Evangelical Views On Hell
You may have assumed there has been only one historically held view of hell throughout Christendom: believers will go to “heaven” and those who do not trust in Christ before they die will go to an eternal “hell.” But there have actually been three primary views held by Christians including many variations within each.
First, there is the traditional view which has dominated the last 1500 years (although it did not necessarily represent the “secret hope” of most Christians!) It is that of “eternal conscious torment” for all those who do not “accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior” in this life. After death there is no longer any hope considered for them.
Second, there is the view of Annihilationism which is sometimes referred to as “Conditional Immortality.” Proponents of this view believe that all those who do not put their trust in Christ in this life will meet a total destruction resulting in complete extinction of body, soul and spirit. Some believe this will be after a time of punishment according to their deeds. (For a discussion on the reasons we do not see this as a Biblical view see article “What About Annihilationism?”)
There is a third view in which many of the Early Church, even evidence of the majority, as well as a continual thread throughout history have ascribed to (and as stated, most have hoped secretly). It has been called by many names such as Christian Universalism, Evangelical Universalism, Ultimate Reconciliation/Restoration and the Wider Hope. This view considers any concept of hell as remedial and its duration as temporary resulting in a final and total restoration of all of creation. The outcome of complete restoration is based on the life, death, and resurrection of the historical Jesus Christ whose redemptive Story is found in the Scriptures.
What Do Most Christians believe Within the “Traditional View”?
According to the Evangelical Alliance, “Hell” is defined as the place in which unbelievers “suffer everlasting conscious punishment away from the presence of God.”
In order to be clear on what it is that we are considering when we speak of the “traditional view” we will offer some definitions and descriptions by various evangelicals themselves:
“Everyone has sinned, and the ultimate consequence, even worse than physical death, is eternal separation from a loving God, in terrible misery and unhappiness.” (“The Story” a tract from spreadtruth.com)
“Hell will include fire, darkness, punishment, exclusion from God’s presence, restlessness, second death, weeping and gnashing of teeth…Hell will be ruled by Jesus, and human and demon alike, including Satan, will be tormented there continually.” (Doctrine, by Mark Driscoll, pgs 424-5)
“I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside.” C. S. Lewis
“Scripture sees hell as self-chosen . . . [H]ell appears as God’s gesture of respect for human choice. All receive what they actually chose, either to be with God forever, worshipping him, or without God forever, worshipping themselves.” (J.I.Packer, Concise Theology p.262-263.)
“The image of ‘gehenna’ and ‘maggots’ means decomposition. Once a body is dead it loses its beauty and strength and coherence, it begins to break into its constituent parts, to stink and to disintegrate. So what is a ‘totaled’ human soul? It does not cease to exist, but rather becomes completely incapable of all the things a human soul is for–reasoning, feeling, choosing, giving or receiving love or joy.” (Tim Keller, article: The Importance of Hell)
In addition here is the rendering of the traditional view by the Westminster Larger Catechism:
“What has God especially decreed concerning angels and men? Answer: God, by an eternal and immutable decree, out of his mere love, for the praise of his glorious grace, to be manifested in due time, has elected some angels to glory; and in Christ has chosen some men to eternal life, and the means thereof: and also, according to his sovereign power, and the unsearchable counsel of his own will (whereby he extends or withholds favor as he pleases), has passed by and foreordained the rest to dishonor and wrath, to be for their sin inflicted, to the praise of the glory of his justice.” (Question 13)
As you can see there are major significant differences among Evangelicals on the nature of hell itself and the conditions by which one ends up there! It is an illusion to think there is some kind of unified front contending for the existence of an eternal hell. Some would claim that God consigns sinners to hell while others imply that it is the free decision of the person to be there forever keeping “the doors locked from the inside.” Then there are those Calvinists adhering to the Westminster Confession who believe God has ordained a population for eternal hell. These are polar opposite reasons for defending an eternal hell found within Evangelicalism!
We want to create a bit of constructive doubt as you consider the vast contradictions among Evangelicals regarding the concept of an eternal hell: is it something we choose? Or does God send us there? Do we become “un-human” while there? (Keller, N. T. Wright) Is it God respecting our choice? Does God love us while there? Or does He hate us at this point? Who locks the doors? Are we really free to reject God forever? (Arminianism) Or did He always intend, indeed ordain, to reject most of mankind? (Calvinism)
These questions are meant to help you consider that perhaps theologians have not worked out a consistent theology and have in fact constructed a paradigm full of contradictions. The contradictions reveal that there is no “traditional view of hell” since evangelicals hold to and defend this doctrine for entirely different reasons. We invite you to explore the possibility that God’s Story is bigger and better than you ever dared hope or imagine. After all, we are told that that is what God is in the business of doing:
“Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us,” (NIV)
“Now all glory to God, who is able, through his mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think.” (NLT)