What about hell?

Dante & Virgil in Hell
A discussion of "last things" (eschatology) necessarily addresses the subject of hell. It's a hot one right now (forgive the pun!), due in large part to Rob Bell's book, "Love Wins" (click here to read a helpful review of Rob's book written by Jonathan Stepp, who agrees with most of Bell's conclusions, but notes that Bell does not reason out of a theology that is fully Trinitarian and incarnational).

So what are we to think about hell? What does the Bible say? And how do we understand what it says in the light of the revelation about God and humanity given us in the person and work of our Lord Jesus Christ?

It seems to me that the biblical revelation concerning hell is often misrepresented. People routinely read back into Scripture modern conceptions of hell that have more to do with Dante's fanciful imagination (in the epic poem, "Divine Comedy") than with what Scripture actually says. A case in point is what Jesus says in Luke 12:4-9.
4 "I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. 5 But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him. 6 Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. 7 Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. 8 I tell you, whoever acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man will also acknowledge him before the angels of God. 9 But he who disowns me before men will be disowned before the angels of God."
In Luke 12:5, Jesus mentions the idea of punishment in hell (Gehenna). He is referencing the traditional Jewish conception of a place where the incorrigibly wicked are punished. Jesus makes this reference not to comment on what hell is like, but to remind his audience of God's complete and ultimate authority and power over both life and death. We are to fear God, says Jesus, not humans (like the influential, yet hypocritical Pharisees mentioned in Luke 12:1).

In making this point, Jesus reveals what this powerful God, his Father, truly is like. Unlike the Pharisees who are on a power trip, God is lavishly (even shockingly) loving toward his creation (humankind included). Not even one sparrow dies without his caring attention (Luke 12:6). And so Jesus' admonition is to give allegiance and trust to this God, and also to Jesus his Son.

Note that Jesus refers here to himself not as "the Son of God" but as "the Son of Man" (Luke 12:8). By doing so, Jesus not only identifies himself as Israel's promised Messiah, but shows his close identification with all of humanity - all are his brothers and sisters and thus objects of God's unconditional love.

The God who has power over life and death, loves all of humanity so much that he has come, in the person of his Son, to be with us as one of us. In Jesus, God has joined us in our darkness, pain, sorrow, suffering and sin in order to deliver us and to grant us entrance with him into the life that is eternal - the life of love enjoyed by the Father, Son and Spirit.

Why then this warning about hell (life apart from God's love and joy)? So that we will focus on the loving God who saves, giving to him alone our trust and allegiance. In doing so, we will not fear human powers (or demonic powers or even the power of death itself). We will be freed up to fear (reverence) only God.

Is hell then real? Yes, and in two ways:
  • It is real now. Many, in this life, live in hell - a condition of alienation from God with all the darkness and suffering that brings. Through the incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension of the Son of God, all people are included in God's love and life. But not knowing it, or knowing it and rejecting it, some continue in darkness. It is a living, present hell for them.
  • It is real in the future beyond the final judgment. All humanity, at Jesus' return, will know who Jesus is and in knowing, will face the ultimate decision: to receive and embrace the one God has given them as their salvation, or to reject and turn away from him. The possibility of such rejection creates the possibility of its consequence, which is hell. 
Thus, hell has to do with the exercise of the freedom that God extends to his children. Why such freedom - even to reject our Creator and Savior? Because God is love, and love never coerces. Could God force from us the decision he prefers? Of course. Will he? Never. If we decide, ultimately, against God, which is to reject his salvation, we decide for hell. Thus hell, ultimately, is a place of our own choosing. As C.S. Lewis has said, hell's door is "locked from the inside."

What will this "place" be like? Scripture says little, and what little it says is couched in metaphors that simply point to the agony and emptiness of living in alienation from the God who is love. Will God cease to love those who consign themselves to hell? No, God cannot cease being who he is. Inhabiting the new heaven and earth will be God's dearly loved, forgiven, accepted and included children, who embrace this God of love. Inhabiting hell will be God's dearly loved, forgiven, accepted and included children, who refuse this love and thus reject this God. That's the hell of it.

