Thoughts on sin and Hell
Recently a friend emailed me with a question. He had heard that I "...don't really believe in hell or punishment of sins." He asked, "I've never heard you say anything like that. What's up? When you have a few minutes to spare, I'd like to hear what you're thoughts are on the subject."
This was my reply (I've edited it a little and cleaned up some of the spelling and grammatical errors):
This is only partially correct: I don’t believe in Hell (as least the same Hell that is taught by mainstream Evangelical Christianity) but I do believe in punishment of sins.
I'll try to briefly explain my viewpoints on both sin and Hell. I would much rather approach this in a face-to-face dialog over coffee (or Guinness) and I regret that we don't have that luxury.
The Hebrew word for sin, "hatat", literally means "to miss the mark", as does its Greek counterpart, "hamarto". The picture is of an archer who shoots at a target but the arrow falls short. We all sin and our sin has consequences and ramifications; not only for ourselves but for others. Sin is often characterized as "willful rebellion" -- and it can be -- but it’s not limited to that.
We find ourselves born into a world that is saturated with the cumulative effects of sin. No matter how hard we may try, we continuously miss the mark; even when we have the best of intentions. We suffer the consequences, not only from our own sin (both intentional and unintentional), but from the sins of others, past and present. Sin creates ripples that echo through time and space like a stone being dropped into a pond.
God is not freaked out by sin. He knows us and loves us intimately. His intention has always been to rescue us from sin and its effects. I've often heard it said by Evangelical preachers that God is so holy that He cannot bear to be in the presence of sin. This is not what the Bible teaches. Throughout the scriptures, God is very involved with sinners, in spite of their sin: From Moses the murderer, to Jacob the cheat, to David the adulterer/conspirator/murderer, to Paul the religious terrorist.
There is a wonderful interaction that takes place in Genesis 4 between God and Cain. God is urging Cain to get control of his sin (perhaps anger and jealousy?). In verse 6, God appears to Cain while Cain is angry. In other words, God comes to Cain while he is in the midst of his sin. In verse 7, God makes an interesting differentiation between Cain and Cain's sin. Ultimately, Cain gives in to sin and murders Abel. How does God respond to Cain? He comes to him again and interacts with him. God doesn't fry Cain to a crisp (in fact, there is no mention of Hell or damnation) but instead explains the consequences of his actions to him. God then goes so far as to put a mark of protection upon Cain so that no one will kill him. Cain's sin has consequences -- he is banished -- but God still cares for him.
According to Paul, Jesus is the image (in Greek "ikon" which, in our nomenclature would be "snapshot" or “Xerox”) of God. Jesus said that to see Him was to see the Father. How did Jesus deal with sin? He met it head on with forgiveness, mercy, compassion and grace. He was a friend of sinners. As Jesus hung on the cross, none of the Roman soldiers asked for forgiveness, yet Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, for they don't know what they're doing." Jesus absorbed our sin. He nullified it with love. He took the worst we had to offer, allowed it to kill Him and then overcame it.
This brings up the question of why God allows sin in the first place. Sometimes it's phrased as "Why does God allow evil to exist?" I think, ultimately, the answer is "love". God created us to have loving relationship with Him. However, the only way that love can be real is if it is given freely. That means there has to be the option of it being withheld. God could have made us all robots or could have bullied and frightened us into obedience, but our obedience wouldn't have been love. It would have been a sham. Evil exists because we can choose to turn away from God. It must be this way so that when we choose to turn towards God, it's real. Our turning away from God, whether due to rebellion, fear, ignorance, mistrust, woundedness, etc., is the essence of sin and evil. We miss the mark for a vast multitude of reasons.
As we become aware of who God is -- of His unfailing love, mercy, kindness, compassion and grace -- our sin drives us to Him. As theologian Anthony De Mello put it, "The sign of authentic Christian maturity is when you're grateful for your sins, because sins lead to grace." I think what he's saying is our awareness of our sinfulness ("Wretched man that I am!") drives us into the arms of God like the Prodigal Son returning home. For the last year or so I've been teaching through the Gospels at the county jail and its amazes me to see the profound effect it has on the inmates when they see Jesus interacting with sinners in the Gospels. These inmates are so beaten down by condemnation (from self and from others) that the concept of a God who loves them unconditionally and engages them where they’re at and never gives up on them is a healing balm. They soak it up like thirsty little plants. They soften. Their countenances change. They begin to grasp hope.
