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

The return of Christ: Odds and ends

The number of the beast

Many years ago, I had a friend who was in a band. (Didn’t we all?) One of the songs he wrote was titled 665—The Neighbor of the Beast. If you were at all familiar with bands like Iron Maiden, you’ll appreciate the humor of this parody. Of course, if you peruse the titles of songs from many Christian albums, especially from the early Jesus music of the 70s, you’ll find surprisingly similar subject matter. What caused all of this fascination? The “number of the beast” comes from Revelation 13:17-18, which refers to:

. . . the name of the beast or the number representing his name. Wisdom is needed here. Let the one with understanding solve the meaning of the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man. His number is 666.

Now, there are a number of questions concerning this passage:

What is the number?
The traditional reading is 666, but some early manuscripts record the number as 616. And there is still some question among scholars as to which reading is correct. If 616 is actually the number in the original manuscripts, there are a lot of highly speculative books and materials that will need to be withdrawn from publication!

What is the number supposed to mean?
According to the passage above, this number represents the name of the beast or Antichrist. How does it do that? In the first century, each of the letters in the Greek alphabet (as well as other alphabets) had a numeric value. It was common to total up the value of the letters in a person’s name. For instance, Jesus’ name in Greek apparently totals 888. This is the number of his name. The number 666 (or 616) is the combined numeric value of the letters in the Antichrist’s name.

So, what’s his name?
Unfortunately, this doesn’t work backwards. It’s not like a code; we can’t work back from the numbers to determine a specific name. Many potential names have been suggested over the years, from Nero to Ronald Wilson Reagan (get it? 6 letters in each name) to www (as in world-wide web). Each of these claims has problems, by the way. It’s interesting that some scholars prefer the number 616 because it works better with Nero’s name in Latin. Even if this number did point specifically to Nero, it’s very possible he was intended to be a type (or model) of the Antichrist to come. One thing we’re not told to do is somehow use this number to figure out ahead of time who the Antichrist will be.

The mark of the beast

The earlier part of the passage above tells us:

He required everyone—small and great, rich and poor, free and slave—to be given a mark on the right hand or on the forehead. And no one could buy or sell anything without that mark, which was either the name of the beast or the number representing his name.

Revelation 13:16-17

Again, we should break this down to a few observations:

This is a twisted attempt to mimic the seal God places on his people.
Remember passages such as Revelation 7:2-3:

And I saw another angel coming up from the east, carrying the seal of the living God. And he shouted to those four angels, who had been given power to harm land and sea, “Wait! Don’t harm the land or the sea or the trees until we have placed the seal of God on the foreheads of his servants.”

Once again, we see Satan trying desperately to be like God.

How literal is this description?
Most of us have been drawn into discussions about a coming cashless society and whether this might prove to be the mark of the beast. But we need to slow down a bit. Remember when we study Revelation we need to assume each description is symbolic unless something in the text indicates it’s literal. (For more on this, see earlier posts here and here.) Does God literally place a seal on the physical foreheads of his servants? Or does this symbolize a spiritual identification of us as God’s, as if we are spiritually “branded” by God as his?

Is the mark of the beast a literal mark on a person’s physical hand or forehead? Or does it spiritually identify a person as belonging to the Antichrist (and therefore Satan)? And what about this issue of buying and selling? If this is symbolism, what does it symbolize? Is it possible this description is both literal and spiritual? These are not easy questions, and it would take an entire post (or more) to work through all of the possible interpretations. For now, we need to realize we won’t clearly understand what each element in Revelation means—at least not before these things occur. Yes, the ever-increasing push toward a cashless society is compelling and provocative. But we need to be careful not to assume too quickly what constitutes fulfillment of biblical prophecy.

The mark of the beast will accompany the worship of the Antichrist.
We will know the mark of the beast when we see it. We’ll have no doubt what it is because it will be an integral aspect of the worship of the Antichrist. Let’s zoom out again in our passage and see a bit more of the context:

And he [the second beast or false prophet] required all the earth and its people to worship the first beast [the Antichrist], whose fatal wound had been healed. He did astounding miracles, even making fire flash down to earth from the sky while everyone was watching. And with all the miracles he was allowed to perform on behalf of the first beast, he deceived all the people who belong to this world. He ordered the people to make a great statue of the first beast, who was fatally wounded and then came back to life. He was then permitted to give life to this statue so that it could speak. Then the statue of the beast commanded that anyone refusing to worship it must die. He required everyone—small and great, rich and poor, free and slave—to be given a mark on the right hand or on the forehead. And no one could buy or sell anything without that mark, which was either the name of the beast or the number representing his name.

Revelation 13:12-17

Anyone who takes this “mark” will understand they are identifying themselves as belonging to the Antichrist.