P.S.  One question remains: Can people in hell, after the final judgment at the eschaton, get out? Note two things:
  • God, who forever is loving and forgiving, will not ever forget his children (even those in hell).
  • The story given by John in the book of Revelation, which employs highly symbolic, apocalyptic imagery, ends with the vision of the arrival of a new heaven and new earth (Rev. 21:1). At this time, the unrepentant have been consigned to hell, which John likens to a "fiery lake burning with sulfur" (Rev. 21:8). He also likens hell to a place outside "the Holy City, Jerusalem" that has come down to earth from God and now is the center of a new reality where heaven is joined with earth (Rev. 21:10, 27; 22:15). Stunning! But note an equally stunning (and unexpected) detail: the gates to this new Jerusalem are left wide open (Rev. 21:25; 22:14)!
Thus the book that puts a "wrapper" on the story of God, ends with this open-ended invitation: "Come...let all who wish take the free gift of the water of life" (Rev. 22:17). Clearly this is an invitation to those now living in alienation from God. Could it also be an invitation to those in hell following the great judgment at Jesus' return? God knows. And so, like all things, we entrust this to him, trusting him to be always who he is: the triune God of love. And as Rob Bell helpfully notes, love wins!

Note: For a helpful short article on this topic from GCI president Joseph Tkach, click here


Ted Johnston said…
For a catalog of GCI videos and articles that discuss the topic of hell, see http://www.gci.org/category/topics/hell
Dave Gilbert said…
N.T. Wright has some similar thoughts in regard to hell and the book of Revelation in his book "Surprised by Hope," starting on page 183:

"...the majestic but mysterious ending of the Revelation of John leaves us with fascinating and perhaps frustrating hints of future purposes, further work of which the eventual new creation is just beginning.

"The description of the New Jerusalem in chapters 21 and 22 is quite clear that some categories of people are 'outside': dogs, the fornicators, those who speak and make lies. But then, just when we have in our minds a picture of two nice, tidy categories, the insiders and outsiders, we find the river of the water of life flows *out* of the city; that growing on either bank is the tree of life, not a single tree but a great many; and that 'the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.'

"There is a great mystery here, and all our speaking about God's eventual future must make room for it. This is not to cast doubt on the reality of final judgment for those who have resolutely worshipped and served the idols that dehumanize us and deface God's world. It is to say that God is always the God of surprises..."
Anonymous said…
Hi Ted,

It is me again. I hope that I am not commenting too much, but I really like what you write here about hell. As such, I would like to add my two cents to the subject.

As I see it, many have grown discouraged with the Christianity we see all about us. One of the key reasons for this situation is the emphasis many churches place on the doctrine of hell. This emphasis translates into a teaching that says a few really good people will make it to heaven, but most people, including many who have never heard of Jesus Christ, will end up in hell forever. This teaching in turn makes God into some sort of a vengeful creature who somehow delights in the suffering of humans. This is hardly an encouraging teaching.

But is God really into sending most people to hell forever? Well, no! And to grasp the truth about what God is actually up to, it is important to understand two points.

The first point is that there is no such thing as a really good person. The truth is that all humans bang around in the darkness and fall way short of being judged as really good. This even includes the most righteous appearing person out there. As Paul wrote:

Romans 3:23--for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, (NIV)

But despite this fact, all are not lost, which brings me to the second point. This point is expressed this way by Paul in writing to the Gentile Romans about their intertwined destiny with the people of Israel:

Romans 11:28-32--As far as the gospel is concerned, they are enemies on your account; but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs, for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable. Just as you who were at one time disobedient to God have now received mercy as a result of their disobedience, so they too have now become disobedient in order that they too may now receive mercy as a result of God’s mercy to you. For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all. (NIV)

Yes, God made a promise to Abraham that in his seed all peoples will be blessed, and this promise will never be withdrawn by God. So, could it be that hell will end up being a rather empty place when all is said and done? I think so.

Now I know that what I write here is not going to change the common teaching about hell that is found in most churches. But for me, the truth that God will have mercy on everyone gives me great confidence that indeed many will eventually take their places at that great heavenly feast with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

All the best!

J. Richard Parker
Ted Johnston said…
Thanks for your helpful comments Dave and Richard. Our God of love is indeed surprising!
Ted Johnston said…
For an interesting perspective on the word "hell," including a review of Bell's book, see the video of Doug Pagitt's radio show at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wb_eTHkjLys&feature=autofb
Ted Johnston said…
For another, rather in-your-face perspective on hell, see the video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1jYHhKa81Ds&NR=1&feature=fvwp

Warning: put on your ear muffs!
RCSingleton said…
hi Ted.

Here is an opposing view from one of my favorite theologians, A. W. Pink. I would be interested in how Trinitarian theology explains these verses.

