“The chief danger that confronts the coming century will be religion without the Holy Ghost, Christianity without Christ, forgiveness without repentance, salvation without regeneration, politics without God, heaven without hell.” -William Booth
What we want to be true and what is true can be very different things. Nothing should be sacred to us except the truth of God. We can not afford to love what is familiar more than what is true, even if it makes us uncomfortable.
The question of what happens to all of us when we die is a question as old as humanity itself. While Christian belief in heaven as the final eternal destination for all people who love and accept Jesus Christ is not disputed, the path that awaits unbelievers beyond this life is the source of much debate. As I have have struggled and wrestled with this topic my biggest take away is that without understanding God’s wrath and what sin actually deserves it is impossible to understand God’s mercy and value His salvation; What we are actually “saved from”.
I want to discus what the Bible says (and what it seems to leave unclear), historical understanding maintained through church tradition and the human struggle with the nature of God that is so intertwined that it can not be divorced from this topic. Whether the punishment unbelievers suffer is both conscience and eternal is not made perfectly clear in the Bible. What also seems to be unclear is the exact circumstances of hell. Is it literally a lake of fire or perhaps the complete absence of God’s presence? What is made clear is that the wrath of God is something to be avoided, it will not be a good experience for those who choose to go there and it is not God’s will for any person to be separated from his life and love. However, God’s will is not always done, as His is not the only will involved in an individual’s eternal destiny.
“So, do you really think I’m going to hell?” This question has been asked sometimes as justification for rejecting Christianity and sometimes as an honest inquiry of what follows this life. Everyone, whether they admit it or not, wants to know what happens at death. Do we just stop existing or pass into a different state of being; and under what type of conditions: bliss or punishment?
It’s not only those outside the faith who wonder what happens at death. Christians, who believe they are already saved from Hell, have been seeking to establish doctrine around this issue for centuries. The Bible is very clear that a place or state-of-being termed “hell” exists. This doctrine has never found unanimous agreement, but several viewpoints have become predominantly held.
The first is the Traditional view that hell is a literal place, which is final and eternal, where unbelievers will consciously suffer fiery torment, forever cut off from God as a result of their rejection of Jesus. This may include different levels of punishment depending on the person’s level of accountability and all living people are left without an excuse as nature itself declares the glory of God (Romans 1:20).
A second view would be the Metaphorical view, which is similar to the traditional view however, proponents would consider that the actual conditions of hell described in the Bible are metaphors, not intended to be taken literally; that only God understands what the exact circumstances entail. All that is made clear in the Bible is that it will not be good and is to be avoided.
Next would be Conditional Immortality, which considers the immortal soul to be a belief originally sourced from Plato, woven into early Christianity through prevalent Greek culture, church fathers like Origen, and the early Christian writers’ desire to create an apologetic that could relate to pagan Greek hearers. Proponents would argue that a person is not naturally immortal, but instead, only the Christian receives eternal life as a gift from God. Unbelievers may suffer for a time before being eternally destroyed.
The last commonly held view would be Universalism, believing that repentance, conversion and moral progress are still possible after death. This view has been influenced by several factors including Origen’s doctrine known as “Origenism”, allegorical and liberal biblical interpretation, modifications of the doctrine of purgatory and later the theory of evolution. Universalists teach that while unbelievers may be sent to hell initially, the punishment is remedial, meaning that the punishment is intended to purify them and bring them to repentance, after which, everyone has the choice to return to God and accept eternal salvation.
These four views have a variety of distinctions yet they all agree that hell, in some format, does exist for at least a period of time. According to the Bible, hell is a reality that we are warned to avoid, but what exactly would we be avoiding?
The answer to the question “What is hell?” will greatly vary depending on the person that you ask. Billy Graham once said that Hell might be understood “… as a terrible eternal burning within the hearts of the lost for God, a fire that can never be quenched.” George Whitfield challenged his hearers to “think of how impossible it would be to dwell with everlasting burnings.” Rob Bell describes Hell as a period of pruning before being reconciled to God for eternity. In images from Dante’s Divine Comedy, Hell is depicted as nine circles of horrifying graphic images of torture and pain. Edward Fudge would say it is a place where the wicked are completely destroyed. Even in the Bible we find various descriptions such as the lake of fire, a place of torment (Revelation 20:10) and a place of destruction (Luke 12:5).
Like many doctrines, it’s always helpful to go back to what the first apostles taught and what the early church would have understood, yet this is hard to know for sure. It is highly disputed whether the early church believed in inherent immortality or that hell is a place where people are tormented forever. Fudge states that it wasn’t until after the apostles that the doctrine of immortal souls even entered into Christianity, however others refute that stance, claiming that the Hellenized worldview of most gentile Christians at that point would have caused them to understand phrases about souls suffering for eternity literally. Some theologians would also state that even among Jewish believers there would have been a prior understanding based on Pharisaic teaching common in the first century. Also Jesus advises his hearers not to fear “those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul”. Is Jesus speaking to a prior understanding in his audience or is he referring only to believers? Without knowing beyond the shadow of a doubt what the first Christians believed about immortality, it is also impossible to know whether they regarded hell’s torment to mean conscience eternal punishment or ultimate destruction.
