Hell: A Restorationist View

What the Bible Really Teaches about Sin, Judgment, and Salvation

By Eric Stetson — 2005

(Note: A version of this article was originally published in 2005 by Hope Through Christ ministries at Christian-Universalism.com. It was revised and republished as part of a 2008 book, Christian Universalism: God’s Good News for All People. Bible quotations are from the NIV unless otherwise indicated.)

The Bible, including both the Old and New Testaments, is the foundational text of Christianity. Christians of all types turn to this great text for inspiration and revelation of spiritual truth. Therefore, if we seek to learn the message of the Christian faith, it is important that we examine what the Bible really teaches about important issues. Perhaps the most important of all is the relationship between man and God, and how this relationship can be disturbed and restored.

Over the course of several centuries, many authors wrote the books that have been compiled into the official collection, or canon, we know today as “The Holy Bible.” Each author who contributed to the Bible had his own perspective, ideas, and opinions, shaped by the influences of social status, culture, and prevailing beliefs of the time. If all these people were gathered together in one room, there would be some heated debates about religious issues. Nevertheless, the work of a greater Author is evident in their writings, especially when viewed together as one. That is why the Bible has survived to inspire generation after generation of human beings, and is the world’s most popular book.

Basic Biblical Concepts

The Bible is a story of man’s fall into sin, divine judgment as a consequence, and the hope of salvation to overcome sin and bring God’s judgments to an end. Sin is not some morbid, guilt-ridden thing that should cause us to turn away from Christian teaching. No, in fact sin is the very act of turning away from God. That is what sin means: to go in the wrong direction, to miss the mark. When Christians say that “all people are sinners,” what this means is simply that nobody is perfect. We all have a tendency to sometimes fail to do what we should do, or to do things we shouldn’t do, or to take the wrong path or make a mistake. That is the reality of sin — and it is a central focus of the Bible.

Why should the Bible be so focused on the fact that humans are imperfect and miss the mark? Well, because God wants to perfect us. God does not reveal our sinfulness to us so that we can sulk in our guilt, but so that we can change our ways and become better human beings! God’s judgment is how that excellent goal is accomplished. When people sin, God is liable to judge them as a natural consequence of their sin, in order to make them see the error of their ways and thus “save” them from the mistake they made. When divine judgment occurs, it can be quite unpleasant and may feel like harsh punishment. But the point of it is to correct us.

How does God save us through judgment? Salvation, the process of being saved from sin and made more perfect in God’s sight, has several steps from start to finish. First, there must come repentance on the part of the sinner. To repent simply means to change one’s mind, to acknowledge one’s mistake. It is not about wallowing in guilt, though a feeling of guilt might be an initial part of it. When we repent of our sin, we are making a positive, purposeful acknowledgement that we have thought or done wrong, and that we are actively seeking to change our ways, so as to walk in the direction of God rather than away from Him and His ways. The experience of divine judgment — the suffering, the loss and pain, whether physical, mental, or spiritual — is what enables us to come to a point of repentance. Judgment is therefore a beneficial gift from God for our wellbeing, because it starts us on the path of salvation.

After repentance comes atonement. Atonement means making amends. The sinner who has repented must make amends to the one who was sinned against, either another person who is the victim of one’s sin, or God Himself who hurts whenever His earthly children turn away from Him and against His way. Atoning to God could be accomplished through newfound faith in God’s willingness to forgive, or through some form of penance to make up for past wrongdoing. If one cannot fully atone for one’s own sins, another could make a vicarious atonement on one’s behalf to help settle the accounts of good and evil, such as Christians believe, in a cosmic sense, that Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross accomplished. In whatever way it occurs, justice is affirmed and the negative effects of sin are balanced through the positive, compensating effects of atonement.

Forgiveness occurs when atonement is made for sin. The offended party moves beyond the sin, as if it never happened. Debts are canceled, trespasses are forgotten, and the sinner is no longer viewed as being in a state of transgression. In contrast to repentance, which is undertaken by the will of the sinner, forgiveness is the step that must be taken by the one sinned against. Although there may be a will to forgive no matter what, full and total forgiveness is not manifested until repentance and atonement have occurred. This is the natural progression of the salvation process.

Finally, when the sinner is completely forgiven, there can be reconciliation. This is the condition of returning to oneness and friendly relations between beings, the one who sinned and the one sinned against — and it may be between human beings or between man and God. Reconciliation implies restoration, the renewal of the positive state of affairs before the sin occurred. In some sense, reconciliation also goes beyond merely restoring the sin-free condition, but actually deepens our relationship with the victim of our sin and with God, because we have passed through a difficult episode of imbalance and misdirection and have emerged on the other side at a higher level that would not have been possible otherwise. The sinner gains the maturity of greater understanding and moves closer to perfection through judgment and the salvation process.

What I have just described is the overall message of the Bible, without reference to any of the text’s specific contents. Sin, judgment, and the salvation process of repentance, atonement, forgiveness and reconciliation are what constitute the central theme of the Judeo-Christian scriptures. This theme is to be found played out in individual Biblical stories as well as the book taken as a whole. In summary, the message of the Bible is that humans are imperfect, but there is a way that we can be perfected by a combination of God’s actions and our own response.

Foreshadowing of Universal Reconciliation in the Old Testament

People often remark that the Old Testament presents God in a much harsher light than the New Testament. In the Hebrew scriptures, God is a deity of fiery wrath who inflicts vengeance upon his wayward people, often in brutal ways. The laws of Moses are strict, and punishments are harsh. God is jealous, angry, and obsessed with righteousness and holiness — and mere humans who don’t live up to His standards are like ants to be crushed under His mighty foot. So goes the common perception. Surely, if significant evidence of an eternal hell is to be found in the Bible, it would be in this harsher part of the scriptures, right?

Would it surprise you to learn that there is no evidence of the teaching of eternal hell in the Old Testament at all? That’s right, the Hebrew scriptures do not contain the idea of a place of never-ending torment beyond the grave for the wicked. According to the Old Testament, when you die you go to Sheol — a dark, nondescript abode of the dead — regardless of how bad your sins were during your mortal life. There’s no heavenly paradise or fiery torture chamber for the dead described in the holy books of ancient Judaism. The judgments of God were understood to come in this life, here on earth. Evil people would be punished during their lifetime, and good people would be rewarded. Or so it was in the view of early Jewish religious thinkers represented in the Bible. A few questioned this view, which would ultimately lead to further theological developments such as the teaching of the resurrection of the dead, which is more fully developed in the New Testament.

