So I get it. You disagree with me about whether I’m a “true” Christian. All my philosophical views and liberal theology rub you the wrong way. I haven’t checked off all the right boxes on your list (infallibility of Scripture, Creationism, so-called “traditional” marriage, etc.). Thus, because I don’t fit inside your concept of what it is to be a Christian, I must never have had a “real” encounter with Jesus. It is then your God-given duty to come down from off your lofty perch to preach the good news of Jesus to me, an apparent godless heathen in disguise.
I’m going to have to stop you right there.
First off, it’s not as though I haven’t heard the gospel a million times. I’m sure atheists in Christian communities feel much the same as I do. Do you suppose that by preaching it to me over and over, one day I’ll break down and agree with you? Why, that sounds like Nazi-esque propaganda. Conservatives must be like Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister.
Not really. I just wanted you to see how it felt.
Secondly, I actually believe in the gospel! But you keep using that word “gospel”… I don’t think it means what you think it means. The gospel means “good news.” Let me try this: good news! God loves you! He only requires that you subscribe to a questionable series of beliefs contrary to all reason and evidence, or else you’ll burn in the most painful fire imaginable for all eternity. Just have faith. Did I mention that if you don’t believe this stuff, you’ll go to Hell?
That isn’t good news.
The good news, as I understand what Jesus seems to have been teaching and what is apparent from observing the world around me, is that salvation is for all. All people can enter the Kingdom. It’s not about being the chosen people or having all the right beliefs. It’s about pursuing goodness with all your heart. It’s about loving others. There’s a lot more to it, but you can read more in other posts.
Thirdly, do you have any idea how condescending you are? Who are you to tell me which of my experiences are “real” and which aren’t? I was in every sense a bona fide evangelical Christian, even perhaps the poster boy for evangelicalism. That I no longer believe that way is not at all a detractor from whether or not my experience was genuine, so how dare you tell me I haven’t really met Jesus the way you think I should. I went through that phase, but, unlike you, I realized that it was corrupt and empty. Your arrogance is so profound that oftentimes you can’t even realize your arrogance when someone points it out to you. “I’m just preaching God’s Word,” you say confidently. Hogwash; you’re using the Bible as an excuse to mistreat me while keeping your own moral conscience clean.
What’s more, you look willfully ignorant. You take pride in not having learned more, and you bizarrely condescend to my increased knowledge which led me away from your beliefs, as though learning were somehow a bad thing. Maybe — JUST MAYBE — if learning new things is inherently destructive to your beliefs, it’s because YOUR BELIEFS ARE WRONG.
I’ll grant that everyone needs critics, but there are good and bad forms of criticism. Criticism which uses evidence and solid argumentation to demonstrate the problems with a particular viewpoint is great. Even if you’re a staunch literal 6-day Creationist, I will at least engage in a bit of discussion, though you and I may disagree about what we actually need to discuss in such a case. By contrast, if you come on here and just start preaching doom to me if I don’t repent, let me introduce you to CTRL-W (protip: it closes the browser tab). I don’t want to hear it, I won’t engage with it, and I will probably make fun of you like I’m doing in this post right now.
It might seem mean-spirited to be so dismissive. Well you know what, when you’ve put up with a whole lot of spiritual bullshit, and when you’ve been hurt in profound ways by people who don’t so much hold as wield their beliefs, then a bit of dismissive humor really takes the edge off the pain you feel when others say hurtful things. It’s a good coping strategy that helps me avoid internalizing all the guilt people try to throw on me. And when you’re out here discussing controversial issues as often as I am, people try to throw on a LOT of guilt. So excuse me while I cease caring about your opinion and fawning over your approval.
I know I’m writing in the second person a lot in this post, blaming “you” for this and that. Trust me, even though “you,” the reader, likely aren’t the person I’m talking about (you very well might be, though), it feels so much better to blame “you” than try to concoct strange sentences using gender neutral language which might describe in theory what’s going on. That’s because when I blame “you,” it’s personal. And if you are in that group of people I’m criticizing, I want you to feel my finger pointing out of the monitor at your face. When you insult me by trying to cast doubt on whether I’m really a Christian or whether I ever had the sort of experiences you’re describing, it’s personal, and I want you to feel that — not because I’m spiteful but because you need to feel it. You need to see that what you do hurts.
So that’s more or less how I feel when you say I need Jesus. I think you’re an arrogant jerk with no idea what you’re saying. If you want to have a discussion, please be my guest, but if you just want to condescend and tell me who I really am and what I’ve really experienced, then the door is right over there.
This is how I’ll feel if you tell me that I didn’t cite the Bible in this post and therefore have no valid point:
Ten years ago, the last thing I would have dreamed I would be is a writer. I had my sights set on studying computer programming, but as it turns out, you don’t go to college just to receive praise for being smart; you actually have to work. Several mistakes and unforeseen hardships later, I find myself at the end of my philosophy undergrad degree, with an eye toward graduate school or perhaps a career in writing.
Along the way, I have witnessed first-hand the immensely destructive effects of Christianity done poorly. Raised in the Bible Belt South, I grew up around conservative Christian culture, and while I accepted it wholesale until about high school, I saw it tear people apart as my friends and I grew up. If we were to know the followers of Christ by their love, then I knew this was not Christianity. Something was wrong.
After my changing beliefs tore apart my engagement to a young woman (and destroyed pretty much the rest of my life, too), I sought answers by studying philosophy and theology. Suddenly, long-held intuitions became clear, and I realized that the world was far more complex and wonderful than anything I had known previously. Illusions shattered, even as I learned how much still remained mysterious.
Christianity has reopened to me in almost a completely different form. While it is sometimes frightening to carry these new beliefs in a culture which often despises you for doing so, I muster what courage I can and press toward what I believe with all my heart to be the truth.
Now, I work by day and write by night as I save to finish off my schooling. I write because the life of the Christian compels us to bring restoration to the world. That might sound like a lofty goal for a guy who hasn’t yet finished his degree, but I’ll let the quality of my content speak for itself.
Oh, and there is a happy ending: while studying philosophy, I met a beautiful redheaded girl whom I successfully and happily married!
This essay is from the book The Teaching of Jesus: From Mount Sinai to Gehenna: A Faithful Rabbi Urgently Warns Rebellious Israel, and from the book Essays on Eschatology: An Introductory Overview of the Study of Last Things.
Most of what we believe about hell comes from Catholicism and ignorance of the Old Testament, not from the Bible. This study will cause you to re-examine current teaching on hell and urge you to further study on what happens to the wicked after death.
I was righteously indignant when, a number of years ago, a caller uttered these words on a call-in radio show I was conducting. Perturbed by his haphazard use of Scripture, I pointed out to him and the audience, that hell couldn’t possibly be something invented by Catholic theologians because Jesus talked about it. I forcefully read some of the passages where Jesus did, and concluded that hell couldn’t possibly be the invention of an apostate church.
I now believe that hell is the invention of Roman Catholicism; and surprisingly, most, if not all, of our popular concepts of hell can be found in the writings of Roman Catholic writers like the Italian poet Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), author of Dante’s Inferno. The English poet John Milton (1608-1674), author of Paradise Lost, set forth the same concepts in a fashion highly acceptable to the Roman Catholic faith. Yet none of our concepts of hell can be found in the teaching of Jesus Christ! We get indignant at the mention of purgatory—we know that’s not in the Bible. We may also find that our popular concepts of hell came from the same place that purgatory did-Roman Catholicism. The purpose of this study is to briefly analyze Jesus’ teaching on hell (more correctly gehenna, the Greek word for which hell is given), to see whether these popular concepts are grounded therein.
A Plea for Open-Mindedness as We Begin
If we strive for open-mindedness and truly want to know what the Bible teaches, the following quotation will help us in our search:
We do not start our Christian lives by working out our faith for ourselves; it is mediated to us by Christian tradition, in the form of sermons, books and established patterns of church life and fellowship. We read our Bibles in the light of what we have learned from these sources; we approach Scripture with minds already formed by the mass of accepted opinions and viewpoints with which we have come into contact, in both the Church and the world. It is easy to be unaware that it has happened; it is hard even to begin to realize how profoundly tradition in this sense has molded us.
But we are forbidden to become enslaved to human tradition, either secular or Christian, whether it be “catholic” tradition, or “critical” tradition, or “ecumenical” tradition. We may never assume the complete rightness of our own established ways of thought and practice and excuse ourselves the duty of testing and reforming them by Scriptures. (J. I. Packer, “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God [Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1958], pp. 69-70.)
Of course, Packer just reminds us of Biblical injunctions to test everything proposed for our belief. For example, in II Cor. 13.5, Paul told the Corinthians:
Try your own selves, whether ye are in the faith; prove your own selves.
Likewise, in Eph. 5.8-10, Paul commanded the Ephesian Christians to be involved in such testing:
for ye were once darkness, but are now light in the Lord, walk as children of light, proving what is well-pleasing unto the Lord.
In New Testament times, one was only a disciple of Christ when he was willing to examine himself, his beliefs, and everything proposed for his belief as a child of light. Nothing less is required now.
Hell vs. Sheol and Hades
We first begin by eliminating the problem the King James Version of the Bible introduced to this study by indiscriminately translating three different words in the Bible as hell: sheol, hades, and gehenna.
Sheol Used of Unseen
In the Old Testament, the word for which hell is given in the King James Version is sheol, a word whose root meaning is “unseen.” The King James Version translates sheol as “hell” 31 times, “the grave” 31 times (since someone in the grave is unseen), and “the pit” three times.
Yet in the Old Testament sheol was not exclusively a place of punishment, for faithful Jacob was there (Gen. 37.35, 42.38, 44.29, 31). Righteous Job also longed for it in Job 14.13. David spoke of going to sheol in Ps. 49.15 and Jesus went there, Ps. 16.10 and Acts 2.24-31. In all these cases, these men were “unseen” because they were dead.
Sheol Used of National Judgments
Many times the Bible uses the word sheol of national judgments, i.e., the vanishing of a nation. In Isa. 14.13, 15, Isaiah said Babylon would go to sheol, and she vanished. In Ezk. 26.19-21, Tyre so vanished in sheol. Likewise, in the New Testament, in Mt. 11.23, 12.41, Lk. 10.15, and 11.29-32, Jesus said that Capernaum would so disappear. These nations and cities didn’t go to a particular location, but they were going to disappear, and they did. They were destroyed. Thus, sheol is used commonly of national judgments in both the Old and New Testaments.
Hades Used of Anything Unseen
The New Testament equivalent of sheol is hades, which occurs only eleven times. Like its synonym sheol, the King James Version translates the word “hell.” However, the correct translation is hades, or the unseen. The Bible doesn’t use hades exclusively for a place of punishment. Luke 16 pictures righteous Lazarus there. Acts 2.27, 31 says Jesus went there. In I Cor. 15.55, Paul used the same word when he said, “O grave, where is thy victory?” In Rev. 1.18, Jesus said he had the controlling keys of death and hades, the unseen, and in Rev. 6.8, death and hades followed the pale horse. Finally, in Rev. 20.13, 14, death and hades gave up the dead that were in them, and were then cast into the lake of fire. These verses illustrate that hades refers to anything that is unseen.
Hades Used of National Judgment
Like its companion word in the Old Testament, hades was also plainly used of national judgments in the New Testament. In Mt. 11.23 and Lk. 10.15, Jesus said Capernaum would go down into hades, i.e., it was going to vanish. In Mt. 12.41 and Lk. 11.29-32, Jesus said his generation of Jews was going to fall.
About hades in Greek mythology, Edward Fudge said:
In Greek mythology Hades was the god of the underworld, then the name of the nether world itself. Charon ferried the souls of the dead across the rivers Styx or Acheron into this abode, where the watchdog Cerberus guarded the gate so none might escape. The pagan myth contained all the elements for medieval eschatology: there was the pleasant Elyusium, the gloomy and miserable tartarus, and even the Plains of Asphodel, where ghosts could wander who were suited for neither of the above…The word hades came into biblical usage when the Septuagint translators chose it to represent the Hebrew sheol, an Old Testament concept vastly different from the pagan Greek notions just outlined. Sheol, too, received all the dead…but the Old Testament has no specific division there involving either punishment or reward. (Edward William Fudge, The Fire That Consumes [Houston: Providential Press, 1982], p. 205.)
We need to make sure that our ideas concerning hades come from the Bible and not Greek mythology. We have no problem using sheol the way the Old Testament used it, or hades, as the New Testament used it. Both refer to the dead who are unseen, and to national judgments.
Tartarus Is Also Translated Hell In the King James Version
In II Pet. 2.4, we read:
For if God spared not angels when they sinned, but cast them down to hell, and committed them to pits of darkness who were being punished when II Peter was written, to show that God knew how to treat disobedience among angels. It says nothing about fire, torment, pain, punishment of anyone else, or that it will last forever. It simply doesn’t pertain to our subject.
The Popular Concept of Hell Unknown to the Old Testament
Before we move to the gospel’s teaching on hell, we want to think further concerning that the word gehenna (popularly mistranslated hell, as we’ll see) didn’t occur in the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint. Let’s take a few paragraphs to let the significance of that fact soak in. In previous editions of this material, I merely remarked that prominent Old Testament characters like David and Abraham never heard the term or its equivalent. They were never threatened with eternal torment in hell or heard anything like our popular concept now. However, Gehenna’s absence in the Old Testament is a much more serious omission than that. (The concepts in this section are suggested by Thomas B. Thayer in his 1855 Edition of Origin and History of the Doctrine of Endless Punishment.)
Before the Mosaic Law
Adam and Eve in the Garden
When God placed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, he never mentioned the concept of eternal torment to them. Read for yourself–it’s just not there. Don’t you think it strange that as human history began on this planet, while God explained which tree they could not eat of, that he didn’t give the parents of all mankind some kind of warning about eternal punishment, if there was potential for it to be in their future, and the future of all their posterity?
Most of us think eternal torment will engulf the vast majority of mankind, nearly all of Adam and Eve’s descendents, yet here’s a father, God, who didn’t warn his children of the potential of what might befall them. What would you think of a father who told his young child not to ride his bike in the street, and if he did, he would get a spanking. Suppose he also planned to roast him over a roaring fire for fifty years? After he spanked him, would you think him a just father for not warning his child? Can you think of an apology or a defense for him? Yet to Adam and Eve, the father of all mankind failed to mention a much greater punishment than the death they would die the day they ate of the forbidden tree. Was this just a slip of the mind on God’s part, to not mention at all the interminable terrible woes that lay ahead for the vast majority of their descendants? No, God announced to them a tangible present punishment the very day they committed the sin: “In the day thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” They found that the wages of sin was death.
Cain and Abel
The same is true with Cain and Abel, a case of murder of a brother. Surely, we would think that God might roll out the threat of eternal torment that Cain was to receive as a warning to all future generations. In the whole account, there’s not a hint, not a single word on the subject. Instead, Cain is told, “And now art thou cursed from the earth…When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength; a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth.” Again, Cain received an immediate, tangible physical punishment administered, with absolutely no warning of future eternal torment. Like Adam, Cain heard none of the dire warnings preached from pulpits of the fiery wrath of God, tormenting his soul throughout eternity.
Now, if Cain were to receive such punishment from God without warning, would God be a just lawgiver and judge to impose additional, infinitely greater punishment with no word of caution whatsoever? In Gen. 4.15, God said, “Therefore, whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him seven-fold.” If, with no warning, Cain was going to receive eternal fiery torment, would those who killed him receive seven times endless fiery torment?
I’m not making light of endless torment, I’m just pointing out that it’s remarkable that God hadn’t said a word about it thus far in the Bible story.
Noah and the Flood
When we come to Noah and the flood, God noted that “every thought of man’s heart was only evil continually,” and that “the earth was filled with violence, and all flesh had corrupted his way upon the earth.” If not before, wouldn’t this be the ideal time to reveal eternal torment ahead for nearly all inhabitants of the earth? If any circumstances warranted such punishment, this would be the time, would it not? However, Noah, “a preacher of righteousness,” didn’t threaten endless punishment to evildoers. If warnings of such punishment serve to turn man aside from his evil way, surely this would have been the time to have revealed it, but there’s nary a whisper of it. Instead, they were destroyed by the flood, a physical, tangible punishment for their sin, with absolutely no warning of endless torment. Nor was there such a warning when mankind inhabited the earth again after the flood. One word from God might have set the world on an entirely different course. Surprisingly no such word was given.
Sodom and Gomorrah
We could go on with the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, the physical destruction of the cities and their inhabitants, with not even a rumor of endless future torment that we probably think they unknowingly faced. What would we think if our government passed a new law with a huge fine as the punishment, but when a guilty party was found, he paid the fine, but also had to serve endless torment that the citizens had no warning of? What kind of judge explains the law and known penalty, while carefully concealing a much more awful penalty? What would the penalty of a few thousand dollars matter in a case where he was also going to be tormented horribly and endlessly? Yet the popular concept is that the Sodomites were sent into such a judgment.
We could go through the accounts of the builders of the tower of Babel, the destruction of Pharaoh and his armies, and Lot’s wife, yet we would notice the same thing. All these received a temporal physical punishment, with no mention of an infinitely greater torturous punishment awaiting them in the future.
Was this teaching deliberately excluded from the record, or did it never belong? We know that it isn’t there. Neither the word gehenna nor the concept of endless torment was given in the millennia before the giving of the Law of Moses. From the creation to Mt. Sinai, there was simply no insinuation of it in the entirety of human history up to that time. By the conclusion of this study, we’ll see that God never had a plan of inflicting such dreadful torment on the people of his own creation.
Under the Mosaic Law
Most of us are familiar with the blessings and cursings Moses pronounced upon the Israelites in Deuteronomy 28-30 before they entered the promised land. If the Jews were disobedient to God, he promised them every conceivable punishment: he would curse their children, their crops, their flocks, their health, the health of their children, the welfare of the nation, etc. He foretold that they would even go into captivity, and would have such horrible temporal physical judgments to drive them to eat their own children. Among such an extensive list of punishments that would come upon his disobedient people, God uttered not even a whisper of endless torment upon them in any case of rebellion. All these physical, temporal judgments would take place in this life.
We could multiply such cases of temporal punishments for rebellion, corruption, and idolatry under Moses. He spelled them out in minute detail. The writer of Hebrews (in 2.2) said: “…the word spoken through angels (the Mosaic Law) proved stedfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense of reward…” As we’ve seen, the punishment was physical and temporal with no promise of endless torment whatsoever. Endless torment was simply unknown under the Law.
The question now arises, did every transgressor and disobedient Jew receive just punishment, or not? If they did, will their punishment continue to be just if in the future, they will also receive endless torment in “hell” that they were never told of and knew nothing of? If so, will eternal torment on top of their just physical temporal punishment still be just? It cannot be, can it? How can adding infinite torture in the future that they knew nothing of to a just punishment they received in the past under the Old Testament still be just?
In summary, the popular concept of hell is not found anywhere in the Old Testament. The word gehenna is not even contained in the Greek Old Testament, endless torment is nowhere to be found in its pages.
Where Did the Concept of Endless Torment Originate?
As we’ve seen, it most certainly did not originate in the Old Testament, either before or during the Mosaic Law. A great deal of evidence (more than we’ll give here) suggests that it originated in Egypt, and the concept was widespread in the religious world. Augustine, commenting on the purpose of such doctrines, said:
This seems to have been done on no other account, but as it was the business of princes, out of their wisdom and civil prudence, to deceive the people in their religion; princes, under the name of religion, persuaded the people to believe those things true, which they themselves knew to be idle fables; by this means, for their own ease in government, tying them the more closely to civil society. (Augustine, City of God, Book IV, p. 32, cited by Thayer, Origin & History, p. 37.)
Contriving doctrines to control people? Who would have believed it? Well, the Greek world did, the Roman world did, and evidently between the testaments, the Jews got involved, as well, as the concept of endless torment began appearing in the apocryphal books written by Egyptian Jews.
Thayer wrote further:
Polybius, the historian, says: “Since the multitude is ever fickle, full of lawless desires, irrational passions and violence, there is no other way to keep them in order but by the fear and terror of the invisible world; on which account our ancestors seem to me to have acted judiciously, when they contrived to bring into the popular belief these notions of the gods, and of the infernal regions. B. vi 56. .
Livy, the celebrated historian, speaks of it in the same spirit; and he praises the wisdom of Numa, because he invented the fear of the gods, as “a most efficacious means of governing an ignorant and barbarous populace. Hist., I 19.
Strabo, the geographer, says:
“The multitude are restrained from vice by the punishments the gods are said to inflict upon offenders, and by those terrors and threatenings which certain dreadful words and monstrous forms imprint upon their minds…For it is impossible to govern the crowd of women, and all the common rabble, by philosophical reasoning, and lead them to piety, holiness and virtue-but this must be done by superstition, or the fear of the gods, by means of fables and wonders; for the thunder, the aegis, the trident, the torches (of the Furies), the dragons, &c., are all fables, as is also all the ancient theology. These things the legislators used as scarecrows to terrify the childish multitude.” Geog., B., I
Timaeus Locrus, the Pythagorean, after stating that the doctrine of rewards and punishments after death is necessary to society, proceeds as follows:
“For as we sometimes cure the body with unwholesome remedies, when such as are most wholesome produce no effect, so we restrain those minds with false relations, which will not be persuaded by the truth. There is a necessity, therefore, of instilling the dread of those foreign torments: as that the soul changes its habitation; that the coward is ignominiously thrust into the body of a woman; the murderer imprisoned within the form of a savage beast; the vain and inconstant changed into birds, and the slothful and ignorant into fishes.”
Plato, in his commentary on Timaeus, fully endorses what he says respecting the fabulous invention of these foreign torments. And Strabo says that “Plato and the Brahmins of India invented fables concerning the future judgments of hell” (Hades). And Chrysippus blames Plato for attempting to deter men from wrong by frightful stories of future punishments.
Plutarch treats the subject in the same way; sometimes arguing for them with great solemnity and earnestness, and on other occasions calling them “fabulous stories, the tales of mothers and nurses.”
