by Bill Nugent
Various shades of universalism have recently surfaced as issues among conservative Evangelicals. Rob Bell, a megachurch pastor, has written a book titled Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Has Ever Lived. This article is not about Rob Bell’s book but is about the subject his book so pointedly brings up. It’s about the destiny of those who reject Christ and die in their sins.
Let me start out by saying that I reject universalism. I define universalism as the claim that no person ever goes to hell. I reject syncretism (the combination of Christianity with other religions). I reject pluralism (the claim that there are other paths to salvation besides Christ). I reject open theology (the claim that God is unknowing or to a degree powerless about the course of His creation). I reject pelagianism (the claim that salvation can be attained by good works). A proper understanding of the Bible, which is the inspired word of God, makes it clear that the above mentioned perspectives are false teachings.
Rob Bell’s book flirts with universalism and a few other evangelical leaders have gone further. This is unfortunate and reflects the general evangelical shift toward liberalism in recent decades. Similar to the way the medieval church infused Aristotelianism and Platonism into its doctrine, so the contemporary church embraces much liberal humanistic thinking. I don’t consider my position on the ultimate fate of the damned to be a compromise with liberalism.
To the point, let me humbly explain what the Bible actually teaches regarding the future condition of people who die in their sins and the duration of that condition. No biblical figure taught as much about hell as did Jesus. Jesus, in fact, taught more about hell than He taught about heaven. Perhaps one reason why Jesus taught so much about hell is because He was about to endure hell (the cross) for all mankind when He suffered and died for our sins.
Hell is punishment. Jesus taught that hell is burning fire (Mark 9:43-48). Jesus also taught about the duration or time factor of the punishment of hell. In Matthew 25:41 & 46 He taught that the duration of hell is age lasting. The Greek word used in these verses is “aionios” which means “age lasting.” Several other passages that describe the duration of torment such as Jude 1:13 and Revelation 14:11 use the very similar Greek word “aion” or its plural “aions” which mean “age” or “ages.”
Some say that “aionios” and “aion” can also mean “eternal” but I regard that as the result of historic and pervasive doctrinal bias. The early church leader, Origen, wrote about the ultimate reconciliation of the damned. Augustine, perhaps influenced by his Manichean background, taught endless torment. The Augustinian position prevailed but that in itself does not make endless torment the scriptural position. Endless torment was taught by the medieval Roman Catholic Church and the reformers also held to it. Bible translators almost certainly approached the Bible with a prior commitment to the concept of endless hell. This would explain why they expanded the semantic range of “aion” to mean not just “age” but also “eternity.”
Bible translations are rather inconsistent in their rendering of “aion.” In some verses of the New Testament it is rendered as “age,” in other places as “world” and in other places as “forever.”
The word, “aion” is where we get the English word “eon” and we all know that an eon or age is not endless. The New Testament uses the word “aion” in many contexts and phrases that clearly refer to limited time duration. Phrases such as “end of the age”(Mt.13:39 NAS), “the present age” (Mk. 10:30 NAS), and “the age to come” (Luke 18:30 NAS) show that the word aion, translated as age, means a limited time period.
The words “aion” and “aionios” are time words. “Aion” is a noun that means a period of time. “Aionios” is an adjective that is derived from “aion.” Many words are used to describe hell such as “fire,” “smoke” and “torment.” There is no relief from pain in hell. Mark 9:48 says “their worm dieth not” which refers to the fact that their souls do not die during the age lasting hell and this verse also says that “the fire is not quenched” so they can’t put out the fire to stop the pain during the time period in which they are in hell. Ordinary fire will burn a person’s body and kill him within minutes. The pain of the fire of hell is age lasting. That’s a long time. “Fire,” “torment,” and “worm” are not time words. The words that specifically describe the time duration of hell are “aion” and “aionios” which mean “age” and “age lasting.”
Jeremiah 7:20 and 17:27 warned Jerusalem that the wrath of God would come upon it as fire that would “not be quenched.” That period of unquenched fire lasted 70 years. The fire was the wrath poured out on Jerusalem during the 70 year captivity by the Babylonians. Seventy years is not eternity. The fire was not quenched for a time period of limited duration. My point is that the phrase, “the fire is not quenched” (Mk. 9:48), does not mean endless time.
The Old Testament equivalent of the Greek “aion” is the Hebrew “olam” and it is often mistranslated as “forever” or “eternal.” Olam has a broader meaning than the Greek “aion” but generally refers to time periods of limited duration. For instance, Jonah was in the belly of the great fish for three days but in Jonah 2:6 he called the time period “olam.” The word “olam” in Jonah 2:6 is rendered in most English translations of the text as “forever.” I guess if you’re trapped like Jonah was, three days can seem like forever!
Jeremiah 15:18 says “Why has my pain been perpetual [olam].” Jeremiah describes his pain as “olam” and it was clearly not eternal but “olam” is rendered as “perpetual” by the translators of the New American Standard Bible. Old Testament ceremonial ordinances are frequently described as “olam” in the Hebrew but are rendered “perpetual” or “forever” in our English Bibles. If we were literal legalists we would teach that we should still observe those Old Testament commands today. Clearly the word “olam” means “age” or “age lasting.”
The Old Testament gives an illustration of the fact that punishment is not endless. Isaiah 28:28 says that wheat will not be threshed forever. “Bread corn is bruised; because he will not ever [netsach] be threshing it.” Wheat is not threshed endlessly; neither are the lost. They suffer their flaming torment according to their sins but they don’t suffer endlessly.
