Hell. It is a painful topic for some while divisive to others. Even sadder, hell has become a symbol of Christian orthodoxy within the US Evangelical church. Countless statement of faiths published by churches across the country include the belief of literal eternal damnation as a key part of the faith. Historically, however, the church at large has ALWAYS allowed for different views on hell as it isn’t a salvation issue.
Though my admit at writing may pale in comparison to others before and perhaps even after me, I am going to try to outline some of the key points of consideration in rethinking the typically literal view of hell. I will also include my own personal option on the topic for those who may be curious about where I stand on the issue. =)
Rather than jumping straight into the biblical text, I feel that we must start by looking at history to see what our fellow Jesus disciples have thought about the topic. From there we can shift our focus to the bible though it would be best if we started with an understanding of the grand story of the faith as well as the central message of Jesus as that will impact how we read/understand the few verses that reference ‘hell.’
“We do not read the Bible as isolated individuals,” Bishop Kallistos Ware of the Eastern Orthodox Church reminds us, “interpreting it solely by the light of our private understanding, or in terms of current theories about source, form or redaction criticism. We read it as members of the Church, in communion with all the other members throughout the ages” (The Orthodox Way, 110).
I call this out as we should always reminder that we are but one link in a long chain of the Faith. Though we may feel passionately about this topic or another, we should nevertheless hold things humbly knowing that Christianity belongs not solely to the living but also to those who walked on long before we graced the surface of this planet.
In looking back towards the early church it is extremely noteworthy that the doctrine of hell was not included in the major ecumenical Creeds which outlined the faith (e.g., Creed of Nicaea, 325 AD; Nicaea-Constantinoplitan Creed, 381 AD; Chalcedonian Creed, 451 AD)). Nor was the doctrine of hell considered important enough to devout a church council for nor was it used as a boundary line to say who is and isn’t a Christian. Rather the Church Mothers and Fathers recognized that the Scriptures allowed for multiple views of the subject.
To put this into perspective, we should remember that the Church Mothers and Fathers debated just about every part of the Faith for HUNDREDS of years. Yet despite their hyper-focus on a lot of things, they choose to leave the doctrine of hell off the list of key points of the Faith. IMHO, I feel that this fact should give us pause before we start trying to include our particular view of hell in the list of non-negotiable items. Rather we should keep things open handed while noting that is it okay if Christians differ on this subject.
A quick side note on a few things before moving on as I’m sure someone will bring this up. It is true that the Apostles’ Creed (120-250 AD) mentions hell; though the reference is in the context of Jesus descending into hell in order to conquer the powers therein. What the creed does not do is outline what ‘hell’ is nor the fate of people who don’t follow Jesus.
The Athanasian Creed (500~AD), which was NOT written by Athanasius of Alexandria despite the name, includes a line towards the bottom that says that those who have done evil will go “into everlasting fire.” This would, I grant, be considered a doctrine of hell – specifically in support of the eternal damnation view. The thing to remember, however, is that this creed was not crafted nor adopted by any of the global church councils. Rather it is a creed of unknown origins that showed up in the six century among the western European portion of the church. As such, this creed is more of a subset of the Faith rather than a major ecumenical creed agreed upon by the church at large.
Major Views on Hell
Before we start looking at the Scriptures, I wanted to list out the three major views of hell along with some proponents of the views. I’m not going to go into detail about each of the views, rather my goal is just to highlight the fact that there are solid Jesus followers who hold these views.
- Literal eternal damnation – the belief that those who don’t follow Jesus will be tortured by fire and brimstone for eternity; this is the main view within US Evangelicalism
- Annihilationism or Conditional Immortality – the belief that those who don’t go to heaven will simple cease to exist; proponents include John Wenham, Edward Fudge, Clark Pinnock, Greg Boyd, and John Scott
- Christian Universalism – the belief that all humans will ultimately be restored in relationship with the Creator; proponents include Karl Barth, Jurgen Moltman, Gregory MacDonald (aka Robin Parry), David Bentley Hart, and Brad Jersak
In addition to the above three, there are variations and other views – including the Roman Catholic view of Purgatory or the belief that hell is simply a state of being rather than place.
The Hebrew Scriptures
The bound book that we call the Bible is actually a collection of 66 books written over approximately 1,500 years by at least 40 different authors. Of these books, 39 are in the Old Testament. Interestingly enough, if you were to read through these books you will find that heaven and hell does NOT place a role in any of these books. Rather the Hebrew Scriptures are fairly focused on the here and now – though, I would admit, there is a certain amount of eschatological hope within the books that point to something in the future. However this future hope was not centered on living forever in heaven or hell; instead it was centered on the coming rule of the Creator in Heaven breaking into this current broken world (see chapters 2-7 in my book The Here and Not Yet for more details)
The Old Testament does, however, mention sheol. Though sometimes confused with ‘hell’, this term referred to a place of darkness to which all the dead go (both the righteous and unrighteous). In other words, to the ancient Hebrew people, when you die, your body was buried and your soul went to sheol. Period. There was no resurrection, rewards, punishment, etc. You were just dead.
Now during the inter-testament period of the Second Temple (500 BEC – 70CE) things begin to change. The Jewish people came into contact with Greek and Roman culture which started to influence their thought process. Slowly the thought started to develop that righteous people went to Abraham’s Bosom while the unrighteous went somewhere else. The concept of a personal resurrection also came into being as seen in 2 Maccabees 7.
