Hell holds no one forever

If Hell manages to swallow just one human being forever then God’s purpose in Christ has failed. But Scripture says God’s purpose won’t fail. God “works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will,” Ephesians 1:11, and God’s will “according to his good pleasure” is “to bring ALL things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ,” verses 9 and 10.

That’s why Christ died. He died because we were all headed for Hell. We were all “alienated from God and enemies in our minds because of our evil behaviour,” Colossians 1:21. “BUT,” verse 22, “now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death.” And because of “his blood, shed on the cross,” verse 20, “ALL things, whether things on earth or things in heaven” are now reconciled to God. “This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to EVERY creature under heaven,” verse 23.

The gospel holds out hope for everyone. It’s the good news that everybody (and everything) is being held together by Christ (verse 17). No one is left out in the cold or abandoned in Hell forever. Hell exists, yes, Scripture is clear on that, but like death it holds no one forever. Christ’s death put the seal on that, Hebrews 2:14. He “shared our humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil.”

Christ’s death broke whatever power the devil has over us. The idea that the devil reigns supreme in Hell, therefore, with full power over human beings to torture them forever, is a travesty. When Christ rose to power after his death, he “disarmedthe powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross,” Colossians 2:15. Since Christ’s ascension the devil is a spent force, a defeated enemy. He still has enormous influence, yes (1 John 5:19), but “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work,” 1 John 3:8.

So even if it wastrue that the devil held people in Hell, it is no longer true now, because whatever power the devil had was destroyed by Christ. It is Christ  who now “holds the keys of death and Hades,” Revelation 1:18, not the devil. And Christ uses those keys too, because one day “death and Hades give up the dead that were in them,” Revelations 20:13, and then “death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire,” verse 14,

The picture of Hades as an ever-burning fire tormenting the wicked forever cannot be true, then, because neither death nor Hades hold anyone forever. Christ made sure of that.

Hell exists – because God loves us

Hell exists because God doesn’t want to lose any of us. Hell is a brilliant way of getting people to “humble up” and realize their stupidity, like the Rich Man in Luke 16. All his life he couldn’t care less about God or the poor, so into hell he went, verse 23, where he clearly deserved to be.

But in hell something happened to him. He called out for help. He didn’t demand help aggressively either. He begged for just one tiny drop of water to cool his tongue, verse 24. Gone was his arrogance and snotty attitude. Even when Abraham told him, “Too bad, old chap, you’re in hell because you deserve it and you can’t escape,” the Rich Man didn’t spit and fume and yell obscenities. Instead he begged – yes, “begged,” verse 27 – for Lazarus to be sent to his five brothers so they could be spared.

It’s like sending a child to his room when his attitude stinks and he won’t change it, or he’s got to the point he can’t change it. Pride, stubbornness, self-justification have all cemented his resistance. So he sits in his room fuming. But after a while he gets fed up with fuming. He hears the sounds of home – laughter, the clanking of dishes in the kitchen in preparation for supper, his favourite TV program on – and a little crack in the armour appears. He begins to wish he hadn’t been so stubborn and stupid. So he calls out asking if he can “come out now.” And if his attitude has truly “humbled up,” he’s allowed out. If not, he can stay there until his attitude really has changed.

It’s a very effective method for bringing a child round so he’s not consumed by his rotten attitude forever. And so is hell. It’s a holding tank for all those who proudly and obstinately refuse to listen to God or believe him. Either way, they’re in a rotten attitude that could easily have cemented their resistance to God forever. So, leave them in their miserable attitude in hell until they soften up and beg for help, just like the Rich Man.

God doesn’t force us to believe him, but he has his ways of showing us how stupid we are and what we’re missing out on to break through our resistance. Like hell. So why hell? Because God doesn’t want to lose any of us. He won’t lose us anyway because Christ holds all things together, Colossians 1:17, but hell plays a vital part in that too, in humbling up the proud and arrogant so they don’t lose out on the fun too.

Because God loves us.

Didn’t Jesus threaten hell and punishment too?

Yes, Jesus threatened all sorts of awful things to happen to people. But to which people, and why? 

It was the “teachers of the law and the Pharisees” that Jesus aimed his threats of hell and punishment at, because “they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them,” Matthew 23:2-4. 

And for the next 32 verses Jesus rips these uncaring frauds to shreds for their “greed and self-indulgence” (25), and for giving the impression they were “righteous, but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness” (28). It was to these people and for these reasons that Jesus then asked in verse 33, “How will you escape being condemned to hell?” 

