Apologist Joel Furches explores different opinions of hell and why its existence matters
Joe ‘Ojo’ Taylor was a Christian Punk musician who, around 1995, met an atheist woman on a dating site. The woman agreed to a meet-up under one very solid condition: she would not under any circumstance meet with someone who believed in the concept of hell.
Ojo had been experiencing doubts about his faith already and it wasn’t a tremendous sacrifice for him to give up the concept of hell. But, as he describes it, “…if there’s no hell, what does that mean for the concept of sin? And what does that mean for the substitutionary atonement of Christ on the cross? And gosh, what about the afterlife? If there’s no hell, then what? And did Jesus rise from the dead? Once you begin to doubt that worldview, it opens the door to a whole line of questions that I wasn’t prepared to deal with.”
For Ojo, it was only a short step from giving up the concept of hell to giving up the concept of God altogether.
In fact, in a survey of deconversion cases conducted by this author, objections to hell came in at the third tier of all objections voiced by people who left Christianity. And little wonder: the idea of being tortured or burned alive is bad enough, but to face this prospect eternally at the hands of a divine being can seem bleak beyond countenance.
In an attempt to address this point of anxiety, pastor and author Rob Bell famously wrote a book titled ‘Love Wins’, wherein he does a survey of different views of hell across the faith and throughout the years. His ultimate conclusion was that he did not know what hell was, but he was confident that whatever happened, love would win out. Bell’s book has been popularly criticised in evangelical circles for being soft on what is considered to be a very serious point.
This article is not intended to take a firm stand on the nature of hell, but rather to place the facts before the reader and allow the reader to come to his or her own conclusions on the matter.
The case for hell
The case against hell is fairly straightforward: it is an unpleasant thought. More unpleasant still is the idea that friends and loved ones who did not decide to become Christians might burn in eternal agony, despite their lives being free of crime or villainy. Worse still is the idea that the Christian God who is supposed to be so loving and forgiving would condemn countless billions of souls to this torture.
All this being said, is there any case to be made in favour of hell?
The first thing worthy of note is that the unpleasantness of a thing does not eliminate its possibility. No one will suggest that hell is a comfortable thing to contemplate, however the unpleasantness of the thought does not make it untrue – much as one wishes it were. However, the primary argument for hell is that humans crave ultimate justice. Humans, as a whole, rightly hate evil deeds and regularly wish evil were to be eliminated from the universe. But if a villain promises to behave himself while his villainy goes unaddressed, there is a sense that justice has not been done. Evil deeds should be punished as much as good deeds should be rewarded.
But does the punishment fit the crime? There is some debate over whether a death penalty is ethical within the human justice system, and even life imprisonment is not without its boundaries. Do a Hitler and an unrepentant Gandhi deserve the same torturous ending?
Before answering that question, it is worth asking what is really meant by hell? The image of pitchfork-wielding demons standing astride flame-licked pillars watching countless souls struggling to stay afloat in lava-soaked depths is the vision that comes to most people’s minds when hell is on the docket. This imagery alone is largely the legacy of Mediaeval art and poetry. One must disambiguate the poetry from whatever the Bible has to say on the topic. But because this is the imagery in which culture is soaked, it is difficult to imagine anything else. However, most of the Biblical imagery associated with hell comes from either parables – metaphorical tales told to make a spiritual point – or from apocalyptic literature, most notably the book of Revelation. Apocalyptic texts are notoriously hard to penetrate as they are steeped in gratuitous symbolism requiring a great deal of cultural and scriptural background to really understand.
Further still, a good deal of the modern understanding of hell has been heavily borrowed from pagan mythology such as the Egyptian ‘land of the dead’, the Grecian underworld ruled by the tyrannical Hades or, indeed, the Nordic underworld called ‘hel’.
The point is this: the imagery associated with hell probably doesn’t represent a literal understanding of the concept. This is not to say hell does not exist, but rather that if it does, it probably does not look the way it is depicted in books and television.
