The Doctrine of Hell, and Milder Alternatives

“Yes, but why this doctrine?” 

The question was put to me by a frustrated former parishioner at our congregation who had assumed I could be persuaded out of the traditional view of hell, and into a form of Annihilationism – the belief that human immortality is only conditional, and based on one’s ultimate salvation, thus consigning those unfortunate souls who do not place their faith in Christ to an ultimate extinction. 

I saw another even more distressing sentiment on a bumper sticker recently.  It read, “Smile! There is no hell!”  This slogan, accompanied by a yellow smiley face, has been appropriated by supporters of the right-to-die movement, and I fear could give a false sense of comfort to hurting people who may tempted into thinking that death would be better than existence: Better to vanish altogether than suffer through so much sorrow and pain.

But the doctrine of final judgment is no more, nor less, essential to the larger structure of systematic theology than any other point of doctrine.  Like any tenet of the faith, when one casts aside even the smallest piece, thereby singling it out for destruction, the entire structure falls apart.

So, why this doctrine?  Why be dogmatic here?  Why stand by this seemingly outmoded teaching?  The answer is simple:  A thoroughgoing study of the Scriptures, understanding them in the proper historical context of the Ancient Near East, does not provide for the notion that the Bible explicitly teaches any form of Annihilationism. 

This may be difficult to swallow, especially for those among us who have been weaned on the cartoonish tortures inspired by Dante’s Inferno, along with the morbid imaginations of hell handed down to us by creative medieval minds.  But on the balance the case is open and shut: According to Scripture there is a final hell of some sort, and it does not cease. 

If we work our way backwards from the most explicit verses, we see in Revelation 14:9-11 a clear statement on the nature of hell, namely, that it does not terminate the existence of the individual.

And another angel, a third, followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.”  (Rev.14:9-11)

Under normal circumstances this passage alone would be enough to settle any argumentation.  The picture is one of torment that gives no rest.  But in the climate of today’s discourse the questions (and objections) quickly spring up: How do you know it is literal?  Isn’t Revelation all symbolic?  How can anyone know anything at all from Revelation, for that matter?   And the ultimate philosophical kicker: What glory would God ever receive from torturing even the worst sinner in hell for all eternity?

This final question is really the one people get hung up on.  It simply seems illogical, or even cruel and unjust to us, that God, in the final picture, would punish anyone forever, even someone who had spent 100 solid years doing unrelenting harm to humanity.  To this objection is added the argument that worms which never die, fires which are never quenched, eternal darkness, eternal chains, accompanied by the weeping and gnashing of teeth, are all symbols of punishment and regret, not the actual realities

But every piece of doctrine is essential.  Consider what happens when we add Rev 20:10 to the mix.

And the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.

The salient point here is, if we fail to take literally the eternality of the torment, why would we be compelled to take literally the existence of Satan at all?  Why should we not see Satan himself as an impersonal force?  Indeed, that is exactly what some liberal theologians do.

But two key points are essential here for a proper understanding.

First, it is noteworthy that the hell pictures (fire, chains, worms, darkness, etc.), while being symbolic and intended to evoke a visceral response, are not only uniformly negative, but they are almost always modified by the notion of eternity.

Thus, when Jesus speaks of the worm that never dies (Mark 9:48), it is not a matter of the lifespan of a certain hellish species of worm, but the fact that the descriptor used is ‘never ending.’ (οὐ τελευτᾷ), thus there is no suggestions of even the remotest expectation hinted at whereby the punishment does come to an end.  Likewise, in the same verse, when Jesus says the fire is not quenched (πῦρ οὐ σβέννυται), there is no indication within the imagery that the fire will eventually be quenched.  Similarly, when Jesus describes the destiny of the goats (Matt.25:41), as being shared with the devil and his angels, he uses the phrase ‘eternal fire,’ (τὸ πῦρ τὸ αἰώνιον).  These images, while we may suppose them all to be symbolic, cannot be presumed to be merely temporary in nature, nor do they indicate a punctiliar finality. What they all point to is an ongoing state.

Jude the Apostle describes the final judgment of these tragic souls as being those “for whom the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved forever.”  Again, setting aside the brooding symbolism of darkness (something painfully unpleasant, to be sure), the unambiguous modifier of the punishing darkness is ‘forever,’ (εἰς αἰῶνα).  Jude also describes eternal chains (ἀϊδίοις), and eternal fire (αἰωνίου), all of which contradict the notion that hell is temporary.

It may be countered by some, however, that Jude is heavily reliant on those strange and pseudepigraphic writings of Enoch, a questionable source at best.  And isn’t apocalyptic writing meant to be taken symbolically?

One might be tempted to think along those lines, to be sure, but take note how frequently and consistently the Bible modifies these final punishments with terms like forever, or eternal and never ceasing.  Together they sketch a uniform picture throughout, and there is no single verse in Scripture which one might say conclusively indicates that hell is merely temporary. 

What’s more, even the biblical concept of destruction – a generic English word which is used to translate several Greek and Hebrew terms – does not specifically imply annihilation.  We would also add to this the notion of a consuming fire.  A consuming fire in the Bible does not always imply the outcome of non-existence, nor does fire always ‘consume.’ Case in point, the burning bush of Exodus 3, which displayed the fire of God, burning yet not annihilating.  So the best attempts to find a clearly expressed doctrine of extinction in the Bible are futile, even if we probe the grey ambiguities of human language. 

This is also strongly supported by the fact that ancient man simply did not understand death to spell extinction.  Death has historically been perceived as the final event in the life of a person before an afterlife.  We see this clearly on display in the religious practices of every ancient culture, with support from the fields of anthropology and archaeology, that people habitually buried their dead along with cherished objects which the person would need in the afterlife.  This points up the sensibilities with which the early readers of the Scriptures would have understood these terms we are now discussing.  Simply put, people of ancient times did not think of death as annihilation or extinction, nor did the Christians who took up and expanded on Jewish perceptions of the afterlife. They looked for, and hoped for, an afterlife.

Furthermore, with each instance of ‘eternal’ (αἰώνιος) in Scripture, we see not only that the term is consistently applied to the symbolism of punishment, but that it also appears with overwhelming frequency when applied to eternal life.  Of the 71 times the word appears in the New Testament, a full 43 of those appearances are associated with the promise of eternal life.  Matthew 25:46 applies the concept to both the punishment and the reward:

“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

So what actually happens when we pull out this one problematic piece of the jenga puzzle?  What happens when we argue, “Eternal does not really mean ‘eternal,’ but instead it is meant to be understood as having a conclusion?”  Inevitably, what happens is, eternal life is placed on the chopping block too, along with eternal punishment.  Perhaps eternal life is only symbolic and temporary? (Along with the symbolic Satan?)

The problem with picking and choosing in systematic theology is that it’s always a double edged sword.  We may not like the doctrine, but we lose the truths we dearly love when we favor them over those doctrines we dislike.