Part 1:

Scripture teaches plainly that man's opportunity for salvation is limited to the period of his earthly life. If he dies unsaved his fate is sealed inexorably. There are two passages in the New Testament most generally relied upon by those who affirm that there is for the lost a hope beyond death. These are both found in the 1st Epistle of Peter. A brief notice then shall be taken of them.

"For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: By which also He went and preached unto the spirits in prison; Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing" (Genesis 3:18-20).

But these verses make no reference whatever to any preaching heard by those who had already passed out of this life. They simply tell us that the Spirit of God preached through Noah, while the ark was being built, to those who were disobedient; and because they refused to respond to that preaching they are now "spirits in prison." It was not Christ Himself who "preached," but the Holy Spirit, as is plain from the opening words of v. 19—"By which also:" the "by which" points back to "the Spirit" at the end of v. 18. That the Holy Spirit did address Himself to the antediluvians we know from Genesis 6:3—"My Spirit shall not always strive with man." The Spirit strove through Noah's preaching. That Noah was a "preacher" we learn from 2 Peter 2:5.

The second passage is found in 1 Peter 4:6, "For this cause was the Gospel preached also to them that are dead." But this need not detain us. The Gospel was preached, not is now being preached, or, will again be preached to them! That such passages as these are appealed to only serves to show how untenable and impossible is the contention they are supposed to support.

That death seals the doom of the lost, we may prove negatively by the fact—and this is conclusive of itself—that we have not a single instance described in either the Old Testament or the New of a sinner being saved after death. Nor is there a single passage which holds out any promise of this in the future. But there are passages which contain positive teaching to the contrary. Several of these are now submitted.

We turn first to Proverbs 29:1:

"He, that being often reproved hardeneth his neck, shall suddenly be destroyed, and that without remedy."

This is so explicit and unequivocal it needs no words of ours either to expound or enforce it. Once the rebellious sinner is "cut off" he is "without remedy." Nothing could be clearer: at death his doom is sealed.
Ted Johnston said…
Hi Randy,
You'll note that in my original post I do not make reference to the texts that some use to supposedly "prove" that there is the possibility of evangelizing people following their death (i.e. post-mortem evangelism). The issue at hand has to do with the nature and potential of humans in union with God through the continuing incarnation of the Son of God. As I noted, the book of Revelation suggests some interesting possibilities.

However, I don't think Scripture gives us enough direct evidence to speak dogmatically one way or the other. We are told that all people will stand before Jesus at the final judgment of the eschaton - and so for all there is life beyond the first death. Is there then the possibility of entering into eternal life beyond the so-called "second death"? I am not prepared to say dogmatically that there is; but then I'm also not prepared to say dogmatically that there isn't. Either way, God can be trusted to be who he is for us as our loving father who never gives up on his children. He has gone to hell after us before. Will he not do so again?
Anonymous said…
The discussion about God saving people after death is an intriguing one, and one I have followed for some time. To me, the discussion often defaults into a mindset that death is bigger than God. But I for one believe that God's hands are not tied by death. He can come and go as He pleases with this issue. It is all, for me, as Paul told the Gentile Romans about their intertwined destiny with Israel:

Romans 11:11-27 (NIV)
11 Again I ask: Did they stumble so as to fall beyond recovery? Not at all! Rather, because of their transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious.
12 But if their transgression means riches for the world, and their loss means riches for the Gentiles, how much greater riches will their fullness bring!
13 I am talking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles, I make much of my ministry
14 in the hope that I may somehow arouse my own people to envy and save some of them.
15 For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?
16 If the part of the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy; if the root is holy, so are the branches.
17 If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root,
18 do not boast over those branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you.
19 You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.”
20 Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but be afraid.
21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either.
22 Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off.
23 And if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again.
24 After all, if you were cut out of an olive tree that is wild by nature, and contrary to nature were grafted into a cultivated olive tree, how much more readily will these, the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree!
25 I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in.
26 And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: “The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob.
27 And this is my covenant with them when I take away their sins.”

Yes, life from the dead in Jesus Christ.

All the best!

J. Richard Parker
Gary Glenister said…
Hi Ted,

Interesting discussion. Two thoughts. The bible does say that Jesus will talk to people after they die. So death is not the end. If they hear, they'll have eternal life (John 5v24-30).

