Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Checkmate For Hell - Part 2: Moves 4-5

This is part of an ongoing series of blog posts, meant to be read in order.  In my last post, I introduced the concept of Universalism, and introduced the concept that I would be defending my position through a series of "chess moves".  I mentioned that I believe I have checkmate in 2 moves, but because a lot of questions would be left, I would use a series of further moves to keep the king in checkmate while I systematically removed the rest of the pieces from the board.  I would highly suggest you read the previous section of this series before reading this one.


In the prior three moves, I laid out a logical defense of Biblical Universalism that can be summarized with the following logic:
  1. God is sovereign/omnipotent/in control.  In other words, God gets what God wants.
  2. God wants all men to be saved, or to put it in the negative: God doesn't want anyone to perish.
  3. Therefore it would be illogical to conclude that a current majority of the world's population, and an even bigger majority of the previous population will end up in eternal conscious torment.  In other words, eventually all men will be saved.

Now what is interesting about this debate is that the first two points are widely taught by large denominations of Christians, by many respected theologians throughout the centuries.  But the logical conclusion has been opposed by a seeming majority of Christians for much of history - this seeming majority can be broken up into two camps. 

One camp, which we shall call Calvinists (though they should really call themselves Augustinians), readily affirms point number 1, but disagrees with point number 2, and explains away the scripture which would seem to support it by saying that "all" means "people from all nations", or something along those lines.  The problem with this is that it become very difficult to then conclude in God's goodness, or to affirm that - as I John 4:8 and 16 says - God is love.  So then the Calvinists who should really be called Augustinians will say "who are you to question God?", or something along those lines.

The other camp, who we will refer to as Arminians, will readily affirm point number 2, but will then minimize God's sovereignty by insisting that man's free will can upset God's plans.  The problem with this is that God then becomes a colossal failure - He becomes a very weak, ineffective God.

So why can't we just logically conclude in point number 3?  Well, we have certain scriptures that the Calvinists-who-should-be-called-Augustinians and Arminians insist teach that the wicked will end up in eternal conscious torment.  It is with this issue in mind that I now move on to moves 4 and 5.

But first, I'd like my readers to consider the following quote from authors John Kronen and Eric Reitan in "God's Final Victory":

One difficulty with assessing the plain sense of Scripture is this: if anything has authority, it is the plain sense of the original Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic texts.  Translation involves interpretation.  As such, any attempt to discuss the plain sense of Scripture in modern Christian communities, in which only a few experts have the language skills to access the original texts, is immediately suspect.  Relying on any English translation of the Bible is relying on the authority of a group of experts who can and do disagree, as evidenced by variations among the English translations produced by scholars who were commissioned based on their expertise.

Chess Move #4
My next move is to critically question the translations of certain verses in the Bible that use the English words “forever”, “eternal”, “everlasting”, etc.  One bit of reading material that helped me work through this was a series of articles by a man named John Lilley entitled "Erasing Hell by Francis Chan - Debunked!"  (Edit: It appears that these articles are no longer online, however it appears that the book from which most of the material was excerpted and adapted is available here and here.)  As a disclaimer, I’m not sure I agree with John on all of his conclusions in this set of articles, as I believe that he may be taking some things a little more literally than I now think are intended, but he makes some excellent points in this series, and he is very persuasive.  So I take the following quote from part 2 of that series:

Every time you see the words “eternal/everlasting/forever/forever-and-ever” in your English Bible, it is always – I repeat, always – a blatant mistranslation of the Greek word “eon” or the Hebrew word “olam”.
Hasting's Dictionary of the New Testament (vol. I, p. 542, art. Christ and the Gospels) puts it well when it states that there is no word either in the Hebrew Old Testament or in the Greek New Testament that expresses the abstract idea of eternity.

Corroborating this testimony are other scholars such as Dr. G. Campbell Morgan - called “the prince of expositors” - who wrote in his book “God’s Methods With Man”:

Let me say to Bible students that we must be very careful how to use the word "eternity."  We have fallen into great error in our constant use of that word.  There is NO word in the whole Book of God corresponding with our "eternal," which as commonly used among us, means absolutely without end. 

