BY: ROBERT BEECHAM
THE RICH MAN AND LAZARUS
THE TESTIMONY OF SUNDAR SINGH
GOD’S OVERALL PLAN
‘For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him (Jesus), and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.’ (Col 1: 19, 20)
When we study the scriptures on the final destiny of unbelievers, we meet an apparent contradiction. Some scriptures seem to say that all the human race will be saved. Consider the following: ‘For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive.’ (1 Cor. 15:22-24) ‘…God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of believers.’ (1 Tim 4:10)
‘For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him (Jesus), and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.’ (Col 1:19, 20)
Other scriptures appear to teach that unbelievers will suffer eternal torment.
‘They will 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 goes up forever and ever …’ (Rev 14:10, 11). ‘… for whom black darkness has been reserved for ever.’ (Jude 13) ‘Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life’ (Mat 25:46). How can we reconcile this apparent contradiction in the scriptures? How can both teachings be correct?
We will begin by considering the scriptures that lead us to believe that all will eventually be saved. No scripture standing alone is conclusive on this point, but the evidence of several when put together is extremely strong.
Revelation 5: 13 reads, ‘And every created thing that is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all things in them, I heard saying, “To Him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, be blessing and honor and glory and dominion and power for ever and ever.”’ Every created being is heard praising God. This could hardly happen while 90 per cent of the human race was permanently lost and suffering agonizing torment!
1 Corinthians 15:22-24 strongly states universal salvation: ‘For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at His coming, then comes the end, when He delivers up the kingdom to the God and Father, when He has abolished all rule and all authority and power.’ Traditionalists tend to interpret this as ‘All who are in Christ will be made alive’; but that is not what the book says. Paul here simply states that all die in Adam, and in Christ all will be made alive, though not at the same time or all in this age. Salvation is not for all in this life, but in progressive ages and stages.
We find further evidence of this in 1 Peter 3:19-20. We read that ‘Christ in the spirit went and made proclamation to the spirits in prison, who once were disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, …’ These rather difficult verses are clarified a little further on in chapter 4 verse 6: ‘For the gospel has for this purpose been preached even to those who are dead, that though they are judged in the flesh as men, they may live in the spirit according to God.’ Peter is not here referring to the righteous saints of old; he is speaking of those before the flood of whom God said that ‘every intent of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.’ (Gen 6:5) We see even these eventually becoming alive in the spirit.
Colossians chapter 1 verses 16, 19 and 20 carry a lot of weight. ‘For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. … For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.’ These verses clearly state that God created all things through Jesus, and reconciled all things to himself through Jesus. They even imply that spirits, which are now evil, will eventually be reconciled to God.
Another scripture helps establish the case for the salvation of all: 1 Tim 4:10 says, ‘…God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of believers’. This verse implies that God saves all, but saves believers in some special sense. For believers, as I see it, there is salvation from sin, sickness and many other evils in this life, and salvation from the coming judgment. For unbelievers salvation is not till later.
One more scripture among many others is worth quoting: ‘For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things.’ (Rom 11:36) Must we add to this “except 90 or maybe 99 per cent of the human race, the crown and glory of His creation, which He made in His own image to rule the universe, who are destined for perpetual torment in hell”?
We will now consider the Bible’s teaching on eternal damnation. The Bible speaks of “eternal fire”, “eternal punishment”, “eternal destruction” and “eternal judgment”. Everyone who believes in the inspiration of Scripture must take these statements seriously. Yet no one who believes in and experiences a God of love can feel comfortable with the idea of billions of their fellow creatures of the human race suffering perpetual torture with no hope of any end. Does the Bible really state without doubt that they will?
Aiwn and AiwnioV
The doctrine of eternal punishment rests on the meaning of the two Greek words: the noun aiwn (aion) and its adjective aiwnioV (aionios).
In most English bible translations we meet the phrases forever and forever and ever. The Greek word in both cases is aion.
Aiwn (aion) is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word olam Both these words mean an age or long period of time, or world. This is clear from the context in which they are used in the OT and NT. Detailed study of this is beyond the scope of this article, but anyone with a Strong’s Concordance or computerized Bible can verify this without too much difficulty.
The English word eon (meaning an age) comes directly from the Greek word aion. Interestingly, the English word ever probably comes from the Latin word aevum (as in mediaeval), also meaning an age!
