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. Philosophers like Bertrand Russell have claimed that any person who is profoundly humane cannot believe in everlasting punishment. Postmodern society’s love of ‘tolerance’ and subjective 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 even demoted the topic of hell to a secondary issue, encouraging the tolerance of both traditionalist and conditionalist interpretations.
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 still believe in it. Instead, three main alternative positions have gained popularity within the evangelical church. In brief, they are universalism, annihilationism or conditionalism, and definitive self-exclusion from the presence of God.2
Three views on hell
Firstly, there is universalism. The belief that every person will ultimately be saved is common to all universalists, but among universalists, there are a variety of opinions on the theological content of the position. 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) and Christian universalism (the belief that Christ alone is the way of salvation and every person will experience that personally—in this life or the next). In both of these forms of universalism, hell is empty.
b) Annihilationism or conditionalism
Secondly, there is annihilationism or conditionalism. Although important distinctions differentiate them, for our purposes 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. 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.
Since annihilationism is becoming the most popular alternative, it is worth outlining its principal arguments briefly. 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. 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: it 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, 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. Secondly, the doctrine of eternal punishment seems incompatible with the love of God; instead, it projects a cruel and vindictive deity. Finally, the doctrine of hell spoils the biblical picture of eternal bliss and happiness in the new heavens and new earth.
c) Definitive self-exclusion from the presence of God
This third view has no ‘official’ label, and, as with the others, it 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.
CS Lewis’s writings are a good illustration of this position, for example, “the doors of hell are locked on the inside”3 and “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’”.4
At one level, what Lewis says must be affirmed: hell is a person’s choice. 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 preach only 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 then arises: how to interpret texts that speak of God ‘destroying’ people in hell or ‘throwing’ them there (Matt 10:28; 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. Again, there is truth here: hell is the absence of God in his good, lovely and joyful presence; it is the absence of mercy, grace and kindness; it is divorce from all relationship and even the potential for such. To choose hell is to choose all that God is not. In this sense, hell is ‘separation from God’. At the final judgement, God will say to sinners, “Depart from me!” (Matt 7:23). But is that all there is to say about God’s relationship to hell and its inhabitants? 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 he has “prepared” the fires of hell (Matt 25:41), and that sinners are tormented “in the presence of the Lamb” (Rev 14:10)?
Hell in the Bible
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”.5 If this is so, then the task of articulating the biblical doctrine of hell for a new decade cannot be underestimated, since the ramifications are both cosmic and eternal in scope.
As always, when any Christian doctrine is under attack or gradually slipping from view, the answer is to return to the authority of the Bible. 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 self-exclusion from God’s presence. In what follows, however, I will attempt to show that the traditional evangelical position on hell is the most sensible and faithful reading of the biblical texts.
a) A real place
In Mark 9:43, Jesus speaks of being thrown into ‘hell’ (cf. Matt 5:22, 29-30, 10:28, 18:9). The Greek word here is gehenna, which comes from the Hebrew ge-hinnom, meaning ‘valley of Hinnom’. The word ‘Hinnom’ may refer to a furnace or fireplace. It was a place just outside Jerusalem where the Israelites burned their children in sacrifice to the Ammonite god Molech (e.g. 2 Kgs 23:10). The location was a place of devilment and heart-wrenching grief, and came to symbolize eschatological punishment (cf. 1 Enoch 54:12; 2 Baruch 85:13; cf. Matt 10:28; 23:15, 33). Jesus used gehenna as a metaphor for hell to convey a place of despicable, disgusting and harrowing suffering. The metaphor certainly communicates a ‘hellish’ experience, but it also implies that hell is a place. After all, Jesus states that people are ‘thrown’ somewhere. In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, the rich man speaks of “this place (topos) of torment” (Luke 16:28). We are told in Acts 1:25 that Judas Iscariot went to “his own place” (topos). In John 5:29, Jesus states that there will be a resurrection for believers and unbelievers, suggesting that, like heaven, hell will be a real place inhabited by physical people. As with the exact location the enthroned, risen Christ, the whereabouts of hell is unknown to us. The only indication we have is that it is remote, away from God’s life and light, as it is described as ‘outside’ or “outer darkness” (Matt 8:12).
b) A ruled place
Not only is hell a real place, it is also a ruled place. Those who sin are ‘thrown’ into hell (Mark 9:45). Jesus says in Matthew 10:28, “do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell”. Hell is not Satan’s realm; it is under God’s sovereign rule. This is why the proposal that hell is solely our choice is only a half-truth. Yes, we do choose hell. Jesus says so; if we don’t deal with our sin radically, then hell is our fate (Mark 9:42-48). But he also says that God sentences us to hell, and because he is the judge of hell, people there remain under his jurisdiction.
