Jared and Tyler Duncan continue their dialogue on the question of universal salvation, following the death of their grandfather who was an avowed unbeliever. In this segment of the story, the boys discuss the evidence from the Old Testament supporting the doctrine of Christian Universalism. Once again, I remind the reader that this is a blog post and is not meant to provide a comprehensive review of all related scripture passages or a discussion of all possible arguments in favor of universalism. In this dialogue you will get an overview of the basic case for this doctrine made from the pages of the Old Testament. Readers seeking a more in-depth treatment are invited to review the references at the end of the story for a list of resources to aid in your study.
Tyler Duncan guided his dilapidated green car into a parking place near the front entrance of the Pizza Palace. Today was the day he and his cousin Jared had planned to discuss what the bible says about the doctrine of Christian Universalism. The past couple of days had been difficult. The boys’ grandfather, Pop, was buried on Monday and the following day Tyler spent time with his grieving grandmother. It was his first chance to spend any one-on-one time with her since Pop had died. Tyler enjoyed his time with her as they recalled stories about funny things that Pop had done or said.
Today, however, Tyler’s focus was on his hang out time with Jared. His cousin had promised to have a discussion with him on the scriptural evidence for the teaching of universal reconciliation. With his bible in hand, he marched into the restaurant and saw Jared sitting at a booth toward the back. The dark-haired boy noticed Tyler come in and waved a hello as his cousin made his way over.
“I went ahead and ordered a pizza for us.” Jared announced.
“Half pepperoni?” Tyler questioned.
Jared wore a look of horror. “Oh. I thought you liked sausage.”
Tyler winced. “I hate sausage.”
Jared erupted in laughter and playfully punched Tyler’s forearm. “I’m just kidding, cuz. Half pepperoni and half meatball.”
Tyler looked relieved and chuckled. “You always know how to get me going.”
Jared brushed his hair back and changed the subject. “Are you ready for our discussion? I’ve been looking forward to it.”
“You’ve been looking forward to it?” Tyler laughed. “I’ve hardly been able to think about anything else. I’m so fascinated to look at the scriptures in a fresh light. Where should we start?”
Jared grabbed Tyler’s Bible and presented it to the boy as if it were a gift. “Let’s start with the Old Testament first. This is what I want you to do: show me where in the Old Testament that it says that a person who dies ‘unsaved’ goes to eternal hellfire.”
Tyler took the bible and started flipping to some familiar passages. He had done some reading in advance to prepare for their conversation. He decided to start right at the beginning in Genesis with the fall of mankind. “Right here, at the beginning, God says to them in Genesis 2:17 that, if they eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, then they will die.”
Jared nodded and asked, “And how do you get the traditional idea of hell out of that?”
Tyler seemed a bit surprised that Jared would ask this. “Isn’t it obvious? He threatens them with death if they disobey. Spiritual death, or hell, is the consequence of sin – eternal separation from God.”
“I understand that’s the theory.” Jared replied. “What I want to know, specifically, is how you get that out of this passage?”
Tyler re-read the passage and realized that while God did delineate the consequence for Adam and Eve to be death, there was nothing in the immediate context that suggested unending punishment. Then a thought struck him.
“It has to mean hell, because if it meant physical death then they would have dropped dead on the spot.”
“The actual Hebrew is translated, ‘in the day you eat of it, dying, you shall die.’”
“Dying, you shall die?” Tyler looked confused.
“In other words, the dying process would begin, eventually ending in total physical death.”
Tyler re-read the passage for a third time, this time including chapter 3 while Jared continued his explanation. “Notice that when God pronounces judgment on Adam and Eve after they disobey that He defines the type of death He has in mind. ‘From dust you were formed and to dust you shall return.’ There is no mention of an afterlife in this passage. The penalty is understood to be in terms of the death of his and her physical organisms. They would be subject to the same dying process that all other biological organisms before them had been.”
Tyler nodded. “Okay, I’ll grant you that. It doesn’t seem like God came right out and threatened them with Hell.”
