[To the reader – this paper is an open reply to a letter on the subject of the extent of God’s forgiveness and love to His creation. It covers many of the queries that arise in the minds of those who have been tutored into believing that God has some fiendish everlasting torture chamber, called the Lake of Fire, reserved for most of mankind.]
Dearly beloved brother in Christ, Greetings in the name of our Lord and Saviour.
It was indeed good to have your reply to my earlier letter, and to know by your remarks that you considered all the points both carefully and prayerfully. In fact I felt honoured by the amount of time you spent in pondering the issues relating to man’s destiny. And in response I must now give serious attention to the questions you ask, and in fact I am taking the liberty of making this an open reply, so as to include it in ‘The Prophetic Telegraph’ because I feel sure that others will want to share and make their own contributions.
As you say, we are walking through a minefield so far as many of our brethren are concerned, for by far the majority of Christians are strongly of the opinion that ‘eternal life’ belongs only to the ‘saved’ and that the other 90% can only ‘look forward’ to a never-ending torment. But as I have found, many Christians have never really given much thought to the matter. Rather do they tend to major on the blessedness of their next life, and leave the plight of the rest to God. And in a manner of speaking, there is good sense in this to a degree, for ignorance may save them from the unkindly assertions that some are wont to make.
But the fireworks begin when you suggest that God’s grace may extend further than is hitherto appreciated. But I was glad to see that in your case, there was no ‘explosion’ at my letter! But you did pose a number of questions, ten in fact, and I shall now attempt to answer them, in the order you presented them.
1.If all that you say is correct, why do you think that God should have kept back this knowledge until now?
I will answer this question in two ways:- (a) If God should choose to hide certain facts about His future plans, who are we to object? Did not our Lord say to His disciples that they were favoured in knowing the secrets of the kingdom of God, which had been hidden from the beginning of the world? And did not Paul say that the ‘mystery’ of the joint-body of Jewish and Gentile believers had been kept a secret from before the foundation of the world? And then again, sometimes the truth was lost, and later recovered, as in Josiah’s day. To Josiah, the reading of Moses was as a fresh revelation, and as a result, he repented before God and enacted a great reformation in Israel.
Similarly in the Church age, Luther and others rediscovered truths that had been lost for 1500 years, and so another reformation was enacted. And since then the Church has recovered other vital truths. If the truth of the ‘larger gospel’ is either a new truth, or a lost truth, there can be no argument against its appearance now. (b) In point of fact the ‘larger gospel’ was very well understood by many Christians in the early centuries of the present era. The writings of Origen, Clement, Gregory, and Facundus give eloquent testimony to this fact, and even Augustine (who didn’t himself hold to it) witnessed to the ‘very many’ in his day who did. Rather than interrupt the flow of this letter, I will append a collection of quotations at the end for you to read.
Furthermore, in the last 100 years or so there have been a number of serious theologians whose works show that they were devoted to the ‘larger gospel’, the most significant of which were (1) Rev. Andrew Jukes, who in 1867 wrote his classic work entitled “The Restitution of All Things,” (2) Thomas Allin, “Christ Triumphant” 1890, and (3) Rev A.R.Symonds, “The Ultimate Reconciliation and Subjection of All Souls to God under the Kingdom of Christ.” 1878. The first two of these titles are still available today as reprints. If you wish to read them, I can supply you with an address from which to obtain copies.
2. The N.T. presents a consistent view that there will be just two classes of people, the saved and the unsaved; those who have life and those who shall not see life. But your letter left me with the distinct impression that ultimately you expected all men to be saved. Although I followed much of your reasoning, I cannot as yet resolve this dichotomy.
The Greek word. for save is SOZO, its basic meaning being that of preservation from some fate, disaster, doom, destruction or injury. Those whom the N.T. writers refer to as the ‘saved ones’ have been saved, not from any of the above list, but rather from the wrath and condemnation of God for their sins. “There is now no condemnation to those who are in Christ.” They have been saved from the penalty of their sins because they have believed in the only begotten Son of God, and His sacrificial death on the cross. You have no argument with me so far. I know that! Your problem arises when you ask yourself the question, “For whom did Christ die?” Before attempting to say anything else, please examine the following Scriptures carefully.
1 Tim.4:10. He is the Saviour of ALL MEN; but particularly those who believe. 1 Tim.1:15. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. (Who is not?) 1 Tim.2:4. God will have ALL MEN to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. 1 Tim.2:6. He gave Himself a ransom for ALL, a testimony to be made known in its own time. (Therefore not all at once, in this age.) John 12:32. And I, if am lifted up, will draw ALL MEN unto myself. Heb.9:26. Christ has been manifested for the putting away of sin by His sacrifice. (Not just your sin or mine, but the whole body of sin.) 1 John 2:2. He is the Mercy Seat for oursins, and not for ours only, but for the sins of THE WHOLE WORLD. Hebrews 2:9. He tasted death on behalf of EVERY MAIN. 2 Cor.5:15. He died on behalf of ALL.
I believe that your only reluctance to fully accepting the logic of these Scriptures is the traditional attitude of the church towards them, so may I suggest another line of enquiry. Let us look at Numbers 14. In this chapter we read of the spies returning from the Promised Land with their report. Ten are against, and only two (Joshua and Caleb) are in favour of going up. The people listen to the ten, and pick up stones to silence the two. At this juncture God Himself intervenes, and threatens to wipe out the whole nation for their continual habit of questioning, moaning, and rebelling. Moses intervenes, asking for mercy for the people in accordance with the revealed character of God, and in verse 20 we read that God answers him saying, “I have pardoned according to your word.” But having said that, the Lord then forbids any of the people of Israel from going into the Land, save Joshua and Caleb. They will stay in the wilderness and die there. Only their children will inherit the Land. Understand that the WHOLE NATION is pardoned by the decree of the Lord, but only two people of all the adults ever went up to enjoy the promise.
