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Is There a Right Way to Think About Hell?

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What happens when you get three evangelicals together to duke it out about their different theologies on hell? We weren’t sure, but we wanted to find out. In this piece, we asked three theologians who each believe a different theology on hell — a traditionalist, universalist, and annihilationist — to explain why they don’t agree with each other. Here’s the result: (Crisp, Date, and Parry are all plenary speakers at the upcoming Rethinking Hell Conference being held at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California from June 18-20. Tickets are still available — you can register here.) Why I’m Not a Universalist by Oliver D. Crisp, professor of Systematic Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary The first thing I should say is this: I would like to be a universalist. That is, I would like to believe that God will save everyone. I’m just not convinced that I have the warrant for that view from the Bible or the preponderating voice of the Christian tradition. Perhaps, like a number of historic and modern theologians, I will have to settle for being hopeful about the scope of salvation, though I cannot say that all will eventually be saved. There certainly seem to me to be two sorts of data on this in Scripture. #1. Scripture suggests some will be reconciled and others won’t. The first suggest that (a) the number of those finally reconciled to God is less than the total number of human beings, and (b) those who are not reconciled to God suffer an afterlife separated from the goods that accompany life with God (e.g., the beatific vision). This is traditionally thought to be the teaching of Matthew 25, for instance, where Christ speaks of the final separation of the “sheep” and “goats.” Then there are passages that suggest that the ambit of divine grace is such that all will finally be reconciled to God — e.g. in Colossians 1:15-23, with its language of Christ reconciling to himself “all things [ta panta], whether on earth or heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” Much depends on which data “controls” the other, whether the particularist-sounding passages control the universalist-sounding ones, or vice versa. Traditionally, it is the particularist passages that are the lens through which the more universalist-sounding places in Scripture are analyzed. Though there has been a minority report in the Christian tradition that doesn’t look at things in this way, regarding the universalist-sounding passages as more fundamental. Not all such views have been deemed unorthodox, e.g. Gregory of Nyssa, and the politics involved in the anathematizing of the particular version of universalism espoused by some of the followers of Origen (apokatastasis) is complex, as recent scholarship has demonstrated. #2. Christian thinkers of the past haven’t been universalists. Still, the vast majority of Christian thinkers and confessions profess some version of particularism, that is the claim that some particular number of humans are saved that is less than the total number. The fact that a view is traditional doesn’t automatically make it right, of course. Slavery has a long history, but that does not make it morally defensible. Nevertheless, the fact that so many great Christian thinkers and confessions have held to this view is not insignificant, especially for those Christians for whom the tradition has some weight as an authority, even if it is a subordinate or derivative authority. #3. Universalist theology doesn’t display God’s justice and mercy. It is sometimes suggested that hell is required for sin to have moral seriousness. If someone like Adolf Hitler dies unrepentant and his sin is not punished in hell, then where is justice? Doesn’t this trivialize sin, making it morally weightless? But sin has been dealt with in a supremely morally serious manner — by God in Christ’s life and work, culminating at the cross. Christ has suffered the punishment for sin. So this does not appear to be a particularly strong argument for particularism. Perhaps this can be augmented with the view that God creates a world in which the panoply of his attributes are displayed in creation, vindicating his purposes before his creatures. Then, Christ’s work shows his grace and mercy, and those whose rebellion continues to the grave are numbered among those who display God’s justice and punishment. Both sides of his moral nature are thereby displayed in the creation, vindicating his purposes for the world he has created. So, why am I not a universalist? First, and most fundamentally, because it is not clear to me that I have a biblical warrant for this view. Second, because the vast majority of Christian thinkers in the past have not been universalists, and have understood the biblical witness in a particularist way. It would seem strange that God would allow the Church to persist in such a mistaken view of the scope of salvation for so long. And third, because I think there are reasons for thinking that the purpose of God in creation (as we find it in Scripture and the Christian tradition) point to his acting in a way that displays his justice upon some fallen human beings, and his mercy upon others. Yet, in the final analysis, and with Reformed theologians like Benjamin Warfield, William Shedd, and Karl Barth, I hope that most will be saved, even if there is some small remnant that are finally punished in hell. Why I’m Not a Traditionalist by Chris Date, steward and contributor for the Rethinking Hell project. I would like to be a traditionalist. I once was, prior to undertaking a careful examination of the Bible’s teaching on hell — and ignorance was bliss. As a conservative evangelical, the view I now hold often makes life difficult. But my commitment to the authority, reliability, and clarity of Scripture dragged me, kicking and screaming, to annihilationism. The Bible is why I’m not a traditionalist. #1. The Bible says immortality is a gift, conditioned upon salvation. Most Christians since Augustine have believed that those who die in unbelief will ultimately be raised immortal to live forever in torment. The Bible, however, teaches that God will grant immortality only to the saved. God evicted Adam and Eve from the garden so that, lacking access to the tree of life, they would not “live forever” (Genesis 3:22-23). At the other end of the Bible, access to the tree of life is restored — for the residents of New Jerusalem (Revelation 22:2). The lost will be raised to judgment, not life (John 5:29). Only those who are in Christ will be raised unable to die anymore (Luke 20:35-36); only those who are being made fit to “inherit the kingdom of God” will be made immortal (1 Corinthians 15:50, 53). #2. The Bible says Jesus died in the place of sinners. All orthodox views of the atonement include the element of substitution: Jesus took the place of sinners and suffered what they would have otherwise suffered. It stands to