One of the most important teachings of Jesus is that actions have consequences. Living a life of wickedness results in the soul facing divine judgment and experiencing suffering in the afterlife.
The subject of “hell” has perhaps been more misunderstood than any other Christian teaching. Many Christians believe that once you go to hell, you must stay there forever, with no hope of being reformed and redeemed. It is also commonly believed that the way to be “saved” from the prospect of hell is to have the correct religious beliefs, i.e. to “confess Jesus Christ as Lord.” If you do this, you are supposed to go to heaven, whereas people with the wrong religion are destined for damnation — regardless of the moral quality of their life.
These ideas have caused many people to question God’s justice and to turn away from Christianity. But the truth is, Jesus and his Apostles taught a very different message.
According to Jesus, believing that he is the Lord is not the key to salvation: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” Many people will do lots of seemingly religious things in Jesus’ name, but when the time comes for God to evaluate their performance in life, Jesus says, “Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Mat. 7:21-23).
The number one thing that leads a person to hell is to fail to treat other people with compassion. Jesus repeatedly warned about the spiritual danger of neglecting to help the poor and the downtrodden, in famous parables such as the Sheep and the Goats (Mat. 25:31-46) and the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). The colorful and fiercely judgmental language of these stories and others was intended to serve as a potent deterrent against selfishness and greed.
In the original Greek language of the New Testament, Jesus refers to the duration of hell as aionios, meaning “lasting for an age, a period of time,” and the nature of hell as kolasis, meaning “reformative chastisement.” But this has traditionally been translated into English and other languages as “eternal punishment,” distorting the intended meaning.
This mistranslation occurred because several centuries after Christ, the Roman church decided to declare as official doctrine that some people are damned to an eternal hell. Before then, many Christians had believed that the hope of redemption was never foreclosed on any soul, even those who had died and were experiencing hell in the afterlife.
There is much Biblical evidence for the hopeful idea of universal salvation. For example, in the parable of the Lost Sheep, Jesus teaches that the divine shepherd will persistently seek out any sheep that has strayed until he finds it and reunites it with the flock (Mat. 18:12-14). In the parable of the Prodigal Son, Jesus tells the story of a father, representing God, whose disobedient son leaves the household and falls into terrible sin — and ends up living in a pigsty, representing hell — but is lovingly welcomed back to the family when he returns and repents (Luke 15:11-32).
The Apostle Paul taught that “as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:22). Christ “must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet … so that God may be all in all.” (vss. 25, 28). This suggests a transformation of all people in the divine image, even those who had rebelled and become God’s enemies. Paul even suggested that baptism could be performed on behalf of the dead, to assist them to repent of their sins and find salvation beyond the grave (vs. 29).
The First Epistle of Peter teaches that the resurrected Jesus “preached to the spirits in prison” who had been languishing in hell since the time of Noah, when according to legend, all of humanity except one righteous family had become filled with sin and were condemned (1 Pet. 3:18-20). The purpose of this visit by Jesus, traditionally called the Harrowing of Hell, was to minister to and liberate the souls who had been judged in the flesh, so that they could “live according to God in the spirit” (4:6).
The Catholic tradition embraces the idea of purgatory, i.e. a temporary hell in the spirit world, so that sinners will pay a just penalty for their wicked actions before experiencing the joys of salvation. Many early Christians such as the third-century theologian Origen of Alexandria also believed that the physical world could be considered a form of hell — that the “spirit prison” might be right here on earth — and that reincarnation is a way by which souls can learn their lessons and do penance until finally becoming worthy of heaven. Righteous souls might also come here to help teach others, as Jesus did.
No matter what exactly hell is or how the process of divine judgment works, the important thing is that suffering is for the purpose of spiritual growth and redemption. All human beings were created in God’s image, and although we are fallen in sin, God wants us to be restored to our intended state of perfection.
God gives humans free will to do good or evil. Even after physical death, as spiritual beings we remain free to choose God and goodness. The doors of hell are locked from the inside, and it is God’s most cherished desire that every soul will open the door and walk into the light — painful though the process may be until we are made fit for heaven. God will always keep knocking on the door of our hearts, and souls will continue to be saved, “until the time of the restoration of all things, as God promised long ago through His holy prophets” (Acts 3:21). The Universal Church of the Restoration has faith in this positive vision of God’s plan.