Could Hell be Redemptive and not merely Retributive?

The following way-too-long article started as a reply to a question about 2Thessalonians 1:8-9.  It morphed into a full-out defense of Hell as a redemptive process, not merely a retributive destination.  It is 9,500 words, and I would appreciate it if you did not comment until you have read the whole thing because some of your objections might be answered later on.

One of my older youth named Chris asked the question that got the ball of wax rolling.  It was basically:

What does it mean when God "inflicts vengeance upon those who do not know God and upon those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might" (2Th 1:8-9).

Here is an answer to your question, and most other questions you may have about this issue.  The issue at stake is what the nature of hell is.  There are some who flatly deny there is a hell at all, and this is definitely NOT my position.  Hell is very real, as any quick reading of the preaching of Jesus will tell us.  He talks about hell more than anyone else, and his preaching about hell is aimed almost exclusively at the "religious" people who claimed to know God, not "the lost" (just check out Matthew ch. 5, 6, 7 and 23). Furthermore, Jesus makes clear that there are some who are sure they are going to heaven because they did stuff in His Name who will be excluded because they "did not know Him" (Mat 7:21-23).  Yet, there will be others who never knew they were serving Him who will be let in because they lived fully in His Love (Mat 25:31-46). So, Hell is as REAL as it is SURPRISING.

Now, the question is: What is the nature of Hell?  There are three main options in the History of Christian theology:

1. Retributive Hell: Those who go to hell are allowed to suffer forever, without ending, consciously, because that is what they deserve.  Their eternal suffering somehow brings God more glory than saving them, and God's victory is only final by eternally crushing the lost under his feet.

2. Removal Hell: Those who go to hell are simply removed from existence and cease to be.  God is glorified because He annihilates all that could cause evil, and only allows those to live who choose good.  His victory is only final by destroying people he made to love him, since they will not choose love.

3. Redemptive Hell: Those who go to hell are there as long as it takes them to repent from sin and surrender their lives completely to Christ.  God is glorified by working with everyone until all choose to love as he loves.  His victory is only final by converting His enemies into His children.

Which is best supported by Scripture, and by the Love of God as revealed in Jesus Christ?

You quote the text of 2Thessalonians 1:5 and following.  This was written by St. Paul to encourage the Thessalonian believers in the midst of persecution by those who are outside of the Church. Presumably, rich Jews from the synagogues were having social and legal pressure (and possibly beatings) put on the Christians to stop them from preaching (see Acts 17:13).  Paul was writing to comfort them by assuring them that justice would be served, and those who were guilty would be brought to God's justice, either by being judged when Christ came back, or by being converted to Christ by their example (compare Romans 12:18-21).

The crucial verse is 1:8-9, which you quote as:

"...inflicting vengeance upon those who do not know God and upon those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might..."

First, this is a pretty bad translation of the Greek text.  Here is a better one from the English Standard Version:

"... inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.  They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might..."


1. The word "vengeance" in verse 8 is "ekdisis" and means "a punishment that brings about justice".  It is used as such in Luke 18:7f; 21:22; Acts 7:24; Rom. 12:19; 2 Cor. 7:11; 2 Thess. 1:8; Heb. 10:30; 1 Pet. 2:14.

2. This just punishment is for (a) those who do not know God, and (b) those who do not obey (=surrender to) the gospel of Jesus Christ.  So, this verse does not only deal with those who have rejected Christ, it deals with those who have not known God as well.  Whatever this "just punishment" is, it is for the ex-Christian who has denied Christ, as well as the poor native in deepest darkest Africa who has never heard of Christ.

3. The words "suffer the punishment" in verse 9 are quite interesting. The word "punishment" is a root word to ekdisis.  It is "dik-e" which usually means simply "justice".  In terms of legal proceedings, it means a punishment that is just (see Exod. 21:20; Lev. 26:25; Deut. 32:41, 43; Acts 28:4; 2 Thess. 1:9; Jude 1:7).  The word "suffer" is "tinoo" and is only used once in the New Testament.  It means "to pay back" (see Prov. 20:9; 24:22, 29; 27:12; 2 Thess. 1:9).  Thus, "suffering the punishment" means to "pay back what is justly required".  It is not the sense of God getting his kicks from destroying people, but God bringing people to full responsibility for what they have done.

4. The word destruction here is "olethros" and usually means something like "total obliteration" (see 1 Kgs 13:34; Prov. 1:26f; 21:7; Hos. 9:6; Obad. 1:13; Jer. 28:55; 31:3, 8, 32; 32:31; Ezek. 6:14; 14:16; 1 Cor. 5:5; 1 Thess. 5:3; 2 Thess. 1:9; 1 Tim. 6:9).  In fact, this verse is used by many people (such as world famous Evangelical preacher John Stott) to support the idea of a "Removal Hell".  This verse much more easily fits the idea of hell as total obliteration and ceasing to exist than it does the idea of eternal conscious torment.  If we were going to argue for a version of hell that was non-redemptive and permanent, we would have to say that this verse speaks of hell as utterly destroying sinners so that they no longer exist.

