What Are the Hell Options?

In a previous article, I discussed some of the problems with hell – that is, some problems with the traditional Christian view of hell being a place of permanent conscious punishment for those who haven’t been saved while alive on earth. This traditional view typically relies on four theses:
Punishment – the purpose of hell is to punish those whose earthly lives warrant it
No Escape – those people consigned to hell cannot escape from it
Anti-Universalism – not all people will be saved – some (or many) people will be consigned to hell
Eternal Existence – hell is a place of unending conscious existence

The ‘problem’ of hell is compounded by scriptural ambiguity regarding the afterlife. The case for the traditional view of hell is not so clear, and it is difficult to ascertain how much this traditional view has been influenced by sources other than the scriptures – sources such as historical individuals like Tertullian (200AD) & Dante (a 13th Century Italian poet), pagan traditions, teutonic mythology and other factors. In addition, supporters of divergent & contradictory views of hell all find scriptural support for their alternative beliefs.

In considering a christian concept of hell, there are a limited number of options available, with clear choices in some areas. There are also some other areas that are not crucial, but are of interest. This is best expressed in logical form.

1. Does Hell Physically Exist?
a) YES – consider Q2 & Q3
b) NO – Hell is metaphorical

2. Is Hell Permanent? ie will individuals remain in hell for all eternity?
a) YES – this is part of the traditional view of hell
b) NO – there will come a time when there is no longer anyone alive in hell. With this view, there are a few alternatives on how people will end their time in hell. (Note – there is some overlap between these alternatives)
i. Annihilation – people in hell will eventually die (be annihilated), either at different times or all at the same time. Once everyone has died, there would be no need for hell to exist.
ii. Conditional Immortality – people only remain alive because of God’s active involvement in their lives. At some stage, God will stop keeping people in hell alive and then they will cease to exist.
iii. Escape – see below
iv. Gradual Death – people in hell have, in some way, ongoing opportunities to ‘repent’ and be saved (go to heaven). Whenever people choose not to repent (ie say ‘no’ to God), part of them dies. Eventually, if they resist God’s offer (of salvation) for long enough, they will die completely (cease to exist). Hence, eventually everyone in hell will have either moved to heaven, or ceased to exist.

3. Is it Possible to Escape from Hell? ie can individuals in hell get ‘saved’ in some way and move to heaven?
a) NO – this is part of the traditional view of hell – there is no possible escape from hell (there is no ‘second chance’ after death)
b) YES – it is possible for individuals to escape, or be ‘saved’ from hell and go to heaven. There might be one ‘second chance’, or multiple ‘second chances’ for individuals, which they can use to escape from hell.

The traditional view of hell would answer ‘a’ to the 3 questions above.

The three areas above are essential aspects of any view of any comprehensive hell. (ie the 3 questions above need to be answered). In addition, there are some other areas which raise interesting questions.

A. What is the Cause & Purpose of Punishment in Heaven?
Does God cause the punishment? Or does God just allow the punishment, which is a natural consequence of distance from God or rejection of Him?
What is the purpose of the punishment, if any? Is it intended for reformation? (If so, it seems pointless if there is no chance of escape from hell). Is it just retribution? (If so, eternal punishment for temporal sin raises other questions).

B. Do Heaven Dwellers See And/Or Know of the Plight of Those in Hell?
Many historical church leaders have believed that those in heaven will see or be aware of the suffering of those in hell (eg Martin Luther, Peter Lombard, Tertullian, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Isaac Watts, Jonathon Edwards). Some suggest that those in heaven will be impervious to the suffering of the damned, while others say that the blessed will enjoy heaven even more because they see the suffering in hell (eg Peter Lombard[1], Tertullian[2], Thomas Aquinas[3], Jonathon Edwards[4], Isaac Watts[5]). While this view might have been popular historically, it probably raises more questions today, particularly when it is viewed from the perspective of those suffering in hell being some of our beloved family members.

Others suggest that heaven dwellers will not be aware of the suffering of others. While this view might be more attractive these days, it raises the question of “How?” How will those in heaven be unaware of the suffering of their loved-ones in hell? Will this be through ignorance of their fate? Or though faded memories of these loved-ones? Or will there be just a lack of interest and empathy?

