More Mercy: A more biblical theology of the afterlife

More Mercy: A more biblical theology of the afterlife

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More Mercy: A more biblical theology of the afterlife and eternal destiny

In 2011 a spirited debate broke out among Evangelical circles reference a book by Pastor Rob Bell, Love Wins.[1] Bell was then the pastor of the 10,000-member mega-church, Mars Hill Bible Church, in Grandville, Michigan, and Time magazine rated him as one of the most influential pastors in America.[2]  Love Wins essentially reframed the Universalist position, that all mankind will be saved, in terms Bell believed to be modern yet Evangelical. He made quite an eloquent and rational argument that the traditional view of heaven and hell preached by many Evangelicals (and Catholics) was contrary to God’s nature as a loving God.

Certainly, the Calvinists assertion that both God and the saints in heaven will be delighted by seeing the eternal torments of the damned souls in hell is something few Christians believe today. Indeed, that is instinctively morally repulsive. Significantly, many Evangelical pastors today avoid teaching this “pure” Reformed doctrine, and leave the condemnation to hell of others to God’s judgement. [3]

Bell’s attempt to persuade Evangelicals of a more merciful destiny for unbelievers was not very successful, and his critics immediately saw in his presentation the old heresy, Universalism.[4] As the arguments and reviews of Love Wins fomented in the Christian press, one wished that the writings of the Victorian Anglicans were still in fashion and had been taught in seminaries. Bell could have posited a theology of “greater hope” that was more carefully and biblically defined, without ending up in Universalism, and his critics might have better recognized that his quest for a theology of a merciful destiny for unbelievers is not alien to the Biblical evidence or Church tradition. Thankfully, the debate over Love Wins was surprisingly civil, and the word “heretic” rarely used – an indicator that the resentful sectarianism of generations is fading.[5]

Actually, both sides, Bell’s Universalism vs. traditional orthodoxy, were arguing from a flawed theological base – what I have termed in my recent work, the “Augustinian consensus.” That is, the theology of St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) which became the base of Western theology. Augustine was a brilliant and insightful theologian. Unfortunately, he also made several serious misinterpretations and omissions in understanding the biblical text.  For instance, St.  Augustine believed that the gifts of the Spirit were totally defined by the scripture in Isiah 11: 2. He did not consider the scriptures of 1 Cor 12-14 as functional gifts of the Spirit. That mistake and omission echoed down thru the centuries and weakened the spiritual vitality and ministries of the Church. Even today his truncated view of the gifts of the Spirit is taught in Catholic catechisms.[6]

More to our point in the present discussion, Augustin did not understand the important scriptures in 1Peter 3-4 and how it could fit into a theology of the afterlife and eternal judgement. Calvin copied Augustin’s lapse and their collective misunderstanding passed on to Reformation theology boosted by a false Third Century gospel, the Gospel of Nicodemus. That gospel reversed the true meaning of 1 Peter 3-4 and its implications for “more mercy” for the lost both in the immediate afterlife and their ultimate destiny.

What I am asserting, that the Bible itself provides a more merciful judgement for unbelievers than is normative to Evangelical theology (but does not pass into Universalism) is strange to many conservative Evangelical and Pentecostal/charismatic believers. Thus, this essay will be very deliberate in laying out the evidence for “more mercy.” It is my contention that re-incorporating 1 Peter 3-4 into Christian theology would move the Church away from the dilemma of either Universalism or the cruel theology of the Calvinist Reformed and conservative Evangelical tradition.

The distorted theology of the after-life:

Western Christian theology about the afterlife has been dominated by two traditions that sought to interpret scattered biblical revelations about the afterlife into a sensible system. The first, that of the Roman Catholic Church, was presented by Saint Augustine of Hippo but later expanded and codified by Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274).  The second tradition, that of the Protestants, developed both in reaction to, and out of, that Western Catholic tradition.

In the traditional Catholic view, the afterlife before the coming final judgement was divided into several “locales” or spiritual states. There is heaven proper, which is where the saints and angels worship and experience the presence of God. There is purgatory, where those who are destined for heaven must be purified through suffering to become eligible for the heaven state. Then there is hell, where the damned reside in agony, awaiting the final judgment and the confirmation of their status.