So yes, Jesus threatened people with hell. But why these people in particular? Because they spoke for God and represented him (verses 2-3), but in what they taught and how they behaved they were giving people a totally wrong picture of God. They  had no interest, for instance, in “justice, mercy, and faithfulness” (23), all three of which pictured God. Their interest was only in themselves looking good, rather than being humble servants, the total opposite to the picture that Jesus gave of God.

It’s to those who gave a wrong picture of God, while claiming they represented him, that Jesus directed his threats of hell and punishment at most of all. And those who were supposed to be God’s servants caring for his people, but instead were interested only in themselves in Matthew 24:47-49, Jesus also threw on the pile of those who would be “cut to pieces and assigned a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth,” verse 51. 

Strong words from the “gentle Jesus.” But they tell us what angers God most. It isn’t people who’ve made a mess of their lives. Nor is it people who don’t attend church. Nor is it people who ignore God or hate him. It’s those who like to preach and teach about God, but in their teaching and behaviour make God out to be something he totally isn’t.  

Like the temple priests in Jerusalem for instance, who were ripping off their Jewish countrymen in the lousy exchange rate they gave on temple coins to buy animals for sacrifice, and making God’s house a market place for profit. What a horrible picture of God that gave to people. But it really made me think what picture of God I give to people, especially when I’m writing as if I represent God and what he wants taught too. 

So I hope I’m giving the right picture of him in this blog, because I cannot deny that Jesus threatened people with hell, but it was only to those in God’s service who were turning people off God by their behaviour. But even then, despite their hypocrisy and the horrible picture of God they were giving, Jesus still held out hope to them in Matthew 23. He wasn’t threatening hell forever.

We see that in Matthew 23:37-39, when Jesus cries out, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.” Despite everything they’ve done, Jesus still loves them. There’s still punishment for their behaviour, oh yes, for “your house is left to you desolate,” but in the last verse Jesus leaves the door open, “For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’” All is forgiven once they acknowledge him.   

And that to me is the true picture of God when it comes to hell and punishment. He always leaves his door open, no matter how awful we’ve been, because he loves us like a mother hen.    

Is Christianity about right and wrong?

No, Christianity is not about right and wrong. God never intended life to become a battle between good and evil, or forever having to struggle to do what’s right all the time, and fight against wrong thoughts and actions. That’s an awful life, because you never know if you’re being good enough, and what happens to us if we’re still thinking bad thoughts on the day we die? Do we lose out on heaven and go to hell because our thoughts weren’t absolutely perfect to our dying breath?

And yet most of what drives religion is the fear and guilt of doing wrong. I caught a glimpse of that when buying a car off a religious person. I wanted to know if he was telling me the truth about the car. His reply was, “Well, our Creator is watching us and he’ll curse me if I don’t tell the truth.” 

But that’s awful, because the only reason he’s telling the truth is fear for his own skin. It’s not out of love for me, or love for God. His life is based on, “I’d better do what’s right or I’ll be got by God.”

And isn’t most religion based on that? It’s about knowing what’s good and what’s evil, and being scared enough of what might happen to you to do the good and avoid the evil. And what, then, do those religions teach to others as the purpose of a human life? It’s to make sure you’re being a good person until your last breath, and hope it’s enough to get you a good reward in the afterlife.

What those religions are pushing, therefore, is a knowledge of good and evil. You’d better know what’s right and wrong, because it’s only those who do good and live right who get to live forever in a paradise setting. 

It’s interesting, then, that right from the beginning in Genesis, God told the man in the Garden of Eden not to eat off the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In other words, don’t go there, that’s not what life is all about. It’s not about knowing what’s right or wrong. 

So what is it about instead?

Well, what made Adam and Eve do what they did? It was being given a wrong picture of God. They were told God was a liar and a fraud, and he was only telling them to avoid knowing good and evil because it would make humans as all knowing as him. It turned them right off God.  

And it’s a wrong picture of God being pushed by most religions, including Christianity, that turns people off God today as well. God isn’t about nailing people for doing wrong and thinking evil thoughts. God isn’t about making people suffer now and forever as punishment for doing wrong, either. He’s about rescuing us from our disbelief in who he really is.

So he revealed who he really is through his Son, the human Jesus as we know him. That’s God, and all he wants for us humans is to see that and believe it. And we see in Jesus that he was dead against those who were pushing right and wrong as the be all and end all of life, because they weren’t exactly being perfect examples in their own lives of being upright, honest people. And who is? No one is. We all fall short.

