The renowned preacher, Jonathan Edwards, was not a man beset by doubts about the after-life. On 8th July, 1741, he gave an address, at Enfield, Conn., entitled: Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry God. In modern parlance, his sermon could be described as "full on".
Here is a flavour of what his congregation got:
" ... Whatever some have imagined and pretended about promises made to natural men's earnest seeking and knocking, it is plain and manifest, that whatever pains a natural man takes in religion, whatever prayers he makes, till he believes in Christ, God is under no manner of obligation to keep him a moment from eternal destruction.
"So that, thus it is that natural men are held in the hand of God, over the pit of hell; they have deserved the fiery pit, and are already sentenced to it; and God is dreadfully provoked; his anger is as great towards them as to those that are actually suffering the executions of the fierceness of his wrath in hell, and they have done nothing in the least to appease or abate that anger, neither is God in the least bound by any promise to hold them up one moment; the devil is waiting for them, Hell is gaping for them; the flames gather and flash about them, and would fain lay hold on them, and swallow them up; the fire pent up in their own hearts is struggling to break out, and they have no interest in any mediator, there are no means within reach that can be any security to them. In short, they have no refuge, nothing to take hold of; all that preserves them every moment is the mere arbitrary will, and uncovenanted, unobliged forbearance of an incensed God."
And later, unbelievers are given this characterisation of their standing with God. Edwards tells them:
"The God that holds you over the pit of Hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours."
Now, clearly, this sermon was preached a long time ago, but there are many leaders in today's evangelical church who claim to have been influenced by his writings.
Indeed, if you feel so inclined, you can find even more extreme attempts to put the unbeliever on notice about what, supposedly, awaits them in Hell: there are churches and ministries in the U.S. who put on weekends in "Hell Houses" where children can be kept on the straight and narrow by experiencing simulations of what hell is deemed to be like; and there is Brother R.G. Stair, who styles himself 'The Last Day Prophet Of God'. Head of a Christian commune and a world-wide radio ministry based in South Carolina, he has claimed that if you loiter in the vicinity of a volcano, you can often hear the screams of the damned as they undergo their endless punishment.
We should not doubt the sincerity, dedication and faithfulness which motivated Jonathan Edwards to speak as he did. The fact is, though, that what he said in this sermon does not accord with Scripture. There is certainly no basis for his theology in the Concordant Version, but neither is there any substantial foundation for it in the versions of the Bible generally favoured by Christendom.
To put the matter bluntly, Hell is a fallacy. It should be discussed as a concept, not a fact. Its origin and development are entirely outside Scripture. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Christendom's attachment to the notion has deceived many millions of believers, and has distorted their understanding of God's Word. David tells us, in the twelfth psalm, that the Scriptures are 'Seven times refined'. Clearly, if something so pure is contaminated with an ingredient of man's wisdom, the result is something very impure indeed: a fallacy has become a premise, on which an edifice of subsequent fallacies has been built.
The fallacy of the Trinity developed in a similar way, and has also spawned terrible results. T.E. Lawrence wrote an autobiography of his time as a soldier which he entitled: The Seven Pillars Of Wisdom. Perhaps we could call the fallacies of Hell and the Trinity the twin pillars of ignorance.
So, in pursuit of the wish to show the notion of Hell up for what it is, let's have a brief look at where it came from, and what Christendom has done with it.
In fact, the concept exists in numerous religious traditions. Egyptologists have uncovered a vast quantity of texts from the ancient history of that country. Many of them, unsurprisingly, relate to religion, and there is plenty of writing on the after-life. It's clear that beliefs developed which claimed that those who erred during this life would be consigned to a miserable, and permanent, existence after death.
This kind of tradition re-surfaced in Greek mythology and philosophy. Some leaders of the early church maintained that the work of various Greek philosophers should be accorded the same status as the Bible, so it is hardly surprising that some elements of their understanding of the after-life persisted.
Indeed, we do need to be careful when we find doctrines being supported by reference to "the early church": the existence of a particular belief, at that time, does not, in itself, constitute a sufficient reason for its acceptance now. For instance, some scholars argue that there were those in the early church who believed in reincarnation. The evidence seems tenuous.
