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On hell and grace

  

I have been thinking for some time that the conditionalist/annihilationist understanding of hell (which is shared by several denominations as well as some individuals in mainstream denominations which might ‘officially’ hold the traditional view) is more in keeping with a Grace-based understanding of the Gospel than the traditional view.

One of the cornerstones of the Gospel is “God is love” and “God so loved that He gave … that we should not perish”. Another cornerstone is that God is gracious and it is His pleasure to give us the Kingdom.

The ‘annihilationist’ view of hell (i.e the wicked perish and cease to exist) together with the ‘conditional immortality’ view (i.e. that immortality is God’s gift and the soul is not inherently immortal) offer an understanding of life-after-death which is consistent with these foundations of Christianity (i.e. God’s love and graciousness).

In my view, the understanding of resurrection and life-after-death which is held by Adventists, the Church of God General Conference, Christadelphians, the Way International, Bible Students and others is not only a better interpretation of Scripture than the traditional views, but if presented well would also be more appealing to the large number of people who have trouble reconciling the idea of a loving God with eternal torments.

I was raised in a denomination that rightly understands ‘hell’ to be the grave, and not a place of fiery torments for immortal souls. Unfortunately, they often presented this understanding of life-after-death in a negative way:

* “Immortality of the soul is unscriptural”.
* “Christendom is astray from the Bible”.
* “The soul that sins will die”.

Lectures, booklets and the general presentation of the subject were sometimes slanted more to criticising other denominations and less towards offering hope. Presented negatively (attacking a doctrine which they reject) this approach has the majority of people perishing without hope, and only an elite (who have correctly understood this doctrine, and others) being saved from extinction.

But taught positively, the same doctrine emphasises a loving God Who wants everyone to be saved, Who makes it easy for us to be saved, Who empowers and enables us to do what it takes to be saved, and Who demonstrated His commitment to our salvation through His Son.

The same doctrine can be taught either as “your loved ones aren’t in heaven” (sad) or “no one is being tortured in hell” (great news!). It can be taught either as “God dislikes the world so much that only a handful of humanity will be deemed worth saving” or as “God loves the world so much that He will do anything so you can share eternity with Him”.

Same doctrine. Different packaging. One is grace-less, the other grace-based.

Let’s rescue the doctrine of the resurrection and teach it positively and well.

8 Responses to “On hell and grace”

  1. on 24 Sep 2007 at 7:43 amSean

    Steve,

    It is fascinating to hear how you talk about these things. We are from the opposite sides of the dogmatic rail road tracks. You are from the side that emphasized the truth and we have in the past tended to emphasize love. Of course what we need is both! It is so hard for those of us in the trenches to remain completely positive rather than being against orthodoxy especially considering the way they treat us. Once our people are discovered as being non-trinitarian we are ejected from churches, deleted from message boards, told that we aren’t Christians, etc. It is really hard in this atmosphere to not respond in kind, to not lash out in hurt, but to instead declare the truth in love.

  2. on 24 Sep 2007 at 11:50 amjoshuag

    is the second death in the lake of fire one that will last forever? rev 21:8
    If not, i would ask if the translation of forever is the same one as we will inherit the earth forever?

    Why would god create two different eternal bodies for life after death?

  3. on 24 Sep 2007 at 6:20 pmSteve

    joshuag,

    The words “for ever and ever” in Rev 20:10 (referring to the tormenting of the beast and false prophet in the lake of fire and sulfur) literally mean “for the ages of the ages” and is an indefinite period of time. It does NOT necessarily mean “of endless duration”.

    I think we should keep in mind that Revelation contains a great deal of symbolic language, and I would personally caution against interpreting the lake of fire literally. My reason would be that in Rev 20:14 “death and hell [hades]” are also cast into the lake of fire. How does one throw “death” anywhere? Or “hades” for that matter? To me the interpretation which makes the best sense of this is that death and hell/hades will be completely eradicated. The symbol of a lake of fire was no doubt based on the continuous burning of the fires in Jerusalem’s rubbish dump in the Valley of Hinnom, commonly known as Gehennna. It is an appropriate symbol to describe how death and hades will be completely eradicated.

    I guess we could say that the EFFECT of the fire is permanent, but not the fire itself.

    On the other hand, the Bible says that the righteous will inherit the earth “for ever” or “for the age/ages”. To me this suggests that we will inherit the earth for a period of unknown duration, and beyond this we do not know where our place will be. What we do know is that we will be immortal, incorruptible and imperishable (1 Cor 15:52-54).