Between purgatory and hell there was believed to be a “limbo,” named in Latin, Limbus Infanturn, where the souls of unbaptized infants reside in comfort, but without the bliss of heaven. Traditional Catholic theology also affirmed that there was formerly another limbo, one in which the souls of Jewish patriarchs and other righteous souls of the Old Testament stayed until they were freed by Jesus’ descent into the underworld described in 1 Peter 3 and 4 (upon we will comment below) called Limbus Patrum.

The traditional Protestant view developed out of Catholic theology, but with careful attention to avoid anything that would make credible the Catholic practices of prayers, indulgences, and masses for the dead. Thus, both Purgatory and the Limbus Infantum were eliminated. But interestingly, many of the Reformers accepted the Catholic view of a former Limbus Patrum of the Patriarchs.

However, both the Catholic and Protestant theologies of the afterlife shared an inadequate and a highly selective biblical base. They concentrated on Luke 16 (the story of the rich man and beggar), Mark 9:43-47, and the scriptures about the Last Judgment in the Book of Revelations. Ignored were the scriptures about the afterlife found in the Old Testament, as for instance the phrase “gathered to his people” found multiple times in the Old Testament (Gen. 25:8 &17, 35:29, 49:30, Num. 20:26, 32:50). Also, traditional Catholic and Protestant theologies tend to confuse man’s ultimate destiny as described in the Book of Revelations, with the after-death state until the Last Judgment, which has been more precisely called the “intermediate state.”

The Victorian “re-examiners” and the afterlife:

The scattered Biblical hints about the afterlife began to be clarified in the two decades preceding the turn of the 20th Century. The new paradigm was led by, but not limited to, stirrings by scholars and clergy of the Anglican Church in Great Britain. The Anglican Church was undergoing one of its periodic reexaminations, searching to define itself in terms of the Bible, early Christianity, and the Patristic writers. It sought to avoid either the dogmatic assertions of the Roman Catholic Church or the reactive anti-Catholic theology of the Reformation.

Part of this reexamination was a fresh look at the belief in the afterlife. F. W. Farrar (1831-1903), Canon of Westminster Cathedral and chaplain to Queen Victoria, was one of the first, and perhaps the ablest, of the scholar/divines, which we will call the “Victorian re-examiners.”[7] They had the advantages of the system of rigorous elite Victorian education, which emphasized the mastery of Greek and Latin. They also reaped the fruits of then recent and revolutionary discoveries in biblical scholarship. These included the rediscovery of many inter-testament writings that had been lost for centuries and which helped to explain the developed and varied ideas about the afterlife in the New Testament that were not found in the Old Testament.[8]

As in any group of scholars, not everyone came to identical conclusions, but there was uncommon agreement on some findings that are especially important for any discussion of the afterlife. It was agreed that the King James translation of the Bible had unnecessarily muddled the theology of the afterlife by using one word, “hell,” for sheol of the Old Testament, and hades and gehennof the New Testament. “Hell” is a proper translation for gehenna, a place outside Jerusalem where garbage was burned, but it is a decidedly poor translation for sheol or hades which signified the afterlife place in the Old Testament, but did not necessarily connote a place of punishment.

The Old Testament uses the word sheol often, but we are never given a definitive description of it. It was presumed to be under the earth, and most passages described it as a place that is dark and gloomy, a joyless place, and a mere shadow of life on earth. Not even God can be praised there, and the person’s consciousness is much reduced (Ps. 6:5, Ec. 9:5-10). In Job 3:13-19 it is lamented that all men, good and bad, come to the same fate in sheol.  Apparently there was no system of rewards or punishment in sheol described in these scriptures. These scriptures indicate that sheol has much in common with the Greek conception of the afterlife, “hades.” In fact, in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament that was in common use at the time of Jesus, sheol was translated as hades.

However, a few passages in the Old Testament hint that there is more to hades than just a neutral gray area. In 1 Samuel 28:8-20 it is also reported to be a place of “rest,” as the dead judge and prophet, Samuel, complains that his peace has been disturbed by a medium’s conjuring. On the negative side, in the book of Isaiah, there was described a section of sheol more ominously called the “pit” (14:15).

