Many Christians assume there’s only one way to think about hell — and everything else is heresy.
So I counted the different theories of hell, focusing only on those that find a home somewhere within the Christian tradition. (I’m not taking into account an atheist’s view of hell, for example.)
By my count, there are at least six major theories on the nature of hell. When you count all the variations, and add to the mix various ideas of who goes where… you end up with more than a dozen different perspectives.
1. Hell as a place of unspeakable torment
The traditional perspective, according to many evangelicals. But labeling yours the “traditional” view can sometimes be a cheap way of trying to win the argument without proving the merit of your ideas.
Besides, the Eastern Orthodox Church has been around way longer, and they have a very different take on hell. That doesn’t mean they’re right and evangelicals are wrong, but let’s dispense with unhelpful arguments over whose view is more “traditional.”
In any case, the “unspeakable torment” view says those who die without Christ experience unimaginable agony — and they’re fully awake for it. This view is often referred to as “eternal conscious torment,” because most adherents believe it’s an unending state. There is no reprieve, no second chance.
2. Hell as a ghost town
Next we wander into universalist territory.
There’s a difference between Christian universalism and plain old, generic universalism, though both end up with an empty (or nonexistent) hell. Generic universalism says everyone is basically good and all paths lead to God.
Christian universalism is different. It says there’s only one way to God. It accepts the reality of hell, but also believes those in hell are able to repent and escape.
There are, in fact, two varieties of Christian universalism:
- The confident variety: Those who fall into this category are quite certain hell will be empty someday. God’s victory will be absolute and all-inclusive. (If universalism and Calvinism had a baby, this would be it.)
- The hopeful variety: This is the universalism (if you can call it that) of Rob Bell and George MacDonald. They argue there is hope for every person who ever lived. They may even think it’s very likely that everyone will eventually embrace God — because God has all eternity to melt hearts, and he will never give up. But hopeful universalism stops short of saying everyone will definitely be saved in the end. It respects human freedom too much to go there.
3. Purgatory now, hell later
Basically, this view says those who die apart from Christ go to hell, though it isn’t hell in the fullest sense. Not yet anyway.
Residents of this not-quite-hell are invited to switch their status from “damned” to “saved,” but the invitation has an expiration date. There will come a day of final judgment, at which point everyone must live with their decision for eternity.
This is the picture C.S. Lewis paints in The Great Divorce. For those who escape, hell will turn out to have been purgatory. (Though Lewis means something very different by “purgatory” than your average Catholic.)
It’s better to think of this kind of hell as “Hades.” Which is a word we actually come across in the Bible — though you may not know it, since it’s often translated “hell.” And it does seem to be rather like a waiting room for the dead.
When reading Lewis, you’ll find varying degrees of optimism about how many people find the emergency exit in hell. In The Problem of Pain, Lewis says that, “Hell is locked from the inside.” But in The Great Divorce, he suggests that some do accept Christ’s invitation to escape.
Basically, the unrepentant are exterminated after judgment, instead of being endlessly tormented. Apparently it’s the official view of the Church of England. John Stott, one of the most influential British Christians since C.S. Lewis, is a non-dogmatic annihilationist.
5. Conditional immortality
Not quite synonymous with annihilationism, but close. To most ears, annihilationism implies that God terminates the unrepentant person. Conditional immortality takes a different route to the same destination. It starts by questioning the assumption that humans are inherently immortal. In fact, only God is immortal, as Paul told Timothy.
The notion that we’re immortal — specifically, that our souls cannot die — doesn’t come from the Bible. It comes from ancient Greek philosophy. The kind that said everything physical is temporary (and evil), while everything spiritual is forever (and good). It’s also known as Gnosticism, which the early church rejected as heresy.
Note how Genesis implies that Adam and Eve must keep eating from the tree of life in order to go on living. Once they’re kicked out of the garden, they’re denied access to the tree, and they eventually die.
Eternal life, then, is a gift which only God can give — not something we possess by right. To be condemned is simply to miss out on immortality. That’s why Paul says the “wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life.” And that’s why John describes the final judgment as the “second death.”
6. Subhuman existence
This view is something of a halfway point between eternal conscious torment and conditional immortality. It says that the more a person persistently, defiantly sins against God and others, the less they reflect the image of God. They become less than fully human.
And if they carry on like this until death, there will be no turning back. They will persist in the afterlife as ex-humans. As N.T. Wright says in Surprised by Hope, they will pass “not only beyond hope but also beyond pity.”
And those are just the theories about the nature of hell. There are many more theories to consider about who will end up there.
There are exclusivists like John Piper who say only those who consciously put their faith in Christ — or as Piper, ever the good Calvinist, would say: only those who were predestined to put their faith in Christ — go to heaven.
There are accessibilists like Terrence Tiessen and possibly Ben Witherington, who leave room in God’s kingdom for those who never had the opportunity to accept or reject Christ. God judges, they remind us, according to our level of knowledge.
There are Christian pluralists like Dallas Willard, who say that God can even save adherents of other religions — that such people will meet Christ in the age to come and realize he was the one they were seeking all along.
There are weak and strong versions of Christian pluralism, with different understandings of just how far God’s undetected grace will extend.
And of course, there are agnostics who insist we simply cannot know — like a friend of mine who said recently, “I’m just going to let God worry about it.”
All of these views have found expression within the Christian tradition. Some are more popular than others. All of them appeal to Scripture for support.
So when someone argues that it’s really quite simple understanding heaven, hell, who goes where, and for how long — remember… it may not be as simple as we think.