Mars Hill Forum #96: “Can A Good God Allow People to Dwell in Hell Forever?”
Bangor Baptist Church, Bangor, Maine, October 16, 2005: Guest: Rev. Kalen Fristad
Prepared Comments by Rev. John C. Rankin
This is our fifth and final forum together on this subject, and a great learning process.
Kalen Fristad argues that while hell is real, and for a season many people will dwell there, eventually God will persuade all residents of hell that heaven is a better place — all will be saved.
He says God will neither coerce nor manipulate anyone into salvation. However, if in the end the only choice is to say yes, is it really a choice at all?
In the biblical order of creation, the unique power of God gives us a level playing field to say yes or no to his goodness. This is the nature of true freedom, along with the caveat that we will all reap what we sow.
No pagan religion allows such a level playing field, only slavery to the gods. The only possibility in paganism is hell.
Pagan religion cannot allow people to attain the biblical heaven, and Kalen’s religion cannot allow for the possibility of people choosing hell forever. Thus, in this sense, what is the difference between pagan ethics and Kalen’s religion?
Kalen bases his argument not on clear biblical reality, but on three unsustainable points; 1) a mistranslation of the primary Greek term for “eternal,” 2) his understanding of the language of “all” in the New Testament, and 3) his use of in 1 Peter 3:18-20.
The Bible’s definitions of creation, sin and redemption, introduced in Genesis 1-3, interpret the whole Bible. In the order of creation, God is good, and every thing he makes is declared as good. Jesus as our Redeemer restores us to this original goodness.
Yahweh Elohim is the Lord God, he who by definition is greater than space, time and number. His power is unlimited and he uses it to give us life and all blessings. Thus, we can define God’s goodness as “the power to give.” Indeed, the Hebrew and Greek words for “grace” (hen and charis) simply refer to a gift given. The nature of a gift given also gives the power to say no to that gift.
The question about hell starts with the nature of true freedom. The first words of the Bible in Genesis 1:1 introduce the sovereign God – “In the beginning God created.” Then the first words of God to Adam are in Genesis 2:16-17, words of freedom.
Only a sovereign God is great and good enough to give us the gift of freedom, and not be diminished by it if we use it wrongly. There is no freedom to fully say yes without the freedom to fully say no.
Genesis 2:16-17 reads: “And Yahweh God commanded the man, ‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not east from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.’ ”
The words translated “you are free to eat” come from a Hebrew construction that is more dynamic than an active participle, akol tokel: “In feasting you shall continually feast.” What this means is that the freedom to eat from an unlimited menu of good choices, is an unlimited and never ending freedom to live. The hope of eternal life is written into these words in the most dynamic fashion possible.
The words translated “you will surely die” come from a parallel Hebrew construction that is likewise more dynamic than an active participle, moth tamuth: “In dying you shall continually die.” What this means is that the freedom to eat poison and die is an unlimited and never ending death. The possibility of eternal hell is written into these words in the most dynamic fashion possible.
There are thus two choices given to us in parallel contrast:
In feasting you shall continually feast; or
In dying you shall continually die.
Why does the eating of “the tree of knowledge of good and evil” bring a death that keeps on dying? It is a Hebraicism for all knowledge. Namely, everything there is to know is between the opposites of good and evil. Who alone can know everything, and who alone can know evil in its totality and not be tempted or polluted by it? Only the Lord God.
Thus, to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is 1) to say that God is withholding something good, thus he is not fully good himself; 2) it is an attempt to become equal to God, to know everything; and 3) it is to redefine good and evil the way we see fit.
Can we redefine hell to serve our sentimental feelings without eating of the forbidden fruit? To say that all people will automatically escape hell in the end redefines good and evil.
In a nutshell, both life and death are active participles, and they are never ending once we make a final choice no later than the Judgment Day. God’s grace and patience with us until that time is remarkable, but grace, being a gift, allows us to choose our final destinies, including rebellion and its consequences.
The active participles of life and death are also seen in Isaiah 66:24 which speaks of the new heavens and new earth, as well as judgment being one where “their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.”
The Hebrew word for death here is the same as Genesis 2:17 – a death that never stops dying. The first metaphor here is that of a worm which would naturally die when a corpse is consumed, but here the corpse is always dying, so the worms are always having a perverse feast. The second metaphor is that of a fire that is never quenched because there is always fuel to burn.