In the opinion of Fudge had the early church from the second century forward understood and remembered that “… the Bible ascribes immortality to “holistic resurrected” people, and that those whom 1 Corinthians 15 says will be raised imperishable and clothed with immortality are the righteous… the doctrine of unending conscious torment probably never would have appeared within the Christian church.”
Yet on the other hand William V. Crockett writes that “… it is clear from the New Testament that both the righteous and the wicked are destined to exist forever… All things depend on God for their existence, and it is God who resurrects and sustains his creatures, some unto life in heaven, and some unto death—in the place we call hell.”
There are several reasons why so much discrepancy exists. Issues range from the way we are intended to interpret biblical passages describing hell to the actual meaning of the words used by the biblical authors.
In the Old Testament the world typically used to describe life after death is sheol, in most cases meaning no more than a literal grave or a place where a dead body is put. It’s not until the New Testament that we have more descriptive terminology regarding life after death, specifically for the unsaved. The Greek word hades is generally equivalent to the Old Testament sheol. “The most definitive term is gehenna, uniformly translated “hell” and referring to everlasting punishment. One instance of the Greek word tartaros is translated “hell” and considered equivalent to gehenna.”
It is important to question whether the words written in the New Testament about hell are meant to be interpreted literally or metaphorically. For example, in Mark 9:43-49 Jesus describes hell as a “fire that does not go out”, a place where “the worms that eat them do not die and the fire is not quenched.” In fact, Jesus is the only one to use this word for hell except for one exception. Many scholars believe that Jesus is referencing the Valley of Hinnom outside of Jerusalem where people used to sacrifice their children to the Ammonite god Molech. It was declared as a place of God’s judgment and a place of slaughter by the prophet Jeremiah. It’s also a place where garbage and waste was constantly burned using sulfur. It’s believed that the Hebrew name ge-hinnom evolved into gehenna over time. When Jesus used this word his hearers could have easily developed an instant understanding of the level of desecration and horror that would await those sent to hell. Those who take these words metaphorically would interpret Jesus as taking an image the people understood well and drawing a parallel as a warning since Jesus often spoke in strong language to communicate a point, yet did not intend his words to be taken literally (for example- unless you hate your father and mother…- Luke 14:26). However, a strong argument can also be made that Jesus was using the best example available to describe literal conditions awaiting unbelievers. In Revelation John describes what he sees as a second death where the wicked have their place “in the fiery lake of burning sulfur” and that they are sharing in the torment “day and night forever and ever.”
There are also opposing views on how to interpret the word aionios, typically translated as “eternal”. At least seventy-one times this word is applied to things that have a time limit, which could signify “an intermediate duration of which the maximum is fixed by the intrinsic nature of the persons or things”. Yet there are fifty-one times in the New Testament that this word is clearly applied to the redeemed, which leads some to argue an everlasting duration of time. Since we do not question this application concerning eternal life, why question it when applied to eternal suffering? It’s also important to note that aionios, when paired with the word kolasis (punishment) it is always denoting punishment, not remedial correction, for the wicked. Whether that punishment is everlasting or timed, there is a diverse, worldwide consensus that kolasis means punishment. This is something that Universalists deny, in fact; Rob Bell states that aionios kolasis can be translated as “a period of pruning”. This is a considerable stretch and is creative at best. We need to be careful that we don’t claim what is possible in the place of what is probable.
It seems clear from the Bible that unbelievers will suffer punishment after this life and there is no biblical passage that alludes to the chance of repentance after death. In fact, the Bible states exactly the opposite in multiple locations including Hebrews 9:27 that says “People are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment”. In order to arrive at a belief in post-death repentance one must admit that they are doing so outside of biblical perimeters. A proponent of Universalism was quoted as saying “…the modern Universalist is no longer bound to the letter of the NT; he can base his doctrine on the spirit of NT teaching about the love of God.” There is great danger in basing a doctrine like human destiny on what we think God will do based on our human understanding of his love.
Many people have struggled with the doctrine of hell and the seeming complication it presents between God’s wrath and love. The argument used by many Atheists and Universalists alike could easily be summed up by John Hick: “The suffering and evil of this world can only be justified if God is going to bring to a good end every individual personal life He has created. If there is either eternal punishment or annihilation for some, then either God is not perfectly good – since He does not desire the salvation of all His creatures – or He is not omnipotent – since His purpose has finally failed in the case of some. Only universal salvation can vindicate the omnipotent good God in whom Christians believe.”
Yet Gretz describes a different way to look at God’s wrath: “Instead, “wrath” is the best description we have for the way in which God’s love encounters sin. It is our description of the way sinful creatures experience God’s love. Simply stated, the presence of sin transforms the experience of the divine love from the bliss intended by God into wrath… Bound up with love is a protective jealousy… for a true lover seeks to defend the love relationship whenever it is threatened by disruption, destruction, or outside intrusion.”
