Do other passages teach eternal conscious torment?

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This is the fifth post in a series on the nature of hell. The series begins here.

As I wrote in my last post, whenever I had cause to explain or defend the idea of eternal conscious torment, I always relied on two foundational claims:

  1. that the unequivocal wording of Scripture teaches the eternal conscious torment of the lost.
  2. that this belief has been consistently held by the vast majority of the church throughout our history.

As we’ve seen in the last two posts, both of these claims are weak, if not outrightly incorrect. We don’t have any evidence of an overwhelming consensus regarding the nature of hell in the first 600 years of church history. (And a claim that the eternal conscious torment view was predominant in the early church is particularly suspect.) Significant, soundly orthodox Christian leaders have held other views of hell throughout the history of the church. In the last post, we took a closer look at the Greek word aionios and found that it does not mean “eternal,” but “pertaining to the age” or—in the context of the hell passages—“of the age to come.” So the hell passages that speak of “eternal fire” or “eternal punishment” are more accurately referring to the fire of the age to come or the punishment of the age to come (and the life of the age to come). It’s obvious that this strongly diminishes the biblical case for eternal conscious torment. But are there any other passages that might explicitly teach this view? Let’s look at some Scriptures:

Luke 16:19-31 Lazarus and the rich man

In discussions of hell, someone will almost always bring up this familiar story. So let’s take some time to think about it. First of all, we should note that the story Jesus tells has to do with Hades or “the grave.” This isn’t talking about the fate of the lost after the resurrection and judgment, so this actually tells us nothing about hell. But let’s consider it anyway.

Many would accept this story as either describing something that literally happened or at least a faithful explanation of the nature of the afterlife. But a great many Bible scholars would caution us about being too quick in how we interpret this story. Why? Because they understand the historical context. The story that Jesus tells is noticeably similar to a folk story that was common in the Jewish culture at that time, but with some striking differences. The way the story was commonly told, the rich man was invariably the hero. The Jewish people of that time typically associated wealth with the blessing and favor of God. So this was a moral tale intended to contrast the responsible, godly rich man with the lazy, sinful beggar. Jesus tells this familiar story but he turns it on its head. It’s Lazarus, the poor beggar, who enjoys the blessing of paradise after he dies, and it’s the rich man who experiences the anguish of judgment! This would have been a shocking reversal to the people hearing Jesus’ story—especially to the Pharisees.

Some would understand all of this, but yet insist that Jesus is still describing something that actually occurred. Why? Because he gives us the name of Lazarus. We don’t see any other place where Jesus includes someone’s name in a parable, so, the thinking goes, this must not be a parable. But, while it’s true that Jesus does name Lazarus, and this is unusual, this interpretation also misses the actual significance of Jesus giving us this name. What was the rich man’s name? Jesus never tells us. Think about that. This rich man would have occupied a place of prominence in his community and in the life of the Jewish people. But in this story the man dies nameless, just some generic rich guy, with no identity or legacy. But the person they would have thought of as a nameless, faceless, generic poor beggar—he is given a name, an identity. The contrast is dramatic and would have added to the shocking impact to those hearing the story.

But—others might say—surely Jesus wouldn’t tell a story that doesn’t correspond to reality, even if it was intended to be a parable. Yet Jesus often included elements of parables that, though understandable, differed somewhat from actual reality. (Sowers wouldn’t have scattered their seed everywhere indiscriminately; no one would actually begin plowing and then not look where they were going, etc.) And it’s quite common for teachers to utilize folk tales that aren’t literally true as illustrations, as long as the people they’re teaching know they’re folk tales. Imagine a pastor in a church beginning a story with: “So, these three people die, and they each go to Saint Peter at the pearly gates . . .” Would anyone listening to this assume that this evangelical pastor is affirming the theological truth that when we die we’re each interviewed at the pearly gates by Saint Peter?! Of course not. They would understand the pastor was using a familiar scenario as an illustration to make a point. And Jesus was doing much the same thing.

If we’re supposed to understand this story as giving an accurate depiction of the afterlife, then we have more problems than the torment it describes. Let’s look at a couple of other details in the passage:

  • According to the story, heaven or paradise is characterized primarily by association with Abraham, and Abraham is somehow the key figure of authority there. Ask yourself this question: Does this emphasis of Abraham as the key figure best fit a biblical understanding of heaven or paradise, or does it fit much better with a first century Jewish folk understanding of heaven or paradise?
  • In this story, what determines who ends up on which side of the chasm? Jesus hasn’t died yet or been resurrected. So it has nothing to do with that. In fact, nothing is said about faith at all. Is this story teaching us that poor beggars all go to “heaven” and rich people all go to “hell”? Someone might respond: no, it has to do with the way they treated others. Okay, so that means their works determine whether they go to heaven or hell? Lazarus was saved because of his own righteousness?

No, if we try to understand this story as a literal depiction of hell for the purpose of preserving belief in eternal conscious torment, we end up with some very problematic theological baggage. It makes much more sense that Jesus was using a common folk story of the time to challenge the moral and spiritual assumptions of the people, just as a great many Bible scholars tell us. Regardless, as we observed above, this story is about Hades, not hell, so it doesn’t tell us anything directly about the fate of the lost after judgment.

Mark 9:43-48 “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched”

In a passage where Jesus is speaking of Gehenna [for more background regarding Gehenna, see my previous post], Jesus quotes this reference from Isaiah. Strangely—even though there’s no other place in Scripture where “worm” is a metaphor for one’s soul or spirit—some would assume this worm is speaking of the immortal soul of the lost. This is even less plausible when we take the time to look at the verse Jesus is quoting from Isaiah 66:24, where the passage is poetically describing the fate of those who would be judged, and what happens to their physical bodies. This passage in Isaiah is describing the decay and consumption of physical, mortal corpses, not spirits or souls. This is even more clear when we read this verse in Mark from a more current translation. For instance, the NLT renders this phrase: “where the maggots never die and the fire never goes out.” When we look at this in context—especially going back to the section in Isaiah that Jesus is quoting—it’s difficult to read into this anyone’s immortal soul. It actually strengthens the interpretation that Jesus is following the same understanding of Gehenna we see consistently in the Old Testament, and using this to warn of the coming judgment of Jerusalem in AD 70 (see this post). For a Jewish person to not be buried after death, but to have their corpse subjected to such a shameful end, would have been horrific.

But what of this unquenchable fire? The NASB translation of this in Isaiah 66:24 gives the sense of the Hebrew here: “And their fire will not be extinguished.” Let’s make sure we’re thinking about this according to the original context (to which Jesus was referring). Isaiah is speaking of the destruction of literal corpses that will horrify those who see what happens to these rebellious people. So are these corpses still being eaten by maggots somewhere today? Is this fire still consuming their bodies? No, it’s not. So, what is this saying? Simply that this is the judgment of God, and no one else can extinguish the fire of God’s judgment. It will burn until it accomplishes God’s will. It is “unquenchable,” not meaning that it will never go out, but that no one else can quench it. (If Captain Kirk begins an “unstoppable” auto-destruct sequence, that doesn’t mean it will go on forever, just that no one else can stop it!)

Daniel 12:2 “shame and everlasting disgrace”

Many of those whose bodies lie dead and buried will rise up, some to everlasting life and some to shame and everlasting disgrace.

This is a significant passage because it’s the only place in the Old Testament where we see an unambiguous reference to resurrection, bodies that were lying dead and buried being raised up. But it’s also often brought into the discussion of the nature of hell because of the mention of “everlasting disgrace” or contempt. That’s not quite a description of eternal conscious torment, but it is a distinction between “everlasting life” and “everlasting disgrace.” What are we to make of this?

I was interested to see that the Hebrew word translated “everlasting” here is the word olam. This caught my attention because I was already very familiar with this word. Long before I was doing serious study regarding the nature of hell, I wrote a blog post on Christians and the Old Covenant law. In the ensuing comment thread, the issue of the Sabbath became a point of contention. Some would quote a verse such as Exodus 31:16 (ESV):

Therefore the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout their generations, as a covenant forever.

You can see why some people would cite this verse. It clearly seems to be saying the observation of the Sabbath is a covenant that lasts forever. But I had to explain that the word olam—in a way that’s similar but not identical to the Greek word aionios—can be used to convey the meaning of “forever” but it’s primary meaning is closer to “lasting” or “perpetual.” This can be confirmed by referring to a Hebrew dictionary such as the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, or one could just compare translations. For instance, the NIV translates Exodus 31:16 this way:

The Israelites are to observe the Sabbath, celebrating it for the generations to come as a lasting covenant.

The NET and NRSV read “perpetual covenant,” and the NASB and CSB render it “permanent covenant.”

This isn’t an isolated example. There are many references in the Old Testament law that were traditionally rendered “This shall be a statute forever,” that more current translations now more accurately clarify as a “perpetual law” or “permanent law.” We can see why the traditional rendering doesn’t make sense in passages such as Exodus 21:5-6 where a slave can decide he doesn’t want to be freed from his master but he “shall be his slave forever” (ESV). Will this slave actually be a slave to his master forever? Of course not. That’s why most current translations render this more accurately that this slave will serve his master “for life.” Another example is Genesis 49:26 where it speaks—depending on the translation—of either “the eternal hills” (are any hills eternal?), or of the “age-old” or “ancient” hills. This is also why we need to be careful with such passages as Isaiah 34:10 that says the smoke of Edom “shall go up forever” (ESV). Can we see the smoke of Edom still going up? No, we can’t. And translations such as the NET translate this word more accurately as the smoke “will ascend continually.”

The very most that could be said of this passage is that the context of the verse has to determine whether olam means eternal in that context. This would mean we can’t just assume a meaning of “eternal” or “everlasting” in Daniel 12:2—when the word most often means something else—and then use the passage to somehow prove that hell is eternal. That would be circular reasoning, assuming our understanding in the text to use the text to prove our understanding! It seems much more accurate to understand this verse as speaking of lasting or continual disgrace without specifying any final outcome.

Hebrews 9:27 “destined to die once and after that comes judgment”

When we’ve had group studies and discussions about the differing views of hell, someone will always bring up passages that explicitly mention hell or judgment—as if this disproves all other views and settles the issue. But we can’t forget that all of the views that evangelicals hold regarding the nature of hell include the judgment of God and a very real hell. Showing references to hell or judgment in Scripture doesn’t do anything to disprove any of the other views. (Just as showing that personal faith in Jesus Christ is necessary for salvation doesn’t do anything to disprove the view of universal salvation, because evangelical universalists also insist that we must all be saved through faith in Christ.)

Some will use Hebrews 9:27 to argue that there’s no possible opportunity to be saved after death. Let’s look carefully at what the text actually says (and what it doesn’t say):

And just as each person is destined to die once and after that comes judgment . . . 

Hopefully you can see the problem. This verse says that we’ll all die once. So this could be a good verse to counter something like reincarnation. And it also tells us that after death will come judgment. So far, so good. We all agree on this. But what happens after judgment? Is there any chance of repentance and restoration? The text doesn’t say. It doesn’t address at all what happens after judgment. So if we try to use this passage to argue what happens—or can’t happen—after judgment, we’re reading this into the text. (This is what Bible scholars call “eisegesis,” reading our meaning into the text of Scripture rather than drawing it out from the text of Scripture, which is “exegesis.”) We’re so locked into the idea there’s no chance of salvation after death, that we’re shocked when we realize the Scriptures never clearly tell us this at all. To use this passage to teach one particular view of hell would be like saying that after conception comes the birth of the child—and this somehow confirms my views about parenting!

