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Is Death Final?

posted by Scot McKnight

Harrowing.jpgNot too long ago we posted a series on what is now being called evangelical universalism, and if you recall it is a view that believes death results from sin, and that following death unbelievers experience hell. But the big issue here is the finality of death. Is death final? Is there a possibility that death is not final, or that hell as the second death could end? 

I don’t know if you know about this, but the Eastern Orthodox Church has a major emphasis on Good Friday through Easter and the emphasis is on what is sometimes called the “harrowing of hell,” the descent of Christ into hell between the Cross and the Resurrection. The idea is that Christ entered into Hades after his death and raided hell to ransom the righteous of the Old Testament. 
Clearly, then, the death prior to Christ’s death was not final. Is the death after the death of Christ final, then? 
This Lent I’m reading the pious and and learned study of Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev (Christ the Conqueror of Hell: The Descent into Hades from an Orthodox Perspective
), mostly because I’ve always wanted to read a good piece by an Orthodox theologian on the Eastern (and traditional) sense of the “descent into Hades,” an article in our creed. There are a number of NT texts that, while open to dispute, have been traditionally understood as referring to Christ’s descent into hades and they are, if so, clear signs that one kind of death was not final.


Matthew 12:40: For just as Jonah was in the belly of the huge fish for three days and three nights, so the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights. 


Matthew 27:51-52 Just then the temple curtain was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks were split apart. And tombs were opened, and the bodies of many saints who had died were raised. (They came out of the tombs after his resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.)

Acts 2:31: David by foreseeing this spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was neither abandoned to Hades, nor did his body experience decay.

1 Peter 3:18-21: Because Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, to bring you to God, by being put to death in the flesh but by being made alive in the spirit. In it he went and preached to the spirits in prison, after they were disobedient long ago when God patiently waited in the days of Noah as an ark was being constructed. In the ark a few, that is eight souls, were delivered through water. And this prefigured baptism, which now saves you – not the washing off of physical dirt but the pledge of a good conscience to God – through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who went into heaven and is at the right hand of God with angels and authorities and powers subject to him.

1 Peter 4:6: Now it was for this very purpose that the gospel was preached to those who are [now] dead, so that though they were judged in the flesh by human standards they may live spiritually by God’s standards.

Eph 4:9: Now what is the meaning of “he ascended,” except that he also descended to the lower regions [of] the earth?

Rev 20:14: Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death – the lake of fire.


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JoanieD

posted February 19, 2010 at 6:55 am


Scot, I am glad you included the passage from Matthew 12:40, “so the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights.” I just brought it up on another blog that though Jesus was in the tomb three DAYS (part of Friday, all of Saturday, part of Sunday) he was only in the tomb for two nights…Friday and Saturday. It’s not a big deal for me, but kind of odd and I would think that passage would make some wonder which is correct…this passage or others that have him in the tomb just the two nights.
(I know this is a bit off-topic, so if you want to delete this and respond to me privately, that would be fine. Thanks.)



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JoanieD

posted February 19, 2010 at 7:09 am


http://www.carm.org/bible-difficulties/matthew-mark/how-long-was-jesus-dead-tomb
That page gives various options for understanding the “three nights.” Which do you think may be correct?



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MattS

posted February 19, 2010 at 8:24 am


I consider “death” as discussed in the citations above to be creative metaphors to enhance the literarily exulted imagery, identity and reputation of Jesus. When one studies the how, when, where and by whom the NT was constructed and its various books canonized, it becomes clearer to the reader that the writers and editors had “an agenda.” Separating out the spiritually worthwhile from the puffery is an exercise that requires effort and considerable thought. The only thing I necessarily agree with is that “death” as an event to an enfleshed being is hardly the end. But that which lays beyond is for us, mere speculation at best, regardless of what we confess or profess.



