“I am the way into the city of woe.
I am the way to a forsaken people.
I am the way into eternal sorrow.
Sacred justice moved my architect.
I was raised here by divine omnipotence,
primordial love and ultimate intellect.
Only those elements time cannot wear
were made before me, and beyond time I stand.
Abandon all hope ye who enter here.
– The Divine Comedy: Inferno
by Dante Alighieri, trans. by John Ciardi.
They say the devil is in the details.
A certain section of evangelical church culture has declared, either covertly or blatantly, that the matter of hell is settled. The Bible, the church, and tradition have all spoken, and therefore, is it asserted, there’s really nothing left to be said. Questions and doubts are highly discouraged, because any modification of hell will bring about theological disaster. “No doctrine stands alone,” writes Albert Mohler, “… take out the doctrine of hell, and the entire shape of Christian theology is inevitably altered.” Later he adds, “The revision or rejection of the historic doctrine of hell comes at a great cost… essentially, our concepts of God and the gospel are at stake. What could be more important?” (1)
I agree with him that our concepts of God and the gospel are certainly tied in with our view of hell. However, if that really is the case, then is it not important for Christians to take a (ahem) damned good look at what’s being taught, implied, and believed about hell? And perhaps not just those teachings, implications, and beliefs that line up with Mohler’s definition of hell, but all of them?
If there is one thing I have learned in just the past six weeks of study on this subject (you should see the stack of books I have on my nightstand) it becomes pretty clear that if there’s one thing Christians can all agree about hell, it’s that we can’t agree anything about hell.
Does God send people to hell or is it human choice?
Hell… is not what people want — certainly not what they “most want.”
…Beneath this misleading emphasis on hell being what people “most want” is the notion that God does not send people to hell. But this is simply unbiblical. God certainly does send people to hell. He does pass sentence, and he executes it. Indeed, worse than that. God does not just send, he throws. “If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.”
What is hell, then? It is God actively giving us up to what we have freely chosen-to go our own way, be our own “the master of our fate, the captain of our soul,” to get away from him and his control. It is God banishing us to regions we have desperately tried to get into all our lives
…the Biblical teaching on hell… tells us that people only get in the afterlife what they have most wanted- either to have God as Savior and Master or to be their own Saviors and Masters.
I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside.
C.S. Lewis, – The Problem of Pain (emphasis mine)
“Eternal damnation”, therefore, is not attributed to God’s initiative because in his merciful love he can only desire the salvation of the beings he created. In reality, it is the creature who closes himself to his love. Damnation consists precisely in definitive separation from God, freely chosen by the human person and confirmed with death that seals his choice for ever. God’s judgement ratifies this state.
Is hell never-ending torment? Annihilation? Is it retributive punishment? Is there any possibility of redemption?
“Let us fancy we see hell, and imagine what is worst to behold – a horrible cavern full of black flames. Sulphur, devils, dragons, fire, swords, arrows, and innumerable damned who roar in despair. Imagine the worst you can, and then say, ‘All this is nothing compared to hell.’”
St. Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises (emphasis mine)
The temptation to revise the doctrine of hell– to remove the sting and scandal of everlasting conscious punishment– is understandable. But it is also a major test of evangelical conviction.
– Albert Mohler, “Modern Theology: The Disappearance of Hell” from Hell Under Fire (emphasis mine)
… if it is possible, as I’ve suggested, for human beings to choose to live more and more out of tune with the divine intention, to reflect the image of God less and less, these is nothing to stop them finally ceasing to bear that image, and so to be, as it were, beings who were once human but are not now. Those who persistently refuse to follow Jesus, the true Image of God, will by their own choice become less and less like him, that is, less and less truly human. We sometimes say, even of living people, that they have become inhuman … I see nothing in the New Testament to make me reject the possibility that some, perhaps many, of God’s human creatures do choose, and will choose, to dehumanize themselves completely.
–N.T. Wright, Following Jesus (emphasis mine)
inasmuch as all things that have been made had a beginning when they were formed, but endure as long as God wills that they should have an existence and continuance…
…And therefore he who shall preserve the life bestowed upon him, and give thanks to Him who imparted it, shall receive also length of days for ever and ever. But he who shall reject it, and prove himself ungrateful to his Maker …deprives himself of [the privilege of] continuance for ever and ever. And, for this reason, the Lord declared to those who showed themselves ungrateful towards Him: “If ye have not been faithful in that which is little, who will give you that which is great?” indicating that those who, in this brief temporal life, have shown themselves ungrateful to Him who bestowed it, shall justly not receive from Him length of days for ever and ever.
– Irenaeus, Against Heresies (emphasis mine)
…hell is the situation in which those who do not avail themselves of the atonement made by Jesus in his suffering and death must make their own atonement by suffering and then death, separated from the sustaining life of God and thus disappearing from the cosmos.
–John G. Stackhouse Jr., Four Views on Hell (emphasis mine)
But I do plead for frank dialogue among Evangelicals on the basis of Scripture. I also believe that the ultimate annihilation of the wicked should at least be accepted as a legitimate, biblically founded alternative to their eternal conscious torment.
–John Stott, Evangelical Essentials (emphasis mine)
… divine judgement… effects the separation of good from evil and direction toward the fellowship of blessedness… the tearing in pieces of what has grown together brings about pain for the one being torn apart… for it is necessary that at some time evil be wholly and completely removed out of existence… when every will rests in God, evil will depart into utter destruction, since there is no receptacle remaining for it.
