in the book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah 19 stands a good example, where there is this valley called the Valley of Hinnom, where some terrible things were done by Israel—burning their sons and daughters to false gods as sacrifices—and Jeremiah says, “In this valley—the Valley of Hinnom—God will bring his own fiery judgment to match the evil that Israel has done.” And the word for the Valley of Hinnom is Gehenna. This is the word for hell and by a couple of centuries before Jesus, we have Jewish literature that’s using this Gehenna word as the stock phrase, expression, for the judgment of God coming on the world. And some of those passages are extraordinary in the gruesome detail that they give. Jesus uses this word Gehenna, wherever you see the word hell it’s actually the word Gehenna, a reference to this park (well it’s a park now) in south Jerusalem (we’ve been there). But it was this metaphor for final judgment.

Now Jesus doesn’t go into gruesome details like some of the literature before him but he does use it as a place of serious judgment. It is metaphorical because on the one hand he talks about it being a fire, on the other he talks about it being outer darkness, and you can’t have fire and darkness unless it’s a metaphor. But it’s a metaphor for something real. God’s judgment is coming on the world and it will match the evil that the world has done.

Vox pox: Yeah, I don’t believe in hell either and I think maybe in the past, you know, priests of religion used it as a way to control people but at the moment, I don’t think it has… I don’t think it’s true.

Vox pox: Yeah, I think there has to be something, you know, better then the conditions we have now and I am religious so, you know, there are passages in the Bible that talk about an afterlife, not necessarily heaven but like a new earth and a new kingdom and therefore things would be better than what they are now.

Vox pox: Is there a sense of an afterlife? Look, there is a sense of one but once again I have to take it with a grain of salt. Is that real or not? I don’t know. I want to be willing and open to the fact that they could be, yes.

Simon: Some people might want to say though, John, that even if someone has lived a terrible life—let alone a moderately normal life—does eternal suffering fit the equation then of a just God, in the judgment you’ve been talking about?

John: Well, the Bible says, yes! It’s an eternal judgment but the important thing to point out is the Bible says it’s proportional. So we need to hold those two things in mind. It’s eternal but it’s proportional. That is, not everyone’s going to get the same judgment. Jesus speaks about the religious leaders being judged more harshly. He talks about Tyre and Sidon—pagan nations—faring better on the Judgment Day, than others. He, several times, speaks about judgment being proportional—that is, compared to your deeds. So however those things fit together in the mathematics of God, I don’t know. But it isn’t an argument to say, “Ah, well, an eternal judgment couldn’t possibly match, you know, finite deeds.” We just have to hold what the Bible says together. Eternal but it is also proportional to our deeds. The thing that troubles me is people who say, “Actually, people are annihilated in hell—that is they don’t actually have any consciousness going on—if that’s true, that means that God’s judgment is not proportional because it means the semi good atheist—who finds himself under the judgment of God—is getting exactly the same judgment as the Hitler figure who never repented. That cannot be true. That defies what the Bible teaches about God’s proportional judgment.

Simon: So the nature of hell and judgment seems to be hard to define but from the Bible’s perspective it’s real and it’s very serious. What then, John, is the message of Jesus in the face of this?

John: Well, he did ask us to be hopeful that God would right the wrongs of the world, which is what the main idea of hell is but then he said that he had come in order to bear the judgment human beings deserve. He announced the great amnesty and—at the end of Luke’s Gospel—he said the thing that was to be announced in his name to all nations, was the forgiveness of sins. So his death on the cross actually takes into himself the hell that I deserve. John Dickson’s deeds have been borne by Him. John Dickson’s judgment borne by Jesus so that forgiveness can be freely offered to others—that is the heart of the Gospel.


Update: I engage with the above in Engaging Dickson & Smart: Loving Judgment, Shalom, & Eternal Proportionality?

Engaging with CPX’s discussion of hell—part 1

Before I post the second part of Life & Faith‘s series on hell, I’d like to engage with some of the points they raised in the first part.

Justine: But let’s be honest, like, no one likes the idea of judgment.

Currently in Australia we’re having a Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. It gives us mixed feelings. On the one hand, we lament the many awful things that are being exposed. On the other hand we rejoice because:

  • Victims are beginning to receive some justice, closure, and healing.
  • Perpetrators are, ideally, genuinely comprehending the damage they’ve done, sincerely apologising, turning their lives around and seeking to make amends (see ideal justice flowchart).
  • As a result of the commission, changes are being made to our institutions to make it much harder for abuse to occur in the future.

In many ways, Judgment Day is like a Royal Commision or War Crimes tribunal, but on a far greater scale, covering every injustice ever committed throughout all time and space—something only possible because the Justice Commissioner is God Himself. In Jesus, God is the only Justice Commissioner who has personally undergone execution as a result of gross injustices. Again, it will be a time of lamenting and rejoicing:

  • Our own sins will be exposed. The hurt we caused others will be revisited—possibly revealed to us for the first time—and that will be very unpleasant, to say the least. Then, I believe each and every sin will need to be corrected. Again, that will be painful, but the sooner that “cancer” within me is purged, the better!
  • In the same fashion, the sins of each and every other person will the exposed and corrected. That will be unpleasant for them and for those watching on. It’s heartbreaking to see others in pain, even when you know it’s for their own good.