The third thing we see from Mark 9:42-48 is that hell is the experience of real pain. By ‘real’, I mean ‘conscious’ pain. Jesus uses a comparative argument to make his point: think of the pain involved in cutting off a hand or a foot, or plucking out an eye: better to have felt the pain of that, says Jesus, than to feel the pain of an unquenchable fire in hell.
The images of hell also convey conscious pain and agony: hell is described as worms boring into the body, fire, darkness, and weeping and gnashing of teeth—all descriptions that fit the idea of real pain or anguish. The images are metaphorical, of course: worms and fire cannot literally coexist; neither can fire and darkness. However, it is does not follow that since the images are symbolic, they do not purport to reality. By their very nature, images and symbols are always less than their reality. A road sign with a picture of children crossing the road encourages slow and careful driving because it points to the greater reality of children in the vicinity. So it is with the biblical imagery of hell: the images should not lessen our view of hell; they should heighten it. They should not make hell less dreadful; if anything, they ought to make it even more terrifying, since the images are less than the reality. Think how painful fire is: we wince when a small spark or a drop of hot fat lands on our skin, so what must the unquenchable fires of hell be like? I am not implying that the fires of hell are literal, only that their imagery points to an awful reality of conscious pain.
Mark 9:42-48 implies a simple cause-and-effect relationship between sin and hell. In other words, sin is punishable. Jesus speaks more explicitly of punishment in Matthew 25:46: believers enter heaven for “eternal life”, but unbelievers go away to “eternal punishment”. Paul affirms a similar truth in 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10:
… God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you … those who do not know God … will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might … (vv. 6, 8, 9)
Hell is God’s just punishment for sins committed by people who live in rebellion to their maker and who refuse to obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is God’s just retribution. To be thrown into hell and punished by God, then, is no passive thing. In fact, God’s wrath is already ‘active’ through his handing over of sinners to their own sin (Rom 1:18-32). This activity of God’s (restrained) anger in the present is a precursor of God’s future anger on the “day of wrath” (Rom 2:5) when it will be unrestrained and fully revealed.
Jesus’ comment of being “thrown into hell” (Mark 9:45) also entails the idea of banishment. Instead of entering life and God’s kingdom, sinners are banished from God and his kingdom. 2 Thessalonians 1:9-10 is most explicit: “They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might …” (v. 9).6 In Matthew 7:23, Jesus explains that on the day of judgement, he will tell the wicked to “depart” from him. This is clearly an active banishment by God. It is the other side of the coin that CS Lewis failed to mention: hell is self-exclusion from God, but it is also God’s active exclusion of us.
Does this mean, then, that God is absent in hell? Certainly on the surface, texts such as 2 Thessalonians 1:9-10 and Matthew 7:23 seem to support this. But what do we do with a text like Revelation 14:10 where sinners are tormented “in the presence of the Lamb”?
Two things need to be held together in tension when dealing with this. Firstly, at one level, God cannot be escaped spatially or relationally. For example, when Adam and Eve forfeited God’s presence in Eden through their rebellion and were cast out, it did not mean that God was no longer present outside Eden. 2 Kings 17:23 and 24:20 describe Israel and Judah as being exiled and ‘cast from God’s presence’. But God was present in Assyria and Babylon (e.g. Ezek 1:1-3). Spatially, therefore, it is impossible to escape God (cf. Ps 139:7-10). It is the same relationally: for example, God visited and talked to Cain outside Eden (Gen 4). Even though Cain was not elect and was not eventually saved, God still ‘related’ to him. Contrary to common evangelical cliché, no human being is born outside a relationship with God. What the doctrine of original sin affirms is that we are all born into a rebellious relationship with God where every act falls short of perfect obedience. Every human being lives in the presence of God, which means that every human act of obedience and disobedience is done in relationship to God. The very concept of sin entails a relationship with God and, depending on whether our sins have been forgiven, God is either our judge or our Father. In short, it is not only impossible to escape God spatially, it is impossible to escape God relationally.
Secondly, God’s presence needs to be carefully defined by each context. God’s presence, symbolized by Eden and the Promised Land, denoted a loving, enjoyable relationship with God, in which the wholeness of life was experienced. To be ‘cast from God’s presence’ is therefore to be shut off from his goodness and love—to have him hide his face and remove his favour (Isa 59:2; cf. Num 6:25). Viewing God’s presence this way helps us to understand passages like 2 Thessalonians 1:9: sinners are shut out from God’s good and “comfortable presence”.7 To be more specific, “Hell is eternity in the presence of God without a mediator. Heaven is the presence of God with a mediator”.8 This also helps to make sense of Revelation 14:10, where sinners are “tormented in the presence of the Lamb”: Christ is present as judge, not mediator.
