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