“Those things which make the infernal regions terrible, the darkness, the prison, the river of flaming fire, the judgment seat, &c., are all a fable, with which the poets amuse themselves, and by them agitate us with vain terrors.”
Sextus Empiricus calls them “poetic fables of hell;” and Cicero speaks of them as “silly absurdities and fables” (ineptiis ac fabulis).
“It has been handed down in mythical form from earliest times to posterity, that there are gods, and that the divine (Deity) compasses all nature. All beside this has been added, after the mythical style, for the purpose of persuading the multitude, and for the interests of the laws, and the advantage of the state.” Neander’s Church Hist., I, p. 7. , (Origin & History, 41-43.)
Mosheim, in his legendary Institutes of Ecclesiastical History, described the permeation among the Jews of these fables during the period between the testaments:
Errors of a very pernicious kind, had infested the whole body of the people (the Jews—SGD). There prevailed among them several absurd and superstitious notions concerning the divine nature, invisible powers, magic, &c., which they had partly brought with them from the Babylonian captivity, and partly derived from the Egyptians, Syrians, and Arabians who lived in their neighborhood. The ancestors of those Jews who lived in the time of our Savior had brought from Chaldaea and the neighboring countries many extravagant and idle fancies which were utterly unknown to the original founders of the nation. The conquest of Asia by Alexander the Great was also an event from which we may date a new accession of errors to the Jewish system, since, in consequence of that revolution, the manners and opinions of the Greeks began to spread among the Jews. Beside this, in their voyages to Egypt and Phoenicia, they brought home, not only the wealth of these corrupt and superstitious nations, but also their pernicious errors and idle fables, which were imperceptibly blended with their own religious doctrines. (Mosheim’s Institutes of Ecclesiastical History, Century I pt. I chap. ii.)
A similar statement is made in an old Encyclopedia Americana, cited by Thayer:
The Hebrews received their doctrine of demons from two sources. At the time of the Babylonish captivity, they derived it from the source of the Chaldaic-Persian magic; and afterward, during the Greek supremacy in Egypt, they were in close intercourse with these foreigners, particularly in Alexandria, and added to the magician notions those borrowed from this Egyptic-Grecian source. And this connection and mixture are seen chiefly in the New Testament. It was impossible to prevent the intermingling of Greek speculations. The voice of the prophets was silent. Study and inquiry had commenced. The popular belief and philosophy separated; and even the philosophers divided themselves into several sects, Sadducees, Pharisees, and Essenes; and Platonic and Pythagorean notions, intermingled with Oriental doctrines, had already unfolded the germ of the Hellenistic and cabalistic philosophy. This was the state of things when Christ appeared. (Encyclopedia Americana, art. “Demon, “ cited by Thayer (Origin & History, p. 120).
Note that Luke wrote in Ac. 7.22 that “Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians,” yet knowing the Egyptian concepts, he gave not a whiff of endless torment in any of his writings.
Thus, we see that the concept of endless torment afterlife was not found in the Old Testament. It evidently crept in among some Jews during the period between the testaments.
Thayer summarizes the intertestamental period on this subject in the following words:
The truth is, that in the four hundred years of their intercourse with the heathen, during which they were without any divine teacher of message, Pagan philosophy and superstition had, so far as regarded the future state, completely pushed aside the Law of Moses and the Scriptures of the Old Testament, and set up in place of them their own extravagant inventions and fables respecting the invisible world. (Ibid., p. 53)
The First Use of Gehenna
Most of our modern translations no longer translate hades and sheol with the word “hell.” Now we want to examine the remaining Greek word, gehenna, that is still commonly rendered “hell.” (We will discuss whether this is an appropriate translation near the end of this study.) Notice the first occurrence of this word in the Bible in Mt. 5.21-22. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said:
Ye have heard that it was said to them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: but I say unto you, that every one who is angry with his brother shall be in danger of the judgment; and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council; and whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of the hell (gehenna—SGD) of fire.
When Jesus used the term “hell of fire” in these verses, he actually used the Greek word gehenna for the first time in inspired writing.
We want to begin with this first occurrence of gehenna and then study all of its occurrences in the New Testament. In this way, we can determine the totality of the Bible’s teaching on what is now commonly called hell.
The Message of John the Baptist and Jesus
To understand Jesus’ first use of gehenna in the Sermon on the Mount, we must first put his ministry, and that of his contemporary, John the Baptist, in their proper contexts. We saw there that Malachi prophesied the coming of John the Baptist, and that Jesus confirmed that fulfillment by John. John’s preaching consisted of announcements of an imminent (“the axe lieth at the root of the tree”) fiery judgment on Israel if she didn’t repent. This was the same fiery judgment of which Malachi had spoken, and said that John would announce. With this idea of imminent fiery judgment in the context, John continued in Mt. 3.11-12:
I indeed baptize you in water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you in the Holy Spirit and in fire: whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly cleanse his threshing-floor; and he will gather his wheat into the garner, but the chaff he will burn up with unquenchable fire.
Al Maxey, a serious student of these matters, has noticed the following about the word translated “burn up” here:
This is the Greek word katakaio which means “to burn up; consume.” It signifies to completely, utterly, totally destroy with fire. It is enlightening, in the context of this study, to note that this word is used in the LXX (Septuagint) in Exodus 3:2 where Moses beholds a burning bush — “The bush was burning with fire, yet the bush was NOT consumed. (Al Maxey, “The Consuming Fire, Examining the Final Fate of the Wicked in Light of Biblical Language,” Reflections #46, June 6, 2003.)
Hence John and Jesus said the wicked would be consumed with unquenchable fire, yet we popularly read it to mean they will not be consumed, thinking folks in hell will no more be consumed than the burning bush was!
Remember this “unquenchable fire.” It will figure in our study throughout. It is the fire spoken of by Malachi, John, and Jesus.
Old Testament Background of Gehenna
Gehenna, the word hell is given for in the New Testament, is rooted in an Old Testament location. It is generally regarded as derived from a valley nearby Jerusalem that originally belonged to a man named Hinnom. Scholars say the word is a transliteration of the Valley of the Sons of Hinnom, a valley that had a long history in the Old Testament, all of it bad. Hence, Gehenna is a proper name like the Rio Grande Valley of Texas and New Mexico. This being true, the word should never have been translated “hell,” for as we’ll see, the two words have nothing in common.
We first find Hinnom in Josh. 1.8 and 18.16, where he is mentioned in Joshua’s layout of the lands of Judah and Benjamin. In II K. 23.10, we find that righteous King Josiah “defiled Topheth in the valley of the children of Hinnom, that no man might make his son or his daughter to pass through the fire to Molech.” Josiah, in his purification of the land of Judah, violated the idolatrous worship to the idol Molech by tearing down the shrines. Topheth (also spelled Tophet) was a word meaning literally, “a place of burning.” In II Chron. 28.3, idolatrous King Ahaz burnt incense and his children in the fire there, as did idolatrous King Manasseh in II Chron. 33.6. In Neh. 11.30, we find some settling in Topheth after the restoration of the Jewish captives from Babylon. In Jer. 19.2, 6, Jeremiah prophesied calamity coming upon the idolatrous Jews there, calling it the valley of slaughter, because God was going to slaughter the Jews there, using Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon. In Jer. 7.32, Jeremiah prophesied destruction coming upon the idolatrous Jews of his day with these words:
Therefore, behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that it shall no more be called Tophet, nor the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of slaughter; for they shall burn in Tophet, till there be no peace.
Notice the mention of Topheth, “the place of burning,” again. Isaiah also spoke of Topheth this way in Isa. 30.33, when he warned the pro-Egypt party among the Jews (i.e., those trusting in Egypt for their salvation from Babylon rather than God) of a fiery judgment coming on them. In Jer. 19.11-14, Jeremiah gave this pronouncement of judgment by Babylon on Jerusalem at the valley of Hinnom:
And the houses of Jerusalem, and the houses of the kings of Judah, shall be defiled as the place of Tophet, because of all the houses upon whose roofs they have burned incense unto all the host of heaven, and have poured out drink offerings unto other gods.
From these passages we can see that, to the Jews, the valley of Hinnom, or Topheth, from which the New Testament concept of Gehenna arose, came to mean a place of burning, a valley of slaughter, and a place of calamitous fiery judgment. Thus, Thayer in his Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, said, concerning Gehenna:
Gehenna, the name of a valley on the S. and E. of Jerusalem…which was so called from the cries of the little children who were thrown into the fiery arms of Moloch, i.e., of an idol having the form of a bull. The Jews so abhorred the place after these horrible sacrifices had been abolished by king Josiah (2 Kings xxiii.10), that they cast into it not only all manner of refuse, but even the dead bodies of animals and of unburied criminals who had been executed. And since fires were always needed to consume the dead bodies, that the air might not become tainted by the putrefaction, it came to pass that the place was called Gehenna.
Actually, since Gehenna was a proper name of a valley, it would have been called Gehenna whether or not any idolatry, burning, or dumping of garbage had ever occurred there, and it did, as we now see.
Valley of Hinnom
Fudge said concerning the history of the valley of Hinnom:
The valley bore this name at least as early as the writing of Joshua (Josh. 15:8; 18:16), though nothing is known of its origin. It was the site of child-sacrifices to Moloch in the days of Ahaz and Manasseh (apparently in 2 Kings 16:3; 21:6). This earned it the name “Topheth,” a place to be spit on or abhorred. This “Topheth” may have become a gigantic pyre for burning corpses in the days of Hezekiah after God slew 185,000 Assyrian soldiers in a night and saved Jerusalem (Isa. 30:31-33; 37:26). Jeremiah predicted that it would be filled to overflowing with Israelite corpses when God judged them for their sins (Jer. 7:31-33; 19:2-13). Josephus indicates that the same valley was heaped with dead bodies of the Jews following the Roman siege of Jerusalem about A.D. 69- 70…Josiah desecrated the repugnant valley as part of his godly reform (2 Kings 23:10). Long before the time of Jesus, the Valley of Hinnom had become crusted over with connotations of whatever is “condemned, useless, corrupt, and forever discarded.” (Edward William Fudge, The Fire That Consumes [Houston: Providential Press, 1982], p. 160.)
We need to keep this place in mind as we read Jesus’ teaching using a word referring back to this location in the Old Testament.
The Twelve Gehenna Passages in Chronological Order
In Mt. 5.21-22, Jesus used gehenna for the first time in inspired speech:
Ye have heard that it was said to them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: but I say unto you, that every one who is angry with his brother shall be in danger of the judgment, and whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of the hell of fire (gehenna—SGD).
As we mentioned earlier in this study, Jesus actually used the Greek word gehenna for the first time in inspired writing. The word had never occurred in the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint. When we read the word hell, all kinds of sermon outlines, illustrations, and ideas come to the fore of our minds. None of these came to the minds of Jesus’ listeners, for they had never heard the word before in inspired speech. It is very significant that the word did not occur even once in the Septuagint, quoted by Jesus and his apostles.
I suggest that to the Jews in Jesus’ audience, Jesus’ words referred merely to the valley southeast of Jerusalem. In their Old Testament background, Gehenna meant a place of burning, a valley where rebellious Jews had been slaughtered before and would be again if they didn’t repent, as Malachi, John the Baptist, and Jesus urged them to do. Jesus didn’t have to say what Gehenna was, as it was a well-known place to the people of that area, but his teaching was at least consistent with the national judgment announced by Malachi and John the Baptist. The closest fire in the context is Mt. 3.10-12, where John announced imminent fiery judgment on the nation of Israel.
Let’s notice the other gehenna passages to ascertain more about Jesus’ use of gehenna. As we do so, let’s analyze each passage thus: Does the passage teach things we don’t believe about an unending fiery hell, but which fit national judgment in gehenna?
The next passage is Mt. 5.29-30, where Jesus used gehenna twice when he said:
And if thy right eye causeth thee to stumble, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not thy whole body go into hell (gehenna—SGD). And if thy right hand causeth thee to stumble, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not thy whole body go into hell (gehenna— SGD).
In our traditional idea of hell, unending fire after the end of time, we normally don’t think of people having their physical limbs at that time. This is not an argument, but just the realization that we don’t think in terms of some people being in heaven with missing eyes and limbs, and some in hell with all of theirs. As William Robert West said in his excellent work on the nature of man, “No one that I know of believes that the ‘soul’ shall ‘enter into life,’ which he or she says is in heaven, with a hand of that soul in hell.” (William Robert West, If the Soul or Spirit Is Immortal, There Can Be No Resurrection from the Dead, Third Edition, originally published as The Resurrection and Immortality [Bloomington, IN: Author House, September 2006].)
However, these words do fit a national judgment. It would be better to go into the kingdom of the Messiah missing some members, than to go into an imminent national judgment of unquenchable fire with all our members. This was equivalent to John’s demand that his Jewish audience bring forth fruits worthy of repentance or receive imminent unquenchable fire. The whole body of a Jew could be cast into the valley of Gehenna in the fiery judgment of which John spoke.
The fourth time Jesus used gehenna was when he said:
And be not afraid of them that kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell [gehenna—SGD].
Again, Jesus spoke of gehenna consistently with imminent national judgment on Israel. This verse is often used to affirm that the soul of man cannot be destroyed, that we’re all born with an eternal soul, and it’s that soul that we think Jesus spoke of in this verse. This directly contradicts the plain language of Jesus. If the body and soul of man cannot be destroyed, the language of Jesus has no meaning whatsoever! To help us understand Jesus’ teaching here, let’s briefly review the Bible’s teaching concerning man being a living soul. The word soul in the Old Testament comes from the Hebrew nephesh, which fundamentally refers to man’s animal life, i.e., the life he shares with all animals. Hence, in Genesis 2.7, we read:
And Jehovah God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.
Here, Adam consisted of (1) a physical body, composed from the earth, which was not living. However, when God gave this body (2) the breath of life, Adam was a living soul (nephesh). It’s interesting that the term nephesh is applied to animals many times in that same creation chapter. For example, in Gen. 2.19, it’s applied to animals: “Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures (nephesh).” In Gen, 1.21, the same word is translated living creature: “And God created the great sea-monsters, and every living creature that moves wherewith the water swarmed.” In Gen. 1.24, it’s again translated animals: “And God said, Let the earth bring forth living creatures after their kind, cattle, and creeping things, and beasts of the earth.” In Gen. 1.30, it’s translated life: “And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the heavens, and to everything that creeps upon the earth, wherein there is life.” Hence, the term a living soul, is applied to animals as well as man. They are all living souls.”
Since both animals and man are living souls or beings, we can read the Bible’s saying that souls (nephesh) can be smitten with the sword and utterly destroyed, as in Josh. 11.11:
And they smote all the souls [nephesh] that were therein with the edge of the sword, utterly destroying them; there was none left that breathed: and he burnt Hazor with fire.
Thus, as Israel invaded Canaan, the national judgment they were carrying out on the inhabitants was referred to as destroying their souls with their swords. A similar usage of souls in the same context is in Josh. 10.35, 39:
…and they took it [the city of Eglon] on that day, and smote it with the edge of the sword; and all the souls (nephesh) that were therein he utterly destroyed that day, according to all that he had done to Lachish.
…and he took it [the region of Debir], and the king thereof, and all the cities thereof; and they smote them with the edge of the sword, and utterly destroyed all the souls that were therein; he left none remaining: as he had done to Hebron, so he did to Debir, and to the king thereof; as he had done also to Libnah, and to the king thereof.
Likewise in Lev. 23.30, we read of the penalty for working on the Day of Atonement:
Whosoever soul [nephesh] it be that doeth any manner of work in that same day, that soul will I destroy from among his people.
In none of these examples was the word soul referring to an immortal part of man. Significantly, this usage is how the Jews listening to Jesus in Mt. 10.28 and Lk. 12.4-5 would have understood such language. They knew from their Old Testament background that God could, and had many times, destroyed both bodies and souls in various national judgments.
The question arises, “What’s to keep anyone else from carrying out such judgments of destroying both bodies and souls?” The answer is absolutely nothing, if they’re capable of doing it. Not everyone is, and this passage doesn’t say that only God is capable, does it? We may have thought that only deity could destroy a soul because thought soul implied an immortal part of man. However, that wasn’t what any of these passages contemplated. The same comments apply to the following passage.
This is the fifth time Jesus used gehenna, when he said: Lk. 12.4-5
And I say unto you my friends, Be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will warn you whom ye shall fear: Fear him, who after he hath killed, hath power to cast into hell [gehenna-SGD]: yea, I say unto you, Fear him.
Here Jesus taught the same thing John taught in Mt. 3.10-12, that unquenchable fire (gehenna, Mk. 9.43) was coming upon rebellious Israel.
Notice also in verse 49 that Jesus said:
I came to cast fire upon the earth; and what do I desire, if it is already kindled?
The fiery judgment of which Jesus spoke was not far off in time and place, but imminent and earthly. In verse 56, Jesus noted that the judgment of which he spoke was imminent, for he said:
Ye hypocrites, ye know how to interpret the face of the earth and the heaven; but how is it that ye know not how to interpret this time?
The word for earth in both these verses is gn, the standard word for land or ground, not necessarily the planet, which we might think.
Thayer defined the word as:
1. arable land, 2. the ground, the earth as a standing place, 3. land, as opposed to sea or water, 4. the earth as a whole, the world. (p. 114)
This is the word used in Mt. 2.6 (the land of Judea), Mt. 2.20 (the land of Israel), Mt. 10.15 (the land of Sodom and Gomorrah), Mt. 11.24 (the land of Sodom), Mt. 14.34 (the land of Gennesaret), Jn. 3.22 (the land of Judea), Ac. 7.3 (into the land which I shall show thee), Ac. 7.6 (seed should sojourn in a strange land), Ac. 7.11 (a dearth over all the land of Egypt), etc. Thus, Jesus again spoke of imminent fiery destruction on the land of Israel, just as Malachi and John the Baptist said he would announce.
Mt. 18.9, Mk. 9.43-45
These verses contain the sixth, seventh, eight, and ninth times Jesus used the word gehenna. These are verses like Mt. 5.29-30, which speak of it being better to enter life or the kingdom without some members of one’s body rather than going into gehenna with a whole body. However, we want to pay special attention to Mark’s account, because in it, Jesus further described gehenna:
And if thy hand cause thee to stumble, cut it off: it is good for thee to enter into life maimed, rather than having thy two hands to go into hell, into the unquenchable fire [emphasis mine—SGD].
Notice that Jesus specifically said what’s coming in gehenna-unquenchable fire. John the Baptist said he would baptize with unquenchable fire, not necessarily fire that would burn unendingly, but which would not be quenched. Unquenchable fire is unstoppable! It’s fiery destruction brought about by a divine being. In Jer. 17.27, God warned the Jews of his time of imminent fiery judgment on themselves:
If ye will not hearken unto me…then will I kindle a fire in the gates of Jerusalem, and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem, and it shall not be quenched.
Likewise, in Jer. 7.20, Jeremiah foretold the same thing:
Therefore, thus saith the Lord God: Behold mine anger and my fury shall be poured out upon this place, upon man, and upon beast, and upon the trees of the field, and upon the fruit of the ground, and it shall burn, and shall not be quenched
This unquenchable fire, brought on by the Babylonians, devoured the palaces and gates of Jerusalem during Jeremiah’s lifetime, in 586 B.C.
In Ezk. 20.47-48, God promised such a national judgment on Judah:
Hear the word of the Lord: Thus says the Lord God, Behold, I am about to kindle a fire in you, and it shall consume every green tree in you, as well as every dry tree; the blazing flame will not be quenched, and the whole surface from south to north will be burned by it. And all flesh will see that I, the Lord, have kindled it; it shall not be quenched.
Of course, Babylon fulfilled these words in the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. The fire was not quenched, but Jerusalem didn’t burn unendingly from 586 B.C. on.
Likewise, in Amos 5.6, God had promised a similar judgment on the northern kingdom at the hands of the Assyrians, fulfilled in 722 B.C.:
Seek the Lord that you may live, lest He break forth like a fire, O house of Joseph, and it consume with none to quench it for Bethel.
The unquenchable fire that consumed Israel was unstoppable, but no one believes it’s still burning unendingly. Thus, when Jesus spoke of unquenchable fire in Mk. 9.43, he used language that his Jewish listeners would associate with the national judgments God had brought on nations in the Old Testament.
In fact, they had never heard such language used any other way! Of course, we have, but not from the teaching of the Bible.
Thayer mentioned the use of the word unquenchable in the Greek language by Josephus and others:
Strabo, the celebrated geographer, speaking of the Parthenon, a temple in Athens, says: “In this was the inextinguishable or unquenchable lamp” (asbestos, the very word used in Mark iii 12, Luke iii 17, and Mark ix. 43). Of course, all it means is that the lamp was kept constantly or regularly burning during the period alluded to, though extinguished or quenched ages ago.
Homer uses the phrase asbestos gelos, “unquenchable laughter.” But we can hardly suppose they are laughing now, and will laugh to all eternity.
Plutarch, the well-known author of the biographies familiarly known as “Plutarch’s Lives,” calls the sacred fire of the temple “unquenchable fire” (pur asbeston, the exact expression of Jesus), though he says in the very next sentence it had sometimes gone out.
Josephus, speaking of a festival of the Jews, says that every one brought fuel for the fire of the altar, which “continued always unquenchable,” (asbeston aei). Here we have a union of the word supposed to mean specially endless, when in the form of aionios, with the word “unquenchable,” and yet both together do not convey the idea of duration without end; for the fire of which Josephus speaks had actually gone out, and the altar been destroyed, at the time he wrote! And still he calls the fire “always unquenchable.”
Eusebius, the father of ecclesiastical history, describing the martyrdom of several Christians at Alexandria, says: “They were carried on camels through the city, and in this elevated position were scourged, and finally consumed or burned in unquenchable fire” (puri asbesto).
Here, again, we have the very phrase employed by our Lord, and applied to a literal fire, which, of course, was quenched in the short space of one hour, probably, or two hours at the longest. All that is implied is, that it burned till it had consumed the victims. (Thayer, Ibid., p. 68-69.)
These are perfect illustrations of the scriptural use and definition of the word unquenchable. Jesus used the word the way his audience had always heard it used, of something unstoppable, not endless.
