Concerning Endless Conscious Torment and Ultimate Restoration
I’ve been a Christian for thirty years, this year; I remember it was around July time in 1991.
Because of the powerful nature of my conversion experience, my relationship with Jesus has been the most important relationship in my life; I’m also married with two married boys and I’ve been married for 28 years.
To say my relationship with God is the most important to me means that I believe I’m a better husband and father; which obviously doesn’t mean there isn’t still plenty of room for growth.
Throughout these thirty years I believe I’ve also grown in my knowledge of God and I believe that is also in the understanding of His grace and unconditional love.
For most of this time, alongside this expanding knowledge of God is the difficulty I’ve had of accepting the whole concept of hell as a place of eternal conscious agony and torment.
I chose to believe it as it’s mentioned throughout the Old and New testament, yet I couldn’t seem to square it with this God I was in relationship with.
I would have regular argument type discussions with believers and find their arguments so feeble and unsatisfying up against the hopeless prospect of agonising, endless, conscious torment.
It wasn’t until about a year and a half ago that I believe the Lord actually revealed to me an answer to my distress that satisfied me spiritually and biblically.
I had got up in the middle of the night, again because of feeling hopeless and in despair over the whole `hell` situation.
I was looking at my kindle, over the menu of books; I have over a thousand books on my kindle, not including many collections.
I came across a book I don’t even remember buying, I mean I obviously had, but I’d completely forgot.
It was entitled `Hope Beyond Hell` by Gerry Beauchemin.
I got as far as the first two paragraphs of the introduction when I was stopped in my tracks.
The author wrote something using almost the exact words I had said to my wife a few days before:
“If God knows who is going to choose Him what about those He knows that are destined to hell, why would He create them?”
The writer talked about the fact that Evangelicals believed that more people were going to hell than heaven, if according to Jesus:
“Wide is the path that leads to destruction and narrow is the path that leads to eternal life and there are few that find it”
I’d heard these arguments before, but I hadn’t realised there were solutions that were not founded on the necessity of becoming a liberal Christian, which meant for me becoming a heretic.
In this book I found out that there were many early Church Fathers who believed in the ultimate restoration of every human being ever created.
In fact one of those Fathers of the Church who believed in Ultimate Restoration was Gregory of Nyssa, one of the leading theologians of the day and a contributor to the acceptance of the Trinity and the composing of the Nicene Creed.
In the first 500 years of the early church such a belief was not seen as heretical.
Just as now there were three major beliefs about the destiny of the lost:
Endless torment, annihilation and Ultimate restoration; and it was only in the 6th Century, where ultimate restoration was denounced as an Anathema; I’d always assumed it was considered from the beginning.
I assumed that the accepted teaching of endless hell was always the Church’s only teaching; I was uninformed.
Clement of Alexandria, Anastasius, Origen, Maximus the Confessor, all major early church theologians wrote on it as a Biblical explanation of God’s plan from creation.
The author of `Hope Beyond Hell` then went on to address every scripture in the Bible that concerned Hell, focusing on all the times Jesus mentioned it, as well as other places in the Old and New Testament.
I began to understand that Bible translation was affected by the doctrinal beliefs of the Translator. For example, the King James Version, which I still love and revere, mentions hell fifty two times, doctrinally, their translation was based on their held beliefs which obviously affected their choice of words used. In the Old testament Sheol and Hades are the actual original words used, which literally means place of the dead, not a fiery hell, and good and bad people go there.
The New International Version mentions Hell eleven times.
An actual fiery hell is mentioned once in the Old Testament and that is in the book of Daniel: Daniel 12:2.
There are so many more reasons to challenge the concept of eternal conscious torment both Biblically and historically, but I won’t to focus now on my own journey since the realisation of alternative doctrines.
I found `Hope Beyond Hell` satisfied me as a Bible believing Christian who wasn’t willing to compromise my evangelical beliefs.
I began to understand that a belief in Ultimate Restoration did not go against the Nicene Creed, our major touchstone of Christian belief.
I also understood that it was an accepted doctrine for the first five and a half centuries of the Church.
I began to read other books that continued my education on the Early Church Fathers and Bible interpretation.
What encouraged me was the fact that most of these writers believed the way I did in terms of the importance of the balance of Spirit and the Word and the centrality of Christ.
I began to enjoy ready Greek Orthodox Spirituality and Catholic Mysticism, with the wonderful Thomas Merton, Saint John of the Cross and Julian of Norwich as well as Anglican mysticism, with Evelyn Underhill, a wonderful writer and teacher.
There was another Anglican, George Macdonald a writer and Churchman who C.S. Lewis called the `Master`.
