My own Problem with Hell
It is worth mentioning that the doctrine of hell is not something that I hold with victorious spirit – such as expressing gladness that others (even bin Laden) are going there. If there was one doctrine that I could dismiss, this would be the first one to go. There is a visceral response that anyone with a heart should feel when contemplating the fate of the unsaved. There are many friends and relatives that I know who (from all outwards signs) have not placed their trust in Jesus’ free gift of salvation. If this doesn’t change by the end of their life or the return of Christ, then according to Scripture they are bound for eternal conscious torment and separation from God. This makes me very sad. A quote from J.I. Packer reaffirms my sentiment, “No evangelical, I think, need hesitate to admit that in his heart of hearts he would like universalism to be true. Who can take pleasure in the thought of people being eternally lost? If you want to see folks damned, there is something wrong with you.”[i]
The issue rather is whether I can dismiss the doctrine of hell and be consistent with Scripture. If I’m confident that the Bible is the Word of God (I am because of a whole host of reasons), then I’m obligated to believe what it teaches. C.S. Lewis expressed this same thing in his famous quote, “I would pay any price to say truthfully, ‘All will be saved.’”[ii] This is further complicated by the fact that Jesus spoke some of the most damning passages in regards to hell. The second person of the Trinity, the God-man, who was perfect (not only in morality, but in his knowledge of God the Father and his plan for humankind) told us about many things, of which hell was prominent.
The real question is not “How can God send people to eternal punishment?” or “God wouldn’t do this, would he?”, but rather “Can I worship a God who has revealed to us these truths about hell?” Isaiah 55:9 states that God’s ways and thoughts are infinitely higher than my own. Who am I to question his ways or his activities? This would be similar to the clay telling the potter what he should and should not do. My motivations are to determine what God has revealed in his Scripture and whatever truths I discover should have an impact on the way I live my life. Hell is just too important to get wrong.[iii]
General Concept of Hell
I believe it is helpful and important to begin with a brief outline of the historic understanding of the doctrine of hell. With this outlined, it becomes easier to distinguish where Bell has differed. A general definition of death is “separation,” and there are three types of death. The first type of death is physical death, where the soul (or soul and spirit) is separated from the body. This is the sentence that Adam and Eve received when they first sinned – they began to physically die (aging) – and this has been passed down to all of mankind. Romans 5:12 states, “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned.” Jesus overcame physical death at the resurrection (John 11:25-26) and eventually everyone will experience a physical resurrection (John 5:28-29, Romans 20:6). Spiritual death is the second form of death, as the separation of the individual from God because of sin. This same curse was also passed on to Adam and Eve – and to their descendents. This separation can be annulled by restoring a right relationship with God by spiritual regeneration (John 3:3-6, Col 1:27, Titus 3:5). The last type of death is eternal death or separation of the individual from God eternally. This is in contrast to eternal life. All people are destined for this “second death” (Rev. 20:14-15) unless they place their trust in Jesus Christ. Rev 20:14-15 reads, “Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” Therefore, there is no second chance after death as Hebrews 9:27 makes clear, “Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment.”
All people will live forever, but the destinies are different for the lost and the saved. The word “everlasting” and “eternal” does denote a quality of life as much as the quantity of duration. The saved will receive a new body (substance), but still be the same individual (soul) and be present with the Lord and be ushered into a New Heaven and New Earth. The unsaved will have the destiny of hell, which is an eternal separation from God. This has been described as “fire” (Rev. 20:10), “darkness” (Matt 8:12, Jude 13), “no rest” (Isa. 57:20-21, Rev 14:11), “brimstone” (Rev. 14:10; 19-20; 20:10; 21:8) and “thirst” (Luke 16:24). Although we like to use “softer” words like “eternal separation from God,” there is also the idea of “torment” in hell passages such as Matt. 8:29, Luke 16:23-25, and Rev 20:10. Rev 20:10 as one example states,
“And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.” Jesus himself describes this place in Matt 25:30 as “the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Scripture also reveals that this judgment will be different for each person: greater for some (Luke 10:12-14; 11:31-32), more tolerable for others (Matt 11:20-24) and double for some (Rev 18:5-6).
