The Fire of God's Judgment
Man's judgments are always flawed, because they proceed from the finite mind that does not see the end from the beginning. The only way that we can judge all things perfectly is by the spirit, and this requires submitting the soulish mind to the spiritual mind and deferring to the spirit.
Man's mind thinks dualistically, and this is most evident when we judge and even when we interpret God's judgments from our dualistic point of view. Many years ago the Persians developed a religion based upon the idea of “Persian Dualism.” It was the best that the human mind could conceive. They believed that in the beginning, light and darkness became mixed, and that the purpose of history was to separate them once again into their respective zones.
Thus, they believed that in the end, God would obtain all the “good” people, while Satan would obtain all the “bad” people, and these would then coexist throughout eternity in their respective zones (that is, heaven and hell).
This idea permeated the Middle East and soon became adopted by Bible-believers. They began to interpret the Bible dualistically. But even so, a great number of early Christians rejected such Dualism and taught that God would save all men after the sinners had been purged by the “lake of fire.”
Augustine, the “champion of eternal torments,” admitted in his writings that “most people” disagreed with his idea that the unbelievers would be tormented for eternity. I gave this quote, among others, in my book, Creation's Jubilee.
The idea of eternal torment appears to be taught clearly in Scripture, because the Greek word eonian, "pertaining to an eon," is translated as “eternal” or “everlasting.” But this Greek word did not mean to convey the idea of endlessness. For a full discussion of this word, see chapter five of my book, The Judgments of the Divine Law.
The incorrect translations of aionian began with Jerome who translated the Bible into Latin. His translation is called the Latin Vulgate. When he came to the word aionian, he rendered it by the Latin word aeternas, from which we get "eternal." The problem is, aeternas had a double meaning: (1) an age, and (2) an unlimited period of time. This left the door open for vengeful Church leaders to interpret eonian according to the alternate meaning of aeternas.
When the weight of theological interpretation shifted from the Greek-speaking world of the Seven Churches in Asia to the Latin Church of Rome, the Roman Church moved to stamp out the view of the Reconciliation of All Things. This began in the year 400 A.D. with the controversy between Theophilus of Alexandria and John Chrysostom of Constantinople. I told the well-known story in my book, A Short History of Universal Reconciliation.
This is one of the most unfortunate events in Church history, for it caused later Church Councils to declare the Reconciliation view to be heretical. It forced the people, in essence, to give up their Greek word eonian and to adopt the secondary meaning of aeternas when speaking of divine judgment for sin. After 1,500 years of this tradition of men, it is difficult for Christians to believe that there could be any alternative to “eternal torment.”
But the Scriptures themselves have not changed, and now anyone can see how the words aeon (eon) and eonian are actually used in their own Bibles. As I showed in chapter five of my book, The Judgments of the Divine Law, many theologians of all denominations admit that the word does not mean “unending time.” These include Dr. Robert Young, who put together Young's Concordance and his Literal Translation of the Bible.
If the first obstacle to understanding divine judgment is to grapple with the DURATION of “hell,” the second is to understand the NATURE of the “lake of fire.” In other words, is the lake of fire a literal fire that tortures people? Or is the “fire” symbolic of the divine law itself, which nowhere makes torture a remedy or judgment for any sin?
All divine judgment proceeds from His nature and character, because God will always remain true to Himself. He appeared to Israel only as a consuming “fire” (Deut. 4:12). In Deut. 33:2 we read that He sent His “fiery law” to Israel, or a Law of Fire. It was meant to consume “the flesh,” to correct all sin that a man might commit against God or his neighbor.
Many years after the time of Moses, God asked the prophet in Jer. 23:29, “Is not My word like fire?” Yes, it is like fire, because it proceeds from the mind of God, who has manifested to us as a Consuming Fire.
In Daniel 7 we are told how the Ancient of Days will come to sit upon His throne and judge the world. Verse 9 says that “His throne was the fiery flame; his wheels burning fire.” A throne or a judge's "bench" is a symbol of law. When a king sits upon the throne, or a judge sits upon “the bench,” it indicates that he is about to judge according to the law. Thus, the throne is portrayed as fire, because the law is the fire.
Then Daniel 7:10 reads,
10 A river of fire was flowing and coming out from before Him. . . the court sat, and the [law] books were opened.
The “river of fire” is the judgment of the law upon the people. John saw this same scene in Revelation 20, except that he saw a “lake of fire,” rather than a river. Daniel saw the origin of the fire coming from the fiery throne itself, while John saw the result of the fiery stream as a “lake.”
Yet in both cases it is clear that God judges according to His own law, not according to the laws of man. God's law demands restitution, not torture. And where restitution is not possible (such as in the case of murder), God's law tells the judges to defer it to the Higher Court, removing the person from society so he can do no further damage. His case then awaits the Great White Throne Judgment at the end of time. This is why the law provides for a death penalty in such cases. Man's courts are incapable of dealing with every kind of criminal case, so it must await a Higher Court which has the ability to judge such cases.
Isaiah 26:9 says,
9 . . . for when the earth experiences Thy judgments, the inhabitants of the world learn righteousness.
Here the prophet tells us the mind of God and His purpose for lawful judgment. Torture does not teach people righteousness. It only wounds them. Never-ending judgment with no possibility for forgiveness only makes men bitter and angry, locking them in sin. It is not possible to reconcile creation by means of torture. Only Love is adequate to the task.
The time of the “lake of fire” will be the age-abiding judgment in which the believers will be given authority over those who used to be unbelievers—for, you see, once unbelievers have been given a corrective interview at the Great White Throne, it is not likely that they will emerge as unbelievers. The unbelievers will be under authority in that age and will learn righteousness BY EXAMPLE through those who have been perfected in Love.
According to law, the unbelievers will be “sold for their theft” (Ex. 22:3). Those who purchase them are called “redeemers,” for they redeem the sinner's debt note. The Court then entrusts the sinners into the hands of responsible redeemers, who will be given authority over creation, ruling and reigning with Christ.
These will be responsible to reform the sinners by Love, teaching then of the character of Jesus Christ, and bringing the sinner into spiritual maturity. This time of judgment is called “the second death,” which is the kind of death through which all believers must pass. Paul says, “I die daily,” and the sinners in that day will not be able to bypass this death process built into the law.
Yet this is not the end of the story, for the last enemy to be abolished is death itself (1 Cor. 15:26). This occurs at the great Jubilee of history, as prophesied by the law of Jubilee, where all debt (sin) is cancelled by this marvelous Law of Grace. This is the moment all creation is anticipating (Rom. 8:22). God fully intends to reconcile all of creation to Himself, so that He loses nothing. This is His plan, and He will not fail.