For over 2000 years, the mainstream Christian church has affirmed the biblical doctrine of eternal punishment in hell. In the last 50 years, however, a significant shift in belief has occurred among Christians—even evangelicals. The influence has come both from within and without. Outside the church, philosophers like Bertrand Russell claimed that any person who was profoundly humane could not believe in everlasting punishment. For Russell, hell is “a doctrine of cruelty”, responsible for producing generations of “cruel torture”.1 Our postmodern society’s love of ‘tolerance’ and ‘each-to-his-own truth’ means that the concept of a God punishing people in hell forever is not only intolerable, it’s laughable.
Inside the church, well-known evangelicals have brought the subject under increasing scrutiny. Some have demoted the topic of hell to a ‘secondary issue’, encouraging the tolerance of both traditionalist and conditionalist interpretations.2 John Stott, who describes himself as ‘agnostic’ on the issue,3 has said that “[t]he ultimate annihilation of the wicked should at least be accepted as a legitimate, biblically founded alternative to their eternal conscious torment”.4 Brian McLaren, an advocate for the emerging church, also opts for a form of ‘agnosticism’, downplaying the issue and wishing to focus on the positives rather than deal with the hard texts on hell.5 More recently, he has attempted to “deconstruct our conventional concepts of hell in the sincere hope that a better vision of the gospel of Jesus Christ will appear”.6
In short, the latter part of the 20th century has seen such a shift in thinking on hell that there is no longer a clear evangelical consensus on the doctrine, nor the accompanying conviction to actually still believe in it. This shift has led some to conclude that hell has all but ‘disappeared’ from modern theology.7
Three main alternative positions to the historic orthodox doctrine on hell currently exist and are gaining popularity within the evangelical church. This article will briefly outline them.
The belief that every person will ultimately be saved is common to all universalists, but among universalists, there exists a variety of opinions on the theological content of the position.8 At the risk of oversimplification, forms of universalism may be divided into two broad categories: pluralistic universalism (the belief that Christ is one of many ways for the salvation of all people) and Christian universalism (the belief that Christ alone is the way of salvation, and every person will experience that personally, either in this life or the next). In some universalist frameworks, hell is not eradicated; instead, it serves only a temporary measure. Moreover, for some universalists, it is not rational or moral considerations, nor even an optimistic anthropology, that drives them to their position, but rather “the work of God in Christ,”9, which has been “one decisive act of God, once and for all, embracing every creature”.10
2. Annihilationism or conditionalism
Although important distinctions exist between these two positions, for our purposes here, they are viewed together, since they essentially amount to the same conclusion: people who die outside of Christ eventually cease to exist at some point.11 The most common ‘evangelical’ expression of annihilationism is the view that people without Christ are banished from God’s presence in hell, punished there for a time, and then finally annihilated, ceasing to exist. They are cast “without hope into the abyss of obliteration”.12
Since annihilationism is becoming the most popular alternative for evangelicals, it is worth looking at its principal arguments. Firstly, a number of biblical passages speak of the destruction of the wicked (e.g. Phil 3:19; 1 Thess 5:3; 2 Thess 1:9-10; 2 Pet 3:7). Annihilation seems to at least be suggested by this word, given that ‘destroy’ implies a cessation of existence. Edward Fudge argues that this is the uniform meaning of the word in both testaments.13
Secondly, the biblical imagery of fire supports this meaning of destruction, since fire destroys what it burns. To speak of the final judgement being like chaff thrown into the fire implies that the chaff is consumed to the point of not existing anymore (Matt 3:12).
Thirdly, in the eschatological texts of the New Testament, the word ‘eternal’ is ambiguous. The word may be used to refer to the temporal experience of those in heaven (Matt 25:46), but it may also denote the unending result or consequence of God’s punishment, not the ongoing experience of that punishment. The eternity of the punishment may simply be that the cessation of existence lasts forever.
