Four Views on Hell
Within Protestant circles there have been, and are, four primary views on the nature of Hell:
1. Universalism —
In its simplest form universalism is the belief that eventually all mankind will be saved. Origen (ca. 185-254) was the first serious Christian theologian to espouse universalism. But he stood almost alone in his day, and for centuries to come, in promoting this view (see Shedd, page 3).
Following the death of Origen, universalism received no serious support in the Christian community until the late eighteenth century when the roots of what would later be the Unitarian-Universalist Association were formed. A parade of liberal theologians and churches have since embraced some form of universalism including, Emil Brunner, C. H. Dodd, William Barclay, and to some extent Karl Barth. Some even see Pope John Paul II as making universalism overtures.
For the true lover of the Word of God, however, universalism holds no weight. In order to be an universalist one has to dismiss, in some fashion, huge chunks of Scripture and force a few passages to support this position. The bottom line is that universalism is not taught in the Bible and can only be held by those who ignore revelation and depend on what they deem to be reasonable about God.
2. Annihilation —
“Until the nineteenth century almost all Christian theologians taught the reality of eternal torment in hell. . . . Since 1800 this situation has entirely changed, and no traditional Christian doctrine has been so widely abandoned as that of eternal punishment.” Recently several well known theologians have publicly declared their adherence to, or at least fondness for, this position, including Philip Hughes, John Wenham, Clark Pinnock and most notably, John R. W. Stott.
- Philosophical — “Annihilationism proper says humans are naturally mortal, not immortal. Thus the soul, or more correctly, the person, does not pass out of existence simply because of death; he or she ceases to exist because of God’s action. This action occurs either at death, at the general judgment, or at the end of a period of punishment based on each individual’s guilt.” Annihilationists believe that the concept of the immortality of the soul is of pagan origin and crept into Christian thinking through Platonic philosophy. “When the Bible speaks of immorality, it refers to the future glorified body, rather than the present soul. Thus the basis of confidence in life after death is bodily resurrection, not immortality of the soul.”
- Biblical — Clark Pinnock outlines clearly the underpinnings and viewpoints of this position in his section in four Views on Hell. He argues that “it is more scriptural, theologically coherent, and practical to interpret the nature of hell as the destruction rather than the endless torture of the wicked.” Pinnock attempts a biblical defense by claiming that when the writers of Scripture spoke of the destruction of the wicked (Matthew 10:28; II Thessalonians 1:9; Galatians 6:8; I Corinthians 3:17 and Philippians 1:28) they were speaking of annihilation. But “there is no lexicographical evidence for the annihilationist’s position that apollumi means ‘to annihilate’ or ‘to pass into nonexistence.’ On the contrary, this Greek word refers to ‘definitive destruction, not merely in the sense of physical existence, but rather of an eternal plunge into Hades and a hopeless destiny of death.” J. I. Packer states that the apollumi is the regular Greek word for wrecking and ruining of something, so making it useless for its intended purpose.” Note it is eternal destruction!
- Moral — Actually, Pinnock’s strongest argument is moral, not biblical. He appeals to our sense of the morality, love and fairness of God, and asks us if eternal Hell for the wicked is consistent with these attributes of God. Content that it is not, he concludes that God could not punish the lost forever. As with universalism the real foundation for the annihilationist view is logic, not revelation.
3. Metaphorical —
I was surprised to learn in my studies on this subject that the metaphorical view of hell is by far the most popular among evangelicals today, and indeed, has a long and distinguished pedigree. This position is expressed well by William Crockett, “The Bible does not support a literal view of a burning abyss. Hellfire and brimstone are not literal depictions of Hell’s furnishings, but figurative expressions warning the wicked of impending doom.”
It is ironic that the literal view of hell dominated Christian thinking until the Reformation, at which time the church began to turn back to the Scriptures as its basis for truth. Apparently most of the great Reformers held to a metaphorical understanding of Hell. Calvin, for instance, said, “We may conclude from many passages of Scripture, that it (eternal fire) is a metaphorical expression.” The highly respected Reformed theologian, Charles Hodge, stated flatly, “There seems no more reason for supposing that the fire spoken of in Scripture is a literal fire, than that the worm that never dies is literally a worm.” Herman Hoyt, former president of Grace Theological Seminary, allows for this understanding of hell. He says concerning the fires if hell, “This doubtless has reference to internal burning of the human spirit.” Hoyt sees the possibility that the bodies of the damned are consumed in the lake of fire but that their spirits live on in anguish.” Robert A. Peterson in his excellent book Hell on Trial, which is endorsed by men such as John MacArthur and David Wells, writes, “We must conclude that the biblical pictures of fire and burning signify the horrible suffering of the unrighteous in hell. Should we understand the fires of hell as literal flames? The answer is no.” The master’s Seminary at least leaves a window open for the metaphorical position when in its Journal an author quotes favorably these words, “Whether eternal punishment involves any physical reality corresponding to fire, one cannot tell. However, it will be something as bad as fire and doubtless worse, something earthly images are inadequate to describe.” Even Jonathan Edwards saw the furnace of fire as both literal and spiritual (or figurative). Figuratively speaking, the wrath of God, he believed, is a consuming fire affecting both body ad soul. He saw the fire of hell as figurative as far as the soul is concerned, but literal as it pertains to the body. Crockett lists a virtual “who’s who” among evangelical leaders that take this position including, Donald Carson, Carl F. H. Henry, F. F. Bruce, Billy Graham, and Leon Morris.
