Monday, July 11, 2011

A Concise Theology of Hell

The following is a capstone/summary of some of my previous blog posts (which can be found here and here).  Moreover, the following will be provided as a lecture to my church’s college group this coming Wednesday.  I pray it will be fruitful.

In recent months, the traditional/historical understanding on the doctrine of hell has come under scrutiny. This has been primarily through the release of Rob Bell’s newest book Love Wins.  Although I disagree on most points with this book, our discussions over the next two weeks will not necessarily be a critique of his book, per se, but, rather, will be about hell itself.  If you are interested in a direct critique of Bell’s book, you can read that here.

Now, most people will agree that hell is a nasty subject. 

So why talk about hell at all?

Here are five reasons why we need a theology of hell:

1.      God’s glory deserves it:

Note that God’s glory does not need it, but deserves it (Acts 17:24-25).  Therefore, although God does not need our help in anything, we owe it to God to live in and declare the truth that has been revealed to us.

2.      The Bible talks about it:

If we affirm that the Bible is revealed, inspired, inerrant and authoritative – then we must be willing to think through every issue, idea, proposition, and story the Bible talks about.

3.      Theology is important:

If we need to think through Biblical topics, then, what necessarily follows is theological thinking. In other words, thinking theologically is important and it helps us as we seek to understand God.

4.      Eternal destinies are at stake:

The Bible, as we shall see, discusses the eternal destinies of all humanity. Although I believe that salvation has present implications, we should not belittle the eschatological (the last things) implications.

5.      Our evangelism needs it:

If, at least partially, salvation is about the eternal destination of human souls, then, this must be one of the motivators behind our evangelism.  Why evangelize if everybody will eventually be saved?

Now that we have addressed the “why”, let’s address the “what”.[1]  And, as a reminder, as we study this doctrine (or any doctrine), we need to affirm that the Bible is true, right and the ultimate authority on all matters of life and faith…especially the hard topics.

Will Everybody Be Saved?
The first issue we need to address is whether or not everyone will, in the end, be saved.

This teaching is known as Universalism.  Universalism teaches that “every human being whom God has created or will create will finally come to enjoy the everlasting salvation into which Christians enter here and now”.[2]

Those that hold to Universalism normally are “prompted partly…by direct compassion for one’s fellow humans, but mainly by the thought that inflicting eternal punishment is unworthy of God, since it would negate his love”.[3]

Some texts that would appear to support this position are: John 12:32; Romans 5:18; 11:32; and 1 Corinthians 15:22-28 (amongst others).

And yet, we find that:

[T]he universal terms in these texts (forms of pas, “all,” and kosmos, “world”) are all limited or generalized by their context in such a way that it is nowhere possible to maintain that every human being everywhere, past, present, and future, is being clearly, specifically, and inescapably spoken of as destined for salvation.  The most that standard commentaries find in these passages is that God will…restore his world, and that the summons and invitation of the gospel of Jesus Christ is equally applicable to, and valid for, everyone to whom it comes.[4]

More so, “[m]ost universalists…concede that universalism is not clearly taught in the Bible…”[5]

Therefore, although this teaching empathizes with our compassion, we need to be sure that if Universalism is true, then “[b]loody-handed practitioners of treachery, genocide, and torture, and bloody-minded devotees of personal cruelty and child abuse are included; no one is left out.  Universalism thus asserts the final salvation of, for instance, Judas, Hitler, Genghis Kahn, Stalin, and Saddam Hussein, to name a few.”[6]

Moreover, we should be sure to note that Universalism was recognized as heretical since AD 500.[7]

So, if we can agree that the Bible teaches that not everyone will be saved…then what?

Another potential outcome raised by those who do not support the traditional doctrine of hell is a teaching known as Annihilationism.

