Where the hell has Hell gone?


In a world of broken promises, imperfection and fallenness, there is an understandable human yearning that all may eventually be saved. It is compassionate, loving and enlightened to believe so. With the limitations of human understanding, and sensitivity to the vast complexities of human experience, social pressures beyond our control, an increasing awareness of genetic predisposition to certain characteristics, and deep inner struggles which are an everyday part of our fallen humanity, there is a powerful and persuasive case to be made for the non-existence of Hell. After all, what kind of God pre-ordains eternal punishment for temporal sin?

The moral disproportion between the finite nature of particular sins and the permanent, conscious, everlasting punishment in Hell is a genuine theological dilemma. There are scriptures which offer a hope: as death is said to have come to all men by Adam, so salvation came to all men through Jesus (Rom 5:18). Indeed, the word ‘all’ is used often when speaking of mankind for whom salvation has come (1Cor 15:51, Eph 1:10, 1Tim 2:4, 4:10), or the notion of reconciling ‘the world’ (2Cor 5:19). God’s mercy and love are vastly beyond our comprehension, and will flow like rivers even on the Day of Judgment. Indeed, the New Testament asserts that God is ‘all in all’ (1Cor 15:28), and it is understandably hard to reconcile a phrase like this with the existence of Hell.

There is a hope in ‘Universalism’, which massively transcends the narrow missiological approach of many Christians, especially in relation to those who are reconciled to God though they have never heard the gospel. Their redemption is still on the basis of Christ’s work, which is in no way diminished, but there is an acknowledgement that Christ’s work reached deeper and broader than any evangelical four-line prayer of salvation.

‘Universalism’ is a sincere attempt to reconcile God’s love and mercy with His justice and holiness, but it fails to take account of the scriptural realities: that one solitary sin is sufficient to drive us from God’s presence; that God’s authority can extend even to Hell (indeed, there is no scriptural warrant that Satan rules there); and that Jesus Himself taught an eternal punishment (Mt 25:31ff; Mk 3:29). The fact that the Son of God – God’s love incarnate – says more about Hell than any other individual in the Bible is certainly worthy of reflection. The notion that everyone ultimately makes it to Heaven is difficult to substantiate from Scripture. In addition, the Bible teaches that punishment will be by degrees (Lk 12:48), and St Paul’s reasoning in Romans 2 is a clear indication that punishment exists and will be meted out appropriately.

The moral arguments for the existence of Hell are powerful. It is reasoned that there has to be an afterlife so that earthly injustices may be compensated and accounts reckoned. In Hell, the necessary punishment for sin is meted out. Since few are punished for their evil and wrong-doing in this life, there is something in the human psyche that cries out for vengeance beyond the grave. Thus a belief in Hell becomes a necessity, but this moral requirement is not ‘proof’. Indeed, the dharmic belief in reincarnation addresses this precise rectifying need. There is also something rather more ‘humane’ in the soteriological theory of punishment consisting of living your next life as a dog or a beetle, rather than spending eternity in a place of indescribable anguish and torment, as Hell is popularly conceived.

The general Old Testament approach to death was that it simply marked the end of life, with both the righteous and the wicked destined for Sheol – the realm of the dead. The belief developed over centuries and millennia, but neither the concepts of bodily resurrection nor the existence of Sheol find much support in the canon of the Hebrew Bible. Sheol was variously referred to as ‘grave’ (Job 17:13), ‘death’ (Isa 28:15), or a place for the dead (Job 26:5f, Isa 14:9f). But it is to be noted that both the righteous and the unrighteous went there (Gen 37:35; Num 16:30ff). The fact that the Authorised Version translates ‘Sheol’ as ‘Hell’ is therefore misleading, for Sheol was a recognisably ‘neutral’ space for departed souls; not a place of anguish and torment.

It becomes easy to see how the neutrality of Sheol morphed into the Christian concepts of Heaven and Hell. Since Sheol abruptly ended man’s fellowship with God (Ps 6:5, 30:9, 115:17), it became ‘necessary’ to discover a more positive hope for the righteous, and a just form of punishment for the wicked. Justice, after all, still cries out. Psalm 73 (and Ecclesiastes 4:1ff, 7:15) ponders the effective injustice of a neutral Sheol for all eternity: regardless of one’s actions in this life, everyone ended up in the same gloom. The wicked prospered, the righteous suffered, and nothing of this injustice seemed to be righted in Sheol. Why try to be good when good and bad alike just end up in the same cavern?

