Time, Eternity and Hell

Time permits change to occur.

“Time is a friend to no man.”

Ever feel like time is getting away from you, as if you haven’t accomplished what you thought you would by now?

“How did it get so late so soon?

It’s night before it’s afternoon.

December is here before it’s June.

My goodness how the time has flewn. (sic)

How did it get so late so soon?

Dr. Seuss

Martin Luther King Jr. wrote:

I am coming to feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than the people of goodwill. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people. We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right.”

 (Letters from the Birmingham Jail)

How well do you use time? Are you trapped in the past? Are you waiting for the future? Do you make the most of the time you have today? The greatest thing you can do with the time you have is to change and become more like the person God created you to be. That means become like Christ.

As long as you have breath, you have time to change. It’s not too late. So, perhaps time is a friend to all who will take it seriously.

You and I fail. We make mistakes. We fall short of God’s glory and plan for our lives. However, we are creatures who live in time. In time everything changes constantly, which allows you and I to change too! Now, I don’t pretend to know what eternity will be like, whether there will be any perception of time at all is in question. However, it is difficult to consider how change could occur outside of time.

God is timeless, and God is unchanging. One of the primary attributes of the Self-Existent God is explained with the the Hebrew word aman, (the word Amen is related). It means true, reliable, permanent, and may also mean “believe” God is to be believed because he is trustworthy, faithful and true. 

Human beings are constantly changing because we are subject to time like everything in the created world. Heraclitus, a 5th Century BC Greek philosopher, famously said, “You cannot put your foot in the same river twice.” By this he meant that the current of the river is constantly moving, and everything is changing from moment to moment: water, mud, plants, fish. It is only by virtue of our capacity to perceive and think that we see things as stable. Again, Heraclitus stated that everything changes according to a process, plan or pattern, which he called “Logos”. 

Jesus is called the logos in John’s Gospel (see 1:1-5). Logos is the Greek term for “word”. The world moves according to God’s Word. There is an underlying plan, and Jesus Christ is the eternal embodiment of God’s thought and plan. You and I are changing, but we must choose to change according to the Lord’s plan.

If God had left Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden after they rebelled against him, the Lord would still have removed his presence, and the Garden would have become less and less a paradise, until it became as it has become, like the rest of earth. If Adam and Eve had been permitted to eat from the tree of Life after they had eaten from the forbidden tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. the result would have been that they, and we, would be petrified in a state of rebellion and separation from God forever.

Eternal Death

Imagine eternal existence apart from God, an unending experience of death. Some theologians hold that every human is in some way immortal and will live for eternity, either with God in heaven, or apart from God in hell. Each person will decide where the reside depending upon whether they choose to believe in and follow Christ, or reject him and follow their own self-will.

Only God Possesses Immortality

I am in agreement with other theologians and Bible interpreters who understand that human beings are inherently mortal. In fact, God alone possesses immortality as an intrinsic attribute of this being. 

“Now to the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.” (1 Timothy 1:17 & 6:16, ESV)

Death As Curse and Grace

By sending Adam and Eve out of Paradise and blocking the way to the Tree of Life with a flaming sword, the Lord provides us with a symbol of what fallen humanity lost, and an understanding that death is not merely another kind of life. Death is a curse, and it is a grace, an opportunity. If death is what we see, an end to this life, then there is also an end to sin, suffering and evil. Death is both a curse and a blessing because it means an end to the old fallen life, to corruption and sin and evil. To be sure, everyone will be judged for what they have and have not done in this life, and after a just penalty for sin is paid, an end to existence. 

Athanasius on Return to Non-existence 

“For the transgression of the commandment was making them turn back again according to their nature; and as they had at the beginning come into being out of non-existence, so were they now on the way to returning, through corruption, to non-existence again….  but it was equally monstrous that beings which once had shared the nature of the Word should perish and turn back again into non-existence through corruption.”

