The Nature of Hell: What Happens To The Unsaved When They Die?

Come-Hell-image

Introduction

Few topics generate as much debate within Christianity as Hell does. The nature of hell is one that both terrifies and challenges a believer’s concept of God. After all, if God loves human beings, why would He allow for them to go to hell in the first place? This issue has been wrestled with and many views have emerged as the debate rages on. This post will focus on three views of hell’s nature and determine which view is the correct one to hold for a Christian wishing to hold true to what the Bible says. Hell is a troublesome concept for believers, it is difficult to grasp and hard to imagine, but hell’s very nature is something all believers should be familiar with.

Before diving further, one must address a key issue at hand: How can a God who is all loving allow for something like hell to exist? The truth is, hell exists because of man’s sin and Satan’s rebellion. God does not desire for anyone to go to hell as 1 Timothy 2:4 reminds believers that God “wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.”[1] All of man will have to stand before the judgment of God and answer for all they have done with those who have accepted Christ being saved (through their “works” will be judged, 1 Corinthians3:11-15) and those who have rejected Christ will be judged on their works and thus suffer eternal punishment (Rev. 20:11-13)[2]. Isaiah 6:46 states, “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.”[3] This verse shows just how sinful, unclean and hopeless man truly is[4] and how deeply necessary it is to accept Christ for the atonement of sin.

It becomes easy to see here that hell exists as a place that is void of the grace, mercy, and compassion which God offered man during their lifetime. Man chose to reject God and now they must exist in absence of Him for all eternity. This is also a reflection of the doctrine of mild hell which asserts that it is man who chooses hell freely rather than God consigning them to it against their will and it serves a greater good by preserving man’s free will of choice[5].

Three Views Examined

The three views discussed in this paper are the Annihilationist View, the Universalist View, and the Classical View. Each one of these views exists in an effort to explain the very nature of hell and the fate of the unrepentant soul. It is extremely important to both examine their philosophical impacts and their impacts on biblical understanding. Believers should tread lightly and carefully as they navigate through any theory and hold it to the test of Truth itself.

Annihilationist View

Annihilationism contains the Latin word nihil which literally means “nothingness”[6] and is followed mainly by religious cults such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses[7]. The Annihilationist View comes in three different forms: 1. All human beings cease to exist altogether at death. 2. Human beings are naturally mortal and God gives the redeemed the gift of immorality while the rest of humanity sinks into nothingness. 3. Because mankind is created immortal, it fulfills its destiny in salvation while the lost fall into nonexistence by a direct action of God or the destructive effect of evil[8]. Important to note is that annihilationists sometimes hold to the belief that there is a finite time of suffering in hell before the lost is wiped out of existence[9]. Because nothing is able to exist without God sustaining it, all annihilation requires is God choosing to stop sustaining the lost after death and this is seen as an act of mercy because the only other alternative for a believer is a conscious state of eternal suffering[10]. There is only one class of eternal life for the annihilationist and that is reserved for the saved with all others being wiped out of existence[11] and God shows his mercy by eradicating the lost from any eternal existence that is void of Himself.

Annihilationists contend that the terms used in scripture for the fate of unbelievers describe cessation of life: perish (John 3:16), destruction (2 Thessalonians 1:9) and second death (Revelation 20:14)[12]. However, these terms must be balanced with the New Testament terminology which speaks of eternal punishment for unbelievers: eternal fire (Matthew 25: 41) and eternal punishment (Matthew 25:46)[13]. Also, the term perish is the normal term used to describe the lost such as when it is used to describe a son lost to a father’s love (Luke 15)[14]. This means annihilationists are wrong to believe life simply ceases after death.

Second, annihilationists assert that it would be unjust for God to punish a sin committed in finite time with eternal punishment as they believe eternal punishment is disproportionate with the sin[15]. However, in hell, unbelievers continue to sin resulting in an eternal punishment for those who commit ongoing transgressions against God[16]. Therefore, continual sin merits continual punishment and annihilationists are once again incorrect.

