A Conversation about the Afterlife

By Scott Reichard

The recent book by Rob Bell, Love Wins, has reopened the controversial topic about the ultimate spiritual destiny of mankind – will every person, no matter what, be reconciled ultimately back to God through his bountiful love in Christ’s sacrificial death and live eternally in His presence, or will Judgment Day separate some men and women to eternal separation from God, that is to Hell, while others, through the reconciling work of Christ on the Cross, spend eternity with God?

The month of May will be devoted to exploring this question.  We thought that there is no better place to discuss this heated topic then at your local seminary.  We have asked D. Scott Reichard, a local proponent of “ultimate reconciliation,” and Dr. Aaron Bird, an adjunct Professor at Urbana Seminary and specialist on the doctrine of Hell – who will be teaching a summer course at Urbana Seminary called “Evil, Hell & Universalism” – to discuss the matter for us on our blog.  We have asked Mr. Reichard to write our first blog.  Dr. Bird will respond to Mr. Reichard’s comments next week.


HELL’S BACKGROUND:  The story of how the Hell Fire Eternal Torment (ET) Doctrine came to be current Orthodoxy is an intriguing tale.  The Hell Fire with which we are all most familiar as most know, is no where to be found in the Old Testament (OT).  It is also interesting to note that many Bibles today (i.e. Young’s, Rotherham, Concordant, Weymouth, Zondervan parallel, New American, Original Bible Project etc.) do not even have the word Hell in them.  The King James Version (KJV) seems to be the one version loaded with Hell (54 times) as it translates Sheol, Hades and Gehenna as Hell throughout the Bible (Hell being an old English word meaning “to cover” such as when you “hell the roof”).  As for these KJV words translated Hell, Paul used the term Hades once but only in the sense of victory in 1 Corinthians.  James used the term Gehenna once but only as a metaphor for the underlying power of our words.  John never uses the Hell words. Jesus referred to Gehenna (the garbage dump outside Jerusalem) on Four teaching occasions in Matthew when mainly referring to the Pharisees.  We must not, of course, make light of these warnings by Jesus, we just need to understand what He is saying when referring to Gehenna in these passages and why only in Matthew do they seem to occur.  Regarding Church History, none of the early Church Creeds expressed Everlasting Torture for sinners and the First Four Church Councils were silent on the subject. In addition, Four of the Six early Schools of Theology (Alexandria, Caesarea, Antioch and Edessa) taught the Lake of Fire was Temporal and Restorative instead of Eternally Punitive (ET).  Only the School in Carthage (which included Rome and where Augustine was Bishop 400 A.D.) taught the doctrine of Everlasting Torment.  So, it may be wise to take a good look at the life of Augustine and the Roman West for answers to the question of how we ended up with today’s Eternal Hell Fire teaching as Orthodoxy.

AUGUSTINE, ORIGEN’S FATE AND FIFTH CHURCH COUNCIL INFLUENCE: Everlasting torture for sinners was a minority opinion up until Augustine (354-430).  Augustine championed the ET doctrine after the Pagan sack of Rome in 410 A.D. relying on his interpretation of the Latin Vulgate (Greek Aion specifically) and explaining how pagans could defeat spiritual Rome in his famous book two years later in 412 entitled The City of God. Unfortunately, Augustine was ignorant of Greek. In his book Augustine of  Hippo (page 36), Peter Brown states, “Augustine’s failure to learn Greek was a momentous casualty of the late Roman educational system; he will become the only Latin philosopher in antiquity to be virtually ignorant of the Greek language.”  And what was worse, in time the Latin Church no longer saw the need to learn Greek and this deficiency indirectly perpetuated the ET error with little chance of correction.  Peter Brown goes on to say, “gradually the learned fellowship would cease to feel the need for Greek books. For they had Augustine.”  (Ibid., p. 272).   Then during this same general time period, through a series of unfortunate events, Origen (180-253 A.D.—the first to write a systematic theological commentary on the whole Bible and by far the most influential Christian writer of his time but relatively unknown in the Latin West) was condemned as a heretic by men out for revenge and political gain. This led to the Fifth Church Council in 553 attended by only 148 Bishops anathematizing Origen not on Restoration teaching grounds but other issues.  In time, the Latin West “threw out the baby with the bath water” as they “had Augustine” and set the theological tone for the Church replacing the influence of the Eastern Church Fathers for years to come.  We then entered the Dark Ages with of course no Internet and no Bibles and the folks mainly getting their information from what Leaders handed down to them.  We then see a revival of thought in the Reformation with Bibles finally in hand and men like Luther, John Milton, John Wesley, Charles Wesley and others questioning the doctrine of Eternal Torment.  Many teachers during this time and earlier also practiced the ”Doctrine of Reserve” whereby they held the Doctrine of Ultimate Salvation for themselves but felt that it was not safe for the multitudes, and thus taught them Endless Perdition to keep them in line. This is why you see quotes going both directions from many of these teachers.  A much larger resurgence of questions surrounding ET occurred in the 20th Century with new Bible translations beyond the KJV coming out and men like John Stott and and John Wenham taking issue.  Then fresh in today’s news are men like Rob Bell and many others again questioning the view as Orthodoxy.  Eternal Torment (ET) is a Doctrine that few people really believe but who keep saying is true based on the strong tradition they think it has had for the last 1600 years.  R. Albert Mohler states it well in the book Hell under Fire, (p.16) ”The traditional doctrine of Hell now bears the marks of “odium theologium”– an embarrassing artifact with few defenders”–yet it continues to terrorize millions. Is it finally time to end the Tradition of Everlasting Punishment (ET) before it further mars the Character and Nature of God?

by Scott Reichard