Talking about Jesus and Hell last week, I mentioned briefly that St Paul never uses any of the standard Hell-words such as Gehenna, Hades, or the lake of fire, such as we find elsewhere in the New Testament . I was surprised at this, and surprised at myself also that I’ve taken so many years to discover such a basic fact. Sometimes we just see what we expect to see and filter out the rest.
I got curious about that, so this week I’m asking the question for my own benefit as much as for anyone else’s, if Paul doesn’t use these words, then what words does he use, what does he mean by them, and what did he actually think about ‘Hell and all that’.For this I’ve listened through the thirteen NT letters that conventionally carry his name. Nothing more, no commentaries or anything. This is how I like to study the Bible, just read it and see what it says. So …
Paul uses a whole series of words to convey his understanding of the Hell-condition, and I don’t find them pleasant reading. They include wrath, destruction, condemnation, and death; to which can be added the concepts of punishment and exclusion or separation. We need to look at all these, but before that there’s one essential—we need to understand the kind of timeline that Paul is operating with.
Paul’s basic timeline of existence for non-Christian people divides into three parts, like this:
- Life on Earth, the here and now. This is followed by
- The Day of the Lord, or the Day of Jesus Christ, what we often call Judgment Day. And after this
- Eternity, which can also be translated from the Greek as “the age to come”.
For Christian people, those who have come to know God and received the Holy Spirit, it’s slightly more complicated. The first (life on earth) part is subdivided into two by our conversion so we get this:
- Life on Earth before conversion
- Conversion, meeting God and receiving the Spirit
- Life on Earth from then on
- The Day of the Lord
Once we understand these timelines it starts to get easier. And to get the full picture we need to understand only one more thing. When Paul uses his “words”, he sometimes applies them to a single time segment, but more often he applies them to multiple time segments. And often when he does that, he doesn’t see a clear distinction things happening in one time segment and things happening in another. It’s as if he sees past, present, future, and eternity as all being facets of one single, eternal, timeless reality. Which may in fact be the case. To be dead now and to be dead in eternity are really the same thing. Does that make any sense?
Let’s look at an example. Wrath, or the anger of God. For Paul, someone who doesn’t know God is under the wrath of God during his earthly life; he gets the wrath of God meted out to him on the Day of the Lord; and then he is subject to the wrath of God in the age to come. But they are not really three different things. For a God who exists outside of time there’s no real distinction.
A Christian meanwhile is seen as having been subject to God’s wrath prior to his conversion, but this wrath is lifted when he come to Christ. After that there is no more wrath. By the way, Paul uses a similar way of thinking when he talks about more positive things such as salvation. We are “saved” when we receive Christ for the first time; we continue to be saved as an ongoing process through life; we are saved on the Day of the Lord; and we remain saved into eternity. Again for Paul, it’s all one salvation.
With these two principles established—Paul’s timelines, and the way he slots his “words” into those lines—we are now in a position to return to the primary question, which is this: Is there any trace in Paul of the sort of Universalism that could indicate the entire human race ultimately being reconciled to God and brought into the kingdom, even those who reject him now? And the short answer is, I really can’t find it.
Let’s look briefly at Paul’s words one by one. We’ve discussed wrath, which just means God’s anger—though I’m not sure why I say “just”! After all, God’s wrath is equated (e.g. Romans 5) with God’s enmity which sounds fairly bad. Anger can of course be lifted. But the basic problem we come up against right through is this: on Paul’s timeline, eternity—the age to come—doesn’t have any subdivisions. There’s just one homogenous “age to come” and that’s it. There’s no part one and part two.
Now death, which Paul uses a lot. This is not death as we normally think of it, the kind of point-event that happens when we have our heart attack or whatever. It’s something else than that, more an ongoing process. So Paul can speak of “the widow who lives for pleasure (being) dead even while she lives” [1 Timothy 5.6] or Christians having been “dead in their trespasses” before being made alive [Ephesians 2.5] Dead means cut off from God, just as Paul speaks of Christians as being “dead to the world”. The connection is severed. The line is dead. Though I suppose even death can be reversed, hypothetically.
From this perspective destruction seems even worse. The problem with destruction is that’s it’s an ongoing progressive process. The longer it goes on, the worse it gets. The longer it goes on, the less reversible it becomes. Granted Paul doesn’t use this word very often in unequivocal reference to the age to come—though “… who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord”[2 Thessalonians 1.9] is pretty forthright (one of Paul’s earliest letters – did he mellow later?).
This passage in Thessalonians is interesting as it links together three concepts of punishment, destruction, and exclusion from God’s presence. The concept of exclusion—and if from God’s presence then also from God’s Kingdom—is not common in Paul but Jesus used it a lot. So do I. It’s difficult to tell people that they are “dead” and need to be made alive, easier to explain to them that they are outside God’s Kingdom and need to come in.
In all these I can’t find much to suggest that Paul saw any of these states of being—or non-being—as anything but permanent and irrevocable in the final, eternity segment of existence. So, is there anything that, if I were a Universalist, I might grasp onto to back up my position? I’ve identified two possibilities, though neither convince me.
The first is in 1 Corinthians 15 where Paul says that "the last enemy to be destroyed is death", and then that "death is swallowed up in victory". Obviously one could argue Universalism from here—it perhaps implies a Kingdom so infinite and all-embracing that all negatives and blemishes are crowded out. But does it indicate that there’s no space outside that boundary for anything else to exist? Not necessarily. It reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ allegorical novel The Great Divorce in which Hell is portrayed ultimately as an almost microscopic particle lodged in a tiny crack in the ground of Heaven between two blades of grass. As we get further from God we diminish, get smaller. As the separation is complete we virtually disappear. Hell is no longer big enough to make even a meaningful dent in the boundary of God’s Kingdom. Heaven gets bigger, Hell just shrivels into nothingness, and all within it.
The second candidate passage is from Timothy: "The living God who is the saviour of all men and especially of those who believe." So is God really the actual saviour of all men, of everyone who ever existed? The problem with this interpretation (apart being contrary to everything else Paul ever says) is that it is a logical nonsense. Either he’s the saviour of all men or he’s not. And if he is, then how can he be especially the saviour of one particular subgroup and less so of the others? You can’t be half a saviour. It makes no sense. I can only think that Paul means the potential saviour of all men. I don’t see how it can mean more than that.
It’s important to understand that Paul didn’t know everything. We tend to think of the Bible as a book that has all the answers, that if we dig around hard enough we can find them all—but of course it doesn’t. It only tells us what God wants us to know, which is not at all everything. Paul is ambiguous on many things, probably because there were many questions to which he didn’t know the answers. Why should he?
I see no suggestion in any of Paul’s writing that he saw anything but finality in any of the frightening words he uses to describe life without God. That’s what gave the urgency to his sense of mission. For me it makes sense to live life on that basis. If one day we wake up on the other side and find a whole lot of people there we really hadn’t expected to see—that’s a bonus.
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