Three Views of Hell

In this post I will give a brief overview of three different positions that theologians take concerning the doctrine of hell. My discussion will merely offer brief definitions and a few key scriptures with the aim of encouraging readers toward further study on this subject.

Perhaps my key point is that the Christian view of hell is not straightforward. I have listed a few books at the close of the article, and if you choose to read them, you will see that respected Christian pastors, teachers, and theologians have a range of views concerning the biblical account of hell.

1. Traditionalism

This is a dualistic view of hell. Those who have accepted Christ as Lord and saviour will spend eternity in heaven, and those who have not are under the wrath of God and will spend eternity in hell, which is a place of everlasting torment. This torment is often described as ‘eternal conscious torment’ (ECT) and is perhaps the most fearful position Christians take when discussing the afterlife.

A passage of scripture that depicts this kind of vision of the afterlife is Luke 16 and the story of the rich man and Lazarus. In the story, Jesus tells of a rich man suffering torment in hell, while Lazarus, a poor beggar during his earthly life, is in the comfort of heaven with the great patriarch Abraham.

Another popular scripture in support of the traditionalist position is Matthew 25:46 where Jesus is talking about judgment and says “And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

2. Conditionalism

In this view, the word ‘punishment’ in Matthew 25:46 (quoted above) means a death that will last forever, rather than eternal conscious torment. Conditionalists believe in annihilationism; that after the final judgment those who have not been saved will simply cease to exist; they will die and their consciousness will end.

Passages such as Romans 2:7, 1 Corinthians 15:53-54 and 2 Timothy 1:10 are understood by conditionalists to indicate that ‘immortality’ and ‘eternal life’ are the reward solely of those who are saved, the implication being that mortality and a temporal life are the penalty for those who do not receive salvation.

This position is perhaps less frightening and more appealing to non-Christians, as surely it is a better outcome for our souls than ECT.

3. Universalism

The universalist view is that nobody, even the unsaved, will suffer for eternity or be annihilated, but eventually (perhaps after a spell in purgatory) every human soul will be reconciled to God. It goes without saying that this is the most optimistic position, but it is hard to find a consistent biblical interpretation that supports this view.

Arguments in support of universalism normally point to the idea that Jesus’ death on the cross atoned for the sins of all humanity and not just an elect group. For instance, universalists might point to John 12:32, where Jesus says “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself.”

Closing Remarks

It has not been my intention to go into detail here, but rather to give a simple definition of three different Christian views of hell. I have presented my own views on the afterlife elsewhere on this blog and in my books. If there is something (an idea, opinion, or resource perhaps) that you would like to share on this subject you are welcome to leave a comment below.

Further Reading

‘Erasing Hell’ by Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle (David C. Cook, 2011)
‘Love Wins’ by Rob Bell (Collins, 2011)
‘Rethinking Hell’ by Christopher Date (Cascade Books 2014)
‘The Road to Hell’ by David Pawson (Hodder & Stoughton Religious, 1996)

14 comments

  1. Hello Steven
    My belief is Conditionalism on the basis that God’s nature is always to have mercy, and eternal torment reeks of vindictiveness.
    Annihilism is everlasting because there’ll be no resurrection from hell, it’s permanent.
    With regards to the rich man and Lazarus, I read it as a parable, and “Abraham’s Bossom” is a place understood by Jews as being where the righteous dead await Judgement Day. So, it’s speaking about a period before Judgement not after.
    Having said this, Jesus warns about the fires of hell, so it’s not something to take lightly, far from it!
    Most importantly, God doesn’t want anyone to perish, He wants everybody to come to repentance and respond to His love – but unfortunately, we can see from Scripture that they won’t.
    The nature of Love is that it must include freewill, but no-one can come unto the Lord unless God draws that person, so we’ll probably still be arguing about pre-determinism/pre-election at the end of days. It’s been running for a few centuries already 🙂

    1. Hi Katrellina,

      I really appreciate the comment. I also have a hard time accepting that God would subject people to eternal torment, especially as I believe He is sovereign over our lives, so would be punishing for actions that are under His control (you might not agree with this, depending on your views on free will, but I hope you see what I mean). But I don’t deny eternal punishment is possible, as it is surely the case that God can do as He pleases (Psalm 135:6). I’m not planning to stop begging for mercy anytime soon!

