Where can I begin? Could there be a more controversial topic than hell, that is, the question of final punishment? I hope those of you who have read extensively on this subject will forgive me for oversimplifying the range of options for interpreting the nature of hell. But I don’t have the space in one essay to provide nuance.
Four Views of Hell
The Liberal View
Liberal theology long ago rejected the biblical doctrine of hell as an element alien to Jesus’ message of divine love and God’s universal fatherhood. The NT writers unthinkingly took this doctrine over from the fantastic apocalyptic speculations of contemporary Judaism. According to liberal theology, everyone will be saved. No need for hell.
Hell in Traditionalist Theology
At the other end of the spectrum are “traditionalists”, who hold that the Bible teaches that hell is a place where unrepentant sinners are tormented endlessly. Once in hell no one leaves; you can’t die and you will not be pardoned. Many traditionalists believe that the human soul was created by God immortal so that it cannot die or that it is irrevocably sustained in being by God forever to endure just punishment.
The Conditionalist View of Hell
Those who call themselves “conditionalists,” despite some variation, hold that hell is a place where unrepentant sinners experience death, that is, capital punishment. They cease to exist, body and soul. The term conditionalism refers to the mode in which human beings can be made immortal. Eternal life is not a natural or created quality of the human soul but a gift of divine grace given at the resurrection of the dead to those who place their hope wholly in Jesus Christ. For conditionalists, Romans 6:23 states this teaching unequivocally:
“For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Conditionalists argue that “death” in this text means literal death, that is, ceasing to exist, and not never-ending existence in agony, as traditionalists would have it. How long one spends in hell—on an infernal death row as it were—is a matter of debate among conditionalists. The point of agreement is that no one remains in hell forever and no one leaves except by dying. For a classic statement of conditionalism, see Edward Fudge, The Fire That Consumes, 3rd ed. (1982, 2011). See also Date and Highfield, A Consuming Passion: Essays on Hell and Immortality in Honor of Edward Fudge (2015).
The Evangelical Universalist View of Hell
In a fourth option, evangelical universalism, unlike liberal universalism, argues that the scriptures teach universal salvation. Robin Perry, aka Gregory MacDonald, articulates a particularly cogent case for universalism that includes an interesting doctrine of hell [The Evangelical Universalist, 2nd ed (2012)]. Parry attempts to account for all biblical data, some of which points in a universalist direction and some of which envisions a number of people serving some time in hell. Everyone will be saved eventually, but some will suffer in hell until they are ready for eternal life. Hell becomes a sort of purgatory, a place of purification for the sake of salvation rather than of punishment for the sake of damnation.
Next Time: Very soon I will post the second essay on hell, “Hell—Is There a Way Out?”