Since death is the great equaliser, the concept of Sheol (Gr. ‘Hades’) had to develop into a temporary state, following which would be a resurrection and division into Heaven or Hell. Resurrection is a belief rooted in the character of God. The clear implications of Jesus’ teaching (Mk 12:24ff) is that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are still living, and that there is life after death. But it must be noted that Scripture indicates that there will also be a resurrection of unbelievers (Dan 12:2; Mt 25:31-46; Acts 24:15; Rev 20:12, 15). Clearly, the righteous and the unrighteous are to be judged. This is clearly not an intermediate state of disembodied spirits, but a clear indication of bodily resurrection.

The notion of an eternal soul quite obviously leads to the existence of an eternal home, be it Heaven or Hell, yet the belief in immortality owes more to Hellenistic influences than to scriptural proof. It is in Plato’s theory of ideas that the physical body is a hindrance and the soul is immortal. The Hellenistic background of Western civilisation syncretised with the Jewish apocalyptic background of Jesus, certainly influencing the writings of St Paul and his approach to Gnosticism, and so now Christians tend to believe the soul to be immortal simply because it is a soul: it will survive death because it is incapable of dying.

Such a hypothesis is simply non-existent in Jewish belief, yet this Greek concept has infiltrated Christian tradition, and the immortality of the soul demands that an eternal ecstasy in Heaven be counterbalanced by punishment without consumption or destruction. Scriptures are adduced to support this view (eg Mt 10:28; Jn 2:19; Acts 7:95; 1Pt 3:19), yet examination of these establishes that none of them does anything more than support existence beyond death. And they certainly do not disprove the concept of ‘soul-death’. There are clear references in Scripture to God being eternal, but there are no comparable statements suggesting that man or the soul of man is intrinsically immortal. Indeed, the references to a ‘tree of life’ (Gen 2:9; 3:22) rather suggest that man was not created with immortality.

There are some who posit the notion of a ‘second chance’ after death; that is to say our destiny is not irrevocably fixed at the point of earthly departure. We then arrive at the doctrine of Purgatory and associated with prayers for the dead (Maccabees 12:39-45), which demands a further period of soul purgation before admission to Heaven. The concept has captivated literary minds over the ages simply because it is somewhat ‘fairer’ than an eternity in Hell. Hamlet’s father was:

Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confin’d to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes, done in my days of nature,
Are burnt and purg’d away.

Scriptures such as 1 Corinthians 3:15 are sometimes cited to support the doctrine, though this reference is more likely to be the judgment of a believer’s works. Purgatory is more of an anteroom to Heaven rather than a denial of Hell: it entertains and sustains the hope of entry to Heaven of many who, from an earthly perspective, we may think merit exclusion if not eternal damnation. Nero? Mao Zedong? Gengis Khan? Pol Pot? Adolf Hitler? Josef Mengele? Osama bin Laden? Kim Il Sung? Are they really being purged and prepared for eternal salvation?

The ‘second chance’ theory is more readily supported by 1 Peter 3:18f and 4:6. While there are disputes of interpretation these are clearly spirits in prison to whom Jesus preaches or proclaims salvation. The context would support the view that these spirits are those of people who died before the flood, but scholars now tend toward the majority view that they are fallen angels (Gen 6:1-4, Jude 6, 2Pt 2:4). Whoever they are, it is eisegetical to adduce that these spirits were offered salvation in some ‘second chance’ saloon. It must be more theologically coherent to cling to the plain meaning of Hebrews 9:27 than to extract the possibility of another chance of salvation after death from scant verses of Scripture which are less than transparent in meaning. We are, after all, talking about eternal salvation. The Bible consistently treats death as the ultimate crisis, the crisis at which for all time, no, for all eternity, our destiny is fixed.

So, if ‘Universalism’ has no scriptural warrant, and there is no ‘second chance’ of salvation after death; and if righteous souls are divided from the unrighteous ones on the Day of Judgment, then logic demands the belief in a ‘hell’ of some description. Precisely what form Hell takes ranges from eternal fire and brimstone to soul annihilation, for the latter is indeed a kind of hell (being the antithesis of eternal life in the presence of perfect love).

Jesus added to the Sheol/Hades concept the word ‘Gehenna’, a term which represented the Valley of Ben Hinom. It was a notorious place of appalling depravity: child sacrifice (2Kgs 23:10; Jer 7:31, 32:34f); terror and fire (Isa 31:9); perpetual decay (Isa 66:24; Jer 7:30ff). Inter-testamental literature suggests that Gehenna was a place of ‘terrible, raging, undying fire’, for all whose ‘heart was evil’, with ‘gnashing teeth’, and people yearning for death as a release (Sybilline Oracles I, 100-103). It is easy to see how such imagery came to represent the popular literary representation of Hell, exemplified by Christopher Marlow in Dr Faustus:

…let thine eye with horror stare
Into that vast perpetual torture-house.
There are the furies tossing damned souls
On burning forks; there bodies boil in lead;
There are live quarters broiling on the coals
That ne’er can die.

