And...why raise such a fuss?
In the writings here at Through The Cracks Ministries, I avoid confronting people's beliefs simply because I happen to think they're potentially wrong. And I say potentially as a humble gesture, despite some of the foolishness taught in the name of religion. The site's purpose after all, is to encourage people to know the love of God, and there is no sense stirring up controversy without good reason. So I have written many words extolling the mercies of God's grace and boundless love for his children, while focusing most of my challenge toward those who claim to know where to draw the boundary line limiting God's love. Intimately knowing God's unfathomable patience and grace in my own life, I would never dare to draw such a line with anyone. I'm very comfortable and sure that no one, in any circumstance this side of eternity, is beyond the reach of God's love or his willingness to extend grace.
When it comes to keeping the peace, however, I very specifically do draw the line at any teaching that presents a serious obstacle to people's faith, where God intended no such obstacle. One of the most damaging examples of this in the entirety of Christian teaching is the notion of a God who would send a human being to a place where they would experience never-ending conscious torture throughout eternity. I'm speaking here, of course, about the popular doctrines concerning hell. So while I do not wish to stir up yet another controversy, I must explain some things regarding this "hellfire" concept, which I hope will encourage you if you have found this a stumbling block. On the other hand, if you are already a child of God, but feel some inner comfort believing in this concept of hell, and are already getting your hackles up because I dare to challenge a concept so dear to you, you probably should read no further. That is, as long as you feel content to keep these notions to yourself! Otherwise, be warned that you will be held accountable if your own "sharing" about this subject discourages even the least of God's children, so that they turn away from their faith based on your testimony.
It is remarkable that in the hearts and minds of a substantial portion of thinking Christian believers, there exists serious doubts and gaps in understanding as to why a God of Love, who promotes forgiveness (Acts 13‑38), and mercy, would sentence anyone to a place of eternal torture. Never-ending sermons explaining how God does not want anyone to go to hell, and how he's done everything he can to prevent it simply don't wash. That people have a free will and can make life or death choices is something we all see as reasonable. But for someone who made the wrong choice to end up in a condition of eternal torture? Only God could make such a thing possible. He is obviously in control and can do whatever he wants, so the only possible way anyone could end up in such a situation would be by His decision. So much for a "God of love"! Well you know what, if I were the devil and wanted to make God look like a vicious vengeful monster, that's just what I would teach. But as with most doctrines of demons, it is a lie!
To forgive is human?
You've likely heard the that "to err is human; to forgive, divine." We all can think of people that we likely feel deserve torture for their horrendous crimes against humanity, our families, or ourselves. But even in the depths of our human anger, which surely is not tempered by a love as boundless as God's, we still would probably want to limit that torture to something less than eternal conscious torment. Even as humans we can often forgive eventually. And even if there are a few exceptions, it certainly would not be something we would consider doing to anyone for simply being wrong in their religious beliefs. It is a doctrine that most honest Christians choke on, and even many pastors and preachers will limit or even cease their discussion of hell, knowing in their hearts that in all their years of preaching, this still does not seem right!
Still, other preachers, more than we'd care to believe I'm afraid, are very aware of the power of the notion of hell to inspire people to evangelize, and it seems hard to argue with something that helps bring people into the church, and by extension to God! But the truth is, it is a scare tactic, and while the 'fear of God' may be a sensible beginning for someone whose life is on a path to destruction ( Psalm 111:10), it is also true that God desires a relationship of Love with his children that casts out all fear (1 John 4:18 ). And so the end does not justify the means. The only good that can come out of bringing in more people by misrepresenting God is that it brings more funding into the church, and helps church leadership stay in control. And the unseen result, the one that concerns me, is the many people that leave their faith behind, having concluded that based on the "hellfire" teachings, this so called "God of Love" is just not for them!
I do not want this to be one of my longer writings, and so will avoid restating a lot of points already discussed elsewhere. In my article entitled The truth about being 'Saved', a thorough foundation is provided for what I will say here, and I highly recommend it to anyone wanting to understand what God is truly offering when he speaks of "salvation". But one key point I'll repeat from that text is how important it is to receive God's gift of eternity by conscious choice, and why our chances of living beyond this life without God are effectively zero. Apart from some unknown and unseen intervention, WE are simply not indestructible. An observation of many human diseases that effect the brain show that our personalities, memories, and everything we think of as our very souls, are all unsettlingly fragile, dependant on this amazing piece of chemical engineering we call the body and brain. But I also make clear in that article that there is a huge difference between a simple choosing of life over death, and the notion that making the wrong choice will get you an eternal life anyway, in hell!
The truth is that this concept of hell is the result of mis translations, which are then taught about in a manner guaranteed to mislead believers. All I intend to do here is point out things that are actually in the bible, and do so in context. In doing so, I hope to cast enough doubt on this ongoing 'hellfire' teaching to bring comfort to those who have been mislead, and a bit of relief as well.
In the beginning
What better way to start? The story of Adam and Eve in the Garden speaks of two trees, the "Tree of Life", and the "Tree of knowledge of Good and Evil"(Gen.2:16‑17). It is said that man's first 'sin' was eating off the latter tree, that eating it would result in the man dying, and that he was banished from the Garden soon after. And when God sent them out of the Garden, the bible says he purposely set up angelic guards to prevent the humans from going back to the tree of life, lest they eat it and live forever (Gen.3:22‑24), and thus continue forever in this now 'fallen state'. After all, God did say that eating from the tree of knowledge would result in their death, and the bible states very clearly that "The wages of sin is death" (Rom.6‑2).
The bible language here is very poetic and story‑like, and I believe it is meant to be so intentionally so that basic principals can be taught, on a level even children may understand. So as most Christian theology and beliefs start with an understanding of these lessons "from the beginning", lets re‑think them without the "aid" of any preachers with an ax to grind. Just what does the word death mean anyway? At the risk of seeming juvenile, death is quite obviously the END of life. And just what is life? We may not really understand how to fully answer that even from a scientific point of view. But one thing fairly obvious is that even with the current state of technology, only living beings can think. Our consciousness, the ability we have to know we exist and dwell on memories, are all things we associate with life. We do so universally, by instinct, and without the need for any college degree. Can a stone think? Of course not! Can a dead person think? No... that is... unless there really is no "death" at all... not unless death is actually just a "transition" to another form of "life".
I realize that there are many religions in the world that teach just that, and some that even consider the end of this life as an automatic gateway to rebirth as a new human, as in re‑incarnation. But we are discussing the Christian faith here, where people look to the bible to help us understand these concepts that we can't possible know, but can only believe or put faith in. Consider then what an outright sham, and what an bald faced lie it would be if God promised that the worst that could happen is death, only to find that after death we were actually very much alive, consciously burning in hell forever! If this were true, the bible would be blatantly contradicting itself on a very serious matter, to put it mildly! But is it possible that we've simply been taught wrongly, and that the meaning of all the scriptures we've heard related to 'hell' have been twisted? Let's press on...
The meaning of Words
At the risk of a bad pun, even if the "meaning of life" ‑‑ and death‑‑ are both at least somewhat apparent, such is not the case at all for the word "hell". The truth is that the many words translated as "hell" in various version of the bible have modern meanings very different from their intent in their original language. Throughout the old testament, for example, the word "Sheol" was used where the word "hell" now appears. In the New Testament, a Greek word "Hades" is usually translated to "hell". "Gehenna" is also translated "hell" in some versions..
So what do these words actually mean? In the first two of these cases, the original thought conveyed was simply "the place of the dead", or "the grave". And with the exception of the Hades from Greek mythology, there was no biblical context that inferred consciousness, a second life, or ongoing suffering. In the book of Job (Job 14:13), Job said "Oh that thou wouldest hide me in Sheol, That thou wouldest keep me secret, until thy wrath be past, That thou wouldest appoint me a set time, and remember me!". The Catholic Douay version uses the word hell in place of sheol, even in that verse. Well if hell were indeed a hot furnace of never ending suffering, that's the last place you'd think he would be praying to be "hidden" or protected!
The context and usage throughout the bible make it quite clear that all people end up in "Sheol" or "Hades", regardless of whether they were "good" or "bad". Even Jesus went to hell, and it was not because he was bearing punishment there for our sins! Yes, Jesus did bear our sins and die with them, and indeed, suffered the "wages of sin" (death) on our behalf. Consistently, the bible says he died for our sins (Isa.53:5‑7), and that his death accomplished our redemption. If hell was a place of torment, what possible purpose could it serve for Jesus to be there? I know some of us have been taught he was there to literally set the captives free, and proclaim to all the souls of everyone there that their redemption was at hand. But are we to believe that all humanity that ever died up to the time of Christ, the good, the bad, and even the innocent children, were all waiting for this news in such a place of torture and confinement? As we dig, we find that such teachings are actually rooted in church doctrine, reflecting interpretations of biblical passages rather than plain scriptural quotes. Such teachings are constructions based on misunderstandings that only get more convoluted as we ask more questions. It is clear that the three days Jesus spent in hell makes much more sense when you translate "hell" as simply "the grave!"
Not the author of confusion
God is not the author of confusion (ICor.14:33), which means that when we see apparent contradictions in the word, we need to dig a little deeper to get the full sense. One notable point that is usually raised whenever hellfire doctrines are challenged this way is a parable (or story) Jesus told, commonly known as "The Rich man and Lazarus". (Luke 16:22‑31). Here, Jesus spoke of a rich man who dies, and was in torment in Hades. Many a Christian preacher will site this scripture as proof of hell being such a place of torment. You will have to read, considering the entirety of scripture, and decide for yourself. If not for the contradiction to all we've seen in these other scriptures, we would have to assume Jesus words were to be taken in a purely literal sense. But in light of the clear and consistent biblical declarations that death is the ultimate penalty (Rom.6:23), and eternal life the ultimate gift of God (ICor.15:53‑54), it becomes apparent that Jesus told this parable to illustrate a point. In the story, another man, Lazarus, a beggar during his human life is now in heaven, in "the bosom of Abraham". And a conversation ensues in which the rich man, now in Hades, asks Lazarus for some water, to cool his tongue. There is also a request made for Lazarus to be allowed to go back to the land of the living to warn people, and an admonition that people would not listen, even if someone came back from the dead.
The points of the story are pretty obvious. First, it is too late when we die to make the decisions that we should have made during our lives. Despite some exceptional people that have returned from near death experiences, there generally is no turning back. Second, the story makes the strong point that even if people saw someone resurrected from the dead, they still would not be convinced to heed God's warnings. You could see where Jesus would make such a point considering that he knew of his own coming death and resurrection! And in light of Christian beliefs concerning the resurrection, especially the bible's teaching that no one had ever been resurrected before Jesus came (ICor.15:20‑23), these things indicate that it was simply a story used for illustration. It would have been a pretty dry tale, after all, if the one in Hades were as dead as a doornail and could not speak. And no one goes to the literal "bosom of Abraham", nor do conversations transpire between heaven and the grave. In fact, the bible clearly shows that the dead are in an unconscious state, have no 'thoughts', and can not hold conversations with anyone (Ecc.9:5) (Ps.146:3‑4).
Another huge point of confusion involves the word"Gehenna", a word Jesus often used, and one which is almost always translated "hell", or "eternal fire", or the "fire of hell" depending on the version and verse. Jesus indeed spoke of being thrown into "Gehenna" at the end of this life, as a consequence of bad spiritual choices. In the often quoted passage of scripture (if thy eye offend you, pluck it out!), indeed intended to be a series of sobering warnings, Gehenna was in fact Jesus' word of choice in the original texts. And here, his words, together with the manner in which they have been translated, form the basis for a lot of the current hellfire doctrine (Matt.18:8‑9). But a word study on Gehenna reveals that this was indeed a literal place! Gehenna was in fact a valley where fires were endlessly kept burning, in which the bodies of dead animals and executed criminals were burned!
