and Jeremy Westcott –
As I have chronicled in these posts, God has personally started to walk me through encounters that continually challenge my perception of who He is. I am on a journey of discovering the true nature of God as love and as a result I find myself questioning and often rejecting the established doctrines and theological positions of the modern-day evangelical church.
God has shown me that I (and the church, and the world) have been badly deceived by ‘do-it-yourself’ religion. Nowhere does this deception show up more clearly than in our approach to evangelism.
God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them (2 Cor 5:19).
This is the message of reconciliation at the heart of the gospel we are called to preach. And the word translated ‘world’ is actually the Greek word ‘kosmos‘, which is even wider than we might have thought. Yet when I looked closely at how we have done evangelism, even here at Freedom, I uncovered a fear-based system which originates from a wrong perception of God as angry, vindictive and cruel.
Religion has hijacked the gospel, made ‘escaping hell’ its focus and used the threat of eternal damnation to scare people into the kingdom. “Good news! (But first, the bad news…)”. My own conversion experience was like that. I heard sermons about hell and judgment week after week and decided I needed ‘fire insurance’.
Hell? Not going there…
For most Christians, an eternal hell is a given, an unquestioned doctrine. Hell fits their doctrinal system. God is love but He is also just. He must punish sin. Hell is the punishment for sin. Simple.
Or is it?
I knew it would take a while to address this issue properly, and might be taking the lid off a whole can of worms. I resisted broaching the question of ‘hell’ for some time, as if it were some kind of ‘no-go’ area, but God would not let me be. It just kept resurfacing, both in my encounters and as I prepared the ‘new versus old’ teaching module in the Engaging God programme. It is a concept that is generally accepted in most (if not all) religions and in wider society, but I knew deep down that something in what I had been taught was not consistent with the Father’s love.
This is where we come back to the scripture from 2 Corinthians which says that God is not counting their trespasses against anyone:
Namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them (2 Cor 5:19).
The whole cosmos has already been reconciled and no-one’s trespasses are counted against them. So from God’s perspective what need is there for a ‘hell’?
And, despite the limitations of the translations we use which I touched on in the last post, there are plenty of other familiar passages which might prompt us to think again too:
But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet
sinners, Christ died for us (Rom 5:8).
Who is the us that Christ died for, a select few or everyone?
For the love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one died for all… (2 Cor 5:14).
For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life (Rom 5:10).
God is not angry, even with those who may feel like His enemies.
When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having cancelled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross (Col 2:13-14).
For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive (1 Cor 15:22).
In each part of this statement, all refers to the same people… all, as Peter confirms:
For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God… (1 Peter 3:18).
Pitying and merciful is the Lord; lenient and full of mercy. Not unto the end shall He be provoked to anger, nor into the eon (age) will He cherish wrath. Not according to our lawless deeds did He deal with us; nor according to our sins did He recompense to us (Psa 103:8-10, Septuagint).
“I shall not punish you into the eon (age), nor shall I be provoked to anger with you perpetually” (Isaiah 57:16)
“I will heal their apostasy (unbelief), I will love them freely, for My anger has turned away from them” (Hosea 14:4).
My own experiences of God are characterised by love, grace and mercy, not anger and fear. God does not stay angry forever, so why would He punish people forever? His love is more powerful than all our sin put together. It is far stronger than the lies and deception designed to keep us separated from Him:
“Put me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm. For love is as strong as death, jealousy is as severe as Sheol; its flashes are flashes of fire, the very flame of the Lord. Many waters cannot quench love, nor will rivers overflow it” (Song of Solomon 8:6-7).
Rather than meaning torment and punishment, in this passage fire is a depiction of passion and unrelenting love: God’s love is a flame that can never be quenched or extinguished and He is unrelenting in pursuing us for relationship.
There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love (1 John 4:18).
How can God punish people if He is love? The two are incompatible. He cannot and He does not. God’s justice is always restorative.
