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The final elementary principle listed in Heb. 6:1, 2 is “eternal judgment.” This includes two things: (1) the fact that there is divine judgment for sin, and (2) and the duration of that judgment, which is said to be aionian. Both of these have often been misunderstood, and for this reason the first principles of the oracles of God must again be established.
The judgment of God is mentioned in Rom. 2:2, 3,
2 And we know that the judgment of God rightly falls upon those who practice such things. 3 But do you suppose this, O man, when you pass judgment on those who practice such things and do the same yourself, that you will escape the judgment of God?
So also we see the Ancient of Days sitting upon the throne to judge the world in Dan. 7:9, 10. This dramatic scene pictures His throne as a being “ablaze with flames” with “a river of fire” flowing out from it. This “fire” is a metaphor for the judgment of what Moses called “a fiery law” (Deut. 33:2, KJV).
A throne is a symbol of law. When a judge sits upon the throne (or “bench”), he is judging according to the law. For this reason, Daniel saw His throne “ablaze with flames, its wheels were a burning fire” (Dan. 7:10).
Any judgment of God is pictured as a fire, including payment of restitution, beatings, and the death penalty. The fire was never meant to be taken literally. Jesus took upon Himself the full penalty of this “fiery law,” but He did not need to be burned in a fire but was instead crucified.
Jesus fulfilled all the laws of sacrifice for sin, all of which were burned or cooked with fire. Yet His crucifixion did not involve any literal fire when He fulfilled these judgments of the law.
The “river of fire” in Dan. 7:10 is pictured in Rev. 20:14, 15 as “the lake of fire.” A river and a lake are not quite the same thing. In this case the “river” flowing upon those being raised from the dead pictures the divine decrees spoken by the Judge from His flaming throne. As a result, a “lake” is formed, which is the outworking of this judgment over a period of time. The river turns into a lake so that whatever judgments are meted out upon the people may be carried out for as long as it takes to fulfill the sentence itself.
God judges according to His own law—not by the laws of men. God and men often have different standards of sin and righteousness. So we read in Isaiah 5:20,
20 Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil, who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness; who substitute bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.
The law itself is an expression of God’s nature, by which all things are measured in heaven and in earth. Anything that falls short of the full measure of Christ is substandard and will be judged until it is corrected. This is the purpose of the baptism of fire—that is, the baptism of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 3:11, 12), which burns the “chaff” out of our nature.
The Holy Spirit’s fire is the same as the river of fire and the lake of fire. The only difference is in its application. The Holy Spirit is the fire of God in the life of a Spirit-filled believer during their lifetime; the lake of fire is applied to unbelievers in a later life (after resurrection).
All unbelievers will be judged “according to their deeds” (Rev. 20:12). Each man’s deeds are different, so no two men will receive the same judgment. In other words, the “fire” will apply to each in a different way, as each must be judged with a unique measure that is directly proportional to the sin (or crime). That principle is set forth in Exodus 21:23-25,
23 But if there is any further injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.
This is fulfilled literally if the sinner and the injured party cannot come to a satisfactory agreement (payment) which both parties conclude is equal to the sin.
Those who are baptized by the fire of the Holy Spirit are trained in the same principle of righteousness, so that they know the nature of God and can apply it in practical ways during their lifetime on earth. Whether the fire is applied to believers or unbelievers, the standard of law is the same, because He judges all things according to the standard of His righteous nature.
Unfortunately, this principle of divine judgment, which Paul saw as “elementary,” or foundational, has seldom been taught in the church with any real depth of knowledge. True judgment has been sidetracked with teachings of a literal burning “hell,” as the pagan Greeks and Egyptians taught in their mystery religions.
The only provision in biblical law for a literal application of fire is “burn for burn” (Exodus 21:25). Most sinners have not burned anyone, although some have certainly done so—including churchmen, who have seen fit to burn “heretics” at the stake. If they did not repent, such men may indeed receive “burn for burn” at the Great White Throne.
Nonetheless, such judges did not—and could not—sentence any of their victims to an eternity of torture. Hence, their own judgment, though painful and terrible, will not be eternal either. All judgment must fit the crime.
To lay proper foundations about “eternal judgment,” one must study the law, for it is the revelation of God’s nature. A major part of this study must include the duration of judgment that is appropriate (“righteous”) to each sin. For example, one must know that in a case of theft, the judgment is not to be sentenced to an eternity in a burning hell but rather to pay double restitution according to Exodus 22:4,
4 If what he stole is actually found alive in his possession, whether an ox or a donkey or a sheep, he shall pay double.
The penalty is not burn for theft, but “burn for burn.” Theft is penalized by paying double restitution. This was, in fact, how God judged His people, as we read in Isaiah 40:2,
2 Speak kindly to Jerusalem, and call out to her, that her warfare has ended, that her iniquity has been removed, that she received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
Equal judgment is meted out upon Mystery Babylon as well, as we read in Rev. 18:6, 7,
6 Pay her back even as she has paid, and give back to her double according to her deeds; in the cup which she has mixed, mix twice as much for her. 7 To the degree that she glorified herself and lived sensuously, to the same degree give her torment and mourning.