Jude 13 speaks about men ‘… for whom black darkness has been reserved for ever’. In Greek this is eiV aiwna (eis aiona), which literally means for the age.
Revelation 14: 10, 11 speaks of those who ‘will be tormented with fire and sulphur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up for ever and ever …’ Here the Greek is eiV aiwna aiwnwn (eis aionas aionon) meaning literally for ages of ages. The language of this passage comes from Isaiah 34:9,10: ‘Edom’s streams will be turned into pitch, her dust into burning sulphur; her land will become blazing pitch! It will not be quenched night and day; its smoke will rise for ever.’ Clearly the land of Edom is not still burning today. We cannot take the Hebrew le-olam to mean literally for ever. This confirms that we cannot take the Greek equivalent to mean literally for ever and ever. Similar language is used of the destruction of Babylon in Rev 19: 3.
The popular Louis Segond French Bible translates this phrase as aux siècles des siècles meaning for centuries of centuries. Spanish and Latin Bibles have similar translations.
In most English Bibles we find the words eternal and everlasting. Here the Greek word is aiwnioV (aionios). This is the adjective from the noun aiwn (aion), There is a corresponding, if obscure, English adjective aeonian.
Does this word aionios definitely mean eternal? Or might it mean age-lasting as we would expect from its derivation? Adjectives normally have meanings corresponding to the nouns from which they are derived. Monthly means relating to a month. Yearly means relating to a year. Millennial means relating to a millennium. We would therefore expect aionios to mean relating to an age or age-lasting.
The adjective aionios is used 70 times in the New Testament. Of these, 42 are in combination with the word zoe meaning life. The other 28 occurrences are with over 20 different nouns. Some of these nouns are fire, punishment, sin, tabernacles, God, destruction, glory, salvation, judgment, redemption, Spirit (or spirit), inheritance, covenant, kingdom and gospel.
Three New Testament passages establish beyond doubt that even if aionios may sometimes means eternal, there are times when it definitely does not.
In Romans chapter 16 verse 25 we read of the mystery kept secret to aionios times. Here aionios clearly cannot mean eternal. It must mean age-lasting. The NIV and the NASB translate it for long ages past. In both 2 Timothy 1: 9 and Titus 1: 2 we find the phrase before aionios times. Obviously no one would try to translate this as before eternal times. The NIV renders these both as before the beginning of time.
Someone will quickly point to Matthew chapter 25 verse 46: ‘Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.’ We have eternal punishment and eternal life in the same verse. Surely then, either punishment and life are both eternal or neither are.
That argument has a fallacy. To say that something is here for years, doesn’t mean it isn’t also here for centuries. To say that something is age-lasting is not to say that it isn’t also everlasting. Ages are included in eternity.
We should also note that in Matthew 25 Jesus is speaking of the judgment of the nations. Can nations as nations have eternal life? Will there be English, French, Russian and Chinese enclaves in heaven?
However let’s look a bit deeper. What does the word eternal mean? The dictionary probably says lasting for ever. But what does forever mean? God created time and space. Hebrews chapter 1 verse 2 says, ‘in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the ages (aions)’. The Greek word aion and the Hebrew word olam can both mean either age or world. They predate modern science in seeing that time and space are related!
Both time and space had a beginning, maybe at the big bang. They will also have an end, maybe when the universe collapses in on itself. God himself is outside space and outside time. He made them both. If time ceases to be, will eternity have any meaning?
Eternal life is a state of life we may enter now, rather than something we are going to receive after we die. Let us be sure we have entered it.
THE RICH MAN AND LAZARUS
What about the well-known story in Luke chapter 16 of the rich man and Lazarus and ‘the great chasm fixed’ between them after they died? Most people never look in any detail at this passage, and just assume that Jesus was talking about individual salvation and destiny after death. Let’s take a closer look.
The context of this passage is set a few verses earlier: ‘The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus.’ Jesus was speaking to the spiritually privileged people of his day. The rich man, who was dressed in purple and lived in luxury, was a picture of them. The poor beggar, Lazarus, at his gate clothed in rags with dogs licking his wounds pictures the spiritual outsider. Dogs are unclean animals.
Both of them die, and we find Lazarus not in heaven, but in Abraham’s bosom. How could an ignorant heathen like Lazarus end up in Abraham’s bosom, while a son of Abraham was in torment? The rich man continually addressed Abraham as father, but Abraham never called him my son. This story was shocking and offensive to its original hearers.