In the tenth time Jesus used gehenna, he said:
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he is become so, ye make him twofold more a son of hell (gehenna—SGD) than yourselves.
These Jews knew what Gehenna was, and Jesus and John had foretold the unquenchable fiery judgment awaiting them there. He told these Jews that they were headed for it, and the people they taught were as well. It is the same national judgment he’s been speaking of thus far.
Eighteen verses later, Jesus used gehenna for the eleventh time. Continuing in the same address, he said:
Ye serpents, ye offspring of vipers, how shall ye escape the judgment of hell [gehenna—SGD]?
Just three verses later, Jesus said, in Mt. 23.36:
Verily I say unto you, All these things shall come upon this generation.
About these same things, Jesus said in Mt. 24.34:
Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass away, till all these things be accomplished.
Thus, Jesus gave the time element when this fiery destruction on the land would be carried out: in that generation, i.e., in the time of his dealing with the then present generation of Jews. To sum up, Jesus threatened the Jews in the environs of Jerusalem that they were headed for the valley named Gehenna where there would be unquenchable fire (Mk. 9.43) upon his generation (Mt. 23.36) in his generation (Mt. 24.34), when God destroys the souls of those of Jesus’ generation after killing their bodies (Lk. 12.5, Mt. 10.28). We cannot make it more precise! If hell is what Jesus said it was, hell was the unstoppable fiery destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.
There remains but one more occurrence of gehenna in the Bible. It’s the only time the word occurs outside the gospels, where James, writing to Jews shortly before the destruction of Jerusalem, said:
And the tongue is a fire: the world of iniquity among our members is the tongue, which defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the wheel of nature, and is set on fire by hell [gehenna—SGD].
While this is the only passage speaking of gehenna outside the gospels, it is consistent with how Jesus defined it. James condemned misuse of the tongue, specifically in terms Jesus used the first time he used the word in Mt. 5.22, where he spoke of cursing one’s brethren putting one in danger of the hell of fire (gehenna—SGD). In Jas. 3.9, James said:
Therewith bless we the Lord and Father; and therewith curse we men, who are made after the likeness of God: out of the same mouth cometh forth blessing and cursing.
Thus, the last time gehenna occurred in the Bible, it taught the same thing it taught in the first. The Jew of Jesus’ day that abused his brother with his tongue was in danger of imminent, fiery, national destruction. He was headed for unquenchable fire on his generation, in his generation.
We see the same imminence of this judgment against Jesus’ generation of Jews later in James. For example, in Jas. 5.5, James mentioned a day of slaughter coming. In Jas. 5.7, he mentioned the coming of the Lord. In Jas. 5.8, he said the coming of the Lord was “at hand.” In Jas. 5.9, he said “the judge standeth before the door.”
Summary of the Twelve Gehenna Passages
From these twelve gehenna passages, we learn that Gehenna would be the familiar valley on the southwest side of Jerusalem where an imminent fiery judgment was coming on the Jews of the generation in which Jesus was crucified. It was unquenchable fire on that generation in that generation. It was a national judgment against the Jews. Gehenna was to the Jews of Jesus’ day what it was to the Jews of Jeremiah’s day-where the term originated-the city dump! But it entailed all the horror of being rejected and abandoned by God to the merciless enemy who surrounded the gates and who would cause their dead carcasses to be thrown into the burning, worm-infested place. Thus, when Jesus used the term He used it in the same sense that Jeremiah did: as Jerusalem then was abandoned to Babylon’s invasion, so Jerusalem of Jesus’ day was about to be abandoned to Roman invasion-unless they repented. None of these hell passages say that anyone of our day can go to hell. None of them associate hell with Satan. None of them say that Satan’s domain is hell. Though they speak of men being killed and destroyed in Gehenna, none of them speak of men being tormented there.
As we’ve seen, the concept of endless punishment was completely foreign to inspired writing before the Law of Moses, during the Law of Moses, and now we see it’s foreign to the teaching of Jesus.
Contrast Jesus’ use of hell with traditional preaching on the subject. For example, we quote a Rev. J. Furniss, who said:
See on the middle of that red-hot floor stands a girl: she looks about sixteen years old. Her feet are bare. Listen; she speaks. “I have been standing on this red-hot floor for years! Look at my burnt and bleeding feet! Let me go off this burning floor for one moment!” The fifth dungeon is the red-hot oven. The little child is in the red-hot oven. Hear how it screams to come out; see how it turns and twists itself about in the fire. It beats its head against the roof of the oven. It stamps its little feet on the floor. God was very good to this little child. Very likely God saw it would get worse and worse, and would never repent, and so it would have to be punished more severely in hell. So God in His mercy called it out of the world in early childhood. (J. Furniss, The Sight of Hell [London and Dublin: Duffy], cited by Edward William Fudge, The Fire That Consumes [Houston: Providential Press, 1982], p. 416.)
Charles H. Spurgeon, renowned Baptist preacher, said:
When thou diest thy soul will be tormented alone-that will be a hell for it-but at the day of judgment thy body will join thy soul, and then thou wilt have twin hells, body and soul shall be together, each brimfull of pain, thy soul sweating in its inmost pore drops of blood and thy body from head to foot suffused with agony; conscience, judgment, memory, all tortured. Thine heart beating high with fever, thy pulse rattling at an enormous rate in agony, thy limbs cracking like the martyrs in the fire and yet unburnt, thyself put in a vessel of hot oil, pained yet coming out undestroyed, all thy veins becoming a road for the hot feet of pain to travel on, every nerve a string on which the devil shall ever play his diabolical tune. Fictions, sir! Again I say they are no fictions, but solid, stern truth. If God be true, and this Bible be true, what I have said is the truth, and you will find it one day to be so. (Charles H. Spurgeon, Sermon No. 66, New Park Street Pulpit, 2:105, cited by Edward William Fudge, The Fire That Consumes [Houston: Providential Press, 1982], p. 417.)
Only conceive that poor wretch in the flames, who is saying, “O for one drop of water to cool my parched tongue!” See how his tongue hangs from between his blistered lips! How it excoriates and burns the roof of his mouth as if it were a firebrand! Behold him crying for a drop of water. I will not picture the scene. Suffice it for me to close up by saying, that the hell of hells will be to thee, poor sinner, the thought that it is to be for ever. Thou wilt look up there on the throne of God-and on it shall be written, “for ever!” When the damned jingle the burning irons of their torments, they shall say, “For ever!” When they howl, echo cries, “For ever!” “For ever” is written on their racks, “For ever” on their chains; “For ever” burneth in the fire, “For ever” ever reigns.” (From a sermon preached in 1855, cited by Edward William Fudge, The Fire That Consumes [Houston: Providential Press, 1982], p. 417.)
Jonathan Edwards, famous Calvinist preacher of an earlier century, said:
So it will be with the soul in Hell; it will have no strength or power to deliver itself; and its torment and horror will be so great, so mighty, so vastly disproportioned to its strength, that having no strength in the least to support itself, although it be infinitely contrary to the nature and inclination of the soul utterly to sink; yet it will sink, it will utterly and totally sink, without the least degree of remaining comfort, or strength, or courage, or hope. And though it will never be annihilated, its being and perception will never be abolished: yet such will be the infinite depth of gloominess that it will sink into, that it will be in a state of death, eternal death.
To help your conception, imagine yourself to be cast into a fiery oven, all of a glowing heat, or into the midst of a glowing brick-kiln, or of a great furnace, where your pain would be as much greater than that occasioned by accidentally touching a coal of fire, as the heat is greater. Imagine also that your body were to lie there for a quarter of an hour, full of fire, as full within and without as a bright coal of fire, all the while full of quick sense; what horror would you feel at the entrance of such a furnace! And how long would that quarter of an hour seem to you!And how much greater would be the effect, if you knew you must endure it for a whole year, and how vastly greater still, if you knew you must endure it for a thousand years! O then, how would your heart sink, if you thought, if you knew, that you must bear it forever and ever!
That after millions of millions of ages, your torment would be no nearer to an end, than ever it was; and that you never, never should be delivered! But your torment in Hell will be immeasurably greater than this illustration represents. How then will the heart of a poor creature sink under it! How utterly inexpressible and inconceivable must the sinking of the soul be in such a case. (Jonathan Edwards, cited by A. W. Pink, Eternal Punishment [Swengel, PA: Reiner Publications, n.d.], cited by Edward William Fudge, The Fire That Consumes [Houston: Providential Press, 1982], p. 417.)
The world will probably be converted into a great lake or liquid globe of fire, in which the wicked shall be overwhelmed, which will always be in tempest, in which they shall be tossed to and fro, having no rest day and night, vast waves and billows of fire continually rolling over their heads, of which they shall forever be full of a quick sense within and without; their heads, their eyes, their tongues, their hands, their feet, their loins and their vitals, shall forever be full of a flowing, melting fire, fierce enough to melt the very rocks and elements; and also, they shall eternally be full of the most quick and lively sense to feel the torments; not for one minute, not for one day, not for one age, not for two ages, not for a hundred ages, nor for ten thousand millions of ages, one after another, but forever and ever, without any end at all, and never to be delivered. (Cited by Gary Amirault, The Ancient Inventors and Modern Perpetrators of Hell, p. 4.)
Did all that preaching come from the twelve gehenna passages we’ve just analyzed? Did any of it? We can find none of this language of red-hot floors, dungeons, red-hot ovens, vessels of hot oil, being able to see the throne of God, brick-kilns, torture racks, chains, or great furnaces anywhere in these twelve passages that deal with the subject of gehenna in the Bible. However, they are easily found in Milton’s Paradise Lost and Dante’s Inferno. .
Such concepts are also found in Islamic writings:
As for the disbelievers, they know at the moment of death that they are destined for Hell. The angels beat them up on the faces and rear ends (8:50 & 47:27), order them to evict their souls (6:93), then “snatch their souls” (79:1). The Quran teaches that the disbelievers go through 2 deaths (2:28 & 40:11). They will be put to death – a state of nothingness during which they see Hell day and night in a continuous nightmare that lasts until the Day of Judgment (40:46). Hell is not yet in existence (40:46, 89:23). (Dr. Rashad Khalifa., Submission.org)
The reader may wonder, “Well, if Jesus didn’t teach that the wicked presently living will finally go to hell, then what did he teach about the final destiny of the wicked?” First, we don’t have to know the answer to that question to know that traditional teaching on hell is Biblically bankrupt. Second, Jesus didn’t teach anything about the final destiny of the wicked, that is, at the end of time. If we’re tempted to use the account of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16), let’s recall that in this account, Lazarus, the rich man, and Abraham were all in hades (they couldn’t be seen), and the passage doesn’t address what happens after the end of time at all. Whatever the passage teaches, it doesn’t deal with the final destiny of the wicked.
One other observation deserves to be made. As we’ve seen, the word gehenna occurs sparsely in the Bible-none in the Greek Old Testament, and only twelve times in the New Testament, eleven by Jesus, and one by James. Amazingly, the word is nowhere used in the book of Acts. Luke recorded thirty years of preaching by Paul (who claimed to have declared “the whole counsel of God”) and others in Acts, yet the word is not used once. Not only does Acts not record any of the teaching on hell that we’ve just seen samples of, it doesn’t even mention the word! The gospel being preached in Acts didn’t contain such a concept at all, but it did carry a lot of preaching to Jews about the inescapable fiery judgment that was coming upon them if they didn’t repent.
Other Terminology Commonly Thought to Referto Eternal Fiery Hell
Now we want to notice other expressions of fiery judgment which we traditionally use to describe hell. These include fire burning to sheol, the worm dying not, unquenchable fire, fire that is not quenched, everlasting fire, weeping and gnashing of teeth, gnashing of teeth, fire and brimstone, rising smoke, no rest day or night, being cast into fire, and melting.
Fire Consuming a Nation
In Isa. 33.10-11, Isaiah said about Assyria:
Now I will arise, says the Lord, now I will be exalted, now I will be lifted up. You have conceived chaff, you will give birth to stubble; my breath will consume you like a fire, and the peoples will be burned to lime, like cut thorns which are burned in the fire….Who among us can live with the consuming fire? Who among us can live with continual burning?
A careful study of the Old Testament prophets shows these expressions of the Assyrians being consumed by fire, and burned to lime are expressions of national judgment upon that nation. These expressions are similar to Jesus’ statement in Lk. 12.49 that he came to send fire on the land of Israel. This is also the Old Testament basis for Jesus’ statement to the Jews in Jn. 15.6:
If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned.
Isaiah’s language was also similar to that in Dan. 7.9-12, where Daniel foretold the judgment of the beast about to overcome the saints of the Most High:
I kept looking until thrones were set up, and the Ancient of Days took His seat; His vesture was like white snow and the hair of His head like pure wool. His throne was ablaze with flames, Its wheels were a burning fire. A river of fire was flowing and coming out from before Him; Thousands upon thousands were attending Him, and myriads upon myriads were standing before Him; The court sat, and the books were opened. Then I kept looking because of the sound of the boasting words which the horn was speaking: I kept looking until the beast was slain, and its body was destroyed and given to the burning fire.
This scene portrayed the national destruction of the pagan power attempting to destroy the saints of the Most High. This is the same scene described in Rev. 20.11-15:
And I saw a great white throne, and him that sat upon it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away; and there was found no place for them. And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne; and books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged out of the things which were written in the books, according to their works. And the sea gave up the dead that were in it; and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works. And death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. And if any was not found written in the book of life, he was cast into the lake of fire.
Both of these scenes depict national judgments against a nation persecuting God’s saints, both have judgment scenes, both have people judged out of things written in the books, and both have those not pleasing God in the judgment being cast into a river or lake of fire. This national judgment goes with John’s expressions of imminence in Rev. 1.3 (“the time is at hand”), Rev. 22.6 (“things which must shortly come to pass”), and Rev. 22.10 (“Seal not up the words of the prophecy of this book: for the time is at hand”). Those who take the early date of Revelation (A.D. 67) believe these words refer to the destruction of Jerusalem, while those who take the later date for Revelation (A.D. 90-96) believe these words refer to the destruction of the Roman Empire. Whether they refer to Jerusalem or the Roman empire, they refer to a national judgment.
Fire Burning to Sheol, Consuming the Earth and Mountains
This language is generally associated with a fiery judgment at the end of time, and hell. However, in Dt. 32.22, Moses said the same about the punishment God would bring on Israel for her idolatry:
For a fire is kindled in My anger, and burns to the lowest part of Sheol, and consumes the earth with its yield, and sets on fire the foundations of the mountains.
This language described national judgment that caused a nation to vanish.
Worm Dieth Not, Fire Not Quenched
While this language is generally applied to hell, it’s not so used in any of the gehenna passages in the Bible. In Isa. 66.24, we read of God’s destruction of Jerusalem in the generation when Jesus was crucified:
Then they shall go forth and look on the corpses of the men who have transgressed against Me. For their worm shall not die, and their fire shall not be quenched; and they shall be an abhorrence to all mankind.
This passage contains nothing about conscious suffering, much less enduring to the end of time. Yet this is the same kind of language we saw in Mk. 9.47-48, the passage where Jesus described gehenna with “unquenchable fire.” There Jesus said:
It is good for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell; where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.
When Jesus spoke these words, the Bible had never used such language of anything but a national judgment.
Likewise, when John the Baptist and Jesus spoke of unquenchable fire, the Jews had never heard such language used of anything but a national judgment. For example, in Ezk. 20.47-48, God promised national judgment on Israel:
Hear the word of the Lord: Thus says the Lord God, Behold, I am about to kindle a fire in you, and it shall consume every green tree in you, as well as every dry tree; the blazing flame will not be quenched, and the whole surface from south to north will be burned by it. And all flesh will see that I, the Lord, have kindled it; it shall not be quenched.
In Amos 5.5-6, we have the same language used of national judgment on Israel again. God had promised a similar judgment on the northern kingdom at the hands of the Assyrians, fulfilled in 722 B.C.:
Seek the Lord that you may live, lest He break forth like a fire, O house of Joseph, and it consume with none to quench it for Bethel.
In Isa. 66.15-16, 24, Isaiah spoke of New Jerusalem’s enemies being burned with unquenchable fire, as he spoke of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in A.D. 70:
For behold, the Lord will come in fire, and His chariots like the whirlwind, to render His anger with fury, and His rebuke with flames of fire. For the Lord will execute judgment by fire, and by His sword on all flesh. And those slain by the Lord will be many….Then they shall go forth and look on the corpses of the men who have transgressed against Me. For their worm shall not die, and their fire shall not be quenched; and they shall be an abhorrence to all mankind.
In Jer. 21.10-12, we read of Babylon’s burning Jerusalem with unquenchable fire, a national judgment fulfilled in 586 B.C.:
For I have set My face against this city for harm and not for good, declares the Lord. It will be given into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he will burn it with fire. Then say to the household of the king of Judah, Hear the word of the Lord, O house of David, thus says the Lord: Administer justice every morning; and deliver the person who has been robbed from the power of the oppressor. That My wrath may not go forth like fire and burn with none to extinguish it, because of the evil of their deeds.
Again, at the time John the Baptist and Jesus used this language in the gospels, the Bible had only used it of national judgments.
Fire That Is Not Quenched
The same thing is true of this expression. In Jer. 4.4, Jeremiah used it of the destruction of Jerusalem. In Jer. 21.12, he used it to describe the destruction of the house of David. In Amos 5.5, 6, Amos used it of the destruction of Jerusalem. In II K. 22.17, it’s used of the destruction of Judah. In Isa. 34.10, Isaiah used it of the destruction of Edom, and in Isa. 66.24, he used it of the destruction of the enemies of the Messiah’s people. See also Jer. 7.20, 17.27, where Jeremiah used it of the destruction of Judah, and Ezk. 20.47-48, where Ezekiel spoke of God’s destruction of Jerusalem.
Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth
These words are so often thought of as applying to people suffering unending conscious torment in hell, that it will surprise many to find that the Old Testament used this language exclusively of national judgments.
In Isa. 22.12, speaking of the time Jerusalem would be destroyed by Babylon, Isaiah said:
Therefore in that day the Lord God of hosts, called you to weeping, to wailing, to shaving the head, and to wearing sackcloth.
See also Isa. 16.9, Jer. 9.1, and 48.32. The entire book of Lamentations contains such language as Jeremiah lamented the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon. In the New Testament, Jas. 5.1 uses the same kind of language to describe the weeping of the rich for fear of God’s imminent judgment on Jerusalem:
Come now, ye rich, weep and howl for your miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are moth-eaten.
This judgment was also imminent in Jas. 5.5-9, where the day of slaughter was spoken of as at hand, as the judge was standing before the door. John used this same language in Rev. 18.9, of the pagan kings lamenting the destruction of spiritual Babylon:
And the kings of the earth, who committed fornication and lived wantonly with her, shall weep and wail over her, when they look upon the smoke of her burning, standing afar off for the fear of her torment, saying, Woe, woe, the great city, Babylon, the strong city! for in one hour is thy judgment. And the merchants of the earth weep and mourn over her…
On the gnashing of teeth in particular, an adversary about to kill his victim did this in Job 16.9, Ps. 35.16, Ps. 37.12, Lam. 2.16, and Acts 7.54. Ths Psalmist used it of gnashing of teeth by the victim in Ps. 112.10, where the psalmist said:
The wicked man will see and be vexed, he will gnash his teeth and waste away: the longing of the wicked will come to nothing.
Thus, when Jesus and John the Baptist issued their warnings if the impending destruction of Jerusalem, they used language that the Old Testament had only used of national destruction.
Fire and Brimstone
In Isa. 34.9, Isaiah used this language of national judgment on Edom:
And its streams shall be turned into pitch, and its loose earth into brimstone, and its land shall become burning pitch.
In Isa. 30.33, Isaiah used it of such a judgment on Assyria:
For Topheth [the place of human sacrifice to Molech, an Assyrian god—SGD] has long been ready, indeed, it has been prepared for the king. He has made it deep and large, a pyre of fire with plenty of wood; the breath of the Lord, like a torrent of brimstone, sets it afire.
Psalm 11.6 spoke of fire and brimstone on the wicked, Ezk. 38.22 used this language to speak of national judgment on Gog, a pagan nation opposed to God’s people in the restoration after Babylonian captivity. In Rev. 14.9-11, John used fire and brimstone of national judgment on the empire attempting to eradicate the Messiah’s people. Scripture uses this language only of national judgment.
Isaiah used this language of national judgment against Edom in Isa. 34.10:
It shall not be quenched night or day; Its smoke shall go up forever; From generation to generation it shall be desolate; None shall pass through it forever and ever.
No Rest Day or Night
Isaiah used this language of national judgment on Edom in Isa. 34.10, quoted above.
Cast Into Fire
In Ezk. 5.4-5, this language described Israel being cast into the fire, in her destruction by Babylon:
And take again some of them and throw them into the fire, and burn them in the fire, from it a fire will spread to all the house of Israel…Thus says the Lord God, This is Jerusalem; I have set her at the center of the nations, with lands around her.
Thus, this expression is used consistently of national destruction.
Unfruitful Branches to Be Burned Up
In Ezk. 19.10-14, Ezekiel used this language of the national destruction of Israel:
Your mother was like a vine in your vineyard, Planted by the waters; It was fruitful and full of branches Because of abundant waters. And it had strong branches fit for scepters of rulers, And its height was raised above the clouds So that it was seen in its height with the mass of its branches. But it was plucked up in fury; It was cast down to the ground; And the east wind dried up its fruit. Its strong branch was torn off So that it withered; The fire consumed it. And now it is planted in the wilderness, In a dry and thirsty land. And fire has gone out from its branch; It has consumed its shoots and fruit, So that there is not in it a strong branch, A scepter to rule. This is a lamentation, and has become a lamentation.
In Mic. 1.2-7, God said he would melt Israel and Judah. In Ps. 75.3, the Psalmist used this language of the destruction of God’s enemies in the Old Testament. Peter may well have used this language of the destruction of Jerusalem in II Pet. 3.10-12. Like all the other expressions, melt portrays national destruction.
This section shows that none of the language we usually associate with hell is so associated in the Bible, and most of that language was used of strictly national judgments.
