HELL 7

This series must be read in order. Begin with HELL 1 here.

One must understand the end toward which we are moving with God in order to interpret and understand the points along the biblical narrative’s trajectory.

In other words, if a person believes that eternity in Hell is the end toward which the majority of people throughout history are heading, then it is only natural that they would interpret specific words, phrases, teachings, and parables in the Bible toward that end.

But, what if there is an end toward which we are moving that isn’t eternity in Hell?

And what if this end is the interpretive lens that will help us understand specific words, phrases, teachings, and parables in the Bible differently?  

I would suggest the end toward which we are moving, that is in line with the prophetic vision throughout scripture, has always been the restoration of all things.

It is the realization of a renewed cosmos in which God will be all in all, in which death will no longer prevail, and whole and healed individuals and relationships will flourish.

It is the belief that, at the right time, all things in heaven and earth will be brought together into perfect unity in the Christ, also known as the reconciliation of all things.

And this makes the goal of God’s justice restorative in nature, rather than retributive.

When I was in college and dating Jenny (who is now my wife), there was a Friday night in which we were planning to hang out. As the minutes, and then the hours, began to pass, I became increasingly impatient, frustrated, and angry that she was taking so long, not answering my phone calls, and basically ruining our Friday.

But after several hours of waiting in my room with no response, there was finally a knock at my door. And as she walked in, my anger was evident. I was fuming mad and peppering her with a litany of questions.

Where have you been?
What have you been doing?
Why are you so late?
Why didn’t you answer my calls?

I am certain I wasn’t listening to anything she was saying. There wasn’t an answer that would satisfy my anger.

But then, instead of trying to answer my questions, she just handed me a card.

And it wasn’t just any card.

It was a card that she had meticulously and patiently and lovingly crafted for me over the three previous hours. And it detailed, in overwhelming specificity, all the memorable moments we had shared together as a couple and how much she loved me.

I got very silent.

Like stick-my-foot-in-my-mouth silent.

And then, despite my anger and bewilderment, and the fact that it would have been easier for her to simply withhold the card, or just break up with me because I didn’t come close to deserving the card, she demonstrated her unwavering love by giving it to me anyway.

My anger turned to regret.

And it was her kindness, not her justified retaliation, that made me see my ugliness. It was her kindness, despite how I violated our relationship, that changed my heart.

When you are confronted with the reality of an undeserved kindness, it can be transformative.

And that is what we find in one of the most misunderstood parables of the Bible- The Rich Man and Lazarus. Many have used this moral story as a definitive proof text for eternity in Hell, but it is far from it.

In the parable are two characters- the rich man and Lazarus.

From the grave, or after his death, the rich man is confronted with how he treated Lazarus, a poor beggar, during his life. Upon facing the truth of how poorly he treated him, he was filled with sorrow.

So what do we know about this parable?

The rich man represents Israel. We know this because, in the last line, Father Abraham says to the rich man, “If [your brothers] do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded, even if someone rises from the dead.”

And like the majority of Jesus’ parables, this parable is an indictment of the arrogant religious leaders of Israel for how they viewed themselves and how they viewed and treated others. But more importantly, the parable is teaching them the necessity for living righteously in the present.

A few things to note.

In this parable we find words like Hadestorment and suffering.

So it seems pretty obvious that this parable is telling us about what eternity in Hell is like, right?

Not so fast.

What if I told you that, in facing the truth of his life, the rich man is being tested and refined? And what if I told that he is not being tormented by a wrathful God, but transformed and restored into a right relationship with God and others? And what if I told you that what he is experiencing is not suffering, but rather the pain of regret and the consuming sorrow of facing this truth about himself?

Well, that is what the biblical text actually suggests.

The rich man is experiencing odynáō, which is a Greek word that means consuming sorrow, not physical suffering.

More importantly, the word básanos, which is translated as torture in this parable, means a touchstone. A touchstone is a black silicon tablet, like slate, that is used to test the purity of soft metals.

