[Note: This is a sample chapter from “God’s Gift to Humanity: Hell or Reconciliation?” Is the doctrine of universal reconciliation heretical and false?]
Biblical scholars from days past and days present have written about their advocacy of the doctrine of eternal conscious torment. Dr. Sawyer built a collection of quotes and resources spoken or written by great theologians regarding their advocacy of this doctrine. I augment those quotes and resources from current contemporary Biblical scholars. The torments of the doctrine have been fairly expressed in this work. The Internet is a great conduit to the sermons, editorials and thoughts of those advancing the doctrine. As Dr. Sawyer hoped in 1879 I hope in this century that the words used to describe the tortures put upon unrepentant men will cause many to stop and reconsider the doctrine.
We have discussed the doctrines of total depravity, probation, infant salvation and eternal conscious torment. They are all linked. We looked at the theological principles of Calvinism and of Arminianism as they relate to the doctrine of eternal conscious torment. We’ve examined dozens of scriptures that are convincing that God’s will is that all will be reconciled to Him; universal reconciliation. Even if these scriptures do not convince you completely, I pray, they, at least, give you pause. If there is even a doubt the traditional doctrine of eternal conscious torment is flawed, then it should not be preached as if it were true.
Eternal conscious torment and universal reconciliation are theological doctrines and they are contradictory. Both doctrines cannot be simultaneously true. However, good men and women believe with their whole hearts in God’s ultimate redemption of all. Good men and women believe just as completely in the doctrine of eternal punishment and all that comes with that.
There should not be a division between the advocates of eternal conscious torment and the advocates of universal reconciliation. We are brothers after all. We share the same belief in the same Gospel. Unfortunately, the two sides are far apart. In the eyes of the scholars and advocates of eternal conscious torment the advocates of universal reconciliation are engaged in heresy. How did we get here? How is it honorable, educated men; men seeking righteousness, come to such a degree of disagreement?
Tommy Clayton is a Content Developer and Broadcast Editor. He has written an article for the Grace To You website in which he declares eternal conscious torment is hell. 1 Hell is real justice and provable in Scripture. He speaks roughly of persons holding an opposing view that the atoning sacrifice of Christ Jesus is so powerful that all persons ever created will be reconciled to God. Mr. Clayton makes a distinction between people who believe as he does and those who disagree with the doctrine he advocates. He writes, “Others hold to a form of Universal-ism that holds out the false hope that hell is not the final destination for sinners. In their view, God’s redeeming work doesn’t stop at death. God will eventually reconcile every creature to Himself—yes, even those in hell.”
Advocates of universal reconciliation do not believe in hell. Men will not be redeemed from a place that does not exist. Mr. Clayton’s advocates a hell that is eternal conscious torment. Advocates of universal reconciliation believe what God tells us in His Holy Word. It is no different for the advocates of eternal conscious torment.
We differ on interpretations of hell. Hell is an unseen place. It means a grave. It could be the word for pit. I think Mr. Clayton presumes to know much about what advocates of universal reconciliation believe about hell. Mr. Clayton reports that “God’s redeeming work” stops at death. I think Mr. Clayton is speaking about the death of a man. Once that man passes to death the chance for redemption is passed, too. A physically dead man is redeemed because he believed in Christ Jesus while alive. If not redeemed while alive there is no chance for redemption from eternal conscious torment in hell.
Advocates of universal reconciliation examine scripture from the Old Testament to refute the idea that God’s redeeming work stops at death. Ecclesiastes 12 speaks to our need to remember God, our Creator. We should have no pleasure in the evil days we live in. There will come a time when life will be a burden. Skies will be darkened. There will be a time when laborers are few and warriors are weak. Blindness, a weakening of sight overcomes all eventually. We become fearful our days are waning. Things that are precious to us in this temporal world become of little consequence. Then comes the end when “the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” (Ecclesiastes 12:7)
These verses are as valid for us today as they were for the Israelites then. No matter how difficult or how easy our lives are all men will die. Shall we say God’s Word applies only to the Israelites? I doubt that is a good idea. It is clear God’s redeeming work has been done on earth through Christ Jesus as all spirits return to the One Who created them.
