Hell againNovember 13, 2008 — Deacon Duncan
I’m pleased to see that my post on “The unfairness of Hell” has elicited another comment from Jayman, who has impressed me with his insights and overall reasonableness. He makes some more good points and brings up some issues I would like to discuss further, hence today’s post.
I don’t think your post deals adequately with views of hell that do not involve eternal torture of the damned. It seems that all your objections to hell can be answered by those Christians who hold to the universal restoration of all things.
True enough, I did give only a passing nod to universal restorationism when I said that the unfairness of Hell led some Christians to “come up with all kinds of schemes to get God off the hook somehow, ranging from the notion that Hell is only a temporary therapy to “burn” the evil out of you, to the notion that sinners not only deserve Hell, but actively pursue it.” But it’s an interesting topic in and of itself, so let’s have a deeper look.
First of all, it should be plain that universal restorationism is a more moderate amendment to an original, harsher doctrine. People don’t modify their religion in ways that make it more embarrassing and disturbing to them, they make changes to increase their comfort and satisfaction with it. If Jesus and the Apostles taught eternal damnation, it’s easy to see how Christianity could end up where it is today, with some believers holding the harsher view of Hell (because it had the authority of Jesus behind it) and others holding the milder view (because it was more reasonable).
Had Jesus and his disciples taught the milder view originally, the results would have been quite different. In the first place, it’s unlikely that any Christians would say, “Hmm, our doctrine of hell is too reasonable. We need to amend it so that it makes God look more evil and less fair, to it more difficult for thoughtful unbelievers to embrace our religion.” Look at the doctrine of Purgatory: it started out as the milder, “this is for your own good” form of temporary torment, and no one is proposing that it needs to be amended to consign believers to eternal agony for their sins.
But suppose Jesus did teach that Hell was only temporary, and some later Christian did come along and say, “No, Jesus was wrong, souls burn in Hell forever.” Would that result in the modern circumstance, where orthodox Christians vary in opinion among themselves about whether Hell was temporary or not? That seems pretty unlikely, given the early Christians propensity for anathemas and canons. Far less likely than the other way around (i.e. the harsher doctrine came first).
The only way that would really work is if Jesus were ambiguous in his teachings about the duration of hell, such that people could get away with claiming that their version of Hell was what Jesus really meant. That assumption, however, means that Jesus did not explicitly teach universal restoration, since a clear teaching on the topic would not be an ambiguous teaching on the topic. At best, universal restorationists are merely injecting “what seems right in their own eyes,” into the vague bits, exploiting the ambiguities of the text to insert their own opinions.
I do not, however, think that Jesus was being all that ambiguous, nor were the apostles after him. Universal restoration is not a hard doctrine to teach. All you have to do is say, “And then after suffering has purged you of your sinfulness, you will enter into the glory of the Father with the rest of His children.” But none of the New Testament writers ever said anything of the sort. All NT descriptions of souls entering hell end with the soul still in hell, with no mention of purging or relief or hope. Torments are mentioned, and wails and moans and gnashing of teeth, but not hope.
Jayman brings to our attention several verses that are cited by universal restorationists as evidence of restorationism in the NT, but I think you’ll find that on closer examination, these verses are not talking about souls in hell or the end of eternal punishment. Let’s look:
Acts 3:21 —
He must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.
Sounds like universal restoration all right. It does have the phrase “restore everything” in it. But there’s two problems. First of all, does “restore everything” really mean God is going to restore everything? Our sins? Our mortality? Our earthly weaknesses? “Everything” doesn’t necessarily mean literally all things. It’s a universal that has to be taken in context, and in the context it seems more likely that “restore everything” means “restore the kingdom of Israel, and the glory of the Temple” and so on. This is even more likely given that Peter associates “restore everything” with the Second Coming, which puts the “universal restoration” before the Final Judgment, and thus before Hell (for most people).
Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men.