In order to examine this point, it may be worthwhile to take a survey of the three most common notions of hell.
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Three views on hell
The first of these views is the brimstone version of the traditional evangelist. This view is informed by two ideas seen in scripture: firstly, that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (Romans 1:18).
Secondly, God’s omnipresence as described in passages such as this:
“Whither shall I go from thy spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.” (Psalm 139:7-8 KJV)
Taken together, these two facts lead to the concept that, after resurrection from death, all humans exist eternally in the full, unshielded presence of God’s glory. Unrepentant, unclean humans are naked and exposed to the full wrath of an ever-present God in hell, while those who are repentant and cleansed are fully exposed to the eternal glory of a loving God in heaven. While sin naturally burns in the presence of God’s glory, those who are cleansed have nothing to fear in the presence of God:
“Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation.” (John 5:28-29 KJV)
While those who are unclean face an eternity of fiery suffering:
“And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night, who worship the beast and his image, and whosoever receiveth the mark of his name.” (Revelation 14:11 KJV)
Hence, the ‘fire’ of hell is nothing less than the glory of God in violent reaction to the unrighteousness of the damned like foaming disinfectant on an infected wound.
The second view of Hell – one increasingly popular in modern apologetics – is the opposite of the above view. Rather than eternal exposure to God, it is eternal expulsion from God’s presence, where the unrepentant are “cast into outer darkness,” (Matthew 22:13; 25:30) where the goodness of God is forever withdrawn and they are left in an abyss of their own design.
In this view, the tortures of hell are not God’s holiness burning upon the unwashed flesh of the sinner; rather, they are the result of total isolation in darkness away from the goodness which God created for them to rightfully inhabit should they had only chosen to do so. This person must now live for eternity in their own regret.
This concept of people being cast out of God’s presence in hell may be supported by verses such as these:
“And then will I profess unto them, ’I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.’” Matthew 7:23 (KJV)
“And I say unto you, that many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven. But the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Matthew 8:11-12 (KJV)
This second view of hell is one which has gained a great deal of traction in recent years. It works apologetically, because it presents a view of God who is merely giving people the freedom from his presence which they desire – only to discover that all that was good and right proceeded from God. Hell is seen, then, as a natural consequence rather than inflicted torture on those poor beings who chose to exercise their freedom to choose against God. In this view, they are merely receiving exactly what they chose: freedom from God. Only what they chose turned out not to be very pleasant.
The final view of hell which will here be mentioned is annihilation of the soul. As the name suggests, this view is that those who do not accept the forgiveness and sanctification of Christ cease to exist. Those who embrace this view believe that those who are sinful and imperfect are utterly consumed and uncreated in hell, leaving only that which is good and perfect in the new creation. To support this, they cite such passages as these:
“Behold, all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sinneth, it shall die.” Ezekiel 18:4 (KJV)
“And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” Matthew 10:28 (KJV)
“But the wicked shall perish, and the enemies of the Lord shall be as the fat of lambs: they shall consume; into smoke shall they consume away.” Psalm 37:20 (KJV)
“Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power.” 2 Thessalonians 1:9 (KJV)
This is a view which has existed for some time among certain groups and denominations, however it has become increasingly popular – because of the seeming cruelty of hell. If one can show that unbelievers receive exactly what they expect to receive at death: nothing, then one can show God to be entirely fair in his ruling, rather than a tyrannical hellion.
It is worth noting that much of the language in the New Testament which is taken to be God casting people into hell is seen in the Old Testament when God is expelling Israel from the Promised Land into the diaspora. In the many prophetic books of the Old Testament, Israel is called to repent or be cast out into the outer darkness – here referring to captivity in Babylon and Syria.
A very pertinent example of this is the parable of the Wedding Feast. In this story, the Lord is preparing a banquet for his son’s wedding. He sends his servants out to inform the honoured guests that the wedding is occurring. The guests make various excuses and refuse to come. As a result, they are “cast into outer darkness” and the servants invite instead the homeless, poor, destitute or whoever else they can find to fill those seats.
