Various interpretations of the Bible exist, and many churches have doctrines about what happens in the afterlife. Several years ago, theologian Dr. Don Elijah Eckhart received visions that showed him everyone has the opportunity for salvation even after they have died, so long as they seek God’s mercy and compassion.
Given that there are over 200 different Christian denominations in the United States, it is expected that even those who uphold the same core Christian beliefs may disagree on how to interpret the Bible. However, most denominations adhere to the concept of a final judgment in the afterlife, committing us to an eternity spent in heaven or hell.
After prophetic dreams called him to consider a different truth, theologian Dr. Don Elijah Eckhart dedicated years to studying possible salvation in the afterlife before reaching an unexpected conclusion; God can save everyone, even those who were unrepentant sinners.
“God has the desire to do so and the authority to carry it out. However, it is important to realize that God is under no obligation to save people in the afterlife.”
To spread this message, Dr. Eckhart wrote a book titled “Jesus the Everlasting Hope of Humankind: Biblical Theology Prompted by Visions and Dreams from the Holy Spirit,” showing how this theology is consistent with the Bible.
Before studying theology, Dr. Eckhart was on a very different career path. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in economics and political science from Capital University in 1972 and a Master of Public Administration from The Wharton School in 1974. Dr. Eckhart then worked for the state and local governments for 30 years, serving his community.
He was still working full-time when one night changed the course of his life. While sleeping, Dr. Eckhart heard music in his dream. He was familiar with the religious song, but this version had new lyrics. Half-awake, he wrote down the new lyrics and went back to bed. The next morning, Dr. Eckhart found that the words were still written on the paper exactly how he remembered them.
“I was challenged by what to do with these new words. They contained a different theological understanding than what I had been exposed to in my life. I had already been through my parents’ religious training as well as church training. I had to think about how these new words related to the Christian understanding I had been brought up with and still considered even up to age 49.”
Initially, Dr. Eckhart did not fully grasp what these new words meant or how exactly they related to the religious framework he had been taught.
“I had to determine whether these new words were from God or if they had just come from my own head. But knowing that the same words were on paper that I had written down overnight told me they were from God and not from me. I was half-asleep when I wrote these words down.”
According to the beliefs he was raised with, a person either goes to heaven or hell after death. The new words hinted to him, “there’s another option and possibility that can occur.”
While Dr. Eckhart was already a devout Christian, this profound experience compelled him to pursue a higher degree in theology. He was primarily interested in researching the topic of salvation and the afterlife. Specifically, “Who can hope to be saved and can someone in the afterlife reject God’s love and mercy?”
He did not have any theological training at that point, so he attended Ashland Theological Seminary upon the advice of someone who taught there part-time. In every course he took at the seminary, he tried to address some of that dream to see if he could validate it with the best theological sources.
“This took a long time. I spent so much time doing these research papers that some of the professors were wondering if that was the only reason I was there. And I said, well, it’s the primary reason I’m here, not the entire reason.”
Eventually, he graduated from the Ashland Theological Seminary with a Master’s degree in Christian theology and with a doctorate in 2020 featuring a theological dissertation.
“In my vision, I saw that Jesus came and saved someone who was desperate to be rescued from a fiery sea. The person had undergone a purification process, emerging as a new person with sins cast away.”
“There are a lot of references in the Bible to the word ‘fire.’ That is an Old Testament word and a New Testament word used to describe the process of purifying. Suppose we start a fire outside and then put metal over the fire. The fire purifies the metal. The same idea is true of this dream and the new theology.”
The theology rests on biblical interpretation, and his research included not only seminary books and authors but also authors who have written on the subject worldwide. During his studies of biblical texts and theological writing, he stumbled onto the Greek word “aionios,” which appears in the Greek Bible to describe punishment in the afterlife. The word carries three different meanings, dependent on the subject it describes.
“It can mean everlasting, but it can also mean an ‘age,’ which is not limitless. Another word for that is ‘eon,’ which also has a beginning and end.”
Augustine, a theologian, philosopher and Bible interpreter who lived between 354 AD – 430 AD, determined that “aionios” meant everlasting. If he were correct, that would mean that “all those people who died, who were not part of the church in that century, would have a negative fate that would be everlasting.”
However, Augustine did not read the Bible in Greek, which is what the New Testament was originally written in. Instead, he read the Bible in Old Latin, possibly giving him a different interpretation lost in translation. Some of the other Bible study scholars in the 6th century read the Bible in Greek, so they got the refuting interpretation from the original language.
“Augustine’s interpretation was only for Latin speakers. The church leaders of the time who spoke Latin could understand him, but they got a narrow interpretation. The correct representation is in Greek, which in addition to everlasting, has two meanings relevant to what we’re talking about: eon or age. Neither one is limitless. Since aionios does not have to be everlasting, God can save people in the afterlife.”
Dr. Eckhart believes that God can save someone from “their sins and from oneself.” This belief also reflects his personal relationship with and understanding of God.
“Many Christians today think God or Jesus is their ‘friend.’ This is hard to understand, and I believe it’s not the best representation because Jesus and God are superior to us. It is proper to say ‘lord.’ The Lord is someone higher than us, who we serve and who can ultimately determine our eternal destiny. It’s not a middle ground. Jesus Christ has the authority to save people after death.”
However, Dr. Eckhart says that “many Christian denominations still don’t believe that something like this could occur. They believe that after death, it’s either heaven or hell.”
To share this different theology, Dr. Eckhart wrote his book with the support of seminary professors.
“It was a new idea, but many seminary professors at Ashland already knew about this and were very complimentary about it. They wanted to see how this was going to come out in my studies. A lot of professors had not studied this topic in depth. They were very excited about how this was being presented because it all made sense. It’s a theology consistent with the Bible.”
