Hellbent on Hell

Why in heaven’s name does it seem that most Christians are hellbent on not being open to the idea that Hell may not be eternal?  This one really befuddles me.  It’s right for Christians to believe that God can redeem even the most seemingly irredeemable thing.  It’s also right for Christians to reiterate how they are redeemed by God’s grace and that no matter how righteous they live, they are still undeserving of God’s grace.  I’m then left with the question: is it so inconceivable that God would choose to redeem all things to Himself, including the most seemingly irredeemable thing – Hell and everyone and everything in it?

Since I was a young boy, I was taught that Heaven and Hell are eternal.  It wasn’t until my late college years that I began to really question whether or not that teaching is true.  If my memory serves me correctly, I believe my recalibration on this matter began after reading Colossians 12:19-20: “For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross.”  Of course I could be wrong, and I’m open to being convinced otherwise and changing my position (an impeteus for The Discursionists because  “we all have every incentive to be corrected”), but I believe that God will redeem all things to Himself – including Hell and everyone and everything in it.

Someone may be inclined to say if Hell isn’t eternal, then what’s the point of living good, or righteous, here on earth if there are no permanent consequences.  To this I would say read my previous article The Pit of Despair – the focus on Heaven and Hell is misguided and that separation from God, for however long, would be tremendous torture.  Someone also may be inclined to say if Hell is not eternal, then where’s the justice in that?  To this I would say what about the person who lived unrighteous everyday of their life until their last when they truly repented and received God’s grace.  At any rate, it’s in God’s hands.  Is it not?  He will take care of it.  Will He not?  After all, He is The Great Judge.

I’ll leave you with this as the anti-scapegoat way of thinking: “What then?  Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace?  Certainly not!  Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness?  But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered.  And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.” – Romans 6:15-18.

– Terrence

*Origin of Discursion:  Read my previous article The Pit of Despair.


Filed under Terrence

19 responses to “Hellbent on Hell

  1. John

    The problem is that there are several Biblical verses referring to eternal damnation:

    Matthew 25.41: “Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels.”

    Mark 9.43, 48: “…better for you to enter life crippled than having your two hands, to go into hell, into the unquenchable fire”; “where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.”

    John 3.36: “…he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.”

    Rev 9.11: “And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever…”

    Rev 20.10: “And the devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are also; and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.”

    Isaiah 66.24: “Then they shall go forth and look on the corpses of the men who have transgressed against Me. For their worm shall not die, and their fire shall not be quenched…”

    The early “Martyrdom of Polycarp” sets the earliest interpretation of these verses: “For this reason the fire of their [the martyrs] savage executioners appeared cool to them. For they kept before their view escape from that fire which is eternal and never shall be quenched…”

    So, if one believes in the inerrancy of Scripture (at least for its spiritual and moral teachings) the above are rather big hurdles over which to leap.

  2. Christopher

    Ergo, the folly of scriptural literalism.

  3. GCC

    Well, the passage from Isaiah isn’t really that hard to get around. Given the author and audience of the text, it seems obvious that the fires refer to gehinom. (Indeed, Rashi would agree.) And, of course, gehinom is not eternal. But, even beyond that, if one includes the context of at least the end of this verse, the Hebrew seems to indicate an end as well. I suppose that would take care of the Mark verse too. And the John verse carries no indication of eternity – not even in context.

    No time to look up the Revelation quotes, but on first reading, the one about the devil doesn’t seem to have anything to do with people. And we need to know “whose” torment the smokey verse is talking about; without that piece it means nothing.

    But since, literalist are apparently the concern, I suppose these things don’t matter since context and original language apparently aren’t of much concern to them.

  4. I find it interesting that one could argue that my comments, as well as John’s, are the result of strict Scriptural literalism. However, just because this argument could be made, it doesn’t mean that it is necessarily so. For the record, I do not believe that strict literalism should be applied wholesale to the Bible. Also, I believe in the inerrancy of Scripture. Back to the discursion…

  5. John

    In this case, I think literalism is a bit of a straw man. Churches aren’t asking their members to cut off their hands or pluck out their eyes here. Most reasonable folks would acknowledge that there are different ways to read Scripture.

    The problem is the content of the verses. I just don’t buy sweeping them away as irrelevant, not with a mass of theological discourse on each of them.

    I would agree, however, that context and historicity of the passages is important. Even so, that Matthew verse is tough to ignore: Jesus is telling the disciples exactly what God the Father has in store for people after death. If Christians want to discard the words of Jesus they will soon be left without a religion, which may explain the recent stalling of the Jesus Seminar, etc.

