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Like many who adopt the universalist stance, L. Ray Smith has an objection to "hell", Not just the concept, but the word itself.
Let us begin by noting that he won't find here any endorsement of what he calls, "that when wicked people die they go to a place of eternal torture in fire". Here the word is more, "that when wicked people die their go to a place of eternal shame." That issue we discussed here with some commentary of relevance also here.
That doesn't leave much about hell that Smith says that applies to us. No objecting to a doctrine borrowed from pagan sources.
What's left? Smith has some comments about the "immortality of the soul" and the nature of the afterlife, a subject we cover here. He makes the odd statement that, it is "dead people who are raised in the resurrection, not cadavers which once belonged to living people (I Cor. 15:51-54)."
Really? Cadavers which belonged to living people ARE dead people, and Paul in the passage referenced makes a clear connection between the expired and the raised body. Smith tries to create some sort of artificial dichtomony out of certain verses, thus:
Just one Scripture from God Himself, and we will move on. When people die, are they dead?
“Now after the DEATH of Moses the servant of the Lord, it came to pass, that the Lord spoke unto Joshua the son of Nun, Moses’ minister, saying, MOSES MY SERVANT IS DEAD…” (Joshua 1:1-2).
When Moses died, God Himself said that Moses was dead. God didn’t say that Moses’ “body” died, but that Moses was still alive with the Lord, at His side. NO. The Lord said, “Moses My servant is DEAD.” When the dog “Rover” died; he died ALL OVER. And when Moses died; he too, died ALL OVER. Physically alive people can be spiritually dead, but physically dead people can not be spiritually alive!
One wonders where Smith gets the idea that "dead" means "dead all over" in the sense that he is referring to. No such definition is in the text. Nor are such distinctions made, anthropologically.
He does appeal to standard texts (as we shall see) but he does so wrongly. I would not call Smith a heretic as some do, so he says, but I would call him remarkably misinformed at best and a hyperliteralist at worst. One wonders what he makes of the threat to Adam and Eve that they would "surely die" when they ate the fruit, and what he would say to get out of that definitional conundrum.
Smith anachronizes Western jurisprudence onto Eastern values in saying:
Who ever heard of sentencing something to life in prison without even being judged guilty of anything? But, according to Christendom, it happens thousands of times a day all over the world, and the sentence isn’t for a short number of years, but for all eternity.
Actrually, in the ancient world of the Bible, you did indeed get put in jail and you waited, often a long time, before sentencing. In fact you do so today, in jail, not in prison. That said, we have all been judged indeed: "For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God."
But let us get to places with which we have some issue with Smith's exegesis. We have no beef with the section titled, "HELL IS A WORD AND A DOCTRINE" or most of what follows on hell -- we do not hold the literalist view Smith criticizes, which is not to say his refutation of that view is worthwhile; but it really does not matter. We take no issue until the end summary, and even there our issue is one of degree, not content:
And although no one desires to go to sheol [the grave]; that is no one desires to DIE, but nonetheless, it is a safe place to be while we await resurrection. Nothing can harm us there. There is no fear or darkness there, because there is NO PERCEPTION THERE. Sheol is truly like a deep, sound SLEEP, from which our Father will awaken us in the morning. Let us be comforted by that thought.
As our linked study shows, the state of those in Sheol may OFTEN be that of a deep sleep; but it is interspersed, clearly, with moments of some degree of awareness. That is to be expected when the spirit has no body, and no way to interact normally with an environment.
Which leads us now to another paper of Smith's on Lazarus, where again, we will deal with those points where we have disagreement: Not the literalness of hellfire, but whether a conscious state is considered possible prior to resurrection. This parable (and we have no disagreement that it is a parable, so we can skip huge portions of Smith's diatribe insisting that it is) clearly allows for such a state.
What points of dispute do we raise? Not until we reach here do we have even a minor issue:
"Now the poor man came to die and he is carried away by messengers into Abraham’s bosom."
Impossible. This statement if taken literally is neither historical nor Scriptural. Many say this represents Lazarus in Heaven. How, pray tell, could Lazarus be in Heaven while his Lord was still on the earth?
"Abraham's bosom" meant the Jewish abode of the righteous (see here) so there is no need to wonder about Jesus still being on earth. Smith is thus in error when he says, "Abraham’s bosom is not the reward of the saved. Abraham’s bosom is not Heaven." That is indeed what it was.