Is Hell Even a Proper Translation for Gehenna?
Having seen the concept involved in Jesus’ use of gehenna, that it was an unstoppable fiery punishment on his generation in his generation, we now ask whether hell is even a proper translation for gehenna. Does our English word “hell” fit the concept of gehenna we find in the teaching of Jesus?
Did Gehenna Even Need Translating?
As we have seen, Gehenna was the proper name for a location just outside Jerusalem. Why did it even need translating at all? We don’t translate other proper names, such as Gethsemane, Calvary, or Bethlehem, all in the vicinity of Jerusalem. People living far away from Jerusalem, say in Ephesus or Rome, might not have known what these names referred to, but residents of the environs of Jerusalem certainly did, and didn’t need the word translated.
When interpreting the Bible, or any other writing, for that matter, one of the fundamental rules is that we take a passage in its most literal sense unless something in the context forces us to interpret it otherwise. Thus, we should take any expression as literal, or at face value, unless the evident meaning forbids it. By evidently forbidden, we mean there’s evidence that forbids the idea that it should be taken literally. By evidence, we don’t mean, “I just hope it’s taken figuratively, or I can’t figure out what this means; so therefore, it must be figurative.” That’s not evidence. By evidence, we mean things like the correct definition of a word or something in the context or other verses that demonstrate that it is not to be taken literally.
Applying this rule to the present case, we ask, “Is there evidence that forces us to think that Gehenna is anything other than the valley just outside Jerusalem? What is the evidence that Jesus’ language cannot mean that?” In the absence of such evidence, Jesus simply warned the Jews in the region of Jerusalem, that unless they repented, their city was imminently to be destroyed.
A second rule for the interpretation of potentially figurative (non-literal) language is that expressions are figurative when the literal meaning would involve an impossibility. Applying this rule to the present case (the interpretation of Gehenna), we ask, “Does interpreting Gehenna literally involve us in an impossibility? Does interpreting ‘Jesus as warning the Jews in the region of Jerusalem that unless they repented, their city was to be imminently destroyed’ involve an impossibility?” Of course not, because historically, that is exactly what happened.
A third rule is that a passage isn’t literal if the literal view places it in conflict with another. Applying this rule to the present case, we ask, “Does interpreting Gehenna literally place these passages in conflict with any others?” Again, the answer is, obviously not, since Old Testament prophets foretold of Jerusalem’s destruction (including John the Baptist, and Jesus himself). Why didn’t translators obey these rules when interpreting Jesus’ teaching on Gehenna?
Is there anything in the context that forced them to think that Gehenna doesn’t mean exactly what it says, i.e., a physical, literal location just outside Jerusalem? Of course, people who lived far away from Jerusalem probably wouldn’t have known what Gehenna was, any more than people outside New York City may not know about Fishkills (the proper name of their municipal dump). But no one outside the region of Jerusalem was threatened by the destruction of Jerusalem. No one in Ephesus or Rome was ever threatened with the prospect of Gehenna if he didn’t repent.
No Gentile was ever threatened with the prospect of Gehenna if he didn’t repent. We are not threatened with the prospect of Gehenna if we don’t repent.
As one reviewer commented, “Of all things—Gehenna just means Gehenna!”
What Is the Origin of the English Word “Hell”?
Concerning the word “hell,” the Encyclopedia Britannica says:
Hell, the abode or state of being of evil spirits or souls that are damned to postmortem punishment. Derived from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning “to conceal,” or “to cover,” the term hell originally designed the torrid regions of the underworld, though in some religions the underworld is cold and dark. (The New Encyclopedia Britannica, Vol. 5, 15th edition [Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.], p. 813.)
Britannica’s lexicographer (whose job is to define words as they are now used) correctly defined hell as it’s used now as the place of punishment after death. However, notice that the word historically meant “a cover.” Our word “helmet” comes from the same origin, as it covers the head. Scholars tell us this word was used in the middle ages of a farmer, who would put a “hell” or “cover” over his potatoes to preserve them during the winter.
Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary says:
Hell [ME, fr. OE; akin to OE helan to conceal, OHG hella, hell, to conceal, ON hel] heathen realm of the dead, Goth halja hell, L celare to hide, conceal, Gk kalyptein to cover, conceal, Skt sarana screening, protecting, basic meaning: concealing. (Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language Unabridged, editor Philip Babcock Gove, Ph.D. [Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster Inc., 1993], p. 1051.)
Webster agrees that the Old English origin of the word means “cover.” This word had nothing to do with a place of punishment or eternal torment. Those connotations came much later, just in time, we might say, to be corrupted by Roman Catholicism into its present form. To translate “gehenna” (which didn’t contain any meaning of eternal torment or punishment), with the word “hell” (which also didn’t contain any meaning of eternal torment or punishment) isn’t a translation at all, but a substitution of a man-made doctrine into a word convenient to be corrupted.
This would be like the proper noun “Palo Duro Canyon,” a familiar feature in the Texas Panhandle near the author’s residence. People living far away have never heard of it. If someone translated the words “Palo Duro Canyon” with a completely unrelated word, and then said that new word meant “eternal torment,” it wouldn’t make sense, would it? That is exactly what happened with the proper noun Gehenna, a location familiar with inhabitants of Jerusalem. But to then suggest that the word Gehenna should be translated by the word “hell,” a word that has none of the meaning of the word Gehenna, compounds the problem. “Hell” is not a translation of Gehenna, any more than New York is a translation of Jerusalem.
Another example of this unjustified substitution of a completely unrelated English word for a Greek word is the word “Easter” in Ac. 12.4. The King James Version tells us that Herod arrested Peter:
And when he had apprehended him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four quaternions of soldiers to keep him; intending after Easter to bring him forth to the people.
The word “translated” Easter is Pascha, the standard word for Passover throughout the New Testament. The translators of the King James Version, all members of the Church of England, essentially the English version of the Roman Catholic Church, knew the word “Easter” didn’t mean Passover, and didn’t have any relation to the Passover. Rather than translate Pascha as Passover, they just jammed Easter into its place. The same thing happened when the translators jammed the word hell into the place of gehenna. Hell is no more related to gehenna than Easter is to Pascha.
Universalist J. W. Hanson wrote something on this subject worth considering, even though we do not agree with his theory of salvation:
The word should have been left untranslated as it is in some versions, and it would not be misunderstood. It was not misunderstood by the Jews to whom Jesus addressed it. Walter Balfour well says: “What meaning would the Jews who were familiar with this word, and knew it to signify the valley of Hinnom, be likely to attach to it when they heard it used by our Lord? Would they, contrary to all former usage, transfer its meaning from a place with whose locality and history they had been familiar from their infancy, to a place of misery in another world? This conclusion is certainly inadmissible. By what rule of interpretation, then, can we arrive at the conclusion that this word means a place of misery and death?”
The French Bible, the Emphatic Diaglott, Improved Version, Wakefield’s Translation and Newcomb’s retain the proper noun, Gehenna, the name of a place as well-known as Babylon.
Dr. Thayer significantly remarks: “The Savior and James are the only persons in all the New Testament who use the word. John Baptist, who preached to the most wicked of men did not use it once. Paul wrote fourteen epistles and yet never once mentions it. Peter does not name it, nor Jude; and John, who wrote the gospel, three epistles, and the Book of Revelation, never employs it in a single instance. Now if Gehenna or Hell really reveals the terrible fact of endless woe, how can we account for this strange silence?
How is it possible, if they knew its meaning and believed it a part of Christ’s teaching that they should not have used it a hundred or a thousand times, instead of never using it at all; especially when we consider the infinite interests involved? The Book of Acts contains the record of the apostolic preaching, and the history of the first planting of the church among the Jews and Gentiles, and embraces a period of thirty years from the ascension of Christ.
In all this history, in all this preaching of the disciples and apostles of Jesus there is no mention of Gehenna. In thirty years of missionary effort these men of God, addressing people of all characters and nations never under any circumstances threaten them with the torments of Gehenna or allude to it in the most distant manner! In the face of such a fact as this can any man believe that Gehenna signifies endless punishment and that this is part of divine revelation, a part of the Gospel message to the world?
These considerations show how impossible it is to establish the doctrine in review on the word Gehenna. All the facts are against the supposition that the term was used by Christ or his disciples in the sense of endless punishment. There is not the least hint of any such meaning attached to it, nor the slightest preparatory notice that any such new revelation was to be looked for in this old familiar word.”
Salvation is never said to be from Gehenna. Gehenna is never said to be of endless duration nor spoken of as destined to last forever, so that even admitting the popular ideas of its existence after death it gives no support to the idea of endless torment. (J. W. Hanson, D.D., The Bible Hell, fourth edition [Boston: Universalist Publishing House, 1888. Available on World Wide Web].)
Robert William West gave a good summary of the popular use of the word “hell”:
Hell: No such word was in their vocabulary, and they knew of no such place. No word with the meaning that the English word Hell has now was used, or known about unto long after the Bible. It is not in Greek literature in New Testaments times or before, first century writers did not use it, Josephus, or any other historian of that time did not use it, it is not in the Septuagint. A place where God will torment the lost forever after the Judgment Day was not known about. the concept of the place called hell, or the name hell is not in the bible, and does not occur in any writing of either the Hebrews or the Greeks until long after the Bible. The Old Testament Hebrew, or the New Testament Greek, has no word that is even close to today’s English word “hell.” How do we know about this place called hell? Where did hell come from? It is not in the Bible. Neither is the name “hell” in the Bible. Where did it come from? Not by faith that comes by hearing God’s word. It is from the doctrines and precepts of men [Matthew 15:9]. It was not used in the first century because it was a word that was not in their vocabulary, and a place they know nothing about. (William Robert West, If the Soul or Spirit Is Immortal, There Can Be No Resurrection from the Dead,Third Edition, originally published as The Resurrection and Immortality [Bloomington, IN: Author House, September 2006] p. 138.)
Summary of Jesus’ Teaching on Hell
False theories of eternal punishment of the wicked have done unfathomable damage in the religious realm. Untold millions of people have obeyed God purely out of fear of a false concept of hell. Other untold millions have turned their backs on God because of a false sense of hell, as described by Roman Catholic sources, and their followers in most denominations.
This study shows that when John the Baptist and Jesus used these terms, they used language familiar to the Jews whom they taught. The Jews had heard this language no other way than in scenes of national judgment. While it is easy for us to read these passages from the point of view of enduring conscious punishment, we should read them as the Jews who heard them first.
Rather than our present day beliefs about hell coming from the Bible, the caller to the radio program was right. Our beliefs come from Roman Catholic theologians. As a result of an earlier version of this material, many have asked the author to deal with the final destiny of the wicked. While we are not prepared to deal with that larger subject at present, we can see, if our conclusions are correct thus far, that the subject of the final destiny of the wicked was never part of Jesus’ teaching on gehenna or hell.
That connection was given to us courtesy of Roman Catholicism, just like it gave us purgatory, the sale of indulgences, Limbo Patrum, Limbo Infantrum, etc.
Universal Salvation is the theological position that ALL people will be saved. This concept, present from the earliest days of Christianity, is supported by numerous verses in the Bible , second in number only to those advocating Salvation by Good Works. Universalists do not reject the undeniable fact that Hell is in the Bible but contend that the function of Hell is for purification. Much later in the Christian story, when some claimed that Hell was a place for everlasting punishment, Universalists countered with their conviction that God was too good to condemn anyone to Eternal Hell! Today’s world news is saturated with the tragedies resulting from religions that insist on their own “exclusive” path to God, and Universalists are reasserting the relevance of that loving doctrine known to the earliest Christians – Salvation for ALL.
In this paper, I will attempt to make the following points clear: 1) For the first 500 years of Christianity, Christians and Christian theologians were broadly Universalist, 2) Translation/Mistranslation of the Scriptures from Greek to Latin contributed the reinterpretation of the nature of Hell, 3) Merging of Church and State fostered the corruption of Universalist thought, 4) Modern archeological findings and Biblical scholarship confirm Universalist thought among early Christians, and 5) Contemporary Christian scholars find Universalist theology most authentic to Jesus.
To examine Universal Salvation during the first 500 years of Christianity, the works of three scholars are indisputably the finest: Hosea Ballou II’s Ancient History of Universalism (1842), Edward Beecher’s History of Opinions on the Scriptural Doctrine of Retribution (1878), and John Wesley Hanson’s Universalism, the Prevailing Doctrine of the Church for its First 500 Years (1899). I have used all these resources but have broadened Universalist history to include 20 th Century discoveries and scholarship pertinent to Universalist Christianity.
IN THE BEGINNING
At its beginning, Christianity was a hopeful religion. In the words of St. Paul, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). Communal meals, a culture of sharing and a tradition of helping others were the hallmarks of the early church. Despite a paternalistic culture, women were Apostles (Lk 8:2-3) and ministers (Rom 16: 1).
One of the best clues to early Christian theology is in artwork discovered at the Catacombs in Rome . Graves of common people were adorned with drawings of Jesus as the Good Shepherd – beardless and virtually indistinguishable from the Greco-Roman savior figure Orpheus. Other popular images there were the Last Supper and the Magi at the birth of Jesus. Occasionally in early Christian art, Jesus is shown working miracles using a magic wand! Significantly, the crucifix is noticeably absent from early art, as is any depiction of judgment scenes or Hell.
As we move into the middle of the 2 nd Century, a shift takes place from writing works considered “Holy Scripture” to interpretations of it. The first writer on the theology on Christian Universalism whose works survive is St. Clement of Alexandria (150 – 215CE). He was the head of the theology school at Alexandria which, until it closed at the end of the 4 th Century, was a bastion of Universalist thought. His pupil, Origen (185 – 254 CE), wrote the first complete presentation of Christianity as a system, and Universalism was at its core. Origen was the first to produce a parallel Old Testament that included Hebrew, a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew, the Septuagint, and three other Greek translations. He was also the first to recognize that some parts of the Bible should be taken literally and others metaphorically. He wrote a defense of Christianity in response to a pagan writer’s denigration of it.
Prior to the Roman Catholic Church’s condemnation of all of Universalist thought in the 6 th Century, Church authority had already reached back in time to pick out several of Origen’s ideas they deemed unacceptable. Some that found disfavor were his insistence that the Devil would be saved at the end of time, the pre-existence of human souls, the reincarnation of the wicked, and his claim that the purification of souls could go on for many eons. Finally, he was condemned by the Church because his concept of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit did not agree with the “official” Doctrine of the Trinity formulated a century after his death! After the 6 th Century, much of his work was destroyed; fortunately, some of it survived.
According to Edward Beecher, a Congregationalist theologian, there were six theology schools in Christendom during its early years – four were Universalist ( Alexandria , Cesarea, Antioch , and Edessa ). One advocated annihilation ( Ephesus ) and one advocated Eternal Hell (the Latin Church of North Africa). Most of the Universalists throughout Christendom followed the teachings of Origen. Later, Theodore of Mopsuestia had a different theological basis for Universal Salvation, and his view continued in the break-away Church of the East (Nestorian) where his Universalist ideas still exist in its liturgy today.
“HARROWING OF HELL” IN CANON AND APOCRYPHA
One of the primary beliefs of the early Christians was that Jesus descended into Sheol/Hades in order to preach to the dead and rescue all of those, as it clearly says in I Peter 3:20, “who in former times did not obey.” This terminology is familiar to anyone who has recited the Apostle’s Creed which states that Jesus descended to Hell after his death, before his resurrection. Known as the “Harrowing of Hell,” this is a major theme in Universalism because it underscores the early belief that judgment at the end of life is not final and that all souls can be saved after death. Interestingly, in the early Church there were not only prayers for the dead, but St. Paul notes there were also baptisms for the dead (I Cor 15: 29).
In later times, the church attempted to reinterpret the text to narrow the categories of people saved from Hell to the Jewish prophets and the righteous pagans. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan take this approach in their latest book, The Last Week.(Curiously, they omit the key verse “those who in former times did not obey.”) However, in his earlier book, The Cross That Spoke , John Dominic Crossan is more favorable to the Universalist view. For example, he relates a story from the non-canonical Gospel of Peter in which two angels come down from Heaven to get Jesus out of the tomb on Easter morning. As they are carrying him out and are about to ascend to Heaven, a voice from Heaven asks them, “Hast thou preached to them that sleep?” The wooden cross that is somehow following them out of the tomb speaks and says, “Yes!” In discussing Jesus’ decent into Hell, Crossan also sites another classic Universalist text, I Peter 4:6 which says, “For this is why the Gospel was preached even to the dead, that though they were judged in flesh like men they might live in the spirit like God.” He also notes that in Colossians 2:15, Jesus, “disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them,” and in Ephesians 4:8-9:
Therefore it is said, “When he ascended on high, he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.” (When it says, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all heavens, so that he might fill all things.”)
Understanding the role of the “Harrowing of Hell” has been expanded by recent archeological findings and modern Biblical scholarship. Among the discoveries over the past 100 years is the Apocalypse of Peter , written about 135 C.E. (not to be confused with the Gnostic Apocalypse of Peter discovered at Nag Hammadi in 1947). For a time, it was considered for inclusion into the New Testament instead of the Revelation to John . It is referred to in the Muratorian Canon of the early Church, as well as in the writings of St. Clement of Alexandria . (It should be noted that the Universalist passage from theApocalypse of Peter is found in the Ethiopian text but is not part of the fragment text found at Akhmim , Egypt .) In the Ethiopic copy, Peter asks Jesus to have pity on the people in Hell, and Jesus says they will eventually all be saved. Later, Peter (who is writing to Clement) says to keep that knowledge a secret so that foolish men may not see it. This same theme is repeated in the Second Book of the Sibyline Oracles in which the saved behold the sinners in Hell and ask that mercy be shown them. Here, the sinners are saved by the prayers of the righteous.
Another 2 nd Century work, The Epistle to the Apostles , also states that our prayers for the dead can affect their forgiveness by God. The 2 nd Century Odes of Solomon , which was discovered in the early 20 th Century, was for a time considered to be Jewish, then Gnostic, and more recently, early Christian. Its theme is that Jesus saves the dead when they come to him in Hell and cry out, “Son of God, have pity on us!” In the 4 th /6 th Century Syriac Book of the Cave of Treasures , Jesus “preached the resurrection to those who were lying in the dust” and “pardoned those who had sinned against the Law.” In the Gospel of Nicodemus (a.k.a. Acts of Pilate ), a 4 th /5 th Century apocryphal gospel, Jesus saves everyone in the Greek version but rescues only the righteous pre-Christians in the Latin translation. In What is Gnosticism? , Karen King identifies the Nag Hammadi Gospel of Truth as teaching Universal Salvation; she states that The Apocryphon of John (a.k.a. The Secret Book of John ) declares all will be saved except apostates. In the Coptic Book of the Resurrection , all but Satan and his ministers are pardoned.
Interestingly, belief in the “Harrowing of Hell” has had some validation by modern day near-death experiencers (people who have been resuscitated following a period of clinical death). While most near-death experiencers report a “heavenly” experience of Light and overwhelming love, many of those whose experience begins in “hellish” turmoil and darkness say that their descent was reversed when they called out to God or Jesus.
THE CHURCH-STATE CONUNDRUM
Many think that Christianity was at its best during its first 300 years – a time of immense diversity of opinion, creativity, and expectation. Although the official sanction of governments provided the Church with some very critical benefits (like not feeding Christians to lions!), some of the vitality of the young Church was inevitably compromised. Its legitimization in the 4 th Century, first by the king of Armenia , then by Constantine of Rome, and finally by the king of Ethiopia , led to a new era for Christianity. Constantine , being a military man, wanted standardization in all things. The Emperor called the Counsel of Nicea because at the time, the Bishop of Rome was not yet Pope (in the way we think of him today). According to Roman Catholic scholar Jean-Guy Vaillancourt, the Pope did not become the head of the Roman Church until 752 CE. At that time, Charlemagne recognized the Bishop of Rome as the singular Pope, and Pope Leo III reciprocated by legitimizing Charlemagne as the Holy Roman Emperor. It should be noted that the 6 th Century Emperor Justinian – NOT the Bishop of Rome – called the Church counsel where Universalism was condemned.
JESUS SEMINAR “ENDORSES” CHRISTIAN UNIVERSALISM
Of all modern Biblical scholars, none have gained so much publicity and been so readily accessible to the lay reader than a group called the Jesus Seminar. Over 150 Biblical scholars pooled their knowledge for the express purpose of analyzing the Gospels to determine which words and deeds were authentic to Jesus. Their resulting “Scholars’ Editions” of the Gospels were remarkable for the few passages that were thought to be original to Jesus. For Universalists, the most significant result of the Seminar’s scrutiny was their inadvertent highlighting of many Universalist passages. By far, verses advocating Universal Salvation received the most endorsement from the Jesus Seminar as authentic to Jesus. While they rejected some of the “zingers” (e.g., Jn 12:32), virtually all Jesus’ classic parables that have been interpreted as Universalist since the beginning of Christian theology were judged by the Jesus Seminar to be genuine to him, including: The Parable of the Lost Sheep (Matt 18:12-13; Lk 15:4-6), The Workers in the Vineyard (Matt 20:1-15), The Parable of the Lost Coin (Lk 15:8-9), and the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Lk 15:11-32). Also, the verses relating to the fact that Hell is not permanent and used only for rehabilitation/purification were determined authentic by the Jesus Seminar. They are: Settle with Your Opponent (Matt 5:25 -26; Lk 12:58 -59) and the Parable of the Wicked Servant (Matt 18:23 -34). Finally, although it was mutilated in part by the Jesus Seminar scholars, Jesus’ teaching to be like God and love our enemies as God is good to the just and the unjust (Matt 5:44-46) was voted genuine to Jesus.
It is noteworthy that the Seminar rejected all of the verses relating to the “Jesus Saves” theology as original to Jesus. John Calvin’s Predestination fared only slightly better with only two verses seen as original to Jesus (Matt 6:10 , 10:29 ). Some classic sayings of Jesus on Good Works were deemed authentic, such as Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30 -35), Jesus on forgiveness (Matt 6:12 ), and the Parable of the Sower (Mk 4:3-8; Matt 13:3-8; Lk 8:5-8). (Tentmaker Ministries does NOT endorse Jesus Seminar.)