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dopderbeck

posted February 19, 2010 at 9:18 am


I think this has always been understood in the Catholic and Reformed traditions to involve the release of those who had already been saved, i.e., the elect who had died before the atoning death of Christ. Calvin comments here in the Institutes: http://www.reformed.org/master/index.html?mainframe=/documents/Christ_in_hell/index.html
In the portraits of the last judgment in Revelation, we don’t seem to have a hint of a “second harrowing of hell.” In fact, the redeemed serve as judges with Christ.
I’m not sure what the contemporary Orthodox view is, but is the approach you’re reading following along Origenist lines? Origen’s universalism was one of the things that eventually got him branded a heretic by the Western church. So, this could be one of those basic divides between East and West.
Personally, even allowing for the fact that the Bible’s apocalyptic imagery is rather impressionistic, the message that the final judgment is indeed final seems hard to escape. I think I’d rather approach the “theodicy of soteriology” problem you’re getting at in somewhat different ways: (1) many of the elect are “hidden Christians,” to use Rahner’s phrase; and/or (2) many of the elect fully understand Christ only at the moment of death; and/or (3) there is some possibility of repentance after death and before the final judgment because the “intermediate state” is nether heaven nor hell and therefore is not final; and/or (4) the final judgment is one of purgation for some; and/or (5) the final judgment is one of annihilation for the reprobate.
All of these speculations have serious problems; (1) and (2) seem to me the least problematic.



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Richard

posted February 19, 2010 at 9:22 am


And don’t forget Isaiah 25:6-9 in the conversation:
6 On this mountain the LORD Almighty will prepare
a feast of rich food for all peoples,
a banquet of aged wine?
the best of meats and the finest of wines.
7 On this mountain he will destroy
the shroud that enfolds all peoples,
the sheet that covers all nations;
8 he will swallow up death forever.
The Sovereign LORD will wipe away the tears
from all faces;
he will remove the disgrace of his people
from all the earth.
The LORD has spoken.
9 In that day they will say,
“Surely this is our God;
we trusted in him, and he saved us.
This is the LORD, we trusted in him;
let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation.”



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Scot McKnight

posted February 19, 2010 at 9:26 am


dopderbeck, I’m with you on how most have understood harrowing: raiding the pit of hades in order to rescue the righteous. And I have always read 1 Peter 3:18-25 as “announcing victory” more than actual evangelism, but there are strains of Origenist thinking in more than Origen and in more today than perhaps ever before.
What strikes me as so peculiar in the NT about this is both 1 Cor 15’s baptism for the dead and 1 Peter 4’s preaching to the dead, both of which have had traditionalist understandings.
The evangelical universalist requires one major idea: that death is not final.
The question then for us today is this one: Is death final?
What do folks think?
We Protestants want to find solid biblical support for it not being final. Is that evidence there? What do you think?



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Seth Rash

posted February 19, 2010 at 9:28 am


This is a fascinating subject, thanks for brining some attention to it. Hans Urs von Balthasar developed quite an intricate theology surrounding Christ’s ‘descent.’
Two books that people might be interested in checking out (though not for the faint of heart) are Balthasar’s own, ‘Mysterium Paschale’ in which he explores the events andtheology of Triduum, and
Light in Darkness: Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Catholic Doctrine of Christ’s Descent into Hell by Alyssa Pitstick.
Cheers.



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Nathan Cotton

posted February 19, 2010 at 9:47 am


This subject seems to never find itself in the pulpit enough. thank you for the article so much.
Nathan Cotton
http://www.thecottonpatch.info



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Kenton

posted February 19, 2010 at 9:51 am


Some thoughts:
1. If death experiences a second death (the Rev 20 verse), then there’s an end to death. Death is final in the sense that it’s over, but it’s not final (indeed the opposite of final) in the sense that it no longer has the last word. Resurrection does.
2. Why is burden of proof for the solid biblical support on the evangelical universalist view as opposed to traditional view?



