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.
6 thoughts on “Hell, the most popular topic to avoid, ignore, or abuse”
I used to believe in eternal conscious torment but I had to twist my brain to explain away the obvious. David, Hezekiah, and Solomon said that the dead do not praise God. I created a doctrine of “progressive revelation” to work around these truths. These prophets didn’t know about an intermediate state, so I told myself. Then I realized that Abraham’s Bosom was a fiction created by Hellenized Jews, who adopted it from the Greek version of Hades and replaced Charon with Adam or the any or all of the patriarchs. The Greek Hades has disembodied souls separated by the river Styx. There is no Abraham’s Bosom hinted at in the Old Testament because David, Solomon, and Hezekiah were right. Then I had to work around a simple verse: For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life….” I told myself that the saved Christians will inherit eternal life, and the unsaved will also have eternal life, but the eternal life of the saved is a “different type” of eternal life. So, the gift of eternal life is for the believer in Christ, but the unsaved also have eternal life. That made no sense.
And Revelation? Isaiah says tht the smoke of Edom’s punishment would rise forever and ever. Edom would be covered with sulfur and burn forever. Yet Edom was destoryed by the Babylonians. It never smoked and is now not smoking. This verse I had to dismiss.
Then I had to answer why in the Law of Moses God forbade any torture. He would have been kind to allow capital punishment to be carried out by burning to remind the wicked what awaits them. But no, no burning, no torture, and no dragged out punishment. And, death and hell were cast into the lake for fire, but will they be tormented? After all the mental juggling I finally conceded that limited punishment for sins and final annihilationism awaits the wicked. But God is just. Those who knew more will be beaten with few stripes, those who knew much will be beaten with more stripes.
And that view would be incorrect. I am on the fence on whether or not the view is heretical. Revelation makes explicit that Lake of fire burns forever. To take the Bible at its word is to mean that the punishment is eternal. To lose eternal punishment for one is to lose it for the other. The language in Greek is explicit on that.
As for torture, God instructs that vengeance is His and He will repay. That truth runs throughout Scripture. Part of that repayment is the eternality of the lake of fire.
Thank you for your quick response. I don’t think we get to decide whether or not belief in ETC/annihilationism/universalism is a heresy or not. All we have is opinions. I think using Revelation is not best policy. Since the New Jerusalem is not literal, so why should the lake of fire be? The New Jerusalem has thick walls, and to the first-century mind that meant great security. But a modern mind would view thick walls as irrelvant. I used to take Revelation as highly symbolic, except for the part of the Lake of Fire, which I took literally. These were the problems I was having. Too much twisting of mind instead of letting the Bible speak for itself.
The best way to read the Bible, as lacking as the English translations are, is to have a lot of questions after reading a portion of it.
Let’s keep in mind that the Levitical priesthood was to endure “forever.” Edom is supposed to be burning “forever.” I can no longer accept ETC based on 5-10 scriptures, and ignore the rest of the Bible.
Your view of Revelation is frankly dangerous to unbiblical. Writing it off comes with a stern warning. The problem with rejecting plain interpretation is you can make it say whatever you want.
As for whether or not we can decide it is heresy, yes that decision can be made. There are pastors discussing wether it is a primary doctrine or not. If primary, errant views would be considered heretical and the holder to them apostate. That is my current leaning. Frankly, rejecting ETC is foolishness because it is explicit in the Bible. The Bible only needs to say something once to be true.
Torturing people forever is something that Satan would do. The idea that someone would attribute such demonic cruelty and torture to God is close to blasphemy.
19 You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?”
20 But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?”
21 Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?
22 What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction,
23 in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory- https://esv.org/Rom9.19-23