Will people literally burn in Hell forever?

Will people literally burn in Hell for all of eternity?

C. S. Lewis said that if he could remove anything from Christianity, it would be Hell. I can understand his statement. How could a loving God send billions of His creations to a place where they will be burned alive forever for not believing the right thing? And what about all those people who have never heard of Jesus? It seems rather petty!

Atheists have long used Hell as an argument against Christianity. They argue that it is immoral, because no crime is worthy of infinite punishment. Many Christians would admit they are right. So what are we to say? Will people literally burn in Hell for all of eternity just because they didn’t believe in Jesus?

Some try to answer this by arguing that, no, the Bible actually teaches that people will be annihilated in Hell, that is, they will cease to exist. We will examine this position in detail in a later post, but for now, we will simply note that verses like Rev. 21:8 and Dan. 12:2 make it unlikely. Others believe in a literal Hell, but argue that just rejecting, or being ignorant of, Jesus may not be sufficient for such punishment. Even Billy Graham seems to have taken this approach recently (see video below).

Against this, Jesus said that He is the only way to eternal life (John 14:6) and that unless men believed in Him, they would be condemned (John 3:17-18). So it seems that if we believe the Bible should be taken literally, we must conclude that the Bible speaks of Hell as a real place of eternal torment, however this may offend our senses. But perhaps if we have not stopped to consider the nature of this torment that is the source of our moral confusion.

It is true that the Revelation speaks of a “Lake of Fire” where all unbelievers will be confined forever. It does not immediately follow from this, however, that this fire must be literal. Fire throughout the Bible often speaks of divine judgment (Gen. 3:24; 19:24; Ezek. 10:2; Matt. 3:10; John 15:6, etc.). In Revelation 9:17-18, horses are depicted as riding in judgment with fire coming from their mouths. Maybe the fire speaks of eternal judgment rather than literal flames.

This is strengthened by other Scripture. Isaiah 66:22-24 describes the eternal state of the wicked by saying, “their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched; and they shall be an abhorring unto all flesh” (KJV). We still see the picture of fire, but the picture Isaiah presents is not a lake of fire into which people are thrown but of a dump where garbage is destroyed. Jesus also had the concept of a dump in mind when He spoke of the Lake of Fire in passages like Matt. 10:28. He used the word gehenna, which means “The Valley of Hinnom” and referred to a dump outside of Jerusalem where trash was burned.

It seems we have reason for taking the language used to describe the Lake of Fire as symbolic of judgment (just as the language used to describe Heaven probably also symbolic). But this should hardly cause us to think that Hell might not be so bad. The language was chosen to demonstrate the intensity of the torment those cast there will face. Seeing the language as symbolic, though, does allow us to understand better the judgment in light of the broader biblical data.

Both biblically and philosophically, we know that everything that is good comes from God. He is the source of love, kindness, compassion, etc. We know that evil is not a thing in and of itself but is actually a lack of goodness, just as darkness is a lack of light and cold is a lack of heat. We know that all people will be resurrected into physical, immortal bodies at the end of time (Dan. 12:1-2) and that believers will be resurrected to be like Christ (1 John 3:2). How, though, will the wicked be raised? Sadly, it appears that, having rejected God, they will not be raised as He is but as they are, and since all goodness is rooted in God, such people will have no goodness of any kind in them. Even the worst people history has ever known have had the moral law written on their hearts (Rom. 2:14-15). Yet it appears that these people will be totally separated from God—not from His presence, for the Bible says they will be in the presence of Jesus for all eternity (Rev. 14:10)—but from any kind of fellowship with Him. They will be eternally cut off.

Further, Paul says that when we sow into the flesh, we reap corruption (cf. Gal. 6:8; 5:19-21). What is the resurrection except the eternal reaping of what we have sown? Imagine the state these people will find themselves in: an eternity of anger, hostility, hatred, lust, envy, strife, bitterness, terror, and all things evil. They will be completely bent toward themselves. Can you imagine meeting a person who cared only for themselves in the absolute degree?

