This series must be read in order. Begin with HELL 1 here.
Let’s take a moment to put our humanity into perspective.
If a person is microscopic when viewed from less than a few miles away and less than a nanoparticle when viewed from the moon, what is a person in a universe that is 46 billion times 5.8 trillion miles to its outer edge?
I hate to say it this way, but from a size perspective, we are nothing.
And if God created this universe, then is God not larger and even more pervasive than the entire universe? And if God’s very essence, God’s very composition, God’s very DNA is love, then is this love not even more immense and even more unbounded than the utter vastness and expansiveness of this universe?
Even more, if God’s love is that immeasurable, that unfathomable, that exhaustively immersive, then how do we, as nearly nonexistent human beings, measure up within that love?
If we are nearly nothing in relation to that love, can we really be that much of an offense to such an overwhelming love? Can we really be that deserving of an eternity burning in hell?
As those who are beloved, worthy, and valuable to this love, who are made in the image of this cosmically-sized love is this the answer is an unequivocal no.
From the very beginning of creation, God declared that this creation was good and that we were very good. And despite all the ways we have lived in relational disunion from God (sin) and then lived out of that disunion (sin), and even despite the ways in which we have each participated in and perpetuated injustice toward others, this love has always been patiently, mercifully, and gracefully welcoming us back into a relationship that restores that original goodness.
That is where this story has always been heading.
So it’s important for us to always be reminded who God really is and what God is really up to in history. Because once we lose sight of these truths, we can very quickly, and oh so easily, begin creating a god in our own image, a god that isn’t cosmically-sized in love with a heart for making all things whole and all things new, but a god that is very small, very conditional in love, and as punitive and vengeful as we are.
The questions that each of us need to continually ask ourselves are, “What God am I seeking and pursuing? What God am I trying to find in the text and in the stories? What God does my heart really want to discover?”
In the parable of the Sheep and Goats, if you want to find an angry, retributive god that sends the unjust to eternity in Hell, you will find it. But if you trust that God is more than a monstrous caricature, and actually the God that we see in the life of Jesus, then maybe there is more to the story.
The most important Greek phrase in the Sheep and Goat parable is kolasis aiónios, which is translated into English as eternal (or everlasting) punishment. The traditional understanding of that phrase, as you may surmise, is that a person is cast into Hell for eternity.
There are two problems with this translation and then the subsequent belief.
The word aiónios does not mean everlasting or eternal. It means an age.
The former indicates an unending duration of time, while the latter indicates a definite duration of time.
My favorite example to prove this, and to show again how biased the translation is toward what they need it to say, is Matthew 28:20.
The verse reads, “I will be with you even until the end of aiónios.”
The translators were forced to actually translate aiónios accurately as “age,” because there is no such thing as the “end of eternity” or the “end of everlasting.” Because neither eternity, nor everlasting has an end.
The word aiónios means age and it has a definite duration.
So at the very worst, punishment (kolasis) for the unjust is for a definite period of time. It is not unending. It is not for eternity. It is not everlasting. It is not forever.
So what exactly is the nature of this punishment (kolasis) for the unjust?
According to David Bentley Hart, “The word kolasis originally meant ‘pruning’ or ‘docking’ or ‘obviating the growth’ of trees or other plants, and then came to mean ‘confinement,’ ‘being held in check,’ ‘ punishment,’ or ‘chastisement,’ chiefly with the connotation of ‘correction.’”
Kolasis implies a punishment for the sake of growth. It is not retributive.
So if the parable of the Sheep and Goats is indicative of some sort of future punishment for the unjust, it is a corrective punishment for a definite duration with the ultimate hope of restoration.
But the parable suggests that the punishment of the unjust will be in fire. How does a fire equate to corrective punishment with the hope of restoration?
In a previous post, we discussed the parable of The Rich Man and Lazarus, the parable of The Unmerciful Servant, and Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. What we discovered was that when one faces the refining fire of God’s love, it reveals the truth of who we are and how we have treated others. But, it is a punishment, not for the sake of retribution, but for the sake of individual transformation and the full restoration of a person into a right relationship with God and with others.
This does not mean that it won’t be painful or that it won’t elicit a consuming sorrow.
It absolutely will.
Facing the truth of one’s life, especially the truth of an unjust life, in the light of a love that is more immense and immeasurable and immersive than the entire cosmos, in the light of a love that swallows each one of us whole as a microscopic piece of dust in the universe, will absolutely produce immeasurable sorrow and regret.
