Quite a few people have recently asked about or posted something concerning hell. Here are some thoughts I put together when asked about the subject in relation to theology. A dark topic for sure, but one where it is helpful to think through. The last paragraph deals with the abuse of the doctrine when it is over-emphasized.
Hell is temporary, Lake of Fire is forever.
I believe that at death lost souls remain in conscious misery until the final judgement of the Great White Throne at the close of the Millennium (Lk. 16:19-31). At the Great White Throne Judgment the soul and body will be reunited and cast into the lake of fire- not to be annihilated, but to be separated from God forever in conscious punishment (“Rev. 20:6; 21:8). I would speak more on eternal aspect, but detailing out why annihilation and universalism viewpoints aslo covers the enteral viewpoint.
My Stance on which level Hell is doctrinally
In struggling through passages relating to the eternal state of unbelievers I’ve adopted the position of eternal conscious torment. Universalism and annihilationism are highly problematic both from a theological and a philosophical standpoint. Currently, I struggle with whether the annihilation position should be considered a false teaching or heresy. Heresy is a term I do not use lightly and reserve for teachings that explicitly deny the Gospel. Annihilationism comes close to and may cross the line into the realm of heresy.
Views on Hell
While there are various viewpoints on Hell, there are three main categories. There is agreement that Hell is a working out of God’s justice, but the disagreements come in forms of time and fulfillment of God’s love.
Literal- This view believes that Hell is a literal, yet temporal place before the Lake of Fire which is eternal. Some take the language used to describe Hell as literal or as metaphorically teaching that it’s bad.
Annihilationism- This view teaches that the unsaved merely cease to exist. It overplays the destruction of soul/spirit, and narrowly defined terms such as perish.
Universalism- Everyone gets saved! There is no hell, or hell is temporary punishment but God will redeem. After all, love wins.
Issues with the annihilation viewpoint.
1. Inspiration of Scripture applies both to the words that were used and the manner of which Scripture is communicated. Focusing on words to the exclusion of the manner of which the Scripture is written leads to wrong conclusions. Matthew 25 being a significant one, that deal with eternal torment requires the manner of which Scripture was incorporated not just words. To not do such is to violate inspiration of Scripture. It also leads to a dangerous path of making Scripture say what one wants instead of allowing Scripture to speak for itself. Matthew clearly equates an eternal time frame with both heaven and hell. The annihilation viewpoint views Matthew 25 and like passages as more communicating “tit to tat.”
2. Terms pointing to the intermediate state are moot as death and and the intermediate state are thrown into the lake of fire which is the second death (Rev 20:14). Terminology used points to suffering and not consumption. “Eternal annihilation” is an absurd view when eternal punishment or eternal destruction is used. Both universalism and annihilation views fail in addressing the fact that the word eternal or the concept of endlessness is consistently associated with Hell/ Lake of Fire.
3. Jesus equates the punishment of unbelievers with the punishment of the Devil and his followers in Matthew 25:41. At the end of Matthew 25 eternal, again, equates to the time frame of both punishment and blessing. Revelation 20 also demonstrates this as unbelievers are cast into the lack of fire. The concepts of destruction and punishment can be, and in light of Scripture should be, viewed as a state of being. If I wreck my car and keep it in my front yard, it still exists, but is considered destroyed. Viewing punishment/destruction as annihilation actually contradicts its own methodology as it presumes a one time event instead of a state of being for hell, but not heaven when both use the same eternal word concepts.
4. In addressing 2 Thes 1:9 those who hold to annihilationism fail to address the last part of the verse. Being away from the presence of the Lord means one exists! To say the first part of the verse points to annihilation undermines the last part of the verse, thereby distorting Paul’s intent. Non-existence does not align well with passages pointing to exclusion of God’s presence (2 Thes 1:9), or passages referring to eternal punishment.
Issues with universalism
1. Already covered above, the eternal language is entirely incompatible with a universalism mindset. To lose eternality of hell is to also lose eternality of heaven. Going a step further, playing loose with language, terms, and numbers is problematic with the ammil. position because such loose playing with language allows for hermeneutical voodoo for things like Hell. We quickly make the Bible about us and what we want.
