by Kris Brossett
What does God say about hell? What is left to mystery and what is definitively revealed in the biblical texts? Not everyone arrives at the same place when they survey the Scriptures, so how are we to respond? Different conclusions have eternal ramifications. I believe the differences lie in disagreements surrounding that which is definitive and that which is mysterious.
Three Views of Hell
In this article I will examine three views of hell: (1) eternal conscious torment, (2) annihilationism/conditional immortality, and (3) Christian universalism. I’ll state the claims of each belief system. I will interact with each view alongside the biblical witness. Finally, I’ll explore some practical implications at stake when interpreting hell.
Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT)
Eternal conscious torment (ECT) is the traditional view of hell that has “been held for at least 1,600 years by almost the entire Christian world.”1 It is argued that Augustine’s (354-430) City of God was a major player in solidifying this position.2 Given that “the present NT canon of twenty-seven books surfaces for the first time at the end of the fourth century and is accepted, almost generally, from the end of the sixth century,” it can be argued that the traditional view of hell has been held by the majority of Christians since the canonization of the Bible.3 But does this view stand the test of Scripture? Let’s consider it in light of the biblical witness.
In the Counterpoints book Four Views of Hell, Denny Burk declares that “the Bible teaches eternal conscious torment in a place called hell as the lot of every person who dies in an unrepentant state.”4 Since sin is “an infinitely heinous offense” against an “infinitely glorious being,” all sin “is worthy of an infinitely heinous punishment.”5 “All those who fail to experience saving faith in Jesus while they are alive in this age will be resurrected and condemned when Christ returns. They will then be cast into hell where they will suffer never-ending punishment.” For saints, this is a “source of joy and praise…as they witness the infinite goodness and justice of God (Rev. 18:20; 19:3).”6 Hell is God’s wrath against sin as an outworking of his goodness and justice. Since all will be resurrected to an eternal destiny, ECT proponents believe the eternal nature of the resurrection implies unending suffering.
Burk surveys eleven passages (Isa 66:22-24; Dan 12:2-3; Matt 18:6-9; Matt 25:31-46; Mark 9:42-48; 2 Thess 1:6-10; Jude 7, 13; Rev 14:9-11; Rev 20:10, 14-15), noting “that the final state of the damned has at least three characteristics: (1) final separation, (2) unending experience, and (3) just retribution.”7 ECT hinges on the definitive statements in these passages about the three characteristics Burk identifies.
Annihilationism/Conditional Immortality (ACI)
Recently “the annihilation view of hell has grown in popularity among evangelicals.”8 ACI advocates agree that hell is God’s just retribution for sin:9 permanent, literal, and terrifying. ACI and ECT enthusiasts agree on many things. In both views, once the boat sails, there’s no return. The difference is, ECT proponents believe the boat is headed toward a permanent fiery prison, while those who hold to ACI believe the boat will eventually be destroyed.
In his book Hell: A Final Word, Edward Fudge challenges readers to “visualize an ancient site of executions, where Roman soldiers are viciously scourging ten men… [after which the men are] nailed to crosses, where they will hang until life is gone.”10 Fudge notes that this image depicts punishment. The situation “described [is] the penal consequence of crimes committed, as officially ordered by a judge with authority to pronounce guilt and to pass sentence based on law.”11 Quoting Mark 9:43-47, Fudge declares that “[w]hat happens in hell in the Age to Come will be the consequence of choices, actions and inactions here and now.”12 While some believe hell is restorative, both ACI and ECT views reject this claim. Hell is permanent punishment for sin.
Unlike ECT enthusiasts, ACI proponents don’t think hell is unending⎯they emphasize the finite nature of humankind. While ECT stresses that sinning against an infinite God requires an infinite response, it can equally be said that a finite being can only sin finitely against an infinite God.13 There will be an end to punishment, followed by complete annihilation.