All of this is notable because it shows how the doctrine of hell WASN’T an issue for the followers of the Creator for MOST of human history. Rather the concept of hell is fairly new once placed upon the grand timeline of human history. =)
The New Testament Scriptures
Jesus, Paul, and all the other early church leaders/writers grew up under the overarching rule of the Roman Empire. Though they were ethnic Jewish people (well, Jesus, Paul, and most of early leaders), they were also heavily influenced by the surrounding Greco-Roman culture. Throughout the lands in which Jesus walked there were Roman/Greek temples, buildings, armies, entertainment, etc. This reality is VERY important because both first century Judaism and then Christianity afterwards was influenced by Greek/Roman theology and philosophy.
Immortality was something the Greek philosophers pondered quite a bit. Plato, for example, believed that the body was mortal and the soul immortal. Hence it was important to focus on what was immortal while denying that what was mortal. This view – and others – started to shift Judaism to the point in which they started to see things differently than they used too – as I noted in the previous section. I call it out here as I wanted folks to understand that views about afterlife (i.e., hell and heaven) are fluid rather than unchanging.
In turning to the New Testament, we must note that hell isn’t a major topic. Paul never talks explicitly about it nor do any of the evangelistic passages in Acts (i.e., there is no ‘turn or burn’ passage in Acts). The Gospels record a few references to Gehnna, Hades, and fire. Typically these references are within stories told by Jesus with the main message being about other topics rather than hell itself. This quote from UK Evangelical Alliance study The Nature of Hell summarizes things nicely (pulled from Stephen Burnhope’s book How to Read the Bible Well, page 156):
Matthew, Mark, Luke, Jude, and Revelation refer mainly to Gehenna, Hades, and fire, and imply some duration of punishment. John, Paul, and other letters refer mainly to perishing, destruction, and death.
The verses that imply duration would seem to support eternal damnation while perishing or death verses seem to support annihilationshism (i.e., to perish is to cease to exist).
Time and space does not allow for us to breakdown every verse or concept within the New Testament. If you are interested, there are multiple books which do that. Instead, I would like to highlight a few items of note.
- Gehenna – Mark 9:42-48 is one of the main passages within the Gospels that folks brings up about hell. Though some English bible translations may use the term ‘hell’ for place of ‘gehenna’, these terms are not the same. Gehenna refers to a valley outside of Jerusalem that was also called the Valley of Hinnom. It was a place of idolatrous worship during the Old Testament where the Hebrew people offered child sacrifices to Molech and Baal. During the time of Jesus this place as a rubbish heap where the people of Jerusalem would throw their waste. As such, it was a nasty place with methane gas, worms, and other things connected with sewage dumps.
- Hades – The Gentile writer Luke mentions the term hades in chapter 16 of his letter within the context of a story told by Jesus (Lazarus and the rich man). Hades, it should be noted, is a Greek/Roman term typically used of the underworld where the dead went. Hades was also the name of the Greek/Roman god who ruled the underworld. It was not a place of torment per se but rather a place of “shadowy existence, hardly conscious and without memory of their former life” (The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary). In using this term, I would suggest that Jesus is painting a world picture for his audience to help them understand his main point – which wasn’t about hell but money, rich, and poor.
- Eternal – Of special note to me is the term ‘enteral’ as used within the Gospels. As noted within chapter 8 of my book The Here and Not Yet , the phrase ‘eternal life’ is directly connect with the phrase ‘kingdom of God’ which was about the coming rule and reign of the Creator. Hence the Greek terms normally translated as ‘eternal life’ is better translated as ‘the life of the age to come.’ (NT Wright, as a side note, does this in Mark 10:17 of The Kingdom New Testament.) In following this same inaugurated eschatology view of things, I would suggest that ‘eternal punishment’ in Matthew 25:46 isn’t about lasting forever a kin to the Greco-Roman view of immorality, but rather about receiving the punishment of the age to come in this age just like those who do follow Jesus receive the life of this age to come in this age.
Now that we have outlined some of the issues concerning hell, I feel that it is time to think about the practical outworking thereof. Though it is easy to forget, theology isn’t something done in a vacuum or somewhere removed from daily life. Our theology directly impacts our daily lives and how we treat people so we must think through the implications of our theological viewpoints.
- Literal eternal damnation – Practically speaking, if we believe that people who do not follow Jesus are doomed to spend eternity in torture, what does that say about us? Why is it so important that people burn in hell while others spend eternity in heaven? Is it so that we who follow Jesus can somehow feel special? Should it not pain us to think of such eternal punishment? Also, what does it say about our God? How could a God of love create and sustain such a torture location? Furthermore, as history has shown, the belief in a literal hell has been used to control people (i.e., believe my way or burn in hell, pay this money to escape hell, etc.).
- Annihilationism – If people just cease to exist, should that not motivate us to tell them about Jesus? For in this case, following Jesus become not only about today but also about gaining life eternal.
- Christian Universalism – Practically speaking, if everyone makes it to heaven then why would we spend our time telling people about Jesus? At least that would be a common thought. My response is that following Jesus is about the here and now just as much, if not more so, than about the afterlife. Hence we should be sharing Jesus with people because of what is happening now. We all need more the Age to Come in our midst today.
Early on I established the fact that historically the doctrine of hell has never been key to the Faith. Also despite US Evangelicalism focus on hell, the bible supports multiple views. As such, it could be said that we have a choice on what we think. And if we have a choice, why not choose a view that shows grace and love? Would that not be in keeping with the life and message of Jesus?
For me personally, I fall into would be called a ‘hopeful universalist’ in that my hope is that everyone will be restored in relationship with the Creator. However, I’m not a full universalist as the subject has a certain amount of ambiguity surrounding it that I can not be fully certain. As such, I will occasionally drift towards the annihilationism camp in that I can see the concept of evil just ceasing to be. What I can not do is support the literal eternal damnation view of hell in any way. To me, that view has more to do with Greco/Roman philosophy and culture then with the character of the Creator. And, well, since the Faith gives us a choice, I will gladly choose life, grace, and love over punitive punishment.