Hell: What Will You Infer? (Part II)

by Kris Brossett

In Part I of Kris Brossett’s series he discussed three views of hell, including Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT), Annihilationism/Conditional Immortality (ACI), and Christian Universalism (CU). In this second section, Kris investigates the biblical evidence to analyze these three positions according to his matrix of “mysterious” and “definitive.”

Interacting with the Biblical Witness

Ultimately, hell is what hell is, regardless of what we believe. Our statements about hell, right or wrong, cannot change hell, even if they change how we feel.

This is not a means of escape⎯rather, it’s the sobering reality. Hell certainly exists. None of the positions I’ve examined in Part I deny its existence. Instead, “they differ on what hell is like.”1 We must acknowledge and wrestle with the reality of hell. Getting this wrong can have grave consequences, so we must turn to the text, identify what is definitive and mysterious about hell, then appeal to the testimony of tradition.

What of Eternal Conscious Torment?

The traditional view (ECT) has a strong case. It’s been the dominant view ever since the canonization of Scripture. Further, there are clear passages that seem to teach ECT. In Matthew 25:41 the unrighteous will be thrown “into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” We learn in Revelation 19:20 that those who accept the mark of the beast will also be thrown into the lake of fire. In Revelation 20:10 the devil is thrown into the lake of fire where he will be tormented day and night forever. In Revelation 20:15: “anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.” These passages seem to teach that all who enter the lake of fire will be tormented forever.

ECT advocates, however, must make sense of the overwhelming amount of passages that seem to teach complete destruction.2For instance, they usually claim that the dead bodies in Isaiah 66:24⎯which Jesus refers to in Mark 9:49⎯are actually resurrected bodies. Denny Burk suggests “that God’s enemies have been given a body fit for an unending punishment.”3 There is no other way that the bodies are not completely devoured. However, this would also imply a type of resurrected maggot. Edward Fudge’s deduction may be correct:

The fire will burn and the maggots will devour so long as anything is left to devour. Nothing stops them from their task. The fire is not extinguished. The worm does not die. Some day nothing will be left of these corpses. Then the fires can go out and the worms can finally die. But not a moment before.4

While Fudge draws a logical conclusion, he must make an inference outside the clear reading of the text. However, to Fudge’s point, the text doesn’t say the bodies will be resurrected bodies either. It must be noted that ECT enthusiasts must also make an inference and cannot say for sure.

What of Annihilationism/Conditional Immortality?

There is an equally strong case for ACI. As noted above, the many passages that speak of the final state of the wicked seem to imply complete annihilation. Eternal doesn’t have to mean unending, but can also mean permanent. As Stackhouse notes, “‘Eternal’ does indeed have something to do with ‘lasting forever,’ but in each case in Scripture we have to be careful to understand what it is that lasts forever: the thing or event being described, or its implications?”5 If eternal does mean permanent and not unending, if destruction does mean complete annihilation, and if consuming fire does not mean tormenting fire, then ACI proponents have a case.

There are still some passages that cause ACI to lose steam. ACI advocates must reconcile the fire in Revelation 20:15 that torments forever, never to stop. If this is the case, the entire ACI position falls apart.

What of Christian Universalism?

Christian universalism is seeded with inconsistencies. While one may say that it is a proper Christian hope that all are saved, I disagree. It’s like saying it is a proper Christian wish that sin never entered the world. It’s too late; sin is already here. It’s not a proper Christian hope that all will be saved, because the Bible clearly says that some will be damned (2 Thess 2:9-12). This concept distracts Christians from the sobering hope found only in Christ.

It’s true that God desires all to be saved, but that doesn’t mean it will happen⎯it means that no person is out of reach. You can be optimistic even in the darkest of times. There is hope for your neighbor, your difficult family member, and your wayward child. You can hope for what seems impossible, because all things are possible with God (Matt 19:26).

Still, this is a sobering hope. Not all will make it across the finish line. That’s why wishing sin weren’t in the world is futile; it does nothing for your neighbor now. Instead, Christians are to grieve sin, live for the good of others, and preach Christ, with hope.

It’s also inconsistent to consider the restorative punishment in the Old Testament as a model for the future. In Scripture, Robin Parry rightly notes, “Punishment…functions as a deterrent (Deut. 13:11), as a warning to repent (Rev. 14:7 in context), and as a means of delivering victims from their abusers (2 Thess. 1:6-7a).” While Parry acknowledges that “tradition rightly points out… [the] retributive aspect of punishment,” he also thinks that “punishment itself is not merely suffering inflicted as a deserved consequence for wrong deeds.” Instead, Parry reminds us that “[t]he primary end of God’s justice, with respect to creation, is not punishment, but salvation.” He is correct⎯to a fault.

