THE PRODIGAL SON FROM THREE
INTERPRETATIONS OF HELL
Jesus' Parable of the Prodigal Son is one of His most powerful parables revealing the heart of God who claims to be our loving heavenly Father (Luke 15:11-32). I stated in my book, Christianity Without Insanity, that the Parable of the Prodigal Son is a microcosm of God and the human race. The proper interpretation and application could easily resolve virtually every theological issue, especially the currently hotly debated topic of hell—its nature and purpose. Below are three interpretations based on one's conception of God.
If Jesus had believed in hell in the same way as those who believe hell is literal or symbolic fire for the purpose of torturing sinners forever, He would have told the Parable of the Prodigal Son in this way: There was a man who had two sons, and the younger son demanded that his father give him his inheritance so he could go have a good time. The father was deeply angered by this grossly disrespectful behavior. He retorted that he would give this son what he so richly deserved. The father ordered his servants to bind this son in chains and to imprison him in a deep-dark cave on the farm so he would never again see the light of day. He also instructed his workers to give him only enough food and water to keep him live so he could be tortured day and night with whippings, water boarding, red-hot pokers, and other horrible barbaric means until the day of his death, after which God would continue his torture in the fire of hell forever and ever! He then commanded the members of his family to not mourn for him and never again to even mention his name. Finally, the father announced a great social of eating, drinking, and dancing in celebration of the "justice" done to his rebellious son. The elder brother [like Christian literalists] said to their father, "This son of yours is getting what he deserves!" Obviously, this is a horrible conception of God, but some Christians are more humane.
Such Christians believe hell is for annihilation, not eternal torture, so Jesus should have told His parable this way: When the father's rebellious son demanded he be given his inheritance, this was "the last straw," that kindled his father's wrath due to this grossly offensive behavior. He thus had his son stoned to death [as parents by law could do] (Deut. 21:18-21)! He then ordered that his body be thrown into Gehenna, the city dump of Jerusalem, where the bodies of criminals, prostitutes, and other social lepers were incinerated. The father commanded that there be no funeral, no mourning, and for no one to ever even mention his name. Thus, he ordered this son's name to be stricken from the family genealogy. The elder brother was joyful, commending his father for justice having been done! This conception of the father is immeasurably more humane, but it still falls far short of the all-loving father, representing God, about whom Jesus told this parable.
For Christians who believe in Christian Universalism, Jesus' parable is perfect! God is, indeed, the all-loving Father whom The Holy Bible proclaims Him to be. The father was deeply hurt by his son's insulting behavior, but he loved him unconditionally, so he gave him his inheritance anyway. This loving father believed in the natural consequences of sin, so he patiently waited while his wayward son wasted all of his inheritance on sinful living—alcohol, drugs, gambling, prostitutes, etc. When he returned home, his father proactively ran to greet him and to announce a great celebration of his homecoming. Symbolically, this is the universal homecoming that will take place after the last knee has humbly bowed and last tongue has sincerely confessed Jesus is Lord to God's glory (Phil. 2:9-11), and every created being is worshiping God and the Lamb eternally (Rev. 5:13)!