A note on the false prophet

Again, expanding our scope in Revelation 13, we see in verse 11 a description of this “second beast”:

He had two horns like those of a lamb, but he spoke with the voice of a dragon.

Who is the Lamb? In Revelation chapters 5-6 we see the Lamb is Christ himself. So this false prophet will appear to be like the lamb, or like Christ. He may even be a recognized religious figure. But his words will expose him as following the schemes of the devil.

What is Babylon in Revelation 17-18?

In chapter 17, we’re introduced to a woman who represents a city that represents a world power. (Confused yet?) In the next chapter, we see the ultimate fate of this woman/city/world power. It’s utterly devastated and destroyed. What or who is this describing?

The great prostitute.
Our first clue is the way she’s initially described:

“Come with me,” he said, “and I will show you the judgment that is going to come on the great prostitute, who rules over many waters. The kings of the world have committed adultery with her, and the people who belong to this world have been made drunk by the wine of her immorality.”

Revelation 17:1-2

In biblical prophecy, adultery speaks of unfaithfulness to God. But this woman isn’t just unfaithful to God; she has prostituted or sold herself in order to gain something for her unfaithfulness.

The woman wore purple and scarlet clothing and beautiful jewelry made of gold and precious gems and pearls. In her hand she held a gold goblet full of obscenities and the impurities of her immorality.

Revelation 17:4

So her unfaithfulness has made her very wealthy and powerful, and given her an indulgent, decadent lifestyle. And not only has she given herself over to this obscene adultery against God, she’s drawn the rest of the world into this perversion.

The mother of all prostitutes.
The description continues:

A mysterious name was written on her forehead: “Babylon the Great, Mother of All Prostitutes and Obscenities in the World.” I could see that she was drunk—drunk with the blood of God’s holy people who were witnesses for Jesus.

                                                                    Revelation 17:5-6

In another place (1 John 4:2-3), John explains there is a spirit of antichrist that has always been present. This doesn’t mean there is no personal Antichrist who will rise up in the last days, only that he will embody a spirit or mentality that has always been around. In the same way, Babylon is the “mother” of all who share in this heart of spiritual prostitution and adultery against God.

Babylon was the site of the first organized, societal rebellion against God (Genesis 11:1-9). Many scholars trace the origins of paganism to ancient Babylon. (Much occult tradition echoes this.) This false, adulterous religion seduced the people to turn from faithfulness to the one, true God and give themselves over to adulterous worship of the sun and moon, and a pantheon of gods and goddesses. This ungodly perversion was carried into all cultures, and so Babylon truly is the mother of all spiritual prostitution and obscenity.

Associated with the Antichrist and his government.
In Revelation 17:15, we learn this prostitute rules over masses of people of every nation and language. But she doesn’t represent government itself. We’re told repeatedly in chapter 18 that the kings of the world commit adultery with the prostitute (and they mourn for her when she is destroyed). And in 17:3, we read:

There I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that had seven heads and ten horns, and blasphemies against God were written all over it.

We’ve seen this beast with its ten horns (i.e. kings or powers) before. So the women or prostitute isn’t the final one-world government, but she’s associated in some way with it. Is the woman driving the beast where she wants it go, or is he taking her where he wants? She does rule over masses of people. Possibly because of her power over these people, “The scarlet beast and his ten horns all hate the prostitute [Revelation 17:16].” So, they are associated, probably even cooperating, but the Antichrist hates the prostitute.

Who is the prostitute?
Here’s where we need to be careful and see the forest for the trees. Some think the prostitute will literally be a rebuilt Babylon. But Babylon here seems to symbolize the origin of this heart of spiritual adultery. 17:9 speaks of “seven hills where the woman rules,” and 17:18 says “this woman you saw in your vision represents the great city that rules over the kings of the world.” This seems to point to Rome. And, interestingly enough, Rome was sometimes called by the nickname Babylon.

But why was Rome called Babylon? Because she had followed in Babylon’s perverse ways of spiritual prostitution and persecution of God’s people to secure her wealth and power. The “spirit” of Rome was merely the current manifestation of this “spirit” of Babylon, this heart and mentality of unfaithfulness against God, embracing of his enemies, and hatred of his people. The political government of Rome worked together and cooperated with Roman paganism and false religion. The two served to consolidate each other’s power over the masses and helped each other become increasingly wealthy.

Many Bible teachers believe this prostitute, Babylon, represents all false religions and faiths (including corrupted forms of Christianity). Religion, as opposed to genuine faith in Christ, has prostituted itself and committed adultery with those who hold the power and wealth of the world. It has “deceived the nations with your sorceries” and slaughtered those who remain faithful to the true God (Revelation 18:23-24). But one day all this false religious perversion and obscenity will come crashing down.