Destruction Means Annihilation

So, what about judgment and hell then? Are we making the case that non-believers merely die and that ends it? The Bible doesn’t support such an idea. Jesus taught that all of the dead will be raised: some to life, others to hell. 

Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.” (John 5:28–29, ESV)

Justice will be done. The unbelieving will pay the penalty for their own sin, but that is all. No eternal life in torment.

Eternal Life Is a Gift from God

God offers the gift of eternal life to everyone who will believe in Jesus Christ and receive it. “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ, our Lord” (Romans 6:23). Death presents an opportunity because it ends the old, making way for the new. “If anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, all things have become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Eternal life comes from God alone, through Christ. “This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” (2 Timothy 1:9–10)

You and I are not naturally immortal. However, when we believe in Jesus and keep his word we will transition from this life to the next without perceiving the horror of death. “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever keeps my word will never see death” (Romans 8:51). We have no reason to fear because Jesus defeated the devil, who had the power of death. 

“Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” (Hebrews 2:14–15, NIV)

John Stott on Hell

Why would God will to sustain the existence of those who reject him? Does this really bring him glory? I do not believe so. I fervently hope not. I am not alone. There is biblical evidence in support of the belief that the condemned will be ultimately destroyed, their existence blotted out forever. Revered theologian and Bible interpreter John RW Stott stated it this way.

“But will the final destiny of the impenitent be eternal conscious torment, ‘for ever and ever’, or will it be the total annihilation of their being?

… in order to answer this question, we need to survey the biblical material afresh and open our minds (not just our hearts) to the possibility that Scripture points in the direction of annihilation, and that ‘eternal conscious torment’ is a tradition which has to yield to the supreme authority of Scripture… If to kill is to deprive the body of life, hell would seem to be the deprivation of both physical and spiritual life, that is, an extinction of being… It cannot, I think, be replied that it is impossible to destroy human beings because they are immortal, for immortality—and therefore indestructibility—of the soul is a Greek not a biblical concept. According to Scripture only God possesses immortality himself (1 Tim. 1:17, 6:16); he reveals and gives it to us through the gospel (2 Tim. 1:10)…

I do not dogmatise about the position to which I have come. I hold it tentatively… the ultimate annihilation of the wicked should at least be accepted as a legitimate, biblically founded alternative to their eternal conscious torment.”

Justice Requires an End

It is because I believe that eternal life is a gift not a right or an inherent part of human nature that I agree with Stott and others, like Edward Fudge who has made the point in a more dogmatic fashion. God alone is immortal. God cast Adam and Eve from the Garden to prevent eternal existence apart from him. The curse of death is the end of the life of rebellion. God is just. He will judge and repay those who reject his offer of forgiveness in Christ, exactly as their sins deserve, not more. Stott says, “I question whether ‘eternal conscious torment’ is compatible with the biblical revelation of divine justice,” and I would agree. In fact, I would add that it is antithetical to the nature of God as love.

Haven’t you ever considered how unjust it is to burn someone forever and ever in an indestructible body who has simply lived the typical self-centered life full of petty lusts, lies, cursing and anger? Haven’t you ever questioned the preacher who loudly proclaimed that a little white lie is the same as murder to God? Ridiculous. Don’t get me wrong, even the most innocuous venal sins may be cause for someone to be separated from God, but that is because of the overriding sin of selfish pride that stands behind petty sins. Every sin is motivated by rebellion, unbelief, or  idolatry. The liar, and all the rest who proudly refuse to repent, will indeed be in hell. 

“But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death” (Revelation 20:8). 

God is just. He is the one who laid down that punishment should be “eye for eye and tooth for tooth,” which is actually a limitation to the punishment that may be imposed for a crime. 

There is a human tendency to “pay them back and then some.” We think, “I’ll teach him to mess with me!” The result is the kind of injustice and foolishness in our culture and our courts today. Someone who is caught with a pound of marijuana may be serving the same sentence as those who have committed rape, armed robbery or murder. Our culture is ruled by adolescent emotionalism. Offending someone often results in gross overreaction. Someone cuts another person off in traffic and a road rage incident results in severe injury or murder. A baseball player flips his bat in one game and is beaned by a pitcher in another game; the same player repays the injury by sliding into an unrelated player, who repays him with a punch in the jaw. 

