There was a time in my life when I repeated the ‘Sinner’s Prayer’ a lot.
In my faith tradition, Hell is humankind’s default destination. Like a pre-existing medical condition, everyone is born damned per the doctrine of Original Sin. And the only way to reroute your one-way ticket from eternal damnation to eternal paradise is to make a public confession of faith in Jesus to become a Christian before you die.
Theologically, this view of Hell is referred to as “Eternal Conscious Torment.” And it’s pretty widespread. According to Pew Research, 82% of Evangelical Protestants believe in a literal Hell (compared to 58% of all U.S. adults).
Growing up, it wasn’t uncommon to hear people at Christian summer camp or evangelism conferences share testimonies about how they thought they had once been saved, but they were just “going through the motions.” And then they’d point to scripture passages like where Jesus tells a group of confused people, “Depart from me, I never knew you” on the Day of Judgment before hurling them into an eternal fire pit.
This idea was terrifying. You could genuinely believe you were a Christian, die, and go to Hell anyway? What if I was just really good at adapting to the social expectations of my community? How would I know wasn’t one of those “lukewarm” Christians Jesus would spit out of his mouth on Judgement Day?
My childhood anxiety makes a lot of sense in context. If the fate of every person on Earth is to spend eternity in Heaven or Hell after they die, then there’s literally nothing more important than ensuring your salvation.
Over time, my childhood existential paranoia gave way to predictable adolescent inquiry. However, the stock responses (“God doesn’t send people to Hell; People send themselves to Hell” or “God is perfectly just”) didn’t satisfy my well-intentioned curiosity, but I learned quickly that Hell was one of those issues where continual prying was strongly discouraged. So, I kept my questions to myself.
Questions I refer to as “The Questions You’re Not Supposed To Ask.”
When Jesus rose from the dead, did everyone alive at that time – including indigenous people groups in the Americas and the Huns in Outer Mongolia – suddenly become personally responsible for accepting that information – even if it’d take centuries for the Gospel to reach them?
Because if we take the doctrines of Original Sin and Eternal Conscious Torment to their logical conclusions, we’re left with the unsettling reality that – anthropologically speaking – “getting into Heaven” is mainly dependent on where and when you were born in history.
What of the millions of Native Americans annihilated by European settlers? The Aztecs and Mayans killed by disease and pestilence brought by Spanish missionaries and conquistadors? The African captives who perished aboard slave ships crossing the Atlantic? The eighteen-year-old Hindi girl murdered in a brothel after being sold into sex slavery as a child? The sixteen-year-old Muslim boy accidentally bombed by an American drone strike in Iraq?
In her gut-punch of an essay, “Hell,” former Christian Meghan O’Gieblyn writes,
“If you took into consideration all the people who’d ever lived—including those centuries upon centuries when entire continents were cut off from the spread of Christianity—then the vast majority of humanity was going to spend eternity in Hell.”
And, while we may relish the poetic justice of Adolf Hitler roasting in an inescapable inferno for spearheading a Jewish genocide, traditional Evangelical theology also requires us to condemn the six million Jews who were starved, tortured, and murdered in the Holocaust to the exact same fate. How does that make any sense?
What of the 3.2 billion people living today who don’t have access to the Gospel? Are these people doomed to eternal agony for lacking the opportunity to respond to the Gospel? Does the cessation of a heartbeat trigger the irreversible end of God’s enduring love for a majority of people who’ve drawn a breath? Does lacking the knowledge of Jesus’s death for your sins invalidate the effectiveness of his sacrifice on your behalf?
None of these people chose to be born. None of them were made aware of the eternal consequences of living, yet – on the merit of a design flaw inherited at conception (original sin) – they’re born sealed in an express elevator to Hell. Therefore, it could be argued it would’ve been better for most people never to have been born in the first place.
And what is the climax to this grand narrative?
Will a Christian minority enjoy a “New Heavens and New Earth” free of worry, stress, and pain, while billions upon billions of people will remain trapped in a parallel existence of incomprehensible agony and affliction? Satan, Death, and Hades may be defeated at the endgame, but the doctrine of Eternal Conscious Torment ensures they’re successful in taking down a majority of humanity with them.
If your head’s already spinning, I have to warn you: It’s going to remain rough from here on out.
