Last Sunday we looked at the topic of hell and the related concept of eternal death and suffering. As we read and contemplate the words of Jesus Christ on this subject, we might find our hearts and minds heavy with thoughts about those we love but don’t seem to be open to the life-giving gospel message – or who have rejected it even until their last hour.
Over time scholars and regular readers of the bible alike have started to interpret scripture in alternative ways. Some found that at the end of time, all people would be saved and would be going to heaven – irrespective of what they believed or what they’ve done. A concept called ‘Universalism’. They point to John 12:32 where it says: And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’
As desirable as such a scenario would be for many, I’m sure it won’t take you long to find that this idea is contradictory to the specific references Jesus made with regards to the reality of hell. It also won’t take you long to think of people like Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, or Pol Pot who’re responsible for killing hundreds of millions in the most gruesome ways. Should they also just be accepted into heaven? Of course, if they had earnestly repented and accepted Christ – even with their last breath – heaven would be open even for these. However, as far as we know there are no records that such has happened.
Another concept is ‘Annihilationism’, which has the idea that while the righteous will be resurrected, the wicket will be annihilated, i.e., they seize to exist and would just be ‘wiped out’. It seems that this idea contradicts Jesus’ teachings, for instance in Matthew 25:46 where he says ‘and these will go away into everlasting (Gr: aionios) punishment, but the righteous into eternal (Gr: aionios) life, i.e. both realities are unchanging!
A third concept to mention is Purgation where we get the word ‘purgatory’ from. It was foreign to the early church and only made its way into the theological context in the 16th century, specifically during the council to Trent. A ‘biblical’ reference here would be 2 Maccabees chapter 12. Now, if you’ve never heard of that book it’s probably because you’re not studying a catholic bible, which contains a few extra books that had not been accepted by the reformers as divinely inspired.
The idea is simply that purgatory is a state where – for a time – sinners suffer for their unconfessed sins, and these sins then get ‘burned off’ until they finally get their ‘ticket to heaven’. This concept however is not only contradictive to Jesus’ own words in e.g. Matthew 25:46, it’s also highly problematic theologically speaking. That’s because it would imply that Jesus’ work on the cross was in a way insufficient to save, but that in addition something else would be needed, which we as sinners need to do.
By contrast we recall the ‘Five Solas’, by grace alone (Sola Gratia), through faith alone (Sola Fide), in Christ alone (Solus Christus), according to scripture alone (Sola Scriptura), for God’s Glory alone (Soli Deo Gloria).
Yet still, isn’t the reality of an eternal conscious death simply unfair? Unfair because a temporal act of sin – i.e. breaking God’s standard – causes eternal torment. Is this not disproportionate? Shouldn’t the sinner in hell have suffered enough torment at one point in time? The answer appears to be ‘no’, because any sin – irrespective of the time involved – against an infinitely holy God causes also an infinite offence and therefore can only be met with infinite punishment. And looking at Revelation 22:11 it seems that the unrighteous will even continue to be unrighteous. – A perpetual reality unfolding into eternity.
While this is a hard message, the ‘good news’ is that nobody needs to go to hell! While from birth every one of us is headed for hell on the wide road due to our fallen nature, God himself provided an alternative way. This however, is not a ‘lifestyle’, nor a philosophy like any of the Eastern ‘ways’. This way is a person, Jesus Christ, who is also the truth and the life. In other words, He is the true way to life, by offering us a pathway through the gate of physical death, into the eternal presence of God the father.