This parable is very apparently about Christ coming to Israel as Messiah, being rejected by Israel, and so inviting Gentiles to join him in the formation of a church. But what about the bit regarding “casting into outer darkness”? This is a fairly clear reference to a prophecy Jesus made several times in his ministry, namely the expulsion of Israel from the Promised Land when Rome destroyed Jerusalem in 70 CE.
What has often been taken as a reference of casting sinners into hell is, in fact, a very standard prophetic warning about Israel being judged and expelled from the Promised Land, like the many apocalyptic prophets who came before Jesus. One must take into account, then, that not all parables or apocalyptic references commonly associated with hell are actually speaking of hell.
A second consideration when contemplating hell is this: Christians have generally got the idea of heaven wrong. Jews have long held from the Old Testament onward that there would be a resurrection of the dead upon the coming of the Messiah, and that heaven and earth would be re-created in perfection. The resurrected would then go on to live forever in this perfect (physical) world.
In the New Testament, resurrection is preached throughout, and the re-creation of the world in a perfect state is alluded to by Jesus, Paul and John. The core concept of resurrection to eternal life in a re-created universe is standard to the Bible, but somehow Christians have gradually adopted a much more pagan notion of an immaterial afterlife wherein souls go to dwell forever in some spiritual realm. This represents the afterlife of the Greeks, Egyptians and Norse, but not the Jewish and early Christian concept of physical resurrection from the dead.
The question then becomes – if modern Christians have got the concept of an eternal spiritual heaven wrong, is it also possible that the current notion of an eternal spiritual hell is wrong?
The case to be made for this is not as clear. John 5:29, cited above, indicates that all will rise from the dead, sinners and saints alike, followed by a judgement. Throughout the Gospels, the idea of separating the righteous from the unrighteous is stressed to the degree that makes it difficult to support the idea that saints and sinners will be intermingling after the resurrection. But what that separation looks like is more difficult to determine without bringing in the apocalyptic imagery of Revelation.
In the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, the two main characters are seen in separate spiritual realms, one of which seems quite unpleasant. The story is a parable, and so cannot immediately be assumed to accurately depict a literal state of being. Perhaps it does, but it was not employed in that manner. The story makes it clear that any sort of resurrection has not yet happened, as the rich man requests that Lazarus be resurrected and is denied his request. Finally, rather than being in ‘heaven’, Lazarus is in “Abraham’s bosom”, which is common Hebrew language for going to “be with his fathers”, or with the sainted dead Jews awaiting resurrection. Whatever this parable depicts, it is not the state following a resurrection.
One’s view on hell has a great deal to do with one’s view on eschatology, meaning the end of the world and what follows. Biblical prophecy being what it is, and biblical expositors being what they are, the nature of end times prophecy is at least as contentious as the nature of the first several chapters of Genesis. With so much heat and so little light, what is one to make of the idea of hell?
All else being equal, God’s holiness should not be ignored when speaking of his love. It is this very purity and goodness that made the sacrifice of Christ necessary to forgive sins – to cleanse the unclean so that a perfect God could abide them in his presence. It should be of no surprise, then, that a God of pure goodness cannot co-exist with corruption or evil without one or the other suffering as a result.
Hell is not some cruel addendum added by sadists to an otherwise perfectly nice religion, rather it is the inevitable consequence of the collision of perfection with corruption. Jesus said it when he said: “And this is the judgement: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” (John 3:18-21, ESV).
Perhaps, then, the best view to adopt toward hell is that of Blaise Pascal: better to believe and be wrong than to disbelieve and be wrong. One does not call a thing untrue because it is unpleasant, and it seems that a distaste for the concept of hell is a poor reason to abandon God or Christianity entirely.
Joel Furches is an apologist, journalist and researcher on conversion and deconversion, based in the USA.