Can people in hell be ‘saved’?

Q.  I have two items. The first relates to something you wrote on your blog. The second is related to your book, Paradigms on Pilgrimage. [That book is now available free online through the link provided. I will answer this reader’s second question in my next post.] 

Do you believe in proportional punishment in hell and an eventual ceasing-to-be? (Jesus said, “The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows, but the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows” and “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.)  Or do you believe people in hell can be “saved” if they repent enough?

I believe you’re asking this question in response to my recent post, “Will there be anyone in hell who doesn’t want to be there?”  In that post I say, in reply to a reader’s question about my own personal views, “I guess you could say I believe in some kind of opportunity to respond to God’s offer of salvation even after death.”

I’m grateful to have the opportunity here to clarify that such a response, if one were indeed possible, would not require a person to “repent enough” or in any other way do penance or make satisfaction for their earthly sins.  In other words, I don’t subscribe to the idea of some sort of purgatory in which a soul “does its time” and in that way is made fit for heaven, in a way that it wasn’t at the time of death.

Rather, I believe that if a person did still have the opportunity to respond to God’s offer of salvation after death, this offer would be extended in the same way as to us on earth:  completely on the basis of grace, on the merits of Christ’s death for us on the cross.  I’m hopeful that something might bring a person, even after death, to realize that in life they should have embraced this gracious offer from a loving God, and that they want to do so now.

I don’t believe we have a clear teaching in the Bible about many of the specific details of the afterlife.  Rather, this is a view that I hold in light of the character of God, as that is revealed quite clearly to us in the Bible.  As I say at the end of the series that prompted the reader’s question about my own views:

“The Bible doesn’t tell us nearly as much as we would like about the fate of people after death.  But it does tell us a great deal about the character of God, in which justice and mercy are perfectly balanced. . . . Maybe the thing to do is to allow our understanding of the character of God to inform our view of what happens after death.”

And as I say in the more recent post about my own views, “Based on what I understand God to be like, I can’t imagine God leaving sincerely repentant people in hell—that is, people who wish they had repented, based on what they now realize.”

To state this in terms of your question, I think this means that I do believe that people in hell (that is, people who, after death, have not entered into the presence of God based on their grateful acceptance in life of what Christ did for them) can still be saved, but not on the basis of anything they do except embracing God’s gift now.

As for an eventual ceasing-to-be of those who resolutely and permanently hold out against God’s gracious offer, I think that’s implied in what I say in that same post: “God’s ultimate design is to bring all things back under his rule and authority. . . .  Then hell will not exist for all eternity, since it is a place where, by definition, God’s authority is denied and resisted.”

Finally, as for the idea of proportional punishments, I believe that the parable you cite from Luke, about the knowingly disobedient receiving more blows than the unknowingly disobedient, is not actually talking about proportional punishments for those who are not saved, but rather proportional rewards and punishments for those who are saved.

This is one of those master-and-servants parables that Jesus told to teach his own disciples about how they should relate to him.  It is clearly “eschatological,” that is, concerned with Jesus’ Second Coming.  And it teaches, like similar parables, that our faithful service to God on earth will help determine the responsibilities and opportunities we are given in the kingdom of God once it has fully come.  In this particular parable, we discover that there are not only rewards for faithful servants but punishments for unfaithful ones–some form of chastisement.

But even this must be seen as the expression of God’s love for us.  The author of Hebrews, quoting Proverbs, encourages us, “Don’t make light of the Lord’s discipline, and don’t give up when he corrects you. For the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes each one he accepts as his child.”  And Jesus himself says in his letter to Laodicea in the book of Revelation, “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline.”

Still, this ought to put the “fear of God” in us, quite literally, and help us to be more diligent in doing God’s will as we know it!  But I think it is taking this part of Jesus’ parable about servants and their master quite out of context to hold that it teaches there will be proportionate punishments for those who have not been God’s servants.

A contemporary depiction of the exhortation in Jesus’ parable, “Be dressed for service and keep your lamps burning, as though you were waiting for your master to return from the wedding feast. Then you will be ready to open the door and let him in the moment he arrives and knocks.”

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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