This exactly depicts the whole world today. In Adam, all humanity have been responsible for crucifying Jesus, but on the cross He said, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” God heard that prayer and answered it, as surely as He did for Moses. All the nations of the world are a pardoned people, but it does not mean that all people will enter the ‘promised land’ of the heavenly inheritance, only those who like Joshua and Caleb have believed God’s word and shown themselves faithful. I hope at this stage you will have had part of your problem solved. It now remains to investigate the spiritual meaning of the Promised Land for Christians. The answer is quite clearly set forth in many Scriptures, but Luke 20:35 is one of the best. Jesus said, “Those who are accounted worthy to attain that age, and the resurrection from among the dead, neither marry nor are given in marriage – – for they are equal to the angels.”
Notice the two important points. (a) a certain worthiness is required, and (b) the equality with the angels. The worthiness is related to obedience of faith, like Joshua and Caleb, who alone of all that generation entered the Promised Land. But equality with the angels represents something wholly new and unexpected. If Jesus came to die for man’s sin, then legally man might expect to recover that which has been lost, in other words be restored to what Adam and Eve were like AND NO MORE. But in God’s great mercy He promises the faithful a HEAVENLY position, as equal to the angels, in readiness to take positions of government in the age to come. This is the meaning of the Promised Land. Abraham understood this truth, for he looked for a city not made with hands, whilst others from the O.T. days endured tortures, looking for a BETTER resurrection.
Without the understanding just given, the word ‘better’ would have no meaning at all. And so we see that the usual division of ‘saved’ and ‘unsaved’ is artificial, not being Scriptural. In this present age there ARE saved and there ARE unsaved, and it is a very meaningful distinction just now. But in the ages to come there will be a time when the blood of Christ will be seen to have been shed for ALL MEN, for God wants ALL MEN to be saved, ALL MEN to be pardoned. But only those who ‘are worthy to attain’ will have the joy of the ‘better resurrection’ and share the government of the coming world with their Lord and Master, from a higher position than the human dimension. Others will be restored to perfect humanity, as were Adam and Eve, and let us not depreciate the glory of this, for Adam and Eve were the crowning glory of God’s first creation on earth!
3. I am told that ‘universal reconciliation’ is the teaching of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and is therefore heresy. Is this true?
I have not studied the J.W. position sufficiently to know whether or not this is true. But I have a similar question to ask you. I happen to know that the J.Ws are very hot on the truths of creation and the flood, and denounce the teaching of evolution with vigour. Should I therefore treat creation and the flood as heresy just because the J.Ws hold to it? This is a favourite catch question, and it contains no logic at all. It is as if Satan’s forces have purposely dropped important truths into the laps of various sects and cults in order to sully them in the eyes of the church of Christ. Don’t be fooled by such devices! Let the word of God stand on its own merits, no matter how or where it may be used or misused by others. ‘Study to show yourself approved before God, an unashamed workman, rightly dispensing the word of truth.’ (2 Tim.2:15)
4. You say that the Greek language of the N.T. has no word meaning ”eternal’ or ‘everlasting’ and therefore all forms of punishment must eventually terminate. What then are we to think about our Lord’s words in the parable of the sheep and the goats? Did He not say that the sheep enter everlasting life, and the goats depart into everlasting fire? I have checked that the Greek word for everlasting is the same in both places. If the everlasting fire has an end, does not logic demand that everlasting life should also end? How then can you maintain such a theory?
Let’s get this one fact straight before I say anything else. If we have died with Christ, and our life is ‘hid with Christ in God’, it is the utmost folly ever to think about an ‘end’ to that life. It can no more end than can the life of the Son of God! However, your question needs an answer of a different sort. I do not doubt your logic based upon the use of the same word for life and also for fire. But you have not allowed your logic to carry through to its conclusion. The Greek word for ‘eternal’ is AIONIOS, and there is no doubt at all that it means ‘age-lasting’, and the age in question is undoubtedly the Millennial Age of God’s reign. The Millennium has a beginning and also an end, and the scope of the parable is that of the Millennial Age. What happens after it is not the subject of this parable. The sheep are promised rewards, and the goats are destined for punishment, or more strictly, ‘cutting off’, because the Greek word basically means to prune. At the end of the Millennium, that ‘cutting off’ will end. If then the goats have a release from troubles and are able to enter life, why should we assume that the sheep should suddenly die? It is illogical.
To exemplify further, let us assume that a man should say to us “I lived in that peaceful era between the two world wars.” No one would say that he died at the end of the era! He is still alive! In the same way it will be possible to say “I shall enjoy age-lasting life in the Millennium,” without anyone thinking that it then has to end. The ‘peaceful era’ between the wars is much like the ‘peaceful era’ of the Millennium. In both cases, the speaker refers ONLY to a specified period of time, without uttering a word about the time beyond. What makes me happy is that the goats have a limited time for their ‘cutting off’, after which they may once again be allowed to find peace with God. I must add two Scriptures here, to show that life in Christ is truly eternal, everlasting in the sense of the word as it is used today. (a) Luke 20:36. Jesus said about the ones who are to be resurrected, “neither can they die any more.” (b) 1 Cor 15:53. “This mortal must put on immortality.” The Greek word for immortality is ATHANASIA, meaning ‘without death’. So ‘eternal life’ is truly everlasting!
5. You quoted Phil.2:lO-11 as authority for saying that every created being in heaven, on the earth, or under the earth, would eventually be reconciled to God. Doesn’t this go beyond the words Paul uses? Didn’t he say that all beings would ‘bow their knees’ and ‘confess that Christ was Lord’? Surely a defeated people has no option but to bow the knee and accept subjugation, but this in no way guarantees a change of heart.