“Annihilationism is the belief that those who die apart from saving faith in Jesus Christ will be ultimately destroyed.”[8]

Clark Pinnock summarizes why he, and others, affirm Annihilationism:

“Obviously, I am rejecting the traditional view of hell in part out of sense of moral and theological revulsion to it.  The idea that a conscious creature should have to undergo physical and mental torture through unending time is profoundly disturbing, and the thought that this is inflicted upon them by divine decree offends my conviction about God’s love.”[9]

Now, although most of the core tenets regarding Annihilationism will be refuted in our analysis of the traditional doctrine of hell, I want to briefly observe God’s love in relation to Annihilationism, along with observing the following quote:

“[W]e cannot cite one saying that speaks plainly of an end to the punishment of the finally impenitent.  Those who look for a different teaching in the NT must point to possible inferences and alternative interpretations.  But if Jesus wished to teach something other than eternal retribution, it is curious that he has not left one saying that plainly says so.  In the NT there is no indication that the punishment of sin ever ceases.”[10]

Moreover, we should be sure to note that Annihilationism was recognized as heretical as early as the Second Council of Constantinople (553) and, again, by the Fifth Lateran Council (1513).

So, then, what about God’s love?

God’s Love
God is love (1 John 4:8).  I, in no way, want to discount this fact.  It is God’s love that draws, saves, reconciles and keeps believers; however, that fact does not negate that God is also many other things: patient, merciful, just, holy, righteous, kind, creative, wrathful, etc.  And, what we must reconcile is that God’s attributes work together in perfect unity.  In other words, although God is love, his love is patient, merciful, just, holy, righteous, kind, creative, wrathful, etc.  What this indicates is that God’s love cannot be separated from his holiness; God’s love cannot be separated from his righteousness; and God’s love cannot be separated from his wrath.

Tradition, Tradition
One traditional definition of hell is “a place of eternal conscious punishment for the wicked”.[11]  It will be this definition that we will stick with and attempt to explain.

Michael “Squints” Palledorous, one of the characters in The Sandlot, always knew he was going to marry Wendy Peffercorn.  However, some time before they had their first kiss on the side of the community pool, “Squints” made his famous quote about the Beast’s sentence to its backyard fortress as he uttered, “For-ev-er”.

Rob Bell, in Love Wins, aptly describes the feeling of The Beast’s owner upon learning of its sentence:

“Remember sitting in class, and it was so excruciatingly boring that you found yourself staring at the clock?  Tick.  Tick.  Tick.  What happened to time in those moments?  It slowed down.  We even say, ‘It felt like it was taking forever.’  Now when we use the word ‘forever’ in this way, we are not talking about a 365-day year followed by a 365-day year followed by another 365-day year, and so on. What we are referring to is the intensity of feeling in that moment.  That agonized boredom caused time to appear to bend and twist and warp.”[12]

Bell also states that, “[w]hen we use the word ‘age’ like this, we are referring less to a precise measurement of time, like an hour or a day or a year, and more to a period or era of time.  This is crucial to our understanding of the word aion, because it doesn’t mean ‘forever’ as we think of forever.”[13]

To begin, we ought to note that there are two different words (and their many derivatives) used to address “an age” or “eternity”: aion and aionios.  With that said, we ought to next look at how these terms are defined.

Aion has four definitions: (1) a long period of time, without reference to beginning or end (of time gone by/the past/earliest times, or of time to come which, if it has no end, is also known as eternity); (2) a segment of time as a particular unit of history, age (the present age or the age to come); (3) the world as a spatial concept; and (4) the Aeon as a person.[14]

Aionios has three definitions: (1) pertaining to a long period of time, long ago; (2) pertaining to a period of time without beginning or end, eternal; and (3) pertaining to a period of unending duration, without end.[15]

With those definitions in place, it would certainly seem absurd to attempt to persuade someone that aion never has a temporal sense, as the following texts demonstrate: Luke 20:34-35; John 9:32; Acts 15:18; Rom. 16:25; 1 Cor. 2:8; et al.  All of these texts (and many more) certainly point toward a temporal or historic sense when using the word aion.

