Salvation and Damnation
When we come to an understanding of a theology wherein Jesus Christ acts as our personal saviour, we must then come to an appreciation of what it is we have been saved from. Most in the church today would see this fate as “Hell” the state of eternal punishment which we are all in default of attaining as a consequence of our inherent sinful nature. In the minds of many Christians today, this state of eternal punishment is nothing less than pure, everlasting torment; a conscious, never-ending state of agony which is unimaginable. This doctrine, quite well established within the church’s core belief system, seems to have polarised public opinion as being either completely acceptable or absolutely repugnant. “What kind of God,” it is asked, “would subject any human being, whom He is supposed to love unconditionally, to an eternity of unquenchable fire?” The argument from the more traditionalist wing of Christendom (and one to which I subscribed myself for a good while) is that while God is loving, He is also perfectly just and as such cannot make an allowance for reconciliation to someone who has outright rejected the salvation He has provided in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus. This sacrifice, while available to all humanity, can only be made effective by the faith of the individual. Additionally, since all human beings are deserving of Hell to begin with, it is argued, there is no obligation on God’s part to save any of us, and does so purely out of unfathomable grace.
This explanation, while making good theological sense in the minds of some, does not sit wholly well with others. A vocal minority exists in complete diametric opposition to the theology of eternal suffering, those who subscribe to a belief known as “Universalism.” While not exclusive to the ranks of Christianity, the Trinitarian Universalist maintains the idea that Christ’s sacrifice is the only means by which humanity is saved, but that this sacrifice is also sufficient to atone for the sins of all humanity, to the extent that everyone will eventually be saved by the cross.
I am wondering if there might be a cause for exploring a theology which falls somewhere between the two extremes, and what better place to begin than the nature of Hell itself? After all, Jesus speaks more of Hell than any other New Testament figure, and if anyone should know about the subject then it would most definitely be Him.
Matthew 5:22 (ESV)
But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.
Matthew 5:29-30 (ESV)
If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.
Historical context is important when considering passages like these. In every usage of “Hell” here (which, bearing in mind, is quite a modern term), the literal Greek term is “Gehenna.” Wikipedia, that good old reliable source of information (!), has this to say:
“The word traces to Greek, ultimately from Hebrew: גי(א)-הינום Gêhinnôm (also Guy ben-Hinnom (Hebrew: גיא בן הינום) meaning the Valley of Hinnom’s son. The valley forms the southern border of ancient Jerusalem and stretches from the foot of Mt. Zion, eastward, to the Kidron Valley. It is first mentioned in Joshua 15:8. Originally it referred to a garbage dump in a deep narrow valley right outside the walls of Jerusalem (in modern-day Israel) where fires were kept burning to consume the refuse and keep down the stench. It is also the location where bodies of executed criminals, or individuals denied a proper burial, would be dumped. In addition, this valley was frequently not controlled by the Jewish authority within the city walls; it is traditionally held that this valley was used as a place of religious child-sacrifice to Moloch by the Canaanites outside the city.”
Indeed, the Book of Jeremiah speaks of Hebrews from Jerusalem having worshipped the pagan god Moloch and committing all manner of abominations:
…and go out to the Valley of the Son of Hinnom at the entry of the Potsherd Gate, and proclaim there the words that I tell you. You shall say, ‘Hear the word of the LORD, O kings of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem. Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Behold, I am bringing such disaster upon this place that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle. Because the people have forsaken me and have profaned this place by making offerings in it to other gods whom neither they nor their fathers nor the kings of Judah have known; and because they have filled this place with the blood of innocents, and have built the high places of Baal to burn their sons in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, which I did not command or decree, nor did it come into my mind– therefore, behold, days are coming, declares the LORD, when this place shall no more be called Topheth, or the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter.
