Is Hell Temporary or Eternal
As we live and work with the unsaved, it can sometimes be difficult to keep a grasp on the enormity of impending judgment. C.S. Lewis writes, “It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet…only in a nightmare.”1 Some Christians today attempt to avoid an eternal hell and call for a belief in universal reconciliation. However, the scriptural basis for such a belief is lacking. Based upon scripture which speaks of sin, justice, reconciliation, and eschatological punishment, the belief that hell is a temporary place from which people may escape is almost certainly false.
Christian Views on Hell
The predominant Christian belief on hell has been the eternal conscious torment (ECT) view of hell. However, historically, there have been two other major non-orthodox beliefs about hell: annihilationism and universalism. Theologian Preston Sprinkle writes, “Theologians and writers such as Karl Barth, C.S. Lewis, John Stott, and N.T. Wright all believe in hell, but their depictions don’t match what many Christians have believed.”2 In the last century there has been a renewed interest in the non-orthodox views of hell and many influential Christian leaders have advocated for these positions.
Eternal Conscious Torment
The traditional orthodox understanding of hell is a place of eternal conscious torment. Douglas Groothuis sums up the traditional position well, “There is eternal life to gain or lose, depending on the answer to God. But the loss, biblically understood, is far more than a mere forfeiture of gain; there is instead an inheritance of pain, both mental and physical, perpetually and without respite.”3 ECT has been the primary position of the church for over a thousand years. To the holder of ECT, eternal death is an eternal state of separation from God. The damned are placed into the Lake of Fire4, or Hell, where they are tormented “day and night forever and ever”.5
Like the ECT view, Annihilationism views punishment as eternal, although “eternal” is used in a different sense. Instead of an eternal prison, as in the ECT view, annihilationism argues for an eternal end to conscious life, in other words, capital punishment.6 This view, by definition, is incompatible with a temporary hell. Passages which annihilationists use in support of their position generally stress the eternality of the punishment and therefore add support to an eternal hell.
Universalists believe in a universal reconciliation; God’s love will eventually overpower the resistance of even the most ardent sinner and all mankind will be reconciled to him. Universalist Dr. Robin Parry writes, “What makes universalism universal is simply its insistence that ‘God will reconcile all people.’ Does this mean that universalists don’t believe in eschatological punishment? No. There is eschatological punishment, but ‘in the end’ there will be deliverance.”7 However, some universalists may not truly believe in eschatological punishment. For example, former pastor Rob Bell’s bestselling book Love Wins 8 says, “We need a word that refers to the big, wide, terrible evil that comes from the secrets hidden deep within our hearts all the way to the massive, society-wide collapse and chaos that comes when we fail to live in God’s world God’s way. And for that, the word “hell” works quite well.”9 Bell’s hell may be more akin to Origen’s10 view of hell as internal anguish.11
Must We Talk about Hell?
Some Christians would prefer that the doctrine of hell simply be ignored, left to die on its own.12 Must we even talk about it? However, since Jesus speaks of hell, what right do we have as Christians to write it out of our sermons? Theologian Larry E. Dixon writes, “The fate of the wicked is already being discussed, debated, and supposedly debunked. We dare not stand on the sidelines of that discussion.”13 If Hollywood television and movies can talk about hell, the devil, and the supernatural, so should Christians.
Furthermore, if the ECT view of hell is correct, we as Christians have an obligation to warn the world of coming judgment and punishment. A gospel without hell has “no teeth”. 14 Dixon writes,
When the message about Jesus Christ is expressed only in terms of providing a superior joy or peace to that which the world offers, already joyful and peaceful pagans patronize the messenger and ignore the message. Rather than trying to convince non-Christians that they really aren’t that happy, Christians need to faithfully proclaim the complete Gospel. That complete Gospel says, for example, that happiness without holiness is counterfeit Christianity, that self-fulfillment and a positive self-image do not bring eternal forgiveness.15
If the ECT view is correct, Christians have considerably more reason to reach out to unbelievers, and indeed, must do so. The gospel changes dramatically depending on our view of hell. We must talk about hell.
What Does the Bible Say about an Eternal Hell?