To view hell as restorative punishment is to force the text to say what it doesn’t say. For instance, the restorative punishment in the Old Testament did not restore everyone. While God preserved a remnant, his “anger burned against Israel, and He made them wander in the wilderness forty years, until the entire generation of those who had done evil in the sight of the Lord was destroyed (Num 32:13).” It does not say that these were restored. Instead, God kept his promise to Abraham and preserved his offspring. At another point, God was going to destroy Aaron, but Moses prayed for him (Deut 9:20). Was that an empty threat? There was hope for Aaron while he was alive, but destruction was almost his  destiny.

Parry argues that God’s dealings with all of humanity are patterned after God’s dealings with Israel and Judah. This interpretation falls apart upon reading the passages in Jeremiah 30 referenced earlier. While God promises to restore Israel and Judah, he also promises to devour those who’ve previously devoured them (Jer 30:16). Also, not all Israel and Judah received God’s favor. It’s later revealed that “the people who survived the sword found favor in the wilderness (Jer 31:2).” This isn’t a pattern for God’s judgment, but for God’s promise (Gen 17:7-8).

Further, in Deuteronomy 9, to annihilate is to blot out of heaven (to erase). Those who died in the wilderness were destroyed by God⎯blotted out of heaven. This is the basis of the restorative punishment of the Old Testament: God killed an entire generation to warn the next. For this reason a loving parent does not spare the rod (Prov 13:24). The purpose of inflicting pain is to warn of the pain that comes from continuing in sin.

If there’s no pain after hell, the CU argument collapses. It means that the purpose of pain in hell is not restorative, but punitive⎯unless the possibility of hell is ongoing. If the pain of hell is meant to warn of the ongoing suffering in hell, then ongoing suffering in hell must be an option. However, if ongoing suffering is an option, then the CU position fails again⎯unless Christ forces himself onto all. Even still, there would be no threat of ongoing suffering and the purpose of the pain would be merely punitive. If ongoing suffering is not an option, then it is also not restorative. Instead, it is merely punitive again. If hell is merely punitive, then God can do what he wishes. If he desires to annihilate⎯or perpetually inflict his wrath⎯it is God’s prerogative.

If hell is restorative⎯which I don’t believe it is⎯the Christian universalist has more questions to answer. For instance, does God send the people who die without ever hearing the gospel to hell just to get their attention? If all will be saved, does the CU wish to infer that God inflicts pain to get what he wants? Does this not make God the abusive sadist they cannot accept?6 If God does not force himself onto people, the CU must accept the possibility that the punishment of hell may not always achieve restoration⎯and acknowledge the potential for eternal conscious torment. Studies show that you cannot trust a person crying out in torment.7 They will say anything to stop the pain. There’s no way to deny that hell is full of torment, and the Scriptures teach that God, knowing this, will send some there. It is, indeed, God who casts into the lake of fire.

In my estimation, the Christian universalist wants God to be what he is not and makes the text say what it does not. Does God want all to be saved? Yes! Did God want sin to enter the world? No! It seems that God allows for things he doesn’t want in order to accomplish that which he wills. God does not want any to perish, but some will. However, God sent Jesus so that some will not. And these numbers are not for humans to determine⎯that is left for mystery.

Like Parry, I believe that the end of God’s justice is salvation; God is making all things new (Rev 21:5). However, I do not believe he is making all people new. All does not have to mean every. I can say that all forms of human government are corrupt without saying that every government official is corrupt. Similarly, God can save all the nations without saving every person within each nation. This is what the Scriptures clearly teache.

Consider what John the Baptist says in Matthew 3:11-12:

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is more powerful than I. I am not worthy to remove his sandals. He himself will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing shovel is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn. But the chaff he will burn with fire that never goes out.”

Consider how Jesus explains the parable of the wheat in Matthew 13:37-43:

“The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world; and the good seed⎯these are the children of the kingdom. The weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels. Therefore, just as the weeds are gathered and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will gather from his kingdom all who cause sin and those guilty of lawlessness. They will throw them into the blazing furnace where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in their Father’s kingdom. Let anyone who has ears listen.”