Doomed to destruction.
Chapter 18 vividly describes the downfall of this seemingly great power. Her fall will be so sudden and so devastating it will shock the world and cause those who partnered in her adulteries to mourn for her. Apparently, God will allow the Antichrist to have a hand in the destruction of this long-standing false religious system (17:16-17). Remember he will “exalt himself and defy everything that people call god and every object of worship [2 Thessalonians 2:4].” It seems poetic justice for God to use a false christ to destroy the false religions of the world that put their faith in this satanic figure rather than the one true God. Of course, any success the Antichrist enjoys will be extremely short-lived.

It’s appropriate for us to close this section with the warning God gives to his people regarding this seductive adultery of false religion, this spirit of the age:

Come away from her, my people.
Do not take part in her sins,
or you will be punished with her.

Revelation 18:4

After Christ puts an end to this deception and perversion, he will establish his kingdom on earth. Ultimately, we see the new Jerusalem descending from heaven to earth (Revelation 21-22). Where Babylon represented spiritual prostitution against God, the new Jerusalem symbolizes the intimate union with God he has always planned for us: heaven on earth; God living among his people.

We end this series by remembering the most important truths concerning the return of Christ, on which we all agree:

Jesus is returning.

We must be ready.

Maranatha!

The return of Christ series:

The return of Christ: Keeping the main thing the main thing

Millennial match-up

More on the millennium

Rapture 101

Examining the pretrib rapture: Israel and the church

Examining the pretrib rapture: Removed or protected?

Examining the pretrib rapture: Is the rapture imminent

Examining the pretrib rapture: Assorted claims

The posttrib rapture

Locusts and dragons and beasts, oh my! (Or the great tribulation)

“Pleased to meet you . . .” (Introducing the Antichrist)

The return of Christ: Odds and ends [see above]

“Pleased to meet you . . .” (Introducing the Antichrist)

“. . . Hope you guess my name.”  **
I can recall, as a child, listening to adults seriously considering whether Henry Kissinger might be the Antichrist. (Some will be amused by that, others shocked.) In some circles, ‘guessing the Antichrist’ seemed almost like an evangelical pastime. In the past few years, I’ve heard people wonder out loud whether either George W. Bush or Barack Obama might be the Antichrist (depending on their politics). It’s probably too much to ask for us not to speculate regarding who may or may not be this malevolent, prophetic figure. But just what exactly is this Antichrist about whom everyone is so curious?

Many non-Christians are also intrigued by this mysterious character. This interest is likely due to The Omen and similar films and books, references in punk and heavy metal lyrics, and just general interest in prophecy and the end of the world. Unfortunately, this has created a lot of misinformation about this key, last days figure, and even Christians sometimes fail to distinguish the biblical from the merely sensational. What do we know from Scripture about this guy?

A leader rising from obscurity
The Antichrist will rise suddenly from the masses. He will most likely be involved in the leadership of an international coalition that in some way incorporates elements of the ancient Roman Empire. This connection with Rome could be geographical, but will likely be a “revival” of its cultural, legal and political heritage. This coalition will be (or is symbolized by) a confederacy of ten powers (Daniel 2:26-48, 7:15-28; Revelation 13:1-2). At some point in the Antichrist’s rise to power, three of these powers are subdued in some way (Daniel 7:24).

Europe (and all of the Western World) still carries in its cultural DNA the enduring influences of the Roman Empire. At times, some leaders and nations have attempted to be intentional standard-bearers and preservers of the Roman legacy. Examples of this would include the Holy Roman Empire (of which my history prof was fond of saying it was neither holy, Roman, nor an empire) and even Germany’s Third Reich. Because of this historical connection of Europe with Rome—and because of the prophecies of a 10-nation coalition—the establishment of the European Common Market, and then expansion to 10 nations (gasp!), drew the attention of a lot of Christians.  Of course, this coalition continued to expand and develop into the current European Union, which has far more than 10 member states.

This doesn’t mean Europe is no longer of interest concerning these prophecies, but it does provide us with a valuable lesson. We shouldn’t be too quick to declare what current development does and does not fulfill specific end times prophecies. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of speculation now and then, but we must hold our speculations loosely. And we must never confuse our educated guesses with the clear teaching of Scripture.

Appearing as a great man of peace
Before this leader shows himself to be in opposition to Christ, he will present himself in place of Christ. Some believe it’s foretold in Scripture that he will arrange a treaty with Israel (and presumably her neighbors) that will allow the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem (Daniel 9:27). Is it a coincidence the very nations spoken of so prominently in end times prophecies are consistently at the heart of geopolitical conflict today? Imagine if a world leader was able to broker a seemingly real and lasting peace in the Middle East. Wouldn’t he be hailed as a hero . . . or more?