The Hebrew scriptures do not contain the idea of a place of never-ending torment beyond the grave for the wicked.

Many Christians are unaware that eternal hell is not a commonly held doctrine in Judaism. The Jewish religion evolved in a very different direction from Christianity on the issue of divine judgment. The overwhelming majority of post-Biblical rabbinic thought through the centuries has maintained a purgatorial view of hell, in which sinners must remain there only for a period of time until they have received a just penalty. This is because the Old Testament does not contain any references or warnings about sinners condemned to endure everlasting punishments in the afterlife, and it does contain much internal evidence that punishment for sin is always limited. To the degree that Jews believe in hell at all, it is generally not in the sense of eternal conscious torment. Christians have read this idea into the Jewish Bible based on their own faulty interpretations of the New Testament.

The Old Testament was more concerned with the fate of the Jewish people as a whole rather than the afterlife of individuals. And in general, the Old Testament is interested in judgment and salvation in a corporate sense, for tribes and nations, rather than each individual person. In the Hebrew scriptures we read about how God chose the people of Israel for special attention, gave them detailed moral standards to live by (the Law), and imposed judgments upon them collectively when their nation sinned against the Law.

One thing is clear: God never gives up on His people. No matter how much the Jews sinned against Him — and they sinned a lot, according to the Bible — God never let judgment be the final doom of Israel. After judgment would always come salvation. God would always forgive sins and there was no time limit on God’s forgiveness. God frequently sent prophets to warn Israel to turn from sin and repent, and often He patiently delayed imposing judgment until the sinfulness became intolerable. Then, if Israel still had failed to repent by some point in time, God would bring a limited judgment upon the nation to spur the people to repentance, but would not wipe out the entire Hebrew people leaving no Jews remaining. Instead, He made a covenant with Israel that they would always be His people and He would always be their God. Though the masses of the nation might be destroyed in war or exile or whatever other form of divine judgment that occurred, a remnant of Israel would always remain, and through this remnant would come repentance and salvation for Israel as a whole.

Even before God chose the Jews, the theme of salvation always following judgment is to be found in the Bible. For example, when “The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time” (Gen. 6:5), God restrained Himself from totally destroying the people of the world. He preserved what was good among them — Noah and his family — and destroyed all the evil according to the story of the Flood. Then He restored humanity again by multiplying the descendents of Noah.

When the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah became thoroughly evil and depraved, God led out the one righteous man, Lot, from among them and destroyed the wicked who remained in a fiery judgment. Later on in the Old Testament, we read the amazing prophecy that God will “restore the fortunes of Sodom” (Ezek. 16:53) — amazing because this city was the archetypal symbol of extreme wickedness in the mind of the Jews, and was supposed to be “a wasteland forever” (Zeph. 2:9). God’s plans always include keeping whatever is good with an ultimate goal of restoration after judgment upon evil.

The concept of a “righteous remnant” that would never be destroyed by God in His judgments is key to understanding the message of universal reconciliation, the belief that all will be saved in the end rather than being consigned to eternal torment or annihilation. Could it be that God would never completely destroy any individual human being or leave anyone in a permanent state of judgment and punishment — in the same way that God would never completely and permanently destroy humanity as a whole, or the corrupt cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, or Israel His chosen nation? Certainly that would be in keeping with the revealed character of God in the Bible. “You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy,” says the prophet Micah about God (Mic. 7:18). “For His anger lasts only a moment…” we read in the Psalms (Ps. 30:5). “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; His love endures forever.” (Ps. 106:1) (1). He is “the compassionate and gracious God” (Ex. 34:6), “slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion…” (Num. 14:18) (2)

God is in the business of destroying evil and saving what is good. Surely in the same way that there was a remnant of goodness in Noah’s time and in Sodom and in the nation of Israel, there must be at least some tiny bit of goodness in each individual human being, even the most evil among us. If the presence of some good within an entity prevents God from destroying the entire thing because of the bad, then why would God refuse to save any individual, no matter how sinful? Nobody is 100% bad, totally irredeemable. God is in the salvation business, and He has the power to get the job done. His judgments have a purpose, and that purpose is not total and utter ruin. The “harsh” Old Testament teaches us this optimistic lesson.

God’s Relationship with the Jews and All Humanity

The Bible is largely a book about the history — both political and religious — of the Jewish people. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that God only cares about the Jews, or that His character should be different in how He relates to Gentiles. The New Testament emphasizes the idea that God treats the Jews and the Gentiles equally. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28). Nevertheless, Paul himself was a Jew, as was Jesus and all the twelve apostles. Nearly the entire Bible, if not all of it, is believed to have been written by Jews. The difference is that the Jews who wrote the New Testament believed that God was expanding His covenant relationship with the Jews to include all people through the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Therefore, in light of the fact that the story of God’s relationship with man as told in the Bible is a story of Jewish people, we should recognize that the Jews are a microcosm of all humanity. How God revealed His character to the Jews is going to be consistent with how God acts toward people in general — at least that is what Christians believe because of our faith in the message of the New Testament.

So let’s examine in greater detail how God dealt with the Jews. The Old Testament tells that story: the selection of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as the patriarchal fathers of the people of Israel; the creation of the twelve tribes of Israel and a united loyalty to Moses and the Law he brought from Yahweh, the God of Israel; and the establishment of the Jewish nation-state with the rise of Hebrew kingship and Temple worship in Jerusalem. And then came the fall of Israel. The kings and people became increasingly corrupt and full of sin. To teach them a lesson for their sins, God imposed judgments on Israel in the form of war and exile. The Jewish nation was invaded and conquered by the Babylonians, and Jews were scattered in the Diaspora.

The eternal hell believer might want to stop there and say, “The fruit of sin is punishment, and that’s that. Look what God did to the Jews when they transgressed His Law. No hope for them anymore.” But that would be wrong. To the chagrin of those who wish their theology could be so tidy, the Bible offers a promise of grace to sinful Israel. God is much more merciful than fundamentalists would have us believe. The same harsh Old Testament God who was full of fiery wrath when His people went astray would one day bring them back into the fold and into their divine inheritance they had squandered due to their own sins. The Bible promises reconciliation between God and His people and restoration of Israel after God’s judgments come to a just and reasonable end.

