Do We Have to Jump From the Watchtower’s Frying Pan into Hellfire?

 

One of the most appealing doctrines in the theology of Jehovah’s Witnesses is their teaching on hellfire.  Succinctly, hellfire doesn’t exist.  Sheol or Hades is the common grave of mankind, and those who go there will be resurrected to have a second chance to obey Jehovah on a paradise earth for a thousand years.  Those incorrigibly wicked (whom God has already judged, such as those who die at Armageddon) and those who fail a final test at the end of the millennium will experience the second death.  The second death will be utter destruction and is symbolized by the lake of fire or Gehenna.  Those humans who finally prove themselves worthy of Jehovah’s blessing and get to live forever will be comparatively few when compared to the billions and billions of humans who have lived on earth.  If this belief seems a little harsh, at least it is better than believing that these same billions of people will be writhing in agony for eternity.

 

So what happens, then, when we decide that most Watchtower teachings are in error?  Do we have to jump from the Watchtower’s frying pan into Christendom’s eternal hellfire?  In essence, this is a question I’m often asked by those who are having doubts and those who have already left the Organization.  The only answer I can give is my own opinion, based upon an ongoing study of scripture, which, on the subject of hellfire, has recently taken an interesting turn for me.

 

I have come to the conclusion that when equally qualified Christian scholars disagree about the meaning of Greek and Hebrew words to the extent that both sides, overall, have almost equal strengths and weaknesses to support their differing claims, it’s time for me to stand back, disentangle myself from the details, and get the Bible’s big picture.  In doing so, I rest on Paul’s words at 1 Corinthians 13:12 where he compares our understanding here on earth of events taking place in another timeless dimension (heaven) to gazing into a foggy mirror.  There is no way we can see clearly until we exist in that dimension.  Only then will we “know fully.”

 

The foggy mirror appears to be the situation we are in when it comes to understanding the details of judgment.  In some scriptures, it sounds as if believers are judged as righteous, now, in this life (John 5:24), while in other places, the Bible suggests that all of us will appear before the judgment seat of Christ to answer for the things we have done in the flesh (2 Corinthians 5:10).  Then, sometime after our judgment, we who are the firstfruits with Christ will be involved in judging angels and the world (1 Corinthians 6:2, 3).  What does that mean?  How long will it take us to judge?  What will be our standards for judging, especially for angels?  Will we all agree on the judgment to be handed out, or will there be room for differences of opinion?  (1 Kings 22:20)

 

Maybe we have no clear answers to these questions because judgment belongs to another age in another dimension (Ephesians 2:6, 7).  Jesus said he came not to judge the world but to save it (John 12:47).  Our message, then, is one of salvation, the gospel in which Jesus brought life and immortality to light (2 Timothy 1:10).  The life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus are pretty clear, along with his promise to prepare a place for us to be with him for eternity.  It is true, however, that part of that message involves acknowledgment of sin, along with the consequences of it.  In this life, we have all committed “acts of the sinful nature” that Paul listed at Galatians 5:19-21.  After we die, for those who haven’t repented and accepted Christ’s sacrifice as payment for their sins, the Bible describes a scary prospect for most of them.  The writer of Hebrews described it as “a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. . . . For we know him who said, ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ and again, ‘The Lord will judge his people.’  It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”  (Hebrews 10:27, 30-31)  Obviously, sinners will pay for their sins, but how large, exactly, is their debt?  Will the punishment fit the crime, “until he has paid back all he owed,” as Jesus said in his parable (Matthew 18:23-34)?  Or will he be tormented eternally for any unforgiven crime, as other scriptures seem to say?

 

Here is where many Bible scholars disagree among themselves.  Volumes have been written on the meaning of the Hebrew word olam and the Greek word aionios.  Traditionalists say the words can mean an indefinite or even finite time period, but when it comes to describing God and anything in God’s realm, such as hell, these words always mean eternal or without end.  Many Traditionalists also believe the fires of hell are literal in both Gehenna and the lake of fire.  Others claim the fire isn’t literal, but could signify mental and emotional torment that immortal souls will experience because of being separated from God forever and ever.  Either way, the punishment is terrible and unending.

 

Conditionalists, on the other hand, argue that olam and aionios are limited by the things they modify.  They often describe the result of the action, rather than the action itself.  Since they believe there is nowhere in scripture that the wicked are promised immortality, evildoers will be raised from the dead to be punished and then destroyed for eternity.  It is the punishment rather than the punishing that lasts forever.  Many Conditionalists also say that Bible writers used hyperbole when they described God’s judgment, so the fires in Gehenna and hell are not literal, but rather symbolize complete destruction.

 

I have oversimplified and abbreviated these two main viewpoints on hellfire for a reason.  The details are overwhelming and confusing, especially to ordinary Christians, like me, who have no knowledge of the intricacies of Hebrew and Greek grammar.  The subject of hellfire has been debated and rehashed from the days of the early church fathers (Augustine was the chief proponent of hellfire) until now, and it doesn’t appear that we are any closer to agreement.  We simply can’t know for sure the details about what judgment will entail.