In religious circles, this would be referred to as repentance. But there is significant religious baggage with that word that has completely distorted it and made it unrecognizable in its original form. To understand the true restorative heart of God, it is essential that we see clearly repentance (Greek metanoia).
In Greek mythology, Kairos was the god of opportunity portrayed as a man with winged-feet who was always on tiptoe, indicating constant movement. Kairos was adorned with a long, single lock of hair that extended from an otherwise bald head. It was understood that as Kairos, or opportunity, passed by, there was a fleeting moment in which one could seize Kairos by the lock of hair before the moment, or opportunity, passed.*
The deeper meaning was to seize the opportunity at the right moment before it was lost, or before it passed.
However, when opportunity was missed, a shadowy, cloaked goddess named Metanoia stood in the wake of the missed opportunity. Metanoia symbolized the regret of missing the opportunity at the right moment. But there was also something more that Metanoia offered to those who were left in the path of a missed opportunity and the regret that accompanied it, a chance to reflect and then transform.
Metanoia, Greek meta-”after” and nous- “mind,” is an afterthought or reflection of a missed opportunity, which can elicit a feeling of regret, but that can also result in a change or transformation in one’s mind, in one’s heart, in one’s life. While there is an obvious element of regret inherent in metanoia, it does not come as a result of threats or shame or damnation.
Metanoia comes from self-reflection and contemplation after missing an opportunity and then facing the truth of one’s life in light of God’s loving kindness.
That is where transformation begins.
The refining fire of God’s love does not confront in hostility or wrath. It surrounds us in compassion and mercy to reveal the truth about ourselves with the hope of transformation.
But we all must face it.
Some will face the fire of the Spirit in this lifetime and be transformed, but others may not. Either way, you will ultimately face the refiner’s fire. Facing the fire is not for the sake of torment by a wrathful God. Facing the fire is done in the hope of one’s transformation and restoration into a right relationship with God and others.
This understanding gives us insight into the fires of Gehenna that Jesus referenced a handful of times throughout the Gospels.
Gehenna is an Aramaic rendering of the Hebrew word Ge-Hinnom. It was a valley, a real physical location, southwest of Jerusalem, where tradition states worshippers of the pagan deities, Baal and Moloch, sacrificed children by fire.
Interestingly, when this location was translated by King James in the Old Testament, it was left as Hinnom, indicating a physical location. However, when it was translated by King James in the New Testament, Gehenna was translated as Hell and somehow made the leap to mean an eternity of punishment in the fiery flames.
The problem with the connotation of Gehenna as eternity in Hell is that the two leading rabbinic schools of thought at the time of Jesus, Hillel and Shammai, each believed that the idea of Gehenna symbolically meant the place of punishment and purification for a limited duration.
The concept of eternity in Hell would have never entered their minds as the possible meaning of Gehenna.
So the fundamental question is, “Was Jesus talking about an eternity in Hell when mentioning Gehenna? Or, was he using Gehenna to speak to the prevailing belief at the time that it was a place of punishment and purification for a limited duration?
Being that Paul never once mentions Gehenna, or anything resembling eternity in Hell, a single time in his writings, but only that one must ultimately face the refiner’s fire to test one’s life, one must conclude that Jesus was not talking about eternity in Hell, but something else entirely.
While it’s clear that eternity in Hell is not supported by the biblical narrative, it’s unclear as to whether all will be restored.
In my opinion, God can’t override the free will choice of any single individual. So there is a distinct possibility that there will be those who, despite experiencing the love-essence of God and facing the truth of their lives, are not consumed with sorrow and who shake their fists and resist the open-armed God who welcomes them into a life of shalom. And for those who adamantly choose non-life, there is nonexistence.
However, as one who imagines that this narrative is truly the greatest story ever told, and as one who believes that no one can ultimately resist the cosmically-sized love of God, and as one who has hope that the accomplishment of God’s love through Christ is more impossibly beautiful than anything we could ever in this lifetime comprehend, I believe that there will be a restoration of all things, that includes even the hardest heart and the vilest offender.
And I have a great argument to back it up. Read HELL 10 here.
Peace and love…
*Myers, Kelly A. Metanoia and the Transformation of Opportunity. Rhetoric Society Quarterly, Vol. 41, No. 1, pp. 1–18.