After looking at each of these Scripture passages, we have to conclude that none of them clearly teach the eternal conscious torment of the lost. So, is there anywhere the Bible explicitly and unambiguously articulates the idea of eternal conscious torment? I can’t find anyplace. Does this mean that hell is not eternal? Not necessarily. We still need to look at the broader theological arguments. But it does mean that my previous understanding that eternal conscious torment is an inescapable teaching from the clear and unequivocal wording of Scripture is simply not true. The case supporting eternal conscious torment from the explicit texts of Scripture is decidedly lacking. But is there actually a biblical case to be made that no one will be eternally lost, but that all will be reconciled to God and restored? We’ll begin looking at this next.

[The views I express in this series of posts are my own. The church I serve, The Orchard, doesn’t have an official position regarding the nature of hell but allows the freedom of differing views. Our church association, the Evangelical Free Church of America, includes the explicit belief in eternal conscious punishment as part of the Statement of Faith.]

Understanding the “eternal fire” of hell

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This is the fourth post in a series on the nature of hell. The series begins here.

As an evangelical pastor, there have been times I’ve had to explain, or even defend, hell. More precisely, I was explaining what I understood to be the biblical teaching of eternal conscious torment in hell. I didn’t do this because I loved the idea of endless punishment or because I was a “hellfire-and-brimstone preacher.” I did it because I felt I had to in order to be biblically faithful. On these occasions, I always fell back on what I saw as the two solid foundations of belief in an endless hell:

  1. the unequivocal wording of Scripture.
  2. the historical consensus of the church.

As we saw in the last post, it’s not really appropriate to speak of a consensus regarding the nature of hell in the first 500 years of the life of the church. While, over time, universal salvation became a distinctly minority view, there continued to be Christian leaders and pastors who held this view throughout the history of the church. We didn’t have time to explore later Christian universalists such as the 17th century Puritan universalist Peter Sterry, men who were associated with George Whitefield who came to embrace universalism such as James Relly and John Murray, 18th century Baptist universalist Elhanan Winchester, or universalist authors such as Hannah Whitall Smith and George MacDonald.1 Again, these are just a sampling, but it seems clear the second point above is, at the very best, inconclusive.

But the wording of Scripture does seem to be unequivocal and inescapable. When addressing this issue, I always relied on the three passages I felt speak most clearly about the nature of hell. I would begin with Matthew 25:41-46, which uses the phrases “eternal fire” and “eternal punishment” (contrasted with “eternal life”):

Then he will also say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels! . . .” Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.

I would go from this passage to 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9 (CSB):

They will pay the penalty of eternal destruction from the Lord’s presence and from his glorious strength . . .

And finally I would turn to the description in Revelation 14:9-11:

A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives its mark on their forehead or on their hand, they, too, will drink the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. They will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment will rise forever and ever. There will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name.”

It was hard to see how these passages could be even more clear. So when I first began hearing about an evangelical Christian form of universalism, I was curious how they would deal with such verses. When I heard the suggestion that the words “eternal” or “forever and ever” in these passages don’t actually mean eternal or forever and ever, I was immediately suspicious. That can be a way of skirting around the clear meaning of a text: Oh, what this really means is . . . My initial thought was that the people who believed this weren’t able to deal with these passages, so they were grasping at straws to explain them away.

But there were two things that didn’t let me dismiss this claim so easily. The first was my awareness that tradition does sometimes influence the choices of scholars translating the Bible. For instance, in Ephesians 4:11 there’s no reason why the word poimenas (the plural form of poimen) is translated “pastors” except for tradition. Variations of this word are found 18 times in the New Testament; 17 of those times the word is translated “shepherd(s).” It’s only this one verse where the word “pastors” is used. The word ekklesia wasn’t a religious word at all in the first century, but a common one connoting an assembly or association of people, yet it’s usually translated “church.” Again, this is due to tradition. There are many other examples we could list. So it wouldn’t be unprecedented for tradition to influence the translation of certain words in these hell passages.

Along with this realization, I began to run across (without looking for them) comments by trusted, solidly conservative, evangelical scholars admitting that the Greek word for “eternal” or “forever” in these passages doesn’t actually mean eternal or forever. For instance, no less an authority than Greg Beale, in his monumental commentary on the book of Revelation, has this to say:

Strictly speaking, even the expression “they will be tormented forever and ever” is figurative: eis tous aionas ton aionon literally can be rendered “unto the ages of the ages”; at the least, the phrase figuratively connotes a very long time. The context here and in the whole Apocalypse must determine whether this is a limited time or an unending period . . . 2

New Testament scholar F.F. Bruce consistently understood the word aionios in Scripture, usually translated “eternal,” to mean, not eternal, but “of the age (aion) to come.” 3 Greg Strand is the executive director of theology and credentialing for the EFCA (our church’s home association). In a blog post, commenting on Matthew 25:41, 46, he wrote: “It is true that the word translated ‘eternal’ here (aiōnios) means ‘pertaining to the age.’” 4 Both Beale and Strand go on to argue why the word should be understood as eternal in these contexts, and we’ll consider that argument later in this post. But you can understand why I was surprised to find theologically conservative stalwarts treating this seemingly unequivocal wording as . . . well . . . equivocal. And these were certainly not exceptions. It’s hard to find any reputable scholar arguing that the word in these passages unambiguously means “eternal.” Disturbingly, though, many then interpret the passage as if the meaning of “eternal” is certain. I needed to know more about the meaning of this word.

There’s a Greek word used in the New Testament (and in first century literature) that consistently connotes the meaning of “eternal.” That word is aidios. This word isn’t used in any of our hell passages above or anywhere the Scriptures are referring to the judgment of humanity. The word in question for us is aionios (and grammatical variations). The core of this word is the word aion, which is where we get our word eon. The essential meaning of the word in the first century was similar, typically translated “age.” Here are some familiar passages that use the word aion:

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age . . .

Galatians 1:4

. . . when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.

Ephesians 1:20-21

. . . in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.

Ephesians 2:7

The word aionios is the adjective form of aion. As the evangelical scholars above acknowledge, the basic meaning of the adjective aionios is “of the age” or “pertaining to the age.” It can also be used descriptively to connote “age-long.” We see the word aionios translated this way in passages such as Romans 16:25:

Now to him who is able to establish you in accordance with my gospel, the message I proclaim about Jesus Christ, in keeping with the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past . . .

The mystery wasn’t hidden for “eternities” past, but for long ages past. We also see the word translated similarly in 2 Timothy 1:9, which says: “This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time.” The ESV and NRSV both translate this as “before the ages began.”

Most evangelical scholars acknowledge that this word doesn’t mean eternal, but means “pertaining to the age” or “age-long.” Many, though, hedge this by saying this word doesn’t necessarily mean eternal or it may be translated differently. As part of her exhaustive study of early Christian leaders and their views of universal salvation, Ilaria Ramelli needed to determine precisely what this word meant to the people at that time. So she and David Konstan completed the most extensive and detailed study of this word to date. They published this research in a separate book, in which they conclude:

What emerges from the present analysis is that, apart from the Platonic philosophical vocabulary, which is specific to few authors, aionios does not mean “eternal”; it acquires this meaning only when it refers to God, and only because the notion of eternity was included in the conception of God: for the rest, it has a wide range of meanings and its possible renderings are multiple, but it does not mean “eternal.” In particular, when it is associated with life or punishment, in the Bible and in Christian authors who keep themselves close to Bible usage, it denotes their belonging to the world to come [emphasis in original]. 5

I’m not aware of any major challenges to this incredibly comprehensive research. Ramelli and Konstan do show that the word aionios can acquire the meaning of eternal when, for instance, it’s used to describe God. This is much the same as we see when teachers use words such as “lasting” or “enduring” to refer to something that’s eternal. If I were to say: “Do you want to invest your life in what is temporary or what is lasting?” the word “lasting” here doesn’t mean eternal but, in the context of a specific sentence, it can be used to convey the meaning of eternal. We don’t take this meaning from the word itself, but from what it’s describing. So, when used for God, we can understand aionios as conveying the meaning of eternal in that specific context even if that’s not part of the definition of the word. But Ramelli and Konstan make clear that aionios does not mean “eternal.”

So explaining that the word aionios, used in the hell passages in Scripture, doesn’t actually mean eternal but instead means “pertaining to the age to come” isn’t some fringe view, but in harmony with the most current and most complete research into the meaning of the word. It also reflects what Greek-speaking Christians were specifically clarifying to their Latin-speaking brethren in the early church.6 This understanding is confirmed by current research, by ancient observation and by the reticence of non-universalist scholars to insist on eternal conscious torment in the hell passages based strictly on the meaning of this word. 

Drawing from all of this, it seems clear we should understand passages such as Matthew 25 to be referring to the life of the age to come and the fire or punishment of the age to come. This fits the meaning of the word as we’ve confirmed, and it fits the context. This means it would be inappropriate to use these passages to teach eternal conscious torment. But some might say (and I’ve said): “Wait a minute. Matthew 25 is speaking of both the punishment of the lost and the life we receive as believers in Christ. If the life is eternal, then the punishment must be as well. And if the punishment isn’t eternal, then neither is the life.”

At first this sounds very logical and convincing. But let’s consider this a bit more carefully. This verse is referring to both punishment and life, and it uses the same word to describe both. So whatever this word is saying about one it’s also saying about the other. It doesn’t mean that everything that’s true of one is also true of the other; it just means that whatever aionios means about punishment it also means about life. If aionios meant that the punishment is torment, then it would also be saying the life is torment; if aionios meant the punishment is eternal, it would also be saying the life is eternal. The question is what does the word mean. Since—as virtually everyone seems to be acknowledging—the word aionios in this verse means “of the age to come,” then this verse isn’t addressing the duration of either the punishment or the life at all. It’s not saying anything about how long either last; it’s saying something else entirely about both. This means that to insist that the punishment mentioned must be eternal because the life is eternal is simply erroneous, in the same way that to insist that the life mentioned must be torment because the punishment is torment would be erroneous. This verse is no more addressing the duration of either the punishment or life than it is their temperature

It’s completely understandable that non-scholars would make the kind of challenge we just considered. (By the way, we have many other passages that tell us the life to come is, in fact, never-ending. We don’t need this passage to establish this truth.) What’s alarming is to see respected scholars make the same kind of argument when they should recognize what poor reasoning this is and how specious is the argument. The word aionios doesn’t mean eternal (as most seem to agree). So it’s completely improper to import this meaning of “eternal” into this verse when it’s not what the Scripture is saying in this verse about either punishment or life. We want to humbly hear what the Word is saying to us.