The idea that sheol is divided into different sections was greatly elaborated in the books of the inter-testament period. Many of these books were influential in both Judaism and early Christianity, though they were later discarded and became canonical in neither religion. The book of Enoch was especially influential in establishing the afterlife as a place of rewards and punishments per the righteousness, or lack of it, in the person’s life. By the time of Jesus, the rabbinical literature advocated a belief in an accountabland multilayered afterlife. The names gahanna, “Bosom of Abraham,” and “Paradise,” were all from the rabbinical literature of this period and utilized by Jesus to talk about the afterlife.[9]

Just as the Old Testament was ambiguous about the nature of the afterlife, the Victorian re-examiners came to see that the New Testament was equally ambiguous about man’s ultimate destiny. They believed “tentative” should be the key word in forming theological opinions on the matter (a critique of the traditional Catholic and Protestant positions). Canon Farrar had perhaps the strongest sense of scriptural ambiguity in this area.[10]

He also identified four separate motifs about man’s final destiny within the New Testament. One motif was the final reconciliation of all men to God (Universalism), and a current that is discernible in the later writings of Paul. For instance, in Romans 5:18 Paul writes:

“Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people.”[11]

A second motif is that the wicked and unsaved have no hope and will be doomed forever – the Augustinian view.[12] Yet another group of scriptures indicates that the incorrigible wicked will not suffer forever, but will be annihilated.[13] (This is Rob Bell’s position in Love Wins, and indeed is not unbiblical.)

Finally, there are scriptures which indicate that there is a temporary punishment and cleansing fire (elaborated as Purgatory in Roman Catholic doctrine). For instance, note Mark 9:47-49 which seems to imply everyone will experience some sort of punishment fire.[14]

Normative Christianity in the West, both Catholic and Protestant, has of course stressed the second motif – that the wicked are forever doomed, and has given less weight to, or ignored, the other motifs. Worse, these other motifs are called them heresies – and thus beyond discussion. Often, this has been put forth in an embarrassingly sectarian manner. For instance, as a boy living under the classical, Pre-Vatican II Catholicism, I was taught to believe that only Catholics can get to heaven. My wife, who was instructed in Baptist Sunday schools, was similarly taught that only Protestants who were Baptists would make it to heaven – too bad for the born-again Methodists and Presbyterians!

This sectarian and unbiblical viewpoint was the product of the divides of heated controversy and warfare that racked Christianity after the Reformation. It left its mark with what one might call a “theology of resentment” towards other denominations. Its consequence is that it weakens the witness of Christianity, and is one reason why many non-believers find it difficult to take Christianity seriously. There is something silly, ungracious and ungodly about Christians consigning other Christians of varying denominations, and all unbelievers, to hell because they were born in the wrong household. More importantly, it disregards Paul’s revelation that those who have not been given the full Gospel will ultimately be judged on the light and revelation they did have (Rms 2:12-16)

But back to the Victorian re-examiners. Canon Farrar went to great lengths to point out that early Christianity, and especially the early Church Fathers, were, as a whole, more optimistic than moderns and held out the “greater hope.” That is, they mostly believed that the majority of mankind would eventually come to God, and that the punishment of the incorrigible wicked would be limited in duration, and that they would be annihilated.

This “greater hope” theology is quite natural to places and times where the Gospel is new, as in the first centuries in the Roman Empire. In such environments it is not really “good news” to preach a Gospel which says that “Grandma,” who was a lovely lady, but worshiped Pagan gods out of ignorance, is now in eternal torment and will never be released from that.

Interestingly, the Early Church scholar Origen chose to center his theology on the Pauline scriptures of the restitution of all to God. He was condemned as a heretic in the 5th Century when the Greco-Roman world was mostly Christian and the “grandma in hell” issue had receded from immediate notice. Ironically, Gregory of Nyssa, who held the same views but was more circumspect, is celebrated as one of the great Fathers of Orthodoxy.

As a group, the Victorian re-examiners were sympathetic with the “greater hope,” though they shied away from believing the Universalist position that all would be saved. They all agreed that the afterlife was not as simple as the common doctrine of heaven and hell, and that a characteristic of the afterlife was the opportunity it offered for further growth.