There are also some theological arguments for annihilationism. Firstly, the doctrine of eternal punishment is incompatible with love of God. Clark Pinnock vehemently argues that “the concept of hell as endless torment in body and mind [is] an outrageous doctrine, a theological and moral enormity, a bad doctrine of the tradition which needs to be changed”. It projects a deity of “cruelty and vindictiveness”; such a God “is more nearly like Satan than like God”—“a bloodthirsty monster who maintains an everlasting Auschwitz for victims whom he does not even allow to die”.14 For others, eternal punishment is a “doctrine of such savagery”.15 John Stott is less heated in his condemnation; for him, the concept is emotionally ‘intolerable’, but he concludes that the final question must be “not what does my heart tell me, but what does God’s word say?”16
Secondly, eternal punishment does not compute with crimes committed by a finite creature in this life. It seems terribly unjust for a finite sin to be punished with infinite consequences.
Finally, the doctrine of hell spoils the biblical picture of the new heavens and new earth—of eternal bliss and happiness. Philip Edgcumbe Hughes believes that the restoration of all things (Col 1:19-20) necessarily entails the removal of such a place called hell, for “When Christ fills all in all … how is it conceivable that there can be a section or realm of creation that does not belong to the fullness and by its very presence contradicts it?”17
3. Definitive self-exclusion from the presence of God
This third view has no ‘official’ label, and, as with the others, may take various forms. It is not an ‘established’ position on hell, articulated by a particular group within evangelicalism; instead, it is best described as pertaining to certain emphases on hell at the neglect or expense of others. In other words, it is not so much what the position affirms that is the problem, but what it fails to mention. Here I point out two such examples, and begin to offer a brief critique.
CS Lewis’s writings serve as a good illustration of this position. He states: “A man can’t be taken to hell or sent to hell: you can only get there on your own steam”;18 “the doors of hell are locked from the inside”;19 “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’”.20 Tim Keller writes similarly: “hell is simply one’s freely chosen identity apart from God on a trajectory into infinity”.21
At one level, what CS Lewis and Tim Keller say here must be affirmed: hell is a person’s choice. “All that are in Hell, choose it.”22 This is true. The life we live is the life we choose, and if we’ve chosen to live without reference to God, then we have chosen hell. But to only preach that hell is our choice suggests that God is completely passive in letting people go there, and that he has no active role in hell. The question the arises: how do you interpret texts that speak of God ‘destroying’ people in hell (Matt 10:28), or ‘throwing’ them there (Mark 9:45)?
Associated with this position is the increasingly popular view that God is not present in hell. Hell is complete exclusion from his presence; heaven is his presence: “If we were to lose [God’s] presence totally, that would be hell”.23 Again, as with the other aspect above, there is truth here to be acknowledged and affirmed: hell is the absence of God in his good, lovely and joyful presence; it is the absence of any mercy, grace or kindness; it is divorce from any relationship or even the potential for such. In this sense, hell is ‘separation from God’. To choose hell is to choose all that God is not.24 At the final judgement, God will say to sinners, “Depart from me!” (Matt 7:23).
But is this is all there is to say about God’s relationship to hell and those present there? How do we reconcile God’s ‘absence’ in hell with his omnipresence? Moreover, what do we make of texts that say that it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Heb 10:31), that he is a consuming fire (Heb 12:29), that God has ‘prepared’ the fires of hell (Matt 25:41), and that sinners are tormented “in the presence of the Lamb” (Rev 14:10)?
Of course, the questions I have asked of both these examples betray a pejorative edge. However, as with the other positions, a full critique will have to wait until the next article.
In the light of the above, as the evangelical church enters a new decade of the third millennium, we are left asking the question “Is the church still serious about hell?” These alternative positions present serious challenges to the traditional evangelical doctrine of hell. One response has even suggested that “The doctrine of eternal punishment is the watershed between evangelical and non-evangelical thought”.25 If this is so, then the task of articulating the biblical doctrine of hell for a new decade in the evangelical church cannot be underestimated, since the ramifications are both cosmic and eternal in scope.