Others would leave wrath out of it, equating that just like a bodily disease leads to physical death, likewise sin leads to a natural consequence of spiritual death without intervention. It’s not that God intervenes with wrath at all; instead it is that we did not accept Christ’s intervention of grace.
Those who advocate that everything depends on God somehow conveniently forget to deal with the issue of human sin, which simply means the falling short of God’s perfect nature. Our society, including most of us who are Christians, have mis-diagnosed our condition thinking “we’re not that bad”. The point is, it’s not about that. The standard is not one sin measured to another, it’s not up to our human morality. We actually don’t know the problem, therefore we don’t think we need the cure.
C.S Lewis states this dilemma perfectly: “The Christian answer—that we have used our free will to become very bad—is so well known that it hardly needs to be stated. But to bring this doctrine into real life in the minds of modern men, and even of modern Christians, is very hard. When the apostles preached, they could assume even in their Pagan hearers a real consciousness of deserving the Divine anger. The Pagan mysteries existed to allay this consciousness, and the Epicurean philosophy claimed to deliver men from the fear of eternal punishment. It was against this background that the Gospel appeared as good news. It brought news of possible healing to men who knew that they were mortally ill. But all this has changed. Christianity now has to preach the diagnosis—in itself very bad news—before it can win a hearing for the cure.”
Jesus takes away shame, but without him there actually is shame and guilt associated with sin. The more society takes away shame associated with evil, the more the line is blurred. No conviction of sin… no need for a savior. One of the greatest plans of satan is to remove the context for needing salvation.
Again C.S. Lewis perfectly paraphrases: “We are told to ‘get things out into the open’, not for the sake of self-humiliation, but on the grounds that these ‘things’ are very natural and we need not be ashamed of them. But unless Christianity is wholly false, the perception of ourselves which we have in moments of shame must be the only true one; and even Pagan society has usually recognised ‘shamelessness’ as the nadir of the soul…A recovery of the old sense of sin is essential to Christianity. Christ takes it for granted that men are bad. Until we really feel this assumption of His to be true, though we are part of the world He came to save, we are not part of the audience to whom His words are addressed. We lack the first condition for understanding what He is talking about. And when men attempt to be Christians without this preliminary consciousness of sin, the result is almost bound to be a certain resentment against God as to one always inexplicably angry. Most of us have at times felt a secret sympathy with the dying farmer who replied to the Vicar’s dissertation on repentance by asking ‘What harm have I ever done Him?’ There is the real rub. The worst we have done to God is to leave Him alone—why can’t He return the compliment? Why not live and let live? What call has He, of all beings, to be ‘angry’? Its easy for Him to be good! Now at the moment when a man feels real guilt—moments too rare in our lives—all these blasphemies vanish away.”
I feel that it’s important to reconcile the wrath and love of God. Sometimes in our humanity we separate God into two beings: OT God and NT God. Once thing we can fail to recognize is that from Adam to Israel to today, the choice has always been with humanity.
Deuteronomy 30:19: “Today I have given you the choice between life and death, between blessings and curses. Now I call on heaven and earth to witness the choice you make. Oh, that you would choose life, so that you and your descendants might live!”
Ezekiel 18:23: “Do you think that I like to see wicked people die? Says the Sovereign Lord. Of course not! I want them to turn from their wicked ways and live.”
Isaiah 1:16-20: “Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow. “Come now, let us settle the matter,” says the Lord. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the good things of the land; but if you resist and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword…”
People often ask “How could a loving God send people to Hell?” But hell was not created for people! Heaven is for people, unless they reject the salvation Jesus has provided. Matt 25:41 explains that hell was prepared for the devil and his angels. In 2 Peter 3:9 it says “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”
According to 1 Timothy 2:4 it is God’s will that ALL people would accept his offered salvation. We can take one look at the world and discern that God’s will is not always done. There is more than God’s will at work in humanity. John Walvoord said, “God does not cease to work for the salvation of the world but has to accept the outcome. Hell is proof of how seriously God takes human freedom.” If the salvation of Jesus is enough to spare every single living person from the suffering that hell most certainly holds, then hasn’t God done his part already? C.S. Lewis said, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done. Those who are in hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no hell.”
Whether hell is literally a lake of fire, a time of suffering before destruction or “something bad that only God knows,” one thing Jesus made clear is that it’s somewhere we don’t want to go. It seems illogical to place any part of God’s revealed will in submission to human reasoning. Imagine what could happen if we spent less time analyzing the problem and more time proclaiming the solution. Perhaps the horrors of hell would become irrelevant because no one would be going there.
If you are interested in the primary sources that I consulted for this post or would like to do further study on your own here are some great references:
Erasing Hell– Francis Chan & Preston Sprinkle
Four Views on Hell– John F. Walvoord
Universalism-A Historical Survey, Themelios 4, no. 2- Richard Bauckham
The Great Divorce– C. S. Lewis
Image by Ryan McGuire