Again, Canon Farrar was a pioneer in suggesting a partial solution to the apparently contradictory nature of the afterlife scriptures in the New Testament. It was to understand that there is a difference between man’s intermediate after death state and his final destiny which will be determined at the Last Judgment.[15] New Testament writers were so sure that Jesus’ second coming was imminent that they often did not discern the difference between what was revealed as pertaining to the afterlife in the intermediate state, and the afterlife after the Last Judgment.[16]

After almost a century, the scholarship of the Victorian Re-examiners still stands as a major achievement of Christian theology. From the 1900s liberal Protestantism increased in influence, and interest waned in the purely spiritual (including afterlife) aspects of theology in favor of the more “practical” and social-action issues. The “demythologizing” movement in Liberal Protestantism reached a point where many of its theologians reduced all spiritual phenomenon to psychology, and even denied the concept of personal survival after death.[17] More modern works on the afterlife, such as John A. T. Robinson’s In the End God,[18] and John H. Hick’s Death anEternal Life[19] tend to be heavy on philosophy and light on scripture. Fortunately, some advocates of “process theology” popular several decades ago, rediscovered much of what the Victorian re-examiners said about continued growth in the discarnate state, and affirmed the same biblical and Patristic positions asserted by the earlier scholars.[20]

The critical issue of more mercy in 1 Peter 3-4:

With regard to the New Testament, the Victorian re-examiners carefully parsed an important passage addressing the greater hope/more mercy issue, one found in the first letter of Peter. Like Paul, Peter’s literary style leaves something to be desired, and the scriptures in question are sandwiched between moral exhortations. But the central meaning is sufficiently clear:

For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is eight persons, were saved through water. …

For this is why the gospel was preached even to the dead, that though judged in the flesh like men, they might live in the spirit like God. (1 Pet. 3:18-21; 4:6)

What Peter describes is Jesus’ preaching ministry in sheol/hades (called a “spiritual prison” in this passage). This is corroborated in Ephesians 4:8-10, as there it is revealed that Jesus succeeded and led “a host of captives” into the heavenly realms.

This is why it says:

“When he ascended on high,

he took many captives

and gave gifts to his people.”

(What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.)

To be clear, and perhaps redundant, here is described a group of dead disobedient sinners who were given a second chance for salvation by Jesus. There was little confusion among the earliest Christian writers about the meaning of these passages. Between his death and resurrection Christ preached to the dead in hades, and those who accepted his word ascended with him to heaven.[21]

Several traditions in early Christian literature elaborated this revelation. The first generation of Christian apologists and theologians were trained in Greek philosophy and loved Plato especially, and could not see him in hades or Hell. Some affirmed he had been preached to by the Apostles, and ascended then to Heaven. But the most famous case of continued preaching in hades is found in the Shepherd of Hermas, which was held as scripture by many churches in the second and third centuries, and is canonical today in the churches of Oriental Orthodoxy (Coptic Church, etc.). This epistle asserts that the Apostles followed Jesus’ example, and at death they too preached to the heathen in hades, and baptized them! [22]

“Because,” he said, “these apostles and teachers who preached the name of the Son of God, after falling asleep in the power and faith of the Son of God, preached it not only to those who were asleep, but themselves also gave them the seal of the preaching. Accordingly, they descended with them into the water, and again ascended. [But these descended alive and rose up again alive; whereas they who had previously fallen asleep descended dead, but rose up again alive.[23]

St. Augustine and a false gospel vs. 1 Peter 3-4:

This view, that Jesus’ ministry in hades in 1 Peter 3-4 can be repeated by other Christians did not make it to the Middle Ages in the Western Church. It was disabled by the circulation of a false gospel called the Gospel of Nicodemus from the Third century, and by the prestige and ascendency of St. Augustine’s theology within the Latin West.

St Augustine was so convinced about the immediate Heaven or Hell model of the afterlife that he had difficulty in crediting 1 Peter 3-4 with its literal meaning. During his life-time a fellow bishop named Evodius wrote Augustin for guidance in interpreting 1 Peter 3-4, as he too was perplexed. Augustine stumbled around for various interpretations, but negated the literal one, that Jesus preached to the “disobedient spirits” and finally admitted that he did not have a good interpretation:

If this exposition of the words of Peter offend any one, or, without offending, at least fail to satisfy any one, let him attempt to interpret them on the supposition that they refer to hell: and if he succeed in solving my difficulties which I have mentioned above, so as to remove the perplexity which they occasion, let him communicate his interpretation to me.[24]

Calvin followed St. Augustine’s perplexity, and possibly borrows from the Gospel of Nicodemus in interpreting 1 Peter 3-4. He dismissed the literal possibility that the souls in question were the “disobedient spirits” and affirms that they were the Patriarchs and just persons of the Old Testament waiting for Jesus in a “watch tower,” not a prison.

