“Oh hell no, you didn’t just open another Pandora’s box! You think something different about hell too?” That’s probably what’s running through your mind. Now before you send me to hell, I would gently urge you to take a few deep breaths and hear me out.
But seriously though, this is a far more important topic than most people realize, can Christians be open to alternative views of hell? In other words, is it wrong or heretical to discuss and entertain topics like purgatory, annihilationism, or (God-forbid) universal reconciliation? If you believe that hell is a literal lake of fire, where souls will be tormented forever, chances are you will say anything else is heresy. You will also probably argue that anything besides God throwing people into a physical fire, for Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT) is a heresy. Is there really no room for a difference of opinions?
I will avoid the biblical, philosophical, and theological arguments from all the different sides, God knows few people are swayed by my arguments, unless I attach a few famous names, thus I want to talk about the people. This post is hardly exhaustive, but will only look at a tiny sampling of the most interesting people in the hell debate.
Shooting Our Leaders
I propose that joining and exclusively pushing traditional dogma about hell will force me to write this letter:
Dear, John Stott
This letter is being written to let you know that you are a heretic. I don’t care that you were listed by Time magazine as one of the most 100 influential people in the world. (1) Or that it has been said of you “if evangelicals could elect a pope, Stott is the person they would likely choose.” (2) Nor do I care that your best-selling book “Basic Christianity” was one of the most influential books in the modern Christian world. I don’t care that the twenty year old Yuriy bought these books and handed them out to people, and then ordered a huge set to give out to his newly baptized young adults. I don’t care that you and Billy Graham brought together Evangelicals from 150 nations in the signing of the Lausanne Covenant (2), “one of the most important documents in evangelical Christianity.” I don’t care that Billy Graham said of you that the “evangelical world has lost one of its greatest spokesmen” (3) I don’t care that you served faithfully as a pastor and Christian leader your whole life. I don’t care that JI Packer, your dear friend who disagreed with you, still preached at your funeral. (4) I don’t care that Mark Driscoll’s The Resurgence lists you as a “Great Minister” and laments your death (5), or that the Resurgence recommends your books for its leaders (6, 7) . I don’t care that Rick Warren called you one of his “closest mentors.” (8) I don’t care that John Piper thinks you’re in heaven. (9)
I don’t care, because you are a heretic. You didn’t believe that hell is eternal conscious torment, you didn’t believe hell was a fire, instead you believed that it’s likely that people in hell are destroyed until they cease to exist, you said:
“Emotionally, I find the concept [of eternal torment] intolerable and do not understand how people can live with it without either cauterizing their feelings or cracking under the strain… we need to survey the Biblical material afresh and to open our minds (not just our hearts) to the possibility that Scripture points in the direction of annihilationism, and that ‘eternal conscious torment’ is a tradition which has to yield to the supreme authority of Scripture…. I also believe that the ultimate annihilation of the wicked should at least be accepted as a legitimate, biblically founded alternative to their eternal conscious torment.“ (10)
To Hell With Hell?
I don’t want to write that letter, instead I want to make two points in this paper. First, that continuing with the deeply entrenched dogma of eternal torment (ECT) as the only orthodox view of hell is deeply ignorant of and insulting to numerous leaders, who were/are bastions of orthodoxy, and hold alternate views. Second, that believers can indeed be open to other views of hell, and remain deeply within the border of historic Christianity. To that end, below are some views by very respectable Christians that should teach us to its ok to think differently. Again, this is not evidence that any view is right, but a call for us to allow the careful consideration of all views without reprisal and shaming.
View 1: Hell is not literally a fire
Generally speaking, there is near universal consensus among Christian scholars that hell is not a literal fire. Dr. William Lane Craig, a prominent apologist, said that “the majority of Christian New Testament scholars interpret these passages as metaphorical” (11) Though it should be noted many still consider hell pretty dire and horrific. Here are the views of a few other widely known leaders:
- Billy Graham is the epitome of evangelical Christianity, if there is a person whom we can point to and say “See? That’s what an evangelical Christian looks like” we would point to Billy Graham. This same Graham has stated that “when it comes to a literal fire, I don’t preach it because I’m not sure about it” and later, that “hell essentially is separation from God forever” and “the fire that is mentioned in the Bible is a burning thirst for God that can never be quenched [not a literal fire].” (12, 13)
- John Calvin, who needs absolutely no introduction, wrote about hell, saying that “we may conclude from many passages of Scripture, that it [eternal fire] is a metaphorical expression” 14)
- Charles Hodge, who was a Princeton scholar and the father of American Calvinism, wrote “there seems no more reason for supposing that the fire spoken of in Scripture is to be a literal fire, than that the worm that never dies is literally a worm.” 15)
View 2: Hell as Self-Imposed Exile
While the traditional dogmatic view has been that “God throws sinners into a lake of fire where they will experience ECT,” a redefinition of this view becoming ever more popular, wherein the sinners are merely left alone to suffer the effects of their sin.
