In the end, Christ in His fullness is at issue.
R. C. Sproul claims that “there is no topic in Christian theology more difficult to deal with, particularly on an emotional level, than the doctrine of hell.”1 The recent literature on this subject and closely related issues is abundant. For many, the traditional teaching of the Christian Church regarding eternal punishment in hell seems to present God as being unjust, immoral, unfair, and even as a monster or a sadist, rather than as a God of love, justice, truth, holiness, and freedom.
Russian theologian Nicholas Berdyaev declared: “I can conceive of no more powerful and irrefutable argument in favor of atheism than the eternal torments of hell,”2 and Charles Darwin called it “a damnable doctrine.”3 Bertrand Russell doubted whether “any person who is really profoundly humane” could believe it.4 More recently, Daniel Dennett5 and Richard Dawkins6 have also impugned Christianity on the basis of this teaching. Many biblical scholars and theologians recognize that the doctrine of eternal punishment in hell is problematic. Clark Pinnock makes the point: “Everlasting torture is intolerable from a moral point of view because it pictures God acting like a bloodthirsty monster who maintains an everlasting Auschwitz for his enemies whom he does not even allow to die. How can one love a God like that?”7
Clearly, our picture of God dramatically influences our view of hell, and, conversely, what we believe about hell has a direct impact on our understanding of God, His person, values, image, reputation, and character. “When we say something about heaven or hell we are also saying something specifically about God.”8
Three principal positions on hell are presently being advanced: (1) the traditionalist view of a never-ending hellfire, (2) the conditionalist position that the lake of fire irreversibly and totally consumes the damned, and (3) the restorationist view that hellfire purifies and ultimately enables everyone to be saved.
Traditionalist View: Hellfire as Unending Torment
Traditionally, hell exists as a real place somewhere in the underworld where at death the immortal souls of the wicked are punished in an eternal, conscious, and fiery torment. The best recent multi-author book in support of this interpretation is Hell Under Fire,9 which defends the eternal conscious torture of the wicked in hell in contrast to and parallel in time with the eternal life of the righteous in heaven. A good number of contemporary Bible scholars and theologians adhere to this view (with some nuances and modifications), claiming that their interpretation is supported by the biblical data. Norman Geisler in his book, If God, Why Evil? summarizes crucial arguments for this position, arguing that “the evidence for hell is biblical, rational, and moral.”10
This view is built on the conviction that human beings have an immortal element to their nature, which is usually described as the “soul.” Consequently, it is impossible that human beings could ever be completely destroyed. In some sense they are designed to live forever, whether they pursue the path of righteousness and eternal life or the way of wickedness and eternal punishment (Matt. 25:46; Rev. 20:11–15). One of the first Christians to claim that humans have an immortal soul was the Christian apologist Tertullian (circa. 155–220), who said, “I may use, therefore, the opinion of Plato, when he declares, ‘Every soul is immortal.’”11
Conditionalist View: The Lake of Fire That Irreversibly and Totally Consumes
This understanding that hell’s effect is eternal, not its duration, is described positively as the conditionalist view. It emphasizes that immortality can be received only as a gift of God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ; it is not innate to human nature. When this view is described negatively, in terms of the final destiny of the wicked, it is called “annihilationism,” because its proponents teach that sinners who stubbornly refuse to accept Jesus Christ as their Savior will, after the final judgment, be annihilated—completely destroyed forever. This divine judgment is irreversible. Both positive and negative aspects are crucial to this position.
This view is based on the biblical conviction that human beings are not inherently immortal, that they do not possess immortal souls. On the contrary, they are mortal because they are created beings (immortality comes as a pure gift from God by staying in relationship with Him) and because they are sinners. As sinners, they are doomed to eternal death unless and until they accept Jesus Christ as their personal Savior. Immortality is conditioned on receiving God’s grace and exercising faith in Jesus. Accordingly, death is a sleep (Ps. 7:5; 13:3; Dan. 12:2; John 11:11–15; Acts 13:36), a resting in the grave (Job 3:13; Isa. 57:1, 2; Rev. 14:13) awaiting the resurrection to either eternal life or eternal destruction (Matt. 10:28; John 5:28, 29).