“Which is huge when considering this whole question of mankind’s final fate.” Jared added. “Think about it, cuz. The passage only pronounces physical death as the consequence of sin and it makes a big deal about it. However, what is physical death compared to endless torment in an infernal torture chamber? I mean, if God were really out to warn them of the worst, why did He not mention it?”
Tyler nodded. “Good question. But you have to keep in mind the progress of revelation. My pastor always talks about how some things we know about now are only a result of New Testament revelation and weren’t known in the Old Testament time period.”
“But again,” Jared insisted, “It doesn’t seem to me that this would be the kind of information that God should have waited to reveal. If God really loves mankind, then what would ever possess Him to keep from us the knowledge of this awful place when it could make all the difference in the world in how someone chooses to live this life?”
Tyler could feel the weight of the problem. “Yeah, the progress of revelation explanation doesn’t really solve the problem, then. It’s sort of like if I was going to warn someone not smoke. If I only told them that they would end up with a raspy voice and smoker’s cough, but neglected to tell them about lung cancer, it would be short-sighted.”
“Exactly! And negligent. Who cares about a smoker’s cough if you’re going to end up suffering with cancer? Do you see how it changes the whole dynamic of how one would approach smoking?”
Tyler nodded. “You’re right, it would. And it’s a strong argument. Why would He not have mentioned it right in the beginning? I don’t have an answer for that, but…”
“Hold that thought,” Jared interrupted. “Before we go on, I should point out that the same is true all throughout the Torah, the original five books of Moses that are referred to as the law. This is important, because with all the condemnations and penalties that come from violating the law, not one time is some eternal consequence mentioned. Even more to the point, no post-mortem repercussions are referred to at all. Look at the passage at the end of Deuteronomy which sums up the agreement between God and Israel, the Mosaic covenant. In Deuteronomy 28, He spells the whole thing out. In that entire list of horrific consequences, some of them so awful it’s hard to read, do you really think God would have left out the worst of them if He went through the trouble of listing all those?”
Tyler took a minute to read the entire chapter. There were threats of cities being destroyed, children dying, women being raped, plagues and diseases falling on the people, but to his astonishment not one mention of anything that would happen in the life to come. The boy scratched his chin.
“Maybe it was just something that was known and not worth mentioning.”
Jared smiled mockingly. “You can’t be serious. Going back to the example with smoking: what sense does it make to put all this emphasis on a raspy voice and smoker’s cough – the equivalent being all of the consequences of disobedience for the nation of Israel in this life – when the real horror is yet to come?”
Tyler sighed. “Okay. I have to concede that it doesn’t appear that anywhere in the Torah (also known as the Pentateuch) that God threatens to send anyone to hell for any type of sin and I admit that I have no explanation for it except that…”
“…that it’s what you’ve always believed.” Jared finished. His cousin nodded. “You see, the reason we ‘see’ hell in the Pentateuch is because we read it into the text from verses we think clearly teach it in the New Testament. That is a very poor interpretive method. The meanings of the Old Testament texts have, as their primary meaning, what they meant to those original hearers. And those original hearers would never have imagined a literal place of hell.”
Tyler nodded again. “Okay, so this is a problem, I see that. But it doesn’t eliminate all the other times in the Old Testament that Hell is mentioned. It’s talked about dozens of times. So, even though the Pentateuch doesn’t refer to it, somebody got the idea from God somewhere along the way.”
“Why don’t we go take a look at some of those verses?” Jared smiled. “I think you are going to be very surprised when we examine them a bit deeper.”
Tyler smiled. He was ready. The night before, while reading up, he had bookmarked a bunch of passages in the Old Testament of the King James Bible that he had received at his baptism. “Let me read to you from 2 Samuel 22:6: ‘The sorrows of hell compassed me about; the snares of death prevented me.’”
Jared held up a finger. “First, who’s the speaker?”
“Okay, does it make sense that David would talk about being snagged by the sorrows of hell when we know he was a man after God’s own heart and was most assuredly ‘saved?’”
Tyler chuckled. “I see what you’re saying, but the important thing is that he mentions hell.”
