The idea of hell takes up a dark corner in most of our minds, whether we think about it or not.
For many Christians, their belief in hell is even more important than their belief in God, because the former influences the latter, not the other way around, as a healthy view would have it. In an age defined by generalized, chronic anxieties, researchers have started to wonder whether believing in hell is not also an indicator of the state of our mental health.
Various statistics show that almost half of Americans firmly believe that hell is a real place. Despite this, anxiety regarding the possibility of going there remains an unexplored subject for psychologists. Most of the time this specific anxiety is explored in the context of broader studies on the fear of death. Recently, however, researchers at Baylor University continued the research on this matter, developing a scale of anxiety regarding hell, which they then tested in relationship to other related subjects, like free will, predestination, and the role of supernatural beings in influencing human decisions and actions. A total of 353 students from a Christian university participated in the study. Therefore, one can hardly say that the results are generally valid. Despite this, they offer interesting insights, and an incentive to do further study on the subject.
Researchers were surprised to discover that “Hell anxiety was not related to dogmatism, religious fundamentalism, or overall religiosity, but primarily hinged on self-rated probability of going to hell”. Just 13% of the respondents declared that though they would most probably go to hell, while the majority viewed hell from a broader perspective, which proved to be a protective measure against anxiety. This perspective is connected to free will and the image each individual has of God. Respondents that tend to believe that their choices are determined by supernatural forces beyond their control and who, at the same time, fear God, are those who expressed the biggest fear of hell, while most respondents who do not fear hell talked about a loving God, who personally cares for each and every one of us.
Researchers concluded that anxiety concerning hell is not a pathological fear and that, when it is present, is seems to be “a rational response to their own theological premises”. However, for a life of faith which has salvation as its final goal—and thus the “avoidance” of hell—is it still desirable to be afraid of hell? Or should we rather focus our attention on a loving God and completely shift our focus from this sombre idea? The answer is not as simple as we might be tempted to believe.
One hell, two hells, three hells…
For today’s Christian, any discussion about hell may, at best, be awkward, and sometimes even unfamiliar. In an attempt to move away from the period when the threat of eternal damnation was an effective conversion strategy and, at the same time, go easy on postmodern sensitivities, sermons about hell have become harder to find than a four-leaf clover. They are most certainly not enthusiastically welcomed. This is why, for today’s reader, it may come as a surprise to know that doctrine regarding hell is some of the most controversial and hotly debated doctrine in the history of Christian religion.
Nowadays, there are three or four (depending on who establishes the categories) so-called “orthodox” understandings, that are generally accepted by the major Christian churches. They all affirm that the Bible teaches that death is not the end. What happens after the famous judgement in Revelation is, however, a subject that has been debated ever since the very beginnings of Christianity.
A distinction ought to be made between the “orthodox”, “metaphorical”, “purgatory” and “conditional” perspectives. According to the “orthodox” perspective, hell is a real place where judged people end up, to suffer eternally for their sins, the purpose hereof being merely punitive. The “metaphorical” perspective softens the “orthodox” perspective in the sense that suffering, although eternal, is mental. The “flames” of hell are just a metaphor for overwhelming inner regrets which inevitably occur after becoming aware of God’s perfect justice.
According to the third perspective, that of the idea of “purgatory”, supported by the Catholic church, hell has an antechamber called purgatory, a place where souls are chiselled in preparation for a coming salvation. In general terms, according to this perspective, all souls must remain in purgatory for a while, to suffer punishment for their unconfessed sins. Some will be saved, while others will be eternally damned.
The fourth perspective, supported by those who notice a fundamental contradiction between God’s love, mercy, and grace, and the idea of the eternal damnation of souls, says that only those who are saved will receive eternal life, while the rest will not be subjected to an everlasting punishment, but will suffer a punishment with eternal consequences—that is, final and irreversible destruction.
In an even broader classification, often used in contemporary theology, there are three perspectives on hell: traditionalism, universalism, and conditionalism. Traditionalism comes in two variants that includes the “orthodox” perspective (which holds that men’s souls survive after death for eternity, either in heaven or hell) and the “metaphorical” perspective (where hell is mental and spiritual rather than physical suffering, caused by eternal separation from God).
In either of these perspectives, the soul of the sinful human never dies and is never freed from punishment. Universalism can be seen as an optimistic alternative to the idea of “purgatory”, where, in the end, due to divine mercy and grace, everyone has an opportunity to get out of purgatory and be saved for eternity. Hell itself comes with an expiration date. Conditionalism implies that salvation and eternal life directly depend on faith in Jesus Christ as Saviour, and that they are offered as a divine gift. In the absence of this condition of salvation, one speaks of hell as an event of the final annihilation of sinners, and sin itself.
Together, the two classifications offer a pretty clear picture of the main options for belief in hell. You will notice that they all support a representation of hell which sets it up, in essence, as a form of payment for evil committed. Traditionalists believe in a torturing fire, universalists believe in a saving fire, and conditionalists in an all-consuming fire. The limited space of this article does not allow for an analysis of the development of the idea of hell throughout human history and thinking.
