I showed in my last article that there is a theme running through the Bible that God’s purpose for the world is ‘salvation’ – the complete reconciliation of an estranged mankind. God has never needed to be reconciled to man, because the estrangement was never on ‘His’ part; ‘He’ has always loved mankind. The estrangement was always solely on mankind’s part, so God undertook to reconcile the world to ‘Himself’. 2 Corinthians 5:18,19 – “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” That is the true Christian ‘good news’, and this ‘word of God’ will not fail, but will accomplish the purpose for which it was sent (Isaiah 55:11).
This ‘good news’ is just too good for so called ‘Evangelicals’, though; so they will immediately begin to bring forth Bible passages that talk about ‘everlasting punishment’, and a ‘lake of fire that burns forever and ever’ – or being thrown into hell “where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched”. Don’t such passages overthrow everything that has been said about the reconciliation of the world, and God not counting our trespasses against us? If they do, then we must conclude that there is a major contradiction in the Bible. I see 3 possibilities here: (1) These ‘eternal punishment’ passages have been mistranslated or misunderstood; (2) They were never a part of the original teaching of Jesus and his apostles, but were added later by unknown editors; or (3) Jesus and his apostles were so confused that they couldn’t get their story straight and consistent. If (1) is true, then we need to find the true meaning of these passages, and understand how they relate to the clear message of universal reconciliation. If (2) is correct, then obviously we should discard the later additions that taught ‘eternal punishment’. If (3) is correct, then we’ll either have to pick which one we think is more likely to be true, or just throw out the Bible as being so untrustworthy that it’s worthless. For myself, if I found it necessary to pick between 2 conflicting viewpoints, I would without hesitation pick the one which expresses love and compassion, and leads to peace of mind and joy: the certainty of reconciliation to God, as purposed and accomplished by God ‘Himself’.
However, the ‘good news’ is that the Evangelical Christian teaching of ‘eternal hell fire’ is simply a major misunderstanding of the Biblical teaching, helped along by the fact that the words and phrases translated ‘eternal’, ‘everlasting’, and ’forever’ are mistranslated. First, let’s look at such words as ‘forever’ and ‘everlasting’. The Hebrew word in the ‘Old Testament’ is “olam”, and the Greek word in the ‘New Testament’ (and the Greek translation of the ‘Old’ known as the Septuagint) is ‘aion’ and its adjectival form ‘aionos’. Both of these words literally mean ‘age’ or the adjectival form ‘age-lasting’; and if they had been consistently translated as such, a great deal of the difficulty surrounding the idea of ‘eternal punishment’ would have been alleviated. Let’s take a look at some of the verses dealing with things that are ‘forever’ or ‘everlasting’, and we’ll see that no matter how they’re actually translated, the Biblical authors did not consider the meaning to be literally ‘never ending’. In Exodus 21:6, the regulation is given for a Hebrew servant who, when given the opportunity to go free, decides he wishes to remain as a servant in the household of his master: “and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he [the servant] shall serve him [the master] forever [literally, “unto the age”]” (New King James Version). Here, it is obvious that “forever” can only mean for the rest of the servant’s lifetime at most; and the RSV and NRSV translate it “for life”. Yet it is the word that is so insisted upon by Evangelical Christians as meaning absolutely forever when used in relation to God’s punishment of the wicked!
In 1 Kings 8:13, Solomon said, concerning the Temple he was having built for the LORD: “I have surely built you an exalted house, and a place for you to dwell in forever [unto the age]”. And in 1 Kings 9:3, the LORD is ‘quoted’ as responding to Solomon: “…I have heard your prayer and your supplication that you have made before me; I have sanctified this house which you have built to put my name there forever [to the age], and my eyes and my heart will be there perpetually [all the days]”. But Solomon’s Temple was destroyed after about 400 years, so it didn’t last forever. Did God, the Omniscient One, fail to see that coming? Or did the word ‘forever’ just signify an undefined period of time – relatively long in this case, compared to the lifetime of the Hebrew servant in the previous passage?
In Exodus 40:15, when ‘God’ gave the commandment to anoint the sons of Aaron for the priesthood, he said: “…for their anointing shall surely be an everlasting [to the age] priesthood throughout their generations.” Here the probable meaning would again be “a lifetime priesthood” – that is they would be priests for life, not to be replaced. But if it meant that the order of Aaronic priests itself would be “everlasting”, the Christian writers did not find that any hindrance to the belief that it would come to an end. Hebrews 7:11, 12, 18, 19 says: “Therefore, if perfection were through the Levitical [Aaronic] priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need was there that another priest should rise according to the order of Melchizedek, and not be called according to the order of Aaron? For the priesthood being changed, of necessity there is also a change of the law…For on the one hand there is an annulling of the former commandment because of its weakness and unprofitableness, for the law made nothing perfect; on the other hand, there is the bringing in of a better hope, through which we draw near to God.” So in any case, the Aaronic priesthood was not literally ‘forever’ – at least according to the ‘New Testament’ Christian writers.