What about the Revelation 14 passage? As Beale pointed out above, this would literally be rendered unto or into “the ages of ages.” This kind of phrase should be familiar to us from similar ones such “the Holy of holies,” “King of kings and Lord of lords,” etc. This was a familiar Hebrew way of indicating the ultimate example of something, not the duration of anything. (Remember, aionios doesn’t mean eternal, so repeating it in this phrase doesn’t somehow make it mean eternal or forever.) [I’m curious why the ESV includes a footnote for “forever and ever” in 1 Timothy 1:17 noting “Greek to the ages of ages” but not for this verse.] We also need to be careful in basing too much on the description of this verse because it is, as Beale also reminded us, highly figurative.

So what does all this mean? It means the passages in Scripture that are referring to “eternal” fire, punishment, etc., are actually speaking of the fire of the age to come or the punishment of the age to come. This is what the word means, and I don’t find anyone really contesting that. It also means these verses aren’t telling us anything about the duration or final outcome of hell. Does this disprove the idea of eternal conscious torment? No, it doesn’t. Having a more clear understanding of these passages doesn’t necessarily mean the eternal conscious torment view of hell is wrong. But it does weaken the biblical case for this view considerably. What we’ve understood to be the unequivocal wording of Scripture is, at the very best, highly debatable, and, much more likely, it’s decidedly incorrect. This makes better sense of the number of Greek-speaking scholars and leaders in the early church who held views of hell other than eternal conscious torment (see the previous post). It’s difficult to understand how they could have done so if aionios meant “eternal.” So does this leave any biblical reasons for believing in an eternal hell? We’ll consider some other passages used to support this view in the next post.

[The views I express in this series of posts are my own. The church I serve, The Orchard, doesn’t have an official position regarding the nature of hell but allows the freedom of differing views. Our church association, the Evangelical Free Church of America, includes the explicit belief in eternal conscious punishment as part of the Statement of Faith.]

1. Robin A. Parry with Ilaria E. Ramelli, A Larger Hope?: Universal Salvation from the Reformation to the Nineteenth Century (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2019).
2. G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1999), Revelation 14:11.
3. F. F. Bruce, The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1983), 89; “Age” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eeardmans, 1988) 1:67.
4. Greg Strand, “Eternal Conscious Punishment,” Strands of Thought, August 11, 2015, accessed October 15, 2021.
5. Ilaria E. Ramelli and David Konstan, Terms for Eternity: Aiônios and Aïdios in Classical and Christian Texts (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2013), 238.
6. Ilaria E. Ramelli, A Larger Hope?: Universal Salvation from Christian Beginnings to Julian of Norwich (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2019), 105.

Hell in the early church: What did early church leaders believe about hell?

This is the third post in a series on the nature of hell. The series begins here.

Most evangelical Christians aren’t that familiar with early church writers and teachers, and that’s unfortunate (for many reasons). Because of our lack of historical awareness, we tend to assume the early Christians worshiped pretty much the same way we do every Sunday, and that they believed all the same things we do. When we’re thinking of hell, for instance, even many pastors assume that the vast majority of early church pastors and leaders believed in eternal conscious torment as do the majority of evangelicals today. Is this true?

If pressed, some of us may have some vague recollection that the early Christian scholar Origen held to some form of universalism. And we might even be aware that annihilationists or conditionalists claim Irenaeus as an early proponent of their view. But we would usually consider these people to be outliers in the early history of the church, brilliant theologians who may have been a bit eccentric in some of their beliefs, but overall were exceptions that prove the rule in an otherwise consistently held—and familiar—view of hell. But is this actually the case? It might be good to make sure the early consensus to which we refer did, in fact, exist.

The desire by many to go back and see what these early Christians actually wrote about their beliefs regarding hell has proved a challenge to this common assumption. It’s not that this has never been done before, but there is definitely a renewed—and growing—interest in understanding with greater clarity who believed what about final judgment. Ilaria Ramelli is a respected scholar of historical theology (among other things). In 2013, she published the results of 16 years of painstaking research of early Christian views concerning universal salvation and restoration (apokatastasis in the Greek). [She later published a more affordable, more accessible book covering much of the same material: A Larger Hope?: Universal Salvation from Christian Beginnings to Julian of Norwich (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2019).] 

Ramelli’s work was widely hailed not only for its impressive span and depth, but also for the great care she took in evaluating these ancient authors’ statements in the context of their larger bodies of work, in light of Scripture, and in their historical contexts. Many of her fellow scholars now view her book as a new benchmark on the subject of universal salvation in the early church. (She handily dispatched the challenges of one scholar who attempted an extensive critique of her work, showing his conclusions to be unsupported by the actual historical data.) Ramelli corrected the overreach of some earlier universalists who had tried to show universalism to have been the standard view in the early church. But she also surprised almost everyone by documenting just how extensive belief in universal salvation actually was. Christian universalism was not merely the extreme minority view of one or two isolated thinkers; it was widely held, and taught by many of the people we consider to be great heroes of the early Christian faith.

Origen was by no means the first Christian universalist. Before him were Bardaisan of Edessa and Clement of Alexandria. (There are also indications of belief in universal salvation in Christian writings preceding these teachers. We don’t know the view of many early church leaders because they either didn’t address the issue or didn’t make clear their view.) We shouldn’t move too quickly past Origen himself, though. Possessing an imposing intellect, he’s the only Christian thinker in the first centuries who produced more writing on theology and biblical exposition than did Augustine.

It would take far too long to go through all of the early Christian leaders who believed in universal salvation, but we should comment on a few highly significant examples. Some may be aware that Gregory of Nyssa firmly held a belief in universal salvation and restoration. This is clear in his writings and has been well-documented. Again, this is worth noting because Gregory of Nyssa was one of the most respected theologians of the 4th century, one of the famous “Cappadocian fathers” [the early church leaders are often referred to as the “church fathers”], and honored by the Second Council of Nicea as “father of fathers.” Gregory’s views on universal salvation were well-known, running through virtually all of his writings, and apparently did nothing to hamper the respect or acclaim he garnered. 

Ramelli shows that, while not as clear or outspoken as Gregory of Nyssa, we should include the other Cappadocians, Basil of Caesarea and Gregory Nazianzen, as revered theologians in the early church who evidenced belief in universal salvation. We even see good reason to include the great champion of the Trinity Athanasius among the universalists! Even Augustine believed in universal salvation until later in life (as was also true of Jerome), and he later commented on how prevalent the belief still was at that time. This is just a sampling of a much longer list of prominent Christian theologians in the first 500 years of the history of the church whose theological work incorporated belief in universal reconciliation and restoration.

It’s telling that none of the early creeds include anything at all concerning eternal damnation in hell. And, until the time of Augustine, the fact that Christian leaders and theologians held differing views regarding hell didn’t seem to them cause for debate. Even Augustine didn’t condemn those who disagreed with the view of hell he had come to adopt (eternal conscious torment). We should also note the large number of early church leaders and thinkers who spoke and wrote in Greek who believed in and taught universalism, and the fact that those who advocated for eternal conscious torment tended to be those who spoke and wrote in Latin. This is important because the meaning of the Greek in Scripture became one of the distinguishing points between the views, and the understanding of the early Greek-speaking scholars would have carried much more weight than those who weren’t as conversant in Greek. We’ll look at this in much greater depth in the next post.

So does any of this tell us which view is right and which is wrong? No, it doesn’t. We still have a lot of examining to do linguistically, exegetically and theologically. But looking at this background does keep us from falsely claiming any one view as the overwhelmingly dominant view in the early church. Some overeager proponents of universalism have tried to make it the virtually universal view of early Christians. There’s simply not enough evidence to back up this claim. But we have even less to suggest that eternal conscious torment was the predominant view in the early church, especially among the Greek-speaking believers. However we may debate the specific view of any particular scholar of the early church (and these debates will continue), it seems incontrovertible that the early church of the first five centuries included varying understandings of hell and final judgment. This means we can’t just assume one view as the Christian view, and it makes our continuing study even more necessary if we want to understand what the Bible actually teaches us about hell.

Hell in the Bible: Understanding the biblical words

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This is the second post in a series on the nature of hell. The series begins here.

We use words in church life that are familiar to us in English, but some of these words actually come to us from the original Greek. When it’s time to “baptize” someone, we take our name for this practice from the Greek word baptizo. When we speak of a “deacon” in the church, this comes from the Greek word diakonos. While this is true of many of the words we use, it’s not the case when we talk about hell. There are three different words in the original languages that have often been translated as “hell,” and they don’t all mean the same thing. It’s helpful for us to know what these words are, and what they mean.

Sheol

In early translations of the Bible such as the King James Version, the Hebrew word Sheol was often translated as “hell.” But now in most current translations you won’t find the word hell at all in the Old Testament. Instead Sheol is usually translated as “the grave,” but it can also descriptively refer to “the pit” or “the depths.” Sheol was a vague concept. It referred to the state of being physically dead (hence “the grave”), but it’s unclear whether this was meant to be a location or even a conscious state. Whatever it was precisely, everyone went to Sheol after they died; the righteous and the unrighteous alike—it didn’t matter—everyone went to the grave in the Old Testament. This is all very interesting, but the Old Testament concept of Sheol doesn’t tell us anything about the fate of those who fail to place their faith in Christ before they die.

Hades

In the 400 years between the end of the Old Testament period and the birth of Christ (what we refer to as the “intertestamental period”), Jewish understanding of the grave was influenced by other cultures in ways that went beyond the Old Testament Scriptures. These influences on early Jewish culture came from Egyptian, Persian and Greek ideas of the afterlife, and it became common for first century Jews to use the Greek word Hades in place of the Hebrew Sheol. Hades had much the same meaning as Sheol, it was the grave or the “place of the dead.” And, as with Sheol, Hades was the fate of everyone who died, righteous or unrighteous (although there was now often the idea of some kind of separation within Hades). 

Hades is used 10 times in the New Testament: Matthew 11:23; 16:18; Luke 10:15; 16:23; Acts 2:27, 31; Revelation 1:18; 6:8; 20:13, 14. Notice that neither of these words (Sheol or Hades) refer to what happens to the lost after judgment, or to where someone might spend eternity. So these words in Scripture (and these passages) don’t tell us anything about the eternal fate of the unsaved. These words refer only to the grave—the state of being dead—not to what we think of in Christian theology as hell.

Gehenna

We often hear the observation that Jesus mentioned hell more than anyone else in the Bible. Of course, as we saw above, Hades is more accurately translated “the grave” or “the place of the dead” rather than “hell,” so none of these verses should be considered as references to hell. Another word Jesus used that is often translated “hell” is Gehenna. What do we know about Gehenna?

The first thing we should be aware of is that Gehenna was, and still is, a literal place. It’s a valley just southwest of the old city of Jerusalem. The Greek word Gehenna comes from the Hebrew ge Hinnom. We see this place in the Old Testament as the “Valley of Hinnom” or sometimes the “Valley of the Sons of Hinnom.” So what significance do we see in the Old Testament and in history for the Valley of Hinnom or Gehenna? There were four events that Gehenna was known for, all having to do with fire:

  1. Gehenna was the valley outside Jerusalem where the people of Israel sacrificed their children, burning them in fire on altars to the pagan god Molech. (See 2 Chronicles 28:1-3; 33:6.)
  1. These idolatrous altars were later defiled and broken up, and the valley, Gehenna, was cleansed with fire. (See 2 Kings 23:10-16.)
  1. God spoke through the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah of a coming judgment of fire that would be carried out in the Valley of Hinnom (Gehenna). (See Jeremiah 7:28-34; 19:1-15; 32:32-35.)
  1. In AD 70, Titus—responding to the Jewish rebellion—destroyed the city of Jerusalem, killed all the inhabitants and burned their bodies in Gehenna.

