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Two books about hell (Love Wins by Rob Bell and Erasing Hell by Francis Chan & Preston Sprinkle)

by davesandel on September 17th, 2011

TWO BOOKS ABOUT HELL

Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived

by Rob Bell, 2011, 202 pages

AND

Erasing Hell: What God Said About Eternity, and the Things We’ve Made Up

by Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle, 2011, 197 pages

 

When I read Rob Bell’s book in late March I also read a number of reviews and lengthy comments on various websites.  I discovered an editor at Christianity Today with an engaging point of view about Bell’s book, Mark Galli, so I read one of his books: Jesus, Mean and Wild.

Bell’s book stirred up a torrent of emotions and intellectual curiosity inside me.  I laughed and I cried, I felt angry and very very happy, I noticed how much I was in love with God, I spent hours poring over Romans.  I cared more about religion and church, about Christians and non-Christians than I had in a long time.  Theology opened up its narrow gate, and I walked in.

For a few weeks Love Wins was the #3 selling book on Amazon.  Today it’s #245 and #26 in the Christianity section.  Francis Chan’s Erasing Hell, published in July partly as a response to Love Wins, is #30 in that same section.  (Francis Chan is the author of the 2008 Christian best-seller Crazy Love.)

Topping the Christian best-seller list is Todd Burpo’s book Heaven is for Real (#7 in all books).  The material for this book comes from a four-year-old’s experience with heaven during a medical emergency.  This book has been in Amazon’s top 100 for 261 days.

How much do we as people living on earth like reading about heaven and hell?  All of us are going to die.  At the Vineyard church we attend, our pastors began a series on heaven this weekend.  11,000 people died during the service on Saturday night.  By Sunday night 264,000 people will have died.  Before next week’s Saturday night service – before the second sermon about heaven – 1,848,000 people will have died.  Those numbers stagger me.

Is there room in heaven for all those folks?  Rob Bells says there is, Francis Chan says there isn’t.

Of course, that kind of summary isn’t fair to either of them.  Both of them know the Bible very well, although Francis Chan does a much better job of documenting his knowledge.  They come to different conclusions, but they both have the same good spirit in their work.

Both Rob Bell and Francis Chan want to find the truest, best story the Bible tells.  And they want to share the story they find, in order to inspire as many people as they can to move out of their own comfort zones, out of church, into the rest of the world.  Because people are dying.

Heaven and hell are described in the Bible and many other books.  While none of us has much experience to go on, God can certainly inspire men and women to write about what they have not experienced ourselves.  The books about near-death experience, about “life after life,” about “90 minutes in heaven,” fascinate most of us.  Both Henri Nouwen, a Christian hero to many, and Steve Sjogren, a Vineyard pastor, experienced near-death and wrote about it.

But I notice how unwilling I am to argue the theology, to take either position about the existence of hell, heaven … any of it.  I notice how uncertain I am when I read passages from the Bible that seem to explicitly describe the afterlife.  Whether it’s a gospel story, a parable of Jesus, an exposition by Paul, or a story from the Old Testament, I take a step back.  When someone wants to tell me what they think the Bible says about all this, I take three or four steps back.

I talk to God about this a lot.  Maybe there is something wrong with me.  Or maybe not.  These backward steps I take … just what am I trying to protect?

I am already pretty selfish and set in my ways.  I don’t reach out even to my next-door neighbors in any kind of organized way.  I fail to care for widows and orphans every day of the week.  I settle for a personal “saving knowledge of Jesus Christ” and don’t make much effort to share it with others.

But I do accept God’s forgiveness. I know his love and want to share what I know.  What am I trying to protect?  My own skin, my own place in heaven?  I guess so.  But something more than that.  I want to protect my ability to love people more unconditionally rather than less.  I want to increase rather than decrease my desire to reach out and share my faith.  I want to be inclusive about who I can connect with as children of God every moment of every day.  I want to understand the Bible as much as I can in the context of my life, my neighborhood, my meetings with clients, my history – without losing any larger truth.

If I suspend judgment about the theology of heaven and hell to do that, maybe that’s OK.

An aphorism of George MacDonald’s says this more succinctly (although I lay no particular self-righteous claim to “doing the will of God”):

MacDonald said, “Doing the will of God leaves me no time for disputing about his plans.”

Following the book outlines, I’ve included a chapter I liked very much from each book.  I hope you enjoy them too.  God bless you.

LOVE WINS

Preface: Millions of Us

  1. What About the Flat Tire
  2. Here Is the New There
  3. Hell
  4. Does God Get What God Wants?
  5. Dying to Live
  6. There Are Rocks Everywhere
  7. The Good News Is Better Than That
  8. The End is Here

Acknowledgements

Further Reading

ERASING HELL

Preface

Introduction

Who Should I Believe?

Let God Be God

  1. Does Everyone Go to Heaven?
    1. Universalism: A Brief Survey
    2. Universalism in the Bible
      1.   Every Knee Will Bow
      2.    All Will Be Made Alive
      3.      Does God Get What God Wants?
      4.   Who Left the Gate Open?
      5.    What about those passages that say there will be a Second Chance?
      6. Notes
  2. Has Hell Changed? Or Have We?
    1. The First Century Jewish View of Hell
      1.    Hell is a Place of Punishment after Judgment
      2.    Hell is Described in Images of Fire, Darkness and Lament
      3.    Hell is a Place of Annihilation
      4.     Hell is a Place of Never-Ending Punishment
      5.      Is Hell a Garbage Dump?
      6. Notes
  3. What Jesus Actually Said About Hell
    1. Jesus on Hell
      1.       Hell is a Place of Punishment after Judgment
      2.       Hell is Described in Images of Fire, Darkness and Lament
      3.       Hell is a Place of Annihilation or Never-Ending Punishment
      4.       So Where Do I Land?
      5. Notes
  4. What Jesus Followers Said About Hell
    1. Hell in the Letters of Paul, Peter and Jude
    2. Hell in 2 Peter and Jude
    3. Hell in Revelation
    4. Notes
  5. What Does This Have to Do With Me?
    1. You Fool
    2. But Jesus, Didn’t We …
    3. From Every Tribe and Tongue
    4. Blessed Are the Poor
    5. The Tongue of Fire
    6. Lukewarm and Loving It
    7. Lord, Save Us
    8. Notes
  6. “What if God …?”
    1. The Potter and the Clay
    2. I Wouldn’t Have Done That
    3. Wrestling with God
    4. His Name is Tobiah
    5. Notes
  7. Don’t Be Overwhelmed
    1. A Greater Urgency
    2. More Reason to Rejoice
    3. Finally … Are You Sure?

Appendix: Frequently Asked Questions

  1. Are the images of fire, darkness, and worms to be understood literally?
  2. Are there degrees of punishment in hell?
  3. Is hell at the center of the earth?
  4. Does the Old Testament word sheol refer to hell?
  5. What about the person who has never heard the gospel?
  6. Did Jesus preach to people in hell between His death and resurrection?
  7. How can God be loving and still send people to hell?