Yet, the Bible speaks of conscious suffering in Hell for ages upon ages (Luke 16:22–25; Mark 9:47–48; Rev. 14:11; Rev. 20:10). It is hard to imagine why God would create man as an immortal conscious being in His own image and then take away his immortality.  Furthermore, it is hard to believe that God would create people to love and feel that it is a victory to make them cease to exist when they will not choose to love him back.  If God was only a King this might make sense, but God is not only a King.  He is a Father.  And it would be a horrible father who would want the extinction of His own children, no matter how rebellious they were.

However, the word "olethros" clearly means "total obliteration".  It does not mean suffering, or conscious torment.  It means to make something cease to exist.  Furthermore, Paul attaches the word "eternal" to this "obliteration", so that what is annihilated is annihilated for good.  What do we do with this?  Do we opt for a "Removal Hell" because this verse simply does not square with a "Retributive Hell"?  Before we answer that question, one more observation.

5. Your translation of the verse says "exclusion from the presence of the Lord", but there is just one problem: there is absolutely NO word exclusion in the actual text.  This is an interpretation based on someone's pre-conceived ideas being read into the text rather than actually translating meaning out of the text.  The Greek text actually says something much closer to the New King James Version, which simply says "destruction from the presence of the Lord".

The word "from" here is the Greek preposition "apo".  It can, and often does, mean separation "away from", such as when some people "began to beg Jesus to depart from [apo] their region" (Mark 5:17).  But, this is not the sense of apo here, because apo can mean many things in which there is an idea of "from-ness".  This use of apo indicates the source that something comes from, such as when "a great crowd followed Jesus from [apo] Galilee and Judea" (Mark 3:7). This destruction comes from seeing Jesus face to face in all of His glory.

Now, lets bring it all together.

What is the nature of the experience in which those who do not know God, and those who reject Jesus, will experience "eternal destruction" when they finally see Him face to face?  Will they see Him and cease to exist (which seems to flatly deny several Scriptures)? Will they see Him and then forever be tormented in this vision?  First, that seems to flatly deny what this text means when it speaks of "destruction / obliteration".  Second of all, will the vision of Jesus be so horrible that it would cause someone to suffer in torment forever?  If the vision of Jesus is so horrible, then why would we want to be in his presence, which is what Heaven is (see Revelation 21-22)?  But, if seeing Jesus is as wonderful as we think it will be, how could the vision of Him cause eternal suffering?  Wouldn’t the vision of Him eventually win over even the worst of sinners?

It is my opinion (along with many others) that what is destroyed here is the sinful, selfish nature of the sinner.  In fact, in 1Co 5:5 Paul uses the same word (olethros) to describe JUST THIS REALITY, when he says: "deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord".  In the end, 1Thessalonians 1:8-9 is dealing with what will happen to the sinful on the day of judgment.  They will appear before Christ and Christ will show them who they really are.  When confronted with their selfish sinfulness, they will be brought to utter, total repentance by the sheer love and glory of His presence.  At that time, all of their sinful nature will be destroyed forever so that they will be able to live forever in God's presence.  This destruction of sin WILL BE PAINFUL (as many other Scriptures talk about- especially Jesus), but it will not be permanent.

This is why God is called a "consuming fire" and a "refining fire" (see Deu 4.24; Mal 3.2).  In fact, Scripture says that all people, both those who claim to know God and those who don't, will be refined by the fire of God's Love until they are made PERFECT reflections of Christ.  See:

a. The lost will have to enter the refining fire:
+ Luke 13:23-24 "Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?" [Jesus] said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow door!  Because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to.”
+ Matthew 10:28  Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul... be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.
-- The word for Hell “Gehenna” referred to a dump where garbage was burned outside of Jerusalem.  Hell is to burn away the garbage.
+ Matthew 25:41-46 “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels...” ...[they] will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.
+ Rev 20:10-15  And the devil... was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur... [The devil, the beast, and the false prophet] will be tormented day and night for ever and ever... If anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

b. Everyone will have to undergo testing by the refining fire:
+ Mark 9:42-49  And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell... [For] everyone will be salted with fire.
+ 2 Corinthians 5:8-11  For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.
+ Hebrews 12:5-10  And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons: "My son, do not make light of the Lord's discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son." Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness.

c. Believers especially will be refined by the fire of God's Love:
+ 1 Cor. 3:11-17  For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man's work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.
+ Jeremiah 9:7-9 The Lord Almighty says: "See, I will refine and test them, for what else can I do because of the sin of my people?”
Daniel 11:35 Some of the wise will stumble, so that they may be refined, purified and made spotless until the time of the end, for it will still come at the appointed time.
+ Galatians 6:7-9  Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.
+ 1 Peter 4:17 For it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God...