Would a subjugated people, forced to be obedient under duress, be ‘to the glory of God the Father’? I have never doubted the fact that God could, at any moment, intervene in world affairs, and take the world by storm and produce the situation of which you speak, but I cannot think it would be to God’s glory. It just does not meet the conditions of the Bible. The glory of the Lord is manifested through His character and this requires a ready submission, not a forced subjugation. When Paul preached on Mars Hill in Athens, he said that “God has overlooked the times of ignorance, but now COMMANDS ALL MEN EVERYWHERE TO REPENT.” (Acts 17:30)
Heaven’s command is for man to repent, and to repent means to change his ways, not to submit under pressure whilst the human heart bleeds for revenge. Heaven’s joys are not measured by military might, but by ‘every sinner who repents’. This is God’s command to all men everywhere, and He will not be satisfied until He has achieved His goal. And if man repents, and thereby knows the peace of God in his heart, he is reconciled to God, and that is why I said what I did in my letter. It is a great error to assume that God’s kingdom will be like any of man’s kingdoms. Man relies upon military might, but God relies upon peaceful persuasion and patient teaching.
In the days of the Millennium, such methods will also be accompanied by proper rewards and punishments, which do not appear in the earth just yet. But to liken the Kingdom of God with the might of Nebuchadnezzar, or Nimrod, or Nero is most ill conceived. Jesus said to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.”
And now a word about ‘confession’. In Phil.2 the Greek verb is in the Middle Voice. And this needs a little explanation. English grammar allows for Active and Passive Voices for verbs. We have no Middle. Take the verb to make. In the Active Voice, one might say “I make cakes.” In the Passive Voice, “I am made to look a fool.” But in Greek, in the Middle Voice it would be “I make myself a table.” In other words the Middle Voice has a reflexive sense, the making is not only by myself, but also for myself. And so it is here in Phil.2. It cannot possibly be translated to mean ‘I am made to confess’. It means ‘I myself confess of my own free will.’ Everyone, of his or her own free will, whether a heavenly being, an earthly being, or one who has lived and is now dead, will ultimately bow the knee and confess the Lordship of Christ. Why be afraid of accepting such a glorious promise? It is only the strictures of evangelicalism that stand in your way. Paul states the truth by quoting from Isaiah, and so great is the truth that he also brings it out in his letter to the Romans as well. There WILL be a time when ALL THINGS ARE UNDER HIS FEET, and God will have achieved this goal not by squashing them beneath conqueror’s military boots, but by patient instruction in the ways of righteousness. No other way would be acceptable.
6. Evangelicals teach that we have but one chance in this life to believe in Christ, and that this is the real force of the gospel message. If God gives people a second chance (after death, or in resurrection), then the gospel loses much of its clout.
I have read much about ‘hell-fire sermons’ and I have heard of people being scared into the kingdom by such tactics. I do not favour such methods. However, it is ‘by the foolishness of preaching that men are saved,’ and so we see that God can and does use all our mistakes, and by His unlimited wisdom He draws men unto Himself. We should not however expect our folly to commend itself to God. Jesus said that if He was lifted up, He would draw all men unto Himself. A fully instructed preacher will therefore show people the great love of God at Calvary, and allow God to melt their hearts by the working of the Holy Spirit. God does not need the teaching of hell-fire to draw men to Himself. Such tactics cannot be sustained from the Scriptures.
I must add a word here about the ‘second chance’. Have you ever analysed what you mean when you use this expression? Have you ever given a thought to the countless millions of people who have lived and died without even hearing the name of Jesus? They have never even had a first chance, let alone a second! Take this a step further. Out of all those who live in the western world, and have had a chance of hearing the gospel, how many have really understood the message, so that on theday of judgment they can honestly say “I heard, and I understood, and I rejected the Son of God.”
We are on very dangerous ground here if we set ourselves up as the judges of the ignorant masses. ‘Ignorant masses’ are made up of individuals for whom Christ died, and if He died for them, His Father will seek them out and find them in due course. We have no barometer by which to judge mankind. Let us leave all such in God’s hands. Everyone will be given a chance, nay, many chances, eventually, but not all will be given the privilege of ruling with Christ in the heavenlies. Evangelicals are self-condemned when they assert that all those who never hear the gospel are automatically bound for everlasting hell-f ire. The God who commanded His ancient people not to pass their children through the fire to Moloch, does not Himself do so with millions of humans who have never had the chance of knowing Him. Would to God that evangelicals would think this one through prayerfully, basing their theology on the revealed character of God.
7. In Jude 7 we are told that Sodom suffered the vengeance of eternal fire. Can you explain the meaning of this, and what would you say about the future prospects of the Sodomites?
Sodom provides us with a distressing and terrible tableau of human behaviour, divine judgment, and future destiny. Sodom, and the other three cities nearby, are mentioned in Genesis, the Prophets, the Gospels, Romans, Peter, Jude and Revelation, and therefore we are supplied with a wide literary base upon which to reach firm conclusions. From a study of all these passages we are provided with the following catalogue of Sodom’s sins:- 1. Haughty and arrogant pride; open declaration of sin without the least intention of hiding it. Isa.3:9, Ezek.16:49 2. Fullness of bread, depicting affluence amongst the majority of the people. Ezek. 16:49 3. Abundance of idleness. Ezek.16:49 4. Lack of concern for the poor and needy. Ezek. 16:49 5. Ungodliness in all their attitudes of life. 2 Pet.2:6 6. Many were, in addition to being ungodly, ‘exceedingly wicked sinners’. Gen. 13:13 7. Abundance of lies and profanity.Jer.23:14 8. Indulgence in excessive fornication and adultery. Ezek.16:49, Jude 7 9. The committing of abominations, such as homosexuality, and ‘going after strange flesh.’(The Greek word for ‘strange’ is HETEROS, not HOMOIOS. HOMOIOS means different of the same type, but HETEROS means different altogether, and in this context it refers to the fact that the Sodomites practised sexual abominations with animals and also with the fallen angels.) Jude 7.
