If we take away a traditional concept of hell as a never ending place of torment what are we left with? To answer that question let us first look at some of the passages that call into question a need for hell. Romans 5:12, 15-19, 21 is a great place to begin:
Therefore just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned–But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many. Again the gift of God is not like the result of one man’s sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification. For if, by the trespass of one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.
Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. For just as through the disobedience of the one many the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.
so that just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Repeatedly this passage of scripture reminds us that sin and death entered the world through Adam but forgiveness and life came through Jesus. As a note of clarification: in verse 19 the Greek word for many is polys. Polys can also be translated all and since we know that none of us are without sin the logical conclusion is that in this verse all is a more accurate translation for polys. The fact that all is used earlier and later in the chapter further indicated that all is the better translation.
Another significant passage is I Timothy 2:3-7:
This is good and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ, who gave himself as a ransom for all men–the testimony given in its proper time. And for this purpose I was appointed a herald and an apostle–I am telling the truth, I am not lying–and a teacher of the true faith to the Gentiles.
God’s will is for all to be saved and in order to accomplish His will Jesus gave His life as a ransom for all men. In chapter 4:9-10 Paul clarifies his point even further: “This is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance (and for this we labor and strive), that we have put our faith in the living God, who is the Savior of all men and especially those who believe.” Why does Paul refer to Him as the living God? Because, while His death on the cross brought an end to what God’s adversary could do (as well as Christ’s earthly ministry), His resurrection fulfilled the law. Death could not hold him–our sins were consumed but our Savior lives. God’s will was done, accomplished, complete. This is indisputable. It does not rely on man adding his faith (which incidentally is also a gift from God–check out Hebrew 12:2). Instead, Paul hints here that putting our faith in God (our work) comes after the fact of salvation. If this were not true Paul would not be saying “especially those who believe” he would have to say only for those who believe. Ephesians 2:4-5 is even more specific, “But because of His great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were in transgressions–it is by grace you have been saved.” Finally, In John 12:31-32 Jesus says of His upcoming death on the cross, “Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. But, I, when I am lifted up, will draw all men to myself.” The judgment on sin is immediate and for everyone.
I can already hear your clamor, “Now wait just a minute! Are you saying everyone is going to heaven–Hitler, Saddam Hussein, Attila the Hun, my mother–everyone?” Eventually, yes. The minute they die? No. Plenty of scriptural evidence exists to support a time of judgment. In fact, we will all face it, believer and unbeliever alike. Just listen to Romans 14:10, “You then, why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat.”
I have no idea how long judgment (or pruning) will last. But the 1 Corinthians 3:12-15 passage I mentioned earlier illustrates the results:
If any man builds on this foundation (Jesus) using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or stray, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire and the fire will test the quality of each mans work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping the flames.
Personally I think believers may be judged more harshly than nonbelievers because we know better, or at least have the opportunity to know better. Still, the fact remains–all means all. But that is not what worries you at the moment, is it? You want to know how the likes of Hitler get in, or a little closer to home, how the people who have hurt you get in.
Quite frankly, my life experience could add a couple other names to the list I started above. I have spent more than a few nights anticipating with glee the sentence that might befall certain people who, in my judgment, hurt me and got away with it. On the other hand, I am not so naïve as to not realize that some of those same people might have similar thoughts toward me. While I continue to struggle with the “forgive so you will be forgiven” and the “first take the plank out of your own eye so you can see the speck in your brother’s” passages, the older I get the better I understand their function. Matthew 18:21-22 reveals the Lord’s heart on this matter when Peter asks, “Lord how many times should I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you not seven times, but seventy times seven.” His response actually meant time without number. Not only is Jesus answering Peter’s question He is revealing the heart of God, for a just God would not ask His creation to do something He himself had no intention of doing. Can Peter accomplish the task Jesus sets before him? Mark 10:27 answers this question. Jesus has just explained to his disciples that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.” In amazement His disciples ask each other, “Who then can be saved?” With an earnest look Jesus answers, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.” Even, the forgiveness of an unrepentant sinner.