Perpetual Conscious Torment
The idea of ‘hell’ as a place of perpetual torment is so prevalent in the world’s religions and cultures that if you mention ‘hell’, most people have a pretty clear image of what you are talking about: it probably includes fire, demons with pitchforks and people in torment. This image has been propagated by literature through the ages and more recently by films and TV shows but it was not the view of the early church.
The writings of the Old Testament and Jewish literature throw up various different views of the afterlife, including annihilation or sleep until judgment, but eternal torment after death was not a Hebrew concept at all. The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible comments, “Nowhere in the Old Testament is the abode of the dead regarded as a place of punishment or torment. The concept of an infernal ‘hell’ developed in Israel only during the Hellenistic [Greek] period” (i.e. beginning in the fourth century B.C.).
There are even some people today who teach that at the resurrection, God will give unbelievers new bodies specifically designed to withstand eternal torture. What kind of a god is that? Is that really the God who was perfectly revealed in Jesus?
But what about…?
By now, you may be thinking of passages of scripture, even of Jesus’ own teaching, which seem to contradict what I am saying. What about the sheep and the goats, or the rich man and Lazarus, or the outer darkness where their worm does not die and their fire is not quenched and there is weeping and gnashing of teeth? I promise we will look closely at each of those passages (and others) in coming posts.
Jesus never warned anyone about ‘hell’, nor did Paul or any of the other New Testament writers, nor did God tell Adam that he and his descendants would go to ‘hell’ as a result of the fall. There is no word for ‘hell’ in the Greek or Hebrew language. It is not a biblical concept at all.
Four separate words have been translated into the single English word ‘hell’ and in reality each word has a different meaning:
- Sheol (Hebrew) grave or place of dead
- Hades (Greek) unseen world, grave, underworld
- Tartarus (Greek) prison for angels
- Gehenna (Greek) name of a valley outside Jerusalem used as a fiery rubbish dump.
- In English, the word ‘hell’ comes from Proto-Germanic ‘haljo’, whose root ‘halija’ means ‘a concealed or covered place’.
- The Norse god Hel is Loki’s daughter, and in that mythology she rules over the evil dead.
Yet our most popular English translations are full of the word – including some you might be surprised at:
King James Version (Authorised Version)=54
New King James=32
New Living Translation=19
New Century Version=15
English Standard Version=14
New International Version=14
New American Standard=13
On each occasion that the translators have used the word ‘hell’ in these versions, they have only done so because they already believed the passage was about ‘hell’. Instead of translating what was there, they have read back into the text their preconceived notions of what it meant. Other versions do not include the word at all:
Complete Jewish Bible=0
World English Bible=0
The religious institution and its supporters will insist that if you question the doctrine of ‘hell’, you are rejecting what has always been agreed upon by the Church. It is not so. Orthodoxy is a myth, and it is high time to rethink this subject.
Because if God is love, if God is good, if God is not angry, if God does not require appeasement or sacrifice, if God does not punish us then what is the purpose of ‘hell’?
Does ‘hell’ as we know it even exist?
We will look at this again.
Note: In these posts I can help you clear away some of your false preconceptions and assumptions (if you are willing) but I am not going to attempt to convince you to see things the way I do; if you really want to know where people go after they die, you will need to ask God to show you.
Free resources on the topic of ‘hell’
These publications and websites raise issues we believe God is drawing to our attention today. The fact that they are listed here should not be taken to imply that we agree with all the doctrinal positions, conclusions or opinions of the authors.
- Putting Hell Back in the Handbasket – Brazen Church
- Raising Hell book by Julie Ferwerda (PDF download)
- A New Day Dawning blog – Chuck Crisco
- Tentmaker website: http://www.tentmaker.org/articles/ifhellisreal.htm
Recent articles from Freedom ARC
- 242. Enjoy The Ride!
- 241. You Have Not Desired
- 240. Loving Instruction and Correction
- 239. The Things They Now Believe
- 233. Wider, Deeper, Longer, Higher
- 231. Meet the Real God
Older related posts