Their torment will be real and unimaginable, but it will be self-inflicted. Most amazingly, they will blame God forever, since they will have no concept of justice—only their own desires. C. S. Lewis once said, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’”

The torment of Hell is literal, even if the flames used to describe them are not. But in examining the nature of the judgment, it is apparent that no other end could be expected. Hell is not a place of justice, where the lost finally get what they deserve. Hell is a place where the lost are kept for, having finally been given completely over to themselves, being what they are.

What are your thoughts on the matter? What do you think an eternity without God and any of His blessings would be like?

Grace, A Word Study

“For it is by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not of yourselves; it is the gift of God. It is not by works, so that no one can boast.” Paul wrote these wonderful words in Ephesians 2:8-9, and they are one of the things that set Christianity apart from every other religion in the world. Only in biblical Christianity is a person saved apart from any works. In every other faith, our salvation depends in some way or another on us. We have to earn it. But for Paul, our salvation is a matter of grace.

But what is grace? I know a pastor who teaches extensively on grace, and he once thought to ask several people what they thought the word meant. The answers were revealing. One woman in particular thought grace meant gracefulness, as in beauty or charm. She thought that to be saved by the grace of Jesus meant that He was so graceful, so beautiful, so charming, that we were drawn to Him to live a better life, which resulted in our salvation! (As an aside, that view was held by some for a time in church history, so she isn’t the only person to have ever been confused on the meaning of grace.)

The Hebrew and Greek words we translate “grace” are hen and charis. Hen can be translated “favor” and refers to free and unconditional blessing, often used of God. Noah (Gen. 6:8), Joseph (Gen. 39:21), Moses (Ex. 33:12) and many others all found hen in the eyes of God. It is nothing less than God’s good will toward man. Charis is the Greek equivalent of hen. It is closely related to one of the words for “gift” (charisma) and has the idea of a freely bestowed blessing.

Grace, in the biblical sense, has been properly defined as “unmerited favor.” It is the completely unearned, undeserved, good will of God. The moment we try to earn it a blessing from Him, it ceases, by its very nature, to be grace (Rom. 4:4-5; 11:6).

Few Christians have stopped to consider the how radical this idea is. Many of us are convinced that we have to do something to earn God’s favor. The idea of unconditional acceptance is so far from our own experience that it often offends us to imagine it. Yet this is the only means of salvation. It must be, because if God is truly righteous, then nothing we could do would ever be able to measure up to His righteous demands. Put simply, we are saved by grace or not at all!

Lewis Sperry Chafer put it best when he said: “Pure Grace is neither treating a person as he deserves, nor treating a person better than he deserves, but treating a person without the slightest reference to what he deserves.”

Are you relying on the grace of God, as given through Jesus Christ, for your salvation, or are you trying to do something to earn it? What are your thoughts? How different do you think our churches, in fact our world, would be, if those who had received God’s grace would begin extending it to others?

Love, A Word Study

What is love? Writers and poets have tried for centuries to define it, to capture its essence. Even the biblical writers were captivated by it. 1 Corinthians 13 has been called the love chapter. There, Paul extols the virtues of love. It is patient. It is kind. It is forgiving. It doesn’t remember wrongs, and on he goes. John has been called the apostle of love. For him, love is part of the very essence of God Himself, for he says, “God is love” (1 John 4:8).

But in all this, what is love?

The New Testament uses two words to describe love: agape and philos. Most Bible teachers define agape as “God’s kind of love” and philos as “brotherly love.” Based on that, they take passages like John 21:15-18 and preach that our love for God must be of the highest order, and that poor Peter at that point in his life had mere philos for Jesus, rather than the agape Jesus desired.

It is certainly true that we should love God completely. We should love him with our heart, soul, and mind. But I think the distinction between agape and philos is overstated. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, Amnon “loved” (agape) his sister Tamar. In fact, his love for her is asserted twice, in 2 Sam. 13:1 and 2 sam. 13:15! Clearly, agape, at least in those verses, do not mean “God’s kind of love.”

