Hell, Part two: Is There a Way Out?

In the previous post I introduced four views of hell. Today I will examine each one critically, pointing to some strengths and weaknesses of each. My view of hell will come into view as I evaluate these alternatives. Again, I ask for the indulgence of those who have spent decades studying all the nuances and alternative answers to the question of final punishment. In a short essay like this one I cannot touch all the bases. And of course I welcome corrections of any misrepresentations of the views I examine or suggestions for improving my own proposal.

Views of Hell Critically Examined

Liberalism

Liberal theology’s contention that the NT authors simply accepted without question the apocalyptic speculations of late Judaism, though questionable, deserves more consideration than conservative theologians usually accord it. Undoubtedly the NT authors use the language of apocalyptic speculation. But the crucial question is how they use it. Did they intend to present these images as revealed divine truths about the eschatological transition events and the nature of divine judgment? Did they present them as metaphorical images embodying truth or as literal descriptions of post-mortem realities? Can their use of them be justified?

Traditionalism

Advocates of the traditional doctrine of hell attempt to take seriously God’s utter rejection of sin and evil and the seriousness of our situation in relation to the holy and just God. Nevertheless, despite this laudable motive I find its biblical grounding less than secure. For example, in interpreting texts that speak of death as the final punishment for sin (e.g., Romans 6:23), traditionalism interprets “death” or “eternal death” to mean eternal suffering without actually dying. Why would anyone say that? Perhaps it is because most traditionalists are committed to the idea that the human soul, once God creates it, cannot die. If the soul cannot die and some people are irrevocably excluded from salvation, the conclusion seems unavoidable: hell is a place of never-ending suffering in punishment for unrepentant sin. But as a matter of fact the Bible does not teach the doctrine of the natural immortality of the soul. It teaches that God alone has immortality and that human beings can hope for immortality only as a gracious gift of God.

Conditionalism

In my view, conditionalism is far superior to traditionalism in accounting for the biblical data about hell. That is to say, if you are looking for a summary statement of how the Bible pictures the fate of unrepentant sinners, conditionalism is the best candidate available. Conditionalism’s critique of traditionalism is devastating. My problem with conditionalism is its assumption that once we reconstruct the biblical picture of hell and the fate of sinners, the argument is essentially over. It assumes that those biblical statements were made with the intent of giving us specific information about eschatological events. I have serious doubts about this assumption.

First, the language of NT eschatology is indeed, as liberal theology points out, derived from pre-Christian Jewish apocalyptic speculation, and we have no warrant for thinking of this Jewish speculation as authoritative. But unlike liberal theology I do not think we should reject it for this reason alone. We need to ask how it was used by the apostolic writers in view of the resurrection of Christ. Second, the New Testament message is centered on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The event of the resurrection of Christ is the only eschatological event that has actually happened.

You can see from Paul’s teaching on the resurrection how pre-Christian Jewish speculation about the resurrection was reinterpreted in view of the actual event of Christ’s resurrection. Apart from the event of a real resurrection, the hope of resurrection is mere speculation derived perhaps from belief in God’s goodness or some other theological doctrine. But the event of the real thing forced Paul to modify his preconceived notions of resurrection (See 1 Corinthians 15).

This process of reinterpretation is also at work in way the NT uses pre-Christian Jewish notions of the messiah. Many people expected a messiah but no one expected a messiah like Jesus! The actual event of Jesus’s death and resurrection revolutionized how messianic and other eschatological texts in the Old Testament and intertestamental literature were understood. We get a little window into this process when the resurrected Jesus chastised the two Emmaus-road disciples:

He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself (Luke 24:25-27).

These examples of apostolic reinterpretation call for the following principle:

The precise meaning of prophesies, anticipations, and speculations about future events can be definitively understood only after the actual event happens. The event is the meaning.

Let’s apply this principle to the language of hell and other eschatological images. Paul and the other NT writers did not experience the other eschatological transition events about which apocalyptic speculation speaks as they experienced the appearances of the resurrected Jesus. (Okay, they experienced the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.) Hence we do not yet know how the apocalyptic language would need to be transformed in light of the actual events. Nevertheless the apostles’ experience of the actual eschatological event of the resurrection of Christ legitimated their use of other apocalyptic images in a loose sense, that is, with the expectation that it points in the right direction but would need to be modified in view of the actual events when the occur. My skepticism about conditionalism concerns its too close identification of the not-yet-modified apocalyptic language in which the NT eschatology is articulated with events that have not yet occurred.

