In a recent letter to the editor, a writer declared he would not want to believe in a God “who threatens eternal punishment for anyone who questions the dogmas and tenets of the religion.”
And if “eternal punishment” implies being tormented in an eternally burning hell, I heartily agree. Neither could I love and worship a God like that.
But according to the Bible, that is not the kind of God who is in charge of the universe, nor does it accurately reflect the truth about hell.
Christians rightly claim to worship a God who has immense love for the inhabitants of this world (1 John 4:7.) The Bible says He gave His Son to die for them so they could live forever (John 3:16).
But throughout the history of Christianity, non-believers have been turned off by what they see as a great contradiction: This supposedly tender, loving God will, even with some delight and satisfaction, keep the rebellious and disobedient alive and burning in the fires of hell for eternity. And whether one is Christian, pagan or infidel, that just does not align with the most rudimentary definition of love.
Actually, the issue is not complicated. It has to do with a correct understanding of a few Bible words.
English versions of the Bible frequently use the word “hell” to translate the Hebrew word “sheol” and the Greek word “hades.”
But these words most often are referring to “the grave,” the place where the dead, both righteous and wicked, await in a state of unconsciousness until the day of their resurrection.
If the Bible writer wanted to be sure his readers understood he was referring to a place of fiery punishment for the impenitent, he used the Greek word “gehenna.”
So the word “hell” in the Bible does not always have the same meaning every time it is used, and a failure to make a proper distinction has not only led to great confusion, it has fostered a false concept of the character of God.
Someone is sure to point out that Jesus in His sermons often spoke of “everlasting fire,” “unquenchable fire,” and “everlasting punishment” (Matthew 25:41, 46; 3:12).
Doesn’t this contradict what we have just said? How can something or someone be “burned up” and still go on living and burning forever?
The mystery is easily resolved by following a simple rule: The object or person being described determines the meaning of “forever” words.
If describing God, there is no question but that forever is forever. He is the immortal God.
But when Jonah speaks of being in the belly of the great fish “forever” (Jonah 2:6), I would hope no one would go looking for him there today.
And when Paul counsels Philemon to be kind to his servant Onesimus “forever,” (Philemon 1:15), we instinctively know that that relationship is to continue as long as they both live.
Jesus is simply saying that the fires that consume the wicked will not be quenched until those individuals are “burned up” (Malachi 4:1).
In other words, it is the punishment, not the punishing, that is everlasting. The “wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23), not eternal life in hell.
To die does not mean to go on living in either heaven or hell. It means to rest in the grave until Jesus comes and calls the dead to life.
God is both loving and just. He has let us know that there is a heaven to win and a hell to shun. He invites us to prepare for that day when He “will wipe away every tear from our eyes,” the day when there will be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying ... for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).
There will be a “new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1) and its inhabitants will not be made uncomfortable by the smell of burning sulfur.
That’s not the kind of God the inspired writers knew.
Lee Roy Holmes, retired Seventh-day Adventist pastor. Pastors within the U-B circulation area who want to write a column should contact Catherine Hicks at 509-526-8312 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.