  6. I would like to say that I do not wish to ignore that the belief of eternal Hell may be true. Consequently, I am not ignoring Matthew 25:31-46. I’m just not so convinced the translation to English is indeed accurate. As previously stated, I’m open to being convinced otherwise and changing my position – a sign of anti-ignorance. Again, if in order, I have every incentive to be corrected.

    In some ways, one of my goals of this article is being accomplished. It is to expose our presuppositions regarding Hell, so that we can honestly investigate whether or not Hell is undoubtedly eternal. Is it possible that the Christian doctrine of Hell is incorrect as a result of an error or flaw in translation? This doctrine is largely dependent on the translation of the Greek words “aion” and “aionios.” Aion (n) means “an age” or “an indeterminate period of time.” Aionios (adj), from the noun aion, means “age-abiding” or “age-lasting.” These meanings do not inherently translate into “eternal.”

  7. blraatikka

    Aha! Some exegesis– nice T. Well, my brief internet study of the word “aionios” makes it seem there is definitely some controversy over whether the word means “eternal” or not, although most of the time it is rendered as such. It appears that in three places in the NT (Rom. 16:25; 2 Tim. 1:9; Titus 1:2), it is used for a duration that is something less than everlasting. In 66 other places, its most natural translation is eternal–
    “The predominant meaning of aionios, that in which it is used everywhere in the NT, save the places noted above, may be seen in 2 Cor. 4:18, where it is set in contrast with proskairos, lit., `for a season,’ and in Philem. 15, where only in the NT it is used without a noun. Moreover it is used of persons and things which are in their nature endless, as, e. g., of God, Rom. 16:26; of His power, 1 Tim. 6:16, and of His glory, 1 Pet. 5:10; of the Holy Spirit, Heb. 9:14; of the redemption effected by Christ, Heb. 9:12, and of the consequent salvation of men, 5:9, as well as of His future rule, 2 Pet. 1:11, which is elsewhere declared to be without end, Luke 1:33; of the life received by those who believe in Christ, John 3:16, concerning whom He said, `they shall never perish,’ 10:28, and of the resurrection body, 2 Cor. 5:1, elsewhere said to be `immortal,’ 1 Cor. 15:53, in which that life will be finally realized, Matt. 25:46; Titus 1:2.”

    Additionally, it would appear to me that Matthew 25:41 relates to Revelation 20:10, which makes it seem pretty clear that punishment is eternal for Satan.

    I think one of Terrence’s underlying points, if I may be so bold, is that American Christianity is overly fixated on the quantitative nature of eternal, in which we typically think of life after bodily death, rather than its qualitative nature, which can be experienced right now, if we truly have the life of God in us. Such emphasis distorts the spiritual meaning of what it means to be a Christian. If the Kingdom of God really is at hand, we almost completely miss the point if we are obsessed with just believing the right things in order to make it into heaven. In addition, any separation from God, whether here on earth, or in the age to come, is the spiritual death Jesus seeks to save men from.

  8. GCC

    Brandon, I think you’re right. But I wonder if you, Terrence, Christopher, and I (well at least in theory) reach the conclusion that the Kingdom of God can be experienced now and that’s what the emphasis should be, etc., not as a result of Christianity, but rather in spite of it. There does seem to be quite a bit of scripture (and extra-biblical stuff) about faith being the only form of salvation, man’s inability to do the right thing, etc. It doesn’t seem too difficult to root the emphasis on heaven/hell and right belief in Christian scripture. So, maybe this conclusion is arrived at as some sort of “natural law-like” essence fighting through the Christianity. Maybe the Christian view of heaven/hell is indeed rooted in error, but the error is far greater than that of a mere translation mistake. It could also be that I’m missing something. What’s the scriptural support for the ideas above?

    Regarding the Matthew quote: I think we can assume that the terms “sheep” and “goats” aren’t to be taken literally. But if that’s the case, then how do we decide to take the word “eternal,” or “life” for that matter, literally? Although not entirely unreasonable, that would seem at least a bit arbitrary. This quote does come from a couple pages of parable, so I’d personally have a difficult time determining what was meant to be taken literally and what wasn’t. And then you add in potential issues of translation, transmission, etc. and the problem is even bigger. So then, if we’re going to be consistent and not take any of it literally (or at least not decide exactly what’s literal and what’s not) then we have to look for meaning in other ways.

