Get Out of Hell Free
Friday of Pentecost 14
15 September 2017
There are no new ideas. Twentieth-century theologians were considered avant-garde when they denied that the damned would remain in hell eternally. Recently, when Elizabeth Eaton, an ELCA Bishop, was asked, "Is there a hell?" Her reply was "There may be, but I think it's empty." (Chicago Sun Times 09/07/2017). However, these views, which verge on the denial of hell, are hardly new. Already Origen (ca. 185-ca. 254 A.D.) speculated about the limitations of the punishments of hell, even giving Satan a "get out of hell free" card. Often, the desire to limit the punishments of hell to a purgative length, that is, merely as a time of cleansing for the wicked to prepare them for eternal bliss with the saints in heaven, comes from a legitimate Christian desire that "all should be saved" (1Ti 2:4). An empty hell is a false doctrine based on a good desire. Even our best intentions can be wrong. However, God is the judge of such things, not our "good-hearted" intentions.

Our desire to empty hell post facto is too little, too late. We might well make such a plea to our heavenly Father, who is certainly capable of emptying hell, but this fails to understand the witness of Christ and the eternal Word of God. God has already seen to hell's emptying on the cross of Calvary. He has placed in our weak hands the eternal life preserver of the gospel of forgiveness. We should be emptying hell every day by sharing Christ with those who do not know of their salvation in Him. Christ has given us the means of grace by which all sins are loosed. Let's loose them. No one needs to go to hell. No one is such a complete reprobate that their repentance would not receive God's full absolution. We should not complain to God about the fullness of hell while we refuse to give away the means to get out. It would be like the employee who complained to his employer about being too poor to buy food for his family, but who refused to cash his paychecks. Christ has full atonement made. Hell has no power over anyone now. Just tell people. That's the best way to empty hell.
The Bible is clear about the eternality of our final rest or the final torment. Both are eternal. They are eternal for the blessed dead who die in the Lord. They are eternal in the same terms for Satan, all his demons, and the damned. Most twentieth-century proponents of ultimate salvation were not courageous enough to insist on the final salvation of Satan and his company of evil angels. At least Origen was consistent, unlike our theologians. If hell will be emptied sometime after the final judgment, then grace, Christ, the cross, and forgiveness are superfluous. What is the meaning of being saved from something that isn't eternal? There is a "Get Out of Hell Free" card. It cost the Son of God his life. It costs you nothing, because you can't pay for what is already paid for. In advance. By someone else.

Rev. Dr. Scott R. Murray
Memorial Lutheran Church

Augustine of Hippo

"It is right for us to inquire and to recognize why the Church has not been able to tolerate the idea that promises cleansing or indulgence to the devil even after the most severe and protracted punishment. For so many holy men, imbued with the spirit of the Old and New Testament, did not grant to angels of any rank or character that they should enjoy the blessedness of the heavenly kingdom after being cleansed by suffering. But rather they perceived that they could not invalidate nor evacuate the divine sentence which the Lord predicted that He would pronounce in the judgment, saying, 'Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels' (Mt 25:41). For here it is evident that the devil and his angels shall burn in everlasting fire. And there is also that declaration in Revelation, 'The devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.' (Rev 20:10). In the former passage 'eternal' is used, in the latter 'forever;' and by these words Scripture means nothing else than endless duration. And therefore no other reason, no reason more obvious and just, can be found for holding it as the fixed and immovable belief of the truest piety, that the devil and his angels shall never return to the righteousness and life of the saints, than that Scripture, which deceives no man, says that God spared them not, and that they were condemned beforehand by Him, and cast into prisons of darkness in hell (2Pt 2:4), being reserved to the judgment of the last day, when eternal fire shall receive them, in which they shall be tormented world without end.
"If this is so, how can it be believed that all men, or even some, shall be withdrawn from the endurance of punishment after some time has been spent in it? How can this be believed without destroying our faith in the eternal punishment of the devils? For if all or some of those to whom it shall be said, 'Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels' (Mt 25:41), are not to be always in that fire, then what reason is there for believing that the devil and his angels will always be there? Or is perhaps the sentence of God, which is to be pronounced on wicked men and angels alike, to be true in the case of the angels, false in the case of men? Plainly, it will be so if the conjectures of men are to weigh more than the Word of God. But because this is absurd, they who desire to be rid of eternal punishment ought to abstain from arguing against God, and rather, while yet there is opportunity, obey the divine commands.
"Then what flight of fancy it is to suppose that eternal punishment means long continued punishment, while eternal life means life without end, since Christ in the very same passage spoke of both in similar terms in one and the same sentence, 'These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life' (Mt 25:46). If both destinies are 'eternal,' then we must either understand both as long-continued but at last terminating, or both as endless. For they are correlative. On the one hand, there is punishment eternal, on the other hand, life eternal. And to say in one and the same sense, life eternal shall be endless, punishment eternal shall come to an end, is the height of absurdity. Therefore, as the eternal life of the saints shall be endless, so too the eternal punishment of those who are doomed to it shall have no end."

Augustine, The City of God, 21.23
Zechariah 3:1-10

Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the LORD, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him. And the LORD said to Satan, "The LORD rebuke you, O Satan! The LORD who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is not this a brand plucked from the fire?" Now Joshua was standing before the angel, clothed with filthy garments. And the angel said to those who were standing before him, "Remove the filthy garments from him." And to him he said, "Behold, I have taken your iniquity away from you, and I will clothe you with pure vestments." And I said, "Let them put a clean turban on his head." So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him with garments. And the angel of the LORD was standing by.
And the angel of the LORD solemnly assured Joshua, "Thus says the LORD of hosts: If you will walk in my ways and keep my charge, then you shall rule my house and have charge of my courts, and I will give you the right of access among those who are standing here. Hear now, O Joshua the high priest, you and your friends who sit before you, for they are men who are a sign: behold, I will bring my servant the Branch. For behold, on the stone that I have set before Joshua, on a single stone with seven eyes, I will engrave its inscription, declares the LORD of hosts, and I will remove the iniquity of this land in a single day. In that day, declares the LORD of hosts, every one of you will invite his neighbor to come under his vine and under his fig tree." 
Lord Jesus, You opened your heart to the sin-drenched world when your salvation-rich veins were opened on the cross. That blood covered the world's sin. Help us, Your forgiven people, to share that same forgiveness that we have experienced with all persons, that they too may believe themselves to be blood-bought sinners. Amen.
For all those who have been deployed to foreign combat zones, that the holy angels would watch over them
For good government, in thanksgiving to God for the gifts of freedom bounded by service and responsibility
For the family and friends of Brenda Blackwell, whose mortal remains will be laid to rest today in Christian funeral services, that they would mourn as those who have hope in the resurrection and the life of the world to come
Art: Albrecht DURER, The Adoration of the Trinity (1511)
Memorial Lutheran Church
© Scott Murray 2017
Memorial Lutheran Church, 5800 Westheimer Rd., Houston, TX 77057
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