Bibliography

From Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived

Chapter 7.             THE GOOD NEWS IS BETTER THAN THAT

On the Sundays when I give a sermon at our church, I usually sit on the edge of the stage and talk to people after the service. And every week the same woman walks up to me and hands me a piece of paper. We’ve been going through this ritual for several years now. She smiles, and we chat for a moment or two, and then she walks away. The piece of paper she hands me is always the same size, about four by five inches, folded, with writing inside in the upper left corner. I unfold it each week while she watches, and then I read what she’s written on it.

A number, with a few comments next to the number.

Sometimes the number is big, like 174.

Sometimes it’s smaller.  I remember once when it was 2.

The number is how many days it’s been since she last cut herself.  She’s struggled with a self-injury addiction for years, but lately a group of people have been helping her find peace and healing.  But she still struggles, some weeks more than others.

She recently told me that every man she’s ever been with hit her.

So when she hears about love, it’s not a concept she’s familiar with.

Which makes sense.

Beaten, hit, abused, neglected, and then she’s told that God loves her unconditionally without reservation without her having to do anything to earn it?

That’s a stretch.  Hard to believe, given what she’s seen of the world.

I tell you a bit of her story in order to tell another story, one Jesus tells in Luke 15.  A man has two sons.  The younger one demands his share of the father’s inheritance early, and the father unexpectedly gives it to him.  He takes the money, leaves home, spends it all, and returns home hoping to be hired as a worker in his dad’s business.  His father, again unexpectedly, welcomes him home, embraces him, and throws him a homecoming party, fattened calf and all.

Which his older brother refuses to join. It’s unfair, he tells his father, because he’s never even been given a goat, so that he and his friends could have a party. The father then says to him, “You are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”

I retell this story of Jesus’s, because of the number of stories being told in this one story.

The younger brother tells a story. It is his version of his story, and as he heads home in shame after squandering his father’s money, he rehearses the speech he’ll give his father. He is convinced he’s “no longer worthy” to be called his father’s son. That’s the story he’s telling, that’s the one he’s believing. It’s stunning, then, when he gets home and his father demands that the best robe be put on him and a ring placed on his finger and sandals on his feet. Robes and rings and sandals are signs of being a son. Although he’s decided he can’t be a son anymore, his father tells a different story. One about return and reconciliation and redemption. One about his being a son again.

The younger son has to decide whose version of his story he’s going to trust: his or his father’s. One in which he is no longer worthy to be called a son or one in which he’s a robe-, ring-, and sandal-wearing son who was dead but is alive again, who was lost but has now been found.

There are two versions of his story.

His.

And his father’s.

He has to choose which one he will live in.

Which one he will believe.

Which one he will trust.

Same, it turns out, for the older brother.

He too has his version of his story.

He tells his father, “All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours

(he can’t even say his brother’s name)

who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!”

So much in so few words. One senses he’s been saving it up for years, and now out it comes, with venom.

First, in his version of events, he’s been slaving for his father for years. That’s how he describes life in his father’s house: slaving. That directly contradicts the few details we’ve been given about the father, who appears to be anything but a slave driver.

Second, he says his father has never even given him a goat. A goat doesn’t have much meat on it, so even in conjuring up an image of celebration, it’s meager. Lean. Lame. The kind of party he envisions just isn’t that impressive. What he reveals here is what he really thinks about his father: he thinks he’s cheap.

Third, he claims that his father has dealt with his brother according to a totally different set of standards. He thinks his father is unfair. He thinks he’s been wronged, shorted, shafted. And he’s furious about it.

All with the party in full swing in the background.

The father isn’t rattled or provoked. He simply responds, “My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.” And then he tells him that they have to celebrate.

“You are always with me, and everything I have is yours.”

In one sentence the father manages to tell an entirely different story about the older brother.

First, the older son hasn’t been a slave. He’s had it all the whole time. There’s been no need to work, obey orders, or slave away to earn what he’s had the whole time.

Second, the father hasn’t been cheap with him. He could have had whatever he wanted whenever he wanted it. Everything the father owns has always been his, which includes, of course, fattened calves. All he had to do was receive.

Third, the father redefines fairness. It’s not that his father hasn’t been fair with him; it’s that his father never set out to be fair in the first place. Grace and generosity aren’t fair; that’s their very essence. The father sees the younger brother’s return as one more occasion to practice unfairness. The younger son doesn’t deserve a party—that’s the point of the party. That’s how things work in the father’s world. Profound unfairness.

People get what they don’t deserve.

Parties are thrown for younger brothers who squander their inheritance.

After all,

“You are always with me,

and everything I have is yours.”

What the father does is retell the older brother’s story. Just as he did with the younger brother. The question, then, is the same question that confronted the younger brother—will he trust his version of his story or his father’s version of his story?

Who will he trust? What will he believe?

The difference between the two stories is,

after all,

the difference between heaven . . . and hell.

Now most images and understandings people have of heaven and hell are conceived of in terms of separation.

Heaven is “up” there,

hell is “down” there.

Two different places,

far apart from each other.

One over there,

the other over there.

This makes what Jesus does in his story about the man with two sons particularly compelling. Jesus puts the older brother right there at the party, but refusing to trust the father’s version of his story. Refusing to join in the celebration.

Hell is being at the party.

That’s what makes it so hellish.

It’s not an image of separation,

but one of integration.

In this story, heaven and hell are within each other, intertwined, interwoven, bumping up against each other.

If the older brother were off, alone in a distant field, sulking and whining about how he’s been a slave all these years and never even had a goat to party with his friends with, he would be alone in his hell. But in the story Jesus tells, he’s at the party, with the music in the background and the celebration going on right there in front of him.

There is much for us here,

about heaven,

hell,

and the news that is good.

————————————

First, an observation about hell.

Hell is our refusal to trust God’s retelling of our story.

We all have our version of events. Who we are, who we aren’t, what we’ve done, what that means for our future. Our worth, value, significance. The things we believe about ourselves that we cling to despite the pain and agony they’re causing us.

Some people are haunted by the sins of the past. Abuse. betrayal, addiction, infidelity—secrets that have been buried for years. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met over the years who said they couldn’t go to a church service, because the “roof would cave in” or “there would be a lightning bolt.”

Flaws, failures, shame like a stain that won’t wash out. A deep-seated, profound belief that they are, at some primal level of the soul, not good enough.

For others, it isn’t their acute sense of their lack or inadequacy or sins; it’s their pride. Their ego. They’re convinced of their own greatness and autonomy—they don’t need anybody. Often the belief is that God, Jesus, church, and all that is for the “weak ones,” the ones who can’t make it in the world, so they cling to religious superstitions and myths like a drug, a crutch, a way to avoid taking responsibility for their pathetic lives.

