What Should We Believe About Hell?

By Glen Elliott

People of the Restoration Movement know the declaration well. These days I hear it quoted by many in the church worldwide. I use it when I introduce our doctrinal position to the new members at our welcome event. Most attribute the statement to St. Augustine. This 1,500-year-old declaration remains powerful in its simplicity: “In essentials, unity. In opinions, liberty. In all things, love.”

Nothing has the potential to divide us so much as differences over doctrine and theology. We take different stands regarding the end times and the “rapture.” We still have debates over speaking in tongues.

There are significant land mines here. What one person holds as essential doctrine, another believes to be an area of opinion. Anyone who invests significant time studying a biblical teaching that results in an opinion finds it challenging to hold that opinion lightly.

Too Little Addressed

Let me address a doctrinal topic that I believe has aspects of opinion: Hell. Maybe Hell is on my mind more than most because I live in Tucson, Arizona, where the summer heat reminds me of the Hell Jesus describes.

Fewer and fewer teachers in the church address the subject of Hell these days. I recently delivered a message on Hell, and a good number of people said they had never heard any teaching on the subject. There are several valid concerns and reasons why we avoid the subject of Hell. First, it is not a sermon topic that is easily communicated in 30 minutes to someone who’s exploring faith in Christ. Even fewer are willing to do a whole sermon series on Hell. Second, we assume many have had bad experiences in churches that misused the fear of Hell as a way to manipulate and control, and we don’t want to drive people away from the grace of God.

I decided I couldn’t avoid the subject of Hell because Jesus clearly wasn’t afraid to address it. In fact, he spoke of it quite often. So I bought books from every perspective.

Some were books declaring that Hell can be understood only as a place of conscious, never-ending punishment. Some of these authors were so pro-Hell that I wondered if they enjoyed scaring the hell out of people.

Then there were books arguing that Hell is not a real place at all, but just a metaphor. Some suggest that Jesus will save everyone from Hell, which means functionally it doesn’t exist. I was surprised to discover a myriad of perspectives about Hell.

I read the books. I also looked at every significant reference to Hell in the New Testament. After a fairly lengthy study, I finally came to my own conclusions about Hell. My first conclusion is that Hell is, in fact, a real experience and not just a metaphor.

The second part was far more challenging. If Hell is real, then what is it like? I discovered two legitimate interpretations regarding the nature of Hell among serious Bible-believing scholars. The more I studied, the more I was convinced that both views could be applied to the scriptural texts on Hell and thus, any final decision would be, in fact, an opinion.

A New Opinion

The opinion I came to differed from the one I had known and previously held. I suspect my opinion is probably a view held by a minority of the Christians I hang out with. Knowing that my new view was not in the traditional mainstream, I was concerned about teaching my opinion about Hell to our church in the weekend services. So I decided I would talk with our elders about this before I taught about the nature of Hell.

I presented the elders with the two views that seemed to be consistent with the teaching of Scripture. We had a lively and healthy discussion. There was no disagreement that Hell was a real place. In the end we came to a very wise conclusion about what Hell is like. Together we agreed that I would not teach either view as dogma, but to present both perspectives and allow people to go to the Scripture themselves to determine which position they would hold.

In other words, we would allow people to form their own opinion on a subject that is disputable. While some might consider this as wishy-washy theology and leadership, I was thrilled that our spiritual leaders had the wisdom to acknowledge a legitimate difference of opinions on the serious subject.

Two Views

Here are the two views of Hell I presented to our elders and, later, the congregation. The first is seen as the traditional view, where Hell is a place of conscious eternal torment. This view holds that the wicked, or unsaved, will experience eternal and final conscious punishment and be aware of it and experience it forever.

The second view, the one I came to embrace, is sometimes called annihilationism. This view holds that Hell is real and permanent, but a soul experiences a temporary punishment that ends in destruction rather than eternal torment. Hell is not an eternal torture chamber for the lost, but its fires destroy the soul so that the unbeliever is eternally separated from God. The unredeemed are punished for their wrongs and then cease to exist.

The Bible clearly teaches that the unbeliever will die and face Hell, or punishment, that will end his life. This is also called a second death (Revelation 20:6, 14). Hell is something we need to be saved from because we are in danger of losing everything there. In Hell, we lose all of life, and especially, we lose eternal life with God. I came to see Hell as a place of “eternal punishment” because God’s divine judgment and destruction cannot be reversed and a person will be eternally punished—separated from God forever.