Further to this list we may add a note on the climate of the region. Gen.13:1O tells us that before God destroyed Sodom, the Plain of the Jordan and all the region of the Dead Sea were “well watered everywhere, even as the Garden of the Lord.” Being 1200 feet below sea level, and hemmed in by mountains, it enjoyed a tropical climate that would be similar to antediluvial conditions in the Garden of Eden. This means that vegetation grew in abundance and food would always be plentiful, and so it follows that people could easily lead a lazy existence. From the Bible account, it is clear that ‘the Devil found work for idle hands to do’, and degradation went from bad to worse until it plumbed the depths of depravity. In this brief cameo of Sodom, we must now ask what actually happened when it was destroyed.
You will remember that Abraham was concerned that ‘the Lord of all the earth should do right’, and so he deferentially asked the Lord whether He would destroy it if even five righteous souls were to be found therein. And the Lord answered “No”. And as soon as Lot was taken from the place, the cataclysm fell. In Lamentations 4:6 Jeremiah tells us that ‘Sodom was overthrown IN A MOMENT’. From the few details given, we must conclude that the Rift Valley at this point contained an instability that suddenly triggered an earthquake coupled with a volcanic blast that sent tons of molten rock-salt and sulphur into the air, and ignited an underground source of natural gas and crude oil. The effect of this on the cities would have been instant death due to asphyxiation, and complete destruction of the towns. Sometimes, even today, the outline of buildings can be seen from low flying aircraft at the southern end of the Dead Sea, and so we must assume that the region sank by a few feet to become covered by the massively salty waters.
What therefore are we to say about the expression ‘eternal fire’ that Jude used? First of all let us re-translate it. It should have read ‘age-during fire’. But this doesn’t help very much, because nobody suffered the fire for longer than a few seconds, and the fires themselves burned out relatively quickly, in fact as soon as the volatile fractions of the crude oil were used up, and the thick tar blocked off the vents in the ground. We do not know how long this took, but one may make a reasonable estimate in terms of a few months or at the most a couple of years. What therefore could have lasted throughout the ages since then, even until today, that Jude could say, ‘they suffered the judgment of age-lasting fire’? We must conclude that the example of their ‘cutting off’ from this world’s existence, as a whole people, lasts as a constant reminder and lesson to all other peoples who have lived since. Perhaps this is why Jude says that they have been ‘set forth as an example’. The wordSodom still retains its flavour (if it can be referred to as such!) in our own day and age, after some 4000 years. And we speak of Sodomites when referring to homosexuals. Yes, the fires of Sodom still speak. They still warn us of divine judgment, and they should make us aware of God’s extreme displeasure on behaviour of that type, even if other peoples who are equally as bad do not AS YET experience God’s judgments falling.
In the 1930s according to Watchman Nee, the city of Shanghai was so corrupt that people used to say ‘If God does not destroy the city He will have to apologize to Sodom’. In more recent times, Ruth Graham, wife of evangelist Billy Graham has said the same about the western world in general. But all such remarks are ill-conceived folly when it is appreciated that “It is given unto man once to die, and after that, the judgment”. Whether God decides to intervene in the life of a community as He did with Sodom, or whether He leaves it as it is, the judgment awaits all men after death, and this is a Biblical certainty. Whatsoever we sow, that shall we also reap, and there is no respect of persons with God. In the final analysis, no one will be able to say to God “It is not fair”, but rather will many say “We are only getting what we deserved”, like the thief on the cross. But what of Sodom’s future? That was the last part of your question.
And here we must ponder on the significance of Jesus’ own words about Sodom. The setting was that of His own miracles, ones that were performed in Galilean cities like Capernaum, and did not produce repentance and faith. Our Lord spoke the hardest of all His words to such cities. “It will be more tolerable in the day of judgment for Sodom than for you.” Notice these words – MORE TOLERABLE, or MORE BEARABLE, as the Greek says. What exactly does our Lord convey by such language? Those who believe in the theory of conscious everlasting punishment are left with only one conclusion. The people of Capernaum would suffer greater continual torment than the Sodomites, but each would last for ever. Can any sane person accept such illogicality? Isn’t it time that we threw this theory into the lake of fire? It is laughable to think that our Lord would have made such a statement. What benefit is there to either the inhabitants of Capernaum or those from Sodomto know that torments will differ in magnitude, if they are going to last for ever?
I believe that this verse shows up the poverty of the theory perhaps more than any other. What do we know about the nature of God’s judgment? Again we look to Jesus’ words, in Luke 12: 47-48. The servant who was ignorant and did wrong is beaten with few stripes, but the servant who was knowledgeable and still did wrong is beaten with many stripes. The Master said nothing about being beaten forever. In the O.T. the punishment of beating was always restricted to 40 lashes, ‘lest he should be degraded in your eyes.’ (Deut.25:3) As with the best penal systems that man has operated, the punishment always has to fit the crime. Has any one ever dreamed up what may be called THE INFINITE SIN? One that required INFINITE PUNISHMENT? God forbid. May the very thought perish.
In the day of resurrection and judgment, the Sodomites will rise up to condemn those who lived in Capernaum. For Jesus said that if He had performed the same miracles in Sodom, the people there would have repented in sackcloth and ashes. They were never given the chance, but Nineveh was, at the preaching of Jonah. Shall we therefore say that Sodom should suffer everlasting punishment, when the Ninevites, an equally wicked people, repented at Jonah’s preaching? No. Jesus in fact proclaimed the absolute certainty about the people of Sodom, that when the judgment came they would repent. He prophesied that they WOULD repent, and they will, and because of this they will live! Praise God. The 16th chapter of Ezekiel tells the same story, and needs to be read in full. Both Sodom and Nineveh were ‘example cities’ and their history is in the Bible to teach us all.