The site of Gehenna, then, had a clear reputation as being a sinister place. After its sordid association with pagan child sacrifices, it became a garbage landfill as well as a dumping ground for the bodies of executed criminals. To be denied a proper burial and thrown into this site of burning was a very disgraceful fate, and this was known to all in the Jerusalem area and perhaps even onwards into the other parts of Palestine. Though Jesus’ usage of the imagery of Gehenna is often believed to be a metaphor for the intense suffering a person would endure throughout eternity as the wages of sin, it does seem that His disciples would have known exactly what He was talking about. While Jesus may not have literally inferred that everyone found guilty in the eyes of God would actually be thrown into the Gehenna area, He was at least speaking of the complete and disgraceful judgement a person faced if they were in Sin. What is interesting to note is the Markan version of Jesus’ warnings in Matthew 5:
And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’
The statement on which Jesus ends this warning is a direct citation from Isaiah, just after the portrait of a new heaven and a new earth is given:
“And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.”
The passage here, which Jesus had in mind for at least one teaching on Hell, clearly states that those who have suffered the judgement are dead. They are subject to unquenchable fire and undying worm, but they are not experiencing them. They are merely a representation of the condemned’s disgrace in judgement, having been separated from God. Jesus seems to affirm this elsewhere:
And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell (Gehenna).
It would seem that the Hell of which Jesus speaks is not one of eternal torment, but rather complete and utter destruction. Salvation from death is an important theme running all the way through the New Testament. “Whoever believes in Him will not perish but will have everlasting life.” (John 3:16) “If you do not repent, then you will likewise perish.” (Luke 13) Beyond the Gospels themselves, the New Testament writers affirm that death, not eternal suffering, is the natural consequence of our Sin nature (Romans 6:23, for example).
Some Biblical passages problematic to the theology of what we might call “Annihilationism” include the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16, where Lazarus finds salvation and the rich man finds himself in a state of agony in “Hades.” Remembering first and foremost that this scripture is indeed a parable and therefore not meant to convey exact reality, but uses hyperbole to convey a moral principle. The vital clue is also that Hades, another Greek term translated as Hell in many modern Bibles, was understood to be a state of “covering,” of oblivion in which the dead experienced nothing, much like the “Sheol” (grave) of Old Testament theology.
The conclusion I personally draw is that eternal life is not the opposite of eternal suffering, but rather eternal destruction. Death is the default fate of every living creature, and Hell signifies the state of complete annihilation faced if a person remains subjected to their own Sin nature. That Jesus Himself took the fate of death and was raised from it as atonement for Sin would seem to be confirmation of this idea, since we ourselves conquer death with Jesus, being raised from it by our faith in Him.
If the state of condemnation is eternal destruction away from the presence of God, then one is left to wonder who suffers such a judgement. The popular interpretation of Biblical theology is that only those who firmly accept Christ Jesus are saved from this fate, since His sacrifice covers them. Does this mean, therefore, that only Christians are admitted into eternal life?
Obviously, the one who has faith in Christ experiences a unique relationship with God which they then carry forward into the next life; can one who is without a relationship with the Living God have hope of being reconciled to Him at the end of the age? Certainly, our faith now in this lifetime is the assurance of our salvation.
There a number of factors, however, which lead me to think that the concept of Christian salvation may not be as black-and-white as the broader church would leave us to believe. The popular ideology, of course, is that faith in Christ alone is what grants salvation. But to what end? What are the key components of belief that one must have in order to be “saved?” We tend to build up such complicated theological treatises that sometimes it’s easy to forget that we actually had to learn all of it ourselves, whether by study or instruction from more mature Christians. At what point was it feasible to call us “saved?” Was it when we had enough courage to learn more about Christ? To say the sinner’s prayer? To start going to church every Sunday? To learn about the Holy Trinity?
The real problems apparent to me are firstly that very few non-Christians, at least in the modern developed world, seem to have an adequate grasp of what the Gospel truly is. Secondly, very few Christians themselves seem to have a good handle on the Gospel! So many times through history people who claim the faith of Christ have completely misrepresented that for which He stands, and even though some of us might consider ourselves to have a more stable set of values than some others throughout the ages, there still remains the problem that no human being in existence is adequately able to convey that which is infinite, since we ourselves are only finite. The temporary cannot convey the eternal with anything remotely resembling perfection. As we Christians believe in but an infinitesimal reflection of actual objective truth, so too will we only be able to reflect what we have now in an infinitesimal manner. Individual responsibility, then, may not necessarily be considered at fault if standing in rejection to the Gospel of Christ.