We believe all sorts of things about ourselves.

What the gospel does is confront our version of our story with God’s version of our story.

It is a brutally honest, exuberantly liberating story, and it is good news.

It begins with the sure and certain truth that we are loved.

That in spite of whatever has gone horribly wrong deep in our hearts

and has spread to every corner of the world,

in spite of our sins,

failures,

rebellion,

and hard hearts,

in spite of what’s been done to us or what we’ve done,

God has made peace with us.

Done. Complete.

As Jesus said, “It is finished.”

We are now invited to live a whole new life without guilt or shame or  blame or anxiety. We are going to be fine. Of all of the conceptions of the divine, of all of the language Jesus could put on the lips of the God character in this story he tells, that’s what he has the father say.

“You are always with me, and everything I have is yours.”

The older brother has been clinging to his version of events for so long, it’s hard for him to conceive of any other way of seeing things.

And so the father’s words, which are generous and loving, are also difficult and shocking.

Again, then, we create hell whenever we fail to trust God’s retelling of our story.

The older brother’s failure to trust, we learn, is rooted in his distorted view of God. There is a problem with his “God.”

This story, the one Jesus tells about the man with two sons, has everything to do with our story. Millions of people in our world were told that God so loved the world, that God sent his Son to save the world, and that if they accept and believe in Jesus, then they’ll be able to have a relationship with God.

Beautiful.

But there’s more. Millions have been taught that if they don’t believe, if they don’t accept in the right way, that is, the way the person telling them the gospel does, and they were hit by a car and died later that same day, God would have no choice but to punish them forever in conscious torment in hell. God would, in essence, become a fundamentally different being to them in that moment of death, a different being to them forever. A loving heavenly father who will go to extraordinary lengths to have a relationship with them would, in the blink of an eye, become a cruel, mean, vicious tormenter who would ensure that they had no escape from an endless future of agony.

If there was an earthly father who was like that, we would call the authorities.

If there was an actual human dad who was that volatile, we would contact child protection services immediately.

If God can switch gears like that, switch entire modes of being that quickly, that raises a thousand questions about whether a being like this could ever be trusted, let alone be good.

Loving one moment, vicious the next.

Kind and compassionate, only to become cruel and relentless in the blink of an eye.

Does God become somebody totally different the moment you die?

That kind of God is simply devastating.

Psychologically crushing.

We can’t bear it.

No one can.

And that is the secret deep in the heart of many people, especially Christians: they don’t love God. They can’t, because the God they’ve been presented with and taught about can’t be loved. That God is terrifying and traumatizing and unbearable.

And so there are conferences about how churches can be more “relevant” and “missional” and “welcoming,” and there are vast resources, many, many books and films, for those who want to “reach out” and “connect” and “build relationships” with people who aren’t part of the church. And that can be helpful. But at the heart of it, we have to ask: Just what kind of God is behind all this?

Because if something is wrong with your God,

if your God is loving one second and cruel the next,

if your God will punish people for all of eternity for sins

committed in a few short years,

no amount of clever marketing

or compelling language

or good music

or great coffee

will be able to disguise

that one, true, glaring, untenable, unacceptable, awful

reality.

Hell is refusing to trust, and refusing to trust is often rooted in a distorted view of God. Sometimes the reason people have a problem accepting “the gospel” is that they sense that the God lurking behind Jesus isn’t safe, loving, or good. It doesn’t make sense, it can’t be reconciled, and so they say no. They don’t want anything to do with Jesus, because they don’t want anything to do with that God.

What we see in the older brother is that our beliefs matter. They are incredibly important. Our beliefs shape us and guide us and determine our lives.

We can trust God’s retelling of our story, or we can cling to our version of our story. And to trust God’s telling, we have to trust God.

Several distinctions are important here. First, one about our choices. We are free to accept or reject the invitation to new life that God extends to us. Our choice.

We’re at the party,

but we don’t have to join in.

Heaven or hell.

Both at the party.

There are consequences for the older brother, just as there are for us.

To reject God’s grace,

to turn from God’s love,

to resist God’s telling,

will lead to misery.

It is a form of punishment, all on its own.

This is an important distinction, because in talking about what God is like, we cannot avoid the realities of God’s very essence, which is love. It can be resisted and rejected and denied and avoided, and that will bring another reality. Now, and then.

We are that free.

When people say they’re tired of hearing about “sin” and “judgment” and “condemnation,” it’s often because those have been confused for them with the nature of God. God has no desire to inflict pain or agony on anyone.

God extends an invitation to us,

and we are free to do with it is as we please.

Saying yes will take us in one direction;

saying no will take us in another.

God is love,

and to refuse this love moves us away from it,

in the other direction,

and that will,

by very definition,

be an increasingly unloving, hellish reality.

We do ourselves great harm when we confuse the very essence of God, which is love, with the very real consequences of rejecting and resisting that love, which creates what we call hell.

Second, another distinction to be clear about,

one between entrance and enjoyment.

God is love,

And love is a relationship.

This relationship is one of joy, and it can’t be contained.

Like when you see something amazing and you turn to those you’re with and say, “Isn’t this great?” Your question is an invitation for them to join you in your joy. The amazement you are experiencing can’t be contained; it spills over the top; it compels you to draw others into it. You have to share it.

God creates, because the endless joy and peace and shared life at the heart of this God knows no other way.

Jesus invites us into that relationship, the one at the center of the universe. He insists that he’s one with God, that we can be one with him, and that life is a generous, abundant reality. This God whom Jesus spoke of has always been looking for partners, people who are passionate about participating in the ongoing creation of the world.

So when the gospel is diminished to a question of whether or not a person will “get into heaven,” that reduces the good news to a ticket, a way to get past the bouncer and into the club.

The good news is better than that.

This is why Christians who talk the most about going to heaven while everybody else goes to hell don’t throw very good parties.

When the gospel is understood primarily in terms of entrance rather than joyous participation, it can actually serve to cut people off from the explosive, liberating experience of the God who is an endless giving circle of joy and creativity.

Life has never been about just “getting in.” It’s about thriving in God’s good world. It’s stillness, peace, and that feeling of your soul being at rest, while at the same time it’s about asking things, learning things, creating things, and sharing it all with others who are finding the same kind of joy in the same good world.

Jesus calls disciples to keep entering into this shared life of peace and joy as it transforms our hearts, until it’s the most natural way to live that we can imagine. Until it’s second nature. Until we naturally embody and practice the kind of attitudes and actions that will go on in the age to come. A discussion about how to “just get into heaven” has no place in the life of a disciple of Jesus, because it’s missing the point of it all.

An entrance understanding of the gospel rarely creates good art. Or innovation. Or a number of other things. It’s a cheap view of the world, because it’s a cheap view of God. It’s a shriveled imagination.