C. Calvinism and Predestination
I attended a church service recently where the preacher said ‘God chose you & you for faith – for salvation’. This ties in with the Calvanistic view of predestination for faith and salvation. I wondered at the response of the ‘unsaved’ in the congregation – they could have responded with “that’s not fair, why wasn’t I chosen by God”, or “I’m not a christian because God hasn’t chosen me, so don’t bother telling me anything more of the gospel”, or “Does that mean I am chosen to go to hell?”
The doctrine of predestination or pre-choosing for faith quickly raises the question of double-predestination – are some people predestined for hell? (Which many people consider unjust)

In reviewing or forming a christian view of hell, it is worth considering the possible options, and also other questions and issues are raised. If hell is the destination for many (or most) if the people who have ever lived, then surely it is important for Christians to be clear in their understanding of it. The traditional permanent-suffering-in-hell version might be correct – but if it isn’t, then it is worth making some effort now to try to understand what the correct version is….

David Allis
March 2009

[1] Peter Lombard, the Master of Sentences – “Therefore the elect shall go forth…to see the torments of the impious, seeing which they will not be grieved, but will be satiated with joy at the sight of the unutterable calamity of the impious .” Sent. Iv 50, ad fin
[2] Tertullian – “At that greatest of all spectacles, that last and eternal judgment how shall I admire, how laugh, how rejoice, how exult, when I behold so many proud monarchs groaning in the lowest abyss of darkness; so many magistrates liquefying in fiercer flames than they ever kindled against the Christians; so many sages philosophers blushing in red-hot fires with their deluded pupils; so many tragedians more tuneful in the expression of their own sufferings; so many dancers tripping more nimbly from anguish then ever before from applause.”
“What a spectacle. . .when the world. . .and its many products, shall be consumed in one great flame! How vast a spectacle then bursts upon the eye! What there excites my admiration? What my derision? Which sight gives me joy? As I see. . .illustrious monarchs. . . groaning in the lowest darkness, Philosophers. . .as fire consumes them! Poets trembling before the judgment-seat of. . .Christ! I shall hear the tragedians, louder-voiced in their own calamity; view play-actors. . .in the dissolving flame; behold wrestlers, not in their gymnasia, but tossing in the fiery billows. . .What inquisitor or priest in his munificence will bestow on you the favor of seeing and exulting in such things as these? Yet even now we in a measure have them by faith in the picturings of imagination.” [De Spectaculis, Chapter XXX]
[3] Thomas Aquinas – “In order that the happiness of the saints may be more delightful to them and that they may render more copious thanks to God for it, they are allowed to see perfectly the sufferings of the damned. . .So that they may be urged the more to praise God. . .The saints in heaven know distinctly all that happens. . .to the damned.” [Summa Theologica, Third Part, Supplement, Question XCIV, “Of the Relations of the Saints Towards the Damned,” First Article, “Whether the Blessed in Heaven Will See the Sufferings of the Damned. . .”]

[4] Jonathan Edwards – “The view of the misery of the damned will double the ardour of the love and gratitude of the saints of heaven.” “The sight of hell torments will exalt the happiness of the saints forever. . .Can the believing father in Heaven be happy with his unbelieving children in Hell. . . I tell you, yea! Such will be his sense of justice that it will increase rather than diminish his bliss.” [“The Eternity of Hell Torments” (Sermon), April 1739 & Discourses on Various Important Subjects, 1738]
[5] Isaac Watts: During America ‘s “Great Awakening” the popular hymn writer, Isaac Watts (1674-1748), even set Christians’ feet to tapping with this crisp little verse:
What bliss will fill the ransomed souls,
When they in glory dwell,
To see the sinner as he rolls,
In quenchless flames of hell

The Problem With Hell

Hell is potentially a hot topic, and I approach it with some fear & trepidation. Yet it is an incredibly important topic, as, in it’s typically accepted form, Christians anticipate that many (possibly the majority) of people who have ever lived will spend eternity suffering there. Surely the expected permanent destination for so many people is worthy of careful consideration.

Most Christians seem to believe in a ‘typical’ concept of hell, although they often haven’t thought through the details or faced some of the difficulties with their view. Hell is part of the ‘package’ of Christianity that they have accepted, but it remains on the periphery & the details haven’t been clarified in their minds. Typically, they are happy they have been ‘saved’ and hence have escaped from the clutches of hell, and they would like to help others escape from it also.

The typical or traditional Christian view of hell is that it is a place of permanent conscious punishment for those who haven’t been saved while alive on earth. It typically relies on four theses:
Punishment – the purpose of hell is to punish those whose earthly lives warrant it
No Escape – those people consigned to hell cannot escape from it
Anti-Universalism – not all people will be saved – some (or many) people will be consigned to hell
Eternal Existence – hell is a place of unending conscious existence

This typical concept of hell, or minor modifications of it, are the primary doctrine of hell found throughout the history of Christianity. It has been, and remains, a prominent aspect of the gospel that is presented by Christianity – the ‘good news’ is often presented as the good news of how all people face an eternity of suffering in hell, but, by the grace of God, have the opportunity to be ‘saved’ from hell and spend eternity with God in heaven.