In sum, God cannot be escaped. Texts that speak of being “shut out” from God’s presence should be understood with ‘presence’ defined as all the benefits of God relating to humanity in his mercy and grace, whereby sinners enjoy him and love him. Texts that speak of being tormented in Christ’s presence should be understood with ‘presence’ defined as all the terrors of God relating to humanity in his justice and wrath, whereby sinners experience judgement and punishment. “God, who is the Heaven of one person, will be the Hell of another”.9
Proponents of annihilationism argue that in the New Testament, the verb ‘to destroy’ (apollumi) refers to cessation of existence (cf. Matt 2:13, 10:28). As John Stott says, commenting on Matthew 10:28, “If to kill is to deprive the body of life, hell would seem to be the deprivation of both physical and spiritual life, that is, an extinction of being”.10 He applies the same argument to the use of the related noun ‘destruction’ (e.g. Matt 7:13) and a similar word olethros (1 Thess 5:3; 2 Thess 1:9): “It would seem strange … if people who are said to suffer destruction are in fact not destroyed”.11 To support the point, annihilationists argue that the imagery of hell as fire depicts a destruction that leads to a cessation of being. The argument is reasonable: fire does destroy.
There are, however, a number of problems with the annihilationism position. Firstly, the argument needlessly reduces the possible meanings of the word ‘destruction’ (apoleia). The word is used of the ‘lost’ coin and the ‘lost’ son in Luke 15. In Matthew 9:17, it describes the ‘ruined’ wineskins. In neither of these cases is cessation of existence in view.
Secondly, as DA Carson points out, Stott’s argument on destruction is “tautologous”: “of course those who suffer destruction are destroyed. But it is does not follow that those who suffer destruction cease to exist”.12 The exact meaning of the words used for ‘to destroy’ or ‘destruction’ must therefore be determined on other grounds—namely, context. For example, when the word is used in contrast to ‘life’ (cf. John 3:16), Christ is doing more than simply contrasting non-existence and mere survival. It seems more reasonable to suggest that he is comparing two qualitatively different kinds of existence. Moreover, the word for ‘destruction’ (olethros) in 2 Thessalonians 1:9-10 does not automatically and without qualification imply cessation of existence, since the next clause says “shut out from the presence of the Lord”, which at least hints at ongoing existence.
Thirdly, interpreting the imagery of fire as denoting destruction that leads to cessation of being is unwarranted—not only because Jesus uses the imagery to convey the concept of conscious pain (cf. Mark 9:43-48), but also because some texts referring to hellfire assume ongoing existence. In Matthew 13:42, Jesus speaks of sinners being weeded out and thrown into the “fiery furnace”. If the fiery furnace consumes, then one would expect Jesus’ next words to be something like “and they are no more”. Instead he says, “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth”, which assumes continued existence. An annihilationist may suggest that this describes the suffering prior to the destruction by fire, but in Mark 9:48 (quoting Isaiah 66:24), Jesus says that hell is a place where “their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched”. If the fire consumes and destroys what it burns, metaphorically speaking, how can it continue to burn?13 Thus, any ‘destruction’ meant by the imagery of fire must mean an eternal destruction of some kind.
What, then, is the exact meaning of ‘destruction’ or ‘destroy’? The Greek word groups for ‘destruction’ usually refer to people or objects that cease to be useful for their original, intended state. Thus, when used in relation to hell, it is best to understand these words in the sense of ‘ruin’ or ‘deterioration’. All that is good and wholesome of people will be utterly ruined. In hell, a person deteriorates into all that is evil and despised in them—total depravity gone wild. Lewis once wrote,
We must picture Hell as a state where everyone is perpetually concerned about his own dignity and advancement, where everyone has a grievance, and where everyone lives in deadly serious passions of envy, self-importance, and resentment.14
Elsewhere, he described people as reduced to a mere grumble, the monotonous, endless sound of a machine just grumbling away.15 This is a horrific picture of humanity dehumanized. People were made in God’s image for his glory to enjoy him and to live life to the full—to be creative and to grow into their full potential. But in hell, all that is stripped away as they are brought to complete ruin and waste. They will disintegrate and deteriorate, yet never become extinct.
Punishment, banishment and destruction: as dreadful and frightening as these three pictures of hell are, there is one more thing that the Bible has to say about hell. In some passages, Jesus refers to the experience of hell as eternal (Matt 18:8; Matt 25:41; cf. Jude 7). The annihilationist or conditionalist response is that the adjective ‘eternal’ (aionios) refers to the result or consequence of the action, not the action itself: what lasts forever is not the experience of punishment, but rather the state of annihilation.16
A closer look at the texts concerning aionios, however, highlights that the evidence seems to point more to a temporal/eternal category rather than a qualitative one. For a start, the clear parallelism in Matthew 25:46 (“And these [i.e. the goats] will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous [i.e. the sheep] into eternal life”) works against the annihilationist reading. In addition, the annihilationist argument implies that the converse of extinction—salvation—is simply a once-upon-a-time act with no ongoing enjoyment of the actual state. More significantly, a survey of the biblical use of aionios shows that the word commonly has temporal/eternal overtones, even when a qualitative force is intended (cf. Matt 12:32). Other texts support the view that the suffering is eternal: in Revelation 14:10-11, it is the smoke of their torment that arises forever and ever, not the smoke of their ‘once upon a time’ destruction.