“And that’s my second point.” Jared responded. “Does he mention it? You see, the Hebrew word translated hell by the King James Version (KJV) is the word sheol. The word simply means grave.” He turned the Bible around and read the passage, then turned it back to Tyler. “Read all of verses 5 through 7, this time substituting the word grave for hell.”
“’When the waves of death compassed me, the floods of ungodly men made me afraid; The sorrows of the grave compassed me about; the snares of death prevented me; In my distress I called upon the LORD, and cried to my God: and he did hear my voice out of his temple, and my cry did enter into his ears.’”
“Do you see how the passage makes more sense with the translation of sheol as grave?” Jared asked. “All David is saying is that he was facing the possibility of death when he cried out to God and saw the Lord save him.”
Tyler pursed his lips and nodded. “Okay, I’ll give you that one, but how about this passage from Job 11:7-9: ‘Canst thou by searching find out God? Canst thou find out the Almighty unto perfection? It is as high as heaven; what canst thou do? Deeper than hell; what canst thou know? The measure thereof is longer than the earth, and broader than the sea.’ It seems like he is contrasting heaven above with hell below.”
Jared nodded, acknowledging the contrast. “But the question has to be whether the contrast needs to be between heaven and hell in order to be effective. The same Hebrew word, sheol, is the word here. When properly translated in the Old Testament, it appears as ‘the grave’, ‘death’, ‘the depths’, ‘the unseen place’, etc (Klassen, 2001). Here’s the way that verse reads in my NIV translation: Can you fathom the mysteries of God? Can you probe the limits of the Almighty? They are higher than the heavens above—what can you do? They are deeper than the depths below—what can you know? Their measure is longer than the earth and wider than the sea.’”
Tyler scratched his head. “I have some others.” The boy took his cousin through Job 26:6, Psalm 9:17; 16:10; 18:5, Isaiah 28:15, 18; 57:9, Ezekiel 31:16-17; 32:21, 27; Amos 9:2, and Habakkuk 2:5. In each instance, Jared showed that the KJV version mistranslated the word sheol as hell.
“Let me show you a scripture where the word is translated two different ways in the same passage.” He grabbed Tyler’s bible and turned to Isaiah 14:11. “’Thy pomp is brought down to the grave, and the noise of thy viols: the worm is spread under thee, and the worms cover thee.’ Now, just a couple of verses later in 15 it says, ‘Yet thou shalt be brought down to hell, to the sides of the pit.’ The word translated grave in verse 11 and hell in verse 15 is the same Hebrew word: sheol! What is the justification for translating it differently?”
Tyler sighed. After pondering it for a few minutes, he admitted that he couldn’t find a reason. He read the same verses aloud from the NIV: “’All your pomp has been brought down to the grave, along with the noise of your harps; maggots are spread out beneath you and worms cover you…But you are brought down to the realm of the dead, to the depths of the pit.’ It says, ‘the realm of the dead’ instead of hell in this translation.”
“Makes more sense in the context, don’t you think?” Jared queried.
“It does.” Tyler conceded. “It seems like all the verses I picked out are translated wrong. How can that be possible?”
“It’s only possible because you’re using an outdated translation like the KJV. Thirty times in the KJV is the word sheol translated as hell, and all thirty times the NIV translates it as death, the grave, or as something similar” (Aiken, n.d.).
Tyler seemed to be staring at the Bible, deep in thought. Jared continued.
“You have to understand that the Hebrew people did not have a concept of the afterlife like we do. Remember when we discussed Genesis 3 and we determined that God had sentenced Adam and Eve to a physical death because of their sin? That’s the reason that sheol, the grave, was seen to be the end, the punishment for sin. It is the place of death. You’ll see this all throughout the Proverbs as well. The grave is the end of the person who lives an ungodly life. The KJV translates it as hell, but there’s no contextual, linguistic, or cultural reason for it. There is no mention of the afterlife because it was a later development in Jewish theology to believe in it. In later writings the concept of a resurrection appears, a time when a person would be reconstituted and judged by God. Now, I should add that in some parts of the Old Testament, the writers do use sheol to imply the idea of a type of shadowy place where the dead existed in some sort of sleep-like disembodied state, but the overall belief of the Jewish people was that death was the end of existence until the resurrection (Cooper, 1989). So, with no intermittent abode, not only was there was no need to threaten hell, there was no place for it in their theology. The Old Testament is very ‘this-world’ focused and death in the grave is seen as the end.”
