Christians, We Have A Problem With Our "Good News."
By Gerry Beauchemin
Picture yourself as a missionary to the Muslim nation of Senegal , West Africa. The date? September 26, 2002. About a year prior, you befriended your neighbor, Abdou Ndieye, a Muslim merchant. Only a few weeks ago, he graciously accepted your invitation to study the Bible with you. You are thrilled. Abdou is the first Muslim with whom you have begun sharing the Good News.
Today you prepare to explore another portion of God's Word with him, but something terrible has happened. You cannot believe what you are hearing and seeing on the news. The Joola, a Senegalese ferry, has capsized killing almost 2,000 people. You remember Abdou's wife, Astou, and his 14 year old daughter, Fatou, are on that ship. You are in shock and cannot believe what you are seeing—a ship's underside sticking up out of the sea with helicopters hovering overhead. You hurry next door. As you knock on the door, you hear deep groans and wailing. You slowly enter. Abdou is prostrate on the floor. He pleads before Yalla (Wolof for Allah), “Why? Why? How could you let this happen?” He goes into spasms of weeping, beating his hands against the floor.
Feeling utterly helpless, you pray, “God help me comfort my friend.”
Abdou lifts his eyes, hardly able to recognize you for the tears. “My wife and daughter have died a terrible death! Tell me I will see them again. Tell me they are safe in God's arms! Has your Jesus taken them to His heaven?” You are lost for words. The silence is deafening.
“Answer me, Christian, will I see them again? Are they in a better place? Tell me!”
You remain speechless. What can you say? Where is the “Good News” when you need it most?
Are you at peace regarding the eternal destiny of your children, parents, brothers, sisters, grandfather, grandmother, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends? Are you experiencing abundant joy in your “personal” salvation while unsure if some of your loved ones might suffer throughout all eternity? How is that possible? You see, we Christians have a problem, a very serious problem. The problem is in our belief that hell is “eternal” and that most of humanity will go there. Deep inside we know something is not right, but we suppress our questions and doubts because we “think” the Bible teaches it. What inner conflict rages within! It is futile to find satisfying answers to the problems it raises. For example:
¨ How can an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving God create billions of people knowing most will be tormented in hell forever?
¨ Why must our free will to damn ourselves be “absolute,” to the point it is greater than God's “free will” to save us—His property?
¨ How can Adam's power to condemn us be greater than Christ's power to save us?
Please do not accept pat answers to these critical questions. Jesus commands us to judge for ourselves what is right (Lu 12:57). What is right about a punishment that never ends?
How has this teaching affected the spread of the “Good News”—the Gospel? Think about it, an “eternal” hell…
¨ Mars God's character before the world.
¨ Contradicts His unending and unfailing love for all people.
¨ Makes our worship stem from fear instead of true affection.
¨ Denies His unlimited power to accomplish His will.
¨ Makes man's will greater than God's will.
¨ Infinitely minimizes Christ's triumph over Satan.
¨ Denies Christ fully accomplished His mission on earth.
¨ Violates the divine witness revealed in the conscience of all people.
¨ Negates the most glorious promises in the Bible.
¨ Ignores the testimony of the early Church.
¨ Robs us of peace and joy.
¨ Affects what we become; like father—like son.
¨ Hinders world evangelism. (Remember Abdou?)
“Test all things” (1Th. 5:21). Have you tested the teaching of an “eternal” hell?
For most my life the fear of hell stalked me, ever waiting for an opportune moment to raise its ugly head. Just the idea was like a sword slicing through me. It has been the greatest stumbling block to my faith. In fact, I almost gave up on Christianity because of it.
Hell is a horrifying thought. Millions have been terrorized by it. Some have even killed their children to spare them such a fate. If we would truly grasp the horror of it, we would go insane. Our every waking moment would have to be spent snatching whoever we can out of the fire or nothing but constant guilt would torment us. Can you imagine the horror of suffering “forever?” What is a billion years? It is but a second in eternity. Who could possibly imagine such horror? What if you or your loved should go there? Does this thought affect how you feel about God?
This theme has gripped my heart as it afflicts millions of people and dishonors God before the world. After years wrestling with this topic, studying the Bible, and reading the works of others, I have found that hell is a judgment given from the disciplinal hand of a loving Father. Though severe, it serves a good and remedial purpose.
One of our greatest presidents agreed. In Abraham Lincoln the Christian, William Johnson, stated:
Abraham Lincoln did not nor could not believe in the endless punishment of anyone of the human race. He understood punishment for sin to be a Bible doctrine; that the punishment was parental in its object, aim, and design, and intended for the good of the offender; hence it must cease when justice is satisfied. All that was lost by the transgression of Adam was made good by the atonement. 1
That is the message of this book. It is indeed good news for those tormented over the destiny of lost loved ones! Millions in our land can relate. Though the subject is hell, the book is really about God. What is He like? Have you heard the cliché: “God is good—all the time?” Well you will find solid support for it here. God is good even in His judgments. They are not infinite and horrendously cruel, but just, righteous, and remedial.
If you find I am manipulating the Scriptures in this book, then please leave it. But if not, be ready to fall in love with an amazing and wonderful God!
You invalidate the word of God for the sake of your tradition.