We’re told that Satan disguises himself as an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14), and it should come as no surprise his chosen servant will do the same thing. Rather than be viewed as a usurper of power who has evil intentions, this leader will be hailed as a great deliverer from war and oppression. Anyone who can remember the euphoric devotion felt by some toward Ronald Reagan in the 1980s or Barack Obama in 2008 can get a taste of the adoration people will have for this man. He’ll seem like John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr and Ghandi all rolled up into one (with maybe a touch of Elvis or Michael Jackson). He’ll be the most charismatic person anyone has ever seen.

Bringing the world together
Today we deal with division among world religions, which often serves to exacerbate cultural conflicts. It’s fascinating though that most of the world religions are each anticipating a great, final deliverer. Many Jews still look for the Messiah. Both Sunni and Shiite Muslims are awaiting the Mahdi or 12th Imam. The Mahdi is to come before the Day of Judgment to redeem the world from oppression and injustice. Those who embrace him will be shown to be true Muslims.

Many different schools of Buddhism are waiting for the bodhisattva Maitreya, a final Buddha who will come, manifest perfect enlightenment and teach the world the true Dharma or teaching. All denominations of Christianity (along with loosely associated faiths such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormonism) are anticipating the return of Jesus. Even many occult groups and “New Age” teachers are expecting some kind of Messianic figure with a “Christ-consciousness” to lead us into a new age of enlightenment.

When this incredible, captivating man of peace and enlightenment comes on the world scene, he’s going to be hailed as a savior. He’ll inspire complete loyalty, even devotion. He’ll be seen as the answer to the world’s problems—political, social and spiritual—the great Christ-figure for whom everyone has been waiting. It will seem there’s finally a way to bring all the different world cultures and religions together in a common harmony and devotion. For those who have been saying all religions are different paths to the same truth, this great leader will be the ultimate confirmation. People will be saying, “If there was ever a Christ, it’s this man!” For many—who have refused to embrace the truth of Jesus Christ—there will be no defense against this overpowering delusion.

Declaring himself to be God
At the midway point of this 7-year period, the Antichrist enters the temple of God and declares himself to be God. This is what the Bible refers to as “the abomination of desolation.” (Scholars disagree as to whether this will occur in a literally reconstructed Temple in Jerusalem or if this symbolizes something else, possibly having to do with the church, which is now the temple of God.)

For that day will not come until there is a great rebellion against God and the man of lawlessness is revealed—the one who brings destruction. He will exalt himself and defy everything that people call god and every object of worship. He will even sit in the temple of God, claiming that he himself is God.

2 Thessalonians 2:3-4 (compare with Matthew 24:15; Daniel 9:27)

Notice this man doesn’t just declare himself to be above the God of the Bible. “He will exalt himself and defy everything that people call god and every object of worship [emphasis added].” This means he sets himself above Yahweh, Allah, Brahman, Krishna, whatever. For some, this will be enough to shock them out of their reverie. For others, it will only ensnare them even more into this satanic lie.

A cheap imitation
We need to remember that Satan doesn’t just want to oppose and defeat God; he wants to be God. He wants to rule over all and be worshiped and adored. He has no creative power within himself, so all he can do is copy and twist and pervert who God is and what God does. To be like God, Satan will devise his own version of the Trinity. He will put himself in the place of the Father. The Antichrist is not an actual incarnation of Satan (Satan can’t really emulate God), but he will serve in place of his “son.” And Revelation describes a False Prophet who will fill the role of the (un)Holy Spirit and direct the people to worship the Antichrist (Revelation 13:11-15).

Not only will Satan manufacture this unholy trinity, but he’ll apparently attempt to reproduce the resurrection. Revelation 13:3 describes the Antichrist suffering a fatal wound that is subsequently healed. This miraculous sign will be so publicized it will become a catalyst for greater devotion and worship of the Antichrist and even of Satan himself.

Openly opposing God and killing God’s people
After the Antichrist declares himself to be God, his mask of humble peace-seeking will be discarded and he will become increasingly arrogant, power-hungry and blasphemous. The other people who have resisted God and refused to embrace the truth will look on with glee as this satanic leader exerts more and more control. Because he will be viewed as a savior who is bringing all peoples and faiths together, anyone who resists his vision will be seen as stubbornly obstructing world peace and harmony. To those people whose consciences are turned upside down, it will seem right to hunt down and dispose of these hateful enemies of humanity. Thus will begin the worst period of persecution the world has ever witnessed.