I therefore have no doubt but Peter speaks generally, that the manifestation of Christ’s grace was made to godly spirits, and that they were thus endued with the vital power of the Spirit. Hence there is no reason to fear that it will not flow to us. But it may be inquired, Why he puts in prison the souls of the godly after having quitted their bodies? It seems to me that phulake [prison] rather means a watchtower in which watchmen stand for the purpose of watching, or the very act of watching, for it is often so taken by Greek authors; and the meaning would be very appropriate, that godly souls were watching in hope of the salvation promised them, as though they saw it afar off. Nor is there a doubt but that the holy fathers in life, as well as after death, directed their thoughts to this object. But if the word prison be preferred, it would not be unsuitable; for, as while they lived, the Law, according to Paul, was a sort of prison in which they were kept; so after death they must have felt the same desire for Christ; for the spirit of liberty had not as yet been fully given. Hence this anxiety of expectation was to them a kind of prison.[25]

A false gospel obscures the “greater hope”


Let us now turn specifically to that false gospel, the Gospel of Nicodemus. It was composed in various stages by multiple authors. Part of it as a redaction of Jesus’ trial before Pilot found in Matthew. Another part is a supposed letter by Pilot describing the miraculous events about Jesus’ death and resurrection, and his own conversion. The last part, and last to be added, contains a description of Jesus descent into hades. It is written in pious and bombastic language, and easily discerned to be different from any of the true Gospels. In this gospel Jesus descends into hell – yes, hell, not hades, presided over by Satan himself. There he saves Abraham and the Old Testament saints from Satan’s dominion and leads them to the gates of heaven.  Part of the text reads:[26]

And the Lord [Jesus]stretched forth his hand and made the sign of the cross over Adam and over all his saints, and he took the right hand of Adam and went up out of hell, and all the saints followed him. Then did holy David cry aloud and say: Sing unto the Lord a new song, for he hath done marvelous things. His right hand hath wrought salvation for him and his holy arm. The Lord hath made known his saving health, before the face of all nations hath he revealed his righteousness. And the whole multitude of the saints answered, saying: Such honour have all his saints. Amen, Alleluia.

And thereafter Habacuc the prophet cried out and said: Thou wentest forth for the salvation of thy people to set free thy chosen. And all the saints answered, saying: Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord. (XXIV, 2-3)

Note this is a contradiction of what 1 Peter 3 says. In that authentic epistle, Jesus preached to the ‘disobedient spirits” from the time of Noah, not to the Patriarchs of Israel. Further, the famous passage in Luke 16 of Lazarus and the rich man mentions a heaven like place called the “Bosom of Abraham” where that patriarch resided in obvious comfort with Lazarus the just beggar. This quasi heaven could not possible be the “prison” (or Calvin’s watchtower) mentioned 1 Peter 3, or the hell of the Gospel of Nicodemus.

I recall watching, sometime in the 1980s, the famous TV evangelist Jimmy Swaggert preach a sermon about Jesus’ descent into after-world.  On his stage, Swaggert imitated Jesus approaching each of the Patriarchs such as Abraham and Joseph. To each one he said something that rhymed about their life of faith, and released them to heaven. It was all very impressive. Withier the Rev. Swaggert got his sermon idea from a Bible commentary, or lecture notes from his Bible college days was not mentioned, but it ultimately came from the bogus Gospel of Nicodemus.[27]

If 1Peter 3-4 were the only scripture on this matter, there would be serious problem in affirming a continuing ministry to the dead I hades. It could he asserted that what happened in hades after Christ’s crucifixion was a unique event. In that case the living Church would have no role in this type of ministry. Several scriptures indicate that this is not the case, and that the Church on earth does indeed have a legitimate hand in this ministry.

The first scripture passage concerning this issue is one of the most widely known and quoted, Matthew 16:18. It is used by Roman Catholics as proof text for the establishment of the primacy of the Papacy. Protestants use it as proof text for the importance of faith in the individual believer. In all but the most recent translations its meaning has been seriously distorted by the use of the word hell instead of hades as in the Greek text. The translation in the Jerusalem Bible is perhaps best: “So I now say to you: you are Peter and on this rock I will build my church. And the gates of the under-world can never hold out against it.”

A common mistake in interpreting this scripture, based on less accurate translations, is to assume that this is a defensive commission, that is, if demonic forces attack the church, it will have the power to stand. That is incorrect. Matthew 16:18 is an offensive commission. In warfare the “gates” of a fortress do not move and attack – they are not tanks, as in modern warfare. Rather, gates are designed to resist assault. This passage means that the best-fortified points of hades (including that part within Satan’s dominion) cannot withstand the assaults of the church. Thus the Church is commissioned to attack and destroy the gates, that is, to penetrate and overthrow Satan’s section of hades – just as Jesus did for the three days between his death and resurrection.