8. I wou1d dearly like to think that God will be as great a Victor as you declare, but don’ t you think you will cause monumental antagonism amongst Christians by saying that the Devil will ultimately be reconciled to God, even if it takes 10,000 years?
Forgiveness of sin is the foundation stone of all Christianity. For that very purpose the Son of God gave His life. Are we to limit the effectiveness of the cross by false limitations of our own making? Have any of us the right to define the magnitude of God’s love to His own creation? Did not Paul say to the Ephesians that they ‘might know the love of Christ which is BEYOND KNOWLEDGE, that you might be filled with all the fullness of God’. If therefore the love of God in Christ is so great that it is outside the scope of human knowledge, and if at the same time we are encouraged, somehow, to know it, to experience it, and thereby be filled with all the fullness of God, why cannot we as Christians conceive the possibility of the Devil coming to a better mind and eventually seeking the forgiveness of his Creator? Would God refuse him? Of all people in the world, Christians should be the first to rejoice at such a possibility.
But I sense that you may be right in what you say, because I have already had some very hard words spoken to me about this very matter, and that by ‘convinced Christians’. Remember Jesus’ words to Simon the Pharisee concerning the repentant harlot, “Those who have been forgiven much, love much.” Is it that many Christians have not had a vision of their own sins, and the largeness of the Saviour’s love to them, and so they are as yet incapable of allowing their hearts to expand to take in the possibility of even further realms of divine grace? I can well understand that initial reactions may be cautious, or even explosive, but this is so often born of fear. I am more concerned with the CONSIDERED reaction to the ‘larger gospel’, one that comes as a result of serious reflection, and prayerful study. I would then look for an enlargement of the human heart and a deep joy at the realization of just how much of God’s great work lies ahead. The Scriptures warn us about Satan. They describe him as a murderer from the beginning, as the father of lies, as the great deceiver of mankind, as the devourer, and so on. We are given instructions on how to deal with him, by resisting him until he flees, by learning to know his wiles, by taking God’s armour, and so on. But we are never told to HATE him, and by the example of Michael (in Jude) we are enjoined to speak to him with deference, asking the Lord to rebuke him on our behalf.
Many Christians speak ill of Satan in a manner quite contrary to the instructions in Jude, and worse still, mockery is made of him continually, not just by the world, but by God’s own people. Make no mistake, he is our enemy, as he is God’s enemy. But what did Jesus have to say about our enemies? (Matt.5:43) “You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbour, and hate your enemy’, but I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who despitefully use you and persecute you, THAT YOU MAY BE CHILDREN OF YOUR FATHER IN HEAVEN.” And in v.48, “Be therefore perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Are we to assume that God can ask this of us, whilst at the same time practising hatred towards His own great enemy? Such a conclusion is unthinkable.
Personally, I do not think that we, as human beings, have the capacity to ‘love’ Satan, but I am confident that God does, and that He will not rest until He has seen His ultimate prodigal son return from the far country in penitence. Undoubtedly God will rejoice with exceeding great joy at such an event, but will there be a company of ‘elder brothers’ around to complain at such an action? Will they be like the prophet Jonah, who was not content to see Nineveh repent, but wanted to see the prophesied destruction. God’s name is not Destruction. That name is reserved for Apollyon, (or Abaddon) according to Rev.9:11, the being that John saw arising from the abyss. Destruction is not in the heart of God. God’s purpose is clearly stated in Rev.21:5, “Behold I make all things new.” ALL THINGS! Think of it!
Such a comprehensive declaration makes the mind boggle, but lest we should disbelieve it, the Lord instructed John, “Write, for these words are faithful and true.” God must have known in advance how few would be able to take it in, and simply believe it, even if it seems impossible. But with God all things are possible. The much loved 19th century author, George MacDonald, in his book “Lilith”, speaks of the difficulties that lie in the path of such a great plan of reconciliation. The classic comment on page 153 bears repeating. “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.” And so, my dear brother, I must hope that you will begin to see the magnificent panorama that lies ahead in the ‘ages to come’, and that the eyes of your heart will be enlightened to see the length and the breadth, the height and the depth of God’s love.
9. In Rev.2O:1O it says that the Devil, the Beast, and the False Prophet will be tormented day and night for ever and ever. Please will you explain to me what the symbolism of this verse means. The picture is not pleasant, and I cannot contemplate the thought of God tormenting people at all, and especially not in a ‘lake of fire’.
I am much gratified to know that you feel this way, especially as we have only recently had a letter from a young man at Bible College, saying that he thought it was necessary for God to do it ‘in His love and righteousness.’ I heartily agree with you. I cannot contemplate the picture painted here, and at the same time square it with God’s character. But it is a verse of Scripture, and therefore it stands as surely as those verses we enjoy reading. I cannot even contemplate that a good MAN would ever think up so dreadful a scene as here painted. And so, when we find ourselves presented with strange, perplexing, and seemingly contradictory words of Scripture, we should always present it back to the Lord, the Author, asking for His word of explanation. This should be done in company with a detailed study of the Greek words used, and the possibility that some figure or figures of speech are being employed, as often they are in the Bible.
Let us first of all deal with the word translated ‘torment’. In the Greek it is BASANOS, and the lexicons tell us that it originally meant a TOUCHSTONE, a means of determining whether gold was pure or not. Subsequently the word came to be used figuratively to mean an examiner of people, one who could find out the hidden truths of the heart. And this is helpful to us here, because although men’s sins are largely hidden in this age, Jesus spoke of a time when the thoughts and the intents of the heart would be made manifest. “There is nothing hidden that shall not be made manifest.” Try to imagine what it would be like for a person who had lived a wicked life, but had always been successfully able to conceal his real self and present a ‘front’ of respectability. If then, by some miraculous means, everything was suddenly exposed, how would he feel? All his erstwhile friends would depart and turn against him. He would feel naked and exposed before the world. To begin with he might fight against the exposure, trying to justify himself, but as time passed, and as he began to see the impossibility of any further cover-up, he might ‘replay’ the events of his life and begin to feel sorrow and remorse. The act of the Divine Examiner would have been a relatively brief encounter, wholly in tune with the many Scriptures which define and declare God’s future judgments.