Mr. Clayton cites another evangelist, John Blanchard. Mr. Blanchard opens his argument against the doctrine of universal reconciliation. He writes, “The idea that those who go there [ECT in hell] will eventually be released and join the rest of humanity in heaven has not a shred of biblical evidence to support it.” He impugns the character of millions of persons who disagree with him by claiming their belief “is in a fairy tale.”
Mr. Clayton then suggests the advocates of universal reconciliation have fallen into a trap set by the devil. Mr. Clayton presumes his interpretation of scripture is superior to the interpretation of others. He declares with certainty the Holy Word of God clearly defines eternal conscious torment. Mr. Clayton would have the world believe that advocates of universal reconciliation are deceived by no less than Satan. The advocates of universal reconciliation declare with equal certainty the Holy Word of God proves their doctrine is true. Mr. Clayton’s views are shared by hundreds of thousands, even millions, of traditionalist Christians. Calvinist theologians, Arminian theologians, Orthodox theologians all agree that God is not love. Or, at the very least runs out of love.
Mr. Clayton is right to say, though, Satan does have the ability to deceive good folks. The traditionalist is so certain of his doctrine of eternal conscious torment that he gives himself license to judge someone who disagrees with him on that doctrine. Advocates of universal reconciliaiton recall Christ’s cautionary words. “You will be judged by the measure you judge others.”
Nearly every major denomination in the Western world and beyond advocates eternal conscious torment and they call it hell. Wikipedia lists the major denominations by numbers of members. 2 In America the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has a reported 15 million members. The National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc. (NBC-USA) consists of 7.5 million members. Calvinist churches combined call 55 – 85 million people members. Among the Calvinist churches are Presbyterians. Pentecostalism worldwide consists of 280 million people of which the Assembly of God (AoG) claim 65 million. These are but a few of the thousands of divisions among believers and denominations. Denominational-ism is not a good thing. It is the thing of traditions.
The SBC met in Phoenix, Arizona in 2011. They met to define their position on the doctrine of eternal conscious torment in response to Rob Bell who had written a very popular book entitled “Love Wins.” The SBC resolved and affirmed their “belief in the biblical teaching on eternal, conscious punishment of the unregenerate in hell.” 3 They advocate and strongly exhort “Southern Baptists to proclaim faithfully the depth and gravity of sin against a holy God, the reality of hell, and the salvation of sinners by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ Jesus alone, to the glory of God alone.”
The NBC-USA publishes their statement of beliefs at their website. They advocate eternal conscious torment and speak directly to “The World to Come.” 4 They affirm “the wicked will be adjudged to endless punishment, and the righteous to endless joy, and that this judgment will fix forever the final state of men in heaven or hell….”
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) hosts a membership of nearly 4 million people. ELCA is a liberal denomination. In 2011 they completed a conference with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and published the outcome. 5 Item 37 defines the position regarding hell they agreed upon. “The wicked are separated from God in death: If you believe from the witness of the divine word that the souls of the saints are in heaven, you also have to believe as well that the souls of the wicked are in hell.” The conference also concludes in the same publication that the saving or redeeming work of God does not end at death as do other denominations. In ELCA’s doctrines there remains hope after death that follows the Catholic concept of purgatory.
The United Methodist Church (UMC) claims a membership of 15 million souls. Their denomination has asofter view of hell and what happens to people after death. They write, “The traditional Christian view has always been that those who believe will share eternal joy with God in heaven, while those who refuse God’s love suffer endless separation from God.” It could be said that to “…suffer endless separation from God…” 6 could be eternal torment. The doctrine of the UMC is only different from other Western churches in the degree of suffering.
Presbyterians, Pentecostals, Independent congregations and a myriad of smaller denominations advocate the doctrine of eternal conscious torment for the unrepentant rebel. Some soften the language. Some are more vocal and vehement in their assertions that God is not willing to save all. Others play around the edges and avoid the subject.
