Hell is a topic that many preachers avoid discussing because of how existentially unpleasant it is. (On the other hand, some other preachers may enjoy talking about it a little too much, but that’s a different conversation for a different day.)
Regardless, while it isn’t a mystery that hell isn’t a place we want to go to, much of what we know about it is rooted in a mixture of cultural traditions and poorly understood biblical imagery. And there’s a lot that we simply don’t know.
In fact, while most evangelicals have one specific understanding of hell, Christians throughout the millennia have actually held to a range of views on the doctrine.
Below, I’ll present three main views on hell. While I would place one of them outside the bounds of Christian orthodoxy, you may be surprised to find that there are actually at least two views that evangelical Christians who affirm the authority of scripture may hold to.
View 1: Eternal Conscious Torment
The view that most evangelicals hold on hell is commonly referred to as eternal conscious torment (ECT). It is such a prevalent view that, depending on your church or denomination, ECT may explicitly be spelled out in your statement of faith.
ECT holds to the idea that every human soul is intrinsically eternal. That is, while your soul had a start date, it will never have an end date. And since God is just and cannot be in the presence of sinful humanity apart from the forgiveness, redemption, and glorification made possible through Jesus, those who reject Jesus will exist in eternity apart from God.
To be absent of God is to be absent of goodness itself, thereby resulting in an existence of torment, which is both eternal and conscious. As medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas put it, “Sinning against an infinite God is an infinite offense which deserves infinite punishment.”
Robust scriptural support exists for ECT. For example, Jesus repeatedly uses the phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth” to describe judgment, along with language of “outer darkness” (see Matthew 8:12; 22:13: 25:30; Luke 13:28). While this language could be metaphorical, as it comes by way of parables, it does suggest something ongoing about judgment.
Further, in Mark 9:48, Jesus describes hell by quoting Isaiah 66:24, which describes a place “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.”
In another parable, Jesus describes a man named Lazarus who is in Hades and “in torment” and “in anguish in this flame” (Luke 16:19-30). Again, this is a parable, so it might not be a literal depiction, or Jesus could be referring to an intermediary place that exists prior to the final judgment, commonly referred to as Hades. Nevertheless, it does depict an element of ongoing judgment.
Jesus again describes final judgment in Matthew 25:46, where he says of the condemned, “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
Lastly, in Revelation 14:9-11, an angel says, “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…and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur…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.”
This one is tough to make heads or tails of. Is it just those who worship the beast and take his image that will be tormented and have no rest for eternity? Or is it anyone outside the grace of Jesus?
Also, this is Revelation. So it’s difficult to know how much of this we ought to take literally, how much John intended for us to take literally, versus how much of it is figuratively referring to something that was happening in the first century. Not every Revelation scholar agrees.
Nevertheless, when taking all these passages together, the biblical case for ECT is strong. In fact, a couple of these verses are difficult to get around. So while it is possible to hold to another view, no one can accuse someone who holds to ECT of doing any violence to the biblical text.
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View 2: Universalism
Universalism is a view of hell held mostly among progressive Christians or those otherwise outside the mainstream of evangelical theology—as well as mainline Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox theology, for that matter. In other words, universalism sits outside the historic, orthodox Christian view.
This view was popularized among some evangelicals by Rob Bell, who authored “Love Wins” in 2011. Bell was formerly a megachurch pastor who later deconstructed his faith and is now very much situated in a progressive Christian community.
Essentially, universalism argues that there is no such thing as an eternal hell—not only do all dogs go to heaven, all people do too. This view makes its case on the basis of God’s love, which universalists believe is fundamentally at odds with rendering eternal judgment against people created in his image.
Given the numerous passages in the bible that talk about judgment, many universalists argue that there will be a period of punishment and purification in the afterlife, only that it will not be eternal. At some point, it will come to an end, and everyone will eventually come under Jesus’ promise of salvation—regardless of whether they ever confessed him as Lord in their life before death.
This is similar to the Catholic doctrine of purgatory, with the important distinction being that in Catholic theology, only the faithful enter purgatory for purification purposes.
When looking at biblical passages that speak about eternal judgment, universalists take that word to mean something different than “literally forever.” The Greek term that the bible uses is aiónios, which literally means “age-long.” Functionally, this has been taken to mean “forever.” However, universalists contend that since it literally means “age-long” or “enduring for an age,” this may imply that there will be a time when that age will come to an end.
Further, universalists would contend that the word “eternal” speaks more to the qualitative aspects of that age rather than a quantitative description of its length in terms of time. Those who disagree with them would argue that the word speaks to both quality and duration.
Universalists look to a number of passages in the New Testament expressing that Jesus’ salvation is for everyone to support their view.
For example, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:22 that “as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” He says something similar in Romans 5:18. Nevertheless, New Testament scholars would be quick to point out that the “all” in this verse is referring to all who are in Christ, rather than everyone in creation being saved, regardless of their faith in Christ, because of the power of Christ.