A scripture which strikes me as interesting in this respect is Matthew 25 where Jesus discusses the parable of the Sheep and the Goats. Whereas the Goats in this story plead with Jesus, asking Him why they are deserving of their fate, the Sheep actually seem quite bewildered that Jesus should be accepting them into His Kingdom at all. “As much as you did it to one of the least of my brothers, you did it to me,” says our Lord.
Now we should of course be careful that we do not push a works-based theology. Paul is very clear that salvation comes by faith alone; on the other hand, James quite clearly tells us that faith and works must necessarily operate together less the person’s faith be “dead.” The Lord says “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in His love.” (John 15:10) Likewise, He also says:
Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’
These passages alone seem to demonstrate to me that the concept of salvation by faith in Christ is not as 100% black and white as we often assume it to be. If a person who claims the faith of Christ may find condemnation, then is it not possible for a person who does not claim that same faith to one day find salvation?
Before I am thought to be arguing a case for religious pluralism, or that salvation can be attained by faith of any kind regardless of nature, let it be known that I fervently believe in salvation being preceded by a definite and affirmed faith in Christ as the perfect representation of Almighty God and the bearer of our sins. What troubles me is the dynamics which underpin such an affirmative decision. No two people live for exactly the same length of time, and people who find faith in Christ will reach it at many different ages. Some dedicate themselves to Christ at 10, some at 20, even others still when they are very advanced in age, and many might find faith moments before the curtain of death. Each person is subject to a unique individuality moulded by their own physical nature as well as the influence of their continually-varying environment, and the consequence of this finitude is that people often make decisions which seem unimaginable to them at any earlier point in their lives. If people have the capacity to reach faith at any given point in their existence, then the idea that definite salvation is only accorded by an affirmative faith in Christ prior to the point of death becomes quite problematic, especially if we acquaint ourselves with the reality that a finite vessel is not sufficiently capable of conveying the infinite nature of God.
What then, of those who have found themselves in an upbringing or an environment whereby they were unable to make the affirmative choice of Christian faith, or else did not have the infinite realms of the Transcendent adequately conveyed to them? The answer, I theorise, must come from purity of heart. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” as our Saviour says in Matthew 5:8. The heart of a person which seeks the ultimate or endeavours to love in a seemingly unreachable manner will eventually be led to the true principle behind all life and existence, which is Christ Jesus. He says Himself that the one who seeks will find. I am inclined to believe that God’s grace is not so confined or restricted by our own dogma that it cannot reach into the heart of a person who has faithfully sought to love. The human spirit has as much fallibility, it can be conceived, as to not directly perceive the working of Christ in its nature even if that working is present. Without wanting to condone salvation by works, it might at least be conceded that a non-Christian in this life who one day finds the salvation of God will not do so before they have genuinely confessed Jesus Christ as His one begotten Son and the author of reconciliation.
Now though it is within the capability and power of God to save all people, there must be some kind of restriction which stops this from occurring. That there will be at least some individuals who do not enter the final Kingdom of God is an undeniable scriptural reality, as we can see from Matthew 7:21 as well as many other references. This must come down to conditions of human responsibility, perhaps those which harden the heart to such an extent that it cannot accept the desire of reconciliation God holds towards all human beings who ever were and ever will be. Forgiveness is a quality which becomes effected by the willingness of a person to receive it, not because God withholds it. God’s sacrificial love toward the entire human race is a reality, but cannot result in reconciliation unless it is mutual, that is, desired by the individual. If by a state of hardened rebellion that person makes reconciliation impossible, then death and separation can be the only fate. This is, of course, not for a lack of supreme effort on the part of God Almighty:
And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities–all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
1 Corinthians 15:28
When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all.
Just some examples of the abundance of scriptures which make it clear that God’s gift of salvation from human mortality is available to all people without exception or condition. While there may not be a case for an absolute kind of Universalist theology, I would argue that the Bible certainly contains evidence that death itself will be crushed forever by the power of God even if it is not possible for all people to be saved. Once God has destroyed every enemy and put them under Her feet, then God will truly be “all in all.”
To conclude, there will be no enduring Hell containing the unending suffering of the condemned, who themselves have not found reconciliation with God due to a hardness of heart formed by their own moral responsibility and individuality. This portion of humanity will be destroyed, and afterward God will have reconciled all of creation to Himself.