Tyler heaved a deep sigh. He had not expected to be this challenged by Jared. One by one, his cousin was refuting his arguments and providing a better understanding of the scriptures that he was certain taught a literal hell. “Wow, cuz, I’m really shocked by all this. It’s mindboggling to say this, but it seems like hell is, literally, not in the Old Testament!”
“It would appear to be the case.” Jared nodded.
Tyler shifted uncomfortably in his seat as the pizza arrived. He was clearly struggling with these realizations. After the waitress refilled their drinks, he asked, “But what about all the passages about judgment? Aren’t those passages meant to imply eternal punishment?”
“As we’ve already seen, even in the Proverbs (1:12; 5:5; 7:27; 9:18; 15:11, 24; 23:14; 27:20; 30:16), the grave or death, not hell, is seen as the punishment for sin. It is the judgment that God meted out for sin and all the judgment passages are consistent with this view. Think about the times when judgment came in the Old Testament. There is never any mention of an eternal punishment; rather the judgment comes in present time for the purpose of bringing about repentance. It’s not punishment for punishment’s sake.”
“What do you mean, ‘It’s not punishment for punishment’s sake?’” Tyler pressed.
“God is not sadistic. Judgment has a purpose (Beauchemin, 2007). Punishment (or discipline) has a purpose. It is not to separate people from God forever, but to draw them back. God would never design a punishment that lasts forever. Listen to this from 2 Samuel 14:14: ‘Like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be recovered, so we must die. But that is not what God desires; rather, he devises ways so that a banished person does not remain banished from him.’”
“Wow!” Tyler exclaimed. “That’s awesome! I’ve never read that verse before. Death comes because of sin, but God makes a way for us to come back to Him.”
“And check this one out,” Jared continued. “Lamentations 3:31-32: ‘For no one is cast off by the Lord forever. Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love.’” The boy flipped through the pages until he arrived at Psalm 66:10-12. “’For you, God, tested us;
you refined us like silver. You brought us into prison and laid burdens on our backs. You let people ride over our heads; we went through fire and water, but you brought us to a place of abundance.’ Again, the discipline God administered was to bring them to a place of abundant life. It also says here in Isaiah 26:9b, ‘When your judgments come upon the earth, the people of the world learn righteousness.’ You see? Judgment results in righteousness. Psalm 119:67, 71 say, ‘Before I was afflicted I went astray, now I obey your word…It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees.’ It’s also written in Jeremiah 30:24, ‘The fierce anger of the LORD will not turn back until he fully accomplishes the purposes of his heart.’ Over and over we see God’s judgment having a purpose and we see that He will not end judgment until that purpose is accomplished. A couple chapters later the prophet writes, ‘I have driven them in my anger;…I will bring them back…for the good of them’ (37-39). This discipline is for our good! The last verses I’ll read are from Malachi 3:2-3: ‘But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness.’”
Tyler let out a low whistle. “That’s pretty amazing. I guess I had always looked at God’s judgment as being for destroying people. Now, it looks like its purpose is to correct us and for making people holy through it.”
“I, too, used to think that judgment was like that,” Jared said. “I thought it was just God getting even, paying the people back for rejecting Him. But, now I’ve come to a different conclusion. It’s a much more compassionate and gracious picture of God, that’s for sure. God’s love and God’s justice work together and have the same aim: the good of the person who is experiencing them. They are two sides of the same coin.”
Tyler swallowed a bite of pizza and sipped his soda. “Okay. Let me sum up what I think I’ve learned so far.” He paused to let out a slow breath. “I never thought coming here this afternoon that I would say this, but here goes: First, nowhere in the Old Testament is it taught that an endless hell exists in the afterlife. Moreover, the word hell does not even appear anywhere in the 39 books that make up the Old Testament. Second, the Hebrew Testament states repeatedly that the point of God’s judgment is to bring people back to Him, not just to kick their butts. Okay, I get that. My question is this: why did the King James translators used the word hell to translate sheol?
