The Fate of the Lost

Alan Marshall – July 2004

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Jesus suffered, as a man, the punishment due to men. If the punishment due to sinful men is greater than what Jesus suffered, then either Jesus’ suffering was insufficient, or God is not truly just.

The notion that the lost will suffer endlessly is a distortion of Jesus’ teaching. Endless, conscious, suffering means infinite suffering, and even the best of bible teachers struggle to explain how a just God could treat finite beings that way. The point of view put forward in this essay is that while the state of the lost may, in a sense, be an endless one, the conscious suffering involved is limited to what justice demands.

Before we get into the heart of the essay, I would like to make some brief comments about the word “hell” and the meaning which has been placed upon it. The Old English word “hell” is in fact derived from pagan Norse mythology. It is inaccurately used in our bibles to translate the Aramaic place name Gehenna (referring to the Kidron Valley outside Jerusalem), and the Greek word Hades, which refers to the realm of the dead. In the Septuagint (Greek) old testament, Hades is used to translate a Hebrew term meaning “the grave”. It is the place where both the godly and the ungodly go when they die.

It seems to me that during the early centuries of the church, these terms began to be used interchangeably in reference to the developing concept of the unlimited suffering of the lost in the age to come. This led to a concept of God that was so terrifying that Christians sought comfort in human intermediaries such as Mary and the saints. As the church drifted ever deeper into spiritual darkness, the experience of a personal relationship with a loving God was almost totally lost.

In the movement known as the Reformation, Luther and others struggled to release the Christian world from this darkness, but even now, ghosts of that period haunt today’s churches. I am a member of an evangelical church, so the comments that follow, while challenging, are meant to be constructive. Based on my observation of modern evangelicals, I put the view that their concept of “hell” is so horrific and monstrous that, for all practical purposes, it is hypothetical and not part of their reality. They are taught that such a place exists, and then immediately told that because Christ has redeemed us, we need not give it another thought. I find it curious that evangelicals cannot tolerate any thought of this fate for themselves, yet they uncritically believe this is the fate of all those around them.

The Apostle Paul did not think like this. He speaks of the fate of the lost in terms of death and destruction, with some suffering also involved, but there is no reference to infinite or endless suffering in his writings. Unlike modern evangelicals, he could emotionally deal with the possibility of being lost himself. He says:

For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen, according to the flesh, who are Israelites … (Romans 9:3)

Paul could wish himself lost for the sake of his kinsmen. I wonder whether any evangelical bishop today could say the same regarding his own city?

Of course Paul was a sinner, and could not substitute for others, but Jesus could! Jesus did exactly what Paul contemplated – he was accursed, he endured “hell” so that others might be spared. Jesus was certainly fearful, so fearful that he sweated blood in anticipation, yet he could choose this suffering because it was not infinite, or endless, but just. The only difference between Jesus’ suffering and that of the lost is that Jesus’ suffering culminated in physical death. Though the lost may suffer in this life, for most of them the greater part of their suffering is associated with the “second death”.

The new testament everywhere speaks of the fate of the lost as “death”. Paul tells us “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23; see also Romans 1:32, 5:12, 6:16, 6:21, 7:5, 7:10-13). Jesus gave his life so that those who believe in him “shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16, “perish” means “to die”; see also Luke 13:3-5, John 10:28). Evangelicals distort the meaning of the word “death” in a vain attempt to soften their concept of “hell”. They teach that death means “separation from God”.  It does not! Death means the extinction of life. Therefore physical death is the extinction of physical life, and spiritual death is the extinction of spiritual life.

There are certainly a number of passages that describe the fate of the lost as everlasting, but I would argue that it is their state that is everlasting, not their suffering. That is, the sentence of death remains on the lost forever – they will never see life again.

In one of these passages, Jesus says he “will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire(Matthew 3:12). Notice that while the fire is unquenchable, the chaff is burned up, it is destroyed. The word that Jesus used for “hell” was “Gehenna”, referring to the valley of Kidron. The fires of that rubbish dump burned constantly, and consumed the bodies of those who had been executed.

The language that Jesus uses, when he speaks of fire that cannot be quenched and a worm that will not die, comes directly from his favourite book, the prophet Isaiah:

As the new heavens and the new earth that I make will endure before me," declares the LORD. "so will your name and descendants endure. From one New Moon to another and from one Sabbath to another, all mankind will come and bow down before me," says the LORD. "And they will go out and look upon the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind."  (Isaiah 66:22-24).

This remarkable passage describes eternity; it describes the new earth and it describes the lost. Note that the living look down upon the dead. The living think of these “dead bodies” as loathsome, but there is no suggestion that the dead continue to think or feel anything. Their state is simply an everlasting reminder to the living that God is holy and will not tolerate rebellion.

There are other passages we could look at, and perhaps I have done know more than just open up this subject for your examination. But there are two key passages we must study if we are to have a biblical perspective. The first passage reads:

Then Jesus began to denounce the cities in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. "Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No, you will go down to the depths If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you."  (Matthew 11:20-24).

The concept of “hell” taught by today’s evangelicals is so indescribably dreadful that any meaningful distinction between the fate of one group of unbelievers and another would seem impossible. Yet Jesus makes this distinction! Study the above passage carefully. God destroyed Tyre, Sidon and Sodom because if their wickedness. We do not expect to see the inhabitants of those cities in heaven. Jesus confirms that they will be judged, but says that it will be “more bearable” for those cities than for the unrepentant cities of his day. What Jesus is saying is that there will be justice and proportion in the judgements handed down at his judgement seat (cf. 2 Cor 5:10).