Contemporary Western Christianity seems to be obsessed with "sin management". Yet Jesus seemed to be primarily concerned with restoration and reconciliation. I'm learning to focus less on my sin and more on Him. I’ve abandoned my sin scorecard. Jesus said, "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." (Matt. 5:48). We tend to think He's talking about sin, but He's not. If you look at the context from verse 43 to 47, the topic is love. God's love is perfect. What God wants from us is that we love. To paraphrase Paul in 1 Cor. 13, I might be the most sinless and holy person around, but if I don't have love, it's all bullshit.
The Bible is quite clear that sin brings judgment. We tend to think of judgment in juridical terms: If you get caught speeding, you pay a fine. If you rob a bank, you get 20 years. If you murder someone, you get life in prison. We attempt to fit the punishment to the crime. Generally, the goals of our juridical process are prevention of crime and punishment of criminals. Either that or revenge. But revenge can’t restore what was lost in the perpetration of the crime. Neither can punishment for that matter. What punishment can do (hopefully) is bring about a change in the person punished and prevent others from committing the same crime. The root goal of punishment, if you think about it, is behavior modification.
When we seek justice, we are usually thinking in these terms of crime and punishment: Trying to apply a form of punishment that corresponds to the severity of the crime. God, on the other hand, seems to be more concerned with reconciliation and restoration. This is consistent with love. According to scripture God's primary attribute is Love. Paul describes what love is in 1 Cor 13. Here's a thought that is hard for us to wrap our brains around: What if the goal of God's judgment is not punishment or revenge but reconciliation and restoration? How would a Hell of eternal torment fit into this? What is the purpose of eternal torment anyway? It can't be punishment, since it's eternal and there's no hope for the punishment accomplishing anything. We punish to change behavior. How does eternal torment do that? I believe that when God punishes, He punishes with a purpose and that purpose is reconciliation and restoration.
So, what if God’s judgment is another aspect of His love? And what if God sees sinners not so much as criminals that need to be punished, but as lost people that need to be found? Broken people that need to be restored? People infected by sin and the effects of sin who need to be cleansed and healed?
This leads us to the topic of Hell.
Two fundamental questions about Hell are:
What is it?
Who goes there?
Christians have held a wide variety of opinions about both questions over the last 2,000 years.
Of course, the word "Hell" is not Greek, Hebrew or Aramaic and so never actually appeared in the scriptures as originally written. Our word "Hell" comes from Hel, the Norse goddess of the dead. Other Greek and Hebrew words were used in scripture, which were later translated as Hell. This is problematic. Did the word "Gehenna" mean the same thing to a 1st century Jew that the word "Hell" means to a 21st century Christian? One of the fundamental hermeneutical questions to ask when studying scripture (or any historical document for that matter) is, "What did it mean to the original hearers?" When Jesus spoke of people being cast into Gehenna, for example, the original hearers understood Him to be referring to the Hinnom valley, which was
If Hell does exist as a place of conscious eternal torment, it is strange that the entire Old Testament never mentions it. Think about that: There is not a single mention of Hell, or a place of conscious eternal torment, in the entire Old Testament. The word that the Old Testament writers used -- which is variouly translated as "the grave", Hades or Hell -- was Sheol. Sheol was a somewhat generic term for "the grave" or "the abode of the dead". There was no differentiation between the righteous and the wicked; everyone went to Sheol. Judgment was viewed as a very temporal thing. It happened during one's life (or the lives of one's offspring). God judged a people, for example, by allowing a foreign army to sack their city. Wherever you see the word "Hell" in the Old Testament, it is there as the result of eisegesis on the part of translators: Reading something back into the text that wasn't there.
You would think that something as important as an endless existence of agony and hopelessness would be mentioned by SOMEONE in the Old Testament scriptures!
