. . . one may be assured that all over the world, Pastors of fundamentalist Churches are quite earnestly preaching that God is waiting to strike you down the moment you sin, and the lot of the lost is to suffer eternally in hell. Some even go as far as suggesting that as God takes perverse pleasure in the torment of the wicked, so also should we! Richard Baxter (1615 - 1691) was a Puritan of the 17th century, and has been described by Dean Stanley (1815 - 1881), Dean of Westminster as `the chief of the English Protestant Schoolmen'; is credited with describing his vision of hell in this way:
`Is it not a terrible thing to a wretched soul, when it shall lie roaring perpetually in the flames of hell, and the God of mercy himself shall laugh at them; when they shall cry out for mercy, yea, for one drop of water, and God shall mock them instead of relieving them; when none in heaven or earth can help them but God, and he shall rejoice over them in their calamity? Why, you see these are the very words of God himself in Scripture. And most just is it, that they who laughed at the sermon, and mocked at the preacher, and derided the people that obeyed the gospel, should be laughed at and derided by God.' (`The Practical Works of Richard Baxter', Vol. 3, 1838, p. 146.)
While it is entirely true that God is a God of justice, for sin will not be allowed to reign in creation forever, and thus corrupt the entire universe by reason of allowing sinners to live forever - to picture God as delighting in tormenting the wicked in eternal hell-fire maligns the character of God! For although the Bible repeatedly describes God as a God of infinite mercy Who has no pleasure in the death of the wicked, western civilization has become so accustomed to picturing God as the `Old Testament God of Vengeance and Hell-fire', that these theories are simply accepted, as God is seen as one who we must be appease if we do not wish to risk eternal damnation - which is precisely what the pagans believed! Thus, the idea that the knowledge that justice has been served by contemplating the endless torment of the wicked is perpetuated in the following hymn by Isaac Watts (1674 - 1748), who was an English theologian of the 18th century, and has been described as `The Father of English Hymnody':
` What bliss will fill the ransomed souls,
When they in glory dwell,
To see the sinner as he rolls,
In quenchless flames of hell. '
Sadly, the mindset which produces this type of theology is not confined to past centuries, as the following quote by the evangelical Lutheran Pastor Richard Wurmbrand (1909 - 2001) demonstrates:
`One such sufferer [in hell] may storm the heavens for a million years, and God will not answer back even with a drop of cool water for a parched tongue.' (`The Last Things: Resurrection, Judgment, Glory', D. Bloesch, p. 223.)
When seen in the context of agape, this doctrine sees God appropriating the characteristics of Lucifer, the `original sinner', for this type of so-called twisted `love for the sinner, but hating the sin' is absolutely appalling, for: `This means that for God to torment man in hell eternally, He would first have to raise him from the dead, give him the gift of eternal life, and only then consign him to the flames.' (`Hell No! A Fundamentalist Preacher Rejects Eternal Torment', F. Gilihan, 2011, p. 69.)
What type of `god' would gleefully resort to such malicious behaviour? But this is what we are to believe if we believe that the bodies of the wicked are reunited with their souls at the resurrection, so that they can then suffer eternal torment! Scripture teaches us that:
`Behold, I show you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible [earthly body] must put on incorruption, and this mortal [body] must put on immortality. So when this corruptible [body] shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal [body] shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, "Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your sting? O grave, where is your victory?" The sting of death is sin; and the strength [condemnation] of sin is the [knowledge of the] law [which is the Ten Commandments]. But thanks be to God, which gives us the victory [in overcoming sin] through our Lord Jesus Christ.' (1 Corinthians 15: 51 - 57.)