Additionally, Marvin Vincent, D.D., professor of sacred literature at Union Theological Seminary wrote:
Aion, transliterated aeon, is a period of longer or shorter duration, having a beginning and an end, and complete in itself. Aristotle (peri ouravou, i. 9, 15) said, "The period which includes the whole time of one's life is called the aeon of each one." Hence, it often means the life of a man, as in Homer, where one's life (aion) is said to leave him or to consume away (Il v.685; Od v.160). It is not, however, limited to human life. It signifies any period in the course of the millennium, the mythological period before the beginnings of history. The word has not "a stationary and mechanical value" (De Quincey). It does not mean a period of fixed length for all cases. There are as many aeons as entities, the respective durations of which are fixed by the normal conditions of the several entities. There is one aeon of a human life, another of the life of a nation, another of a crow's life, another of an oak's life. The length of the aeon depends on the subject to which it is attached ... The adjective aionious in like manner carries the idea of time. Neither the noun nor the adjective, in themselves, carry the sense of endless or everlasting. [emphasis mine]

Now you might be inclined to argue with me on that one.  If so, I suggest you do some careful examination.  I have done some research on this subject, and found some lists of the Biblical usages of these words that were pretty convincing. 

But first, I'd like to examine what some ancient lexicographers gave as the meaning of aion.  In
John Wesley Hanson's book "The Greek Word Aion-Aionios", he writes:
The oldest lexicographer, Hesychius, (A.D. 400-600,) defines aión thus: "The life of man, the time of life." At this early date no theologian had yet imported into the word the meaning of endless duration. It retained only the sense it had in the classics, and in the Bible.

Theodoret (A.D. 300-400) "Aión is not any existing thing, but an interval denoting time, sometimes infinite when spoken of God, sometimes proportioned to the duration of the creation, and sometimes to the life of man."

John of Damascus (A.D. 750,) says, "1, The life of every man is called aión.  . . .  3, The whole duration or life of this world is called aión. 4, The life after the resurrection is called 'the aión to come.' "
As Hanson demonstrates, it was later on in history, after Theologians had successfully used the word to signify "eternity" that later lexicography included the definition of "eternity".

Now let’s look at a few places of interest in the Old Testament that the word “olam” is used:

  • In Genesis 6:4, "olam" is translated as "heroes of old".
  • Exodus 21:6 uses "olam" to refer to a servant's lifespan.
  • In Numbers 25:13, it says that Aaron and his descendants will have a covenant of lasting priesthood - the original word is "olam".  (Similar usage in Leviticus 25:46)
  • Leviticus 24:8 tells of the Mt. Sinai or Mosaic covenant as being an everlasting covenant yet Jeremiah 31:31 prophesies its end with a second and better covenant. Hebrews 8:7-13 reiterates this prophecy as being fulfilled.
  • In Jonah 2:6 the translators are actually consistent, translating "olam" as "forever", but as Jonah is actually praying from within the belly of the fish at this point, and is then released after three days, the inaccuracy of this translation shines through.
  • There are plenty of other examples, but we’ll stop here for “olam” – if you want to do more research, this link lists a bunch of instances in which the word “olam” is used.

Moving on to the New Testament for a few examples of how “aion” is used:

  • In Matthew 12:32, the NIV actually translates "aion" correctly for once, when it says "either in this age or in the age to come."  It would be nonsense to translate it as "either in this forever or in the forever to come" and they knew it.
  • In Matthew 13:22, Jesus says that when the seed falls among the thorns, the worries of this life (or literally - of this age) choke out the word.  The same translation method is used in verses 39 and 40, and then again in verse 49.  These are all examples of “aion”, and it wouldn’t make sense to translate it here as “this forever”.
  • Matthew 24:3 indicates that the age (a translation of "aion") will end - therefore it does not mean eternal or forever.
  • Luke 18:30 speaks of an age to come.  The word translated "age" here is "aion", and there are similar translations to this - for example, Ephesians 2:7 speaks of multiple aions to come.  In fact, I Corinthians 10:11 seems to indicate that all ages (plural of aion) will end.
  • In I Corinthians 2:7, it mentions a mystery "that God destined for our glory before time began."  A more literal translation would be "before the eons", because a plural form of "aion" is used here.  If there is a time before the aions, (and there is more than one), then aion cannot mean eternal.
  • Galatians 1:4 talks about the present wicked age - the word here is "aion", and it is merely the present, which will pass - therefore it is not eternal.
  • In 2 Timothy 1:9, it says that grace was given to us in Jesus before the beginning of time - could be translated as "before the beginning of this age", as once again the word used is a form of "aion".  If there is a time before the aion, then aion cannot mean eternal.
  • Hebrews 1:2 is one of the more interesting choices of translations of "aionios".  As you can see, the NIV says "through whom also he made the universe".  This is literally di hou kai epoiesen tous aionios - and Young's Literal Translation has this rendered: "through whom also He did make the ages." If God made the aion, the aion cannot be eternal.