The point is, though, that even if it became clear that the early church was riddled with this belief, nothing should follow from it for our own understanding of God's Word: only Scripture - and all of it - is inspired by God. Hell and reincarnation are not among its teachings.
Moving forward a few more centuries, we find that Christendom's concept of Hell also has obvious roots in Pagan Europe, particularly within the Anglo-Saxon period. A version of the word 'Hell' can be traced back to the eighth century. It referred, specifically, to an underworld inhabited by the dead.
What is particularly interesting, though, is that this word evolved from a Proto-Germanic word: "Halja". It meant: 'One who covers up, or hides something'. As such, this meaning clearly bears a resemblance to the term: "The unseen". This phrase is used in God's Word. Rarely, though, is it used in the writings and sermons of Christendom.
Effectively, then, the word "Hell", and the meaning ascribed to it by so many of today's preachers, stems from the origins we have looked at, and was shipped into Christendom in that form. It was understood entirely in terms of everlasting punishment for sins committed during earthly existence, and no extremities of horror and gloom were too great to be read into the concept. The theology of Jonathan Edwards is clearly in the same tradition.
If the existence of Hell was taught in Scripture, then, of course, believers would have to accept it. But it isn't. The fact is that, if you examine the beliefs of the major religions of the world, the place where Hell, or something similar, is most conspicuously absent, is the Bible.
But we can, of course, go much further than this: Scripture refutes Hell. Indeed, its negation is staring us in the face. If we look at Ecclesiastes 9:10, we find these words:
"All that your hand finds to do, do with your vigour, for there is no doing, or devising, or knowledge, or wisdom, in the unseen, where you are going."
Some simple and fundamental truths are being stated here. We learn that, following our death, we await our resurrection in the unseen. While we do so, we are clearly not in a state of everlasting agony. We remain dead, knowing nothing. It is obvious that, if we knew anything at all at this point, we would have to be alive to know it.
A theology of hell is explicitly refuted throughout the Bible, but this single statement from the Old Testament does the job on its own. No mention, here, of fiery pits and the devil poised to deal with the unbeliever.
Christendom does not accept this, of course, and denies teaching from Paul's Evangel which is entirely consistent with the statement. At 1 Corinthians 15:53, Paul says:
"For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal put on immortality."
Clearly, if incorruption and immortality are aspects of our being which we are going to 'put on', then they do not currently pertain, though God has, of course, pre-ordained their occurrence. The same point is exemplified earlier in the same chapter. At verse 21 we read:
"For since, in fact, through a man came death, through a man, also, comes the resurrection of the dead. For even as, in Adam, all are dying, thus also, in Christ, shall all be vivified."
We are to be vivified, or made alive. We must necessarily be dead, before we are "made alive."
Regardless of all this evidence, though, week by week, in churches across the world, sermons are preached on Hell. They contradict Scripture, and often themselves. They focus on a place which does not exist and is never mentioned in Scripture.
They further exceed credibility by suggesting that believers and unbelievers are assigned straight to Heaven or Hell respectively, upon their death, only to be summoned for judgement at some later time, before being sent back to whichever domain they were passing eternity in anyway. This is, of course, absurd, but it is what happens when Scripture is mixed with other traditions.
I heard a sad example of the practical effects that can arise from this distorted understanding some years ago. Rico Tice is a minister at All Souls, Langham Place. He is also involved in work with The Universities And Colleges Christian Fellowship. On this occasion, he was giving a talk to student leaders of that organisation. He began by saying that, the following day, he would be having lunch with his father. He asked them to pray about this, because his father was not a Christian. As things stood, his father was destined to go to Hell.
The situation Tice describes is tragic in several ways. His understanding dishonours God, because it is unbiblical. Nevertheless, similar instances occur thousands of times every day. But Rico Tice is a keen student of the Word of God, a faithful believer, and fervently committed to doing the Lord's work.
Yet, consider the peace and comfort which are unavailable to him because of his flawed understanding! Fleshly concerns about his father haunt his thoughts because he subscribes to an understanding which is not centred solidly on God's Word. He is clearly not experiencing what it says in Philippians 4:7:
"The peace that is superior to every frame of mind".
