I no longer believe in an eternal punishment.
This is a long essay, which I know isn’t the thing these days, but I wanted to explain why and explain it well. In order to keep some of you reading, I promise I’m not about to argue that “a loving God wouldn’t do that.”
Although I think it’s true.
The book of Leviticus, an ancient legal code of sorts for Jewish priests, contains the following oddly specific commandment: “Any Israelite or any foreigner residing in Israel who sacrifices any of his children to Molek is to be put to death.” Surely, if there was ever a crime that might rise to the level of deserving capital punishment, child sacrifice might just rise to that level. But why only Molek? What about child sacrifice to any other god? Or just killing a child period? Why is Leviticus so fixated on Molek?
Strange, but at any rate, the Old Testament book of II Chronicles records that some time before Babylon destroyed Jerusalem in 587 BC, King Ahaz sacrificed his children to — guess who? — Molek. And II Chronicles records that a successor king named Manasseh sacrificed his children to — guess who? — Molek. You would think that if Ahaz, Manasseh, or any other psychopath were dead set on sacrificing his children, he would have been more clever than to do so to the specific god prohibited in Leviticus, but Ahaz and Manasseh are one of many examples in which the law in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy presciently seem to track with the precise biblical history of the Jewish people.
The location of these sacrifices is important. Extremely important, so pay attention to this boring paragraph about geography. The text tells us that both kings performed these sacrifices in a particular valley that surrounds the west and south of Jerusalem and merges with the Kidron Valley, the other principal valley around Jerusalem. This valley is referred to throughout the Old Testament by one of two names: either “Topheth” or the “Valley of the son of Ben Hinnom.” In the New Testament, it is called “Gehenna”, a Greek transliteration of its Hebrew name.
I know the last paragraph wasn’t super interesting, so here’s a picture:
They sacrificed children in there.
As a result of this horrifying practice, some Jewish prophets deemed the valley cursed. Specifically, the text says that the Jews would have the horror they inflicted on their children revisited upon them:
Jeremiah c7 v30-34: The people of Judah have done evil in my eyes, declares the Lord. They have set up their detestable idols in the house that bears my Name and have defiled it. They have built the high places of Topheth in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to burn their sons and daughters in the fire—something I did not command, nor did it enter my mind. So beware, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when people will no longer call it Topheth or the Valley of Ben Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter, for they will bury the dead in Topheth until there is no more room. Then the carcasses of this people will become food for the birds and the wild animals, and there will be no one to frighten them away. I will bring an end to the sounds of joy and gladness and to the voices of bride and bridegroom in the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem, for the land will become desolate.
According to Jeremiah, an empire from the East (Babylon) was about to destroy Jerusalem, and Jerusalem’s dead bodies would be buried in Gehenna, this same valley of child sacrifice instituted by Ahaz and Manasseh. Isaiah in his day also spoke about this total destruction.
Isaiah c66: “As the new heavens and the new earth that I make will endure before me,” declares the Lord, “so will your name and descendants endure. From one New Moon to another and from one Sabbath to another, all mankind will come and bow down before me,” says the Lord. “And they will go out and look on the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; the worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.
Isaiah’s scene is a gruesome one, one of such trauma that it would permanently imprint itself in the Jewish consciousness. Before we move on though, notice that, despite Isaiah prophesying a fire that would never be quenched and maggots that would never quit feeding, neither are here to this day.
Gehenna, but where’s the fire?
The modern reader of Isaiah needs to focus less on his literal description of the scene (as we seem inclined to do with ancient biblical texts) and more on the impression. The feeling. The despair. The shock. The national disorientation. This is a description of how the scene feels.
And, on queue . . .
Babylon destroyed Jerusalem.
The survived were exiled into service in the Babylonian empire.
The dead were buried in Gehenna.
Persia conquered Babylon.
And King Cyrus of Persia allowed the exiled Jews to return back to their land.
By the way, it is only after this return to Palestine that modern scholars believe that the Old Testament became a thing. Not that the stories were invented outright then, but there is significant evidence of considerable . . . *gasp* editing that took place to the stories that had been passed down to their present day. This is a discussion for another post, and really kind of an aside, but if true it would shed some light on how oddly specific the Molek reference was.