2. It is possible for God in eternity future to choose to show mercy and grace to those in Hell. However, to hold such a viewpoint would require new revelation from God. Such does not exist. Given the extreme suffering nature of Hell and of the Lake of Fire, the veracity of universalism is ludicrous, the gamble insanity, and the pragmatism of it is subversive towards godliness. With all due respect, to hold to universalism while holding to God’s Word being true is insane.
3. Romans 11 is universally loved by universalism in that “God may show mercy to all.” The significant problem with that is the the term mercy. Mercy is the viewpoint by which the Christian worships God (Rom. 12:1-2). The view of God’s mercy is God’s plan for salvation in relation to eternal security (Rom. 8:38-39). As nothing can separate us form the love of God, the question arises “what about Israel?” This questions is answered in Romans 9-11. Romans 9 introduces the term mercy for the first time in Romans. In this context we have the statement in chapter 9 “Jacob I loved, Esau I hated… I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy.” Chapter 9 also teaches us to not question God as an equal for he is our creator. There is a warning tied in with mercy and humility. Mercy and humility is also called for in Romans 11 as “If God did not spare the natural branches…” What then is the issue? Romans 10 discusses the nature of God’s Word. It’s salvation to those who believe, but hardness of heart prevents belief. It’s not that salvation is inaccessible, but the condition of our heart blocks that. Why then does God not soften all our hearts? This is best left to the mystery of God as described in Romans 11. God truly has and will show mercy to all, but the benefit is to those who acknowledge that Jesus is Lord and believe in their heart that God raised Jesus from the dead. National Israel will one day do this, as gentiles unnumbered today in the church do. Romans 11 does not say what universalists wishes.
4. Universalism mocks the cross and the church Jesus gave himself up for. In a real sense it makes Jesus out to be some poor sap who will take a spoiled prima donna back. This completely undercuts the relationship of the church to Jesus as described in Ephesians chapter 5. To abide in God’s love requires that we follow Jesus’ commands (John 15). In Mark 7 Jesus lists 13 things that are evil. Sexual immorality, evil thoughts, envy, murder, to name a few. Jesus love is unconditional in that he died ONCE for ALL sin. It is also conditional in that “if you love me you will follow my commands and so prove to be my disciples.” The deeds of the flesh vs fruit of the Spirit in Galatians as well as walking in the light vs darkness in 1 John demonstrate the conditional aspect of Jesus love: those who are in Christ vs those who are not. While we can call God father (Eph. 1), boldy approach the throne of Grace (Heb. 10), and perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4), when godly men such as Moses, Isaiah, John the baptist, and John the disciple whom Jesus loved saw Jesus, they fell to the ground. Universalism does not recognize what the Bible is all about. It undermines abiding in in Christ’s love in the name of God’s love. It exploits grace (Rom. 6), destroys reward (1Cor. 3) mocks God’s patience (2Pet. 3), and undermines the plain reading of the Bible.
Abuse of Hell
Salvation saves us from Hell, sin, and ourselves. It should not be was aside or ignored. Neither should it be over emphasized. Hell is not the Gospel. It’ is not good news. The good news is not that we are free from hell, though that is a good thing. Said another way, the reward of heaven is not that we get to see missed loved ones in Christ, though that is also a good thing. The good news is that we have a relationship with God because of what Jesus did! That we are family in Christ! Eternally, securely, royalty, empowered, lavished, rewarded, and as life was meant to be. One of the most repeated concepts in the Bible is how God’s steadfast love endures forever. THAT must be the over arching emphasis of the Christian preacher. It is God’s love that compels us. It is abiding in God’s love that enables us to bear much fruit. It is God’s love that enables us to boldly, without fear, approach God not as leader, but as dad. Holiness is when we so value God’s love that EVERYTHING is secondary to following Jesus. I have heard too many preachers teach on hell like they were from there. Again, Hell must and should be taught, but freedom from Hell is not the point. The point is that we get to be with the one who created us to have a relationship with.