Jared laughed. “It’s because in the seventeenth century, that was the correct translation.”
Tyler was confused. “Say what?”
Jared smiled, amused at his cousin’s perplexed look. “The word hell means ‘the covered place.’ It’s a word that comes from an old Norse goddess of the underworld known as Hel (Abbot, n.d.). ‘The covered place,’ in the sense of it being hidden or unseen, is the correct understanding of the Hebrew sheol. What happened is that, over time, especially with works like Dante’s Inferno and other medieval art forms, ‘hell’ took on an entirely different dimension complete with devils running around and torture chambers. This happened as the nature of salvation became more dualistic and there was a greater contrast between the pleasures and joys of heaven and the terrors of hell. Clearly, this imagery is not in the bible. It is a medieval import from that culture as to the nature of the afterlife for unbelievers. So, while originally this word was the correct translation of a Hebrew word that simply meant ‘death’ or ‘the grave,’ it later became a loaded term that conjured up all the images of hell that people think of when it is mentioned today.”
Tyler was thoughtful. “So, even hell didn’t mean hell.”
Jared laughed. “Yeah, I guess you could say that. The more heaven became a place for the faithful up in the sky, the more hell became a place for the wicked somewhere ‘down there.’”
The waitress came over and refilled their sodas. She cleared away the remainders of crust from the fully devoured pizza along with the dirty lunch plates. She dropped off the bill and promised to be back when they were ready to pay. The boys dug money out of their wallets, put it together to cover the bill and a tip for the waitress, and placed it on the end of the table where she could see it. A few minutes later she returned and the boys informed her that she could keep the change.
“Thanks guys! Stay as long as you want and I’ll be sure to keep your drinks filled!”
Tyler placed his forearms on the now cleared space on the table and looked at Jared. “This is all making sense to me. I’m kind of in a bit of shock right now as I think about the idea that the Old Testament doesn’t contain the idea of an eternal hell. And that raises a whole bunch of questions about the New Testament and what it teaches on hell.” He paused to scratch his head. “One last thing, though. The evidence you present is convincing, but where does it say that all people will be saved? Does the Old Testament anticipate all people being reconciled to God?”
Jared grabbed his NIV and flipped to Isaiah 25:6-8 and read, “’On this mountain the LORD Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine—the best of meats and the finest of wines. On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign LORD will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove his people’s disgrace from all the earth. The LORD has spoken.’ That’s a pretty powerful verse. It engenders the hope that God will wipe away the tears from every person’s face and, in the end, bring all of us into the celebration that will be part of His kingdom.”
“Any more?” Tyler prodded.
Jared proceeded to share with Tyler the following verses. Ezekiel 36:23, 36 which says, “I will show the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, the name you have profaned among them. Then the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Sovereign LORD, when I am proved holy through you before their eyes…. Then the nations around you that remain will know that I the LORD have rebuilt what was destroyed and have replanted what was desolate. I the LORD have spoken, and I will do it.” Isaiah 2:2: “In the last days the mountain of the LORD’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains; it will be exalted above the hills, and all nations will stream to it.” Isaiah 40:5: “And the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” Isaiah 45:22-23: “’Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other. By myself I have sworn, my mouth has uttered in all integrity a word that will not be revoked: Before me every knee will bow; by me every tongue will swear.” Zephaniah 2:11: “The LORD will be awesome to them when he destroys all the gods of the earth. Distant nations will bow down to him, all of them in their own lands.” Isaiah 66:23: “From one New Moon to another and from one Sabbath to another, all mankind will come and bow down before me,” says the LORD.” Zephaniah 3:8-9: ”I have decided to assemble the nations, to gather the kingdoms and to pour out my wrath on them—all my fierce anger. The whole world will be consumed by the fire of my jealous anger. Then I will purify the lips of the peoples, that all of them may call on the name of the LORD and serve him shoulder to shoulder.” Psalm 22:27, 29: “All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations will bow down before him… All the rich of the earth will feast and worship; all who go down to the dust will kneel before him—those who cannot keep themselves alive.” Psalm 65:2: “You who answer prayer, to you all people will come.”