Although some might protest, Scripture is clear that we all deserve this punishment or destiny because of our sin. God is just and would not punish anyone for something he did not deserve. Prominent scholar Craig Blomberg states that this punishment is not arbitrary or vindictive, but rather is a just and fair expression of God’s love in honoring the choices of individuals.[iv] There is also the reality that since God’s ways are so much higher than our ways, his justice may not make sense to us. In line with this thought, J.I. Packer suggests that since we are imperfectly sanctified, we cannot fully understand God’s justice.[v] I suspect that when we are in God’s presence, we will have a better idea of God’s justice. This is expressed in Revelation 19:1-3, where a loud voice of the multitude cries out for praise to God because of his justice, “’Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for true and just are his judgments. He has condemned the great prostitute who corrupted the earth by her adulteries. He has avenged on her the blood of his servants.’ And again they shouted: ‘Hallelujah! The smoke from her goes up for ever and ever.’”
History of the Doctrine of Hell
It is vital to understand the history of the doctrine of hell especially in light of Bell’s assertion that divergent views of hell were in the center of Christianity since the beginning. To be fair, there have been those throughout Christian history who have subscribed to an annihilation view of hell (or conditionalism) as represented by a minority – even today in the Christian denomination Seventh Day Adventists. I believe annihilation doesn’t hold up to the biblical evidence, but since Bell is not taking this approach, I will not be attempting to refute this view.[vi] The real question is whether universalism ideas of hell have been in the center of Christianity since the beginning. Bell doesn’t footnote any texts for his historical claims, except mention a few names without even explaining that for some (e.g. Origin), their views were later considered heretical. In one blatant example he claims that Luther wrote that there was a possibility that people could turn to God after death (p 106). After looking up the entire quote in context, it is clear that Luther was not advocating this at all. Rather he claimed that certainly no one could doubt God’s ability to impart faith after death if He chose to, but because the Bible teaches nothing about this, faith in this life is crucial for salvation.[vii]
Bell does list some early Christian writers (Jerome, Basil and Augustine) who recognized that some advocated some form of universalism, but this does not mean that these views were in the center of Christianity. These writers also combated against other heresies of the day as well. Certainly there have been heretical views of all essential Christian doctrine since the New Testament was penned – especially in the early centuries as Christianity’s core beliefs were cemented. Heresies actually played a key role as a mirror to orthodoxy and a way for the early Church to firmly establish boundaries on doctrines. We even have NT writers already bumping up against “false teachings” such Docetism (Jesus didn’t come in the flesh) in 2 John 1:7 or Gnosticism (another Hellenistic view involving esoteric knowledge as the way to salvation) in Col 2:8-23. But the existence of false teaching does not mean that all views were considered equally valid or consistent with the “rule of faith” passed down from the apostles – eventually expressed in creeds and ecumenical councils. I wonder if Bell would take the same leniency with those who claimed Jesus wasn’t divine as in the 4th century Arian heretical movement that still exists today in Jehovah’s Witnesses. Arianism can be found in various movements for the past 2000 years, but it has always been condemned. When it comes to heresies, there is “nothing new under the sun.”
What we find is that the earlier preachers and theologians all thought of hell as the just punishment for those without faith in Jesus Christ. These early writers thought of hell as spatial and eternal and used biblical metaphors such as fire and torment to describe it.[viii]
It isn’t until Origen in third century where the first major objection to the doctrine of hell arose. Origen was the pioneer for universalism with his doctrine of apokatastasis that promised the ultimate restitution of all things. He thought of hell as purifying and temporal, but all would be reconciled to the Creator (even Satan and the fallen angels).