It’s the gospel of goats.

It’s bound up in fear and scarcity, so people are left having to explain why others seem to be having so much fun and actually enjoying life while they aren’t. This can be especially true in missionary settings or in pastors’ families or in church communities where people have picked up along the way the toxic notion that God is a slave driver. A quiet resentment can creep in that comes from believing that they’re sacrificing so much for God, while others get off easy. Hell can easily become a way to explain all of this: “Those people out there may be going to parties and appearing to have fun while the rest of us do ‘God’s work,’ but someday we’ll go to heaven, where we won’t have to do anything, and they’ll go to hell, where they’ll get theirs.”

I have sat with many Christian leaders over the years who are burned out, washed up, fried, whose marriages are barely hanging on, whose kids are home while the parents are out at church meetings, who haven’t taken a vacation in forever—all because, like the older brother, they have seen themselves as “slaving all these years.” They believe that they believe the right things and so they’re “saved,” but it hasn’t delivered the full life that it was supposed to, and so they’re bitter. Deep down, they believe God has let them down. Which is often something they can’t share with those around them, because they are the leaders who are supposed to have it all together. And so they quietly suffer, thinking this is the good news.

It is the gospel of the goats,

and it is lethal.

God is not a slave driver.

The good news is better than that.

This distinction,

the one between entrance and enjoyment,

has another serious implication,

one having to do with how we tell the story.

When you’ve experienced the resurrected Jesus, the mystery hidden in the fabric of creation, you can’t help but talk about him. You’ve tapped into the joy that fills the entire universe, and so naturally you want others to meet this God. This is a God worth telling people about.

This is the problem with some Gods—you don’t know if they’re good, so why tell others a story that isn’t working for you?

Witnessing, evangelizing, sharing your faith—when you realize that God has retold your story, you are free to passionately, urgently, compellingly tell the story because you’ve stepped into a whole new life and you’re moved and inspired to share it. When your God is love, and you have experienced this love in flesh and blood, here and now, then you are free from guilt and fear and the terrifying, haunting, ominous voice that whispers over your shoulder, “You’re not doing enough.” The voice that insists God is, in the end, a slave driver.

Have nothing to do with that God.

We’re invited to trust the retelling now,

so that we’re already taking part in the kind of love that

can overtake the whole world.

This leads us to another distinction,

one that takes us back to the recurring question,

What is God like?

Many have heard the gospel framed in terms of rescue. God has to punish sinners, because God is holy, but Jesus has paid the price for our sin, and so we can have eternal life. However true or untrue that is technically or theologically, what it can do is subtly teach people that Jesus rescues us from God.

Let’s be very clear, then: we do not need to be rescued from God. God is the one who rescues us from death, sin, and destruction. God is the rescuer.

This is crucial for our peace, because we shape our God, and then our God shapes us.

Inquisitions, persecutions, trials, book burnings, blacklisting—when religious people become violent, it is because they have been shaped by their God, who is violent. We see this destructive shaping alive and well in the toxic, venomous nature of certain discussions and debates on the Internet. For some, the highest form of allegiance to their God is to attack, defame, and slander others who don’t articulate matters of faith as they do.

We shape our God, and then our God shapes us.

A distorted understanding of God,

clung to with white knuckles and fierce determination,

can leave a person outside the party,

mad about a goat that was never gotten,

without the thriving life Jesus insists is right here,

all around us,

all the time.

Jesus was very clear that this destructive, violent understanding of God can easily be institutionalized—in churches, systems, and ideas. It’s important that we’re honest about this, because some churches are not life-giving places, draining people until there’s very little life left. That God is angry, demanding, a slave driver, and so that God’s religion becomes a system of sin management, constantly working and angling to avoid what surely must be the coming wrath that lurks behind every corner, thought, and sin.

We shape our God,

and then our God shapes us.

Our beliefs matter.

They matter now, for us,

and they matter then, for us.

They matter for others, now,

and they matter for others, then.

There is another dimension to the violent, demanding God, the one people need Jesus to rescue them from. We see it in the words of the older brother, when he says he “never even disobeyed.” You can sense the anxiety in his defense, the paranoid awareness that he believed his father was looking over his shoulder the whole time, waiting and watching to catch him in disobedience. The violent God creates profound worry in people. Tension. Stress. This God is supposed to bring peace, that’s how the pitch goes, but in the end this God can easily produce followers who are paralyzed and catatonic, full of fear. Whatever you do, don’t step out of line or give this God any reason to be displeased, because who knows what will be unleashed.

Jesus frees us from that,

because his kind of love simply does away with fear.

Once again, the words of the father in the story,

the one who joyously, generously declares:

“You are always with me,

and everything I have is yours.”

There is another truth here,

beyond heaven and hell and anxiety and violence.

It is a truth at the heart of the gospel,

a truth both comforting and challenging,

both healing and unnerving.

Each brother has his own version of events,

his own telling of his story.

But their stories are distorted,

because they misunderstand the nature of their father—we’ve seen that.

But there’s another reason their stories aren’t true,

a reason rooted less in the nature of God,

and more in the sons’ beliefs about themselves.

The younger brother believes that he is cut off, estranged, and no longer deserves to be his father’s son, because of all the terrible things he’s done.

His badness is his problem, he thinks.

He’s blown the money on meaningless living until he was face down in the gutter, dragging the family name through the mud in the process. He is convinced that his destructive deeds have put him in such a bad state that he doesn’t even deserve to be called a son anymore.

Now, the older brother believes that the reason he deserves to be a son is because of all of the good he’s done, all of the rules he’s obeyed, all of the days he’s “slaved” for his father.

His goodness is to his credit, he thinks.

The younger brother’s wrongs have led him away from home, away from the family, deep into misery. This is true.

His sins have separated him from his father.

The second truth, one that is much more subtle and much more toxic as well, is that the older brother is separated from his father as well, even though he’s stayed home.

His problem is his “goodness.”

His rule-keeping and law-abiding confidence in his own works has actually served to distance him from his father.

What we learn in his speech to his father is that he has been operating under the assumption that his years of service and slaving were actually earning him good standing with his father.

He thinks his father loves him because of how obedient he’s been.

He thinks he’s deserving because of all the work he’s done.

He thinks his father owes him.

Our badness can separate us from God’s love, that’s clear.

But our goodness can separate us from God’s love as well.

Neither son understands that the father’s love was never about any of that. The father’s love cannot be earned, and it cannot be taken away.

It just is.

It’s a party,

a celebration,

an occasion without beginning and without end.

It goes on,

well into the night,

and into the next day,

and the next

and the next.

Without any finish in sight.

Your deepest, darkest sins and your shameful secrets are simply irrelevant when it comes to the counterintuitive, ecstatic announcement of the gospel.

So are your goodness, your rightness, your church attendance, and all of the wise, moral, mature decisions you have made and actions you have taken.