In fact, both words are much like the English word “love.” They have a range of meanings that includes everything from attraction to affection, parental to friendly concern, and everything in between. Love can be positive when directed at God. It is negative when directed at evil. The best way to understand love is not to look at a definition, but to look at how God Himself, who is love, demonstrated it to us.

Most translations render John 3:16 as “For God so loved the world.” But we agree with the NET Bible, which offers this translation “This is the way God loved the world . . .” Love is not an emotion. Does anyone think that God had the warm fuzzies for the creation that had turned its back on Him and declared Him its enemy? When Jesus demanded we love our enemy, was He saying we should like them a lot? Of course not. Love is an action. How did God love us? By doing for us what we could not do for ourselves: by sending His Son to take our place on the Cross.

Love is that which looks to its object and in grace seeks the best for it. It is distinguished from mere duty in that it is accompanied by an emotion, but that emotion has nothing to do with liking someone. That emotion is concern or compassion. We see that clearly in John 3:16. God looked on lost and dying world, and desiring what was best for us, in His mercy, compassion, and grace, He bankrupted heaven on our behalf. He gave the one thing that only He could give.

Whatever word we use to describe this, be it love, agape, or philos, the command to love is a command precisely because it is something we choose to do. We can put the needs of our enemies before our own and seek their best. Love, then, is grace in action. Of course, if God is love, then we cannot give love until we know Love, and the only way to know love is to accept the love He gave us in His Son. It is only when we come with completely open hands, offering nothing to God but receiving His grace, that we can understand the unconditional acceptance that is the very essence of the most powerful force in the world.

Where did God come from?

If God made everything, then who made God? Where did He come from?

The short answer to this, of course, is that no one made God. He has always existed. That answer, though, doesn’t help a lot of people. The question is usually raised in response to the argument that someone or something had to make the universe, and that someone must be God. It seems, though, that if we demand an explanation for the origin of the universe that we should also demand an explanation for the origin of God, and to say He always existed doesn’t seem fair. In that case, why not just say the universe has always existed?

In the first place, modern science doesn’t have an eternal universe. Ours had a true beginning. Some scientists who don’t like the implications of that are working hard to try and find a way around it, but until they do, we can’t say “the universe has always existed.”

But scientists have a bigger problem, because even if they find a scientific model that allows for an eternal universe, there are serious philosophical reasons for rejecting it. Nothing in this universe absolutely must exist. I don’t. You don’t. The sun, earth, moon, and stars don’t. That is evident in the fact that everything that exists didn’t at one point. That is why we demand an explanation for their origin. Since I don’t have to exist, but I do, where did I come from? Obviously, my parents. Since the earth doesn’t have to exist but does, where did it come from? Scientists have created an elaborate answer for that, along with everything else in the universe—including the universe itself. In other words, since the universe itself doesn’t have to exist, even if scientist were to create a scientific model that allowed for an eternal universe, we would still be left with the need to demand an explanation of its origin. It doesn’t have to be here, but it is. The old question that reflects this problem is, “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

But the same can’t be said about God. He is the kind of being that has His existence in Himself. His essence is existence. It makes about as much sense to speak of God’s non-existence as it does to speak of a married woman’s non-existent spouse.

The bottom line is that God is self-existent. The universe is not, and we know this by our daily experience. Some may object to this answer by saying we can’t define God into existence. If we could do that, then we could say that unicorns necessarily must exist, and therefore, they do. Yet clearly unicorns don’t exist, or at least, not in our experience. The criticism is fair, and we will deal with it in future studies. Whether or not any necessary being like God really does exist is a matter of debate and has no direct relevance to the question of God’s origin. What we can positively assert is that nothing in this universe necessarily exists, and therefore, the universe needs an explanation; if God exists, though, since His essence is existence itself, then it makes no sense to speak of His origin. He exists because it is His nature to exist, which means that nothing brought Him into existence. That would imply that He was given existence by something else, as you and I were given existence by our parents; but that would deny the definition of God we have accepted, since it would mean that He had to be given His existence when, by definition, He already has it.

