So what is a four-letter word? The dictionary definition is, “Any of a number of short words that are considered to be offensive or vulgar.”
During my 67 years as a serious Christian, 60 of which have been as a pastor, the Bible’s four-letter word has always been the same, HELL (the English word for the place of punishment for the wicked dead). It is translated from the word Gehenna. The Hebrew word, Sheol, and its Greek equivalent, Hades, are mistranslated in some versions as Hell, but speak of a different place.
Another Bible “letter word,” this time a three-letter word, is SIN (breaking of God’s law). It is related to hell because it is what puts the unrepentant sinner in hell. Sin is usually attached to a transient pleasure, but has a terrible consequence.
Still another Bible “letter word,” this time a five-letter word, is SAVED, about which Acts 16:30, 31 speaks, “And he (the Philippian jailer) brought them (Paul and Silas) out and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ So they said, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household.’”
The last Bible “letter word” that we will consider, this time a six-letter word, is HEAVEN, the place to which Christians are saved to experience eternal life.
The true Church has always associated these four Bible “letter words” in this way: (note that arranging them in the numerical order of their letters, they are in the proper order of experience):
- SIN-All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23) and The wages of sin is death (spiritual death=hell), but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:23);
- HELL-The place where people are sent to be punished if they have not been;
- SAVED by receiving and believing in Jesus. “But as many as received Him (Jesus), to them He (God, the Father) gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His (Jesus) name.” (John 1:12) When such ones (Christians) die they go to;
- HEAVEN, the place Jesus is even now preparing. “Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also.” (John 14:1-3) Glory to God! Hallelujah!
Now that we have seen the Bible’s four-letter word in context with the other Bible letter words, we will focus on the four-letter word per the title of this essay.
During the centuries the true Church has traditionally held that the duration of punishment for unrepentant sinners in hell was eternal, corresponding to eternal life in heaven for the repentant. Think of it! In hell the unrepentant sinner would suffer conscious torment forever and ever, without an end! No wonder the doctrine of hell is the most unpopular teaching in the Bible, and no wonder hell is the Bible’s four-letter word!
The world has always mocked the idea that a loving God could devise and enforce such a heinous punishment. It was probably the doctrine of hell that prompted Mark Twain to write, “Our Bible reveals to us the character of our god with minute and remorseless exactness…It is perhaps the most damnatory biography that exists in print anywhere. It makes Nero an angel of light and leading by contrast (with God).” (Reflections on Religion, 1906)
From when I first became a Christian I knew that there was a hell, because the Bible plainly teaches it, and mankind’s conduct demands it. But I could never stomach that it would last forever-to never end! First John 4:8 states that God is love, and the Bible portrays God over and over as being perfectly just. I could not believe that such a God would impose an eternal punishment for sins committed during a lifetime usually lasting less than a hundred years.
I began to search the scriptures to see if the traditional position on the duration of hell could be wrong. Here are some of the things I found:
- Over and over the Bible says that every human will be judged by God according to his/her works, the most important of which is the final judgment, Revelation 20:11, 12 “Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away. And there was found no place for them. And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and books were opened. And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books.” From this it is obvious that there should be huge differences in the sentences to hell, as there will be huge differences between the works of the various ones being judged. It would seem that to accommodate these differences the sentences would vary in severity or length or, most likely, both;
- The “Gospel in a nutshell,´John 3:16, says, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish* but have everlasting life.” (*Go to a hell that ends in death? Dictionary: Perish-to die, pass away, disappear);
- 2 Thesselonians 1:9, “These (the unsaved) shall be punished with everlasting destruction* from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power” (*Dictionary: the condition of being put to an end, or killed);
With these and other scriptures in mind, I envisioned a scenario something like this:
- At the great white throne judgment (Rev. 20:11, 12) the unrepentant sinner, in a resurrected body, is judged according to his/her works;
- A sentence to hell for a length of time and to the degree of severity appropriate to those works would be pronounced. The sentence in hell would begin;
- At the end of the sentence, the person, body and soul, would perish per John 3:16, or in other words, be killed by God (cf Mark 10:28, Jesus speaking, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.”) and would cease to exist.
Somehow I was not aware of it, but I recently discovered that many Christians over the centuries have believed what I just described as my own belief, and that there is a name for this position, Conditional Immortality. This discovery came as I read a book written by Dr. David Reagan entitled “ETERNITY (HEAVEN OR HELL?).” On page 105 I came to a discussion under this heading, The Duration of Hell.
The first paragraph under this heading describes the traditional view, already discussed above. But the second paragraph is what caught my attention-“Another point of view—the one I hold—takes the position that immortality is conditional, depending upon one’s acceptance of Christ. I believe the Bible teaches the unrighteous will be resurrected, judged, punished in hell for a period of time proportional to their sins, and then suffer destruction (the death of body and soul).”