The word Gehenna began taking on different connotations with some Jewish teachers prior to the ministry of Jesus. Some merged the fire associated with Gehenna with their developing concept of Hades, with the righteous going to Paradise and the unrighteous to Gehenna, a fiery place of torment. There was widespread disagreement among these Jewish teachers concerning the nature and duration of Gehenna. In fact, it seems they debated just about everything having to do with Gehenna (who would go there, how long they would be there, what would be the final outcome, etc.). 1

As I mentioned earlier, some Christians make the claim that Jesus talked about hell more than anyone else in the Bible. As we’ve seen, the places where he speaks of Hades would be about the grave, not hell. But it’s very true that Jesus used the word Gehenna more than anyone else in Scripture. The word is found 12 times in the New Testament (Matthew 5:22, 29, 30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Luke 12:5; James 3:6), and all but one of these are in the words of Christ in the Gospels (and these only in the synoptic Gospels). So what did Jesus mean by Gehenna? Biblical scholars have different views. (I should note that many of these references are of parallel accounts in the Gospels, and that Jesus actually only spoke of Gehenna on 4 different occasions.)

Some think when Jesus used the word Gehenna he meant hell, much like these other Jewish teachers. Others aren’t so convinced. In the Old Testament ge Hinnom never refers to anything like hell. It’s always speaking of the literal Valley of Hinnom. Was Jesus following these contemporary Jewish teachers in their understanding of Gehenna, or was he using Gehenna in a way that would be consistent with Jeremiah and every other Old Testament reference? This question is especially meaningful when we consider that Jesus was always challenging their common assumptions and understandings regarding what were, to them, familiar concepts such as Messiah, kingdom, etc. Many scholars have concluded that when Jesus used the word Gehenna, he was following the understanding of Jeremiah, and applying this to the coming judgment of Israel, particularly Jerusalem, in AD 70.

There’s another aspect of this we need to consider. If this was their common word for “hell,” it’s curious that—other than one passing reference by James—Jesus is the only one in the New Testament who uses this word. Why is that? Paul never uses this word; Peter never uses this word; John never uses this word (even in his Gospel); the author of Hebrews doesn’t use this word. This word is only used by Jesus when ministering in a distinctly Jewish setting, and by James in a very early letter, also in a predominantly Jewish context (note James 1:1). Paul often uses other Jewish words and concepts in his letters—but not this one. It’s hard not to see this divergence as lending credence to the idea that Jesus is intentionally referring to the judgment of Jerusalem to come, which would be so vividly, literally and historically fulfilled in the actual Gehenna. This would follow the strong pattern of John the Baptist and Jesus warning of this very judgment: Matthew 3:10; 23:37-38; 24:1-2; Mark 13:1-2; Luke 3:9; 19:41-44; 21:5-6, 20-24. If Gehenna was the common word for hell, why didn’t Peter, John or Paul ever use it?

So, when we begin to look to what Scripture tells us about hell, we need to first recognize that the Old Testament doesn’t say anything explicitly about hell per se. (It does have a lot to say about judgment, of course, and we’ll look at this in a future post.) Many of the New Testament passages we may have thought speak of hell (the references to Hades) are actually speaking of death or the grave, not hell. And even the Gehenna passages are likely referring, not to hell, but to the judgment of Israel in AD 70. This still leaves many other passages that are relevant to our study of hell. For instance, the “lake of fire” is referenced in a 2-verse section in Revelation, and Jesus spoke of both “eternal fire” and “eternal punishment.” We’ll look at these verses in context very soon.

1. Bradley Jersak, Her Gates Will Never Be Shut (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009), “Chapter 3: The Gehenna Tradition(s)”

The question of hell

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Most evangelical Christians have believed in a never-ending hell. We’ve believed this because this is what we’ve been taught from Scripture. But regardless of how much we trust what we’ve been taught about hell, when we think of people actually experiencing endless torment, with no possibility of relief, we wrestle with this as reality. Some Christians deal with this unpleasantness by just thinking about it as little as possible. One could even suggest that if someone hasn’t been deeply troubled by the concept of hell, they probably haven’t thought much about it. But, sooner or later, most of us struggle with making some sense emotionally and theologically of hell. And we’re not alone. John Stott once wrote of the idea of eternal, conscious hell:

Emotionally, I find the concept intolerable and do not understand how people can live with it without either cauterizing their feelings or cracking under the strain. 1

J. I. Packer expressed his own struggle with hell: 

Who can take pleasure in the thought of people being eternally lost? If you want to see folk damned, there is something wrong with you! 2

C. S. Lewis wrote of hell: 

There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power. 3

Few Christians relish the thought of unsaved people being subjected to eternal conscious torment (or completely ceasing to exist), but we’re committed to biblical truth and willing to faithfully believe what the Scriptures teach us. Some have shown just how challenging this issue is, though. For instance, read what Denny Burk has to say about the never-ending punishment of hell:

This view of God’s judgment is not a cause for embarrassment for Christians, but will ultimately become a source of joy and praise for the saints as they witness the infinite goodness and justice of God. 4

Even many who believe in an eternal hell will recoil from this picture, but it challenges us to reflect on our own response to hell. After all, hell is a part of God’s plan, something that God himself made part of his ultimate solution for the problem of sin and rebellion. How could we be embarrassed by part of his plan? Are we more loving and merciful than God? But yet, how could we not struggle with the idea of eternal conscious torment? So we need to be very clear about what the Scriptures actually teach, to either be firmly convinced in our mind that this is the teaching of Scripture or to see that maybe this is not what the Bible teaches.

How should we approach this kind of study?

So, how do we approach studying this kind of issue? There are a few things I’d suggest:

First, begin with any necessary background. There’s some information we need to understand before trying to compare different views. So, in the next post, we’ll go over the different words used in Scripture for hell, and what they meant in their original context. After that, we’ll look at some of the history of how the earliest Christians understood hell.

Next, we need to spend some time delving into the exegetical [drawing from the explicit reading of Scripture] case for our traditional view and for any other view. We’ll look at the foundational claims supporting the eternal conscious punishment view. We’ll also carefully, biblically examine the core question: Will some people be eternally lost? The eternal conscious torment view and the annihilation view both say, “Yes, some people will be eternally lost.” The universal reconciliation and restoration view says, “No, no one will be eternally lost. God will ultimately reconcile and restore all of his creation.” We’ll see which scriptural case is the strongest.

After making sure we understand relevant background information and have studied the key biblical passages, we’ll look at broader theological arguments. How does the character of God affect how we understand this issue? Which view best fits what Scripture teaches about the gospel of Christ? Which best fits into the whole span of the biblical story? How do we deal with scriptural themes such as judgment, love, forgiveness, justice, mercy, death, reconciliation, punishment, restoration and victory?

When I compare differing theological views, I’m not looking for merely the one that can marshal the most impressive list of Scripture passages and arguments.  Most views can be presented in a rhetorically effective way, especially if we consider one view by itself. No, what I’m looking for are proponents of one side who can do an even better job explaining the other side’s passages. I’m looking for the view that makes the best sense of all of Scripture, not just a narrow list of proof texts. When observing an exchange between a Calvinist and an Arminian, I want to see if the Arminian can give a better understanding of Romans 9, and if the Calvinist can give a better understanding of Romans 11, and which one can make the best sense of the flow of Romans and the rest of Scripture. So in considering differing views of hell, I want to see who can best explain all of the relevant passages and who can present the most biblically and theologically comprehensive and coherent view.

We want to make sure we’re not basing any belief on our emotional preferences. However, we also can’t divorce our emotions from a study that includes concepts such as the love of God, restoration of relationships, and the suffering of judgment. If we were to remove all the passages in Scripture that speak of emotion or intentionally affect our emotions, we’d be cutting out a huge chunk of the Bible! So we recognize this kind of issue will touch us emotionally, but we don’t make our emotions the court of final appeal.

How does this work? Let me give you one example. I hesitate to use this particular example because I don’t want to alienate any readers, but I think it’s helpful to show the approach I’m describing. So if you happen to disagree with me regarding the issue I’m about to use, please be patient with me, hear my heart and see past the issue itself to the point I’m trying to make.

Before I was able to serve vocationally in pastoral ministry, I worked for years in business management. I worked with female peers and worked for female supervisors. I’ve seen wonderful managers—men and women, and I’ve seen horrible managers—men and women. The effectiveness of any manager never had anything to do with their gender. So I was inclined to accept a more egalitarian view of gender roles in church ministry [with no distinction at all in church leadership roles for men and women]. Especially considering my views on church polity (church leadership by a team of coequal pastoral elders without one senior pastor), it would have been so easy to simply include women in our team of pastoral elders.

And so I’ve read all the major books and articles from the different views on this issue, being perfectly willing to be convinced of the egalitarian view. But I’m not just looking for a view that’s plausible, one that’s convincing enough. For me as a pastor, it not only has to be a view I can accept, it has to be a view I can teach consistently and faithfully from Scripture. And if it’s a view I’d like to believe, I’m even more careful to make sure I’m not simply seeing what I want to see. No, any view has to stand up to the scrutiny through which I know our people will put it when I teach it to them interactively! The more I studied the books and articles presenting the egalitarian view, the more convinced I became of the soundness of the complementarian view [men and women are equal but with different roles in church leadership].

Now, some will strongly agree with me, and others will just as strongly disagree with me. But the issue itself is not my point (and I’m always willing to reconsider any viewpoint). I’m also not holding myself up as some perfect standard of balance, implying that you can trust my conclusions. I’m only saying this is the way I try to process different claims of biblical truth—even to the point of rejecting views I’d like to embrace—and this is the kind of approach I think we all need to take in examining these kinds of issues.

If we’re not willing to consider an alternative viewpoint concerning a belief such as hell, then we’re dangerously close to assuming our own omniscience, that we already have all knowledge and perfectly understand all truth. Of course, that would make us God, and we know that’s not true! We like to say that we “just go by the Bible,” but we always study the Bible from the perspective of our traditions, our preconceptions, and often our lack of knowledge regarding the original context of what’s been written. Nobody “just goes by the Bible,” and it’s actually kind of arrogant for us to think that—in 2,000 years of church history—we’re the ones who automatically have the untainted, unobstructed view of what the Bible is actually saying. This doesn’t mean we can’t come to real, confident conclusions, but we need to make sure we’ve done our homework. That also means we’ve taken the time to truly understand alternative viewpoints before we disagree with them or dismiss them. Ultimately, we may not be convinced of a new view (new to us, that is); that’s fine. But we need to be wiling to change our views if that’s where a careful study of God’s Word leads us. I love the old saying:

If you never have to change your mind,
you’re probably not using it.

So, we’re willing to change our mind, but we’re first going to rigorously examine the differing views—including our own. We’re going to push up our sleeves and do our homework. Amen?