It simply doesn’t matter when it comes to the surprising, unexpected declaration that God’s love simply is yours.

There is nothing left for both sons to do but to trust.

As Paul writes in Philippians 3,

“Let us live up to what we have already attained.”

The father has taken care of everything.

It’s all there,

ready,

waiting.

It’s always been there,

ready,

waiting.

Our trusting,

our change of heart,

our believing God’s version of our story

doesn’t bring it into existence,

make it happen, or create it.

It simply is.

On the cross, Jesus says,

“Father, forgive them,

for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23).

Jesus forgives them all, without their asking for it.

Done. Taken care of.

Before we could be good enough or right enough,

before we could even believe the right things.

Forgiveness is unilateral.

God isn’t waiting for us to get it together,

to clean up, shape up, get up—

God has already done it.

As it’s written in 2 Corinthians 5: “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them.”

In 2 Timothy 1 it says, “God … has saved us . . . not  because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace.”

In Romans 5 we’re told, “At just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.”

And in Titus 3 it’s written, “When the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of the righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.”

Not because of anything we’ve done.

When we were still powerless.

Because of his mercy.

We’re saved in our death,

and in our life.

In our release of the ego,

and in our clinging to it.

In our smallness,

and in our bigness.

Jesus meets and redeems us in all the ways we have it together and in all the ways we don’t, in all the times we proudly display for the world our goodness, greatness, and rightness, and in all of the ways we fall flat on our faces.

It’s only when you lose your life that you can find it, Jesus says.

The only thing left to do is trust.

Everybody is already at the party.

Heaven and hell,

here,

now,

around us,

upon us,

within us.

————————–

Whose version of her story will that woman handing me that piece of paper trust? All of the men who told her she was nothing, who hit her and abused her, who abandoned her and despised her? Or will she trust another story about herself, the one in which she is loved, valued, forgiven, pure, and beautiful?

If you were sitting with me

on that stage on a Sunday morning,

holding that piece of paper in your hand

she’d just handed you,

I know how you’d respond.

You’d tell her another story,

a better one.

Of course.

Now, turn that around.

Because we all have a bit of her in us,

we hand God our piece of paper.

And we listen,

while we’re told a better story.

Because the good news is better than that.

From Erasing Hell: What God Said About Eternity, and the Things We’ve Made Up

Chapter 3.            WHAT JESUS ACTUALLY SAID ABOUT HELL (including notes)

As I write this chapter about hell, I’m sitting in the middle of a busy Starbucks. Every time I look up from my computer screen, I see that I’m surrounded by thirsty customers racing to the counter to fuel up on lattes and iced teas and mochas. They’re happy, busy, enjoying life, laughing, chatting, and, of course, texting. Two moms look as if they just got done jogging and sit next to me, digging into each other’s lives. Another couple just left. They were all over each other—a typical young couple without a care in the world. The girl last in line looks sad. Really sad. It makes me wonder what just happened in her life. And what about the employees? Are they happy? Some look that way, but others don’t.

Joy, laughter, coffee, jazz, texting, talking, flirting, friendship, depression and the hope to be freed from it one day. This is life! I love it—and so do they.

The place buzzes with life. Meanwhile, I sit here reading passage after passage after passage, which all say that some of these people are going to hell. It sickens me to say that, and I can’t explain how conflicted I feel right now. There are at least a dozen people within ten feet of me right here, right now, that may end up in the agony that I’m studying. What do I do? Do I keep writing? Keep studying? Should I bag this whole book thing and start building relationships with them? How can I believe these passages yet sit here silently? I know that some of you have faced this same conflict. Even as you’re reading this, there are probably people within a few feet of you who may also go to hell. What will you do? It could be that the Lord wants you to put the book down.

Coming face-to-face with these passages on hell and asking these tough questions is a heart-wrenching process.

It forces me back to a sobering reality: This is not just about doctrine; it’s about destinies. And if you’re reading this book and wrestling with what the Bible says about hell, you cannot let this be a mere academic exercise. You must let Jesus’ very real teaching on hell sober you up. You must let Jesus’ words reconfigure the way you live, the way you talk, and the way you see the world and the people around you.

Jesus on Hell

In the last chapter, we took a tour of Jesus’ world and saw that, without a doubt, first-century Jews believed in hell. They believed that hell was a place of punishment for the wicked after they faced God’s judgment. They used various images to describe this hell, such as fire, darkness, and lamentation. Some Jews believed that the wicked would be annihilated after being cast into hell, while others described hell as a place of never-ending torment.

Now, in walks a Jewish rabbi named Yeshua, or Jesus. Based on everything we know about Jesus, we would expect Him to address the concept of the afterlife with much more compassion. Right? We can think of the Pharisees, who seem to have taken every opportunity to make the Old Testament Law as harsh as possible. A significant portion of Jesus’ teaching was dedicated to freeing people from the impossible yoke of the Pharisees. Surely Jesus backed away from these terrifying images and emphasized the love of God when talking about the judgment day. Right? Well, not exactly. In fact, not at all.

Jesus grew up in the world of beliefs described in the last chapter. He would be expected to believe the same stuff about hell that most Jews did. And if He didn’t—if Jesus rejected the widespread Jewish belief in hell—then He would certainly need to be clear about this. That last line is very important. Better read it again. In other words, if Jesus did not agree with the view of hell presented in the last chapter, then He would have had to deliberately and clearly argue against it. Remember that Jesus certainly wasn’t afraid of going against some commonly held Jewish ideas, such as their view of divorce (Matt. 5:32; 19:9), forgiveness (Matt. 18:21-22), wealth (Luke 18—19), and laws about the Sabbath (Mark 3:1-6). So we can be sure that if Jesus didn’t challenge the Jewish view of hell, it wasn’t because He was afraid to.

So let’s pull the focus in from Jesus’ world to what Jesus Himself actually said about hell. What we’re going to see is that His views stand in line with the dominant first-century Jewish view of hell. To show this, we’ll look at Jesus’ words through the same categories used in the last chapter. For Jesus:

  1. Hell is a place of punishment after judgment.
  2. Hell is described in imagery of fire and darkness, where people lament.
  3. Hell is a place of annihilation or never-ending punishment.

Hell Is a Place of Punishment after Judgment

Jesus uses the word gehenna (translated as “hell”) twelve times in the Gospels. He also uses images of fire and darkness in contexts where punishment after judgment is in view. A quick look at these statements shows that Jesus believed, like His Jewish contemporaries, that a horrific place of punishment awaits the wicked on judgment day.

The clearest example is Matthew 25:31-46, the longest and most detailed account of judgment day in the four gospels. Jesus begins by saying:

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.  Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” (w. 31—32)

We’ll take a detailed look at this passage toward the end of this chapter. For now, it’s important to note that the event is judgment day, which will occur when Christ comes back. After Jesus looks at the evidence (w. 33-45), He gives His verdict: Believers are awarded everlasting life, while unbelievers are awarded everlasting punishment. Though the word hell (gehenna) is not used here, the concept of hell is conveyed by the phrases “everlasting fire” (v. 41) and “everlasting punishment” (v. 46).’