For a more detailed list of all the uses of "aion", look at this link, and for an extensive list of all the uses of "aionios", look here.

It is interesting to note here that in the Septuagint - an ancient translation of the Hebrew Bible into Koine Greek - "aionios" occurs 150 times, and according to the aforementioned Marvin Vincent, four-fifths of those occurrences are of limited duration.  So we should never assume that "aionios" means "eternal" or "forever" without contextual evidence to back the assumption.  Furthermore, as David Burnfield writes in "Patristic Universalism: An Alternative to the Traditional View of Divine Judgment":

Traditional commentators contend that hell is eternal because aion or aionios always means eternal and those who don’t agree must be compromising God’s word. But these same traditional scholars interpret aion as less than eternal in passages such as 1 Chron 16: 34 (“… For His mercy endures forever.” - NKJV) because they believe God’s mercy will not last forever but will end at physical death. In other words, they believe the word aion means eternal when applied to punishment but less than eternal (in this case, the duration of one’s life) when applied to mercy. So by their own admission, aion does not always mean eternal.
To translate a word, scholars have to look at more than just the uses in the Bible - they examine the way it's used in other literature from the same era.  Now, some scholarship has suggested that Plato invented the "aionios" form of "aion", as they have been unable to discover an earlier use of term.  John Wesley Hanson wrote about Plato's use of this word in "Bible Threatenings Explained":
Plato, referrring to certain souls in Hades, describes them as being in “aionian” intoxication.  But that he does not use the word in the sense of endless is evident from the Phaedon, where he says, “It is a very ancient opinion that souls quitting the world, repair to the infernal reigions, and return after that, to live in this world.”  After the “aionian” intoxication is over, they return to earth, which demonstrates that the word was not used by him as meaning endless.

Aristotle uses the word in the same sense.  He says of the earth, “All these things seem to be done for her good, in order to maintain safety during her aionos,” duration, or life.  And still more to the purpose is this quotation concerning God's existence: "Life and 'an aion continuous and eternal, zoe kai aion sunekes kai aidios.'"  Here the word aidios, (eternal) is employed to qualify aion and impart to it what it had not of itself, the sense of eternal.
To add to the point - in John Wesley Hanson's book "The Greek Word Aion-Aionios", he writes of Plato's use of "aionios":
[Plato] speaks of that which is indestructible, (anolethron) and not aiónion. He places the two words in contrast, whereas, had he intended to use aiónion as meaning endless, he would have said indestructible and aiónion.
Once more, Plato quotes four instances of aión, and three of aiónios, and one of diaiónios in a single passage, in contrast with aidios (eternal.) The gods he calls eternal, (aidios) but the soul and the corporeal nature, he says, are aiónios, belonging to time, and "all these," he says, "are part of time."
In the Apostolic Constitutions, a collection of eight treatises which belongs to genre of the Church Orders and is dated between 375 and 380 A.D., it is written: "kai touto humin esto nomimon aionion hos tes suntleias to aionos" - this translates: "And let this be to you an eonian ordinance until the consummation of the eon."  Due to the "consummation of the eon", it appears obvious that "aionion" does not refer to forever and ever without end.

Now, if you are getting nervous at this point, thinking that I am saying that there is no such thing as forever - well, the concept does exist, but is talked about in a different way.  For example, in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul talks about our incorruptible bodies - bodies that are not subject to decay and will not die.  Additionally, I Peter 1:3-5 talks about the resurrection through Jesus Christ being an inheritance that can never perish, spoil, or fade.  Also, in I Cor. 9:25, the word aphtharton is used to describe the crowns we will receive, which means "incorruptible" or "imperishable". 
This is how we deduce that the life through Christ lasts for eternity.

So the concept does exist.  But the point of this argument is that translators have abused their responsibilities by using the English word "forever" in the "hell" passages, when they should have used "age-long" or something similar. So when you apply this concept to passages that are supposedly talking about eternal conscious torment, you realize that you’ve lost significant ground for your claims – there’s another checkmate for Hell.