In this post-exile period, also called the Second Temple Period, the rabbinical system that continues to this day began. These Jewish thought leaders and others in this time wrestled with how to apply the static Old Testament text (what Jews call the Tanahk) to their changing circumstances. Most of the Old Testament was written with reference to the conquering Babylonians, but the Persians conquered them, the Greeks conquered the Persians, then the Seleucids took over the Greek conquest of Judea, and then the Romans took over. As one kingdom replaced the next, Jewish writers began to create motifs from the Tanahk that served as symbols or code words for their present problems. For example, in all sorts of Jewish literature, the word “Babylon” became a stand-in for whoever the current foreign oppressor was at the time. You see this strikingly in the Christian book of Revelation as well as the Jewish Pesher Habakkuk of the Dead Sea Scrolls, a commentary on the book of Habakkuk in which the writer declares that all of Habakkuk’s references to the conquering Babylon are clarified to have really meant the conquering Rome.
Of course, there is no way in the world that the prophet Habakkuk writing in his time was thinking about the non-existent Roman empire, but Jews have a long legacy of creatively applying ancient texts to then-present circumstances. Much much more so than do evangelical Christians, and much more so than our demonstrably incorrect stereotype of the “legalistic Pharisee.”
The proponents of the Jesus movement in the 1st century, by the way, did the exact same thing time and again. Rarely if ever are the Old Testament texts applied in the New Testament without some flexible treatment of the text. Jesus was as prolific in creative uses of the Old Testament as anybody, so much so that Dr. Peter Enns asserts that Jesus would have flunked out of any modern-day evangelical Bible seminary.
With this in mind, a second resurrected literary motif began to appear, one to which I spent the first part of this essay introducing—Gehenna. Because the Tanahk is silent on the afterlife, Plato’s theory of the immortality of the soul was a new idea to the Jewish people. As his ideas percolated into the discussions and debates of Jewish thought leaders, whether they were aware of his influence or not, in the same manner in which conservatives today bemoan activist judges, the Jewish leaders began to find these Hellenistic ideas in the text.
Rabbis who disagreed with each other on nearly every facet of Jewish law agreed that that the righteous would in inherit a “share in the life to come”, but the wicked would go “down to Gehenna.”
That valley outside of Jerusalem where the dead were buried and incinerated centuries earlier.
When Jesus was a young boy, two important rabbinical schools—the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel—were engaging in debates about everything from obedience to Roman centurions to how many candles must be lit on the first night of Hanukkah. Unnoticed by most Christians today are the many questions that the New Testament gospels record rabbis posing to Jesus that were essentially “Rabbi, whose side are you on? Rabbi Shammai’s or Rabbi Hillel’s?” Shammai generally interpreted the Torah more strictly and conservatively than did Hillel, yet Jesus almost always sided with the liberal Hillel, if not veered from conservative Jewish thought even further.
For instance, Hillel and Shammai disagreed with each other over who, for purposes of Leviticus 19, one’s neighbor was. Shammai taught that only God-fearing, observant Jews were one’s “neighbors,” and that one was free to hate all others. Hillel, on the other hand, taught that everyone was your “neighbor.”
Well, everyone except the Samaritans.
And so, when an expert in the law asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”, Jesus you could say made some waves:
In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.”
Recognize this text? This is the good Samaritan story, which we usually think is just a nice story about how religious people sometimes in all their religiosity forget about the needs of actual people. In fact, this typifies Jesus as the clever 1st-century polemicist he was. This is Jesus, not just interpreting the text more liberally than Shammai—whose teachings were popular among the priestly order of Jerusalem—but Jesus interpreting the text even more liberally than Hillel—whose teachings were popular among the fishers and other working class people of Galilee.
A rabbi I spoke with recently told me, “I couldn’t become a rabbi if I hadn’t read Shammai and Hillel.”
I go even further. You can’t be a serious reader of that Galilean Jewish carpenter written about in the four gospels if you haven’t read Shammai and Hillel.
