VII. THE QUESTION OF ETERNAL PUNISHMENT.
We cannot conceive that God created man out of sheer caprice, nor selfishness, (as various theological systems, drawn up according to the model of present day political and social relations, interpret the matter) nor for the purpose of delivering him to the devils for them to abuse and treat him cruelly by physical and spiritual torment and torture; nor would He destroy, bring to naught and erase His own work, the child of His mind, love and power, but He created man that he should live his own life according to his Creator's image. Therefore man thinks and acts, yearns to possess more and more of the sum total of light, truth, love, creative energy and happiness. To attain these Divine purposes man had been given the capacity, the means and a period of time sufficiently long for him to reach the appointed goal. In the aim of this endeavor, the Lord God leaves man with a free will so that his acts may have a moral value, that he may of his own self, think, feel, act, save himself.
God did not create man perfect, but relatively weak; yet He infused man's being with a spark of longing for perfection; a sort of germ of eternal life, impulse, creative power; which brings it to pass that man goes on through the centuries, from stage to stage, continually climbing higher, developing and approaching perfection both as an individual and as the human species. Since man is not omniscient nor all powerful and does not know fully the laws that govern his physical and spiritual nature, he often deviates from the sure path of life; he goes astray, struggles, falls then rises with sorrow, relives the whole immensity of his physical, moral and spiritual experiences, until cleansed through these sufferings and struggles, through these creative thoughts, through toil and yearning, he enters upon the way of partial liberation and then in due time, that of a freer, more perfected existence, until at last he becomes united with the goal of his life—God.
Some people attain this goal sooner, even in this temporal life, others later; some in a higher others in a lower degree, depending on the manner in which they make use of the Divine gifts of will, intellect, inspiration and of the meditations of Jesus Christ and His Church.
In Holy Scripture and especially in the Books of the New Testament, we find numerous accounts which confirm the above optimistic view concerning the gradual development and final salvation of individual man and of the whole human race.
Expressions such as: eternal fire, undying worm, fiery place, depths of hell, place of torment, outer darkness where there shall be wailing and the gnashing of teeth, a lake burning with fire full of brimstone and pitch and similar phrases, are expressive illustrations, having the purpose of depicting the greatness of guilt and punishment for sinners; but were not meant to indicate hell in the Roman Catholic sense of the term. Such an eternal hell as taught by the Roman Catholic Church was not known either by the Pagan people, the Jewish synagogue nor the Christians of the first centuries and it was not until the Fourth General Lateran Council held in the year 1215 AD that it was finally decided that "the wicked receive with the devil eternal punishment; and the good with Christ, eternal glory.
Christ our Lord, speaking to the Jewish people, made use of their language, employing phrases and illustrations familiar to them that He might appeal to their imagination, understanding and feelings. Thus, in order to point out to these people the greatness of sin and its punishment, by choosing an example of this sort. He compares that punishment to Gehenna, that is, that place on the outskirts of Jerusalem, where in former times sacrifices had been made to the Syrian god Moloch; it was later used for burning the city refuse, so that over it rose continually black clouds of smoke mingled with fiery red flames and from it issued fetid and suffocating fumes; so that it was a place of horror and oppressiveness.
The Greek adjective aionios used by the Evangelists with the word Gehenna, does not mean everlasting, but long lasting, i.e., lasting through a certain time, through a future age, a future time. So when the Lord Jesus presented the consequences of transgressions, He did not say that they would be everlasting for ages and ages; but He wished to emphasize that those consequences would undoubtedly befall sinners in the future and that they would be of a severe and grave nature.
His teaching concerning the salvation of all humanity is confirmed in the following texts of Holy Scripture: "Now is the judgment of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out; and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself." John 12: 31-32. "And all flesh, shall see the salvation of God." Luke 3:6.
"Whom (Jesus) heaven must receive until the time for establishing all that God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old." Acts 3:21.
"For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.
But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For God has put all things in subjection under his feet. But when it says, All things are put in subjection under him, it is plain that he is excepted who put all things under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things under him, that God may be everything to everyone." 1 Cor. 15: 22-28.