Sin and Justice
From the ECT view, sin and justice are inextricably linked to the reason for an eternal hell. ECT advocate Danny Burk writes,
The seriousness of sin – and thus of the punishment due to sin – is not measured merely by the sin itself but by the value and the worth of the one sinned against…[God] is not exactly like you and me. God is holy and infinite. He is compassionate and gracious. He is the definition of beauty. He is infinitely more precious than the tiniest baby. He is infinitely more noble than the best person. He is the first and best of beings. His glory and worth are boundless. Thus to sin against an infinitely glorious being is an infinitely heinous offense that is worthy of an infinitely heinous punishment.16
But it is not just God of whom we must maintain a high view. Burk continues, “We tend to have a diminished view of sin – and thus of judgment due to sin – because we have a diminished view of God.”17 Groothuis notes that no amount of suffering could pay for our sin; only the sacrifice of the son of God could do that.18 Therefore, the sinner’s rejection of the grace of God causes perpetual suffering. We must maintain the seriousness of sin, whether or not you agree with Burk’s position that all sin is an infinite transgression and therefore worthy of infinite punishment. Sin is not a trifle to God. God is slow to wrath,19 but when his wrath arrives, it is fierce.20 Israel, God’s chosen people, was on the receiving end of God’s warning and eventual wrath as much or more than any other nation. God’s great graciousness toward those who sin is shown on the cross.21 Yet God’s graciousness toward us does not diminish his hatred of sin, it just means he has provided us a way out. Some Universalists perhaps cheapen sin by pointing to how “good” some people of history have been, such as Mahatma Gandhi.22 They question how a good God could send such a “good” person to hell. But we must remember that all are guilty in God’s sight without the cross.23
Furthermore, Christianity predicts our intuitive sense of wrongness in the world. We feel that something is deeply and profoundly not right with the world, and it should not be this way. Perhaps this is why secularists and humanists feel called to social justice activities. But these activities will ultimately be both perpetual and ineffectual. But something is wrong with the world; sin has entered mankind, and the world is not right. Yet Christianity also has a resolution: one day, the world will be set right. Justice will come.24
God does not force people into hell. On a libertarian view of freedom25 (which I hold), God allows people to choose hell over heaven. As C.S. Lewis has famously said, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: Those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in hell chose it. Without that self-choice, there would be no hell.”26 God’s wrath falls upon the wicked, but that does not mean God enjoys being the punisher.27 God clearly gives warning before punishment, over, and over again. In the Gospels, Jesus pleads with people to turn from their evil ways and escape damnation.28
Reconciliation is only possible between two parties interested in reconciling. If the offensive party reaches out to the other for forgiveness and the other refuses it, there can be no reconciliation. Likewise, if the offended party reaches out to the other, offering forgiveness and the other refuses to accept it, there may be forgiveness, but not reconciliation. Our relationship to God is the same way. On a libertarian view of freedom, God has reached out to us with forgiveness and grace, offering us a way to salvation. It is up to us to accept that offer and form the other side of the bond. Only then can we be reconciled with God.
Jesus and Eternal Punishment
41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Parry responds to these texts, noting that “eternal” here could, based on the Greek, mean a period of time, or an age. So, Jesus could be referring to the next age to come, and whether that age is eternal or not is not at issue here.29 He also notes that this same phrase is used in Jude 7 to describe the punishment of Sodom and Gomorrah, but their punishment only lasted a day.30 However, the ESV Study Bible points out that according to various contemporaneous texts, such as the Wisdom of Solomon 10:7, the site of Sodom and Gomorrah yet smoked in the 1st Century A.D.31
This view would seem to remove eternal life as well! Parry responds, saying, “The life of the age to come is indeed everlasting. We know this, however…because eternal life is a participation with Christ’s own incorruptible resurrection life (1 Cor. 15) and his relationship with the Father (John 17:3).”32 But now it would appear that given the parallel in verse 46, Parry has regained eternal punishment. If eternal life is truly everlasting, then how could eternal punishment not be so as well?
Parry’s interpretation of “eternal” here is not at all clear. For example, the same Greek word is used to describe God in Romans 16:26. Moreover, even if we assume Parry is correct in interpreting “eternal” as describing the next age, both would seem to extend the length of the next age. Parry responds again saying, “Eschatological punishment lacks any Christ-centered theological basis for being everlasting. So eschatological life and punishment are parallel in belonging to the age to come, but are not parallel in needing to endure for the entirety of the age to come.”33 This seems tenuous at best to me. Parry shifts the meaning of the word, but there remains a parallel. To stretch “eternal” into different meanings when used by the same author, in the same context, and in parallel, seems a strained exegesis.
24 “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. 25 When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then he will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ 26 Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ 27 But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!’ 28 In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out.
According to the Universalist view, one must say and affirm that this door remains open forever. Yet Christ is explicit that at some point, God will rise and shut the door. Those who come to the door would be those who, on a Universalist view, are seeking repentance after death. Yet does God say, “Welcome,” and open the door? No, he says “Depart from me, all you workers of evil!” Jesus is clear, and judgment is eternal.
Was Paul a Universalist?
19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
18 Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.
1 Corinthians 15:22
22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.
1 Timothy 2:3-4
3 This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, 4 who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
If these were our only texts pertaining to the salvation and punishment of man, all of Christianity would likely be Universalists. Is Paul a universalist then? Certainly not, for within Paul’s own writings we see eternal punishment as well.
Paul Was Not a Universalist
28 and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God.