In other words, the same principle of double restitution is applied equally to both Jerusalem and Babylon.
Every sin will be judged in order to restore the lawful order and bring justice to all victims of sin. Justice is done only when all the victims of injustice are recompensed. Justice is not mere punishment, for punishment itself may not restore the losses incurred by the victims of sin.
Hence, the purpose of the law is not to punish but to bring justice to all who have been harmed by sin. The sinner must restore double, and if he is unable to do so, he must work to pay his debt to the victim. In so doing, the sinner will learn to work rather than to steal.
When the judge sentences the sinner to a specified time of labor, the sinner becomes a temporary slave, because he is given no choice. Instead, he is said to be “under the law” (Rom. 6:14)—forced to labor until his debt is paid.
When his debt is paid (either by his own labor or by another who pays his debt), he is said to be “under grace,” that is, he has regained right standing before the law.
The principle of restitution is how earthly courts are supposed to judge the people. In the case of the White Throne judgment, it is the same but more complete. Earthly courts cannot possibly judge every sin, and many sins are left unresolved. All of these, however, are recorded in the books of heaven and will be judged at the great White Throne at the Day of Judgment.
A careful study of the law shows that the purpose of judgment is twofold: (1) to bring restitution to the victim, and (2) to restore the sinners to a position of right standing before the law.
Much Christian teaching has not understood this, for they think only in terms of endless punishment that is meted out equally to all unbelievers. Such believers still “need milk and not solid food” (Heb. 5:17), and “is not accustomed to the word of righteousness” (Heb. 5:18).
If such people were to be given the responsibility of judging the world (1 Cor. 6:2), they would only impose more injustice upon an already unjust world.
Isaiah 26:9 tells us, “For when the earth experiences Your judgments, the inhabitants of the world learn righteousness.” This is a reference to the White Throne judgment at the end of the age, where all of the dead are raised and summoned to the Court (Rev. 20:12).
Verse 10 goes on to complain that the Israelites in his time were refusing to repent, even though God had given them a generous grace period.
10 Though the wicked is shown favor [grace], he does not learn righteousness; he deals unjustly in the land of uprightness, and does not perceive the majesty of the Lord. 11 O Lord, Your hand is lifted up [in judgment] yet they do not see it…
The prophet recognizes that many people in their lifetime continue to deal unjustly and do not recognize God’s hand of judgment. However, they will “learn righteousness” when they are raised from the dead to stand before the great White Throne.
Paul puts it another way in Phil. 2:9-11,
9 For this reason also, God highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
It is self-evident that this has not yet occurred, nor could it until the dead stand before the judgment seat of Christ. There they will see and understand the truth. Will their confession (exomologeo, “confess, profess”) have no value? Will it not benefit them at all? Is it “too late?”
Paul says in 1 Cor. 12:3, “no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.” So when every tongue professes Jesus Christ as Lord, it is done by the unction of the Holy Spirit.
Paul’s belief that every tongue will confess Christ was taken from Isaiah 45:23, 24, where God vows,
23 “I have sworn by Myself, the word has gone forth from My mouth in righteousness and will not turn back [will not fail], that to Me every knee will bow, every tongue will swear allegiance. 24 They will say of Me, ‘Only in the Lord are righteousness and strength’.” Men will come to Him, and all who were angry at Him will be put to shame.
This is God’s New Covenant vow to save all men and subject them to Christ. At that time, “every tongue will swear allegiance” to Jesus Christ. That is the main purpose of the great White Throne judgment. It is not to destroy the sinners but to show them the truth and cause them to repent and swear allegiance to Christ.
If God were unable to do this, He should not have made such a vow. This vow does not depend upon the will of man but of God alone (John 1:13). The only real question is whether or not we believe that God is able to keep His promises (Rom. 4:21, 22).
We believe that God is able to turn the most wicked heart by the revelation of His truth and glory.
The Greek word aionian, which is used in Heb. 6:2, did not originally mean “eternal.” It is derived from the word aion (or eon), which properly means “an age.” This word is used in Matt. 13:39, 40, in the phrase, “end of the age.”
An age is an indefinite period of time—not necessarily infinite. Aionian is an adjective that means “pertaining to an age.” Rotherham’s The Emphasized Bible renders the term “age-abiding.” Young’s Literal Translation renders it “age-during.”
But aionian is only the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word olam. This equivalency dates back to about 280 B.C., when 70 rabbis in Alexandria began to translate the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek in order to accommodate the Jewish population that had grown up in a Greek-speaking environment. This generation no longer spoke Hebrew, so it became necessary to translate the Scriptures into their spoken language. This translation was known as the Septuagint.