Another place where the word hell is used in the context of judgment is Matthew 5. The whole passage talks about the potentially devastating outcome of going to an earthly court. But Jesus goes on to say that God’s courtroom will be much worse, for here the Judge has the power to sentence you to the “hell [gehenna] of fire” (Matt. 5:22). This is not a vague reference to hell and certainly not a reference to a garbage dump. The legal context of this statement ensures that Jesus is referring to the consequences of judgment day. Here’s one more passage where gehenna is used in the context of God’s future judgment:

“You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell [gehenna]?” (Matt. 23:33)

The phrase sentenced to hell is once again reminiscent of something you would hear in a courtroom. Hell, as we have seen, is assigned to the wicked (in this case, the scribes and Pharisees) as a place of punishment. Jesus is not using the word hell to describe “the very real experiences and consequences of rejecting our God-given goodness and humanity.”2 Yes, a life of sin will certainly lead to some terrible life-experiences—lust destroys relationships, anger leads to violence, and covetousness leads to divorce. No doubt. But that’s not what Jesus is talking about here. When Jesus uses stock phrases like “gehenna of fire” in legal contexts like this one, He means a literal place of punishment after judgment. He means hell.

Hell Is Described in Imagery of Fire and Darkness

Like His Jewish contemporaries, Jesus often used the image of fire to describe hell. Here are a couple of examples from Matthew 13. As Jesus tells a parable about “wheat” and “weeds,” He says:

“Let both grow together until the harvest, and at the harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” (v. 30)

By itself, this verse says very little, but Jesus goes on to explain the parable and clarifies what He means by the burning weeds:

“Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the close of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all lawbreakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” (w. 40-43)3

These are terrifying statements that Jesus makes. It’s difficult to stomach, but the image of “weeping” as the wicked are cast into hell (“the fiery furnace”) is common among first-century Jewish writers. Jesus, again, fits right into His own context by using the image here.4

Just a few verses later, Jesus says again:

“So it will be at the close of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (w. 49-50)

The hell that Jesus describes here is not a hell-on-earth that accompanies our bad decisions during this life, and it certainly isn’t the never-ending party that AC/DC describes in their song. Hell is a place of punishment at the end of the age for “all law-breakers” who don’t follow Jesus in this life. Again, Jesus said:

“It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the [everlasting] fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell [gehenna] of fire.” (Matt. 18:8-9)

These images of “everlasting fire” and a “hell of fire” were typical in the first century. Jesus used this common vocabulary to convey an unmistakable message—no Jew would have scratched his head wondering what Jesus was getting at. The everlasting fire of gehenna is a place of punishment for all who don’t follow Jesus in this life.

Like other Jewish writers of His day, Jesus also used the image of “darkness” to describe hell. In Matthew 8, He says:

“I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (w. 11-12)

This passage is a critique against Jewish people who think that their ethnicity can solidify a place in the kingdom. Strikingly, Jesus says that many Gentiles (those from “east and west”) will come into the kingdom, while many Jews (the “sons of the kingdom”) will not enter because they didn’t follow Jesus.5 Jesus uses stock Jewish images of “outer darkness” and “weeping” to refer to judgment day and its consequences. Nobody in Jesus’ first-century world would understand these images of darkness and weeping in any other way, as we saw in the last chapter.

Jesus used the same imagery at the end of another parable He told just before He died:

“Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'” (Matt. 22:13)

And again, in another parable:

“And cast out the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matt. 25:30)

Darkness, weeping, and gnashing of teeth—these are common Jewish images for hell. And again Jesus is referring to a place of punishment, much like His first-century contemporaries. Its also important to recognize that there is nothing in these passages that holds out hope for a second, third, or fourth chance for repentance after death.

The next category is more difficult to assess. Did Jesus believe that the wicked would be annihilated or suffer never-ending punishment in hell?

Hell Is a Place of Annihilation or Never-Ending Punishment?

At times, Jesus seems to imply that hell won’t last very long. “Fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell,” Jesus says (Matt. 10:28). Destroy, not burn forever. This language of destruction is common not only in Jesus’ words but also throughout Paul’s letters (see chapter 4). However, there is one significant passage in which Jesus seems to speak of hell as a place of never-ending punishment, where unbelievers will suffer horrific, agonizing pain.

Before we move on, though, let me give two words of warning. First, I believe it is beneficial to dive into the precise meaning of Greek words and grammar, but it may be more technical than some are used to. While the English text is clear, I think it would be good to show that the Greek text supports our English translation. The issue at stake is crucial and demands nothing less than rigorous, humble, and intense study of God’s infallible Word. So we’ll need to slow down, roll up our sleeves, and dig into some key texts for the rest of this chapter.

Second, let’s not lose sight of what we’re talking about. If all we do is believe we’ve figured out the duration of hell and leave unchanged, then we’ve failed. With that in mind, let’s get back to the Bible, but with the solemn sense that this is real stuff we’re reading about. These words have real implications for real people with real destinies.

On several occasions, Jesus said things that may suggest a never-ending punishment, though these passages in themselves are inconclusive. For instance, as we have seen, Jesus says the wicked will be thrown into “everlasting fire” (Matt. 18:8), but is it the fire or the suffering that is everlasting? The passage doesn’t specify. Also, in Mark 9, Jesus describes the fire of hell as being “unquenchable … where their worm does not die” (w. 44, 48). This may refer to never-ending punishment, but here, too, we have to be careful. Jesus is alluding to Isaiah 66:24 with this imagery (undying worm, unquenchable fire), and Isaiah was probably not thinking of everlasting punishment/’ Another passage that is sometimes cited to prove never-ending punishment is the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16. But this passage doesn’t refer to the final state of the wicked—only to a temporary state where the wicked await judgment.7

In almost every passage where Jesus mentions hell, He doesn’t explicitly say that it will last forever. He speaks of torment, and we get the impression that hell is terrible, that it’s a place to be avoided at all costs, but He doesn’t clearly tell us how long it will last.

