Some believe Christianity teaches that if you don't believe in God, you'll burn in hell forever. Jim Beyers tests this idea against the Bible.
Very few Christians deny the concept of salvation by grace—that our lives are ultimately saved not because of anything we have done but simply as a gift from God. This is the very essence of Christianity. Author C S Lewis once remarked that grace is a belief unique to the Christian faith. Christianity alone dares to claim that God’s love is unconditional; a gift to anyone who has the faith to accept it.
Paul told Timothy that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15), and the apostle John said that “whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:8). God’s grace and His love are so intertwined that they cannot be separated.
However, there is a popular and deeply entrenched Christian belief that, paradoxically, goes against such statements about the love of God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, and drives many people to reject Christianity altogether. It’s the concept of the immortality of the soul and the conclusion that naturally derives from it: that all those who refuse to accept Christ as Saviour will be tormented in the fires of hell for eternity.
An Infinite Punishment?
Think about it: what would eternal torment achieve for God, for His redeemed children and for those who haven’t accepted God’s saving grace?
Those who deliberately reject God’s gift would have good cause to hate their tormenter. But neither could those who accept the gift of grace rejoice, for it would cause them great sorrow to know that a brother, a sister or a friend who rejected God was suffering while they lived eternally.
Consider 1 John 4:8 again: “God is love.” Jesus also commanded us to “love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44) and, because I believe He practises what He preaches, He too would love His enemies.
Where does this leave the teaching of eternal torment in hell? It’s simply a contradiction about God, whose very nature is infinite love and kindness. God does not want “anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
Some years ago, at a meeting of our town’s church ministers, someone declared that “sin is infinite, therefore it warrants an infinite punishment!” Another suggested that eternal torment is a “living death,” whatever that means. But it’s impossible to be dead and alive at the same time. Sin cannot be infinite. Infinity has no beginning and no end, but sin began in heaven with an angel called Lucifer. Living in God’s presence, he became jealous of God and rebelled. Thrown out of heaven, he now roams our world as the devil, and his end is predicted.
The Bible teaches that before the world is made new, fire will devour the devil and all his followers (Revelation 20:9). Death incarnate in the devil will be thrown into the lake of fire (verse 14) and we will inhabit a clean, sin-free and peaceful universe.
Note in verse 24 the use of the word devour. How can something remain to be tormented eternally if it has already been swallowed up, as the word devour suggests?
Similarly, those who choose not to accept God’s gift of grace will perish. They will simply cease to exist, not remain burning in hell infinitely. The penalty—the fact that they will cease to exist—is eternal. The pain and suffering won’t be.
In God’s loving wisdom, and because of His infinite love, He gave free will to all His children, both angels and humans. He gave us the freedom to choose between right and wrong, the freedom to choose whom we will love, serve and worship.
He could have programmed us to obey His every requirement without question, reciting, “We love You, Father,” in which case we would not even know what love really means. Instead, we have the ability to choose whether to be saved or not. God has not predestined us to be saved whether or not we want to be.
Some people assume that Romans 8:29 refers to predestination for salvation: “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” However, this verse simply means that God knew us all before we were even conceived. It has nothing to do with whether we will be saved or not.
God gave us free will to help us understand how important His love is. He wants us all to accept Christ as our Saviour, but He will not violate our freedom of choice.
Our God is not a cruel tyrant. It is up to each of us to choose where we will spend eternity—alive with Him in heaven or dead in oblivion.
The Fate Of The Soul
We know that those who reject God will perish, but they will not suffer continually in a lake of fire. But what about their souls? Do their souls die too? Or is it the soul that is to be forever tormented?
Genesis 2:7 tells us very simply that at the beginning of our human history, “The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being [or soul].”
That first human God created was Adam. God made Adam in his own likeness and then breathed life into him. Only then, as the text tells us, did he become a living being, or as some translations have it, a living soul.
So we, the descendants of Adam, do not possess souls. We are souls. Yhe soul is neither distinct nor separate from the body. god didn’t give Adam a soul. He gave Adam life, and Adam became a soul.
So what applies to the soul, applies to us as a person. There is no distinction.