Sure enough, after the Babylonian exile came the return of the Jews to reestablish the nation of Israel in the promised land. They rebuilt the Temple and resumed worshipping God in their holy city of Jerusalem. In the first century after Christ, Jerusalem was destroyed and the Hebrew people were scattered by the Romans, but in modern times the Jews have returned to the Holy Land and restored Israel as a nation. The pattern of sin, judgment, and salvation repeats itself over and over again in the historical story of the Jews.

In the prophetic books of the Bible, God describes Israel as an adulterous wife and a rebellious son. But He doesn’t plan to divorce or disown His people. His judgments are temporary, not eternal and merciless. When Israel falls into sin, God says in anger, “she is not My wife, and I am not her husband. Let her remove the adulterous look from her face and the unfaithfulness from between her breasts.” (Hos. 2:2). But God’s forgiveness overpowers His anger, and after a time of separation and punishment for Israel, He says, “you will call Me ‘my husband’; you will no longer call Me ‘my master.’… I will betroth you to Me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion.” (vs. 16,19). God’s love is so great that He pledges to renew His vows with people who had violated His trust, broken His covenant, and turned away from Him to other gods.

God describes Israel as an adulterous wife and a rebellious son. But He doesn’t plan to divorce or disown His people. His judgments are temporary, not eternal and merciless.

God says to the people of Israel, “I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against Me.” (Isa. 1:2). They were “utterly estranged” from their divine Father (vs. 4 NRSV). God marvels at the punishments He had to inflict upon His children: “Why should you be beaten anymore? Why do you persist in rebellion? Your whole head is injured, your whole heart afflicted. From the sole of your foot to the top of your head there is no soundness — only wounds and welts and open sores… Your country is desolate, your cities burned with fire; your fields are being stripped by foreigners right before you…” (vss. 5-7). But all of these terrible judgments were only temporary, intended to set God’s people back on the right track: “I will not accuse forever, nor will I always be angry, for then the spirit of man would grow faint before me,” says God. “I have seen his ways, but I will heal him; I will guide him and restore comfort to him…” (57:16,18). Moses tells us, “Know then in your heart that as a man disciplines his son, so the Lord your God disciplines you.” (Deut. 8:5). The fatherly discipline and tough love of God was shown toward Israel when they became ensnared by sin and rebellion.

The Hebrew prophets often used hyperbole to describe God’s anger and wrath toward His people Israel. Jeremiah, in particular, is known for his exaggerated rhetoric about divine judgment. He says that the fire of God’s wrath against Jerusalem and Judah will not be quenched (Jer. 4:4, 7:20), that the city and nation will be smashed like a potter’s jar that “cannot be repaired” (19:11), and that God’s anger will burn forever (17:4). He says to his fellow Hebrews, “This is what the Lord says: ‘Your wound is incurable, your injury beyond healing. There is no one to plead your cause, no remedy for your sore, no healing for you.’” (30:12-13). Sound familiar? That’s some of the same kind of rhetoric used by fundamentalist Christian preachers who teach eternal hell. But even Jeremiah spoke of a merciful God. In the very same chapter where the supposedly “incurable” sins of Israel are mentioned, he also says, “‘I am with you and will save you,’ declares the Lord” (vs. 11), and “‘I will restore you to health and heal your wounds,’ declares the Lord.” (vs. 17). This prophet was obviously very conflicted about his view of God’s judgments! One minute he declares that things are utterly hopeless for Israel, and the next he promises restoration. The facts tell the true story. Israel was indeed restored, as history shows.

This passage in the Book of Jeremiah sums up God’s attitude rather nicely: “‘Return, faithless Israel,’ declares the Lord, ‘I will frown on you no longer, for I am merciful,’ declares the Lord, ‘I will not be angry forever. … How gladly would I treat you like sons and give you a desirable land, the most beautiful inheritance of any nation. I thought you would call me “Father” and not turn away from following me. But like a woman unfaithful to her husband, so you have been unfaithful to me, O house of Israel,’ declares the Lord. … ‘Return, faithless people; I will cure you of backsliding.’” (3:12,19-20,22).

The Bible teaches that “God does not show favoritism” for Jews over Gentiles (Rom. 2:11). If God is willing to save Israel no matter what, then His impartiality and consistency of character should mean that He is willing to save all people no matter what. This means humanity as a whole, and it also means individual people — even those who seem to have become hopelessly lost.

Divine Grace and the Parable of the Lost Sheep

Grace is an important Biblical concept which plays a role in the process of salvation. Grace means divine favor that is not deserved, but offered as a free gift. Jesus teaches us something about God’s willingness to show grace to all people in the parable of the Lost Sheep. In this story, Jesus describes a shepherd who loses one out of a hundred of his sheep. When the sheep wanders off, straying from the flock and the way of the shepherd, he goes to look for it until he finds it. It is not the sheep that finds its way back to the shepherd on its own, but it is the benevolent action of the shepherd that enables the sheep to be saved from its lost condition.

Grace plays a role in salvation because God is greater than humans, as a shepherd is greater than sheep. Sometimes only God knows the way, and we cannot find it unless He comes to us first. God must take the first step, in order for the salvation process to proceed. But what about repentance? Isn’t it necessary that we repent of our sins, by our own will and decision, so that we can return to God’s way? Yes, but in the parable of the Lost Sheep, once the poor sheep who has lost sight of the flock sees its loving shepherd coming to the rescue, the sheep turns around and resumes following the shepherd back to the flock — it is only natural. Remember that repentance means to turn around, to change course and begin going in the right direction. So the lost sheep (which represents a sinner) is in some sense brought to “repentance” simply by the act of the shepherd searching and finding the sheep. It is grace that makes this possible, not any effort on the part of the one that was lost.

Jesus says that God (the shepherd) is not satisfied with losing even one out of a hundred sheep (people). Anytime even one soul is lost, God will seek it and find it. So how could this God proclaimed by Jesus Christ send millions and millions of people to suffer in hell forever? That would be like the Divine Shepherd refusing to search out and find the lost sheep among His human family. As Jesus says, “your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost.” (Mat. 18:14). Every time He reaches out to a sinner and that sinner repents, God joyfully says, “Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.” (Luke 15:6). It is in God’s benevolent character to keep looking until everyone who is lost is found, and in our salvation God takes great joy and pleasure.