    Here’s a quick stab at it:
    Brandon’s connection between Matt. 25:41 and Rev. 20:10 quote seems somewhat reasonable (although I haven’t researched it). But Rev. 20:10 is clearly speaking of the devil and not sheep or goats, so, what would the connection be? Well, to start they both seem to speak of eternity. Rev. 20:10 clearly isn’t speaking of normal people, but the devil (like “goats” in Matthew) could also be a metaphor for some people. I think it would be in line with the Christian view of the devil to include if the category of Rev. 20:10’s “devil” those who know good yet willfully and wantonly do evil. But that definition of “devil” wouldn’t include the non-believers necessarily, making it hard to see how belief is the priority for avoiding hell. So, maybe what these verses are telling us is that it’s not our beliefs that save us from an eternal hell, but rather our actions. Indeed, if one believes in the devil, I can only assume that one thinks that devil believes in God (or Jesus as the case may be). So, believing in God gets us precisely to the same level as the devil. (Actually, if it’s just about belief, the devil probably does the believer one better…the devil knows God, for him it’s not about something so flimsy as belief.) To be different than the devil then, we must do differently, not believe something that the devil doesn’t believe. Interestingly, we notice in Matthew 25 that when it is explained to the “sheep” and the “goats” why some receive reward and others punishment it never talks about what either group believed. It does, however, list a few things that they did or did not do. So there seems to be a correlation between both the devil and the righteous being defined through action when the context is eternity.

    Here’s an example of why this seems to apply to real life and our natural sense of right/wrong: If it’s all about belief being the road to heaven, then Adolf Eichmann is in heaven. But if what defines the devil is actions rather than beliefs, then I think we can rest assured that Herr Eichmann is some place else. Furthermore, if our actions separate us from the devil, and the Kingdom of God is at least partly represented by God’s defeat of the devil, then our actions would also seem to serve as signposts indicating that kingdom’s current presence. And since it is entirely reasonable to question the idea that the Kingdom of God is indeed truly here now, Christians would be much better served to place their focus on being signs of that kingdom by separating themselves from the devil through their actions than they are by being concerned with their own salvation and that of others through correct belief. Indeed, their scriptures might be telling them that when it comes to eternity what’s important is their action. Some may just not see it because they’re too busying trying to be alchemist-shepherds trying to turn goats into sheep.

    Now, this doesn’t really address the idea that hell may not be eternal. But there’s logic for that. And, if there’s a translation error that could possibly have resulted in the idea of an absolute and final eternal hell, then that would help explain why it would seem to contradict the logic. Here’s one of the issues with a literally “eternal” hell: The word eternal not only means that something “has no end,” but also something that “has no beginning.” That’s why it’s in the Nicene Creed after all, no? So if being in hell is truly eternal then everyone who’s there must always have been there. If one then also believes that the devil is some fallen angel, then the devil quite obviously wasn’t there eternally. And, of course, winter aside, I’m not in hell now. So even if I end up there it’s not eternal. It can’t be. This is why Brandon’s points on the translation of the Greek “aionios” as being generally translated as “eternal” in reference to God are important. God is truly eternal. In fact, God is the only thing that is truly eternal, because God is the only thing without beginning or end. So, unless God isn’t the creator of everything, logic would seem to tell us that either God is hell, or hell is not literally eternal. And once we decide that it is not literally eternal then any duration we apply to it would seem to be a bit arbitrary.

    And finally, a bit on biblical inerrancy. The idea of something that is separate from God can be “eternal” seems to be a logical error. That would cause problems from the doctrine of inerrancy. Of course we can explain away the error in logic if we can explain it as a translation or language problem. But, in that case we’ve limited our definition of what is considered to be inerrant to original manuscripts. And, I’m pretty sure that none of those exist. So, if there’s a translation error and all we have is translations, it seems quite odd to work from the premise that these scriptures are inerrant. So, the doctrine of biblical inerrancy may very well be at the root of the problem Terrence has uncovered.

  9. Christianity and/or the Christian view does nothing to negate or discredit the standard to which it subscribes – God. However, Christianity and/or the Christian view always have the potential to distract from God. Just as in any other religion, the failures of its followers does nothing to validate the standard to which it subscribes. The followers can only illuminate it by emulating it, or cast it in shadows by contradicting it, whether intentional or not.

