On the way home from a much-needed vacation trip, I listened to the flight attendant’s familiar phrase: “We hope you enjoy your stay in Orlando, or wherever is your final destination.” It got me thinking. Orlando definitely wasn’t my “final destination” that day. For reasons totally unknown to me, my ticket said I was only there to change planes for Washington, D.C., only to change again, this time for Charlotte, N.C. It would be several hours before I was “home” in Concord. But even Concord wasn’t my “final” destination! North Carolina is the 11th state I’ve lived in, and there is no way to predict how many more times I may move before I reach my “final resting place.” Is it even over then? What will happen to me after I die? Where (if anywhere) is my absolutely “final” destination, forever?
For one-twelfth of my life (during my teenage years), I was an atheist. I was absolutely convinced that all religions were wrong; God didn’t exist; the world and everything in it (including human beings) were nothing but atoms in various combinations; it had all come about by chance and evolution; and nothing would ever happen in the future that would change those basic facts (or my beliefs). I was certain that all talk of “afterlife” was nonsense and wishful thinking. I knew I would die someday, whether by accident, by violence, by disease or by the decay brought on by old age, and at that moment, I would cease to exist and would never exist again. The only “comfort” in that belief is that I knew I would never even realize it had happened.
Religion teaches a different view. One of the oldest religions in the world (Hinduism) teaches that there are over 300 million gods (and goddesses); the world and everything in it is permeated by them and their activities; everything that happens is under their influence; and the future will consist of endless repetitive cycles of what has happened in the past. For Hindus, every individual person has lived before and will live again, the soul migrating from body to body to body in an endless round of birth, life, death and rebirth. Furthermore, this is not perceived as a “good” thing! It’s our punishment for not pleasing the gods and goddesses. If we please them, our next life might be somewhat better than this one; but if we displease them, it will certainly be worse. In this scenario, my “final” destination would be to suffer the punishment of living forever. I didn’t find this idea very attractive.
Buddhism, developed out of a Hindu background by Siddhartha Gautama, offers a solution to this problem: if one achieves enlightenment, one can escape the cycle of death and rebirth by being absorbed into the “World Soul,” thus having one’s candle of suffering (life) extinguished. The reward for living a good life would be to not have to live another one. To me, this sounded like we were back to atheism. My final destination would be non-existence. Enlightenment would literally gain me – nothing!
I had some Christian friends (you know who you are!), and over a period of a few months, they convinced me (in this order) that the life they were living was better than the life I was living, that the only way to have that life was to receive Jesus as my Savior, that God really does exist, and that after my death – which could happen at any time – my “soul” (the real me) would go to heaven (if I was a Christian) or hell (if I wasn’t). Deciding to act on that information was very difficult for me; it meant revising my entire worldview; but on December 29, 1968, I took that “leap of faith” and it was (as one of them predicted it would be) a decision I knew I would never regret.
Christianity is not a monolithic religion (not all Christians believe the same things), and I soon discovered that the picture of the afterlife my friends had given me was not believed by all the Christians I ever met. For example, Roman Catholicism (the oldest and largest “branch” of the Christian religion) was teaching that there are four possible places to which a person’s soul can go when death occurs: heaven (for saints), hell (for non-Catholics), purgatory (for Catholics who aren’t saints), and limbo (for children who die before being baptized). (Limbo has recently been eliminated, by a decree of Pope Benedict XVI, so it’s unclear to me, at this point, where those unbaptized babies are supposed to be going.)
The denomination I was saved in had simplified this complicated system somewhat. Everyone was either saved or unsaved; the saved went to heaven, the unsaved went to hell. Heaven was pictured as “real” place where people would recognize each other, have conversations, sing, eat delicious food and enjoy life forever – though I was a little confused by this description, since it was taught that it was my “soul” (NOT my body) that would be going there. If the soul is immaterial, I thought, how can it enjoy all these material pleasures?