However, there are problems with this traditional doctrine of hell (permanent, inescapable, conscious punishment) that need to be faced, and questions that deserve to be answered.

1. Is Hell Compatible with the Nature of God? – Permanent, conscious, inescapable suffering in hell seems incompatible with those aspects of God that we value – particularly that he is all-loving, all-powerful, all-knowing, merciful & full of grace.

2. God Desires to Save Everyone – It is apparent in the Bible that God’s desire (or hope or purpose) is to save everyone (2 Pet 3:9), or at least as many as possible. However, we should ask the question “According to an evangelical (or other) understanding of salvation, what proportion of all the people that have ever lived in the world (currently estimated at 106 billion) have been ‘saved’ and do we expect will be in heaven?” Estimates of this might vary, but I anticipate that they will typically be somewhere between 5% & 20% ‘saved’. Hence, with the traditional view of hell, we should expect 80-95% of people (about 80-95 billion) to be suffering permanently in hell. With this perspective, it could be argued that God, who desires to save as many as possible, doesn’t appear to have been very successful. Even if everyone alive today gets ‘saved’, the overall proportions in heaven & hell won’t change much. (Yes – the myth that “there more people alive today than have ever lived” is wrong)

3. Having a Party While Our Loved One’s Suffer – Author Brian McLaren paints a picture of the traditional afterlife view – where christians will be having a party with Jesus upstairs (heaven), while in the basement (hell) the un-saved (including many of our loved ones) will be suffering horribly with no hope of escape. This makes it hard for those upstairs to enjoy the party (knowing their loved ones are suffering). This version of the “Good News” actually looks quite bad. Also I hope the Jesus we follow would go downstairs to do something to help those he loves but are suffering … I might even go with him if I could give any assistance.

4. Will They Know? Will those in heaven know of those suffering in hell? If so, then this seems to reduces the blessedness of heaven – how can we enjoy heaven knowing that those we loved (& would have given our lives for while on earth) are continually suffering? If those in heaven don’t know of the suffering, how will this occur? Will it be through faded or lost memories of our loved ones? This seems to be a sad alternative – that we might live our lives sacrificially for loved ones while on earth, and then forget them when we are in heaven.

5. Hell is Inconsistent with God’s Salvation Efforts to Date – God showed total love for all individuals by sending Jesus to live & die for them. As evangelists say “Even if you were the only person in the world, Jesus loves you so much he would have died for you”. Yet with this view, when we die the salvation efforts of God suddenly change from total effort, to no effort (& no chance of rescue). It seems inconsistent that God’s love and salvation efforts apparently change so much so quickly.

6. The Scriptures Aren’t Clear – There is scriptural ambiguity regarding the afterlife – the case for the traditional view of hell is not so clear. Supporters of divergent & contradictory views all find scriptural support for their alternative beliefs.

7. What is the Purpose of Hell? – There are three common views of the purpose God has for hell – remedial, retributive punishment and issuant.
The remedial view, where God uses hell to remedy and restore individuals, doesn’t fit with the traditional view of hell, as presumably for a remedy to be effective there must be some end or escape.
The traditional views of hell are unclear or inconsistent regarding which of the alternative views they are supporting – retributive punishment or issuant.
The retributive view holds that the primary purpose of hell is to serve as a place of punishment for the unrepentant – the punishment in hell is in proportion to the scale of the crime – sin against God is sin against the most holy being and hence deserves the utmost punishment, eternal punishment. However, this raises the question of the morality of eternal punishment for sin that occurred in a temporal period – is it just to punish individuals eternally for sin that they committed in only a few short years of life?
The issuant view is that hell ‘issues’ from God’s love for His creatures – God has provided hell as a place for those persons who do not wish to be in communion with Him. God does not want to coerce individuals, and so offers them an alternative, the provision made being another manifestation of the good of exercising free will in response to God’s loving initiatives in the world.
For one to hold to a traditional view of hell, it seems necessary to understand clearly what the purpose of hell is – yet this clarity is elusive.