If people don't respond by accepting the gift of life they'll stand alienated from Jesus. Col 1 shows that all things are upheld or sustained by Jesus, so surely separation would mean that they'd cease to exist. To me this would be be the sign of a loving, merciful God, so the second death would be final, and reserved for only those small few who reject the gift once the truth is revealed to them.

To give someone the gift of eternal life to allow them to suffer torment for eternity seems to be contradictory to a loving God.

Ted Johnston said…
Gary, you add a "wrinkle" to the discussion concerning hell, namely that of *annihilationism.* It is the idea that God will annihilate the incorrigibly wicked following the final judgment.

Your argument seems to be that those in hell (i.e. those alienated from God) are separate from God in terms of their *being,* therefore they would cease to exist.

But I'm not sure it is correct Biblically to equate *alienation* with *separation.* In fact, since via incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, all humanity has been united to Jesus; we find in existence people who are *alienated* from God in their minds (see Col 1:21), yet who continue to exist. Thus I don't think you can say that alienation means (or necessitates) annihilation.

I don't personally accept the idea of annihilationism. I think God has, in our union with Christ, given all humanity a permanent, never-ending share in God's life. The only question is this: in what state will each person share that life - in a state of trust that yields joy (heaven); or in state of alienation that yields emptiness and despair (hell)?

All that said, I note that there is very little Biblical evidence by which we can make dogmatic claims about these matters. And so concerning such things we must remain silent (or speculate a bit, but realize that is what we are doing). We must acknowledge that such speculative matters are *not* core doctrines of the Christian faith. The main things are the plain things!
RCSingleton said…
hi Ted.

Fascinating. So current GCI theology believes that its possible that God's spiritual promises to His children are not just offered to everyone, but ultimately might just apply to everyone.

That is a lovely thought. I see why so many people agree with it. Years ago, I also believed it. But every scripture I study is saying its not possible.

Well shall see.
Ted Johnston said…
Two realities must be accounted for in our thinking: 1) That God has included all in his life and love and through the Holy Spirit will help all to understand this inclusion; and 2) that God grants freedom of choice to these same all to remain alienated from him (potentially forever). The second reality precludes the idea of universalism and explains the Biblical warnings concerning the condition we refer to as "hell."
Ted Johnston said…
I received an off-blog comment asking two questions:

1) Doesn't the uniting of all humanity with God's life through the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus, grant all eternal life?

2) Won't a rejection of this life at the final judgment terminate that person's life?

My answer to both questions is no. Let me briefly explain.

With respect to the second question, I would note that Jesus has drawn all humanity into the life of God through his vicarious humanity. And Jesus' humanity is permanent - he will forever be fully God and fully human. Thus life for all humans is forever (never ending). This does not mean that we have "immortal souls" (an idea that comes from Greek paganism, not from Biblical revelation). God alone is immortal (1Tim 6:16). However, in union with Christ, all humans share in a life that does not end (the immortal human life of Jesus). Thus all people live forever.

And that brings us to answering the first question. To live forever is NOT the same as possessing (experiencing) "eternal life." The *eternal* in "eternal life" speaks to a quality of life, not a duration. John 17:3 says this: "Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent." Thus we understand that to "have" eternal life, is to enjoy an experiential knowing of God - it's about our sharing personally and deeply in the love relationship of the Father and his Son, in the communion of the Holy Spirit.

This "eternal life" is the possession of those who believe (John 3:15) - those who embrace God's gift given, in Christ, to all humanity. Those who believe, have "crossed over from death to life" (John 5:24).

Thus we understand that one can (potentially) live forever, yet, due to unbelief, experience forever a living death rather than the joy of eternal life in communion with God.

This "living death" in a self-chosen condition of alienation from God, who is the source of our continuing life. This is hell.
Michael Smith said…
Excellent post and discussion! Thank you Mr. Johnston for keeping the dialectical tension intact of our Lord saving all humanity and the second death imagery in scripture. There is always the temptation to explain it away. Also, thank you brother for all the hard work you do by God's grace to read these great books and walk us through them. It is much appreciated.
Ting Bejo said…
@RC Singleton, I would like to bring these verses into attention:

Eph. 4:8-9 - Therefore it says,


Now what is the meaning of “he ascended,” except that he also descended to the lower regions [of] the earth?

Acts 2:31 - David by foreseeing this spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was neither abandoned to Hades, nor did his body experience decay.