reason, then, that those who refuse his gift would face that fate themselves. The Bible says that fate was death. Paul says that of utmost importance to the gospel is that Christ died for the sins of the ungodly (Romans 5:6; 1 Corinthians 15:1-3). If that weren’t clear enough, elsewhere his death is said to have been a physical death (1 Peter 3:18; Hebrews 10:10). If in dying Jesus took our place, how then can it be said that the penalty for unbelief is eternal life in hell? #3. The Bible says the lost will die and be destroyed. Jesus was given to the world not so that believers should escape eternal torment, but so that they “should not perish” (John 3:16). “For the wages of sin is death” — not living forever in torment (Romans 6:23). Jesus tells us to fear God who “can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). Peter says that the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah by fire is “an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly” (2 Peter 2:6). #4. The Bible does not say the lost will suffer forever. If even one verse clearly taught that the lost would live and suffer forever in hell, I would interpret all other verses in that light. But no such verse exists. Unquenchable fire and undying worms do not torment forever, they irresistibly consume “corpses” (Isaiah 66:24; cf. Mark 9:49); inextinguishable fire and unstoppable scavengers completely devour (Ezekiel 20:47-48; Jeremiah 17:27; Deuteronomy 28:26; Jeremiah 7:33). Daniel is told only the righteous will be granted eternal life (Daniel 12:2), the same promise made by Jesus, whose threat of “eternal punishment” must therefore refer to eternal capital punishment (Matthew 25:46). Paul confirms that this punishment will consist of “eternal destruction” (2 Thessalonians 1:9); “eternal punishment” and “eternal destruction” do not imply ongoing activity any more than “eternal salvation” and “eternal redemption” imply ongoing saving or redeeming (Hebrews 5:9; 9:12). John and God interpret the imagery of a lake of fire as symbolizing the “second death” in reality (Revelation 20:10, 14; 21:8). The doctrine of Sola Scriptura (Latin for “by Scripture alone”) does not mean I am free to interpret the Bible in a way no one has before. But this biblical view of hell and immortality was alive and well in the first few centuries of Christian history. So why am I not a traditionalist? Because like some of the earliest Christians, I am convinced that the Bible says God will give immortality only to the saved, that Jesus died in the place of sinners, that the lost will be destroyed, and because nowhere does it say otherwise. Why I’m Not an Annihilationist by Robin A. Parry, editor for Wipf & Stock Publishers I used to be an annihilationist. I have always had, and retain, a lot of sympathy for annihilationism and those who defend it. However, in my study and reflection in the years since, I have abandoned my annihilationism. Here are a few reasons: #1. Universalism is more biblical. I have become convinced that the theo-logic of the whole biblical story, running from creation to new creation, is better understood in terms of universal salvation than annihilation. God created all things for a good end, not for hell. While the fall had cosmic implications, Christ came to undo all its evil results. He embraced our human nature and stood as the representative for all humans. He then died for all and was raised for all. In him, God was reconciling the world to himself. Right now the Spirit is at work leading people to life in Christ, and one day God will bring all things to unity under Christ, and God will be all in all. All things are from God, for God, through God, to God. (See Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist for my full arguments, including a discussion on the place of postmortem divine judgment.) I think it is self-evident that if one believes God will eventually save all people, nobody will be annihilated. So a case for universalism is necessarily a case against annihilationism. #2. It can undermine God’s love. I believe annihilation pushes us into the uncomfortable direction of either sacrificing God’s love or God’s final victory. Let’s start with love. Christians claim that “God is love” in his very essence. The logic is simple: if God is love, then God’s disposition towards his creatures is loving. To love someone is to desire what is best for them. So if God is love, God desires what is best for his creatures. And what is that? Union with God in Christ. Now some Christians believe that God is able to bring it about that all people freely embrace the gospel and are united to Christ. I am among them. But if this is true and if God is love, then all people will, in the end, be saved. However, the majority of those who believe that God could save everyone without violating their freedom believe that he won’t. Why? Because God is free to choose to redeem or not redeem his creatures, to love or not love them. And, they say, God does not love all his creatures (at least not “fully”) — only some of them (i.e. the elect). The others are sent to hell, whether leading to eternal torment or annihilation. I have yet to hear any remotely plausible explanation as to how this is compatible with the claim that God is love. #3. It can undermine God’s final victory. We can save divine love while retaining hell, but only by risking God’s eschatological victory. Let me explain. Some reject the idea that God can bring it about that all people freely embrace the gospel. They argue that God gives us the freedom to consign ourselves to oblivion. He loves us and does not desire this, but he allows it. However, if eschatological destruction is something that God reluctantly allows creatures to inflict upon themselves then it represents God’s permanent failure to bring about his purposes in the case of all such creatures. He tried to stop them before it was too late, but they slipped through his fingers like sand. If, on the other hand, it is something that God actively inflicts on sinful creatures then it represents God’s permanent abandonment of his purposes in the case of such creatures. God tried to woo them over (not very hard in some cases) but they thwarted his attempts, so he gave up trying and blasted them out of existence. Either way, God has failed to bring a significant part of his creation to the destination he intended. Instead, he settles for second best. It is simply inconceivable to me that God can so catastrophically fail. It seems something akin to Orwellinan doublespeak to call the end of this narrative God’s triumph over sin. The problem is that this notion of divine victory is theoretically compatible with a state in which every human agent in creation freely chooses to embrace extinction. The angels would look at a cosmos in flames, in which none of those for whom Christ died has been saved, in which none of God’s intentions for creation are realized, and would say, “Behold, God’s triumph over sin!” To me it looks for all the world like the triumph of sin and Satan over God’s purposes.