Such is the work of the Holy Spirit. “When the Holy Spirit is come, He will convict the world of sin”. But what of the times that follow this act of unveiling? How will the person feel? Do we not frequently use such expressions as “I was tormented by the thought of what I had done, and could not forget it.” Who then does the tormenting? Are we not ourselves the inflictors of our own torment? On first reading Rev.20:1O we might get the impression, sometimes found on grotesque mediaeval paintings, where fork-tailed demons continually prod the writhing inmates of the sulphur-lake, as they grope about in agony. But nothing could be further from the truth.
Once we realize that divine revelation has been responsible for the arresting of human (or angelic) wickedness, then we can easily imagine how painful it would be to live with the record of one’s own sins. And the greater the catalogue of sins, the greater will be the inner torment. Jesus spoke about certain sins which were against the Holy Spirit, and said that they would not be forgiven ‘unto the age’. Here we get the real sense of wretchedness that must ensue to those who, in a moment of unmitigated terror, are told that they have been far from God, when they themselves thought that they were ‘in the front line.’ No wonder there is a mention of weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. And they have to wait for a long time before they become eligible to receive God’s forgiveness, not ‘until the age’.
All those who have already trodden this earth, and have died in this condition, will then have found themselves in ‘outer darkness’, having to wait until the set time for God’s mercy to be shown to them. Imagine what it would be like for one such as Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrim’, who having come to the cross with the weight of an enormous burden on the shoulders (i.e. enlightenment of personal sin has occurred), only to be told that he will have to bear that burden for much time before it can be rolled away. There is true wretchedness here, and it is not pleasant to contemplate, but we must never allow our minds to be sullied with the thought that the wait is ‘everlasting’. Coming back now to Rev. 20:10, we immediately get a new picture of Satan, the Beast, and the False Prophet.
We are shown in this picture beings who have already been enlightened, whose sins have been exposed, not only to the world, but to themselves, and inwardly they are tormented by the enormity of all that they have done. After thinking of themselves as the masters of the human race, the unseen powers behind the shaping of human history, they now realize that they have defiled God’s world, and progressively destroyed all their OWN innate character with which God created them. Having started off as the very greatest of all God’s heavenly creations, they have debased themselves beyond all recognition, making themselves into what they now are. The ‘head’ has become the ‘tail’, and many of those who were ‘first’ have become the ‘last’. And the very long waiting period before forgiveness is offered to them, is the price they have to pay for centuries of intense calculated evil. And during this time they are haunted by, and constantly (‘day and night’) in remembrance of all that they have done.
The ‘lake of fire’ is the place where ENLIGHTENMENT has taken place, but forgiveness not yet found. Thank God it is only a LAKE! It is small. It is only for a small fraction of God’s creation. And let us rejoice when they are in this ‘lake of fire’, not because we have some morbid pleasure at others’ hurt, but because the long road to their ultimate reconciliation hasstarted, the road that leads to forgiveness and forgetfulness of all their manifold sin and wickedness. How shall we ‘undo the symbols’ of fire and sulphur? What are the real conditions that are symbolized by these agencies? In this life the most painful injuries are those caused by fire, and the most choking and terrible of fumes are those which arise from burning sulphur. Within seconds of inhaling the gas sulphur dioxide, the chest seizes up, and if immediate relief is not present, death must occur.
All God’s punishments must fit the crimes, and it is not surprising to find such pictures as these used as symbols of punishment. But remember, they are not imposed from outside, they are the self-afflictions of those whose enlightenment is accompanied by intense inner torment. Why does God allow them to suffer the agony of their own sins for so long without having the peace of forgiveness in their hearts? It is because the ‘fire’ is purgative, the ‘flames’ are refining and consuming of all that is offensive. God’s fire is always good fire, it is a refining and purifying fire, consuming all that is worthless. In Zech.13:9 we are told of some of God’s people being brought through the fire to refine them and try them, “and they shall call on my name and I will hear them.” Again and again God is presented as ‘the Refiner of Gold and Silver’. This is the only correct interpretation of the fire. Any other interpretation, based upon the sadistic pleasure of a tyrant who at last has his enemies in his grasp, is like the ‘strange fire’ that Nadab and Abihu brought before the Lord, and equally offensive to the character of God.
So much for fire, what about the sulphur? In the ancient world plague was finally eradicated from an area by burning all the corpses and then ‘cleansing’ the buildings with sulphur candles. The effect of the sulphur dioxide fumes was to kill off any remaining viruses and bacteria, thus rendering the place safe for habitation again. In its figurative use, ‘sulphur’ purges away all the things which caused the evil. If the fire dealt with the fruits of evil, then the sulphur dealt with the roots. And God will not be satisfied until the sulphur has done its work. Finally, I must answer your question about ‘for ever and ever’. Has it ever occurred to you that if ‘for ever‘ means eternity, then how can there be anything additional to it? It is illogical to speak of ‘an infinity of infinities.’ In point of fact, it would need a small booklet to uncover all the interesting facts about the N.T. usage of such expressions as AGE, EVER, ETERNAL, and EVERLASTING, but in this letter I shall try to do justice in a small compass.