In this light, the annihilationist/conditionalist position appears to be of questionable exegetical strength. As DA Carson comments, “If Jesus had wanted to distance himself from that view [eternal punishment], and make his espousal of annihilationism abundantly clear, he certainly forfeited numerous opportunities to do so”.17 Furthermore, attempts to systematize the categories of punishment, banishment
and destruction into a neat, temporal serialization in order to support annihilationism also contains weaknesses.18 For example, Jesus uses all three pictures of hell in Matthew 24:45-25:46. From the order provided in Matthew 25:41 and 46, some may conclude that Jesus is teaching us that banishment leads to punishment. The problem with this is that Paul uses all three pictures in 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10, but states that the punishment is the destruction and the banishment. In Revelation 20:10-22:15, all three pictures are mentioned but never integrated. In other words, great caution should be exercised when trying to systematize the pictures of hell; as with all Christian doctrines, biblical texts need to be held together in tension.
If this reading of hell’s duration is correct, then here is the most terrifying truth about hell: it never ends. This is what CH Spurgeon called “the hell of hells”.19 After suffering the conscious pain of punishment, banishment and destruction by God for a billion ‘years’, those in hell will face the awful reality that those billion ‘years’ are but one point on an infinitely long line.
I physically shudder as I write that last sentence. I find this subject extremely difficult to write about—especially as I have loved ones who are still outside of Christ. The thought of them going to hell fills me with dread. I find it deeply emotional at times. Moreover, the doctrine of hell raises a number of theological, pastoral and evangelistic issues, which cannot be dealt with in this article.20
But as I have studied this topic again, I am reminded of John Stott’s words: the issue is “not what does my heart tell me, but what does God’s word say?”21 If what God’s word says is true—that hell really does exist—then I need to face it. Ignoring it, denying it or even reinterpreting it will not change its reality. In fact, I believe that the reality of hell explains why Jesus taught more about it than he did about heaven. When given the only opportunity that we know of to address thousands of people, Jesus chose to speak about hell (Luke 12). And when interrupted with the tragic news of Pilate’s slaughter of Galileans (Luke 13:1-5), he refused to be taken off the topic: “unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (v. 3).
All this is to say that the issue of hell ultimately comes down to trusting Jesus—trusting that he’s telling us the truth and that he’s telling us for our good. I believe with all my heart that he is worth trusting, for he too wept over Jerusalem and, what’s more, vanquished hell, so that Jerusalem and all the ends of the earth might enjoy his heaven—a new heavens and a new earth, the home of righteousness.
- Have you ever thought much about hell? Before reading this article, how would you have described the nature of hell?
- Read Mark 9:42-48 and Revelation 14:6-20. What do the descriptions and imagery of these passages teach you about the fate of those who suffer God’s judgement? How does the teaching about hell function in these passages—that is, what do the passages themselves do with the doctrine of hell? What conclusions or implications are drawn?
- What are the pastoral and practical implications of a biblical view of hell? What difference might it make to your Christian life and ministry to others?
- Thank God for his justice, power and goodness.
- Ask him to give you a right appreciation of the doctrine of hell, along with perseverance and endurance in his service.
- Pray for those you know who are facing God’s judgement because of their unbelief.
3 CS Lewis, The Problem of Pain, Macmillan, New York, 1962, p. 127.
6 The preposition ‘from’ (apo) may be translated a number of ways, but most often it is used in the New Testament with the sense of ‘separation from’. The intertextual allusion in verse 9 to Isaiah 2:10-21 suggests that this is the best rendering here.
16 See, for example, Basil FC Atkinson, Life and Immortality (Goodman, Taunton 1962, p. 101) and Edward William Fudge, The Fire That Consumes: A biblical and historical study of the doctrine of final punishment (IUniverse, Lincoln, 1982, pp. 37-50, 194-96). Clark H Pinnock argues for ‘irreversible destruction’ (‘The Destruction of the Finally Impenitent’, A Journal from the Radical Reformation, Fall 1992, Vol. 2, No. 1, p. 256).
18 For example, Fudge suggests the order as being banishment from God’s presence, a temporal period of punishment and then destruction (see Kendall S Harmon, in ‘The Case Against Conditionalism: A Response to Edward William Fudge’ in Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell, edited by Nigel M de S Cameron, Baker, Grand Rapids, 1992, p. 213).