To me, this implies that there is a process one goes through to determine the quality of one’s life.

Absolutely fascinating.

This reminds me of Paul’s words to the Corinthians when he writes:

Each one’s work will become manifest; for the Day will declare it, because it is revealed (or tested) by fire, and the fire will prove what kind of work each person’s is. If the work that someone has built endures, he will receive a reward; If anyone’s work should be burned away, he will suffer loss, yet he shall be saved, though so as by fire.

Interestingly, this is exactly what we find in another parable referred to as the Unmerciful Servant.

For context, Peter asks Jesus how many times a person ought to be forgiven. Jesus responds that we should not simply forgive seven times, but rather forgive “seventy times seven,” which is a direct reference to The Year of Jubilee within Judaism.

According to Jewish law, the Israelites were instructed to celebrate a Sabbath year at the beginning of every seventh year. This meant that every seventh year the land, animals, and people were to be given a rest from work. It was a time for rejuvenation and replenishment.

And then, after seven cycles of seven Sabbath years (49 years) the people would celebrate by proclaiming freedom throughout the land, returning land to their original owners, and cancelling all debts. The poor would no longer be oppressed and all slaves would be set free.

This was The Year of Jubilee.

It was a time of resetting and righting inequities and injustices.

So what about a cycle of 70 Jubilees times seven?

Theologian NT Wright writes, “That sounds like the Jubilee of Jubilees! So, though 490 years—nearly half a millennium—is indeed a long time, the point is this: when the time finally arrives, it will be the greatest ‘redemption’ of all. This will be the time of real, utter, and lasting freedom.”

So to Peter, Jesus is suggesting that we keep forgiving until all is restored, that we keep forgiving until all is made right, that we keep forgiving until all are made free, that we keep forgiving until all are redeemed, and that we keep forgiving until every debt is paid.

That’s when he tells the parable of the Unmerciful Servant.

It is a story about a king who forgives the debt of a servant who owes him ten thousand talents, or about twenty years worth of wages. The servant then goes to a fellow servant who owes him significantly less money and demands that he repay it immediately. But because his fellow servant could not repay it, he threw him in prison.

Based upon the context in which this parable was told, with the Jubilee of Jubilees hovering closely in the background, where do you think this parable is heading?

How do you expect the king to now treat his servant who was unmerciful to the other servant? And if the king represents God, how do you expect God to treat those who unmerciful to others?

The way the story is typically translated and understood by Christians is that, like the King, God will torture people in Hell who are unmerciful to others.

But shockingly, guess which word shows up in this parable?

Básanos.

It says that the king, in his settled, controlled anger (orgē), hands the slave over to the inquisitor, not to be tortured, but to face the truth of who he had become and to test the quality of his life until the debt is repaid.

But see, that is the kicker. What debt needs to be repaid to God?

The only debt that needs repaid is love.

In the context of the Jubilee of Jubilees, or in light of the “greatest redemption,” we know that God is a God of forgiving all debts in love, forgiving until all is restored in love, forgiving until all is made right in love, forgiving until all are made free in love, and forgiving until all are redeemed in love.

And that is the thing about facing the refining fire of God’s love, or facing the inquisitor, or being salted with fire, it reveals the truth of who we are and how we have treated others. But, it is not for the sake of retribution and punishment. It is for the sake of individual transformation and wholly restoring a person into a right relationship with God and with others.

And to be honest, that’s why so many Christians misunderstand so many passages throughout the New Testament, because they read it as if the whole point is wrath and punishment rather than forgiveness, mercy, and restoration.

For instance, many Christians read Romans 9, not as a set of rhetorical questions that Paul is asking as a part of a larger thought, but as an apocalyptic horror story read without context in which God creates objects of wrath for the purpose of destruction.

I, however, read the larger thought of Romans 9-11 as a fitting end to the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.