So, we must ask: Is the refining and punishing of Hell just for the next life?  Isn’t all salvation about dying to sin and being raised with Christ, whether now or in the next life (cf. Col 3)? And if salvation is about dying to sin and being raised with Christ in this life, what stops it from continuing in the next life?  Finally, isn’t Hell a consequence of rejecting God’s Love, both NOW and after DEATH.  Why wouldn’t Christ redeem ANYONE who turns back to God?

Now, that is my view on the passage in question.  But, there are further objections to be answered about the idea of a Redemptive Hell.  With this in mind, I am attaching a document I have written called:
By Nathan L. Bostian

1. Isn’t the idea of a Redemptive Hell a recent invention?

The Idea of Hell presented here is a minority opinion in Christian history, but it has some strong supporters, such as many of the ancient Greek Church Fathers (especially the Cappadocians), George McDonald, and the N.T. scholar William Barclay.  Others have held something like this idea, such as apologist and novelist CS Lewis and theologian Karl Barth.

2. What about being thrown in “the lake of fire” to be “tormented day and night for ever and ever” (See Revelation chap. 14 and 20)?

The lake of fire is nothing but God’s self, His eternal Love, burning like a consuming fire.  This is the “eternal fire” Jesus spoke of (Mat 25.41).  To those who know Christ, the fire is comfort, warmth, and caring.  To those who refuse His Love, the fire is painful, filled with guilt and regret, like being around someone who really loves you, but who you have hurt, and feel guilty and ashamed to be around.

Those who will not accept Christ’s Love are “tormented”.  The Greek word here is “basanizo”, which means to be tossed around like a wave.  They are tossed around between the endless abyss of nothingness that is death, and the pain of being in the presence of God’s infinite Love, and not accepting Him.

The words “forever and ever” are literally “to the ages of ages”.  They will continually torment themselves for ages until they repent and accept the Love that has been beckoning them forever.  Possibly, some may choose to reject God literally forever.  The Scriptures show only three people actually doing this: Satan, “the Beast”, and the “False Prophet”.  But, this becomes more like insanity than evil.  All evil eventually is nothing but insanity and death, and Christ came to heal our souls and bodies, forever.

3. But isn’t Hell called “eternal punishment” in Matthew 25.46?

The word “punishment” here is the Greek word “kolasis”.  Kolasis was originally a term used in tending grape vines.  It means to “prune” or “lop off”.  To be healthy, a vine must have all the bad growth pruned off (see John 15.1-10).  Later, the word kolasis came to mean “disciplinary punishment”, the kind of punishment given in order to make someone a better person.  Thus, the “eternal punishment” is to eternally have all the evil and selfish parts of our lives “lopped off” so that we are disciplined and can finally become true sons and daughters of God through Christ.

In connection to this, we must ask what God's purpose in punishment is.  According to Scripture, there are several things that punishment is for, and one thing that punishment is NOT for:

a. Punishment MAY BE for restitution, to restore imbalance:
+ Leviticus 24:17-21  If anyone takes the life of a human being, he must be put to death. Anyone who takes the life of someone's animal must make restitution-- life for life. If anyone injures his neighbor, whatever he has done must be done to him:  fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. As he has injured the other, so he is to be injured. Whoever kills an animal must make restitution, but whoever kills a man must be put to death.

b. Punishment MAY BE done as a deterrent, to warn others:
+ Deuteronomy 19:19-21  You must purge the evil from among you. The rest of the people will hear of this and be afraid, and never again will such an evil thing be done among you. Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.
+ Proverbs 21:11 When a mocker is punished, the simple gain wisdom; when a wise man is instructed, he gets knowledge.

c. Punishment MAY BE done to protect the community:
+ Deuteronomy 17:2-7  If a man or woman living among you... is found doing evil in the eyes of the LORD your God in violation of his covenant... stone that person to death... You must purge the evil from among you.
+ Psalm 37:28-29  The LORD loves the just and will not forsake his faithful ones. They will be protected forever, but the offspring of the wicked will be cut off; the righteous will inherit the land and dwell in it forever.

d. Punishment IS ALWAYS done to redeem those punished:
+ Luke 15:20-32  The Father did not glory in punishing the Prodigal Son... but allowed the natural consequences of his sin to draw him back home.
+ Psalm 32:3-6  When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer. Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity... and you forgave the guilt of my sin... let everyone who is godly pray to you while you may be found.
+ 2Corinthians 7:10  For the sorrow which is according to God produces repentance leading to salvation without regret.  But the sorrow of the world accomplishes death.
+ Revelation 2:22 I will make those who commit adultery with [Babylon] suffer intensely, unless they repent of her ways.

e. But, Punishment IS NEVER done for revenge:
+ Eze 18:32 For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord...
+ Lamentations 3:33 For [the Lord] does not willingly bring affliction or grief to the children of men.
+ Leviticus 19:18  Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.
+ A person would be UNJUST if they demanded a million dollar repayment for a thousand dollar theft.  So, why do so many people expect God to be UNJUST and exact INFINITE revenge for a FINITE amount of sin?