MISTRANSLATIONS AND MISANTHROPES
One of the essential tenents of Universalism is that all punishment in Hell is remedial, curative, and purifying. As long as Western Christianity was mainly Greek – the language of the New Testament – it was Universalist.
Interestingly, NONE of the Greek-speaking Universalists ever felt the need to explain Greek words such as “aion” and “aionion.” In Greek, an aion (in English, usually spelled “eon”) is an indefinite period of time, usually of long duration. When it was translated into Latin Vulgate, “aion” became “aeternam” which means “eternal.” These translation errors were the basis for much of what was written about Eternal Hell.
The first person to write about Eternal Hell was the Latin North African Tertullian who is considered the Father of the Latin Church. As most people reason, Hell is a place for people you don’t like to go! Tertullian fantasized that not only the wicked would be in Hell but also every philosopher and theologian who ever argued with him! He envisioned a time when he would look down from Heaven at those people in Hell and laugh with glee!
By far, the main person responsible for making Hell eternal in the Western Church was St. Augustine (354-430 CE). Augustine’s Christian mother did not kick him out of her house for not marrying the girlfriend he got pregnant, but she did oust him when he became a Manichean Gnostic. Later, he renounced Manichaeism and returned to the Roman Church where he was made Bishop of Hippo in North Africa . He did not know Greek, had tried to study it, but stated that he hated it. Sadly, it is his misunderstanding of Greek that cemented the concept of Eternal Hell in the Western Church . Augustine not only said that Hell was eternal for the wicked but also for anyone who wasn’t a Christian. So complete was his concept of God’s exclusion of non-Christians that he considered un-baptized babies as damned; when these babies died, Augustine softened slightly to declare that they would be sent to the “upper level” of Hell. Augustine is also the inventor the concept of “Hell Lite”, a.k.a. Purgatory, which he developed to accommodate some of the Universalist verses in the Bible . Augustine acknowledged the Universalists whom he called “tender-hearted,” and included them among the “orthodox.”
At this point, it should be noted that many in the early Church who were Universalist cautioned others to be careful whom they told about Universalism, as it might cause some of the weaker ones to sin. This has always been a criticism of Universalism by those who think that people will sin with abandon if there is no threat of eternal punishment. In fact, modern psychology has affirmed that love is a much more powerful motivator than fear, and knowing that God loves each and every person on the planet as much as God loves you does not promote delinquency. Conversely, it is Christian exclusivity that leads to the marginalization of other human beings and the thinking that war and cruelty to the “other” are justified since they’re going to Hell anyway! This kind of twisted thinking led to the persecution of the pagans, the witch hunts, the Inquisition, and the Holocaust.
UNIVERSALISM IN THE EAST AND ZOROASTRIAN ROOTS
A slightly different type of Universalist theology was taught in the Aramaic speaking Church of the East (Nestorian). Virtually all of the Greek-speaking Universalists built on Origen’s system that emphasizes free will. Origen saw an endless round of purification and relapse, but that in the end, God’s love would draw all back to God. According to Dr. Beecher, Theodore of Mopsuestia (350-428 CE) saw, “sin as an unavoidable part of the development and education of man; that some carry it to a greater extent than others, but that God will finally overrule it for their final establishment in good.” Theodore of Mopsuestia is known in the Nestorian Church as “The Interpreter.” The 5 th Century with its ongoing feuding councils saw major splits in the Christian Church. The Coptic Church of Egypt and Ethiopia split in 451CE; the Armenian Church left about the same time; the Church of the East (Nestorian) left in 486 CE. At the time of the split, the Nestorian Church was larger in numbers than the Roman Church. It included all of the Sasanian Persian Empire (which stretched from the Euphrates to India ), along the Silk Road through modern Kazakhstan , Turkmenistan , Uzbekistan , through Tibet , Mongolia , and into China . Additionally, it had established Christian churches in the south of India by the end of the 2 nd Century. While it suffered under Moslem invasion in the 7 th Century, it continued to grow in the Far East until being virtually annihilated by Tamerlane in the 14 th Century. Today, only a quarter-million remain. The Nestorian Church continued to be Universalist for most of its history, and a Universalist liturgy written by Theodore of Mopsuestia is still in use today. Also, the Book of the Bee written in the 13 th Century by Bishop Solomon of Basra includes the Universalist teachings of Isaac, Diodorus, and Theodore in Chapter 60. We know from Martin Palmer in the Jesus Sutras that the Nestorians who proselytized in China in the early days had only two Christian books: theGospel of Matthew and an early Christian prayer book known as the Didache or The Teachings of the Twelve Apostles . The appeal of Christianity in the Far East was that Jesus could save you and take you to Paradise , avoiding the risk of an undesired reincarnation.
Christopher Buck notes in his article, “The Universality of the Church of the East: How Persian Was Persian Christianity?” that the success of Christian conversions in the East may have been the affinity of Christianity with Zoroastrianism. Unlike Manichaeism and other Gnostic Christianity, Zoroastrianism (like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) maintains that the world was created good and was corrupted by evil. In Zoroastrianism, the basic tenents are: God-Satan, Good-Evil, Light-Darkness, Angels-Demons, Death-Judgment, Heaven-Hell, and at the end of time, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. Zoroaster was a Universalist, as he says in his Hymns to God , “If you understand these laws of happiness and pain which God has ordained, O Mortals, there is a long period of punishment for the wicked and reward for the pious, but thereafterEternal Joy shall rein forever ” (Y 30:11 emphasis added ). In Zoroastrianism, while God is wholly good, there is no doctrine of forgiveness; your good deeds must always outnumber your bad deeds in order to avoid purification in Hell. Christianity brought Jesus’ message that God forgives sins for the asking! Also, one doesn’t need a priest as an intercessor or a sacrifice to obtain God’s grace. This affinity is best illustrated in a 13 th Century Christmas liturgy of the Nestorian Church which states that, “The Magi (Zoroastrian priests) came . they opened their treasures and offered him (Jesus) their offerings as they were commanded by their teacher Zoroaster who prophesized to them.” What is implicit in the Gospel of Matthew is explicit in this Nestorian liturgy. Zoroaster had predicted the coming of future saviors “from the nations” (e.g., countries other than Persia ). If you wanted to make converts in a Zoroastrian world, the story of the Magi at the birth of Jesus was your entree.
UNIVERSALISM OFFICIALLY CONDEMNED IN THE WEST
Although the Roman Church had condemned some of Origen’s other ideas, his Universalism was never questioned, nor were the writings of any other Universalist. There were even Universalists among the Gnostics; although Gnosticism had been condemned heartily by the Church, Universalism had never been listed among their errors. If Universal Salvation were heretical, how could the Church explain all those avowed Universalists who had already been made Saints (St. Clement of Alexandria , St. Macrina the Younger and her brother, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and others)? As mentioned earlier, it was the Emperor Justinian who initiated the deed.
Universalism had never been officially condemned prior to Justinian’s convening the Council of Constantinople in 553CE, but this momentous decision was made against a background of turmoil in the Church and Western civilization. Latin-speaking Christians in the Church began to overshadow the Greek-speakers, and the Nestorian Church of the East had recently split from the Catholic West. (In all fairness, the Latin Church was doing well to have anyone who could read Latin – much less Greek.) Less than eighty years earlier, the Western Roman Empire had fallen to pagan barbarians. The Roman Church had long before become the handmaiden of the State. What could be better for control in an age of superstition and fear than to make Hell eternal and Salvation possible only through the Church? Less than a century later, all of Christianity (Latin, Greek, Armenian, Coptic, as well as the Nestorian Church of the East) would be either partially or totally overrun by Moslem conquerors.
Compare the hopeful, positive art of the early Church in the Catacombs with the scenes of Hell and damnation on the wall of almost every Medieval Catholic Cathedral. These scenes were made even more terrifying by the Latin mistranslation of Jesus’ Parable of the Sheep and Goats (Matt 25:31-46). In the West, Augustine trumped Origen, and what was an “eon” in the original Greek became “eternal” in Latin.
While Universalism continued in the Church of the East, in the West from the 6 th Century forward, it was relegated to the realm of mystics until the Reformation when the idea of Universal Salvation was resurrected. Universalism continues today as a theological position among a fair number of Christians in a variety of denominations. It is ripe for revival.
I am taking up here a basic theme that I have dealt with elsewhere but which is so essential that I have no hesitation in repeating myself. It is the recognition that all people from the beginning of time are saved by God in Jesus Christ, that they have all been recipients of his grace no matter what they have done.
This is a scandalous proposition. It shocks our spontaneous sense of justice. The guilty ought to be punished. How can Hitler and Stalin be among the saved? The just ought to be recognized as such and the wicked condemned.
But in my view this is purely human logic which simply shows that there is no understanding of salvation by grace or of the meaning of the death of Jesus Christ. The proposition also runs counter to the almost unanimous view of theology. Some early theologians proclaimed universal salvation but almost all the rest finally rejected it. Great debates have taken place about foreknowledge and predestination, but in all of them it has been taken for granted that reprobation is normal.
A third and the most serious objection to the thesis is posed by the biblical texts themselves. Many of these talk about condemnation, hell, banishment into outer darkness, and the punishment of robbers, fornicators, idolaters, etc. As we proceed we must overcome these obstacles and examine the theological reasons which lead me to believe in universal salvation, the texts that seem to be against it, and a possible solution.
But I want to stress that I am speaking about belief in universal salvation. This is for me a matter of faith. I am not making a dogma or a principle of it. I can say only what I believe, not pretending to teach it doctrinally as the truth.
1. God Is love
My first simple thesis is that if God is God, the Almighty, the Creator of all things, the Omnipresent, then we can think of no place or being whatever outside him. If there were a place out side him, God would not be all in all, the Creator of all things. How can we think of him creating a place or being where he is not present? What, then, about hell? Either it is in God, in which case he is not universally good, or it is outside him, hell having often been defined as the place where God is not. But the latter is completely unthinkable. One might simply say that hell is merely nothingness. The damned are those who are annihilated. But there is a difficulty here too. Nothingness does not exist in the Bible. It is a philosophical and mathematical concept. We can represent it only by a mathematical sign. God did not create ex nihilo, out of nothing. Genesis 1:2 speaks of tohu wabohu (“desert and wasteland” RSV “formless and void’) or of tehom (“the deep’). This is not nothing.
Furthermore, the closest thing to nothingness seems to be death. But the Bible speaks about enemies, that is, the great serpent, death, and the abyss, which are aggressors against God’s creation and are seeking to destroy it. These are enemies against which God protects his creation. He cannot allow that which he has created and called good to be destroyed, disorganized, swallowed up, and slain. This creation of God cannot revert to nothing. Death cannot issue in nothingness. This would be a negation of God himself, and this is why the first aspect seems to me to be decisive. Creation is under constant threat and is constantly upheld.
How could God himself surrender to nothingness and to the enemy that which he upholds in face and in spite of everything? How could he allow a power of destruction and annihilation in his creation? If he cannot withstand the force of nothingness, then we have to resort to dualism (a good God and a bad God in conflict and equal), to Zoroastrianism. Many are tempted to dualism today. But if God is unique, if he alone has life in himself, he cannot permit this threat to the object of his love.
But it is necessary that “the times be accomplished,” the times when we are driven into a corner and have to serve either the impotence of the God of love or the power of the forces of destruction and annihilation. We have to wait until humanity has completed its history and creation, and every possibility has been explored. This does not merely imply, however, that at the end of time the powers of destruction, death, the great serpent, Satan, the devil, will be annihilated, but much more. How can we talk about nothingness when we receive the revelation of this God who will be all in all? When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself also will be subjected to him who put all things under him, that God may be all in all (1 Cor. 15:28).
If God is, he is all in all. There is no more place for nothingness. The word is an empty one. For Christians it is just as empty as what it is supposed to denote. Philosophers speak in vain about something that they can only imagine or use as a building block, but which has no reality of any kind. ( 1 )
The second and equally essential factor is that after Jesus Christ we know that God is love. This is the central revelation. How can we conceive of him who is love ceasing to love one of his creatures? How can we think that God can cease to love the creation that he has made in his own image? This would be a contradiction in terms. God cannot cease to be love.
If we combine the two theses we see at once that nothing can exist outside God’s love, for God is all in all. It is unthinkable that there should exist a place of suffering, of torment, of the domination of evil, of beings that merely hate since their only function is to torture. It is astounding that Christian theology should not have seen at a glance how impossible this idea is. Being love, God cannot send to hell the creation which he so loved that he gave his only Son for it. He cannot reject it because it is his creation. This would be to cut off himself.
A whole theological trend advances the convenient solution that God is love but also justice. He saves the elect to manifest his love and condemns the reprobate to manifest his justice. My immediate fear is that this solution does not even correspond to our idea of justice and that we are merely satisfying our desire that people we regard as terrible should be punished in the next world. This view is part of the mistaken theology which declares that the good are unhappy on earth but will be happy in heaven, whereas the wicked are successful on earth but will be punished in the next world. Unbelievers have every reason to denounce this explanation as a subterfuge designed to make people accept what happens on earth. The kingdom of God is not compensation for this world.
Another difficulty is that we are asked to see God with two faces as though he were a kind of Janus facing two ways. Such a God could not be the God of Jesus Christ, who has only one face. Crucial texts strongly condemn two-faced people who go two different ways. These are the ones that Jesus Christ calls hypocrites. If God is double-minded, there is duplicity in him. He is a hypocrite. We have to choose: He is either love or he is justice. He is not both. If he is the just judge, the pitiless Justiciar, he is not the God that Jesus Christ has taught us to love. Furthermore, this conception is a pure and simple denial of Jesus Christ. For the doctrine is firm that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, died and was willing to die for human sin to redeem us all: I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself (John 12:32), satisfying divine justice. All the evil done on earth from Adam’s break with God undoubtedly has to be judged and punished. But all our teaching about Jesus is there to remind us that the wrath of God fell entirely on him, on God in the person of the Son. God directs his justice upon himself; he has taken upon himself the condemnation of our wickedness. What would be the point, then, of a second condemnation of individuals?
Was the judgment passed on Jesus insufficient? Was the price that was paid-the punishment of the Son of God-too low to meet the demands of God’s justice? This justice is satisfied in God and by God for us. From this point on, then, we know only the face of the love of God.
This love is not sentimental acquiescence. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Heb. 10:31). God’s love is demanding, “jealous,” total, and indivisible. Love has a stern face, not a soft one. Nevertheless, it is love. And in any case this love excludes double predestination, some to salvation and others to perdition. It is inconceivable that the God of Jesus Christ, who gives himself in his Son to save us, should have created some people ordained to evil and damnation.
There is indeed a predestination, but it can be only the one predestination to salvation. In and through Jesus Christ all people are predestined to be saved. Our free choice is ruled out in this regard. We have often said that God wants free people. He undoubtedly does, except in relation to this last and definitive decision. We are not free to decide and choose to be damned. To say that God presents us with the good news of the gospel and then leaves the final issue to our free choice either to accept it and be saved or to reject it and be lost is foolish. To take this point of view is to make us arbiters of the situation. In this case it is we who finally decide our own salvation.
This view reverses a well-known thesis and would have it that God proposes and man disposes. Without question we all know of innumerable cases in which people reject revelation. Swarms are doing so today. But have they any real knowledge of revelation? If I look at countless presentations of the Word of God by the churches, I can say that the churches have presented many ideas and commandments that have nothing whatever to do with God’s revelation. Rejecting these things, human commandments, is not the same as rejecting the truth. And even if the declaration or proclamation of the gospel is faithful, it does not itself force a choice upon us.
If people are to recognize the truth, they must also have the inner witness of the Holy Spirit. These two things are indispensable, the faithful declaration of the gospel, the good news, by a human being and the inner witness in the hearer of the Holy Spirit, who conveys the assurance that it is the truth of God. The one does not suffice without the other. Thus when those who hear refuse our message, we can never say that they have chosen to disobey God.
The human and divine acts are one and the same only in the Word of Jesus. When he told his hearers not to be unbelieving but to believe, if they refused then they were rejected. In our case, however, we cannot say that there is an act of the Holy Spirit simultaneously with our proclamation. This may well be the point of the well-known text about the one sin that cannot be pardoned, the sin against the Holy Spirit (cf. Matt. 12:31-32). But we can never know whether anyone has committed it. However that may be, it is certain that being saved or lost does not depend on our own free decision.
I believe that all people are included in the grace of God. I believe that all the theologies that have made a large place for damnation and hell are unfaithful to a theology of grace. For if there is predestination to perdition, there is no salvation by grace. Salvation by grace is granted precisely to those who without grace would have been lost. Jesus did not come to seek the righteous and the saints, but sinners. He came to seek those who in strict justice ought to have been condemned.
A theology of grace implies universal salvation. What could grace mean if it were granted only to some sinners and not to others according to an arbitrary decree that is totally contrary to the nature of our God? If grace is granted according to the greater or lesser number of sins, it is no longer grace-it is just the opposite because of this accountancy. Paul is the very one who reminds us that the enormity of the sin is no obstacle to grace:Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more (Rom. 5:20). This is the key statement. The greater the sin, the more God’s love reveals itself to be far beyond any judgment or evaluation of ours. This grace covers all things. It is thus effectively universal.
I do not think that in regard to this grace we can make the Scholastic distinctions between prevenient grace, expectant grace, conditional grace, etc. Such adjectives weaken the thrust of the free grace of the absolute sovereign, and they result only from our great difficulty in believing that God has done everything. But this means that nothing in his creation is excluded or lost.
( 1 ) This is why books like Satre’s Being und Nothingness and H. Carre’s Point d’appui pris sur le neant are so feeble.
OK, so you are stuck in the trap of organized Christianity and have been told that unless you accept Christ as your personal lord and savior you are going to go to hell. You might have even already read the articles on Universal Salvation, but still might have the hebejebees. So, for those of you who interpret the bible to be the infallible, inerrant word of God, today is your lucky day! Did you know that there is a solid scriptural case to be made against the idea of Hell? Many non-Christians have rejected the concept of Hell, but it may come as a surprise to learn that there is a growing number of Bible-believing Christians who also reject the notion—not in spite of Scripture but because of it! An open and unbiased study of the Bible, including many key Greek and Hebrew words as well as Church history will reveal some surprising things.
For instance, did you know that……..
“Hell” Is Not an Old Testament doctrine:
Popular myth: Hell is an established Biblical doctrine that is in the Bible from start to finish. This is not true! Two thirds of the Bible (the Old Testament) do not mention Hell at all. (“Sheol,” the Old Testament word that is sometimes translated as Hell, only means “grave” by definition, and it is where everyone in the Old Testament went when they died). Thus the Old Testament does not truly contain the concept of Hell!
Think about it………
If Hell is real, why didn’t God make that warning plain right at the beginning of the Bible? God said the penalty for eating of the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was death–not “eternal life” in fire and brimstone.
If Hell is real, why wasn’t Cain warned about it, or Sodom and Gomorrah, or any of those who committed the earliest recorded “sins?”
If Hell is real why didn’t Moses warn about this fate in the Ten Commandments or the Mosaic Covenant consisting of over 600 laws, ordinances, and warnings? The Mosaic Law simply stated blessings and cursings in this lifetime.
If Hell is real, why are its roots in paganism, rather than the Bible? Many nations surrounding Israel in the Old Testament believed in Hell-like punishment in the afterlife, for they served bloodthirsty and evil “gods.”
If Hell is real, why was the revelation of it first given to pagan nations, instead of God’s covenant people? Did God expect Israel to learn about the afterlife from the Pagan Gentiles?
If Hell is real, why did God tell the Jews that burning their children alive in the fire to the false god Molech, (in the valley of Gehenna) was so detestable to Him? God said that such a thing “never even entered His mind” (Jer. 32:35).
How could God say such a thing to Israel, if He has plans to burn alive a good majority of His own creation in everlasting fires?
**FACT: The King James Bible erroneously translates the word “Sheol” as Hell a total of 31 times in the Old Testament, thus setting a foundation for that doctrine in the New Testament as well as the majority of Bible translations to follow the KJV. Even so, most new translations have completely eliminated Hell from the Old Testament, as honest and better scholarship has demanded. The Jewish version of the Old Testament (the Tanakh) has no concept of Hell in it. The importance of this fact cannot be over-emphasized. If a doctrine does not appear as seed form in the books of the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms, it cannot fairly be taught as a major biblical doctrine, if indeed it can be taught as biblical at all!
Hell Is Not a New Testament Doctrine:
Popular myth: Jesus spoke of Hell more than He did of Heaven. This is not true! Jesus warned the Jews many times of impending destruction, both nationally and individually. He used several different terms to refer to punishment/destruction, some of which were erroneously translated as the same word, “Hell” by Bible translators. We do not deny that God will indeed judge the whole world, and nor do we wish to make light of His judgments. Rather, we are challenging the belief that His judgment on sin and unbelief is eternal torment/Hell and never-ending separation from God. Certainly, Jesus spent a lot of his ministry warning people to repent or reap the consequences, (particularly “Gehenna.”) But could we be reading more into His warnings than He originally intended?
Think about it…….
If Hell is real, why were most of the warnings pertaining to punishment/Gehenna directed to Israel, particularly the Lord’s own disciples as well as the Pharisees? The first great cluster of references to Gehenna, are found in the Sermon on the Mount (Mat 5:22, 29, 30), Jesus’ great sermon to His disciples in which He warned that one was in danger of Gehenna for the likes of calling someone a fool. This is a far cry from our modern Evangelical interpretation that says not accepting Jesus as your Savior is what sends someone to Hell.
If Hell is real, aren’t we taking verses out of context when we warn sinners/outsiders of Hell, when in the original context they were directed to covenant people?
Since the concept of Hell doesn’t exist in the Old Testament, how could Jesus and his disciples teach that salvation was deliverance from a place that is not even found in their Scriptures? And if He was introducing the subject for the first time, why did He do it so casually, as though His listeners already understood what He was talking about?