The tragedy of Tice's understanding goes even further though. His theology cannot truthfully answer the question posed in the title of this talk: Where Are We Going? The Gospel he preaches does not answer that question either for unbelievers, or for himself. Rico Tice cannot testify to the grand truth that, ultimately, God will be "All In All".
Those who preach Hell, whether using the 'fire and brimstone' approach of Jonathan Edwards, or the more measured statements of Rico Tice, are preaching a failed God, and one without a purpose. Far from witnessing to a God who will be "All in all", they testify, in effect, to a God who will be "Nothing in most".
Scripture is clear that those of us who are believers were chosen to be such, by God, before the disruption. He reveals Himself to us, at whatever point in our lives he has ordained, in accord with His will and purpose. Clearly, we can deduce from this the fact that there will be believers who have known nothing of God until they receive His revelation.
As for death, the nearest that many non-believers ever get to thinking about it is a vague hope that it isn't the end. For a hard-core atheist, in today's ephemeral and materialistic world, there seems little evidence that we will "Put on immortality". They are more likely to settle for the dictum of Dad's Army's Private Fraser: "We are all doomed".
Even earnest exploration will never uncover the truth, without divine revelation. The argument known as Pascal's Wager provides evidence of this fact. Blaise Pascal lived during the seventeenth century. He was a philosopher, mathematician and physicist. Clearly, then, he was endowed with a lofty intellect, and he spent much of his life applying it. Paul was also gifted with a towering intellect, but he only gave us truth which had been divinely revealed to him. Pascal shows us the inadequacy of man's wisdom. His intellectual explorations were a waste of time and energy, in pursuit of something he would never understand without divine revelation.
Essentially, Pascal's argument asserts that we all lead our lives as if we are making a bet: that God either does, or does not, exist. He says that it is at least possible that God does exist. If he does, then we had better assume that we will gain through believing in Him, and lose if we don't. It must follow that, if you consider the matter rationally, there is only one way to go: you should live your life as if God does exist; indeed, it's best to persuade yourself that He actually does.
If, in reality, there is no God, then, admittedly, your bet may have cost you something: you may have led a more disciplined and less indulgent life than you would have liked.
But the argument asserts that this is worth doing: you maximize your chance of getting the best possible deal from any God that may exist, in the after-life. In today's parlance, it is a 'risk averse' approach to death.
Now, inevitably, scholars continue to pore over this argument, analyzing, refining or rejecting it. The only lesson it contains for us as believers, though, is that we will only understand God's Word if He has revealed Himself to us.
Let's now go back to the sermon from Jonathan Edwards. It is not a difficult matter to measure his claims against Scripture. As many of today's church leaders claim a historic debt to him, and are therefore taking his theology to their flocks, it is worth doing so.
Clearly, the title of Edwards's sermon: Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry God, is not one calculated to give comfort. And if we look to its content, where are some of the central attributes of the God we know: would a stranger to God's Word think that Edwards was preaching about a God of love; a God of transcendent grace; and a God who will, ultimately, be "All in all"? He tells unbelievers that God is "incensed" with them; that He is holding them over the pit of Hell, and that He finds them 'abominable' in the extreme.
An unbeliever who was also uninformed would not learn that God has created everything, and that the unbeliever is, therefore, a divine creation.
The profound truth that "All is of God", is stated, without qualification, by Paul at 2 Corinthians 5:18:
"Yet all is of God, who conciliates us to Himself through Christ, and is giving us the dispensation of the conciliation."
And Paul makes the same point at Romans 11:33-36. Here, he also captures the fact that any notion of Hell is a dishonouring and foolish limitation on God's omnipotence:
"0, the depth of the riches and the wisdom and the knowledge of God! How inscrutable are His judgments, and untraceable His ways! For, who knew the mind of the Lord? Or, who became His adviser? Or, who gives to Him first, and it will be repaid him? Seeing that out of Him and through Him and for Him is all: to Him be the glory for the eons! Amen!"
