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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
‘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)