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Daniel Mann

posted February 19, 2010 at 9:56 am


Scot and David,
While we have to be careful to remain faithful to the Scriptural illumination to which we have been privileged, there of course remains the tension of reconciling hell with the revealed character of God, who is love and justice. Nevertheless, our theories serve a useful purpose ? they enable us to temporarily live with the tensions, informing us that there are possible means of reconciliation ? as long as they aren?t confused with Scripture, which alone must remain preeminent.



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Vaughn Treco

posted February 19, 2010 at 9:59 am


Kenton, it seems to me that the burden of proof lies on the universalist precisely because “evangelical universalism” is not the received tradition and because it seeks to “unseat” a theological vision that that has prima face obvious biblical warrant.



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John L.

posted February 19, 2010 at 10:38 am


As a former Christian who is now a happy agnostic, I must say that I think you people are just talking pie in the sky. I studied theology for several years when I was a Christian, and found it a great intellectual exercise: If this, therefore that, and therefore this, and therefore that, ad infinitum. But it’s all just castles in the air, with no solid basis to it. Your “reasoning” about heaven is just based on wishful thinking, and even a disgusting and cowardly sort of greed for more Time – indeed for Eternity.
As for the concept of hell, I think it is the most sadistic idea ever invented by the mind of man. Thomas Paine, in his brilliant work, Age of Reason, said something very similar. Anyone who preaches hellfire should be ashamed of himself, intellectually and morally.
Best regards and good luck to you all.



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Kyle

posted February 19, 2010 at 11:08 am


John L.,
Are you attempting evangelism or mere insult? Either way, it’s really off-topic. Instead of mocking through bald assertions, why not join the discussion? After all, you claim to have previously looked into theology before rejecting the faith, so I’m sure you could at least attempt to contribute positively.



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dopderbeck

posted February 19, 2010 at 11:23 am


Scot (#6) — seems to me that all we can say is that the Biblical witness seems to suggest pretty strongly a final judgment. As you note, there are hints here and there of other possibilities, but following on the related thread about theological interpretation, the Church as for the most part always understood those in light of what seems to be more clear teaching on final judgment.
I think this also responds to Kenton’s question (#9) about burdens of proof. If theological interpretation has any purchase, the burden of proof must be on the universalist, because the text as interpreted in the Creeds seems to suggest a final judgment.



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Joey

posted February 19, 2010 at 11:23 am


I once asked an NT professor about these passages wondering if he thought death was final and what his thoughts on Hades/Sheol or Geheena were.
He gave a creative, yet admittedly unsubstantiated, view of the whole thing. He purported that Hades/Sheol are to be understood differently than Geheena, and that when Jesus descended into Hades/Sheol his work there made Hades/Sheol unnecessary since now all could find either life (heaven) or death (Geheena) in this life whereas before they were unable. Essentially Hades/Sheol are now destroyed and the ultimate destinations are either Heaven or Hell.
I don’t buy it but I can’t deny it is a creative way to hold on to a traditional view while still engaging with texts that imply a “land of the dead” without explicitly referring to Hell (See 1 Samuel 28:8-20).



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Irenicum

posted February 19, 2010 at 11:25 am


Two points: First I would distinguish between hades and hell. Though they are often used interchangeably, in the NT and Greek OT, hades means the abode of the dead and is a generally neutral term. Both the righteous and the unrighteous go there upon physical death. Hell, on the other hand, in the NT is gehenna, and is never a neutral term, but only a negative term which refers explicitly to judgment for sins. Jesus certainly descended to hades; there are numerous passages that attest to that. The question is whether he also descended to hell/gehenna? The Petrine passages give us the most warrant for believing he did so. But even they can be read differently as referring to Christs’ descent into hades. There’s enough ambiguity to allow for both understandings, else why would we have such divergence of opinions throughout church history. The weight of scripture seems to lean towards a definite end point of physical death as the last chance for repentance, but there’s enough other imagery to keep us from being too dogmatic in our pronouncements.
Secondly, to John L. I understand your objections to hell. Anyone who ‘enjoys it’ as a doctrine needs to consider what’s going on in their heart. But if Christians accept the truth claims of all of scripture, then these are issues that must be addressed, however distressing they may be. Understanding issues of judgment and punishment aren’t the same as guessing how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. If the scriptural witness is true to ultimate reality, then these issues directly impact individual peoples’ eternal destinies. My hope is that you would continue to keep an open mind to what is being discussed. The ‘problem’ of hell is precisely why this discussion is taking place. That alone contradicts the sadistic impulse, at least for those involved in this discussion.