It becomes difficult to divorce the fiction and fantasy from the spiritual reality; almost impossible to separate the literal references to Gehenna from the symbolic. But it is clear that it came to represent the future judgment of God. Fire is a common Old Testament symbol of judgment, and it pervades the New Testament picture of Gehenna (Mt 25:41; Rev 20:10,15), along with the wrath of God (Rom 2:5; Rev 6:16, 14:10f). Some scholars adhere to the absolute letter of words like ‘unquenchable’ or ‘worm does not die’ to assert that inner anguish and outer suffering (symbolised by fire) will never end. For biblical literalists, if the figures used in this passage do not mean unending suffering, they mean nothing at all. Yet this is to ignore or misunderstand the meaning and purpose of the apocalyptic – it is a precise function of the language to evoke a sense and feeling of horror, for being cast into eternal blackness, oblivion, lost, eternal death, will indeed be a terrifying punishment.

The fact that Jesus employs apocalyptic language does not in any way negate the reality of the experience He is talking about. Metaphors, after all, can have teeth, and the complex metaphors available to first-century Jews had particularly sharp ones. Jesus evokes feelings of pain, regret, shame and frustration (Mt 8:12, 13:42), all of which constitute part of a permanent impossibility of access to God.

But there is one plausible possibility which answers ‘fairer’ the moral outrage of eternal suffering as the price for ephemeral sin, and that is the notion of conditional immortality. Accepting that the innate immortality of the soul is a purely Hellenistic view, ‘annihilationism’ proposes that ultimately unbelievers simply cease to exist; that immortality is conditional, and therefore a gift from God. Scripture affirms that God gives ‘life’ to whom he pleases (Dan 12:2; Mt 10:28; Jn 5:21); it is part of the gift of salvation (2Tim 1:9), which God therefore withholds to the non-believer, resulting in eternal death. Further, Jesus told us to ‘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(Mt 10:28), thereby adding credence to the idea of the death of the soul. The belief that punishment may be regarded as destruction is linked to the imagery of the second death (Rev 2:11, 19:20, 20:6-14, 21:8). This ‘second death’ is distinct from physical death: it apparently comprises a final state of eternal separation from the presence of God which will not be experienced by non-believers (Rev 20:8).

But ‘Annihilationism’ is sometimes criticised for not being a punishment; the presumption being that punishment must involve suffering and pain. We may smack a child for being naughty, but often the withholding of reward can be far more effective. The ultimate punishment of serious crime in some countries is death, and this annihilation is often viewed as a more severe punishment than a mundane and meaningless existence of life imprisonment. The truth is that the unsaved may experience their punishment in their realisation of what they have lost: the sight of some going to the eternal presence and companionship of God may well induce ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’. And just as the first death may involve pain and fear, there is no indication that the second death will be in the slightest bit enjoyable. In this instance, the concept of ‘eternal’ punishment (Isa 66:24; Mk 9:42-48; Rev 20:10) ceases to be time-bound. It is seen more as an act of judgment whose results are irreversible. Although the imagery used of Hell sometimes gives the impression of a place, this is less dominant than the idea of a state of condemnation. ‘Annihilationism’, as a state, does not denigrate eternal justice or mitigate the wrath of God because the second death is everlasting (2Thess 1:9).

Ultimately, of course, the existence (or not) of Hell is a matter of faith. There is no proof of its existence, but nor is there proof to the contrary. The foundations ultimately have to rest on a belief in God and His revelation of Himself and His purposes. Judgment is divine and inevitable (Mt 18:23ff, 25:31ff), and everybody will be brought to account (Heb 9:27, 1Pt 4:5). Through this judgment, God will punish what is evil and reward what is good. If God did not hold us responsible for our words, actions, attitudes and decisions, it would mean that ultimately nothing we say, do, think or believe is significant. The outcome of judgment has to be separation: the sheep follow Christ to the kingdom He has prepared for them, and the goats who have rebelled against Christ and will go to Hell.

It may no longer be possible to believe in Dante’s inferno, or the literal approach to the eternal ‘gnashing teeth’ Hell of Gehenna. But God’s final judgment demands an option for those who have chosen a permanent non-relationship with him, and if Hell may be defined as such – as either a place or a state – then belief in it is both theologically unavoidable and a scriptural necessity.