Hell, the Troubling Doctrine
I’m a Christian, but not cut to the traditional Catholic or Protestant cloth, but part of a much smaller group of people of who differ in some crucial ways from some “traditional” Christian doctrine. In particular, I sympathise with people who are troubled by the the ancient doctrine of hell. Specifically, the doctrine of hell defined as the eternal, conscious punishment of the wicked (refer to Wikipedia article for an overview of Christian hell doctrine). Over the years I’ve heard a number of atheists challenge the goodness of God over the hell doctrine. But, is the problem with the message that we can find in the Bible, or is the problem with the message that has traditionally been given by the churches?
The Moral Problems of Hell
There are at least three problems with the teaching of hell.
Firstly, if God is a loving God, then why doesn’t he seem to be putting much effort into saving his own creation? John 3:16 says “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him should have everlasting life.” The question is, why don’t we see more of a follow-up? Why are there big chunks of the world who have not even heard of Jesus Christ, let alone had a decent explanation of what he’s all about? Why would God send his only son to die, and then not quite get around to making sure the message is reaching everyone? An atheist could be forgiven for thinking that God is either not as loving as they say, or not that powerful in his ability to save people.
Secondly, this hell thing—is it for real? If people miss out on hearing about Jesus, or maybe they have a tough life and can’t get it together before they die young, then they burn forever in torment? When you hear the stories of stuggle of so many people, if hell is true, then they’re getting a pretty tough deal on life.
That leads naturally to one of life’s biggest questions. “If there is a loving God, then why is the world such a mess? Why doesn’t God fix things?”
A Better Message of Hope for Humanity
Hell doctrine has put the fear of God into people for centuries. More recently as the influence of Christianity has waned in western society, hell doctrine has been challenged by secularism as being fundamentally unjust. But could it be that the Christian churches are misrepresenting the real message of what God is doing? Could it be that Christianity has misunderstood a key doctrine and thus misrepresented God’s power, His true love for His children, and His amazing plan of salvation?
Here’s why the weakness is not in the Biblical revelation, but merely in the ancient church traditions.
God Powerful to Save
The Bible says God is powerful. He created the universe, and made people as the pinnacle of His creation. Does that power include an ability to save us from our sins?
Among the patriarchs, God worked with Jacob, a good example of a man who started rough and finished well. Initially he was a deceiver, a liar, a con-artist. As the Bible itself says, Jacob tricked his own brother out of his birthright as the firstborn son. But God worked on him over 20 or more years to change him and soften him, so he eventually took his place as one of the patriarchs of Israel.
During Jesus’ ministry, we see Jesus’ own disciples as a bunch of ordinary men who “just didn’t get it”. But after they received the Holy Spirit, they were transformed from weak men into strong messengers of Christianity. God was their source of strength to make these ordinary men into God’s voice to the world.
Not long after Jesus Christ died, God called Saul of Tarsus, the great persecutor of the Christian church, and made him the primary advocate of Christianity – Paul the apostle who wrote many books of the New Testament Bible. Acts 9 has his story. Why Paul? Paul says it in his own words in 1 Timothy 1:12-17:
“And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord who has enabled me, because He counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry, although I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man... This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief. However, for this reason I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show all longsuffering, as a pattern to those who are going to believe on Him for everlasting life...”
So God could save even Paul, a chief sinner. He is powerful to save. The tremendous paradox then is: why is God not, at this time, performing this amazing work in the lives of so many more people in the world, who are far from being “chief sinners”? If God could do this to Paul of Tarsus, then why not also Richard Dawkins, or Sam Harris, or at least the ordinary you and me?
Not Many Wise, Mighty, Noble Are Called
As 1 Corinthians 1:25-31 says, God is calling mostly the weak of the world. Thereby, God shows that salvation is by His strength, not the strength of men. If God can save the weak of the world, He can no doubt save the strong and mighty.