Hell is not a place where wicked souls or spirits go immediately after death but is understood as a “lake of fire” in which, at the end of human history, the wicked will be totally consumed (Mal. 4:1; Matt. 25:41; 2 Thess. 1:7–10; Rev. 20:9, 10, 14, 15). This fire prepared for the devil and the fallen angels will annihilate them together with the wicked at the last, or executive, judgment, and no one can quench it. Its results are eternal, and it will accomplish its purpose—the destruction of evil, sin, death, the wicked, rebellious angels, and Satan himself. It is described as “the second death,” from which there is no redemption or escape.
This comprehends nothing less than the total eradication of evil from the universe. Thus, whoever refuses to be saved by God’s ultimate love and sacrifice will, after God’s final judgment, cease to exist. The final destruction of unrepentant people is not God’s arbitrary decision, but His verdict against their wrong choices and destructive activities, as experienced in type by the antediluvians before the Flood (Gen. 6:3, 5, 6,11–13).
The first known advocate of annihilationism was Arnobius of Sicca (d. circa. A.D. 330), who was followed by others throughout Christian history as demonstrated by Le Roy Edwin Froom in his massive work, The Conditionalist Faith of Our Fathers.12 Recently, a plethora of writers has emerged who hold this view, including a growing number of influential evangelical scholars voicing disagreement with the traditional view of hell.
Restorationist View: Hellfire That Ultimately Purifies and Saves Everyone
Restorationists claim that all people will ultimately be saved, including the wicked, because hellfire will purify them. The wicked, through a fiery ordeal in hell, will grow in their understanding of God’s unselfish love for them, accept it, and, in the end, be restored and receive eternal life. This view is built on the understanding that, after death, the immortal soul of the wicked cannot go immediately to heaven but must suffer in the redemptive fire of God’s judgment, which will gradually cleanse them so that ultimately, in line with the degree and time of the individual’s response to this purification process, everyone will be saved. Those who defend this position speak about God’s last judgment in terms of God’s restorative (rather than retributive) justice, which is understood as another side of God’s love.
It needs to be stressed, however, that there are various opinions regarding restorationism, depending on one’s understanding of the nature of God, the authority of Scripture, the role of retributive judgment, predestination, and free will. Gregory MacDonald argues for three different groups of restorationists (also called universalists).13 Some claim that at the end all people will be saved, though a few allow for the final destruction in the lake of fire of those who continue to resist God’s loving work for them after their suffering in hell. Most also include the devil and the fallen angels among those ultimately saved. Classical universalists understand hell in a biblical sense, as referring not to eternal condemnation or damnation but to a temporary place of punishment that, after a certain period of time, ceases to exist because its occupants are brought to salvation.
Advocates of universalism began to appear in the third century of the Christian era. Hell as the place where the fire will actually purify was first introduced by Clement of Alexandria. This idea was then further refined by Origen of Alexandria and Gregory of Nyssa, who stressed that the love of God is a process that continues after death and that the decisions of people in this life are not final. This position is defended by many contemporary universalists. After undergoing this fiery purification process, the disembodied soul ultimately chooses its own fate in heaven. Recently, there has been a revival of universalism with Rob Bell’s Love Wins,14 provoking more discussion on this topic with books written in reaction to his position. The conviction that, after death, God gives another chance for people to be saved is very appealing and has gained great popularity lately.
R. C. Sproul sharply criticizes universalism: “A prevailing notion is that all we have to do to enter the kingdom of God is to die. God is viewed as so ‘loving’ that he really doesn’t care too much if we don’t keep his law. The law is there to guide us, but if we stumble and fall, our celestial grandfather will merely wink and say, ‘Boys will be boys.’”15 The restorationist view stands in total opposition to both the traditionalist view of eternal torment in hell and the conditionalist position stressing that immortality is received as a gift on the basis of faith in Jesus Christ.
There is no possibility of harmonizing or reconciling the three views considered here; they are mutually exclusive. On the one hand, restorationists are rightly criticized by traditionalists and conditionalists for excluding God’s retributive judgment and allowing a second chance for conversion and change after death. On the other hand, restorationists join conditionalists against traditionalists in rejecting the horror of eternal conscious punishment in hell. However, since traditionalists and conditionalists passionately criticize each other’s views on different grounds, it may be helpful to consider briefly some of the principal Bible passages offered in support of these two dominant views.
