Author’s note: Because I hold to the doctrine of universal reconciliation—and brazenly so—I take a lot of heat from a lot of fellow Christians. Not only do I get to hear how I am a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” “a false prophet,” and even, “a satanist”—how spooky!—but I then get to deal with what I call “machine-gun questioning.” What I mean by that is, for example, if I am talking about Pauline theology, arguing that it is much more inclusive then most would admit, I often receive question after question about non-Pauline passages such as the Parable of the Sheep and the (baby) Goats and Mark 9:42–50. This becomes quite frustrating because A) I don’t really have time to exegete everything for everyone B) It makes me feel stupid—as if I haven’t spend countless hours working through all of the troubling New Testament texts and C) What does it have to do with what Paul thought?
Now, all that being said, I do enjoy being (politely) questioned, critiqued, and pushed-back on. Before I published my first book, All Set Free, I sent my manuscript to scholars near and far. And that was the best thing I could have done, as I received amazing critique from the likes of Anthony Bartlett, Brad Jersak, and others, even those who don’t agree with me on certain things. So being questioned about my theology is something I actually look forward to. And that includes being questioned about hell.
That is where this article comes in. What I have done, is I have laid out a mock conversation between myself and a questioning lay-Christian. I don’t say that as a slight, but as a description of many Christians who don’t really study theology all that much. This believer’s main contention, as you will see, will be that I cannot possibly conclude that all will be saved, as the bible clearly states that some will in fact be lost (to eternal conscious torment in this case). But, unlike many of my experiences, this conversation will be respectful, and so the fruit of it will be no doubt good. I may not sway Mr. Christian, as I have generically named him, but I will at least have said what I would want to say, all due to his respectful nature.
Joe Christian: Matt, I’ve read a few of your posts on Facebook and you seem to think that everyone will be saved. How can you say that? Doesn’t Jesus teach about hell more than he teaches about heaven?
Matt Distefano: Well, no, that is actually a myth. My friend and colleague Dan Wilkinson tallied things up and, out of 1,944 New Testament verses attributed to Jesus, only three percent are potentially about hell. Passages related to “heaven” come in at nearly ten percent. That being said, I don’t want to skirt what you are getting at. Jesus did talk about judgment and used “fiery” language, so which passage would you like to talk about, specifically?
JC (and yes, I made his initials “JC” on purpose): How about Mark 9:42–50? I mean, c’mon! Jesus talks about tossing yourself into the sea and being thrown into hell should you continue in your sin.
MD: Okay, but we have to back up a second and discuss the word translated as “hell.” That comes from the Greek word Gehenna (in Hebrew, it is the Valley of Hinnom) and is an actual valley south of Jerusalem. Its history is a nasty one, having once been the place where children were sacrificed to Molech (2 Chronicles 28:3). Gehenna also has a history of being a fiery trash dump because, after Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians, the bodies of those killed were literally burned in the valley. Later, in 70 CE, in come the Romans and wash, rinse, repeat, Jerusalem falls again. Into Gehenna they go!
JC: I’ve heard all that before, but isn’t Jesus’ usage about judgment applied to the afterlife too?
MD: Sure, I will concede that. Before I comment, though, I want to say that I believe Jesus’ primary focus was on the literal destruction that was to befall Jerusalem. I don’t want to downplay that. Brad Jersak finds evidence of this in the fact that Jesus “cites or alludes to every chapter in Jeremiah where Hinnom is mentioned.” And for Jeremiah, Hinnom was all about real destruction in real time and space by real armies.
That being said, even if Jesus is drawing on the Enoch tradition, as you allude to in your question, doesn’t he then flip this tradition on its head in verses 49–50? Doesn’t Jesus, after all of the body-part-chopping-off talk, say that we are all going to have to pass through the fire? (And might I mention, isn’t it odd that nobody is suggesting Jesus wants us to literally chop our body parts off, but that if we aren’t “saved,” that we will end up in a literal fire?) But back to my main point: doesn’t Jesus say that fire produces salt in us and that this salt is actually good? By the way, this would be in line, then, with how Paul also talks about fire in 1 Corinthians 3:12–13. So what I believe Jesus is doing is subverting the dualistic eschatological view of the Enoch tradition, where the wicked are smote by God (Which, by the way, as Jersak points out, does not last forever but “typically had a time limit of 12–18 months, after which the damned would either be freed or consumed (based on a text from Zechariah 13.”))
What I’m trying to say, is that I essentially believe Jesus is teaching: “Heed my warnings or you will literally end up in Gehenna, just like before. But also, get rid of those things that cause you to stumble or lest you risk having them burned off later.”