1 Pet. 3:18-21 Because Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, to bring you to God, by being put to death in the flesh but by being made alive in the spirit. In it he went and preached to the spirits in prison, after they were disobedient long ago when God patiently waited in the days of Noah as an ark was being constructed. In the ark a few, that is eight souls, were delivered through water. And this prefigured baptism, which now saves you – not the washing off of physical dirt but the pledge of a good conscience to God – through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who went into heaven and is at the right hand of God with angels and authorities and powers subject to him.

1 Pet. 4:6, Now it was for this very purpose that the gospel was preached to those who are [now] dead, so that though they were judged in the flesh by human standards they may live spiritually by God’s standards.

The verses above when taken in their context in the New Testament, indicates that when Jesus died, he was not simply dead but that he had some kind of activity. Eastern Orthodox theologians call the time between the death and resurrection of Christ as the 'descent into hell' or the 'harrowing of hell' and this has been a widely held view by both Eastern and Western Christians up to the 4th century.

Part of the Cristus Victor theology of the church fathers was the understanding that when Jesus died he went down to hell and 'led captive a host of captives.'

The finality of death as the end of the possibility of redemption came mostly through Augustine who taught Greek dichotomy but was clearly not the teaching of the church fathers who more or less held to 'universalist' conceptions. (I apologize for the unfortunate label of 'universalist' for lack of a better alternative.)

The exegetical turn made in 1 Pet. 3:19 that the agent of the verb 'he preached' is "the Holy Spirit through Noah" is a big violation of Greek discourse structure. If a point of departure (shift of focus or topic in clauses) was intended from the agency of Christ to the agency of Noah, then Greek discourse structure would have required Noah to be mentioned right in the beginning clause of verse 19 rather than mentioning him about three clauses later.

Verse 19 actually begins with a point of departure, that is, it begins with the dative clause "to the spirits in prison'. This indicates a shift of focus from the 'you' in the clause 'that he might bring YOU to God' of verse 18 to 'the spirits in prison' in verse 19. That is, a better translation of these two clauses considering the obvious points of departure would be "Christ brought you (the audience of 1 Peter) to God and also he preached to the spirits in prison." The focus of the clauses are therefore to whom Christ's work was beneficial. There is no indication whatsoever of a point of departure in agency from Christ to Noah.

Hope this helps.
Ted Johnston said…
Thanks Ting. It is evident from Scripture, that there is no place (including hell itself) that Jesus will not go in order to "seek and save the lost." He went there after us already. Will he go again?
Tom Burnett said…
Hello Ted,
I enjoy your articles.

here's a paragraph from your article:

"All humanity, at Jesus' return, will know who Jesus is and in knowing, will face the ultimate decision: to receive and embrace the one God has given them as their salvation, or to reject and turn away from him. The possibility of such rejection creates the possibility of its consequence, which is hell. "

It seems that this is the same message that is taught in mainstream evangelical theology except the difference being the timing of this choice...

your blogs indicates a choosing to reject God after Christ's return would lead to Hell,

where common evangelical theology believes that this choice to reject God before physical death or Christ's return would lead to Hell.

somewhat small, yet extremely significant implications.

Is that a correct assumption to your blog?

Thanks Ted!
Ted Johnston said…
Hi Tom,

We enter deep waters of controversy when we begin to try to pin down the point at which God will determine that the rebellion of one of his children toward him is to be considered their "final answer."

As you note, some say this point of "no return," is one's death ending this life. Others will say that God visits all who have not heard the gospel and shares it with them in the process of their dying. Others will say that God will present the gospel for the first time to those who have not heard it at the final judgment at Jesus' return. Others will speak of times of revelation even beyond that.

Why the difference? In my view, largely because the biblical evidence concerning this issue is sparse. I'm familiar with the proof texts used by some to defend each position. But I think in all such proof texting we're trying to get individual scriptures to say more than they say.

More convincing to me is to know who Jesus is; to know what he has done; and out of that revelation to allow him to continue being who he is, and doing what he does, without us imposing limits where he does not clearly set them for himself.

Given this approach, I would look for Jesus to reach out to people as they die, after they die (including at the final judgment) and, perhaps, even beyond. But note that we do not speak dogmatically about such things, for he has not given us the details.