Some of you may find the remainder of this article overwhelming, upsetting, and potentially disturbing. Some may see it as a huge relief and spiritual balm for their souls. And, for others, it may very well trigger an existential crisis of faith.
I’m not joking or trying to be cute.
You’ve been warned.
A large amount of humility is required when writing about that which is unknowable. For me, this article represents fours years of research, writing, peer critique, and revisions. I’ve been swimming in these ideas for nearly half a decade. And, for you, it may be the first time you’ve ever been exposed to some of these ideas or given permission to ask these questions.
There’s a lot of information here. Take a break whenever you need. I promise, by the end, I let you know where I land on Hell, judgment, and the afterlife. But, more importantly, give yourself time and space to process and evaluate these themes and concepts that are probably about to rock your world.
Wrath & Flame: The Lake of Fire
The closest thing we have to a unified vision of life after death in the Old Testament is Sheol, loosely translated as “the grave” or “the Pit.” Appearing 65 times in the Hebrew Scriptures, Sheol is either a literal grave or a shadowy underworld populated by sad spirits – and, according to author of Ecclesiastics, it’s the destination for the “righteous and unrighteous alike.”
In Heaven and Hell, Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman writes,
“There is no place of eternal punishment in any passage of the entire Old Testament. In fact – and this comes as a surprise to many people – nowhere in the entire Hebrew Bible is there any discussion at all of Heaven and Hell as places of rewards and punishments for those who have died.”
Instead of offering a paradise in the afterlife, Yahweh’s promises to the Israelite people almost always revolve around some combination of fertility, land ownership, and military victory – arguably the most pressing tribal concerns to Ancient Near East civilizations.
The New Testament, however, speaks much more about the afterlife and postmortal judgment. But it’s important to note that our word “Hell” doesn’t appear in the original New Testament manuscripts. It’s a blanket translation for three different Greek words: Gehenna, Hades, and Tartarus.
- Gehenna: Appearing 12 times in the NT (of which 11 are by Jesus in the synoptic Gospels), Gehenna is a reference to the Valley of Gehenna, an area outside of Jerusalem where the Israelites once practiced child sacrifice to the Canaanite deity Molech. Its usage would dredge up deep cultural shame and regret for a first-century Jewish audience.
- Hades: Hades originally referred to the Greek God of the Underworld until it became synonymous with the Greek Underworld itself. A Greek counterpart to Sheol (and similar in concept), Hades appears 10 times in the NT. In some places, Hades is personified in the NT as a living being, not an afterlife location.
- Tartarus: Used once by the apostle Peter in his first letter to Timothy, Tartarus is the lowest level of the underworld in accordance to Greek mythology. Tartarus is also where the Titans – giant primordial gods overthrown by the Olympian Pantheon – are said to have been imprisoned by Zeus. Similarly, Peter says this is where God cast “angels who had sinned.”
It wasn’t until the printing of the King James Version in the 17th century (piggybacking off the 5th-century Latin Vulgate translation) that the word “Hell” was used in place for Sheol, Gehenna, Hades, and Tartarus – even though each word has a vastly different cultural and contextual meaning to their original audience. Hell, therefore, became a shorthand term for a place where God’s eternal wrath is poured out on sinners after their death.
More than any other term, Jesus uses the word Gehenna to describe a place of impending judgment. As mentioned above, Gehenna was a real place where child sacrifice was performed to a pagan god, a practice explicitly prohibited in the Torah. However, there’s more to Gehenna than ritualistic sacrifice and paganism.
Since the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, Gehenna is the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew phrase Valley of Hinnom, a geographic area that pops up from time to time in the Old Testament that’s located outside of Jerusalem’s original gates.
The Old Testament prophet Jeremiah predicted a time when Jerusalem would fall, and the dead would be too numerous to bury them all, so “carcasses of the people will become food for birds and wild animals” in the Valley of Hinnom. Most Biblical historians agree that Jeremiah’s prophecy was fulfilled when the Babylonian Empire conquered Israel in 586 B.C.
But Jesus’s apocalyptic words not only point to Israel’s past but also toward events in Israel’s imminent future – relatively speaking.