  1. John Stott and David L. Edwards, Evangelical Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 314-315.
  2. J. I. Packer, “Evangelicals and the Way of Salvation” in Evangelical Affirmations, ed. Kenneth S. Kantzer and Carl F. H. Henry (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990) 117.
  3. C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1940) 94.
  4. Denny Burk, “Eternal Conscious Torment” in Four Views on Hell, second edition, ed. Preston Sprinkle (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 19.

Different evangelical views on the nature of hell

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We recently posted the article below on our church website.

There’s an old saying that the church should be “reformed and always reforming.” This means that we’re “reformed” in the sense of holding to the authority of God’s Word above all else, and we’re “always reforming” by not assuming any doctrine is true simply because it’s traditional for us. Instead, we seek to be good Bereans (Acts 17:11) by searching the Scriptures to see what’s true. We want to be so committed to biblical truth that we’re willing to reexamine any particular teaching in light of Scripture to make sure it really is biblical.

The right for each believer to scripturally examine teachings and to determine for themselves the biblical soundness of any view is a sacred one given to us by God. Because of this, we strive to protect the freedom of people in our church—as much as possible—to hold sometimes differing views. Of course, we must be united in our commitment to the biblical gospel of Jesus Christ for us to be a Jesus-following church. And there are certain issues about which we have to be reasonably on the same page to be able to function as a cohesive church (for example, issues such as speaking in tongues or baptizing infants). But we try hard to not unnecessarily encroach on the freedom and conscience of each Christian.

The Orchard is part of an association of churches, the Evangelical Free Church of America, that’s committed to a similar approach. Because the EFCA is not an individual church, but an association of churches, we can actually be less dogmatic about these kinds of issues at the association level than individual churches can. So, for instance, the EFCA doesn’t have an official position on such issues as predestination, the security of the believer, spiritual gifts, baptism, the timing of the rapture, the age of the universe, etc. We leave these issues up to each church in the association to work out for themselves. This “majoring in the majors instead of the minors” has long been part of the heritage of the Evangelical Free Churches. Early in our history, this was referred to as the “significance of silence.” The idea is that, as an association, we remain “silent” about these kinds of secondary issues in the sense of refraining from make any official, denominational pronouncements (but we continue to study and discuss together any issues concerning Scripture, theology and the life of the church).

Some beliefs can become so traditional that Christians end up unaware there even are other viewpoints. When Martin Luther and other reformers began challenging certain traditional beliefs, these beliefs had been the accepted teaching of the church for over 1,000 years. Most Christians at that time weren’t even aware there could be a biblical alternative. It’s not quite as dramatic, but many of us can remember when most of the people in our churches weren’t aware there’s any biblically viable view of the rapture other than the belief it would happen before the tribulation, seven years prior to the return of Christ. [I’ve written a series of blog posts on this topic beginning here.] This was true in the EFCA, as well. In the early 1980s, the churches in the EFCA had to reexamine the issue of the rapture and decide whether we would allow Christians and churches in the denomination to hold differing views. (At that time, we didn’t allow any other view except the pretrib or “Left Behind” view.) Ultimately we decided we would allow people to hold differing views, and now a large number of people, including pastors and leaders, in our association hold views on the rapture of the church that differ from the “traditional” view of a pretrib rapture.

Another belief about which Christians have historically held differing views is the nature of hell. This is another issue where many of us are surprised to learn that other biblical views even exist! Even for pastors, it can be illuminating to learn that 1st century Jews (during Jesus’ life on earth) didn’t hold just one default view on the nature of hell, but had multiple, differing views. We can also be surprised to learn that for the first 600 years of the history of the church, pastors and leaders held differing views regarding hell, that this wasn’t a point of great debate or controversy, and that it’s very unlikely that our traditional understanding of hell was the dominant view during this time. Throughout the history of the church there have been leaders and groups of Christians who held different views than the current traditional view. And now the question of the nature of hell has again become a topic of discussion the last two decades, and increasingly so the last few years. Just what are these differing views that believing Christians have held over the centuries? Here’s a very brief description of each view:

Eternal Conscious Torment (or Punishment)
This is the belief that’s probably most familiar to all of us. It’s the teaching that those who have not placed their faith in Christ will go to hell, where they will suffer for eternity without hope of any release or end to their torment.

Annihilationism (or Conditionalism)
This is the belief that when the Bible describes the wages of our sin as “death,” it means death in the sense of actually ceasing to exist. It’s the teaching that those who have not placed their faith in Christ will go to hell, where they will suffer for a certain amount of time but will be ultimately consumed, they will finally die and will cease to exist.

Universal Reconciliation and Restoration
This is the belief that God not only loves each person and desires that each person be saved, but that he will ultimately accomplish his desire by bringing each individual person to salvation through faith in Christ, completely triumphing over hell and death. It’s the teaching that those who have not placed their faith in Christ will experience the judgment of hell, but that hell is both loving and redemptive, that it accomplishes God’s purpose of bringing even the most recalcitrant sinner to the point of repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, and thus God will completely restore his creation.

Two of these views may be completely new to many, and even sound very strange. Notice that each view includes the reality of hell and judgment. Each view also insists on faith in Jesus Christ as absolutely essential for salvation. None of the views contradict any core, essential teaching of historical, biblical Christianity, and proponents of each view build their case drawing directly from Scripture. Where they differ is in how they understand, in light of Scripture, the purpose and final outcome of hell. As we previously noted, leading Christian pastors and leaders of the first 600 years of the church held these differing views on this issue without any major controversy. The early creeds produced by the church didn’t address the nature of hell at all. Throughout church history there have been pastors and teachers who held these views concerning hell. And there are solid, reputable evangelical pastors and scholars today who hold these same views. After much prayer and multiple studies and discussions, our church has decided that—while we may not all completely agree regarding this issue—all of our people, including our pastors and leaders, should have the freedom to hold these differing views on the nature of hell.

We acknowledge that the Statement of Faith of the EFCA explicitly pronounces a belief that God will assign unbelievers to “eternal conscious punishment.” While we don’t repudiate or exclude this belief from The Orchard, we do not exclusively hold to this interpretation of the scriptural passages regarding judgment and hell. Many of the people in our church, including pastors and leaders, have different understandings of this biblical issue. Our pastors and teachers are free to teach from Scripture other interpretations regarding hell, being careful to distinguish their personal views from the official position of the EFCA. 

As always, we pray that the way we address this issue would result in God being glorified, that the church would be edified and strengthened, and that we would be faithful witnesses of God’s truth and love to the world around us.

I plan to write more on this subject, but if you’d like to check out books that compare these differing views on hell, you could begin here:

All You Want to Know about Hell: Three Christian Views of God’s Final Solution to the Problem of Sin by Steve Gregg

Four Views on Hell, second edition by Preston Sprinkle, Denny Burk, John Stackhouse Jr, Robin Parry, and Jerry Walls

Perspectives on Election: 5 Views by Chad Owen Brand, Jack Cottrell, Clark Pinnock, Robert Reymond, Thomas Talbott, and Bruce Ware

Arguments against inerrancy that don’t work: The “death of a thousand qualifications”

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If you’ve ever been part of a discussion about biblical inerrancy, you’ve probably heard this expression. It’s said that inerrancy can’t stand as a viable concept because it “dies the death of a thousand qualifications.” Supposedly, proponents of biblical inerrancy have to add such an extensive list of clarifications and qualifications to their understanding of inerrancy that it becomes useless as a workable theological proposition. If one has to carefully clarify and define what they even mean when they use the word “inerrancy,” then the concept is at best meaningless and possibly even intrinsically incoherent.

This can be a persuasive argument, that is until one actually considers the implications of such a standard. Do we really want to establish an expectation that a single word communicating a theological concept: (1) be immediately understood the same way by everyone with no needed clarification or further defining; (2) be without any need of detailed clarification regarding what this theological concept actually is and what it is not; and (3) enjoy complete and total uniformity in the way its adherents understand the concept? Should we then conclude that any theological proposition that lacks this kind of simplicity, that must often be defined, that requires and results in complex theological exploration and debate, and which proponents understand in varying ways, should be assumed to have disqualified itself from serious consideration, having died the death of a thousand qualifications, worthy of being laughingly dismissed?

If this is the case, these same critics of biblical inerrancy should be equally dismissive of the Trinity. After all, do we not have to be careful that people understand what we—and what we do not—mean by the word “Trinity”? Are there not seemingly endless qualifications and clarifications as to what is included in the orthodox Christian belief in the Trinity, and what is absolutely not? In fact, isn’t a great deal of early church history consumed with clarifying these very complex details? How many heresies are simply getting one of these details wrong: misunderstanding the deity of Christ, misunderstanding the humanity of Christ, misunderstanding the nature of Christ, etc., etc.? Aren’t there still frequent debates concerning some nuanced implication of the triune nature of God? Shouldn’t all these myriad clarifications inspire the same giggles and rolled eyes as detailed descriptions and clarifications of biblical inerrancy apparently do? (And what about all the books and articles written about what we actually mean by the “gospel” or the “kingdom”? Should we reject these ideas as impossibly complex as well?) Or could this simply be a case of special pleading, fervently defending some cherished biblical teachings despite the need for wading into theological complexity and detailed clarifications, but rejecting another, possibly not-so-cherished (at least by some), theological concept because it’s just too complex and requires too many detailed clarifications?

Of course, some words do begin to lose their meaning over time. The simple word “Christian” began to so lack clarity that we felt the need to clarify what we mean by Christian, as in “evangelical Christian.” Now the word “evangelical” is taking on more political and cultural connotations, and we’re in the middle of a debate over whether this word has lost its usefulness. Many have tended toward the use of the phrase “triune God” rather than trinity because it’s more precise and clear. But none of these adjustments in terminology required the rejection of the concept being communicated. The question is how well does this word communicate today the concept believed, not a sarcastic ridiculing of the ability of the word in question to communicate and a conclusion that the concept itself is somehow invalid (again because it’s just too darn complex).

If we continue to look closely at the discussions concerning inerrancy, we begin to suspect the foisting on of a manufactured catch-22. When someone describes the inerrancy of Scripture in a simple, easy to understand way (such as: “The Bible is absolutely true and accurate in everything it affirms”), the response is often derision at such a childish, folk belief in a magic book that somehow floated out of heaven, or challenges regarding particularly difficult passages. But when inerrantists get into details of the way Scripture is divinely inspired, and what inerrancy actually means and doesn’t mean, the critics throw up their arms and complain: “Why do you need all these clarifications? Why can’t you just state your view simply?” It reminds me a bit of the children who complained: We played the flute for you, but you didn’t dance; we sang a lament for you, but you didn’t mourn!

When we look a bit more closely at these “thousand qualifications” of inerrantists, we find first that they’re not that numerous, and next that they actually make good practical sense. For instance, those who believe in inerrancy will usually qualify this as the inerrancy of the original autographs. Does that mean we don’t have inerrant Scripture because we no longer have the original manuscripts? Of course not! As I’ve written previously, it’s the original readings that are inspired and inerrant, not the physical manuscripts. It’s the words that were written that are inerrant, not the scrolls on which they were written. Being clear about this protects us from viewing one particular translation (such as the KJV or ESV) as the inspired standard, and it allows us to acknowledge when biblical passages are less certain. The fact that we can’t be dogmatic about whether the mark of the beast in Revelation 13:18 is 666 or 616 doesn’t call into question the inerrancy of Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in John 3. Ironically, when we deal with such differing passages with precision and nuance, the critics try to restrict us to the simplistic, magic-book-from-heaven view they wish to reject!