My heart and mind were being satisfied but I was in a Christian camp that was Charismatic Evangelical who believed in the traditional doctrine of Hell as eternal conscious torment, or annihilation.
I was in a minority and it was uncomfortable.
I began to find it difficult to listen to the preachers and teachers I enjoyed, who believed what I used to about eternal damnation; which was my problem.
Because of Lockdown and due to my health, having to shield I’ve spent over a year quite isolated.
I don’t have any real spiritual mentors I can talk to about such matters, but I also know that my personal relationship with God must be my first go to.
I’ve read books on a defence of the doctrine of eternal damnation; I’ve watched YouTube videos where people talk of their own `hell` experiences.
But rather than convince me they have the opposite effect.
I used to watch them or read about such things as a prompt to keep hot for evangelism, remembering the plight of the lost; now I find them pretty disgusting and a terrible blasphemy of my loving and faithful Father.
I look at people differently, my heart is softer, I have more compassion.
Before my change of beliefs about eternal damnation, I always had an agenda when I spoke to a non believer; I was always looking for a way to, if possible, `get them saved`, and I was great at being able to bring up the subject of my faith, which is great, I still thinks so.
However now, I listen to them, focus on them and their present needs, and see where I can love in action now, and if that includes sharing my faith, I will happily.
I want to end with challenging some accepted arguments.
God is not just a God of love but also wrath and judgment.
God is Love everything He does is through love’s prism.
I can love God’s judgments now because their finite, just and we will all stand before a Holy God where every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
In our legal system, the punishment fits the crime, what crime, or sin, could possibly be bad enough to warrant the judgment of eternal conscious torment?
Which leads on to:
You don’t understand how sinful sin is that’s why the punishment is so serious.
That’s the argument that is most often used, and by some of my favourite teachers; but even before I was better informed I found that ridiculous.
What has that argument got to do with us, if we don’t know how sinful sin is?
If you believe in the doctrine of original sin, we were born already sinful; how is that our choice?
We didn’t choose to be born into this world of sin.
God doesn’t send anyone to hell, we choose it ourselves through our own free will.
Have you ever used that?
It’s beyond crazy; a lost person, someone destined to hell, didn’t see a sign saying `Hell here or Heaven there; you choose`.
Who but an insane person would choose such a terrible place? Doesn’t make sense.
I don’t know many churches that preach about hell, why is that?
I used to think it was because they didn’t want to put people off, and I think that could be certainly a reason, but now I think that most people don’t actually believe it.
Sounds controversial but in the last few decades we’ve had the glorious doctrine of God’s unconditional love and grace being taught, and it’s spreading, because it sounds like Good News, sounds like the Gospel.
I think at best people believe they believe, I talk to people and they react quite strongly in favour, while some realize that I’m making sense and realize that they actually agree with me and didn’t even know they kind of always believed that God was that good.
What massively frustrates me is that we just don’t talk about it; to me it’s a big fat elephant in the room.
Christians just don’t seem to be bothered at believing in such a dreadful place whilst banging on about how loving our God is.
Jesus is the Saviour of the World, He really did it all, I believe He truly is the only way to God, and that ultimately everyone will bow the knee as their hearts are exposed to the consuming fire of His love.
I no longer believe that death is the end, in terms of making a decision for Christ; logically how can it be?
What about the millions and millions of people who lived in the dark ages, who never heard the saving Gospel?
What about those people who never get to hear about Jesus, and in such a way that reveals what He’s done on the cross for them?
And where does it say that death is the end of your chances, we’re supposedly eternal beings.
People often quote that scripture in Hebrews: Hebrews 9:27 ` Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment`.
Where does that say and eternal damnation; I absolutely believe in judgment after we die.
I’m actually annoying myself because I can’t seem to let it lie.
I need to spend time waiting on the Holy Spirit, I need a heart encounter to bring me His peace but also show me what, if anything I’m supposed to do with this new found knowledge.
I write 2 radio shows a week which I produce, and I accept that I’m unable to share these views; it’s not a problem, I still get to love on Jesus through word and music, but something’s got to break.
If you’re reading this and have always had a problem with the concept of eternal damnation, don’t worry, there are answers out there that do not cost you compromising your faith, hallelujah!
Books that helped me:
`The Bible` (Ha!)
`Hope Beyond Hell` by Gerry Beauchemin
`The Evangelical Universalist` Robin Parry
`Heaven’s Doors: Wider than You Ever Believed` George W Sarris (My Favourite!)
`Her Gates Will Never Be Shut: Hope, Hell and the new Jerusalem` Brad Jersak
`Raising Hell: Christianity’s Most Controversial Doctrine put Under Fire` Julie Ferwerda
`That All Shall be Saved` David Bentley Hart.