That’s where we are. We disagree and in disagreement accusations and arguments develop. The proponents of eternal conscious torment vigorously defend their doctrine even at the cost of dissociating themselves from their brothers in Christ. Where do the divisions start? Hard to say for sure, but a main cause of friction between them starts in the ways in which God’s Holy Word is translated. Every division, however, is likely rooted in “traditions of men.”
Leave the doctrine of eternal conscious torment aside for a moment. Consider all the other divisions that have been built up by good Christian men and women. Leaders of denominations and congregations cannot agree on a multitude of doctrines. Each leader will expound on theories and theologies developed by other leaders who developed theories and theologies based on men they studied.
The purest early Christian church was remarkably simple. There was a person known to the congregation as an authority and that person led the community of believers. This role was originally held by the Apostles. The church grew so large that Peter and the others could not adequately lead the church. There were factions growing between the Jews who lived in Israel and the Jews who lived in Greece, but stayed on in Jerusalem after Christ’s ascension. Barnabas may have been among this group. The Apostles appointed others to serve and to fill the unmet needs of the community. Stephen was among this group. Early on there is a division developing in the church. This one in the form of privilege. Organic Jews were seemingly better treated than foreign Jews. Divisions formed one upon another until we come to today and there are divisions within divisions. The church first formed in Jerusalem would look nothing like congregations today.
It is impossible to say the biases of the many scholars have not made their way into Bible translations, doctrines and traditions. There are divisions in the church over which translation is truly the “Authorized Version.” God fearing men will consciously and even conspicuously disdain any other believer who does not follow their Bible interpretation exclusively. There is a core of dedicated Christian believers who are convinced the King James Version (translation) of the Bible is the only “authorized version.” There are believers trusting modern translations as infallible forgetting that the Bible they are reading was published for the purpose of making money through sales. Some of those are copyrighted and the owners will not allow the use of their translations for commercial purposes even though they did not write the Bible themselves.
There is a certain Truth. That Truth is Light. That Truth destroys darkness. That Truth is in every person ever created. Jesus told His Disciples that the Holy Spirit would cause them to remember all He had taught them. The “Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and will remind you of all that I said to you.”
I think it is provable that the traditions of men block or distort the teaching of the Holy Spirit. It is provable in the fact brothers and sisters have segregated themselves into denominations and congregations. The Holy Spirit still “teaches all.” For a time the traditions of men try to overwhelm the Truth. The Truth cannot be overpowered by the traditions of men. The traditions of men will be exposed by the Truth.
Paul describes to Timothy what the world looked like during his era. Paul pointed out there were charlatans everywhere. Paul told Timothy that there were men in the world making a profit on the Word of God. But he said, “Every Scripture is God-breathed and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work”(2 Timothy 3:16-17).
“Hold fast!” Paul says. We know what is true because it is the Holy Spirit teaching us all. “All scripture is inspired by God.” It is the Spirit of God that teaches us all. He is not a God of confusion, yet men have distorted His inspired word in many ways. Men use God’s inspired Word to persuade themselves and others that eternal conscious torment is indeed inspired by God. It is not. The doctrine of eternal conscious torment is a man made tradition that has been elevated to scriptural fact in orthodox Christendom. The doctrine is weak, but it carries a great deal of weight in the Western world.
The scholars have written volumes regarding every imaginable spiritual lesson to be gleaned from God’s Holy Word. Scholars have written studied theses and have been rebutted by other scholars of scripture. There is a lack of agreement between men and their various traditions, but on the doctrine of eternal conscious torment the level of agreement is very nearly universal. Eternal conscious torment is a doctrine that should be discussed openly and disputed. I have maintained that if there is even a remote possibility that ECT is a false doctrine it should not be preached.