It is about how God’s kindness and mercy will ultimately prevail and lead to Israel’s restoration, despite her unrighteousness.

In fact, Romans 11 ends by stating that, despite everyone’s disobedience and unrighteousness, God has “mercy on them all.

Imagine that.

Whether it is the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus or the King and the Unmerciful Servant, or whether it is Jesus’ words about forgiveness and the Jubilee of Jubilees or Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, what we consistently find woven throughout every word and every account is a forgiving and merciful God who is always working for the restoration of people and relationships, who is always working toward Eden, who is always working toward shalom.

And it is this kindness of God that leads to repentance and transformation and whole and healed relationships.

Just like Jenny’s kindness when I didn’t deserve it.

It was her forgiveness and mercy that helped me see the truth of who I was and what I had become. Sure it produced a grief and sorrow within me that was painful to face. But it led to my own transformation and then to a restoration of our relationship… and then to a beautiful marriage with three kids.

The truth is that some people are able to discover the kindness and mercy of God, and then face the reality of who they have become. Some sooner than others. Some even be in this lifetime.

But whether it’s now or sometime in the future, we all will face the consuming fire of God’s love. But it’s not the fire of Hell for eternity we have been threatened with our whole lives.

I know a few of you were salivating and licking your chops, imagining that I left Hades dangling without address. No worries though. In HELL 8, we will finally get to HELL. Yes, we are going to go there. All the way.

Peace…

Brandon

7 thoughts on “HELL 7

  1. I think you’ve done a good job of building your case so far, and I’m not at all opposed to the notion of universal salvation (in some form). If I were, I would be like the resentful older brother, or the vinyard workers who worked all day and then complained that latecomers were getting the same wage.

    There are a few sticking points for me, though. First, anytime someone proposes a “new” understanding of some fundamental Christian belief, red flags go up, so there’s that. To say that most Christians and most churches and most translators have got it wrong all these years requires some rigorous convincing.

    You cite a good number of parables and Scriptures that could be interpreted and applied as you do, but some could be interpreted otherwise. For example, when Paul states that everyone’s work will be tested, and that those who suffer loss will still be saved “through the fire,” he is specifically talking about works built upon the solid foundation of Christ, i.e. Christian works done by believers. He is not talking about people in general, as you seem to apply it. (1 Cor 3:11-12)

    Translating words like wrath, torment, and suffering is also tricky. You make a pretty broad assumption that Bible translators (language experts) have nearly all missed the mark simply because they brought their biased presuppositions to the table. But what I have found in my studies is that many, many words in Scripture are not translated to their literal meaning because they simply were’t used that way. Torment (basasos) may literally mean “touch-stone” but is that how it was understood in the first century? Or did it commonly refer to physical pain and suffering?

    If I say “I could kill for a hamburger right now,” a competent translator will recognize that I really mean “I’d do almost anything for a burger” or simply “I’m really hungry.” There is no threat of homicide, despite my literal meaning.

    So without some definite expertise to back it up, it’s a bit of a leap for me to embrace that the Rich Man was simply being “tested” or “refined” and was merely suffering temporary grief over his shortcomings.

    Of course, Hades is not hell. Hades is not the Lake of Fire. What do we make of the devil, the Beast or the False Prophet, thrown into the lake of fire, where the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever (to the eternity of the eternities)? If “all things” literally are going to be reconciled to God, that must include the devil, et al.

    Joining them are all those whose names are not found in the Book of Life. To top it off, this is referred to as the Second Death, which gives it a note of finality rather than a temporary state of testing and refinement. Not torture, mind you, but death, as in “no longer alive/existing.”

    So anyway, these are just a few of my initial thoughts here. Sorry for the long-winded comments. You have me thinking, anyway!

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    1. Hey Don… thanks again for reading and following the conversation. A few things to note in response to your comment.

