>For the last few years, I have been studying the biblical topic of end-things (eschatology). As a part of this study, I have been examining the doctrine of hell. What do Christians believe about hell?
(There are a few theological terms in this post, that you may need to “google” because I did not provide the definitions for you. Sorry. Didn’t have time to do the leg work)
I grew up in church hearing very little about hell, except for a few occasions, like the time I was in youth group and they played an audiotape that was supposed to motivate us to witness about our Christian faith. It was filled with hypothetical conversations with people that are in hell screaming, crying and blaming Christians for not tell them about Christ. Things like, “If you would have told me about Jesus, I wouldn’t have to spend eternity in hell!” in a shrill voice. I can remember thinking, “Is God really going to condemn people to eternal flames for thinking the wrong things about Him?” I left that meeting confused, and disturbed about the fate of “the lost” but not sure why God would do that.
Over the years, I’ve noticed that the doctrine (teaching) of hell is pushed over into the corner and forgotten about. It’s kind of the red-headed-stepchild in Christian theology and thinking. No one seems to really want to talk about hell itself and how it fits in with all the rest. Yeah, there are a few books out there from people who claim to have had an experience in hell, or a vision of it, (I don’t recommend them) but the average church barely touches the subject, if ever.
It seems that Christians do a few things with the classical doctrine of hell (CDH)…
1. Try to forget about it. The CDH is that “sin against an infinite God deserves an infinite demerit” and that God sustains the existence of the damned, in hell, and punishes them forever. This goes, at least, all the way back to St. Augustine (354-430 AD). It is hard for the average Christian today to stomach this vision of hell, so the reaction is to try to forget about it and think about something else.
2. Embrace it. Most of the Protestant Reformers were trumpeters of CDH. People like Jonathan Edwards with his famous sermon, “Sinners in the hands of an angry God,” preached the classical doctrine of hell with great fervor. Edwards was convinced that Christians in heaven would be completely satisfied with God’s justice upon the damned in condemning them to eternal torments, because they would see it from God’s holy perspective. CDH is commonly embraced (but not limited to) by Reformed, Calvinist and some Catholic and Baptist theologians.
3. Alternatives to the classical doctrine of hell The most common way that Christians have dealt with CDH has been to develop progressive doctrines of hell (PDH). Many Christian thinkers have recognized the difficulty in maintaining the idea that “God loves everyone and never stops loving them” with CDH. C.S. Lewis famously coined the phrase that, “hell is locked from the inside.” In this variation of a PDH, God does not lock hell from the ‘outside’ – the damned choose to stay in hell. God continues to love the damned but will not ‘override’ their freedom to choose hell forever. This doctrine is usually accompanied by Arminian strands of theology and a libertarian view of free will.
Another variation of PDH is the conditional immortality view. This view rejects the (Platonic?) idea that human beings are inherently immortal, contending that God is the life-giver and will not sustain the existence of the damned in hell, but will rather allow them to cease from existence. This view is commonly known as the annihilationist view (AV). This is a minority PDH, but is gaining more acceptance in recent years.
The last variation of PDH is the ultimate restoration or universal reconciliation view (UR). This is the idea that God will eventually restore all to Himself. UR theology sees hell as remedial punishment for restoring the person to God. God never stops loving the person and eventually the person see the error in rejecting God and chooses repentance and restoration to God. Hell is punishment (or dealing with the consequences of sin) but it is also educative. This is also a minority view, but is gaining more acceptance in recent years.
Examining the Views
1. The Classical View
If the definition of love is acting for the ultimate well-being of another, than it must be true that under the CDH, God ceases to love the damned. Defenders of CDH generally concede this point but argue that God is not concerned with the ultimate well-being of all people, but is instead concerned with His own glory. They would ultimately disagree with St. Irenaeus’ statement that “Man fully alive is the glory of God.”
If you hold to CDH, you eventually have to concede that God ceases to love a portion (a majority?) of people. If you already believe that God has predestined some to heaven and others to hell, then I suppose this is not a difficult ‘jump’ to make. In this view, its difficult to understand how God ever loved those He has damned from eternity past, or how it is that God has ever acted for the well-being of those. For CDH, God has acted in the cross, but He has acted beforehand to limit the ultimate recipients of His love and saving grace. Part of the plan for His ultimate glory is revealed when the wrath and justice of God is poured out on the damned for all eternity.
Since, I am not a Calvinist and not very ‘reformed’ in my thinking, a theological system does not require me to believe in CDH. I am constrained by scripture, experience, and reason to believe that God has loved and does love all people and never ceases to love them. For these reasons I reject the classical doctrine of hell.
2. The Progressive views
It is possible to retain the idea that God does love all people and continues to love them and at the same time believe that hell is ‘locked from the inside,’ but… not without some difficulty. Proponents of PDH have difficulty explaining why a God who continues to love those in hell, also continues to sustain their existence. Some opt for the idea that humans are inherently immortal and therefore exist forever, but who would go for notion that God does not have the ‘muscle’ to put beings out of existence? Herein lies the strength of the Annihilationist view. AV theologians reject the notion of inherent immortality as unbiblical and that it actual originated with Greek thought rather than primitive Hebrew or Christian worldview, and they also reject the idea that God would sustain the existence of the damned, even if they choose to reject Him. At the point that humans are irrevocably hardened in a state of irredeemablility, God would put them out of their misery. That would be the only loving thing to do. God respects their freedom to reject Him and they quite literally “perish.”
UR theologians take it one step further and posit the eventual redemption of all people in hell. They believe in post-mortem salvation and believe that the love of God will eventually win over the entire human race. This view is the most consistent with the concept of God’s love described above, but this view must successfully defuse idea that, “there is no such thing as post-mortem salvation.” There is added difficulty for UR theologians, when libertarian freewill is granted. They have some difficulty explaining how total redemption is sure.
All views on hell have difficulty sorting through possible interpretations of the biblical texts. I am sure that I do not accept CDH but of the PDH alternatives, I’m unsure which is most compelling. Every view is ‘bailing some water’ somewhere.
Possible upcoming posts:
What does the Bible say about hell?
What of God’s justice?
How do the redeemed enjoy heaven while knowing the fate of the damned?