Hell isn’t as popular as it used to be.
Over the last 20 years, the number of Americans who believe in the fiery down under has dropped from 71 percent to 58 percent. Heaven, by contrast, fares much better and, among Christians, remains an almost universally accepted concept.
Underlying these statistics is a conundrum that continues to tug at the conscience of some Christians, who find it difficult to reconcile the existence of a just, loving God with a doctrine that dooms billions of people to eternal punishment.
"Everlasting torment is intolerable from a moral point of view because it makes God into a bloodthirsty monster who maintains an everlasting Auschwitz for victims whom he does not even allow to die," wrote the late Clark Pinnock, an influential evangelical theologian.
While religious philosophers have argued over the true nature of hell since the earliest days of Christianity, the debate has become especially pronounced in recent decades among the millions of Americans who identify themselves as evangelicals. The once taboo topic is being openly discussed as well-regarded scholars publish articles and best-selling books that rely on careful readings of Scripture to challenge traditional views.
“What if the muting of hell is due neither to emotional weakness nor loss of Gospel commitment?” writes Edward Fudge, whose 1982 book, The Fire That Consumes, is widely regarded as the scholarly work that jump-started the current debate. “What if the biblical foundations thought to endorse unending conscious torment are less secure than has been widely supposed?”
Fudge is among those who endorse an alternative doctrine, known as “annihilationism” or “conditional immortality,” which holds that, after death, sinners simply cease to exist, while those who are saved enjoy eternal life under God’s grace. Although it’s not a positive outcome for the wicked—in fact, it amounts to spiritual capital punishment—it’s deemed a far more merciful and just fate than an eternity of torture.
Traditionalists are pushing back at this doctrine, which they view as heresy born out of misguided sentimentality. But, annihilationists believe they have already made significant inroads within the evangelical community.
“My prediction is that, even within conservative evangelical circles, the annihilation view of hell will be the dominant view in 10 or 15 years,” says Preston Sprinkle, who co-authored the book Erasing Hell, which, in 2011, debuted at number three on the New York Times bestseller list. “I base that on how many well-known pastors secretly hold that view. I think that we are at a time and place when there is a growing suspicion of adopting tradition for the sake of tradition.”
In the Beginning
In its earliest years, Christianity didn’t have a consensus on the nature of hell. Origen Adamantius, a third-century theologian, believed the wicked were punished after death, but only long enough for their souls to repent and be restored to their original state of purity. This doctrine, known as universalism, envisioned that everyone—including Satan—would eventually be redeemed and reunited with God.
Contemporary theologians generally credit Irenaeus of Lyons, a second-century bishop, as the intellectual forefather of annihilationism. In his seminal five-volume work, Against Heresies, he emphasized that the soul is not inherently immortal—eternal life would be bestowed upon the good with the resurrection of Christ, while the wicked would be left to die and fade from existence. “It is the Father who imparts continuance forever on those who are saved,” Irenaeus wrote.
But it was Augustine of Hippo and his book, City of God, published in A.D. 426, that set the tone for official doctrine over the next 1,500 years. Hell existed not to reform or deter sinners, he argued. Its primary purpose was to satisfy the demands of justice. Augustine believed in the literal existence of a lake of fire, where “by a miracle of their most omnipotent Creator, [the damned] can burn without being consumed, and suffer without dying.”
In theological circles this doctrine is known as Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT). Critics fault it for its lack of proportion. Why would a loving God punish a single lifetime of sin with endless lifetimes of torture? And, among sinners, does an adulterer merit the same punishment as a murderer? And what about the billions of people whose only sin was to follow a different faith?
“I question whether 'eternal conscious torment' is compatible with the biblical revelation of divine justice,” wrote John Stott, the Anglican clergyman and world-renowned evangelical leader who died in 2011. “Fundamental to it is the belief that God will judge people 'according to what they [have] done' (e.g. Revelation 20:12), which implies that the penalty inflicted will be commensurate with the evil done.”
But, across the centuries, defenders of ECT have emphasized that sin is not something that can be measured by how it affects others. The only relevant issue is that it’s a rebellion against God.
Some religious scholars point to examples throughout the Bible that illustrate how even “little sins” merit harsh penalties. Lot’s wife, for instance, did nothing more than glance in the wrong direction—but because she directly disobeyed God, she became a pillar of salt.
“If people lied to us, disobeyed us, or spoke against us, would they be worthy of death?” writes theologian Robert Peterson, a prominent critic of annihilationism. “Of course not. If they do these things against God, do they deserve capital punishment? The Bible's consistent answer is yes.”
