4 Views of Hell: A Study Outline (drafted 23/09/05)

This is an outline of a brief presentation on perspectives on hell I shared at a Teachers’ Christian Fellowship recently. The structure follows that in 4 Views of Hell (ed. William Crockett), though I’ve added a bit more material (and links) from elsewhere.

1. Literal

  • Hell is everlasting conscious torment (both physical and mental)
  • Hell fire is literal fire:
    • Frequent mention in Scripture e.g. Matt 5:22, 18:8-9, 25:41; Mark 9:43, 48; Luke 16:24; James 3:6; Rev 21:8, etc.)
    • Parable of Lazarus and rich man in Luke 16:19-31 has rich man saying, “I am in agony in this fire”
  • Infinite sin against infinite God deserves infinite punishment of infinite intensity
  • Objections against literal fire are derived from humanist sentiment and based more on philosophy and theology instead of Scripture
  • Utter horror of hell acts as spur to preaching the gospel, praying for the lost and witnessing for Christ.
  • Key problems:
    • Doesn’t adequately address symbolic nature of verses
    • Doesn’t adequately address verses suggesting total destruction (see ‘conditional immortality’ below)
    • Everlasting vindictive punishment of horrendous intensity is inconsistent with notions of love and justice and raises serious questions about God’s character




2. Conditional / Annihilation

  • Unrepentant souls are destroyed by God and cease to exist
  • Biblical verses suggesting utter destruction (as opposed to everlasting suffering):
    • Obad 16, "...they shall drink and drink and be as if they had never been."
    • Dan 2:35, "Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver and the gold were broken to pieces at the same time and became like chaff on a threshing floor in the summer. The wind swept them away without leaving a trace."
    • Nahum 1;10, "They will be entangled among thorns and drunk from their wine; they will be consumed like dry stubble."
    • Psa 1:4, "(the wicked) are like chaff that the wind blows away..."
    • Psa 37:10, 20, 36, "A little while, and the wicked will be no more; though you look for them, they will not be found...but the wicked will perish; The Lord's enemies will be like the beauty of the fields, they will vanish - vanish like smoke...I have seen a wicked and ruthless man (but) he soon passed away and was no more..."
    • Isa 33:14, "The sinners in Zion are terrified...'Who of us can dwell with the consuming fire?', 'Who of us can dwell with everlasting burning?'" (interpretation: people CANNOT dwell in the burning, they are destroyed!)
    • Matt 3:12, "...He will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire."
    • Heb 10:27, "...only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God."
    • Phil 3:18-19, "...Their (the enemies of Christ) destiny is destruction." (cf. 1:28, "...they will be destroyed.")
    • 1Cor 3:17, "If anyone destroy God's temple, God will destroy him..."
  • Immortality and incorruption are promised only to the righteous (1Cor 15:42-44); immortality thus may be refused to the unrepentant, reflecting God’s judgment on them
  • Victory of God is truly final and ultimate i.e. heaven and hell doesn’t have to “eternally co-exist” in eternity (as in the traditional view)
  • Key problems:
    • Doesn’t adequately address passages suggesting conscious punishment in hell
    • Difficult to prove that ancient Jews during Paul’s time held to annihilationism, given their view of the immortality of the soul
  • For more details, see my online write-up (as yet unfinished, though). See also J.P. Holding’s criticisms of annihilationism.




3. Purgatorial

  • Purgatory a kind of ‘outer court’ of heaven in which people are placed until they are more fully prepared for entrance into God’s presence
    • Most people die as flawed lovers, still incapable of unconditional heavenly love, not as giants of faith and thus it seems unlikely that they will immediately share in destiny of heroic martyrs
    • Intermediate purification state necessary to bring about complete openness to and love of God i.e. spiritual growth involving cooperation of human freedom and responsibility continues after death
    • Bridges gap between imperfect sanctification at death and perfect life in heaven; C.S. Lewis, “Don’t our souls demand purgatory?”
  • Our good works on earth and our prayers for the departed can help in the ‘healing of the dead’:
    • Ancient Christians prayed for the dead
    • Human solidarity transcends death and praying for the dead is a reflection of human relationality beyond the grave
  • Scriptural support:
    • Matt 12:31-32, “Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.” (Sins can be forgiven in the next world, a view shared by St. Augustine and Gregory the Great)
    • 1Cor 3:11-15, “(Fire) will test the quality of each man’s work” (Fire spoken of here is purgatorial fire before the final judgment)
  • Apocryphal support: Maccabees 12:41-46, “Thus Judas made atonement for the dead that they might be freed from this sin.”
  • Roman Catholic theology analogously compares doctrines and Scripture to a plant and its seed i.e. intrinsic relation exists but an oak tree will still look different from an acorn
  • Key problem is the dubious exegesis of supporting verses plus the overall lack of Biblical support (this objection is valid mainly from an evangelical perspective)