– St. Gregory of Nyssa, Dialogue on the Soul and the Resurrection (emphasis mine)
If you impose upon the Bible the faulty idea that God’s justice and mercy are in conflict, you will inevitably conclude that punishment is a mere matter of justice, not mercy, and forgiveness is a matter of mercy, not justice. You will then take the biblical warnings concerning future punishment as proof that God could not possibly be merciful to all, despite what Paul explicitly said. You will also conclude that Jesus came to save us not from our sin, but from the terrible justice of God.
As I see it, however, the Christian message is just the opposite of that. God sent his Son into the world not for the purpose of saving us from the justice of God, but for the purpose of establishing that very justice, which is also altogether merciful, in us. When every evil is finally destroyed, every wrong finally set right, and every opposing will finally transformed, then and only then will the scales of justice finally balance; then and only then will God truly be all in all.
––Thomas Talbott, “A Pauline Interpretation of Divine Judgement” in Universal Salvation? The Current Debate (emphasis mine)
Who is in hell? Hitler being in hell doesn’t seem to offend anybody. But what about the unborn, babies, and little children who die before they are of an age to “trust Jesus”? Surely there’s agreement about them!
We may rest assured that God would never have suffered any infants to be slain except those who were already damned and predestined for eternal death.”
— John Calvin, Harmony of the Law Vol. 2
Therefore, I do believe in the salvation of those dying in infancy. I affirm their salvation, though, neither because they are innocent nor because they have merited forgiveness, but solely because God has sovereignly chosen them for eternal life, regenerated their souls, and applied the saving benefits of the blood of Christ to them apart from conscious faith.
Certain infants, even those baptized, He does not take from this life as adopted into the eternal kingdom, and does not confer on them the great benefit given him of whom we read: “He was taken away lest wickedness alter his understanding.”
– Augustine of Hippo, Against Julian, book 5
… I am unable to know from Scripture what happens to all infants who die… I simply do not find Scripture to support the idea that God will categorically overlook the imputation of Adam’s sin that is held against all humanity, and even the tiniest child. It seems to me that those who adhere to the view that all children are saved must gloss-over or downplay original sin, and that is something I cannot do. Children who die in infancy are as fully implicated in Adam’s sin as I am and are thus fully deserving of hell. While that does not necessarily indicate that God will not or cannot save them, I do not find evidence in Scripture that He always will.
…if you have a little one that dies, rejoice. Count not your human loss, count your eternal gain. Count not that child as having lost, but having gained, having passed briefly through this life, untouched by the wicked world, only to enter into eternal glory and grace.
Perhaps hell isn’t quite so settled after all.
As part of this series of infernal expeditions, I want to explore conceptions of hell, both modern and historic. It’s important to establish right off the bat that there is no one strain of thinking on hell that can claim to be “biblical” to the exclusion of all others– ALL Christian viewpoints of hell are informed by different interpretations of scripture. Nor is there any one strain of thinking that is exclusively biblical– in the sense that the Bible and only the Bible is responsible for the viewpoint. No conception of hell is immune to the influences of culture, history, tradition, logic, emotion, and centuries of Christian thinkers. There is no such thing as hell in a vacuum.
There are, roughly speaking, three broad conceptions of hell in Christian thought. The first is the traditional view, what is usually referred to as the doctrine of Eternal Conscious Torment, the view held by the majority of modern evangelicals. The meaning is in the name– once someone is in hell, there is no hope, no chance of redemption, and no end to the suffering which they will experience. The second is the annihilationist view, also called conditionalism or conditional immortality. This view is that God will eventually and finally destroy all the wicked so that they (and hell) will cease to exist. And then there is the variety of Christian universalist views, which unite under the hope/assertion that in some way and at some point God will complete the redemption of every last person in the universe through the work of Jesus, so that hell will cease to exist because it will be empty.
I say “roughly speaking” because within these three broad paths there appears to be considerable variation among those who ascribe to each. Some teachers of each conception of hell profess absolute certainty in their view, some even going so far as to pronounce any other view as heretical. Others hold their conclusions more loosely, willing to live in the tension of uncertainty. But it is worth reiterating again that all three of these broader conceptions of hell have their foundation in interpretations of Scripture. Whatever the opponents want to claim, nobody is ignoring the Bible.
An exploration of each of these conceptions of hell is in order. We need to look at history and modern times, at the Bible, at classic literature, at the writings of theologians. We need to investigate who is teaching what about hell, and ask the question why? We need to talk about conceptions of justice and theories of atonement. I want to engage with logic and emotion, to tangle with overlooked and unvoiced questions.
In all this, I hope to hear your voice. My interest in how other people interact with the infernal is genuine. I want to know: what is your conception of hell? How did you frame it, or how was it framed for you? Where did you learn to think about hell– or where did you learn to ignore it? Does hell haunt you? Are there questions you have about hell that you have never felt safe enough to ask? Chime in! Comment, or email me (firstname.lastname@example.org), or if we are already friends then text me or message me on Facebook!
There’s a phrase in the Apostles’ Creed that says Jesus “descended into hell.” Of course there’s a lot of different interpretations as to what that actually means, but still– in the one and only mention of hell in the creed with which Christians have confessed their faith over nearly two millennia, the only thing affirmed is that Jesus went there.
The essence of horror is despair. That’s why Dante inscribed his infernal gates with it. But if even hell has been touched by the presence of Jesus, then we can defy Dante. If our hope is in Jesus, then I dare to hope that no place he has been can be hopeless– even if that place is hell.
(1) Hell Under Fire, Chapter 1: “Modern Theology: The Disappearance of Hell”