Evangelical Universalism

Evangelical Universalism also has strengths. And in Parry’s book at least, it does not offer “cheap grace.” Sin is serious, and repentance is necessary. Salvation may require painful purgation for great lengths of time. Universalism is very attractive for someone who, like me, believes deeply in the love and grace of God and who does not think God can fail to achieve his objectives. I am not ashamed to admit that I hope that somehow beyond all expectation everyone finally comes to faith and repentance. But despite many good theological and philosophical arguments for it, I do not think the contention that universalism is the biblical view can be sustained. And the notion of hell as a temporary place of purgation has even less support from the Bible. Evangelical universalism suffers from the same questionable assumption that plagues conditionalism, that is, that the biblical language of eschatology gives us specific information about the eschatological course of events and final states.

Conclusions

What can we learn from this little survey? Obviously sincere believers in Jesus Christ, the risen Lord and Savior, differ in their views of hell. I do not think the Bible teaches the traditional view. I find that picture horrifying and a sharp challenge to John’s assertion that God is love, but I respect the faith of those who think they must believe it because they think the Bible teaches it. But I suspect that many Christians would be happy to discover that the Bible doesn’t really teach it and, consequently, that they are not obligated to believe it or try to defend it to their non-Christian friends.

Conditionalism gives Bible believers solid biblical justification for rejecting the traditional view. No one will spend eternity in horrible agony. Nevertheless, the conditionalist view does hold that God will punish people in hell for some length of time and that, once there, there is no way out but death. This, too, seems horrible, though much less so than the traditional view. Many people would be happy to discover that there are sincere conservative Christian theologians who can articulate good biblical grounds for believing in universal salvation. Even if some people must suffer painful purification for a time, we know that in the end “all shall be well, all shall be well, all manner of things shall be well” (Julian of Norwich).

For me, I am content to take the New Testament language about transitional eschatological events and hell as general affirmations of faith, grounded in the resurrection of Christ, that God will redeem his people and pronounce a “great divorce” (C.S. Lewis) between good and evil. Whether hell contains many or few or none, whether it lasts for a day or a million years or forever, whether it is a symbol or a real place, it represents God’s complete victory over everything that sets itself against him or that detracts from his glory. It epitomizes the complete liberation of his people from even the possibility of sin and suffering. And in that sense the biblical doctrine of hell is part of the gospel.

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10 thoughts on “Hell, Part two: Is There a Way Out?

  1. nokareon

    Very well put! I apologize for my nitpicking the other day—I see now that we are very much coming from the same place.

    The biggest challenge here for many will be this nuanced view of prophecy. For many (if not most) Christians, the prophets and even the whole Old Testament serve primarily to set up an expectation for the Messiah (understood, they would say, primarily as the suffering redeemer of Isaiah 53) so that they could then be used as proof-texts to show that Jesus is said Messiah. But the view here makes much better sense of the widely varied and often egregiously loose usage of Old Testament citations by New Testament authors (including, dare I say, Jesus Himself!). So while this presentation may be deeply disconcerting to one who wishes to amass the 500+ OT prophecies that presumably prove Jesus is uniquely the Jewish Messiah as an evangelistic tool towards a modern Jewish audience, I find it does much better justice to the practice of theology as contextualized by history.

    My one hesitation—though this does not bear on my agreement with the overall flow of the argument—is in identifying a cessation of existence as “horrible, though much less so than the traditional view.” Biblically, both images of torment and of cessation or death are presented in a horrible light, and there does not seem to me to be a way to adjudicate from these presentations which is “worse” from Biblical usage. Thus, we must turn to the field of ethical philosophy. While I acknowledge that a widespread, even majority intuition may be against me in this and hold that death is preferable to a life of pain or cessation of existence is preferable to conscious torment, my ethical convictions of the total sanctity of life strongly persuade me otherwise. There are in philosophy concepts of “basic human goods” which are fit to promote and pursue as ends in themselves. Chief among these, I would proceed to argue, is that of life. What flows from this view, if correct, is that an ultimate cessation of existence would indeed be a fate more horrible than continual torment, even of the Dantean sort. This is counter-intuitive to many in today’s modern world but not, I believe, to many Biblical writers. This, then, becomes the fuel for the ultimate Judeo-Christian hope: the eschatological resurrection. Thus, on the last day, “the last enemy to be defeated is death.”