      Thank you for your thoughts regarding the ‘Abraham’s bosom’ passage in Luke, they are helpful.

      Peace and blessings,

      Steven

  2. I ve been taught tradtionalism.
    I ve been suggested Conditionalism.
    Sometimes I ve thought of Universalism.
    I think that all the living spiritual beings described in the bible let me think of traditionalism be the most right.
    Let s see..

  3. I applaud the approach that sets out alternative views objectively and then allows each reader to arrive at their own conclusions. This promotes mutual respect for alternative views, which many rarely tolerate.
    As a corollary to a discussion on the various attitudes you have described, I suggest another that sets out the historical development of the idea of Satan. I own a few books that I can recommend.
    Doug

  4. Hi!

    I think that those who believe that they will be saved and others will not are making a judgement and they are encroaching into God’s province. Since He is the Creator of everything and all people are His treasure, I cannot conceive how or why He should condemn anyone. I am a Universalist and although there are scriptural verses that suggest that some of us will suffer eternal punishment or cease to exist there are other verses that suggest that Christ will save all! Below is just one reference:

    Jn 4:42 KJV

    And said unto the woman, “Now we believe, not because of thy saying: for we have heard him ourselves, and know that this is indeed the Christ, the Saviour of the world.”

    https://www.bibleref.com/John/4/John-4-42.html

    There are other scriptural references that suggest that all humanity will be saved and the link below contains some and may help to explain how the concept of hell came about:

    http://frimmin.com/faith/godislove.php

    Peace and love to all,
    Dinos

    1. Hi Dinos!

      I have heard it argued that the term ‘world’ used in the passage you quoted is being used figuratively rather than literally meaning every single human being will be saved. But I appreciate your insistence on the goodness of God, I hope you’re right and that God is merciful!

      Peace and blessings,

      Steven

        1. In my view, the meaning of words such as “world”, needs to be understood according to the meaning given it by the original Middle Eastern writer living 2000 to 3500 years ago, not according to a Western mind, nor of a 21st century “European” mind.
          They had no consciousness or knowledge of people such as the Aztecs, Maoris, or the aboriginals of Canada or Australia. I could be very wrong, but I wonder whether there is significance that the water is named “Mediterranean”, meaning “middle of the earth”.
          Paul’s extreme ambition was to reach Spain.
          Doug

  5. Why does it matter which doctrine a person believes? Whether one holds to one position or another is simply a personal opinion/view. Does God run a theology test to determine whether to save them?
    Doug

  6. I believe the wicked will be annihilated. Destroy and destruction are used to describe what will happen to the wicked. In the Psalms it says they will be as if they had never been. We could look for them but not find them. Isaiah says they will be ashes under our feet.

    I think the teaching of eternal pain for human beings at the hand of their God is horrible because it makes out God to be a torturer or a madman. I read a blog last year where a group had gone to evangelize in Japan. They said some wanted to accept Christ but wouldn’t because of the doctrine of an eternal hell. I don’t blame them. I could never worship a God who could do something like that.

    1. Hi Sheryl

      You wrote, “In the gospels, Jesus talked more about hell than heaven.”

      I’m unclear how you came to the view expressed above? Is it your impression, your wish or the opinion of an expert based on statistical analysis? Also, I don’t think Jesus dictated what He said to the Gospel writers who wrote some decades after He left His earthly incarnation.

      I invite you to check this link:

      http://frimmin.com/faith/godislove.php

      I am genuinely concerned that you may have badly distorted views of the Persons of the Trinity although I fully respect your views irrespective of whether you hold to them after reading the information given in the link above.

      Peace and love to all,

      Dinos

    2. Sheryl,
      It is my understanding that Jesus’ dominant focus was on the “Kingdom of Heaven/God”. (The term “heaven” being a surrogate for the unpronouncable name of God.)
      The expression “kingdom of heaven” means the “kingship” or “rulership” of God. It means God’s power and authority. It does not mean a territory, or region, or something that man creates or operates.
      Doug
      So

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