So, if God is Love (1John 4:8), and punishment is ALWAYS done to bring about the repentance and restoration of the sinner (see d above), but is NEVER done for revenge, to give God pleasure over the death of the sinner (see e above), then why would God want hell to be forever?

Is it because death is the "last chance" for Christ to get to us?  Does death put us outside of the reach of God's love and grace?  God tells us EXPLICITLY this is not the case in:

Romans 8:38-39  For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

4. What about texts that speak of “eternal death” and “eternal destruction”?

Like we just spoke about, the parts of our lives that are evil and selfish are cut off from us, forever.  They are eternally put to death and utterly destroyed, so that we may become God’s children.

5. If Hell isn’t forever, why does Jesus talk about Hell so much?

Because it is REAL, and more HORRIBLE than anything ever experienced.  As Heaven is the perfection of earthly joy, so Hell is the fulfillment of earthly pain.  What could be worse than complete separation from all life, love, and hope?  Christ doesn’t want people to go there, and neither should we.  Hell is deadly serious, and it will happen if we deny Christ.

6. How can Hell be darkness AND fire?

It is an attempt to capture in language what is beyond our experience. The Bible speaks of Hell as both darkness and fire:

The Darkness of the Eternal Abyss: All that is not God is death, emptiness, loneliness, misery, nothingness, and depravation of life, love, and purpose. Hell is outer darkness, total exile (2Pe 2:17; Jude 1:13; Mat 8:12, 25:30)

The Fire of the Eternal God: God is Love (1Jo 4.8) and a consuming, refining Fire (Deu 4.24; Mal 3.2).  He is the eternal fire that burns worse the further away He is. Hell is eternal fire of God’s Love (Lk 16:22-24; Heb 10:27; Jude 1:7; Mk 9:47-48).

Hell is “basanizo” (see objection 2), where the lost toss themselves back and forth between the infinite abyss of dark nothingness (which they cannot live in), and the infinite fire of God’s Love (which they will not accept).  When they finally surrender to His Love, He purifies them and Christ draws them back.

7. But isn’t death the “last chance” to accept Christ (see Hebrews 9:27)?

Yes, death is the “last chance” before judgment.  Hell IS death, death IS hell.  In that infinite moment, we have the choice to accept or deny Christ forever.  And God makes that moment last until we accept His Love.  It is beyond our ability to truly understand in our world of time and space.

Furthermore, there are several texts that speak of death being a time of redemption.  In death, the genuinely repentant can accept Christ and be freed from the grave, from death, and from Sheol (the Hebrew word for the abode of the dead).

Here are some subtle hints that hell may not be God’s last word:
+ Psalm 139:7-12  Where can I escape from Your spirit? Where can I flee from Your presence?  If I ascend to heaven, You are there; if I descend to Sheol, You are there too... [for] darkness is not dark for You...
+ 1 Samuel 2:6 The Lord kills and makes alive; He brings down to Sheol and raises up.
+ Psalm 49:15 But God will redeem my soul from the power of Sheol, For He will receive me.
+ Hosea 5:14-6:2  [The Lord says] I will tear them to pieces and go away; I will carry them off, with no one to rescue them. Then I will go back to my place until they admit their guilt. And they will seek my face; in their misery they will earnestly seek me. Come, let us return to the LORD. He has torn us to pieces but he will heal us; he has injured us but he will bind up our wounds. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will restore us, that we may live in his presence...
+ Job 14:13 Oh that You would hide me in Sheol, That You would conceal me until Your wrath returns to You, That You would set a limit for me and remember me!
+ Hosea 13:14 [The Lord says] From Sheol itself I will save them, Redeem them from very Death. Where, O Death, are your plagues? Where is your pestilence, O Sheol? Revenge shall be far from My thoughts.
+ Ezekiel 16:53-63 [In this passage three "sisters" are reconciled at the end of time: Sodom, Samaria, and Jerusalem. Sodom was destroyed by God's wrath in Genesis 19 and never was rebuilt as a city every again.  Samaria, which was the northern 10 tribes of Israel, was utterly destroyed and never became a nation again. This passage says that those who have been destroyed will be raised to life again and reconciled to God]
+ Ezekiel 37 [In this passage Ezekiel sees a valley of bones of those "slain", and God gives them new life]
+ Jeremiah 30:24 The fierce anger of the LORD will not turn back until he fully accomplishes the purposes of his heart. In days to come you will understand this.
+ 1Peter 4:5-6  But they will have to give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to men in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit.