    Errancy is introduced by human mistranslation, misinterpretation and/or mispractice, not by what the standard provides or what it is in essence. The general Christian overemphasis (notice that there is still emphasis to be had) of Heaven and Hell is the result of human error, not the error of the standard itself. If we’re not the standard, then is it any surprise that we sometimes get the intent and meaning of the standard wrong? Likewise, doesn’t it make sense that we’re simply incapable of knowing for certain what are Heaven and Hell? Doesn’t every belief (not fact) require faith?

    The dissapointment and reality of it all is that every human at some point in their life do a disservice to the thing they claim to believe and represent. Who can honestly say that they’ve never contradicted an ethical belief that they hold? How then could the Kingdom of God, or how it ought to be, be fully manifested on earth by human effort alone? Wouldn’t it be accurate to say that humans may constantly aspire, but never fully achieve? What then would it take to reverse this reality we know all too well?

    Now, this is not to say that humans shouldn’t try to make the world a little more how it ought to be just because they will never make it fully how it ought to be. It would be irresponsible to have a knowledge of something and then not care for it. It would be a gross misunderstanding of God’s character, which we’re called to emulate, to think we’re justified in acquiescence or opposing our responsibility.

    A proper understanding of salvation is that it is ongoing process of redemption. A process which requires our participation to at least some degree (according to an Arminan), but can only be completed by God’s grace, thus making humans dependent on God’s grace for redemption. It is a way of life wherewithin faith in God’s character and His grace is in concert with works motivated by love for who God is and His grace (see James 2:14-26).

    The idea that something separate from God (assuming His eternalness) can be eternal really does seem illogical. This would seem to cause problems for the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy. But, what is separate from God? What could be separate from its Creator? Wouldn’t the creation always be tied to its Creator, even if set free? Wouldn’t the argument against Biblical inerrancy be subject to a lot of the same and numerous limitations as its opposition?

  10. GCC

    T Says: Christianity and/or the Christian view does nothing to negate or discredit the standard to which it subscribes – God.

    – This is a really good point, and I completely agree. Problems in a religious scheme or amongst religious adherent do nothing directly to discredit God. They might discredit their religion, but not God.

    T Says: Errancy is introduced by human mistranslation, misinterpretation and/or mispractice, not by what the standard provides or what it is in essence.

    – I totally agree. And that’s why understanding the nature of the errors is important. At some point we will face the reality that the books we deal with and call scripture are not directly from the standard, and begin again to understand the real role scripture has to play in faith. And also, at some point we should probably decide when we’ve determined a book to be so full of error (or decide what kind of errors would be so egregious) that it’s not even inspired by God, let alone the inerrant word of God.

    T Says: If we’re not the standard, then is it any surprise that we sometimes get the intent and meaning of the standard wrong? Likewise, doesn’t it make sense that we’re simply incapable of knowing for certain what are Heaven and Hell?

    – You’re so right on this. And the Almighty speaks to it wonderfully: Isaiah 55:8-9.

    T Says: But, what is separate from God? What could be separate from its Creator? Wouldn’t the creation always be tied to its Creator, even if set free?

    – For some clarification, when I mentioned something being separate from God, I meant everything. That is, God created everything. God is not a part of the creation. Anything created, while it has God as its source, is not God. This, for instance, would be one reason why people who believe in a creator-God don’t worship idols; the idols are creations of the creator-God and therefore can’t be God. I don’t mean this in the way sin is sometimes described as a separation from God. Nor do I mean to say there’s not a relationship between God and God’s creation. But it is exceedingly important to understand that the creator is not the created and vice versa.

    T Says: Wouldn’t the argument against Biblical inerrancy be subject to a lot of the same and numerous limitations as its opposition?

    – Only in a rather theoretical and meaningless way that nets out at zero. That is, if the limitation to the argument against the doctrine of biblical inerrancy are that we’re fallible humans and thus can’t know that for sure, it cuts equally both ways. Actually, as I think about this more it doesn’t really cut equally. If this is the argument, then the doctrine of inerrancy is in an even worse position, becase inerrantists, by definition, claim to know, while those who oppose inerrancy simply claim not to know. So, (thinking at the keyboard here) no I don’t think the argument against the doctrine of biblical inerrancy is subject to the same limitations as the argument for it. Plus there’s the historical element, and all the other problems with biblical inerrancy, but that could be a whole post. Maybe it will be.

    This has been a very fine pair of posts though. A fun and interesting discursion indeed!