Other clarifications are also common sense. The Bible includes statements from Satan and false prophets. While these are recorded faithfully, they’re obviously not intended to be read as statements of truth! Different genres of Scripture are studied with differing expectations regarding precision and literalness. In some biblical reports precise numbers are used, in other accounts in Scripture numbers may be rounded off. These don’t constitute contradictions in Scripture anymore than they would today. The Bible includes descriptive language such as metaphors and hyperbole. These are to be understood as they were intended—as metaphors and hyperbole. Theological leaders may be somewhat exacting in the way they express their concepts and qualifications, and that can be taxing to other Christians reading their work. That might cause us to think the whole concept is hopelessly complex, but that has more to do with the way theologians communicate than the concepts themselves! For comparison, read through the early church creeds and writings all about the issues concerning the Trinity. They’re not exactly what we would call simple! When we stop and see the practical nature of these clarifications of biblical inerrancy, it’s actually the rejection of such necessary qualifications that seems silly and childish.

If you’re confronted with someone making this claim that inerrancy has ‘died the death of a thousand qualifications,’ I’d encourage you to ask for the exact standard the critic is using for evaluating what qualifications are excessive and what are not. Then see if they apply this standard consistently to all other theological words and the concepts they communicate. And then, of course, one could ask them to explain their own view of Scripture. Is it divinely inspired? How so? Is it infallible? And just what do they mean by “infallible” anyway? That may prove to be not be quite as simple as they might like to think!

Review: “One Assembly: Rethinking the Multisite & Multiservice Church Models” by Jonathan Leeman

I’ve occasionally listened to Jonathan Leeman’s Pastors’ Talk podcast, and he seems to be a likable guy (although perhaps given at times to overly provocative rhetoric). And I would agree with many of the author’s concerns about the exegetical assumptions made by some proponents of multisite churches, and the problems with some forms of the multisite model. I, too, am passionate about seeking the most biblical ways of faithfully being the church. One of our church’s core commitments is that we’ll first seek biblical principles of doing church, and then try to determine how best to apply the biblical principles in our context. So I’m intrigued by this kind of book, and somewhat inclined to read it sympathetically.

But, even if I were convinced by Leeman’s arguments, I find the manner in which he has written to be extremely troubling. He doesn’t just describe problems with multiple church services or sites, or explain the reasons why he believes single-location-and-time churches to be healthier and more faithful to scriptural principles. No, Leeman insists that those who don’t except his narrow definition of a church “repudiate the Bible’s definition of a church [emphasis in original].” [I read the ebook version, so I won’t be able to reference specific page numbers.] He doesn’t merely note the unintended danger of pursuing a model of church that may differ from the scriptural design; no, he boldly declares that multisite pastors (and Presbyterian pastors, for that matter) are “picking a fight with Jesus!” I think we should all agree to table this kind of heated rhetoric except for cases where people are knowingly and intentionally defying Christ. We can be more nuanced, and much more humble, about the dangers of unintentionally slipping into unbiblical models of church life. Is Leeman’s argument so convincing that to differ from his conclusions would be to fight Jesus? We’ll see below.

Unfortunately, the author doesn’t get around to actually making his case until the second chapter of a three-chapter book. Before getting to where Leeman even attempts to establish his basic premise, we first read through a fairly lengthy introduction and first chapter (constituting almost half of the main body of the book). And that’s a problem. If the fundamental question is truly a lexical issue (the meaning of the word ekklesia), one would think he would want to get to that discussion as quickly as possible, and then follow with his applications and implications. Instead we’re given extensive criticisms of multisite and multiservice models, and arguments for a single-service-and-location model—all firmly based on a premise the author has yet to establish. What this amounts to is a whole lot of question begging. Leeman is assuming his conclusion before he has made the case for his conclusion. This is classic circular reasoning. It’s like trying to begin the construction of a house before laying the foundation. It can certainly be rhetorically effective, but for all the wrong reasons. This is unfairly stacking the deck, prejudicing the reader toward your conclusion before you’ve actually made your case.

Compounding the problem is the way he describes other models of being the church. Apparently those who would differ with the author view the church primarily as either the building, the Sunday morning performance, or the church leadership. They sever their concept of church from the gathering of the church. He does briefly acknowledge that some of these churches are more biblical than others. But these aren’t the ones he describes. No, he gives us descriptions guaranteed to push the buttons of those of us with misgivings about multisite megachurches: churches that beam video of one rockstar pastor to other locations; churches that adopt church models with little or no theological reflection; churches that emphasize passive access via online streaming and apps at the expense of actually gathering; etc., etc. Why doesn’t he describe multisite churches that have a team of pastor/teachers? Why doesn’t he describe a church much like his own church—except one that has two services on Sunday morning rather than just one—and then show how this sole difference can adversely affect the church? I can’t presume to say. The way he’s written this introduction may certainly be more persuasive to some. It’s also unfair, uncharitable and prejudicial.

So just what exactly is Leeman’s claim? The author’s basic premise is that the word ekklesia (commonly translated “church” in the New Testament) is by definition an “assembly.” And since this meaning of a singular “assembly” is so core to the meaning of ekklesia or church, then that one, single assembly or gathering of believers narrowly defines what constitutes a local church. So a “church” that, for example, has services that meet Sunday mornings at 9:00 and 11:00 would actually constitute two distinct assemblies, or two churches, and it would therefore be inaccurate—even unbiblical—to think of these multiple services or multiple sites as collectively constituting a single local ekklesia or church. So let’s examine the author’s evidence for this claim.

We quickly run into a significant problem for the author because, as he admits, trusted lexicons such as BDAG explicitly contradict his premise! He even shows that this contradictory definition of ekklesia (contradictory to his view, that is) is found in a lexicon from 1794, so this isn’t some new interpretation intended to justify multisite churches. If he can find little or no support from standard lexicons, this should certainly give one pause before accepting Leeman’s narrow definition of ekklesia.

Leeman also undermines his own argument by acknowledging that the biblical understanding of ekklesia transcends the narrow concept of one specific gathering. When a church body meets together and then leaves the meeting place, they don’t stop being the ekklesia, they don’t stop being a church. If someone gathers regularly with the assembly, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re part of the church; and if someone is unable to gather with the assembly, it doesn’t mean they are no longer part of the ekklesia. In fact, Jack may attend the assembly much more regularly than Jill, and yet Jill be part of the ekklesia and Jack not. This shows that there’s something more primary to the meaning of ekklesia than the physical gathering itself. There’s an essential aspect to what we mean by church that is more fundamental than attending a specific assembly. There is a core criterion for who is part of a church that is more principal than attending an assembly. If this is true, it would be inaccurate for us to make a singular assembly the sine qua non of what it means to be a church the way Leeman is doing.

Now, it is very true that the ekklesia is an assembly that actually assembles or gathers. I can’t think of anyone who would disagree with this. But the fact that the church regularly gathers simply does not require that it gather in only one gathering at one place and one time. It doesn’t matter how many times or in how many different ways the author states this; you can state something over and over again, but it doesn’t establish your premise. The word ekklesia undeniably has a much broader and more primary meaning than a single physical assembly or gathering. This is confirmed by the lexicons with which the author struggled. This means there is no lexical basis for insisting that a church can only meet in one place at one time.

Another problem for Leeman is the way the New Testament authors used the word ekklesia. There are too many places where New Testament usage contradicts his narrow definition. In Acts 12:5 we’re told that the church (singular) in Jerusalem was praying for Peter while he was imprisoned. As we read through the following verses, it’s clear that the church was praying for Peter at multiple locations. Peter goes to one location after he’s freed by the angel, he sends a report to James and some others at a different location, and then goes on himself to yet another location. This is the church not only existing, but functioning in ministry simultaneously in different locations.

1 Corinthians 11:18 speaks of when they would gather together or assemble “as a church.” Now if, as Leeman argues, the definition of ekklesia is fundamentally grounded in the idea of one specific, physical gathering of the people, then this sentence becomes so redundant as to be essentially meaningless. It would be saying: “when you assemble as an assembly,” or “when you gather as as a group of people who gather.” But the way Scripture is actually worded—“when you gather together as a church“—shows that there is something much deeper to the meaning of church than merely the idea of assembling, something closer to: “when you gather together as a community of believers.”

We even see this distinction where it’s clear from the text that the whole church is gathering together. In 1 Corinthians 14:23, Paul describes a scenario “if the whole church gathers together.” (See also Acts 14:27.) But to be able to speak of the whole church gathering together means the church has an identity as the church that is independent of any particular gathering. It already exists as the church before it gathers together. Yes, it’s true that the church is to gather regularly. Again, no one disputes this. But we know this because of clear biblical instruction unambiguously telling us to do so (Hebrews 10:25), and because of the consistent model of the New Testament church. We’re not required to base this necessary aspect of the life of the church on an artificially truncated definition of ekklesia that isn’t supported by the lexicons or New Testament usage.

Leeman actually admits much of this. But, he insists, the word ekklesia is still inextricably tied to the idea of a single assembly in one place at one time. He seems to be saying, “Yes, ekklesia has a much broader meaning in the New Testament than one specific assembling of people—but it still must always mean one specific assembling of people!” Hopefully he can understand why many of us will find this contradictory and confusing. And, again, he repeats this claim throughout the book but never actually establishes a basis for it lexically or scripturally. But he does take his peculiar understanding of assembly and then use it as a standard by which to evaluate all other churches. So he concludes at different points in the book that a multisite or multi-service church is “an assembly that never assembles.” This is blatantly circular reasoning, assuming his unique definition of assembling to then conclude these churches don’t assemble!

Sadly, there are many other examples of poor reasoning, and even faulty exegesis, in the book. He admits that the classical meaning for ekklesia isn’t directly relevant to the New Testament usage, but strangely continues to inappropriately refer back to it. He badly misconstrues the editors of BDAG, seems to imply the lexicographers who disagree with him do so because of denominational presuppositions, and assumes scholarly support for his case when it is decidedly missing. He speculatively imports the idea of “place” into the meaning of ekklesia, and then uses this as an established fact to support other arguments. (This is like claiming that “place” is intrinsic to the meaning of “family” because families need to live some place!)

Leeman spends a great deal of time in chapter 1 exploring the church assembly as a kind of embassy of the kingdom of heaven, what he calls the “geography” of the kingdom. I don’t know of any church leaders who would disagree with this, but is the church uniquely an embassy of the kingdom? Would not a faithful Christian household also be a manifestation of Christ’s kingdom? Does not faithfully living out a genuine Christ-like life in the workplace, school or neighborhood, proclaiming the gospel of Christ when we have the opportunity, does this not make the rule of Christ visible? I’m not arguing there is nothing special about the gathered church, or that it doesn’t beautifully manifest, enact, and make visible the kingdom. But Leeman seems to be assuming the gathered church—and only the gathered church—does this, but he never gets around to explaining why, or why this would somehow necessitate a church meeting in only one place at one time.