Jesus says that God (the shepherd) is not satisfied with losing even one out of a hundred sheep (people). Anytime even one soul is lost, God will seek it and find it.

Even though Jesus was sent in his earthly incarnation to bring grace and salvation specifically to sinners among the Jews, to “the lost sheep of Israel” (Mat. 15:24), he assures us that “I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.” (John 10:16). God treats the Gentiles the same way as the Jews; He is in the process of saving all the lost sheep of the whole world.

The Fatherhood of God and the Parable of the Prodigal Son

One of the best known and most moving parables told by Jesus is the story of the Prodigal Son. In this parable, a young man demands his share of the inheritance from his father so that he can go off and start his own life apart from his family. He leaves for a distant land where he squanders all his money in wild living. Then comes a famine in the country, and he finds himself starving and seeking the food of pigs. He realizes how irresponsible he has been, and decides to go back to his father’s house and ask to work as a mere hired servant so that he can eat. He believes that his father will never forgive him and will regard him as unworthy to be part of the family again.

The disobedient son underestimated the grace and forgiveness of his father. As he was returning home, “while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’” (Luke 15:20-24).

The sinner in this parable is the son who left home and wasted his inheritance on a corrupt lifestyle, before repenting, returning, and being blessed with his father’s forgiveness. The father of course is God. But there is also another character in the story: the Prodigal Son’s older brother, who stayed at home and dutifully obeyed the father all the time. He gets angry when the father is willing to forgive the sins of his irresponsible younger brother who came crawling back home in shame. “When this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!” he cries to the father in fury (vs. 30). The father has to explain to him how willing he is to forgive, because his son has repented of his sins — and this is a cause for celebration, not further judgment.

Who does the unmerciful older brother represent in this parable? It is the harsh religious fundamentalists, who are never satisfied with God’s limited judgment but always demand more and more vindictive retribution, a never-ending wrath without hope of forgiveness. In Jesus’ time and religious tradition, the fundamentalists were called Pharisees — and Jesus was always preaching against their arrogant and judgmental attitudes. The Gospels are full of stories of Jesus mocking the wrathful, self-righteous religiosity of the Pharisees and people who thought like them.

In the parable of the Prodigal Son, Jesus was making the point that God is like a loving, compassionate father, who is always willing to forgive us when we make a mistake and are willing to admit it and change direction. Unlike earthly, imperfect fathers who in some cases might disown their rebellious children and never be willing to reconcile with them, God “our Father in heaven” (Mat. 6:9) is better than that. He is so good that He would never, under any circumstances, disown us and condemn us forever. The possibility of reconciliation is always available — never to be withdrawn. Even while a sinner is still “a long way off,” as in the parable of the Prodigal Son, as long as the child of God has decided to return to the Father, He is guaranteed to be “filled with compassion for him” and will celebrate his return and spiritual rebirth. Repentance on our part always produces forgiveness on God’s part. That’s because God is the perfect Father.

Jesus tells us these words of hope about our relationship with God: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened. Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Mat. 7:7-11). Even an “evil” father may be willing to treat his own children well, especially when they please him. God is good and will remain compassionate toward His wayward children, because forbearance, forgiveness and mercy are in His very nature. These characteristics were demonstrated by Jesus Christ, who encouraged us to live the same way. Jesus says that “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.” (Luke 17:3-4). He commands us to forgive each other even up to “seventy-seven times.” (Mat. 18:22). Surely God, who is infinitely superior to us, could not do any less Himself! As soon as we are willing to ask for His forgiveness, seek Him out, and knock on the door of heaven, He will be there.

The door will always remain open. Whenever we are ready to exit the hell of sin and return to our Father’s house, we will find Him standing there waiting for us, with arms wide open, ready to embrace us in joyful reconciliation. Unlike the older brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son, who is like religious fundamentalists who want God to be harsh and unforgiving to some of our brothers and sisters in the human family, the real God is infinitely more loving and compassionate and would not leave any of us outside His door in the hell of permanent judgment.

Whenever we are ready to exit the hell of sin and return to our Father’s house, we will find Him standing there waiting for us, with arms wide open, ready to embrace us in joyful reconciliation.

Jesus’ Teaching of Gehenna

Now that we have seen a few Biblical reasons to believe in the ultimate reconciliation of all people, we should examine some teachings in the Bible that seem to argue for a burning hell where some will experience terrible punishments for their sins. Let’s be clear: Hell, in some sense, is real. The Bible teaches in many places that sinners must experience judgment, and this is described in terms that do not sound like fun. Fire, worms, weeping and gnashing of teeth — Jesus himself spoke of such horrors. So we cannot simply ignore the Bible verses that seem to support a traditional fundamentalist view of damnation. But do we really understand these verses, or have we been led astray by false and misleading interpretations?

Fundamentalists like to remind people that the “worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” in hell (Mark 9:48). Some of them quote such passages with relish, with a gleam of zealous wrath in their eye, longing to see sinners’ flesh roasting with fire and crawling with gigantic worms that will eat your innards over and over again. They talk about how God will “throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mat. 13:50) from the occupants of hell, like the cries and shrieks of prisoners being tortured in a medieval dungeon. Oh, the pain of hell must be so intense, the fundamentalists impress upon us, that it would be better that you cut off your hand or gouge out your eyeball if it causes you to sin, rather than to enter hell (see Mat. 18:8-9). However, the actual word that is used in the original Greek Bible for “hell” in these passages, and nearly everywhere else Jesus referred to it, is Gehenna. This word had a specific meaning to the minds of ancient Jews — a meaning which has been forgotten by many Christians today. It does not mean a literal place of torture with fire and worms that people will suffer in the afterlife for all eternity.

No, Gehenna to Jesus and his ancient Jewish audience had a very different meaning. It was a reference to a valley outside Jerusalem where children had been sacrificed in fire to the Canaanite god Molech. God said of this barbaric and evil practice, “I never commanded, nor did it enter my mind, that they should do such a detestable thing.” (Jer. 32:35). If God didn’t want people to destroy their children with fire, surely He would not do this to His own children — human beings — in a fiery eternal torture chamber beyond the grave. It would be absurd to think that God holds mere humans to a higher moral standard than His own divine perfection.