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Daniel Mann

posted February 19, 2010 at 11:36 am


JohnL,
I?m sorry to hear that your theological studies brought you to a place of disbelief. However, it seems that you?ve also developed a distaste for the Biblical revelation, in that you wrote, ?As for the concept of hell, I think it is the most sadistic idea ever invented by the mind of man.?
Personally, I love the God revealed in Scripture along with the fact that there are eternal consequences for our behavior. Would you instead prefer an anything-goes type God?



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Kenton

posted February 19, 2010 at 11:36 am


David (#14)-
Which creeds? Nicene and Apostles’ mention judgment, but not finality of death. I would propose that the theological interpretation you refer to is eisegetical: we start with a concept of hell (Helenistic, not Hebrew, with eternal conscious torment in all its glory), and we impose that onto scripture. I would propose not a exegetical interpretation because that would be impossible, but one that starts with a Hebrew concept of hades (a “place of the dead”) where Christ will draw all men, and reconcile all things, and read the hell passages through that lens.



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MH

posted February 19, 2010 at 11:37 am


Vaughn Treco, not to steal JohnL’s thunder, but I can tackle two of them.
2. The study of theology is “all just castles in the air” with no solid basis.
I take this statement to mean there is no method to prove a conclusion true, or have one accepted as self evident. For example there’s no objective evidence for the truth of one religion over another, so conflicting claims about God between religions can’t be resolved. Even within a religion conflicting claims arise which often result in schism. For example is Christianity’s view that God is one being of three parts polytheism or monotheism? The answer depends upon who you ask (ex Nontrinitarian groups), which is unlike an enterprise like mathematics.
Negative theology actually shows further weakness of the enterprise because it avoids making positive statements. This renders all the statements it does make somewhat pointless because they can’t be dis-proven.
5. Hell is the most sadistic idea ever invented.
The problem of Hell has been discussed at great length. One simple argument is that humans are finite and can only sin a finite amount. Therefor any infinite punishment for finite misdeed is logically unjust. A being which uses such a punishment en mass while failing to provide evidence for its existence would be seen as fairly sadistic.



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WB

posted February 19, 2010 at 12:14 pm


This discussion on hell vs. Hades makes for interesting theological philosophizing but hasn’t Christ overruled that already and shown us that death isn’t final? The underlying belief that, in the short space of a lifetime someone can be damned for eternity, is a flat denial of the goodness and grace of God. Does God punish sin? Of course, but it’s the Deific equivalent of tough love to turn His children from the false and delusional to the reality of His creation. For those who want to drift into philosophical abstraction, philosophize about this: If God’s creation took place in what we call time, pick a date, any date as the creative start. Then ask yourself, “What was going on for the eternity prior to that?” Any rational thinker will realize that creation has always existed, otherwise, for the eternity prior to what you call the creation, God was doing what, nothing? After all, infinity goes both ways. Don’t say it’s a “mystery”, for that’s just another way of saying, “I don’t want to think about something that challenges my beliefs.”



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dopderbeck

posted February 19, 2010 at 12:16 pm


Kenton (#18) — yes, Nicene and Apostle’s — the mention of “judgment” is what I’m referring to. The Athanasian is more explicit: “judgment” is “everlasting fire.” “Judgment” could be “non-final,” i.e. purgative, in the Nicene and Apostle’s read without any “legislative history,” perhaps, but I think the sense here is consistent with the overall Tradition, that the final “judgment” is final.
Re: whether this is eisegetical — I suppose all “theological interpretation” is eisegetical and I was only making the point that if one wants to go the “theological interpretation” route then there’s another significant, perhaps insurmountable, burden to overcome to move towards universalism.