In centuries prior to Jesus’ birth, the Septuagint came to be something like a Hebrew-Greek dictionary that set the standard for the way in which Hebrew words were to be expressed in Greek. This was the standard used in the language of the New Testament. The point is that aionian is the nearest equivalent of olam, so when the people spoke about “eternal punishment,” they were using the Greek word aionian to express the Hebrew definition of olam.
Greek terms were being used to express Hebrew concepts. Therefore, when the New Testament writers use the term aionian, we have to give it the definition of olam. So what does olam mean?
Olam is often translated “everlasting,” but in fact its root word is alam, “to hide.” The noun form is olam, “hidden.” So we read in 1 Kings 10:3,
3 Solomon answered all her questions; nothing was hidden [alam] from the king which he did not explain to her.
More accurately, it reads, “the king did not hide anything from her.”
Job 28:21 reads,
21 Thus it is hidden [alam] from the eyes of all living and concealed from the birds of the sky.
David complained in Psalm 13:1, “How long will You hide [alam] Your face from me?”
The word olam, then, properly means an unknown or indefinite period of time. So God commanded that the Old Testament heave offerings in Exodus 29:28 were to be offered olam, not forever or “perpetual” (NASB). They were to cease when animal sacrifices ended with a change of priesthood (Heb. 7:12).
The “permanent statute” in Lev. 16:34 was not really permanent, for it ended with the advent of Christ. The ashes of the red heifer (Num. 19:10) were effective only until Christ came to fulfill the purpose of the red heifer. These are all said to be olam, not perpetual, not permanent, but for an unknown period of time. It was unknown because no one had the precise revelation of the coming time of reformation (Heb. 9:10).
The “covenant of peace” given to Phinehas, the grandson of Aaron in Num. 25:12, 13, meant that his lineage would be given the priesthood for olam, an indefinite period of time. His line was cut off about 437 years later when Abiathar was replaced by Zadok (1 Kings 2:35).
Jonah’s “forever” (olam) in the belly of the whale ended after three days and three nights. (See Jonah 2:5, 6.)
Knowing this, it is then plain that “eternal judgment” in Heb. 6:2 is actually an age of judgment whose duration was yet unknown. What we do know, however, is that the law of Jubilee cancels all debt to sin in the 50th year.
The law of Jubilee set a limit upon all debts. In the law, sin incurs debt that must be paid through restitution. For this reason, in the New Testament we often see how Jesus likened sin to debt. Luke 11:4 reads,
4 And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves also forgive everyone who is indebted to us…
Again, we see this in Jesus’ parable about the debtor who was forgiven a great debt of 10,000 talents (Matt. 18:21-35). It was a lesson about forgiving sin (Matt. 18:21).
The connection between sin and debt—both being in need of forgiveness—shows us that the law of Jubilee was not merely about canceling monetary debts. It addressed the problem of debt slavery, incurred through sin.
One who has been sold as a slave on account of his sin may be redeemed by a near kinsman, but this redemption does not actually set him free from the debt. His debt note is merely transferred to a new owner—presumably a near kinsman who loves him (Lev. 25:53). But if no one is able to redeem him, he is still to be set free in the year of Jubilee (Lev. 26:54).
Hence, the law of Jubilee is the law of Grace. There is a limit to all debts. By the mercy of God, Grace releases all men from debt to sin, whether they “deserve it” or not.
For misdemeanors, where a beating is the judgment, the law imposes a limit of 40 lashes (Deut. 25:1-3). This too shows us the mind of God. All judgment is limited, simply because no man can commit enough sin in a finite lifetime to warrant an infinite length of punishment. The judgment must always fit the crime.
The law of beatings is referenced in Luke 12:42-48, where Jesus tells a parable about faithful stewards and those who abuse those who are under their authority. Unfaithful stewards are to be beaten with few or many lashes. Then in verse 49 Jesus makes a remarkable statement:
49 I have come to cast fire upon the earth; and how I wish it were already kindled!
Many have interpreted this to mean that Jesus wished that the lake of fire—which they call “hell”—would be kindled immediately. But that hardly sounds like the mind of Christ. The point of the verse is to show that beatings are part of the “fiery law” in Deut. 33:2 (KJV). And because beatings were limited to 40 lashes, this “fire” was also limited. Jesus was not wishing that He could send all sinners into a never-ending hell.
The law of Jubilee and the law of beatings ensure that all judgment for sin is limited. This ensures that there can be no “eternal judgment,” as often defined by people today. The judgments of the law thus make it clear that olam and aionian should be understood as “hidden” or “unknown” periods of time.
Scripture uses these indefinite words because the time of judgment differs for each person. For example, one who owes a thousand dollars may be sentenced to labor for just one week, whereas if he owes his victim a million dollars, he may have to work until the year of Jubilee. So the law uses an indefinite term that applies to either case.