Finally, consider how Jesus describes the coming judgment in Matthew 25:31-34, 41, and 46:

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate them one from another, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world…’”

“Then he will also say to those on the left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels!…’”

“And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Each of these passages refers to people. The text makes a clear distinction between those who will enter the kingdom of God and those who will be cast out. Since there is one death and one judgment, what happens at the final judgment is permanent (Heb 9:26-28). It’s sobering to realize that God is making all things new by purifying the world of sin and wickedness⎯including wicked people. It is for this purpose that Revelation 22:13-15 is an urgent plea:

“Look, I am coming soon, and my reward is with me to repay each person according to his work. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end. Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates. Outside are the dogs, the sorcerers, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.”

At first, CU seems noble. With further study, it can be dangerous because it gives false hope. Even the Christian universalist believes that hell is horrible⎯but not horrible enough. As a person who has spent multiple years in prison, I’ll say that temporal hell doesn’t seem that bad. I know many individuals who have no problem going to prison. If they know they’ll eventually be released, it gives license to their criminal behavior. This isn’t to say that every person will have this opinion if they’re taught that CU is true, but one is too many. If hell is eternal⎯and I believe it is⎯postmortem hope is devastating.

In conclusion, the CU position relies on postmortem salvation. While this belief breaks down at many levels, the biblical breakdown is primary. This is a textbook example of forcing that which is mysterious onto that which is definitive.

In Conclusion

We don’t know for sure what hell will be like in its entirety. But we do know that it’s real, permanent, punitive, and some will go there.8 The doctrine of hell should thrust believers toward evangelism. The hope of the gospel should give believers confidence. God sent his Son to save the world, and Jesus built a Church to be his hands and feet⎯to bring forth his kingdom (1 Cor 12:27; Matt 28:18-20; Acts 1:7-8; 1 Pet 2:9).

I don’t believe hell should be used as a scare tactic to coerce people into following Jesus. The knowledge of hell must be the fire under our feet, leading all Christians to love the world with the consuming love of Jesus⎯humbly.

As I’ve noted many times in this essay, the problem with interpreting hell is not that we don’t have enough information. Instead, we make mistakes when we try to make hell into what the Scriptures do not warrant. There are both mysterious and definitive things about hell, and we must leave each in its proper place. By surveying the text, we’ve seen what is definitive; we have also seen what is not. I’ve noted that all three belief systems must make inferences to arrive at their conclusions. I do not believe that all inferences are justified. Regarding hell, the question for each of us becomes, “What will you infer?”

Related resources

Edward Fudge, Hell—A Final Word (Leafwood Publishers)

  1. Preston Sprinkle, “Introduction,” Four Views of Helled. Preston Sprinkle (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 11.
  2. To explore this more, see Edward Fudge, Hell: A Final Word (Abilene: Leafwood, 2012), 67-74. Fudge shows the many verbs that tell the fate of the wicked: the wicked will vanish (Ps 37:20; 68:2); perish (Ps1:6); be destroyed (Ps 37:8); wither (Ps 37:2); be blown away (Ps 1:4); and, blotted out of the book of the living (Ps 69:28). The picture Fudge gives is of complete destruction.
  3. Denny Burk, “Eternal Conscious Torment,” Four Views of Helled. Preston Sprinkle (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 23.
  4. Edward Fudge, Hell: A Final Word (Abilene: Leafwood, 2012), 77.
  5. John G. Stackhouse Jr., “Terminal Punishment,” Four Views of Helled. Preston Sprinkle (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 69.
  6. See Bernard Chazelle, “How to Argue Against Torture,” Princeton University, accessed May, 19, 2019, https:// www.cs.princeton.edu/~chazelle/politics/torture09.html
  7. Samuel Gross and Maurice Posley, “For 50 Years, You’ve Had the Right to Remain Silent: So why do so many subjects confess to crimes they didn’t commit?,” The Marshall Project, accessed May 19, 2019, https://www.themarshallproject.org/ 2016/06/12/for-50-years-you-ve-had-the-right-to-remain-silent.
  8. Two verses on permanence that should be considered are Isaiah 66:24 and Mark 9:49. Both passages refer to hell. The image is of maggots eating dead bodies. The fact that dead bodies are actually dead is a clue to the final state of the wicked. This is not a case of maggots feeding on wounds, it is an image of dead bodies. It is not purification, but decay. The second image is of salt losing its saltiness. The text suggests irreversible and total damage. All will be salted with fire, but not all will sustain the heat.
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