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    1. ifaqtheology Post author

      Glad we finally connected on the first part. As to the second, I think I might agree to some extent with the Epicureans. I can’t see the bear experience of being alive, that is, at least sentient and conscious, as a good in itself apart from the goods one experiences in that condition. If one is aware and sentient only to experience such pain that one wished only to die…would not death become a greater good than continued life? Indeed death would not be a good in itself any more than life; nor would it make available positive goods, but it would remove positive evils. In a faint analogy, I remember suffering excruciating pain with a kidney stone. I was screaming for painkillers. In that state one wants noting but relief. Thanks for your extensive and insightful comment and stimulating challenge!

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  2. Richard constant

    Well Ron I’m going to have to comment.
    I think that if we just look at atonement the cross being the hinge point of the reality of what was and what will be.
    We see the Messiah Jesus in the garden in tears and prayers asking the father to find another way.
    We see the Messiah Jesus in the garden in tears and prayers asking the father to find another way.
    we see the Messiah Jesus in the garden in tears and prayers asking the father to find another way.
    we see the Messiah Jesus in the garden in tears and prayers asking the father to find another way.
    we see the Messiah Jesus in the garden in tears and prayers asking the father to find another way.
    we see the Messiah Jesus in the garden in tears and prayers asking the father to find another way.
    we see the Messiah Jesus in the garden in tears and prayers asking the father to find another way.
    we see the Messiah Jesus in the garden in tears and prayers asking the father to find another way.
    we see the Messiah Jesus in the garden in tears and prayers asking the father to find another way.
    we see the Messiah Jesus in the garden in tears and prayers asking the father to find another way.
    we see the Messiah Jesus in the garden in tears and prayers asking the father to find another way.
    we see the Messiah Jesus in the garden in tears and prayers asking the father to find another way.
    we see the Messiah Jesus in the garden in tears and prayers asking the father to find another way.
    Then we cut back to the cross and we find the curse of the law imposed.
    On a righteous man that did no evil know sin, confronting the law of God that made no exception for the for the act of hanging on a tree put there by ,GOD’s priest and Caesars representative.
    Just exactly what was Jesus so worried about in the garden.
    I will put this to you as and example of HELL.
    For the first time in God’s existence he would be separated totally ALONE.
    Thank on the ramifications of that for a while.
    And exactly what we must be missing!

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  3. Richard constant

    Well Ron I’m going to have to comment.
    I think that if we just look at atonement the cross being the hinge point of the reality of what was and what will be.
    We see the Messiah Jesus in the garden in tears and prayers asking the father to find another way.
    We see the Messiah Jesus in the garden in tears and prayers asking the father to find another way.
    we see the Messiah Jesus in the garden in tears and prayers asking the father to find another way.

    Then we cut back to the cross and we find the curse of the law imposed.
    On a righteous man that did no evil know sin, confronting the law of God that made no exception for the for the act of hanging on a tree put there by ,GOD’s priest and Caesars representative.
    Just exactly what was Jesus so worried about in the garden.
    I will put this to you as and example of HELL.
    For the first time in God’s existence he would be separated totally ALONE.
    Thank on the ramifications of that for a while.
    And exactly what we must be missing!

    I could throw in a bunch of scripture and if need be I would.