The reasoning of the metaphorical position runs as follows. God, in both Testaments, is called a consuming fire (Deuteronomy 4:24 and Hebrews 12:29). The consuming fire of God is a picture of His wrath on sin (Nahum 1:6; Malachi 3:2 and Jeremiah 4:4). “These Scriptures all point us to the fearful conclusion that the fire of hell is the indescribably and unrestrained wrath of God unleashed against sinners in exactly the way their sinfulness deserves and God’s holiness demands.” This position has a number of distinctives:
- Hell is real, but its precise nature cannot be known.
- The reason this is true has to do with the nature of interpreting images. Hell is real, “a place of frightful judgment. But precisely what it will be like, we do not know. The problem comes when we see the images in the New Testament — images that in themselves can easily misunderstand — and then we add on a layer of our own imaginings. But how do we know that hell will conform to our imagining? Perhaps hell will be nothing like them.”
- The picture of fire in the Bible is often nonliteral, used to create a mood of seriousness or reverence and to demonstrate the burning wrath of God (Deuteronomy 4:24; Daniel 7:9-10; Revelation 1:14; Luke 12:49; I Corinthians 3:15; 7:9 and James 3:5-6).
- Even those who take a literal view of the images of hell are not consistent. For example, how do you explain hell as being a place of eternal fire and darkness at the same time? How can the damned be in burning fire and yet be rotting away with worms and maggots at the same time? Does any literalist believe that worms are immortal? In Luke 12:47, hell is depicted as a place where the damned will be beaten with many blows, yet even the staunchest of literalist do not accept this as reality in hell. So, to some degree even the literalist picks and chooses which images he takes as literal and which he sees as figurative.
- The lake of fire was created for the spirit beings such as the devil and his angels (Matthew 25:41), a place where they will ultimately be cast (Revelation 20:10). But how can physical fire affect spirit beings, and at the same time affect physical beings such as the damned? “Physical fire works on physical bodies with physical never endings, not on spirit beings.”
- Our most complete picture of hell (Lazarus and Dives) is actually a picture, not of the eternal destiny of damned physical beings, but of the spirits of the damned in the intermediate state (that time between physical death and physical resurrection). The rich man had no body, yet suffered in fire. Surely this was a metaphorical description of suffering for the lost.
These are important concerns and should not be dismissed lightly. Those who take the metaphorical position believe, “Hell, then, should not be pictured as an inferno belching fire like Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace. The most we can say is that the rebellious will be cast from the presence of God, without any hope of restoration.”
4. Literal —
Beyond question, the early church, until the time of the Reformation, almost uniformly held a literal view of hell. That is not to say that they were content with the images found in Scripture. Many sought to add to the horrors of hell by developing their own images. The most celebrated such attempt was Dante Alighieri’s fourteenth century poem, Divine Comedy. Dante’s poem was actually divided into three equally long sections; each section was devoted to Dante’s imaginings of hell, purgatory, and heaven. The first section, and by far the most interesting, titled Inferno, paints an incredible portrait of hell that goes far beyond anything described in Scripture. To some extent Inferno systematized the medieval church’s concept of hell, and some residue remains to this day.
As stated above, with the Reformation came a change in how many saw hell. Many, including Calvin and even to some extent Luther, developed and promoted a metaphorical view, but this was by no means uniformed within the Reformed camp. Jonathan Edwards, in the 1700s, was well known for his literal concept of hell. A number of years later the Reformed Baptist preacher, Charles Spurgeon wrote that the wicked will spend eternity “in fire exactly like that which we have on earth. [Their] bodies will lie, asbestos-like, forever unconsumed, all their veins roads for the feet of pain to travel on, every nerve a string on which the Devil will forever play his diabolical tune of hell’s unutterable lament.”
John Walvoord, who takes the literal side of the debate in Four Views on Hell, says that “Scripture never challenges the concept that eternal punishment is by literal fire.” But Walvoord concedes that hell is more than fire and that there is much we do not know, “Obviously, the description of eternal punishment in the Bible only partially reveals its true nature. Eternal punishment is partly mental, partly physical, and partly emotional. The fact that confinement in hell is pictured also as a place of total darkness is no doubt contributory to mental anguish, though there is no indication of genuine repentance in hell.” And so, even Walvoord assigns a metaphorical interpretation to darkness (and probably, although not so stated, to the worm and the beatings) but not to the fire. I do not believe that Walvoord defended the literal position very well in this book, in fact, I could find no good responses to the concerns from the metaphorical side from anyone I read. Either the pertinent issues were ignored or handled superficially.
Even those who view the fires of hell literally understand that hell-fire must differ substantially from earthly-fire. Thomas Vincent, prominent 17th century Puritan, wrote Fire and Brimstone in support of the literal viewpoint. But even Vincent pulled his punches saying “[I] am most inclined to think that his fire will be immediately created by God, differing from all fires that ever have been” (page 113).
So what is hell like? Hell is a place of unspeakable and unimaginable anguish for those who have rejected Christ. Whether one takes a literal or metaphorical view of hell depends, not on one’s understanding of the authenticity and inspiration of Scripture, but on how one views the images of hell found in the Word of God. Universalism and annihilationism are possible only through the ignorance or rejection of revealed truth. The literal and metaphorical concepts, on the other hand, both emerge from the Word, depending upon how one understands the images given, and should not be used as a test of orthodoxy. When all the dust has settled, and eternity has begun, we will all be amazed at what both heaven and hell are really like. At that point we can be more dogmatic.