Jesus’ use of the term Gehenna to refer to impending divine judgment was actually directed more at the nation of Israel than individual people. Like the prophets of the Old Testament who warned of judgments from God upon a sinful nation, usually in the form of military defeat, exile, or famine and pestilence, Jesus was issuing a prophetic call for Israel to repent or else face destructive divine judgment. He often referred to himself as the “son of man,” a term used in the Hebrew scriptures to refer to prophets associated with apocalypse. He predicted that the city of Jerusalem and its great Temple would be destroyed: “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” (Mark 13:2 NRSV). He said that the people of Judea must “flee to the mountains” (Mat. 24:16) to avoid being killed in the time of tribulation that was soon coming. Jesus used graphic imagery of a hated, shameful place called Gehenna to make it clear to the Jews what their fate would be if they did not turn back to the Lord and away from their sins. Jesus was, after all, sent to the Jews, and their nation had become very corrupt in the time of Roman occupation. He was hoping to save them from destruction by increasing their righteousness, which would bring divine blessing.

The Jews did not repent, and history records that Roman armies utterly destroyed the nation of Israel in 70 C.E., including the Temple in accordance with the prophetic words of Jesus. Many thousands of Jews were slaughtered and their corpses were, in fact, literally thrown into the valley called Gehenna to rot and burn. So in one sense, Jesus’ prophecy of people going to Gehenna was fulfilled literally. To have one’s body left exposed and eaten as carrion instead of receiving a proper burial was a sign of great shame and indignity in the eyes of the Jews. Such a death was itself seen as a terrible punishment from God, regardless of any considerations of the afterlife.

In another, more symbolic sense, Gehenna was also used by Jesus to represent the judgment of God upon sinners in general, which is a judgment of cleansing and destruction. If a person is “sent to Gehenna,” this means going into a place or state of being in which God is working to destroy the garbage in one’s life and in one’s soul. This could happen either in this life on earth or in the life hereafter. Just like the Prodigal Son found himself one day wallowing with the pigs as a consequence of his sins, someone who goes to “Gehenna” is in a state of judgment where they can finally see where their corrupt actions have brought them. For some people, such an unpleasant judgment is the only way they will ever see the need to repent.

Like Sodom and Gomorrah which we have already learned are someday to be restored by God according to the prophet Ezekiel, Gehenna is also to be made holy again according to Jeremiah. “The days are coming, declares the Lord, when… The whole valley where dead bodies and ashes are thrown [Gehenna]… will be holy to the Lord.” (Jer. 31:38,40). This can be taken to have both a literal and a metaphorical meaning. Today, the valley of Gehenna is verdant parkland in the modern city of Jerusalem. Similarly, it is reasonable to believe that even as Jesus used Gehenna in a symbolic way, Jeremiah’s prophecy of the restoration of Gehenna to a state of holiness refers not only to the literal place on earth that has been purified and redeemed, but also the eventual end of suffering for sinners as part of God’s plan for the redemption of all. Jesus, who was thoroughly familiar with the Hebrew scriptures, would have known of this prophecy when he used the imagery of Gehenna. Therefore, implicit in every reference Jesus made to a soul going to Gehenna is the idea that the state of corruption is not permanent, but even those who were cast out into Gehenna will someday again be “holy to the Lord.”

Praise God that nothing, no matter how evil, is beyond His power to restore to goodness! Even Sodom and Gehenna, the two places in the Bible associated with the greatest evil, are prophesied to be restored and made new after being judged by God and brought down to utter shame and contempt. Such amazing prophecies reveal the Biblical God’s character as a God of universal salvation, not eternal damnation for anyone or anything.

Even Sodom and Gehenna, the two places in the Bible associated with the greatest evil, are prophesied to be restored and made new after being judged by God.

God in Hell: The Hidden Meaning of Fire and Brimstone

Many Christians think they can completely avoid the fires of hell. If they confess Christ, they will instantly go to a blissful paradise when they die, but those who were not Christian during their life on earth will find themselves in an everlasting place of torment in the afterlife.

This simplistic vision of a binary universe — some people never tasting the fires of hell and other people immersed in the agonizing fires of God’s wrath forever — is a doctrine that can only be supported by ignoring certain teachings of the Bible. The truth is, everybody is going to get some fire, and nobody will be left in the fire after it has served its purpose. Jesus says that “everyone will be salted with fire” (Mark 9:49), a phrase that suggests that the application of divine judgment is a good thing, designed for improvement and benefit of a person’s spirit even though it may be temporarily painful.

God Himself is fire. Many verses in the Bible attest to this. “God is a consuming fire…” (Deut. 4:24). When Isaiah was called by God, an angel put a fiery coal on his lips as a symbol of purification, saying to the new prophet, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.” (Isa. 6:7). This coal of fire on his mouth signified that Isaiah had been made ready to speak the message of the Lord — the fire from God was to take away Isaiah’s sin and make him holy. The Holy Spirit, which is one form or persona of God, is described as coming to the apostles as “tongues of fire” resting upon their heads (Acts 2:3), giving them powers of divine inspiration and prophecy. Baptism in the Holy Spirit is a baptism of fire, and this spiritual rebirth is a good thing that all people are called to attain.

But fire is difficult and unpleasant to go through, as long as there is something for it to burn. If one’s soul is still sinful, mortal, in a sense “combustible,” we will suffer pain and loss when God’s fire touches us. John the Baptist said that Jesus “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (Mat. 3:11-12). As Paul wrote, “the fire” of God’s judgment “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.” (1 Cor. 3:13-14).

In the original New Testament, the same Greek word for fire (puros) is used to describe the fire of the Holy Spirit and the fire of hell. The purpose of the “fires” (divine trials and tests) of “hell” (judgment) is so that God can transform us through His judgment, burning away our sinful nature and replacing it with a more perfect, Christlike nature. Fire is an apt metaphor for this transformative process that leads to salvation, because literal fire is a physical process that causes matter to change its form and become something else. When fire is applied to matter, it will burn if it is combustible (that is, capable of being changed into a different form). Whatever is not combustible will remain unchanged. Sinners will experience the presence of God and His work in their life as a raging fire that will burn much, while saints will experience God’s fire as a light that cannot harm them, because the saintly soul has already been changed in the fires of judgment and no longer “burns” (suffers judgment) when touched by the divine.

