Is there or is there not Universal Salvation (Universal Reconciliation)
A Case for Universal Restoration
The subject of personal eschatology — humankind’s ultimate destiny — has always received ample attention in the Christian tradition. Evangelistic preachers set forth heaven and hell to their flocks. Tracts and billboards challenge passersby with the solemn inquiry, “Where will you spend eternity?”
It hardly seems the stuff of controversy. For most Christians, it is a truism that after death some go "up" to be with Jesus and some "down" to join the devil's minions, forever.
But historically, there has been no consensus on this issue. Many Christians throughout the ages have embraced universalism. This "larger hope" affirms that all humanity will ultimately be restored to God. All will reach the harbor of eternal joy and peace.
Universalism is one of three Christian perspectives on human destiny. Each has had its able defenders throughout church history.
The views are as follows:
1. The traditional view: The soul is immortal by nature and will spend eternity either in the ecstacy of heaven or the torments of hell. Most who hold this view concede that the vast majority of mankind throughout all ages will endure the latter. Once death occurs, it is too late to repent and believe — the grave ends our probation and fixes our destiny. Augustine was among the most prominent theologians to expound this view.
2. The conditional immortality/annihilationist view: The soul is mortal by nature and sleeps until the resurrection at Christ’s Second Coming. Jesus will raise the righteous dead immortal and annihilate the wicked dead in fiery judgment. Like view #1, it asserts that most human beings will, unfortunately, not be saved. And like the traditional view, it maintains that eternal destiny is inalterable once a person is dead. It is the doctrine of the Adventist tradition. Church Fathers who held this view (arguably) include Justin Martyr and Irenaeus.
3. The universal restoration view: The issue here is not whether the soul is mortal or immortal. It is this: All human beings will ultimately enjoy redemption and the presence of God forever. Some find the abundant life on this side of the grave — they are called “the elect,” "the saints" and “the firstfruits.” Others may face a fearful judgment and retribution, either in this life or the next. But in the end, they will join the company of the redeemed. This was the view of Origen and Gregory of Nyssa.
There are variations on all of these views. But generally speaking, the above statements sum them up. The traditional view is currently dominant in Christendom and has been for centuries. Still, many have held the other two views and have used the Bible for support.
How can this be? Is Scripture so inconclusive about something as important as the destiny of mankind?
Data on Afterlife Limited
Our first consideration is to admit that the Bible does not give us a highly nuanced system of personal eschatology that fills in all of the details. There are two main reasons for this:
1. The New Testament, despite the extravagant claims of many, provides us only a slice of what the early Christians confessed. It is not summa theologica from the apostolic pens. On the contrary, most of the epistles deal with specific problems in the churches (for example, the Judaizing disturbance in Galatians). They are not intended to be point-by-point explanations of all things doctrinal. Many times, we must piece together incidental things the authors say to determine just what they believed. The task is not always easy.
2. The gospels are primarily apologetic works designed to convince readers that Jesus is the Christ, and that the Kingdom of God is at hand. That is their basic thrust — not to show us everything Jesus believed about the afterlife or any other topic.
Recognizing this, I admit that the theory of universal restoration may be erroneous "wishful thinking" of cosmic proportions. It is, after all, a theory — not a dogma. It is not among those things "surely to be believed," such as the existence of God, the divine mission of Jesus, the imperative of love. Eschatology is too fraught with difficulties to be a conviction of absolute certainty. My convictions about "what happens when we die" contain much reverential agnosticism.
Still, there is a case for universalism. I do believe that of the aforementioned three views, universalism is most consistent with the grand themes of Scripture: Divine love and mercy, the broad scope of redemption, the Christian message as “good news.”
I also deem it more reasonable. Universalism is the only view of personal eschatology that comes close to offering a satisfying theodicy (attempts to reconcile a God of love with a suffering world). It helps fill in answers to the riddle of existence. The other two views create far more riddles than they solve.
