Thursday, January 10, 2008

Four biblical views of hell

As promised, here's a little summary of a few Christian views of hell. Each of these has been held by millions of people, and there are still other Christian views on eschatology (mankind's final destiny) that aren't represented here. I'm not trying to give an exhaustive list -- just a high-level look at four pictures of eternity in the Christian world.

I've got friends who fall in each of these camps, and it's been interesting to learn about the reasoning behind each view. That's one of the key takeaways for me -- each view of eternity is perfectly reasonable and can be supported in the bible and with logic. I'll post more takeaways in my next writing.

View #1 -- Endless Punishment


This is basically the traditional view that has been held by the majority of Christians for centuries, with one group of people (the saved) going to heaven to be in bliss with God, and the unsaved going to hell for eternal torment. Every human soul survives for eternity, but not in the same place. Many denominations have different interpretations for what it takes to become one of the saved.

Bible support

1. Matthew 5:30 -- "And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell. "
2. Matthew 25:41 -- "Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels."
3. Luke 12:5 -- "But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him."

Logic questions

1. Consequences are a part of this life, so is it unreasonable to believe that consequences continue into the afterlife?
2. God is perfect, and many people are sinners who have not asked for God's forgiveness -- how can God allow that in his presence?
3. The fact that this is the by far the most common Christian view of eternity is nothing to sneeze at -- can we not accept the scholarship and conclusions of thousands of previous teachers?

View #2 -- Annihilationism


Also known as destructionism or conditionalism, this view states that while the saved go to heaven, the unsaved souls will be destroyed and will cease to exist, rather than living forever in hell. Only the saved souls are truly eternal, in this view. As a random point of interest, one of the most active proponents of this view is an elder of the Church of Christ right here in Houston. He wrote this book detailing his interpretations. So eschatology is by no means agreed-upon even in my own denomination.

Bible support

1. 2 Thessalonians 1:9 -- "They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power"
2. Phillipians 3:19 -- "Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things."
3. Revelation 17:11 -- "The beast who once was, and now is not, is an eighth king. He belongs to the seven and is going to his destruction."

Logic questions

1. If we believe that God is Love, how could he allow the vast majority of his human creation to live in eternal torment?
2. In the Old Testatment, when people disobeyed God, they were often killed with no mention of any afterlife. Is it possible that this type of judgment remains the same today?
3. God described himself in Deuteronomy 9 as a "consuming fire". Doesn't this mean that something is burned, consumed and ceases to exist?

View #3 -- Universalism


This view holds to the belief that eventually all souls will be in heaven with God. Perhaps all rise together at the time of judgment, or perhaps some souls will have a temporary phase of punishment that is remedial in nature -- opinions vary. But universalists agree that the final picture is the same -- all of creation together in the presence of God.

Bible support

1. 1 Corinthians 15:22 -- "For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive."
2. 2 Corinthians 5:19 -- "...God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation."
3. Colossians 19-20 -- "For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross."

Logic questions

1. If God is love, and love does not keep a record of wrongs (1 Cor. 13:6), why would God keep a record and then punish so harshly for it?
2. If humans are called by Jesus to forgive without ceasing, are we being held to a higher standard than God?
3. If the vast majority of people who have ever lived are bound for hell, why do we call the record of Jesus' life "The Good News"?

View #4 -- Hades as one place with multiple experiences


A friend in the Orthodox church helped introduce me to lectures on this view of eternity -- I had never heard of it until a few months ago. It is the belief that there is no such place as a separate "hell"; instead there is but one place we go after death, and that is the presence of God. For those who loved and served God in life, they will experience God's love as light and joy in the afterlife. Others will experience God's love as a darkness or overwhelming fear, too overwhelming for their comfort, just as they ran from God during their lives.

Bible support

1. Daniel chapter 3 -- Nebuchadnezzar's strongest soldiers are burned to death merely by being close to a super-hot furnace, yet God's servants (Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego) go into the furnace without harm.
2. Luke 16:23 -- As noted two blog posts ago, in Jesus' story the rich man and Lazarus are in eyesight of each other in the afterlife.
3. Revelation 20:13 -- "The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done."

Logic questions

1. Why and how would God actually create a separate place of punishment for his creation that he loves?
2. Why are the proper nouns for afterlife in the Old Testatment (Sheol) and New Testament (Hades) translated into different words like "hell", "grave" and "pit"?
3. Don't other sections of the bible teach that God loves the whole world? Then how could he send so many away from himself? Wouldn't it be more consistent to believe that he continues his embrace in eternity, but some perceive it as overbearing and terrifying just as they did during their lives on earth?


Bob Barbanes said...

Great, thought-provoking post, Michael. I've been waiting for this one!

I think the concepts of "heaven" and "hell" are simply made up, nothing more than that. For some reason, religions seem chock-full of punishment for disobedience. It's a human trait that some believe is also applied in Heaven.