Certainly this was part of the inspiration for the "Donte's Inferno" paintings of people burning in hell. Indeed, such fire is used throughout the bible as a symbol of judgment and final destruction. But the missing key that is so easily glossed over is that destruction, whether called everlasting or eternal destruction, is simply an end of life. Why "Eternal"? Because there is simply no coming back afterward. Religious teaching has had us so completely focused on our dread of the fire itself, that no one considers the obvious: The fire represents destruction, and destruction means you perish. Eventually there is nothing but ashes. Ashes do not suffer.
We have been taught for generations by a religious system, in contradiction to the whole of scripture, that the human soul is immortal, in order to propagate this misconception about eternal suffering. But once again the bible sets this straight, stating plainly that the sinning soul (and that's all of us folks) actually does die! (Eze.18:4)
If you have been directly involved with the Christian religion for a long time, this may seem like quite a leap, and it is understandable if you are hesitant to consider it. But I submit to you that this is because it is something you've been taught for a very long time, so it is very difficult to consider it wrong, or dare to raise any public challenge. With all due respect, the concept of the Earth being round was met with similar suspicion by religion, as were the astronomers that brought the idea. But unlike the shape of the planet earth, this is a matter that deserves your attention as a believer, because it keeps many away from seeing God's love!!
The last word on the matter
There is another important area in the bible that is very telling, and to me is the end all scripture that settles the matter. The book of revelation documents a long prophetic vision given to the Apostle John. Revelation is filled with a great deal of symbolism, but in that book there is a final judgment, again symbolized by a burning lake of fire. If you read this portion of scripture, there are two instances of living creatures cast into this fire. In the first case, it is certainly speaking of specific, non‑human entities: the devil, the "beast" and the false prophet (also called the "anti‑Christ" in some translations.) Then it says that "they will be tormented day and night forever" (Rev20:10). Well that is pretty clear, but don't let anyone read that to you as a scare tactic and close the book! WE have to be more careful with scripture. Pay attention to the fact that this is NOT about the fate of condemned human beings, which are spoken of a few verses later.
So that last passage was NOT about people, and this becomes apparent a few verses later when those "whose names were not found written in the book of life" is mentioned. They too were cast into the lake of fire, but this time the bible immediately says "the lake of fire is the second death" (Rev20:13‑15)". Note that throughout the bible,it is only humans that were ever referenced when being written (or blotted out from) the "book of life" is mentioned.
In other words they died physically, but did not inherit eternal life in Gods kingdom. They were not "written in the book of life"... their existance had not been saved... there was no "backup"! They went on to destruction instead. By saying that "the lake of fire is the second death" for them, the bible is making it very clear that death is the end judgment for human beings. The judgment and the destruction may indeed be eternal, but again the suffering is not. It is noteworthy that this passage also stated that Hades (the place of the dead) and death itself were thrown into the fire, and so destroyed. No more death, ever? Interesting to say the least!
But now we've come full circle from the day man was exiled from Eden, where God blocked man's path to eating of the tree of life. (Gen.3:22‑24) Do you see it? This would have made man an eternal being too, and he would be in the same category as the devil, making something more in line with eternal banishment necessary. From the very beginning, it makes sense (and the scriptures bear out), that whatever a person does in this life, death would still be the worst final fate they would endure. It has always been true that the wages of sin is death. And in death, even the most wicked still come to the same final resting place. Eternal destruction certainly and simply means you are eternally dead and gone!
No eternal torment, but...
Now I am only speculating here, to consider a horrible moment if you were able to see that eternity was something you could have had, as you depart into a vortex that leads to your final end. I myself have seen something I have come to know as eternity in an instant of time, and know it is still not something to be ignored as trivial. But indeed and in any case, it is still an end! At the conclusion, there is a point in time after which, you simply no longer exist. One bible writer called it "Blackest Darkness" (IIPet.2:17)!