The Old Testament Prophets
The Scripture evidence for universalism begins with the old Hebrew writings. This is key. Too often we rush into the New Testament to find our belief system, forgetting that Old Testament Judaism was the cradle of our faith. We should not begin reading the gospels with our minds a blank slate. It is imperative that we consider what went before, what the people’s hopes and convictions were when Jesus arrived on the scene.
The Old Testament pulsates with a universalist expectation. It conveys the hope of huge multitudes — often called “all flesh” — coming to know Yahweh. The beginning of such hope was a promise to Abraham that “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen. 12:3) It is a promise that God repeats over and over.
Here is a sampling of what the Old Testament says about the extent of redemption (emphases mine):
“All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.” (Psalm 22: 27)
“All your works shall give thanks to you, O Lord ... You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing. The Lord is just in all his ways and kind in all his doings. ... My mouth will speak the praise of the Lord, and all flesh will bless his holy name forever and ever.” (Psalm 145: 10, 16-17, 21)
“On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines ... And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth.” (Isa. 26:6-8)
“By myself I have sworn, from my mouth has gone forth in righteousness a word that shall not return: ‘To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear.’ ” (Isa. 45:23)
“From new moon to new moon, and from sabbath to sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, says the Lord.” (Isa. 66:23)
“For from the rising of the sun to the setting my name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering, for my name is great among the nations.” (Mal. 1:11)
Sometimes, these statements come from prophets who also speak of God destroying certain nations for their iniquity. Evidently, there is no conflict in the prophetic mind between the ruin of sinful nations and the ultimate restoration of all. We are left with the paradox.
Tremendous throngs will swarm to the mountain of the Lord, the prophets say. What can we make of this? It is true that many have embraced the piety of Jesus since the gospel’s first proclamation. But they are still but a sliver of humanity. Their numbers fall short of the prophets’ visions, which include the Lord’s name being honored everywhere, in everyplace, from the rising to the setting of the sun. We have not seen, in two thousand years, a time when EVERY knee bowed to the Lord. Nor a time when God has wiped away tears from EVERY face.
Some may complain that I am being overly literal here. I should leave room for hyperbole and other literary devices. That may be. But I submit that the first two “human destiny” views do not accord with these prophetic pictures as closely as universalism. Traditionalism tells us that most of humanity — most by far — will suffer horribly, world without end. Conditionalism says that a minority will rise from the grave immortal while the rest burn up in a terrible cataclysm. The prophets, on the other hand, proclaim the universalist hope: All flesh will worship the Lord forever and ever.
The Advent of Jesus
When we enter the New Testament, angels herald the birth of Jesus, an event which they say is for “all people” (Luke 2:10). The songs of both Mary and Zechariah mention that Jesus’s birth was a fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham (Luke 2:55, 73). These prophetic songs in Luke’s gospel repeat the expectations of the prophets that all flesh would one day worship the Lord God.
During his teaching ministry, however, Jesus said many things that sound anti-universalist. He foretold a great, impending judgment. He said that the way to life was narrow, admitting few, while the road to destruction was wide, teeming with travelers. Many, he said, would go away into eternal punishment. We read descriptions of outer darkness, Gehenna, gnashing of teeth.
How can we reconcile the prophets of old with such words? Can the universalist vision accord with such statements of exclusion?
One hermeneutical key is to understand that the judgment language of Jesus was generally not addressing questions of afterlife. He was speaking of a coming kingdom and an accompanying judgment ready to burst upon his generation. A time of unparalleled calamity was imminent. The holy city and temple would fall to signal the event.
The disciples asked Jesus when this event would occur. He told them to watch for the signs. Wars would flare up. False messiahs would come. Then he gives his hearers a time indicator to alert them to the nearness of this apocalypse: “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” (Matt. 24:35)
The terrors of which Jesus spoke found their fulfillment in the razing of Jerusalem and the end of the Mosaic economy. Gehenna (translated “hell” in the New Testament) was a real place in the valley of Hinnom where the Jews burned garbage (see Appendix A). It was a picture of what the holy city would look like after its fall. The fire would be unquenchable — no one would be able to put it out or halt its advance until it had done its work of destruction.
