All souls will eventually reconcile with God

31 Aug

I recently got into an online debate with a handful of Christians regarding the biblical position on the existence of Hell.  Now most of you have read my blogs for quite some time, and kept up with me as I moved it from myspace to different urls on wordpress and finally settled into this new home.  Those readers know well my religious views, and that I regard myself as a Unitarian Universalist with secular humanist leanings, should one require me to label my personal spiritual beliefs.  I used to say I was “spiritual but not religious”, but I really don’t find the two terms are any different in my current life and embrace both.

For those of you who are not familiar with Unitarian Universalism, it is a religion that embraces all kinds of spiritual beliefs and does not require its members to subscribe to a particular creed.  That said, I do not speak for all UUs when I discuss my personal beliefs.  If you ask 10 UUs the same specific religious question, you will likely get 10 different answers, and my answers are but one and I speak only for myself, unless otherwise noted.

My belief about the Bible, and the Unitarian Universalist Association‘s position on it, is that it is but one of many important religious texts but do not consider it unique or exclusive in any way.  We do not interpret it literally.  We think some parts of it offer more truth than other parts, and it is not the central document in our religion.  The UUA puts it like this:

We do not, however, hold the Bible – or any other account of human experience – to be either an infallible guide or the exclusive source of truth. Much biblical material is mythical or legendary. Not that it should be discarded for that reason! Rather, it should be treasured for what it is. We believe that we should read the Bible as we read other books – with imagination and a critical eye. We also respect the sacred literature of other religions. Contemporary works of science, art, and social commentary are valued as well. We hold, in the words of an old liberal formulation, that “revelation is not sealed.” Unitarian Universalists aspire to truth as wide as the world – we look to find truth anywhere, universally.

So whatever problems one might have with my interpretation of the Bible, one should note that this is the way I feel about the book as a whole.  Trying to alter my point of view by arguing that the Bible says otherwise is therefore a futile effort.  I will attempt to convey why I believe the Bible does not support the idea of Hell as a place of fire and eternal torment, and you may take or leave my point of view.

First of all, I take serious issue with any person or religion attempting to sway someone to your point of view out of fear.  Christians do this all the time, as I learned from a very young age.  When I began to question my faith as a teenager, I went to my youth minister.  Not wanting to admit my own doubt, I told him that I was attempting to witness to a friend who was stumping me on several points, and I needed his guidance.  Our conversation went back and forth, with me arguing “my friend’s” position, and him responding, until we finally got to a point where I had him stumped and he said, “Well, if it gets that far just say, ‘If you’re right and I’m wrong, I’ve lost nothing… but if I am right and you are wrong, you lose salvation and everlasting life, and are subject to eternal damnation.”  I thought about that for the next year of my life as I struggled to cling to a faith that personally brought me little solace.  I took serious issue with the Bible, as well as the way I saw Christians treat other people.  I still have the journal in which I wrote as an adolescent, “If you believe the right thing, but for the wrong reason, isn’t it still wrong?  It feels wrong, and it makes me resent God.  I wonder if there is another way to have a personal relationship with God outside of the religion that is smothering me and contradicting my ideals.”  Not long after that my high school friend Jane admitted to me, “I don’t know that Jesus is my ‘Savior’.”  I felt so much relief hearing someone else admit that she didn’t quite buy into all that we’d learned in our past 16 years of religious education.

And today again I had someone tell me “If I’m wrong what’s the worst that can happen to me, BUT if you are wrong…..???? Let’s just say I’d HATE to be you if you’re wrong.”  This is well-known among educated people as “Pascal’s Wager“, which I think was best addressed by Voltaire when he dismissed it as “indecent and childish… the interest I have to believe a thing is no proof that such a thing exists.” I was terrified because of this for long enough, but that no longer has any impact on me.  I have friends who say the thought of the Rapture caused them to lose sleep at night.  How sad.  But believing something false in order to use it as a whip to drive people to do right doesn’t work anyway – prisons are full of people who believe in Hell.  It’s better to love people and help them to make the right choices.  The world has over one billion Christians – if they all lived by the Golden Rule, the world would be a much different – and better – place.

That being said, why do Christians believe in Hell at all?  Because they have been taught to, and they have been discouraged from interpreting the Bible for themselves.  For instance, the Bible clearly says that God’s name is “Jealous” (Exodus 34:14). Does that really fit with who you believe God to be in your heart?  Wow, what a petty god.  Yet people take the book literally.  That is scary to me because I believe as Brian from The Beautiful Heresy does: “I believe that people become like the god they serve. If their god is petty, they’ll be petty.  If their god is unforgiving, they’ll be unforgiving.  If their god creates throw-away people, they’ll see some people as throw-away people.” Well, if one must believe in the Bible to that extent, here is the evidence it offers that Hell is not the place your Baptist preacher would have you believe:

Point 1: Hell is never mentioned in the Old Testament, which is why those of Jewish faith do not subscribe to the notion of Hell.  One holding an English translation of this Hebrew text would argue otherwise and point out specific verses that mention it, but in the 31 times it is mentioned in the Old Testament, it is in every instance translated from the Hebrew word “sheol”.  It does not mean a lake of fire and brimstone, but quite the reverse: instead of a place of blazing fire it is described in the context as a state of “darkness” (Job 10:21); instead of a place where shrieks and groans are heard, it is described in the context as a place of “silence” (Psa. 115:17); instead of representing in any sense pain and suffering, or remorse, the context describes it as a place or condition of forgetfulness (Psa. 88:11,12).  Note that this identical word “sheol” is translated “grave” 31 times and “pit” three times in the KJV by the same translators – more times than it is translated “hell”.

