You may not want to hear it. You may not believe me. But I want to tell you an astonishing truth right up front: not all Jesus believers on this planet believe exactly the same as you do, but they’re still believers in Jesus! I know, I know . . . that’s a real shock to you. I’m sorry I had to be the one to break this news to you, but you’d have probably found it out sooner or later, anyhow.
You see, we who are believers in Jesus tend to feel that other believers in Jesus hold the same views we do—that is, if they’re “real” Jesus believers like we are…. C’mon now, be honest. Don’t we all tend to think a little bit like that? In one area of belief or another? Sure we do. We all hold to certain teachings or biblical doctrines we believe are absolutely true, and if others don’t believe them the same way we do, we suspect they just might not be genuine believers in Jesus.
In fact, we even tend to congregate with other believers who think alike. It’s less unsettling that way. In some respects, that’s why we have denominations and non-denominational denominations—so we can be around other people who hold similar views. After all, it’s kind of uncomfortable being around other people who don’t think and talk quite as we do. For some people, it’s actually threatening to be around Jesus believers who are “different.”
We think to ourselves: “Let’s see, Jesus lives in me and Jesus is the truth; therefore, my truth about Jesus, about God, about the Bible, about salvation must be the truth, too.” I’m not making fun or being critical. That’s just one of the ways the human mind works. We tend to develop a case of spiritual “tunnel vision” and discount or minimize contrary views held by other believers or other religious groups as not being the real truth like we believe.
There’s even a web-shaped group of cells in the brain called the reticular activating system which tends to actually filter out incoming sensory information which doesn’t “fit” our thinking or beliefs.
We say to ourselves, “Okay, maybe (name someone) or the (name another Church or group) are believers in Jesus . . . kinda . . . sorta . . . but not really like we are; after all, we really believe the Bible—all of it—and they don’t—at least not like we do.” I’m being serious here . . . about a serious problem. God’s universal Church contains far more people than we think it does, and there are far more people who are believers in Jesus than we believe there are. They may dress differently, think differently, worship differently, use a different version of the Bible (and believe some of it differently), and talk differently . . . but they’re still Jesus believers in all aspects and in all respects just as we are. The Church of Jesus is comprised of everyone everywhere and everywhen in whom Jesus lives in the “unbodied form” of the Holy Spirit!
Let me give you one example of the spiritual tunnel vision I mentioned earlier. I know of one particular group of Jesus believers in my community who teach and seriously believe that if you read or study any version of the Bible other than the old, outdated King James Version, you cannot possibly be a believer in Jesus! Let’s see, I’ve got at least six or seven different versions (besides the King James Version) in my bookcase about two feet away from where I’m sitting right now. Hmmm, where does that kind of thinking leave me? Is it really possible that I’m not an authentic believer in Jesus because I don’t rely solely upon the King James Version?
Maybe that belief is a bit extreme, but in a less extreme way what do you believe that causes you to think maybe—just maybe—someone else isn’t really a genuine believer because he or she doesn’t believe exactly as you do? If you feel that way, as author J. B. Phillips once put it, “Your God is too small!” You need to realize there are millions of other believers in Jesus who are not made in your image. God is in the process of restoring people into his image, not in your image or in the image of other people who believe as you do. And God’s image certainly encompasses a great many more people than does our image. God’s universal Church is a Church of infinite variety. What does it mean to be created in God’s image? It means we are visible representations of the invisible God. God’s invisible image in us is as diverse as there are people.
Yes, we need to see beyond our own limited beliefs and doctrines and understand that the Body of Jesus is much larger than our own little worlds we move around in from day to day. God has an innumerable company of sons and daughters who are as much his children as you are and as I am. And the Body of Jesus is comprised of many different parts, some of those parts holding differing views. Nevertheless, it’s one composite, many-membered body, with Jesus as the Head!
Whew! “Why in the world,” you ask, “is Bill writing all this stuff?” Thanks for asking. Here’s why. You need to understand there are differing views about many biblical subjects, all held by true, legitimate, honest, authentic believers in Jesus. One particular view—maybe the very belief you embrace—may be only part of the whole truth. Don’t ever be naïve enough to feel that the small portion of truth you comprehend and embrace is the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
You need to be tolerant enough to let others hold their views about various biblical subjects without condemning them and excluding them from God’s family of believers. Oh, I’m not saying you need to believe what others believe. But, please, do them the courtesy of “letting” them hold their views just as you hold yours. Their views may be as true, authentic, legitimate and honest as yours. Each group and each individual has its own states of awareness and its own levels of understanding. Our awareness of God, Jesus, and the Bible is based upon such factors as genetic makeup, lifetime conditioning, cultural biases, family traditions, who teaches us the Bible and why, and with what groups we are involved for fellowship and ministry. Do you readily see how each of us comes to various biblical subjects with different states of awareness and levels of understanding?