However, the issue at hand is whether, at times, aion, aionios, and their derivatives can have a non-temporal meaning (i.e. specifically, contextually and correctly defining the term as eternal, eternity or everlasting).  For instance, consider the following texts:

Rom. 9:5 – will God’s praise be only temporary?

Rom. 11:36; 16:27; Eph. 3:21; Phil. 4:20 – will God’s glory be only for an age?

2 Cor. 9:9 – is God’s righteousness momentary?

Based on this evidence, is anyone really willing to continue arguing that aion, aionios, and their derivatives do not, at times, convey a non-temporal sense?

Therefore, if we are willing to concede that there might be instances where the sense is non-temporal, then, what should follow is a reminder that we ought to read, interpret and understand Scripture in its context.  In other words, we ought to translate aion, aionios, and their derivatives as temporal when it fits contextually (e.g. Luke 20:34-35), and as non-temporal when it fits contextually (e.g. 2 Cor. 9:9).

Moving now to two specific New Testament texts:

In Jesus’ parable in Matthew 25:31ff, the term aionion is used, which Jesus uses both to point to the eternal life of the righteous and eternal punishment of the cursed (Matt. 25:41, 46).  Therefore, if we are to read this portion of Scripture in context, unless we are going to conclude that the eternal life of the righteous is also temporal, we must conclude, rather, that the eternal life of the righteous and the eternal punishment of the cursed are, in fact, eternal.  Moreover, Jesus uses the same word aionion to address the “eternal fire” reserved for the “cursed”.

Next, within Revelation 20:10, John uses the phrase tous aionos ton aionon (translated “for ever and ever”), to describe the eternal torment received within “the lake of fire and brimstone”.  Now, those who wish to argue for a temporal meaning of this phrase must also consider Revelation 22:5, which describes the eternal, or unending, reign of God’s servants.  Therefore, if an argument is made for the temporal nature of the torments of hell in Revelation 20:10, then we must conclude that the reign of God’s servants in Revelation 22:5 is also temporal.  Surely, no one is willing to contend for that part of the argument.

Conscious Punishment
Conscious can be described as “aware of one’s own existence, sensations, thoughts, surroundings, etc.”

Punishment can be described as “a penalty inflicted for an offense, fault, etc.”[16]

Before we look at the consciousness of hell, let’s take a moment to consider punishment.

An argument rejecting the traditional/historic understanding of God’s wrath answers the question, “how we would respond if an earthly father did to his children what God will eventually do to part of humanity?”, with “we would throw that father in jail for life” (i.e. surely a loving, kind and merciful God could not be involved in something this heinous).  However, if this is the criteria by which we judge God, then should we not have already thrown God in jail for “murdering” Uzzah (2 Sam. 6:1-11), or Ananias and Saphira (Acts 5:1-11)?  Of course not, because we know that God, in his holiness, justice and righteousness, must respond to sin (Habakkuk 1:13).  Therefore, the critical error in this reasoning is that our eternal fate ought to rest on the (often) triteness of our sin, rather than the majesty of the One sinned against.  For instance, if I attempted to attack a regular “Joe”, I might end up in prison for a short while; however, if I attempted to attack the President of the United States, I would, most likely, remain in prison for the remainder of my life.  This is because the crime, although the same, has a different consequence when committed against someone of greater renown.  Therefore, we surely ought to not place Almighty God on the same level as our earthly fathers.

Matthew 13:49-50 – note that the evil will be thrown into fiery furnace, where they will experience weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Mark 9:47ff – note that sinners will be thrown into hell where the worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.[17]

Luke 16:19ff – note that the rich man is experiencing torment (vs. 23).

Revelation 14:9ff – note that those who worship the Beast will be tormented with fire and sulfur (vs. 10).

So, I’m still convinced that hell is a nasty subject; but, I’m also still convinced that hell is something we need to consider (see introduction).