The orthodox fundamentalist interpretation of this passage is that the `corruptible' mortal body is raised and `changed', to an `incorruptible immortal body', where it most happily unites with the immortal soul which is waiting to receive it. The question is, why? Aren't the souls of the departed already happy in heaven? Or so we are led to believe. Why then, does the body need to be re-united with the soul? Is it so that the soul can be somehow made more perfect than it already is, as it dwells peacefully in its most happy abode? And why doesn't scripture inform us that when we die, our souls will then be waiting thousands of years in heaven before Jesus returns so that they can be reunited with the body, or is this merely an assumption which is made to support this doctrine? For if this doctrine is indeed true, then the only reason why Jesus will return, is so that our souls can be reunited with our bodies, so that our bodies can be saved! Which of course seems to be some sort of cosmic joke if it is indeed true, as the question must still be asked - `Why is this necessary, if our souls have already been saved?' It makes far more sense to believe that this interpretation of Scripture is instead a construct of neo-Platonism, which viewed the soul as desiring to be free from the corruption of the material body, which weighs it down and corrupts it with sinful desires. For as I have already stated, if this conception of heaven is indeed true, then it must be hell, for when I die, I certainly don't want to be watching my loved ones commit all sorts of stupid mistakes which I am powerless to prevent; for I would much rather rise from the grave, body and soul, when Jesus returns, to meet Him in the air! Unfortunately, the manner in which Genesis 2: 7 is usually translated has helped to propagate the myth of the body and soul being regarded as more or less separate entities which are re-united at the resurrection, as most Christians believe. The following statement is fairly typical of this belief, and would be considered to be orthodox by most Christians:
` "And he became a living soul - Gen. ii. 7."
Though the body die, and when it dies, the soul dies not; it survives the body, and not only lives after it, but lives forever, yet the soul without the body is not dead. When the body returns to the earth and dust, from whence it sprung, the soul returns to God, its immediate author: the body may be killed by men, but not the soul: no man has any power over that, none but God that made it: the soul is immortal, and is not capable of death, that is, in a natural and proper sense.' (`The Pulpit Assistant', T. Hannam,1818, p. 249.)
However, this ignores precisely how man came to be living soul! The entire verse reads thus:
`And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.' (Genesis 2: 7.)
The two operating words which define this text are `naphach', which means `breathed life into' (`the breath of life'), and `nephesh', which literally means `a breathing creature'. It would be far more accurate to translate Genesis 2: 7 as `and man became a living being':
`The Hebrew word most often translated into English as "soul" or "creature" in the Bible is nephesh. Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible succintly defines this word as a "breathing creature." When used in the Bible, nephesh does not mean a spirit entity or the spirit within a person. Rather, it usually means a physical, living, breathing creature. Occasionally it conveys a related meaning such as breath, life, or person. Surprising to many, this term nephesh is used to refer to human beings and animals. In the Old Testament, man is referred to as a "soul" (nephesh) more than 130 times. But the same Hebrew term is also applied to sea creatures, birds and land animals, including cattle and "creeping" creatures such as reptiles and insects. All are "souls".' (`Heaven or Hell', N. Sabir, 2010, p. 127.)
When the original Hebrew is taken into account, it refutes the strictly Platonic idea that we contain within ourselves some kind of vaporous soul which is set free upon the dissolution of our flesh at death. On a personal note, it also answers a question which has always bothered me, for I have often wondered if my puppies (Shetland Sheepdogs which are actually adult dogs - but they are still my puppies!), whom I love dearly, will also be resurrected when Christ returns, for if animals don't have souls, as is commonly believed - then how can they be resurrected? Will I ever see them again? But as the Bible describes the `animal soul' in precisely the same manner as the `human soul', then when the Scripture states: `The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.' (Isaiah 11: 6)
I can then be sure that my dear puppies will be re-united with me in heaven! As more people begin to understand that the Bible makes absolutely no differentiation between the souls of animals and the souls of men, and the soul was made from the dust of the ground and then became a living soul when Christ breathed into the nostrils of Adam, perhaps they might begin to treat animals a little more humanely. For when it comes to the doctrine of the natural immortality of the soul, this adage applies just as much to it as it does any other philosophy, which is - if you tell a lie often enough to enough people, eventually everyone not only believes it to be truth, but the lie appropriates a life of its own and becomes truth. Unless of course there is a record kept in heaven which denies this at the judgement!