Let us now consider the chasm. The Greek of verse 26 reads ‘And in all these things … there is a great chasm fixed…’, not ‘besides all these things …’ (as in most translations), which is almost the opposite. The chasm lay in the differences between the two men. There was a spiritual chasm between them. Sometimes you speak to people who are strongly grounded in scripture, and have had every spiritual opportunity, and yet cannot receive any real spiritual truth or understanding. Nothing can pass from you to them or them to you. There is a great chasm fixed between you.
There has been a chasm between the Jew and the Gentile for most of the last 2000 years. The church has bitterly persecuted the Jews, and the Jews have hated what they thought was the Christian faith. Almost nothing has passed across the chasm between them. Like the rich man, the Jews have spent much of that time in torment.
Whatever the nature of this chasm, the fact that it was fixed then, does not necessarily mean that it will always be fixed. If God can move mountains, he can also fill chasms.
Many Jews, both in the land of Israel and in the diaspora, are now returning to the true bosom of Abraham, and believing in their Messiah. Many members of the churches, in spite of thinking they are Abraham’s children, have a great chasm fixed between themselves and God.
The Bible contains strong evidence that we existed as spirits with God before we entered our human bodies. The book of Ecclesiastes makes a clear pronouncement: ‘the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it’ (Ecc 12:7) The word return cannot mean anything other than to go back to where you have come from. If we existed as spirits with God before entering this world, then eternal torment and separation from God after leaving this world become an absurdity. How could a loving and wise God send spirits to this world with a high probability that they would never return to him, but instead spend eternity in indescribable pain and suffering?
I have discussed this topic in more detail in a separate writing entitled Pre-Existence.
Hasn’t the church always taught eternal judgment? Don’t nearly all Christians agree on it? The answer is no. There were early church fathers who believed in universal salvation. Of these Origen is probably the best known.
In the last 400 years Bible translations have nearly all followed the traditional view of eternal punishment. No doubt this has had a strong influence on popular belief. Even so there have been people who have disagreed.
Any way the church is not always right! The majority of people who call themselves Christians believe the Pope is head of the church, and everything that goes with that! At times in church history almost the whole hierarchy has been utterly corrupt both in doctrine and in life. It should never surprise us to find the majority in error. We must learn to seek God for ourselves, and, if necessary, follow him alone.
The church has had an interest in teaching eternal judgment. Unable to attract people by showing the love, joy, peace and forgiveness offered freely in Christ, the church has depended on threats of future torment to keep its grip on its members Eternal judgment has been the party line. All verses that contradict it have been ignored or twisted to mean something different from their obvious meaning. We are so accustomed to the lie, that we find it difficult to accept the truth.
The New Testament undoubtedly speaks of punishment for those who reject Jesus Christ. Jesus and the apostles taught this as a certainty. God cannot accept unrepentant sinners. He would not be just and holy if he could. We must now consider the nature of what awaits the unbeliever.
In Matthew 18: 8, 9 Jesus speaks of aionios fire and a Gehenna of fire. We find the same imagery in the lake of fire in the book of Revelation. Fire destroys, but it does not destroy everything. Paul told the Corinthians (1 Cor 3: 12-15) that it was possible to build with gold, silver and precious stones, or with wood, hay and straw. The fire would test each man’s work. Clearly wood, hay and straw will be destroyed; gold, silver and precious stones will not. The great contrast is between the flesh and the spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh; what is born of the spirit is spirit. The flesh is cheap and temporary; the spirit is precious and permanent. In 5: 5 Paul goes on to speak of delivering someone to Satan for the destruction of his flesh that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. This accords with 1 Peter 4:6: ‘…though they are judged in the flesh as men, they may live in the spirit according to God.’
Fire is a cleansing agent. It accompanied the law-giving on Sinai. Throughout the scriptures it is symbolic of the presence of God. Our God is a consuming fire (Heb 12: 29). It specially signifies the sanctifying Holy Spirit. Brimstone or sulphur that accompanies fire was also regarded as a purifying agent in ancient times. In Greek it is theion, the neuter singular of the adjective theios meaning divine. It is obviously related to God.
In Mat 25: 46 Jesus speaks of aionios punishment. There are two words for punishment in Greek. kolasiV (kolasis), the word used here, carries a definite sense of correction and comes from a root originally meaning to prune. We prune trees in the hope of getting more fruit – not in retributive fury!