The first glimpses of Hell, as we would recognize it, that you see in Jewish writings are during the Inter-testamental period, particularly in the pseudepigraphical Book of Enoch. Enoch describes an elaborate cosmology comprised of multiple layers of Heaven and Hell populated by hierarchies of angels and demons. Where did this sudden explosion of detail about the afterlife come from? The most likely source is the Babylonian religion of Zoarastrianism which began in
Most Christians don't realize how influential the Book of Enoch, particularly 1 Enoch, was and is. It was probably written around 100 BC and obviously was not authored by the biblical Enoch, as it claims. At the time of Jesus, 1 Enoch was hugely popular. The New Testament book of Jude makes reference to the Book of Enoch (Jude 1:14-15). The idea of Abraham's Bosom (a resting place for the righteous) contrasted with a place of eternal torment for the wicked that 1 Enoch set forth had become familiar to the Jews of Jesus day, particularly the Pharisees.
In the New Testament, most of the references to Hell occur in the Gospel of Matthew. Almost all of them are spoken by Jesus and directed to the Pharisees. Matthew’s Gospel was written by a Jew for an audience of Jews. They knew 1 Enoch. The Pharisees used the images of 1 Enoch to threaten the common folk and get them to toe the line. Jesus takes that same imagery and turns it back on the Pharisees. Something else that we often lose sight of when reading the New Testament is that a clock is always ticking, counting down. In 70 AD, Roman armies would lay siege to
For a Jew, especially a Pharisee, the thought of having one's body thrown into the garbage dump of Gehenna rather than given a proper burial, was reprehensible. Yet that is exactly what came to pass. Jesus warned of this (Matt 24). In 70 A.D.,
Moving on, it is interesting that Paul, in all his epistles, never refers to Hell. He does speak of judgment and punishment and discipline, but not of a place of eternal conscious torment.
There are passages in Revelation that are viewed by some to be descriptions of Hell. There are several problems with this, the greatest of which is that Revelation is an Apocalyptic book. Apocalypse was a uniquely Jewish writing style that flourished from about 200 B.C. to 100 A.D. Apocalyptic writing is highly symbolic. In fact, the point of Apocalyptic writing was to tell a hidden story that the reader must decipher by understanding the symbols. Apocalypse literally means "revealing". My point is that trying to use an Apocalyptic text as a basis for defining doctrine is foolhardy. It betrays a gross misunderstanding of Biblical genres. However, if one does want to use verses in Revelation as proof texts about the afterlife, they have to come to terms with this one:
“Then I heard EVERY creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing: ‘To Him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!’” (Rev. 5:13)
So, to summarize, what the Bible tells us about Hell is actually quite scant. Much of our conceptualization of Hell comes not from scripture but from medieval Catholic theology, Dante’s Inferno,
So what is Hell really? Throughout the last 2,000 years, Christians have held various views. They can be summarized into the following:
1. Conscious eternal torment (with flames, indestructible flesh-eating worms, etc.)
2. Separation from God (which is a nicer way of saying conscious eternal torment but would also seem to contradict the doctrine of God's omnipresence)
3. Annihilation (not only JW's, but many orthodox Christians believe that God will simply snuff those not found in Christ out of existence).
4. Punishment for (and the result of) sin with the intention of bringing about reconciliation and restoration. This may occur in the present life or, for a limited period, in the afterlife.
Just as there are multiple views of what Hell is, there are also multiple views of who goes there. Thomas Talbott explains these different viewpoints by listing three statements which, if given individually, most Christians would agree with and could find scripture to support. But, if given together, these three statements create a contradiction:
1. God is able to accomplish what He desires.
2. God desires that all people be saved.
3. Most people will not be saved.
To believe all three (as many Christians do) is to hold contradictory beliefs. Theologians have been wrestling with this tension for 2,000 years. They've generally ended up in one of three groups:
A) If you accept Statements 1 and 3, you are a Calvinist (aka an Augustinian). The Calvinist/Augustinian's refer to this doctrine as "election" or "predestination". This doctrine teaches that God predetermined who would be saved and, ergo, who would go to Hell. In order to accept Statements 1 and 3, one must conclude that God does NOT desire that all people be saved. In fact, Calvinists believe that God created most people in order to damn them to an eternity of torture and agony. This makes God appear as a cruel monster. Calvin went so far as to write that Christians in Heaven would look down upon the suffering souls in Hell with glee.