Hope this helps.
RCSingleton said…
hi Ting,

Part 1 (Part 2 is in another note due to blog restrictions)

Thank you for your response and for presenting some verses that you
believe support the idea that the Bible is written to all of God's
creation. I come from the position that the Bible is written to his
Children, His Elect, and not his creation. If I had a book that was
written in a language you don't understand, that book wouldn't do you
much good. The Bible is a book that is written in such a way that only
a spiritually alive person can understand and believe. We can see this
from John 3:3 - 5. I will expand upon this in another note. But in the
meantime lets take a look at the scriptures you cited and see if they
support the idea of "post mortem evangelism".

I understand that the doctrine of unconditional election, or double
predestination are concepts that can greatly disturb some of God's
people. You would remind me that God is "light", as well as "love" from
1 Jn 1:5. I submit that your understanding of God's love might be
incomplete. In the case of the non-elect, God gives full proof of His
holiness and justice, by visiting upon them the due reward of their
iniquities. In the foreordination and salvation of His chosen people,
God makes a clear display of the exceeding riches of His grace.

Suppose that God had willed the destruction of the entire human race:
then what? Would that be unjust? Certainly not! There could be no
injustice whatever in visiting upon criminals the penalty of that law
which they had defiantly broken. But then what would become of God's
mercy? On the other hand, suppose God had decided to carry the entire
human race, all of creation, to heaven? Wait a minute.. the wages of
sin is death--eternal death. But if every man sinned, and none died,
what evidence would there be that divine justice was anything more
than an empty name?

Eph 4:7 - 11 : Here Paul is discussing variety and individuality within
the unity of the Spirit.
God has given each believer at least one spiritual gift (1 Cor 12: 1 -
12). Eph 4: 8 - 10 states that Christ is the giver of these gifts,
through the Holy Spirit. If you take a look at the NKJV of verse 9 it says,
"Now this, "He ascended" --what does it mean but that He also FIRST
descended into the lower parts of the earth?".

Are you saying that Christ gave spiritual gifts to those in hell?
I hope not, because that is certainly not what this verse is saying.
The picture here is of a military conqueror leading his captives and
sharing the spoil with his followers. But in this case, the "captives"
are not His enemies, but His own.
RCSingleton said…
Part 2

I find it interesting that you are citing scripture from Acts 2 to
support the idea that somehow God's spiritual promises can apply to the
"lost". Peter is talking to his fellow Israelites, and no one else (Acts
2:29). In v 31 David was given the spiritual foresight to see that one
of his descendants, namely the risen Christ would be placed on the
throne, in the future. So David is saying that Christ will not be
abandoned in (the realm of the dead), or His body in the grave, where it
would decay. This is a quote from Psa 16: 8 - 11. There is nothing here
either about applying spiritual promises to the "lost".

For the sake of time, let me just say that 1 Pet 3:18 - 21, or
1 Pet 4:6 is also not speaking to that point. If you like, in a future
note, I can exegete those verses.

Here is the problem.

For every Arminius, Barth, and Torrance, there is a Augustine, Wycliffe,
Luther & Calvin. The two groups would analyze the following verse in
two really different ways.

(1 Tim 2:4, 6) "Who will have ALL MEN to be saved, and to come unto the
knowledge of the truth... who gave Himself a ransom for ALL".

The first group, believes that ALL refers to all of God's creation,
every human being ever created, "all without exception"

The second group, believes that ALL refers to all of God's children,
His elect ONLY.. "all without distinction".

Both can't be correct. One of those views has to be wrong.

From the above context it is unmistakably evident that the "all men" God
wills to be saved and for whom Christ died are all men WITHOUT REGARD TO
NATIONAL DISTINCTIONS. Timothy's ministry was exercised chiefly among
Jewish converts, many of whom still retained their racial prejudices, so
that they were unwilling to submit to the authority of heathen rulers.
This is why the Pharisees had sought to discredit Christ before all
people when they asked Him whether it was lawful to pay tribute to

In summary, all of God's people need to understand Godly love as He
defines it, not as we define it.

The miracle of God's grace is not that He chooses to save some, but
that He chooses to save any!

Universalism, the idea that somehow spiritual promises can apply to
the spiritually dead is in great conflict with the clear teaching of the Bible.

Thank for you the discussion, and lets pray for a deeper understanding
of His plan, not our opinions.
Ted Johnston said…
Hi Randy,

Perhaps Ting will want to give a detailed answer to your objections to his comment.

I would like to highlight your comment on your observation that a Trinitarian, incarnational theology has a very different understanding of the "all" who are included in what God has done through Jesus.