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Daniel Mann

posted February 19, 2010 at 12:20 pm


Although the Bible doesn?t give us a humanly-satisfying picture of final consequences, it?s nevertheless unequivocal about the fact that our God is just. One indication of this is the fact that, according to Jesus, punishment will be based upon our individual circumstances:
?But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.? Luke 12:48-49



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rebeccat

posted February 19, 2010 at 12:38 pm


Dopderbeck #4:
Origen was condemned as a heretic for many very specific teachings, but his universalism was never one of them. Even Jerome, writing as late as 400 when listing his errors never mentioned universalism as one of them. Universalism was in fact shared by many of those who condemned him as a heretic and continued to be a commonly accepted belief in the church for a couple hundred years after Origen’s death.



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Scot McKnight

posted February 19, 2010 at 12:45 pm


Folks, great conversation … even those who are wandering off topic … and I’d like to bring us back:
Do you think these texts, the ones cited in the post itself, indicate that death was not final before Christ, ie did Christ “evangelize” those in Hades? Do you think these texts are better understood as teaching that death is in fact final? And, if the first is your view, do you think this would be a good basis to infer that death after Christ’s death is still not final?
The issue, then, is the finality of death.



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Kenton

posted February 19, 2010 at 1:04 pm


Scot-
I guess the answer to your question is “no,” but when you talk about Christ “‘evangelizing’ those in Hades” I gotta scratch my head for a second. While I might be in the same broad category as Robin Parry, I think he misses the point when his flavor of universalism is that somehow or another after death God will torment the unbelieving/unrighteous until they cry “uncle!” and then say the sinner’s prayer and become “believers” as it were. How about an afterlife where those who resist the grace and love of God just want to pull away from his loving presence until in their misery they begin to see that God’s grace and love are better than their own selfish ambition. It is in THAT sense that I think death is not “final.” I would also propose that it’s consistent with scripture, the creeds – the main ones, anyway. :) – and is neither a burden, nor insurmountable.



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Dana Ames

posted February 19, 2010 at 1:41 pm


Kenton, that’s a reasonable statement of how I see things working out.
Just to try to bring some clarity about Origen, though I haven’t read much of him, my understanding is that his “universalism” was connected to his view that everyone existed before physical birth (sort of like the Mormons believe) and we would somehow return to that “state/place”. This pre-birth existence is the hinge on which the church hung the heresy charge for this particular doctrine.
Dana



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Charlie Clauss

posted February 19, 2010 at 1:56 pm


I’d like to hear more learned discourse from you all about the issue of cosmology (ancient and modern) as it applies to hell.
It is also worth pointing out that a view of “Last Things” that high lights the coming of a New Creation makes the discussion about hell different from discussions that have a more dualistic perspective.
What place does hell have in a New Creation?



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John Mark Harris

posted February 19, 2010 at 2:30 pm


I thought the spirits in prison that Jesus preached to were the same angels who came to the earth and had sexual relations with the daughters of men thus producing the monstrosity race of half-angelic half-human race for which God (along with man’s wickedness) decided to send the flood to wipe-out all flesh expect for Noah and his family.
Am I wrong about that? [;-)]