I also asked about the ten horns on the fourth beast’s head and the little horn that came up afterward and destroyed three of the other horns. This horn had seemed greater than the others, and it had human eyes and a mouth that was boasting arrogantly. As I watched, this horn was waging war against God’s holy people and was defeating them . . .

“Its ten horns are ten kings who will rule that empire. Then another king will arise, different from the other ten, who will subdue three of them. He will defy the Most High and oppress the holy people of the Most High. He will try to change their sacred festivals and laws, and they will be placed under his control for a time, times, and half a time.”

Daniel 7:20-25

Then you will be arrested, persecuted, and killed. You will be hated all over the world because you are my followers. . . . For there will be greater anguish than at any time since the world began. And it will never be so great again. In fact, unless that time of calamity is shortened, not a single person will survive. But it will be shortened for the sake of God’s chosen ones.

Matthew 24:9, 21-22

This man will come to do the work of Satan with counterfeit power and signs and miracles. He will use every kind of evil deception to fool those on their way to destruction, because they refuse to love and accept the truth that would save them.

2 Thessalonians 2:9-10

Then the beast was allowed to speak great blasphemies against God. And he was given authority to do whatever he wanted for 42 months. And he spoke terrible words of blasphemy against God, slandering his name and his dwelling—that is, those who dwell in heaven. And the beast was allowed to wage war against God’s holy people and to conquer them. . . . This means that God’s holy people must endure persecution patiently and remain faithful.

Revelation 13:5-10

Doomed to failure
Just as with the plagues of Egypt, it will become more and more obvious the plagues poured out during the tribulation are from the hand of God. Instead of causing the Antichrist and his followers to repent, this knowledge will drive them to be even more blatant in their hostility and rebellion against God. Ultimately this will lead to open, attempted war with God—what we know as Armageddon—which will be swiftly and thoroughly crushed.

As I watched, this horn was waging war against God’s holy people and was defeating them, until the Ancient One—the Most High—came and judged in favor of his people. Then the time arrived for the holy people to take over the kingdom. . . .

“He will defy the Most High and oppress the holy people of the Most High. . . . But then the court will pass judgment, and all his power will be taken away and completely destroyed. Then the sovereignty, power, and greatness of all the kingdoms under heaven will be given to the holy people of the Most High. His kingdom will last forever, and all rulers will serve and obey him.”

Daniel 7:21-27

Then the man of lawlessness will be revealed, but the Lord Jesus will kill him with the breath of his mouth and destroy him by the splendor of his coming.

2 Thessalonians 2:8

And the demonic spirits gathered all the rulers and their armies to a place with the Hebrew name Armageddon.

Revelation 16:16

Then I saw heaven opened, and a white horse was standing there. Its rider was named Faithful and True, for he judges fairly and wages a righteous war. His eyes were like flames of fire, and on his head were many crowns. A name was written on him that no one understood except himself. He wore a robe dipped in blood, and his title was the Word of God. The armies of heaven, dressed in the finest of pure white linen, followed him on white horses. From his mouth came a sharp sword to strike down the nations. He will rule them with an iron rod. He will release the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty, like juice flowing from a winepress. On his robe at his thigh was written this title: King of all kings and Lord of all lords. . . .

Then I saw the beast and the kings of the world and their armies gathered together to fight against the one sitting on the horse and his army. And the beast was captured, and with him the false prophet who did mighty miracles on behalf of the beast—miracles that deceived all who had accepted the mark of the beast and who worshiped his statue. Both the beast and his false prophet were thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulphur. Their entire army was killed by the sharp sword that came from the mouth of the one riding the white horse.

Revelation 19:11-21

Then the devil, who had deceived them, was thrown into the fiery lake of burning sulphur, joining the beast and the false prophet. There they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.

Revelation 20:10

But what about the mark of the beast? What is that? And what exactly is Babylon supposed to represent in Revelation? I’m going to wrap up this series next week by looking at some of these remaining questions.

**  [This song (Sympathy for the Devil) is not specifically about the Antichrist. But it does describe how Satan has been behind horrible acts of evil in history, and that certainly applies in this case.]

The return of Christ series:

The return of Christ: Keeping the main thing the main thing

Millennial match-up

More on the millennium

Rapture 101

Examining the pretrib rapture: Israel and the church

Examining the pretrib rapture: Removed or protected?

Examining the pretrib rapture: Is the rapture imminent?

Examining the pretrib rapture: Assorted claims

The posttrib rapture

Locusts and dragons and beasts, oh my! (Or the great tribulation)

“Pleased to meet you . . .” (Introducing the Antichrist) [see above]

The return of Christ: Odds and ends

Locusts and dragons and beasts, oh my! (Or the great tribulation)

The past few weeks, we’ve been exploring the return of Christ, particularly examining the views on the millennium and rapture that have sometimes divided Christians. In the next three weeks, we’ll wrap up this series by looking at some of the other end times elements that often pique our curiosity.


