Does the Bible teach a literal hell? In keeping with The Grit‘s tradition of rushing in where angels fear to tread, we thought it was time to tackle this disturbing and sensitive issue.
Is hell real? For a long time, nearly all Christians said ‘Yes’. Those condemned by God are tormented in eternal flame, forever and ever.
In modern times (i.e. since the 1700s) this view has become one of the most offensive aspects of the Christian faith. Many Christian believers have confessed they found it psychologically difficult to maintain the doctrine.
Also, in the c.19th, minority Christian sects (e.g. 7th day Adventists) began to question this teaching at the level of biblical exegesis. In the late c.20th, British evangelicals also began to question it. Leaders and scholars such as John Stott, Philip Hughes, John Wenham, F. F. Bruce and others found it difficult to support the traditional doctrine from an exegetical or a moral standpoint. C. S. Lewis was also pretty iffy about traditional hell (in The Problem of Pain).
By now, the doctrine of eternal hell has fallen from its position as ‘the one mainstream view’ agreed on by all Christians. This doctrine has broken up. Surveys show that many who consider themselves evangelicals no longer hold to ‘hell’. However, in our Sydney Diocese, hell is still considered the ‘orthodox’ view.
What’s the alternative? The main alternative position does not deny judgement, but sees the final result of God’s condemnation as being the destruction and non-existence of the person. This view has been called ‘annihilationism.’ It has become surprisingly widespread, given that it still feels like a pretty new view.
Actually the annihilationist position is not without ancient precedent. The great Irenaeus, and some other church fathers, taught that continued existence was a privilege enjoyed only as long as God sustained it. They did not teach eternal torment, but spoke of the cessation of existence. This minority view, however, did not gain much traction in Christendom.
Before we look at the biblical evidence, we will explore the two views a little more, see if we can get our collective head around them. What is at stake here?
In the past, what was at stake was something very simple and clear: the immortality of the soul. ‘Hell’ is based on the doctrine that the human soul is immortal. As such it goes on forever, in blessedness or damnation. Thus hell is everlasting. This view of humans was deeply important for Christendom for about 1500 years, although the church seems to have backed away from it nowadays. Very rare to hear anyone teach the immortality of the soul. We hardly talk about souls anymore, do we. But for centuries this doctrine was considered to be of the essence of Christian faith. The doctrine of everlasting torment was never a stand-alone concept: it was always a corollary of ‘the immortality of the soul’. ‘Hell’ was an integrated part of a larger package which was as much about anthropology as it was about eschatology.
N.B. The distinctive feature of the traditional ‘hell’ teaching was not the idea of judgement: that idea is common to both sides of the argument.
Our shift away from the ‘immortal soul’ idea is an important shift, and it has big implications for our belief in the attached doctrine regarding everlasting torment. Because the latter really does rest on the former. When people question the doctrine of hell today, they are often accused of being ‘soft’ on judgement. But if you’d questioned the doctrine of hell in 1500, people would have said, ‘Don’t you believe in the immortality of the soul?‘ I would suggest that the 1500s person was making the more acute observation.
It seems like we are left with a kind of floating doctrine: its foundation and the main reason for its importance has been taken away. Many churches have retained the dependent doctrine, but it is no longer clear how it connects to the body of teachings which make up the Christian faith.
So if we no longer care that much about an immortal soul, let’s ask again: what is at stake now in the argument about hell vs annihilationism?
From the point of view of those who hold the traditional ‘hell’ view, a few things are at stake: firstly, persuasive power. ‘Destruction’ is seen to be less of a threat than ‘eternal torment’ – a soft option, an easy way out, if you like! Kind of like suiciding to escape from hell. If we don’t have hell to get us leverage, people might not take God seriously. They might even be happy to be annihilated. That way they have no more liability for their past sins.
From a political point of view, annihilationism also smacks of ‘going soft’. We evangelicals have a highly attuned radar for compromise. It just seems too convenient that in the same era when hell has become offensive, Christians have discovered that it doesn’t exist! It was all a terrible mistake. We suspect the motives of these annihilationists. Aren’t they starting from a position of not wanting to believe in hell. And then, abracadabra, they make it disappear!
And if hell can go this century, what will go next? No doubt the whole idea of judgement will be found to be a mistake. The slippery slope. We worry a lot about slippery slopes, we evangelicals!
It is worth noting that none of these concerns is directly theological or doctrinal. There is no real suggestion that any other Christian doctrine, let alone the core matters of our faith, is threatened by annihilationism. The concerns are more at the practical and sociological level.
From the point of view of those who hold to annihilation, what’s at stake is the morality of God. Anyone who can plan a torture chamber where he will keep people in pain and misery, being tormented for all eternity – anyone who can do that is, frankly, a sicko. If tell that story about God, his goodness is impugned. If you taught that God enjoys kicking the heads of small children, you could hardly bring him into a greater disrepute than the doctrine of hell does. There must be better ways of dealing with evil, no?
And of course following on from that concern is the worry that by asking people to swallow this hideous hell doctrine, we are unnecessarily turning people off Christian faith. I.e., it’s damaging our mission.
Interesting that both sides feel the other view damages our mission.
We will explore the rights and wrongs of all this further. But one thing we can suggest already is, that this should not be an issue that divides Christians or churches. There are so many evangelical people on each side of the debate, that if we anathematise the other view, it’s going to mean a massive split in the movement. Haven’t we got better things to have massive splits over? No, I suggest this is a disagreement we’re just going to have to learn to live with, without reproaching or belittling each other. I reckon we can probably afford to have Christian brothers who are ‘misguided’ on this issue, without it keeping us awake at night. So we can study this issue without needing to gear up for a major war. No?
To that end, it’s worth pointing out what is not at stake here. Not at stake is our belief in the authority of Scripture: both sides of the debate accept that. People who don’t accept Scripture are not usually annihilationist: they are more likely to be universalist.
The other reason why belief in Scripture is not at stake here, is because Scripture has so very little to say that is overtly on the subject of hell, or the subject of the human soul. There’s actually not a great deal of material to exegete.
On which, more next time!