According to Dr. Eckhart, most Christians think that Augustine’s theology is correct and use it in their church teachings.
“What I’ve done is fill in all the question marks that someone would have about a theology such as what I’ve uncovered. That helps many people understand what it all means in context.”
The book describes Dr. Eckhart’s vision in the first chapter. From the second chapter forward, Dr. Eckhart outlines 15 scriptural passages that support “this view of Jesus Christ and that he can free people from sin even after their lives have ended.”
“I explain each one of them. These passages are ones that people rarely look at. They don’t seem to resonate or mean a lot to many people. These support the idea that God wants to save everyone; in fact, that’s the first passage of Chapter 2. It’s directly from the Bible, and there are more cited in the book.”
“I surveyed 11 pastors in my local area. Remarkably, 5 of the 11 agreed with the theology I presented,” he adds. “What I presented is not common to most church theologies.”
Dr. Eckhart is also aware of some reservations Christians may have about this theology.
“Some may think that ‘If I’ve lived my life as best as I can, why should someone who has smoked cigarettes and drank alcohol be on the same level as I am?’ Well, that’s not the question at all. We cannot earn our own salvation.”
The heart of the issue lies in someone’s motive for their good deeds.
“God has given free will, which means everyone can decide for themselves to do good, but the real question has to do with what God thinks about those actions and whether the person is doing an action for God or if they’re doing it for themselves. It’s not for anyone else to decide. It’s for the person to decide why they are doing something like this.”
Addressing the other side, Dr. Eckhart believes that this is why we see evil in this world, such as in shootings and violent crimes. All these actions are because “God has given free will to everyone.”
“Some people use it for good, and some use it for self-centered motives. It is important to realize that God does not commit evil; humans commit wrongs and even atrocities.”
In the end, according to Dr. Eckhart’s vision, perpetrators will recognize what they have done and will go through purification. After they are purified, “they are as much purified as a believer.” This vision offers everyone a chance for salvation. However, the word “chance” is essential.
“So the question is if God wants to save everyone, why doesn’t he? It’s a heavy question that needs to be answered. We can’t just go on not knowing the answer to that. It’s conceivable that someone will continue to reject Jesus Christ in the afterlife, but I don’t know why they would do that. I think we could basically say that everyone will come to an understanding of Jesus Christ and plead for the mercy of God.”
Dr. Eckhart says that God has ways of acting upon people. We do not have the same superior, omnipotent knowledge of people, their intentions and emotions.
“Someone may have been hurt or misled as a child, for instance, and they still carry that out throughout their life. Well, I think God would be merciful toward that person while still upholding other divine elements. It’s not to overlook the wrongs that someone has done. It’s to purify the person of those wrongs.”
The theology still aligns with the main principles and current understanding of the Bible; it just expands on who can receive salvation.
“It includes people who have never heard of Jesus Christ or who have heard and rejected him during this life or who maybe love Jesus Christ and didn’t do anything about it. It says that God can reach those people to also be saved.”
When it comes to advice for anyone who wants to join the ministry, Dr. Eckhart recommends that they be open-minded when they are in their own congregations.
“It takes a sincere heart and motive to help guide people. I don’t think every pastor needs to dive into the newest theological ideas. Some ideas can be narrow and not as broad as the question I’ve studied about eternal punishment and the afterlife.”
Dr. Eckhart believes that it would be helpful for pastors to study his book alongside other pastors. They will see the inconsistencies in the doctrine that goes back to Augustine. Since many pastors are on the boards of their denominations, this could bring about real change.
“What I would really like to see coming out of my book is to see some extensive study and change resulting from the book for denominations and pastors within those denominations. I think that would be an exceptionally good outcome. The world needs to have the correct view of God. This book shows how God can be both just and merciful. As far as I know, this is the most comprehensive book on the afterlife.”
Christians who have been involved in theology or Bible study may be able to see what is not addressed by prevailing theology. The book describes a theology that is consistent with the Bible. Furthermore, it shows how “God’s desire that everyone be saved (1 Timothy 2:3-4) can be fulfilled.”
“Some people will not like that answer, but if they study this book, they will see this better reflects who God is and what God’s purpose is for people. Some people are content to think that there are people born into the world whose only purpose is to face everlasting doom. That’s not an acceptable purpose. That totally goes against the nature of God, so this book shows how an ideal outcome can happen.”
Dr. Eckhart says faith should be a source of hope, especially during recent years, given that we are still reeling from the effects of the pandemic.
“It helps us to know that there’s a God above us and that there is someone who can help us through these times.”
It should also be a force for unity and community.
“We don’t generate our own faith. That’s not how it works. Say someone is called to do something helpful to another person. Faith would tell them yes, go ahead and do that. It might take some time for the person to realize that or even do it. Faith is a gift from God. We must act upon faith by honoring the Giver, for the good of all. It is important to act on faith when it is available for salvation in this lifetime, rather than take a chance in the afterlife.”
Dr. Eckhart adds that “Faith can bring about some surprising benefits.”
“Let’s take peace. If someone has been menaced by someone else’s lies, there is a way out—forgiveness. This approach does not ignore the wrongs done, but it elevates our motives to that of God’s purposes. God forgives us, so we should forgive others (Matthew 6:14-15). A much more difficult person to forgive is someone who commits violence against you or one of your loved ones. It may take longer to forgive this person than the liar, but the principle is the same. Forgive, and peace will come.”
Moumita Basuroychowdhury is a Contributing Reporter at The National Digest. After earning an economics degree at Cornell University, she moved to the Big Apple to pursue her MFA in creative writing. She enjoys reporting on science, business and culture news. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.