The Sanhedrin Tractate, a kind of summary of Jewish common law written in the first century, records the debate that Shammai and Hillel had regarding who would have a share in “the life to come” and where would those who didn’t go. The sage of the tractate records for us as follows:
The School of Shammai say: There are three classes; one for everlasting life, another for shame and everlasting contempt –who are accounted wholly wicked, and a third class who go down to Gehenna, where they scream and again come up and receive healing, as it is written: and I will bring the third part through the fire, and will refine them as silver is refined, and will try them as gold is tried; and they shall call on my name and I will be their God. And of these last Hannah said: The Lord killeth and the Lord maketh alive, he bringeth down to Sheol and bringeth up.
Even as conservative as was Shammai, most people would eventually gain everlasting life. However, some would have to go through the Gehenna as a place of purifying. On the other hand, here’s what Hillel thought:
The School of Hillel say: He is great in mercy, that is, He leans in the direction of mercy; and of them David said: I am well please that the Lord hath heard the voice of my prayer; and of them, the whole psalm is written.
As you can see, Shammai thought that some would be granted Plato’s idea of everlasting life, others would go down to Gehenna for a painful refining before they would inherit everlasting life, and others, Shammai thought, were so bad that they would be shut up in Gehenna forever. On the other hand, Hillel thought that for such a person whose life was a mix of good deeds and bad, God’s mercy would simply tip the scale for that person in favor of everlasting life in the life to come.
As for who would be shut up in Gehenna, the Sanhedrin Tractate gives us a long list, to me obviously reflecting the hodgepodge personal priorities of a long line of individual rabbis who at one time or another commented on the matter. “Traitors” (meaning, those Israelites who worked for the Roman government, such as you, know, Matthew and Zacchaeus), those who “stretched out their hands against the Temple”, those who “denied the law”, “Epicureans”—the tractate informs us that these people would have no share in “the life to come.” Also, the rabbis determined that no one would have to stay in Gehenna for more than one year.
Again, for all we talk about the Jews of Jesus’s day being so legalistic, all of this Gehenna business was concluded with absolutely nothing near the level of scriptural authority that modern evangelicals demand, but accepted by the most important rabbis on both ends of the ideological spectrum of their time.
So with this in mind, let’s fast forward a few years to the ministering time of a certain rabbi of the Pharisaical order, a Galilean named Jesus. In Mark 9, Jesus is recorded to have said the following:
If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where “the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched.”
If you’re new to the Bible and starting to think that it devotes an unusual amount of attention to worms and fire, you’re right. If you’re thinking, “this sounds just like the passage that Chris quoted above from Isaiah”, you’re right again. And if you’re thinking, “how interesting that Jesus would describe Hell the same way Isaiah described Gehenna,” you’re . . . on . . .fire? [drops the mic so hard]
Actually, for many of you, I’m about to drop a bomb.
Jesus didn’t say Hell, and neither did any writer in the Bible ever.
Yes, Jesus’s actual word was . . . Gehenna.
In fact, no one in the Bible ever used the word Hell.
The word Hell is a pagan idea of a fire-consuming netherworld of pitchforked devils that originated at least seven centuries after Jesus died.
Let me repeat: Jesus on each occasion said Gehenna. A literal place from a literal time that served as the site of the most shameful episode of Israel’s history. A site that virtually all of Jesus’s disciples would have at one point personally observed. And as you can see, Jesus in Mark 9 was, as he so often did, entering into a discussion that Jews were already having, with the same creative motifs that Jews were already using. He took the creativity with which Hillel and Shammai used the language of Isaiah and Jeremiah and departed with them for his own purposes.
According to Jesus in Matthew 25 (which I’ll get to below), the old rabbinical checklist of things that kept people out of Gehenna isn’t of any value.
So, what is important?
Feeding the hungry.
Taking care of the sick.
And other hippie-sounding, social justice kinds of things.
I have more to say on this from the text, but for the moment I want to make a personal comment. I’ve gone to church three times a week since before I could walk. I spent four years at a Christian college where, in addition to going to church three times a week, I heard a sermon in chapel every morning and took a bible class once a semester for four years.
But I reached the age of twenty-eight and heard the word Gehenna for the first time.
For a topic as consequential as Hell, that’s inexcusable. That’s shameful.
Are we afraid that people are going to leave the faith if they learn this? Is this information that we fear people can’t handle?
Or is the idea of Hell kind of useful to religious leaders for certain purposes?