Smith tries to work it out that there is no way that Lazarus could be in Heaven (or presumably, any abode of the righteous) but his attempts to show this from Scripture are failures:
"Yet now Christ has been roused from among the dead, the firstfruit of those who are reposing." (I Cor. 15:20). Abraham wasn’t the "firstfruit." Lazarus wasn’t the "firstfruit." JESUS CHRIST WAS THE FIRSTFRUIT OF THEM THAT SLEPT! The latter fruit, Paul tells us, "are [still] reposing."
Well, since this refers to the resurrection of the body, and persons in Paradise are not yet resurrected, they indeed still repose -- in their graves. Smith has not supported his view with this.
Jesus plainly said, not only had David not ascended into the heavens, but that "NO MAN has ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven."(John 3:13).
Nor was Paradise "Heaven" for that matter -- some Jewish views suggested it was a precinct of Heaven, but some placed it elsewhere, as on Earth; but even so, this is the same verse Mormons use for their purposes, and as I noted to them, the word "ascended" has the context of moving under one's own power or effort (cf. Matt. 3:16, Mark 4:32) or by natural force (Rev. 9:2). This would not forbid persons going to Heaven by God's power. Hence Smith again fails in his interpretation.
Then Smith tries to press into service verses that say we return to dust (Gen. 3:17-19, Ps. 90:3), including, unfortunately, Eccl. 3:18-21, which he apparently fails to realize is meant to reflect the point of view of an unbeliever. But spirit is not made of dust, and the best verses he can find to indicate what he wants are poetry from the Psalms:
"His spirit [the Hebrew word here is ruach, spirit, not neshamah, breath] goes forth, he returns to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish" (Psa. 146:3-4).
"...you gather in their spirit [Hebrew ruach, spirit] they expire [Hebrew gava, breathe out, gasp, expire], and return to their dust" (Psa. 104:29).
Neither of these offer any warrant for a strict literalism. The former, however, Smith simply misuses: The spirit and the body clearly gave different fates, though that of the spirit is not clear. The latter says that God gathers the spirit of the man, and it goes -- where? It does not go to dust; that which expires (the body) does. Unless Smith is a full materialist, as Mormons are, he will be hard pressed to explain how a spirit become "dust" -- and even then he will have a serious problem, for not even Mormons hold to such a thing.
Smith continues with his liberty of defining "dead" in terms amenable to what he wants the text to say. He has no conception of the context of Judaism moderating the meaning of Jesus' parable of the intermediate state. The dead could be shades of their former selves (see linked article) with "eyes" and tongues and hands. The OT affirms this, and Jesus in this parable assumes it.
Smith again misuses Ecclesiates, not knowing the point of view it presents in its dialogue. Death IS like sleep, predominantly; but the sleeper does wake in the night before returning to slumber. Smith also cites this as an oddity:
"If a man die, shall he live again? All the days of my appointed time will I wait, till my change comes. Thou shalt call, and I will answer thee; thou wilt have a desire to the work of thine hands." (Job 14:14-15).
When a person dies, he must: WAIT ... FOR APPOINTED TIME ... TILL CHANGE COMES ... GOD CALLS ... WE LIVE AGAIN...
And so we say as well, for one lives again, as a whole person, at resurrection. But once again, all Smith does here is define "dead" as he likes, to mean "absolutely no consciousness at all" -- and his only proofs for that come from the non-believer's view in Ecclesiates (see here) and a bit of illicit use of poetry.
A critical verse that Smith ought to consider is Luke 23:43. Jesus promises to the thief there existence in Paradise -- a Jewish concept meaning the abode of the righteous dead. It was a place where indeed there was conscious existence possible. But Smith does not even touch this verse in his article. I did find where he answered a letter about it, however, and his reply uses a typical response, arguing thus:
Luke 23:43 should read as follows: "Verily [truly], to you am I saying TODAY, [comma] with Me shall you be in paradise."
Punctuation was not inspired or used in the original Manuscripts from which our modern language Bibles have been translated. Christ DID NOT go to a place called "paradise" on the day that He was crucified, and neither did anyone else.
In the end, though, his only proof that we ought to read the text this way rebounds to a) his insistence to define "death" as he says it must be defined; b) his lack of knowledge of the fact that "Paradise" to a Jew of the day would mean the abode of the righteous dead -- and not merely "a beautiful garden", but as it happens, to the living, a place that was unseen. Smith simply argues in a circle with no concern for contexts that define the Scriptures in the time and place they were written.