The Apocalyptic Judgment a Past Event
Like preachers in the Old Testament tradition, Jesus was an eschatological prophet. One of his primary missions was to warn Israel of its impending doom at the hands of the Gentiles. A new kingdom was ready to rise up upon the ashes of the old. The event, according to the New Testament, was “at hand,” (Mark 1:15), “at the doors,” (James 5:9), ready to come “in a very little while.” (Heb. 10:37)
The ax that was laid at the tree’s roots fell swiftly in AD 70 when Titus of Rome laid siege against Jerusalem. Jesus illustrates this event as a “coming of the Son of Man.” Not a literal coming in the clouds, but a swift execution of judgment upon the old economy, which had grown corrupt. There is no question that this “coming” of Christ was to be fulfilled within the life span of Jesus’ hearers (see Matt. 10:23; 16:27-28).
And so it is likely that the judgments and exclusions of which Jesus speaks are warnings to a city on the verge of destruction, a fate that has nothing to do with hellfire after death.
But does it make sense to picture the ruin of a city in such strange terms? Stars falling from the sky? The heavens opening and the Son of Man descending with all his angels? Why such cosmic imagery?
It is because these descriptions are part of the Old Testament’s apocalyptic tradition. Such language was fairly common among the prophets. Listen to the words of Isaiah portending the judgment of ancient nations (emphases mine):
“See, the Lord is riding on a swift cloud and comes to Egypt; the idols of Egypt will tremble at his presence, and the heart of the Egyptians will melt within them.” (19:1)
“Their [Edom’s] slain shall be cast out, and the stench of their corpses shall rise; the mountains shall flow with their blood. All the host of heaven shall rot away, and the skies roll up like a scroll. All their host shall wither like a leaf withering on the vine, or fruit withering on a fig tree.” (34:3-4)
“And the streams of Edom shall be turned into pitch, and her soil into sulphur; her land shall become burning pitch. Night and day it shall not be quenched; its smoke shall go up forever. From generation generation it shall lie waste; no one shall pass through it forever and ever.” (34:9-10)
Note the imagery here: Yahweh riding upon the clouds, the heavens convulsing, unquenchable fire sweeping the land. All of this describes the fall of nations in ancient history (events that have already happened). How much more would Jesus apply such word pictures to the demise of a city that had been the the worship center for the one God.
Does this rule out any future coming of Jesus Christ in a literal sense? Some say it does (full preterism). Others, that the fall of Jerusalem prefigures the grand, future Parousia to come (partial preterism). But whatever one’s view, there remains a strong argument that the doom Jesus pronounced on the unrepentant came in the form of Roman siege against Jerusalem within the generation of his hearers.
Some may object that Jesus referred to the coming judgment in terms of “eternal punishment.” The Greek word for “eternal” is aionios. It is the adjectival form of aion, age. The word often modifies things that are not of endless duration (see appendix B).
An aionion punishment is a punishment “pertaining to the age” — from the standpoint of Jesus, the age to come. That punishment, from which all Christians escaped, fell upon the city of God in AD 70.
Some may be unconvinced of this explanation of ainios. Their English Bibles say “eternal punishment,” and that’s that. But even granting that aionios always means “eternal,” the fall of Jerusalem still qualifies as such. The judgment was irreversible, its effects lasting forever. Never again would the Old Testament system rise. With the genealogies, the ark and temple gone, never would there ever be a priesthood of Levites or a daily sacrifice.
Soul-making, in This Life and the Next
Combined with the mainstream view of our Lord's eschatological warnings is another unquestioned affirmation: When people die, there is no further hope for them. It is too late for any change. Reformation and soul-making beyond the grave is, for most people, an absurd notion.
But there are glimmers in the New Testament that contradict this common belief, a testimony that cracks the door for the universalist hope.