Like the Royal Commision, the good that Judgment Day brings—not least the cessation of evil—outweighs the period of lament, pain, suffering, and correction, and therefore, overall. I appreciate how John Dickson unpacks it below:

Simon: What’s the good news when we’re talking about judgment and hell?

John: … God sees the injustice of the world, He hears the oppressed’s cry for someone to make things right, and he is coming to make things right. This is why the Bible can actually say “hallelujah” for the judgments of God and you certainly see that in the final book of Revelation in the Bible—there’s great praise for the God who finally comes to overthrow those who have oppressed the poor, who have shed blood around the world and so on.

So if you think of it like this, that it’s actually a sign of God’s love for the oppressed that he is coming to bring his justice on the oppressor. In a weird way judgment is a great sign of God’s love because it’s that he loved the massacred indigenous people of Tasmania that he will bring those who perpetrated those judgments to justice and there’s a sense in which love fuels that judgment. So judgment itself is good news.

Simon:  … ultimately, I guess, there’s a choice of whether we want to accept that relationship [with God] or reject it—and there’s a sense of respecting those wishes.

The idea that God will allow some people to eternally reject Him was popularised by C. S. Lewis, but interestingly Lewis’ own conversation gives us good reason to believe God will eventually win over even the most ardent atheists (Talbott explains in Why C.S. Lewis’ Conversion Suggests He Should’ve Been A Universalist).

Justine: You gotta say though, like, you can see the attraction of that universalist idea [that Jesus’ death and resurrection—His victory over sin and death—will mean that eventually all people will be saved]. Everyone wants to talk about God as a God of love—and He is that, right? So what’s wrong with that?

Simon: I just think the amount of the material in the Bible that takes you in another direction is overwhelming. J.I. Packer, my old lecturer, used to say this is avalanche dodging when it comes to the material in the Bible. And so, while the makers of this film seem to want us to leech-out aspects of God that are right through the Bible: that He is holy, that He requires holiness on his people’s part, to some degree, that we’re incapable of that and we need help in it, are part of the same thing. So there’s judgment, there’s mercy. I’d agree with the makers of the film who say that God’s primary characteristic that you see in the Bible is one of grace and great love and mercy—I really believe that. But I think that you have to hold that in tension, to some degree, with his holiness. And judgment is part of that.

Although some people do “want us to leech-out aspects of God”, in my experience, most Christian Universalists do not. For example, Robin Parry, doesn’t dodge God’s holiness and judgment, and our sinfulness, but spends a significant amount of his book (The Evangelical Universalist) engaging with these aspects.

I’d also point out to Packer that there’s an “avalanche” of biblical material saying God’s primary characteristic is love and mercy, and that the tension Simon mentions, will be resolved through God’s restorative justice—everyone (indeed everything) will reconciled to God—the Shalom resulting from the crucifixion.

Justine: Do you think Hellbound? the film has kind of lost that tension that you’re speaking of?

Simon: Well in fairness, they do talk about judgment—like a post-death judgment, but then an opportunity to come back to God in that—a refining sort of aspect to this. So no, they don’t junk it completely. They keep it there. Now the nature of that judgment I think may not quite match with the sort of material that’s in the Bible, where Jesus talks about, you know, “I never knew you” and these sorts of pretty sobering comments that He makes. So yeah, it’s there but we need to look carefully whether this matches the biblical material.

Properly addressing the “nature of judgment” would require writing a whole book but I think it’s fair to say that refining is one metaphor repeatedly used in the bible (e.g. refining fire: Zec 13:9; Job 23:10; Ps 66:10; 1Cor 3:11-15; Mal 3:2-3; 1Pet 1:7). So the nature of judgement they describe is certainly biblical.

I agree that “I never knew you” is sobering. At the same time, I’d suggest it shouldn’t be interpreted as an absolute statement because:

  1. It’s impossible for an all-knowing God to not know someone.
  2. God created and sustains everything, which implies knowledge of everything.
  3. It’s a statement within a parable, a genre known for hyperbole.

Justine: So what then does it look like to hold the two and in tension, I guess, the aspects of God’s holiness but also His love? How do you juggle that?

Simon: I think there’s a way in which you have to realize that God’s not someone to be trifled with. There’s a necessary reverence for God if we’re seeing God for who He truly is and who we are before him. But the overwhelming picture, Justine, in the Bible is that God is a father figure who just loves us—is full of mercy and grace—I think that they get that part right in this film—and he is looking for a way to bring us back to him. We see that in the life of Jesus and so I think you’ve gotta remember both things. But the mercy and the grace—I think absolutely is the most outstanding characteristic of God. It’s one really worth responding to.