 

For me, it’s time to look past these details and get the big picture.  What does the Bible as a whole say about God?  How does he feel about his human children?  What is his philosophy on discipline and punishment?  Does he practice what he preaches to us?  How does he want us to feel about him?  Answers to these questions are easier to find and, I believe, will lead to an increased love and appreciation for the person of God and for his plans for our eternal future.

 

 

Not long ago, I was discussing this approach to the subject of hell with Cathy, a Christian acquaintance of mine.  She recommended that I read a book entitled, Hope Beyond Hell, The Righteous Purpose of God’s Judgment, by Gerry Beauchemin.  She said it had changed her mind about eternal punishment.  That was enough for me to get online, order the book, and read it.  Coincidentally, the author also felt the need to get the big picture of God’s nature and his purpose in disciplining his earthly children.  The following questions and answers will briefly summarize the book and possibly give others struggling with this issue some further food for thought.

 

 

Can we count on God to accomplish his will?

v  “Then Job replied to the Lord:  ‘I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted.’”  Job 42:1, 2

v  “I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come.  I say:  My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.”  Isaiah 46:10

v  “I know that the Lord is great, that our Lord is greater than all gods.  The Lord does whatever pleases him, in the heavens and on the earth, in the seas and all their depths.”  Psalm 135:6

 

 

Jesus taught us to pray for God’s will to be done on earth.  What is God’s will?

v  “This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth.”  1 Timothy 2:6

v  “The Lord . . . is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”  2 Peter 3:9

v  “ . . . that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”  Philippians 2:10, 11

 

 

Did God make provision for all humans to be saved?

v  “[Jesus] gave himself as a ransom for all men.”  1 Timothy 2:6

v  “[Jesus is] the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.”  1 John 2:2

v  “Who then can be saved? . . . With men it is impossible, but not with God; for with God all things are possible.”  Mark 10:26, 27

v  “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.”  1 Corinthians 15:22

 

But what about our free will?  In order for us to have a completely free will, God would have to be an absentee parent who put us on earth in the beginning and then left us totally on our own.  Obviously, the Bible tells us he has not done that.  So how “free” is our free will?  Has God ever intervened in people’s lives to change hearts and minds?

v  “I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the Lord.”  Jeremiah 24:6, 7

v  “I will inspire them to fear me, so that they will never turn away from me.”  Jeremiah 32:40

v  “I [God] will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.”  Jeremiah 31:33

v  “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”  Ezekiel 36:26

v  “No one can come to me [Jesus] unless the Father who sent me draws him.”  John 6:44

v  In view of these scriptures (and many more not listed), we can ask:  Since when has a human’s puny, imperfect, extremely limited will ever superceded the will of God?  Paul asked and answered essentially that same question regarding the Jews at Romans 3:3, 4 where he said, “What if some did not have faith:  Will their lack of faith nullify God’s faithfulness?  Not at all!  Let God be found true.”

 

 

Since God is love, and he has said that his thoughts and ways are higher than ours (Isaiah 55:9), we should expect that he would certainly be a God who would take his own advice.  Jesus condemned humans who put heavy loads on others but who weren’t willing to bear those loads themselves (Matthew 23:4).  So then, what advice has God given to us regarding how we should treat our enemies and those who sin against us?

v  “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?  Even ‘sinners’ love those who love them.  And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you?  Even ‘sinners’ do that . . . But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back.  Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.  Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”  Luke 6:32-36

v  “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.  In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”  Romans 12:20, 21

 

 

However, in the verses just preceding Romans 12:20, 21, Paul says that vengeance belongs to God and he will repay.  What kind of justice can we expect from God?  Will the punishment fit the crime?

v  “Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for his wrong, and there is no favoritism.”  Colossians 3:25

v  [God’s law to the Jews] “. . . every violation and disobedience received its just punishment.”  Hebrews 2:2

v  “God will give to each person according to what he has done.”  Romans 2:6

v  “In anger his master turned him over to the jailers until he should pay back all he owed.  This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”  Matthew 18:34, 35

v  “That servant who knows his master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what his master wants will be beaten with many blows.  But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows.”  Luke 12:47, 48

 

 

If the punishment for evildoers will be just, then what will be its final purpose?  What is the philosophy behind God’s discipline?

v  “A severe beating can knock all the evil out of you.”  Proverbs 20:30 (CEV)

v  “ . . . the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son. . . . Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness.  No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful.  Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.”  Hebrews 12:5-11

v  “Blessed is the man whom God corrects; so do not despise the discipline of the Almighty.  For he wounds, but he also binds up; he injures, but his hands also heal.”  Job 5:17, 18

v  “For men are not cast off by the Lord forever.  Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love.  For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to the children of men.”  Lamentations 3:31-33

v  “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

 

 

Would a God who espouses this kind of loving, remedial discipline toward his earthly children (and we are all children of God {Acts 17:28, 29}) suddenly change his nature in heaven and allow these same wayward children to be tortured for eternity?  Which qualities of God last forever?