Ecclesiastes 1:4 says: “One generation passes away, and another generation comes; but the earth abides forever [to the age]”. But Jesus is quoted as saying in Matthew 24:35 – “Heaven and earth will pass away…” Apparently Jesus either didn’t think “to the age” meant literally forever, or else he believed Ecclesiastes was wrong.
Two other passages, though, ought to clinch the fact that ‘to the age’ or ‘age-lasting’ did not mean literally ‘forever’, as these two show the same writer saying both that the event being described was ‘to the age’ (translated ‘forever’) and that it came to (or would come to) an end. In the famous story of Jonah being in the belly of the whale for 3 days and 3 nights, Jonah is quoted as saying (2:6): “I went down to the moorings of the mountains; the earth with its bars closed behind me forever [age-lasting]. Yet you have brought up my life from the pit, O LORD, my God”. Wow! Here ‘forever’ was only 3 days!
And Isaiah 32:14, 15 says: “Because the palaces will be forsaken, the bustling city will be deserted. The forts and towers will become lairs forever [to the age], a joy of wild donkeys, a pasture of flocks – until the Spirit is poured upon us from on high, and the wilderness becomes a fruitful field, and the fruitful field is counted as a forest”. So here Isaiah directly states the ‘forever/until’ principle which can be seen throughout the Bible. It’s not literally ‘forever’, but for ‘an age’, until something else happens that brings the ‘age’ to an end and begins a new ‘age’.
Now let’s look at a word with a similar meaning: incurable. One would think that incurable means that an ‘illness’ cannot be cured; therefore it never will be cured. Doesn’t that seem logical to a literalist? Yet notice what Jeremiah said concerning the ‘wounds’ that had been inflicted upon Israel and Judah (Jer. 30:12, 13, 17): “…Your affliction is incurable, your wound is severe. There is no one to plead your cause, that you may be bound up; you have no healing medicines…For I will restore health to you and heal you of your wounds, says the LORD…” They were incurable, yet God would heal them! The same thing is said concerning Samaria in Micah 1:9 – “her wound is incurable”; yet Ezekiel said that Samaria would be restored, and returned to her former state (Ezek. 16:53, 55). Of course, one could just say that Micah and Ezekiel contradicted each other, if it weren’t for the example of Jeremiah just quoted where the same author, in the same ‘paragraph’ said both that a wound was incurable and that it would nevertheless be cured. The evidence of Isaiah and Jonah concerning the ‘forever/until’ principle also suggests that Micah and Ezekiel were not contradicting each other; the meaning was just that God can and will cure what is ‘humanly’ incurable.
This brings us to the basic purpose of punishment. The Greek word used for punishment in the New Testament and in the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament is ‘kolasis’, and was originally used for pruning plants – to remove the unproductive, lifeless branches so that the plant can be more fruitful. It then became used for punishment inflicted by parents and judicial systems with a view to improving the person punished. Plato commented that the word ‘punishment’ (kolasis) showed that good behavior can be learned; because no sane person punishes merely as an act of revenge toward the wrong committed, but instead seeks the improvement of the wrongdoer. This is always the reason for any ‘punishment’ said to be inflicted by God in the Bible: He is seeking the improvement of His ‘children’, also called ‘repentance’ and turning from evil ways to righteousness.
That is why the Psalmist said (Psalm 99:8): “O LORD our God, you answered them; you were a forgiving God to them, but an avenger of their wrongdoings.” The ‘avenging’ of the wrongdoings had the purpose of turning them away from doing wrong to doing good. His attitude is one of forgiveness, and desire for our good. He bears no ill will to us for our transgressions, and only seeks to correct us for our good. Psalm 30:5 says: “For his anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning”. When the correction of his “anger” has its effect, the “anger” is turned away and joy comes to us. A beautiful passage in Lamentations (the ‘weeping Prophet’), 3:31-33, says: “For the Lord will not reject forever [to the age]. Although he causes grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone.” Now “will not reject forever [to the age]” may technically, or literally, be a contradiction of a number of other passages of Scripture which say that God’s punishments are “to the age”; but the ‘spirit’ or underlying meaning is the same: punishment comes to an end, no matter how long a time it lasts.