What God said through Jesus was, “Let love for me and love for each other be the driving force in your life, not fear for your own skin. I’ve got your skin safe and sound already anyway, thanks to my Son dying for you, so use that lovely freedom you have to love as I love you, and all that right and wrong stuff will no longer be an issue for you.”

It was never meant to be an issue in the first place, but we made it an issue by believing a lie about God, that made us want to figure out life without him. And what we created was an entire system – of justice and religion – that’s based on right and wrong and threatening bad people with punishment to make them behave. It’s an awful way to live, but that’s what we’re stuck with until that true picture of God seeps into our heads, which is what Christianity should be concentrating on, not on what’s right and wrong.

Is the Church preaching the “Good News”?

The gospel usually proclaimed these days by traditional and many evangelical Christian churches goes something like this:

God is holy. Mankind has sinned against him and incurred the penalty of death. God is just and justice demands punishment. But God is also love so he sends Jesus Christ to pay the penalty and take our punishment upon himself. The moment when Jesus cries from the cross: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” is interpreted as the time when the Father, being too holy to look upon sin, forsakes Jesus as he takes our sin upon himself. The agony of this forsakenness translates into Jesus receiving the ultimate punishment for our sins as he also pays the death penalty for us.

If this were true, it would drive a wedge through the unity of the Trinity and stand the incarnation and the work of Jesus on its head.

Nowhere does the Bible state that Christ came to reconcile the FATHER to us. Neither does it say that Christ came to placate the Father’s anger, or to satisfy the Father’s demand for punishment so he could forgive us. Quite the opposite, the Bible states that Christ came to reconcile US to the Father, to change OUR attitude not the Father’s. It was the Father who sent his Son, and it was to “reconcile the all things TO HIMSELF through Jesus Christ” (Colossians 1:20). It was OUR state of mind that needed changing, not the Father’s.

Jesus did not come amongst us to make it possible for the Father to have mercy on us, or to change the Father from demanding justice to loving and forgiving us. It was the Father’s unrelenting love for us that sent his beloved Son amongst us – because he was totally opposed to our destruction. The Father sent Jesus because he loves us, not because he demanded punishment. It is by the Father’s will that we are forgiven and brought close to him, and it was the Father who sent Jesus Christ to carry out his will. The Father’s will was for Jesus to enter into our fallen existence and remove everything that separated us from him and bring us home. And that is exactly what Jesus did: “It is finished” (John 17:4, and 19:30).

If the gospel really means that the Father is too holy to look upon sin, how is it that the Son actually became sin? Is the Father holier than the Son? Is the Trinity so split that the Son has to somehow rescue us from the Father’s holy anger? This would push the notion that the Father “cannot” forgive us until his demand for justice is satisfied, or that the Father “will not” forgive us until his anger is appeased by bloody sacrifice. This puts the church and all mankind hiding from the Father’s anger behind Jesus Christ’s blood, and it drives an ugly wedge through the Trinity.

The idea that the Father is so holy that he cannot be near to sin, and that he demands just punishment for those engaged in it, harps back to the understanding that God is unapproachable and unknowable, an abstract singular entity. He stands above the creation in unapproachable holiness, in control and omnipotent. His relationship with mankind is remote and mediated through the law. He is a God of rules and justice, keeping account and exacting due payment and penalty before there can be forgiveness. This is the “legalized” so-called God taught to many sincere Christians. No wonder they live in fear and anxiety.

I’ve seen many Christian churches with a notice board declaring “All are Welcome,” but most also proclaim on other notices that “Your sins will find you out,” or “Be prepared to meet your God,” and similar scary epitaphs designed to provoke us into entering their church. This is hardly “Good News”. It certainly does not proclaim the God of the Bible and mostly drives people away from Christ, rather than drawing them to him.

The Trinitarian God of the Bible is the exact opposite of this horrendous picture. The Father, Son and Spirit live in unimaginable, joyous, loving, creative fellowship and unity. So close is their mutual and reciprocal love that it can only be expressed as being “in one another.” Their thoughts and motives are identical so that all are involved in every action of God.

The underlying nature of the Triune God is one of self-giving love flowing out into the determined purpose of sharing life and drawing us into this beautiful relationship as his adopted children (Ephesians 1:3-5). He planned for us to be at one with him, re-created in Jesus Christ to be perfect for him and sharing everything he is and has. It is this unswerving purpose and the love of the Son for the Father that drove Jesus to the cross to bring about the Father’s will for us.

The Gospel, the “Good News,” is that Jesus completed this work that the Father gave him to do (John 17:4).