The Bible uses the metaphor of refining valuable metals in fire to get rid of the impurities within, as a description of how the fire of God transforms people and perfects them. When the Lord judges people, He “will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver…” (Mal. 3:2-3). So hell is like a washing machine for a dirty soul, and like a furnace where bad parts are removed from us and we come out shining like perfect silver. The slavery of the Jews in Egypt before the exodus was described by Moses as “the iron-smelting furnace” (Deut. 4:20), indicating that God puts people through times of suffering as a way of testing them and shaping them, preparing them for a greater spiritual inheritance. As the Apostle Peter says, trials come to us so that our faith, which is “of greater worth than gold,” may be “refined by fire” and “proved genuine.” (1 Pet. 1:7).

In metallurgy, a precious metal such as gold or silver can be purified by the use of fire: the base metals (impurities) contained within are eliminated when fire is applied, enabling the gold or silver to be refined to a greater quality. Similarly, the divine fire of judgment represents the process of changing a person, destroying or separating out any parts of one’s character that are not compatible with a perfect spiritual nature that is in harmony with God. After the burning or refining process of judgment, a person’s impurities (sins) are reduced or eliminated, and what remains of the person is greater in God’s sight than it was before, while it was contaminated by sin. The thoroughly purified person reaches a point where the divine fire has no effect, because there is no longer anything bad to burn; the person’s spirit attains the incombustible state of salvation.

The Bible uses the metaphor of refining valuable metals in fire to get rid of the impurities within, as a description of how the fire of God transforms people and perfects them.

Fundamentalists like to use descriptions of the “lake of fire and brimstone” in the Book of Revelation as evidence that some people will suffer eternal torment. The more literal-minded among them envision this lake as a place of molten lava where the souls of sinners and nonbelievers will writhe and scream in agony forever, tossed to and fro in the liquid fire of God’s wrath. But whether the Lake of Fire is literal or spiritual doesn’t necessarily matter; the point is, they see it as an instrument of torture and a state of being wholly removed from God’s presence. Hell, to fundamentalists, is the complete absence of God. The pain of sinners in hell is because of God’s abandonment of them in a place deprived of all that is good and filled with all that is evil.

However, this view of the Lake of Fire and Brimstone is the exact opposite of what this vivid metaphor in the Bible was intended to convey. We have already seen that the fire of hell and the fire of God’s very being is the same thing: puros. Likewise, the brimstone (sulfur) that is in the Lake of Fire also means the presence of God. In Greek, the language of the New Testament, the word for sulfur is theion, which means divine incense and comes from the same root as the word for God. Burning brimstone was regarded as having the power to purify and ward off disease. The Lake of Fire and Brimstone (puros and theion) is therefore a place in which sinners come in direct, intimate contact with God and His power to destroy the sin within us and heal us of its detrimental effects. It is a place of purgatorial punishment that serves a beneficial purpose. Its goal is to transform the sinner to the point where being in the presence of God no longer is painful, but joyful. Instead of experiencing God as a tormenting lake of fire, the repentant sinner who has attained salvation experiences God as the Holy Spirit infusing one’s being with the nature and essence of holiness.

So the “lake of fire and brimstone” is one way of being baptized in the Holy Spirit, born again the hard way by experiencing the full-blown judgment of God. It is certainly not the most pleasant way to be saved, but God doesn’t give up on anyone — even those who require severe trials and penalties before they can be set free of their sins. The bottom line is, some people get more fire than others, because some people require more attention from God in order to be changed. Some people only need to be “salted” with fire, while others will need a whole “lake” of fire to find salvation.

The true meaning of the metaphorical language in the Book of Revelation about the Lake of Fire can be more easily understood when we consider this verse: “Then death and Hades [hell] were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death.” (Rev. 20:14). This is a prophecy that someday, at the end of time, death and hell will both die (be destroyed). In other words, no one will be permanently annihilated or tormented forever, because that would be the continuation of death or hell. The only other possibility is that God will save all people — neither annihilating the wicked nor condemning them to an eternal state of pain. Universal reconciliation is the only way death and hell can cease to exist, which is what the Bible promises us in the often misunderstood metaphor of the Lake of Fire.

Biblical Word Games: “Eternal Punishment”?

Much of the confusion about hell in Christianity is because of a pervasive mistranslation of a key word in the Bible. Believe it or not, one word can change an entire religion, turning a positive message into something very negative. This word is aionios, which is found in many places in the original Greek New Testament. Aionios means “age-lasting” or “lasting for an age, an indefinite period of time.” But it gets translated in all popular versions of the Bible as “eternal” or “everlasting.” Unfortunately, this is the word used throughout the New Testament to refer to the duration of punishment in hell.

It is clear that aionios in Biblical Greek did not mean an infinite length of time. We can be certain of this because there was a different word in that language for eternal, the word aidios. This word was never used in the Bible to refer to hell. It was, however, used by Paul to describe the “eternal power and divine nature” of God (Rom. 1:20). The authors of the scriptures could have chosen to describe hell as aidios, but they never did — and that deliberate omission says a lot. Aionios is the root from which we derive the English word eon, meaning a long period of time. It is not the same thing as eternity. No matter how long an eon might be, there is an infinite difference!

In various Greek writings of the ancient world — both by Christians and non-Christians — the correct usage of aionios is shown. It often was used to refer to the duration of a man’s life or a period of centuries, rarely longer than a millennium, and never to eternity. For example, the Roman historian Josephus used aionios to describe the time during which Herod’s temple stood, even though the temple had already been destroyed when he was writing. St. Justin Martyr wrote that the “aionian” chastening of God upon sinners would last for a period no more than 1,000 years. (3)

The problem started when the Bible was translated into Latin. Aionios was rendered as the Latin word aeternus, meaning eternal. This was based on the proclamation of the Roman Emperor Justinian in 544 C.E. that hell lasts forever. He described it in Greek as ateleutetos (another word meaning “endless”), rather than aionios. He knew — as everyone did at the time — that the Greek word aionios did not itself mean never-ending, so he had to use a different word that was not used by the authors of the Bible in order to insert the doctrine of endless punishments into Christianity. The legacy of this error has lasted for centuries and done untold damage to the Christian faith.

One of the most well-known examples of this mistranslation is Mat. 25:46. Fundamentalists point to this verse as supposed confirmation of the idea that hell is eternal torment. They open their Bible and read that Jesus said that sinners “will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” But is this really what Jesus said in this verse? When we look at what it says in the original Greek, we find that Jesus spoke of aionios kolasis (4), which means age-lasting chastisement, not eternal punishment.

The word kolasis has the connotation of beneficial disciplinary correction, such as a parent might punish a child for wrongdoing with the purpose of reform. This is in sharp contrast to timoria, meaning punitive or vindictive punishment. Kolasis comes from a root word meaning “to prune,” as a tree or plant. When a gardener prunes, it is not done to torture the vegetation, but to remove dead or crooked branches and cause it to grow in a better, more beautiful way. Pruning is actually an important horticultural technique to improve the quality and increase the yield of fruit-bearing trees and vines. So God is going to prune the souls of sinners, cutting away the parts that are corrupted by sin, in order to transform the person into a more holy and fruitful son or daughter of God. Kolasis is loving, parental discipline with the goal of helping the one being subjected to it. That’s a far cry from the fundamentalist doctrine of damnation. Aionios kolasis should not be translated as “eternal punishment,” but should be understood to mean a limited period of time in which a person will receive divine judgment for reformation and improvement of character. If Matthew had meant to suggest that Jesus taught eternal torment, he probably would have written aidios timoria.

Does “eternal life” (Greek: aionios zoe) in Mat. 25:46 and similar verses mean that our life with God in heaven only lasts for an age, just like the limited term some souls will spend in hell? Even though the word used here is aionios, the same word to describe the duration of hell, that does not mean the heavenly life is mortal or perishable. We can be sure of this because of the following verse in the Bible: “When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’” (1 Cor. 15:54). This is referring to the life of the resurrection. The Greek words translated as “imperishable” (aphtharsia) and “immortality” (athanasia) really do mean what they say in English. So the point Jesus was making in verses like Mat. 25:46 is that sinners will spend a period of time being judged and corrected by God — the process of aionian chastisement — while righteous people will be enjoying the blessings of God, the aionian life in Christ. Eventually, everyone will be reconciled and redeemed and will live eternally in heaven, but before that happens, some will receive judgments for an age while others are receiving rewards.

Many versions of the Bible also mistranslate other words in reference to the duration of hell. One such word is the Hebrew olam, used in the Old Testament. For example, in the legend of Jonah and the fish, the Bible says that the prophet Jonah was swallowed up and remained inside the belly of the great fish for an “olam” period of time, which was three days. However, Bible versions erroneously translate Jon. 2:6 to say that he was in the fish “forever” — despite the fact that it says in 1:17 that he was there for only three days. Olam can mean any indeterminate period of time, in this case three days. But for some strange reason, most Bible translations translate it as “forever” even when it doesn’t make sense for it to mean forever.

Perhaps this is because of poetic license and exaggeration. When people are in dire straits — such as being swallowed by a whale or being sent to hell — they will tend to overestimate the length of time they had to endure in such a terrible circumstance. Three days in a hellish condition could seem to last forever. Perhaps that’s the point many translators of the Bible are trying to make when they describe Jonah’s three days in the fish as lasting “forever.” Obviously, it is not literally true. The Bible is full of such exaggeration for effect, and translators may make the exaggerations even more extreme through their choice of words. We need to recognize this when we consider the issue of hell. If hell is olam or aionios, it might feel like a long time and we might even poetically describe it as “forever” — but it is not really forever!

The Bible is full of … exaggeration for effect, and translators may make the exaggerations even more extreme through their choice of words.

Let’s look at how Jonah felt when he was in the belly of the fish. He said, “In my distress I called to the Lord, and He answered me. From the depths of the grave [Hebrew: Sheol] I called for help, and You listened to my cry. You hurled me into the deep, into the very heart of the seas, and the currents swirled about me; all Your waves and breakers swept over me. I said, ‘I have been banished from Your sight; yet I will look again toward Your holy temple.’… [T]he earth beneath barred me in forever. But You brought my life up from the pit, O Lord my God.” (Jon. 2:1-4,6).

This must be what it feels like to be in hell. One is filled with despair, thinking that one has been forever abandoned by God in a turbulent sea of trouble. But then, one cries out to God for help in repentance, and God will respond by bringing one back from “the pit.” What a perfect example of God’s mercy to sinners! When it seems like all hope is lost, God is ready to rescue us, and will do so without fail. Like Jonah who escaped death in the belly of the whale, sinners may go through an olam or aionios period of distress — God only knows how long — but will emerge from the experience having confronted their sins and the consequences, and returning to God because of the trials they had to endure.

Before we move on, we should quickly point out that there are several different words in the original languages of the Bible that are translated as “hell” in some Bible versions. We have already discussed Gehenna. There is also Sheol, which we have mentioned in passing. This Hebrew word does not necessarily mean a place of torment, but is simply the underworld, the shadowy abode of all the dead according to ancient Judaism. This fact has not prevented some Bible translations — most noteworthy being the perennially popular King James version — from blatantly mistranslating this word as “hell” in some verses, causing a great deal of confusion. There is also the Greek word Hades, used in the New Testament to refer both to the world of the dead in general, and also in some cases more specifically to the sinful dead. Tartarus appears only once in the Bible (2 Pet. 2:4), referring to a temporary place of confinement for fallen angels awaiting further judgment by God. In no case are any of these places said to be permanent, eternal, or never-ending states of being, in the original untranslated text of the Bible.

The bottom line is that Bible translators have tried very hard to make the Bible say that hell lasts forever, but a careful study of the languages in which it was written reveals the truth. “Eternal torment” is simply not Biblical. It is an invention of church tradition that became established in the mass consciousness of Christianity because of centuries of faulty Bible translations.

Why Jesus Went to Hell

There are several other Biblical reasons to believe in universal reconciliation rather than eternal damnation. One of them is that Jesus himself said that all people will eventually be saved. When talking to his disciples about his death on the cross and why he must be crucified, Jesus said, “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” (John 12:32). How is that going to happen? How can Jesus, after he has died, been resurrected, and left this earth, continue to draw people to himself? And more importantly, how can he claim to draw all people to himself? He did say all people — not some, but all. That includes the living and the dead, the righteous and the sinners, the Jews and the Gentiles, the Christians and the non-Christians. Everyone is included in Jesus’ promise.