English readers have become so used to the expression ‘for ever and ever’, and the way in which it has been employed in fiction, that we have ceased to ask ourselves what we mean by it. A literal translation of the Greek reads, ‘unto (or, into) the ages of the ages’. Why is there a duplication? To answer this question we need to realize that the N.T. writers were steeped in the Hebrew of the O.T., and as such were well aware of the figure of speech, so often found there, called Polyptoton, a figure which was employed to give emphasis. One or two examples of this must be seen to know how to handle the text under question in Rev.20: 10. In Gen.2:16 we have ‘of every tree in the garden you may freely eat.’ (The Hebrew has ‘eating you shall eat’, and so the A.V. has correctly given the force of this figure.) Gen.2:17 ‘you shall surely die’. (The Hebrew is ‘dying you shall die’. Again, it is correctly interpreted as a figure.) Gen.9:25. Canaan ‘shall be a servant of servants to his brethren’. (A.V. translates it literally this time. It should read something like ‘the lowest, or most base of servants’.) Exodus26:33. ‘in the most holy place’. (Heb. ‘holy of holies’, correctly translated) Dan.2:37 & 1 Tim.6:15. ‘king of kings’. (This should read ‘the greatest of kings’.)
And so we could proceed through such examples as God of gods, Lord of lords, Prince of princes, Song of songs, Vanity of vanities, Hebrew of the Hebrews, heavens of the heavens, until we come to ‘the ages of the ages It is clear now what we must do. The best and clearest of translations should be ‘unto the most magnificent ages of all’. What are these? In Eph.2:7 Paul speaks of God showing forth His great grace ‘in the ages to come’. These ages are still future to us, and the first of them will be the Millennium, during which the Lord will take up His reign over this earth in the first phase of His activities of judgment.
Each age that follows will bear the stamp of some special character, just as the ages that are past have done so. At present we long for the day when God’s kingdom will come, and His will done on earth as it is in heaven. This will be a mountain peak of gladness and righteousness. But for those who live in that era, they will become increasingly aware of the greater peaks that lie beyond. Just now we cannot obtain more than just a glimpse of their reality, but as time passes, God will manifest His purposes with even greater clarity. Returning to Rev.20:1O, we have seen that the Devil and others are retained in the ‘lake of fire until the most magnificent ages’. It seems that during these wonderful times, God will gradually bring His healing hand to bear on those who have caused Him the most pain. And when it is all finished, God will be ‘all in all’, not ‘all in some’ or ‘some in all’ but ‘all in all’. God can do it, even if our minds cannot grasp it all just now.
10. Finally I would like to ask you a more personal and subjective question, and I hope that it will not give offence. It is a question which perhaps many might frame in their minds, or feel unconsciously. What experience have you personally had of the hurtful ways of Satan? If you have lived in relative calm and preach the doctrine of ultimate reconciliation from the comforts of your own armchair, then are you really in a position to know what others might, and sometimes do know first-hand of the violence, tragic loss, and suffering at the hands of evil men. Surely only then would you be in the place of understanding of Satan’ s evil and how God really feels about him. Maybe then you might change your mind about showing the Devil love. Maybe you would rather he were destroyed, and certainly you would think your attitude reflected God’s own feelings.
This is indeed a subjective question, and all subjective questions need very careful answers. In fact all subjective matters tend to cloud reality in the mists of human emotion. Consider the legal code of this nation. Suppose that it were written by a group of people who had all undergone recent traumatic experiences of one kind or another, various acts of lawlessness. Should we be happy with the result? Should we not then expect to find penalties that looked every bit like revenge? No, we must get our facts straight in a cool and logical manner, without the bias that follows hard on the tracks of personal disaster, bitterness, and anguish of soul. I believe that your question is a dangerous one, that should not be answered BECAUSE it is subjective.
The questioner, be it yourself, or an imaginary friend, might then frame his reasoning on my subjective answer, instead of framing it on the word of God, and so get into an emotional vortex where truth is lost beneath the boiled-up feelings of the human soul. This would not be constructive in the least and I positively refuse to get drawn into it. Having said that, I would nevertheless like to make a few comments of a positive and constructive nature on the issue of Satan’s future, viewed in the light of human violence. It is often said that violence begets violence and the tragic events in Ulster of recent times bear this out. Human frailty rarely allows such qualities as patience and forbearance to operate. Instead, people tend to feel ‘justified’ in their bitterness, ‘righteous’ in their cry for vengeance, and ‘accepted by others’ for their on-going hatred of offenders. But Jesus was fully aware of this when He gave His sermon on the mount, and taught His disciples not to ‘hate their enemies’, (an error taught by the Rabbis, and not found in the 0.T. at all) but rather to love them.
It takes great strength of character to do this, and probably few have ever done so without the under girding of God’s own strength. When should we learn these ways? In the aftermath of violence? Certainly not. They need to be learned in the reading and accepting of God’s word in the quietness of the closet, until they become indelibly printed upon the heart. If and when tragedy strikes, the child of God may then lean upon the stable principles learned already, and cry to God for the courage to put them into action. Only then can violence be defused. Only then can family feuds and sectarian differences be halted, and sanity return to the lives of ordinary people. Jesus’ way is the ONLY way. But you may still be asking, ‘How CAN I love my enemy?’ And I would answer that Jesus did NOT say ‘Have affection for your enemy’. Love (as defined by Jesus in the N.T.) is way beyond affection. It is a much higher and more noble quality altogether. God commended His love to us that whilst we were yet sinners Christ died for us. (Rom.5:8) I have been greatly encouraged by the words of a song I heard recently, written by the Gospel singer Don Francisco. “Love is not a feeling, it’s an act of the will’.
And it was just such an ‘act of the will’ that enabled Jesus to face the cross rather than call for the 12 legions of angels He had at the ready. But He did it knowing that He would be carrying away the sins of the whole world into the land of God’s forgetfulness. He had the ‘vision-beyond-the-grave’ and was faithful to His Father’s word. But just look at the price He paid beforehand! Read about His agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. Consider His time of struggle within Himself, for He was not only the Son of God, He was also the Son of Man. And He knows OUR weaknesses in this direction, because He has been through it all to an extent that God will never call upon us to bear. How true are His words, “I am the way, the truth, and the life’. In the light of this, believers have no choice. There is no other way open to us but to learn to love our enemies ‘as an act of the will’, to forbear, and not to take revenge. And if we obey God’s command, He will give us the strength to do it, and we shall defuse the hatred that boils up out of our own Adam nature.