In 2 Thes 1: 9 we read of aionios destruction. Paul uses the same word here as he uses in 1 Cor 5: 5 for the destruction of the flesh. Two verses earlier he refers to the Lord Jesus being revealed in flaming fire. When we compare scripture we can see that this verse is correctly translated ‘destruction (coming) from the presence of the Lord’, as in some translations, not ‘destruction away from the presence of the Lord’, as in others. The presence of Jesus is death to the flesh, but life to the spirit.
We must now revisit Revelation 14:10, 11: ‘(they) will be tormented with fire and sulphur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up for ever and ever …’. Can anyone imagine Jesus supervising the ceaseless and unending torture of vast numbers of the human race? The most hardened inquisition tormenter could hardly do such a thing. However Jesus would happily supervise the purifying and purging of all who need it. This would be totally consistent with the character of the one who gave his own life in agony to save all.
Lastly we must review the phrase aionios judgment in Heb 6: 2. It is called an elementary, foundational teaching. The root meaning of judgment is separation. Again the flesh must be separated from the spirit. It is a process that we should experience in this life. We should judge ourselves, if we do not want to be judged, and we must put to death the deeds of the flesh that we may walk in the spirit. If we are not willing for judgment now, it must come later.
The picture that now emerges from our study is not a hell of unmitigated, unending torment. Rather it is a place of judgment for correction. We begin to see a loving Creator who is not going to be content with his creatures until they are ultimately purged and cleansed of every sin. He is taking infinite pains over their perfection. His purposes may be long in their outworking, but in the end they will be perfectly accomplished.
THE TESTIMONY OF SUNDAR SINGH
Here I believe it will be helpful to include the testimony of the Indian Sadhu Sundar Singh. In December 1904, Jesus appeared to Sundar when he was about to commit suicide, and he was dramatically converted. Subsequently he had many ecstatic experiences in which he conversed with angels and spirits. He gives the following account of what they told him about hell.
‘I was also told that the love of God operates even in Hell. God does not shine in His full light, because those there could not bear it, but He gradually shows them more and more light and by and by brings them on and moves their conscience towards something better, although they think that the desire is entirely their own. Thus God works on their minds from within, something in the same way, though in the opposite direction, as that in which Satan suggests temptation to us here. Thus, what with God’s work within and the Light without, almost all those in Hell will ultimately be brought to Christ’s feet. It will perhaps take millions of ages, but when it is attained they will be full of joy and thankfulness towards God: though they will still be less happy than those who have accepted Christ on earth. Thus Hell also is a training school, a place of preparation for Home. Those in Hell know that it is not their home because they suffer there. Men were not created for Hell and therefore do not enjoy it and, when there, desire to escape to Heaven. They do so, but they find Heaven even more uncongenial than Hell, so they return. But this convinces them that there is something wrong in their lives, and thus they are gradually led to repentance. At least, that is the case with the majority, but there are some few personalities, Satan for instance, in regard to whom I was told, ‘Don’t ask about them.. And so I didn’t like to ask, but I hoped that for them also there was some hope.
‘They also to1d me that the saints help in the work of saving souls in Hell, because there can be no idleness in Heaven. Those in Hell will ultimately be brought to Heaven, like the prodigal son, but with regard to the ultimate fate of a certain in number you must not ask.’ The Sadhu is inclined to think that perhaps these few will be annihilated.
Once I said ‘So many people will be lost because they have not heard of Christ.’ They said, ‘The contrary will be the case; very few will be lost.’ There is a kind of heavenly joke – no joke is not a good word for it. Very few will be lost but many will be saved. It is so but don’t tell,’ they said, as it were in jest, ‘because it will make men careless, and we want them to enjoy the First Heaven – that is, the Heaven on earth – as well.’ ‘If there were no hope for all the non-Christians in the world and all the Christians who die in sin, God would stop creating men. We must do our part here on earth to save sinners, but if they refuse we need not be without hope for them.’
GOD’S OVERALL PLAN
We must now stand back to see the wider implications of our argument. If the traditional view is correct, Adam and Eve of their free will were ensnared by Satan and sinned against God plunging their entire race into sin. Jesus suffered and gave his life for all mankind, but only won back a very small proportion of our race for God, leaving a large majority permanently in the hands of Satan to live and die and then suffer perpetual and indescribable torment. Many of us have reluctantly accepted this view because we could see no other in the scriptures.