Jesus’ most suggestive statement—perhaps His only statement— about the duration of hell comes in Matthew 25. In this passage, Jesus speaks of the final judgment that will take place at His second coming (v. 31). The sheep (believers in Jesus) and goats (unbelievers) are divided in two camps, and Jesus decides who’s who based on what they’ve done in their lives. The sheep have served Jesus by clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, and so on, while the goats did none of these things. Jesus then gives His verdict:

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels.'” (v. 41)

Jesus reviews their behavior on earth and finds convicting evidence for their condemnation (w. 42—44) and then concludes:

“‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into everlasting life.” (w. 45-46)

The two key phrases are everlasting fire (v. 41) and everlasting punishment (v. 46). A simple reading of these phrases seems to infer that hell is never ending. But before we race to this conclusion, we’ve got to look closely at the Greek words lying behind the English translation, because it’s been argued that they don’t actually mean what the translations say. For instance, some people who say that hell won’t last forever argue that the Greek words translated “everlasting punishment”—aionios kolasis—do not mean that the punishment is never ending. Instead, some have argued that aionios means “a period of time” while kolasis is a term from horticulture that means “pruning” or “trimming.” For example:

An aionios of kolasis. Depending on how you translate aionios and kolasis, then, the phrase can mean “a period of pruning” or “a time of trimming,” or an intense experience of correction.8

The argument goes like this: The purpose of “correction” or “pruning,” of course, is to improve something, to bring out its fullest potential. Or in this context, to correct the wicked of their bad behavior until they are no longer wicked. So according to this argument, Jesus is not talking about an everlasting punishment for the wicked here, but rather a time of correction so that those enduring punishment will ultimately be saved.9 During this time, there may be “endless opportunities in an endless amount of time for people to say yes to God.”10

Part of me wants to believe that this is true. This argument appears to reconcile God’s love with Jesus’ harsh words about hell.

But is this what the words aionios kolasis actually mean? Is this what Jesus is speaking of in Matthew 25:46?

I don’t think so, and here’s why. Let’s first deal with the word kolasis. Does it refer to correction or punishment?  For three reasons, the word means “punishment.”

First, the word kolasis is only used three other times in the New Testament, and in all three passages it clearly means punishment. It is also used in Jewish literature around the time of the New Testament in the same way.” Jesus’ Jewish audience would have heard Jesus say “punishment” not “correction” when He said the word kolasis.12

Second, this “everlasting punishment” {aionios kolasis) is the same place as the “everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels” from verse 41. This is where the goats, or unbelievers, are cast. If one thinks that unbelievers will undergo a time of correction-to-be-saved in that place, one must also say the same thing of the Devil and his angels. But this would be a huge stretch, especially in light of Revelation 19—20, where it says that the Devil and his angels will be tormented forever and ever. So Jesus actually says that unbelievers share the same fate as the Devil and his demons.

Third, as we have seen, Jesus often refers to “hell” or “the fiery furnace” or “everlasting fire” as a place of retribution—a place where sinners will be punished for their sins. And Jesus is not talking about correction in these other passages (Matt. 13:41—42, 49-50). So those who say that hell is corrective must argue that Jesus has something very different in mind when He talks about “everlasting fire” and “everlasting kolasis”here in Matthew 25:46. But this is very unlikely.

1 checked ten commentators from different theological backgrounds and fifteen Bible translations in five different languages on the word kolasis. I really wanted to see if other Bible scholars agree with what I said above. I found that they all translate kolasis with the word “punishment” (or strafe, or castigo).13  Translators and commentators are not infallible, but such a diverse and worldwide consensus should raise serious caution.

It seems clear that Jesus was referring to an “aionios punishment” in Matthew 25:46, and not an “aionios correction.”

What about the word aionios? Bible scholars have debated the meaning of this term for what seems like an eternity, so we’re not going to settle the issue here.14 It’s important to note that however we translate aionios, the passage still refers to punishment for the wicked, which is something that Universalists deny.

Simply put, aionios can mean various things, including “lifelong,” “enduring,” or “everlasting.” When the word is used twice in Matthew 25:46 (“aionios life” and “aionios punishment”), it probably means “everlasting” in both cases.15 I say this for two

reasons.

First, the contrast between “aionios life” and “aionios punishment” includes the notion of never-ending time. While it is true that aionios doesn’t always mean “everlasting,” when used here to describe things in the “age to come,” it probably does have this meaning. Think about it: Because the life in this age will never end, given the parallel, it also seems that the punishment in this age will never end.

Second, the punishment is said to be in the “everlasting [aionios] fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41). We know from other passages in Scripture that the Devil and his angels will suffer never-ending punishment (Rev. 20:10). Therefore, when Jesus says that unbelievers will go to the same place and suffer the same punishment, it logically follows that their punishment will also never end.16

So Where Do I Land?

The debate about hell’s duration is much more complex than I first assumed. While I lean heavily on the side that says it is everlasting, I am not ready to claim that with complete certainty. I encourage you to continue researching, but don’t get so caught up in this debate that you miss the point of what Jesus was trying to communicate. I even deleted several pages that I wrote about the issue because I feared it would distract from the heart of Christ’s message.

Jesus chose strong and terrifying language when He spoke of hell. I believe He chose to speak this way because He loves us and wanted to warn us. So let’s not miss the point: He spoke of hell as a horrifying place, characterized by suffering, fire, darkness, and lamentation. I believe His intention was to stir a fear in us that would cause us to take hell seriously and avoid it at all costs.

I was a bit surprised at how many harsh statements Jesus made about hell. It probably caught me off guard because I am so used to people emphasizing His words of blessing, not His words of warning. Some of His words may have shocked you, but I would like you to consider the following thought:

We are bound by the words of the Creator, the One who will do what is right. The One who invented justice and knows perfectly what the unbeliever deserves. God has never asked us to figure out His justice or to see if His way of doing things is morally right. He has only asked us to embrace His Word and bow the knee, to tremble at His word, as Isaiah says (66:2).

Don’t get so lost in deciphering that you forget to tremble.

NOTES FOR CHAPTER 4

1. Despite the ESVs translation, I will be using the term everlasting instead of eternal, because the latter term technically means transcending time, which isn’t the best rendering of the Greek aionios. See the discussion toward the end of this chapter and in note 14 below.

2.     Bell, Love Wins, 73.

3. This will happen at a future time when Christ comes back and everyone will stand before Him in judgment. The righteous will be resurrected (which is the meaning of “shine like the sun,” cf. Dan. 12:2), and the wicked will be thrown into the
“fiery furnace,” an image that depicts hell (The two references to the “fiery furnace” in Matthew 13 are the only times that this image is used of hell in the New Testament. However, Revelation 9:2 uses a similar image, where smoke goes up  from a great furnace [R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, 537].). The phrase  gnashing of teeth is used quite often by Jesus (see Matt. 8:12; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30;  Luke 13:28), though we don’t need to take it literally—as if a toothless unbeliever will have teeth provided on judgment day. The phrase probably depicts the pain that the wicked will experience in hell.

4.    See e.g., / En. 108:3-5; 2 En. 40:12.

5. In the New Testament, the kingdom has both a present and future aspect. Many times the idea of entering the kingdom refers to something that happens in the present. Other times the idea refers to something that will happen after death or after the second coming of Christ. In this passage (Matt. 8), it’s the future aspect of entering the kingdom that is in view.