Jesus assumes this active participle of death when he speaks of hell in Mark 9:43-48. He quotes Isaiah 66:24 concerning the worms and fire that always consume, rooted also in the active participle of Genesis 2:17: “In dying you shall continually die.”
In Matthew 25:46, at the end of the parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus says: “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
This is a parallel of opposites, just like the opposites of “in dying you shall continually die” versus “in feasting you shall continually feast.” Jesus is saying that just as punishment is eternal on the one hand, so is life eternal on the other.
But Kalen, in his first main point, and against this grammatical force, argues that the word translated “eternal” really refers to something shorter in length. He says that the Greek word in use here, aionios (aivw,nion; acc. sing. masc.), refers to a long period of time, not to eternity.
But in the Bauer, Arndt and Gingrich Greek Lexicon, aionios means “without beginning and end.” Never in classical or New Testament Greek does it refer to a limited time frame. Its root word (aion) does so occasionally, but that word is not used here. In fact, in the major 30 English translations of Matthew 25:46, it is only translated as “eternal,” “forever” or “everlasting.”
In our last forum, Kalen could not give one example of aionios ever being translated otherwise. He only cited the third century theologian Origen, whose native tongue was Greek. But Origen, in his argument for universal salvation in Book 1, Chapter 6, and Book 2, Chapters 5 and 10 of De Principiis, does not examine the Greek term aionios at all. Rather he cites certain biblical verses atomistically, and does not address the deep range of biblical texts which state otherwise. Curiously, in his Preface, section 4, he starts by citing “points clearly delivered in the teaching of the apostles,” including a statement in section 5, that after death human souls are “destined to obtain either an inheritance of eternal life and blessedness” or “to be delivered up to eternal fire and punishments.” Origen thus goes against the prior apostolic unity.
Kalen’s mistranslates the word for “eternal,” aionios, rejecting the consensus of all Greek scholars. Thus, his first main point does not stand at all.
What then is the nature of hell? Jesus uses the Greek word gehenna. It comes from the Hebrew words ge’ hinnom, for the Valley of Ben Hinnom outside Jerusalem. There the trash dump burned day and night, and there children were sacrificed alive in fire pits to pagan gods. Thus, Jesus’s language for hell was dramatic to the Hebrew soul – unquenchable fire and insatiable worms. Peter and Jude also speak of hell as darkness. Now, how do fire and darkness go together?
Here we need to look at the deeper question concerning the moral and chosen nature of hell. And I would greatly recommend a little book by C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce.
In John 3:19 it says that “men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.” Now, do people really love darkness?
In Ezekiel 23:8-9, Yahweh judges Samaria: “Therefore I handed her over to her lovers, the Assyrians; for whom she lusted. They stripped her naked, took away her sons and daughters and killed her by the sword.”
This is a radical justice. God gives us what and whom we love – whether the light or the darkness, Yahweh or a pagan deity, Jesus or a false prophet. But do people always want that darkness even after they have chosen it? This is Kalen’s question. He says no, God will somehow persuade them once they are in hell that they do not really love the darkness.
Let’s compare two responses to the Second Coming of Jesus. In Luke 21:28, the believers look up and rejoice at his coming. It is the language of an eyeball to eyeball loving expectation of reconciliation at the end of the age.
In Revelation 6:16, the peoples of the earth prefer to be crushed by the mountains and rocks rather than look at Jesus. It is the language of people loving darkness, choosing to be crushed to death rather than have reconciliation with God. They view Jesus not as their Savior, for they do not want forgiveness; they view him as their Judge who passes sentence because they hate the light that by definition means humility and honesty. They are a bitter people.
Bitterness can be defined as “trust betrayed,” and there are people who would rather stew their juices, growing more bitter, self-righteous and perversely satisfied across eternity – as the darkness of their souls thicken, as the fire of revenge burns in their hearts and always consumes them.
This is the reality of a chosen and, yes, a loved hell of one’s own shrinking humanity – like an atomic half-life multiplied across eternity, always extingishing but never being extinguished. Choices made prior to the Judgment Day are choices forever owned again and again. This is the active participle of the freedom to choose death.
In his second main point, Kalen quotes many passages such as John 12:32, 1 Corinthians 15:22, Romans 5:18-19 and Philippians 2:10-11, to say the Greek use of the words for “all” or “every” (pas, pantas and pan) indicate that all people will eventually be saved. However, a review of these Greek terms show that, depending on context, “all” can be specific or representative, it can be “all” or “every kind of variety.” There is much detail here, but the sum is that Kalen fits its use only in one direction. I am glad to examine any such text.