- CS Lewis, a beloved apologist, probably the most well-known Christian name besides Jesus, did not believe in a traditional hell filled with fire. Instead he believed that hell was a metaphor for self-imposed exile, one that possibly includes the cessation of conscious being. He wrote “The doors of Hell are locked on the inside. I do not mean that the ghosts may not wish to come out of Hell, in the vague fashion wherein an envious man ‘wishes’ to be happy: but they certainly do not will even the first preliminary stages of that self-abandonment through which alone the soul can reach any good. They enjoy forever the horrible freedom they have demanded, and are therefore self-enslaved: just as the blessed, forever submitting to obedience, become through all eternity more and more free.” He also said that the discussion of hell as eternal “usually emphasizes the idea not of duration but of finality, whether this eternal fixity implied endless duration–or duration at all–we cannot say” (16)
- Pope John Paul II did not believe in a literal hell. Now I know that most Evangelicals don’t care much for the Catholics, but it’s definitely interesting when the pope says “Hell is not a physical place but the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God…” and that damnation “is not God’s work but is actually our own doing.” (17)
- N.T. Wright is recognized as one of the leading New Testament scholars in the world. NT Wright is esteemed and respected by everyone from RC Sproul (18), to Mark Driscoll (19) to the Pentecostal scholar Gordon Fee. (20) John Piper calls him “good, beloved brother in Christ, doing a good job, building people up in the faith, teaching them how to live”(21) Yet Wright does not hold a traditional view of hell, he has said “My description is neither an annihilationist view nor an eternal conscious torment view.” He believes that the fire is a metaphor, “the biblical language of hell may be pointing to” the human agent becoming “ex-human.” This means “a creature which will be a memory, a sad memory, an abiding ex-humanness.” (22) Wright has also been critiqued for speaking positively about Rob Bell’s ode to universalism (23)
- Timothy Keller, a prominent pastor and evangelical leader, who joins Mark Driscoll in a short list of the top two church planters in America (24) also does not teach that hell is a literal fire, into which one is cast or imprisoned. Rather, Keller follows C. S. Lewis is saying that hell is a condition, freely imposed upon one’s self, wherein sinners are simply permitted by God to choose to do what they want to do and thus hell is a downward spiral of a sinner into sin. (25)
View 3: Annihilationism
This position states that humans are not immortal, but will die without the gift of eternal life. Those that believe have “eternal life” those that don’t, will be “destroyed” (Mat 10:28) in hell, and literally suffer the “second death.” (Rev 2:11). This has always been a minority view, but has been held by some very prominent people, including John Stott.
