Does God have a deadline?

“You’d better repent before you die,” the preacher yells, “because if you don’t, you’re going to hell forever.”

So is death God’s deadline? But that’s hardly fair on people who’ve never heard of God, or they’ve been given such a horrible picture of him they want nothing to do with him. So what does God do with these people? Does he dismiss them as collateral damage from the wreckage of sin, and cast them off as rejects? Or does he preserve them in some sort of holding tank while relatives desperately pray for their souls to be saved?

But if death isn’t the deadline, what is the deadline instead? Is there a cut off point eventually when God says, “OK humanity, you’ve had your chance, you either repent now, or else” – the ‘or else’ being eternity in hell?

Or does the Bible show that God sets deadlines, not as a final end for those who don’t repent, but as a means to aid repentance?

In Joel 1:15, for instance, Israel was given an ultimatum: “For the day of the Lord is near; it will come like a destruction from the Almighty.” God gave a deadline, promised enormous destruction, and it happened. But was that ‘game over’ for these people forever? No, because Joel 2:28 says, “And afterward…” – and the afterward is very positive. There’s a promise of help and deliverance, a point Peter picks up on when quoting this verse in Acts 2, because Peter knows there’s a deadline coming for the Jews and another dreadful day of the Lord when the Romans would destroy Jerusalem in 70 AD. But the purpose of the deadline was to stir the Jews up to call on God to escape the imminent destruction, not to threaten them with eternal hell, or to make a decision that would decide their eternal future.

God gives deadlines as clear warnings to people to stop what they’re doing and “Come back to God,” Joel 2:13. “And here’s why: God is kind and merciful. He takes a deep breath, puts up with a lot. He’s the most patient God, extravagant in love, always ready to cancel catastrophe.” And when people see God in that light, that he’d rather not cause havoc but he’ll do whatever is necessary to wake people up to the hell they’re already in and the worse hell they’ll be facing in the near future, some do turn to him and escape the hell God is threatening.

So how many deadlines does God give the rebellious? As many as it takes, it seems, because he’s a “most patient God.” Even in his anger and threats his aim is always repentance, because he loves us.

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Heaven is in Hell too

Hell began the moment Adam and Eve decided God wasn’t worth listening to, because from then on the natural and beautiful became ugly and odd. They even hid their nakedness from each other, the very thing they found totally attractive before, but as Paul said in Romans 1, this is what happens when humans don’t “think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God” (verse 28). They enter a world of weirdness, where human thinking becomes futile and foolish hearts are darkened (verse 21), a major manifestation of which has been “the degrading of their bodies with one another” (verse 24).

Who’d want to live in a hell like that, where even the beautiful human body is misused and abused for selfish lust (verse 26)? But it’s a hell we’ve become used to, where it’s common place to hear of young women and children being sexually molested, and young people questioning their sexual identity, and people even risking life and limb to change their gender. The Bible isn’t squeamish either about the weird ideas people have about sex, like Lot being quite willing to hand over his virgin daughters to a lust-filled crowd of men. Who worries about going to hell later, therefore, when it’s clear we’ve already got hell in the here and now?

But how does anyone get out of this hell when he doesn’t know he’s in it and he doesn’t want out of it?

There’s a clue in Genesis 3:8, when God enters the hell Adam and Eve have created. He comes “walking in the garden in the cool of the day,” and he calls out to Adam in verse 9, “Where are you?” In other words, heaven enters hell. Heaven comes looking for people in hell. It doesn’t leave Adam and Eve in their hell to suffer without an understanding of what has happened and why. Heaven hasn’t deserted them, or rejected them. Instead, heaven stays in their hell with them.

And back in Romans 1 and 2 it’s the same story: God is very angry at the stupidity and stubbornness of ridiculous humans, but to those who dare to judge and condemn people for the hell they’ve brought on themselves (2:1-3) Paul asks, “do you show contempt for the riches of God’s kindness, tolerance and patience?” (verse 4). Paul is not denying that the world humanity has created is hell and those who “approve” of it thoroughly deserve the depraved minds they’ve got (verses 28, 32), but heaven is in hell too, being kind, tolerant and patient, because that’s what leads people to repentance (verse 4). Heaven lets us know what hell is like first, but only to help us realize that God is worth listening to after all.

Once in hell is there no way out?

Is hell the end of the road, the final dumping ground for the unsalvageable? And once in hell, is there no way out? Has the deadline passed for saying sorry and asking for another chance? Has a person blown his chances forever because his pride seared his conscience beyond repair?

It certainly sounds like it in Jesus’ reaction to the Pharisees. He blasts them with seven “woes” in Matthew 23:13-32, at the end of which he yells, “You snakes. You brood of vipers. How will you escape being condemned to hell?” verse 33. With an attitude like theirs they deserved hell. But what did Jesus mean by “hell,” and was there no escape from it?

Jesus drops a couple of hints in the context as to what this hell might be. In verse 38, Jesus tells them, “Look, your house is left to you desolate.” The “house” that would feel like hell to a Pharisee if it was made desolate was the religious system they’d built, of strict obedience to the Law, the Temple rituals and all sorts of other requirements, that they believed had to be obeyed for Israel to be rescued from its enemies and restored to its former glory.

