I am convinced that the Bible teaches universal reconciliation and that early christian believers believed not in a hell of perpetual unending torture, but in the eventual restoration of the entire creation. Yes, that means that everyone, even the most evil person in the world, will eventually be reconciled with God and fully forgiven.
The idea here is not that people who die automatically go to heaven. Some people really deserve a just punishment – but this would be a punishment that is more about redemption and correction than revenge. This punishment would be like a holy flame that purifies the soul, a possibly painful process that would convince even the most evil person of their wrongness and change their heart to good forever, so that really all the evil in the world will be gone in the end, and death and sin won’t stain creation forever.
Instead of this happy ending, most christians believe that evil and death will truly last forever and ever. If people that you know, for example family or friends, go to hell for whatever reason – maybe because they had premarital sex, or because they did not believe properly, or did not reject evolution and science as they should, or did not believe in any deity at all (maybe they tried but were not convinced?) – if they go to hell, how can you be joyful in heaven when they’re not there? How can heaven be blissful and perfect and all tears be wiped from your eyes if some people you know are being tortured in hell? If they are either gone or being tortured in hell forever, how can that be the outcome of the divine plan to save all mankind and restore everything? How can you claim that death is fully conquered if they are gone forever? How can you say that evil will not last forever, if they will be tortured forever and ever? It is the opposite of what a good and loving and merciful God would do. Clearly, if hell exists, then what supposedly happened at the cross is really an anticlimactic joke compared to what should have been the result.
It should be obvious to any critical thinker that if God is completely good and driven by love and mercy, he should not be able to invent an afterlife in which some people suffer terribly for eternity, especially if he is also all-powerful and the creator of the entire universe. Such a wise and powerful God has the opportunity and the ability to design a perfect corrective punishment. If God wants to restore everything, wants to save everyone, and if he could do that in some way, for example through a corrective punishment in the afterlife, then this completely contradicts the supposed existence of the traditional burn-forever hell.
Claiming that God cannot do this because of “free will” is a silly excuse and wrong on so many levels that I don’t know where to begin. For starters, someone with a free will can actually change their mind after they die, making corrective punishment a very good idea that will actually work. Besides, no one with a free will would freely choose to be tormented forever anyway. Think about it. No one who really believes the outcome of some choice is unending conscious torture, will choose that option, unless they don’t have a free will in the first place. The large majority of humanity has absolutely no chance of learning about Jesus at all, let alone believing that it is actually true. Aside from that, an infinite punishment is by definition immoral and unjust. It contradicts the core concept of retributive justice, which is that the punishment must be proportional to the crime, and infinite punishments can never be proportional.
The new testament clearly teaches that God wants (wills) to save everyone. Paul writes multiple times that this is what Jesus has accomplished. Quite interesting is the imagery used in Revelation to describe the lake of fire: a lake of burning sulphur, exactly what the ancient Greeks would understand as a divine ritual of purification. When the “smoke of their torment rises up forever and ever”, in Greek the author really writes that the smoke of their testing rises up for ages of ages, referring to the testing of gold and silver on a touchstone, a process that causes smoke to rise from the impurities in the metal.
No biblical text teaches an unending punishment. Even in the Jewish texts, we read that “God does not punish forever”, Lamentations 3:31. When Jesus speaks about the “unquenchable fire”, he uses a word that occurs a number of times in Greek literature to describe a fire that is indeed unquenchable, but not unending. For example, when a ship is burning with unquenchable fire, then the ship will not burn forever, nor will the fire be unquenchable all the time.
Especially convincing is how Jesus describes the punishment in Matthew 25:46. The original Greek text uses “kolasin aionion”, which is the exact opposite of an unending torment. The Pharisees taught an unending torment calling it “timorion aidion”. We know very well, from multiple Greek and Roman sources in earlier and in later times, that the Greeks used “timoria” to denote a punishment for revenge, and “kolasis” to denote a punishment for correction and rehabilitation. It is also clear that “aionios” is the Greek rendering of the Hebrew time concept “olam”, which denotes an undefined period of time, an age or epoch or eon. To say “forever”, one would use “aidios”, and to say “unending”, one would use “ateleutetos”. Therefore, if Jesus had really taught an unending torture, he would have called this a “timorion aidion” or a “timorion ateleuteton”, just like the Pharisees who actually believed in unending torture.
The famous theologian Augustine of Hippo (Saint Augustine) wrote that many christians in his time (354 – 430) believed in universalism, which he himself strongly rejected. Many theologians nowadays claim that universalism is a recent invention or that it was a fringe opinion even then, but this is not only contradicted by Augustine but also by the Bible itself. It really is astounding, given how clear the original texts teach universalism, that so many christians nowadays believe that God will torture most humans forever and ever. Obviously, some people pretend that somehow God has nothing to do with the torturing, but if he’s the omnipotent creator of the universe, then he has everything to do with it.
We know that emperor Justinian (482 – 565) forced the church to adopt the doctrine of endless punishment. Eventually that would cause later translators to interpret “aionios” as an unending period of time, something that was definitely false in the time of Justinian:
The Emperor Justinian (540 A.D.), in calling the celebrated local council which assembled in 544, addressed his edict to Mennos, Patriarch of Constantinople, and elaborately argued against the doctrines he had determined should be condemned. He does not say in defining the Catholic doctrine at that time, ‘We believe in aiõnion punishment,’ for that was just what the universalist Origen himself taught. Nor does he say, ‘The word aiõnion has been misunderstood; it denotes endless duration,’ as he would have said had there been such a disagreement. But, writing in Greek with all the words of that copious speech from which to choose, he says, ‘The holy church of Christ teaches an endless (ateleutêtos) aiõnios life to the righteous, and endless (ateleutêtos) punishment to the wicked.’ Aiõnios was not enough in his judgment to denote endless duration, and he employed ateleutêtos. This demonstrates that even as late as A.D. 540, aiõnios spoke of limited duration, and required an added word to impart to it the force of endless duration.
John Wesley Hanson, Aiõn-Aiõnios, p.74
Clearly the concept of an eternal hell was and should be foreign to Christianity. It existed in Judaism before and during the first century, was clearly rejected by original Christianity, and reintroduced later by people like Augustine and Justinian. Unfortunately, almost all christians now believe in an unending punishment and consider any form of universalism as one of the worst possible heresies.
From 2006 until 2012 I studied this subject and many of the intricate details of the debate. One of the fruits of this labor is a small book that I wrote in Dutch about this. For an excellent introduction in English, visit Merciful Truth.