v  “For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime.”  Psalm 30:5a

v  “He is good!  For his mercy endures forever” (repeated 26 times in this psalm).  Psalm 136

v  “Blessed be the Father of mercies and God of all comfort.”  2 Corinthians 1:3, 4

v  “Mercy triumphs over judgment.”  James 2:13

 

 

If, therefore, “God is love” (1 John 4:8) and if love “keeps no record of wrongs,” is “patient,” and “never fails” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8), then—

v  God has unlimited patience to “devise ways so that a banished person may not remain estranged from him.”  (2 Samuel 14:14)

v  He has unlimited patience to “go after the lost sheep until he finds it.”  (Luke 15:4)

v  “Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation.”  (2 Peter 3:15)

v  God will never fail.  If in the end, the majority of his children were lost or, at best, even just a few, would God have failed?  It would mean that he wasn’t able to “devise a way” to get through to those unrepentant children.  God is a perfectionist and would only be satisfied with 100%.  Nothing is impossible for him.  And that is what he has promised, “ . . . that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”   (Philippians 2:10, 11)

 

 

Getting this big picture of God made my heart sing.  It caused me to love God even more  and to look forward to sharing in such a judgment.  Those of us who accept Christ in this life are his “firstfruits” (James 1:18) who will be judges with him and take part in the outworking of God’s glorious plan for all his children.  So I started talking to my Christian friends about the hope that God might some day save everyone.  I soon learned that there is a great deal of resistance to this idea in the Christian community.  “Universalism,” as it is called, is associated with New Age beliefs and an ultra-liberal brand of religion that rejects the Bible’s moral principles and the sacrifice of Christ and, instead, embraces all faiths as roads leading to God. 

 

That may be true for universalism in general, but it certainly wasn’t supported in the book I read.  The author is obviously a committed Christian who believes the Bible is God’s inspired word and that redemption can only come through Christ.  So I spoke to Cathy about how she would respond to some of the objections Christians bring up.  Our conversation went something like this:

 

(Beginning of dialogue)

 

Sherry:  How do you answer people who say that if God is going to save everyone, it waters down his righteousness and his abhorrence of sin?

 

Cathy:  I quote the scripture at Hebrews 10:31 where it says, “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”  Evildoers in this life will not be able to lie their way out of receiving God’s future judgment.  His refining fire (Malachi 3:2) that will eventually result in their salvation will be terrible, and it will be a great deal harder for some than for others (Matthew 10:15).  So we can be sure that God’s punishment will fit the crime.

 

Sherry:  When I talked to others about how wonderful it would be if God eventually saved everybody, I got the impression that they kind of resented it, as if to say, “If everyone is going to be saved, why am I doing all this religion stuff when I could be out somewhere having more fun?”

 

Cathy:  These people sound to me a lot like the early morning workers in Jesus’ parable about the vineyard.  When the master decided to pay the eleventh hour workers the same amount of money he gave those who had worked all day, the early workers grumbled and accused the master of being unfair.  Finally, the master asked them, “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money?  Or are you envious because I am generous?”  (Matthew 20:1-16)  This attitude calls into question the reason why we are choosing to serve Christ in this life.  Is it to avoid eternal punishment or is it because God’s way is the best possible way to live this life?

 

Sherry:  I also got the impression that people were afraid to err on the side of God’s mercy.  Since we don’t know for sure what God is going to do, it would be safer to err on the side of his judgment.  What do you say to that?

 

Cathy:  I believe that erring on the side of God’s mercy is a better course.  In Jesus’ parable of the talents, the man who hid his talent did so out of thinking the worst of his master.  He said, “I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed.”  The master was not pleased with that man and fired him on the spot.  (Matthew 25:14-30)  When Jonah erred on the side of God’s judgment rather than his mercy and complained because God hadn’t destroyed the Ninevites, God corrected Jonah by saying, “Ninevah has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well.  Should I not be concerned about that great city?”  (Jonah 4:11)

 

Cathy (continuing):  On the other hand, I believe that Abraham was a man of great faith because he believed the best of God even when it would have been easy to think the worst.  When God asked him to offer up his only son, “Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead” (Hebrews 11:19).  When God was going to destroy the city of Sodom, Abraham was so confident in God’s goodness that he could humbly ask him, “Far be it from you to do such a thing – to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike.  Far be it from you!  Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25)  In answer, God kindly showed Abraham that he had, indeed, considered both the righteous and the wicked.

 

Cathy (continuing):  When I get to heaven and humbly present my case for God’s mercy before Christ’s judgment seat, I believe God will treat me in the same kind way he treated Abraham.  If I am wrong, he will show me why, and I will be satisfied with his answer.  In the meantime, I will do what the Apostle Paul very clearly and strongly said to do at 1 Timothy 4:9-11:

“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.  Command and teach these things.”

 

(End of dialogue)

 

After reading the book and talking to Cathy, I’m hard pressed to find convincing arguments to support either the traditionalist view of eternal punishment or the conditionalist view of eternal destruction.  As a result, I welcome any comments to this blog giving me feedback on what I’ve said.  In the meantime, it is my prayer that God’s eternal love, patience, and mercy will eventually result in salvation for all, to his eternal glory and praise.