18 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ,
23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
2 Thessalonians 1:6-9
6 since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, 7 and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels 8 in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9 They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might,
Clearly, Paul’s thought is not so clear cut. In Philippians 2:9-11, Paul is quoting Isaiah 45:23, but in verse 22, Isaiah says, “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other.” This points to a willing submission to God, and further, in 66:23-24: “All flesh shall come to worship before me, declares the Lord. And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.” As Pastor Francis Chan and Theologian Preston Sprinkle write, “And that’s how Isaiah ends. There will be restoration for those who turn to God, and judgment followed by punishment for those who don’t.”35 Further, they write, “So what does Philippians 2:9-11 mean? It means that there will come a day when Christ returns to reclaim His creation, and everyone will acknowledge this. King Jesus will reign, and none will be able to deny it.”36
Chan and Sprinkle also point out that 1 Corinthians 15:22 cannot mean universal salvation, for the context clearly indicates the second resurrection.37 Paul would be contradicting himself later in 16:22, “If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed.”38 They point out additionally that “all people” in the New Testament can often be used hyperbolically. For example, in Acts 12:28, they note, “Paul is accused of preaching to ‘all men everywhere’ (NASB).”39 So then, if it doesn’t mean every literal person, what does it mean? Chan and Sprinkle believe it can mean “all types”, or in some other cases, “a large number of people”, and that fits the context as well.40
This further applies to 1 Timothy 2:4, where we can see that if “all” means “all types”, then this passage is saying that God is not bigoted, he is not interested in saving only the Jew, or only the Greek, but all types of people.41 Further, if we think of this in terms of libertarian free will and salvation, God’s desire is for all mankind to be saved, that’s why he sent Jesus. But as argued above,42 there are two parts to reconciliation. Jesus has accomplished God’s part, but we must still accept and believe to accomplish our part. There are many other texts that bear upon this discussion, such as those in Revelation, but those above provide enough of a basis to come to a conclusion.
Contrary to Universalism’s claims, the scriptural argument that the gates of heaven will stay open indefinitely is weak. Verse after verse points to death, then judgment, then eternal life or eternal death, eternal union with God or eternal separation from God. The Old Testament points to it, Jesus taught it, and his followers taught it. The belief that hell is temporary simply has no strong scriptural basis.
However, this cannot simply be an academic exercise. The Christian must realize the enormity of what they consider. On the ECT view, we are talking of the separation of a creation of God, from God, for eternity. Our passion to reach the lost must be unending. We cannot take lightly our great duty and task to reach those on the path to eternal punishment. This must be real to us. Christianity cannot be merely a personal religion, absent any of attempt to reach those around us. God is the final arbiter and judge, not us, but it is our duty to love those who have not met his standard and to draw them into a personal saving knowledge of him and his wonderful grace.
C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory” in The Weight of Glory (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 45. ↩
Preston Sprinkle, “Introduction,” in Four Views on Hell, 2nd ed., eds. Stanley N. Gundry, Preston Sprinkle (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016), 9. ↩
Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, USA, 2011), 653. ↩
Rev. 20:15. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The ESV Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version), copyright 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by Permission. All rights reserved. ↩
Rev. 20:10 ↩
Walter A. Elwell, ed., The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd ed., s.v. “annihilationism” (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2001). ↩
Robin Parry, “A Universalist View,” in Four Views on Hell, 2nd ed., eds. Stanley N. Gundry, Preston Sprinkle (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016), 101. Italics Original. ↩
Subtitle: “A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived” ↩
Rob Bell, Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (HarperCollins e-books, 2011), p. 94, Kindle. ↩
An early church father in the 2nd and 3rd century who was a universalist. ↩
For Origen’s view, see: Larry Dixon, The Other Side of the Good News: Confronting the Contemporary Challenges to Jesus’ Teaching on Hell (Ross-shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, 2003), 36, Logos. ↩
Ibid., 25. ↩
Ibid., 27. ↩
Danny Burk, “Eternal Conscious Torment,” in Four Views on Hell, 2nd ed., eds. Stanley N. Gundry, Preston Sprinkle (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016), 19-20. ↩
Ibid., 20 ↩
Groothuis, 659. ↩
Joel 2:13 ↩
Nahum 1:3-8 ↩
Romans 5:8 ↩
Bell, p. 1-2, Kindle. ↩
Romans 3:23 ↩
Groothuis, 658. ↩
Libertarian freedom says that God ordains some things to occur, but that human free-will has great impact upon our world. Who is saved is not pre-determined. ↩
C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 75. ↩
Douglas Groothuis points out Ezekiel 33:11. ↩
Mark 9:43-48 ↩
Parry, 120. ↩
Ibid., 121. ↩
ESV Study Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), Jude 7n. ↩
Ibid. Italics original. ↩
For an additional parallel, see Matthew 7:21-23. ↩
Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle, Erasing Hell: What God Said about Eternity, and the Things We’ve Made Up (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2011), p. 40n7, Kindle. ↩
Ibid., 27. Italics Original. ↩
Ibid., 29. ↩
Ibid., 30. ↩
Ibid., 31. See also, Galatians 3:28 and Colossians 3:11. ↩
“On Reconciliation” ↩