Getting back to our discussion, I want you to get comfortable with the idea that a good deal of Christian practice and thought originates in things that Jews completely made up. Ask yourself where John the baptist got the idea of immersion in water to forgive sins or where Jesus and his disciples got the idea to have wine with the Passover meal on the night before his crucifixion. If you try to find authority for those practices in the Old Testament, you will never quit searching.
Yet, Christians embraced them both.
So, given that a diversity of thought that existed among the Jews of Jesus’s day as to who went to Gehenna, why they went to Gehenna, and for how long, the next question is what did Jesus and the other Biblical writers have to say about it?
To the typical evangelical Christian I’ve known my whole life, there are two kinds of people: those who question eternal conscious torment in Hell and those who are faithful. I know this, and, frankly, am a bit intimidated by writing on this subject.
Of course, we don’t get to pick and choose what we want to believe from the word of God because we don’t feel like believing it or because it’s hard. But as people created in the image of God, when our first impression of a text seems to shock our conscience, as the idea of eternal punishment in fire does to most people (except evangelical Christians), I think God gives us the grace to ask ourselves whether our first impression is correct.
So let’s do that right now. In Matthew c25, Jesus is in the middle of several parables about the coming end times. In his last parable, he says that on judgment day the “sheep” and “goats” will be separated based not on their observance of law and the hatred of infidels, but on whether they took care of the most vulnerable people among them. Then Jesus says this:
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”
Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.
I can already hear it: “Eternal punishment! See! It’s right there!”, says one evangelical after another, each closing their Bibles on queue. “And if those words don’t mean ‘eternal punishment,’ then how can we be sure the next words mean ‘eternal life’?”
Stick with me. It’s word study time.* The phrase often interpreted as “eternal punishment” can mean “eternal punishment”. Universalists sometimes go too far in saying that it cannot mean that, when it certainly can. However, while it can, it doesn’t have to, and interpreters have to make a theological choice. The greek phrase is aionion kolasis.
*Yes, I know. Everyone’s fav.
English Bibles for hundreds of years have translated kolasis as “punishment.”
Punishment is probably correct, but almost certainly incomplete.
Some kinds of punishment are corrective and about rehabilitation, but others kinds of punishment are punitive and about retribution. When a parent takes away TV privileges (I guess these days iPad, or whatever kids now are using), that kind of punishment is geared toward training and correction. On the other hand, when we read in the book of Jonah that Jonah, as opposed to God, wanted to see Nineveh burn to the ground, Jonah was thinking in the typically tribal mindset of retribution.
They burned our city, so let’s burn theirs!
The kind of punishment that kolasis refers to obviously then is pretty important to understanding what Jesus was talking about. So, which is it?
It turns out that the word kolasis is closely related to the greek word kolazo, which means “pruning” or “keeping in check.”
You don’t prune a plant because it mistreated you. I don’t care how out of control your weeds got over the rainy season, you don’t prune plants to exact vengeance on them. You prune them to get rid of the things that harm them. Rehabilitation is the same idea. It is meant to heal. To refine. To get rid of the things that cause harm.
For this reason, I think that a better translation of kolasis in this instance would be “corrective punishment.” No doubt, still punishment. Still painful.
You still want to avoid it.**
But this kind of punishment is not about “getting you back.” This is the kind of punishment necessary if you want to dwell with a holy God whose very nature is incompatible with such a destructive force as sin.
So what about the first word, aionion, which serves as a modifier to kolasis and which we translate “everlasting”? It would be odd for Jesus in Matthew 25 to describe a corrective punishment that lasts forever. You would think that once the corrective punishment, you know . . . corrected, there would be no need for it anymore.
Aionion is related to the Greek word aion, from where we get the word eon. An eon is a distinct period, an age. Let me anticipate the coming criticism I know is coming from those who have studied Greek and emphasize that the word aionion certainly can and sometimes does mean “everlasting”. The common translation “everlasting” is not facially wrong.
But Greek, like Hebrew, like English—like any language—has many words that can mean a variety of things. In fact, there are many times when aionion clearly does not mean “everlasting.”
Going way back to Exodus 40, we read the following command:
Anoint [the sons of Aaron] just as you anointed their father, so they may serve me as priests. Their anointing will be to a priesthood that will continue throughout their generations.
During the Ptolemaic-Greek inter-testamental period of Israelite history, a group of Jews were commissioned to translate their Hebrew text into Greek. The product of the efforts is a work we call the Septuagint. The Septuagint is an especially important translative tool because Jesus the New Testament writers generally quote it rather than the Hebrew text and because, until the Dead Sea Scrolls were unearthed in 1947, the Septuagint was the oldest Old Testament text we had.
In fact, consider the craziness that the King James Version of the Bible was an English translation of the Masoretic Hebrew text, which was a middle ages translation of the Septuagint, which was a translation of the original Hebrew. Until the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in 1947, that’s the Old Testament we were reading for hundreds of years!
With that said, read the text above again and notice how the Septuagint translates the same text:
Anoint [the sons of Aaron] just as you anointed their father, and they shall minister to me as priests; and it shall be that they shall have an everlasting anointing of priesthood, throughout their generations.
According to Exodus 40 the Aaronic priesthood was to be aionion, yet the same New Testament writers who regularly quote the Septuagint without exception maintain that the Aaronic priesthood ended.
In this context, aionion to the Jesus movement had to mean some other than “everlasting.” Whatever it meant, it meant something that would eventually end.
Another example. Exodus 21 in the Septuagint says this: “If [at the end of six years] the servant declares, ‘I love my master and do not want to go free,’ then his master must take him before the judges. He shall take him to the door or the doorpost and pierce his ear with an awl. Then he will be his servant for life.” The word from which we translate “for life”?
You guessed it. Aionion. So, will there be slaves and masters in Heaven? The way many of my peers reason through these issues, I don’t know how they could conclude otherwise.
How long was Jonah in the belly of the fish? Three days, which Jonah c2 describes as aionios.
More. Jude 7: “Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire.” Jude describes a fire that is aionion, but again Sodom and Gomorrah, like Gehenna, are no longer on fire. Further, Ezekiel 16 includes this remarkable text that Jude would have memorized in his teenage years:
Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.
However, I will restore the fortunes of Sodom. Sodom with her daughters and Samaria with her daughters, will return to what they were before.
Sodom will be restored?!?! How can Jude say that Sodom suffers eternal fire if Ezekiel says Sodom would be restored?
I think you get the point.
Over and over, the Biblical writers use the Greek word aionion for things that oftentimes . . . end.
For these reasons, and many more, a growing number of commentators are coming around to the idea that a better translation of the word aionion than “eternal” in many instances is “a complete period.” Aionion in some cases should be understood as an “age”, but with a literary emphasis—a “complete age.”
However, as I said earlier, aionion can also mean everlasting, so the translation everlasting punishment is not a prima facia mistranslation. This means that as a translator, you have to make a choice, and that choice is going to be influenced by your understanding of things.
Going back then to Matthew 25, what did Jesus mean? To determine what he meant, I am going to avoid the oft-repeated line that “a loving God would not send people to Hell forever.” Despite the fact that I think there is truth in that statement, few evangelical Christians are going to be swayed by what they consider that wimpy and unfaithful “emotion-based logic.” So instead, I’m going to focus on the cold hard “logic” of what the Bible actually says.
Let’s start with Jeremiah 31, written after the Babylonia exile:
“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.
No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” This is what the Lord says: “Only if these decrees vanish from my sight,” declares the Lord, “will Israel ever cease being a nation before me. Only if the heavens above can be measured and the foundations of the earth below be searched out will I reject all the descendants of Israel because of all they have done.”
“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when this city will be rebuilt for me from the Tower of Hananel to the Corner Gate. The measuring line will stretch from there straight to the hill of Gareb and then turn to Goah. The whole valley where dead bodies and ashes are thrown, and all the terraces out to the Kidron Valley on the east as far as the corner of the Horse Gate, will be holy to the Lord. The city will never again be uprooted or demolished.”
Notice the italicized portion, which refers to Gehenna. Now that you know what Gehenna is, don’t you find this statement odd? Didn’t Isaiah said that Gehenna was going to burn forever? Remember when Jude said Sodom would burn forever? For all the talk of the Bible being absolute and saying that people would burn in Hell forever, the Bible sure seems to keep saying that things will burn forever that . . . don’t.
Whatever Isaiah in his time meant with his everlasting fire and ever-feeding maggots, and whatever Jeremiah said before, Jeremiah and Ezekiel in their time seem to back track from that. (The Bible backtracking???) Whatever you thought before about Gehenna and death and hopelessness, something new is coming. Gehenna is being renewed. Jesus made a deliberate choice to describe the specific geographic location that was associated with a punishment of fire, but a fire that would not burn forever, in a place that would be redeemed and . . . holy.
Does God punish people forever? Again, Jeremiah:
No one is 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 anyone.
Is it necessary for some people to be humbled before they can enter Heaven? I think the Bible teaches this. Here’s Paul, again talking about fire.
According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire.
It is written: “‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord, ‘every knee will bow before me; every tongue will acknowledge God.'”
John the Baptist talked about fire in the same way:
Matthew c3: I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
Is baptism functionally the same thing as Gehenna? Is the baptism of Acts 2:38, less about water and more about the painful process that accompanies repentance? A fire of sorts? Is it possible that we get a choice, to repent in this life or a much more painful repentance in Gehenna? You may find this crazy but keep this idea in mind as you read this passage from 1 Peter c3:
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits — to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.
In the context of everything we just read, I think the message of Peter is clear: You are either baptized in this life—like Noah symbolizes—or are imprisoned in Gehenna until Jesus frees you—like those who didn’t listen to Noah. Frankly, I find this passage makes a lot more sense when read this way. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the father except through him.
Except some will do that in this life, and others have to do it in the Gehenna.
Jesus talked about fire too. In fact, let’s go back to a passage we just read, a passage about Gehenna. Notice the last sentence:
Mark c9: “And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into Gehenna, where
‘the worms that eat them do not die,
and the fire is not quenched.’
Everyone will be salted with fire.”
Everyone is salted with fire?
When you understand Jesus and the early disciples to be teaching a kind of punishment that is corrective and not out of a sheer desire to see another person burn, other parts of the text start to make more sense, and we can just read them for what they plainly say. For example, when Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town,” how does this statement make any sense if all unrepentant sinners burn for eternity in fire? How is eternal conscious torment for Sodom and Gomorrah more bearable than eternal conscious torment for anyone else? If the fire is only 5,000 degrees for one person, but 10,000 degrees for another, is that really a distinction worth talking about? While, the precise nature of this divine punishment obviously is beyond our ability to fully comprehend, it seems that the gospel writer included this statement not to talk about the temperature of the fire, but to contrast Jesus’s teaching with the teachings of Jesus’s day.
Jesus was speaking to people who were taking sides among Shammai and Hillel.
People who wanted to know where Jesus stood.
But rather than looking outward to condemn foreign invaders—as did the long line of prominent rabbis mentioned in the Sanhedrin Tractate—Jesus departed from them and instead pointed the finger at his fellow Israelites. Humans are remarkably adept at forming their own tribes and judging the other ones; a core part of Jesus’s ministry was his remarkable break from tribalism towards an acceptance of people from every ethnic group, every economic strata, and every kind of shameful past. We are all equal.
Forever and Ever In Revalation
“Interesting stuff, Chris. But if God doesn’t punish people forever, what about the fire I read about in Revelation?”
Revelation c 14: When the thousand years are over, Satan will be released from his prison and will go out to deceive the nations in the four corners of the earth—Gog and Magog—and to gather them for battle. In number they are like the sand on the seashore. They marched across the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of God’s people, the city he loves. But fire came down from heaven and devoured them. And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.
A full treatment of Revelation and apocalyptic literature generally would be too long for this already long essay.
However, I want to make a short point about quoting Revelation literally, a long point about the greek phrases “for ever and ever”, and an even longer point about why John wrote Revelation in the first place.
First, those who quote one part of Revelation literally have to contend with the fact that according to Revelation c14, only virgins will go to Heaven. And that also according to Revelation, only 144,000.
Suddenly the most conservative Biblical commentators start talking about “context” and saying things like “words can mean different things in different situations.” Uh huh. Yes they do.