The traditional understanding of Hell says that the sinner suffers for eternity in the fire of Hell. Annihilationism says that the work of the fire is eternal, not the suffering of the individual as the fire destroys the person. As I looked at all of the texts from the New Testament, both interpretations are reasonable and possible. The interpretive question is this: Does the fire of Hell torment or consume? I choose the later. It is my opinion. It does not contradict the Scripture and maintains the justice of God while not making God out to be a torturer.

There are books that present good arguments for the view I hold, and I won’t take the time here to attempt to further prove the validity of this view. There are also books that argue well for the other side. And that leads us to the crux of all theological debate in matters of opinion.

We ultimately go to Scripture to form our opinion and we allow and respect that others might hold a different opinion. Further, we determine not to judge each other in these disputable matters (see Romans 14 and 15). Finally, we are willing to engage in godly and healthy discussion over matters of opinion, being open to potentially hearing and learning more than we previously understood.

I’m pretty sure there are genuine Christ followers who will read this and be sure that my opinion of Hell is heresy. Some will even see my opinion about opinions as heretical. It won’t be the first time I’ve been called a heretic! But that is the very point of this article and the articles that will follow in this series on opinions. Serious Christ-following people will go to the Bible they mutually and totally trust and come out with honest differences of opinion.

I believe our emerging nonbelieving world is looking for true followers of Jesus who hold clear and strong opinions while refusing to burn each other at the proverbial stake. It is in how we respond to the opinions of others that we have an amazing opportunity to love each other and point others to Jesus.

In opinions may we truly exercise liberty and always love.

Glen Elliott is lead pastor with Pantano Christian Church in Tucson, Arizona.

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Have an Opinion? Share an Opinion!

We welcome readers’ submissions to this new feature, “In Opinions, Liberty.”  Tell us how you feel about an issue, idea, or practice in today’s church. Submit your 1,000-1,400-word essay to christianstandard@standardpub.com. Put “Opinion” in the subject line.

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14 Comments

  1. Nyesha lyas
    January 2, 2011 at 10:27 pm

    I want to say first, great job on how you wrote this article. I have been wondering why a lot of preachers don’t preach about hell. As I continued, I realized that Hell is NOT a popular message. After reading the article, I believe that both of your opinions hold much validity, I mean Jesus did not put too much emphasis in the Bible about Hell, because he wants us to see HIM after our flesh has passed away.

  2. Debi Ledgerwood
    January 5, 2011 at 2:55 pm

    Glen, thank you for your thoughtful article. My son and I have had this same discussion many times over the last few months and his conclusion is the same as yours. Looking forward to more of your opinions.

  3. January 5, 2011 at 5:12 pm

    Very well-written article, Glen! (And good editing job, Mark!) This really stretched my thinking about the nature of hell, a place I will never see, thank God. Only one thing I’d add to your article. I’d much rather spend the time I have left helping people to avoid hell by developing a relationship with Jesus than arguing over the finer points of hell with my fellow travelers to Heaven.

  4. Administrator Author
    January 6, 2011 at 1:37 pm

    Michael Hines has written a letter to the editor about this article. Read it at “Letters to the Editor,” accessible under “Contact Us” at the top of this page or by clicking http://www.christianstandard.com/contact-us/letters-to-the-editor.

  5. January 8, 2011 at 4:02 pm

    One aspect not mentioned in the essay is that Jesus spoke to the matter of life after death. Some say the story is just a parable and doesn’t represent truth concerning life after death on this earth. I imagine that Jesus told the truth in every case. We don’t read of Him telling tall tales to entertain with fiction at any time. So I see, at least in the years after our death on earth until the final judgment that the wicked are in misery and aware of it. But it’s too late to repent then and change the ultimate destiny of those already dead, yet alive in a different state while awaiting the final judgment. Friends point out that God is love, so surely would not torture helpless victims in eternal Hell. I note that humans are not good at telling God what is right for Him to do. Whatever He does will be right. Death on earth does not cease our consciousness, if the story of Lazarus and his rich patron is a true tale. And if James and John and Peter did in fact see Moses and Elijah with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. And if the witch could in fact conjure up a “dead” prophet to speak with the first king of Israel. So I would be slow indeed to agree that sinners cast into Hell are soon utterly dead and gone.

  6. Jim
    January 11, 2011 at 10:56 pm

    Jesus’ parable about the rich man is disputed as to whether it is a parable or a straight reporting of actual events. For a number of reasons, I favor the latter. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that Jesus would give people an unnecessary fright by describing a danger (eternal torment) that would never materialize.

    Jesus leaves no doubt about the following facts: Death is not the end of conscious existence. Clearly the essential personality survives – with memory intact. Jesus elaborates – For some, life beyond the grave will be far better than life here, while for others it will be far worse. Destinies are unalterably fixed at death. There are only two possibilities, with a ‘fixed gulf’ between them.

