Can people get out of hell?
|Dante and Virgil in Hell |
by William-Adolphe Bouquereau, 1850
I'm sometimes asked, can people get out of hell? To answer that question, two others must be considered:
- Is a person's fate determined permanently at death?
- If not, on what basis might those in hell get out?
However, using this passage in Hebrews to make that point is, in my view, questionable. Note that the context is the universal scope of Jesus' substitutionary, atoning work, which he did "once for all" (Hebrews 9:26). He does not accomplish this work at some future time (such as some point prior to or including the moment of our death). Also, note that Hebrews 9:27-28 points forward to a future time when Jesus will "appear a second time...to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him." Might it be that some of these people who are "waiting" have not yet met Jesus personally, but will welcome him with a heart of repentance when they see him at that time "face-to-face"?
I would also note that what we find in Scripture is not an emphasis on the moment of the death of an individual person, but on the moment when all people will rise to face Jesus in what is often termed the "general resurrection" (a time Jesus refers to in John 5:28-29). Some take Jesus' words to mean that when a person rises they rise to hear pronounced an irreversible sentence (judgment) determined by the life that ended with their death before the resurrection. With that reasoning, we're back to square one, namely that one's fate is determined irreversibly at the moment of death.
But not so quick! One also has to give credence to the verses that at least hint at an opportunity for a postmortem change of heart. Note this sequence: In Revelation 20:1-15 we find the general resurrection and the judgment that comes at that time. Then in Revelation 21:1-5 we find the ushering in of a new heaven/earth with its Holy City, wherein everything is made new. In Revelation 21:8, certain persons, having been excluded from the blissful life within the Holy City, are consigned to "the fiery lake." Now that sounds pretty final. However, in Revelation 21:25 we find the gates of the Holy City remaining open. Is this an indication that those outside (those consigned to "hell") are able to enter in?
Note in Revelation 22:14 the reference to certain people who at this time, "wash their robes," and thus "go through the gates [which remain open] into the Holy City." Still, on the "outside" (of the City, and thus in hell?) are found people who refuse this washing. Nevertheless, Revelation 22:17 tells us that "the Spirit and the bride say, 'Come!' And let him who hears say, 'Come!' Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life" (which flows in the Holy City). We understand that this invitation is being given in our time, but this passage seems to indicate that it will continue to be given at this latter time, which is place following the "final" judgment, to people consigned to a place that is outside the Holy City.
And so it seems that there is scriptural reason to at least wonder about the possibility of a postmortem, post-resurrection, post-final judgment change of heart. Should hell then be viewed as having a cleansing/educational value? Will some who, in this life or in the general resurrection, repudiate the forgiveness and acceptance they have with God in Christ, in hell change their mind and enter through open gates into the Holy City (a symbol of communion with God)?
My answer to these questions is that we cannot say with certainty, one way or the other, "thus saith the Lord." We simply are not given to know these details. I think what we can say is this: God never stops loving his children (including those in hell who continue to repudiate his love). We know this of God because we know Jesus who is the perfect, complete and final revelation of who God is and what God is like.
One final note: To believe that some people might repent and thus leave hell, is not the same thing as embracing Universalism, as it is classically construed. If some exit hell, it will be because they, exercising the freedom that God gives to all people, have a change of heart and so decide to return to the Father (thus leaving the condition we refer to as hell). However, God will never force such a decision on anyone, leaving at least the possibility that some, in obstinacy, will forever repudiate God's love, and so remain forever in the self-imposed condition we call hell. Thus we cannot say that all will be saved (in the ultimate sense). For a post addressing the topic of Universalism, click here.