If Hell is real, since some English translations use the word Hell for the Greek word “Gehenna,” in the New Testament, why didn’t this same place (Gehenna) get translated Hell in the many places where it appears in the Hebrew form “ga ben Hinnom” in the Old Testament?
If the Jews did not understand “Gehenna” as a symbol of everlasting torture, but rather as a place of shame, filth, and defilement (where Israel participated in the grossest form of idol worship), why does modern theology ascribe more to the word than the original meaning did? The teaching of Gehenna has evolved in Jewish teachings to include punishment in the afterlife; but even today, Gehenna still does not mean “endless” punishment to the Jews.
If Hell is real how could the Apostle Paul (who was especially commissioned by God to preach the gospel to the nations) say that he had declared the entire counsel of God (Acts 20:27), when indeed he never warned of “Hell” in any of his letters? If Hell is real, wouldn’t Paul, of all people, warn of it repeatedly?
If Hell is real, the sin/death of Adam has had a far more powerful effect on the world than the resurrection life of Christ! And yet Paul declares in Romans 5 that Christ’s victory is far greater than Adam’s transgression! Listen to Paul’s confidence in the work of Christ! If Paul believed in eternal hell for the majority of men, how could he write the following verses?
“…Just as the result of one trespass (Adam’s) was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness (Christ’s) was justification that brings life for all men. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous. (Romans 5:18,19).
“Since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.” (1 Cor. 15:22)
“For to this end we both labor and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the
Savior of all men, especially of those who believe” (1 Timothy 4;10).
(The above verses are just a few of the many verses where Paul writes of a pre-eminent Christ that far transcends the traditional Christian view. This article is full of many more New Testament references by Paul that display his views of the Christ triumphant, unlimited, all-powerful, all-conquering, and victorious).
If Hell is real, why is it that the only time Paul even mentioned “Hell” in any of his epistles, was declare the triumph of Christ over it? (1 Corinthians 15:55). The word “Grave” in the passage is the Greek word “Hades.”
If Hell is real, why is it not mentioned once in the book of Acts in any the evangelistic sermons that were recorded by the early Apostles?
If Hell is real why do some of the best Bible scholars and Bible teachers say it is not in the Greek or Hebrew text? (William Barclay, John A.T. Robinson, Lightfoot, Westcott, F.W. Farrar, Marvin Vincent, etc.)
If Hell is real, why does the word itself come from the Teutonic “Hele” (goddess of the underworld “Hell” of northern Europe). The description of this ancient mythological place has very little resemblance anymore to the modern Christian image of Hell. See any encyclopedia or dictionary for the origin of the word.
FACT: The apocryphal books of the intertestimental period had a tremendous impact on the Jews in the time of Christ. It is from these books, especially the book of Enoch, that many of the Jewish myths and fables concerning Hell, heaven, demons and angels and many other fables first became a part of Judaism and from there became a part of Christianity. The myths and fables of these books came from Pagan influences (namely Zoroastrianism), during and after the Babylonian captivity of Israel. In fact, Zoroastrianism looks more like modern Christianity in many ways than ancient Judiasm does!
If Hell is real, why did Paul warn Timothy repeatedly to stay away from Jewish myths and fables, the likes of which were influencing many in the early church? Rather than affirming such doctrines, Paul declares them to profane fables.
Hell Contradicts The Work of the Messiah:
Popular myth: Jesus came to save the sinner from his destination of everlasting Hell. Not exactly true! Hell was never a place that the Jews were hoping to be saved from, since they didn’t even believe in it! But they did need to be saved from their sins and consequences of them; namely death. Jesus came as the Anointed One to fulfill all of God’s plan for the earth—that through Him might come the salvation, deliverance of sin, peace, kingdom of God and all that God had promised through the Old Testament scriptures. There is much we can say here, but for the sake of brevity we will limit our points to a few key passages. Please take the time to look up the verses that are referenced.
Think about it…..
If Hell is real, why does Psalm 22 (one of the most prophetic passages in scripture concerning the Messiah) promise that because of the cross, “All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations will worship before You. For the kingdom is the LORD’S and He rules over the nations. All the prosperous of the earth will eat and worship, all those who go down to the dust will bow before Him, even he who cannot keep his soul alive” (Psalm 22:27-29 NASB).
If Hell is real, did Jesus fail in His mission? He said, “I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world” (John 12:47).
If Hell is real and most find their way to it, was Jesus lying when He said He said if He was lifted up (crucified) that He would “draw” (“drag” in the original Greek word, “helkyo”) all mankind unto Himself? (John 12:32)
If Hell is real, how can the Scriptures speak of the gathering of all things into Christ? (Eph. 1:10)
If Hell is real, how can all things be subdued unto Christ? (1 Corinthians 15:28, Philippians 3:21, Hebrews 2:8).
If Hell is real, how can it be that the scriptures promise that every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord? (Isaiah 45:23, Romans 14:11, Philippians 2:10).
If Hell is real, how will Jesus ever see the travail of His soul and be satisfied (Isaiah 53:11)? If the traditional understanding is correct, most of those He came to save will never experience His salvation. Do we believe that this would be satisfying to Jesus?
If Hell is real, and God sent Jesus came to save people from it, can we really say that the will and pleasure of God has prospered in His hand, since, according to traditional theology, only a few will ever be saved? (Isaiah 53:10, and 55:11).
If Hell is real, and the devil is the one who deceives people into going there, isn’t he ultimately the winner in the war for souls? After all, traditional interpretation of the Bible says that more people will end up in Hell than in Heaven. If so, how can we really call Satan the defeated enemy and Christ the victor?
If Hell is real and most of mankind will remain in an eternal deathlike state of torment with no chance to repent or escape, how exactly are we to understand and rejoice in the fact that Jesus destroyed death and him that had the power of death (Satan)? (Hebrews 2:14-15, 1 John 3:8, Hosea 13:14, 1 Corinthians 15:55, 1 Corinthians 15:26 etc.)
If Hell is eternal, how can the increase of Christ’s government and of peace have no end? (Isaiah 9:7).
FACT: The term “saved” has evolved in Christianity to mean something different than it did to the original readers and hearers of Scripture. The Greek words, “sozo” and “soteria” embrace the broad meaning of being rescued, delivered, healed and saved from danger. These words were applied in a variety of ways throughout the New Testament. There is much more to the salvation of Christ than most Christians know. Sadly, much of the church is robbed of fullness of their salvation by embracing a limited and future view of what it actually means– (i.e. “going to Heaven when they die”).
Popular Myth: “Eternity” is a theme that is throughout the entire Bible, including eternal punishment. Not exactly true! We are not denying that the New Testament is full of warnings of judgment, and that the words, “everlasting” and “eternal” appear often in most translations. However, a careful study of the words that are translated to mean forever or everlasting, will prove that they have been mistranslated. The question is not whether or not God will punish sin and rebellion, but rather how He does it, and for what purpose.
Think about it……
If Hell is forever, why does the Hebrew word Olam which has been translated to mean “eternal/forever” used in so many verses where it clearly does not mean “everlasting? A few examples: “Everlasting” is applied to the priesthood of Aaron; to the statutes of Moses; to the mountains and hills; and to the doors of the Jewish temple, to the length of time that reproach and shame should be upon the Jews. The word “forever” is applied to the duration of man’s earthly existence; to the time a child was to abide in the temple; to the continuance of Gehazi’s leprosy; to the to the duration of a king’s life; to the time a servant was to abide with his master; to the duration of the Jewish temple; to the time David was to be king over Israel; to the throne of Solomon; to the stones that were set up at Jordan; and to the time Jonah was in the fish’s belly. It should be obvious from the context that olam merely refered to an indefinate period of time–not forever!
Aion and related words (aionian and aionios) are the Greek equivalents of olam. Aion, literally means “age,” from which we get our English word, “eon.” Aion/age/eon, is merely a period of time. “Aionian and Aionios” are words that refer to the ages (plural) or pertaining to the ages. As long as time is being measured, it cannot be referring to eternity, which is a realm beyond the measurement of time. If “Hell” is forever, why is it described by words that pertain to the ages?
If the Greek word Aion and its derivatives meant eternal as some Bible scholars insist, why did contemporary Greek usage of it, at the time the New Testament was written not carry with it the idea of endless eternity? (Works by Plato, Aristotle, Homer, Hippocrates and many others use the words in a limited, not an eternal sense).
If Hell is forever, how do we explain the fact that aion/olam did not mean eternal/unending to the original writers and hearers of Scripture?
FACT: Some would argue that if aionian and related words do not mean eternal, then God cannot be eternal, for these words also describe Him. To this we say, that just because God is described as the God of the eons, does not mean that He is not the God who also transcends the eons. In the same way, just because He is called the God of Israel, does not also mean that He is not the God of all the other nations. Also, there are other Greek words used to refer to the unending power and life of God. They are, aptharsia/apthartos, which means imperishableness and immortality; amarantinos/amarantos which mean unfading, without loss of pristine character; and akatalytos, which means indestructable and unstoppable. They are usually translated as immortal, or incorruptible. Please refer to the following verses for reference: Hebrews 7:15-16, 1 Peter 1:3-4, 1 Peter 5:4, 1 Timothy 1:17, Romans 1:23, 1 Corinthians 9:25, 1 Corinthians 15:51-54, Romans 2:7, 1 Corinthians 15:42, 2 Timothy 1:10, and 1 Timothy 6:16.
Popular Myth: One’s fate is sealed after death. If this is true, how do we deal with the following scriptures that indicate the opposite?
Think about it…….
“Like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be recovered, so we must die. But God does not take away life; instead, he devises ways so that a banished person may not remain estranged from him” (2 Samuel 14:14).
“The LORD killeth, and maketh alive: he bringeth down to the grave (sheol), and bringeth up.” 1 Samuel 2: 6
“See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god with me: I kill, and I make alive; I wound, and I heal: neither is there any that can deliver out of my hand” (Deuteronomy 32:39).
“I will ransom them from the power of the grave (Sheol/Hell); I will redeem them from death. O Death, I will be your plagues! O Grave (Sheol/Hell), I will be your destruction!” (Hosea 13:11-14).
“For men are not cast off by the Lord forever. Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to the children of men. (Lam 3:31-33)
“Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still with him on the way, or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. I tell you the truth, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny” (Matthew 5:25-26).
If Hell is a place of no escape, why did the early church teach Jesus went to Hell (Hades), preached to them and led captivity captive? (Eph. 4:8,9; Psalm 68:18; 1 Peter 3:18-20)
If Hell lasts forever, why the Psalmist confidently speak again and again about being rescued from it (sheol)? (Psalms 16:10, 30:2-3, Psalm 49:15, 86:13, 116:3-8, 139:8)
If Hell is real, how can Solomon teach that the spirit of man will return to the God who gave it? (Ecc 12:7).
If the grave settled the matter forever, why did the early Christians offer up prayers for the dead? Why were they baptized for the dead? (1 Corinthians 15:29).
“Hell” Was Not a Doctrine of the Early Church:
Popular myth: Universalism was recently introduced to Christianity in the 1800’s as the church became more liberal and modern and began to abandon their true biblical foundation. This is not true! A belief in the restitution of all things was a standard view in the early church, held by the majority of early Christians. It has also been held by a minority throughout all of church history.
Think about it……
If Hell was real, why did the first comparatively complete systematic statement of Christian doctrine ever given to the world by Clement of Alexandria, A.D. 180, contain the tenet of universal salvation?
If Hell was real, why did the first complete presentation of Christianity (Origen, 220 A.D.) contain the doctrine of universal salvation?
If Hell was real, why do neither the Apostles Creed, nor the Nicean Creed, two foundational “doctrinal statements” for the early church, contain the concept of Hell?
If Hell was real, why did Church leaders as late as the fourth century AD acknowledge that the majority of Christians believed in the salvation of all mankind?
If Hell was real why did the early church appoint an avowed universalist as the President of the second council of the church of Constantinope in the fourth century? (Gregory Nazianzen, 325-381).
If Hell was real why did not a single Church council for the first five hundred years condemn Universalism as heresy considering the fact that they made many declarations of heresy on other teachings?
If Hell was real why didn’t Epiphanius (c. 315-403) the “hammer of heretics” who listed 80 heresies of his time not list universalism among those heresies?
If Hell was real, since most historians would acknowledge today that Origen was perhaps the most outstanding example of universalism in the church, when Methodius, Eusibius, Pamphilus, Marcellus, Eustathius, and Jerome made their lists of Origen’s heresies, why wasn’t universalism among them?
If Hell was real and found in the original Greek manuscripts of the Bible, why is it that it was primarily those church leaders who either couldn’t read Greek (Minucius Felix, Tertullian), or hated Greek as in the case of Augustine, that the doctrine of Hell was advocated? Those early church leaders familiar with the Greek and Hebrew (the original languages of the Bible) saw universal salvation in those texts. Those who advocated Hell got it from the Latin, not from the original Greek and Hebrew. Who would more likely be correct–those who could read the original languages of the Bible or those who read a Latin translation made by one man (Jerome)?
If Hell was real then why did four out of six theological schools from 170 AD to 430 AD teach universal salvation while the only one that taught Hell was in Carthage, Africa, again were Latin was the teaching language, not Greek?
If Hell was real and a serious heresy, why was it not until the sixth century when Justinian, a half-pagan emperor, tried to make universalism a heresy? Interestingly, most historians will acknowledge that Justinian’s reign was among the most cruel and ruthless.
Hell does not reflect the heart of God:
Popular myth: The justice of God demands a place like Hell in which the wicked shall be eternally punished for their sins. Not true! The justice of God demanded a perfect sacrifice for sin, and that man was Christ Jesus. The justice of God will certainly come to every person, and God may deal severely with our sins as He subdues and gathers all things to Christ, but to punish people endlessly for crimes committed in a short human lifespan defies all logic and justice.
Think about it……..
If Hell is real and all things were made for God’s pleasure (Rev. 4:11), is it conceivable that God would derive pleasure from seeing those He created endlessly tortured? God says He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ez. 33:11).
If Hell is a real place of endless torment, and God didn’t want anyone to end up there, why didn’t God just kill Adam and Eve and end the long terrible chain of misery that passed to their offspring before it began? After all, the Scriptures say that all died because of Adam. (Rom. 5:18)
If Hell is real, if God loves His enemies now, will he not always love them? Is God a changeable being? (James 1:17)
If Hell is real, if you had sufficient power would you not deliver all men from sin? If God would save all men, but cannot, is He infinite in power?
If Hell is real, and God can save all men, but will not, is He infinite in goodness and mercy?
If Hell is real, since God will have all men be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim. 2:3 KJV), does that mean God’s power is not strong enough to have His will fulfilled?
If Hell is real and Jesus teaches us to forgive seventy times seven and yet He Himself will never offer forgiveness to anyone after they die, does that not make Him a hypocrite?
If Hell is real and God’s wrath abides upon billions of human beings forever, doesn’t that violate the Scripture which says His anger will come to an end? (Isaiah 57:16-18)
If Hell is real and God only loves those who love Him, what better is He than the sinner? (Luke 6:32-33)
If Hell is real, since some people receive many chances to “get saved,” some receive only a few chances and billions have never even received one chance, does that make God a respecter of persons? (Acts 10:34, James 3:17). After all, billions of people have been born and died on this earth without a chance to ever hear the name of Jesus, the “only name under heaven by which men may be saved.”
If there is a Hell and all who have sinned are destined to go there (which is everyone) unless they figure out how to avoid it, does that not consign all aborted babies and non-Christian children to Hell? (While some denominations teach a so-called “age of accountability,” it is not found anywhere in the Bible. It is just some people’s way of trying to make God more humane than the Hell teaching makes Him out to be).
If Hell is real, does that mean that motherly love is more powerful and enduring than God’s love? Do you know of normal parents who would endlessly torment most of their kids? Why do we believe our heavenly Father, who is millions of times more loving than all of us combined, could do such an evil, wicked thing?
If Hell is real, why does the human spirit writhe under the horror of wars and prison camps, torture chambers and dictators? How can we judge these things as wrong, if Hell is real? After all, Hell far eclipses these earthly torments which came from the most sinful and beastly part of humanity. We say God is grieved by man’s violence and disregard for life, and yet believe that He Himself enforces the same principles for all eternity!
If Hell is real, would endless misery benefit the Almighty, as the inflictor? Would endless misery benefit the saints, as spectators? Would endless misery benefit the sinner, as the sufferer?
If Hell is real, how does the threat of endlessly torturing us convince us that God loves us and that we should love Him with all our heart, soul, mind and strength?
FACT: While the church has gotten used to thinking of God as Someone who was forced to design a grandiose punishment called Hell, and against His own will sends the majority of His creation there, this concept of a God “who did the best He could” is totally against the Scriptural view of a God who is absolutely soveriegn, powerful, all-wise and all-victorious. He never had to come up with a plan B or C, for Jesus is the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. It is time to give Him the glory He deserves for our God is truly awsome and wonderful far beyond the limited, and man-centered views of Him!
Come Up Higher!
What is the “lens” through which you are interpreting the Bible? Traditional doctrines teach us to interpret the “victorious” scriptures in the light of the “judgment” scriptures. But what if God wants us to see it the other way around? What if we are to interpret the “judgment” scriptures in the light of the “victorious” scriptures? Is not Christ’s victory the greatest revelation in the Bible? Standing on this highest peak—that is, the finished work of the cross, causes us to see a much larger and far more beautiful panoramic view of God’s plan throughout the ages. We do not throw out one set of Scriptures in favor of another. Rather, we seek to harmonize them…For man shall live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.
In the time of Christ most of Israel completely missed the Word of God when He was in their midst. They were too busy with their nose in the book, to perceive the WORD as He came and dwelt among them! Certainly the masses must have thought…..”But none of the teachers, Pharisees, or priests believe that Jesus is the Messiah! And they know the scripture better than me! ” That fact alone kept many Jews from daring to believe in Jesus. To do so was heresy and to admit faith in Him was basically asking for scorn and rejection. We have always been so quick to point the finger at the Pharisees, and not realize that we as the church are in the same boat today. Are we going to play it safe and side with the majority, who are clinging to their traditions and what their teachers have taught them, or will we risk it all and step out and follow Him?
The facts presented in this article should at least cause every reader who is truly hungry to know God, to search the scripture to see if these things be so. If what we are presenting here is false, it needs to be disproved. And if it is true, it cannot be ignored.
It is time to stop ignoring the parts of the Bible that do not fit in with our theology. And if, like the relgious leaders of Jesus’ day, our theology is not big enough to hold the entire counsel of Scripture, perhaps it is time to expand!
And so we ask you again to ask yourself…
If the traditional teaching of Hell is real….
How can mercy triumph over judgment? (James 2:13)
How can it be true that, “where sin abounded grace did much more abound?” (Rom. 5:20)
When will all flesh come to God? (Psalm 65:2-4)
When will the poor of the earth be avenged and comforted by God? (Psalm 113:7, Psalm 140:12, Proverbs 14:31, Proverbs 19:17, Proverbs 31:9, Isaiah 11:4, Isaiah 61:1, Jeremiah 22:16 etc.) (Bear in mind that most of the poor of the earth throughout history have not had a chance to accept Jesus as their savior).
When shall it come to pass that: “On this mountain the LORD Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine- the best of meats and the finest of wines. On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign LORD will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove the disgrace of his people from all the earth. The LORD has spoken” (Isaiah 26:6-8).
When and how will “all nations” praise Him, come to Him, serve Him, be blessed in Him and bow to Him? (Psalm 45:17, Ps. 86:9, Isaiah 62:11, Daniel 7:14 Ps 66:1, Ps 72:11, Ps 102:15, Jer. 3:17, Ps 72:17, Isa. 2:2, Isa. 11:10, Isa. 52:10, Rev. 5:13 etc.)
How can the world be reconciled to God? (2 Corinthians 5:19, Romans 11;15, Romans 5:10).
Why would Paul the apostle say the goal of God’s creative plan was to ultimately be “all in all?” (1 Cor. 15:28)
How can it be true that God, who works all things according to the counsel of His will, shall gather together all things in Christ, in the fullness of the times? (Ephesians 1:9-11)
How can Paul insist that “For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things” (Romans 11:36).
How can the most often-repeated description of God be true? “His mercy endures forever” (literally, “His mercy/lovingkindness endures for the ages”). Certainly, as long as there are ages, and people in need of mercy, God’s mercy will endure.
How and when can there ever be a “restitution of all things?” (Acts 3:21)
A Final Test
We have tested the doctrine of Hell against many different Biblical topics and concepts and found it wanting. When scrutinized in the light of the entire counsel of Scripture, the doctrine of Hell is found to be full of holes. Now, test this doctrine against your own heart and see whether it can stand. Please take some time and prayerfully ask yourself these questions:
If there is a Hell and according to most denominations of Christianity the majority of mankind will go there, could you really enjoy heaven knowing your mother or father or children or best friend are suffering everlasting tortures the likes of which would make the Holocaust seem like a picnic?
If Hell is real, will you judge your mother, son, or other non-believers to Hell? “Do ye not know that the saints “shall judge the world”? and if the world shall be judged by you, are ye unworthy to judge the smallest matters? Know ye not that we shall judge angels? how much more things that pertain to this life?” 1 Corinthians 6:2-3
If Hell is real and a place of terrible, unending pain, could you even send a dog to such a place?
If Hell is real and universalism is a heresy, why is it that those who believe God loves all and will save all find it easier to love all people than those who believe most people are going to Hell? (Think this through very carefully.)
If Hell is real, can you honestly rejoice in the victory, love, and wisdom of God, knowing that somewhere in His beautiful creation there will always be a black and stinking hell-hole crammed full of tortured souls who have no chance for relief or forgiveness–or even death? Even if there was only one person left in such a state, how could all of Heaven—or you—rejoice for all eternity knowing that there was still one soul who had not been touched by the victory of Christ and was suffering alone?
Is it good to desire all men to be saved? “This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Tim.2:3,4) .
Do you ardently desire the salvation of all men?
Is it true that God “openeth his hand and satisfieth the desire of every living thing?” — (Ps. 145:16)
Do you fervently pray for the salvation of all men? (1 Tim. 2:1)
Do you pray in faith, nothing doubting? (James 1:6)
Are you aware, “that whatsoever is not of faith is sin?” — (Rom 14:23)
Would God require us to pray for all men, and to pray in faith, unless He intends all men should be saved?
If you believe endless misery to be the truth of God, why should you desire and pray that it may prove false?
We hope that this information has raised enough questions for you to pursue further study on this subject.
Note: The authorship of this article is unknown to the site admin. If you know who wrote this (along with a citation), please let us know so we can give proper credit
Excerpted from “Universalism – The Prevailing Doctrine Of The Christian Church During Its First Five Hundred Years” by J.W. Hansen, 1899
When our Lord spoke, the doctrine of unending torment was believed by many of those who listened to his words, and they stated it in terms and employed others, entirely differently, in describing the duration of punishment, from the terms afterward used by those who taught universal salvation and annihilation, and so gave to the terms in question the sense of unlimited duration.
For example, the Pharisees, according to Josephus, regarded the penalty of sin as torment without end, and they stated the doctrine in unambiguous terms. They called iteirgmos aidios (eternal imprisonment) and timorion adialeipton (endless torment), while our Lord called the punishment of sin aionion kolasin (age-long chastisement).
Meaning of Scriptural Terms.
The language of Josephus is used by the profane Greeks, but is never found in the New Testament connected with punishment. Josephus, writing in Greek to Jews, frequently employs the word that our Lord used to define the duration of punishment (aionios), but he applies it to things that had ended or that will end.1 Can it be doubted that our Lordplaced his ban on the doctrine that the Jews had derived from the heathen by never using their terms describing it, and that he taught a limited punishment by employing words to define it that only meant limited duration in contemporaneous literature? Josephus used the word aionos with its current meaning of limited duration. He applies it to the imprisonment of John the Tyrant; to Herod’s reputation; to the glory acquired by soldiers; to the fame of an army as a “happy life and aionian glory.” He used the words as do the Scriptures to denote limited duration, but when he would describe endless duration he uses different terms. Of the doctrine of the Pharisees he says:
“They believe * * * that wicked spirits are to be kept in an eternal imprisonment (eirgmon aidion). The Pharisees say all souls are incorruptible, but while those of good men are removed into other bodies those of bad men are subject to eternal punishment” (aidios timoria). Elsewhere he says that the Essenes, “allot to bad souls a dark, tempestuous place, full of never-ceasing torment (timoria adialeipton), where they suffer a deathless torment” (athanaton timorion). Aidion and athanaton are his favorite terms for duration, and timoria (torment) for punishment.
Philo’s Use of the Words.
Philo, who was contemporary with Christ, generally used aidion to denote endless, and aionian temporary duration. He uses the exact phraseology of Matt. xxv: 46, precisely as Christ used it: “It is better not to promise than not to give prompt assistance, for no blame follows in the former case, but in the latter there is dissatisfaction from the weaker class, and a deep hatred and æonian punishment (chastisement) from such as are more powerful.” Here we have the precise terms employed by our Lord, which show thataionian did not mean endless but did mean limited duration in the time of Christ. Philo adopts athanaton, ateleuteton or aidion to denote endless, and aionian temporary duration. In one place occurs this sentence concerning the wicked: “to live always dying, and to undergo, as it were, an immortal and interminable death.”2 Stephens, in his valuable “Thesaurus,” quotes from a Jewish work: “These they called aionios, hearing that they had performed the sacred rites for three entire generations.” 3 This shows conclusively that the expression “three generations” was then one full equivalent of aionian. Now, these eminent scholars were Jews who wrote in Greek, and who certainly knew the meaning of the words they employed, and they give to the aeonian words the sense of indefinite duration, to be determined in any case by the scope of the subject. Had our Lord intended to inculcate the doctrine of the Pharisees, he would have used the terms by which they described it. But his word defining the duration of punishment was aionian, while their words are aidion, adialeipton, and athanaton. Instead of saying with Philo and Josephus, thanaton athanaton, deathless or immortal death; eirgmon aidion, eternal imprisonment; aidion timorion, eternal torment; and thanaton ateleuteton, interminable death, he used aionion kolasin, an adjective in universal use for limited duration, and a noun denoting suffering issuing in amendment. The word by which our Lord describes punishment is the word kolasin, which is thus defined: “Chastisement, punishment.” “The trimming of the luxuriant branches of a tree or vine to improve it and make it fruitful.” “The act of clipping or pruning–restriction, restraint, reproof, check, chastisement.” “The kind of punishment which tends to the improvement of the criminal is what the Greek philosopher called kolasis or chastisement.” “Pruning, checking, punishment, chastisement, correction.” “Do we want to know what was uppermost in the minds of those who formed the word for punishment? The Latin poena or punio, to punish, the root pu in Sanscrit, which means to cleanse, to purify, tells us that the Latin derivation was originally formed, not to express mere striking or torture, but cleansing. correcting, delivering from the stain of sin.” 4 That it had this meaning in Greek usage, see Plato: “For the natural or accidental evils of others no one gets angry, or admonishes, or teaches, or punishes (kolazei) them, but we pity those afflicted with such misfortune * * * for if, O Socrates, if you will consider what is the design of punishing (kolazein) the wicked, this of itself will show you that men think virtue something that may be acquired; for no one punishes (kolazei) the wicked,
looking to the past only simply for the wrong he has done–that is, no one does this thing who does not act like a wild beast; desiring only revenge, without thought. Hence, he who seeks to punish (kolazein) with reason does not punish for the sake of the past wrong deed, * * * but for the sake of the future, that neither the man himself who is punished may do wrong again, nor any other who has seen him chastised. And he who entertains this thought must believe that virtue may be taught, and he punishes (kolazei) for the purpose of deterring from wickedness?” 5
Use of Gehenna.
So of the place of punishment (gehenna) the Jews at the time of Christ never understood it to denote endless punishment. The reader of Farrar’s “Mercy and Judgment,” and “Eternal Hope,” and Windet’s “De Vita functorum statu,” will find any number of statements from the Talmudic and other Jewish authorities, affirming in the most explicit language that Gehenna was understood by the people to whom our Lord addressed the word as a place or condition of temporary duration. They employed such terms as these “The wicked shall be judged in Gehenna until the righteous say concerning them, ‘We have seen enough.'”5 “Gehenna is nothing but a day in which the impious will be burned.” “After the last judgment Gehenna exists no longer.” “There will hereafter be no Gehenna.”6 These quotations might be multiplied indefinitely to demonstrate that the Jews to whom our Lord spoke regarded Gehenna as of limited duration, as did the Christian Fathers. Origen in his reply to Celsus (VI, xxv) gives an exposition of Gehenna, explaining its usage in his day. He says it is an analogue of the well-known valley of the Son of Hinnom, and signifies the fire of purification. Now observe: Christ carefully avoided the words in which his auditors expressed endless punishment (aidios, timoria and adialeiptos), and used terms they did not use with that meaning (aionios kolasis), and employed the term which by universal consent among the Jews has no such meaning (Gehenna); and as his immediate followers and the earliest of the Fathers pursued exactly the same course, is it not demonstrated that they intended to be understood as he was understood?7
Professor Plumptre in a letter concerning Canon Farrar’s sermons, says: “There were two words which the Evangelists might have used–kolasis, timoria. Of these, the first carries with it, by the definition of the greatest of Greek ethical writers, the idea of a reformatory process, (Aristotle, Rhet. I, x, 10-17). It is inflicted ‘for the sake of him who suffers it.’ The second, on the other hand, describes a penalty purely vindictive or retributive. St. Matthew chose–if we believe that our Lord spoke Greek, he himself chose–the former word, and not the latter.”
All the evidence conclusively shows that the terms defining punishment–“everlasting,” “eternal,” “Gehenna,” etc., in the Scriptures teach its limited duration, and were so regarded by sacred and profane authors, and that those outside of the Bible who taught unending torment always employed other words than those used by or Lord and his disciples.
Professor Allen concedes that the great prominence given to “hell-fire” in Christian preaching is a modern innovation. He says: “There is more ‘blood-theology’ and ‘hell-fire,’ that is, the vivid setting-forth of everlasting torment to terrify the soul, in one sermon of Jonathan Edwards, or one harangue at a modern ‘revival,’ than can be found in the whole body of homilies and epistles through all the dark ages put together. * * * Set beside more modern dispensations the Catholic position of this period (middle ages) is surprisingly merciful and mild.”3
Whence Came the Doctrine?
Of Heathen Origin.
When we ask the question: Where did those in the primitive Christian church who taught endless punishment find it, if not in the Bible?–we are met by these facts:–1. The New Testament was not in existence, as the canon had not been arranged. 2. The Old Testament did not contain the doctrine. 3. The Pagan and Jewish religions, the latter corrupted by heathen accretions, taught it (Hagenbach, I, First Period; Clark’s Foreign Theol. Lib. I, new series.) Westcott tells us: “The written Gospel of the first period of the apostolic age was the Old Testament, interpreted by the vivid recollection of the Savior’s ministry. * * * The knowledge of the teachings of Christ * * * to the close of the Second Century, were generally derived from tradition, and not from writings. The Old Testament was still the great store-house from which Christian teachers derived the sources of consolation and conviction.” 9 Hence the false ideas must have been brought by converts from Judaism or Paganism. The immediate followers of our Lord’s apostles do not explicitly treat matters of eschatology. It was the age of apologetics and not of polemics.10 The new revelation of the Divine Fatherhood through the Son occupied the chief attention of Christians, and the efforts seem to have been almost exclusively devoted to establish the truth of the Incarnation, “God in Christ reconciling the world unto himself.” We may reasonably conclude that if this great truth had been kept constantly in the foreground, uncorrupted by pagan error and human invention, there would have been none of those false conceptions of God that gave rise to the horrors of medieval times,–and no occasion in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries for the renascence of original Christianity in the form of Universalism. The first Christians, however, naturally brought heathen increments into their new faith, so that very early the doctrine of the annihilation of the wicked, or their endless torment, began to be avowed. Here and there these doctrines appeared from the very first, but the early writers generally either state the great truths that legitimately result in universal good, or in unmistakable terms avow the doctrine as a revealed truth of the Christian Scriptures. “Numbers flocked into the church who brought their heathen ways with them.” (Third Century, “Neoplatonism,” by C. Bigg, D.D., London: 1895, p. 160.)
At first Christianity was as a bit of leaven buried in foreign elements, modifying and being modified. The early Christians had individual opinions and idiosyncrasies, which at first their new faith did not eradicate; they still retained some of their former errors. This accounts for their different views of the future world. At the time of our Lord’s advent Judaism had been greatly corrupted. During the captivity 11 Chaldæan, Persian and Egyptian doctrines, and other oriental ideas had tinged the Mosaic religion, and in Alexandria, especially, there was a great mixture of borrowed opinions and systems of faith, it being supposed that no one form alone was complete and sufficient, but that each system possessed a portion of the perfect truth. “The prevailing tone of mind was eclectic,” and Christianity did not escape the influence.
The Apocryphal Book of Enoch.
More than a century before the birth of Christ 12 appeared the apocryphal Book of Enoch, which contains, so far as is known, the earliest statement extant of the doctrine of endless punishment in any work of Jewish origin. It became very popular during the early Christian centuries, and modified, it may be safely supposed, the views of Tatian, Minucius Felix, Tertullian, and their followers. It is referred to or quoted from by Barnabas, Justin, Clement of Alexandria, Irenæus, Origen, Tertullian, Eusebius, Jerome, Hilary, Epiphanius, Augustine, and others. Jude quotes from it in verses 14 and 15, and refers to it in verse 6, on which account some of the fathers considered Jude apocryphal; but it is probable that Jude quotes Enoch as Paul quotes the heathen poets, not to endorse its doctrine, but to illustrate a point, as writers nowadays quote fables and legends. Cave, in the “Lives of the Fathers,” attributes the prevalence of the doctrine of fallen angels to a perversion of the account (Gen. vi: 1-4) of “the sons of God and the daughters of men.” He refers the prevalence of the doctrine to “the authority of the ‘Book of Enoch,’ (highly valued by many in those days) wherein this story is related, as appears from the fragments of it still extant.” The entire work is now accessible through modern discovery.
A little later than Enoch appeared the Book of Ezra, advocating the same doctrine. These two books were popular among the Jews before the time of Christ, and it is supposed, as the Old Testament is silent on the subject, that the corrupt traditions of the Pharisees, of which our Lord warned his disciples to beware, 13 were obtained in part from these books, or from the Egyptian and Pagan sources whence they were derived. At any rate, though the Old Testament does not contain the doctrine, 14 Josephus, as has been seen, assures us that the Pharisees of his time accepted and taught it. Of course they must have obtained the doctrine from uninspired sources. As these and possibly other similar books had already corrupted the faith of the Jews, they seem later to have infused their virus into the faith of some of the early Christians. Nothing is better established in history than that the doctrine of endless punishment, as held by the Christian church in medieval times, was of Egyptian origin, 15 and that for purposes of state it and its accessories were adopted by the Greeks and Romans. Montesquieu states that “Romulus, Tatius and Numa enslaved the gods to politics,” and made religion for the state.
Catholic Hell Copied from Heathen Sources.
Classic scholars know that the heathen hell was early copied by the Catholic church, and that almost its entire details afterwards entered into the creeds of Catholic and Protestant churches up to a century ago. Any reader may see this who will consult Pagan literature 16 and writers on the opinions of the ancients. And not only this, but the heathen writers declare that the doctrine was invented to awe and control the multitude. Polybius writes: “Since the multitude is ever fickle * * * there is no other way to keep them in order but by fear of the invisible world; on which account our ancestors seem to me to have acted judiciously, when they contrived to bring into the popular belief these notions of the gods and of the infernal regions.” Seneca says: “Those things which make the infernal regions terrible, the darkness, the prison, the river of flaming fire, the judgment seat, etc., are all a fable.” Livy declares that Numa invented the doctrine, “a most efficacious means of governing an ignorant and barbarous populace.” Strabo writes: “The multitude are restrained from vice by the punishments the gods are said to inflict upon offenders, * * * for it is impossible to govern the crowd of women and all the common rabble by philosophical reasoning: these things the legislators used as scarecrows to terrify the childish multitude.” Similar language is found in Dionysius Halicarnassus, Plato, and other writers. History records nothing more distinctly than that the Greek and Roman Pagans borrowed of the Egyptians, and that some of the early Christians unconsciously absorbed, or studiously appropriated, the doctrines of the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans concerning post-mortem punishment, and gradually corrupted the “simplicity that is in Christ” 17 by the inventions of antiquity, as from the same sources the Jews at the time of Christ had already corrupted their religion. 18 What more natural than that the small reservoir of Christian truth should be contaminated by the opinions that converts from all these sources brought with them into their new religion at first, and later that the Roman Catholicpriests and Pagan legislators should seize them as engines of power by which to control the world?
Coquerel describes the effect of the irruption of Pagans into the early Christian church: “The, at first, gradual entrance and soon rapid irruption of an idolatrous multitude into the bosom of Christianity was not effected without detriment to the truth. The Christianity of Jesus was too lofty, too pure, for this multitude escaped from the degrading cults of Olympus. The Pagans were not able to enter en masse into the church without bringing to it their habits, their tastes, and some of their ideas.”19 Milman and Neander think20 that old Jewish prejudices could not be extirpated in the proselytes of the infant church, and that latent Judaism lurked in it and was continued into the darker ages. Chrysostom complains that the Christians of his time (the Fourth Century) were “half Jews.” Enfield 21 declares that converts from the schools of Pagan philosophy interwove their old errors with the simple truths of Christianity until “heathen and Christian doctrines were still more intimately blended * * * and both were almost entirely lost in the thick clouds of ignorance and barbarism which covered the earth. * * * The fathers of the church departed from the simplicity of the apostolic church and corrupted the purity of the Christian faith.” Hagenbach reminds us that 22 “There were two errors which the newborn Christianity had to guard against if it was not to lose its peculiar religious features, and disappear in one of the already existing religions: against a relapse into Judaism on the one side, and against a mixture with Paganism and speculations borrowed from it, and a mythologizing tendency on the other.” The Sibylline Oracles, advocating universal restoration; Philo, who taught annihilation, and Enoch and Ezra, who taught endless punishment, were all read by the early Christians, and no doubt exerted an influence in forming early opinions.
Early Christianity Adulterated.
The Edinburgh Review concedes that “upon a full inspection it will be seen that the corruption of Christianity was itself the effect of the vitiated state of the human mind, of which the vices of the government were the great and primary cause.” “That the Christian religion suffered much from the influence of the Gentile philosophy is unquestionable.”23 Dr. Middleton, in a famous “Letter from Rome,” shows that from the pantheon down to heathen temples, shrines and altars were taken by the early church, and so used that Pagans could employ them as well as Christians, and retain their old superstitions and errors while professing Christianity. In other words, that much of Paganism, after the First Century or two, remained in and corrupted Christianity. Mosheim writes that “no one objected (in the Fifth Century) to Christians retaining the opinions of their Pagan ancestors;” and Tytler describes the confusion that resulted from the mixture of Pagan philosophy with the plain and simple doctrines of the
Christian religion, from which the church in its infant state “suffered in a most essential manner.” The Rev. T. B. Thayer, D. D., 24 thinks that the faith of the early Christian church “of the orthodox party was one-half Christian, one-quarter Jewish, and one-quarter Pagan; while that of the gnostic party was about one-quarter Christian and three-quarters philosophical Paganism.” The purpose of many of the fathers seems to have been to bridge the abyss between Paganism and Christianity, and, for the sake of proselytes, to tolerate Pagan doctrine. Says Merivale: In the Fifth Century, Paganism was assimilated, not extirpated, and Christendom has suffered from it more or less even since. * * * The church * * * was content to make terms with what survived of Paganism, content to lose even more than it gained in an unholy alliance with superstition and idolatry; enticing, no doubt, many of the vulgar, and some even of the more intelligent, to a nominal acceptance of the Christian faith, but conniving at the surrender by the great mass of its own baptized members of the highest and purest of their spiritual acquisitions.” 25 It is difficult to learn just how much surrounding influences affected ancient or modern Christians, for, as Schaff says (Hist. Apos. Ch. p. 23): “The theological views of the Greek Fathers were modified to a considerable extent by Platonism; those of the medieval schoolmen, by the logic and dialectics of Aristotle; those of the latter times by the system of Descartes, Spinoza, Bacon, Locke, Leibnitz, Kant, Fries, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel. Few scientific divines can absolutely emancipate themselves from the influence of the philosophy and public opinion of their age, and when they do they have commonly their own philosophy, etc.”
Original Greek New Testament.
That the Old Testament does not teach even post-mortem punishment is universally conceded by scholars, as has been seen; and that the Egyptians, and Greek and Roman Pagans did, is shown already. That the doctrine was early in the Christian church, is equally evident. As the early Christians did not obtain it from the Old Testament, which does not contain it, and as it was already a Pagan doctrine, where could they have procured it except from heathen sources? And as Universalism was nowhere taught, and as the first Universalist Christians after the apostles were Greeks, perfectly familiar with the language of the New Testament, where else could they have found their faith than where they declare they found it, in the New Testament? How can it be supposed that the Latins were correct in claiming that the Greek Scriptures teach a doctrine that the Greeks themselves did not find therein? And how can the Greek fathers in the primitive church mistake when they understand our Lord and his apostles to teach universal restoration? “It may be well to note here, that after the third century the descent of the church into errors of doctrine and practice grew more rapid. The worship of Jesus, of Mary, of saints, or relics, etc., followed each other. Mary was called ‘the Mother of God,’ ‘the Queen of Heaven.’ As God began to be represented more stern, implacable, cruel, the peopleworshiped Jesus to induce him to placate his Father’s wrath; and then as the Son was held up as the severe judge of sinners and the executioner of the Father’s vengeance, men prayed Mary to mollify the anger of her God-child; and when she became unfeeling or lacked influence, they turned to Joseph and other saints, and to martyrs, to intercede with their cold, implacable superiors. Thus theology became more hard and merciless–hell was intensified, and enlarged, and eternized–heaven shrunk, and receded, and lost its compassion–woman (despite the deification of Mary) was regarded as weak and despicable–the Agape were abolished and the Eucharist deified, and its cup withheld from the people–and woman deemed too impure to touch it! As among the heathen Romans, faith and reverence decreased as their gods were multiplied, so here, as objects of worship were increased, familiarity bred only sensuality, and sensuous worship drove out virtue and veneration, until, in the language of Mrs. Jameson’s “Legends of the Madonna,” (Int. p. xxxi): One of the frescoes in the Vatican represents Giulia Farnese (a noted impure woman and mistress of the pope!) in the character of the Madonna, and Pope Alexander VI. (the drunken, unchaste, beastly!) kneeling at her feet in the character of a votary! Under the influence of the Medici, the churches of Florence were filled with pictures of the Virgin in which the only thing aimed at was a meretricious beauty. Savonarola thundered from his pulpit in the garden of S. Marco against these impieties.” 26
1 See my “Aion-Aionious,” pp. 109-14; also Josephus, “Antiq.” and “Jewish Wars.”
2 “De Præmiis” and “Poenis” Tom. II, pp. 19-20. Mangey’s edition. Dollinger quoted by Beecher. Philo was learned in Greek philosophy, and especially reverenced Plato. His use of Greek is of the highest authority.
3 “Solom. Parab.”
4 Donnegan, Grotius, Liddel, Max Muller, Beecher, Hist. Doc. Fut. Ret. pp. 73-75.
5 The important passage may be found more fully quoted in “Aion-Aionios.”
6 Targum of Jonathan on Isaiah, xvi: 24. See also “Aion-Aionious” and “Bible Hell.”
7 Farrar’s “Mercy and Judgment.” pp. 380-381, where quotations are given from the Fourth Century, asserting that punishment must be limited because aionian correction (aionian kolasin), as in Matt. xxv: 46, must be terminable.
8 “Christian Hist. in its Three Great Periods.” pp. 257-8.
9 Introduction to Gospels. p. 181
10 The opinions of the Jews were modified at first by the captivity in Egypt fifteen centuries before Christ, and later by the Babylonian captivity, ending four hundred years before Christ, so that many of them, the Pharisees especially, no longer held the simple doctrines of Moses.