One more confirmation for this last point must be noted. It is among
the most controversial (or most disregarded) scriptures in the whole of the New Testament, 1 Corinthians 15:28-29:

When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things under him, that God may be everything to everyone. Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?

Neither Catholic nor Protestant commentators like this passage. For Protestants it implies a baptismal ministry to the dead. For Catholics it has no ongoing “tradition” behind it – nothing in the Church Fathers (to my knowledge) and no liturgy for this sort of rite. Thus, the peculiar ministry of the Corinthian congregation must have been short lived. Only in the modern times the Mormons took this scripture literally, and developed an ongoing ritual for the baptism of their ancestors – and everybody else’s ancestors.

In spite of a general reluctance to accept it as meaningful, the passage is there – like a piece of undigested meat disturbing a good night’s rest. The Pauls’ church was ministering to those who had passed away – the “Grandma” issue I mentioned earlier.  Significantly, unlike some of the other practices of the Corinthian Church, Paul does not reprimand or criticize it. Rather he cites it as a positive practice to buttress his own argument. The biblical scholar Rudolf Bultmann notes that in spite of the strangeness of this passage, it represents the authentic sacramental viewpoint of Saint Paul and of the earliest Church.[28]

I would note here parenthetically that the whole issue of any ministry to the dead is the basis of the Anglican tradition of “laying a ghost” to rest. This is a ministry not often done by other denominations, and unfortunately left to marginal or occult groups. Its occurrence in Anglican and Episcopal churches is likely due to the long-lasting effects of the Victorian re-examiners. (This is a ministry that I have some experience in and I will discuss in the future.)


This examination of 1 Peter 3-4 goes against current Evangelical and Pentecostal theology on the after-life. It seems to contradict the long tradition of “hellfire and darnation” sermons that has been used for centuries to bring people to repentance and salvation. The most famous example of this being Jonathan Edwards’ sermon “Sinners in the hand of an angry God” which triggered one of the waves of the First Great Awakening – not a mean feat.

I have heard variations of this several times in my Christian life and it has generally been of some effect. However, this motif seems to leave most Millennials and “nones” unmoved or to reinforce their belief that Christians are mean-spirited and believe in a cruel God. If there was such a thing as an angelic scoreboard, I would suspect that the hellfire and damnation sermons are less effective every year.

But Christian theology and sermons should not be ruled by what is most effective (although some thought should be given on this). Rather, what is true. Jesus warnings of hellfire are a repeated theme of his ministry and cannot be waved aside without peril, for instance:[29]

This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matt 13:49-50)

Certainly, some do go to hell or heaven directly. Note in the famous passage in Luke 16, of the rich man and the Lazarus. The rich man had been instructed into the Law and Prophets, but disregarded them. He was not a “Granddad” who never heard the Gospel.

There is indeed a Gahanna for the wicked and a haven for the Believer. But the after-life is more complex, and scripture indicated that God is more merciful than those two alternatives. So how do you construct a theology of the afterlife that recognizes both the sever warning of Jesus and the hint of mercy in 1Peter 3-4?

Not being an active pastor I have not had a chance to deliver a sermon that balances such scriptures. Actually I had given thought of preaching on hell as a Stalinist gulag like place, similar to C. S. Lewis’s account of gray town, but including much of the horror and torture developed by Stalin’s lackeys and security services.[30]  The sermon would end with a ray of hope by pointing out the issue of 1 Peter 3-4. That may offend some traditional Christians, but it may make a lot of sense to the Millennials and Nones. The critical thing is that it may be closer to the truth than the previous simplifications.


[1] Rob Bell, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. (New York; Harper Collins, 2011). The debate broke out even before the book was published, with a pre-publication review of Love Wins in the New Your Times, Eric Eikholm, “Pastor Stirs Wrath With his Views on Old Questions,” March 4, 2011.

[2] Time, April 21, 2011.,29569,2066367,00.html

[3] In the past decades when I have heard the traditional altar call message the pastor/evangelist usually ask, “If you die tonight, are you sure you will go to heaven?” and thus leaves the hell issue implied but not stated.