But that house was already becoming desolate because the Pharisees weren’t living by their own rules (verse 3). Worse than that was their rejection of Jesus as God’s agent of rescue for the nation, just like their forefathers had rejected all the other prophets God had sent to rescue them (verse 34-36). Their entire system, therefore, was about to come crumbling down, including the Temple, the literal “house” they’d looked to rather than Christ. And if that wasn’t hell enough for them, Jesus also told them in verse 39, “you will not see me again,” so once Jesus was gone there was no getting him back again to give them another chance. They’d lost out. No more second chances in their lifetime. Everything they held dear would be destroyed and there was no way out of it.

But was the door of their hell shut forever? No, because Jesus went on to say in verse 39 that they wouldn’t see him again “UNTIL you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.'” So there was a way out of hell for them: It was willingly accepting those whom God sent to them (verse 37), the one thing they and their ancestors had never done. A massive change of heart and attitude on their part was needed, therefore, but the offer was still open. And if it was still open to the Pharisees, of all people, how about to everyone else condemned to hell too?

Universalism, Annihilationism, Eternal Torment, or what?…

I’ve been all three, a Universalist, an Annihilationist, and a believer in Eternal Torment. Eternal Torment was my favourite to start with, chucking the likes of Hitler into the flames to pay for what he did. The wretched man deserved eternal punishment, so do child abusers and those who pervert the gospel of Christ (Galatians 1:6-9). Let them suffer in public humiliation forever.

But what good would it do? It satisfied an inner need in me, I suppose, knowing that horrible people got horrible punishment, but now we’d be stuck with these horrible people forever, and stuck with the memory of what they did too. Far better, surely, would be getting rid of them. Burn them up like Sodom and Gomorrah, so all memory of them vanishes. It made a lot more sense to me, and it was less embarrassing too, wishing a person dead forever rather than wishing him flailing in agony forever. So I became an Annihilationist instead.

But I didn’t annihilate my children when they messed up, did I? Instead, my hope sprang eternal that life, the school of hard knocks, and punishment when needed, would translate into lessons learned, wisdom gained, and a real desire in my children to be good people. Punishment wasn’t meant to be final, in other words, it was meant to be corrective resulting in change, and isn’t that what God wants for his children too? Rather than hell being eternal torment or annihilation, therefore, I saw it in the same light as sending my children to their rooms to change their attitudes.

But if that was the purpose of hell instead, then God could save everybody, couldn’t he? He could isolate them in hell to stew in their own juice for as long as was needed to soften up their attitude, and when they were ready they could come out and join the rest of us. And if I’m like that with my children, it made perfect sense that God’s like that with his children, so I became a Universalist, believing God could, and would, save everybody in the end.

But then I discovered that scriptures can be found that support or refute all three views, so now what?

Well, there was still Paul, “the worst of sinners” (1 Timothy 1:16), and look what happened to him. “The grace of our Lord was poured out” on him (verse 14). It was grace, that marvellous mixture of mercy and justice that only God is perfectly capable of, that saved Paul.

So with that in mind I became a Gracist, a believer in “God’s abundant provision of grace” (Romans 5:17) as the only and final solution in every human life.

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 “disarmed the 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 was true 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.

Are most people destined for Hell?

Yes, some Christians say, most people are destined for Hell, because, 1 Peter 4:18, “If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?” Since it’s hard enough getting Christians saved, what chance have non-Christians got?

But the context of that verse has nothing to do with non-Christians going to Hell, or that non-Christians won’t be saved. Instead, it’s a message from Peter to his fellow Christians about the hell they’re already going through right then. That’s clear from verse 12, which starts off with “Dear friends,” so Peter is writing to Christians, the message to them being, “do not be surprised at the painful trial you (Christians) are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you.”

Peter is answering Christians who are wondering why God is letting them suffer so much. But rather than wonder, Peter replies, “rejoice (in your sufferings),” verse 13, because “you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.” One day the suffering will end, and joy takes over. And if they’re being “insulted because of the name of Christ,” verse 14, then “you are blessed, for the Spirit of Glory and of God rests on you.” They could rest assured that if they were suffering for being Christian, then the Spirit was with them every step of the way to strengthen and comfort them.

And remember, Peter adds, “it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God,” verse 17, so their suffering had purpose. It was happening for a reason. God was working directly in the lives of Christians to get them ready for eternity, and, yes, that could get tough at times, especially when people despised them for being Christians. And if life was that tough on Christians, what on earth was to become of non-Christians (verses 17-18)? So Peter understood what they were going through. He also understood the way through it, verse 19: “those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.” Trust Christ and keep on trucking.

Yes, Christians suffer, but “the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast,” 1 Peter 5:10-11. God also understands what we’re going through, and to prove it he’ll pick us up, dust us off and use the situation to make us even stronger.

In context, then, it’s encouragement for Christians. It’s got nothing to do with anyone being destined for Hell.