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dopderbeck

posted February 19, 2010 at 2:53 pm


Scot (#24) — I don’t think framing the issue as the “finality of death” is correct. Everyone agrees that death is not “final” in the sense that there is a resurrection and judgment — the “second death” for those who are condemned.
What you’re asking is (a) whether there is an “intermediate state” after death and prior to resurrection; and (b) whether the cited passages suggest the possibility of redemption during the intermediate state.
Concerning (a), I think these passages and others suggest the answer is yes, there is an “intermediate state”.
Concerning (b), I think these passages suggest that, yes, there is a possibility of redemption in the intermediate state, at least for those who died prior to the crucifixion and were justified by faith in God.
Both of these conclusions, I think, are also consistent with the Tradition.
This raises two further questions, which are the ones I think you want to get at: (c) is it possible that some who died after the crucifixion and who did not explicitly have faith in Christ during life could be redeemed in the intermediate state?; and (d) will everyone who dies before Christ’s return be redeemed in the intermediate state?
As to (c), it would seem odd that the temporal event of the crucifixion would circumscribe the limit of Christ’s activity towards souls in the intermediate state given that the intermediate state would seem to be a “spiritual” state, i.e. a state that is not part of our space-time experience. It might also seem odd that those who had “faith” without knowing of Christ (e.g., Abraham) could be justified and redeemed in the intermediate state while people today who don’t explicitly hear of Christ would be precluded from having implicit faith. But this will also eventually implicate a bunch of difficult questions about election and monergism vs. synergism.
We could also wonder here at the implications for Christology given the eternality of the divine Son. “Where” and “When” was Christ when the dead body of Christ lay in the tomb prior to his Resurrection? Perhaps we shouldn’t think of the intermediate state as a topos, which perhaps suggests something about people destined to be born, live and die “after” the harrowing of Hell?
(What I just said above is off the top of my head — but I’m sure I’m getting it from somewhere?)
As to (d), I still see the imagery of judgment as suggesting that not all will be saved.



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Andy Holt

posted February 19, 2010 at 3:17 pm


By death being final do you mean that we don’t get another shot at repentance? If that’s the case, then death for those before Christ was not final, but death for those after Christ is final (with the possibility of a rolling exception for all those who have not had the gospel preached to them). It sure seems like the Bible teaches that all who hear the gospel will be held accountable for their acceptance/rejection of it.
But, I’m fascinated by what C.S. Lewis writes in The Great Divorce. I know that it’s fiction, but it still makes such beautiful sense out of death and final judgment. I find myself drawn to the picture he paints there, of Hell being a place smaller than the molecules of Heaven, where its inhabitants pursue their desires through greater separation from one another, and where those who get on the bus to Heaven (really it’s more like a beautiful, natural lobby just outside of Heaven) cannot make an impression there until they repent.



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Bob Porter

posted February 19, 2010 at 6:25 pm


Scott (#24)
I am puzzled why you want to limit the discussion to the ?texts, the ones cited in the post itself?. The only way I would feel comfortable venturing an opinion on your question would be to start by assembling all of the relevant texts.
For example, what about Luk. 16:18-36, 2 Cor. 5:1-10 and Rev 22:13-15?
On a closely related topic, one of the things that I personally found helpful was Willard?s discussion of Christian Pluralism (Chapter 7, Knowing Christ Today).



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Seth Rash

posted February 19, 2010 at 8:43 pm


#28
You’re not wrong in pointing out that many commentators point out the relation/allusion of the 1 Peter texts to passages from 1 Enoch, which are at least in part about the whole ‘angels-sex-with-humans’ story/myth.
Whether or not a theology of hell/hades or a harrowing can be built from the 1 Peter texts is a source of great debate, though I think most commentators reject the possibility. (At least the ones I’ve surveyed–Elliot, Michaels, to name only two.) Still, that hasn’t stopped many others from going the other route.
Although I have great sympathies towards universalism, I’m not sure the 1 Peter texts at least, are much help.



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Jeff Cook

posted February 20, 2010 at 12:02 am


On the face of it, I agree with Dopderbeck (#29). It seems the first death is not final, but post-judgment, the second death is.



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Your Name

posted February 27, 2010 at 9:12 pm


As a hopeful evangelical universalist, I read assertions above of the Bible’s repeated warnings of a “final” judgment. What texts use this adjective? As if whatever tradition has dominated proves something, many say the burden is on others to disprove it. But when many texts mentioned above sound as if being Lord of the dead means that God’s dealings toward us will go beyond this brief life, it seems the moral and logical difficulty of insisting that God’s love and redemptive pursuit toward many of his offspring is simply severed because they now enter the realm of the dead, means the burden of proof should be on those who claim to know this.



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