Annihilationists also believe that an eternal conscious punishment is inconsistent with God’s love[17]. According to annihilationists, God’s mercy and justice meet one another as He justly stops the wicked from entering His kingdom while He mercifully ends their existence to avoid eternal suffering[18].  This stance neglects the fact that Christ (possessed full deity and ultimate expression of God’s love) spoke more about a conscious eternal punishment than anyone else in the Bible which means divine love cannot be separated from divine justice[19]. God must punish sin as He has promised and the lost choose their own fate in this regard. Annihilationists seem to propose removing the burden of free will choice from the believer here.

Fourth, annihilationists claim that the very existence of an eternal hell shows that God does not win over evil[20]. This argument hinges on the fact that God will ultimately win over evil in the end and Christ will be over all (Eph. 1:10; 21-22) and God will be in all (1 Cor. 15:28)[21]. To the annihilationist, the existence of a soul that rejects God prohibits His victory over sin as the souls would still continue existing in an eternal hell meaning God cannot save all people and victory over sin means annihilation of the lost’s soul[22]. As George MacDonald states, “He must destroy, that is, He must withdraw life. How can He go on sending forth His life into irreclaimable souls, to keep sin alive in them for all eternity?”[23] Annihilationists fail to recognize that Jesus asserted that hell is a created place and therefore God is sovereign over hell as a Creator (Matthew 25:41) and because He reigns over hell as Creator, Judge, and Victor, an eternal hell does not halt God’s complete victory over sin[24].

 Universalist View

The Universalist View is another popular view in regards to the nature of hell. Some Universalists believe that some people may receive temporary punishment, but they will be welcomed into heaven for eternity as a result of universal salvation and Christian Universalists are along the same line of thought as they believe the death of Jesus on the cross was universal in its effect[25]. Some also believe that all roads in life lead to eternity with God regardless of the doctrine one follows[26]. Ultimately, Universalists believe all people will live eternally with God and there is no such thing as eternal hell with liberal Christians, New Age proponents, and the majority of nonmonotheistic religions holding this view[27].

Universalism has six arguments its proponents routinely make: 1) God’s character is not compatible with eternal suffering so His grace extends to all eventually (1 John 2:2). 2) The power of God is able to restore lost humanity (Phil. 2:10-13). 3) God’s purpose and sovereign will become fulfilled when all are finally saved (2 Peter 3:9). 4) Souls perfected in heaven never experience eternal bliss knowing others are suffering eternally. 5) Universalism prevents Christians from being condescending and arrogant to other religions and is a position of tolerance. 6) It is the only way that makes sense of worldwide suffering (according to John Hick) because this view sees a termination to all suffering[28]. This writer would define these views as being “politically correct” in that they offer no consequence for rejecting Christ or living in sin and appeals to anyone who wants no judgment on their actions.

The issues with universalism are many. First, Universalists cite Matthew 22:44 (which references Psalm 110:1) frequently and believe that because the passage asserts that Jesus’ enemies are under His feet, that means that everyone (even His enemies) are with Him in Heaven[29]. However, Psalm 110:1 has God telling David that He will put David’s enemies down and they will not prevail[30]. Second, Ephesians 2:8-9 teaches that only those who accept Christ as their Savior will be eternally saved which means those who reject Christ are eternally damned meaning universalism is at odds with the Bible[31]. Third, Universalists claim to be religiously tolerant, but the claim of their beliefs rejects any exclusive claim of salvation held by any religion making universalism the only true religion in their eyes[32]. Once again, there is no true punishment for the rejection of God.

Stephen Davis notes that most universalists essentially teach that there is no hell and states, “if there is no hell it is hard to see, in New Testament terms, why there would be any need for atonement or a savior from sin….Furthermore, it seems methodologically odd for a person both to deny the reality of eternal hell and (because of biblical teaching and Christian tradition) affirm the reality of heaven.”[33] Davis’ assessment is brilliant here as he points out that if there were no consequence for man’s sin (or failure to accept Christ), then Christ’s death was in vain.

Classical View

The Classical View asserts that the wicked (lost) will be cast into hell where they will endure eternal torment and suffering[34]. This is the traditional view of the church[35] and the two other views that were discussed above work in an effort to make the nature of hell a bit milder and easier to approach as they try to reconcile the love of God with an eternal hell.