Tyler was thoughtful. “Couldn’t that verse about every knee bowing and swearing to God be understood as God’s winning a victory over His enemies and forcing them to admit defeat, and not about their ultimate salvation?”
Jared shrugged. “I can see how you may take it like that. I can say two things in reply. First, God is not on an ego trip and doesn’t need people to admit they’re defeated by Him in order to have good self-esteem.” The boys both laughed out loud at this statement. Jared continued, “God is more interested in winning over the hearts of His enemies than forcing them into an insincere confession of His Lordship. What value does a forced confession have? Wouldn’t God rather have them do it as an act of worship? And that’s my second point. If you understand the statement to be a prophecy that all people, one day, will willingly worship God by bowing the knee and swearing allegiance to Him out of love, then it is so much more beautiful. Not only that, but this imagery is consistent with the other verses I read and the New Testament concept of confessing Christ as Lord as part of salvation and personal worship (Talbott, 1999).”
“Well, I have to say, then: these verses are pretty powerful.”
“And there’s a lot more besides those, but those are just my favorites. And don’t forget about God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:3 and 22:18 where He tells him that, in his descendants, all the families of the earth will be blessed (Bonda, 1993).”
“Couldn’t someone say that some of these verses are more general and speak about nations and families and tongues, instead of individuals?” Tyler questioned.
“Great question,” Jared responded. “Back in the Old Testament time period, people were not often identified in an individual manner like they are today, but rather by their group. So, when it says that all nations will worship God, it means all the people in those nations. When it says that all the families will be blessed through Abraham, it means all the people in those families. Individuals are part of groups and the Hebrew reading this would have implicitly understood that all the people in those nations and families were to receive the blessing. The most conservative thing you can say is that the visions of the future that the Old Testament writers have are of universal worship and peace. It’s a theme that will become even clearer in the New Testament.”
“Which I’m very eager to begin discussing.” Tyler stated. “I know I have to run to a doctor’s appointment now, but do you think we can pick up this discussion from here and talk about the New Testament?”
Jared fist-bumped his cousin. “Sure thing. I’ll call you tomorrow morning and we can make plans. Sound good?”
“Sounds like a plan. Thanks for this talk, Jared. You got a million bells and whistles going off in my mind.”
The boys both laughed. They got up, exited the pizza restaurant, and went their separate ways. Tyler steered his beat-up excuse for a car out of the parking lot and into traffic. He was half paying attention as a number of thoughts went through his head. If the Old Testament didn’t teach the concept of hell as he had understood it, then what about the New Testament? Didn’t Jesus speak of it more than He did heaven? That’s what his pastor had said in a sermon one time. Were there better explanations for the New Testament passages than he had been taught? Is it possible that the concept of hell was nowhere to be found in the New Testament either?
Tyler turned all of these things over in his head. It seemed a bit absurd to him that God would not have mentioned something as awful as hell until Jesus came along. What about the millions of people who had died before Christ began His ministry? He quietly admitted to himself that it was becoming much more difficult to maintain his original belief. With this thought, tears came to his eyes. Perhaps the hope for Pop was greater than he first imagined. Still, there were a lot more questions to be answered. He looked forward to the next conversation with Jared about what the New Testament said about hell and universalism.
TO BE CONTINUED…
Abbot, L. (n.d.). An analytical study of words. Retrieved from http://www.tentmaker.org/books/asw/Chapter14.html.
Aiken, M. (n.d.). The origin of “hell.” Retrieved from http://www.mercifultruth.com/the-real-hell.html.
Beauchemin, G. (2007). Hope beyond hell: The righteous purpose of God’s judgment. Olmito, TX: Malista Press.
Bonda, J. (1993). The one purpose of God: An answer to the doctrine of eternal punishment. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s Publishing.
Cooper, J.W. (1989). Body, soul, and everlasting life: Biblical anthropology and the monism-dualism debate. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s Publishing.
Klassen, R. (2001). What does the bible really say about hell? Wrestling with the traditional view. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press.
Talbott, T. (1999). The inescapable love of god. Universal Publishers.