A key passage for Leeman is Jesus’ participation in the church discipline process in Matthew 18. Jesus’ presence gives authority to the gathered church to make decisions involving issues such as church discipline. Leeman admits that in a church with multiple services Jesus would also be present in each service and would authorize each service in the same way. But, Leeman asserts, Jesus’ presence and authorization somehow make it an ontological, inescapable reality that these multiple meetings are actually separate churches. And he repeatedly asserts this. Of course, he never actually establishes why this must be so, but he is very confident in his assertions. It’s almost as if saying something over and over again somehow establishes it as a logical conclusion.

This insisted emphasis also leads him to a strangely reductionistic understanding of the church:

A church is a church ultimately because of the authority of Christ and his declaration that he would identify himself with gatherings: “I’m there in the gathering of two or three in my name.” That was his decision, not ours. Consider, therefore, what a church gathering is: it’s a group of people bowed in submission to something. To what? To Christ. Their physical togetherness, then, testifies to his lordship.

Does Leeman really believe this to be an adequate explanation of what constitutes a church? If so, maybe he would agree with those who say periodically hanging out with a few other believers at Starbucks is their church! My guess is Leeman would see much more than this as essential to the church qua church. But then that would mean he’s using an artificially restricted understanding of church to make his point when he knows the reality is actually more complex. Either way, this is a big problem.

The book is loaded with all kinds of strange assertions, far more than I could list in a review. He claims:

You can no more be a multisite church than you can be a multisite body.

But what of the body of Christ? Is not the universal church the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:4, 15-16; Colossians 1:18; etc.), and isn’t the universal body of Christ by necessity a multisite body? And how can we even currently have a universal ekklesia if inherent in the meaning of the word is a one-place-and-time assembly? Leeman seems to think this a spiritual, not literal, assembly of the universal church. If that’s the case, then why can’t this mandatory assembly of the local church also be spiritual and not literal? How can we get away with making one assembly spiritual while demanding the other must be literal? (Ironically, he accuses others of special pleading.)

In another place he writes:

Which brings us back to the multisite and multiservice models. Here’s the biggest problem, as I’ll seek to show in this book: They’re not in the Bible. At all. And that means they work against, not with, Jesus’s disciple-making plan.

Notice he identifies this as “the biggest problem” with these models. They’re not in the Bible. Of course, neither is the children’s ministry check-in desk he mentioned just a few paragraphs before this—or children’s classes, at all, for that matter. Neither is the church usher he mentioned before that. Neither are church platforms or pulpits or youth groups or church choirs, etc., etc. Does that mean when Leeman was taking his daughter to her Sunday School class, he was working against, not with, Jesus’ disciple-making plan? Of course not, and it would be absurd to make such an accusation, just as it is for Leeman to make the accusation he does regarding multisite and multiservice churches. (It’s hard for me to understand how Leeman could not have been aware of just how unfair this rhetoric is, but I want to give him the benefit of the doubt.)

But this is even more of a problem. Leeman repeatedly makes a big deal out of an inability to find multisite churches in the New Testament. Fair enough. For the record, I would also challenge the exegetical overreach of those who try. There simply isn’t clear indication in Scripture that any church at that time met regularly in multiple locations in the same town. [I’ve written about this before.] There’s also nothing in Scripture, contra Leeman, precluding such a church model. But here’s the point that Leeman seems to be missing (and probably some multisite proponents, as well): They’re under no pressure to find examples of multisite churches in Scripture, anymore than Leeman has to find biblical references to a children’s ministry check-in desk. As long as they’re not arguing that this model is normative for the church, but simply a faithful way to be the church, they don’t have to find a specific biblical example.

Leeman, on the other hand, is arguing not that these church models are extra-biblical, but that they are unambiguously unbiblical. And this puts the burden of proof on him to show this scripturally. So when he repeatedly makes the snide observation that he doesn’t find any multisite churches in the Bible, not only is this hypocritical, but he is badly turning the issue completely upside down. The accusation is his, and the burden of proof is his to show how their model is incompatible with biblical principles of the church. He either needs to show where Scripture would rule out a multisite (or multiservice) model, or he needs to trace a very clear pattern of the churches obviously and intentionally meeting in only one place at one time. I’m neither endorsing nor defending multisite churches, but this author has simply not made his case.

I know this review is growing quite long, but there’s one more thing I have to mention because I think it’s important. In his third chapter, Leeman describes a problem of a megachurch starting a new campus at a different location without considering the existing churches in that area. This problem is a very real one. Of course, everything he says about multisite churches starting new campuses could also be said of single-service, single-location churches planting new churches. But here’s my point. Leeman is contending for the idea that every service should be a separate church. If you need to start another service, then you should plant another church. Ironically, something else we never see in Scripture is anyone planting a church in a community where a church already exists. Never. Not once. Instead, we see a consistent pattern of there being one church in each city. Regardless of whether they met in one location or multiple house churches—they existed as one church in each city. We never see any deviation from this pattern in Scripture. We never see multiple churches in one city. Leeman fails to acknowledge that it’s the existence of many different churches in each city that create the environment for the very problem he decries. And adding more churches in each town would seem to exacerbate the problem, not alleviate it. If we could somehow return to what we do see in Scripture—one church in each city—even if this required a multisite church in each city, it would actually solve the problem he rightfully laments.

The author of this book makes some very bold claims about the essential meaning of the word ekklesia (and therefore the meaning of the church), claims that aren’t supported by the lexicons, claims that aren’t consistent with the way the New Testament uses the word, and claims the author fails to conclusively establish logically or theologically. Instead he relies on specious and fallacious arguments while accusing those who disagree of repudiating the Bible and fighting Jesus. This is not just a book with which I disagree. In fact, there are occasional nuggets scattered throughout the book I would strongly affirm. But it is so poorly reasoned and so extreme in its denunciations of anyone who would dare to disagree, I cannot recommend this book.

Interactive teaching, part 3: Challenges of interactive teaching

Photo by ronnarong

We’ve looked at some of the benefits of interactive teaching. So let’s consider some of the challenges of teaching this way:

“It takes a lot more time.”
This is true. If you’re studying a passage of Scripture, and you have people respond to you and invite them to raise their hands and ask questions, it’s going to take longer than if you do all the talking. You should know that going in. And this is going to frustrate some people, especially those who prefer a short, streamlined service where they can get in, get done, and get out. (Some of my friends refer to this as “drive-thru church.”) So you need to be clear about what your priorities are, and why. What outcome are we seeking? Are we willing to do almost anything to draw a large crowd, or are we focused on what will be most effective at making faithful disciples of Jesus Christ who are continually learning, growing and maturing?

“Overly talkative people will dominate the interaction.”
This is a real, ever-present, danger. This kind of format can draw people who are looking for a soapbox, a platform from which to opine and share with everyone their incredible wisdom on just about everything. Others, in their enthusiasm, may forget any self-restraint and eagerly answer every question asked of the people and pepper the teacher with a barrage of questions. Again, this is something pastors and teachers are just going to have deal with when teaching interactively. And you must actually deal with it.

Part of the way we serve the church is by providing gentle leadership to the whole study process. We’re not just teaching a particular passage, we’re teaching how to study the Bible, and how to interact as we study together as a church. From time to time, I have to begin with a reminder: “Don’t forget, questions are welcome, but only questions. There are just too many of us for everyone to be able to share their views and insights on the passage we’re studying. So you’re welcome to respond—briefly—when I ask you guys questions, and feel free to raise your hand and ask a question when something isn’t clear to you, but please hold onto your comments and insights until after the service. We can discuss as much as we want then.” You’ll be continually seeking balance in this area. It’s a bit like parents finding the balance between being too strict and being too permissive. At times we have to do some course correction to bring us back into balance. But this is another thing an interactive teacher must deal with. (And you’ll have to learn the art of gently and inoffensively interrupting someone who’s having difficulty ending their comments!)

“Someone might say something inappropriate.”
Not only is it a distinct possibility that someone eventually might say something in a less than appropriate manner during an interactive study, it’s very likely! Or at least it should be. Why do I say that? Because we’re trying to reach the same range of people that Jesus reached. He spent quite a bit of time with prostitutes and tax collectors, and I doubt whether their language and manners were the most genteel. What’s more important to us, that everyone act like good religious boys and girls in church—even the non-Christians—or that people are genuinely grappling with, and being changed by, the truth of Scripture at a deep heart level? If a non-Christian is doing this in our midst, and they process some of this out loud in their response or question, sometimes that may be expressed in ways that might make us uncomfortable. And that’s good! We need to be uncomfortable! And we need to sacrifice our comfort in order to reach people, both outside and inside the church.

Of course, there’s a balance to this, too. If someone is repeatedly dropping F-bombs, it might be necessary to have a gentle, respectful chat with them. But an occasional inappropriately worded response or question can be encouraging confirmation we’re actually reaching some of the people we say we want to reach! These are the kinds of problems the church should be encountering.

“But if I let the people ask any questions, they’re going to ask something I can’t answer.”
Good! That shows they’re really thinking about these things. A good question to which we don’t know the answer should never threaten us—unless we’re pretending to know everything! Of course, we need to be “laboring in the Word,” pushing up our sleeves and doing the hard work of studying the biblical text. We need to be prepared to teach a passage of Scripture, not just deliver a message. But, if we see ourselves as fellow students of Scripture who are still learning and growing ourselves, a new and probing question concerning Scripture should delight us! And our enthusiasm will be infectious. The people will see that this isn’t about being self-righteous and assuming we have everything nailed down. Studying Scripture is about the joy of discovering more about God and knowing more deeply his love, truth, life, grace, holiness, etc., etc. (And—notwithstanding the value of models for us to observe and of wise counsel—the best way to learn to answer tough questions is by answering tough questions!)

“This would be hard to do in larger churches.”
The size of a group will obviously affect how interactive it can be. We have the freedom to be much more interactive in a group of 10 or 12 than we do a group of 100 or 200. So the level of interaction will change in a way that fits the group with whom you’re working, but you can still be interactive in your teaching even with very large groups. You just have to think through how you’re going to do it. (Do you use roving microphones? Do you have set times during your study for questions and answers? etc.) If you think your church service is just too large to effectively teach interactively . . . then maybe your church service is just too large.

“I tried to teach interactively, but I couldn’t control the study.”
There are different issues that people confront when they teach interactively. The first is that teaching interactively is, in many ways, a very different process than monologue teaching. It’s like the difference between swimming and surfing. I can swim from point A to point B, and it’s a fairly straightforward process. But surfing is entirely different. Surfers don’t let the wave take them just anywhere, they’re still controlling the surfboard. But they have to ride the wave to get where they want to go. Surfing requires a different skill set, and the same is true for interactive teaching. It’s part art form. Someone who truly loves teaching (not just speaking), who loves to help people learn, who’s thrilled to see that light bulb moment when someone really gets it—these people usually take to interactive teaching pretty quickly because it’s so much more effective at fostering real learning and growth. They also know that new skills (e.g. how to go from someone’s rabbit trail back into the flow of the passage in a way that feels smooth and natural; how to correct someone who’s wrong but still encourage them to keep thinking and questioning; etc.) have to be learned and practiced, they don’t develop automatically.