JC: Hmmm . . . interesting. I just hope that you are not downplaying the warnings at all.
MD: Of course not! I just think that a quick reading of something like this will not suffice if we are to understand all of the layers of depth in the teaching. But I take the warnings quite seriously, affirming both the “here and now” and “after this life” implications of what Jesus teaches here.
JC: So, do you not then believe someone has to accept Jesus in order to earn salvation?
MD: Well, personally, I do not think anyone can do anything in order to earn salvation. I believe salvation is a free gift of grace. The Calvinists would agree with me there. I just think it is offered to all.
JC: Yeah, offered, but you still have to accept it.
MD: Well, I think that is for a different discussion. Did you have any more specific passages that you wanted to ask me about?
JC: Sure. Don’t you think that if you choose to be wicked here in this life, that there should be consequences for that? Shouldn’t there be punishment and isn’t that what something like the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats teaches?
MD: Good question. First, I think there are great consequences for wickedness. Or, in other words, there are great consequences for not being loving, for neglecting the “least of these,” for instance. There are not only real-life consequences, here and now—just look at our city streets—but there are also “eternal” consequences. I put scare quotes around “eternal” because that is the type of “punishment” the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats mentions. Matthew 25:46 states (as you are no doubt aware): “And these [the goats] will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
JC: Yeah, that is the one. And that has to mean that some end up in hell, because if the eternal punishment isn’t really forever, then the eternal life the righteous go to isn’t forever!
MD: Sure, you could interpret the parable in such a way. But you would have to remember: first, the point of this parable is that those who think they are in are out and those who don’t know they are in are in fact in. So my question is, are you sure you want to argue for the interpretation you are arguing for? From the looks of things, we Christians have a long way to go when it comes to “feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, welcoming in strangers, clothing the naked, and visiting the sick and imprisoned.” We may be arguing for our own “eternal punishment.” Second, the phrase “eternal punishment” doesn’t really mean what you think it means. First, the Greek word aiṓnios can mean eternal, but it can also mean “pertaining to an age.” Remember the story of Jonah and the whale, it is said that Jonah was in its belly owlam, the Hebrew equivalent of aiṓnios. But Jonah 1:17 states it was for only three days that Jonah was down there. That being said, even if aiṓnios means eternal, it need not imply a “minute by minute” type of meaning. What I am saying is that aiṓnios has more to do with quality of something, rather than the specific quantity of it. And as for the punishment the text speaks of, I believe there is ample evidence the Greek word kolasis implies corrective punishment, or as Plato puts it, for the benefit of the one being corrected. If you are interested, I offer a deeper explanation in All Set Free, pages 97–101 specifically. You can get it from wipfandstock.com.
JC: Did you just shamelessly plug your own book?
MD: Yeah, I did. Sorry. What, is God going to burn me forever for that?
MD: I’m just kidding! Do you have any more passages that trouble you or are you a Universalist yet?
JC: Not quite, buddy! Yeah, what do you do with all the passages in Revelation? You know, the ones about the lake of fire and the beast and the kings of the nations being destroyed in it?
MD: That is from Revelation 19 right?
JC: You tell me!
MD: Touché! Anyway, yes, that is from Revelation 19:19–20. I totally get it; that is a difficult passage. But, without getting into a long, drawn out discussion about the book of Revelation, I will just say a few things. First, notice how, later, in Revelation 21:24, the nations are seen inside the gates of New Jerusalem . . . i.e. “heaven,” one could say. Sure, they have to have their robes “washed in the blood of the Lamb” (Revelation 22:14), but who’s to say they don’t, as the bride perpetually invites them to “come” (Revelation 22:17) in through the always open gates (Revelation 21:25), to partake of the leaves of the tree that is for the “healing of the nations” (Revelation 22:2). And second, won’t some of those who are outside be our very own loved ones? And if we take the command to “love thine enemy” seriously, they most certainly will be. That being said, how does the writer of Revelation go on to boldly say “he will wipe every tear from their eyes?” I’ve meditated on that for a long time and I’ll tell you, I cannot wrap my head around anything short of ultimate redemption. Not annihilation, not eternal torment, but universal reconciliation. Either that or the person who penned that phrase didn’t understand human psychology at all.
JC: I understand what you are saying with that. That passage has always bothered me too.
MD: Well, I think it should bother everyone, really.
JC: True. Well, alright, it has been fun. Thank you for talking and for clarifying some things you believe. I wouldn’t say I agree, but I understand where you are coming from.
MD: Thank you. Peace and blessings.
JC: You too!