- Ignatius of Antioch was a bishop of Antioch and a student of John the Apostle, is considered to be speaking of annihilation instead of hell as the fate for those who are not Christians. He doesn’t ever mention hell, but leans to the cessation of being. He wrote “Let us not, therefore, be insensible to His kindness. For were He to reward us according to our works, we should cease to be.” And “by believing in His death, you may escape from death.” (26) He also juxtaposed the resurrection as a reward, compared to the penalty of death, “Those, therefore, who speak against this gift of God, incur death in the midst of their disputes. But it were better for them to treat it with respect, that they also might rise again.” (27)
- Irenaeus of Lyons was a Bishop and apologist of the early church. He was a student of Polycarp, who was a student of John the Apostle and is the first witness to recognize the canonicity of the four gospels. (28) He is also considered to be an advocate of a primitive form of annihilationism: “It is the Father of all who imparts continuance for ever and ever on those who are saved … [who] shall receive also length of days for ever and ever. But he who shall reject it … deprives himself of [the privilege of] continuance for ever and ever … shall justly not receive from Him length of days for ever and ever.” (29, 30)
- Cyprian of Carthage, was a bishop of the early church as who was martyred for his faith. (31) His writings on the topic are unclear, some of it seems to support ECT, but far more seems to support annihilationism. HE wrote: “In the meantime, we are all, good and evil, contained in one household. Whatever happens within the house, we suffer with equal fate, until, when the end of the temporal life shall be attained, we shall be distributed among the homes either of eternal death or immortality.” (32, 33)
- Arnobius of Sicca (253-330 AD) was an Early Christian Theologian and Apologist (34) who was clearly an annihilationist, he wrote “by no efforts will you be able to reach the prize of immortality, unless by Christ’s gift you have perceived what constitutes this very immortality, and have been allowed to enter on the true life” and “For that which is seen by the eyes is only a separation of soul from body, not the last end— annihilation: this, I say, is man’s real death, when souls which know not God shall be consumed in long-protracted torment with raging fire,” (35, 36)
- Athanasius, was one of the most important early church fathers, who strongly defended Trinitarian theology against Arianism. (37) Though he is not clear on the issue, there is much that sounds annihilationist in his writings, for example: ”For the transgression of the commandment was making them turn back again according to their nature; and as they had at the beginning come into being out of non-existence, so were they now on the way to returning, through corruption, to non-existence again.” (38)
- Isaac Barrow, was a Christian theologian and a mathematician. He was one of the teachers of the infamous Issac Newton and is credited for discovering infinitesimal calculus. (39) He was also a firm proponent of annihilationism, writing a book about it titled “Duration of Future Punishment.” (40)
- Richard Francis Weymouth is a 19th century scholar known for “producing one of the earliest modern language translations of the New Testament” (1). This translation became “the New Testament Greek text accepted by most biblical scholars of his time” (41) He wrote: “My mind fails to conceive a grosser misrepresentation of language than when five or six of the strongest words which the Greek tongue possesses, signifying to destroy or destruction, are explained to mean `maintaining an everlasting but wretched existence.’ To translate black as white is nothing to this.” (42)
- Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle, PhD released a book titled “Erasing Hell” in which Chan, a well known pastor, laments that contemporary culture is moving to “erase” the concept of hell. What most are unaware of is that the book was co-authored by Preston Sprinkle, PhD (whom Chan admits did “the majority of the research” pg. 11) and served as the “exegetical brain” behind the book. Sprinkle still remains prominent within the current evangelical world, engaging in interviews with the likes of The Gospel Coalition. (43) While Chan remains a believer in ECT, Dr. Sprinkle recently declared that he changed his mind about hell, stating that he believes Annihilationism is more consistent with the Biblical texts. (44, 45)
- John Wenham is a leading theologian and scholar, called “one of the founding fathers of the contemporary scholarly movement in evangelicalism” (46) who wrote the “best introduction to Greek for those intending to study the New Testament.” (47) Wenham’s theology books are strongly recommended by leaders across the board, from Mark Driscoll (48, 49) to John Frame of Westminster Seminary, to Mark Dever and The Gospel Coalition. (50) Before he died, Wehman wrote his final book about hell, saying: “I believe that endless torment is a hideous and unscriptural doctrine which has been a terrible burden on the mind of the church for many centuries and a terrible blot on her presentation of the Gospel. I should indeed be happy, if before I die, I could help in sweeping it away (51)
- Clark Pinnock was a prolific and influential theologian, scholar, and author, specifically in the Open Theism theology world, who was oft admired for his “love for Jesus.” (52) He wrote numerous books, some of which won awards from Christianity Today (53) He was an open advocate of annihilationism, saying: “How can Christians possibly project a deity of such cruelty and vindictiveness whose ways include inflicting everlasting torture upon his creatures, however sinful they may have been? Surely a God who would do such a thing is more nearly like Satan than like God, at least by any ordinary moral standards, and by the gospel itself.” (54)