Jesus elsewhere makes distinctions among the saved when he speaks of rewards (eg. Matthew 5:12, 6:4). Consider the parable of the ten minas (Luke 19:11-19), where Jesus compares himself to a king returning from a distant land. The king says to one servant “take charge of ten cities”, and to another, “take charge of five cities”, according to their fruitfulness while he was away. Therefore it is no surprise if, in the cause of justice, Jesus makes distinctions among the lost.

Evangelicals cannot make such distinctions. They have no idea how Jesus will distinguish between Adolf Hitler and their next door neighbour, no idea how he will distinguish between those who have heard the gospel and those who have not, and no idea how he will distinguish between one who dies as an infant and one who dies after accumulating a lifetime of sins.

Let us look at the other key passage, a parable that clearly illustrates how those who reject the gospel are judged differently from those who have never heard it:

The master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know, and will cut him in pieces, and assign him a place with the unbelievers.
"And that slave who knew his master's will and did not get ready or act in accord with his will, will receive many lashes, but the one who did not know it, and committed deeds worthy of a flogging, will receive but few. From everyone who has been given much, much will be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more.  (Luke 12:46-48 NASB)

Those who have never received the word of God, will still be judged as sinners according to the testimony of their conscience (cf. Romans 2:9-16), but they will not be guilty of rejecting Christ, and not be complicit in his murder. They will receive “few lashes”. Take a moment to let that phrase sink in. These people are being punished for their sins – they are not saved – but they receive (metaphorically speaking) only a FEW lashes.

These two key passages are surely sufficient to leave in tatters the evangelical doctrine of endless suffering for all die outside of Christ. I am not pretending to have all the answers, or to have explained every verse to your satisfaction. It is enough if I have alerted you to the appalling complacency of evangelicals on this issue, for it is only one of many important doctrines of the Christian faith where they claim to be biblical, but are in reality doing no more than parrot poor teaching handed down from one generation to the next.

In place of the defective evangelical view, I suggest we seriously consider the one I have briefly outlined above. It is not an original view, but is one shared by a minority of Christians mostly outside the mainstream churches.

Unlike the evangelical doctrine, this view takes the word “death”, from Genesis to Revelation, at face value, meaning the extinction of life. It takes the word “destruction” at face value, meaning elimination, the loss of all identity.

Following the warnings given by Jesus, his apostles, and the old testament prophets, this view sees the destruction suffered by wicked cities in the old testament as models of the destruction of the wicked at the end of the age (eg. Jude 7)

It sees this destruction as a process that is not over in an instant, but nor is it endless. As with the cities of old, it is the most wicked that will undergo the greatest suffering.

This view fits perfectly with the “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” justice of the law of Moses (Leviticus 24:20, Matthew 5:38). That law maintained a sense of proportionality and put a limit on personal retribution. It would be strange if it did not reflect God’s character, who I believe also has a sense of fairness and proportionality in his justice, in keeping with his many declarations to reward or punish men “according to their deeds” (Psalm 28:4, Isaiah 59:18, Jeremiah 17:10, Ezekiel 36:19, Matthew 16:27, Romans 2:6, Revelation 2:23).

This view fits perfectly with the distinctions Jesus makes among the lost. Because punishment is not unlimited, it can be more “bearable” for some than for others. There can be “many lashes” for some, while for others there are “few”.

This view easily resolves the question of the fate of infants, so problematic for evangelicals. If adults with no knowledge of the gospel receive “few” lashes, it is a fairly logical extension to hold that children of unbelievers who die before they reach an age of responsibility receive no lashes at all. As they are born in sin (Psalm 51:5) they are under sentence of death, but it is a death that involves no suffering. (If only the early Rome-centred church had understood this, there would never have been a mad panic to baptise infants, and the church today would not be divided over infant baptism.)

Punishment in this age is meant to lead sinners to repentance. Eternal punishment, which would perhaps be better translated “the punishment of the age to come”, is everlasting in the sense that it is irreversible. It is symbolised by an unquenchable fire that burns long after it has effected its punishment and completed its destruction of the enemies of God. The fire is a perpetual reminder of the consequences of rebellion and an everlasting testimony of how great is our deliverance in Christ. The Israelites were never to forget their deliverance from Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea. They remembered it every Sabbath. Similarly, throughout eternity God’s children will remember what they have been delivered from.

I am not asserting that this view accurately reflects all that the bible has to say on the subject. That is to big a call for me, and is something that I think ultimately needs to be reviewed by church leaders. However I do support the view as worthy of serious examination. If correct, it presents a picture of God who is truly just in his punishment of the wicked, and who is also just in sending his Son to suffer punishment for the redeemed truly equivalent to the punishment they have been spared.

At this point, some of you may feel a little confused. That’s not surprising – this is potentially a theological sea-change. Remember that Jesus has promised individuals and the church “seek and you shall find”. If we can but admit our ignorance, his Spirit is only too willing to instruct us. Fortunately we are saved by grace and not by our knowledge! Otherwise the church would be in even deeper trouble.

So be challenged, be encouraged. His Spirit and his truth will prevail!

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