Many of us grow up hearing hell, fire, and brimstone messages in our churches from a very early age. In fact, many of us perhaps became Christians not so much out of a sincere desire to follow Christ, but out a fear of what he’d do to us if we didn’t. Hell is a powerful motivator—and Christians have been using it as a motivator for countless years.
This traditional view of hell is better described as “eternal conscious torment” because it teaches that God is going to torture the lost for all of eternity and that they will never die, lose consciousness, or obtain any sort of relief in their suffering. While as kids we either didn’t think to question the doctrine of traditional hell, or perhaps were too afraid to, there are a growing number of Christians today—both liberal and conservative—who are questioning the traditional view of hell, and for good reason.
First, our word for hell and all of the imagery that comes with it is a relatively new word in history, and certainly was not present in Old Testament times or the first century when the New Testament was written. In the Old Testament, there is only one word used when referring to the place of the dead, and this is the word sheol. The word simply means the “place of the dead” or the “grave” and is where Old Testament writers believed everyone went when they died—both the righteous and unrighteous. These ancient writers by and large did not share our modern concepts of heaven and hell—they believed that when people died, they died. However, over the course of time there did develop a hope among God’s people that one day the righteous would be resurrected—a hope still shared by nearly all Christians today.
In the New Testament, we find a few different words that often get translated into English as hell. Koiné Greek was a more precise language than English, so a variety of words- each with their own meanings and nuance, often get translated simply as “hell” and therefore adopt our modern concepts of hell- importing these concepts into the text. One of the more common words we find is the word hades, which is perhaps a functional equivalent to sheol- it is the place of the dead where everyone goes when they die. At times hades is described as a place of paradise (Luke 23:43) and other times a place of punishment (Luke 16:23), so it is a flexible word. Second, we find the word tartarus used only one time in reference to rebellious angels, and has the nuance of a deep, dark pit where they await the judgment of God. Thirdly, we find a common word used by Jesus that is often translated as hell, and this is the word Gehenna.
Gehenna is different than the other New Testament words for hell as it was an actual geographic place during the life of Jesus (the word actually means the Valley of the Son of Hinnom). Described by some as a garbage dump outside of Jerusalem, it was a place of historic weeping and gnashing of teeth because it is where children were previously sacrificed to Pagan gods. This was also a place where bodies were cremated, and where there was likely a fire continually burning. In many cases where Jesus uses this term, he is often referencing the coming destruction of Jerusalem (AD 70) and warning his generation as to how they could avoid having their bodies thrown into Gehenna.
Out of all these words, none of them have the exact same nuance that our English word hell tends to convey. Our modern concept of hell did not exist in ancient Judaism and is often more flavored by Dante’s Inferno than what actually occurs in the biblical text. Neither the ancient Jews nor the early Christians believed in our modern version of hell, as we see in the book of Acts (the story of the early church) the concept of hell is completely absent. This is not to say they were universalists; the early Christians believed that every human who ever lived would one day be judged and that we must be reconciled to God through Christ—but they did not use fear of hell to convey that message.
As a result of the nuance in the biblical text, there are three positions on hell, which are all considered part of orthodox Christianity: Eternal Conscious Torment, Annihilationism, and Christian Universalism. Here is a brief description of these positions and why they are all considered part of the orthodox Christian faith:
Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT)
ECT is perhaps the position most of us know well, because it is the dominant position of our day. This position teaches that the human soul is immortal and does not/cannot die. As such, the soul will exist eternally either with God or being tortured in hell for all of eternity.
This position uses the following texts in support of their position (this is not an exhaustive list): Matthew 25:41, 46; Mark 9:42–48; 2 Thessalonians 1:5–10; Revelation 14:9– 11; and Revelation 20:10, 14–15. This position was not the dominant position of the early church but has been the dominant position of the church since the post-Constantine era.
Annihilationism (also called Conditionalism)
The second orthodox position is Annihilationism/Conditionalism. This position disagrees with ECT in that it rejects the concept that human souls are immortal, arguing that God alone is immortal, as stated in 1 Timothy 6:16. Further, this position believes that souls can die as Jesus stated in Matthew 10:28. As such, Annihilationist believe that the “wages of sin is death,” meaning those who refuse to be reconciled to God are destined for eternal death (their soul ceases to exists), but that “the gift of God is eternal life” in that those who are reconciled to God are given the gift of immortality of the soul—eternal life. In short, those who fall into this category believe terms like the “wicked will be destroyed” are to be taken literally, whereas the ECT believes the terms “die” and “destroyed” are simply metaphoric for “will live forever in torture.”
This position uses the following verses to support their claim (not an exhaustive list): Psalm 1:6, Psalm 37:20, Psalm 69:28, Psalm 34:16, 21, Psalm 92:7, Proverbs 24:20, Dan 2:35, Isaiah 1:28, 30-13, Obadiah 1:16, Mal 4:1, Matthew 10:28, John 3:16, Matthew 7:13, 13:40, John 15:6, Phil 3:19, 2 Thess 1:9, 1 Cor 3:17, 2 Cor 2:15-16, Romans 6:23, Hebrews 10:39, James 4:12, 2 Peter 2:3, Revelation 20:14.
The position of annihilationism was the predominant position of the early church but has since become a minority view. However, this movement is gaining ground with both liberal Christians and conservatives.
Christian Universalism (Universal Redemption)
The third and final position on hell included under the umbrella of orthodox Christian positions is Christian universalism. This position is not the same as Unitarian Universalism, which would claim that “all flights go to Rome” or “every trail leads to the top of the mountain.” Christian Universalism, or the Universal Redemption Theory, remains an orthodox Christian view as it claims that Jesus Christ is the only way to be reconciled to God. Where it differs from the other orthodox views however is that it views the “fire” seen in scripture as being for the purpose of refinement instead of punishment. Under the Universal Redemption model it is believed that Christ will either refine everyone in the fires of his love- thus making them fit for heaven, or that Christ will continue to invite sinners to repent and be reconciled to God even from hell (postmortem repentance). This view still leaves room for a purgatorial hell of some sort, but argues hell will ultimately (one day) be empty, as all will ultimately choose to be reconciled to God through Christ.
This position uses the following passages to support their position (not an exhaustive list): John 12:32, John 3:17, Luke 3:6, Romans 5:18, Romans 11:32, 1 John 2:2, 1 Tim 4:10, Col 1:20, 1 Cor 15:22, Phil 2:11, 1 Cor 5:19, 1 Peter 4:6.
This position was held by some in the early church, but like annihilationism, fell out of favor—but is now gaining ground along side annihilationism.
Far too many of us grow up with a singular concept of hell—often one that seems to paint God as one who delights in torturing people. Thankfully, there are other options one can hold while still keeping one’s feet firmly planted in the historic, orthodox Christian faith.
The Religious Right has a case of amnesia, so here’s a helpful reminder for them: