Jonah 3:10 – 4:1 “And God saw the works (of Nineveh), that they turned from their evil way, and God changed His mind concerning the evil that He said He would do to them, and He did it not. But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was very angry.”Within these two verses we have something of the present problem. The character of God comes through very clearly in the context of Nineveh, that repentance brings much joy in heaven. But this is not always pleasurable to man, who would rather see the “rotten so-and-sos” perish. In Jonah this was most reprehensible, simply because he knew the character of God. “Was not this my saying when I was in my own country? That’s why I fled to Tarshish, because I knew that You were a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of a great kindness, always ready to change Your mind (when men repent.)” v.2. But the stubborn prophet would not yield to the divine mind. He asked for his life to be taken. “Are you doing the right thing, being angry?” asked the Lord.
Jonah had known of the Lord’s mercy from reading Exodus 34:6-7. “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in lovingkindness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation.” Please don’t misunderstand the second part of the Lord’s statement. It doesn’t contradict the first part. The evil that spreads down through the generations from father to son to grandson, was said to be halted, no later than the fourth generation. In God’s mercy He forbids the proliferation of evil beyond that, but always responds immediately to the first sign of repentance, followed by abundant forgiveness.
Man has, through the centuries and millennia, been responsible for the most atrocious and bestial behaviour, taking delight in watching pain as he tortured fellow human beings within his power. One of the most painful of all afflictions is that of burns to the flesh. In O.T. days it was the practice for some to “pass their children through the fire to (the god) Moloch”. This practice was strictly forbidden by the Lord in Lev. 18:21, but there were those who took no notice of the command. Twice in Jeremiah (7:31, and 19:5) the Lord conveyed His extreme displeasure in these words:- “which thing never entered my head.” In other words such atrocities are unthinkable to the mind and heart of God.
In the light of these poignant words, “never entered my head”, how is it possible for anyone to accuse God of casting countless millions of people into a lake of fire, and there tormenting them for ever and ever? Are we going to believe what God said of Himself and His character in Exodus 34? Or is He a monster, one who is capricious, variable, saying one thing and doing the opposite? I must plead seriously with my readers in this respect, because the character of God is NOT changeable, and we know it, don’t we? There is no shadow of turning with Him. “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.” (James 1:17)
Returning to the subject of the two sets of scriptures quoted in the first of these three papers, the first set, reflecting total victory, or universal reconciliation, fits the character of God like glove to hand. The words are straightforward, not allowing of any misunderstanding as to their meaning. But the second set, if reviewed rapidly, shows distinct signs of employing picture language, figurative expressions, which need to be unravelled to know what the authors intended. We find words such as “destruction”, “torment”, “for ever and ever”, and “lake of fire and brimstone”. May I make the following suggestions?
1. The word “destruction” in Scripture may be seen as equivalent to death, but not ordinary death, but death by violence, untimely death, death by catastrophe, and so on. I cannot find any reference where it signifies the utter destruction of beings God has created. Indeed, one may ask pertinently, why didn’t God “destroy” Satan at the beginning, thereby saving the world from 6000 years of the misery and bloodshed he has caused? What was the purpose of allowing him to continue existing, if ultimately he is destined to a lake of fire for ever? The Book of Revelation personifies “destruction” as Apollyon. The name is NOT applicable to the Lord.
2. Torment is a word that originally signified a “touchstone”, whereby things were tested as to their genuineness and worth. Later it took on more of its present meaning. But if someone is “tormented” in the lake of fire, why should it be assumed that he is being continually prodded by a demon wielding a three-pronged fork? Such imagery may be found in mediaeval paintings, but only confuses rather than enlightens. Consider the alternative. A man has spent a very wicked life, abusing Christians, and blaspheming God. Suddenly he undergoes a “Damascus road experience.” Who does the tormenting? Will he not spend his days being inwardly tormented by the remembrance of his former life? Would not the apostle Paul have had such inner torment? I think his letters bear that out. And if this interpretation is correct, then it indicates the onset of torment as the beginning of the process of change, of reconciliation, of restitution, of new life, rather than a revolting scene that God Himself could never have conjured up. It would “never have entered His mind.”