    Hell is horrible. I wish it were not so. I wish there was a ready and Biblical alternative for sensitive post-modern listeners that find such a conclusion chilling. In Jesus’ story, the flames torment, but DO NOT ANNIHILATE. The agony is physical as well as mental. There is an awareness of being excluded from heaven, cut off from the people of God.

    All of these facts are confirmed elsewhere in the teaching of Jesus. If we refuse to take Jesus’ words as seriously as he intended, we would not be convinced of their accuracy even if the rich man himself came back to warn us.

  7. Al Edmonds
    January 17, 2011 at 2:09 am

    To answer the question: “What is Hell”?, one would list scriptural references to it–understand the context and reality implied.
    Some observations:
    1. To decide if someone is “conscious” or not implies that some kind of consciousness exists after death.
    2. One needs to define: What is a soul?..what does it “look like”?. How does a post judgement “changed” body interact with the eternal or condemned soul (depending on the two views of Mr. Elliot.)
    3. What does the kingdom of Heaven now existent “look like”? In other words where do God and angels and the dead “live”? Does this heavenly reality correspond to anything we can describe in our time-space continuum realm.
    4. How can Jesus return/judgement/destruction of our physical universe/and the new Creation–spiritual reality be understood using our earthly reality.
    So trying to describe Hell as a “real” place is speculation…because one is assuming that the “place” we are describing conforms to our understanding of what a “place” is.
    Since this is impossible, it is best to leave the reality to God and just tell it as the Bible tells it:
    Hell is eternal separation from God. It is a place of punishment and regret. It is reserved for Satan and his followers and those humans who have not been born again. It is the destiny for every one we meet, if he/she does not follow Jesus’ requirement: I am the Way, no one comes to the Father except through me– and the simple message of Acts 2:38.

  8. David
    January 29, 2011 at 3:49 pm

    Outstanding article. The Scriptures certainly portray Hell as a place to avoid at all costs. However a righteous, yet loving God would take no pleasure in exacting a continual, eternal torment on the disobedient. I had never really thought of Hell in such a way. Thanks again for a perspective that, while not an essential, is still important to present in a manner that does not paint God as ever vengeful.

