You may have been raised with a picture of judgment that says sinners go to hell where they are tormented for eternity. Unless you say the magic words of a formulaic prayer, you will burn forever along with all the babies and children who never got a chance to put their faith in Jesus.
Unsurprisingly, this traditional picture of hell has come under attack from those who cannot conceive of a good God doing such awful things to his children. But what is the alternative? If the wicked aren’t roasted alive, what does happen to them? Let me suggest three alternatives:
1. Dwarfs in the stable
In the CS Lewis story, The Last Battle, a humble stable provides a doorway to Aslan’s Country, or heaven. Some wicked dwarfs are thrown into the stable. Although they are surrounded by glorious beauty, they refuse to see anything other than the darkness and dirt of the stable interior. Aslan provides them with a glorious feast which they eat, but they perceive the food to be only hay and old turnips. Lucy begs Aslan to help them see the truth but Aslan replies:
They will not let us help them. They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in they cannot be taken out.
In Lewis’ picture, hell is the prison created by an unbelieving mind. It’s the self-inflicted torment of distrust that begins in this world and carries on for eternity. Those who refuse to see Christ in this life, are incapable of seeing him in the next.
2. Prisoners in heaven
But what if the dwarfs could see inside the stable? Wouldn’t that cause them to change their unbelieving minds? These are the sorts of questions posed by universalists. Their view is that those who reject Jesus will be made to stand forever in his presence and keep convincing themselves they want nothing to do with him. A universalist believes all will eventually be saved because who can resist Jesus?
I find Jesus irresistible so I can see the appeal of the universalists’ claim. But what about the Pharisees? They experienced the Son of God walking and talking and loving them but they weren’t impressed at all. In fact, they hated and tried to kill him.
And what about Judas? He saw Jesus heal the sick and raise the dead yet refused to believe Jesus. Even when he realized the error of his ways he preferred death to reconciliation.
And what about unfallen Adam? He saw God as he truly is yet chose to distrust him. If Adam rejected God in paradise, what makes us think others won’t do the same?
Can you imagine a heaven with people who don’t want to be there? Can you picture the haters and the scornful poisoning the well with their bitter conversation? Can you imagine the Pharisees and the religious protesting their imprisonment? It’s bizarre. Yet this is the heaven of the universalist. Everyone is there, whether they like it or not.
Imagine being forced to spend eternity in a place you don’t want to be and made to stare at someone you don’t want to see while everyone waits for you to change your mind on something you refuse to believe. That sounds like eternal torment to me. It’s hell with fluffy cushions.
3. The second death
The gospel that Jesus preached says there is eternal life for those who want it and an ending for those who don’t.
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. (Joh 3:16)
To perish means to die. Jesus is not referring to physical or bodily death but what he referred to as “the second death” (Rev 2:11). It’s the final curtain for those who, like the Pharisees, “refuse to come to me to have life” (Joh 5:40). Paul had a similar message:
…when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power. (2 Th 1:8-9)
A similar message of eternal destruction or second death was preached by Peter, James, John and Jude (2 Pet 3:7, Jas 4:12, 1 Joh 3:15, Ju 1:7).
People don’t go to hell for their sins. All our sins were dealt with at the cross. But those who choose to exclude themselves from the Lord exclude themselves from life.
You may ask, “How could God do such a thing?” He’s not the one doing it. “What does God have against sinners?” Nothing – God loves sinners (Rom 5:8). God is not willing that any perish (2 Pet 3:9). He has gone to extraordinary lengths to make death unnecessary. Yet people condemn themselves by preferring the paths of death to the way of life (Pro 14:12).
I appreciate there are some scriptures in the Bible that support the traditional view of hellish torment. But the vast majority of scriptures indicate a once and final end for those who refuse to feast on the bread of life (click on the Table).
“But Paul, well what about all that talk of a lake of fire?” It’s a metaphor representing the second death:
Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. (Rev 20:14)
One day there will be no more bodily death and no more grave. Both will come to an end and we will be clothed with resurrection bodies that won’t age or wear out or die.
Blessed and holy are those who have part in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them… (Rev 20:6)
“Paul, are you saying that only those who pray a formulaic prayer will be saved?” Not at all. Don’t limit God. The take-away of the gospel is, “Choose life.” And it’s an easy choice for we were made to be loved and to love life. The hard choice – the one that cuts against the grain – is the dwarfs’ choice. It’s choosing the lesser things that substitute for love and life.
God doesn’t make it hard to be saved, he makes it easy. Faith isn’t a work, it’s a rest. The real work is in denying who we are, turning away from the Lover of our souls, and hardening our hearts to the goodness of God. God does all the work in saving us from the hellish consequences of our choices. We have to fight him to choose the option he hates.
A desire for love burns in all our hearts. That desire is there to show us the way home. But some never return. They extinguish the flame, deny their humanity, and refuse to come to the party. Even though Jesus stands right in front of them inviting them to feast and dance, they’re not interested.
God will not make you stand in detention for eternity until he hears you say the words he wants you to say. He is a God of love and love must be free or it’s not love. For those who have no desire to receive his love – perhaps because they prefer the lifeless idols of self-trust or the dead religion of the Pharisees – the second death will be a tragic but merciful alternative to an eternity they would hate.
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