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    Reply
  4. Rich constant

    I’ll throw in one more little comment.
    FOR context
    Romans chapter 3 verse 22 actually I should go from 19 THROUGH 22 that no one is righteous under law but the righteousness of God is manifested through the faithfulness of Jesus. Which nullifies the law’s curse.
    Brings in the promised grace of God through the Seed of Abraham by faith Galatians the 3rd Chapter.
    giving Redemption to all of those that are righteously faithful BUT cursed because of a law that was given to Define what sin was, although not to make anyone righteous. Galatians 2 I think 17-21 and Romans 5 at the end of the chapter the last two verses.
    that has now been nullified .
    which would be Galatians chapter 4 verse 4.
    Which also brings about the salvation and Reconciliation by way of restoration of the creation.
    To the glory of God through the faithfulness of Jesus there is therefore now no condemnation because we have been given the holy spirit of God and are a new creation 2nd Corinthians 5 we have been adopted into the family of God through his son.

    Leaving outside of Gods or the father’s restoration of all things.
    because of missing the mark of righteousness by way of unfaithfulness/ disobedience for all of those that make that choice and that includes the deceiver.
    That we the Believers the family of God inherit the very good that God started with.

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  5. Rich constant

    As in addendum
    What is interesting is when Jesus says it is finished.
    The vocation of the sermon was finished.
    What interesting about what Paul says in Romans the 7th chapter is that after a person is dead they are freed from the law.
    what interesting about what Paul says in Romans the 7th chapter is that after a person is dead they are freed from the law.
    what interesting about what Paul says in Romans the 7th chapter is that after a person is dead they are freed from the law.
    what interesting about what Paul says in Romans the 7th chapter is that after a person is dead they are freed from the law.
    what interesting about what Paul says in Romans the 7th chapter is that after a person is dead they are freed from the law.
    what interesting about what Paul says in Romans the 7th chapter is that after a person is dead they are freed from the law.
    what interesting about what Paul says in Romans the 7th chapter is that after a person is dead they are freed from the law.
    what interesting about what Paul says in Romans the 7th chapter is that after a person is dead they are freed from the law.
    what interesting about what Paul says in Romans the 7th chapter is that after a person is dead they are freed from the law.
    what interesting about what Paul says in Romans the 7th chapter is that after a person is dead they are freed from the law.

    what interesting about what Paul says in Romans the 7th chapter is that after a person is dead they are freed from the law.
    what interesting about what Paul says in Romans the 7th chapter is that after a person is dead they are free from the law.
    But after this comes judgement although as you brought out there is still the fulfillment of prophecy raised on the third day.
    The judgment coincides with the saying this day you will be with me in paradise.
    And then the father and the Spirit take over and validate His righteousness through His faithfulness,
    To his father’s WILL for creation. (that is through the promise given to Abraham and not by being under law any longer,)
    by the bodily resurrection.
    Which brings HIS vindication to the light of THE DAY for his disciples the faithful Witnesses, through the power of God by the Holy Spirit in the Resurrection. for us all to be witness of and the assuring the faithful love, redemption, reconciliation, and restoration of the Father God by fulfilling , His gospel given to the profits.
    Through the faithfulness of His only begotten Son and as romanns 3 says that we have a law of faith.
    What is hell I know what life is and that’s found in the Messiah the body of Christ the faithful.
    Let’s have a look if you don’t have life. Spiritual Redemption. Then you’re not part of anything that God is giving those that have or are in the body of Christ.
    don’t have life? Spiritual Redemption. Then you’re not part of anything that God is giving those that have or are in the body of Christ.
    Of course you’re will be a final judgment of the people but there is a righteous judge and so those people or demons get there just desert death.
    So to me hell is just a big ol black hole.
    And white doesn’t even get out of that.

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  6. rich

    1.