- Ben Witherington is a leading Christian academic and theologian who has written over forty books, including The Jesus Quest and The Paul Quest, both of which were selected as top biblical studies works by Christianity Today. He has also been featured on dozens of radio and television networks. (55) Witherington is open towards annihilationism, and says that “the Old Testament says little or nothing about Hell” and “Annihilation or destruction of Satan, Hell and its inhabitants is a possible interpretation of the eschatological endgame.” (56) He also asks challenging questions like “Why would even a holy God, the God of the Bible require infinite suffering for a finite number of earthly sins?” (57)
- Greg Boyd is a Yale educated mega-church pastor and theologian, who is listed as one of 20 most influential Christian scholars (58) He often preaches against the doctrine of ECT and is supportive of annihilationism (59), but he does admit “While I am not completely convinced of this position, I think it is worthy of serious consideration.“ (60)
- F. F. Bruce is essentially the godfather of Evangelical Biblical studies. He was one of the top biblical scholars in recent history, writing a book that “voted by the American evangelical periodical Christianity Today in 2006 as one of the top 50 books “which had shaped evangelicals” (61) He is beloved, read, referenced, and recommended by almost all evangelicals across the world, and everyone else holds him in esteem as well. From the reformed side, Mark Driscoll (62), John Piper (63), RC Sproul (64), John MacArthur, (65) to the opposite side, which includes Pentecostals like the Assembly of God (66, 67) and so forth. In his biography we read that “Bruce acknowledged annihilationism (the idea that the unbelieving cease to exist at some point whether after death or after the last Judgment) to be an acceptable interpretation of the New Testament evidence” (68) While he was not fully committed on the issue, and sometimes considered himself agnostic on hell, he wrote: “Eternal conscious torment is incompatible with the revealed character of God” (69)
View 4: Purgatory or Universal Reconciliation
This is by far one of the most controversial positions on hell and is often confused with a different view, called “Universalism” which is summarized by the adage “all roads lead to heaven” / ”everyone goes to heaven.” Traditionally UR was titled apokatastatis (restoration) by the early church fathers, and generally states that the fires of hell are redemptive and corrective. In other words, sinners will suffer in hell as retribution for their sins and refinement from their sins, then at some time become reconciled (Col 1:19-20) back to God, because “love wins.” Many conservative Christians who are open to Annihilationism being “wrong, but not heretical” would argue that apokatastasis is heretical, or that no one who believes this can still be a Christian. Oh really?
- Origen of Alexandria, born a little over 80 years after the death of Apostle John, was “the Church’s first true theologian and Bible scholar.” (70, 71) He translated scriptures, did textual criticism, wrote 6,000 scrolls of commentaries and sermons, was the father of Christological typology (72), and his textual work was later used to decide which books were canonical (in the Bible or not). (73) He was read and accepted by everyone in the early church, local Bishops would even call him in to publicly defend Christianity against the heretics. (74) Modern theologians admit that “forever is the Church indebted to Origen.” (75) And yet, it is well agreed that Origen was a prominent believer in the universal reconciliation of all creatures to God and spoke of all souls being “restored” unto God. (76) He hypothesized that even satan might join “after having undergone heavier and severer punishments…improved by this stern method of training, and [are] restored…and thus advancing through each stage to a better condition, reach even to that which is invisible and eternal” (77)
- Gregory of Nazianzus (329-390) was an Archbisop, and a widely influential theologian, who made “a significant impact on the shape of Trinitarian theology.” (78) For a short time until his resignation, he presided over the First Council of Constantinople, where the Nicene Creed (faith statement) was written and formulated. (79, 80) The Nicene Creed is one of the earliest, by far the most important, and the most universally accepted Christian creed; it is literally the most well known “standard of Christianity.” Most say Gregory of Nazianzus was definitely a firm proponent of universal reconciliation (81, 82, 83, 84, 85, 86) while a few others say he was merely open to it as a possibility. (87) In any case, he certainly didn’t think it outside normative Christian doctrine, saying “a few drops of blood renew the whole world, and become for all men that which rennet is for milk, uniting and drawing us into one.” (88)
- Gregory of Nyssa, who is venerated as a saint, was brother to St. Basil, and a bishop of Nyssa who made significant contributions to the doctrine of the Trinity. (89) He was also involved in the formation and defense the Nicene Creed, the most universal standard of Christianity. (90) Not only that, but there is a tradition that he “added the clauses to the Nicene creed that are in italics” (91) while others wrote this passed down tradition isn’t necessarily true. (92) Nonetheless Gregory was vastly influential in the formation of traditional Christian doctrine, whether or not he was, as theologian Robin Parry calls him: the “final editor” of the Nicene Creed. (93) Gregory is unanimously recognized as a proponent of universal reconciliation, writing things like “For it is evident that God will in truth be ‘in all’ when there shall be no evil in existence, when every created being is at harmony with itself, and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord; when every creature shall have been made one body. Now the body of Christ, as I have often said, is the whole of humanity.” (94)
