Is eternal Hell for Real?

       "Great question," Pastor Riggs said. "But let's look at that verse again. There are two phrases. Right?"
       I looked back down at Romans 6:23. "Right. 'The wages of sin is death;' but 'the gift of God is eternal life.'"
       "What's the word that connects the two phrases?"
       I looked again at the text. "But."
       "What does 'but' mean?" he asked.
       I pondered an instant. "'But' points out contrast."
       "Exactly. If the two phrases were connected by 'and,' then if we looked at only this text, what you're saying would make sense. But they're not. 'For the wages of sin is death; but....' The 'but' tells us there's something different coming. There's a choice, essentially: 'but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord."'
       "That's important," Pastor Riggs continued, "but that's just a tiny piece of the answer. The death Paul is talking about here is the 'second death.'"
       "Second death?" I questioned. I'd never heard that phrase.
       "Yes. But that study could take a while. I'm willing to go right on and study it with you now, if you want. But I think it would mean more to you if I gave you some information to study at home and then we met again and studied it together. Would you be comfortable with that?"
       My stomach had already growled several times. "Sure. That's fine."
       "I'm glad you're willing to study on your own," Pastor Riggs said. "I suppose that's especially important to me because of my own experience. I searched for years for truth. At first, I searched the churches. I finally found one that satisfied me.
       "I became a lay preacher. I loved my church, loved my people. Further Bible study gave depth, real substance, to my beliefs. In the process, I learned to trust God. He became my friend."
       "Life was wonderful ... until I discovered truth that contradicted a doctrine my church believed." He raised an eyebrow then sighed. "I'm just human enough to have made my share of mistakes. And I've learned the best thing to do when I discover I've goofed is to admit it, make amends, and start living right. Doesn't that make sense?"
       "Yeah," I agreed.
       "I admitted my mistake," Pastor Riggs continued, "and proceeded to obey what God had revealed to me in the Bible. Unfortunately, my church wasn't excited about the truth I'd discovered. It was traumatic leaving the church and the people I loved.  But it was worth it. Remember, Jay, it's always worth it to search for truth. It's always worth it to follow truth ... wherever it leads you."
       Pastor Riggs stood. "I'll go get the Bible study guides." He returned shortly with a handful of material. "Don't just believe me or these pamphlets. Study for yourself until you know what truth is according to the Bible."
       My head was swimming. On the way home I told Annette and Cari, "I can't believe it! Years ago I asked numerous ministers most of the same questions I just asked Pastor Riggs. None of them gave me answers that satisfied.
       "Pastor Riggs didn't seem the least bit bothered by any question I threw at him. Come to think of it, though, he really didn't answer my questions himself. He turned to the Bible. We read together. Essentially, he let the Bible answer for itself. He basically just showed me where to find the answers in the Bible."
       At home I ate a quick lunch then headed west. With the hours I worked, I rarely took any time for relaxing. I'd planned to take the afternoon off and enjoy Kentucky Lake in my little-used boat. No sense letting my curiosity about the pamphlets foil my relaxing or letting my relaxing curb my curiosity.
       I headed the boat south from the marina across the lake from New Johnsonville. The water was glassy the sky nearly as blue as the lake. Rolling hills edged the lake. Dark evergreens accented the delicate, bright spring greens of deciduous trees starting to leaf out.
       I found a peaceful spot near the lush shoreline and dropped anchor. No homes, no businesses, no structures of any kind. Just water, rocks, trees, and more trees. The silence always quieted my turmoil.
       But that day, Inki and I lounged in the sun only a few minutes before curiosity got the best of me. I grabbed my Bible and the booklets Pastor Riggs had shared. The first pamphlet's title asked "Are the Dead Really Dead?"
       I know the answer to that even if these Christians don't, I thought. No need to dive deep into a sticky issue. They'll probably stumble on something else along the way, and I won't even have to deal with this.
       The next pamphlet's title read "Is the Devil in Charge of Hell?" I thought back over the years. Hell was the subject that made me hate God... until I learned about reincarnation. I was so thankful to have learned that each person gets all the chances they need to learn what's necessary to live on a heavenly plane. So grateful to have learned that God wasn't torturing people in a forever-burning hell through centuries and millennia. "So what are these traditional Christians going to say about hell?" I questioned, then started reading.
       What? The Bible says no one's burning in hell now? That hell doesn't start till after the final judgment and resurrection of everyone?
       So somebody that sinned five thousand years ago wouldn't have to suffer any longer than someone that sinned now. That's surely more fair than what I was taught when I was a kid.
       The shrill whistle of a hawk broke the stillness. I spotted him practically straight above me, floating on the air with hardly a wing movement. He circled over the hillside then back over the shore. Captivated by his calm soaring, I watched until, eventually he flapped wide wings and headed over the hill.
       I turned back to the pamphlet. Could this possibly be true? I opened my Bible and looked up each text, reading several verses or a chapter or more around the verses the pamphlet quoted.
       Occasionally a boat and skier flew past or fishermen heading from one fishing spot to another. They passed far out in the lake. Their wakes were so spent by the time they got to my peaceful spot that the water lapped lightly, peacefully against the shore.
       I read on and on. I couldn't find anything misquoted.
       Later, I looked up as another boat passed. "Wow! How'd that happen?" I questioned aloud. Inki perked up, tilting her head. "We'd better get going." The sun had dropped mighty close to the horizon.
       The inboard/outboard motor purred to life. We headed south a little farther before circling back and speeding north.