Mark Galli, the editor of Christianity Today, points to Psalm 51, where David expresses remorse for adultery and his complicity in murder. “And yet he says in the middle of that Psalm, ‘Against you and you only have I sinned, Oh Lord,’” says Galli. “I think that's the other dimension. We realize there's something else we've violated here. That something else is a moral code that transcends us. And that moral code, of course, is written by God.”
It Is Written
Preston Sprinkle recalls, with embarrassment, his younger days in seminary, when he first heard that the evangelical leader John Stott was an annihilationist.
“I remember hearing that thinking, you can't be a Christian and believe that,” he says. “I was just reciting, like a parrot, the evangelical narrative regarding anybody who doesn't toe the line. But, back six years ago, when I truly revisited the question of hell, I was kind of shocked at how little biblical support there was for the traditional view.”
Advocates for annihilationism (or, “conditionalism” as some prefer) emphasize they are not guided by sentimentality, but are engaging in a careful exegesis of Scripture that has long been discouraged by orthodoxy. Nor do they claim to advocate for a version of hell that represents a soft view on sin or a low view of God.
“The fate that we conditionalists suggest awaits those who obstinately reject Christ is a fearful one,” says Chris Date, an independent theologian who runs a website, Rethinking Hell, and who helps organize an annual conference on the topic. “There is no greater human fear than death. We fight tooth and nail to preserve our lives at all costs. But death isn't unbelievable and archaic the way that eternal torment is to many,” Date says.
“The Bible says the wages of sin is death, that death of life is the ultimate end of those who don't embrace Jesus,” says Sprinkle. “It seems to be a pretty dominant narrative in the Scripture.”
But traditionalists remain steadfast in their belief that ECT is a pillar of evangelical faith, and some worry that weakening it threatens to bring down the entire edifice.
“We need a fresh wave of great awakeners—those who will unapologetically preach hell fire in today's dire end times,” writes John Burton, a pastor and speaker. “To the shame of much of today's church there has been a firm and steadfast rejection of any truth that doesn't result in people feeling happy affection for God.” The narcissistic belief that God loves us so much that he couldn’t bear inflicting eternal punishment, Burton argues, encourages evil to expand unchecked.
A traditionalist view of hell, however, does not necessarily mean fire and brimstone. “I certainly wouldn't agree that hell is a place of literal fire or torment,” says Galli. “I tend to be more favorable toward the metaphors that talk about hell as the absence of a love of God and that would be a miserable existence.”
Galli describes himself as, “in some respects” a traditionalist. “That is to say, what keeps me in the traditional camp is the teaching of Jesus,” he says. “If it was left up to me, I would probably eliminate hell from our vocabulary because it does present seemingly insurmountable problems. But Jesus does talk about it as a reality and he doesn't seem to have any doubts about it.”
The “seemingly insurmountable problems” include paradoxes that defy simple resolution. “One of the main problems with the doctrine of hell is that it’s a place where God is not present,” Galli notes. “Well, the fact is that God is omnipresent. How can you have a place that's bereft of God and yet it exists for eternity? That's kind of a theological impossibility.”
Don’t Ask, Don’t Hell
So, where do most evangelicals stand on the issue of hell? Sprinkle and Date suggest that it is difficult to know, since people are reluctant to publicly challenge traditional views.
“We have a very fear-driven evangelical culture where if you don't toe the line, you get kind of shunned,” says Sprinkle. “It's really kind of scary.”
Still, the debate over hell shows no sign of dissipating among evangelical scholars. If anything, the scope of the discussion appears to be expanding. Sprinkle, who recently co-edited a book, Four Views on Hell, raised theological eyebrows when he included an essay by theologian Robin Parry defending universalism—the view that all people will eventually be saved. It’s a doctrine that evangelicals, including annihilationists, widely view as incompatible with their religious teachings.
But, “the landscape has changed,” opines one writer at the Christian Post. “After reading Parry’s essay, you still may not be convinced that he is right. But it’s no longer enough to simply state categorically that an evangelical can’t be a universalist!”
For his part, Mark Galli believes that many evangelicals will choose to accept that hell is a paradox that can never be fully understood.
“When it comes to heaven and hell, if God had wanted us to know definitively one way or the other, he would've made himself more clear,” he says. “But he left just tantalizing hints about what might happen. One can move forward, happily, and live with that mystery.”
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Watch: Map of Hell
National Geographic Channel
Airing Sunday May 15 at 9 Eastern/Central
Actor Danny Trejo has played plenty of bad guys in his time, so he’s on a mission to map out where the idea of hell came from. It’s a terrifying journey through 3,000 years of the afterlife. From ancient Greece to the birth of Christianity, to medieval Europe and modern America, visit real locations believed to be portals to the underworld and witness a hair-raising vision of hell come to life.