The meaning of the word “punishment,” in Greek kolasis, further opens the door. The word ordinarily conveys corrective discipline. The commentator William Barclay writes:
"The Greek word for punishment is kolasis, which was not originally an ethical word at all. It originally meant the pruning of trees to make them grow better. I think it is true to say that in all Greek secular literature kolasis is never used of anything but remedial punishment." Barclay, William, A Spiritual Autobiography (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), 1975, p. 66.
If after the judgment, retribution falls upon the sinner, the punishment will be remedial — not merely punitive. Its aim will be to restore, not to torment as an end in itself.
Soul-making may yet be possible in the life to come. It could be that the rolling ages of eternity are fitted for a glorious purpose: For humans to learn transcendent goodness and progress toward perfection.
Paul tells us that Christians in his day were performing what appears to have been proxy baptisms for the dead (1 Cor. 15:29). This, he argued, should effectively silence all who deny a resurrection of the dead. Note that Paul issues no rebuke of the practice, he marshals it to his defense. Absent are comments that such baptisms do no good because of the dead’s irreformable state.
We have inferential evidence from Paul’s famous instructions to expel an immoral member of the church in Corinth. He writes, “you are to hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” (1 Cor. 5:5) Commentators believe that the “destruction of the flesh” is physical death. The Interpreter’s Bible says:
“To deliver ... to Satan has been understood to mean excommunication. By turning him out of the church they will put him in a sphere where the power of Satan is without limitation, and thus his sins will lead to his death. But since deliver ... to Satan for the destruction of the flesh can only mean death, the emphasis lies on that conception (cf. 1 Tim. 1:20). ... The Day of the Lord would bring the resurrection, and the possibility of the man’s salvation.” Interpreter’s Bible, (Abingdon Press: Nashville), 1984, vol. x, p. 62.
Here was a fallen disciple who, despite facing the prospect of dying in his sins, was still within the pale of redemption. Paul said that after the destruction of the flesh, the man could still be saved at the Lord’s return. This defies the belief of most orthodox, who would rule out hope for a man ending his life in such a state.
Further evidence exists that the early church did not consider the dead in a fixed condition. At least twice in the New Testament, we read of Jesus preaching to the dead:
“He [Jesus] was put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he also went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison who in former times did not obey when God waited patiently in the days of Noah ...” (1 Pet. 3:19-20)
“But they [the immoral] will have to give an accounting to him who stands ready to judge the living and the dead. For this reason the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they have been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does.” (1 Pet. 4:3, 5)
Some Christians have tried to say that this preaching was only a proclamation of their doom. But the 1 Peter 4 text says specifically that Jesus preached “the gospel.” What kind of glad tidings would it have been for Jesus to show up and gloat over his triumph? Is this consistent with the character of our Lord?
Admittedly, these are cryptic references. But the traditionalist and conditionalist systems have no place to put them. They remain bewildering “problem passages” for mainstream Christians, but are consistent with universalist expectations.
The Love and the Will of God
Does God love all human beings? Is it His will to save them all? Arminians say, yes. Calvinists, no. The latter argue (rightly so) that if God did love all people and willed their redemption, they would all be redeemed. That only makes sense. God is sovereign and carries out His plan irresistibly. No one can hold back His hand (Dan. 4:35). He will do all of his pleasure (Isa. 46:11) He works all things after the counsel of His will. (Eph. 1:11)
Even Calvinists admit that some biblical texts appear to teach God’s love for all people and His desire to save all. “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the Lord God, and not rather that they should turn from their ways and live?” (Ezek. 18:23) “God so loved the world,” (John 3:16) “God our Savior ... desires everyone to be saved,” (1 Tim. 2:4), “The Lord ... is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9)
Other texts speak of the saving work of Christ in universal terms. “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” (John 1:29) “If I am lifted up, I will draw all men to me,” (John 12:32) “He died for all,” (2 Cor. 5:15) “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself,” (2 Cor. 5:18) “The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all,” (Titus 2:11) “Christ Jesus ... who gave himself a ransom for all,” (1 Tim. 2:5) “the living God ... is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe.” (1 Tim. 4:10 — not the Savior ONLY of those who believe)
Calvinists, however, put a strict limitation on the occurrences of such words as “all,” “every” and “world.” They argue that these words refer merely to a general inclusion of Gentiles as well as Jews. Frequently, they will interpret the texts as meaning “all KINDS of men,” or “all men without distinction, but not all without exception.”
Seldom are they compelled here by the context or grammar. Their interpretations are driven by forgone theological conclusions , particularly their a priori belief that only some will ultimately be redeemed.
But in every one of the above instances, the words “all,” “every” and “world” CAN mean just what they appear to mean. There is nothing in the individual texts themselves that rules out a universal application. There is no necessity placed upon us to limit these words as Calvinists do. Only when interpreters deny the possibility of universal redemption are they forced into this box.
Suppose for a moment that the Scriptures said repeatedly, "God would have all men perish in their sins." Would anyone reason that such a statement allows most people to be saved, and assigns only some from each national group to perish? That is exactly what the Calvinist argues in reverse!
Most of the time, people can determine when a statement is universal. “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” (Rom. 3:23) The context is without a delimiting qualifier and is, therefore, a universal statement. Paul here speaks of human beings in principle. It is not a local situation. The same is true with “God so loved the world.” Nothing compels us to narrow the statement.
But what about such phrases as “Esau have I hated”? (Rom. 9:13) The text sets forth in graphic colors God’s redemptive purpose in preferring Jacob to Esau. The hyperbole need not be any more literal that our obligation to “hate” our mother, father, wives, sisters, etc. (Luke 14:26)
Those who disagree must answer this daunting question: Does God hate His enemies while commanding us to love ours? If we are to be “perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect,” may we hate? The idea is self-contradictory.
God does not lay higher standards of love upon His creatures, whose love is flawed, than He does upon Himself, whose love is perfect. To assert otherwise involves a hopeless conundrum. God must certainly extend His love at least as far as He calls us to extend ours.
New Testament Universalist Statements
And so, if God’s will is to redeem “all flesh,” and if God always accomplishes His will (as Scripture declares in the plainest words), then it requires no great logician to finish the syllogism.
Here we come full circle to the vision of the Old Testament prophets. The New Testament furnishes an echo of that hope (emphases mine):
“Indeed, God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:17)
“Therefore, just as one man’s [Adam’s] trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s [Christ’s] act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.” Rom. 5:18
“For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.” (Rom. 11:32)
“For as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.” (1 Cor. 15:22)
“He [God] has made known to us the mystery of his will ... as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” (Eph. 1:9, 10)
“Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil. 2:9-10)
“... through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” (Col. 19-20)
“Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing, ‘To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever.‘” (Rev. 5:13)
The Challenge of Theodicy
Philosophical questions about the existence of evil have been the bane of Christian thinkers for centuries. That’s because the objections that skeptics pose against our faith are unanswerable from a traditional standpoint.
Take the Holocaust, for example. From the traditional perspective, Jewish people went through the nightmare of Auschwitz — with its gas ovens, starvation and torture — only to pass on to an infinitely worse fate when they finally died. Is this assertion part of a doctrine that we can possibly deem “the good news”?
Look at the agony in the world that encompasses us. For the universalist, it is a part of our soul-making process. We learn goodness through the things we suffer. When we pass into the final state of perfection, we will all say that it was worth the pain (however unlikely this may seem now). Paul wrote, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.” (Rom. 8:18) Universalists hope for a day when all mankind will see life from that perspective.
The traditionalist cannot even hope for such a thing. For the overwhelming majority of humanity, throughout all ages, existence will offer no meaning. Multitudes will be born, live a life of acute suffering and then die — only to be dispatched to an existence of perpetual anguish.
Annihilationists advance their position here as a worthy alternative. But their hypothesis also fails to identify any purpose or meaning in the lives of millions. A nonchristian woman grows up in a poor Ethiopian village. She is ravaged with hunger. Loved ones all around her succumb to pestilence and malnutrition. Finally, she dies. When Jesus returns from heaven, he raises her, then sets her ablaze. She is extinct forever. What was the point of her life? Nothing. It was tragically absurd and meaningless.