Oh, we have the same God. The same Jesus. The same Holy Spirit. The same salvation through the shed blood, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. The same Bible in most respects, but differing views, doctrines, and beliefs.
I want to share with you some different views about one controversial doctrine or view: eternal judgment. “But,” you ask, “how can there be differing views? Doesn’t there have to be just one view that’s the correct one?”
The only way I can attempt to answer that without going into a lot of detail is with this simple illustration. The person, character, and nature of God is like that of a many-faceted diamond. It’s the same diamond, but there are many facets to it, each facet just a little different from the other facets. Yes, the same God, the same means of salvation, but differing perceptions of eternal judgment depending upon the vantage point from which we approach the subject. We have different levels of understanding, different states of awareness, different “filter systems,” different reticular activating systems in our brains, different backgrounds, we come from different eras, we hold different understandings of the meanings of words . . . Yes, we have many, many types of differences—often leading us to differing conclusions about many matters.
Let’s have God be God, Jesus be the Savior, truth be truth, and eternal judgment be eternal judgment, but let’s recognize and acknowledge we don’t all hold the same views of how it all turns out in the end. As long as God, Jesus, and the Bible are central to our understanding and personal experience, then whatever views we hold about eternal judgment are as legitimate as the views held by the next Jesus believer or group of believers.
There are four major views about eternal judgment which believers in the Bible all over the world have held in one form or another and to one extent or another for 2,000+ years. I’m going to be oversimplifying them and generalizing a little, but here’s a summary of those four views:
1. Authentic believers in Jesus die and go to heaven. Pre-believers die and go to hell (or the lake of fire) where they are punished for their sins by being burned “alive” and tormented forever in the never-ending fires of hell (or the lake of fire).
2. Authentic believers in Jesus die and go to heaven. Pre-believers die and go to hell which burns forever, but the non-believers don’t burn forever; instead, they are punished for their sins by being annihilated by the fires; they are destroyed and cease to exist; the fires burn forever, but they don’t.
3. When authentic believers in Jesus die, they first go to a separate, intermediate place of purging before eventually going to heaven. During that purging process, any sin remaining in their lives when they died is burned out of them before they go to heaven. Pre-believers die and go to hell where they are punished for their sins by being burned “alive” and tormented forever in the never-ending fires of hell.
4. Authentic Jesus believers die and go to heaven. Pre-believers die and go to hell where they are punished for their sins. But . . . the fires of hell eventually burn their sins out of them. Their time spent in hell is to refine, correct, and rehabilitate the sinner, not merely to destroy or torment. When all the pre-believers in hell have finally had all their sins burned out of them (no matter how long it takes, but not forever), they will go to heaven and hell’s “unquenchable” fires will then die out for lack of “fuel.”
How in the world do well-meaning, rational, thoughtful, intelligent, serious believers in Jesus get four differing views about eternal judgment from the same Bible and, often, from the same references in the Bible? How can that possibly happen? Good question. I’ll attempt to answer that later, but first I want to examine what the four views have in common.
1. First, all four views teach that authentic believers in Jesus die and go to heaven. One of them teaches they go there through an intermediate “step,” however: a place of purging. Okay, all four views are pretty close on that point, wouldn’t you agree?
2. Second, all four views teach that pre-believers go to hell (or the lake of fire) when they die. Okay, they’re still pretty much on the same sheet of music. All four are still pretty much in agreement.
3. Third, all four of the views hold that pre-believers are punished for their sin. All four viewpoints still remain pretty close to one another. So far, the four points are still somewhat the same.
Now the views begin to diverge, though, but two are still the same. Views 1 and 3 hold that pre-believers are punished “alive” and tormented forever. Hey, it’s amazing so many people over 2,000 years of time can be in agreement on at least that much. Not a bad track record. Not bad at all.
The second part of viewpoint number 2 is even reasonably tolerable to those who hold viewpoints 1 and 3. Recently, some major religious periodicals and even some new books by widely respected Bible scholars have mentioned that views 1, 2, and 3 are closer to each other than they are far apart. Many of those who hold viewpoint number 1 have even been talking the last few years about fully accepting into their fellowship some of those who hold viewpoint number 2. That’s good. They’re talking to each other and coming to some agreement. They wouldn’t even have considered doing so a generation ago, but lately there’s been some open and meaningful dialogue between representatives of the two viewpoints.
Where does that leave us now? Viewpoints 1, 2, and 3 are reasonably close to one another. The first part of viewpoint 4 agrees with the first three views. It’s that second portion of viewpoint 4 which creates difficulties. But even at that there are some scholars who have written books lately in an attempt to bridge that final gap. The gap is not completely bridged, but people are at least talking about their differences without shouting and calling one another heretics.