Eternal Punishment in the Hebrew Bible
The Hebrew Bible refers several times to unquenchable fire. One passage that has clearly influenced New Testament descriptions of hell is found at the end of Isaiah: “‘They will go out and look upon the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind’” (66:24).16 In the context of Isaiah 65 and 66, the wicked are those who do not serve the Lord but rebel against Him (66:3) and who are finally “‘slain by the Lord’” (vs. 16). Isaiah concludes his book with the contrasting destinies, first of the righteous (vss. 22, 23) and then of the wicked (vs. 24). This last verse of the book employs two poetic images in parallel to make the same point. The work of the worm and the fire are alike destructive. The worm shall not die nor shall the fire be quenched until their destructive work is finished. That unending punishment is not in view seems clear from several observations. First, the description is physical: The wicked have bodies; the worms (or maggots) are not preying on the souls or immaterial spirits of the deceased. Second, there is no indication that these worms are endowed with immortality; rather, it pictures maggots eating the dead bodies of the wicked in a way similar to that of unquenchable fire. The meaning of this poetic imagery is transparent. The wicked dead have no chance to live again. Their judgment is final and there can be no escape. Their destruction will not be interrupted; the fire (like the worm) will consume them until its work is fully accomplished. Thus, the final destiny of the wicked is irrevocable and permanent.
Edward Fudge states that “throughout the Bible, from the first appearance of the phrase until its last, ‘unquenchable fire always denotes fire that is not capable of being extinguished, and that is therefore irresistible'”17 (Eze. 20:47, 48; Isa. 34:10; Jer. 7:20). Further, the New Testament borrows much of its imagery about hell from the Hebrew Bible, but always and consistently in the sense of final destruction. The prophet Isaiah, in describing the final and total destruction of Edom, explained that the fire that destroys it will burn “night and day” and “will not be quenched,” and that “its smoke will rise forever,” turning the city into “burning sulfur” (Isa. 34:9, 10). This imagery is later taken and applied in Revelation 14:10, 11; as well as 20:10 to the irreversible and total destruction of the wicked. Other passages may use different imagery, but the meaning is clear—total and unstoppable desolation (Gen. 19:24–28; Isa. 13:19; Jer. 50:40; Amos 4:11; Luke 17:28–32; 2 Peter 2:6; Jude 7).
The term translated “forever” or “eternal” is quite relative in the Bible. It may refer to (1) eternity with a beginning and an end (Ex. 21:6); (2) eternity with a beginning but without an end (Mark 10:30; John 3:16, 36); and (3) eternity without a beginning and without an end (1 Tim. 6:16). Sometimes such terms refer to something ancient (Gen. 49:26; Ps. 24:7) or that happened a long time ago or to those long dead (Ps. 143:3). Always the immediate context defines the precise meaning of these terms.
Eternal Punishment in the New Testament
Regarding the New Testament teaching on eternal punishment, H. Guillebaud comments: “Apart from four or five passages, there is not even an appearance of teaching everlasting torment in the Bible.”18 The doctrine of eternal torment rests on four principal passages (Matt. 25:41, 46; Mark 9:43–48; Rev. 14:9–11; 20:10), but for each of them alternative exegetical interpretations are possible.
Let us consider the passage from Matthew: ‘““Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” . . . ‘Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life’” (25:41, 46). Despite the repeated claims of traditionalists, these verses do not teach eternal torment. The nature of the eternal punishment is not described; it is simply set forth as a destiny opposite to eternal life. Elsewhere in Matthew, unquenchable or eternal fire is a consuming fire, not a tormenting one: “‘His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire’” (Matt. 3:12). Like Edom, the fire that cannot be quenched is that which will have eternal and lasting results.
The teaching of Jesus given in Mark 9:43 to 48 is based on the imagery of Isaiah 66 already considered. The fire of “hell” is connected with the worm that does not die and the fire that is not quenched. Both images describe the finality and completeness of the total destruction of the wicked, not its duration.