As always, when any Christian doctrine is under attack or just gradually slipping from view, the answer is found in returning to the Bible and allowing God’s word to be the final authority. Such a point may appear simplistic, of course, since every side in the debate claims to be using the Bible to argue for their position—especially those attracted to annihilationism or the view that hell is merely self-exclusion from the presence of God. In the next article, however, I will provide exegesis of a number of relevant biblical texts in order to argue that the traditional evangelical position on hell is the most sensible and faithful reading of the biblical texts, and that, theologically, it comports best with the gospel of God’s love and justice—a gospel that promises a new creation that really will be ‘paradise’.26
Read part 2. (Note that the first half of part 2 is the same as this article.)
1 B Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian, Simon and Schuster, London, 1967, p. 47.
2 For example, The Nature of Hell: A Report by the Evangelical Alliance Commission of Unity and Truth Among Evangelicals, ACUTE/Paternoster Press, Carlisle, 2000.
3 See Stott’s latest biography by R Steer, Inside Story: The Life of John Stott, IVP, Nottingham, 2009, p. 228.
4 DL Edwards and J Stott, Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue, Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1988, p. 320.
5 See for example, BD McLaren, A New Kind of Christian: A Tale of Two Friends on a Spiritual Journey, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 2001, pp. 177-92 and The Story We Find Ourselves In: Further Adventures of a New Kind of Christian, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 2003, pp. 167-68.
6 BD McLaren, The Last Word and the Word After That, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 2005, p. xvii.
7 R Albert Mohler Jr, ‘Modern Theology: The Disappearance of Hell’, in Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment, edited by CW Morgan and RA Peterson, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2004, pp. 15-41.
8 For a helpful overview, see T Hart, ‘Universalism: Two Distinct Types’ in Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell, edited by Nigel M de S Cameron, Baker, Grand Rapids, 1992, pp. 1-34.
9 JAT Robinson, In the End God, Clarke, London, 1950, p. 108.
10 ibid., p. 99.
11 As with universalism, there is a spectrum of thought within these two positions. For example, KS Harmon in ‘The Case Against Conditionalism: A Response to Edward William Fudge’ (Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell, pp. 191-224) observes three kinds of conditionalism: (1) “conditionalist uniresurrectionism” (all people are annihilated and only those in Christ are raised to everlasting life on the last day; Jehovah Witnesses and Socinians believe this); (2) “conditionalist eventual extinctionism” (all human beings are raised on the last day, either to everlasting bliss and so obtain immortality, or are annihilated; held by Seventh Day Adventists); (3) “immortalist eventual extinctionism” (though all human beings were created immortal, those outside of Christ will be annihilated after a period of time in hell). For a defence of conditionalism, see J Wenham, ‘The Case for Conditional Immortality’, in Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell, pp. 196-99.
12 P Hughes, The True Image: The Origin and Destiny of Man in Christ, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1989, p. 407.
13 E Fudge, The Fire That Consumes: The Biblical Case for Conditional Immortality, Paternoster, Carlisle, 1994.
14 C Pinnock, ‘The Destruction of the Finally Impenitent’, Criswell Theological Review, 4, 1990, pp. 246-47, 253. Edwards and Stott expresses similar views, though not as strongly (Essentials, pp. 314-15).
15 M Green, Evangelism Through the Local Church, Nelson, Nashville, 1992, p. 73.
16 Edwards and Stott, Essentials, p. 315.
17 Hughes, The True Image, p. 406.
18 CS Lewis, ‘The Dark Tower’ in The Dark Tower & Other Stories, edited by Walter Hooper, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1967, p. 49. Note that some scholars do not believe that Lewis wrote ‘The Dark Tower’.
19 CS Lewis, The Problem of Pain, MacMillan, New York, 1962, p. 127.
20 CS Lewis, The Great Divorce, MacMillan, New York, 1963, pp. 72-73.
21 T Keller, The Reason for God, Dutton, New York, 2008, p. 78.
22 Lewis, The Great Divorce, p. 73.
23 Keller, The Reason for God, p. 76.
24 Cf. T Keller, ‘The Importance of Hell’. Accessed: March 2010. Online.
25 J Ankerberg with J Weldon, ‘Response to JI Packer’, in Evangelical Affirmations, edited by KS Kantzer and CFH Henry, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1990, p. 140.
26 I am indebted to Charles De Kiewit, David Gibson, and Simon Flinders, for their feedback on this article.