Ahah! I am not alone. This position, which I have long hopefully held, Dr. Reagan claims as his own. I was struck by the last paragraph on page 108 of his book, “My first difficulty with the traditional view is that it seems to impugn the character of God. I kept asking myself, ‘How could a God of grace, mercy and love torment the vast majority of humanity eternally?’ It did not seem to me to be either loving or just. I realize He is a God of righteousness, holiness and justice, but is eternal suffering justice? The concept of eternal torment seems to convert the true God of justice into a cosmic sadist.” Well said, Dr. Reagan!
Note, this essay regards only the duration of the unrepentant sinner’s punishment in hell-both Dr. Reagan and I agree with the other aspects of the Traditional position on hell.
The question then presents itself, “If the Conditional Immortality interpretation is correct, how come the Traditional interpretation ever came into being?”
The cornerstone of the Traditional position is the belief that the human soul is immortal, which was held by the Greek philosophers, especially Plato. Early Church fathers, such as Origen (185-254 AD), and Augustine (354-430 AD), were admirers of Plato, and adopted the idea that the human soul is immortal.
Richard Tarnas, in his best-seller The Passion of the Western Mind, points to this influence: “… It was Augustine’s formulation of Christian Platonism that was to permeate virtually all of medieval Christian thought in the West. So enthusiastic was the Christian integration of the Greek spirit that Socrates and Plato were frequently regarded as divinely inspired pre-Christian saints …” (1991, p. 103, emphasis mine).
Thus the false doctrine of Greek philosophy became Church dogma despite Paul’s clear teaching to the contrary in 1 Timothy 6:13-16, “I urge you in the sight of God who gives life to all things, and before Christ Jesus who witnessed the good confession before Pontius Pilate, that you keep this commandment without spot, blameless until our Lord Jesus Christ’s appearing, which He will manifest in His own time, He who is the blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality (emphasis mine), dwelling in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see, to whom be honor and everlasting power. Amen.”
God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are the only Ones who are inherently immortal, at least in the God/human sphere. The human, body, soul and spirit, as created, is not immortal. Yet it is possible for a human to become immortal:
- Romans 2:5-8 “But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. 6 God will give to each person according to what he has done. 7 To those who by persistence in doing good seek* glory, honor and immortality*, he will give eternal life*. 8 But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger.” *Note, the repentant ones Paul was speaking to didn’t have immortality, but were seeking it. They got it, eternal life;
- 1 Corinthians 15:51-54 “Behold, I tell 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 trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’” This occasion is, of course, the rapture of the Church, cf 1 Thes. 4:16-18. Up until the rapture, the souls of the Christians were still mortal, but in the process of the rapture they put on immortality;
- 2 Timothy 1:8-10 “Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me His prisoner, but share with me in the sufferings for the gospel according to the power of God,who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began, but has now been revealed by the appearing of our Savior* Jesus Christ, who has abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” *Again referring to the rapture. Note that immortality was not brought to light until it was given to those who had responded to the Gospel and received Jesus as savior and Lord;
- The only places immortality is mentioned in the New Testament are those cited above. There is no mention of immortality for anyone but the true Christians. The unbelievers remain mortal–subject to death. Hence the title, “Conditional Immortality”- – – – -immortality is given to a person only on the condition of that person being a born-again Christian.
Where Do The Dead Go?
Pre-Hell-Jesus was telling the story of the rich man and Lazarus in chapter 16 of Luke. Verses 22 and 23 address this question for those who died before He was crucified, “So it was that the beggar died (and his body was buried), and (his soul) was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and (his body) was buried. And (his soul), being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.” (Words in italics supplied to clarify the narrative) We learn from these words of Jesus:
- Whether righteous or wicked, It is the body of the person that dies and which is buried in the ground and decays, or “sees corruption;”
- It is the soul (non-material part) of the person that consciously continues on;
- The souls of both the righteous and wicked persons are transported to Hades (Greek for the “place of the dead,” mistranslated as Hell in the King James Version);
- The soul of the righteous person is taken to the portion of Hades called “Abraham’s bosom,” a place of blessing. All those in Abraham’s bosom would constitute a “captivity” (in a good sense) until after Jesus was crucified and rose from the dead. Ephesians 4:7 & 8 tell what happens then-“But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore He (God) says: “When He (Jesus) ascended on high, He led captivity (those in Abraham’s bosom) captive (as His own redeemed to heaven), and gave gifts to men.”
- The soul of the wicked person is taken to another portion of Hades called torments, to await the Great White Throne judgment where his/her sentence to Hell will be pronounced (Revelation 20:11, 12);
- The three places above are all temporary: the dead bodies will be resurrected from the graves; the righteous in the Abraham’s bosom portion of Hades have already been taken to heaven; the wicked in the torments portion of Hades will be sentenced to hell.