8. What about those passages that speak of loosing salvation?

Hebrews 6:4-6  [4] For [it is] impossible for those having been enlightened, having tasted of the gift of heaven, and having partaken in the sharing of the Holy Spirit [5], and having tasted the good word of God and the powers of the coming age [6], and having fallen away, again to renew [them] to repentance, while they are crucifying to themselves the son of God and ridiculing Him. [Author's translation]

Notice the differences in the verb tenses.  All are past actions until the last verse, when "crucify" and "ridicule" are present, ongoing tenses.  This verse says what we have been saying all along: It is impossible for God to save someone who is actively denying Christ and His Love. But, as soon as they repent and stop rejecting, it is possible to save them.  Yet, God may have to discipline them severely to bring them to that point:

Hebrews 10:26-27  If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left,  but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume God’s enemies.

Yes, if we deliberately keep on sinning (i.e. willfully rejecting Christ), then we are denying the only sacrifice that can cover our sins.  The only thing that is left is to go to hell, and suffer, until we decide we don't want to keep rejecting Christ.

9. Doesn’t Jesus say that “few” will enter the Kingdom of God, and that the way is “narrow”?  

Admittedly, the words of Jesus are at the very heart of this objection:

Luke 13:23-24 "Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?" He said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow door! Because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to.”

Matthew 7:13-14 Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

First, we need to understand that the “narrowness” is Jesus Himself.  He is the ONLY door, way, gate, and route to the Father (cf. John 14.6). Many will try and avoid hell and enter heaven apart from Christ, but will not be able to (cf. Mat 22), but God will not rest until all know the narrow door. Those who will not enter through Jesus choose to go to “destruction” (i.e. hell) until they repent and receive Christ, and follow His narrow path.

Jesus’ first answer to the question is not “Yes, only a few will be saved”.  Instead it is “Strive to enter!” Jesus gives us the narrowness passages for two reasons: First, to make us take seriously the need to come to Him.  Second, to spur us on to help “the many” who cannot find the door alone.

Scripture makes clear that Jesus is THE ONLY WAY to God, but I do not believe that in the end, God will stop anyone from finding this way.
+ John 14:6  Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
+ John 3:17-18  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son.
+ John 3:36  Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on him.
+ John 10:7-18  "I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep. All who ever came before me were thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.
+ John 11:25-26  Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?"
+ Acts 4:12  Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved."
+ 1 Cor. 3:11  For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.
+ 1 Tim. 2:5  For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus...
+ 1 John 5:12  He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.
+ Romans 10:4  Christ is the end [goal, purpose] of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.
+ Hebrews 2:3  How shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation? This salvation... was first announced by the Lord...
+ Mat 10:32-33  Whoever confesses me before men, I will confess before my Father... whoever disowns me before men, I will disown before my Father...

10. But what about the “Elect” of God?  Aren’t there only a few elect?

In all of the narrowness passages of the Bible (such as “many are called, but few are chosen” in Mat 22.14), we must remember the PURPOSE for God’s election of the few.  The few are elected and blessed IN ORDER TO share that election and blessing with the whole world, not to keep it to themselves (see Gen 12:1-3). The elect are elected by God to elect others into the Kingdom.

In all the narrowness texts of the Bible, we have the choice: Do we interpret the universal love texts in light of narrowness?  If we do this, we get a version of “When God says He loves all, He really only loves the few, and that’s it.  We would love to help you, but only if you’re elect.  Sorry.”  

Or, do we interpret the narrowness texts in light of God’s universal Love?  If we do this, we get a version of “When God elects the few, He elects them to serve.  He gives them the mission to share His Love with all the world.  God elects and blesses, so that we can share that election and blessing with everyone.  No exceptions.”  Which method of interpretation best aligns with the radically self-emptying Love God gives us in Jesus Christ?

If we need help answering this question, let us look at the example of the “original elect” apostles of Christ.  Did they sit satisfied in their election?  Or did they share their election and blessings with others?

Here are some of the Scriptures that talk about the wide, open, universal love of God for all people, His desire to save all people, and His prediction that all will be saved through Christ:

a. God loves all people:
+ 1John 4:8 God is Love
+ John 3:16-17  For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
+ Romans 8:28-39  And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose... For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
+ 1Co. 13:8-13  Love never fails... the greatest of these is love.
+ Psa. 136:1-3  Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good. His love endures forever. Give thanks to the God of gods. His love endures forever.
+ 1 John 4:9-10  This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.
+ Romans 5:8  God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  
+ Matthew 5:43-48  But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven... Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
+ Psalm 145:8-9  The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love. The Lord is good to all, and has compassion on all he has made.
+ 1 John 4:7-8  Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.  Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.