But it was the picture of hell that bothered me the most. Hell was also a “real” place – a “lake of fire” – in which those who had never accepted Jesus would burn forever, in unbelievable pain, screaming and “gnashing their teeth,” but would never burn up! Furthermore, all this was going to take place WITHIN EARSHOT of heaven, as vividly described in the “true story” of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). No matter that it was also taught that it was “souls” (not bodies) that were going there: these “souls” had eyes (v. 23), bosoms (v. 23), voices (v. 24), fingers (v. 24) and tongues (v. 24)! As far as I could tell, the “soul” was nothing but a different kind of body: a kind that couldn’t be destroyed, even by an unquenchable fire.
I want to pause, at this point, to offer a suggestion. If this is what you believe, and if you are satisfied with believing it, and you don’t want to think about changing that belief, put this e-tract in a folder, and come back to reading it some other day. It’s not my purpose to upset you, or to get you to leave your church, or anything like that. But I want to warn you: if you keep reading, you’re going to have that view challenged. So don’t keep reading and then write to me to say you’re upset with me. I’m giving you a fair warning! I also want to say this: if this is what your church teaches, I feel very, very sorry for you. I vividly remember what it was like to believe that this was the fate of my unsaved loved ones – and to think that I would have to “spend eternity” listening to their screams.
Billy Graham, among many others, (after several decades) quit preaching this view of the final destination of the unsaved. He still said, “You have a soul that will live forever somewhere” – and he still talked about heaven as the final destination of the saved – but he then described hell as “eternal separation from God” and claims the “fire” is merely a figure of speech whose purpose is to describe the “mental anguish” of the realization that one has missed out on the joys of heaven. But this view troubles me as well. Nearly every theologian I’ve ever heard of teaches that God is “omnipresent” – He’s EVERYWHERE. If he’s everywhere, then how can I be “separated” from him? Psalm 139:7-12 asks (and answers) that very question. In the King James Version, verse 8 specifically states that hell is NOT “a place where God is not.”
Furthermore, I also worry about the impact this kind of preaching will have on the unsaved. Had I heard Billy preaching this when I was a teenager (back then he was preaching the literal fire and brimstone), I might have responded, “Great! If I don’t accept Jesus as my Savior, I’ll get to live forever, in a place where there is no God. It sounds like you’re promising heaven to the atheist and hell to the Christians!” I don’t think any atheist will ever be drawn to faith in Jesus by the “threat” of being “separated from God.”
Another “modern” solution (though it’s really not modern at all; it was preached over 1,700 years ago) is to say that while it’s true that all souls live forever, and only Christians go to heaven when they die, it’s not true that the souls of non-Christians burn forever in hell. They burn only until their sinful natures are burned away (in a process that reminds me of the purification of gold or silver), then they are transferred to heaven and enjoy eternal life right along with the saved. This process might take longer for some than for others, but eventually everyone (or, in some versions of this theory, ALMOST everyone) will be saved. This theory goes by the name of Restorationism, or, sometimes, Universalism. While it’s usually affiliated with the “liberal” wing of Christianity, it’s gaining more and more adherents among the “conservative” wing as well. It troubles me, too, though. It doesn’t seem to leave me much motivation for holy living here on earth. My final destination will be Heaven no matter what I do in this life! In that case, why not “live as the heathen do” – enjoying the pleasures of sin for this “season” of 70 years (or so) – knowing that hell will be only another “transfer point” like Orlando or Washington, D.C.?
Not long after I joined the church where they described hell as “25,000 degrees Fahrenheit, and not a drop of water in sight,” I met some Christians who held another view, one I haven’t mentioned yet. When they first described it to me, I thought, “It sounds great, but it isn’t what the Bible teaches, so what good is it?” This new group didn’t try very hard to convince me they were right. They simply suggested, “Read the Bible and see for yourself.” So I did.
WHAT DOES THE BIBLE SAY about my “final destination”?
For starters, the Bible doesn’t say that “souls” are immortal. The Bible doesn’t actually say very much about “immortality” at all. The word only occurs half a dozen times.
What it DOES say about “souls” is that they are MORTAL (capable of dying, and of being destroyed). Take a look at Ezekiel 18:4 (and 18:20), and Matthew 10:28, and I don’t see how you can come to any other conclusion.