Aionian and "Eternal Punishment"
With the context of the translation issues in mind, I would like to explore one of the Hell passages in which I believe "aionian" has been mistranslated. In the "Parable of the Sheep and the Goats" in Matthew 25:31-46, verses 41 and 46 both translate forms of this word into "eternal".   Now I'd like to discuss why in this particular passage there is nothing which necessitates this translation.

Now for many, the translation of this word to "eternal" might make sense to them, since in verse 46 some go into "eternal" punishment, and others go into "eternal life." This would be a balanced system for them. But the first question I would ask in response to this is: is God's mercy equal to His wrath? I would answer "no" to this, as we repeatedly see in the Bible that God's love and mercy endure through the ages (Ps. 106:1; 107:1; 118:1; 138:8; and over and over in Ps. 136), but his anger lasts only a moment (Ps. 30:5, 103:9, Isa. 57:16, Jer. 3:12, Mic. 7:18). This shows that the relationship of God's love to His wrath is not an equal balance, but is specifically shown to be a contrasting relationship where His love vastly outweighs His wrath.

Secondly, it is possible to use a word with multiple meanings more than once in the same sentence and mean different things each time.  For example, as in an example
as David Burnfield gives, if I say that in my father's day, it took three days to travel across the country during the day, I have just used the same word in three different ways: to figuratively speak of the age my father lived in, a 24 hour period, and the daylight hours of a 24 hour period.  Along with this point, when Habakkuk 3:6 says that "[t]he ancient hills collapsed. His ways are everlasting", the Septuagint uses the word "aionios" both for "ancient" and "everlasting".  The literal meaning of "aionios" in this passage is "lasting" or "enduring" - as in "through the age" - and the purpose of using "aionios" in both halves of the verse is to show that God endures longer than the hills.  But before we move on, while we're talking about parallel "aionios" structures, note also here the hypocrisy of saying that Matthew 25:31-46 proves hell is eternal because of the use of aionios to describe both life and punishment, but the refusal to acknowledge that "all" might mean the same thing because of the parallels from Paul that I pointed out in the last post.

Thirdly, one must consider that the word paired with "aionian" in
Matthew 25:31-46 is "kolasis" - the translation to "punishment" does not really do this word justice, in my mind, because the word is the same word used to describe the pruning of a tree, and connotes correction. Correction has a purpose, and is not an end unto itself. There is another word used to describe inflicting pain merely as an end unto itself - this word is "timora", which means torture. But Jesus did not use the word timora here, he used the word kolasin, which means correction.

I think Aristotle gives us a very good insight into the difference between these two concepts, in his Treatise on Rhetoric:
Now, between punishment (τιμωρια, timora, also translated as "revenge") and correction (κολασις, kolasin) there is a difference; for kolasin is for the sake of the sufferer, but timora for that of the person inflicting it, in order that he may be satiated.

With the above comment in mind, it would make absolutely no sense whatsoever to inflict everlasting correction upon someone - at no point would this person have reached a point of having been corrected.

And finally, I think that we should look to scripture to interpret what, exactly, "eternal life" means to Jesus. And so I turn to another one of Jesus' statements - in John 17:3, Jesus says:
Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.

Now in this definition, "eternal life" seems to have nothing to do with the duration of time, but is rather a state of knowing God.  And so it would seem logical to conclude that "age-long kolasis (correction)", being the opposite state, would be the state of not knowing God.  But this is not a hopeless state from which there is no possible return. Many have come from this state into the state of knowing God.  And so I hold out the hope that even those who face aionian kolasis will one day turn to God and know Him.  And I believe this hope is spoken of in numerous places throughout the Bible, such as Job 14:7:

For there is hope for a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that its shoots will not cease.
But let’s move on to some more “chess moves”:

Chess Move #5
Hell is a mistranslation. Whenever you see the word “hell” in your modern English Bible, it is a translation of one of four different words, none of which indicate the modern conception of an eternal lake of fire where unbelievers will be tormented for all of eternity.  It is interesting to look at charts like this one and see how the number of times "hell" has appeared in the Bible has drastically changed over the years as we've received new translations which were more faithful to the old language.  You see, translators have been using the word "hell" as a translation for the Hebrew word “sheol” and the Greek words “gehenna”, “hades”, and “tartarus”.

Sheol literally means "grave", "pit", or "abode of the dead", and we can easily prove that it is not eternal conscious torment by citing verses such as Psalms 86:13:

For great is your steadfast love toward me;
you have delivered my soul from the depths of sheol.