11 Robertson’s History of the Christian Church, vol. 1. pp. 38-39.
12 The Book of Enoch, translated from the Ethiopian, with Introduction and Notes. By Rev. George H. Schodde.
13 Mark vii: 13; Matthew xvi: 6, 12; Luke xxi, 1; Mark viii, 15.
19 Coquerel’s First Historical Transformations of Christianity.
20 See Conybeare’s “Paul,” Vol. I, Chapters 14,15.
21 See also Priestley’s “Corruptions of Christianity.”
22 Hist. Doct. I Sec. 22.
23 Vaughan’s Causes of the Corruption of Christianity; also Casaubon and Blunt’s “Vestiges.”
24 Hist. Doct. Endelss Punishment, pp. 192-193.
25 Early Church History, pp. 159-160.
26 Universalist Quartarly, January 1883.
Doctrines of “Mitigation” and of “Reserve.”
There was no controversy among Christians over the duration of the punishment of the wicked for at least three hundred years after the death of Christ. Scriptural terms were used with their Scriptural meanings, and while it is not probable that universal restoration was polemically or dogmatically announced, it is equally probable that the endless duration of punishment was not taught until the heathen corruptions had adulterated Christian truth. God’s fatherhood and boundless love, and the work of Christ in man’s behalf were dwelt upon, accompanied by the announcement of the fearful consequences of sin; but when those consequences, through Pagan influences, came to be regarded as endless in duration, then the antidotal truth of universal salvation assumed prominence through Clement, Origen, and other Alexandrine fathers. Even when some of the early Christians had so far been overcome by heathen error as to accept the dogma of endless torment for the wicked, they had no hard words for those who believed in universal restoration, and did not even controvert their views. The doctrines of Prayer for the Dead, and of Christ Preaching to those in Hades, and of Mitigation, were humane teachings of the primitive Christians that were subsequently discarded.
The doctrine of Mitigation was, that for some good deed on earth, the damned in hell would occasionally be let out on a respite or furlough, and have surcease of torment. This doctrine of mitigation was quite general among the fathers when they came to advocate the Pagan dogma. In fact, endless punishment in all its enormity, destitute of all benevolent features, was not fully developed until Protestantism was born, and prayers for the dead, mitigation of the condition of the “lost,” and other softening features were repudiated.1
It was taught that the worst sinners–Judas himself, even–had furloughs from hell for good deeds done on Earth. Matthew Arnold embodies one of the legends in his poem of St. Brandon. The saint once met, on an iceberg on the ocean, the soul of Judas Iscariot, released from hell for awhile, who explains his respite. He had once given a cloak to a leper in Joppa, and so he says–
“Once every year, when carols wake
On earth the Christmas night’s repose,
Arising from the sinner’s lake’
I journey to these healing snows.
“I stand with ice my burning breast,
With silence calm by burning brain;
O Brandon, to this hour of rest,
That Joppan leper’s ease was pain.”
It remained for Protestantism to discard all the softening features that Catholicism had added to the bequest of heathenism into Christianity, and to give the world the unmitigated horror that Protestantism taught from the Sixteenth to the Nineteenth Century.
The Doctrine of “Reserve.”
We cannot read the patristic literature understandingly unless we constantly bear in mind the early fathers’ doctrine of “O Economy,” or “Reserve.”2 Plato distinctly taught it,3 and says that error may be used as a medicine. He justifies the use of the “medicinal lie.” The resort of the early fathers to the esoteric is no doubt derived from Plato. Origen almost quotes him when he says that sometimes fictitious threats are necessary to secure obedience, as when Solon had purposely given imperfect laws. Many, in and out of the church, held that the wise possessor of truth might hold it in secret. when its impartation to the ignorant would seem to be fraught with danger, and that error might be properly substituted. The object was to save “Christians of the simpler sort” from waters too deep for them. It is possible to defend the practice if it be taken to represent the method of a skillfulteacher, who will not confuse the learner with principles beyond his comprehension. 4 Gieseler remarks that “the Alexandrians regarded a certain accommodation as necessary, which ventures to make use even of falsehood for the attainment of a good end; nay, which was even obliged to do so.” Neander declares that “the Orientals, according to their theology of oeconomy, allowed themselves many liberties not to be reconciled with the strict laws of veracity.” 5
Some of the fathers who had achieved a faith in Universalism, were influenced by the mischievous notion that it was to be held esoterically, cherished in secret, or only communicated to the chosen few,–withheld from the multitude, who would not appreciate it, and even that the opposite error would, with some sinners, be more beneficial than the truth. Clement of Alexandria admits that he does not write or speak certain truths. Origen claims that there are doctrines not to be communicated to the ignorant. Clement says: “They are not in reality liars who use circumlocution 6 because of the oeconomy of salvation.” Origen said that “all that might be said on this theme is not expedient to explain now, or to all. For the mass need no further teaching on account of those who hardly through the fear of æonian punishment restrain their recklessness.” The reader of the patristic literature sees this opinion frequently, and unquestionably it caused many to hold out threats to the multitude in order to restrain them; threats that they did not themselves believe would be executed.8
The gross and carnal interpretation given to parts of the Gospel, causing some, as Origen said, to “believe of God what would not be believed of the cruelest of mankind,” caused him to dwell upon the duty of reserve, which he does in many of his homilies. He says that he can not fully express himself on the mystery of eternal punishment in an exoteric statement.9 The reserve advocated and practiced by Origen and the Alexandrians was, says Bigg, “the screen of an esoteric belief.” Beecher reminds his readers that while it was common with Pagan philosophers to teach false doctrines to the masses with the mistaken idea that they were needful, “the fathers of the Christian church did not escape the infection of the leprosy of pious fraud;” and he quotes Neander to show that Chrysostom was guilty of it, and also Gregory Nazianzen, Athanasius, and Basil the Great. The prevalence of this fraus pia in the early centuries is well known to scholars. After saying that the Sibylline Oracles were probably forged by a gnostic, Mosheim says: “I cannot yet take upon me to acquit the most strictly orthodox from all participation in this species of criminality; for it appears from evidence superior to all exception that a pernicious maxim was current, * * * namely, that those who made it their business to deceive with a view of promoting the cause of truth, were deserving rather of commendation that censure.”
What Was Held as to Doctrine.
It seems to have been held that “faith, the foundation of Christian knowledge, was fitted only for the rude mass, the animal men, who were incapable of higher things. Far above these were the privileged natures, the men of intellect, or spiritual men, whose vocation was not to believe but to know.”10
The ecclesiastical historians class as esoteric believers, Chrysostom and Gregory Nazianzen; and Beecher names Athanasius and Basil the Great as in the same category; and Beecher remarks: “We cannot fully understand such a proclamation of future endless punishment as has been described, while it was not believed, until we consider the influence of Plato on the age. * * * Socrates is introduced as saying in Grote’s Plato: ‘It is indispensable that this fiction should be circulated and accredited as the fundamental, consecrated, unquestioned creed of the whole city, from which the feeling of harmony and brotherhood among the citizens springs.” Such principles, as a leprosy, had corrupted the whole community, and especially the leaders. In the Roman Empire pagan magistrates and priests appealed to retribution in Tartarus, of which they had no belief, to affect the masses. This does not excuse, but it explains the preaching of eternal punishment by men who did not believe it. They dared not entrust the truth to the masses, and so held it in reserve–to deter men from sin.”
General as was the confession of a belief in universal salvation in the church’s first and best three centuries, there is ample reason the believe that it was the secret belief of more than gave expression to it, and that many a one who proclaimed a partial salvation, in his secret “heart of heart” agreed with the greatest of the church’s fathers during the first four hundred years of our era, that Christ would achieve a universal triumph, and that God would ultimately reign in all hearts.
Modern Theologians Equivocal.
There can be no doubt that many of the fathers threatened severer penalties than they believed would be visited on sinners, impelled to utter them because they considered them to be more salutary with the masses than the truth itself. So that we may believe that some of the patristic writers who seem to teach endless punishment did not believe it. Others, we know, who accepted universal restoration employed, for the sake of deterring sinners, threats that are inconsistent, literally interpreted, with that doctrine. This disposition to conceal the truth has actuated many a modern theologian. In Sermon XXXV, on the eternity of hell torments, Arch-bishop Tillotson, while he argues for the endless duration of punishment, suggests that the Judge has the right to omit inflicting it if he shall see it inconsistent with righteousness or goodness to make sinners miserable forever, and Burnet urges: “Whatever your opinion is within yourself, and in your breast, concerning these punishments, whether they are eternal or not, yet always with the people, and when you preach to the people, use the received doctrine and the received words in the sense in which the people receive them.” It is certainly allowable to think that many an ancient timid teacher discovered the truth without daring to entrust it to the mass of mankind.
Even Lying Defended.
Theophilus of Alexandria proposed making Synesius of Cyrene, bishop. The latter said: “The philosophical intelligence, in short, while it beholds the truth, admits the necessity of lying. Light corresponds to truth, but the eye is dull of vision; it can not without injury gaze on the infinite light. As twilight is more comfortable for the eye, so, I hold, is falsehood for the common run of people. The truth can only be harmful for those who are unable to gaze on the reality. If the laws of the priesthood permit me to hold this position, then I can accept consecration, keeping my philosophy to myself at home, and preaching fables out of doors.”11
1 Christian History in Three Great Periods. pp. 257,8.
2 Bigg’s Platonists of Alexandria. p. 58.
3 Grote’s Plato, Vol. III, xxxii. pp. 56, 7.
4 J.H. Newman, Arians; Apologia Pro Vita Sua
5 Allin, Univ. Asserted, shows at length the prevalence of the doctrine of “reserve” among the early Christians.
7 Against Celsus I, vii; and on Romans ii.
8 “St. Basil distinguishes in Christianity between what is openly proclaimed and which are kept secret.” Max Muller, Theosophy of Psychology, Lect. xiv.
9 Ag. Cels. De Prin.
10 Dean Mansell’s Gnostic Heresies of the First and Second Centuries. Introduction, p. 10.
11 Neoplatonism, by C. Bigg, D.D. London: 1895, p. 339.
Two Kindred Topics.
Gospel Preached to the Dead.
The early Christian church almost, if not quite, universally believed that Christ made proclamation of the Gospel to the dead in Hades. Says Huidekoper: “In the Second and Third Centuries every branch and division of Christians believed that Christ preached to the departed.” 1 Dietelmaier declares2 this doctrine was believed by all Christians. Of course, if souls were placed where their doom was irretrievable salvation would not be offered to them; whence it follows that the early Christians believed in post-mortem probation. Allin says that “some writers teach that the apostles also preached in Hades. Some say that the Blessed Virgin did the same. Some even say that Simeon went before Christ to Hades.” All these testimonies go to show that the earliest of the fathers did not regard the grave as the dead-line which the love of God could not cross, but that the door of mercy is open hereafter as here. “The platonic doctrine of a separate state, where the spirits of the departed are purified, and on which the later doctrine of purgatory was founded, was approved by all the expositors of Christianity who were of the Alexandrian school, as was the custom of performing religious services at the tombs of the dead. Nor was there much difference between them and Tertullian in these particulars.”
In the early ages of the church great stress was laid on I Pet. iii. 19: “He (Christ) went and preached unto the spirits in prison.” That this doctrine was prevalent as late as Augustine’s day is evident from the fact that the doctrine is anathemitised in his list of heresies–number 79. And even as late as the Ninth Century it was condemned by Pope Boniface VI. It was believed that our Lord not only proclaimed the Gospel to all the dead but that he liberated them all. How could it be possible for a Christian to entertain the thought that all the wicked who died before the advent of our Lord were released from bondage, and that any who died after his advent would suffer endless woe? Eusebius says: “Christ, caring for the salvation of all * * * opened a way of return to life for the dead bound in the chains of death.” Athanasius: “The devil * * * cast out of Hades, sees all the fettered beings led forth by the courage of the Savior.” 3 Origen on I Kings, xxviii:32: “Jesus descended into Hades, and the prophets before him, and they proclaimed beforehand the coming of Christ.” Didymus observes “In the liberation of all no one remains a captive; at the time of the Lord’s passion he alone (Satan) was injured, who lost all the captives he was keeping.” Cyril of Alexandria: “And wandering down even to Hades he has emptied the dark, secret, invisible treasures.” Gregory of Nazianzus: “Until Christ loosed by his blood all who groaned under Tartarian chains.” Jerome on Jonah ii: 6: “Our Lord was shut up in æonian bars in order that he might set free all who had been shut up.”
Such passages might be multiplied, demonstrating that the early church regarded the conquest by Christ of the departed as universal. He set free from bonds all the dead in Hades. If the primitive Christians believed that all the wicked of all the æons preceding the death of Christ were released, how can we suppose them to have regarded the wicked subsequent to his death as destined to suffer interminable torments? Clement of Alexandria is explicit in declaring that the Gospel was preached to all, both Jews and Gentiles, in Hades;–that “the sole cause of the Lord’s descent to the underworld was to preach the gospel.” (Strom. VI.) Origen says: “Not only while Jesus was in the body did he win over not a few only, * * * but when he became a soul, without the covering of the body, he dwelt among those souls (in Hades) which were without bodily covering, converting such of them as were fit for it.”
The Gospel of Nicodemus.
About a century after the death of John appeared the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, valuable as setting forth current eschatology. It describes the effect of Christ’s preaching in Hades: “When Jesus arrived in Hades, the gates burst open, and taking Adam by the hand Jesus said, “Come all with me, as many as have died through the tree which he touched, for behold I raise you all up through the tree of the cross.'” This book shows conclusively that the Christians of that date did not regard æonian punishment as interminable, inasmuch as those who had been sentenced to that condition were released. “If Christ preached to dead men who were once disobedient, then Scripture shows us that the moment of death does not necessarily involve a final and hopeless torment for every sinful soul. Of all the blunt weapons of ignorant controversy employed against those to whom has been revealed the possibility of a larger hope than is left to mankind by Augustine or by Calvin, the bluntest is the charge that such a hope renders null the necessity for the work of Christ. * * * We thus rescue the work of redemption from the appearance of having failed to achieve its end for the vast majority of those for whom Christ died. * * * In these passages, as has been truly said, ‘we may see an expansive paraphrase and exuberant variation of the original Pauline theme of the universalism of the evangelic embassage of Christ, and of his sovereignty over the world;’ and especially of the passage in the Philippians (ii. 9-11) where all they that are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, are enumerated as classes of the subjects of the exalted Redeemer.” 5And Alford observes: “The inference every intelligent reader will draw from the fact here announced: it is not purgatory; it is not universal restitution; but it is one which throws blessed light on one of the darkest enigmas of divine justice.” Timotheus II., patriarch of the Nestorians, wrote that “by the prayers of the saints the souls of sinners may pass from Gehenna to Paradise,” (Asseman. IV. p. 344). See Prof. Plumptre’s “Spirits in Prison,” p. 141; Dict. Christ. Biog. Art. Eschatology, etc. Says Uhlhorn (Book I, ch. iii): “For deceased persons their relatives brought gifts on the anniversary of their death, a beautiful custom which vividly exhibited the connection between the church above and the church below.”
“One fact stands out very clearly from the passages of patristic literature, viz.: that all sects and divisions of the Christians in the second and third centuries united in the belief that Christ went down into Hades, or the Underworld, after his death on the cross, and remained there until his resurrection. Of course it was natural that the question should come up, What did he do there? As he came down from earth to preach the Gospel to, and save, the living, it was easy to infer that he went down into Hades to preach the same glad tidings there, and show the way of salvation to those who had died before his advent.” 6
Prayers for the Dead.
It need not here be claimed that the doctrine that Christ literally preached to the dead in Hades is true, or that such is the teaching of I. Pet. iii: 19, but it is perfectly apparent that if the primitive Christians held to the doctrine they could not have believed that the condition of the soul is fixed at death. That is comparatively a modern doctrine.
There can be no doubt that the Catholic doctrine of purgatory is a corruption of the Scriptural doctrine of the disciplinary character of all God’s punishments. Purgatory was never heard of in the earlier centuries.7 It is first fully stated by Pope Gregory the First, ‘its inventor,’ at the close of the Sixth Century, “For some light faults we must believe that there is before judgment a purgatorial fire.” This theory is a perversion of the idea held anciently, that all God’s punishments are purgative; what the Catholic regards as true of the errors of the good is just as true of the sins of the worst,– indeed, of all. The word rendered punishment in Matt. xxv: 46, (kolasin) implies all this.
Condition of the Dead not Final.
That the condition of the dead was not regarded as unalterably fixed is evident from the fact that prayers for the dead were customary anciently, and that, too, before the doctrine of purgatory was formulated. The living believed–and so should we believe–that the dead have migrated to another country, where the good offices of supervisors on earth avail. Perpetua begged for the help of her brother, child of a Pagan father, who had died unbaptized. In Tertullian the widow prays for the soul of her departed husband. Repentance by the dead is conceded by Clement, and the prayers of the good on earth help them.
The dogma of the purificatory character of future punishment did not degenerate into the doctrine of punishment for believers only, until the Fourth Century; nor did that error crystallize into the Catholic purgatory until later. Hagenbach says: “Comparing Gregory’s doctrine with the earlier, and more spiritual notions concerning the efficacy of the purifying fire of the intermediate state, we may adopt the statement of Schmidt that the belief in a lasting desire of perfection, which death itself cannot quench, degenerated into a belief in purgatory.”
Plumtre (“Spirits in Prison,” London, p. 25) has a valuable statement: “In every form; from the solemn liturgies which embodied the belief of her profoundest thinkers and truest worshippers, to the simple words of hope and love which were traced over the graves of the poor, her voice (the church of the first ages) went up without a doubt or misgiving, in prayers for the souls of the departed;” showing that they could not have regarded their condition as unalterably fixed at death. Prof. Plumptre quotes from Lee’s “Christian Doctrine of Prayer for the Departed,” to show the early Christians’ belief that intercessions for the dead would be of avail to them. Even Augustine accepted the doctrine. He prayed after his mother’s death, that her sins might be forgiven, and that his father might also receive pardon. (“Confessions,” ix, 13.)8
The Platonic doctrine of a separate state where the spirits of the departed are purified, and on which the later doctrine of purgatory was founded, was approved by all the expositors of Christianity who were of the Alexandrian school, as was the custom of performing religious services at the tombs of the dead. Uhlhorn gives similar testimony: “For deceased persons their relatives brought gifts on the anniversary of their death, a beautiful custom, which vividly exhibited the connection between the church above and the church below.” Origen’s tenet of Catharsis of Purification was absorbed by the growing belief in purgatory. 9
Let the reader reflect, (1) that the Primitive Christians so distrusted the effect of the truth on the popular mind that they withheld it, and only cherished it esoterically, and held up terrors for effect, in which they had no faith; (2) that they prayed for the wicked dead that they might be released from suffering; (3) that they universally held that Christ preached the Gospel to sinners in Hades; (4) that the earliest creeds are entirely silent as to the idea that the wicked dead were in irretrievable and endless torment; (5) that the terms used by some who are accused of teaching endless torment were precisely those employed by those acknowledged to have been Universalists; (6) that the first Christians were the happiest of people and infused a wonderful cheerfulness into a world of sorrow and gloom; (7) that there is not a shade of darkness nor a note of despair in any one of the thousands of epitaphs in the Catacombs; (8) that the doctrine of universal redemption was first made prominent by those to whom Greek was their native tongue, and that they declared that they derived it from the Greek Scriptures, while endless punishment was first taught by Africans and Latins, who derived it from a foreign tongue of which the great teacher of it confesses he was ignorant. (See ” Augustine” later on.) Let the reader give to these considerations their full and proper weight, and it will be impossible to believe that the fathers regarded the impenitent as consigned at death to hopeless and endless woe.
Note.–After giving the emphatic language of Clement and Origen and other ancient Christians declarative of universal holiness, Dr. Bigg, in his valuable book, “The Christian Platonists of Alexandria,” frequently quoted in these pages, remarks (pp. 292-3): “Neither Clement not Origen is, properly speaking, a Universalist. Nor is Universalism the logical result of their principles.” The reasons he gives are two: (1) They believed in the freedom of the will; and (2) they did not deny the eternity of punishment, because the soul that has sinned beyond a certain point can never become what it might have been!
To which it is only necessary to say (1) that Universalists generally accept the freedom of the will, and (2) no soul that has sinned, as all have sinned, can ever become what it might have been, so the Dr. Bigg’s premises would necessitate Universalism, but universal condemnation!
And, as if to contradict his own words, Dr. Bigg adds in the very next paragraph: “The hope of a general restitution of all souls through suffering to purity and blessedness, lingered on in the East for some time;” and the last words in his book are these: “It is the teaching of St. Paul,–Then cometh the end, when he shall have delivered up the Kingdom to God, even the Father. Then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all.” And these are the last words of his last note: “At the end all will be one because the Father’s will is all in all and all in each. Each will fill the place which the mystery of the economy assigns to him.”
It would be interesting to learn what sort of monstrosity Dr. Bigg has constructed, and labeled with the word which he declares could not be applied to Clement and Origen.
1 An excellent resume of the opinions of the fathers on Christ’s descent into Hades, and preaching the gospel to the dead, is Huidekoper’s “The Belief of the First Three Centuries Concerning Christ’s Mission to the Underworld;” also Huidekoper’s “Indirect Testimony to the Gospels;” also Dean Plumptre’s “Spirits in Prison.” London: 1884.
2 Historia Dogmatis do Descensu Christi ad Inferos. J. A. Dietelmaier.
3 De Passione et Cruce Domin. Migne, XXVIII, 186-240.
4 Carm. XXXV, v. 9
5 Farrar’s “Early Days of Christianity.” ch. vii.
6 Universalist Quarterly.
7 Archs. Usher and Wake, quoted by Farrar, “Mercy and Judgment.”
8 That these ideas were general in the primitive church, see Nitzsch, “Christian Doctrine,” Sec. III; Dorner, “System of Christian Doctrine,” Vol. IV (Eschatology). Also Vaughan’s “Causes of the Corruption of Christianity,” p. 319.