However, it is crucial to point out that all three perspectives have been present since the time of the early Christian church. Some might be tempted to think that some perspectives, especially conditionalism, are tributary to today’s hypersensitive Christianity and that they have no historical backing (this assumption is not at all true). Pastor Timothy Keller paints a rather unfavourable portrait of those who do not share his traditionalistic view of hell: “In contrast to the traditionalist, the postmodern person is hostile to the very idea of hell. People with more secular and postmodern mindsets tend to have (a) only a vague belief in the divine, if at all, and (b) little sense of moral absolutes, but rather a sense they need to be true to their dreams. They tend to be younger, from nominal Catholic or non-religious Jewish backgrounds, from liberal mainline Protestant backgrounds, from the western and north-eastern US, and Europeans.” In Keller’s view you are either a traditionalist, or you have no true faith in God. In other words, you are either a traditionalist or you are destined for the hell traditionalists believe in, which is a fairly dangerous affirmation.
Is hell real? A historical perspective
The traditionalist perspective was contested since the early church both by the universalist and conditionalists perspectives, which is by no means a new perspective, characteristic of liberal and progressive Protestants of the 21st century. In a famous article in the Evangelical Quarterly, theology doctor Graham Keith writes that, “a century or so after Constantine we have a surprising amount of evidence indicating widespread denial of eternal punishment within the church.” The New Catholic Encyclopaedia says: “…from time to time, there has recurred the idea of conditional immortality. That is, survival after death is conditional on conformity with God’s law and wishes”.
The Encyclopaedia gives as an example the “Gnostic” Irenaeus of Lyons, considered one of the first fathers of Christianity, who claimed, based on the Scriptures, that the soul is not eternal by nature: “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, inasmuch as he has been created, and has not recognized Him who bestowed [the gift upon him], deprives himself of [the privilege of] continuance forever and ever”. In this passage Irenaeus does a rare thing compared to the writers of his time—who described hell using only biblical expressions without explaining those expressions—and positions himself on the side of the conditionalist perspective.
Another relevant example is that of Ignatius of Antioch who wrote during the time of the first generation after the apostles. He died in 100 AD. His writings are pretty clearly aligned with a conditionalist understanding of hell and human destiny. One of his most quoted passages is found in the Epistle to the Magnesians, chapter 10: “Let us not, therefore, be insensible to His kindness. For were He to reward us according to our works, we should cease to be”. Even more famous are the writings of Arnobious of Sicca, who talked about “annihilation”, that is “an everlasting destruction” for those who did not receive salvation.
In addition to conditionalists, adherents to universalism also existed in the same period. They believed that the subjugation of sin by God could only lead to the salvation of all souls. Gregory of Nyssa, for instance, believed that even Satan, though punished for his acts, will still benefit from the saving death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus, just as all mankind will. The tendency to believe that the Christian religion has always taught about a place where the souls of sinners are tortured eternally is unjustified. Furthermore, the historical reality, and even Scripture, gives us the freedom to ask questions and makes us responsible for seeking the truth.
As the New Catholic Encyclopaedia states, the factor most pertinent to the idea of hell is the issue of the immortality of the soul. The idea that the human soul is immortal and cannot be “annihilated” even by God, but must spend eternity somewhere, either in heaven or in hell, is at the core of the traditionalistic doctrine on hell. Despite all this, it’s harder to find the idea of the immortality of the soul in the Bible. Genesis clearly states that man was created from dust and came to life when God breathed life into his nostrils. The breath of life is neither the equivalent of the soul neither does it offer immortality.
If we remember well, in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Even were supposed to eat the fruit from the tree of life to prolong their lives. They were not created as immortal beings. They only had the potential to live forever if they continued to eat the fruit of that tree. When Adam and Eve sinned, God banished them from the garden precisely to stop them from having access to the tree of life that would have condemned them to live in a sinful state for eternity.
This very gesture introduced, at the very beginning of human history, the hope that one day sin would be no more. Period. There is no mention of a tiny little corner of the world where Satan will be a kind of CEO, and his demons will have various degrees of authority in this eternal soul-torturing enterprise: “Hell as the end of evil and justice says subtly, but energetically, that the human being was not created to produce or suffer evil, and that he waits for a time and a world without such a thing”, Pastor Nicu Butoi says.
At this point, many stumble over biblical terms like the “unquenchable fire”. What does that actually mean? The Romanian translation does not offer many options, but seems to clearly indicate that we are talking about a fire that burns forever. If it burns forever it means that whatever is thrown into the fire is never consumed. Translations in richer languages like English also offer other nuances, like an “unquenchable fire”, which is not a fire that is never extinguished, but an all-consuming, irresistible fire (Ezekiel 20:47), that reduces everything to nothing (Amos 5:5), that burns everything that is thrown into it (Matthew 3:12).
At the same time we should watch out for the fact that many of the references to hell in the New Testament, including those of Jesus Himself, are actually quoted from the Old Testament. The Old Testament is full of expressions about death and destruction but no eternal punishments. Out of the 70 metaphors used to describe the fate of sinners, none suggest such an idea.