Amen, and I can’t imagine our Father failing to find a way to bring us back to Him. After all, when the disciples were worried about God’s ability to save anyone, Jesus looked at them intently and said, “Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But with God everything is possible.” (Matt 19:26, NLT) Jesus says, the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son are all found in the end.

Life & Faith by the Centre for Public Christianity
Source: cpx.podbean.com

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

Is God Violent In Hell? Does That Influence Us Now?—William Cavanaugh Interview—part 5

William T. Cavanaugh
Dr. William T. Cavanaugh

Cavanaugh is Professor of Theology at DePaul University in Chicago. He holds degrees from Notre Dame, Cambridge, and Duke University, and has worked as a lay associate with the Holy Cross order in a poor area of Santiago, Chile, as well as for the Center for Civil and Human Rights at the Notre Dame Law School. His books include:

2016 Richard Johnson Lecture

I had the privilege of interviewing Dr. William Cavanaugh and attending his lecture “The Myth of Religious Violence”. I’ve broken the interview up into 6 short posts:

  1. Violence and Theology? Just War and Pacifism?
  2. Was God Violent To Jesus? Is Jesus Coming Back Mad As Hell?
  3. Did Constantine Make Christianity Violent?
  4. Has God Ever Commanded Genocide? What is Justice?
  5. Is God Violent In Hell? Does That Influence Us Now?
  6. Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved? Four Views on Hell? Origen? Torture? Is Everyone A Child Of God?

I’ve also posted it as a single, combined post.

Is God Violent In Hell?

What do you think of the doctrine of hell, which in many ways is how God treats those who reject Him and how do you think that influences the way we treat people now?

I really like C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce and I think that puts forward a speculative—but I think a very orthodox view—that Hell is self imposed and it’s not imposed by God. It’s a kind of self imposed separation from God… So the kind of gratuitous torturing God, I think that’s not the Christian God—just finding exquisite and inventive ways to torture people for all eternity. So this kind of self separation from God I think is the way to think about it and I think there’s a kind of general, broad agreement on that.

The question is whether anybody can resist God’s grace forever, whether anybody’s sin is strong enough to resist God’s grace forever and so I tend to think of these things in terms of… It’s not all necessarily over at death but, I guess this kind of points towards the Catholic idea of purgatory in some ways, that there is a continuing process after death of purgation.

Yes, I’d agree with that 1.

But I suppose you need to leave open… I mean Barth I think was wise on these questions to say at some point you have to just maintain a kind of holy silence. We don’t know and so there might be the possibility that some people are not saved and we can’t presume and be guilty of the sin of presumption.

In which case, I think Annihilationist ideas kind of make sense. Paul Griffiths recent book Decreation makes a pretty cogent argument for Annihilationism and that kind of fits into a whole Augustinian scheme of the farther away you get from God the less being that you have and so it might be possible that people that have kind of permanently excluded themselves from God’s communion might just cease to be in some sense. I think C. S. Lewis kind of points to that, in that eventually there might be nothing left but ashes.

Yes, I usually call that “Soft” Annihilationism, as it’s self inflicted, as opposed to “Hard” Annihilationism, where God is deliberately doing the annihilating.

Right, “Zap!”, yeah…

And you’re right, that particular view has gained a lot of popularity. As opposed to the view where, according to some people, God will be basically torturing people forever.

Does Our View of Hell Influence Our Judicial Systems?

Do you think our view of hell affects our view of Justice? Do you think our view of how God treats people in hell influences our judicial systems now? For example, our ideas of what prisons are about and what prisons are for? Whether they are simply, “Person makes a mistake, therefore they get locked away forever”. Or whether there’s a different kind of model, where we’re actually trying to bring about change. Prison, put loosely, is seen as a means to an end—as an opportunity to reform the person. 2

Whether or not Christian views of hell influence that… I think that they certainly could, and probably did, at least in the past. Certainly, yeah, but there’s a pretty clear divide between people who call it a penal system or people who talk about a Department of Corrections, as it’s called in the US. But so often there’s no longer any attempt at correction and I think that’s a huge scandal, especially the United States where we have an enormous number of people locked away.

And there seems to be money involved as well.

Right, a lot of for-profit prisons, which is astonishing isn’t it?!

Yeah, that seems absolutely… it’s just mindblowing. That is sooo just going to cause a problem!


1. Every time I hear someone advocate for C.S. Lewis’ view on Hell, I can’t help but think of Thomas Talbott’s insightful observations about C.S. Lewis’ own conversion: Why C.S. Lewis’ Conversion Suggests He Should’ve Been A Universalist.
2. Helpful further reading on the relationship between hell and our current justice systems A cheat sheet on hell (although re: Kevin’s last point, I think UR actually achieves more justice than the other views).