Hell proper-Also known as the lake of fire. Jesus, having divided mankind into the righteous, on his right hand, and the wicked, on his left hand, is pronouncing judgment on the wicked: Matthew 25:41 “Then He will also say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels.’” Note:
- This place of punishment was prepared for the devil and his angels, before man existed;
- The occasion was when Lucifer (Light bearer, Morning Star), an arch-angel, rebelled against God and seduced one third of the angels to join his rebellion, whereupon he became Satan, the devil, that old serpent, and the angels that followed him became “his angels,” whom we know as demons;
- The rebels suffered an immediate judgment of broken fellowship with God and the loyal angels;
- The lake of fire was prepared as a punishment appropriate for the devil and his angels’ terrible sin against the God who created them and blessed them with His own presence in heaven;
- At the end time judgments the devil and his angels would be thrown into the lake of fire and suffer its torment forever;
- Though it was not intended for them, when mankind joined the devil in his rebellion against God, the lake of fire was already available to be man’s punishment also. Though the fire itself would endure forever (to torment the devil and his angels for ever), individual humans would spend varying times in that fire (the length of their sentences) then perish (be killed, cease to exist = everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power (2 Thes. 1:9);
- Being cast into the lake of fire is labeled “the second death” four times in the book of Revelation: Rev. 2:11, Rev. 20:6, Rev. 20:14, 15 and Rev. 21:8. Death is a terminating word, not a word indicatng something going on forever. The first death is the death of the body, to be followed by judgment (Heb. 9:27 (. . . . it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment.) The second death is the death of the resurrected body and the soul in the process of serving out the sentence pronounced at the judgment.
Final considerations-Two passages, one spoken by Jesus during His earthly ministry, the other by an angel about the great tribulation, need to be addressed:
Mark 9:43-48 “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed, rather than having two hands, to go to hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched — where ‘Their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched*.’ And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame, rather than having two feet, to be cast into hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched — where ‘Their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched*.’ And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire — where ‘Their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched*.’”
- Jesus was sitting with his disciples, giving them various instructions. The purpose of this strange passage was to show the need to avoid sin at all costs;
- The cutting off of the hand or foot, or plucking out of the eye would not and could not prevent sin, and were superlatives trying to show the importance of not going to hell;
- The phrases marked with an asterisk are quotes from Isaiah 66:23 & 24, “And it shall come to pass that from one New Moon to another, and from one Sabbath to another, all flesh shall come to worship before Me,” says the LORD. “And they shall go forth and look upon the corpses of the men who have transgressed against Me. For their worm does not die, and their fire is not quenched. They shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.” What the word “worm” stands for is not known in either the Isaiah passage or Jesus’ quotes in Mark. That the fire in hell is not quenched has already been demonstrated.
Rev. 14:9-11, a much more explicit passage, needs to be dealt with: “ Then a third angel followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and his image, and receives his mark on his forehead or on his hand, he himself shall also drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out full strength into the cup of His indignation. He shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment ascends forever and ever; and they have no rest day or night, who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name.”
- Background: the Church has been raptured, which should cause a great revival; the anti-Christ will emerge and in due time will consolidate his sovereignty over the whole world which will include making a peace-treaty with Israel for seven years, allowing them to build the third temple; the seven year duration of the treaty will turn out to be the Great Tribulation;
- During the great tribulation the anti-Christ will give the world population two choices; worship me, bow down to my image, take my mark on your hand or forehead and you will be able to live and buy and sell as you want, or, refuse all this and be executed by beheading;
- During this same time, per Rev. 14:9-11 above, God will give the world population two choices: take Christ as your savior and suffer martyrdom, or be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb with the smoke of your torment ascending forever and ever with no rest day or night;
- Apparently, during the tribulation, when the choice is directly between the Satanic trinity (Satan, the anti-Christ and the false prophet) and the real Trinity (God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit), those that choose the Satanic trinity will suffer eternal punishment in hell, not because they are inherently immortal, but as a stipulation of their sentence.
Conclusion-Take Jesus’ Advice
Matthew 7:13, 14, “Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.”
The wide gate leads to an individual’s destruction, which, according to the Conditional Immortality view includes:
- Time in the Torment portion of Hades from the death of the body till its resurrection;
- Appearing at the Great White Throne to be judged and sentenced according to one’s works;
- Being in hell at a degree of suffering and for a length of time specified in the sentence. Then;
- Being destroyed, body and soul (perishing, being killed, ceasing to exist);
- Missing out on the eternal presence of the Lord.
- This isn’t as bad as the traditional view, but hell is still an awful, terrible prospect! It is still a four-letter word!
- As Pastors present the Gospel to any unsaved in their congregations, they need to warn of the horrors of refusing the Gospel;
- All Christians need to warn the unsaved persons they come into contact with about the awful consequences of refusing the salvation offered only by Jesus.