  4. on 24 Sep 2007 at 6:32 pmSteve

    Sean,

    It’s interesting that we approach this from different perspectives, coming as you have rightly said from different sides of the tracks. My background was in a denomination that was dogmatic, sometimes arrogantly so, confrontational and quarrelsome. We rarely made friends in the mainstream churches because we would rather argue with them! Consequently we missed out on seeing and experiencing a lot of the good things that they were seeing and experiencing.

    I love your expression “declare the truth in love”. I have found from experience that when we get alongside Christians in other traditions and listen to each other that we will often find common ground from where to explore subjects like the divinity and humanity of Jesus and will sometimes find more agreement than we might have expected. However, if we simply start from a trinitarian/non-trinitarian confrontational position we probably won’t make much progress at all.

  5. on 24 Sep 2007 at 8:23 pmSean

    Indeed. It is somewhat strange for me to reconcile what you have said (though of course I do believe you) with the apparent respectful and temperate attitude demonstrated by the two Christadelphians who carried out this debate against evangelicals on the issue of the Trinity.

    Anyhow, I wonder if you have made any progress on approaching other mainstream Christians on the issue of christology. If so, how did you start the conversation? Perhaps people are different in Australia, but over here questioning the Trinity is dismissed immediately as heretical (or even blasphemous). (listen to my frustration over discussing this on message boards here). At any rate, I don’t dispute your attitude regarding this. I am in complete agreement that we need to demonstrate grace and love especially to other Christians who differ on our view of Jesus.

  6. on 24 Sep 2007 at 8:41 pmjoshuag

    how does one defeat death?
    So you don’t believe we live here on earth in the kingdom forever even after christ hands it off to almighty God?

  7. on 26 Sep 2007 at 2:13 amSteve

    joshuag,

    I personally feel that the Bible is pretty clear about the Age to Come and that “the meek will inherit the earth”. However, I don’t think the Bible says much, if anything, about what happens AFTER the coming Age (commonly called “the millenium”) and whether we will live here or be as the angels in heaven.

    Death has been defeated in Christ. Those who take part in the first resurrection will not die again (Rev 20:6). The Bible also uses terms like “immortal”, “incorruptible” and “imperishable” to describe the condition of the resurrected saints. We know from the passages that use these terms that for the faithful “eternal life” (literally “life of the Age”) and living “for ever” (literally “for the Age”) means never dying again. The flip-side of the same coin means that those who do “perish” will perish permanently. Being tortured in hell-fire for eternity is not “perishing”.

  8. on 26 Sep 2007 at 2:32 amSteve

    Sean,

    I’m sorry if I gave the impression that I felt that Christadelphians are disrespectful or intemperate. Even when debating many can be extremely courteous and polite, while usually being very accomplished at presenting a Biblical case.

    I was thinking more of the casual encounters with other Christians on a daily basis. For example, most Christadelphians I know tend to define their faith by what they DON’T believe rather than what they DO. If asked “what do Christadelphians believe?” a fairly typical response would be “well, we don’t believe in the trinity, we don’t believe in immortal souls, we don’t believe in heaven-going … etc”. The next question usually is “well, what DO you believe?” and at this point I’ve seen many Christadelphians flounder. I’m not trying to be unkind by saying this. For many years I was a fairly typical Christadelphian myself and I know I struggled when it came to defining my faith positively rather than negatively.

    These days, if someone asks me about the trinity and whether I believe it or not I usually respond by asking them what THEY mean by “the trinity” and how THEY understand it. I find a lot of Christians struggle when it comes to explaining the trinity, so I can then pick up on the area where they have the greatest difficulty and say how I would explain that. It’s been amazing how often people will say “yes! that’s what I mean!” when I explain as simply as I can how I understand the relationship between the Father and the Son.

    Perhaps Australians are a different breed, and perhaps generally speaking Australians are less likely to get into theological debates, but in my experience I’ve found that if I can get people to talk about how they personally understand God without using theological terminology (such as “essence”, “substance”, “co-eternal”, etc) then it’s remarkable how much common ground we can find to build on.

    Just as one example of that, I have a friend who is a Minister in the Uniting Church (which is a union of the Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregational churches and Australia’s third largest denomination). He once asked me to explain how I saw the relationship between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. After I did so, he said “that’s not quite how I would explain it, but most of my parishioners would explain it exactly that way”. This was a bit of a turning point for me as I realised that many of the lay people in the pews think of God in quite different ways to their theologians in the pulpit.

  

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