But, let’s also look at this phrase “forever and ever.” Below, is the Greek text of Revelation 14:11, which the NIV translates, “. . . and the smoke of their torment will rise for ever and ever”:
. . . kai okarnos tou basanismou auton eis aionas ton aionon anabainei
The Greek phrase in question is aionas ton aionon.
First, the Greek word for “and” is not ton; it is kai. The Greek word ton means “of the”, which signifies a thing that comes out of another thing.
If this kind of phrasing sounds familiar, it’s because the Bible is full of literary phrases like this:
- King of Kings
- Lord of Lords
- Song of Songs
So, in all of five seconds, “forever and ever” is demonstrably suspect.
Second, aionas is yet another word that is related to aion, the Greek word we spoke about from which we get the English word “eon.” In fact, it is even more closely related to “aion” than “aionion”.
A much better translation then of aionas ton aionon is “ages of the ages”, a much more flexible phrase, which probably means for “the Devil and his angles” a extra long time.
Some commentators will no doubt point out instances when aion is used to mean eternal.
They aren’t wrong.
You can use that word that way.
Sometimes it should be used that way.
But, again, the argument that the word plainly means “eternal” in some instances, and therefore must be used that way in every other instance (which is the gist of every conservative commentary on this topic that I’ve read to this point), is not only a lapse in argumentative ethics, but is plainly disproven by every occasion in which the word clearly does not mean “eternal.”
Otherwise, you’re forced into awkward translations like “eternities of the eternities” or “evers and evers.”
And, finally, this is to say nothing about the nature of ancient apocalyptic literature. Apocalyptic literature is neither precise, nor absent of agenda. Consider the following, which is a truncated version of what really should be a massive study:
- Everywhere the Roman emperor Domitian went, a choir of twenty-four singers followed him singing: “Our Lord and our God, you are worthy to receive glory and power.” This is precisely the scene that John records happening in Heaven in Revelation 4.
- Every Caesar was given a scroll of the divine names they were given, a scroll that it was said only the Caesar was worthy to open. Revelation 5 includes an angel announcing “Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?” and Jesus who could open it.
- The Domitian games, a kind of Olympics, included horse races of four horses of different colors. Revelation 6 mentions four horses of different colors.
- The Domitian games began with the emperor Domitian summoning the leaders of various provinces in the Roman empire for a discussion of the things he had for them and against them. John records Jesus doing the same thing for each of the churches of Asia.
- To engage in commerce in any ecclesia (the word from which we get “church”) of the Roman Empire, you had to make an incense offering to Caesar, which would allow you to receive a mark. John, who had no doubt read plenty of 1st century apocalyptic literature, in which the Roman Caesar is described as “the beast” in Revelation 13 describes those who received the mark of the beast and those who could buy and sell.
Are you starting to get it? It’s not as if God couldn’t decide what to make Heaven look like, so he decided to model it after Domitian. John, whom Domitian had exiled from Ephesus, had a specific message for specific people using a common literary form of his day and using well-known displays of power. The message: “Domitian, no matter what he says and not matter his military might, is not God. Endure the coming persecution, because the Roman empire is coming to an end, and a better kingdom will take its place.” John is mocking Domitian and mocking him well.
All that said, quoting apocalyptic literature to describe the precise details of any particular thing, as Rob Bell put it, is like quoting Nirvana to describe the precise details of teen spirit. You are making apocalyptic literature into something it’s not, and not actually reading the Bible.
For these reasons, going back to the passages we began with, when Jesus says aionion kolasis, I have come to conclude that he is emphasizing the holiness of God. You cannot come into the presence of an eternal god with even the smallest traces of things that bring about death and destruction. Those traces of selfishness, bitterness, pride, jealousy, and hate have to be refined out of you. Thus, to emphasize the seriousness of it, Jesus uses the word aionion rather than aion because you will undergo a complete period of corrective punishment, rather than just an arbitrary period.
This is deadly serious.
But not the point of the gospel.