      1. At the outset of this series, my only goal was to prove that eternity in Hell (eternal conscious torment) is untenable and contradictory to the character of God and the trajectory of Scripture. In addition to that, I said that I would like to “turn the prism” to help people see that Scripture can be seen in an entirely different light. One that is restorative, not retributive. To those ends, I believe I have consistently made my case.

      2. While your assumption is that somehow my positions break from tradition, I would actually say that the majority of my thoughts are echoed by the early church Fathers. Up to this point, I have neither referenced them, nor any Scripture that solidifies my argument. I suppose that is where I am going in HELL 8 and 9 😊

      3. When you find a person who can tell you with 100% certainty how all of this works out, let me know. The truth is that, from all of the years and study I have done on this subject, the only thing I can say definitively is that there is not eternal conscious torment. Everything else is people trying there best to fit pieces together that sometimes seem contradictory. Maybe that is the pattern that we see continually over and over and over in the Bible, though. People have definitive thoughts about who they believe God is… but then God turns out to be something more beautiful and loving than their tribal, nationalistic minds can fathom. People had definitive thoughts on who they believed the Messiah (Christ) would be… but he ended up being more humble, loving, and self-giving than the militaristic, political leader leader than they hoped for. And now, beliefs on where people spend “eternity.” People have definitive thoughts on how God may act toward the unrepentant and how they need to suffer or be paid back for their waywardness, but maybe… just like people missing who God really is, and missing the true Christ, they too are missing how generous, kind, and long suffering God is in working for the restoration of all.

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  2. And I guess there is one more.

    4. I am actually not writing to convince Evangelicals to change their minds. I am writing to people who have completely abandoned the faith they grew up in, imagining it is a monolithic entity with a specific, rigid orthodoxy with no other perspectives to challenge it. I would say that most people who practice in Western Orthodoxy have no idea that there is even an Eastern Orthodoxy that is radically different in belief. The point is that people need to hear a different perspective. People need to learn that Scripture is richer and more abundant in context and meaning than the surface level readings we typically give it. I am writing for my children and then for their children, so that they may uncover something richer and more bountiful and more beautiful than what we have been offering the world for the last 1600 years (thanks to Constantine and then much later with Augustine and now with Evangelicalism).

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    1. I have never read something so similar to my own thoughts and beliefs it’s very refreshing! Bless you for asking these questions and seeking the truth and sparking this conversation in a way that reaches so many❤️

      I have an alternate theory that God is both love and peace and truth and all of these beautiful things alongside being wrathful and extremely complex in ways we just don’t understand yet and the point of Jesus and his crucifixion was to spread the knowledge that only through love will we be able to receive gods grace and that is the only way we will be able to see the truth.

      Of course I can’t say that any of this is for sure it’s just speculation and going with what feels true in my soul and what makes sense and aligns with a sense of being on the path to righteousness.

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  3. Love this . . .
    “And that is the thing about facing the refining fire of God’s love, or facing the inquisitor, or being salted with fire, it reveals the truth of who we are and how we have treated others. But, it is not for the sake of retribution and punishment. It is for the sake of individual transformation and wholly restoring a person into a right relationship with God and with others.”

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Brandon,

    I’m a huge admirer of your work and this Hell series. It’s refreshing and reaffirming to hear a good contextual narrative of the Bible that is above and beyond the regurgitated rhetoric and tradition that you hear in the American church today. I look to you for guidance during my re-evaluation of my faith and have even referred to you as one of my ‘deconstruction pastors’ as oxymoronic as that sounds. Hell is always a hard ‘plank’ to cut down because as you do correctly put it in this blog post, it’s the direction that the modern day American church always looks towards as the place to ultimately avoid ‘going to’ instead of focusing on the here and now as Jesus seemed to be always teaching about. Thanks so much for this series, it has opened up my eyes and many others to a different perspective with God, judgment, and our ultimate purpose and goals in this life.

    P.S. I do not frequent the Pasterds Pub but my wife Rachael Maggio does. Just wanted to offer a connection and show how powerful the message you are teaching is!

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