b. God desires to save all:
+ Ezekiel 33:11  As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die?
+ 1 Timothy 2:4  [God] wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.
+ 2 Peter 3:9  The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
+ Mark 1:15  "The time has come," [Jesus] said. "The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!“
+ 2Sa 14:14 Like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be recovered, so we must die. But God does not take away life; instead, he devises ways so that a banished person may not remain estranged from him.

c. God will save all through Christ:
+ John 3:17  God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
+ John 12:32  But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.
+ 1John 2:2  He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.
+ Acts 3:19-21  Jesus... must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.
+ Heb. 2:9  Jesus... suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
+ 1Ti 4:10  We have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, and especially of those who believe.
+ Titus 2:11 The grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men.
+ Romans 5:12-21  Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men... how much more did God's grace... of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many... For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man... so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men.
+ 1Corinthians 15:21-28 Since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man.  For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive... The last enemy to be destroyed is death... so that God may be all in all.
+ Romans 11:32  For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.
+ 2Corinthians 5:15  Christ died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.
+ 2Corinthians 5:19  God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them.
+ Ephesians 1:10  [God will] bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.
+ Colossians 1:19-20  For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in [Christ], and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.  
+ Philippians 2:9-11 At the name of Jesus every knee will bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. [The word confess is "exhomologeo" = confess praise and repentance for healing. See: Psa 29:5, 29:10, 29:13; Jam 5:16]
+ Romans 8:38-39  For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

11. But doesn’t this redemptive view of hell presume upon God’s mercy?

In the past I have been satisfied with the argument that goes like this: “We are all sinners.  Sinners deserve death and hell, because they cannot be allowed to infect Heaven with their sin.  Furthermore, Heaven cannot be forced on someone who does not want to spend eternity with Christ.  Forced love is not real love.  Therefore EVERYONE deserves hell.  If God saved JUST ONE person from Hell, that would be more mercy than anyone has a right to ask for.  So, do not worry if many go to hell forever, because God has saved more than could ever deserve heaven.”

This argument is TRUE, but it fails to take into account ALL the Biblical evidence.  There are dozens of passages that seem to explicitly say that God will save EVERYTHING and EVERYONE.  Furthermore, many more hint that hell is not final.  If we look solely at human abilities and intentions, then YES, the majority of humanity deserves hell forever.  But we are never to look to man for our salvation (cf. Psa 33).  We look only to God and His promises.  And God’s intentions and promises revealed in Christ Jesus are this: to reconcile all things in heaven and on earth to Himself, to destroy death forever, and become our “All in All” (cf. 1Co 15).

Either hell is a destination of no hope, or a tool of final hope.  You decide.

12. But if Heaven is for all, doesn’t that destroy our freedom?

No, because God gives the real choice of Hell, for as long as we desire it.  Hell is the logical, natural consequences of living in sin, and God allows us to have those consequences until we get tired of them, and choose God instead.  At that point, Christ takes our sin and consequences on Himself, and draws us back to the Father’s Love.

13. What about Matthew 12:32: “anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come”?

Correct.  To “speak against” or “blaspheme” the Holy Spirit (in Mark 3:29) is to reject the Spirit calling us Love God and accept Christ.  As long as we do this, we cannot be forgiven, in any age, eternally.  BUT, as soon as we stop rejecting the Spirit, and repent, we can be forgiven, in any age.

14. So, is getting out of hell as simple as saying “Oops, I was wrong!  I choose Christ!”?

In our “sound byte” culture we want answers short and sweet, black and white, and answered in simplistic terms.  But, this is not merely a yes or no question, because the question does not frame the issues correctly.  It would be like someone asking “To get from Dallas to Chicago, all I have to do is head north, right?”  Or, it is like a drug addict saying “To get my life straight and become whole, all I have to do is accept Christ, right?”  Or, it is like a cancer patient saying “To get healthy, all I have to do is go on chemotherapy and radiation, right?”

Sure, to get from Dallas to Chicago, a northern orientation is an essential first step, but it is much more complex than that as you actually read the maps and travel the roads.  It is an essential first step for the healing of a drug addict to accept Christ and surrender to His Lordship, but complete wholeness will only come after years of following Christ and being accountable to other members of the Church.  And yes, to be healed from cancer it is necessary to undergo chemotherapy and radiation (in most instances).  But this process is very painful in itself, and it may not be all that is needed.  To be healed, sometimes amputation is necessary.

These are exactly the same issues involved in the idea of “Redemptive Hell”.  If salvation is to occur, whether in this life or possibly beyond, then it requires first and foremost accepting the absolute Lordship of Christ.  That is the general orientation that is required to get to the destination of the Father.  But, furthermore, it requires SUSTAINED surrender to Christ’s Lordship and discipline, as we allow the PROCESS of pruning us and refining us to get rid of all evil and selfishness from our self.  And, finally, it may require amputation of parts of our lives, and that is painful.  And there is the possibility that if we have completely denied Christ and lived completely for self, then after the pruning, refining, and amputation, there may be nothing left of us to save.  Sin is thus a horribly bad bet, and puts one’s soul in the danger of becoming a non-person, forever separated from God in nothingness.