ACI advocates take issue with how “eternal” has been traditionally understood. In Four Views of Hell, John Stackhouse shows that the word “can have qualitative as well as quantitative denotations.” An “event or action itself can properly be called ‘eternal’ because of its everlasting implication.” When the Bible speaks of “eternal” punishment, it means “permanent” and not “unending.”14
ACI proponents take the words “death” and “destruction” at face value15⎯meaning annihilation. Yet those who hold to ECT believe that death is figurative for eternal torment. Consider this excerpt by Edward Fudge:
Because almost every advocate of eternal torment makes this “figurative meaning” argument about perish and destroy every time the Bible says the wicked will finally perish and be destroyed, someone might go away thinking that the words perish and destroy usually mean something other than their simple meaning as we all understand it. That is not the reality, however. And because it is so very much not the reality, it might be helpful if we take a moment to notice how New Testament writers use perish and destroy most often. Or, in other words, we need to be sure we understand the common, usual, regular, ordinary, literal, primary meaning of those two words (and of the Greek word behind them both in the New Testament).16
It’s quite obvious that the authors of these eleven sentences expect us to read these verbs of destruction with their basic, face-value meaning isn’t it? Why should we not understand “perish” and “destroy” equally literally in John 3:16 and in Matthew 10:28?18
But what about passages like Isaiah 66:22-24 that say the “worm will never die” and the “fire will never go out”? When speaking of hell, Jesus references this passage in Mark 9:42-50. Does this not imply unending torment? Not for ACI enthusiasts. Instead, the worm will devour the dead bodies and the fire will consume them. There will be nothing left.
ACI proponents believe that eternal destruction awaits those who reject God in the present life. “Everyone gets their just deserts, if they are not covered by the mercy of Christ. Hell is terrible. And it is final.” They don’t believe that God is a perpetual tormenter. Instead, according to God’s goodness and justice, he pours out his wrath against evil, purging the world of sin through terminal punishment.19
Christian Universalism (CU)
“Christian Universalism is the view that in the end God will reconcile all people to himself through Christ.”20 This view has recently gained notoriety through Rob Bell’s popular book Love Wins.21 Bell opens up the book with this emotional plea:
Of all the billions of people who have ever lived, will only a select number “make it to a better place” and every single other person suffer in torment and punishment forever? Is this acceptable to God? Has God created millions of people over tens of thousands of years who are going to spend eternity in anguish? Can God do this, or even allow this, and still claim to be a loving God?22
While gripping, Bell’s question cannot be the starting place for understanding. CU advocates don’t always build their argument from an emotional base. Alongside ultimate reconciliation and deliverance, they also believe “there is eschatological punishment.”23 This means that many people, for some time, will still suffer torment and punishment. When this is acknowledged, Bell’s argument falls apart.
Robin Parry doesn’t take the same approach. In Four Views of Hell, Parry stresses that “Christian Universalism…is not some new-fangled liberal theology. It is, rather, an ancient Christian theological position that in the early church stood alongside annihilation and eternal torment as a viable Christian opinion.”24 Parry points to Origin (184-254), Eusebius (260-340), Athanasius (296-373), Gregory of Nyssa (329-390), and many more.25 CU is not about God’s sensitivity toward human suffering, so Parry asks the following question: “Will God’s desire to save all people be satisfied or eternally frustrated?”26 CU proponents believe in hell, but it’s not permanent and its end is notpunitive.
For CU enthusiasts, hell is restorative, where God’s purifying fire purges sin from the world and the individual⎯“[b]ibical justice is about putting wrong things right.”27 Parry points to the restorative nature of punishment throughout the Old Testament:
In chapter 30, Jeremiah speaks of God’s people facing horrible judgment (vv.5-7c) followed by wonderful salvation (vv. 7d-11); an incurable wound that is beyond healing (vv. 12-15) followed by God’s healing (cc. 16-17); a storm of divine wrath (vv. 23-24) followed by covenant renewal.28
If hell is restorative, and some will go there, the question becomes, “How do they get out?” At some point, every individual will bow the knee to Christ (Rom 14:11). The CU position relies on postmortem salvation⎯the atoning work of Christ is available even after death. How do they come to this conclusion?
Christian universalists point to the biblical texts about the victorious, all-encompassing work of Christ (Rom 5:18; 2 Cor 5:19; Col 1:19-20; 1 Cor 15:22). They combine these texts with the eschatological texts of the consummation (Eph 1:9-10; Phil 2:9-11; 1 Cor 15:28), and then infer that postmortem salvation is an obvious deduction. They point to passages in Revelation that seem to imply such a thought.29
While all the Christian universalists I’ve studied cannot imagine a God who would torment forever, it’s inaccurate to assume they build their argument from their resistance to such a God. It’s equally inaccurate to assume that they’re pluralists⎯believing all ways lead to God. Instead, the Christian universalists I’ve interacted with have a high view of Christ and his atoning work. By holding to the possibility of a postmortem salvation, they believe that all will eventually bow the knee to King Jesus. God will have the last word.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of Brossett’s series on hell, coming next week only on theLAB.