So does God despise those that humans regard as mighty and noble, and doom them to destruction? Does He save the weak in order to mock the strong, denying them salvation that they might have had if only they too were weak? Surely God is not like that. Surely their failure is only temporary, to be restored at a future time.
God Loves His Children
As quoted before, John 3:16:
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him should have everlasting life.”
The statement of God’s love is all-encompassing. It certainly includes sinners, for every single human being is a sinner. It doesn’t exclude on the basis of people being weak, strong, female, Gentile, rich, or poor. The act of sacrifice certainly has the potential to save all, should they take up the offer.
The sacrifice of Jesus Christ’s life was an extraordinary event, considering who Jesus was – God on earth as a man. The divine Christ, who was above all His creation, lowered Himself to His own creation to pay the price of His perfectly righteous life, so that all may be freed from the penalty of death that we deserve for our sins. If God paid so high a price, surely He is serious. It makes no sense to offer the sacrifice for all, and then deny its offer to most of humanity. Surely God is not like that.
Making Sense of the Present State
Look around and this is what we see – the world contains a great deal of suffering, without divine intervention to rescue people from it.
History has always had its despots and its sufferings over the years. Despite the technological advances we’ve seen in the last century, humanity seems collectively very far from solving its moral problems. Technology offers new methods for humans to grab power, take advantage, and cause pain and death. Meanwhile, secular humanism promises that the noblest human principles could bring peace to the world, if only religion and shallow thinking didn’t spoil things for everyone. How long do we need to give them before they have to admit defeat?
As all this happens, the great question must be answered: if there is a God who loves the world, why isn’t God doing more to save the world?
First, consider the possibility that God is a lot smarter than we realise. We may have an expectation of what a great God “should be like”, but do we really know? The real God’s work may baffle us, may be so clever that we can’t see it, and may be totally different than what any human being would expect.
Secondly, the Bible does tell us what God is doing, at least in part. But have the Christian churches told the full story?
The story begins in the Garden of Eden, with the first man and woman, Adam and Eve. You probably know the story – the snake and the apple (Genesis 3). Funny story. But actually it’s one big key to explain the state of the world. God gave Adam and Eve a strange command to avoid a designated tree and its fruit. But thanks to the snake telling a bunch of lies and half-truths, they decided that the forbidden fruit was something they just had to have.
The forbidden tree represented a fundamental choice facing God’s human children. That choice could have been presented in many different ways, but it was given as a tree. The choice comes down to: would humans choose to put their full trust in God to guide them in the right way of life? Or would they rather make up their own minds? They chose the forbidden tree. It’s meaning is highly symbolic, and is contained in its name, “The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil”. In essence, they chose to make up their own minds rather than trust in God.
Adam and Eve were our proxies, to make the choice on behalf of all of humanity. They made the choice that any one of us would have made in the same position. That is, we humans being the way we are, with free choice but without the wisdom needed to live the right way, would all make that decision. Thus Adam and Eve decided for us all. That decision is inherent to our nature. It was a decision that had to be made, and the natural consequences played out for us all to see.
And so here we are today. For thousands of years, humanity has been playing out the natural consequences of a decision to live without God’s guiding hand showing us “the right way to live”. We get to do the best we humanly can to figure out “the right way to live” without God’s interference, and then we get to see how successful we are as a result.
So here we have it. A mess. And it’s our own fault. Science and technology hasn’t fixed it. The noblest human ideals haven’t fixed it. History shows no human endeavour has a hope of succeeding in bringing peace to the earth.
Can God really love his children, if He has created them only to leave them to make their mess for thousands of years? That seems to match the idea that we were created by a God, but one who isn’t much interested in His creation.
What is missing however, is the real explanation as to how every human being fits into that story, and their eventual fate.
The coming of Jesus Christ tells us that God is profoundly invested in the life of humanity. It suggests that, in ways we may struggle to comprehend, God has both a plan and the capability to right all the wrongs of this present age of humanity.