This one is, at best, ambiguous, since it implies not that Hell will be made shorter, but that it’s not needed at all. It doesn’t say “one act of righteous plus some finite amount of suffering in hell,” it just says “one act of righteousness,” as though that was all that was needed. Of course, we could also quibble over whether God does indeed give eternal life to the lost, only to make them spend that eternal life in Hell! But that would, in my opinion, be a red herring. The important thing to observe is that Romans 5 says nothing about Hell being a temporary purgatory of some kind. If it says anything at all, it says that Hell ought not be necessary for anyone. We did not choose to commit the “one trespass [that brought] condemnation for all men,” so the “one act of righteousness” ought to apply equally to all men, regardless of our beliefs or choices, at least according to Paul.
For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
Another passage that does not so much make Hell shorter as it eliminates it completely. God does not make peace “through his blood plus a finite amount of agony on the part of sinners who do not repent,” He makes peace “through his blood,” end of story. And notice He makes peace at the Cross, i.e. in the past, not at some future point after the Second Coming. Clearly, if early Christians held both the doctrines of Hell and of “universal” reconciliation, there were some implicit limits on what could be reconciled. I don’t think Paul intended to imply that the blood of Jesus would reconcile adultery and incest with God, for instance. If the damned are not included in the elect group of the reconciled, well, maybe that was supposed to be obvious too.
Matthew 25:46 (Young’s Literal Translation)—
And these shall go away to punishment age-during, but the righteous to life age-during.
The argument is made that Jesus didn’t actually say “eternal” here, but merely “age-during.” But we need to remember two things: one, we’re dealing with a Greek translation of a Hebrew/Aramaic idiom, so the absence of the Greek word for “eternal” isn’t as significant as it might appear; and two, Jesus uses the same idiom to describe both the punishment of the wicked and the reward of the blessed, so if you’re going to make one of them finite, you need to make the blessing of the saints a temporary condition as well.
Besides the textual/historic problems, there are also philosophical problems with the idea of Hell as a purgatory. If we believe that some people go to Hell as unrepentant sinners who could not be helped/cured by the blood of Jesus and the wise and loving power of almighty God, and who then, after a finite amount of unimaginable agony, became good, pure saints, what we’re saying is that blind, mindless torture is a more potent force for good than God Himself, since it succeeded in redeeming those whom God’s power alone could not restore!
This is what happens with backwards thinking: you start with the conclusion you need to reach (limited Hell), and then reason your way backwards to find a set of premises that will allow you to reach the desired conclusion. We need some way to justify sending people to Hell, so we imagine that some set of preconditions must apply: Hell must be a kind of purgatory that cleanses the soul of sin.
But backwards thinking conflicts with the conclusions you get from forwards thinking. If you start with the premise that God exists, is infinitely wise and powerful and good, what that implies is that He ought to be the ultimate power in terms of doing good. If we say that brutal, relentless torture is able to do good things that God is unable to do without inflicting the pain, then not only are we making God inferior to torture as a force for good, we’re implying a very nasty set of Christian principles for how to rehabilitate criminals! (Hopefully Chuck Colson is not reading this!)
Lastly, just to clear up, I’m not saying that the doctrine of Hell was imported into Christianity. It was brought back into Judaism by the Farsi Jews who returned from Persia some centuries before Christ. We do know enough about Zoroastrianism to know that it did not suffer from a schism between those who denied resurrection and judgment, and those who affirmed it. That particular schism occurred between the Farsi Jews and the Zadokite Jews (or Pharisees and Sadducees, as we call them today). Prior to the Babylonian Captivity, there was no concept of a future resurrection and judgment, which is why Jesus could only come up with “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” when he tried to find a Mosaic reference to resurrection. (And Daniel is an Exilic prophet, not a Pre-exilic prophet, by the way).
The bottom line, though, is that universal restoration is a good thing: it’s a step along the road to denying Hell altogether, which goes a long way towards making Christianity a more civilized religion.