Let’s be real. If, after all, I’m wrong and there is an eternal, conscious, hyper-scary torment waiting for us at the end of this life, that is decisively the only thing that matters. I don’t care how good the alternative is, or even what it is—avoiding Hell under those circumstances must be the point of this life. Avoiding Hell must be the point of reading the Bible. Screw the Bible’s nuance. Screw its complexity. Screw its frequent literary ambiguity. If there’s an eternal conscious torment, the only serious purpose of the Bible can be as a how-to guide for avoiding it. We need five-step, six-step, seventy-seven step guides to salvation. We need to preach those things. All the time. We need to meet all the time and preach those things. We need to not talk about anything else. We are never doing enough. We need clearly defined salvation issues with clearly defined doctrines, and we must do everything we can to stop those who disagree. You should quit your job—quit everything—and die in poverty focused on not going to Hell. If the risk is burning in hot sulfur for days without end, there can be no alternative to a Bible that is inspired and infallible, despite how questionable those ideas are. How could a loving God give us a document that can be interpreted multiple ways with so much on the line?
Every line of the Bible must be interpreted as conservatively as possible. Every serious doubt about II Timothy 3:16 saying what for centuries we’ve made it to say will be resolved in favor of infallibility. Despite, Jesus who was “the Word”, became a man and took on all frailties of the human condition, we cannot stomach the idea of any humanity in our written word of God. No sir.
Why? Because if we get something wrong, billions could sit in literal fire for all eternity!
I don’t understand these hip modern churches that believe in eternal Hell and simultaneously downplay telling people about it. Churches that say “Christianity is about having a relationship with God, not about avoiding Hell.” In my opinion, it leads to a weird cognitive dissonance—one in which in the back of our minds we do this church thing to avoid Hell, but in real life tell others that we do what we do “because of our love for God.”
Frankly, the guy on the street corner shouting through a bull horn had it right all along.
Misery is way more important than happiness.
That said, we have to be honest about how much everything most of us Christians have done all our lives has really been about Hell. When you take out eternal punishment, so much of what we do feels truly empty. **This is obvious to me every time I hear someone say “If there’s no Hell, then what incentive do we have to [fill in the blank]?”
First of all, this is an insult to the many nonbelievers who have done great things for the human race at great expense to themselves.
Second, I can think of at least two reasons why you have an incentive to tell people about Jesus. First, Jesus commanded you to.
Second, Jesus taught the things that make people struggle with the most, yet unquestionably make our world better. Our world is better—you are better—when you let go of the things the world tells you to grip tightly. Forgiveness is better than bitterness. Releasing control is better than trying to lord it over people. Treating other people the way you want to be treated is better than thinking only about yourself. These things make you vulnerable, and they come with a cost, but they are better. They just are.
Jewish thought is in many ways focused on restoring Shalom. Shalom, which gets translated all too often “peace” is a wholeness and completeness. Injustice, violence, bitterness, rage, the never-ending cycle of revenge, these things break down shalom. And, as people created in the image of God, the things that break down or build up the shalom between you and other people are the same things that break down or build up the shalom between you and God.
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
“He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
Today’s evangelical culture is obsessed with fighting abortion. The first century Christians were adopting Roman babies that were abandoned to die on the streets.
Evangelicals fight to control our Federal government. Nelson Mandela forgave the government ministers who imprisoned him for decades.
Thousands of people in just this country—people you’ll never know—volunteer at shelters for battered women.
If you are poor, we are saturated with the message that it is because you are lazy and all your fault. Yet, yet the first century church was made up mostly of poor people.
Today, we evangelicals are obsessed with where transgendered people can go pee. If we let them pee with us, we won’t feel safe. Yet, Jesus and the first century church seemed mostly concerned with the welfare of the vulnerable. Transgendered people are assaulted at higher rates than virtually any identifiable group. According to numerous studies between 30-40% of LGBT youth attempt suicide.
But we’re so worried about not going to Hell that all we can think about is whether Paul would think they are sinning. We blitz social media every time we feel our religious liberty is threatened, but you won’t hear a word when some gay teenager is tied to a tree and pelted with rocks. Which happens all the time.
We worry about our loved ones who died and hadn’t gone to church in years.
When non-Christians live the kinds of lives that Jesus described, as if they deep down know there is something better to all this but can’t pin it down, I’v often heard things said like, “Well, that’s nice, but too bad they’re going to Hell.”
We have to reorient ourselves.
When churches say that we do what we do because of love for God and not fear of Hell, we need to actually do that. When avoiding Hell is no longer the point, we can actually start to live.