[4] Mark Galli, “Rob Bell’s ‘Ginormous’ Mirror.” Christianity Today. Posted May 15, 2013

[5] See the excellent article by Mark Galli, “Rob Bell’s Bridge Too Far,” Christianity Today. Posted 3/14/11. Galli suggest that issues might best be let somewhat open due to a certain ambiguity in scripture, as Canon E. W. Fararra had done a century before (see below).

[6] William De Arteaga, Agnes Sanford and Her Companions: The Assault on Cessationism and the Coming of the Charismatic Renewal (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2015) Chapter 3, “The Augustinian norm: The Church without the Gifts of the Spirit.”

[7] In my first book, Past Life Visions (New York: Seabury, 1983) I called them the “Victorian revisionists,” but the word revisionist now implies heresy and liberal theology, neither of which apply to the scholars in question.

[8] F.W. Farrar, Mercy and Judgment (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1881); E.H. Plumptre, The Spirits in Prison (London: Wm. Isbister, 1885); Arthur Chambers, Our Life After Death (Philadelphia: George W. Jacobs, 1902); Lars Nielsen Dahle, Life After Death and the Future of the Kingdom of God, Trans. by John Beveridge, (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1896); Lewis Muirhead, The Terms Life and Death in the Old and New Testaments, and Other Papers (London: Andrew Melrose, 1908); and, J.H. Leckie, The World to Come and Final Destiny (Edinburgh: T. & Clark, 1918). Note that all except the Muirhead volume have been reprinted in modern editions and are available at moderate costs. Several can be downloaded for free from the web.

[9] J. H. Leckie, The World to Come, pp. 68-102.

[10] Farrar uses the Hegelian tern “antinomies,” see his Mercy and Judgment, e.g., 12.

[11] Farrar also cites John 1:29, 3:17, 12:32, Acts 3:21, Romans 5:15 &18-19: 1 Cor.15:22-28, 2 Cor. 5:19, Eph. 1:10, Cols. 1:20, 1 Tim. 4:10, and other scriptures.

[12] The scriptures cited for this motif are: Matt. 13:49-50, 16:27; 25-46; Mark 3:29; Isaiah 12:1.

[13] This is often termed a heresy, “annihilism,” in spite of its solid biblical basis. See: Matt. 3:12; 5:30; 10:28; Luke 13:1-5; 20:18; Acts 3:23; Rms. 6:23; 8:13; Hebrews 10:26-31; Revelations 20:14; 21ff.

[14] Farrar cited Matt. 5: 26; Luke 12:5-9; and 1 Cor. 3:13-15.

[15] See, for example, J. H. Leckie, who expanded Farrrar’s insight in: The World to Come, 68-102.

[16] Farrar, Justice and Mercy, 13.

[17] See: Russell Alwincle, Death in the Secular City: Life After Death in Contemporary Theology and Philosophy (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1974, especially chapter 3, “Theology without hope.”

[18] (New York:  Harper & Row, 1968).

[19] (New York:  Harper & Row, 1976).

[20] See: Norman Pittinger, The Last Things in Process Perspective (London: Epworth Press, 1970).

[21] Farrar takes special pains to show this: Judgement and Mercy, 76 ff., and also see: Plumpter, Spirits in Prison, 78 ff.

[22] The motif of a second chance for those who have died has received scant attention in Christian theology or literature past the Third Century. A notable and modern exception is C.S. Lewis’ novel, The Great Divorce. (London: Goeffrey Blos, 1945). In that work the souls in hell/hades, which is not a fiery place, but a “gray town” where everyone exercises various degrees of delusion and vanity – and universal frustration results. A bus load of these souls are given an excursion to the foothills of heaven. There they are met by the spirits of those they knew on earth. The souls from gray town are invited to repent and proceed on a journey to heaven. Only one does, and the rest make various excuses on why they cannot. They return to the gray town to continue their lives of falsehood and frustration. Lewis believed that many spiritual truths were best presented in parable from (just as Jesus did) and thus, The Great Divorce may be considered as Lewis’ parable for what he considered the after-life to be.

[23] Anonymous, Shepherd of Hermas, chapter 16, Roberts-Donaldson Trans. On the web at various sites.

[24] St Augustine, Letter 164 (to Bishop Evodius) New Advent site.

[25] John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries. Sourced November 17, 2016.

[26] Gospel of Nicodemus, chapters 16-19, available on the web at various sites. Here is the likg to The Early Christian Writings text:  Also in: Lost Books in the Bible (New York: New American Library, 1974).