At the Father’s decree, Jesus entered into our wretched human condition, took our fallen and alienated human nature upon himself and turned it back to the Father in faith and obedience. During his sacrificial life he defeated Satan, and then took the old fallen humanity inherited from Adam to the cross and destroyed it. The Father resurrected Jesus as a new creation, a new humanity. He ascended and now sits incarnate at the right hand of the Father.

The really great news – the real Gospel – is that we are “hidden WITH him in God” (Colossians 3:3). If we can only see ourselves as a new creation, hidden with Christ at the right hand of God as his adopted children, sharing in all he has and is through the communion of the Spirit, then we have perhaps the greatest gift that God bestows upon us – total assurance. Resting in Christ, accepted, cherished and loved in him, and at peace, assured and blessed, we are free to go out of ourselves and give of ourselves to others. Released from any ulterior motive, self-centredness, and obsession with our own life and anxiety, we can care for others and turn to God in free, unrestrained love and joy. We are released from the burden of being “good enough” and the restraints of trying to achieve that which Jesus has already accomplished in our place.

The legalized God and the fear gospel often preached from the pulpit today have little relevance to our every day life, our marriages, our work and play, and they provide no answer to our inner anxieties. And the legalized gospel gives no assurance and no peace and no joy.

It’s not Good News, but bad news.

(By Ken Buck, my Dad)

Salvation eternal and salvation now

The gospel talks of two salvations, the salvation of John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life,” and the salvation of Acts 2:40, when Peter cried out to the crowd, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.”

The first salvation is about saving us from the penalty of our sins forever. The second salvation is about saving us from the influence of sin now. Salvation eternal and salvation now, the two great salvations included in the gospel message.

It started with John the Baptist and his “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” in Mark 1:4, and it continued with the apostles and their preaching in Luke 24:46-47, that “Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations.”

And that’s exactly what Peter preached in Acts 3:19, when he told his fellow Jews: “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may wiped out,” and verse 26: “When God raised up his servant, he sent him first to you (Jews) to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways.” It was the same message in Acts 5:31 too: “God exalted Jesus to his own right hand as Prince and Saviour that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel.” And thousands of Jews believed it, that their sins had been forgiven forever and their lives could be straightened out in this life now.

That same message then went to the Gentiles in Acts 26:17-18 when Jesus sent Paul “to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.” That’s the first salvation, salvation eternal, the total forgiveness of their sins forever made possible by Jesus’ death. And then in verse 20: “I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds.” That’s the other salvation, salvation now, where real changes start happening in one’s life now.

Peter talks again about both salvations in 2 Peter 1, how God has made it possible for us to “escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires,” verse 4. That’s the salvation we experience every day, but what stirs a person to live that salvation from the wrong ways and thinking of this world now is the ever present memory of being “cleansed from his past sins,” verse 9. He never forgets his salvation eternal either.

There are two salvations?

I don’t remember the day I was saved because I wasn’t there when it happened. I had to wait two thousand years before I discovered I’d been totally accepted by God before I was even born, and all due to Christ’s death on the cross.

Other Christians, on the other hand, DO remember the day they were saved, because they were there when it happened. They remember even the date, perhaps, when they believed and accepted Jesus Christ as their Saviour. “And that’s the day I was saved,” they say.

So now we have two groups of Christians, one group that thinks they were saved before they even knew about salvation, and another group that thinks they were saved only after they knew about salvation. The first group believes they were saved without any acceptance or belief on their part, while the second group believes they were saved because of their acceptance and belief.

So who’s right?

Well, depending on one’s definition of “salvation” both groups can be right. If we’re talking salvation as defined by the first half of Romans 5:10 – “For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son” – then the first group would be right. God totally accepted us – even as his enemies – when his Son died, not because of any conscious acceptance or belief on our part.

But if we’re talking salvation as defined by the second half of Romans 5:10 – “how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be be saved through his life” – then the second group would also be right.

Yes, God accepted and forgave us because of Christ’s death, but there’s more to salvation than that. There’s also the salvation that comes with Christ’s life in the here and now. And this salvation does require acceptance and belief, Romans 10:9, because it’s only “if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

“Saved” here means the salvation that comes with the resurrected Christ’s life, that happens in this life now. And that’s what kicks in when a person accepts and believes that “Jesus is Lord.” He understands that Jesus as Lord is now saving us every day from “the corruption in the world caused by evil desires,” 2 Peter 1:4, and he “richly blesses all who call on him,” Romans 10:12.

That’s the other salvation we receive through Jesus. It’s not the salvation we receive from his death, it’s the salvation we receive from his resurrected life right now, that we experience daily as he transforms our lives into his likeness (2 Corinthians 3:18).