Hell, in Christian beliefs, is a place or a state in which the souls of the unsaved will suffer the consequences of sin. The Christian doctrine of Hell derives from the teaching of the New Testament, where Hell is typically described using the Greek words Gehenna or Tartarus. Unlike Hades, Sheol, or Purgatory it is eternal, and those damned to Hell are without hope. In the New Testament, it is described as the place or state of punishment after death or last judgment for those who have rejected Jesus. In many classical and popular depictions it is also the abode of Satan and of Demons.
Hell is generally defined as the eternal fate of unrepentant sinners after this life. Hell’s character is inferred from biblical teaching, which has often been understood literally.Souls are said to pass into Hell by God’s irrevocable judgment, either immediately after death (particular judgment) or in the general judgment. Modern theologians generally describe Hell as the logical consequence of the soul using its free will to reject the will of God. It is considered compatible with God’s justice and mercy because God will not interfere with the soul’s free choice.
This may come as a surprise to some, but there are a variety of beliefs surrounding ‘Hell’ within Christianity. Currently there is no universal consensus among Christian theologians as to what is meant by hell, and how it is to be incorporated into Christian theology. It is also a hotly contested issue among Christian philosophers. Below are some of the different views:
Literal (Orthodox) View:
Hell is a place of punishment that lasts forever – eternal punishment without any possibility of relief. The descriptions of the horrors of Hell that are found in the Bible (e.g. lake of fire, eternal torment, etc) are literally true. This is currently the most widely held view among believers.
The biblical descriptions of the horrors of hell are merely a metaphor. Under this school of thought, it is believed that the horrific depictions of hell are only intended to symbolize the emotional pain of being separated from God.
In his debate with Ray Bradley, celebrated Christian apologist and philosopher William Lane Craig asked his opponent:
Isn’t the case that the majority of Christian New Testament scholars interpret these passages as metaphorical for the suffering and the anguish of those who are separated from God, but not necessarily to be taken as literal flames, such as we experience here in this world?
The metaphorical view of hell is widely held among Christian academics, scholars, philosophers and theologians. Many who accept this view feel that the idea of eternal torment in hell is inconsistent with the concept of an all-loving, and just, ‘God’.
Sinners will simply be destroyed, and not tormented forever.
Annihilationism asserts that God will eventually destroy or annihilate the wicked, leaving only the righteous to live on in immortality. Some annihilationists believe the wicked will be punished for their sins in the lake of fire before being annihilated, others that hell is a false doctrine of pagan origin.
Annihilationism is closely related to Conditional Immortality which holds that:
..man was not given immortality as an eternal possession in the creation. When he fell, man lost his right to go on living, and God will take his life from him in an ultimate, complete and final sense in the Day of Judgment. The only way that man can obtain immortality, by this doctrine, is through accepting Jesus Christ and undergoing the new birth.
Without accepting Jesus, one cannot obtain immortality. It is therefore impossible, under the doctrine of Conditional Immortality, for one to experience eternal torment since he lacks the immortality required to suffer eternal torment. Upon judgment, his soul is therefore simply ‘extinguished’, or annihilated.
Denominations what accept the doctrine of annihilationism include Seventh-Day Adventists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Annihilationism is currently a minority view among believers, but has many defenders in philosophical circles.
According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, purgatory is “the condition, process, or place of purification or temporary punishment in which, according to medieval Christian and Roman Catholic belief, the souls of those who die in a state of grace are made ready for heaven.”
The doctrine of purgatory is mainly believed by Roman Catholics. Basically, they believe some souls (of those otherwise destined for heaven) are not sufficiently free of sin to be able to enter heaven automatically, and are in need of some sort of ‘purification’ before they are allowed into heaven. This purification is to be achieved in purgatory.
According to catholic.com:
The purification is necessary because, as Scripture teaches, nothing unclean will enter the presence of God in heaven (Rev. 21:27) and, while we may die with our mortal sins forgiven, there can still be many impurities in us, specifically venial sins and the temporal punishment due to sins already forgiven.
Purgatory aside, Catholics, still hold to an orthodox view of hell. Again, from catholic.com:
The doctrine of hell is so frightening that numerous heretical sects end up denying the reality of an eternal hell. The Unitarian-Universalists, the Seventh-Day Adventists, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Christadelphians, the Christian Scientists, the Religious Scientists, the New Agers, and the Mormons—all have rejected or modified the doctrine of hell so radically that it is no longer a serious threat. In recent decades, this decay has even invaded mainstream Evangelicalism, and a number of major Evangelical figures have advocated the view that there is no eternal hell—the wicked will simply be annihilated.
But the eternal nature of hell is stressed in the New Testament. For example, in Mark 9:47–48 Jesus warns us, "[I]t is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, where the worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched." And in Revelation 14:11, we read: "And the smoke of their torment goes up for ever and ever; and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name."
Hell is not just a theoretical possibility. Jesus warns us that real people go there. He says, "Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few" (Matt. 7:13–14).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: "The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, ‘eternal fire.’ The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs" (CCC 1035).
Which Interpretation Is True?
These four widely held beliefs about ‘Hell’ have been explored the book “Four Views On Hell” co-authored for 4 theologians – John Walvoord, William Crockett, Zachary Hayes and Clark Pinnock. All four authors find scriptural support for their competing interpretations of ‘Hell’. John Walvoord argues that it is a literal place of smoke and flames. William Crockett defends a metaphorical view, punishment but not necessarily literal fire. Clark Pinnock presents conditional immortality – punishment but not forever. And Zachary Hayes explains the concept of purgatory.The book does not offer any conclusions for the reader, however, as to which interpretation is most plausible. It’s left for the reader to decide. (A description of the book voiced by one of its authors can be found here.)
So, you must be asking, which view of ‘Hell’ is the most accurate?
Perhaps the question is irrelevant, considering there isn’t any good reason to think it exists in the first place – nor is there any good reason to think Christianity is even true.
For now though, how the concept ‘Hell’ is to be understood in theological terms remains a largely unresolved issue among Christians.
Other posts in this series: