Helen D. asked the question in the title in response to a piece I wrote a couple of weeks ago (A Biblical Look into the Future). It is a familiar question. I initially responded in the comment section but we continued the conversation by email. Excerpts are included below. (Thanks, Helen!)
Helen: Pastor, I too enjoy your columns in the paper and just read the “New Earth” perspective using the train analogy. I’m curious where you see our unbelieving friends and relatives.
Shayne: I think there is clear biblical support for the idea presented in the newspaper column (A Biblical Look into the Future), some of which I outlined and much of which I did not have space to include. There is also other biblical data which must be taken seriously: the abundant support for the idea of judgment and loss for those who (variously) “do not know God,” “do not glorify God,” who “do not believe [in Jesus]”, are “unrighteous,” etc.
How these two sets of biblical data relate is the question. My understanding is that those who do not want God to be God, who reject him in his self-giving in Jesus Christ, will not enter the life of the new age. In my word picture from the column, they will deboard the one train but not board the other. For such people, the terminal at the end of the line is terminal. In the words of the Scripture, they experience “death” and do not have “eternal life” or (literally) “the life of the age.” One of the reasons I write is to help such people see the hope and beauty of the gospel of Christ.
Helen: The [church] where I went when I had my conversion experience at age 42, teaches that all souls live forever, but believers will live with God and nonbelievers will live without God, which seems terrifying to me since He is Light and Love, and who wants to live that way?! You believe their lives just end without further consequence?
Shayne: No, not without further consequence, though I hardly understand what those consequences might seem to the person experiencing them. Read C. S. Lewis on this (the chapter on Hell in The Problem of Pain). It seems to me that the Bible teaches that a person – though “person” may cease to be accurate terminology for the damned – continues to exist. There are, however, some good men and great scholars (John Stott, for example) who believe that judgment will result in a final punishment that will bring such a person to an end rather than to ongoing torment.
The problem in talking about such things (or so it seems to me) is that we cannot imagine what damnation entails, just as we cannot imagine what glorification (its biblical opposite) entails. In both cases, I think, the person will be transformed. In the one, to something greater, wiser, and more beautiful (in which the redeemed senses of the enlarged self experience realities we cannot now know); in the other, to something less, something duller (with a diminution of self and – perhaps – of the corresponding senses). This is a horrible end. Those who insist on the keeping themselves inevitably lose themselves, just as Jesus said.
What we can be sure of is that God remains God; that is, he remains loving. He will give us the best we can receive and, sadly, for some people that seems to be damnation. But as Dallas Willard says, “Hell is not an oops!” People who experience damnation will be those who determinedly have chosen “not God.”
All that said, it is best we stay away from medieval images of punishment and stick to biblical texts.
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