The tribulation

Especially in the books of Daniel and Revelation, we see emphasized a period of 7 years, which we usually refer to as “the tribulation.” This tribulational period immediately precedes Jesus’ return to earth.

If you’ve read many books or materials from pretrib teachers, you’ve probably seen very precise interpretations of what the vivid elements in the book of Revelation are supposed to describe. But, as we saw in our previous study Revelation: The story comes full circle, it’s a mistake to assume that the descriptions in Revelation should be taken literally, and it’s typically pretrib teachers who interpret Revelation in an overly literal manner. This explains why the people who try to date the return of Christ or tell us how the latest altercation in Iran or Iraq fits precisely into end times prophecy (and then have to later retract their claims!) are invariably pretrib teachers. Now, the best pretrib teachers don’t indulge in this kind of speculation, but—unfortunately—there are many more of their fellow pretribbers who over-compensate for these teachers’ restraint.

Apocalyptic = symbolism
As we saw in our previous study on Revelation, this book is an apocalyptic form of literature, which means we should expect it to be highly symbolic. And it doesn’t take us long to see this is just what we find in Revelation. We have lampstands that aren’t literal lampstands, and dragons that aren’t literal dragons, and stars that aren’t literal stars, and a seven-headed, ten-horned beast rising up out of the sea. Usually in our study of Scripture we assume the text is literal unless something indicates otherwise, but in Revelation we must assume these descriptions symbolize something else unless we see something in the text that convinces us we must take it literally.

This apocalyptic, symbolic nature of Revelation is the reason why most posttrib teachers are hesitant to take literally such things as the 144,000 (search out the immediate problem with the list of tribes in Rev. 7:4-8), the description of the bizarre locusts in Rev. 9:3-11, or even the two witnesses in Rev. 11:1-14. Of course I realize this isn’t nearly as fun as thinking we can figure out ahead of time exactly how each of these events will take place and what they’ll look like! And because of this caution we don’t have a flood of posttrib books the way we do pretrib materials. But I would argue this is a much more biblically sound and balanced approach, and it avoids the embarrassing, outlandish claims we’ve all too often witnessed.

What will happen during the tribulation?
It’s not uncommon for people (even non-Christians) to think of this 7-year tribulational period as a virtual hell on earth. But as we learned in the post on Revelation, this isn’t the case. Actually the first part of this time will be relatively peaceful for many, and the only possible indication we’re in this final period will be uniquely new developments in the Middle East. (More on this next week.)

There are a few things that we know will occur during the last part of this tribulation before Christ returns:

Great persecution will take place against both Jews and followers of Christ.

Then you will be arrested, persecuted, and killed. You will be hated all over the world because you are my followers.

Matthew 24:9

When the dragon realized that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. . . . And the dragon was angry at the woman and declared war against the rest of her children—all who keep God’s commandments and maintain their testimony for Jesus.

Revelation 12:13-17

This means that God’s holy people must endure persecution patiently, obeying his commands and maintaining their faith in Jesus.

Revelation 14:12

Large numbers of people who have claimed to be followers of Christ will turn away from the true faith.

And many will turn away from me and betray and hate each other. And many false prophets will appear and will deceive many people. Sin will be rampant everywhere, and the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.

Matthew 24:10-13

Now the Holy Spirit tells us clearly that in the last times some will turn away from the true faith; they will follow deceptive spirits and teachings that come from demons.

1 Timothy 4:1

All of the world will be reached with the gospel.

And the Good News about the Kingdom will be preached throughout the world, so that all nations will hear it; and then the end will come.

Matthew 24:14

After this I saw a vast crowd, too great to count, from every nation and tribe and people and language, standing in front of the throne and before the Lamb. They were clothed in white robes and held palm branches in their hands. And they were shouting with a great roar,

“Salvation comes from our God who sits on the throne
and from the Lamb!”

Revelation 7:9-10

God will pour out plagues on the earth.
Just as with the plagues God poured out on Egypt, at first these plagues will be mostly disruptions and inconveniences. But near the end of the tribulation, these plagues will begin to build in intensity as a woman experiencing the pains of childbirth. The stage is then set for the final, crashing crescendo of the return of Christ that occurs after the tribulation.

The first plagues are described as testing the inhabitants of the world. What Scripture refers to as “the wrath of God” against those who are openly rebelling against him only occurs at the very end. As we saw a few weeks ago (Removed or protected?), these plagues from God will not touch or harm those people who belong to him. As with the judgment of Egypt, because we place our faith in the sacrificial Lamb (Jesus), God will protect and pass over us.