As you note, you embrace the idea of a "limited atonement." This is a fundamental precept of what is often referred to as "five point Calvinism." The five precepts of this theological system are summarized in the acronym TULIP, which stands for:

>Total Depravity (also known as Total Inability and Original Sin)
>Unconditional Election
>Limited Atonement (also known as Particular Atonement)
>Irresistible Grace
>Perseverance of the Saints (also known as Once Saved Always Saved)

The precept of a limited atonement is the idea that Jesus died for only those predestined to be saved (the "elect").

The idea of a limited atonement is rejected by a trinitarian, incarnational theology, which understands that Jesus, who created all, died for the same all. Thus all people (all creation) is included in what Jesus, who is the elect of God did(as Creator) for his creation through his vicarious (representative) humanity (as human).

There are many reasons why Trinitarian, incarnational theology rejects the idea of a limited atonement. Those reasons include the testimony of Scripture, but most particularly the nature of God himself, who is love; and in love created humanity, and in that same love, reconciled all humanity (not just part of it) back to himself through his own action in and through his Son.

This fundamental difference between Trinitarian, incarnational theology and five point Calvinism is detailed in the GCI booklet on Trinitarian theology, and in many other sources, including those I've referenced on this blog.

There are many points of agreement between Trinitarian, incarnational theology and the Reformed theology of John Calvin. But on this point of a limited atonement (taught more dogmatically by Calvin's followers such as Beza, than by Calvin himself), we respectfully disagree.
RCSingleton said…
hi Ted.

We finally come to the question that so many theologians have debated over the centuries and will continue to do so, until His children worship before Him, as described in Rev 5:9 (NKJV)..

"For whom did Jesus die?"

There are three options:
1. God sent Jesus to redeem everybody.
2. God sent Jesus to redeem everyone who would choose to believe.
3. God sent Jesus to redeem only the elect.

Frankly, I'm stunned that Trinitarian theology supports view number one. This is the most un-Biblical view of all, and clearly universalism. But I see how this view was created. Since its adherents somehow believe that God's physical promises to Abraham, applied only his descendants, but God's spiritual promises to His children must apply to everyone, because everywhere the word "all" appears, it must refer to all of His creation. (Even though that is not God's definition of all).

View number 2 is the view of the Arminians who believe that Christ's death was POTENTIAL atonement, not ACTUAL atonement. That is foolishness. Not sure why anyone believes that one either.

View number 3, "unconditional election" is the only view that is supported by the Bible in every verse I study. I mean ALL of them! I can't find one verse that speaks to "unlimited atonement". Not sure what Bible, Torrance is looking at. If you have one verse that speaks to unlimited atonement, I would be more than happy to pray over it, and study it.

Mt 1:21 ".. He will save HIS people from their sins."

Rom 8:30 " Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified."

Jn 10:27 - 30 "My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me..."

Jn 17:9 - 12 "I pray for THEM. I do not pray for the WORLD, but for those whom You have given Me, for they are YOURS..."

Here is God's definition of "all"

Rom 6:2 - 4 "By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that ALL of us WHO HAVE BEEN BAPTIZED INTO CHRIST JESUS were baptized into His death?"

This is God's definition of "all". I don't see the world mentioned here, or anywhere else.

Now you might point me to 1 Jn 2:2 where we see the phrase ".. the whole world." But that doesn't mean all of creation any more than ".. the world is gone after him." in Jn 12:19 means that all of creation followed Jesus.

It's "all without distinction" speaking about different groups of believers. Not "all without exception" speaking about everyone.

I thank you for this discussion, and really my GCI experience over the past two years specifically, has really driven me to the Bible and to my knees.

Which is always a good thing. Looking forward to the day when we ALL reach unity in Christ.
Ted Johnston said…
Hi Randy,
I see that for you the concept of a "limited atonement" is the crux of the matter. For a helpful discussion of this issue you might read the transcript of the GCI interview with Jeff McSwain that is posted at http://www.gci.org/yi/mcswain65.