If one can be delivered from sheol, than it is obviously not eternal.  To really explore this concept fully, we would need to explore how Hebrews conceptualized death – but then I’d be getting ahead of myself, as that is “chess move #6”.  So we’ll save that for later, and move on from sheol.

Next, let's talk about Gehenna.  Gehenna was an actual, physical place in Jerusalem.  Gehenna is an Aramaic transcription of the Hebrew phrase Ge Hinnom, which translates as “Valley of Hinnom”, and there is a rich history behind this valley.  First of all, we find in Jeremiah 7:31-32 that this valley has a reputation as a place where the Canaanites sacrificed their children in fire. Secondly, it has a reputation as Jerusalem’s garbage dump - some accounts of the place say it was filled with stench of garbage and the smoke of burning trash.  Jesus makes references to Gehenna several times, such as in Mark 9:43-48, and it is through these references that we learn that Isaiah’s flowery language and rich metaphors of worms that do not die and a fire that is not quenched are actually referring to this garbage dump, as Jesus quotes Isaiah word for word after mentioning Gehenna.  So when Jesus talks about Gehenna in these passages, he's literally talking about being thrown into the garbage, not a burning lake of fire where poor souls are tormented endlessly.  This is actually a very rich metaphor for judgment – the natural consequences that Jesus was implying Israel would face if they continued down the path of violent revolution towards the empire of Rome.  Jesus was not saying that they would go to a place of eternal conscious torment, but rather that Rome was going to crush Israel!  Fast forward to about A.D. 70 and the Roman destruction of the temple of Jerusalem, and when you read some of the accounts of Josephus, it begins to sound very much like these prophecies of Jesus.

Indeed, in Matthew 24,  Jesus points to the buildings of the temple and tells his disciples that "not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down."  His disciples ask when this will happen in the next verse.  It is important to recognize that this is the setup for verse 34:

Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.

This suggests that Jesus is saying the temple will be destroyed within the next generation - and sure enough, it was destroyed around A.D. 70.  The descriptions that the historian Josephus gives sound very similar to the words of Jesus as well as many of the things John wrote in Revelations:

While the holy house was on fire, everything was plundered that came to hand, and ten thousand of those that were caught were slain…but children, and old men, and profane persons and priests, were all slain in the same manner.
Wars 6:5:271

Yet was this misery itself more than the disorder; for one would have thought the hill itself on which the temple stood was seething hot, as full of fire on every part of it, that the blood was in larger quantity than the fire, and the slain more in number than those who slew them; for the ground did nowhere appear visible for the dead bodies that lay on it; but the soldiers went over heaps of these bodies as they ran upon such as fled from them..
Wars 6:5:275-276

...all this burning came upon Jerusalem…a city that had been liable to so many miseries during the siege that, had it always enjoyed as much happiness from its first foundation, it would have been the envy of the world. Nor did it…deserve such misfortunes, as by producing such a generation of men as were the occasions of this its overthrow.
Wars 6:8:408

For a more in depth analysis of the parallels between Matthew 24 and the accounts of Josephus, take a look at this document.

Jews and "Hell"

The topic of "Sheol" and "Gehenna" brings up an interesting question: what do modern Jews have to say about "Hell"?  Interestingly enough, they don't believe in it!  At least, not in the sense that the average "Christian" does.  Here's Rabbi Aron Moss on the topic:
We do believe in a type of Hell, but not the one found in cartoons and joke books. Hell is not a punishment in the conventional sense; it is, in fact, the expression of a great kindness.

The Jewish mystics described a spiritual place called “Gehinnom.” This is usually translated as “Hell,” but a better translation would be “the Supernal Washing Machine.” Because that’s exactly how it works. The way our soul is cleansed in Gehinnom is similar to the way our clothes are cleansed in a washing machine.

Put yourself in your socks’ shoes, so to speak. If you were to be thrown into boiling hot water and flung around for half an hour, you might start to feel that someone doesn’t like you. However, the fact is that it is only after going through a wash cycle that the socks can be worn again.

We don’t put our socks in the washing machine to punish them. We put them through what seems like a rough and painful procedure only to make them clean and wearable again. The intense heat of the water loosens the dirt, and the force of being swirled around shakes it off completely. Far from hurting your socks, you are doing them a favor by putting them through this process.