The Bible speaks of “living souls” (Genesis 2:7), and it also speaks of “dead souls” (Numbers 19:13). This is not immediately obvious, unless you can read Hebrew. The word translated “body” in the latter verse is the same word (nephesh) that is translated “soul” later in the same verse!
Furthermore, the “soul” (in the Bible) is not a “part” of the human being (distinct from the “body”): it is simply a name for the human being himself (or herself). The same word (nephesh) is also used to describe non-human beings, such as fish (Genesis 1:20), cattle (Genesis 1:24), and God himself (Matthew 12:18, quoting Isaiah 42:1). Saying “my soul” is just another way of saying “I.”
So what is MY final destination? It is the same as the final destination of my “soul.” Where does the “soul” go? What becomes of “it”? This is just another way of asking, “Where do ‘I’ go? What becomes of ‘me’?”
Hundreds of verses, throughout the Bible, make it perfectly clear that the final destination of the saved is eternal life in the presence of God, and the final destination of the unsaved is complete nonexistence. Here are just a few:
“Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (Genesis 3:19) – “thou” (you), not “thy body” (leaving “thy soul” free to go somewhere else).
“He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life (1 John 5:12) – “not life” at all, not just “not a blessed, happy life in Heaven.”
“The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 6:23) – the word “but” clearly shows that “death” is a different thing from “life,” not just life in a different place.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). Here is the most-quoted verse in Christendom. It contrasts the destiny of the unsaved (“perish”) with the destiny of the saved (“life”). What could be plainer? The destiny of the saved is to live forever. The destiny of the unsaved is to not do so.
The final destination of the unsaved is always, in the Bible, described in terms such as “die,” “death,” “perish,” “destroy,” “burned up,” “consumed” and so on. Such concepts as “ultimate restoration to heaven,” “eternal separation from God,” “burning forever and never burning up” and “eternal life in hell” (which I found on a tract published by a prominent disciple-making ministry) are never once hinted at in any of its 31,173 verses.
I don’t mean to brag, but the fact is, I’ve read the Old Testament cover-to-cover in 16 different translations, and the New Testament cover-to-cover in 28 different translations. It simply isn’t in there.
God certainly has a plan to punish those who refuse his generous offer of eternal life. The punishment consists of the fact that they will not get what they didn’t ask for. No harsher punishment than that is needed, and none is promised in the Bible. To me, this is a far more comforting belief than to think of my now-deceased, never-saved loved ones as burning forever, screaming in pain, within earshot of my heavenly mansion. How would I be able to enjoy eternity in a scenario like that? But that is precisely what most Christians believe. I’m glad I “discovered” what the Bible says!
I didn’t really “discover” it, though, and neither did the small denomination I now serve as a minister. It’s been there all along. Every Christian writer before the year 177 taught it (I’ve proved this in my doctoral thesis, which became my “book,” “The Doctrine of Immortality in the Early Church;” I’d be happy to send you a copy by e-mail if you ask me to.) It was “buried” under the traditional view for several centuries, but there were always “heretics” who believed it, often at the cost of their lives. It “reappeared” during the Reformation and was held by such “greats” as Martin Luther, John Wycliffe, William Tyndale, John Milton and others – though later rejected by the “mainline” churches they founded. It’s been preached in America, under the label “Conditional Immortality,” since at least the year 1795. I, myself, have held to it for 35 years now, and have never found a “flaw” in it, though many of my friends have shared with me the “flaws” they believe it has. I’ll be writing about some of those “flaws” in future e-tracts. I hope you’ll study them with an open mind. But I don’t ask you to believe ANYTHING unless you become convinced it’s what the Bible teaches.
By Dr. John H. Roller
(John Roller currently serves as pastor of First Advent Christian Church in Hickory, N.C., having served in Advent Christian churches in Illinois, Florida, West Virginia and North Carolina. He has also served as Director of Urban/Ethnic Ministries, Resource Center Coordinator and Publications Coordinator for the Advent Christian General Conference)