At the fifth ecumenical council (Constantinople II), Origen’s views (including universalism) were deemed heretical. The ninth anathema states clearly, “If anyone says or thinks that the punishment of demons and of impious men as only temporary, and will one day have an end, and that a restoration [apokatastasis] will take place of demons and of impious men, let him be anathema.”[ix] Protestants, Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians throughout the ages have always looked to at least the first five ecumenical councils as representing the core of the Christian faith.
Augustine (5th century) refuted those in his day who thought hell was not eternal. Augustine stated, “Moreover, is it not folly to assume that eternal punishment signifies a fire lasting a long time, while believing that eternal life is without end? For Christ, in the very same passage, included both punishment and life in one and the same sentence when he said, ‘So those people will go into eternal punishment, while the righteous will go into eternal life.’ [Matt 25:46] If both are ‘eternal,’ it follows necessarily that either both are to be taken as long-lasting but finite, or both as endless and perpetual.” With Augustine, we have the most influential theologian in the Western Church condemning a non-eternal view of hell.
Interestingly enough, the doctrine of hell was not challenged for over a century until the Enlightenment, but even these assaults had little impact on the doctrine. The 20th century is when we begin to see many more attacks on the doctrine of hell. Many tried to demythologize hell from the Christian “story” as an attempt to modernize the religion by removing this symbol of embarrassment. This doctrine soon became a watershed issue for evangelicals, who both believed and preached it. However, since the 1980s, there have evangelicals who have parted ways with this doctrine, such as Clark Pinnock and Edward Fudge by adopting annihilation. Others too have followed with views such as universalism, inclusivism, postmortem evangelism and conditional immortality, when previously evangelicals in former times opposed these same proposals.[x]
The point of reviewing this history is two-fold. One is to demonstrate that Bell is not being accurate about his picture of the early church and mainstream acceptance of universalism. Certainly, Bell would be correct that the current climate of the 21st century has proponents of this view, but he doesn’t lay hold to this fact. The second reason is that there is some credibility to what the early church taught and preached. Doctrines are not some arbitrary statements that some “ancient people” long ago penned without some reference to the “rule of faith” passed on to them by the Apostles and by the written Word of God. For the same reason that Bell wishes to attach his views to early Christians, there is a “weighty-ness” that comes with these Fathers of early Christianity. C.S. Lewis warns us of what he called “chronological snobbery, the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.”[xi] Ultimately, any argument one makes in regards to hell needs to hinge on Scriptures, but one should not ignore the opinion and work of intellectual giants who shoulders we stand upon.
[i] J.I. Packer, “Evangelicals and the Way of Salvation,” in Evangelical Affirmations, ed. Kenneth S. Kantzer and Carl F. H. Henry (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1990), 117.
[ii] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (Glaspow: William Collins Sons, 1983), 106.
[iv] Craig Blomberg, New Testament Survey Lectures – specifically on Romans 1.
[v] J.I. Packer, delivered a lecture at Cardiff in 1991 entitled Human Destiny available here – http://against-heresies.blogspot.com/2010/11/hell-annihilation-and-human-destiny-j-i.html
[vi] For a thorough treatment of annihilation, please refer to Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson, ed., Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment: Hell Under Fire (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2004).
[vii] Martin Luther, Works, ed. G. Winke and H.T. Lehmann, vol. 43, Devotional Writings (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), 53-54.
[viii] R. Albert Mohler Jr., “Modern Theology: The Disappearance of Hell” in Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment: Hell Under Fire (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2004), 17.
[ix] “The Anathemas Against Origen,” in The Seven Ecumenical Councils of the Undivided Church, ed. Henry R. Percival (NPNF; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972 ), 320.
[x] I would invite the reader to study the chapter “Modern Theology: the Disappearance of Hell” by R. Albert Mohler in Hell Under Fire for a more complete historical picture of this doctrine.
[xi] C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (Orlando, Florida: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1955), 207.