So when someone asks where God came from, we can confidently say, “He didn’t come from anywhere. He just IS.”

Sin, A Word Study: Part III

Our study on sin continues by examining three more words that highlight the guilt associated with it: awon, anomia, and adikia.

Awon is a Hebrew word that emphasizes trouble, sorrow, or emptiness. A general word for sin, it, like ra, focuses on the pain sin brings. An example of this is found in Gen. 35:18, where Rachel names Benjamin “Ben-oni” (oni is a derivative of awon), or literally “son of my trouble,” with her dying breath. Moral guilt, however, is not absent from its meaning. It is also used to refer to idolatry and even of idols themselves, as in Hos. 5:8, where Hosea calls Bethel (lit. “house of God”) Beth-Awon, meaning “house of idols.” The connection to idolatry probably is due to the fact that awon is closely associated with the Hebrew word for “nothingness” or “non-existence.” Likewise, in 1 Sam. 3:13, God promises to judge Eli for the iniquity of his sons. Ultimately, their awon brought about not only their deaths, but the death of Eli as well.

It is not surprising, then, that guilt associated with sin is a major idea of awon. As such, sacrifices had to be offered so that it could be forgiven (Lev. 5:1, etc.).  The ultimate sacrifice was found in Jesus Christ, as predicted by Isaiah in Isa 53:6, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (KJV) The word for “gone astray” is taah, which has the idea of wandering away. Isaiah is saying that in wandering away from God’s righteousness, all had sinned and brought trouble and evil (awon). Yet rather than punishing us for this sin, God laid it all on His own Son at the Cross.

Adikia is a New Testament word that literally means “unrighteous.” It some places, this word is used to translate awon. Therefore, passages like Rom. 1:18 and 2 Pet. 2:13 speak of God’s wrath being poured out on adikia. It also means “unjust” (Luke 18:6) and thus “workers of iniquity” (Luke 13:27).

Anomia literally means “no law” or “lawlessness.” John equates sin with lawlessness in 1 John 3:4, and Jesus says that lawlessness or iniquity begins in the heart (Matt. 24:12). One who breaks God’s law is just as guilty before God as one who breaks man’s law is before a human judge.

The differences between awon and adikia and anomia are not that great. The latter two are virtually synonymous, and the differences between the Greek and Hebrew words show the difference in the way they thought. The Greek mind was more abstract, whereas the Hebrew mind was more concrete. For the Hebrew, awon speaks of the guilt and trouble that comes from sin. For the Greek, adikia and anomia speak of the guilt and punishment that come from breaking the law. In both cases, the sinner is condemned and, if not forgiven, must be dealt with as justice demands. The Gospel, then, emphasizes how God’s justice was satisfied by the Cross of Christ.

Sin, A Word Study: Part II

As we continue our word study on the concept of sin, we will look at a few words commonly translated “evil” or “wicked.” In Hebrew, the main word is ra. The Greek New Testament uses two words: kakos and poneros.

The easiest way to define ra is by its opposite. It is frequently set against the word tob, which means “good.” Thus, Moses says, “See, I set before you today life and good [tob], and death and evil [ra]” (Deut. 30:15, my translation). Ra is that which is harmful, bad, and undesirable. When one suffers ra, it can have the idea of “calamity” or “misfortune.” On the other hand, when one practices ra, it means “wickedness.” In this, we see the deep connection between sin and its harmful effects. This is not to say that an act is only ra if it produces obviously harmful results. Humans have a tendency to rationalize their actions and weigh consequences differently. Therefore, the Old Testament frequently speaks of those who practice ra in the eyes of the Lord.