Something else to consider: don’t let your philosophy trump your exegesis.  Now, please note that I am pro-philosophy (in fact, I teach several philosophy classes at a local community college), and I am well aware that philosophy and exegesis are linked; however, my concern is when we allow our philosophies (appropriately compassionate as they may be) to trump proper exegesis of hard texts.

Lastly, remember that the Bible is true, hell is for real, and God is good in all things.

[1] Please note that a theological study on hell could take many weeks; I have two.  With that said, I want to focus on some of the key biblical ideas, propositions and objections towards the historic version of this doctrine.
[2] Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson, Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 170.
[3] Ibid., 172.
[4] Ibid., 187.
[5] Ibid., 171.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Origen and his doctrine of apokatastasis (the universal return to God and restoration of all souls) were anathematized (deemed as heretics) at the Second Council of Constantinople (553).
[8] Morgan and Peterson, Hell Under Fire, 196.
[9] William V. Crockett, Four Views on Hell (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 164.
[10] Walter A. Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), 395.
[11] Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 499.
[12] Rob Bell, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (New York: HarperOne, 2011), 31.
[13] Ibid., 57.
[14] Frederick William Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 32-33.  It should also be noted that BDAG is arguably one of the premier language resources.  With that said, one must be willing to grapple with the evidence provided therein in order to claim reputable scholarship.
[15] Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 33.
[16] Both definitions found at
[17] Jesus is quoting Isaiah 66:24.


  1. Two questions for you:
    1) Does hell need to be a punishment or can it be a consequence?
    2) Is God's "glory" divorceable from God's solidarity with the victims of sin?

    In case you're wondering where I'm coming from, I believe in hell, but I believe it's a consequence, not a punishment. I also think that the abstraction of God's glory from God's solidarity in reformed thought as sort of an imperious "infinite pickiness" (rather than a furious love for people who have been hurt by sin) is an extra-Biblical invention that has been developed through centuries of following Anselm down a rabbit trail he never meant to start.

    If you talk about hell in terms of consequences and solidarity with victims rather than punishment and an abstract (and honestly pagan) notion of God's "glory," then you've taken out the unnecessary stumbling blocks that led Rob Bell astray (although you may end up with an understanding of hell similar to what Bell espouses which reformed thinkers cannot recognize as hell).

    Frantz Fanon's Wretched of the Earth is the most credible argument for hell that I've seen, because peace without justice means that the oppressors win. Sin is sin because it hurts people. Sin dishonors God because He loves the people that it hurts. God wants glory because it makes our lives beautiful to give Him glory, not because He's an emotionally insecure tyrannical dooshbag.

  2. Morgan,

    Thanks for the interaction; I appreciate it.

    I think I would see hell as both a punishment and a consequence; a punishment handed down by a holy, righteous, and just God, and an inevitable consequence of the treason that we have committed against this holy, righteous, and just God (not that he is not also merciful, forgiving, and loving).

    I am, to be sure, unclear regarding two aspects of your comment that I would like you to clarify further if you would: first, can you be more specific as to the extra-biblical development of God’s “infinite pickiness” via Anselm, and, two, can you explain why you think that talking about God’s glory in relation to hell is pagan?

    Lastly, I have never heard of Frantz Fanon, until today, but I have added the book to my Amazon “wishlist”.

    Again, thanks for the interaction, and I look forward to hearing from you!

  3. There's a lot to say about this, but I'll just tackle an easy one:

    Moreover, we should be sure to note that Annihilationism was recognized as heretical as early as the Second Council of Constantinople (553)

    This is false. I explain why here:

    As for the Fifth Lateran Council, it always amazes me when Protestants mention this, as if they all of a sudden are interested in the findings of a 16th century Roman Catholic council.

  4. Ronnie,

    Thanks for the interaction, and I certainly want to interact more. Would you be willing to do so over email? If so, could I have your email? I would like some time to look into what you have said, both here and on Scot's blog, and even your own blog, and then hope to respond by the end of this weekend. Sound good?

  5. Sounds good Daniel, my email address is on the "About" page of my blog.