Let’s look at one briefly. In Matthew 7:13-14 Jesus speaks of the narrow gate that leads to life and the broad road that leads to destruction (avpw,leian). Then Jesus says in v. 21, “Not everyone (Ouv pa/j) who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.’ ” Here the Greek is literally “not all.” Kalen’s argument concerning “all” is thus completely undermined with devastating clarity.
Thus, Kalen second main point concerning “all” is a faulty foundation.
Then there are larger issues concerning the reality of a final Judgment, a final choice being made, with no passage in the Bible ever delineating Kalen’s central doctrine of a second chance once in hell. Hebrews 9:27 says: “Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people.” According to Kalen’s religion, shouldn’t this passage have said “all” and not “many?” And if after the Judgment Day “all” people will be eventually saved, why is this idea not present?
In Revelation 20:10-15 it speaks of the devil, the beast and the false prophet being thrown into the lake of burning sulfur to be tormented day and night “for ever and ever” (tous aionas ton aionon). And so too for those whose names were not found in the book of life.
This lake of fire is later called the second death. In other words, as we look at the language of the Old and New Testaments, it speaks of Hades and other abodes of the dead, where people await the final Judgment. All of us, believers and nonbelievers, taste the first death. The second dearth is the actual hell. Only in Revelation 21, with the new heavens and the new earth is death finally abolished, not beforehand and not for those who chose hell.
In Revelation 22:15, with the new heavens and new earth in place, with the tree of life restored, we read of the New Jerusalem, the capitol of the new earth, that “Outside are the dogs (kunes), those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.”
Those outside love their falsehoods, and God gives us what and whom we love. This language is the finality of the Bible, as Revelation 20-22 sum up the redemptive completion of everything introduced in Genesis 1-3. There is no second chance after the second death.
In fact, not only does Kalen run into the danger of eating of the forbidden fruit from Genesis 2:17 as he redefines good and evil in redefining hell, but he also faces the danger of the apostle John’s final warning in 22:18-19: “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book. And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from his share in the tree of life and in his holy city, which are described in this book.”
Can Kalen show me, in the Book of Revelation, where the second death of hell is not an active and endless participle, rooted in the warning against the forbidden fruit: “In dying you shall continually die?” If not, then Kalen has taken words away from “the prophecy of this book.” Can Kalen show me where there is a second chance after the second death of hell, for people to repent and believe? If not, then he has added to the words of “the prophecy of this book.”
Kalen’s third main point is his use of 1 Peter 3:18-20 which speaks of the risen Christ preaching to the spirits of those who disobeyed the preaching of Noah. But nothing in the text says they believed even Jesus’s preaching, and also this preaching happens before the final Judgment, so there is no universal salvation in view. Then, in 2 Peter 3:6-7, the apostle says, in reference again to Noah’s Flood, that there is a coming “day of judgment and destruction (apoleias) of ungodly men.” Here the parallel between the judgment of the Flood and the final Judgment is made, there is no universal salvation, but there is a final destruction of the ungodly.
Thus, Kalen’s third main point has no substance.
As well, in his parable in Luke 16:19-31, Jesus speaks of “a great chasm [that] has been fixed” between heaven and hell. What basis in the biblical text ever says that such a chasm later becomes unfixed? Also, the final words of the text have Abraham speaking to the rich man in hell: “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ ”
Or, to put it another way, what new form of persuasion will God use after the second death he did not use beforehand? Kalen argues that people in hell will be eventually convinced, but Jesus shows human nature in the opposite light. The book of Revelation demonstrates a powerful escalation of God calling people to repentance, and they continually refuse, choosing instead “their murders, their magic arts, their sexual immorality (and) their thefts” (9:21). Choices made before the final Judgment are choices always being remade in the active participle of chosen death.
In sum, Kalen faces these obstacles:
- In the Bible, life and death are active participles; both are never ending.
- To redefine hell is to eat of the forbidden fruit, and it both takes away from and adds to the Book of Revelation; and
- He mistranslates the term for eternal, his chosen use of “all” does not equal universal salvation, especially as Jesus explicitly says “not all,” and 1 Peter 3 does not apply.
Finally, if Kalen’s religion is true, it does not matter how we live our lives. Live for the selfish moment, and once you enter hell, you can become “persuaded.” But if Kalen’s religion is wrong, then the consequences for those who believe in it are eternal.