The doctrine of the conditional immortality of the soul should not be confused with annihilationism which is a variation of the doctrine of the natural immortality of the soul: `According to these doctrines, there is no conscious existence at all, of the wicked after death. The two are one in their conception of the state of the wicked after death, but differ in a couple of fundamental points. Annihilationism teaches that man was created immortal, but that the soul, which continues in sin, is by a positive act of God deprived of the gift of immortality, and ultimately destroyed, or (according to some) forever bereaved of consciousness, which is practically equivalent to being reduced to non-existence. According to the doctrine of conditional immortality, on the other hand, immortality was not a natural endowment of the soul, but a gift of God in Christ to those who believe. The soul that does not accept Christ ultimately ceases to exist, or loses all consciousness. Some of the advocates of these doctrines teach a limited duration of suffering for the wicked in the future life, and thus retain something of the idea of positive punishment.' (`Systematic Theology', Louis Berkoff, 1996, p. 690.)
So we find that when one speaks of the conditional immortality of the soul, we mean death is like a dreamless sleep until the resurrection, at which the body and soul, are resurrected as an entire unit. Moreover, when we speak of the natural immortality of the soul, we mean that although the body is corporeal and can die, the soul was created immortal and incorporeal and cannot possibly die, and when we speak of annihilationism we mean that although the soul was intended to be immortal, it is deprived of its immortality because it continues in sin, which differentiates between the living being which has conditional immortality, as described in Genesis; by separating the body from the soul, as does the doctrine of the natural immortality of the soul and Platonists do. At its very basis, annihilationism is not far removed from the view that the soul is of divine origin, such as `natural immortality' teaches, except that because the soul continues in sin, then it is subject to judgment, and loses its divine status. The Biblical view of the conditional immortality of the soul completely refutes both positions, for immortality is conditional upon our acceptance of Christ as our Saviour. The Bible teaches that the soul is not and cannot be `naturally' immortal, or divine of its own right, for immortality is by definition solely the province of God - and we are not in the process of `realizing' our inherent divinity - no matter what purveyors of various so-called `New Age' philosophies think - which also permeates orthodox Christian thought on this matter! The doctrine of the `natural immortality of the soul' blasphemes the Creator, by positing that the creature is elevated by natural right to a position which is not far removed from the Creator Himself. Another problem which the doctrine of eternal torment in hell has, is that if we are to read the story of the rich man and Lazarus in a literal sense (Luke 16: 19 - 31), instead of regarding it as a parable, then when the wicked die they are consigned straight to hell, where they are tormented in flames forever. But what happens to their bodies? Scripture is silent about this, which is quite a problem, for as we have just seen, the righteous `in' Christ are raised body and soul at `the last trump' to meet Christ in the air, where the `corruptible' body and soul (i.e - person) puts on `incorruptibility'. And if my understanding of Revelation is correct, then at the end of the millennium, the wicked dead are raised body and soul from sleeping the sleep of `death' to be faced with the knowledge that they have rejected their Saviour, and they, death and the devil are cast into the lake of fire, at which they are destroyed and the effect of the eternal fire is eternal. They are truly dead and remain so for eternity! There is no more sin, no more death and the New Jerusalem then descends to this planet which is then perfected, when the `new heavens and new earth' are made. However, it should be born in mind that even this picture which John draws us of the `lake of fire' may be figurative, and just like a parable, in the sense that it could be an illustration to enlighten us with the idea that the final destination of the wicked is terrible - that they are raised only to cease to exist for eternity after they are faced with the knowledge that they have rejected their Saviour! The casting of them into `the lake of fire' may simply be given as an illustration for our benefit, so that we can understand that the rejection of Christ has some serious consequences; for we simply don't really know if the `lake of fire' is an illustration, or real! But the entire point is that the dead will cease to exist for eternity, for as God is the great giver of life, then there can be no life at all if we are separated from Him. So in one sense, the wicked bring about their own destruction, as they willingly choose separation from God. Separation from God results in eternal death, for there can be no life without Him.