The Christian Message as Good News
So often, the gospel is a mixed blessing, falling short of the “glad tidings” spoken of in Scripture. The message of redemption comes to a young woman. She is happy for herself, for her own salvation, but is soon vexed with anxieties. What about her father? He was a good man, but not especially religious when he died. How can she be happy in eternity, knowing he is lost? And what of her siblings? She will witness to them, but what if they aren’t converted? The thought weighs her down and impedes the joy of life.
What can the traditionalist view tell the mother of a suicide victim? Or the father of a teen dead of a drug overdose? What words of comfort can the pastor impart at the funeral? The answer is, none. There is no balm, no good news for them. In fact, it is arguable that having no religion might be more comforting at that point than having the mainstream traditionalist religion.
None of this proves that universalism is true and traditionalism false. It is illogical to say that because something is terrible, it must not be true. But which position is most consistent with the “joy unspeakable” in the early church? Which sounds most like good news? Which most comprehends “the breadth and length and height and depth” of Christ’s love? (Eph. 3:18-19) Two positions damn all but a relatively tiny portion of our race — one to endless torments, the other to incineration. A third believes with the prophets of old that “all flesh will bless his holy name forever and ever.” Judge for yourself which view most closely resembles unalloyed good news.
None of this is to say that God “owes” the world eternal happiness. He does not. Traditionalists often point this out: God is obligated to no one, therefore, He may withhold life from any He wishes. That is true. But love is not about merely fulfilling obligations. Jesus calls us to give away cloak and tunic, to walk a second mile, to render good unto all — not to simply carry out obligations. God’s perfect love, therefore, must be even more lavish than what He expects of us.
“For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others. Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt. 5:46-48)
And that is the most pointed argument of all. Our love is often fickle, restricted to those who love us. But we are called to something loftier: the perfection of our Father in heaven. It must be the case, then, that God loves those who do not love Him. And because love works for the good of its object — because it is patient, kind and unfailing — it must preclude the damning of its object.
There may come the tired, perennial objection: If all will be saved, why bother to follow Christ and do good? Here I will only ask the objector to contemplate whether he or she is following the Lord chiefly for some post mortem “payoff” denied others. If so, I direct them to Jesus’s parables of the Prodigal Son and the Workers in the Vineyard.
Still others may point out that I haven’t dealt with all of the “problem passages.” That is true. But I am not a conservative biblicist (many univeralists are). I do not require that every verse in Scripture harmonize perfectly with a doctrine before I accept it. I leave room in my belief system for diversity of opinion among biblical authors.
Besides, universalists in the early centuries of church history used the same kinds of exclusionary language as the biblical "problem passages" — even the term "eternal (ainios) punishment." This is impressive considering that Greek (the New Testament language) was the mother tongue of many such ancients, including the univeralist Origen. The biblical difficulties evidently need not rule out such a conviction.
The universalist view is imperfect. There remains much to be worked out, including a coherent doctrine of election. I cannot adequately defend this eschatological perspective against all detractors as if it were bulletproof. However, I am content that it dove-tails with the broadest promises of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation. Conviction, after all, needs a deeper foundation than a few scattered proof-texts.
There can be no deeper foundation than the love and compassion of God.
Gehenna or hell as a geographic location in the ancient world:
"Hebrew scholars tell us that gehenna is derived from two Hebrew words, Gee, which means land, and Hinnom, the name of the individual who owned the land — meaning, land of Hinnom. This land, or vale of Hinnom, bordered upon the southeast part of Jerusalem, where it is still represented on all correct maps of Palestine. We learn from the Old Testament, that, in this valley of Hinnom, sacrifices were offered by the sinful and idolatrous Jews, to an idol-god, called Moloch. This idol, which had the head of an ox and the body of a man, being hollow, was heated with fire within, and upon its arms its benighted worshipers laid their children, and there they were burned to death.