At the same time we should watch out for the fact that many of the references to hell in the New Testament, including those of Jesus Himself, are actually quoted from the Old Testament. The Old Testament is full of expressions about death and destruction but no eternal punishments.
Despite all this, we find the idea of eternal punishment in Jesus’ words, who says that “they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life”. When placed in this contrast, the message seems pretty clear—the opposite of an eternal heaven is an eternal hell, not definitive death, traditionalists say. Conditionalists question this too, saying that we should seek to understand the word “eternal” in the context it appears. Is the described event eternal or are its implications eternal? Out of the 70 occurrences of the word “eternal” in the New Testament, in only a few cases is it used to describe the result of an action: “eternal salvation”, “eternal redemption”, “eternal life”, “everlasting destruction”. In all these cases we notice that only the attribute of God’s action is eternal and not the action itself. Salvation is eternal, and yet Jesus died only once on the cross. He is not stuck in an eternal salvation process. Thus “one of the great errors of Christianity in general in this field of thought has been to confuse the notion of torment, or eternal punishment, on the one hand, with the notion of tormenting, or eternal punishing, on the other,” says Nicu Butoi.
The Bible, however, is self-explanatory—if we pay close attention. Peter, for instance, uses relatively serious language to warn us that God “condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly”. Later, Jude clearly says that “Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire.” One might suppose, out of pure common-sense, that when interpreting the Bible we should not exclude factual reality.
These cities, suffering “the punishment of eternal fire”, are not still burning today, but have been reduced to nothing. Seeing that the writers of the New Testament refer to this example of the final judgement and the faith of the unsaved, we cannot expect anything but a complete annihilation of sin and sinners. The eternal punishment is the definitive separation from God, which automatically causes death, since people as created beings cannot live when separated from, or independent of, their Creator.
One hell, many Gods
The study of the researchers from Baylor University underlines a very subtle but crucial detail for a good understanding of the idea of hell—that is, that the image each person has of God dictates the kind of belief in hell they adopt. Pastor Timothy Keller bases his adherence to the traditionalistic perspective on the image of an angry God: “What rankles many people today is the wrath of God: ‘I can’t believe in a God who sends people to suffer eternally. What kind of a loving God is filled with wrath?’ So in preaching about hell, we must explain that a God without wrath is a God without love. In Hope Has Its Reasons, Becky Pippert writes, ‘Think how we feel when we see someone we love ravaged by unwise actions or relationships. Do we respond with benign tolerance as we might toward strangers? Far from it…. Anger isn’t the opposite of love. Hate is, and the final form of hate is indifference.’ Indeed, it is only because of the doctrine of judgment and hell that Jesus’ proclamation of grace and love are so brilliant and astounding.”
This kind of reasoning shifts the focus from Jesus’ death on our behalf, as a very precise “instrument” to measure God’s love, to hell and eternal punishment. Thus, Jesus’ love is all the greater the more terrifying the hell you imagine is, and only by imagining such a hell can you know and appreciate Jesus’ sacrifice. The Bible, however, never mentions that God gave His only Son to die on the cross so that we might not end up in hell, but so that we might have eternal life. The traditionalistic perspective artificially and erroneously shifts the focus from Jesus’ sacrifice to the eternal suffering of those who cannot come to appreciate this sacrifice, which is, in the end, contrary to the purpose of sharing the Gospel.
We should be suspicious of the idea that a just God would consider it fair for a person who has sinned for 80 to 100 years to suffer for an eternity—that is, for billions and billions of years. Compared to eternity, his life is like a drop in the ocean. “As bad as they are, humans would never torture or punish someone in the way the idea of hell presents such things. It will always be so: human nature will be terrified and will stay away from a God who would promote such a thing” says Pastor Butoi. In Hebrews 2:14-15, it is written that the purpose of the divine sacrifice is “that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” The Biblical God takes on human form and dies on the cross for mankind to be free, and to no longer fear death. From a traditionalistic perspective, however, God’s plan is that all unsaved people—meaning the majority of those who ever lived on earth—would be slaves to suffering for eternity and the only way for us to be saved from this fate is to develop a healthy fear of hell.
The final test for any doctrine, including that of hell, is how naturally it fits into the fundamental truths of the Gospel. Does it emphasize them and help one understand them better? Or do they twist the truth and shift the focus to something else?
Hell must be understood in light of God’s victory over sin, not just His love that would want us all saved, and not just in light of His anger that would keep most of us slaves to eternal suffering. In the traditionalistic view, hell is a bad place. The Bible, however, teaches us that hell means that evil has been defeated or, as theologian Shawn Bawulski says, “hell is just a footnote in the story about how God defeated evil”. The correct understanding of God’s victory on Calvary gives us the hope and motivation we need daily to fulfil our moral duty to replicate heaven on earth, and to “free from slavery” the people whose lives have turned into a very real and very painful hell. That is how we honour Christ’s victory.