In Colossians 1:19-20, Paul says, “For in [Jesus] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” Universalists take this to mean that every person will be reconciled to God, which speaks to the new creation, a time when heaven and earth will function in perfect harmony. Others would be quick to point out that scripture repeatedly describes this redemption as only coming after the final judgment, where those who have not come under the lordship of Christ are cast out.
As you may be able to tell, the universalist view of hell requires Christians to reinterpret key passages that use the word “all,” as well as completely ignore the many other passages that speak of final judgment that were listed in the previous section.
View 3: Annihilationism or Terminal Punishment
Annihilationism, otherwise known as Terminal Punishment, is a view of hell that posits that the human soul is not intrinsically eternal. Rather, it is finite and only persists into eternity insofar as it is connected to the giver of life, namely Jesus. Those who are not connected to the giver of life do not have life, and they cease to exist.
While you may not have heard of this view, you may have heard of some of the people who hold to it. For example, John Stott, a renowned evangelical theologian, advocated for the view. Revivalist John Wesley seemed to imply this view in his sermons. Theologian Preston Sprinkle has expressed sympathy for it.
In fact, support for this view goes back to patristic writers, including Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus. The first full-throated explanation of this view is found in the fourth century work of Arnobius.
To the annihilationist’s mind, the promise of salvation is an invitation to eternal life—not merely a different eternal life than you were going to have anyways. The choice is not between an eternity of blissful life or an eternity of tormented life. The choice is between eternal life and final death.
Annihilationists argue that while this death is both a final and eternal judgment, the process of dying is not an ongoing eternal process.
By way of scriptural support, annihilationists rely on a closer look at the words the New Testament uses to describe final judgment, many of which imply a final destruction rather than an ongoing torment.
“Destruction” or “perish” (in Greek, apoleia or olethros): Matthew 7:13; John 3:16; 17:12; Acts 8:20; Romans 9:22-23; Philippians 1:28; 3:19; 2 Thessalonians 2:3; 1 Timothy 6:9; Hebrews 10:39; 2 Peter 2:1; 1 Thessalonians 5:3; 2 Thessalonians 1:9; 1 Timothy 6:9
“Death” (in Greek, thanatos or apothnesko): Romans 1:32; 6:21; 7:5; 8:6; 1 Corinthians 15:21-22; 15:56; 2 Corinthians 2:16; 7:10; James 1:15; 5:20; 1 John 5:16; Revelation 2:11; 20:6, 14; 21:8
“End” (in Greek, telos): Romans 6:21-22; 2 Corinthians 11:15; Philippians 3:19; 1 Peter 4:17
“Disintegration/corruption” (in Greek, phthora): Galatians 6:8; 2 Peter 1:4; 2:12
Other phrases and imagery throughout the New Testament seem to suggest something similar.
Burnt up chaff, trees, weeds, and branches (Matthew 3:12; 7:19; 13:40; John 15:6)
A destroyed house, discarded fish, uprooted plant, chopped down tree (Matthew 7:27; 13:48; 15:13; Luke 13:7)
The Day of Judgment is compared to Old Testament examples of the Noahic flood, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and Lot’s wife turned into salt (Luke 17:27, 29, 32)
The wicked are compared to “ground up powder” or someone who is “cut to pieces” (Matthew 21:41, 44; 24:51)
Further, in 1 Corinthians 15:21-22, Paul says, “For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” The idea here is that immortality is not inherent to fallen humanity. It’s only in Jesus that we have hope beyond the grave for anything.
This is what makes Paul’s words that much more impactful later in the chapter: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
In 2 Timothy 1:10, Paul says, “But it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” Annihilationists take this verse to mean that death itself is the eternal judgment, as God described to Adam and Eve in the Genesis narrative, rather than an eternal conscious torment that follows it.
This view also seems to be in line with the Old Testament writers’ understanding of the afterlife. They commonly referred to existence after death as “sheol,” which means the pit. They seemed to have an expectation of lifelessness after death. This is what makes the promise of Jesus so incredible.
Regardless of Your View, Don’t Lose Sight of the Mission
One reason why many people dislike the annihilationist view of hell, apart from any exegetical squabbles, is the fear that absent the threat of eternal conscious torment, Christians will be less likely to evangelize.
But if that’s the case, then we have missed the point of the gospel. The message of salvation in Jesus isn’t simply about avoiding pain, even eternal pain. It’s about discovering the beauty of who Jesus is and the kind of person he created you to be in him—stepping into that beauty starting today and then finding its final fulfillment in eternity.
Eternity is the promise that you will become everything God intended for you to be, and in so doing you will come to fully know God through Jesus Christ and glorify and enjoy him forever.
So long as we set that as our vision, knowing that the only way to achieve it is through a personal faith in Jesus Christ, we are well on our way to preaching a message that the Holy Spirit will use to bring about changed lives and saved souls.