  9. Leonard Lauriault
    February 7, 2011 at 7:34 pm

    On Opining Biblically

    Because it does have a Biblical basis, I agree with the following statement by Augustine (354-430 AD): “In essentials, unity. In non-essentials liberty. In all things, love.” God is very clear about what is essential (Exodus 25: 9; Romans 7: 7). The non-essentials – things not directly specified in the Bible – fall into the realm of opinion. While I believe we do have freedom in opinion, some things are thrown into that category when they shouldn’t be because God has made a clear statement about them. Statements that directly contradict God’s teaching are error or lies and not opinions (2 Corinthians 11: 13-15; John 8: 44-47; Genesis 3: 4).
    Additionally, our liberty in non-essentials doesn’t give Christians the privilege of expressing any opinion publically as a matter of freedom of speech, even if it’s not a dangerous opinion (Romans 14: 13-22). In fact, in some cases the presentation of opinion, error, lie is so dangerous as to ruin households (congregations) and must be silenced (Titus 1: 5-11).
    For example, many claiming a Christian affiliation question how a loving God could actually send someone to so terrible a place as hell – the lake of fire (Matthew 18: 8, 9). Others deny there could be a hell, while still others acknowledge hell as a place of eternal punishment, but the punishment itself cannot be eternal because God is too loving and forgiving. This last concept is called annihilationism – a belief that nonChristians are separated from God forever by being destroyed in the twinkling of an eye rather than tormented in hell forever.
    Any doubt about the existence of hell actually falls into the realm of error or lie. The Bible specifically says there’s a hell, so there is – without any question. The concept of annihilationism is not countered so plainly in scripture because God is a loving God, but the concept is, nonetheless, countered. In Matthew 25: 41, Jesus said that at the judgment, nonChristians will be sent into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. In verse 46, he said they’ll go away to eternal punishment while Christians will enter eternal life. So both the fire and the punishment are as eternal as life is for Christians.
    Revelation 20: 10-15 describes the lake of fire as a place where the devil and nonChristians (those whose names are not written in the book of life) will be tormented for ever and ever. Eternal punishment also is taught in Mark 9: 47, 48 (to what does “their worm” refer?). Interestingly, Christians (those who are striving to live a godly life) face temporary suffering now, but will be relieved later while the world (those not concerned about godly living) might live in ease now, but will suffer for eternity (2 Timothy 3: 13; 1 Peter 1: 3-9; 2 Thessalonians 1: 3-9).
    But the punishment doesn’t start at the judgment either. The rich man died and went to hell where he was tormented (Luke 16: 19-31). This was happening while his brothers were still alive on earth and could be saved. Second Peter 2: 4-10 says that disobedient angels are already in hell being held for judgment because God knows how to rescue godly people and hold the unrighteous for judgment while CONTINUING (emphasis mine) their punishment. Those who despise authority and follow corrupt desires fall into the category of the unrighteous.
    Therein is the problem with expressing the erroneous opinion of annihilationism as possibly being viable. It can lead people to despise God’s authority out of presumption. That is, if the punishment only lasts as long as the twinkling of an eye, the pleasure of an individual sin may last longer. So, they are encouraged to follow their corrupt desires and enjoy what they consider to be the longer period of pleasure in sin. That’s equivalent to the sin of Esau who despised his birthright for a meal. I believe that he is an example of those who give up eternal life for the pleasure of the moment (Hebrews 12: 15-17).
    I know some teach that we can attract more flies with honey than with vinegar. While we are to make the teaching about God attractive through daily living, we also are to consider God’s sternness along with his kindness (Titus 2: 10; 1 Peter 2: 11, 12; 3: 15, 16; 1 Thessalonians 4: 11, 12; Romans 11: 22). We will not be able to stand before him guiltless unless we present his whole counsel (Acts 20: 26, 27). While I believe that the Christian life is attractive in its own right, one of the best ways to make something attractive is to accurately present the alternative. And I believe that we are to do just that as a balanced presentation.
    God’s love was expressed at the cross when Jesus paid the price for our sin (Romans 5: 6-8). Nothing can change that (Romans 8: 32, 38, 39). God’s love continues to be shown even as he still gives us life and breath and everything else on earth so that we might reach out to him before it is too late (Acts 17: 24-31). It is my opinion that the rich man in Luke 16 knew it was too late for him as soon as he entered hell. Out of love for his brothers, he wanted to make sure they learned how terrible it was there. That’s how much God loves us. He doesn’t want anyone to perish, but all to come to repentance because he doesn’t like punishing people (2 Peter 3: 9; Lamentations 3: 33). This perishing refers to the second death, hell, the place where they will be tormented for ever and ever. For our own good he wants us to realize how bad hell really is.
    As the rich man requested (but not because he requested it) God did actually send/bring someone back from the dead to warn us about the dangers of hell and to save us from it (Jesus). His teachings have been expounded upon by inspired writers – all because God loves us so much. His teachings are what we will be judged by, not anyone’s opinion (John 12: 47-50). It thus becomes our choice where we spend eternity, not God’s (Joshua 24: 14, 15; Romans 6: 12-16; 8: 12, 13). Those who accept the benefits of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection on God’s terms will remain in his love (John 14: 15-18, 23; 15: 9-11). Those who don’t accept his words actually trample God’s love under foot and will reap the full extent of his vengeance (Hebrews 11: 26-31). Without any question, that’s meant to scare the certainty of eternal punishment out of anyone.
    Like Jesus, we are to only pass on what God has said (1 Peter 4: 11; John 7: 16-18). To tell anyone anything different is to express a dangerous, erroneous opinion and shows a tremendous lack of love. Such talk, therefore, should be kept to oneself or it must be silenced. Consequently, it is appropriate for the editors of Christian literature to not publish those opinions to lessen the likelihood that households become destroyed as some people might actually come to accept the opinion based on who the teacher is (2 John 1: 7-11; Galatians 1: 6-9; Matthew 18: 6, 7; James 3: 1). And that’s what I think about the matter of liberty in non-essentials.

    Leonard Lauriault
    Tucumcari, New Mexico

  10. Tim Hazlette
    February 11, 2011 at 6:01 pm

    AMEN Brother Leonard ! Well said!

    As for the issues of Essentials, Opinions, and All Things — one respondent referred to Augustine as the original utterer of those words.

    As a note of clarification, I believe it necessary in this day to add as much clarity to the Campbellite movement as is possible. Therefore, we need to think of Essentials as DOCTRINE. The two best examples I can think of are these:

    Doctrine: Baptism.

    Opinion: No question Baptism is an Ordinance of God, However, there are differing opinions of what “role” or “effect” it plays. Therefore, we have the Liberty to have an opinion on its effect — but not about the necessity of it.

    Doctrine: The Lord’s Supper

    Opinion: Another — no question — it’s an Ordinance of God. However, there are differing opinions of the “frequency” with which to partake.