- Abraham Lincoln, who besides making films about killing vampires (95), was also an American president, abolitionist, and Christian universalist. The president who said things like “those nations only are blessed whose God is the Lord” (96) wasn’t a fundamentalist or a traditionalist. “He was more of a Universalist than most Christians: he could not see how a God of infinite love could send persons into everlasting torment.” (97)
- George MacDonald is known for writing novels, yet he was also a Christian minister. His work has been largely influential upon many well-known Christians. C. S Lewis called MacDonald his “master” (98) G. K. Chesterton, a prominent theologian and apologist (who wrote the classic Christian book “Orthodoxy”), said MacDonald’s writing “made a difference to my whole existence” (99) Oswald Chambers, known for writing the world’s best-selling Christian devotional series, My Utmost for His Highest, also commended MacDonald, saying “how I love that man!” (100) MacDonald was also a devout Christian Universalist (101, 102), saying: “The notion that a creature born imperfect… born with impulses to evil not of his own generating, and which he could not help having, a creature to whom the true face of God was never presented, and by whom it never could have been seen, should thus be condemned to everlasting torment is as loathsome, a lie against God as could find place in a heart too undeveloped to understand what justice is, and too low to look up into the face of Jesus. It never in truth found place in any heart, though in many a pettifogging brain.” (103, 104)
- Paul Tillich is “widely regarded as one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century” (105) Some have said he was the “last major spokesman for a vanishing Christian culture, a systematic thinker who sought to demonstrate the reasonableness of the Christian faith to modern skeptics” (106) Granted it must be noted that Tillich is considered less than conservative, however, nonetheless he was “one of the most important theological influences in the twentieth century.” (107) Tillich was also leaning heavily to universal salvation (108, 109, 110)
- Jurgen Moltmann is an award-winning German Reformed theologian, who is a “major figure in modern theology” (111) and “one of the world’s most exciting and renowned theologians” (112) He was heavily influenced by Karl Barth, another German theologian (considered one of the most important Christian theologians ever, who was so unclear about universalism, that people are still fighting over which side he was on). Moltmann was also the mentor of Miroslav Volf (113), another very prominent and well known theologian, who is often quoted by Timothy Keller (114) Moltman himself is also esteemed, referenced, and cited by numerous Christian leaders, from Tim Keller, (115, 116 ) N.T. Wright, (117, 118) the SBC’s Russell Moore (119). Moltmann (who is very much alive, unlike previously reported) was honored by a recent book, edited by Volf and filled with essays from many prestigious and notable Christian theologians. (120) Moltmann is a Christian universalist. (121, 122, 123, 124) who wrote “The perpetrators of sin and violence will receive a justice which transforms and rectifies. They will be already transformed inasmuch as they will be redeemed only together with their victims. They will be saved by the crucified Christ, who will encounter them together with their victims.” (125) On a side note, his student Volf has said “I am not an universalist, but God may be” (126)
As you recall my only two points have been that
1. We ought not hold such dogmatic views about hell that would exclude many esteemed Christian leaders and early church fathers,
2. Christians should be free to think, question, and explore multiple views of hell.
Let’s close with a summary of the current scholarship in the world of biblical studies and theology, written by a widely published theologian.
- [From the era of Augustine (fifth century)] “until the nineteenth century almost all Christian theologians taught the reality of eternal torment in hell. Here and there, outside the theological mainstream, were some who believed that the wicked would be finally annihilated . . . Even fewer were the advocates of universal salvation, though these few included some major theologians of the early church… Since 1800 this situation has entirely changed, and no traditional Christian doctrine has been so widely abandoned as that of eternal punishment. Its advocates among theologians today must be fewer than ever before. The alternative interpretation of hell as annihilation seems to have prevailed even among many of the more conservative theologians. Among the less conservative universal salvation, either as hope or as dogma, is now so widely accepted that many theologians assume it virtually without argument.’ – Richard Bauckham (127)
(Bauckham is a well-recognized theologian, author, and professor who has won numerous book awards, including one from Christianity Today (128) His books are sold by reputable evangelical bookstores (129) and endorsed by numerous leaders, even Mark Driscoll at Mars Hill Church (130). Roger Olson, the renowned Arminian scholar calls Bauckham “one of the finest Christian scholars in the world today.” (131) As it happens, Bauckham is also an annihilationist. (132, 133)