The passages in Revelation referring to fire and torment can be understood similarly to the “eternal punishment” of Matthew 25 and the unquenchable fire of Mark 9. Ralph Bowles concludes his interpretation of Revelation 14:11 thus: “The traditional reading of the elements of this verse misses the inverted parallelistic structure of the unit. . . . When the chiasm is discerned, the meaning of the text is seen to give no confirmation to ‘eternal torment.’ Rather, this text fits well into the Conditional Immortality interpretation. This view holds that God will finally and fully bring his enemies to judgment, with absolute destruction and extinction as the result.”19
Understood as God’s judgment, the final destruction of the wicked by fire as described in both Revelation 14:9 to 11 and 20:10 is that it is everlasting in its effect. Evil will never arise again. Its annihilation will be total.20 God will not keep an eternal fire burning to perpetually punish the wicked, fallen angels, and the devil. Just as there was full harmony in heaven prior to the rise of evil and sin, so it will be again when evil in all its forms is destroyed.
Traditionalist, conditionalist, and restorationist views of human destiny all depend on a particular understanding of the human soul, of God, and of His justice and character.
Different understandings of the human soul. If the soul is immortal, only the traditionalist or restorationist views are possible. However, if human beings do not have an immortal soul, then there is an alternative: conditional immortality. According to this view, for believers in God, immortality is always and only a gift received through Jesus Christ (John 11:26; Col. 3:3, 4). The whole person sleeps and waits for the resurrection and judgment. There is nothing like the salvation of an immortal soul or the conversion of an immaterial spirit.
Humans are mortal for two reasons: first, they were created dependent on their Creator God and do not possess natural immortality; second, they rebelled and chose to live an autonomous life without God. Thus, sinners are condemned to death (Rom. 6:23). However, God desires to give human beings abundant life (John 10:10), even eternal life (John 3:36; 5:24; Acts 4:12; 1 John 5:11, 12). Those who repent and come to Him (Joel 2:12, 13; John 3:3–5; Acts 2:38; 16:30, 31) are saved (Gal. 3:26–29; Eph. 2:4–10). The basis for salvation today is identical to the original conditions given by God when humanity was created: cultivating a personal trust relationship with God, enjoying His presence, and living in total and obedient dependence on Him (Genesis 1–3; John 1:12; 3:16).
Different understandings of God. Restorationists believe that God is love and does not eternally punish but ultimately saves everyone, purifying the wicked by fire and giving them a new chance after death. Traditionalists believe in a God of love who demonstrates His justice and holiness by eternally punishing those who rebel against Him. Conditionalists believe in God ultimately demonstrating His love, truth, and justice by revealing His holiness and glory in the final divine judgment, and then finally annihilating the unrepentant (Revelation 20) and creating everything new (Revelation 21 and 22).
Different understandings of God’s justice. For traditionalists, justice is punitive in the sense that the wicked will be punished and tortured eternally. For restorationists, justice is mainly meant to purify; God’s fire will ultimately result in people accepting God’s love, and thus all sinners will ultimately be saved. For conditionalists, ultimate justice is punitive. However, this executive judgment, which is based on their choices (Eccl. 12:13, 14; Rom. 2:6; Rev. 20:12), is limited in its duration. The final judgment will eliminate all destructive forces that stand against God, His people, and His law. This holy demonstration of God’s justice, which is the expression of His love, will have restorative purposes—life without sin, evil, death, crime, or pain but abundant life in love, peace, joy, harmony, and safety. N. T. Wright underscores this point: “The . . . question of what happens to me after death is not the major, central framing question that centuries of theological tradition has supposed. The New Testament, true to its Old Testament roots, regularly insists that the major, central concern is God’s purpose of rescue and re-creation for the whole world, the entire cosmos.”21
In the end, Christ in His fullness is at issue. God’s justice and righteousness will ultimately prevail (Ps. 89:14, 15). Moral power wins; it never forces. The God of love, truth, justice, freedom, and order rules the universe based on these principles and thus will prevail.
Jiří Moskala, ThD, PhD, is Dean of the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, U.S.A., and Professor of Old Testament Exegesis and Theology.
NOTES AND REFERENCES