8. Does God’s Love Change So Quickly? – The traditional view of hell sets death as the cut-off time. Thomas Allin, author of Christ Triumphant (1890), recounts a true story ‘In a certain quarter of London, one of the many evangelists had gone forth to preach to the people. When he had concluded an eloquent address, he was thus accosted by one of his hearers: “Sir,” said the man, “may I ask you one or two questions?” “Surely,” said the preacher. “You have told us that God’s love for us is very great and very strong.” “Yes.” “And that He sent His Son to save us, and I may be saved this moment, if I will.” “Yes.” “But, if I go away without an immediate acceptance of this offer, and if, a few minutes after I were to be killed on my way home, I should find myself in hell for ever and ever.” “Yes.” “Then,” said the man, “if so, I don’t want to have anything to do with a being whose love for me can change so completely in five minutes.’ (from Hope Beyond Hell by Gerry Beauchemin)

9. The Problem of Religious Luck – there is a philosophical problem with ‘religious luck’ ie the extent to which an individual is a fit candidate for either damnation or salvation goes beyond the individual’s control. Whether one responds appropriately to grace will depend upon the shape of one’s character and the shape of one’s character will depend upon circumstances that are outside of one’s control. This creates a ‘problem’ as it is inherently unfair.

10. Divine Conservation is the view that individuals only remain alive through God actively sustaining their existence. Hence, without God’s activity or support, people would perish or cease to exist. If this is true, it raises moral issues about eternal punishment in hell – what sort of god would actively keep people alive so he can punish them for eternity with no hope of redemption? This god seems quite different from the benevolent loving christian god.

11. Unbalanced Contrast. We traditionally associate heaven with grace, mercy & love, and hell with justice & punishment. However, these aren’t accurate opposites – they are an unbalanced contrast.
It seems more appropriate to contrast justice with punishment (ie heaven = justice, hell = punishment), yet we believe that none will enter heaven because they justly deserve it on their own merit. Hence heaven does not equate to justice, as we don’t deserve it.
Another apparently appropriate contrast is grace, mercy & love contrasted with absence of these attributes. Yet this is also problematic, as hell does not easily equate to an absence of grace, mercy & love – how can God cease to be grace-giving, merciful & loving?

12. A Less-Than-Human Standard of Love. The traditional view of hell makes God’s love less than the expected standard for humans on earth. Great love is laying down your life for a friend (Jn 15:13). Parents are expected to lay down their lives for their children. Parents are expected to forgive, and keep forgiving & being reconciled to their children. When does it stop? The best form of parental love is expected to endure while there is life – we hope for & expect parents, at the end of their lives, still being reconciled to their children. Yet the traditional view of hell implies that god’s love & the potential reconciliation for individuals ends – that there comes a time (death) where god effectively says “That’s it – you no longer have any chance of being forgiven”. This seems less than the best human standard of love.

13. The Good News Doesn’t Look So Good – Overall, when these issues are considered, the traditional view of hell paints a picture of God, salvation & punishment that doesn’t seem like ‘good news’. Belief in eternal punishment seems a serious detriment to the entire message of salvation – it turns the “Good News” into bad news. Even when people turn to Jesus, it may not be as much to embrace His loving gift as to avoid what they believe is the only other alternative. This significantly affects the way many view the Almighty God and causes countless others to doubt the reliability of the Gospel.

Faced with these problems and questions, some other questions arise –
– Has eternal suffering in hell been the only view in historical Christianity? Or have there been strands of other views that have run through history, but have been obscured by the dominant view?
– How much has the traditional view been influenced by pagan traditions[1], teutonic mythology (In Norse mythology, Hel is the name of the Norse underworld & its ruler[2]), Tertullian (200AD), Dante (a 13th Century Italian poet)
– Are their any scripturally-valid alternatives? If so, what are they? What problems do they solve? What new problems do they raise?
– How do we resolve these questions and issues? Do we need to re-read the scriptures with fresh eyes – with as few presuppositions as possible? If there is apparent conflict between our understanding of the nature & character of God and our interpretation of some scriptures, do we resolve it, or do we leave it unanswered or in tension? Do we adjust our view of God to conform to our interpretation of some scriptures? Or do we seek to interpret those scriptures in the light of our understanding of God?
– Do we dare consider & talk about these issues? If so, how do we do so wisely and safely?

As the dominant view of hell has been dominant in Christian tradition for many hundreds of years, and has been advocated by many of our traditional theological heroes, if one is to review this doctrine, it seems wise to do so carefully and prayerfully. However, in my view, the traditional doctrine of hell raises so many questions and problems, it is essential that it be reconsidered.