The Hell Debate
Updated: Oct 8, 2020
Recently there have been discussions in Christian circles about Hell that have been somewhat disconcerting. Now the nature of Hell has been debated throughout church history and I respect both the "Conditional Immortality" folks (people perish in Hell) as well as the "Eternal Conscious Torment" advocates (the traditional view). There are however some positions out there that have no biblical support and should be avoided at all costs such as "Christian Universalism", which purports that Hell is a temporary place that serves to punish sin but ultimately brings about the salvation of one's soul. In other words ultimately everyone, regardless of their beliefs, religion, actions or heart's condition, goes to heaven after being "purified" by fire. This is akin to the Catholic concept of Purgatory which itself has no biblical foundation, but rather was imported from pagan traditions and codified in the church around the 12th century. But despite millennia of debate and discussion, Hell remains a hot topic.
Most Christians have been raised under the traditional "Eternal Conscious Torment" view of Hell, however there has recently been a renewed criticism of this understanding—and some of the arguments are quite compelling. However many of the qualms with the traditional view are little more than emotional appeals and anthropomorphism due to the fact that we as the judged find the idea of punishment uncomfortable and often seek to downplay our sin and its consequences. Exhibit A: An article from missiologist Benjamin L. Corey. In this article Corey observes five main reasons why Christians are rejecting the traditional view of Hell:
1. God should not torture people
2. The traditional view doesn't jive with the testimony of scripture as a whole
3. Torture is not in the character of Jesus
4. If God tortured His enemies, He would be a hypocrite
5. God must be more gracious or merciful than man
The Bad Arguments
The error that runs deep in many of these arguments is that they judge the merit of God's righteousness and justice based on humanity's sense of right and wrong. This is fundamentally flawed as it is God's definition of justice that must be upheld, not man's. Man's moral compass is a flawed byproduct of his sin of eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and has consistently gotten him into trouble with a Holy God. As God declared in Isaiah 55:8, “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways…" Just because our modern society has deemed something “good” or “bad” does not mean that it aligns with God’s definitions. After all, our society has deemed murdering unborn children, homosexuality, divorce, promiscuity, pornography and hedonism as “good” while scripture universally condemns them. At the same time our society is increasingly deeming things like capitalism and masculinity as inherently evil while the scriptures do not. In truth, there are many, many passages of scripture that offend our modern sensibilities and values but it is imperative that we live our lives in light of scripture, not read scripture in light of our cultural values. So let's take a moment to discuss this list of reasons given by Mr. Corey.
God Should Not Torture People
The first is that God should not torture people in Hell because democratically, humanity has voted torture is morally wrong. First of all, God isn’t torturing anyone. He is not personally whipping, flaying or roasting anyone and He takes no pleasure in sending a single soul to Hell. Hell was intended as a place of punishment for the fallen angels—God doesn’t want to send any man there. While Hell is a place of punishment and will not be pleasant, it is of our own doing that we end up there—God did everything in His power to keep us from that fate. When a criminal breaks the law and is sentenced to life in prison, we don’t blame the judge for the outcome. Secondly, the Bible is pretty vague on the specifics of the torment in Hell. Our visions of people being tortured come primarily from non-biblical sources, therefore the torture argument is a bit of a straw man. Scripture does state that it will be unpleasant and uses fiery imagery and descriptors implying deep regret, but it does not say that people in Hell will be tortured even by demons, let alone God.
Torture is Not in the Character of Jesus
The second point has merit and will be covered later, so I’ll move on to the third—that torture is not in the character of the final judge, who is Jesus. This is essentially the same argument as the first, so this list is pretty thin. As we have already established that “torture” is not the description given in scripture, let me ask the question with slightly different wording: Is discomfort, or suffering in the character of Jesus? The answer is absolutely to the affirmative. Furthermore, if Jesus was our substitute and paid the penalty for our sin, what did He have to go through to pay for it? The answer is excruciating suffering and the slowest, most painful death the Roman Empire had ever devised. So it stands to reason that if men were to reject Christ’s payment for their sin, a similar payment must be rendered in order for justice to be served. If the penalty for sin was simply a quick and painless annihilation, Christ grossly overpaid.
If God Tortured His Enemies, He would be a Hypocrite
The fourth argument asserts that if God tortured his enemies, He would be a hypocrite as He instructs us to love our enemies. Again, the straw man torture argument is dragged out and dusted off. According to this deeply flawed logic, God cannot simultaneously punish His children and love them—this is the exact opposite of what scripture actually teaches (eg: Heb 12:6). Also according to this argument, God would be a hypocrite for annihilating His enemies too, considering He instructs us to turn the other cheek and not to repay evil with evil. Indeed using this logic, the only course of action God can take without being deemed a hypocrite by His "wise" creation is to wink at sin and allow everyone into heaven with open arms. This argument ignores God’s wrath and justice and attempts to appeal to His grace alone.
God Must be more Gracious and Merciful than Man
Finally, the fifth argument anthropomorphizes God and claims that surely God must be more gracious and merciful than man. Of course God is more gracious and merciful than man, but He is also infinitely more intolerant of sin than man. The author claims that he would not wish torture (here we go again) on even his worst enemy, so how could God? I would respond with a simple question: Does man not demand justice when wronged? The author is attempting to argue that justice is not necessary—only grace. He further suggests that man is, on average, very gracious when wronged. If this were true, our legal system would have virtually nothing to do as victims of crimes would not press charges against criminals. The truth is that man demands justice for virtually every wrong done to him—down to the smallest of offenses. Man demands justice and often we do not get it—which is why we have hope that on the great day of our Lord, He will judge righteously and avenge us. For God to not serve justice on that day would be an affront to His creation and would be inconsistent with His character and nature. Again this argument ignores God’s wrath and justice and focuses solely on His grace while simultaneously downplaying the utter repulsiveness of our sin to a holy God.