But if we believe that God loves us "unconditionally" (and I do), then wouldn't He want us all to be with Him after we die, no matter what we did "wrong" as a human? Could a human parent ever truly turn his back on his/her flesh and blood? I don't believe that God would either. I don't like to think of *my* God as being vindictive or spiteful. Those are human attributes.

I used to believe that "Heaven" was simply "being with God" and "Hell" was choosing to not be with God - and that the ensuing suffering was self-inflicted torture rather than anything meted out by our loving Father. That pain would be levels of magnitude worse than any "fire and brimstone" could be. But since most humans fear fire, it makes a most compelling image of would await us in "hell."

I think I'm more aligned with your door number four.

Redlefty said...

Thanks for the comment, Bob!

My father-in-law shared his own view with me the other day:

"Michael, if hell exists, and there's pain and torment there, then it's only inflicted by the people there. Perhaps they hurt each other there just like people hurt each other here. But I can't believe that God actually torments them, or that he created the place with a specific purpose to inflict pain."

There are so many different views and I learn a little something different from each one.

p.s. -- I don't really fit in any of the four camps, so it was a true challenge researching and writing this blog post from the "outside". My story will be in the next post.

gel said...

great post
I can't wait to hear your story

Don R said...

Nice assessment of a difficult topic for most Christians. Hope to see more comments from them.

James W said...

I am not really in line with any of these. I lean towards 1 but do not think it is that rigid though. I believe that for those who have not heard the word of God will be judged by there current belief system. I would also say for those that hear about Jesus and reject him will fall into catagory 1.

Don R said...

James- I guess my question for you is, Why do you want to believe in a God who created mankind in a state of imperfection (according to the bible), then will punish them eternally if they don't make the correct choice. Seems like a very strange thing for God to do, seeing (again according to the sam e bible)that "God is Love".

JP said...

Universalism is the only view I can gather from the overall message of the gospel. If the gospel is the good news and coming of Jesus Christ then I believe what that entails is that Jesus died on the cross for all sin, even the sin of unbelief. That is the only view I can see with an all-loving god.

I can not see a god who punishes some for eternity for a finite "crime"

James W said...

Don, I would have to say yes God is love, but I also love my son and when he does something wrong he has a punishment of some kind. That does not mean that I do not love him. I punish him because I love him and want him to learn right from wrong. Also we were at one time perfect until we decided to screw that up and disobey God. I hope my explination makes since.

Don R said...

James- Would you ever send your son alway forever, never to see him again? Is there anything he could do to escape your love for him? Could our Source, the All in All, the creator ask us love our neighbor (including that son) as ourself and then do less for His own creation? Could He ask us to treat everyone as we wish to be treated? Could we expect less from Him?
These are tough questions.

Our punishment for choosing "wrongly" is called consequences. Yes, "wrong" choices bring on unpleasant consequences for us. We create a "hell on earth" sometimes by our "wrong" choices. That is all the hell we need. I don't believe our Source, our Creator will punish us for being us (imperfect as we were created- as per the bible). Thank you James for putting up with this long response. I would love to discuss this further. Please visit my blog if you wish.

josf said...

I truly believe that everything in this universe has been created for good purpose. God has put everything into existence because of love.
We all have bits of that God-nature in ourselves. We like to create things and we love our creation. The proofs are abundant that
shows how life has been crafted so beautifully and lovingly by God since the day of creation.
The concept of hell as a place where sinners are put into eternal torment is so against what we know of God as love. I believe in
punishment, but not in eternal punishment. Let's say we burn something. It will take a variable amount of time before the fire
completely consumes the thing and the thing ceases to exist, depending of what that thing we burn is. Bigger things take longer to
destroy. But that's it, no eternal fire that keeps burning the same thing over and over. Even, if the fire is eternal, but not
the things burnt inside of it. Finite punishment for finite life of the sinners. So, I guess my view of hell is very logical.

Anonymous said...

Ok so if there is no hell and universalism is correct i find it fascinating that i will be going to the same place as hitler, stalin, lennin, Mao, Saddam, Che, Napoleon, Caesar, and so on. I implore yall to read baptize by blazing fire by pastor yong doo kim. If you deny the existence of hell you deny the existence of god. I am sure you people who believe that everyone will go to heaven will have much to say to hitler when you are standing next to him in heaven...Give me break. Wake up!!!

Redlefty said...


Thank you for reading and for sharing your opinion. Can I ask a favor though and have you leave your name next time you make a comment? The rest of the discussions on the blog are between people who have links/names and I think that is useful to the dialogue.

Questions for you -- do you think there was an ounce of good in Hitler? Is there an ounce of evil in me or in you? I'd say yes to all of that, and deep down none of us is all good nor all bad. So somewhere in there we draw a line on what is "good enough" for God to accept us.

For me, I want to reach a point where I can see God in every person. Yes, every single one. When I started this journey I was also furious at the thought of "evil" people in heaven, but eventually I had to confess that this was the spirit of the all-day workers seeing the 11th-hour worker get paid.

God will do what He will. There is biblical support for at least four different models of what God might do in eternity. I can't get that answer right now, so all I can do it choose to love all as if God will do the same.

Grace and peace to you!