4. Metaphorical

  • Hell fire is symbolic of severity and finality of God’s judgment upon the impenitent
    • Verses about fire cannot be taken literally due to Scripture’s conflicting language in describing eternal punishment e.g. ‘blackest darkness’ versus ‘eternal fire’ (Jude 7 and 13, Matt 3:10 and 25:41, etc.)
    • Heaven is depicted as an ancient city complete with golden streets, pearled gates, jewelled walls and sparkling rivers – surely this isn’t literal, likewise with hell’s depictions
    • Ancient Jewish rabbis employed symbolic hyperbole to emphasize seriousness and urgency of situation, e.g.: ‘hate’ your father and mother (Luke 14:26), ‘gouge out’ an offending eye or limb (Matt 5:29), let the dead ‘bury their own dead’ (Luke 9:60), etc.
  • Hell is still everlasting and its inhabitants experience consciously the effects of separation from God:
    • Sorrow (“weeping”)
    • Anger (“gnashing of teeth”)
    • Sense of emptiness and being lost? (“darkness’)
  • Hell’s punishment is intrinsic to evil acts i.e. an appropriate response to people’s rejection of God and not primarily vindictive in nature
  • Hell is a quarantine, an isolation of the wicked from the righteous and anything good, true, beautiful or of God
  • Hell’s inhabitants continue to sin ‘outside the city of God’! (Rev 22:15)
  • Physical pain possible due to:
    • Physical distress accompanying evil passions and desires
    • Physical violence inflicted among inhabitants
    • Presence of ‘regulated’ literal fire (in tune with divine justice)
  • Key problems:
    • Vague about precise nature of hell (Is metaphorical hellfire as severe and serious as literal hellfire? Isn’t spiritual torment just as bad as physical torment?) and therefore may not be a huge improvement on traditional view of hell
    • Doesn’t adequately address strong traditional passages like Rev 20:10 and the ‘burning lake of sulphur’
    • Possibly complicates our understanding of exclusive salvation in Christ, e.g. what about non-Christians who reject Jesus but embrace and work for love and relationships on earth? They do not seem ‘deserving’ of a hell understood as the intrinsic climax of lives filled with evil.
  • For probably the best online defence of a strong relational view of Hell, check out Glenn Miller’s work on the topic.





Alwyn Lau, Oct ‘05


Recommended Books

1.       4 Views on Hell. John Walvoord, Zachary Hayes, Clark Pinnock & William Crockett, ed. William Crockett. Zondervan. 1996

2.       Hell: The Logic of Damnation. Jerry L. Walls. University of Notre Dame Press. 1992 (the last two chapters are the most relevant for what ‘goes on’ in hell, the rest of the book concerns the nature of God i.e. omnipotence, omniscience, etc.)

3.       Satan & The Problem of Evil: Constructing a Trinitarian Warfare Theodicy. Gregory Boyd. IVP, 2002 (chapters 11 and 12, especially the latter where Boyd draws on Barthian theology in an attempt to harmonize both the traditionalist and annihilationist views whilst maintaining a strong relational theme to hell)

4.       The Last Word and the Word After That: A Tale of Faith, Doubt and a New Kind of Christianity. Brian McLaren. Jossey-Bass. 2005. (offers an Emergent-style twist to the symbolic reading of hell)

5.       The Problem of Pain. C.S. Lewis. (just the hell chapter, but the whole book’s worth reading)

6.       The Great Divorce. C.S. Lewis. (I haven’t read this, but the reviews are incredible)


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