The next big step in the plan is the return of Jesus Christ. He came once and was killed, as we know. He promised to come again. The second time will be different – He will come in great power, and overturn the world as we know it. Christ will intervene as humanity is on the verge of self-destruction. It will be a time of divine judgement on the evil of the world and its established systems, and the evil done by people in it. At the same time, it will be a rescue. People will be finally rescued from their own problems and ignorance. As the Bible says, the governments of the world will be destroyed, and in its place Jesus Christ will establish a righteous government. Things will be forever different.
Comparing with Adam’s and Eve’s decision, the second coming of Jesus Christ will demonstrate that while humanity collectively didn’t have the wisdom to live righteously, Jesus Christ and the heavenly Father will successfully lead humanity to successful living. People will only then really have an opportunity to comprehend who God is, and what life is all about.
But what about everyone who has already lived and died?
A close inspection of the Bible reveals that there’s more to death than initially meets the eye. For example, the Israelites...
In ancient times, God miraculously brought the nation of Israel out of Egypt and put them in the promised land, in Canaan. But the Israelites showed over centuries that they would not obey God. We might assume that their destiny is hell fire. But the Bible tells a different story. Firstly, the Bible says that the Israelites will live again:
The hand of the Lord came upon me and brought me out in the Spirit of the Lord, and set me down in the midst of the valley; and it was full of bones. Then He caused me to pass by them all around, and behold, there were very many in the open valley; and indeed they were very dry. And He said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” So I answered, “O Lord God, You know.”
Again He said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them, ‘O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! Thus says the Lord God to these bones: “Surely I will cause breath to enter into you, and you shall live. I will put sinews on you and bring flesh upon you, cover you with skin and put breath in you; and you shall live. Then you shall know that I am the Lord.”’” So I prophesied as I was commanded; and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and suddenly a rattling; and the bones came together, bone to bone. Indeed, as I looked, the sinews and the flesh came upon them, and the skin covered them over; but there was no breath in them.
Also He said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, ‘Thus says the Lord God: “Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.”’” So I prophesied as He commanded me, and breath came into them, and they lived, and stood upon their feet, an exceedingly great army.
Then He said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They indeed say, ‘Our bones are dry, our hope is lost, and we ourselves are cut off!’ Therefore prophesy and say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God: “Behold, O My people, I will open your graves and cause you to come up from your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel. Then you shall know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves, O My people, and brought you up from your graves. I will put My Spirit in you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken it and performed it,” says the Lord.’” (Ezekiel 37:1-14)
This scripture reveals a different story than the typical heaven/hell doctrine. It says God has a plan for people who have lived and died without living in obedience to God. It says Israelites who died without obedience and without hope will live again, this time being given God’s spirit. Amazing. Except that the mainstream Christian churches say this isn’t so. They say the scripture is not to be read literally (that is, not an actual bringing back to life of physically dead people). I assume that’s because it’s impossible to reconcile a literal reading with the heaven and hell doctrine. But what if we turn the interpretation around, and take it as a literal resurrection of physically dead people? There’s a lot in favour of that, except for the old heaven and hell doctrine. So what if we are forced to abandon the heaven and hell doctrine? What would be the implications of this?
The most important implication is that God’s work in a person’s life isn’t limited to their physical life as we imagine it. It implies that there is hope beyond death, that death doesn’t mean they’re “done for”, “done their dash”, or whatever sense of unalterable finality we usually associate with death. Of course, death for us is the ultimate symbol of human powerlessness. For us, nothing is as final as the end of life. Yet, Jesus Christ said that He had power over death, when He brought Lazarus and others back to life. For God, death is not the end. Ezekiel 37 says that by the power of God, a person can still have a second chapter of life yet to write, after death.
Another extraordinary revelation of the Bible is that God deliberately blinds people from the truth. If such people go to hell when they die, then this is astoundingly horrible. That means God is deliberately steering people towards eternal torment. But no, the truth is much more amazing and satisfying.