Also follow the following links to GCI publications that address the issues you raise:


Also, I respect your freedom to disagree with what we are teaching here, but it is not accurate (nor helpful to the discussion) to label what we are advocating here as "universalism." Universalism teaches that in the end, each person, without exception will be saved. Our view of Trinitarian, incarnational theology does not ascribe to this view because it necessitates the overthrow of individual freedom to reject the salvation that is ours in Christ. Overthrowing personal freedom in this way is contrary to the love that God is and with which he deals with us as his children.
Ted Johnston said…
Check out this sermon about hell from Tim Keller:
Anonymous said…
Thanks for this blog and information. The concept of God's greatness in dying to bring forgiveness and atonement to all humans once and for all, is so outstandingly beyond human capacity to "judge" His judgement and mercy that I think it might be the accurate interpretation. God knows our proclivities, and believing Christians quickly develop sectarian notions limiting His mercy, or use fear of punishment as a big stick to coerce, much like the sword of Islam. I am reminded that Paul the Apostle lovingly implied he would be willing to give up his eternal life to see Israel repent (Rom. 9:3)... repentance and spirtitual transformation in him did not smack of sectarianism or limiting God in His grace.
Tony Tate said…
Great article. I have read Rob Bell's book, Love Wins, as well. There are many who believe that hell is right in the midst of heaven, like the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son. He was at the celebration for his brother but refused to go in, choosing to stay outside and be pissed.

Personally as a Christian, I hope God's love is such that the doors of heaven and hell would remain open and for anyone who might change their minds about God's love. I am not a universalist but I still hope that somehow God's love breaks through to every person who has ever lived and saves them all.
moto said…
After reading all of this, I'm more confused than I ever thought possible
Anonymous said…
@ RCSingleton - I am appreciative of your thorough explanation of accurate scripture interpretation. I have been attempting to get to the crux of the matter of which I've seen so many problematic statements made on this blog. I, too, have come to the same conclusions that you have regarding T.I.T. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it probably is a duck (soft universalism). I have been sharing these blog articles with many men and women of faith that recognize the danger in emergent (ancient faith) teachings. I've not yet experienced it in my own GCI congregation, but I believe it to be a matter of time.

@ Ted - thank you for being honest and open about what GCI teaches more clearly in the comment section. I've been reading so many of your blogs that give me great pause, so I appreciate your candor here with RC. I wouldn't define my beliefs by a set of man-made descriptions (5 point Calvinism), but rather by sola scriptura. It's disheartening to see that many of your articles are centered around the writings of other men rather than the scriptures. You have recommended that RC watch and interview and read a myriad of GCI articles (which reminds me of my years in WWCG/AC with all its booklets) instead of encouraging him to continue to search the scriptures like the Bereans. If that is your strategy then I would recommend you read http://www.gotquestions.org/limited-atonement.html for a clearer understanding of the problem that one cannot hold to a true universal atonement without also requiring universal salvation.

If we both confess the gospel message, than we are brethren and the Lord will bring our erring to light as we continually pray and ask for discernment in rightly dividing the Word.
Ted Johnston said…
Anonymous, you take exception to this blog noting that it is "centered around the writings of other men rather than the scriptures." However, the point of the blog is to examine the work that has been done (and is being done) by theologians who seek to understand the words of Scripture in the light of the revelation of the person and work of Jesus Christ. And so on the Surprising God blog we often quote these theologians. It is because of the revelation of Jesus in Scripture, who reveals to us the Father (and the Spirit) that I find some of the concepts propounded by five point Calvinism as un-scriptural. It's one thing to quote a lot of verses of scripture; it's another to do so in a way that is faithful to who Jesus is.

The point of the blog is to encourage people to "search the scriptures." But as we do so we always read them through a theological "lens." My hope is to help people form a lens that is biblically appropriate; consistent with the historic, orthodox Christian faith as expounded in the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation. There are many theologians who help us do that, and so we examine their writings, which are grounded thoroughly in Holy Scripture.
Joseph said…
@ Anonymous

Really, so you now are the only one who can understand scripture? Same fallacy you claim upon others... The writings of other man are important in understanding scripture, which logic states thus is scripture. as you stated logically "If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it probably is a duck" Thus any content written to reflect scripture, even your own here in this blog is an interpretation, and thus in support of your own argument fallible. However, if you embrace that you know nothing, and try to truly understand the bible, you may come to see the lords word more clearly. Don't judge lest you be judged.
Unknown said…
If "love Wins" is a good book, but not great, what is/are great books you suggest reading on this subject? I would be grateful for some suggestions.
Ted Johnston said…
Hi Katie. If you look in my replies to various comments below, you'll see my recommendations for various books and videos on this topic. Also, you might want to check out the book "Four Views of Hell" which gives a good overview of various perspectives on the topic of hell (find it at Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B003TFE8RO/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?ie=UTF8&btkr=1).