"This horrid place was sometimes called Topheth-the name being derived, as some think, from a word signifying drum, because drums were beaten to drown the shrieks of the burning children. To destroy idolatry among the Jews, King Josiah caused this place to be defiled, and looked upon, by the Jews, with abhorrence and loathing, by making it the receptacle of all the filth and offal of the city of Jerusalem. Some writers tell us that the carcasses of beasts and the bodies of criminals were cast if into gehenna. That this putrifying mass might not taint the atmosphere, fires were kept constantly burning, to consume this offal and garbage thrown into this valley. And as those parts which remained unconsumed would necessarily breed worms, hence came the expression — 'where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.' In proof of what is here asserted in regard to the valley of Hinnom, we refer the reader to 2 Kings xxiii. 10: 'And he [Josiah] defiled Tophet, which is in the valley of the children of Hinnom, that no man might make his son or daughter to pass through the fire to Moloch.' " Livermore, Daniel Parker, Proof-texts of endless punishment, examined and explained (S&A Emerson: Chicago) 1862, p. 35.
On the meaning of the adjective ainios, the word rendered “eternal” in Matt. 25:46:
First assertion: The meaning of aionios is flexible with regard to duration:
"Schleusner, whose exact learning makes his authority of great weight, defines aion, thus: 'Any space of time, whether longer or shorter, past, present, or future, to be determined by the persons or things spoken of, and the scope of the subject — the life or age of a man; any space in which we measure human life, from birth to death.'" Thayer, Thomas B., The Origin and History of the Doctrine of Endless Punishment (James M. Usher: Boston), 1855, p. 155.
Second assertion: The use of the word in ancient universalist writings supports the above interpretation:
“The Sibylline Oracles, Clemens Alexandrinus, Origen, and others of the Christian Fathers, who are acknowledged believers and teachers of the final restoration, often use the phrases 'everlasting fire,' 'everlasting punishment,' &c., in regard to the wicked Nothing can more conclusively show that the expressions are not to be taken in the sense of endless; for though they believed in everlasting punishment, they also believed it would end in the restoration of those who suffered.” Ibid., p. 157-158
Third assertion: The words not used by biblical authors to describe punishment strengthens this view:
"... when the Scripture writers set forth the future state of happiness, they employ other terms than aionios, rendered in the text everlasting and eternal! Different terms, we find employed for this purpose, which are never connected with punishment. Aphthartos is a Greek word, which occurs several times in the New Testament, and means incorruptible, immortal, but is never applied to punishment! We read of 'the glory of the incorruptible God,' Rom. i. 23; and that 'the dead shall be raised incorruptible,' I Cor. xv. 52; and of an incorruptible inheritance, 1 Peter i. 4; and of the 'King eternal and immortal,' 1 Tim. i. 17; but we never read of incorruptible punishment, nor of an immortal hell!
"Aphtharsia is another Greek word which was employed by the sacred writers in a similar sense, to signify immortal and incorruption. Hence, the 'dead are raised in incorruption,' 1 Cor. xv. 42; and 'inherit incorruption,' verse 50; and 'that Christ hath brought life and immortality to light,' 2 Tim. i. 10. This term, all admit, is never applied to punishment. It describes an endless life, but not an endless death!" Livermore, Daniel Parker, Proof-texts of endless punishment, examined and explained (S&A Emerson: Chicago) 1862, p. 12.
Fourth assertion: The subject of ainios determines its duration:
"The true meaning of aionios is age-lasting, or an indefinite period of time. It is applied to things that are endless, but more frequently to things of limited duration. It is the subject to which it is applied that indicates its meaning. If the nature of that subject is endless in duration, that qualifies the meaning of the word and indicates the sense in which we use the term, everlasting. But if the subject to which this term is applied, is of a limited nature, the word has a limited signification. The subject always determines the meaning of the word. We read of the everlasting hills, and the everlasting God, and it is the nature of each subject which determines the meaning of the word. It must, therefore, first be shown that punishment is necessarily endless in duration, before we can determine that the word everlasting when applied to it, has any such signification." Ibid., p. 15.