As I said earlier, there are good reasons to challenge the traditional view of Hell and I encourage everyone to consider them. What I caution against is creating God in our own image and editing Him to become more palatable for our particular values and sensibilities. We must keep in mind that we must measure up to God’s standards and His definition of sin, not the other way around. As I said before, I respect the positions of Christians on both sides of this debate as long as their arguments are based on scripture rather than emotions, cultural values, an incomplete picture of God, and half-baked logic. Ultimately I think it is a question that shouldn’t consume too much of the believer’s time in pondering as it is completely out of our hands and shouldn’t affect how we live our lives for the Gospel. However if we entertain arguments like the ones found in Mr. Corey’s article, it could have a profound effect on how we view God, His righteousness, the unfathomable magnitude of our sin, and the holy and awesome justice that must be brought against it.
The Scriptural Arguments
As I've said (and have since argued at length in the article Understanding the Underworld), there are very good reasons to challenge the traditional view of Hell, so I'm not sure why time is wasted on these emotional appeals when perfectly logical scriptural ones are available. The reason the traditional view became the traditional view is because Greek thought and philosophy so completely inundated the early church and the Greek philosophers believed the soul to be inherently immortal. So it naturally follows that if you throw an immortal soul into an eternal fire, since the soul cannot be destroyed it simply burns forever. Hence, the traditional view being called the "Eternal Conscious Torment" view—the soul cannot die, so it simply suffers.
However, a pretty straightforward reading of the Jewish scriptures, absent a Greek bias, would paint a very different understanding of the nature of the soul—they believed it was inherently mortal. In Genesis, God tells Adam and Eve that in the day they eat of the Tree, they shall surely die. The consequence of sin is death but we often just think of this as a reality which only pertains to the body and not the soul or spirit. But we have it backward strictly speaking—in the day that man sinned, it wasn't his body which perished. Indeed, Adam lived to be a healthy 930 years old! So what died the day man ate of the Tree according to God's warning? Something else. Genesis hints at the answer in that God then bars man from eating of the Tree of Life by setting an angel with a flaming sword to guard it (Gen 3:22-24). We don't regain access to the Tree of Life until after judgement day as it is now located in the paradise of God (Rev 2:7, Rev 22:2, 14). In other words, the Jewish understanding of man is that the his spirit already died and the body and soul was now in the process of dying. This condition of mortality therefore means both body and soul are destructible and require an external source of life to transform them into something eternal.
"Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell." -Mat 10:28
There is one lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy... -Jas 4:12
"I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever..." -Joh 6:51
...to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life; but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation. -Rom 2:7-8
...but now has been revealed by the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel... -2 Tim 1:10
This view is called the "Conditional Immortality" view and it asserts that the plain text of scripture is quite clear that we are mortal beings destined to die due to our sin—only an immortal God can offer us eternal life through faith in Christ Jesus. Those who do not accept that gift of eternal life well, won't live forever—they will be cast down into the lake of fire, which the Bible calls the second death (Rev 2:11, Rev 20:6, 14) "But for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.” -Rev 21:8 Though the Greek concept of the immortal soul has been the widely accepted view in the church, many Bible reading Christians and theologians throughout the ages have challenged the notion and rejected the Greek bias including notable names such as William Tyndale, John R. Stott, and Greg Boyd. The Jewish Encyclopedia states this Greek intrusion quite plainly:
The belief in the immortality of the soul came to the Jews from contact with Greek thought and chiefly through the philosophy of Plato, its principal exponent, who was led to it through Orphic and Eleusinian mysteries in which Babylonian and Egyptian views were strangely blended.
Hell Wasn't Intended for You
The Greek idea certainly makes sense logically, and there are passages of scripture which speak of eternal conscious torment, but not for humans. There are eternal beings which cannot be destroyed in the lake of fire, those of course are fallen angels. It seems to have been these rebellious immortal beings which God had intended Hell for to begin with.
“Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels..." -Mat 25:41
So the fires of Hell are certainly eternal and the punishment certainly lasts forever (it is not a temporary sentence which ultimately ends), but whether or not one cast into the lake of fire is consumed and destroyed or burns forever and ever depends on whether or not they are immortal. The human soul is mortal, so it is eventually destroyed, but the immortal fallen angel is not.
And the devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are also; and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. -Rev 20:10
Some may argue that this doctrine and understanding has no implications on your walk with the Lord (orthopraxy), but clearly ideas of eternity and justice have an enormous influence on how we view God. Many unbelievers and believers alike have issues with the traditional view of Hell—some valid and many not. But the reality of Hell should make God and His gift appealing, not revolting. So understanding the Conditional Immortality view, even if you don't agree with it, at least gives you a way to engage with people who are struggling to reconcile Hell with God's justice and goodness. The Conditional Immortality view also happens to make a lot of themes in scripture make more sense and connect more logically. For a more in-depth resource on this topic, check out the Conditional Immortality position for the right reasons and without altering or cherry picking God’s attributes. For a deep dive into the biblical teachings on Hell, Hades, death, and Sheol, you can check out my most popular article, Understanding the Underworld.