So too with the soul. Every act we do in our lifetime leaves an imprint on our soul. The good we do brightens and elevates our soul, and every wrongdoing leaves a stain that needs to be cleansed. If, at the end of our life, we leave this world without fixing the wrongs we have done, our soul is unable to reach its place of rest on high. We must go through a cycle of deep cleansing. Our soul is flung around at an intense spiritual heat to rid it of any residue it may have gathered, and to prepare it for entry into Heaven.

Of course, this whole process can be avoided. If we truly regret the wrong we have done and make amends with the people we have hurt, we can leave this world with “clean socks.”

That’s why our Sages said, “Repent one day before you die.” And what should you do if you don’t know which day that will be? Repent today.
Rabbi Yisroel Cotlar gives a similar definition
Yes, Judaism believes in punishment and reward in the afterlife. But in Judaism:

Hell is temporary -- not permanent.

Hell is a therapy -- not an imprisonment.

Hell is a consequence -- not a punishment.

Hell is a washing machine -- not a furnace.
More details here.

You can find two more Rabbis talking about Hell here - in summary:
Rabbi Naftali Brawer says:
There is a key argument in the Talmud regarding the length of sentence in Gehinom for sinners and the widely accepted view is that with rare exception the longest sentence does not exceed twelve months. In this sense Gehinom is more like purgatory than eternal damnation.

And Rabbi Jonathan Romain says:

You are right: the idea of a person suffering in agony forever does not sit easily with the notion of a loving God. You will be pleased to know, therefore, that the Jewish concept is very different. For a start, whereas Christianity has a clear road-map of the hereafter, with signposts to heaven and hell, and stopping off points in limbo and perdition, Judaism is much more cautious about what happens next.

To be blunt, we do not know, and those who claim to know are, at best, speculating and, at worst, deliberately misleading. Instead, Jewish teaching has always tried to emphasise the importance of this world. We will find out about the world-to-come in due course, but in the meantime should concentrate on the here and now.
The fact that Jews by and large do not believe in eternal "Hell" is problematic for a religion that is supposed to be the fulfillment of Judaism.  But let’s move on to the last two words that have been mistranslated as “hell”.

Tartarus is the realm of Hades where the evil are imprisoned, and this word is only used once in the Bible, in 2 Peter 2:4.  And this verse uses tartarus only in reference to evil spirits (probably talking about demons).  One verse that seems to be specifically talking about demons is hardly enough to make a case for eternal conscious torment for nonbelievers.  Furthermore, it appears that Peter may also be talking about tartarus here:

1 Peter 3:18-22
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.  He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit.  After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits — to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also — not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God.  It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.

Now, if tartarus is eternal conscious torment from which there is no hope of escape, then why would Jesus take on the futile task of preaching to those inside?

Last of all, there is Hades – it should be noted, of interest, that Hades was not actually a Jewish concept.  It was a Greek concept.  So it is first interesting to note that when Jesus talks of Hades, he is using Greek imagery to describe Jewish religion.  When you think of this, it would be of interest to note where what Jesus describes actually clashes with their concepts.  Also, if you want to be faithful to the history of the word “Hades”, you have to note that Greeks believed everyone went there initially, and Tartarus was a lower realm reserved for those who needed to be punished.

Now I want to explore one of the passages in which Hades appears, but before I do, I want to talk about the concept of hyperbole.  In the book "Good Goats: Healing Our Image of God", Dennis Linn tells a story of a young man who was admitted to a psych ward after he tried to gouge out his own eye, having taken Jesus' commandment in Matthew 5:29 literally.  Most people rightly saw this young man's literal interpretation of the passage as insanity.  But Dennis was stunned when he realized something: what if it were insane to take the second half of the passage literally as well?  Jesus has just employed hyperbole to warn his followers of the dangers of lust - why would we think he was not continuing to use hyperbole when he mentioned their whole bodies being thrown into hell (literally: Gehenna)?

Consider the following analogy: a good father is on a trip with his family.  Not a perfect father (there is only one of those), but a good one, with healthy, well-adjusted children who demonstrate good behavior as a result of good parenting.  As the trip drags on, the noise level from the back seat gets louder and louder, and the parents in the front seat are starting to lose their minds.  Finally, when he reaches the point when he can take it no more, the father yells into the back seat "you kids better be quiet or I'm going to tie you to the roof of the car and you can finish the trip that way!"  Suddenly, the noise level drops - the children are quiet.  Now, did the father literally mean that if the children did not quiet down, he would tie them to the roof of the car?  If this imperfect father did not literally intend to do such a thing, why would we assume that a perfect Heavenly Father - who is described as personifying love in 1 John 4:8 - would cast any one of His beloved into an eternally burning lake of fire, where they would be tormented for ever and ever?

