“If sinners be damned, at least let them leap to hell over our bodies. If they will perish, let them perish with our arms about their knees. Let no one go there unwarned and unprayed for.” (Charles Spurgeon)
Any discussion on hell that moves away from the traditional viewpoint brings cries of anguish out of fear that we will lose one of our greatest selling points: “You don’t want to burn forever, do you?” As I wrote recently about the cross and resurrection, I wonder about us when we are so often focused on the gory and dark when the scripture offers us so much light and joy. God calls us into the kingdom. He doesn’t ask us to scare others into it.
One commenter asked me to define what I meant by “traditional view” and that is a very fair question; especially since so many views out there are heralded as orthodox by this or that religious tribe. By “traditional view” I mean that lost souls will live forever and ever, conscious, in horrendous pain, tied up, falling, in the dark, alone. Augustine believed that, saying that “aionois” referred both to life and punishment in Matthew 25:46. Therefore, he stated, both reward and punishment must be of equal duration. That is also the first verse run to by those I’ve tried to talk to over the years. How can we be sure of forever in heaven, they ask, if the word “forever” doesn’t mean “forever” in hell?
While I am not a Greek scholar (Hebrew and I are BFFs but Greek won’t answer my calls), I know a lot about language. I was raised in several countries and have learned a variety of languages. I even got a BA in Linguistics before moving on to gain doctorates in other disciplines. I love language… and my eyes pop when people refer to the adjective form of “aion” as meaning “eternal.” By the way, Young’s Analytical Concordance never translates it that way. No literal translation of which I am aware translates it that way, either. Why? Because “aionois” is an adjective form, it is dependent upon the object it modifies. That is why Jonah was “forever” in the belly of the whale and why it seems it takes the clerk at Wal-Mart “forever” to get a price check on the socks I want to buy. Einstein was right about this: a man speaking with a pretty girl will think an hour goes by like a second. But if he places his hand on a hot stove, he will think that second feels like an hour. Adjectives help us modify nouns. Some examples?
Here is a tall boy, a tall man, and a tall building. The word “tall” has a definite meaning but no objective, measurable reality. What “tall” means when I place it beside “boy” differs when I move it over by “building” or “man.” It becomes even more fuzzy when I use it metaphorically by speaking of a “tall order” or use the old Texas expression, “a tall drink of water.” Still, none of us think “tall” is a confusing word. We know what it means. It means the same in every dictionary we own… but the absolute meaning of the word changes almost every time we use it. Its meaning is dependent upon the word or concept by which we place it.
A stroll through an exhaustive concordance will give you dozens of examples of the word “everlasting” or “eternal” (and their synonyms) being used to modify a large variety of things we know have beginnings and ends. Because of space considerations on a blog, let’s just look at one. Habakkuk 3:6 reads this way: “He stood and shook the earth; he looked and made the nations tremble. The ancient mountains crumbled and the age-old hills collapsed. His ways are eternal.” That’s the NIV. In the KJV, the words are translated “everlasting mountains”, “perpetual hills”, and “his ways are everlasting.” Does anyone think the ways of God have been here only as long as the mountains or that His ways will end when the mountains end? Of course not. The two words used there are widely regarded as synonyms. “‘Ad” was used for the mountains and it means “duration, perpetuity, eternity, everlasting, world without end.” And “olam” is used for the ways of God. It is defined as “eternity, continuous, perpetual, without end.” We get a sense of what Habakkuk meant by looking at the words modified — mountains and God — NOT by going by strict dictionary definition of the modifying words. [a NT example would be Romans 16:25,26]
If we go back to Matthew 25:46 we will also find another gem waiting for us. The word “punishment” here is “kolasis” which is always remedial punishment, not capital punishment. [NOTE: when I say "always used" please understand that I mean "in every reference book I can find." If you have other information, I am always willing to learn] It is used of the pruning of trees, for example. When we take this passage and turn it into something out of a William Blake painting or Dante’s Inferno, I think we err. Hell is horrible — whatever it is — and no one should want to go there. We should fight hard to keep people out. That’s why I opened with the Spurgeon quote. Still, we have to figure out if there is enough information in scripture to know what hell is… and I suggest that the picture we get isn’t the picture I was told about in thunderous sermons by red faced men preached in white board churches when I was a boy. “Kolasis” is for the good of the sufferer. It is not a sadistic, over the top, symphony of brutality. If — as it seems — “kolasis” is never used for the death penalty, then it brings to mind First Corinthians 3:15. I’m not sure what that verse means, but it definitely refers to some men being saved “but only as one escaping through the flames.”
For a thorough study of “kolasis” please get “The Inescapable Love of God” by Thomas Talbott, professor of philosophy at Willamette University in Oregon.
William Barclay, when speaking of the definition we usually give to the word “eternal” and how we have placed that on “aionois” said, “The simplest way to put it is that aionois cannot be used properly of anyone but God. Eternal punishment is then literally that kind of remedial punishment which it befits God to give and which only God can give.” We run off the road and into the weeds when we forget to notice what is “eternal” — the punishment or the punished? The fire can be eternal but that doesn’t mean a person stays in it for eternity. We have to be careful with our words (and, yes, that includes me).
Next time… we look at the words that are translated “hell.”