The apostle Paul, addressing a crowd of Athenian philosophers declared, 'He (God) made also of one, every nation of men to dwell upon the face of the earth, marking out fitting opportunities and the bounds of their dwelling places, that they might be seeking God if after all (Concordant Version, consequently) indeed they might feel after him and find.' (Rotherham) Acts 17:26.
Thus Paul described the universal human search for meaning in creation and existence. To seek to discover purpose in the universe is in a large measure to search for the God of creation and of humanity. The Bible affirms that there is one God who operates the universe in accord with a supreme divine purpose. and the sacred scriptures profess to reveal that One - his nature, objectives, and activity, the latter particularly in relation to mankind. One major question concerns the ultimate destiny of the great mass of humanity who generation after generation pass into the unseen.
Of these some, having heard and appropriated the Good News concerning Jesus and the Resurrection, have been assured a future life with the Lord; but these form only a small portion of the human race. What of the rest?
Speaking broadly, theologians and Bible students have advanced three conflicting answers, each held by its proponents to be soundly based upon scriptural evidence.
(a) The lost will suffer endless punishment in 'hel'. (The reader is requested to refer to appendix 'Hell').
(b) Only believers have everlasting life; the rest either remain dead or are resurrected for judgment and then annihilated.
(c) Resurrection, judgment, and discipline of the 'lost' are processes leading to ultimate reconciliation with God through his Son and consequent enjoyment of his favour.
Those who hold to doctrine (a) point to passages in the common English versions where 'everlasting' or 'eternal' is applied to the state of the 'lost'; but those who hold (b) or (c) above, interpret such texts quite differently. We may use Matt.25:46 as an example. The A.V. reads 'These shall go away into everlasting punishment'. Now if 'everlasting punishment' be the correct translation of 'aionion kolasin', and 'ceaseless punishing' the meaning, and if the passage refers to individuals, then doctrine (a) is stated in that passage.
Expositors who favour doctrine (b) will say the meaning of 'aionion kolasin' is irreversible punishment by death, not continuing punishing of individuals kept alive for no other purpose.
Protagonists of doctrine (c) reject both the above interpretations, and point out that 'kolasis' basically meant 'pruning' and in this verse may well be rendered "discipline, chastening or correction', a process, not a finality, and that 'aionios' not always, and most probably never meant 'everlasting' or 'endless'. Further it may be argued that 'these' applies to 'nations' as such and has no direct application to individual persons.
Also there arises the question of whether death seals the sinner's destiny. Expositors holding to the affirmative refer to II Cor.6:2 and quote the Authorized Version, 'Now is THE accepted time; behold now is THE day of salvation', but those who believe that post-resurrection judgment will lead on to reconciliation with God, point out that neither in the Greek of II Cor.6:2 nor the Hebrew of Isa.49:8 is the definite article 'THE' linked with 'time' or with 'day'. The English translation should read, 'Now is an accepted (or acceptable) time; behold now is a day of salvation'. There have been many such days, and it is claimed, there will be many more.
Another moot point is whether forgiveness, grace, and mercy can apply to those who have not believed the gospel message. Some people argue that forgiveness can cover a debt or injury only when the debtor hears of and accepts such grace. It is then said of statements such as I John 2:2, 'He (our Lord) is the propitiation (mercy seat) for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world', that these passages are to be subjected to the conditions of hearing and accepting.
Those who disagree point out that salvation depends ultimately upon the attitude and act of God, no upon human experience; and illustrate their view by analogies such as the following.
Let us assume that 'A' owes 'B' a large debt which 'C' unknown to 'A' graciously settles on 'A's' behalf, or 'B' in kindness simply wipes out. Does the debt remain, whether 'A' hears or even accepts the gracious settlement? It would appear not. 'A' may continue to be burdened by the thought of his obligation which in fact does not exist. His experience may conflict with fact.
Many years after the close of World War II, a lost Japanese soldier was found in the New Guinea jungle. Unaware that Australia and Japan had long been at peace, he thought his rescuers were enemies when in fact they were his reconciled friends. His limited experience had long been at variance with the facts.
The emancipation of American slaves may be even more closely analogous to the relationship of the God of Love to the estranged sinner. The liberating parliamentary enactment covered every slave within American territory. From that moment all were free; but some in isolated areas did not hear the declaration, some who heard did not (properly could not) believe the good news; others content with their existing lot did not seek (perhaps even feared) the change. So quite a number continued to experience slavery when in fact legally they were free.
When the needy sinner can say with the poet,
'God will not payment twice demand,
Once at my bleeding Surety's hand
And then again at mine.'
his experience accords with fact.
Expositors who rely absolutely upon he God of Infinite Grace see no reason to limit His reconciling to the human's present life, but anticipate a future season when the experience of all humanity will accord with the fact of God's grace for all.
Basically the differing interpretations of scripture statements regarding the destiny of the 'lost' may be divided into two main groups:-
(a) those that apply the word 'eternal' to either the complete annihilation of unbelievers or to their endless suffering, and
(b) those who hold that the judgment of sinners and the subsequent chastening occur within the ages of time.
It appears obvious that a grasp of scriptural concepts of 'time' and 'eternity' is vital to an understanding of biblical teaching on this and on other important matters. Since the two main terms used in this regard are 'olam' in Hebrew and 'aion' and its derivatives in Greek, a study of the usage of these words must be basic to any investigation of doctrines respecting the destiny of mankind.
For those who believe that the sacred autographs in their original form, provide an inspired record of the Creator's dealings with humanity, his present attitude, and future purpose, a study of biblical concepts and doctrines uncluttered by superimposed dogmas and interpretations, must ever provide an edifying exercise, especially as every such enquiry leads inevitably to Christ our Lord, who is himself The Truth. The research in the following pages is offered in the hope that it may contribute a little to the strengthening of faith in the readers as it has done for the writer. Though the original study was based on the use of the Hebrew and Greek texts, foreign words and phrases are in this discussion, transliterated into English spelling.