A final analogy will suffice to explain why this question is insufficient to understand the idea of a “Redemptive Hell”.  If you ask me “Is the chair you are sitting on made of plastic and metal?”, there is a whole host of answers I could give you.  On the simplistic end, I could simply say “Yes, it is”.  But, as soon as I say that the Quantum Physicist will stand up and say “Its not that simple!”  She will then go on and talk about how what we think of as solid matter is actually collections of infinitely small superstrings or membranes of energy and space wrapped up in 11 to 27 dimensions, and moving at incredible speeds, relating to each other in such a way as to form subatomic particles, which form atoms, which form molecules, which form the substances we call plastic and metal.  Then the philosopher will stand up and say that what we call “chair” conforms to a “form” of chairness, without which it would merely be a lump of matter and energy.  Thus, he will say, the chair is not merely made of matter and energy, but it is made of and in the form of chairness, without which it could not be a chair.

If a child asked the question, it would be completely confusing to give the philosophical answer and developmentally improper to give the answer of quantum physics.  They would confuse the issue for the child, not make it clearer.  Yet, for a chair manufacturer, it would be simply improper and simplistic to answer merely “Yes, it is made of plastic and metal”.  She not only needs to know physics and philosophy, but also engineering, chemistry and human biology, in order to make a good chair.  

The same is true about Biblical teaching on time, eternity, heaven and hell.  It is both incredibly simple, and infinitely complex.  And the apparent simplicity, on deeper inspection, gives way to a profound depth.  As such, new believers need to hear the clear teaching of the Gospel about hell:

+ Hell is the natural consequence for denying God’s Love in Christ
+ Hell is utter isolation from God and all others
+ Hell is the worst suffering imaginable
+ Hell lasts as long as we can possibly imagine
+ The only way to avoid hell is to accept Christ.

But, when they really dig deep and ask questions about God’s desire to save and God’s ability to save in light of the reality of Hell, then they need to understand that Hell may not be God’s last word.  Hell, in the end, beyond time and eternity, may be ultimately redemptive.  I hope it is.

15. But doesn’t this idea of Hell destroy our sense of immediacy and desire to live for Christ right here, right now?

NO! I truly believe it frees us to live more fully in God’s Love, because we know Jesus loves us forever. No exceptions. We know He will not stop or give up until He has brought us all to become God’s children, which is what we were made for.  It makes us want to tell others.

Here are some other things to think about on this point:

If the only reason you follow Jesus is the “get out of hell free” card, then do you really love Him in the first place?

What would you think if you married someone now, but they only wanted to be with you after retirement? How does this relate to God?
“[Some people] would rather receive salvation from God than God their salvation.”  - George McDonald

Hell is life without Jesus: Now and later... So why wait to accept Him?

Jesus is the only source of healing and wholeness... So why would you want to wait and withhold Him from yourself and others?

You would have to be crazy to want to go to Hell... It is horrid.

You would have to be evil to want anyone else to go to Hell.

It is STILL possible to be so selfish and unrepentant that Hell lasts forever... So why take the chance?

If someone is loving, kind, and fulfilled without explicitly knowing Christ, they will be EVEN MORESO by personally knowing Christ, who IS the Source of their happiness!  He makes GOOD even BETTER.

16. But doesn’t the idea of a "Redemptive Hell" destroy our desire to evangelize?

No, because our mission to be Christ's Body (cf. 1Co 12, Rom 12) and God's messengers of "reconciliation" (2Co 5:16-20) does not stop at this life, but goes on until the job is finished.  A great example of this is found in CS Lewis' book "The Great Divorce".  In that book he points out that the mission to evangelize is not easier, but harder in the next life, so we should try all possible means to win all to Christ here and now, so we have less to reach after this life.

Some Scripture passages hint at this:
We are called to reach out with Christ’s Love here and now, and it seems that this mission to take Christ to others will last after this life too.

a. We are blessed to be a blessing, and God will not let us rest until we have blessed everyone:
+ Genesis 12:1-3  The LORD had said to Abram, "Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you.  2 "I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.  3 I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you."
+ See also Ephesians 1:3-12, which talks about our election in Christ to be a mission to be Christ to others

b. The Church is given the mission to share the Gospel and wisdom of God not only on earth but in the "heavenly realms"
+ Ephesians 3:10-11  His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.

c. We are called to "snatch" people "from the fire"
+ Jude 1:23 Save others by snatching them out of the fire; and have mercy on still others with fear, hating even the tunic defiled by their bodies.

d. We will "judge" the world with Christ at the end of our lives:
+ Matthew 19:28 “...at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”
+ 1 Co 6:2-3  Do you not know that the saints will judge the world?
+ Daniel 7:27 Then the sovereignty, power and greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven will be handed over to the saints...
+ Revelation 20:4 I saw thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge... They came to life and reigned with Christ...
+ The concept of “judging” in the Bible, especially in the book of Judges, has little to do with our idea of a guy in a black robe and a gavel pronouncing sentences.  Judging refers to restoration of two things:
-- Peace: bringing balance to imbalanced situations.
-- Redemption: saving people who are oppressed.