First John 2:2 says of Christ “And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for our’s only, but also for the sins of the whole world.” Calvinists have a very strained interpretation of this verse when seeing it through the lens of their doctrine of limited atonement. (I’m a four point Calvinist by the way.) The Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement is the claim that Christ died for the sins of the elect only. The elect are those who are chosen by God for salvation.
Calvinists rightly argue that if Christ died for all people’s sins, not just for the sins of the elect, then all people will eventually be reconciled to God. Nevertheless, Calvinists generally reject ultimate reconciliation and teach limited atonement in spite of the clear message of I John 2:2. Prior commitment to the doctrine of endless torment is likely the reason why Calvinists essentially reject the plain scriptural statement that says that Jesus died for the sins of every person in the world.
Atonement is unlimited, which is to say that Christ died for the sins of all people but nevertheless, those who reject Christ go to hell. They are not saved from hell; they go through hell. They are ultimately reconciled to God through Christ at the end of their punishment in hell. That is not universalism. Universalism means everyone avoids hell. My position is not liberal. Theological liberalism has many pernicious shades of meaning but tends to eliminate hell or minimize the number of people who will ever enter hell. Let me emphasize that THE LOST GO THROUGH HELL and hell is hot!
First Timothy 4:10 says “we trust in the living God, who is the saviour of all men, specially of those who believe.” Those who believe in Christ are saved from ever going to hell. Those who reject Christ now, will go through hell after they die but Christ reconciles them at the end of hell. Notice that this verse gives a clear distinction between two classes of people. The two classes are both included in the group “all men” and the two groups are believers and unbelievers. God is the savior of both classes of people, just at different times. Those who believe are reconciled now; those who disbelieve are reconciled at the end of hell.
Hell will end. The Bible doesn’t tell us exactly how it will end but then again why should it? The duration of hell concerns the lost and I’m not lost. Some will joke and say that hell eventually freezes over but I care not to speculate. I’ll only say that the lost suffer their full punishment in hell and then come to the Father through Christ. At the end of hell, the lost are somehow given grace to turn to Christ. I don’t know the specifics of how that will happen.
J. Preston Eby, a prominent Bible teacher, Has said that the term “aion of the Aions” or “age of the ages” that appears in Ephesians 3:21 and elsewhere refers to a future superlative age. Just like the Bible phrase “king of kings” refers to the greatest king, so “age of the ages” could refer to the greatest age, a future age of greatest reconciliation of the lost at the end of hell. (The phrase “of the aion of the aions” is often mistranslated as “forever and ever”).
The Bible teaches that the lost will be in hell for the ages and those who are saved through faith in Christ are delivered from ever going to hell and will be alive in heaven for the ages. The New testament phrases such as “life everlasting” and “eternal life” and “live forever” contain the Greek words “aion” and “aionios.”
If our life in Christ is “age lasting” does that mean our lives in heaven will someday end? No, it merely acknowledges that we live for a period of time called “the ages” during which all things will be made subject to Christ in order that as First Corinthians 15:28 states: “that God may be all in all.” God will not be “all in some” or “some in all” but God will be “all in all.” All are eventually fully reconciled to God and all people will fully enjoy relationship with God at the end of the ages. Of course we will continue to live with God after the end of the ages!
First Corinthians 15:25-28 says that Christ must reign until He has subdued all things. Verse 26 says that “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” When death is destroyed all people will live! That means all people ultimately will be spiritually and physically alive and all people will be in reconciled relationship with God at the end of the ages.
You are given a choice. You can turn to Christ and live for the ages or you can reject Christ and die for the ages. At the end of the ages is the restitution of all things (Acts 3:21) when God becomes all in all. All people will live in reconciled relationship with God after the end of the ages.
I regard the concept of endless torment to be unscriptural. Endless torment is the extreme position. It is the theological novelty. It is a vestige of the medieval church. Think of it – a man would suffer flaming torment for a million, billion, trillion, quadrillion, quintillion years and still have eternal, endless torment ahead of him for sins committed in a 70 year lifetime! Is this the duration of punishment decreed by our God who is love?
The time periods under discussion in the New Testament are the ages, not endlessness. God is the God of the ages. God is also the God of Israel. It doesn’t mean that God is not the God of places other than Israel or that God is not the God of time other than the ages.
What I described in this article is not universal avoidance of hell. Ultimate reconciliation is not universalism. THE UNSAVED GO TO HELL! The unbelievers are not prevented from going to hell. The unbelievers go through hell. Hell lasts for ages. An age is a time period of limited duration but usually thought of as long duration. Hell may last 10,000 years or maybe just a few hundred. I don’t want to go there even for a minute. Thank God I’m saved!
Steps to salvation:
Jesus said “Ye must be born again” (John 3:7).
Prayer to receive salvation:
“Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Romans 10:13).
To receive the salvation that Jesus purchased for us at the terrible cost of His suffering and death on our behalf I invite you to pray this simple prayer:
“Dear heavenly Father, I thank you for sending Jesus, the promised Messiah, to die for my sins. I admit that I am a sinner. I repent of my sins and I ask for your forgiveness on the basis of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I ask you to fill me with your Holy Spirit to empower me to serve you under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, Amen.”
If you prayed this prayer in the humble sincerity of your heart then you have received everlasting life, which includes power to live right in this life and entrance into heaven in the afterlife!