After this is more we either do not take issue with (re physical "torture") and more repetition (particularly anachronizing of Western jurisprudence). We would offer some comment on some points made in which Smith is asking questions about the afterlife.
"And in all this, between us and you a great chasm has been established, so that those wanting to cross hence to you may not be able, nor yet those thence may be ferrying to us."
Impossible. "Thus also is the resurrection of the dead ... It is sown a soulish body; it is roused a spiritual body" (I Cor. 15:42 & 44). If Lazarus has a spiritual body in heaven, how can a gulf or chasm keep such a spiritual being from crossing it?
That's a good question, and to answer it, I invite Smith to cross the Snake River canyon in Idaho using only what was available to people of the first century. I guess he can do down easily enough, but good luck on the way up, if he is still in one piece.
Notice this phrase, "...those wanting to cross hence to you..." What? Do you think that is translated correctly? I assure you it is translated correctly. So why, oh why, would anyone in Heaven be "WANTING" TO GO TO HELL?
Because someone asks them to, and for the sake of a mercy, is good enough reason.
The last part of verse 26 should read as follows: "Nor yet those thence may be ferrying to us."
King James uses "pass" twice in this verse. They are different words, however. The first "pass" is [Gk. diabaino = THROUGH-STEP or cross]. But the second "pass" is [Gk: .Diaperao = THROUGH-OTHER-SIDE, and is used of passage over WATER] hence, "ferrying."
Here is water. Since there is water separating Lazarus from the rich man in this chasm, why doesn’t the rich man just jump into the water? And the word "ferrying" also presupposes "ferry boats." Even if the Rich man can’t swim it would be better to drown than burn.
That's very creative, but Smith apparently can only conceive of "ferry boats" and not any other mode of transport being a "ferry" (like a flight). That said, the same word is used also in Acts 16:9 and Hebrews 11:29, where there is clearly no indication that one must be in boats or on water to travel.
"Yet Abraham is saying to him, ‘They have Moses and the prophets. Let them hear them!’"
Impossible. The rich man recognized Abraham on sight. Even called him "Father." How could someone who knows Abraham "...hear Moses...?" Moses didn’t live until hundreds of years after Abraham? How could the rich man’s "brothers" hear Moses? Moses didn’t live until far into their future?
Smith obviously cannot think of the clear and simple answer that the corresponding time on earth is in the day and age of Jesus, when both Abraham and Moses are known persons, and that their identity as famous persons is known in Paradise.
"No, father Abraham, but if someone should be going to them from the dead, they will be repenting."
Impossible. If Lazarus isn’t dead. if he’s alive in heaven, why didn’t the rich man say, "No ,father Abraham, but if someone should be going to them from HEAVEN, they will be repenting?" How could Lazarus, who is alive, go "...to them from the dead?"
More confusion caused simply by Smith's unjustified insistence to define "dead" as "with no conscious sense anywhere."
Smith closes with a rather extended midrashic treatment of the parable in which, for example, the rich man is identified with the Jews (!) and which contains a rather bigoted statement:
So yes, Judah was rich. And who to this day are universally known for having money and being successful in the financial world? The Jews.
Though the main way that Jews are said to be "rich" is in that the knew God. Aside from that sort of creative use of the text, however, Smith can't grasp why the parable could be read in terms of a real rich man because:
"...and he dressed in purple..."
Imagine Christ asking His disciples: "Oh, by the way, would you fellows be interested in knowing what color clothing this Rich man was wearing just before he went to Hell?" Ridiculous nonsense!
Not at all. The purple (and linen) tells the disciples a great deal -- of a man of indolent luxury, who hoards his wealth in a way that the people of the day would consider wicked. It would be very much of interest, in fact; but Smith knows none of this, for his knowledge of the ancient world stops at the Bible's pages and what he can draw from it with his own contextualizations. Taking the "purple and linen" to refer to the Judean royalty and the priesthood is an exercise in creativity, as is this:
The Rich man said: "I have five brothers..."
Smith relates this to that Judah had five brothers by his mother Leah. This is supposed to personify the Jews, but Smith fails to explain why 6 tribes ought to be left out by incidence of motherhood (when patrilineal descent would be far more relevant). Such exegetical contrivancess speak for themselves in terms of the lengths Smith is going to in order to evade the meaning of the parable.