Even the fire of God’s judgments is corrective and purifying, burning away defilement but not destroying the object itself. In Malachi 3, when the prophet spoke of the coming of the ‘messenger of the Lord’ to prepare His way, he said this in verses 2 and 3: “But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness.” Paul uses the idea of ‘fiery judgment’ in the same way in 1 Corinthians 3:12-15 (NRSV) – “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.” Peter speaks of this trial by fire (1 Peter 1:6, 7, NASV): “In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith – being more precious than gold which is perishable – even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” And in 4:12 he tells his readers: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing…” (NASV).
People are sometimes spoken of by Paul as having been turned over to Satan in judgment for their sins. In I Corinthians 5, when Paul passes judgment on a man who had ‘sinned’ in a way not even the ‘pagans’ did – by ‘living with’ his father’s wife – Paul said in verse 5 (NRSV): “you are to hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” In 1 Timothy 1:19, 20, Paul said: “…By rejecting conscience, certain persons have suffered shipwreck in the faith; among them are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have turned over to Satan, so that they may learn not to blaspheme.”
So to sum this up, and bring everything together: when you come across passages of ‘scripture’ that talk about ‘eternal punishment’ – like Matthew 25:46: “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” – remember that ‘eternal’ is ‘age-lasting’, and an ‘age’ is just a period of time of unspecified duration; it is not ‘eternal’. And ‘punishment’ is always corrective, with a view to the improvement of the one being punished, so it lasts only as long as needed to achieve that end. In this passage in Matt. 25, the idea seems to me to best fit the idea of reincarnation and karma, as spoken of in my article Reincarnation and Predestination, Part 2 in reference to Romans 9 and the ‘potter and clay’ illustration. Those who have done ‘wickedly’ go to an ‘age’ (lifetime) of punishment, while those who have done ‘righteousness’ go to an ‘age’ (lifetime) characterized by the ‘life of God’. Those who reject reincarnation may find another idea of what the ‘age’ is; but it is not literally ‘everlasting’.
When you read about the ‘blasphemy against the Holy Spirit’ in Matthew 12:32 – “Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come” – remember again than an age is always a period of time of unspecified duration; and while Jesus speaks here of 2 ages (this one and the one to come), Paul in Ephesians 2:7 speaks of multiple coming ages: “so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in his kindness toward us in Christ Jesus”. So the period of time when this sin will not be forgiven is still of limited duration. Again, from the point of view of reincarnation which the early Christians believed in, this would probably mean “in this lifetime and in the lifetime to come”.
When you read about ‘unquenchable fire’ in Mark 9:43 and 46; or the lake of fire and brimstone (sulfur) which burns ‘forever and ever’ in the book of Revelation, remember this is like the ‘incurable’ wounds spoken of in Old Testament prophets quoted earlier, which God would nevertheless cure. This fire is ‘unquenchable’ until all its fuel (the sins of men) has been consumed. Then the fire goes out by itself, and the ‘gold and silver vessels’ come out purified. “Forever and ever” would in itself be an absurdity if that were the correct translation; because if something is ‘forever’, it has no ending – so there cannot be another ‘ever’ following it. But the correct translation is “for the ages of the ages”, and means that these purifying fires will continue burning for seemingly countless ages (or lifetimes) until the purifying process is complete, and the time comes that “in the Name of JESUS every knee should bow, of beings in Heaven, of those on the earth, and of those in the underworld” (Philippians 2:10, Weymouth). Fire and sulfur were both purifying agents in religious rites, and any Greek readers of that time would have immediately recognized that this lake of fire and sulfur was a ‘rite’ of purification.
Friends, the teaching of everlasting punishment and eternal fires of hell is just a fear tactic imported into the Christian scriptures by ‘priests’ and governmental rulers who needed something to scare people into submission. Let yourself be free to recognize that God is indeed good, and His mercy is over all His works. You are even free to disagree with the Christian writers that ‘salvation’ means you have to become a Christian. If that is what salvation involves, though, be sure it will ultimately include you and me and everyone else. No one will be ‘thrown in the trash’, or ‘lake of fire’ for ‘all eternity’! God will never give up on you, even if you have given up on Him/Her/It. Assuming God exists (as I do), He/She/It will see to it that you eventually ‘know’ it. If you are an ‘atheist’ or ‘agnostic’ now, and if you are wrong about that matter, then it will eventually be ‘revealed’ to you and all obstacles to your understanding and knowing God will be removed. That is the ‘good news’ of Universalism, whether ‘Christian Universalism’ or non-Christian Universalism. Live free, and know that if there is a God, He/She/It really does love you, it is unfailing love, and will certainly prove triumphant. Anything else would be unworthy of the character of ‘God’.