<Isaiah’s prophecy to his people might well apply to us today.

Youths oppress my people, women rule over them. My people, your guides lead you astray; they turn you from the path.” (Isaiah 3:12, NIV)>

In Deuteronomy the Law prohibited degrading or shaming someone with excessive punishment. 

“then if the guilty man deserves to be beaten, the judge shall cause him to lie down and be beaten in his presence with a number of stripes in proportion to his offense. Forty stripes may be given him, but not more, lest, if one should go on to beat him with more stripes than these, your brother be degraded in your sight.” 

(Deuteronomy 25:2–3, ESV)

Jesus himself taught that in judgment people will be punished commensurate with their crimes. Additionally, the more truth a person knows, the more accountable they are to God.

The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked. (Luke 12:47–48, NIV)

James warned: “Let not many of you become teachers, for we shall incur a stricter judgment” (James 3:1).

God is not like human beings. 

“‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.’” (Isaiah 55:8-9, NIV)

God is just. God is love. Trust God to do what is right.

Yet the Lord longs to be gracious to you; therefore he will rise up to show you compassion. For the Lord is a God of justice. Blessed are all who wait for him!” (Isaiah 30:18, NIV)

This Is Our Time to Change

You do not get to go where you want or do whatever you want after death. You don’t get into heaven on your own terms. Those who go to hell aren’t going to a party with all of their drinking buddies.

We have this time on earth to decide to follow God or not. This is our time for change. Between now and the day of death, I have choices and changes to make. Time allows that to happen in a way eternity may not. The situation in which we find ourselves allows for mistakes to be made and grants us opportunity to recover from them. We may make a choice, then change our minds, which makes what the Bible calls repentance possible. Because of Christ we live in an economy of grace. God offers forgiveness for bad choices if we admit to being wrong. Thus, God allows us to repent of (turn away from) all our rebellion, and overcome all of our self-centeredness and unbelief before we face Him in judgment.

“He who conceals his sins will not prosper, but he who confesses and renounces them will find mercy” (Proverbs 28:19).

“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all righteousness” (1 John 1:9).

God Is Faithful and Just to Forgive

Please note, “God is faithful and just to forgive us”; that is not true because we deserve forgiveness, but because the Son of God received the just punishment our sins deserve when he suffered and died on the cross. God is faithful to his promise to save anyone who will call out to Jesus. “Whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13).  When I receive Christ, I receive his righteous life. God looks at me as though I had never sinned. 

“He who knew no sin became our sin that we might become the righteousness of God in him” (2 Corinthians 5:21). 

“For Christ died for sins, once for all, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us back to God, having been put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit” (1 Peter 3:18, NASB). 

Robed In Righteousness 

Those who believe and receive this good news also receive the Holy Spirit. They are cleansed by Christ’s blood and robed in his righteousness. 

I delight greatly in the Lord; my soul rejoices in my God. For he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of his righteousness, as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.” (Isaiah 61:10, NIV)

Restored to the Tree of Life

The result is, they are granted access once again to the Tree of Life. 

Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city.” (Revelation 22:14, NIV)

If we know Christ, death is a grace because it brings an end to this life of separation. If we do not, then it is the curse God promised it would be, permanently separating us from his presence and from eternal life.

Will You Change?

You live in the dimension of time, which permits you to change. Will you choose to do so? Change your thinking; change your ways. Put your faith completely in Jesus Christ and obey his teaching. Prepare now for eternal life with God in heaven. Do it while you still have time.

Trust no future, howe’er pleasant!

  Let the dead Past bury its dead!

Act, act in the living present!

  Heart within, and God o’erhead!

    Lives of great men all remind us

  We can make our lives sublime,

And departing, leave behind us

  Footprints on the sands of time.

-Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, (A Psalm of Life)

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