Saturday, June 11, 2011

What the Hell?!

Although additional topics have been queried within a recent discussion, which certainly deserve future speculation (i.e. the kingdom of God/heaven, whether God created evil, whether God initially created humanity as perfect, et al), the main purpose of this post will be to address the issue of whether “everlasting torture in the lake of fire is a skewed doctrine”.  In other words, does God’s willing that all men be saved (1st Tim. 2:3ff) indicate a mere temporal punishment, or is the punishment as indicated in Scripture, in fact, eternal?

To begin, it seems worth noting that these discussions are important.  Although there is an immense amount of maturity and humility that needs to be integrated into these conversations, they are worth having (1st Tim. 4:16).  The particular importance of these conversations is that knowing Biblical/theological truth is going to affect how we live our lives, whether we admit it or not. 

For instance, a question was proffered that “what if you didn’t have an answer about heaven or hell, would that change how you live out your faith now?”  This provocative question, which teems with innuendo about the doubtful relevance of the existence of heaven and hell (also quite similar to a question once posed as to whether you would live your faith differently if there was no virgin birth), certainly needs to be addressed.  Because we do know from Scripture that heaven and hell are the eventual destinations of the redeemed and the damned (Matt. 25:41, 46; John 14:2-3; 2nd Thess. 1:9; Rev. 20:15), the reality of these destinations are important in our theological development, for, as I stated earlier, our theology dictates how we live (i.e. making disciples, relishing God’s redemptive work, et al).  Moreover, if a theology of heaven and hell are not needed for a vibrant faith, then perhaps we ought to echo Paul’s declaration concerning the possibility of the non-resurrection of the dead, namely, “let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (1 Cor. 15:32). 

But we do, or should, know that we do, and can, have answers regarding heaven and hell.  Therefore, let us proceed…

To begin, we need to address the issue of God’s will regarding the saving of humanity.  Now, although 1st Timothy 4:9-10 has been a controversial text within the Calvinist v. Arminian debate, it will also be beneficial to this discussion in regards to what exactly is meant by God being the Savior of all people.  Perhaps what ought to be considered is that Paul’s usage of the phrase panton anthropon describes that God is the savior of “all sorts of men”, which ought to be seen in light of 1st Tim. 2:1-2, wherein Paul urges for supplications, prayers, intercession and thanksgivings be made for all people.  However, Paul then provides a contextual example of “all sorts of people”, namely “kings and all who are in high positions”.  Surely, if we are to conclude that panton anthropon indicates everyone for all of time past, present and future, then we must also conclude that everyone, for all of time past, present and future, were kings or someone in a high position.  Moreover, the Greek term malista can be understood as “providing a further definition or identification of that which precedes it and thus renders it by such words as ‘that is’”.[1]  In other words, 1st Tim. 4:10 could be translated that “God is the Savior of all sorts of people, that is, those who believe”.  (Additionally, in regards to the arguments surrounding 2nd Peter 3:9, please consider the following article: Are There Two Wills in God?).

Additionally, Romans 8:19 – 21 has been submitted to indicate the potential that all of creation (to include humanity) will be liberated, thereby escaping eternal punishment.  However, it should be noted that the meaning of the Greek term, ktiseos (translated “creation”), “is in dispute…though the passage is usually taken to mean the waiting of the whole creation below the human level (animate and inanimate)”.[2]  Moreover, even if it does include humanity, we need to also consider that we might be infusing our own understanding of “harmony”; for in the Ancient Jewish context “harmony” could be achieved by the wicked being “put in their place”.  Therefore, contextually speaking, if we are going to include humanity within this understanding (which I am reticent to do at this point), this evidence does not provide any additional persuasion for the eventual liberation (i.e. salvation) of the (unregenerate) creation.

Now we must turn to issue of eternality.  In Jesus’ parable in Matthew 25:31ff, the term aionion is used, which Jesus uses both to point to the eternal life of the righteous and eternal punishment of the cursed (Matt. 25:41, 46).  Therefore, unless we are going to conclude that the eternal life of the righteous is also temporal, we must conclude, rather, that the eternal life of the righteous and the eternal punishment of the cursed is, in fact, eternal.  Moreover, Jesus uses the same word aionion to address the “eternal fire” reserved for the “cursed”.  Now, at this point, I am not as concerned, nor willing to debate the metaphorical v. realistic ideas of “fire”, “outer darkness”, et al; but rather to contend against a temporal view of punishment.  Therefore, it seems that other than its usage in a historical context, aionion, is used to either refer to a period of time without beginning or end, or, a period of unending duration.[3]

Moreover, within Revelation 20:10, John uses the phrase tous aionas ton aionion (translated “for ever and ever”), to describe the eternal torment received within “the lake of fire and brimstone”.  Now, those who wish to argue for a temporal meaning of this phrase must also consider Revelation 22:5, which describes the eternal, or unending, reign of God’s servants.  Therefore, if an argument is made for the temporal nature of the torments of hell in Revelation 20:10, then we must conclude that the reign of God’s servants in Revelation 22:5 is also temporal.  Surely, no one is willing to contend for that part of the argument.

In addition, terms such as fthora and apollumi (which can be translated “perish”) ought to also be considered in light of the other passages that address the eternality of eternal life/punishment.

Lastly, but certainly included within this discussion is the idea of postmortem evangelism.  It has been contended here that both eternal life and eternal punishment are, in fact, eternal.  However, for those that might continue to disagree and wish to pursue the idea that God might offer another chance after death; I would request consideration of the following article and texts:

Furthermore, Revelation 20:11ff, wherein John indicates that the “great and small” were judged by what they had done, does not present any evidence that would indicate an additional or future opportunity for salvation.  Moreover, in Luke 16:19ff, we see that the rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus to his father’s house to persuade his five brothers, lest they enter this torment.  If the rich man, and his father and brothers, were to have an eventual or additional opportunity to salvation, why, then, would the rich man make such a request?

It is my hope that this post has provided some helpful information in the discussion.  Regardless of what the outcome is, I stand with John Piper affirming that “the prospect of wasting my remaining life on gamesmanship or one-upmanship is increasingly unthinkable.  The ego-need to be right has lost its dominion, and the quiet desire to be a faithful steward of the grace of truth increases.”[4]  May this quote continue to ring true in future posts, and most importantly may God be glorified within the dialogue!

[1] George W. Knight, The Pastoral Epistles: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 203.
[2] Frederick W. Danker, Walter Bauer, and William Arndt, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 573.
[3] Ibid., 33.
[4] John Piper, The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2007), 13.

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