       The ideas I'd been reading about still filled my mind. Hm-m-m, I thought when I was almost to the marina, I don't think she'd mind. I moored the boat, got my staff phone list from my car, and dialed the pay phone.  "Annette, I've been studying the Bible all afternoon. Would you have time to answer a few questions?"
       She gave me directions and I drove to her apartment on the lakeshore. We sat on the back lawn, overlooking the water. Inki sniffed, snooped, and ran circles in the large yard.
       "I can hardly believe what I've been reading!" I enthused. "I guess I just want to know if I'm understanding it. If anyone else believes like this or even thinks it's possible."
       "So, what have you been reading?"
       "I started with a pamphlet Pastor Riggs gave me. Then I spent most the afternoon reading in the Bible."
       "What were you reading about?"
       "About hell. Is it true that the Bible says hell doesn't start till after everyone has died and then has been resurrected?"
       "Yes. That's what I understand from the Bible."
       "Do you believe that hell doesn't burn its victims throughout eternity? But it burns hot and fast, like fire in a stubble field? That in hell, those who chose to follow Satan rather than to enjoy friendship with God will experience the second death -- the final death? Then that's the end of them? There's no torturing?"
       "Yeah, that's what I read in the Bible," Annette agreed.
       "That sounds wonderful. But doesn't the Bible talk about everlasting fire when it talks about hell?"
       "Yes, it does," she answered.
       "So what's that mean?"
       "Well, a place or two it refers to hell. And one place, it refers to the fire that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah."
       "Sodom and Gomorrah? Those towns aren't still burning, are they?" I asked.
       "No, they're not. The biblical terms forever, eternal, or everlasting can mean 'as long as a thing lasts.' An eternal fire, or an unquenchable fire burns till what it is burning is burned up -- like Sodom and Gomorrah. When the fuel burns completely, the fire goes out."
       "Hm-m-m." I was thinking.
       "After reading all the Bible says about hell," Annette said, "my understanding is that hell's punishment is eternal, but not its punishing.  Hell destroys the destruction sin has caused, then Jesus creates a new earth."
       As we talked, an egret waded in the shallows. Sunset turned the sky and water pink, then purple, then deep, night blue.
       I marveled aloud, "If this is what the Bible says about hell, that doesn't make God out to be an ogre."
       "Not at all," Annette agreed.
       "I never dreamed that hell could make God seem good and loving."
       On the way home I wondered, Could this possibly be right? It made sense. But it was totally foreign to what I'd ever heard either from Christians or New Age teachers.
       For years now I had studied, meditated, and lived New Age. The recent Bible reading brought back memories from formative days. Evaluating the new ideas, my mind jumped back and forth between New Age and what I remembered from Christianity.
       The next day, I studied hell some more. I pondered, then decided, No need to conclude on this right now.  What do those other pamphlets say?
       Evening by evening, I curled up in the orange love seat with my Bible and those pamphlets. I nearly always had a question or six for Annette when we got to talk a few minutes.
       Week by week, after prayer meeting I pummeled Pastor Riggs with questions -- way more questions than I'd ever asked anyone else. And harder questions than I'd ever pressed to any other Christian.
       One night I asked, "Why should we use the Bible as an authority? Aren't there other works that are just as good?"
       We discussed its unity (in spite of the most controversial subjects being written about by forty different people -- shepherds, kings, an army general, priests, a prime minister, fishermen, a physician, and others -- over about 1500 years), its prophecies fulfilled down to the details, its scientifically accurate statements no human alive when it was written could have known, its effect on people who follow it. The more I read about the Bible the more convinced I was that it was supernatural. The more I read in it, the more convinced I was that it was God's communication to humans -- a trustworthy authority, the standard for spirituality and for day-to-day life.
       That made Pastor Riggs's and my discussion all the more exciting. Practically every week after prayer meeting, we talked half the night about the Bible. Week after week, I half-expected Pastor Riggs's answers to fall flat in one area or another, as had the answers of previous ministers. Instead, he led me to the Bible for answers to every question. I left our discussions energized, inspired to search the Scripture more deeply and to live by what I learned.
       Both the pamphlets and the pastor based every idea on Bible texts. And when I read the texts in context, they truly taught what the pamphlets or pastor said. I studied about salvation, Jesus' second coming, heaven, the Ten Commandments, the day of worship, health habits.
       Health habits? These Christians think health habits are related to religion? I read the pamphlet and the texts in the Bible. When I put it all together, I concluded: The condition of the body affects the condition of the mind. Since God speaks to us through our minds, the condition of our minds affects God's ability to speak to us.
       Could my raunchy eating habits and lack of exercise be the reason God hasn't spoken to me for a long time?
       I'd been so busy since I'd arrived in Waverly that I hadn't taken time for swimming. I kept my weight within reason just by keeping a close eye on the scales and cutting back on food for a couple days whenever I gained a couple pounds. Lots easier to lose two pounds than forty, I'd remind myself.
       But about the only exercise I got was running during TV commercials across the street to the convenience store for M & M's, Butterfingers, pecan pie pieces, and Almond Hershey bars. As for the rest of my diet -- within half a block of my apartment were quickstop hamburger, chicken, and ice-cream shops.  When was the last time I ate a vegetable? I wondered. Oh, yeah, a week and a half ago at the church potluck ... unless you count French fries, onion rings, and the itty bit of lettuce and tomato on hamburgers. Would God speak to me again if I changed my health habits? I wondered. It'd be worth a try, I decided.
       I kept studying and applying each new thing I learned. The Bible was full of things I'd never realized were there. It was relevant to modern life.
       But I began to puzzle over why so many different people got so many different things out of the Bible. "Why," I asked Pastor Riggs one evening after prayer meeting, "are there so many differences in churches?"


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