Rethinking the Traditional Views of Hell in the Bible
God is love… Most people would agree that the primary attribute of God is love. Every other attribute flows from this one (grace, holiness, justice, mercy, righteousness, etc…). Most, not all, will agree with that. But that leads to a glaring problem that I’ve personally wrestled with for close to a decade. What about hell? How the hell, can hell be loving? But… What if, hell is actually God’s final act of love? What if Hell in the Bible has been misread and misunderstood?
Bear with me… We have to do some groundwork first. Most of us grew up with a traditional view of hell so that statement probably makes no sense. Let’s start by looking at the most prevalent views of hell and the problems each of them present. And then we will look at what the Bible says about hell.
If you haven’t read What Jesus Said About Hell (and what it means) I would recommend reading that alongside this article.
The 3 Traditional Views of Hell in the Bible
Traditionally there are 3 prevalent views of hell that are accepted, albeit hotly debated, among Christians. You could also include the traditional Catholic view of purgatory as a forth option as it is growing among some Evangelicals. However for this article we will leave that option out.
Hell has always been a hot button issue (see what i did there?)… Since the beginning of the church the debate of what happens to those who do not believe in God when they die has been raging. The reality is we simply cannot be certain on this topic. The Bible does not say. If we were supposed to know, then I think God would have communicated it a little clearer. All that to say, that you should hold your view of hell lightly.
With that in mind let’s look at the prevalent views of hell. We will focus primarily on the first one, as that’s the most popular today.
Traditional View (Eternal Conscious Torment)
While many will know this view as the “traditional view” of hell, the better name is Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT). This view really has not been the “traditional” view of hell we think it has been. It’s been debated since the beginning. Although that’s an other topic for another time. This view holds the wicked (those that don’t follow God) will suffer eternal punishment. The primary text for this view is Matthew 25:46. This is the most prevalent view today among Christians and the one most often taught in most churches.
This view holds that after a period of suffering people will be annihilated, or cease to exist. Another variation of this view is that the wicked will just be annihilated, no prolonged suffering. A case for this view can be made by looking at many of the descriptive words that Jesus uses when describing hell.
This view holds that all will be saved. Like Annihilationism there are many variations to this view. Some hold that there is still a period of suffering before salvation. Others, like Rob Bell, hold that all will be in heaven but will fail to recognize it, thus being in their own “hell.” While proponents of ECT will call this heresy, it has been held by many prominent church leaders, including several early church fathers.
How These Views Play Out
Let’s think of this in the context of a marriage, since that’s the metaphor that the Bible often uses for how God pursues us.
Years ago I made a decision to propose to my now wife. She said yes… But let’s pretend she had said no. Let’s pretend she decided she wanted a life apart from me. I would have made some pleas. Made a few promises and tried to prove my love for her to change her mind. But let’s pretend, she would not change her mind. She wanted to live her life without me.
At that point… What would be the most loving thing for me to do?
Universalism would tell me to force her to marry me. The most loving thing I could do is to force her to enter into marriage with me. Even if she doesn’t want it, I’m going to force it because it’s in her best interest.
Traditional View (ECT)
A traditional view of hell (ECT) would tell me to lock her in the basement for making the wrong decision. Since I can’t have her I’m going to make her pay.
Annihilationism would tell me to put a bullet in her head. Since I can’t have her, no one can.
This is an oversimplification of course. And if you dig deep this illustration will eventually fall apart. But the point is there. If God’s primary attribute is love than these views of hell don’t add up.
At this point those that lean towards ECT will be thinking, Well what about God’s justice, sin has consequences and hell is punishment for their sins. I get that. That’s the view of most people that hold the traditional view. However, for that to work, one must downplay God’s love and elevate God’s righteousness and justice.
The other thing that is missing is Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. All of God’s wrath has been satisfied already.
I don’t want to downplay the seriousness of sin. (I’ve written on that here: The Seriousness of Sin) There are real consequences. Both in this world. And eternally. But, the whole punishment and torture thing doesn’t seem to fit the Biblical narrative. I think the emphasis is not on being tortured, rather being in torment. Torture is something oppressing you from the outside. Torment is something internal. That’s a key difference we cannot miss. The Bible holds up torment, but not torture.
A Better Understanding of Hell
Many, if not most, of the images that come to your head when you hear the word hell are not Biblical; they are from culture. Fire, torture, a red dude with a pitchfork are not biblical absolutes. Sure, some are found in Scripture. But never in the sense that hell is… Rather it is hell is like… That’s an important differentiation In other words, those images aren’t literally telling us what hell is. Rather describing an aspect of hell.
The main point that the Bible makes about hell is separation from God.
Maybe you are thinking, what’s the point of all this? Why does this matter? I think it has huge implications on how we approach people. If hell is ECT then most people will want to use hell as a threat to get people to follow God. To summarize and simplify that approach, turn or burn.
The problem is that’s not the approach Jesus took. In fact, he rarely warned people of hell. Of course, there are a few exceptions. But by and large Jesus’ approach was not a threat of hell if they refused to follow him. I think we’ve missed something central about what hell is.
What if, Hell is Actually God’s Final Act of Love
Let’s go back to the previous example. At the point of my rejected proposal, what would be the most loving thing for me to do? To let her go. To let her live life apart from me. Even if that’s not in her best interest. That’s what love would require me to do. Because love cannot be forced. Love has to be a choice. And she chose life without me, so I must let her go.
That’s what I suspect hell to be like. Eternity apart from God. Those who reject God will get what they want. Life without him. That’s what they wanted. So that’s what God gives them. Even if that’s not in their best interest.
Tim Keller sums this up nicely… Hell, then, is the trajectory of a soul, living a self-absorbed, self-centered life, going on and on forever… In short, hell is simply one’s freely chosen identity apart from God on a trajectory into infinity.
This is the picture the Bible often paints. Maybe most clearly in Luke 16:19-31… The rich man is separate from Lazarus and Abraham. He’s in hell, and they are in heaven. The picture this passage paints is one of the rich man living in a self-absorbed world. He’s not being tortured. But he is living in torment. Even in this state he doesn’t ask for forgiveness or mercy. Rather he makes demands for Lazarus to serve him. Because he chose life apart from God, a life of self. And that’s what he got. And still in this state he doesn’t get it, he sees Lazarus beneath him.
That’s hell. A place of torment, yes. But torment that we place ourselves in because we want to be our own god. We want to be served and not to serve others. We place our needs above the needs of others. The Kingdom of God requires the opposite. And some refuse to live in a kingdom in which they are not the center.
This view of hell should shift our focus. We aren’t warning people of impending doom and coming torture. Hell isn’t a place were God eternally beats his children due to their disobedience. It’s more like a break up. A break up that God doesn’t want. He wanted a relationship, but they called off the marriage. So out of love he gives them what they want, life apart from him. A kingdom in which they are the king. Are they tortured there? Not in the sense of someone/something torturing them. But there is a sense of torment in Jesus’ illustrations. Not that God is tormenting them. No, hell is a place of self-torment. They brought it on themselves.
Christians often take the approach that we are saving people from outside torture. We aren’t. We are pointing to healing for an internal ailment. We are pointing to a savior that wants to save them from themselves. We are pointing to a God that loves them more than they could ever imagine. We are pointing towards what is a better path.
I’d love to hear from you! Drop a comment below and let me know what you think!
When I write I pull from a lot of sources and some of my own thoughts. A few of the ideas of this article stemmed from Joshua Ryan Butler’s book Skeleton’s in God’s Closet. If you haven’t read it I HIGHLY recommend picking it up!
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