(Mt. 15:6 NAS; Mt. 15:3,9)
If religious leaders of Christ's time could invalidate the word of God for the sake of tradition, is it not possible today? Is the Church somehow immune? Only in 1995 did the Southern Baptist Convention finally submit an official apology regarding their stand on slavery. 2 Yes, slavery used to be accepted in Christendom. Many debates took place for and against slavery with each side quoting the Bible. However, when one considers that the letter kills and the Spirit gives life, and our beliefs must harmonize with the spirit and tenor of the Bible as a whole, the argument against slavery takes on new force. The same applies with the case against an “eternal” hell.
Traditions endure for generations, are highly revered, and are extremely difficult to change. There are no harder forms of error to confront and correct. When Paul and Steven declared to their fellow Israelites that God's mercy extended to the Gentiles, they were stoned. Do we hold to any traditions for which Christ might rebuke us? If we refuse to acknowledge any inconsistencies in our beliefs, how will we ever know?
This book examines the Augustinian tradition of everlasting punishment, so called because it stems principally from the theology of Augustine, who is said to be the father of the western Church. 3 This tradition assumes the vast majority of the human race will never be saved. This is based on passages such as, “Narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Mt. 7:14). But is this what Christ meant by these words? This book presents strong evidence why this could not be what Christ and the Apostles taught.
Most Christians have not fully thought through the serious implications of this tradition. In essence, it teaches that an all-powerful and loving God has created a world knowing full well the majority of His creation would spend eternity in suffering. How can this be?
Although this is what tradition assumes, most Christians, in their heart of hearts, do not embrace it. In Hell Under Fire, Daniel Block, professor of systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, wrote, “The traditional doctrine of hell now bears the marks of odium theologium—Its defenders are seemingly few.” 4 Though its defenders may be few, the doctrine itself continues to terrorize millions.
The tradition that an all-knowing, all-loving, and all-powerful God would create a world where the majority of His human creatures are destined to spend eternity in suffering is incomprehensible. What greater horror has the world ever known?
These people draw near with their mouths and honor Me with their lips, but have removed their hearts far from Me, and their fear toward Me is taught by the commandment of men.
What is this passage saying? It is warning us about a fear toward God taught by the commandment of men. Could Augustine's teaching on hell be just such a commandment? Certainly, it removes our hearts far from God! Can we honestly say our affection toward God has not been influenced by this horrid doctrine? Has the thought that God might punish you or your loved ones forever in hell ever hindered your love toward Him?
This tradition seriously affects our understanding of God, including our whole outlook on life and how we relate to people. Do we not reflect, at least to a degree, the character of the God we worship? If we think seriously about the implications of this teaching, it will lead to certain undeniable conclusions as mentioned above.
Confronting Our Tradition
A tradition begins when someone's interpretation (in this case Augustine's) is accepted by others and passed down through the generations. How many Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, and Christians hold to beliefs solely because they have been passed down to them? Should we not critically evaluate for ourselves our traditions? “Test all things; hold fast what is good” (1Th. 5:21). “Why do you not judge for yourselves what is right” (Lu. 12:57)? Christ strongly warns us about our traditions (Mt. 15:3, 6, 9). Perhaps you have struggled with hell as I have. Maybe you have longed that somehow, in this case, tradition is wrong. If so, read on. But before starting, let us consider one important point.
The Bible has been translated from ancient tongues and cultures by men who carry their own ideas into their translations. They cannot help reading the ancient manuscripts through the lens of their personal theology. They are only human. Since most have held the doctrine of eternal torment, they unwittingly filtered all they translated from that mindset. That is why we must constantly be on our guard, like the Bereans (Ac. 17:11), comparing Scripture with Scripture based on the original Greek and Hebrew words. It is naïve and irresponsible not to do so.
Unless God gives us ears to hear, the Bible will remain a mystery (Pr. 20:12; Lu. 8:8). For unless He opens our minds and hearts, we toil in vain. “For our sufficiency is from God and not of the letter…for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2Co. 3:5, 6). The Ku Klux Klan are known to have based their evil actions on the “letter” of Scripture, but did they know its Spirit? 5 “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2Ti. 2:15). To help you rightly divide the word of truth, I submit the following basic principles of interpretation for your consideration:
¨ Pray for understanding.
¨ Trust Scripture to interpret Scripture rather than commentaries.
¨ Remember that the ancient eastern custom was to use language in the most vivid possible way. 6
“Are you not therefore mistaken, because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God” (Mk. 12:24)? I encourage you to meditate on the Scriptures presented in this study, for they focus strongly on God's power. Follow the example of the Bereans, who were “more noble” than the rest, for they did not just take someone's word for it, but searched it out for themselves (Ac. 17:11). To do this you will need a concordance listing words according to Greek usage, not English. I highly recommend the The Word Study Concordance, by George Wigram and Ralph Winter. You do not need to know Greek to use it. Winter explained:
The Word Study Concordance traces not English but Greek words. You can find listed every passage where a given Greek word occurs regardless of how many different ways it may be translated into English. Even the best lexicons are basically some scholar's reflections on the data drawn from a concordance. Once you have read these Bible passages yourself, you have acquired something no dictionary can easily give you—a certain instinctive feel for the word. You have become conditioned by the actual use of the word (which is the most normal and reliable way to learn any word in any language), not to equate it to some other word. Students often try to short-circuit this process and go directly to a lexicon. 7
We are blessed to have access to excellent Bible study tools enabling us to better understand God's Word. With a humble spirit and prayerful attitude, let us look intently into God's written revelation seeking to understand His character and purpose in His judgments. Let us now critically examine the foundation pillars that have made belief in everlasting punishment possible.