Point 2: If Hell is so important, so permanent, then why did God wait 2,000 years into man’s history (if you believe in the Bible’s delineation of time, which is another issue entirely) to mention it??  If Hell is real, why wasn’t Cain warned about it, or Sodom and Gomorrah , or any of those who committed the earliest recorded “sins?”  If Hell is real why didn’t Moses warn about this fate in the Ten Commandments or the Mosaic Covenant consisting of over 600 laws, ordinances, and warnings? The Mosaic Law simply stated blessings and curses in this lifetime.  If Hell is real, why are its roots in paganism, rather than the Bible?  Many nations surrounding Israel in the Old Testament believed in Hell-like punishment in the afterlife, for they served bloodthirsty and evil “gods,” while Israel simply taught the grave (sheol) and a hope of a resurrection.  If Hell is real, why was the revelation of it first given to pagan nations, instead of God’s covenant people?  Did God expect Israel to learn about the afterlife from the Pagan Gentiles?  If so, why did He repeatedly warn Israel to not learn of their ways?  If Hell is real, why did God tell the Jews that burning their children alive in the fire to the false god Molech, (in the valley of Gehenna ) was so detestable to Him? God said that such a thing “never even entered His mind” (Jer. 32:35). How could God say such a thing to Israel , if He has plans to burn alive a good majority of His own creation in a spiritual and eternal Gehenna of His own making?

Point 3: Why did Jesus not warn his people about “Hell”?  Many Christians will argue that he did, but they would be wrong.  It’s not their fault; they are reading a translated text, and as we have already covered, the Hebrew word “sheol” does not translate to anything close to what modern Christians describe as “Hell”.  Instead Jesus warned the Jews many times of impending destruction, both nationally and individually.  He used several different terms to refer to punishment/destruction, some of which were erroneously translated as the same word, “Hell” by Bible translators.  The first great cluster of references to Gehenna (mis-translated as “hell”), are found in the Sermon on the Mount (Mat 5:22, 29, 30), Jesus’ great sermon to His disciples in which He warned that one was in danger of Gehenna for the likes of calling someone a fool.  This is a far cry from our modern Evangelical interpretation that says not accepting Jesus as your Savior is what sends someone to Hell.  Are we perhaps missing the symbolism that Jesus originally intended?  (I think it’s also important to note here that one cannot take the translated texts of the Bible literally and not have them contradict one another – just for one example, it says one shall go to “hell” for calling people “fools”, but also says that the one without sin, Jesus, called people fools in Matthew 23:19 – this proves that the Bible cannot be both true and literal, at least in its translated version.)  If the Jews did not understand “Gehenna” as a symbol of everlasting torture, but rather as a place of shame, filth, and defilement (where Israel participated in the grossest form of idol worship), why does modern theology ascribe more to the word than the original meaning did? The teaching of Gehenna has evolved in Jewish teachings to include punishment in the afterlife; but even today, Gehenna still does not mean “endless” punishment to the Jews.

Point 4: The concepts of everlasting Hell contradict the message of the Bible: Did Jesus fail in His mission? He said, “I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world” (John 12:47).  If Hell is real, and the devil is the one who deceives people into going there, isn’t he ultimately the winner in the war for souls? After all, the traditional interpretation of the Bible in which people believe in “Hell” says that more people will end up in Hell than in Heaven. If so, can you really call Satan the defeated enemy and Christ the victor?

Point 5: Most of the modern and inflexible Christian notions of salvation and Hell stem from words that did not contain the same meaning in Hebrew as they do in English.  This is important!

The term “saved” has evolved in Christianity to mean something different than it did to the original readers and hearers of Scripture. The Greek words, “sozo” and “soteria” embrace the broad meaning of being rescued, delivered, healed and saved from danger. These words were applied in a variety of ways throughout the New Testament. There is much more to the salvation of Christ than most Christians know. Sadly, much of the church is robbed of fullness of their salvation by embracing a limited and futuristic view of what it actually means– (i.e. “going to Heaven when they die”).

The words “everlasting” and “eternal” are also mis-translations of Hebrew words.  EVERY SINGLE INSTANCE IN WHICH SOMEONE WILL USE THE BIBLE TO JUSTIFY WHY THEIR CONCEPT OF HELL IS A PLACE OF “EVERLASTING” OR “ETERNAL” TORMENT WILL CONTAIN A VERSE WITH A MIS-TRANSLATED WORD.  Check it:  If Hell is forever, why is the Hebrew word Olam (which has been translated to mean “eternal/forever”) used in so many verses where it clearly does not mean “everlasting”? A few examples: “Everlasting” is applied to the priesthood of Aaron; to the statutes of Moses; to the mountains and hills; and to the doors of the Jewish temple, to the length of time that reproach and shame should be upon the Jews. The word “forever” is applied to the duration of man’s earthly existence; to the time a child was to abide in the temple; to the continuance of Gehazi’s leprosy; to the to the duration of a king’s life; to the time a servant was to abide with his master; to the duration of the Jewish temple; to the time David was to be king over Israel; to the throne of Solomon; to the stones that were set up at Jordan; and to the time Jonah was in the fish’s belly. It should be obvious from the context that olam merely referred to an indefinite period of time–not forever!  Aion and related words (aionian and aionios) are the Greek equivalents of olam .

Aion, literally means “age,” from which we get our English word, “eon.” Aion/age/eon, is merely a period of time. “Aionian and Aionios” are words that refer to the ages (plural) or pertaining to the ages. As long as time is being measured, it cannot be referring to eternity, which is a realm beyond the measurement of time. If “Hell” is forever, why is it described by words that pertain to the ages?

More proof the Bible doesn’t intend for it to be permanent: “Like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be recovered, so we must die. But God does not take away life; instead, He devises ways so that a banished person may not remain estranged from him” (2 Samuel 14:14).  Also, the Psalmist confidently speak again and again about being rescued from it (sheol) (Psalms 16:10, 30:2-3, Psalm 49:15, 86:13, 116:3-8, 139:8).

Point 6: If you are a Christian who believes in Hell as an everlasting place of eternal torment and suffering, then:

How can mercy triumph over judgment? (James 2:13)

How can it be true that, “where sin abounded grace did much more abound?” (Rom. 5:20)

When will all flesh come to God? (Psalm 65:2-4)

I could go on, but Tentmaker Ministries really does it all for me.  They are Christians who have meticulously studied the Bible in various translations, love Christ, and “are convinced the Creator of the Universe and his Son, Jesus Christ, have gotten a lot of bad and false publicity, often at the hands of those who espouse His name.” As they say, “If Hell is real, can you honestly rejoice in the victory, love, and wisdom of God, knowing that somewhere in His beautiful creation there will always be a black and stinking hell-hole crammed full of tortured souls who have no chance for relief or forgiveness–or even death? Even if there was only one person left in such a state, how could all of Heaven rejoice for all eternity knowing that there was still one soul who had not been touched by the victory of Christ and was suffering alone?”

If you are a Christian struggling with this new concept of a God who would not banish a human soul to a place of eternal and everlasting torture and would like to read further about this idea, the sites here and here may also be helpful to you.  You may also want to read the Wikipedia entry for Gehenna, which is one of the words from which “Hell” is translated.

It’s not like I’m just crazy and making this up.  Believe what you want; it makes me no difference.  But don’t think that it’s just UUs or atheists or Jews that hold no belief in Hell.  Plenty of Christians believe this as well.  I think the most honest, accurate representation of the modern Christian religion’s promotion of the concept of Hell is presented by Bishop John Shelby Spong:

And finally, I’d just like to say that if Heaven is full of people like Jerry Falwell, then I don’t want to go there anyway.


3 Responses to “All souls will eventually reconcile with God”

  1. AT August 31, 2010 at 9:25 pm #

    you are brilliant for compiling all this info! I did not know much of this. My struggles with christian faith as a teenager were basically identical to yours it seems. I talked to religious leaders and was lead to the same Pascal’s pointless wager. I ended up loathing christianity and the god described by it. I could not understand that all sins were forgivable, except for the “sin” of believing smething different. How DARE god send me to hell for not believing in something I can’t see or prove in any way exists?? I was SO pissed I was raised to believe something that to me seemed just idiotic. I am still slowly in the process of forgiving those that taught me to fear hell. It’s not their fault, really. I still struggle with why they feel they must adhere to this silly and terrifying belief.

    it’s refreshing to know there are sects of christians that don’t believe the hell hype. Gives me a whole new outlook on the faith & on Jesus Christ. Thank you!

  2. murmurkibbies September 5, 2010 at 7:11 pm #

    I’m really disappointed I’m the only one who responded to this post! I’d really love to hear a reaction from a Christian who believes in hell.

    • Raisin Girl September 7, 2010 at 9:59 am #

      There are some comments on a friend’s page I could copy/paste here (his was the status that prompted the blog). Or you could always post it to fb or Twitter asking some of your more conservative friends to comment on the blog so we could gain perspective. You seem to have many friends with that sort of viewpoint. Though you may be “outing” yourself by doing so (unless you’d like to erase your previous comment on here).

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