Well, having written all that, let’s go back now and examine the actual words “eternal judgment” in Hebrews 6: 2, a basic biblical text on this subject. Almost all modern English versions of the Bible use those two words: “eternal” and “judgment.” The differences in awareness between the various viewpoints lie in how those words are translated, interpreted, and understood.
In terms of translation, the Greek word for eternal is aionios which comes from the root word, aion, which is where we get the English word “eon,” meaning an extremely long, indefinite period of time. The word can be understood that way, or it can be understand as eternal in the usual sense of that word—unending time. It can be translated “age-lasting” or “eon-lasting,” or it can be translated “eternal,” meaning forever and ever and ever without an end. It’s perfectly legitimate to translate it either one of those ways. It can be interpreted as “lasting for eons of time,” or “lasting for unending time.” It can be understood as enduring for a long period of time—eons of time, which will end at some point in the future. Or, it can be understood as never-ending time: forever which will never end.
Each of those opposite views about the translation of aionios, its interpretation, and how it’s understood—each view is legitimate and “correct” depending upon what its proponents’ backgrounds and teachings are, and what their underlying beliefs are. Yes, both views are correct, and neither are incorrect. If you believe (from what you understand of the Bible) that people who die as pre-believers will be punished for their sins by burning forever, you’ll hold to one translation, interpretation, and understanding of “eternal” as being correct.
On the other hand, if you believe (again, from what you understand of the Bible) that people who die as pre-believers will be punished for their sins, but only for as long as it takes to cleanse their sins from them—not necessarily forever—then you’ll believe another translation, interpretation, and understanding of “eternal” as being correct.
Are you following me so far? I didn’t ask if you agree or disagree, only if you’re following my train of thought so far. I’m not asking you to either agree or disagree with one or the other of the two views. After all, that’s what the controversy is all about. Likely, you already hold one of those views anyhow.
Now let’s examine the word judgment in Hebrews 6: 2. In the Greek language the word is krima. In the New Testament, krima is translated variously into English as “condemnation,” “damnation” and “judgment,” depending on the context. “Judgment” is a good translation in Hebrews 6: 2. Not much disagreement over that.
But we also need to look at the interpretation and the understanding of the word, “judgment,” just as we looked at the translation, interpretation, and understanding of the word “eternal.” Judgment can be interpreted as having a number of meanings, depending on the context in which it is used. It can mean a legal decision or sentence handed down by a judge. It can mean an obligation resulting from a court order. It can mean the ability to form opinions about a matter, as in “He used good judgment.” Finally, it can mean wise understanding or rational good sense.
What about one’s understanding of the word? If you believe (from what you understand of the Bible) that judgment means a final sentence given by God, the Judge, for someone to be punished forever you’ll understand it to mean one thing. If you believe (again, from what you understand of the Bible) that God is decreeing a lengthy rehabilitative or corrective sentence—but not necessarily one lasting forever, you’ll understand this scenario to mean something different.
Okay, where are you in your translation, interpretation, and understanding? If you believe that pre-believers will die and burn in hell forever, you’re right. If you believe they’ll die and burn in hell only for punishment and correction leading to rehabilitation, you’re right. If you believe they’ll go to a hell which burns forever, but they will be burned up or annihilated, you’re right.
It all boils down to those three simple processes: translation, interpretation, understanding. None of those three basic positions I’ve just mentioned in the paragraph above can be “proved” conclusively like certain phenomena can be proved scientifically. It just can’t be done. Oh, you may feel your view is proved conclusively to you and to those who hold the same view, but it really isn’t provable to others in the true sense of the word “prove.”
Science can prove the law of gravity. It can prove laws of velocity or electrical or thermonuclear matters. It can prove laws governing flight. it can prove many things in the physical or material universe. But we cannot prove—or disprove—with the same conclusiveness and finality—any of the four major viewpoints about eternal judgment. You can’t do it. I can’t do it. God will have the final word on the matter of eternal judgment.
At some point in the future, God will wrap up this entire disputed and misunderstood matter of eternal judgment to his satisfaction, not ours. I like the way one version of the Bible seems to address God’s final goals for you and me in 1 Corinthians 15: 24 – 28. Read that a half dozen or so times in a couple of versions of the Bible. I especially like the way The Living Bible puts it.
I’ve presented you the four different views held about a very controversial biblical subject. You decide which one you believe, but remain open and willing to move into new realms of truth, awareness, and understanding as God gives you enlightenment. Love God. Accept his great love for you through the reconciling work of Jesus on your behalf. Trust him. Allow him to live his life in you, through you, and as you. Let God have the final word about this thorny subject, and in the meantime, try not to be judgmental of other believers in Jesus who don’t hold the same viewpoint you do.
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Revised and Updated December 2018