We also find other details about the tribulation in biblical prophecy, with some passages referring to a rebellion against God led by someone most of us have heard of: the “Antichrist.” Who is this guy? What can we know about him? We’ll explore this next week.

Related post:

Revelation: The story comes full circle

The return of Christ series:

The return of Christ: Keeping the main thing the main thing

Millennial match-up

More on the millennium

Rapture 101

Examining the pretrib rapture: Israel and the church

Examining the pretrib rapture: Removed or protected?

Examining the pretrib rapture: Is the rapture imminent?

Examining the pretrib rapture: Assorted claims

The posttrib rapture

Locusts and dragons and beasts, oh my! (Or the great tribulation) [see above]

“Pleased to meet you . . .” (Introducing the Antichrist)

The return of Christ: Odds and ends

The posttrib rapture

Like many other evangelical Christians, I grew up in churches that taught a pretrib rapture. Some of us were vaguely aware there were other views, but everyone I knew held to and taught that the rapture would take place before the tribulation. The myriad books and tape sets about the end times all taught a pretrib rapture. After a few years of spiritual wandering I returned to my faith in Christ and to life in the church—a pretrib church. My initial ministry training was in this kind of setting, and so were my earliest teaching experiences. I confidently taught the pretrib rapture as the correct, biblical view.

But then I began to notice two troubling developments. The first was in my difficulty with teaching certain passages from a pretrib perspective. I felt more and more as if I was trying to force a square peg into a round hole. Too often I was taught to limit particular biblical instructions as being for the Jews only, when the text didn’t seem to indicate this at all. I felt the pressure to somehow explain why passages that didn’t seem to be speaking of the rapture really were, and passages that seemed to be speaking of the final return of Christ really weren’t. I wanted to trust all the pretrib books and tape sets, but I was having trouble seeing their claims clearly taught in Scripture.

About this time I was learning to access more advanced biblical commentaries, and I made an interesting observation. It was difficult to find current, scholarly commentaries from a pretrib point of view—and I’m talking about conservative, evangelical commentaries. There were plenty of amillennial commentaries and works from scholars who held a historic premillennial view (i.e. posttrib), but up-to-date pretrib commentaries had somehow become scarce. I discovered that most of my favorite scholars held a posttrib view of the rapture, and historic premillennialism appeared to be the standard view among premil scholars now, not the pretrib view.

How had this happened? Unbeknownst to most ordinary Christians who were reading the latest pretrib bestseller, a quiet exodus from the pretrib viewpoint was taking place. Beginning with highly-respected, New Testament theologian George E. Ladd in the 1950s, more and more premil scholars moved from a pretrib to a posttrib understanding of the return of Christ. And as the seminary and Bible college profs have gone, so have gone the pastors. Pretrib pastors are in the minority in evangelical churches now, and the minority is continuing to shrink. I was part of a denomination that insisted on the pretrib rapture, so I was shocked to discover how many well-respected pastors and leaders no longer held a pretrib view.

Thus began a time of intensive and exhaustive analysis of the differing views and the relevant biblical texts. It will come as no surprise to anyone who’s been reading this blog series that I, too, became convinced that the posttrib view was the more biblically sound one. Why?

The Scriptures never describe the rapture and the final return of Christ to earth as separate events taking place at different times.
We’ve looked at this already in our examination of the pretrib rapture, but this is an incredibly significant insight. One begins to suspect that if a Christian didn’t have any of the many pretrib books, tape sets or prophecy experts—but just relied on the clear teaching of Scripture—they would never come up with a separate rapture event seven years (or three-and-a-half years) before the return of Christ. And history confirms this because no one taught such a view throughout the history of the church until the 19th century. The burden of proof was shifting over to the pretrib view. If I was going to be teaching it, I needed to know why.

The foundational principles I was told supported a pretrib rapture weren’t actually supported by Scripture.
We’ve spent three weeks examining these principles (see the links below), and they are simply not borne out by a careful study of the biblical passages. This left me with no substantive reason for holding onto a pretrib view. And the scriptural patterns I did see, such as God’s protection of his people through the flood and through the plagues of Egypt, tended to support a posttrib understanding more than the pretrib view.

The posttrib view made much better sense of all the scriptural passages.
When I went back through all the prophecies regarding Christ’s second coming—now looking at them from a posttrib perspective—I had a dramatically different result. Scriptures that before were awkward and problematic now flowed together effortlessly. It was as if they had suddenly come into focus. I was fitting square pegs into square holes. Everything fit. I saw that the posttrib view is the natural reading of these biblical passages.

