7. For men and women who had but a confused notion of the spiritual nature of the soul, there was nothing absurd in the idea of a region of physical fire, especially as there was a common belief in a Pagan Hell, universally divulged; nor was there, in the idea of punishment prolonged throughout eternity, anything calculated to shock the feelings of those who had been subjected, for centuries, to the penal code of stern and terrible Jehovah. As employed by Jesus, the threat of “everlasting fire” could only be metaphorical. What did it matter that this metaphor would be understood literally, for a time, if it was useful as a curb? He foresaw that time and progress would bring humankind on towards a comprehension of the true meaning of this allegory, and according to his prediction, “The Spirit of Truth” should come to enlighten humankind respecting “all things.”
The essential characteristic of irrevocable condemnation is its implication of the inefficacy of repentance; but Jesus never said that repentance could fail to find favor in the sight of God. On the contrary, he always represents God as clement, merciful, and ready to welcome back the returning prodigal to the spiritual home. He never shows God as inflexible excepting to the unrepentant sinner; but even while insisting on the certainty of the punishment that awaits the guilty, he holds out the prospect of forgiveness as soon as the wrongdoer shall have returned to the path of duty. Such, assuredly, is not the portrait of a pitiless God; and it should never be forgotten that Jesus never pronounced an irremissible sentence against anyone, not even against the most wicked.