Other people, though, find it very difficult to relinquish this much control. For some, it’s not a matter of developing additional teaching skills; they just hate teaching this way. For them, it goes against the grain. If we’re honest with ourselves, it can be hard to put all that time and effort into preparing to teach a passage of Scripture, only to have someone steal our thunder by knowing an answer to a question or by seeing something important in the text. It can grate on us when the people ask questions at the wrong time and mess up our outline, or when they don’t word things the way we’d like them to. There may be (at least) a couple of different reasons why these kinds of things bother someone. Maybe we’re struggling with a pride issue in our hearts. This is something that all of must confront in regards to our ministry. How much of my motivation and the way I respond is generated more from pride than a desire to lovingly serve. Does it bother us when we don’t get the credit for something we know, or for a helpful insight into the meaning of a Scripture? These can be warning signs that we’re too focused on ourselves.

This kind of struggling is also an opportunity to take another look at our gifting. Maybe teaching isn’t really our gifting at all. I know people who think they should be teaching, but they don’t really like working with people! (Here’s a hint: that doesn’t work!) Some love the activity of studying Scripture, but they’re frustrated with trying to help others learn. Some love the creative process of crafting something and then presenting it in front of an audience—intending to truly move and inspire them—but they feel ill-equipped to handle any kind of interaction. In cases like these, the individual and the church would be much healthier if these people determine their strongest areas of gifting and passion and find ways to use these gifts to most effectively love and edify the church body. There’s nothing wrong with having gifting other than teaching!

Don’t forget to exhort.
Scripture doesn’t just call pastoral leaders to teach the church, but also to exhort the church. Teaching in the church shouldn’t be merely a transfer of information, teaching should bring about real spiritual growth and life change. There should be an element of coaching in our teaching. As teachers in the church, we should be encouraging and urging people (and ourselves) to take what we’re learning and faithfully live it out in our daily lives.

“But some people won’t like it.”
No matter what we do as a church, we can’t please everyone. If some people are going to be displeased with us, let’s make sure they’re displeased with us for the right reasons! If we’re seeking to be biblically faithful and as effective as possible at helping people come to faith in Christ and helping each other grow and mature in the faith, then it’s much easier to deal with it when people don’t like that approach. Some people will be drawn to interactive study of Scripture, and others won’t. Some will tell you, “I don’t want to hear all these other people. You’re the pastor or teacher, I want to hear you.” That’s when we need to be very clear about what Scripture calls us to do, and the most effective ways to fulfill this calling. We must never fail to consider the input from others in the church, but we also don’t decide what’s best based solely on majority opinion. The fact is, we Christians often don’t know what’s best for us. So we’re continually driven back to the Word, and we seek to live out what the Bible teaches as wisely as we can.

Ministry is rarely, if ever, neat and tidy and quickly concluded the way we see in many books and conferences. Real life is messy, and real ministry to real people is messy, too. Don’t forget: Jesus didn’t disciple 12 units; he discipled Peter; and James; and John; etc. He discipled 12 individuals (and many others, as well). We, too, are teaching very different people with different backgrounds, different levels of knowledge, different levels of spiritual maturity, different personalities and ways of learning, etc., etc. Some may prefer the antiseptic security of what can be neatly contained and packaged, but what is messy can also be organic and thriving and vibrant. There must be order to what we do, of course, but we can easily have so much order—so much of our control—that we choke off the life.

In his excellent book Teaching to Change Lives, Howard Hendricks asked:

Wouldn’t it be great in our churches if people would simply stand up when they didn’t understand what the speaker was trying to communicate, and say, “Wait a minute. I have no idea what you’re talking about”? It would guarantee no one would go to sleep!

As a young teacher, I read this and wrote in the margin, “Why not?” We need to refuse to be bound by the sacred cows of either what is traditional or what is trendy. We need to be willing to take a fresh look at Scripture, in its context, to see how we can be more faithfully biblical, and also be seeking how we can be most wise in applying scriptural church principles in our current context.

In the case of interactive teaching, it can be thrilling to see people become active participants in the study of Scripture, to hear their excited questions as they come to better understand Scripture for themselves—and better know God through his Word. But you should also know this. Once people take some sense of ownership in their own process of learning and growing, and they get used to being able to raise their hand and ask a question when something is confusing or needs to be clarified, it’s extremely difficult for them to return to sitting quietly as part of a passive audience. And once you teachers begin to witness this dynamic process during your teaching, when the people start seeing what you want them to see in the Scriptures (rather than you just telling them), when they get so into the flow of the passage that they’re naturally asking questions that lead right into the next verse or paragraph, when you see the exhilaration of a Christian personally grasping a key biblical concept or understanding a knotty passage for the first time—not only will it be worth dealing with all of the challenges we’ve listed, but you’ll likely find it impossible to ever return to teaching without the interaction!

Interactive teaching, part 2: Why teach interactively?

In the last post, we saw that Scripture doesn’t call pastors to preach, in the familiar sense of delivering sermons, but there is a repeated call for pastors to teach the church. I noted that—contrasted with preaching—teaching has different priorities, a different focus, and different expectations. So we should want to see this kind of teaching modeled for us in the Bible, right? How did Jesus and Paul teach? What can we learn from their examples?

I want to focus on a characteristic of their teaching that isn’t discussed very often. If we read the text carefully, we begin to see references to the interactive nature of both Jesus’ and Paul’s teaching. We know from historical studies that the format in the synagogues of the first century was interactive. They even arranged their seating in the round to facilitate this interaction. We see evidence of this interaction in the synagogues in such passages as Mark 3:1-5; John 6:25-59; Acts 17:1-4; 17:17; 18:4-6; 18:19; 18:28; 19:8-9. Read through the Gospels and see how many times Jesus asked questions and answered questions—often answering questions with questions! And we see him doing this in one-on-one conversation, in small groups and in large group settings. He did most of the talking, to be sure; these weren’t large group chats, but they were interactive.

Notice in the passages above how often it says that Paul reasoned with the people in the synagogues. The Greek word used here is dialegomai. From this word we get our English word “dialogue,” and it had the same kind of meaning in the first century. It meant “to discuss,” so what we see happening in the synagogues in these passages was very interactive.

We see Paul teaching interactively in the church, as well, in Acts 20:7-12. We often joke about this being the favorite verse of long-winded preachers because it shows Paul preaching all night long! The problem is this isn’t quite accurate. The same Greek word is used here as above, plus another one with a similar meaning. What Paul was doing wasn’t preaching to the people, he was dialoguing with the people. He didn’t preach all night long, but he did talk with the people all night long.

So what happened to this interactive style of teaching? How did monologic preaching become the norm? Over time, leaders in the church began adopting more of a Greco-Roman emphasis on eloquent rhetoric. This became even more widespread after Christianity was legalized and “the Church” even became seemingly predominate. Huge numbers of people joined the Church (without necessarily becoming truly Christian), churches began building large cathedrals, the bishop had already become the preeminent person in church life, and now eloquent sermons with all the desired rhetorical flourishes took the place of simple, interactive teaching. The Reformed churches, with their intellectual strengths, retained and even intensified this focus on monologic preaching, viewing it as virtually indistinguishable from the proclamation of the gospel and the teaching of the Word. Over the centuries, some groups followed a more interactive teaching model, and there’s been renewed interest in interactive teaching the past few decades.

But why teach interactively? What are some of the benefits of interactive teaching? Here are a few:

It’s a much more effective way of learning.
Studies have consistently shown that the more we’re actively involved in the learning process (rather than just passively listening), the more we retain and apply what we’ve learned. First, people remain engaged at a much higher level when they realize people can ask questions, and that the teacher may ask the people questions—and expect an answer! It avoids the problem of people not understanding something, being frustrated at not being able to clarify what’s confusing them, and then zoning out because they’re lost in the sermon and no longer able to follow. And the truth of Scripture just has greater weight to a person when they’re part of the discovery process. Rather than telling everyone, “. . . and this verse shows again that Jesus is God,” it makes much more of a lasting impact for someone to respond to a question from the teacher with, “Wow, this is saying that Jesus is God!” Rather than truth being something they’re told, they’re now apprehending the truth in a deeply personal way. They now own it, and are responsible for doing something with it.

A monologue is just about the least effective way to teach anyone anything, but strangely it’s the most common model we find in the church. The more people actively participate in the learning process, the more they truly learn, the more they retain, and the more they apply what they’ve learned in their lives.

Interactive teaching also keeps the focus rightly on the text of Scripture.
This is true even in the preparation process. Rather than putting a great deal of time and effort into crafting a beautiful speech, I need to understand as thoroughly as possible the whole passage we’re studying because I can get questions on anything in the passage. Rather than being immersed in my message, I have to be immersed in the text itself. Secondly, the focus during the study time is not on my rhetorical skills, on how funny or moving I am, but on how clearly they understand the Scriptures. This way of teaching helps the teacher become more invisible and draws the people’s attention to the scriptural text, the Word of God.

This form of teaching can also inspire people to study the Scriptures on their own.
Rather than saying to themselves, “I don’t know how he got those points from this passage, but that’s beautiful,” it can cause people to say, “Oh, wow, I’m seeing where the text is making this point! I’m following the flow of this, and actually understanding it! This is great!” To borrow from the old saying, instead of giving them fish, this helps them learn how to fish for themselves. [Side note: using a translation in our teaching that the people can actually understand—without the need for the teacher to translate the translation(!)—helps greatly with this also. It’s wonderful to hear people tell me they’re understanding what they read in Scripture on their own for the first time.]

This kind of teaching also encourages more people to become teachers.
The unpleasant truth is that there are just not that many truly great preachers. Many churches endure preaching every week that is painfully subpar. This reality is even more evident today when we can watch the best preachers online anytime we like. And the pressure is real and somewhat understandable; after all, if you’re doing all the talking, you should be really good at it! But the encouraging thing is that there are a whole lot more people who can be effective teachers than can be excellent preachers! And seeing excellent teaching will often excite them that they can do this, too, instead of concluding that they could never do what the preacher does.

This way of studying the Scriptures seems much more authentic to a lot of people.
To many—especially those without a church background—a typical church sermon can feel canned and artificial. At best, it’s still a presentation, and they already get bombarded by too many presentations. But if people are studying the Scriptures and allowing people to ask any questions or make any challenges they want about the text in question—that feels real. I can’t tell you how many people have said to me something like, “Wow, you really take the Bible seriously. You’re okay with us checking everything out and asking you hard questions.”

For the reasons above (and I’m sure there are more I could have included), this kind of teaching can be a more effective component of making genuine disciples of Jesus Christ. But do we really want active participants . . . or do we actually prefer a passive audience? Do I want them to be moved by my message, or by the Scriptures themselves? Is it more important to me that they appreciate my opening and my closing, that they laugh and cry and are appropriately moved in the right places? Or is it more important that they’re actually learning and understanding more of the Word of God? Do I want them leaving being impressed with my preaching or excited / challenged / motivated by the truth of God we’ve studied together in Scripture? Please understand, I’m not at all suggesting that those who preach traditional sermons have wrong motives! I’m saying that interactive teaching is much more conducive to right motives. It helps get the focus off of us, and it becomes all about assisting the people of God to better understand and live out the Word of God.

So why wouldn’t we teach interactively? In the next post, we’ll look at some of the challenges of interactive teaching.

If you’re thinking of benefits of interactive teaching I didn’t include, please add a comment below and share them with us!