    RE WROTE STILL NOT COMPLETE Richard constant
    2. Well RON I’m going to have to comment.
    I think that if we just look at atonement, the cross being the hinge point of the reality of what was and what will be.
    We see the Messiah Jesus in the garden in tears and prayers asking the father to find another way.
    Then we cut back to the cross and we find the curse of the law imposed.
    On a righteous man that did no evil know sin, confronting the law of God that made no exception for the for the act of hanging on a tree (god’s GOOD law presupposing, a faithful nation of just priest’s, of god’s kingdom) put there by ,GOD’s priest and Caesars representative.
    Just exactly what was Jesus so worried about in the garden.
    I will put this to you as and example of HELL.
    For the first time in God’s existence he would be separated totally ALONE.
    Thank on the ramifications of that for a while.
    And exactly what we must be missing!
    3. I’ll throw in some more. 🙂
    FOR context on the trinity’s covenant faithfulness
    Romans chapter 3 verse 22[-27] actually I should go from 19 THROUGH 22, (gal.2:16-20) that no one is righteous under law. but the righteousness of God is manifested through the faithfulness of Jesus. Which nullifies the law’s (Tora covenant’s) curse dut.28,29.
    Brings in the promised grace of God to and through the Seed of Abraham by faith for all nations. Galatians the 3rd Chapter.
    giving Redemption to all of those that are righteously faithful BUT cursed because of a law that was given to Define what sin was (rom 5), although not to make anyone righteous (just). Galatians 2, I think 17-21 and Romans 5 at the end of the chapter the last two verses.
    that has now been nullified (nullified much better word) .
    which would be Galatians chapter 4 verse 4.
    Which also brings about the salvation and Reconciliation by way of restoration of the creation.
    To the glory of God through the faithfulness of Jesus there is therefore now no condemnation because we have been given the holy spirit of God and are a new creation 2nd Corinthians 5 we have been adopted into the family of God through his son.
    Leaving outside of Gods or the father’s restoration of all things.
    because of missing the mark of righteousness(PURITY, innocence ) by way of unfaithfulness/ disobedience for all of those that make that choice and that includes the deceiver.
    That we the Believers the family of God inherit is THE very good that God started with.

    As in addendum
    What is interesting is when Jesus says it is finished.
    The vocation of the servant was finished.
    What interesting about what Paul says in Romans the 7th chapter is that after a person is dead they are freed from the law.

    But after this comes judgement although as you brought out there is still the fulfillment of prophecy raised on the third day.
    The judgment coincides with the saying this day you will be with me in paradise.
    And then the father and the Spirit takes over and validate His righteousness(innocence) through His faithfulness,
    To his father’s WILL for creation. (that is through the promise given to Abraham and not by being under law any longer,)
    by the bodily resurrection.
    Which brings HIS vindication to the light of THE DAY for his disciples the faithful Witnesses, through the power of God by the Holy Spirit in the Resurrection. for us all to be witness of and the assuring the faithful love, redemption, reconciliation, and restoration of the Father God by fulfilling, His gospel given to the profit’s.
    Through the faithfulness of His only begotten Son and as Romans 3:28-31[1:1-7] says that we have a law of faith.
    What is hell, I know what life is and that’s found in the Messiah the body of Christ the faithful.
    Let’s have a look, if you don’t have life. Spiritual Redemption. Then you’re not part of anything that God is giving those that have or are in the body of Christ.
    don’t have life? Spiritual Redemption. Then you’re not part of anything that God is giving those that have or are in the body of Christ.
    Of course you’re will be a final judgment of the people but there is a righteous judge and so those people or demons get there just desert death.
    So to me hell is just a big ol black hole.
    And Light doesn’t even get out of that.

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  7. rich

    OOPS… RATS
    SHOULD GO RIGHT BEFORE 3. ABOVE
    I will put this to you as and example of HELL.
    For the first time, in God’s existence, he would be separated, totally ALONE.
    along with all of everything that defines what god is
    Thank on the ramifications of that for a while.
    And exactly what we must be missing!
    why
    it is our norm…
    SO? WHAT is left
    IDOLATRY!!!

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  8. rich

    put this up on tom wright’s web page…
    what do ya think Ron will I get an answer? is this readable to you…
    Blessings
    rich constant