Of particular interest is the OT concept that a person who practices ra will be destroyed, for not only is God against him, but so is the very order of life itself (Deut. 31:29; Prov. 13:17; Isa. 31:2, etc.). As a result of this, God calls such men to turn from their wickedness, which will result in their salvation, not from Hell, but from ra’s impact. The OT consistently warns its readers against embracing wickedness and, in fact, counsels hating it as a way to avoid its consequences.

Kakos is the Greek equivalent of ra. Like its Hebrew counterpart, it can be defined by its opposition to the good (agathos). In the NT, again, the idea of trouble or misfortune is present (Matt. 6:34) and is even applied to disease (Mk. 1:32). When practicing kakos, the idea is moral evil, wickedness, or of causing damage (1 Pet. 3:13, etc.). Again, the practical implications of sin and evil are evident.

Poneros can refer to sickness and even worthlessness, but it is also used ethically in the sense of being opposed to God. Particularly interesting is that Satan is called ho poneros, “the evil one.” Like kakos and the Hebrew ra, it appears that the practical impacts of sin are highlighted in this word, though the focus in poneros seems to be tilted toward ethical evil.

This category of words from both the Old and New Testaments demonstrate that God’s view of sin is not arbitrary. To miss the mark is to engage in thoughts or activity that is harmful or destructive. We should not, however, assume that something is only sinful because it is harmful, for God is said to bring about harm in response to sin. Rather, the harm flows from the sin, and therefore, God wants us to avoid sin for our own well-being.

A Summary of Romans 10:9-10

This post will summarize Romans 10:9-10 and provide basic application. Readers interested in a detailed defense of these statements are encouraged to consult “An Exegesis of Romans 10:9-10.”

[I]f you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved. (Rom. 10:9-10, NIV)

Though this verse is commonly quoted when people want to “close the deal” when sharing their faith, there are several reasons to believe that it is not talking about “going to heaven” at all. Its basic message is actually that believers who are under the discipline of God or suffering in the bondage of sin may call out to God through Jesus Christ for their deliverance.

First, this passage is found in Romans 9-11, a unit that is largely focused on Israel and her restoration. The immediate context bears this out, as does the following chapter. Historically, Israel was under the imminent threat of destruction by the Roman Empire (predicted by Jesus in Matt. 24:1-2). Paul’s point was that if they would call upon Jesus Christ whom they had rejected, they would have been delivered from that danger. They did not and Jerusalem fell in AD 70.

Second, the word “salvation” in Romans does not refer to salvation from Hell, but deliverance from a temporal danger, such as God’s wrath. Therefore, it is inappropriate to use this verse in attempt to lead someone to Christ. As it happens, the word for salvation from Hell in Romans is “justification.”

Third, there are two conditions for salvation in this passage: belief and confession. Yet the Bible makes it clear that the sole condition for eternal salvation is faith alone! (See John 3:16, etc.)

Paul’s point is that if the Jews would have believed that God raised Jesus from the dead (which would have resulted in their justification, that is, the salvation of their souls), then, being children of God, they could have turned to Him for deliverance from the coming danger they faced. Someday, Israel will make that confession (at the end of the Tribulation), and all of Israel will be delivered from the persecution they have faced for millennia.

These verses are not relevant only for the Jews, though. If any believer calls upon the name of the Lord (Jesus Christ), then they can be saved—not saved from Hell, for that is already guaranteed—but saved from the discipline that God lays upon His disobedient children. The effects of sin in the Christian life are devastating. Many believers are trapped in bondage. This verse offers more than salvation from Hell. It offers freedom in the here and now! Jesus came to give us not only life, but a free, abundant life. This verse is Paul’s explanation of how we access that freedom.

Should we pray to Jesus or to the Father?

For many years I’ve heard Christians “pray” to Jesus. I believe that because Jesus Prayed to a Being Higher than Himself (God), We are to pray to God in the name of Jesus Christ. Am I wrong in thinking this way, or are we to pray to Jesus? – Mike T.