But the truth that "All is of God", runs through the Bible, both in the Old Testament and the New. At the very beginning of John's Gospel we read:
"In the beginning was the Word, and the word was toward God, and God was the Word. This was in the beginning, toward God. All came into being through it, and apart from it not even one thing came into being which has come into being."
And long before God inspired John and Paul to write as they did, He declared this truth through the prophet Isaiah. At Isaiah 46:9 we find these words:
"Remember the first things from the eon, for I am the AI, and there is no further Alueim, and the limit is as Me. Telling the beginning, the hereafter, and from aforetime, what has not yet been done. Saying, 'All my counsel shall be confirmed, and all My desire will I do.'"
It's clear, then, that the word "all" is of profound importance throughout Scripture. Historically, though, Christendom has been unable to deal with it without qualifying it. Even the teaching we have just considered: that "All is of God", is truncated: it is claimed that evil cannot be part of his creation, despite his clear declaration, through Isaiah in chapter 45, that it is.
Perhaps we should not be surprised, then, that Christendom also feels it necessary to qualify the blessing of salvation. The fact is, though, that "all" does mean "all", unless it is qualified in Scripture. In underlining this point, I am indebted to John Essex for the observation that the phrase: "almost all" only appears in God's Word once. It is at Hebrews 9:22, where we read:
"And almost all is being cleansed in blood according to the law, and apart from bloodshedding is coming no pardon."
Having shown that "All is of God", we can dismiss another fallacy which obstructs the acceptance that he can ever be "all in all".
Many in Christendom claim that Hell is a domain separated entirely from God. It's a useful claim if you can't accept that evil is created by God: it means that the unbeliever and the evil-doer can, in the after-life, be left to Satan to deal with. As we have seen, this contradicts the facts of Scripture. However, it also contradicts the logic of Scripture. If one being, let alone countless millions of them, can be placed in a state of everlasting separation from God, then, clearly, it can never be claimed that "all is of God", or that He can be "all in all".
I shall just give one example of how erroneous Bible translation has become a vehicle for this distorted understanding. The psalms of David testify to the profound revelation God had given him. Let's look at Psalm 139:8. In the King James Version, we read:
"If I ascend up into heaven, Thou art there: if I make my bed in Hell, behold, Thou art there."
The same passage in the Concordant Version, of course, is clear, coherent and consistent with the rest of God's Word. The CV rendering is this:
"If I should climb to the heavens, You are there, and should I make my berth in the unseen, behold, You are there."
Now, as we have noted, any theology which accepts everlasting punishment for unbelievers denies that God is capable of fulfilling His purpose, and indeed that He has one at all. Furthermore, if God has failed, so has His Son. Christendom claims that Christ came to earth to save us all. On its own logic, though, it has to accept that His mission has been an abject failure: the vast majority of those Christ came to save - countless millions of them - will not receive salvation, and will never complete the punishment to which they are then condemned.
As we have seen, this entire conceptual structure comes from outside Scripture, but we can point to some Bible passages which many believers like to use as hooks on which to hang this understanding. I shall site a couple of these instances. Both of them are among the most famous passages of Scripture, well-known inside and outside the ecclesia, and both are from John's Gospel.
The first is Christ's own statement at John 14:6:
"I am the way and the truth and the life. No-one is coming to the Father except through me."
Any genuinely convicted believer knows this truth. It is not simply a statement of fact; it is a spiritual matter. It applies to believers in the "Here and now", in a tangible sense, but it applies no less to atheists and those of other faiths. Nowhere, though, is damnation, or condemnation, mentioned in this text.
The other passage I want to note is the statement at John 3:16. It is used throughout today's church as a knee-jerk statement of Christendom's view of salvation. It is, nevertheless, misunderstood. The CV rendering of John 3: 16-18 is this:
"For thus God loves the world, so that He gives his only-begotten Son, that everyone who is believing in Him should not be perishing, but may be having life eonian. For God does not dispatch His Son into the world that He should be judging the world, but that the world may be saved through Him. He who is believing in Him is not being judged; yet he who is not believing has been judged already, for he has not believed in the name of the only-begotten Son of God."