6. In Isaiah’s context, the worm doesn’t die as it eats the flesh of dead bodies. There’s nothing in the context that says the souls of the dead are still being tormented. The image of worms feasting on unburied dead people emphasizes the shame of defeat.

7. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) says that the rich man goes to “Hades” while Lazarus goes to “Abraham’s bosom” (nasb). Hades here should not be confused with hell. Hades is where the wicked go to await their judgment, after which they are thrown into hell—their final state. Lazarus is also in some sort of intermediate state where he is waiting for his resurrection. Significantly, the rich man, who’s in hades, is “in agony in this flame” (16:24 nasb), and he’s very aware of it. Moreover, Jesus says that there is a chasm that separates the wicked from the righteous and “none may cross from there to us” (16:26). So this passage affirms that there will be some sort of punishment and torment for the wicked immediately upon death, and there is no sign that these situations can be reversed. This intermediate state for the wicked should not be confused with the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory, which has a very different function from what we see in Luke 16. So Luke 16 doesn’t refer to the duration of hell. Now, it’s true that this is a parable, and so we shouldn’t press the details too far. Jesus uses the parable in this context of Luke to confront the social structures of the day, not to teach us about the afterlife. On the flip side, parables do convey truth—real things about real life for real people. And given the fact that at least some first-century Jewish people believed that there would be real pain and torment in hades (and not just in gehenna or “hell”), Jesus was probably assuming this view here as well. According to Josephus, the Pharisees believed that the righteous receive rewards and the wicked receive punishment immediately after they die (Ant. 18.14). Also, 4 Ezra 7:78-87 (ca. AD 100) says that there will be punishment in the intermediate sate (i.e., hades).

8. Bell, Love Wins, 91. Bell’s original quote transliterated the Greek words as aion (a noun) and kalazo (a verb). But the Greek actually has aionios (an adjective) and kolasis (a noun). For clarity, I changed the words in Bell’s quote to reflect the Greek of Matthew. New Testament scholar William Barclay also says that kolasis “originally meant the pruning of trees to make them grow better. I think it is true to say that in all Greek secular literature kolasis is never used of anything but remedial punishment” (A Spiritual Autobiography [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1977], 66). But see note 11 below.

9.    Bell, Love Wins, 92-93.

10. Ibid., 106-107.

11. The noun is used in 1 John 4:18. Here, John says that “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment {kolasis)” The context here is “the day of judgment” (v. 17), and John is contrasting love with fear. Love enables one to be confident on the day of judgment (v. 17), while fear instills that nagging sense that one will receive punishment (kolasis) on the day of judgment. The sense of “correction” wouldn’t make sense. The verb form of kolasis (kolazo) is used two times in the New Testament: Acts 4:21 and 2 Peter 2:9. Both of these contexts demand that the word be translated “punishment.” For its use in Jewish literature, see especially Wis. 16:1—2, where the verb kolazo is used synonymously with the verb basanizo, which means torment. Retributive punishment is clearly in view. See also T, Reub. 5:5; T. Gad 7:5 (though these texts have been edited by Christians). A related Hebrew expression is used throughout the Dead Sea Scrolls to mean punishment as well (see 1QS 2:15; 5:13; 1QM 1:5; 9:5-6; 4Q510 1:7). See W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison Jr., Matthew (The International Critical Commentary) (Edinburgh: T &T Clark, 2004), 3.432.

12. Of course, Jesus would have used the Aramaic equivalent to this word, but this is the Greek word that Matthew (under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) used to translate Jesus’ word.

13. Commentaries: Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew (Piller  New Testament  Commentary)   (Grand  Rapids,   MI: Eerdmans, 1992), 641; Davies and Allison, Matthew, 3.432; R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, 966-967; D. A. Hagner, Matthew 1428 (Word Biblical Commentary 33b) (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1995), 2.746; Craig Keener,v4 Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), 606; Ulrich Luz, Matthew: A Commentary, trans. W. C. Linss (Minneapolis, MN.: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2005), 282; Grant Osborne, Matthew: Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 938-939; D. A. Carson, Matthew (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary) (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 586-587; Robert Mounce, Matthew (New International Biblical Commentary) (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1991), 236-237; Michael Wilkins, Matthew (The NIV Application Commentary) (Grand Rapids, Ml: Zondervan, 2004), 812-813. Translations: ESV,TNIV, NASB, HCSB, NKJV, nlt, ceb, AMP, cev, gnt. Foreign translations: Hojfnungfur Alle; Nueva Traduccion Viviente; Slovo Zhizny; Chinese Union Version (Traditional and Simplified). The Message has “eternal doom,” which is essentially the same thing.

14. The Greek word aionios is an adjective, and it’s used seventy times in the New Testament. The noun, aion, is used over one hundred times in the New Testament. The noun can mean various things such as “an age” or “era” (Matt. 13:39; 28:20; Heb. 9:26; 1 Cor. 10:11), “the world” (Mark 4:19), and the never-ending “age” to come, as it does so often in John’s gospel (John 4:14; 6:51, 58; 8:35, 51; 10:28; 11:26; 12:34; 14:16). The adjective aionios frequently means “everlasting,” denoting never-ending time. We see this sense in the phrase “everlasting life” {aionios zoe) used so often in the New Testament (Matt. 19:16; Luke 10:25; 16:9; Rom. 2:7; 5:21; 6:22; 16:25; Gal. 6:8; 1 Tim. 1:16; 6:12, 16; 2 Tim. 2:10; Jude 21). This understanding of time does not refer to the Platonic notion of timelessness, which is inherent in the term eternity, but to the duration of the age to come—a vibrant Jewish concept of the future. Because this age to come will last forever, the adjective aionios, when describing this age, often connotes this idea of “everlasting” as well. For a full and quite technical discussion, see Joachim Guhrt, “Time,” in Colin Brown, ed., New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1986): 3.826-33; Hermann Sasse, “aion, aionios,” in Gerhard Kittel, ed., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985), 1.197-209. I thank Drs. Simon Gathercole of Cambridge University and Scott Hafemann of St. Andrews for their very helpful and critical comments on previous drafts of this discussion of aionios.

15. Contra Bell, Love Wins, 91-92.

16. The way the Greek words are used here suggests a never-ending punishment. The word aionios modifies the nature of the punishment, not the results of the punishment. This is an important distinction, because some people say that it’s only the results of the punishment that never end. In other words, some say that the wicked will be annihilated as they are punished, and this annihilation is never-ending in the sense that its results cannot be reversed. But aionios modifies kalasis, which is a noun of action (the root is kolasis). Greek nouns that end with —sis (rather than -ma) tend to focus on the action of the noun rather than its results. For the small handful of people still reading this note, you can look at 2 Thess. 2:16 in the Greek to see a parallel, where aionios modifies paraklesis (“comfort”), another —sis ending noun of action. Here again, it is the never-ending act of comforting that is in view.

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