In the Old Testament, Daniel 12:2 shows that there will be a resurrection of the dead with some granted “everlasting life” and others condemned to “shame and everlasting contempt.”[36] The contrast between everlasting life and everlasting shame clearly point towards eternity in both instances[37]. If the Annihilationist or Universalist want to argue that everlasting means something different in regards to torment and shame, they must also change their perception of everlasting life with God. In the New Testament, Jesus indicates in Matthew 25:34 that those who know Him will have eternal life and those who do not will endure eternal punishment (Matthew 25:46) and His contrast between eternal life and eternal punishment also shows the punishment is forever (cf. John 5:28-29)[38].

As mentioned above, the two other views presented here work together to fight what they consider a cruel and unjust eternal hell. First, it can be argued that glory is infinite making sin an infinite crime so infinite and eternal punishment is fitting[39]. The eternal nature of God’s glory is at odds with the eternal nature of sin and He will punish it eternally. Second, God does not send people to hell, people choose their eternal destination by their actions and rejection of God (cf. John 3:19)[40]. Free will is a double edged sword and the choices one makes in this life directly impact the judgment they incur upon death. Third, the charges of cruelty here are misguided if one recognizes the images used to describe hell in scripture are not literal[41]. These images do portray the eternal life without God, but are figurative in nature when we look at passages such as Matthew 22:13 when it describes hell as a place of darkness and Matthew 18:8 when it describes hell as a place of perpetual fire[42]. Hell is the absence of God for all eternity, there is no greater torment on the human soul than the removal of God’s mercy and grace as sin consumes them entirely.

Concluding Remarks

This writer is in favor of the Classical View of hell. God afford man their entire finite life on earth to come to know Him and pursue a relationship with Him. Rejection of God is the choice of the believer and consequences have been forewarned. There is no reason to push the burden of guilt upon God in any instance of the believer’s eternal fate. Speaking of which, hell is eternal and not temporal as annihilationists and universalists may suggest. The Greek words used in the New Testament in reference to hell and God are aionios and aion and both convey a meaning of time without end and if they do not mean “eternal” in reference to hell, they conversely cannot mean “eternal” in reference to God[43].

What annihilationists and universalists get wrong is the burden of responsibility. If their views were true in any sense, man would have no repercussions for any action they choose to commit. From a young age, children are taught that their actions have consequences and this transfers into adulthood and the very real notion that actions in this life impact the eternal life in which one enters. It would be better for man to live ignorant and unknowing of God their entire lives than to know Him and live in rebellion of Him.

An eternal hell does not negate the character of God in the slightest. God has revealed His mercy through the sacrifice of His Son and the constant pursuit of man to bring them unto Him. God’s love is what allows mankind to continue its existence and the world to keep spinning. The choice of man to live absent of God in this life carries over into eternity. God does not desire this outcome, but He gives man what they choose with their free will.

Hell is truly a place that is absent of God. There is no mercy, there is no grace; there is only sin. It is up to man to choose whether they want to live without God for all eternity or enter into a relationship with Him. God should be praised for the patience He shows when the world rejects Him. The fact that mankind even continues to exist despite the moral decay of society and rejection of God is a miracle within itself.

God does not will for any man to end up in hell, but sin is so disgusting to Him that He cannot allow it in heaven. An argument referenced above is that there can be no comfort in heaven when people know there are souls suffering in hell. This writer begs to differ. In heaven, it would seem that the entire focus of the soul is directed towards the very worship of God void of any human emotion or filter. In hell, the focus is on self as sin consumes the lost soul to the point they decay into it much like Gollum in Lord of the Rings.

The verdict is clear. One must make a conscious decision as to whether they accept Jesus Christ into their life or not. There is no other means of salvation, there is no other way to enter into eternal life with God, and there is no other hope beyond the grave. Once in hell, there is no hope or escape, there is only a void in the soul where God once mediated. Similar to this finite life, sin can only satisfy and fill that void briefly and this is why sin is continual in the absence of God or the absence of the surrender to Him. The truth is, hell hath fury, the fury of man’s sin and anger towards God. God has allowed man a choice to choose which master they serve. It would be wise to choose the Father as eternity is a long time to live without Him.

 

[1] NIV.

[2] Gregory A. Boyd and Paul R. Eddy.  Across the Spectrum: Understanding Issues in Evangelical Theology.  2d ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009): p. 281.