Now, this is clearly a fundamental text. Distinctions are made between the believer and the unbeliever. The simple point I want to make here, though, concerns the use of the word 'world'. It's mentioned four times in these verses. God loves the world, not just some of us. He sent His Son into the world, so that the world - meaning all of us - would be saved. God planned that His Son would be made flesh; He planned that salvation would be achieved through His Son. God did not send His Son to earth with a set of conditions, or to negotiate. God planned the outcome, and by His grace, we have all been saved.
At 1 John 4:16: we are told that "God is love". He is not merely capable of love; He does not have to be placated into kindness, like the gods of some other religions - and indeed the God which Blaise Pascal envisioned.
God has a goal, a purpose: that he will be "All in all". It is a purpose which comes out of the ineffable love he has for us. As such, it is clearly not based on earthly concepts of reward and punishment. Let's look at what Paul says at 1Timothy 4:9:
"Faithful is the saying and worthy of all welcome (for for this are we toiling and being reproached), that we rely on the living God, who is the saviour of all mankind, especially of believers."
Believers constitute the ecclesia. As such, we have a specific and glorious part in God's purpose; we are an instrument in the achievement of that purpose, through his son. This is declared, resoundingly, at Colossians 1:16-20 where Paul writes:
"For in Him is all created, that in the heavens and that on the earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones, or lordships, or sovereignties, or authorities, all is created through Him and for Him, and He is before all, and all has its cohesion in Him. And He is the head of the body, the ecclesia, who is sovereign, firstborn from among the dead, that in all He may be becoming first, for in Him the entire complement delights to dwell, and through Him to reconcile all to Him (making peace through the blood of His cross), through Him, whether those on the earth or those in the heavens."
Christendom understands our earthly existence as a preparation for a state of everlasting punishment for unbelievers, or of never-ending rejoicing for those of us who - as they see it - made the right decision and became believers. This passage proclaims the truth of universal reconciliation. But it has more to say to us in the body of Christ. The work which Christ began on the cross is a truth we must witness to in the here and now. But, in accord with God's purpose, through Christ, we will witness to it "in the heavens" as well, beyond our death.
Incidentally, I recently heard a recording of a talk, given at the Keswick Convention, which offered a sad reflection on the understanding of this passage in today's church: a prominent evangelist spoke specifically on these verses. In an extraordinary feat of theological mangling, he applied them entirely to our earthly ministry: he said they were a call to Christians to work to make Christ pre-eminent in everyone's life now.
It will come as no surprise that the same preacher also described those of us who believe in universal reconciliation as: "a tiny minority report in the church, and rightly so". How blessed we are that God has given us the revelation of truth which we have in universal reconciliation.
Ephesians contains the core of the revelation Paul was divinely inspired to give us. Right at the outset of this letter, at Ephesians 1:3-12, Paul links together God's purpose, and the roles which are being fulfilled in it, by Christ and the ecclesia. Paul writes:
"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Who blesses us with every spiritual blessing among the celestials, in Christ, according as He chooses us in Him, before the disruption of the world, we to be holy and flawless in his sight, in love designating us beforehand for the place of a son for Him through Christ Jesus; in accord with the delight of His will, for the laud of the glory of His grace, which graces us in the beloved: in Whom we are having the deliverance through His blood, the forgiveness of offences in accord with the riches of His grace, which He lavishes on us; in all wisdom and prudence making known to us the secret of His will (in accord with His delight, which he purposed in Him) to have an administration of the complement of the eras, to head up all in the Christ - both that in the heavens and that on the earth - in Whom our lot was cast also, being designated beforehand according to the purpose of the one who is operating all in accord with the counsel of His will, that we should be for the laud of His glory, who are pre-expectant in the Christ."
The ecclesia has a uniquely important, and uniquely blessed, place in God's purpose. But no-one has been left out of that purpose; no-one has been barred from receiving salvation. Let's look at what Paul says in a passage from chapter 15 of 1 Corinthians. This chapter is sometimes known as "The Resurrection chapter". It's a phrase which is far more appropriate than most believers understand. At verses 22-28, Paul writes:
"For, even as, in Adam, all are dying, thus also, in Christ, shall all be vivified. Yet each in his own class: the Firstfruit, Christ; thereupon those who are Christ's in His presence; thereafter the consummation, whenever He may be giving up the kingdom to His God and Father, whenever he should be nullifying all sovereignty and all authority and power. For he must be reigning until He should be placing all His enemies under His feet. The last enemy is being abolished: death. For He subjects all under His feet. Now whenever He may be saying that all is subject, it is evident that it is outside of Him Who subjects all to Him. Now, whenever all may be subjected to Him, then the Son Himself also shall be subjected to Him who subjects all to Him, that God may be all in all."