So, with this background for Hades in mind, let’s explore two passages where Hades appears:

In Luke 16:19-31, Jesus tells a very interesting story about a rich man who goes to Hades, and a poor man named Lazarus who goes to Abraham’s bosom.  Naturally, the Hell-sayers would like to throw this one in the face of those of us who wish to dispel the myths about Hell.  But there are some very interesting details in this story.  First, we have to consider Jesus' deliberate usage of the word “Hades” – the Greek underworld.  So one must ask: why would Jesus choose to use a Greek concept in a parable that was meant for Jews?  Also, one should note that in Greek mythology, Heaven (actually “Elysium” in their mythology) and Hades were separate realms altogether – there was no crossing over back and forth, and one could not simply look in a certain direction while in Hades and see and talk to people in Greek Heaven.  However, in the tale Jesus told, the rich man calls out to Abraham and requests that Lazarus be sent to bring him water to cool his tongue.  This is a strange detail to note.  Then, the rich man requests that Abraham send Lazarus to his family to warn them of the place he is in.  So is this story about eternal conscious torment?  Or else, what could it be saying to us?

The answer I am led to believe: Jesus is using satire.  Satire is defined as the use of irony, sarcasm, ridicule, or the like, in exposing, denouncing, or deriding vice, folly, etc.  Jesus had a way of turning everything upside down.  He turned what people valued upside down, and made character traits that were considered weaknesses (such as humility) into virtues.  In the world in which Jesus was born, Jews were living in the Roman Empire.  Some Jews had begun to merge their traditional beliefs with Greek views – and so there were most likely many Jews in Jesus’ audience who had begun to believe in Greek concepts of the afterlife, including Hades, despite the fact that in the Old Testament there is no such concept.  I have read that Hades had even become a popular belief among the Pharisees of Jesus’ day.  Also, I have noted how Jesus is often criticizing the Pharisees, while placing value on the poor.  I believe that the poor man in the story goes along with the concept of the “poor in spirit”, spoken of in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and the rich man represents a selfish, uncaring Pharisee.  The fact that Jesus purposely uses Hades in this story, but does not stick to the traditional Greek concepts of the place, leads me to believe that this story is a satire. The Pharisees had become conceited about their spiritual piety and had stopped caring about the hurting people around them, while at the same time threatening people who committed their "pet sins" with Hades. Jesus is telling a ridiculous story to illustrate the spiritual emptiness of the Pharisees – not teaching us that Hades is a real place.  Jesus was being the Stephen Colbert of the era, if you will. And in this story, the Pharisees' whole system of ideals has been turned upside down - the one you thought would be in Elysium is in Hades, and the one you thought would be in Hades is in Elysium.

Furthermore, there is nothing in the story - even if it is not satire - that directly refused the possibility of Universalism.  True, the rich man is separated from the bosom of Abraham by a chasm he cannot cross.  But this does not mean he will never be able to cross the chasm.  And it also does not mean that God cannot cross the chasm - and is it not the Christian belief that this is what Jesus has done for all of us?  Perhaps the rich man will "
never get out until you have paid the last penny" (Mt. 5:26), but then, Universalism contends, he will be released from his bondage.

And finally, on the concept of Hades, it is interesting the fact that in Revelations 20:14, Hades and death are thrown into the lake of fire, and the lake of fire is then defined as a second death. Nowhere in that passage do we read that there was anyone in Hades before it was thrown into the lake of fire – that would be an assumption.  But it is thrown into that lake along with death.  So it could be said that in the end times, God is going to throw Hell away....

And then after the New Jerusalem is established, we read in Revelations 21:25 that the gates of this city are always open - outsiders are never prevented from entry by the insiders.

The fact that death is also thrown into the fire segues nicely into my next chess move, but I am going to save that for my next post.  So stay tuned for the following chess moves:

Chess move #6: What is the Biblical definition of death?
Chess move #7: How are we "saved"?
Chess move #8: Jesus is our defense attorney and our judge - how can we possibly lose that case?
Chess move #9: No fear.
Chess move #10: Wasn’t Origen a heretic?
Chess move #11: What about the wrathful God of the Old Testament?
Chess move #12: Calvinism is Totally Depraved
Conclusion: Testing the fruits.