For instance, Matthew 24 is a familiar chapter describing events leading up to the return of Christ. It speaks of wars and rumors of wars; famines and earthquakes that are the beginnings of birth pains; great persecution, great apostasy, and also great evangelism; the abomination of desolation; false messiahs and false prophets performing great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even God’s own people. After seeing how this will all take place, we read this (beginning in verse 29, from the HCSB):

Immediately after the tribulation of those days:

The sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not shed its light;
the stars will fall from the sky,
and the celestial powers will be shaken.

Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the peoples of the earth will mourn; and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. He will send out his angels with a loud trumpet, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other.

When teaching this chapter from a pretrib understanding, one struggles with the fact that the text certainly seems to be describing the rapture occurring after the tribulation. Pretrib teachers routinely have to explain why this passage doesn’t mean what it seems to mean. But if we set aside a pretrib presupposition, we can simply allow the text to speak for itself. (It’s also revealing that, in a private conversation with his disciples [v. 3], Jesus describes the abomination of desolation that takes place in the middle of the tribulation, and expects that it will be seen by his followers [“when you see . . .” v. 15].)

Here’s another passage that comes into much more clear focus when we take off our pretrib glasses:

Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him: We ask you, brothers, not to be easily upset in mind or troubled, either by a spirit or by a message or by a letter as if from us, alleging that the Day of the Lord has come. Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way. For that day will not come unless the apostasy comes first and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction. He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he sits in God’s sanctuary, publicizing that he himself is God.

2 Thessalonians 2:1-4

This passage is talking about the ‘Day of the Lord.’ The Thessalonians were apparently worried this day had already taken place. Paul is encouraging them this day won’t occur until after a great apostasy or rebellion takes place, and not until after the Antichrist shows his true colors. And what happens on this Day of the Lord? “the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him.” Notice the passage never distinguishes these as happening at different times, but combines them as part of the same event. This is the natural reading of the text, and any other understanding has to be imposed on it.

Even the most familiar rapture passage makes more sense when read from a posttrib perspective:

For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the archangel’s voice, and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are still alive will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore, encourage one another with these words.

1 Thessalonians 4:16-18

This is quite a description. The Lord is descending with a shout, with the archangel’s voice, and with the trumpet of God. This doesn’t exactly sound subtle! It doesn’t sound like merely a secret return for his people and then a quick return to heaven. It sounds like the final, cataclysmic return of Christ to earth. If we weren’t forcing this square peg into a round, pretrib hole, that’s the natural reading of the passage. And notice that we’re meeting him, he’s not meeting us. The nuance of the wording implies that he is continuing in his descent, that we are meeting him and accompanying him to earth, he’s not meeting us and accompanying us to heaven. And as we discovered previously, they were accustomed at that time to just such a welcome for returning, victorious kings. They would go out and meet the king, and then accompany him into the city.

With passage after passage, the posttrib understanding is like a square peg fitting naturally into a square hole, and the pretrib perspective is something that has to be forced into the text. Because there is nothing in Scripture that would cause us to distinguish the rapture from the return of Christ, the posttrib view takes the natural reading of the Bible and accepts the rapture as part of the same event.

What does it matter?
Some don’t hold to any particular view on the timing of the rapture. They have a pan-trib (or pan-mil) view: it will all pan out in the end. That’s probably better than being overly dogmatic and fighting over our rapture positions. But I do have a pastoral concern for believers who just assume the pretrib view.

If a Christian believes in a posttrib rapture and God actually raptures his people before the tribulation, this saint is just in for a great surprise. But if believers are expecting to be raptured out of here before the tribulation . . . and they’re not . . . this could be devastating to their faith. This is especially true if they’re not familiar with the historic premillennial (i.e. posttrib) view.

So if you’re reading this series, you believe in a pretrib rapture, and you’re not persuaded by these posts that the posttrib view is the more biblical one—that’s fine. Just please be aware there is another view that many pastors and scholars feel is more faithful to the scriptural witness. And if you start to see some of these end times prophecies being fulfilled and you’re still here(!), realize it doesn’t mean the Bible was wrong. It just means the pretrib teachers were wrong. If that’s the case, and these things are beginning to happen around you, just do what Jesus told us to do:

. . . stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is near!

Luke 21:28

The return of Christ series:

The return of Christ: Keeping the main thing the main thing

Millennial match-up

More on the millennium

Rapture 101

Examining the pretrib rapture: Israel and the church

Examining the pretrib rapture: Removed or protected?

Examining the pretrib rapture: Is the rapture imminent?

Examining the pretrib rapture: Assorted claims

The posttrib rapture [see above]

Locusts and dragons and beasts, oh my! (Or the great tribulation)

“Pleased to meet you . . .” (Introducing the Antichrist)

The return of Christ: Odds and ends