Unless Jesus plans to spend eternity in hell, it is safe to conclude that drawing all people to himself means drawing all into heaven. Many people who die do not go straight to heaven; that much is clear, according to Jesus’ own teachings. When Jesus was alive on earth, he went to those who needed the saving grace of God the most: the lost sheep of Israel, the sinners and outcasts. Jesus violated Jewish tradition by eating and fellowshipping with such undesirable people and showed them God’s unconditional love, infuriating popular religious leaders of his day. Is it not logical to conclude, based on what we already know Jesus did for people on earth, that in the afterlife he would continue to go to the lost souls who most need God’s help? In other words, Jesus would go to hell.

Instead of enjoying paradise, our Redeemer probably spends a lot of time encouraging lost souls to repent and be released from hell, just as he did on earth. For Jesus, going to earth was itself like going to hell — and he promised that after being hung on a cross, he would continue to draw all people to himself. It was his death that actually made this possible. If Jesus had never died, he could not have gone to hell to reach the souls languishing there.

The main purpose of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ was to prove that God loves us so much that He was willing to become a man and die a horrible death, even the shameful death of a criminal, so that He could be resurrected and the power of sin can be defeated. It is through the cross of Christ that we see God’s amazing, unfailing love for mankind. It is through the resurrection of Jesus Christ that we see that the powers of evil have already been overcome by God’s omnipotent goodness. Jesus still lives, despite the best attempts of man and the forces of evil to kill him. Jesus is still actively saving souls, just as he did during his time on earth — and he will never stop working until all souls are redeemed and reconciled to God.

We needn’t speculate about whether Jesus went to hell to save people there. This teaching is actually found in the Bible. The Apostle Peter informs us that Jesus went and preached to suffering souls in the afterlife, after he had died on the cross. His sacrificial death would enable sinners to be released from punishment and reunited with God. “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the spirit, through which also he went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago…” (1 Pet. 3:18-20). This is confirmation of Jesus’ promise recorded in John 12:32 to draw all people to himself after leaving earth. Even in death, in the spirit world, unbelievers and sinners can still have an opportunity to be saved by hearing the message of Jesus Christ delivered to them.

In case there is any doubt about why Jesus would go to hell and whether his purpose there is to offer salvation, Peter also wrote, “For this is the reason the Gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does.” (1 Pet. 4:6 NRSV). In other words, people who were judged for their earthly sins and went to hell can still have the opportunity to find true spiritual life with God beyond the grave. The drawing power of Jesus will win them over and allow them to find relief from God’s judgments and enter into peace and reconciliation.

Peter informs us that Jesus went and preached to suffering souls in the afterlife … People who were judged for their earthly sins and went to hell can still have the opportunity to find true spiritual life with God.

Just because somebody is physically dead does not mean the opportunity to hear the Gospel and be saved by it has forever passed them by. Paul seems to have shared Peter’s view, saying that the Gospel is “proclaimed to every creature under heaven” (Col. 1:23), which would include the inhabitants of hell. We can be confident that post-mortem salvation was an original Christian teaching because Paul approvingly mentions baptism being performed on behalf of the dead in the Corinthian church (see 1 Cor. 15:29). This practice presupposes the idea that God will save even those who died in sin and unbelief.

Paul’s Gospel of Universal Restoration

The greatest evangelist of the early church was undoubtedly the Apostle Paul. He wrote the largest portion of what we now know as the New Testament, and founded numerous churches from the eastern Mediterranean all the way to Rome. Paul, formerly Saul, was a hard-core Jewish fundamentalist who hated and persecuted Christians. Then one day he saw the resurrected Christ on the road to Damascus and was struck blind for three days, until he found himself in the home of a Christian where he was baptized into the new faith. After that, he became zealous for the Gospel and devoted the rest of his life to spreading the message of Christ throughout the Roman Empire — suffering much in the process — and establishing it as a faith for all people, not only the Jews. If it weren’t for Paul, his vision, travels and copious writings, Christianity might not have survived the first century and gone on to become a major world religion.

Paul understood that the Gospel was supposed to be a message of Good News. He did not go around warning people of endless torment unless they converted to his religion — that wouldn’t be good news at all. If Paul had believed in eternal hell, he would have felt compelled to teach it, but this doctrine is found nowhere in his writings in the Bible.

What does appear in Paul’s writings is a hopeful message of the ultimate reconciliation of all people. Consider this remarkable statement: “Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.” (Rom. 5:18-19). Note that the phrase “the many” refers to all human beings collectively, both in regard to the fall of man and the salvation of man. The sin of Adam caused all his descendants, the entire human race, to fall away from our original perfection and become predisposed to sin. But the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ enables all people, the entire human race, to be forgiven, transformed, and restored to God. Paul prophesies that this will happen, just as certainly as all became sinners through Adam, not through any choice of their own. That’s because Christ is like the new Adam, the new pattern on which all people will be modeled. “Just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man [Adam], so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven [Christ].” (1 Cor. 15:49).

There are various other Bible passages where Paul talks about the hopeful destiny of all people. Here is one that is particularly striking: “This is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance (and for this we labor and strive), that we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, and especially of those who believe.” (1 Tim. 4:9-10). Paul clearly states that God is saving all people, and that believers are especially saved right now. This corresponds to the idea of the “age-lasting life” that the righteous will enjoy while sinners are experiencing “age-lasting chastisement.” In the end, all will be saved, but not everybody is saved at the same time. Everyone must experience hell on the way to salvation. For some of us it’s a like a sprinkle of salt, whereas for others it’s like a pit of molten lava. It’s whatever is necessary in each case.

In conclusion, we need not imagine God’s judgment as so harsh that it never ends, to be sure that the universe is a place of justice where sin receives its due. The Biblical support for universal reconciliation is clear. Let’s trust in the message of Jesus, Paul, and the other great authors of the Judeo-Christian scriptural tradition, who understood that sin requires judgment, but that the purpose of the judgments of God is for redemption and transformation, not eternal condemnation.


  1. The same statement about God’s goodness and enduring love also appears several other times in the Bible: 1 Chr. 16:34; 2 Chr. 5:13, 7:3; Ps. 100:5, 107:1, 118:1,29, 136:1; Jer. 33:11.
  2. Variants of these statements are found in Neh. 9:17; Ps. 86:15, 103:8, 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jon. 4:2.
  3. Abbott, Louis. An Analytical Study of Words. Chapter 9. Available online at http://www.tentmaker.org/books/asw/index.html
  4. These words, and others in this section, have different grammatical endings in the original Greek, but are transliterated more simply here for the sake of consistency in English.

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