Is Hell Eternal?
Matthew 25:46, the verse just quoted says that those who don’t go to eternal life go to eternal punishment.
But some early Christians said that God would eventually release everyone from Hell. In The Apocalypse of Peter, Jesus is reported as saying, “My Father will give unto them all the life, the glory, and the kingdom that passeth not away, . . . 'It is because of them that have believed in me that I am come. It is also because of them that have believed in me, that, at their word, I shall have pity on men.”
The idea that God will eventually grant everyone eternal life makes better sense of the fact that Hell is called a “punishment.” The purpose of punishment is restoration. God doesn’t punish us simply to keep on punishing us. He punishes us to teach us, to bring us to repentance.
But what about that word “eternal”?
In most cases the Greed word that we translate as eternal means exactly that, something that will never end. Another translation is everlasting. But the same word is used in Luke 16:9: “I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”
Jesus says this in the context of telling the Parable of the Shrewd Manager. A plain reading seems to be that we should use money not for ourselves but to do others favors so that when we, in turn, need help, others will remember what they did for us and take us in.
But I don’t expect anyone’s dwelling in this world to last forever. The person I helped financially last week doesn’t have an eternal house that he can welcome me into. So, the sense of the word seems to be simply “ongoing.” If you help people with the use of your resources, they will also help you on an ongoing basis.
Eternal means ongoing. It goes on, not that it can’t end. In the same way, eternal life will go on. It’s ongoing. God is eternal and so, will go on being. But not everything that continues to go on will need to do so forever. Perhaps, in God’s mercy, Hell is one ongoing punishment that won’t last forever.
This idea of the temporary nature of Hell might be part of the some Christians believe in Purgatory, a temporary punishment before entering eternal life. The two doctrines are not the same, but they are similar in the temporary form of punishment for the sake of restoration.
This blog post is included in my book, Last Days: A Biblical Guide to the End Times.
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