  1. Hmm.. I think I generally agree with your article, however, I have a few points of contention, particularly on the translation of "olam" or "aion/eon" from the Greek.

    Yes, it is true that "aion/eon" and "olam" do not necessarily translate as the "abstract idea of eternity", it isn't necessarily true to then say that the length of time is necessarily finite either. If that were true, then the new life in the age to come, or the new heavens and the new earth is not necessarily "eternal". However, from my own studies of the Bible, I think it becomes clear that the meaning of "olam" or "aion/eon" comes down to the age that God has prepared for His people, and that an infinite amount of time is also implied [we do not escape time when we are resurrected, because time is a one-way arrow that never ends]. For instance, Isaiah 60-66 is one of the key sections of the Hebrew Scriptures which the early Christians borrow from for their ideas of the eschaton, and such. Take a look at the ending of Isaiah 66:

    "“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. 23 From one New Moon to another and from one Sabbath to another, all mankind will come and bow down before me,” says the Lord. 24 “And they will go out and look on the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; the worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.”

    This, I think does imply some sort of judgement/justice. However, I would like to point out that this passage does NOT explicitly teach any doctrine of "eternal hell-fire" or "ECT" [Eternal Conscious Torture], and I do not believe in any doctrine of ECT. I am strictly an annihilationist. And the reason why I am an annihilationist [or at least leaning towards the idea that those who willing rebel against the living God will suffer by the consequences of their own actions] is because I believe that God is the God of Justice.

    And I think the best interpretation of this ending to Isaiah 66 is that God will judge the wicked, and the rebellious, albeit, they will cease to exist.

    And as you can tell, I am strictly anti-Calvinist, so I don't believe in any idea that all men MUST be saved merely because God wills it. Obviously, even though Paul does believe this all throughout his letters [that God wills all men to be saved], Paul still believes that those who are rebellious and wicked will be destroyed [or else he would not have been truly "Jewish"].

  2. Here's the problem with your interpretation. Think of it this way: there are 5 sets of statements:

    Set 1 seems to indicate that God's will is inescapable, that He gets what He wants, that everything that happens is according to His will, etc.

    Set 2 seems to indicate that God wants all people to be saved/doesn't want anyone to perish.

    Set 3 seems to indicate that the writers actually believed that God would get what He wanted in the end, and that all would be saved.

    Set 4 seems to indicate that some would go to eternal punishment.

    Set 5 seems to indicate that some would be annihilated.

    In order to keep 4 or 5, you have to reject either 1 and 3, or 2 and 3, and those top three have the most "evidence" in their support. It is very important to note that my exploration of those three propositions was not a comprehensive listing of every Biblical reference that could be used to support those conclusions. So, because the strongest evidence is in support of 1, 2, and 3, I propose that they actually mean what they say, and thus conclude that all will eventually be saved. So then I go to examine the evidence for set #4, and one of the things I explore is that "eternal" may be a mistranslation. But what I SHOULD have done is to add that the word translated as punishment is also used for speaking of the pruning of trees, in the original language. This indicates to me that the punishment is not an end in and of itself, but is meant for a purpose - to cause the one being punished to grow. It is a cutting off of the bad parts so that they can grow. Thusly, when I move on to set #5, which seems to indicate annihilation, I conclude that what is being annihilated is not the essence of the person himself/herself, but the wickedness, or what Thomas Merton would refer to as the "false self", leaving behind nothing but the "image of God", or the "true self". With this interpretation, I also conclude that ALL people will go through this process. For some, they will look forward to the end goal and the process will not be as painful. While for others, they will fight the process, and the results will be that it will both be more painful, and also that it will last longer. But the end result will be the same.

  3. Hey Geoff, the links to the John Lilley articles are broken. Any idea where we can get a copy?

    1. Thanks for pointing that out, Steve. I'll have to add a note saying the link is no longer available - I haven't found another this morning. It looks like you can still download the book, however (link below). The three part blog series I read was mostly comprised of excerpts (shortened and adapted at times) from his book "Hell Is A Mistranslation". Note that - and I find this very interesting - Lilley is a strict literalist. He believes that we have to take everything in the Bible literally unless a case can be made that shows that in that specific incident it would be complete nonsense if we did. So here is a Biblical literalist who felt forced to challenge the translation of "eternal" and "Hell".