[3] NIV.

[4] Gary M. Burge and Andrew E. Hill. The Baker Illustrated Bible Commentary. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2012): p. 683.

[5] C. Stephen Evans and Manis, R. Zachary Manis, Philosophy of Religion: Thinking About Faith 2nd ed., (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009): p. 176.

[6] Ed Hindson and Ergun Caner. The Popular Encyclopedia of Apologetics, (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2008): p. 166.

[7] Elmer Towns, Theology for Today, (Mason, OH: Cengage Learning, 2008): p. 838.

[8] Walter A. Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology 2nd ed., (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001): p. 64.

[9] Gregory A. Boyd and Paul R. Eddy.  Across the Spectrum: Understanding Issues in Evangelical Theology: p. 291.

[10] C. Stephen Evans and R. Zachary Manis, Philosophy of Religion: Thinking About Faith 2nd ed.: p. 176.

[11] Millard J. Erickson, Introducing Christian Doctrine 2nd ed., ed. L. Arnold Hustad, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001): p. 413.

[12] Ed Hindson and Ergun Caner. The Popular Encyclopedia of Apologetics: p. 166.

[13] Ed Hindson and Ergun Caner. The Popular Encyclopedia of Apologetics: pp. 166-167.

[14] Ed Hindson and Ergun Caner. The Popular Encyclopedia of Apologetics: p. 167.

[15] Ed Hindson and Ergun Caner. The Popular Encyclopedia of Apologetics: p. 166

[16] Ed Hindson and Ergun Caner. The Popular Encyclopedia of Apologetics: p. 167.

[17] Ed Hindson and Ergun Caner. The Popular Encyclopedia of Apologetics: p. 167.

[18] Gregory A. Boyd and Paul R. Eddy.  Across the Spectrum: Understanding Issues in Evangelical Theology: p. 290.

[19] Ed Hindson and Ergun Caner. The Popular Encyclopedia of Apologetics: p. 167.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Gregory A. Boyd and Paul R. Eddy.  Across the Spectrum: Understanding Issues in Evangelical Theology: p. 290.

[22] David B. Clotfelter, Sinners in the Hands of a Good God: Reconciling Divine Judgment and Mercy, (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2004): p. 65.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ed Hindson and Ergun Caner. The Popular Encyclopedia of Apologetics: p. 167.

[25] Ed Hindson and Ergun Caner. The Popular Encyclopedia of Apologetics: p. 487.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Walter A. Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology 2nd ed.: pp. 1232-1233.

[29] Ed Hindson and Ergun Caner. The Popular Encyclopedia of Apologetics: p. 487.

[30] Ed Hindson and Ergun Caner. The Popular Encyclopedia of Apologetics pp. 487-488.

[31] Ed Hindson and Ergun Caner. The Popular Encyclopedia of Apologetics: p. 488.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Kelly J. Clark, Readings in the Philosophy of Religion 1st ed. (Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2000):  pp. 311-312.

[34] Gregory A. Boyd and Paul R. Eddy.  Across the Spectrum: Understanding Issues in Evangelical Theology: p. 281.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Gregory A. Boyd and Paul R. Eddy.  Across the Spectrum: Understanding Issues in Evangelical Theology: p. 282.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Gregory A. Boyd and Paul R. Eddy.  Across the Spectrum: Understanding Issues in Evangelical Theology: p. 282.

[39] Gregory A. Boyd and Paul R. Eddy.  Across the Spectrum: Understanding Issues in Evangelical Theology: p. 285.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Gregory A. Boyd and Paul R. Eddy.  Across the Spectrum: Understanding Issues in Evangelical Theology: p. 285.

[43] Ed Hindson and Tim LaHaye gen eds. The Popular Encyclopedia of Bible Prophecy, (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2004): p. 138.

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charlestinsley

My name is Charlie Tinsley and I blog about The Bible. In particular, I post my thoughts, commentaries, and Bible Study teachings I have done. I hold a Bachelors Degree in Science in Religion Summa Cum Laude with a Biblical Studies Minor. I am currently studying for a Masters In Divinity at Eastern Mennonite Seminary with PhD ambitions in the study of Theology. I am married and have been for several years and I currently reside in Virginia.

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