Biblical scholars will go a long way to “prove” the doctrine is a fact. I have talked with Pastors after sermons in which they declare in certain terms that the unbeliever will suffer God’s undying wrath in eternal conscious torment. They buttress the doctrine with poorly developed answers. They’ll cite the same passages of scripture that advocates of universal reconciliation use to disprove the false doctrine. Their explanations fall short.
Bible translations are almost too numerous to count. It’s important to remember, though, Bibles have publishers. Publishers want to sell books, even Bibles. It’s a profit motive for them. In 1983 I purchased my first Bible. I still have it and I refer to it often. It is an early edition of the New International Version (NIV). The NIV New Testament was completed in 1973. This version was touted to be easier to read, that much of the arcane language in the King James Version was replaced with up to date language. In the preface of the Bible I purchased it says this: “As in other ancient documents, the precise meaning of the Biblical texts is sometimes uncertain. …Although archaeological and linguistics discoveries in this century aid in understanding difficult passages, some uncertainties remain.”
I’ve looked at several translations. For a long while I was naive in my thinking that all the translations were precisely the same, but only the presentation varied among them. I have since learned that the versions omit scripture verses and poorly translate Greek or Hebrew words to common language. Much of what makes it into a Bible translation are the biases of the men producing it. I openly declare I know little to nothing about Greek, Hebrew or Aramaic. If I had to diagram a sentence in English I’d probably be stymied after identifying the subject and predicate. I am dependent on the scholarship of others to translate and to interpret the meanings of words in these foreign tongues. I am not alone. Translators have biases. Their prejudices are reflected in their work. If they are looking for eternal punishment their translations of original texts will find it. If they approve of a particular doctrine their interpretations will uncover proof for that doctrine.
What, then, am I to do when translations and interpretations of God’s Holy Word do not agree, especially, on a doctrine as critical as eternal conscious torment? It is not that difficult to solve this problem. Literal translations of the original texts are readily available. Young’s Literal Translation and The Concordant Literal Version are excellent word for word translations. The World English Bible is an excellent resource that was deliberately produced and put into the Public Domain so others could employ scripture without fear of violating copyright laws.
Gerry Beauchemin provides his insight regarding the Concordant Literal Version. In his book, Hope Beyond Hell, Mr. Beauchemin parses the meaning of “aion” deliberately, delicately and forthrightly. “Aion” does not mean “everlasting” or “forever and ever.” It means for an age, an eon, a specified length of time with a beginning and an end. Only God is eternal…without a beginning and without end.
For me, this revelation changed my belief in eternal conscious torment. Because I came to a better understanding of the word I am better able to understand the Word. I give honor and glory to God Who never fails, never ceases to love and whose mercies are fresh every day.
As for me and for my house we will love the Lord. There is no force powerful enough to cause the love of the Father to reject any of His children, much less design a wrathful judgment as described by those holding fast to the doctrine of eternal conscious torment. It is my prayer all who read this book will find reason to pause and consider their personal theology and reject this awful and hateful doctrine.
2“List of Christian Denominations by Number of Members.” Wikipedian. Publication date unknown.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Christian_denominations_by_number_of_members. Date accessed: 04/02/2018.
3“On the Reality of Hell.” A Resolution of the Southern Baptist Convention. Phoenix, AZ. 2011 http://www.sbc.net/resolutions/1214/on-the-reality-of-hell, Date accessed: 04/02/2018.
4“What We Believe: Articles of Faith.” National Baptist Conventions U.S.A. Inc. Publication date not known. http://www.nationalbaptist.com/about-us/what-we-believe.html. Date accessed: 04/02/2018.
5Lowell G. Almen and Richard J. Sklba. “The Hope of Eternal Life: Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue XI.” Lutheran University Press. Minneapolis. MN. Publication date not known. http://download.elca.org/ELCA Resource Repository/The_Hope_of_Eternal_Life.pdf. Date accessed: 06/07/2018.
6“What Happens After A Person Dies.” The United Methodist Church. Publication date unknown. http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/what-happens-after-a-person-dies. Date accessed: 04/02/2018.