[27] This is not a blanket criticism of the Rev. Swaggert, who was gifted in his ministry, and flawed in his personal life –  like many of us.

[28]Rudolph Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament (New York: Scribner, 1955), vol. 1, 136. Butlmann was a theological liberal who did not believe in the miracles of the Bible, etc., but as a careful scholar who mastered the documents of Early Christianity. Better than most scholars, he understood the beliefs and mindset of New Testament Christians.

[29] I had the opportunity of hearing a sermon of precisely that.  The liberal Episcopal priest preached that love was the draw to heaven, and fear of hell had no part in the Gospel.

[30] Again C. S. Lewis was perceptive on this as he understood that the demonic kingdom was filled with self- loathing, mistrust and terror even among its own. See his classic, The Screwtape Letters (London; Century Press, 1942).

William DeArteaga

William L. De Arteaga, Ph.D., is known internationally as a Christian historian and expert on revivals and the rebirth and renewal of the Christian healing movement. His major works include, Quenching the Spirit (Creation House, 1992, 1996), Forgotten Power: The Significance of the Lord’s Supper in Revival (Zondervan, 2002), and Agnes Sanford and Her Companions: The Assault on Cessationism and the Coming of the Charismatic Renewal (Wipf & Stock, 2015). Bill pastored two Hispanic Anglican congregations in the Marietta, Georgia area, and is semi-retired. He and his wife Carolyn continue in their healing, teaching and writing ministries. He is the state chaplain of the Order of St. Luke, encouraging the ministry of healing in all Christian denominations.


  • Reply November 6, 2019

    Varnel Watson

    Thank you thank you William DeArteaga a very STRONG text and strongly recommended I have few questions as I was reading it as per the source materials I would love to discuss later There is some on graceful aging as well by RichardAnna Boyce

    • William DeArteaga
      Reply November 6, 2019

      William DeArteaga

      Be happy to talk to you anytime that is acceptable. I used a gizzmo on messenger that allows voice and camera with a person who knew Morton Kelsey well.

  • RichardAnna Boyce
    Reply November 6, 2019

    RichardAnna Boyce

    1 Peter 4:6 Peter writes that the gospel was preached…to those who are dead. This could refer to four possible groups. First, it could refer to the time between Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection when He preached to those people in hell who had died. Some who hold this view believe that Jesus was offering the dead the chance to believe in Him. But there is no second chance for the lost after death (Heb 9:27), and if He is not offering them salvation, then there was no other purpose in His preaching to them. The second view is that Jesus preached salvation to OT saints between His crucifixion and resurrection. Though this solves the problem of Heb 9:27, and seems to be supported by Eph 4:8-10, the last half of 1 Peter 4:6 seems to prohibit this. If these were OT saints, Christ would not be preaching judgment to them.

    The third option is that Christ is preaching the gospel through the apostles and others on earth to those who are spiritually dead. The unregenerate that respond to the gospel “come alive” spiritually. But Peter’s use of “dead” in v 5 clearly refers to physically dead people who face God’s judgment. Again, with this view the last half of the sentence makes little sense.

    The best view is to see the dead as people who had the gospel preached to them and believed it before they died or were martyred. When they were alive, they were judged according to…the flesh by being scorned by men (4:4), but will live according to God in the spirit. In the judgment of God the opinions of men will be reversed. Though they were physically dead, believers are now spiritually alive (2 Cor 5:1-8). This takes “dead” in vv 5-6 in the same physical sense. Flesh (sarki) and spirit (pneumati) are taken in the same sense as in 3:18 which says Jesus was “put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit.” This also gives full weight to the Greek construction (men-de) reflected in the contrast (but) that begins the final clause. So, even though pagans might condemn and execute Christians for not conforming to their society’s values, God will reverse that judgment and give them life with Him.

  • Reply November 6, 2019

    Varnel Watson

    William DeArteaga I remember the scandal Mars Hill Bible Church, in Grandville, Michigan I was actually talking quite a bit with the Seattle pastor around the MacArthur conference We put several articles together when the stranger fire fake book came out Anyhow, the pastor chose to break lose at the conference to no avail IMO Actually I believe it was his action that brought about attention to his own doings Soon enough his church let him go for some coverup reasons which I dont believe to this day Mark was and still is a great guy preacher and a minister Who among us have not made a mistake? Extend mercy where possible for otherwise there aint no such thing as free grace

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