You will have seen that I have declined answer the question about my own personal experience, being a subjective matter. This would serve no useful purpose save to make me either acceptable or unacceptable in your eyes, and that is of no consequence when dealing with matters of great and lasting interest. But I will quote one example from life, very briefly, to exemplify what I have tried to convey. It concerns Corrie ten Boom, and may be found in her book, “The Hiding Place”, page 220. Corrie suffered many indignities and great mental torture at the hands of the Nazis during the last war, particularly at the Ravensbruck concentration camp. But two years after the war was over, she was speaking at a church service inMunich, and in her own words –
It was at a church service in Munich that I saw him, the former S.S. man who had stood guard at the shower room door in the processing centre at Ravensbruck. He was the first of our actual jailers that I had seen since that time. And suddenly it was all there-the roomful of mocking men, the heaps of clothing, Betsie’s pain-blanched face. He came up to me as the church was emptying, beaming and bowing. “How grateful I am for your message Fraulein,” be said. “To think that, as you say, He has washed my sins away !” His hand was thrust out to shake mine. And I, who had preached so often to the people in Bloemendaal the need to forgive, kept my hand at my side. Even as the angry, vengeful thoughts boiled through me, I saw the sin of them. Jesus Christ had died for this man; was I going to ask for more? Lord Jesus, I prayed, forgive me and help me to forgive him. I tried to smile, I struggled to raise my hand. I could not. I felt nothing, not the slightest spark of warmth or charity. And so again I breathed a silent prayer. Jesus, I cannot forgive him Give me Your forgiveness. As I took his hand the most incredible thing happened. From my shoulder along my arm and through my hand a current seemed to pass from me to him, while into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me. And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world’s healing hinges, but on His. When He tells us to love our enemies, He gives, along with the command, the love itself.
What more needs to be said? If Corrie could find the miraculous power to forgive the (humanly) unforgivable, then equally God can change the hearts of those who ‘sit in their own armchairs’ and shut their minds and hearts to the greatness of God’s love. I say this not as a ‘backlash’ on the nature of your question, but rather a very real driving need for Christians to present the thesis of this letter, in prayer, to the Lord, for His mind to be revealed, and for our own hearts to be opened to the great vistas of work that God still has to do, and perhaps for us to become part of His work of reconciliation. Please remember this. Although Satan may be God’s greatest enemy, the Bible does not speak of him as being the LAST enemy. The last enemy is DEATH, whether it be the first death or the second death. When death is destroyed, then God will have reached the end of His work. But well before this is reached, God’s greatest enemy will have been reconciled. May God be praised!
QUOTATIONS FROM THE EARLY CHRISTIAN FATHERS.
ORIGEN. (Commentary on the epistle to the Romans, Book 8 chapter 11)
But 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; so that the fire of gehenna may purge him in torments whom neither apostolic 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 or ages it shall torment sinners, He only knows to who all judgment is committed by the Father.
(From De Principiis, 1.6:1-4 and 3.6:5)
The restoration to unity must not be imagined as a sudden happening. Rather is it to be thought of as gradually effected by stages during the passing of countless ages. Little by little and individually the correction and purification will be accomplished. Some will lead the way and climb to heights with swifter progress, others following hard on them, yet others will be far behind. Thus multitudes of individuals and countless orders will advance and reconcile themselves to God, who once were enemies; and so at length the last enemy will be reached. When it is said that the last enemy shall be destroyed (i.e. the Devil) 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.
FACUNDUS. (Various works. Vol.2.p.384. Venetian edition of 1728)
To all this is also to be added the confession of Domitian of Galatia, formerly Bishop of Ancyra – – for in the book which he wrote to Vigilius, where he is complaining of those who contradicted the doctrines of Origen, who maintained that the souls of men had pre-existed in some state of blessedness before they came into bodies, and that all those who were doomed to eternal punishment should, together with the Devil and his angels, be restored to their former state of blessedness.
GREGORY OF NYASA. (Dialogue on life and resurrection.)
It is needful that evil should some day be wholly and absolutely removed out of the circle of being. For inasmuch as it is not in the nature of evil to exist without the will, when every will comes to be in God, evil will go on to absolute extinction, by reason of there being no receptacle of it left.
CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA. (Comments on 1 John)
The Lord, he says, is the propitiation ‘not for our sins only’ (that is of the faithful), ‘but also for the whole world’. Therefore He indeed saves all universally, but some as converted by punishments, others by voluntary submission, thus obtaining the honour and dignity that ‘to Him every knee shall bow, of things in heaven, and things on earth, and things under the earth’, that is angels, and men, and souls departed this life before His coming into the world.
AUGUSTINE (De Civ.Dei, Book 21, ch.17)
And now I see I must have a gentle disputation with certain tender hearts of our own religion, who are unwilling to believe that everlasting punishment will be inflicted, either on all those whom the Just Judge shall condemn to the
pains of hell, or even on some of them, but who think that after certain periods of time, longer or shorter according to the proportion of their crimes, they shall be delivered out of that state.
(In other words, Augustine did not himself believe in ultimate restitution, but he speaks of the ‘very many’ in his day who did, and the words ‘very many’ in the original Latin are IMO QUAM PLURIMI, words which could never be interpreted of a small number.)
Although, as you know, my dear friend, I first came to know the Lord back in 1948, it was not until the spring of 1969 that the Lord first conveyed to me the truths of full reconciliation. My wife and I received the revelation, and in a very short space of time, we had come to believe in something that had been kept from us for nearly 20 years. It was as a shaft of pure beautiful light, and that light has been with us ever since, especially because we have had adequate time to see that the Scriptures are full of it, when once certain obstacles are removed from bad translations, and so we are glad to share the truth with as many as will receive it.