“I am not a Universalist, but maybe God is.” – NT Wright.
One of the absolute joys I’ve experienced at the conferences that I’ve been a speaker at, has been the absolute liberty and freedom our attendees have to interact directly with the speakers, and to ask difficult questions about very controversial topics. More often than not, the major question in contention is about the subject of hell.
Most people expect there will be a straight-forward answer to this question, but the question is by no means easy to answer nor is it straight forward in its explanation. For the simple reason that there are passages that seem to clearly teach one of three possible positions: Eternal Conscious Torment, Annihilationism, and Universalism.
The most popular view in the Western church, has been the view of Eternal Conscious Torment. There are several variations on the overall doctrine, but essentially hell is a literal place, with literal fire, with literal worms that eat at your body, where people, alongside Satan and his fallen angels are tormented forever.
The second view held by some Western and Eastern churches, less known by most Christians, is Annihilationism. While there are variations on the view, the overall concept is that the soul is not eternal, and a person in hell is tormented for a season, but they eventually burn out of existence, and the person ceases to exist.
The last view, which is mostly rejected by the Western churches, but accepted by the Eastern churches, is Universalism. What many Christians may be surprised to learn is that Christian Universalism, does teach about hell. The concept of hell as taught in Universalism, is one where the fires are seen as redemptive, where the unredeemed aspects of a person are burnt up by the flames, while the person himself will eventually be saved to partake in the Glory of God.
Now, I’ll just mention that these by no means cover the full debate about the subject of hell. The Roman Catholic Church introduced the concept of Purgatory. Then there are some Western Churches that believe in Post Mortum Salvation. There are no shortage of theories on what happens when a person dies, but I want to focus on the three major views that have generally all been accepted by the Church.
So at this point someone will asked, “Well what does the Bible say about hell?” And that is the beginning of the issue, because the Bible appears to teach all three views. There are verses that, on the surface, appear to teach Eternal Conscious Torment (Matthew 5:22, Matthew 7:13, Mark 9:43-45). Similarly, there are verses that appear to teach Annihilationism (Matthew 19:29-30, John 3:16, John 5:24). Likewise, there are verses that imply that all will eventually be saved, supporting Universalism (John 12:32, Acts 3:21, 1 Corinthians 15:22-28).
The debate is no longer as simple as saying, “what does the Bible say?” Rather it becomes a subjective choice, to choose which verses are most clear, and then choose to interpret the other verses in light of what is esteemed to be most clear. The person who believes in Eternal Conscious Torment, will hold those passages as most clear, and then interpret the Annihilationism and Universal passages in light of their understanding. Equally, the Annihilationist and the Universalist do the same thing, choosing their passages as most clear and interpreting the others in light of what they hold as most clear.
To use a cliché to illustrate the point, “To a man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” Depending on how you choose to read a verse will often determine how a person understands it.
For example, Matthew 7:13 Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat:
The Eternal Conscious Torment believer will read Matthew 7:13, and say clearly the person found on the broad way is going to a place of Eternal Suffering after they die.
The Annihilationist can interpret Matthew 7:13, and say, the verse clearly says the person is heading for destruction after they die, meaning they will eventually be brought to non existence.
The Universalist can interpret the verse saying that the destruction Jesus is talking about is the coming destruction upon the Jews and Jerusalem, that historically occurred in 70AD, he is not talking about the afterlife.
Which view is correct? That is entirely up to one’s subjective interpretation, and this is why there is nothing but debate. While many try to impress the importance of getting this doctrine of Hell correct, implying that we have too much at stake if we get this teaching wrong, the reality is, people who say this are basically fear mongering. What those who are trying to impress the fear of getting this doctrine wrong fail to realize is that every Christian, regardless of their belief about Hell, is entirely safe from ever going there.
Christians who believe in Eternal Conscious Torment, go to Heaven. Christians who believe in Annihilationism, go to Heaven. Christians who believe in Universalism, go to Heaven. The Bible nowhere teaches “Salvation by Doctrine,” whereby, we are saved based on our proper understanding of hell. Our view of hell is only of importance to believers, because most unbelievers don’t believe in Hell anyways, so they really don’t care which view another person holds. The questions about Hell are legitimate, and every Christian can study the questions for themselves, without fear or pressure of being bullied into one camp or the other.
The Trailer for Kevin Miller’s Documentary, “Hellbound?”