B) If you accept Statements 2 and 3, you are an Arminian (named after the theologian Arminius). Whereas most of the Protestant Reformers (Luther, et al) were Calvinist, most modern-day Western Christians are Arminian. Arminianism teaches that God desires that all people be saved, but they must choose to accept the gift of eternal life. Calvinists argue that this equates to salvation by works, since it means a man is saved based on what he does. This doctrine also brings up the question of what happens to those who never hear the Gospel, or hear it in a distorted fashion. Additionally, it makes what Jesus did seem like a grand failure (considering the He died for the sins of the world but most won't benefit from it).
C) If you accept Statements 1 and 2, you are a Christian Universalist. This is not to be confused with Universalism that sees all religions as being equal. Christian Universalism believes that God has reconciled the world to Himself through Christ Jesus. Most people will not discover this fact until they die and meet Him face to face. Then, the Muslim, the Buddhist, the Hindu and the Atheist will all exclaim, "Ah, it was You!" Or, as scripture puts it, "Every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord."
Just as there are variations within Calvinism and Arminianism, so there are within Christian Universalism. My studies have brought me to the point of believing in Universal Reconciliation. I believe that Christ has already reconciled the world to Himself. I also believe, however, that there will be some purgation process of our sin and its after-effects. I believe that the opportunity to "accept" Christ continues after our body dies.
C.S. Lewis was, as far as I can tell, an Arminian. One of my favorite Lewis books is "The Great Divorce", an allegory of sorts where people live in a "Hell" that resembles a dingy English city where it always rains and is always dusk. People are not in torment, but also can never feel any form of satisfaction (a kinder, gentler form of eternal torment, I guess). Each day a bus appears in the city and takes anyone who is interested to Heaven. When the souls from Hell step off of the bus in Heaven, they are met by loved-ones who try to convince them to remain in Heaven. Most of the passengers are so self-deluded by their sin that they choose to get back on the bus and go back to Hell. C.S. Lewis is famous for saying, "The doors of Hell are locked from the inside." He believed, essentially, that God doesn't send people to Hell: People choose to go there.
This is a very popular viewpoint nowadays. Calvinists would counter (and rightly so, I believe) that this elevates man's free will above God's sovereign will. Man trumps God. “But,” the Arminian rebuts, “God is a gentleman.” "What about Saul on the
The other problem with Lewis’ statement that “The doors of Hell are locked from the inside” is that John describes Jesus as holding “…the keys of death and hell.” (Rev. 1:18). The doors of Hell have, in fact, been unlocked from the outside!
Here's what I believe: Free will is necessary in order for us to freely choose to love God, which is the only way love can be authentic. I believe that God will never tire, for all eternity, in seeking to turn people's hearts towards Him. His love will outlast people's rejection. Ultimately, everyone will be convinced and will freely choose to love God.
Here's an analogy I recently thought up to try and explain this: Someday you will die. So will I. Every person (with the possible exceptions of Elijah and Enoch) dies. It is inevitable. Yet, we can do things to postpone death. We can avoid excessive risk. We can eat healthy food and exercise our bodies. These attempts don't always work, but statistically speaking, they will prolong your life. But even under the best-case scenario, you will die. Flipping that around, I believe that everyone will be reconciled to God. It is inevitable. We can choose to begin that reconciliation process now, or we can prolong our estrangement from God. The old TV commercial used to say, "You can pay me now, or you can pay me later." As Paul wrote to Timothy, "This is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance (and for this we labor and strive), that we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, and especially of those who
believe." (1 Tim 4:9-10)
Not too long ago, I had to watch a safety video for my job. The video was the testimony of a man named Charlie who was horribly burned and disfigured in an industrial accident. The video consisted of Charlie on stage before an audience telling his story. It was very moving and gut-wrenching. The part of the video that stuck with me most was Charlie's description of the treatment he received at the hospital burn unit. He explained how the nurses would lower the burn victims into vats of purified water and then scrub away the burned skin, while the patients screamed in agony. It had to be done in order to prevent infection and save their lives.