Now, clearly, when we study a passage of scripture, we should look to the meaning of the words which constitute it. We should also keep in mind the words which precede and follow the passage, to understand its context, and the relevance which that has for its meaning.
If we do that in this case, Christendom's view of life after death, and of salvation, is shown to be nonsensical. Verse 22 declares that all die, and that all will be made alive in Christ. Christendom accepts that all die, but twists the rest of the verse to assert that only those who are "In Christ" will be made alive.
Verses 23-24 of this passage set out the way in which the resurrection will unfold. This is a glorious revelation. Traditional understanding, though, can only make any sense if these verses are completely ignored.
The final verses of this passage tell us of the completion of Christ's work. Christ will abdicate his position, and all will be subject, finally, to God. If this were not the case, God could never be "All in all".
And I shall just make one more point on this passage: it makes the relationship between God and His Son explicit; it makes Christ's role in His Father's purpose specific. But, if God and His Son are co-equal persons, in a Trinitarian God-head, this passage cannot possibly be true.
But, thank God, it is true. So, as we draw to a close, let's look at the marvellous implications of this passage. When God is "All in all", Caligula, Hitler, Saddam Hussein and all the other monstrous tyrants we can think of, as well as all those who worship other gods or none, will be indwelt by the one true God. That applies to Judas, and it applies to Satan.
The traditional understanding sees Judas Iscariot as an aberration. He is seen as betraying Christ entirely for his own ends. Christ is depicted as having triumphed in spite of Judas. But the life of Judas was foretold in the psalms of David; his act of betrayal was foreknown by Christ Himself. He was instrumental in bringing Christ to the cross, and therefore in God's purpose. Read chapter 6 of John's Gospel: at verse 70, Jesus says:
"Do not I choose you, the twelve, and one of you is an adversary?"
And in the next verse, the narrative continues:
"Now He said it of Judas, son of Simon Iscariot, for this man was about to give Him up, being one of the twelve."
And what of Satan? At Luke 22:3, we find this narrative:
"Yet Satan entered into Judas, called Iscariot, being of the number of the twelve."
Judas was not an aberration, and nor was the adversary. As we have seen, nothing can ever come into being which is not part of God's creation, and within His purpose. That fact applies to Satan, as much as it does to everything else. At John 8:44, Christ says that Satan "was a man-killer from the beginning". And at I. John 3:8, we find these words:
"Yet he who is doing sin is of the adversary, for from the beginning is the adversary sinning. For this was the Son of God manifested, that He should be annulling the acts of the adversary."
Satan is the most evil being ever to have come into existence. God created him to be exactly that. Scripture refutes the understanding that he is a 'fallen angel'. In accordance with His purpose, God created Satan to do the evil over which Christ was pre-ordained to triumph. The betrayal of Christ by Judas was an essential part of that purpose, as was Satan's part in placing the idea in the mind of Judas.
And yet, eventually, God will be "All in all", including Judas Iscariot, and including Satan.
We have seen that, as believers, we have a unique answer to the question:
"Where are we going?"
It is unique in two respects: firstly, it has nothing in common with the answers offered by other religions and philosophies. But secondly, and far more importantly, our answer is unique because it comes from God's Word; it is therefore true.
We have also seen that, for God, love is not just a virtue, a quality He displays to those He deems suitable to receive it. God is love. As believers, we have the assurance that His creation came into being out of that love. The facts are that, through Christ, we have all been saved; we will all be brought together in universal reconciliation.
Jonathan Edwards was much mistaken in his theology. He will know this, and will relish the fact that he was so wrong. For the first time, and for evermore, we will all know and love God as He knows and loves us. God will be "All in all".
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