    iSORRY I AM not real handy at writing
    this is my idea of root principals in the narrative mystery (gospel) revealed
    1.
    met you, Tom at Pepperdine last may ,
    u autographed my coffee cup.
    1.A
    also said it was your first time doing that…hoping it worked i am sending you this!
    🙂
    THE FATHER WILL NOT SHOW FAVORITISM TO ANYONE …
    JUSTICE / IS DEATH UNTIL THE CROSS.
    death=to separation
    the curse of the Torah covenant / not blessing/So Still under the reign of Death.because of Adam
    all men miss the mark of righteous faithfulness because of the knowledge of evil Genisis 3 and choose to disregard GOD’s good and so separation / redemption…Rom3:24? ?23
    if you remember i would enjoy sending a question, you said you would answer in your new book…i waited didn’t answer my question… concerning the tree,curse , you did concerning Israel , although not to my satisfaction concerning Adam… if you remember me would you mind 🙂 thanks bro rich constant sorta kinda this is the sort start of the ?
    2. Well RON I’m going to have to comment.
    I think that if we just look at atonement, the cross being the hinge point of the reality of what was and what will be.
    We see the Messiah Jesus in the garden in tears and prayers asking the father to find another way.
    Then we cut back to the cross and we find the curse of the law imposed.
    On a righteous man that did no evil know sin, confronting the law of God that made no exception for the for the act of hanging on a tree (god’s GOOD law presupposing, a faithful nation of just priest’s, of god’s kingdom) put there by ,GOD’s priest and Caesars representative.
    Just exactly what was Jesus so worried about in the garden.
    I will put this to you as and example of HELL.
    For the first time, in God’s existence, he would be separated, totally ALONE.
    along with all of everything that defines what god is
    Thank on the ramifications of that for a while.
    And exactly what we must be missing!
    why
    it is our norm…
    SO? WHAT is left
    IDOLATRY!!!
    I’ll throw in some more. 🙂
    FOR context on the trinity’s covenant faithfulness
    Romans chapter 3 verse 22[-27] actually I should go from 19 THROUGH 22, (gal.2:16-20) that no one is righteous under law. but the righteousness of God is manifested through the faithfulness of Jesus. Which nullifies the law’s (Tora covenant’s) curse dut.28,29.
    Brings in the promised grace of God to and through the Seed of Abraham by faith for all nations. Galatians the 3rd Chapter.
    giving Redemption to all of those that are righteously faithful BUT cursed because of a law that was given to Define what sin was (rom 5), although not to make anyone righteous (just). Galatians 2, I think 17-21 and Romans 5 at the end of the chapter the last two verses.
    that has now been nullified (nullified much better word) .
    which would be Galatians chapter 4 verse 4.
    Which also brings about the salvation and Reconciliation by way of restoration of the creation.
    To the glory of God through the faithfulness of Jesus there is therefore now no condemnation because we have been given the holy spirit of God and are a new creation 2nd Corinthians 5 we have been adopted into the family of God through his son.
    Leaving outside of Gods or the father’s restoration of all things.
    because of missing the mark of righteousness(PURITY, innocence ) by way of unfaithfulness/ disobedience for all of those that make that choice and that includes the deceiver.
    That we the Believers the family of God inherit is THE very good that God started with.
    As in addendum
    What is interesting is when Jesus says it is finished.
    The vocation of the servant was finished.
    What interesting about what Paul says in Romans the 7th chapter is that after a person is dead they are freed from the law.
    But after this comes judgement although as you brought out there is still the fulfillment of prophecy raised on the third day.
    The judgment coincides with the saying this day you will be with me in paradise.
    And then the father and the Spirit takes over and validate His righteousness(innocence) through His faithfulness,
    To his father’s WILL for creation. (that is through the promise given to Abraham and not by being under law any longer,)
    by the bodily resurrection.
    Which brings HIS vindication to the light of THE DAY for his disciples the faithful Witnesses, through the power of God by the Holy Spirit in the Resurrection. for us all to be witness of and the assuring the faithful love, redemption, reconciliation, and restoration of the Father God by fulfilling, His gospel given to the profit’s.
    Through the faithfulness of His only begotten Son and as Romans 3:28-31[1:1-7] says that we have a law of faith.
    What is hell, I know what life is and that’s found in the Messiah the body of Christ the faithful.
    Let’s have a look, if you don’t have life. Spiritual Redemption. Then you’re not part of anything that God is giving those that have or are in the body of Christ.
    don’t have life? Spiritual Redemption. Then you’re not part of anything that God is giving those that have or are in the body of Christ.
    Of course you’re will be a final judgment of the people but there is a righteous judge and so those people or demons get there just desert death.
    So to me hell is just a big ol black hole.
    And Light doesn’t even get out of that.

    so Ron this go back to my Original queston?
    Back

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