C.S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, said this: "Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, that part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature."
When we die and stand before the God of Love. Some of us will be horribly disfigured in spirit from a lifetime of sin. As God judges us, scrubbing away what is evil in search of that which can be restored, it may well be a terrifying and agonizing process for some. Darkness hates light, but there will be nowhere for darkness to hide. It will be exposed and purged.
So then, God's judgment is another aspect of His perfect love. It punishes for the sake of correction; with the goal of saving and restoring that which was lost.
I haven't worked everything out about Universal Reconciliation. I would say that I am 95% sure of it. There are still scriptures I'm trying to understand. One thing I have found is that as my viewpoint about Hell has changed, so has my attitude towards non-believers. I used to think in terms of "us and them". Now, it's just us. I'm able to better love others because I believe that God is eternally and relentlessly committed to loving them and bringing them home. My affection towards God has increased exponentially because now I see that His love and grace truly are amazing (and consistent) and that Jesus' victory was complete.
Let’s consider the Evangelical view of the average American non-Christian. He pays his taxes, doesn’t cheat on his wife or abuse his children. He gives to charity. But he is ignorant of the Gospel. Perhaps all he has heard of it are the occasional snippets of Benny Hinn that he sees by accident as he’s flipping through the channels on his TV. He probably believes there is some type of God but hasn’t defined it any further. He lives a decent life though, of course, he is still a sinner. When he dies, he will be found to have not “received Christ” and will therefore be cast out from God’s presence and will spend eternity in agony and despair. Not 30 years or 900 years or a million years or a billion years, but an eternity of never-ending hopelessness and torment. I ask you, is this man’s punishment proportional to his crime? Now, go pay a visit to your local mall, or school or airport or other place where people congregate. Observe the multitudes. Both Calvinism and Arminianism tell us that most of these people will, in a few short years, be writhing in indescribable pain and despair. Forever.
Does the punishment fit the crime?
Does the punishment serve a purpose?
Does the God who told us to love those who hate us and forgive our enemies not follow His own advice?
As I began to earnestly explore the possibility of Universal Reconciliation what I found was a doctrine that is extremely consistent, extremely affirming of the sovereignty and victory of God, extremely encouraging, extremely hopeful and extremely motivating to want to share this good news with those who haven’t heard it.
Historically, Universal Reconciliation is not a new belief. Besides the Bible, some of the earliest theologians, such as Origen (185 - 254 AD), believed that everyone would eventually be reconciled to God. Within a few hundred years though, Augustinian theology became dominant and continues to dominate to this day. Although Universal Reconciliation is not the dominant belief in Western Christianity, there have continued to be groups (such as the Quakers) who have embraced it. It is interesting to note, by the way, that the Quakers have also been at the forefront of human rights movements such as the abolition of slavery, women's suffrage and civil rights. If one sees all people as God's beloved and all destined for redemption then one is more apt to seek their temporal redemption as well.
As far as scripture goes, there are a surprisingly large number of verses which imply, as well as outright state, Universal Reconciliation. Frankly, there are many, many more that imply Universal Reconciliation than there are that imply a Hell of endless torment. Rather than list them all, here are just a few examples (mostly taken from the New Testament):
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
1 John 2:2
He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.
But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.
1 Corinthians 15:22
For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.
Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men.
For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.
And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment; to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.
But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption.
1 Timothy 2:3-6
This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men; the testimony given in its proper time.
1 Timothy 4:9-10
This is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance (and for this we labor and strive), that we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, and especially of those who believe.
All flesh will bless his holy name forever and ever.
Here are a few web sites that are chock full of articles regarding Universal
Also two books that I highly recommend on this topic are:
The Inescapable Love of God by Thomas Talbott
Hope Beyond Hell by Gerry Beauchemin