Should we pray to the Father or to Jesus? To some, the question may seem silly. “Well, Jesus is God, so it doesn’t really matter who you pray to!” they may argue. Of course, on one level, such an answer is absolutely correct. The Son is just as much God as is the Father, and God isn’t going to ignore the prayers of His children because we addressed the wrong Person of the Godhead. But on the other hand, the question is deeply important, because it says a great deal about our understanding of our relationship to God and what exactly Jesus did for us.

When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray (Luke 11:1), He gave them a model prayer that begins, “Our Father,” not “Dear God.” He did not say, “Well, you pray to Me, of course . . .” Certainly, from a Trinitarian perspective, Jesus is identifying the Person to whom the disciples should pray. But more than that, the word “Father” brings out the relationship between God and believers. It is used only fifteen times in the Old Testament with reference to God, yet the New Testament uses it nearly 250 times! The Jews were not accustomed to thinking of God as “Father” except in the distant sense of a protector and the one who brought them into existence (cf. John 8:41). Even then, though, there is a difference in referring to God as your Father and addressing Him as such.

What makes this truth even more amazing is that through Jesus such intimacy can be had at all with God. Again, while there is nothing wrong with praying to Jesus, it is important to recognize that His life and death allowed us access to the Father’s throne. This truth would be grand enough to simply pray to God as God, but to address the Father as Father, all thanks to Jesus, is humbling to consider!

Finally, I have always wondered when I hear people praying to Jesus what their view of the Trinity actually is. It is very easy to slip into the thinking that the Father, Son, and Spirit are all really the same Person, and that God simply manifests Himself in these different ways as the situation demands. This view is technically called Modalism and was condemned centuries ago as a heresy. It has made something of a resurgence in recent years thanks to Oneness Pentecostalism. In most cases, the people who pray to Jesus probably simply have not stopped to consider these issues, but it is possible that such languages actually shows a misunderstanding about the very nature of the Godhead.

The bottom line is that while it is certainly not wrong in any way to pray to Jesus, we should direct our prayers primarily to the Father, for that is why Jesus came in the first place. We have a relationship with Him thanks entirely to the Son, and we live in that relationship through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Sin, A Word Study: Part I

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“Sin” is a common word in Christian circles. Preachers, teachers, and lay people use it regularly, but how many people have taken the time to look up what it actually means? We all understand that it means doing something that is “wrong.” But what do we mean by “wrong”? We’re going to spend a few days looking at the various Greek and Hebrew words that help us understand the biblical concept of “sin.” We will need several days for the simple reason that there are some twenty words used in both languages to describe this concept! When we compare this to the fact that the Bible only uses three words to describe grace, it becomes apparent how seriously God wants His children to know exactly what He means by “sin.”

Today, we will look at the two most basic words for sin: hata and hamartano.

Hata is the basic word for sin in the Old Testament and essentially means “to miss the mark.” The word picture is an archer shooting at a target and missing his goal. The mark or goal we are shooting for is to live according to God’s will. When we act contrary to that, we miss that mark and fall short of His standards, which is to say, we sin. For that reason, those who miss God’s mark even once are called “sinners.” It is instructive that missing the mark is not merely a passive missing, but also includes the idea of hitting the wrong target. Sin is not just failing to get something right. It is actively doing something removed from what God demands.

Hamartano is the Greek equivalent of hata. Again, it is a broad word that is used to refer to sin generally, and understands that sin to be any act that misses God’s standards. Thus, when the New Testament asserts that Jesus was without sin, it is literally saying that Jesus never once in His entire life missed the mark of God’s perfection in any of His actions.

When studying the other words the biblical authors use to help us understand the various nuances of “sin,” this basic meaning of missing a mark must always be kept in mind. The mark is nothing less than God’s perfection and is best summed up as “righteousness.” When we understand these words, Paul’s statement in Rom 3:23 rings all the more true: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”