3. As to the time factor, many have struggled with the phrase “for ever and ever,” and have found that it does not carry the message of infinity of time, in fact such a concept would not have been present in oriental thinking 2000 years ago. But whatever the expression means, (and the figure of speech has not yet, I think, been fully understood,) it cannot mean “for ever” as we understand the words today. Furthermore, if the concept of “torment” mentioned above is indicative of the beginning of a person’s repentance, why should it be construed as lasting for ever? Did it with Paul? Didn’t the mercy and forgiveness of God fill his soul with such flood-waters of wonder that it eventually washed away all traces of torment? Are there not others by the score who would identify with that?
4. The lake of fire and sulphur is just a lake, not an ocean. The concept of 95% of humankind, together with all the fallen angels being in it, would require an ocean. So the expression tends towards the opposite view, in other words that 95% of all creation is excluded from the lake of fire, and only a very small proportion assigned to it. Who are they? Presumably the most ardently wicked, obstinately resistant individuals, who withstood God’s grace to a degree that defies logic. But in accordance with all that has been said above, I can envisage this lake of fire being the agent to burn away all that is offensive to God,after such wicked people come to know the Lord and accepted His grace shown on the cross. (In Greek mythology, fire and sulphur were used to cleanse places that had been subject to plague, as, for example, in Homer’s Odyssey)
Finally then, I see all the second set of verses as a depiction of a purging process, a refining, for those whose history has been obstinately evil. Paul’s experiences listed in Acts and his letters bear this out. I believe he went through his own fire. The Lord said at the outset, through Ananias, “I will show Saul how great things he must suffer for my name’s sake.” (Acts 9:16) Later, Paul reviewed his experience in these words, “In labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths often, of the Jews five times I received 39 stripes, thrice I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, I have spent a night and a day in the deep, in journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by my own countrymen, in perils by the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren, in weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness, – – -.” (2 Cor.11:23-27) He had to learn that “Whatever a man sows, that shall he also reap.” And that “there is no respect of persons with God.” In all such respects, the righteousness of God is apparent, “by no means clearing the guilty”, and yet at all times seen to be working towards the ultimate “restitution of all things spoken by the prophets.”
In all such struggles as these, to attain a clear understanding of problem Scriptures, I have used God’s character as the anvil on which to hammer out an understanding; His mercy and righteousness as a lodestone to guide through unknown territory, and the writings of the early Christian Fathers show a similar struggle, to reach the same conclusion. Origen finally concluded, “He who despises the purification of the word of God, and the doctrine of the Gospel, only keeps himself for dreadful and penal purifications afterwards; that so as the fire of hell may purge him in torments whom neither apostolical doctrine nor gospel preaching has cleansed, according to that which is written of being ‘purified by fire’. But how long this purification which is wrought out by penal fire shall endure, or for how many periods of ages it shall torment sinners, He only knows to whom all judgment is committed by the Father.” (Commentary to Romans, Book 8, chapter 9) And with regard to the Devil himself, Origen said, “When it is said that the last enemy shall be destroyed it is not to be understood as meaning that his substance, which is God’s creation, perishes, but that his purpose and hostile will perishes, for this does not come from God but from himself. Therefore his destruction means not his ceasing to exist, but ceasing to be an enemy, and ceasing to be death. Nothing is impossible to Omnipotence; there is nothing that cannot be healed by its Maker. The Creator made all things in order that they might exist, and if things were made to exist, they cannot become non-existent.” De Principiis 3.6, and 5)
George MacDonald, the great 19th century Christian writer, put it this way, “Annihilation itself is no death to evil. Only good where evil was, is evil dead. An evil thing must live with its evil until it chooses to be good. That alone is the slaying of evil.”(Lilith, page 153, Lion paperback edition.)
Finally, the most glorious truth of all. So that God could reconcile all creation back to Himself, He provided the Way, He came Himself and gave Himself to be murdered and sacrificed so that every part of His creation will, one day see Him lifted up on that cross, and will love Him. No reconciliation could happen without God Himself providing the means. Psalm 103:12-14 says, “He removes our transgressions as far as the east is from the west. He remembers that we are dust. Like as a Father pities his children, so the Lord pities those who fear Him.” Satan caused a tragedy to happen to God’s beautiful creation, but our Creator God would not let it continue indefinitely, He, in His great love provided the way back to Himself, and one day all beings will have their eyes opened to just how much our heavenly Father loves us. By a look at the Crucified One, Jesus will draw all men to Himself. As in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive. (John 12:32, 1 Cor.15:22)