Our Victorian forefathers particularly gave “Hellfire preaching” a very bad name. Today many sincere Christians, partly through the influences of Universalism (see Unit 4) reject or play down the significance of Hell. They cannot reconcile hell with a God who is Love. But what does the Bible say?
Eternal Punishment – The traditional Christian view
Hell is the destiny of all who are under God’s judgement and subject to His righteous anger, not only sinful men and women but also Satan and his evil spirits.
WARNING – we must be very careful in interpreting poetic or metaphorical language. It might not be intended to be taken too literally (or on the other hand too symbolically)!
Punishment Matt 5:29; 10:28; 25:41,46; Mk 9:42-49
Darkness 2 Peter 2:4; Matt 22:13
Fire Isaiah 33:14; Rev 20:14-15
Exclusion Matthew 7:23; 2 Thess 1:6-10
No escape Luke 16:26; Rev 20:10
Other views – Conditional Immortality or Annihilation?
Some Christians wish to insist on the reality of hell as punishment yet avoid an over-literal interpretation of the nature of the punishment. They say that everlasting punishment with no hope of reforming the sinner, or endless suffering serving no useful purpose, is incompatible with a God of Love. They say that to punish a finite amount of sin with an infinite amount of suffering would be unfair. They agree that the heart of the punishment is exclusion from God. So if Heaven is where God is and knowing Him there, then Hell is where God isn’t and being without a relationship with Him who is the source of life. They suggest that the punishment could be eternal and irreversible in its consequences without necessarily being an everlasting conscious experience. They suggest that “fire”, “destruction” and “second death” imply ending of existence rather than continuing awareness of punishment. They also point to certain Bible passage which may be inconsistent with a continuing Hell, e.g. 1 Corinthians 15:28; Ephesians 2:9-10; Colossians 1:20.
This line of argument leads to two slightly different positions.
(i) “Conditional immortality” – only the righteous are granted immortality through sharing Christ’s resurrection. Those who resist Him simply go out of existence as they are separated forever from God who is the source of all life.
(ii) “Annihilationism” – those who oppose God suffer the punishment that their immortality is taken away by God and they cease to exist.
Conditional immortality assumes that man only lives on after death by the specific gift of God. Annihilationism assumes that the “soul” of man is of itself immortal and requires a specific act of God to end its existence. See the discussion on “Resurrection or Immortality” in Unit 2.
The idea of Conditional Immortality is very effective in answering the old question, “How can anyone be happy in Heaven if all their old friends are suffering in Hell?” Stephen Travis, John Stott and many others favour Conditional Immortality. They are not necessarily right! What do you think? What does the Bible really teach?
I need to make clear that for me the traditional Christian interpretation of the Bible is still convincing. Apocalyptic language has no force if it does not represent a reality but only a hypothetical warning. See Revelation 14:9-11; Revelation 20:10,12-15.
In particular the words of Jesus Himself in Mark 9:42-49 are very powerful.
42 “And if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone tied around his neck.
43 If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. 44 45 And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. 46 47 And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to ave two eyes and be thrown into hell, 48 where “`their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’
These warnings have no value if hell is not a reality!