God blinds? Surely not. But here it is. The gospel of John says it (talking about Jesus Christ):
But although He had done so many signs before them, they did not believe in Him, that the word of Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled, which he spoke: “Lord, who has believed our report? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” Therefore they could not believe, because Isaiah said again: “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts, Lest they should see with their eyes, Lest they should understand with their hearts and turn, So that I should heal them.” (John 12:37-40)
So, God deliberately blinded them, and if He hadn’t done that, they might have understood and been healed? For God to be a loving God, this requires that He has a trick up His sleeve that isn’t understood in the traditional heaven/hell doctrine. That trick is that these blinded people still have a hope. The apostle Paul talks about it too, in the book of Romans. The context is explaining the hopeless disobedience of the nation of ancient Israel, and the calling of the Gentiles. Paul said only a very small number of Israelites were obedient – a “remnant”. And God began the work of saving Gentiles. And yet, the Israelites are not doomed forever.
I say then, has God cast away His people? Certainly not! For I also am an Israelite, of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not cast away His people whom He foreknew. Or do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel, saying, “Lord, they have killed Your prophets and torn down Your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life”? But what does the divine response say to him? “I have reserved for Myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” Even so then, at this present time there is a remnant according to the election of grace. And if by grace, then it is no longer of works; otherwise grace is no longer grace. But if it is of works, it is no longer grace; otherwise work is no longer work.
What then? Israel has not obtained what it seeks; but the elect have obtained it, and the rest were blinded. Just as it is written: “God has given them a spirit of stupor, Eyes that they should not see And ears that they should not hear, To this very day.”
As astonishing as this is, it says God blinded the majority. Only a very small remnant believed, and that too was by God’s grace. So what about the majority? Are they doomed? Paul says it:
I say then, have they stumbled that they should fall? Certainly not! But through their fall, to provoke them to jealousy, salvation has come to the Gentiles. Now if their fall is riches for the world, and their failure riches for the Gentiles, how much more their fullness! ... For if their being cast away is the reconciling of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead? (Romans 11:11-12,15)
So the Israelites were blinded, given up to disobedience, and yet they have a hope. Ezekiel 37 describes that very hope.
Jesus Christ even said himself, when He walked the earth and represented His heavenly Father, that the parables weren’t to enlighten the meaning, but to hide it.
But when He was alone, those around Him with the twelve asked Him about the parable. And He said to them, “To you it has been given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God; but to those who are outside, all things come in parables, so that ‘Seeing they may see and not perceive, And hearing they may hear and not understand; Lest they should turn, And their sins be forgiven them.’” (Mark 4:10-12)
What we see unfolding is evidence that God is, at this time, hiding the truth from most, and revealing it only to a few. And we see promises that the majority of people will actually have their spiritual enlightenment in a time to come – a “second life” you might call it. But why doesn’t the Bible say more? Well maybe it does.
Great White Throne Judgement
The final major piece to the puzzle is to ask: when is this time spoken of? Where could this great time of enlightenment of the masses be hidden in the Bible? Look to the book that describes the end of the story: Revelation. First it talks about a first resurrection.
And I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was committed to them. Then I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their witness to Jesus and for the word of God, who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received his mark on their foreheads or on their hands. And they lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. But the rest of the dead did not live again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection. (Revelation 20:4-5)
The first resurrection seems to be a relatively small number of people. Notice the bit “But the rest of the dead did not live again until the thousand years were finished.” It makes sense to put that in parentheses in the reading. So the “rest of the dead” (those who weren’t already judged as righteous and raised in the first resurrection) get their mention here. So what happens to them after the thousand years of Christ’s reign on earth?
Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away. And there was found no place for them. And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and books were opened. And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books. The sea gave up the dead who were in it, and Death and Hades delivered up the dead who were in them. And they were judged, each one according to his works. (Revelation 20:11-13)
Key to understanding this is the word “judged”. We invariably think of “judged” as being in a court setting, where a pronouncement of guilty/not guilty is determined. However, that type of judgement was already made in Revelation 20:4-5, to determine who would be fit for the first resurrection. So why are “the rest of the dead” again judged? Is this a universal condemnation? No, this judgement is different. These are the people who lived and died with no understanding of God. Remember, even if they technically had “heard the message” they still probably didn’t qualify as “understanding the message”, because as we saw the Bible says that they were “blinded”. The Israelites leaving Egypt saw the Red Sea split open in front of them, but even that didn’t turn them to obedience. Evidently God’s spirit is needed to work in a person to really turn them to God.
So putting all these threads together, this “great white throne judgement” is a different type of judgement than we’re used to thinking of. It’s a judgement over a period of time. It’s a judgement of another life lived – this time, a life lived with God’s spirit (as Ezekiel 37 says), and therefore their first real understanding of spiritual things.
To put it in perspective, the people God chooses to give His spirit are already in judgement, and it too is a period of time.
For the time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the end of those who do not obey the gospel of God?(1 Peter 4:17)
Judgement According To Spiritual Knowledge
There is still a final judgement for every human. But not until they have had a real chance to understand, which means they have been given God’s spirit. As has been shown, God has withheld the availability of His spirit to the majority. But intends to give it to the masses at a future time. Joel 2:28-29 is the famous scripture.
“And it shall come to pass afterward That I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh; Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, Your old men shall dream dreams, Your young men shall see visions. And also on My menservants and on My maidservants I will pour out My Spirit in those days.
God’s spirit being “poured out on all people” – it hasn’t happened yet.
The Final Judgement
Only when a person has had a chance to live by God’s spirit, will they be subject to a final judgement. The book of Hebrews talks about the judgement on people who have truly understood spiritual things with God’s spirit, and yet turned away from it.
For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they fall away, to renew them again to repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame. For the earth which drinks in the rain that often comes upon it, and bears herbs useful for those by whom it is cultivated, receives blessing from God; but if it bears thorns and briars, it is rejected and near to being cursed, whose end is to be burned. (Hebrews 6:4-8)
So there is still a final judgement for all men. But it’s later than we think! And it’s given in righteousness by a loving God, who first will give people a real and complete chance to partake of His spirit and have a true knowledge of God and the spiritual life that is on offer in God’s family. They will have the real opportunity and time they need to understand the sacrifice of Jesus Christ as their personal saviour. They will have time to learn obedience to the great God, and the blessing of living the way of life revealed by God. Only after all this will God enter into final judgement.
This is the loving God that I seek to love and put my trust in. This is the plan of God that allows us to truly believe what is said about the love of God:
“For the Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9)
During the great white throne judgement, all humans have finally had a chance to live by God’s spirit. At the end of this, there will still be some who see and understand, and still reject God. These are the truly wicked, because they are wicked with full knowledge and understanding, not ignorantly wicked. Even for them, their destiny isn’t eternal torment. Reading on in Revelation we see:
Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire. (Revelation 20:14-15)
It’s called the “second death” because as we’ve seen, the first death is not the final fate of humans. And secondly, it’s called the second death because it’s death, rather than eternal torment.
Malachi says what happens to the wicked:
“For behold, the day is coming, Burning like an oven, And all the proud, yes, all who do wickedly will be stubble. And the day which is coming shall burn them up,” Says the Lord of hosts, “That will leave them neither root nor branch. But to you who fear My name The Sun of Righteousness shall arise With healing in His wings; And you shall go out And grow fat like stall-fed calves. You shall trample the wicked, For they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet On the day that I do this,” Says the Lord of hosts. (Malachi 4:1-3)
The unrepentant wicked will not live. Rather, they will be burned up, and gone without a trace. This is the end of God’s work with physical humans. This is the end of suffering, death, and pain, because all wickedness is gone. Only righteous people live (now spirit beings), thanks to the mighty power of God. God’s family will be many in number, and able to live in true peace and happiness forever.