On further speculation lets be honest here. Not one of us knows what final chances exist for a person on their way to death. And really no one's opinion on the subject matters much. Some people have come back from near death experiences, and claim to have spoken to Jesus, and rejoin the living with a newfound faith. Besides that, most believers instinctively know that God makes provision for people (certainly children) that never knew or had a chance to know Jesus. God is merciful and anyone claiming to know his decision regarding any individuals life is simply way too smart for me. In fact, I don't even want to know or speak to such people.
But whatever you think of the notion of being lost or being saved, at least it should be helpful to know that lost humans will not spend an eternity in conscious torment, and this is backed up by the bible itself. Unfortunately, that old and traditional meaning of hell may be a more accurate word for the current lives of far too many! But how about you...
In moving beyond the concept of eternal torment, we are now faced with a God we can much better understand, and so much better fits the compassion he is known for. The bible does indeed say God desires that no one perish (IIPet.3:9). Right there we have yet another proof text showing that God himself knows people do perish! "Perish" is certainly a sensible word when we think of someone finally dying and remaining dead for all eternity. But with God making much more sense, the likelihood of His presence becomes even more clear and real! That could be unsettling if you have avoided anything to do with knowing God, seeing the foolishness of the "hell and brimstone" message. But you really need not be apprehensive about God! Hell is not the only teaching twisted to suit the insipid and controlling aspects of modern religion. Another serious perversion is the man-made limitations placed on God's grace and love!
God's love is limitless! No one is excluded. NO ONE!!!!
Let's understand that with the exception of the "10 commandments", said to be written by God's own hand, the bulk of the bible has been entrusted to human writers. I for one believe that these writers, inspired or not, were still human, and still subject to their own prejudices. Hence there are cases where some scriptures give the impression that anyone with flaws of a nature they considered especially serious, would never enter God's kingdom. But a thorough and balanced study of the bible proves this simply can not be so. In fact, there are cases of bible authors becoming more compassionate after being faced with their own insurmountable weaknesses! Remember when Paul asked God to take away his "demons", and the Lord would not do so, saying "my grace is sufficient for you"? (IICor.12:9‑10)
The plain truth is, the bible says all have sinned, and all fall short of God's glory (Rom.3:21‑24). Every one of us is a long way from perfect, and yet that is God's standard. But far from a stringent taskmaster, God has purposely set it up this way so that we could see the value of the grace that comes through Christ. For as that scripture says, in Christ, we are given an opportunity to exchange our own righteousness for his. In doing so, we are no longer judged based on how well we "measure up" to a bunch of rules and regulations. Rather, we are granted Eternal life as a free gift, when we invite God into our lives, and receive the grace that comes through Christ. ( see John3:16, and IJohn5:13 and Rom.5:20‑21 ). The power of that grace is not limited to certain categories of human weakness or flaws. In the humility we must come with when we receive this grace, forgiveness, and his righteousness and unconditional love, we quickly realize the fallacy of judging any of those around us. This despite the tendancy of religion to quickly write off whole categories of people.
Death may be the only final judgment, but eternal life is a free gift, yours for the asking. There is no cost, and it is a gift freely given. There is nothing for you to "live up to", and you can count on God's holy spirit working inside you to fix anything that needs fixing, and... to give you grace for anything that can't be changed! And if you have trouble believing, all you need to do is honestly ask God to reveal himself to you. On your invitation, he surely will! The only thing that could prevent you're receiving God's gift is a prideful spirit that will not be humbled, insists that he/she does not want or need God's forgiveness or grace, or rejects God's plan for salvation. Sadly, that is the road so many, indeed the majority, seem to be choosing. For the enemy has deceived many, so that they just don't have a clue know how good God is! (Ps.34:8)
If the notion of hellfire has kept you from God, I hope this article has at least raised suspicion that "religion" (and not God's truth) might be the real culprit! If you still find yourself resisting the God Christ spoke of, and feel he is associated with too much judgment or condemnation, I would ask you to pray asking, even challenging God to reveal his love and his truth to you. I also encourage you to read some of the other articles on this website, and If you allow Him, God will eventually get through to your heart. In the end you'll see, that is all he ever really wanted!