The question becomes: If we are to “judge” with Christ, what will our judgment of others look like?  After having all our sins forgiven by Jesus, how will we treat those who are still lost? (see Mat 18:23-35).

Also, there is the strange parable in Luke 16:19-31.  In it, two righteous men, Abraham and Lazarus, are sent to give a message from God to a wicked man in hell... But we are not given the end of the conversation.  We must ask the question: Why would the "righteous" be sent to communicate with a dead man in hell? Was it to "gloat" over him, by making him feel bad that he was in hell and they weren't?  If so, this attitude goes against many Scriptures about humility, forgiving others, not judging, and not enjoying other people's misfortune.  If they went to hell to gloat over the man, then we must assume that somehow everything that is bad behavior on earth is somehow OK in heaven.  Is this really what Jesus is saying???

Or, we can assume that they went to the man in hell with a REDEMPTIVE purpose.  First of all, the parable itself is redemptive.  The message that Jesus wants to give us, here and now, in the parable is to repent, seek Him, and live right.  Since it is unimaginable that Abraham and Lazarus were sent to gloat over the man, we can only assume that their purpose in visiting the man in hell was to tell him to repent as well.

Finally, in a couple of passages we find that dead saints are actually summoned back to earth to work in God's redemptive plan:

i. Samuel comes back to warn Saul and call him to repentance: 1Samuel 28:3-25

ii. Moses and Elijah come back to witness to Jesus' redemptive purpose: Matthew 17

iii. After Jesus death, many holy people came back from the dead to announce the Gospel: Matthew 27:52

While this does not amount to "proof" of what our mission after this life will be like, we can assume that our mission will be a continuation of the great Commandments (Mat 22:36-40) and the Great Commission (Mat 28:18-20) that Jesus gave us in this life.  Furthermore, we can assume that God will not let us rest until we ALL have found rest in Christ and none are "left behind".  Again, read CS Lewis' "The Great Divorce" for a picture of this.

And lastly, an objection to all of the objections:

What makes more sense in terms of the full picture of God and salvation that the Bible shows is IN Christ?  Does God will to save everyone through Christ, or does God only will to save some?

BUT, let’s see what makes the most sense:
1. If God has made everything and everyone to Love, and wants to save all...
2. And if Christ’s death and resurrection gives victory over everyone’s sin...
3. And if The Spirit is able to eventually draw anyone to know and love Jesus...
4. And since no person can “out-stubborn” God... God will not take away their free will, but He will work with them for a million-billion years to draw them to know His Love through Christ, and to repent and Love Him...

Is there, then, any reason to make death, Hell, and suffering eternal, lasting as long as God’s own life?  What glory does that bring to God?

James 2:13  Judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment!

We are left with two choices.  EITHER we believe that Hell is:
+ Retribution: imposed punishment
+ Being cast into outer darkness by a vengeful God
+ The fire of a cosmic “soul cooker” cranked up to high to punish us
+ Cosmic Revenge
+ Something imposed on us which we did not choose
+ A final destination... Unless, of course, we want it to be
+ Hell is something Christ will not cross to get us

OR we believe that Hell is:
+ Redemptive: natural consequence
+ Being engulfed in outer darkness, an eternal distance from God and from anyone else... To protect others from our selfishness
+ The inner burning of regret
+ The fire of God’s Love refining us when we turn back to God
+ Something we impose on ourselves by rejecting Love
+ A tool to bring us to repentance
+ A distance that Christ can and will bridge if we repent and accept

Given the reality of Hell spoken of by Jesus Christ, we must answer for ourselves which vision of hell best matches Scripture, and matches the God of Love revealed in Jesus Christ. You decide.


Chris said...

hey nate thanks for answering me question..as well as many question i had not thought of yet..youve got a lot of knowledge in that big head of yours..thanks again

Bret Wells said...

a lot of words too...

not me though. my thoughts are always short and to the point. that's just who I am.

Chris Tilling said...

Hi Nate,
Thanks for posting on my blog and suggesting your post. I haven't finished it yet (it's the longest post I've ever seen!), but I am already finding it very helpful.
Well that was an amazing coincidence. Surely providence!
All the best,

This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.