    It’s my observation that too much emphasis is placed on the verse “Preach the Truth in Love” — determining this means not to Preach on the “unpleasant subject matter” *(good example is Brother Leonard’s analysis above)*. The quest for Love (which means to care about or be concerned for another) oftentimes causes some good preachers to never speak about Doctrine. Doctrine is meaningful and Biblical. If we continue to stand on the Creedo of ESSENTIALS — there is too much room for error — in deciding what Essentials mean — or “what is essential”?

  11. Leonard Lauriault
    March 17, 2011 at 12:10 am

    Thanks, Tim. I believe that, in most cases, an in depth, honest study of words and word associations can clear up most matters that we disagree over.

  12. Maza
    March 22, 2011 at 11:26 am

    I have a question:

    It seems to me that the bliss of Heaven is described as eternal and forever…as well as torment in Hell…both conscious and ongoing…”worm does not die”, “tormented forever and ever’ Revelation 19:10..

    Does this mean we can’t count on heaven being forever either?

  13. Scott Bayles
    April 12, 2011 at 1:25 pm

    Glen, fantastic article! Thank you for having the guts to present an alternative to the traditionally accepted view of Hell. I wish more people would speak out on this subject. I also agree that the Bible teaches clearly and consistently that final judgment will entail the total and instant destruction of unbelievers. In fact, I wrote a thesis on the subject. If I could make just a few comments…

    First, I noticed that many commenting refer to the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16). Something that must be pointed out is that this parable is set in Hades not Hell. It takes place prior to the Second Coming, the Resurrection and the Day of Judgment, so it does not speak at all about what the final judgment will be. Hades is merely the “waiting place” not the final destination. So this passage cannot be used to substantiate eternal conscious torment.

    Furthermore, the primary Greek word translated Hell is the word Gehenna, which, as any first year seminary student should know, refers to an actual, physical valley on the south side of Jerusalem. This steep gorge was once used to burn children in sacrifice to the Ammonite god Molech (2 Kings 23:10; Jer. 7:31; 32:35). Jeremiah denounced such practices by saying that Hinnom Valley would become the valley of God’s judgment, a place of slaughter (Jer. 7:32; 19:5-7). As the years passed, a sense of foreboding hung over the valley. Gehenna was a place so despised and cursed by God’s people that they turned it into the city dump where feces, refuse, and the dead bodies of criminals were devoured by maggots, while flames were kept burning 24/7. When Jesus, therefore, spoke of “fire that never goes out” and “maggots that never die,” he was describing the nature of valley, which was a metaphor for final judgment. Gehenna was a place of disgust, disgrace, death, and destruction. It was never at any time, however, a place of torment or torture. If Gehenna was Jesus’ primary metaphor for final judgment then, what are we to conclude about final judgment? That it involves eternal conscious torment? Or that that it involves disgrace, death, and destruction? Jesus makes the meaning of his metaphor clear when he says, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell [gehenna]” (Matthew 10:28 NIV).

    Finally, if we simply learn to read the Bible for all it’s worth we discover that there is only one passage in the entire Bible that speaks of torment after final judgment and it’s located in the single most apocalyptic, symbolic metaphoric book in the Bible (Revelation 20:10). On the other hand, there are countless passages of the Bible that speak of the final judgment of unbelievers in terms of destruction, death, or perishing! Here are just a few to consider:

    •“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16 NIV)
    •“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:13-14 NIV)
    •“For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23 NIV)
    •“The day of judgment is coming, burning like a furnace. On that day the arrogant and the wicked will be burned up like straw. They will be consumed—roots, branches, and all” (Malachi 4:1 NLT)

    Jesus said that those who come to him in faith will inherit “everlasting life” (John 3:36; 5:24; 6:47, 54) “shall live forever” (John 6:51, 58), “shall never see death” (John 8:51), “shall never taste of death” (John 8:52), and “shall never die” (John 11:26). What do these promises imply if not that unbelievers will not inherit everlasting life, will not live forever, will see death, will taste death, and will die!?

  14. Ted Williams
    June 11, 2012 at 5:09 pm

    Well, it seems as if we all will never completely agree about Hell, but this discussion, from what I can tell, is among Christians and even if we choose to disagree, we can have fellowship with each other. Whether or not which side is right seems to not have much effect on unbelievers just as capital punishment or life in prison is no deterent to law breakers. Man is a lawbreaker from the beginning and eternal punishment has been no deterent to much of the lost and dying “world” As Christians we focus on winning ones for Christ, but if we have to talk about Hell we had better not “soft soap” the issue, but also to avoid going beyond what inspiration has revealed to us in Gods Word.

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