  11. John

    This is a good discussion amongst moderns, but the historical element must be addressed. The early fathers believed in the eternity of Hell. Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and Augustine all believed in it. The early hagiographers believed in it. Jerome, who knew both Greek and Hebrew, read Matthew as indicative of eternalness when he translated it into Latin: “…a me maledicti in ignem aeternum…” The martyrdom story of Matthew himself states that Herod is burning in Hell “without end.” And so on.

    Thus, in the early church these passages were taken literally. I’m not saying that we must read them the same way as the ancients. But the claim of a translation error must take into account their readings, especially given their proximity to Biblical figures (Polycarp did study under the apostle John, after all). Otherwise, we risk imposing a presentist view on a historical text.

    Grant, your point on Hell’s eternal nature in relation to an eternal God is interesting, but my reading of the texts is that “eternal” refers not to the place/state of Hell but rather to its punishments, which last forever.

    All this being said, I fully agree with y’all about the dangers of fixating only on heaven and hell. But then again, as a Catholic I have the luxury of the Purgatorial tradition, which solves a number of the problems raised here. 😉

  12. GCC

    Haha, nice! I was actually wondering aloud last night about what the purgatory thing is really about. I’ve just never learned about it.

    But the no beginning/no end thing would still apply to the punishment. At that point though we’re starting to get into such detail of language, that it’s almost impossible to reach a final firm conclusion. The reality is that eternal means no beginning or end, but we obviously use it regularly to mean just without end. It just gets confused. So, more interesting to me even than the translation is to determine why someone might decide the way they decide. It could come from a need for certainty, a sense of fear, a desire to control, a desire to be open, or any number of sources.

    One thing that I think is interesting (and I think this is Terrence’s idea) is that if God really loves everyone and would want everyone to be redeemed to God, then why would God place an arbitrary timeline on everyone’s chance at redemption? And if we’re going to say punishment is enternal starting at a certain point we’d need to know when that point is. Is it at the “end of days,” whenever/whatever that is? Or is it at our individual deaths? How do we decide that? It seems that to be certain the punishment of hell is eternal is to apply our own (possibly arbitrary) time standards to God. And of course, because God created our sense of time, it can’t exactly apply to God, so it all seems a bit weird.

    You’re very right about taking the “fathers'” readings, opinions, etc. into account. That’s exceedingly important. It seems to me that “Sola” anything is the wrong way to approach things. We get some great insights from Scriptura and some great insights from Ecclesia too. We (everybody) just need to think more and use all available resources (internal – I actually saw someone say to a priest that the priest was trying to read the Bible with reason and that one can’t do that(!) – and external) in our thinking and consideration on this and other issues.

    What I generally land back on the hell topic is this: I don’t really care if hell is eternal or not. Whether it is or not does not affect the way I live my life, my beliefs, or anything like that. Even from a justice perspective I don’t need hell to necessarily be eternal. So really, what’s the big deal?

    (I don’t mean to say though that I don’t think the discussion is worth having. It’s not only worth having, it’s fun.)

  13. Holly

    Some random thoughts:

    — Jesus said several times in the Gospel of John, “He who loves me will keep my commandments.” Our keeping of His commandments is evidence of our belief in Him. We can’t just believe — we must obey as well if we want to join Him in heaven.

    That said, we can’t earn our salvation. That’s accomplished solely by the work of God. Some people, who lead evil lives on this earth, come to know God and repent on their deathbeds (e.g., thief on the cross).

    Works are evidence of a vital, saving faith, but some people will arrive at that kind of faith too late before they have the opportunity to display those works. But with their saving faith, they will go to heaven. This is the grace of God, who desires everyone to arrive at a saving faith in Him — even if it’s in the last moments of one’s life.

    — Why does God impose a limitation (death) on the time people have to accept Him? I think this is somewhat of an unfathomable question, but to truly eradicate evil from His creation, He must enact a judgment at some time. Sin has to be stopped. He can’t just let it go on “forever” until a creature turns back to Him. Some creatures never will turn to God because they have free choice and they are hellbent on being their own gods.

    — I think that we misunderstand the nature of eternity, which, most believe, is timeless. We don’t know how action can take place outside of time. There will be food in heaven, but how will we eat if there’s no time? I think it’s safe to say that we don’t “get” eternity, so who are we to judge what the eternal nature of hell is like? Tradition tells us it will go on forever, but that’s all we can grasp.

    — When we say “eternal,” aren’t we really talking about three concepts, each of which should really have it’s own word but do not — neither in Greek nor in English?

    1) without a beginning and without an end
    2) with a beginning but without an end
    3) without a beginning but with an end

    God fits into the eternal concept #1. Heaven and hell fit into concept #2. A state of sinlessness fits into concept #3, though when Christ reconciles all things to Himself, it will be restored and become #2 again.

    — The eternity of hell is just because the notion that someone can sin in this life, pay for his sins in the next and then eventually be annihilated is unjust. Sin is such an egregious affront to God that its consequences must be eternal. Anyone who’s had a child murdered knows this.

  14. Holly, thanks for joining the discursion. I found your last comment most interesting. You said, “Sin is such an egregious affront to God that its consequences must be eternal. Anyone who’s had a child murdered knows this.” This seems to contradict an earlier comment of yours, or at least lacks a full explanation of what exactly you meant. Earlier you said, “Some people, who lead evil lives on this earth, come to know God and repent on their deathbeads.” So, is the sin of murdering a child beyond the grace of God?

    As much as it may elicit a reaction of anger and confusion, and cause us to wonder where’s the justice in it all, God’s grace is sufficient for all, even the murderer of a child on his deathbead. Sin is so egregious to God that not “it” (by which I mean sin), but all beings deserve eternal consequences because of their sin – “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). We are undeserving of God’s grace, whether it be here and now and/or there and later. God’s choice to give grace at all is tremendously beautiful.

  15. Holly

    I hope this clarifies things: God stands ready to forgive as long as we’re repentant of our sin. Yes, sin is deserving of eternal punishment because it’s an egregious thing to choose evil over righteousness, but if we let God’s attitude towards sin become ours — even on our deathbeds (when some people finally see the light) — He can let the blood of Christ cover our sins.

  16. GCC

    I should’ve been checking this one more closely…

    Anyway, Holly, what is sin? I’m to trying to understand what you mean when you say sin is such an egregious affront to God. I think knowing how you define sin would help me with that.

    And I’m confused about your idea above about the justice of an eternal hell. I’m not sure where the idea of anihillation, etc. comes from.

    Thanks for the thoughts. I’m about to post another set of thoughts on hell… I’ll look forward to your thoughts there as well.

  17. DJS

    Ahhh, I know I am coming to the conversation late in the game, and don’t have the energy to read through every response, but let me offer a few insights off the top of my head.

    First of all, we need to be very, very careful when developing a theology from a parable, such as the case in the Matthew 25 text that John referenced. Parables, by design, are meant to drive home a single point and we do the parable injustice if we take something out of it that wasn’t the point in the first place. For example, I would argue that the ‘point’ of the Matthew 25:31-46 parable often referred to as the sheep & goats passage is not a treatise on the ontological reality of heaven and hell but rather a charge to the disciples and listeners to treat the ‘least’ of these as if they were Jesus himself (25:40).

    Furthermore, we would be foolish to believe that in 25:46 Jesus uses the word ‘eternal’ to refer to a ‘really long time’. In this context, ‘eternal’ refers to quality of life in the here and now, not an amount of time in the afterlife, as it were (a common misunderstanding for those unfamiliar with Jewish idiom). Jesus’ message is that our actions towards the ‘least of these’ can lead us to create heaven or hell on earth in the here and now.

    Simply put, this passage is not about eternal rewards or punishments, but an exhortation to care for the least of these.

    Just some food for thought.

  18. _stew well said on the danger of deriving ontologically loaded theology from parables. Terrence, this issue is so important, thanks for bringing it up, i was out of the country, so i came back and got caught up on your posts. 🙂

    A good, and authoritative early church perspective is the author of hebrews, the master rhetorician. The author of Hebrews seems to think that teachings on ‘eternal judgment’ are pedantic and for the immature. (see list in 6:1-2) As we mature, our questions, like the one’s spoken of by the writer of Hebrews, become more about how we treat others and the quality of our ‘running’.
    The centralization of the Hell doctrine has had quite the impact in traditional and modern missions movements, rendering most missionaries useless in the fight against hunger, sickness, disease, thirst, the very things Jesus commands us to do in Matt 25. God must be asking, “What the “hell” are we doing?”

  19. GCC

    I’d noticed Stew’s comment a while back and had meant to comment but forgot. Thanks for stopping by and catching up, Paulo.

    Stew, you make a very good point about interpreting parables. Furthermore, placing the meaning of that particular parable on the hear and now, helps make it sound like it actually came from a Jew and not a post-pagan, early Christian proselyte who may or may not have become a gospel writer.

    Thanks again for contributing.

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