My understanding of what happens to the dead after Christ returns, and the faithful rise out of their graves to meet Him in the air, is that the millennium begins at this point. During the thousand years of the millennium, the devil is chained to this earth so that he can no longer destroy anything, the righteous are in heaven in the New Jerusalem, and the wicked dead are judged so that there can be no question by anyone in the entire universe that Christ has done everything He could possibly do to save them, but they would not heed His voice. Thus God's character as a God of agape is vindicated, for the wicked truly deserve their fate, and sin will never raise its ugly head again. But that's just my interpretation. I could be wrong! But I don't think so. So if we are to interpret the story of the rich man and Lazarus in a literal sense, then either his body is never resurrected to be united with his soul - which is then consigned to eternal torment, or the body is resurrected with the soul at death, only to be consigned to the flames of hell for eternity, where it can be united with the soul which is already roasting in the fires of hell! But of course nobody has ever seen a body re-unite with the soul at death, have they? Perhaps it is instead a spiritual event which can't be seen? The mind boggles at the various conclusions this doctrine forces one to draw! So then, what does the parable of the rich man and Lazarus really teach? For one thing, it is the last of a set of parables. They are, in order:
The parable of the wedding feast (Luke chapter 14)
The parable of the prodigal son (Luke chapter 15)
The parable of the steward (Luke 16: 1 - 18)
The parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16: 19 - 31)
Critics of this position maintain that it cannot be a parable and is instead a literal story speaking of a literal hell, as the beginning of it does not clearly state that it is a parable; but instead begins `There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day.' Although this is a fair critique which certainly has merit, it should be borne in mind that not only does the style of writing indicate that it is indeed a parable, for all parables spoken of by Christ were recorded as stories to sharply illustrate a point in relation to the salvation of the individual (as does this parable), but it also directly follows three previous parables preceding it. The point of the story is that there are few rich men who will enter the kingdom of heaven, for they substitute earthly riches for heavenly riches, and ignore the poor. Christ then drives home the point that at the time of His future return, few will at that time believe that He is the Son of God, for though Moses and the prophets testified of Him, `neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead' (verse 31).
Fortunately, in recent years there has been a resurgence of thinking on this doctrine which is more Biblically based, as numerous scholars have begun to question the moral character of a `god' who allows anyone to suffer eternally, let alone delight in it:
`In recent years, numerous scholars have challenged the rationality of the traditional Christian doctrine hell (DH) - by which we mean that the doctrine that some created persons will endure suffering in alienation from God, or damnation. Critics of DH typically argue that, assuming the broad framework of Christian doctrine, God would have no reasons compatible with His moral character (what we call "God-justifying reasons") for permitting anyone to suffer eternally.' (`The Problem of Hell: An Philosophical Anthology', J. Buenting, 2010, p. 199.) Clearly, immortality is a gift which is bestowed upon us by Christ and is conditional upon our belief in Christ as our Saviour! But how did we ever arrive at a doctrine such as this which so maligns the character of God, that God is seen to appropriate the nature of the Devil himself? When it comes to Biblical doctrine, the answer, as always, lies in the halls of antiquity, for even Catholic scholars are beginning to take note and jump on the bandwagon! Father Joseph E. Kokjohn (1929 - 2009), who was a theologian of St. Ambrose College duly noted that: `There is no such phrase in Scripture as `immortal soul' or `immortality of the soul' or its equivalent; there is only the PROMISE of immortality.' (`A Hell of a Question', Commonweal, January 15, 1971, p. 368.)
Father Kokjohn then went on to say that pagan ideas infiltrated Christianity and resulted in men attempting `to interpret and explain Scripture in terms derived from Plato'. These pagan ideas were `inherited from Athens, not Jerusalem.'