Such a view in its implications leaves Satan almost equal with God. It has probably borrowed much from heathenism where gods of good and evil fought among themselves on roughly equal terms. Heathenism always gives evil an exalted position, and frequently encourages its followers to worship it. I get the impression that science fiction follows the same lines, though confess I have not studied the subject in depth!
Can we discover a scriptural view of the place of evil? Let us turn first to Romans 8: 20 and 21: ‘For the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God.’ In this passage God clearly takes responsibility for the fall of creation. He subjected the creation to futility in hope of its future deliverance. It was all part of his full creative plan. He did not lose the first round in a conflict with Satan. He positively planned that events should go that way.
Ultimately we must see that God takes responsibility for evil and uses it to bring about his purposes. In Isaiah chapter 45 God states his sovereignty. He states that he has raised up Cyrus, a heathen king, for his purposes. In verse 5 he says, ‘Besides Me there is no God.’ In verse 7 he adds, ‘the one forming light and creating darkness, causing peace and creating evil; I am the Lord who does all these things.’ Some English versions read calamity rather than evil. The Hebrew word can have either meaning. Good and evil are not two opposing forces, like white and black on the chessboard, striving for mastery of the universe. God created all things including evil to serve his own purposes, and he is in total control.
The prophet Habakkuk wrestled with this problem. Read chapter 1 verses 5 and 6: ‘Look among the nations! Observe! Be astonished! Wonder! Because I am doing something in your days – You would not believe if you were told. For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans, that fierce and impetuous people …’ God raised up an evil people to work out his purposes of judgment and correction for Israel. Habakkuk, like us, found it difficult to understand. In Romans 9: 17, Paul quotes Exodus 9: 16 to state emphatically that God raised up Pharaoh. Pharaoh is like Satan, holding the people of God in cruel bondage and captivity until the deliverer comes to set them free. Paul goes on to state the absolute sovereignty of God.
When we start to see Satan and evil and wicked nations as tools in the hand of God for working out his purposes, everything begins to make sense. God plunged the whole creation down into sin that He might bring it up again having known evil and chosen good.
Job in his innocent integrity was certainly pleasing in the eyes of God. God’s work however was not complete. How much greater was Job’s appreciation, love and understanding of God after he had suffered. Like the whole creation, he had to go down before he could rise to a greater height. In Jesus himself above all we see the same pattern. He came down by steps from the greatest height to the lowest depths, before God raised Him again to the highest glory at His right hand.
If these things are true, what effect will they have on our attitudes to God and to man? Do we encourage sinners to continue in their evil ways by taking away the threat of eternal damnation? No! It remains ‘a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.’ (Heb 10:31) It is infinitely better to walk this life in fellowship with Jesus Christ and union with God than to live our days here in darkness and sin. Paul was constrained to be an ‘ambassador for Christ’ not by the fear of hell, but by fear of the Lord and by the love of Christ (2 Cor 5: 11, 14, 20). We no longer see the human race as hell-bound sinners most of whom will eventually be permanently written off. We see each one as a creation of God for whom He has a purpose that will be accomplished. Our love for man will increase.
How then do we see God in this new light? Firstly we see his power enormously enhanced. We see him exalted far above all and in total dominion over his creation. Secondly we see his wisdom in fresh glory. His plan is far wiser and deeper than we had previously seen. Thirdly we have a new vision of his love. He really does love each one of the billions of members of this human race with a love that will eventually bring all to perfection. ‘Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! ….For from him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory for the ages. Amen.’ (Rom 11:33, 36)
Jonah reluctantly went to Nineveh and told the people of that city that they had 40 days to repent before their city would be overthrown. Surprisingly – at least to us – the whole city believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth. What was Jonah’s reaction to this? Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry. God then said to Jonah: ‘Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?’
If you have long believed in the eternal damnation of sinners and warned them of endless torment, and now begin to see that things are not as you had thought, will you react like Jonah with resentment at God’s mercy and love, or will you rejoice that his grace and loving kindness go far beyond what you had previously imagined?
Further reading: I strongly recommend The Restitution of All Things by Andrew Jukes, found in his Computer Folder on this TEXT CD. Andrew Jukes was a profound scholar of the 19th century. This book treats the subject in depth, and is full of interesting thoughts.
UNIVERSAL RECONCILIATION [Robert Beecham] 1