In Following Jesus, conservative theologian N.T. Wright writes,
“Most of the passages in the New Testament which have been thought by the Church to refer to people going into eternal punishment after they die don’t in fact refer to any such thing. The great majority of them have to do with the way God acts within the world and history…I can categorically say that Jesus’s language about the awful punishment in store for those who rejected his message must be read as predictions of the awful future that awaited the nation of Israel if she rejected the way of peace he was proposing.”
And this “awful future” that Jesus predicted? About 40 years after Jesus’s death and resurrection, it happened.
After finally having enough of the mini-revolts led by the Zealots (Jewish revolutionaries), the Roman Empire lay siege to Jerusalem in 70 A.D., destroyed the temple, and slaughtered thousands of Jewish citizens who were in the city for the annual Passover celebration.
According to the first-century Roman historian Josephus, the bodies of the Jewish citizens killed during the 70 A.D. siege of Jerusalem were dumped and left to rot in the Valley of Hinnom (Gehenna) – just like the Babylonians did in 586 B.C.
This was a catastrophic event for the Jewish people and one that was repeatedly foretold by Jesus about forty years earlier, just as the prophet Jeremiah had predicted the downfall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians nearly six centuries before. Read in context, Jesus’s grim descriptions of Gehenna were a multi-layered warning to the people of Jerusalem who placed their hope in a warrior-like Messiah and the violence-justifying Kingdom of Man rather than a self-sacrificing Messiah and the enemy-loving Kingdom of Heaven.
Advocates of Eternal Conscious Torment will often point to two stories Jesus told during his public ministry that appear to allude to eternal suffering for nonbelievers following death: “The Sheep and The Goats” and “The Rich Man and Lazarus.”
In both of these stories, people experience a form of hellish judgment. The “Goats” in Matthew’s Gospel are condemned to the “eternal fire” after being separated from “the Righteous,” and the Rich Man finds himself in Hades “in torment” while he watches Lazarus – a beggar that he ignored outside of his gate – enjoy paradise.
Pretty straightforward, right?
It’s important to note that both parables probably stem from a broader Rabbinic tradition of telling stories about the afterlife to teach lessons about how to live in the present (kind of like C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce). The “The Rich Man and Lazarus” parable was already circulating in Jewish circles before Jesus’s ministry, itself possibly inspired by an ancient Egyptian myth in which an abused slave is shown his wealthy abusers being tormented in the afterlife while he enjoys paradise.
Also, suppose we’re to take both of these stories as literal depictions of the afterlife. In that case, we’ll need to grapple with a significant theological wrinkle: In both stories, the distinguishing characteristic between the saved and the damned isn’t whether or not they “accepted Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior” – it’s how they treated the poor and the marginalized.
So, we have a conundrum: Is Jesus really talking about the afterlife (and who will end up where and why), or is He making a broader point about what it looks like to participate in the Kingdom of Heaven in the present? Because if He’s making literal observations about the afterlife, then most of us – especially those of us who adhere to an Americanized “God Helps Those Who Helps Themselves” Christianity – are royally screwed.
As an aside, the Greek word often translated as “in torment” in “The Rich Man and Lazarus” is basones, which can also be translated “touchstone,” a type of stone a jeweler would use to test the authenticity of gold or silver. Though he looked blessed and godly on the outside, the Rich Man’s true self is being revealed.
The apostle Paul, who penned almost a 1/3 of the New Testament and never mentioned the eternal tortures of Hell in any of his sermons or letters, speaks to a similar idea when describing the judgment of works. The only time Paul mentions fire in the context of judgment, the flames result in the salvation of those who pass through them.
Dust to Dust: The Case For Annihilationism
According to Annihilationism (or Terminal Punishment/Conditional Immortality), those who consciously reject the Gospel are punished for their sins after they die and then permanently annihilated at the Final Judgement. While this view of divine judgment might be unfamiliar to most evangelical Christians, it has a surprising amount of Biblical support.
One of the largest hurdles Annihilationists have to overcome is the assumption that all humans live forever in the afterlife (or, as C.S. Lewis famously quipped in The Weight of Glory: “You have never talked to a mere mortal“).
But, the immortality of the disembodied soul isn’t a claim explicitly endorsed by the Bible. On the contrary, immortality appears to be something God can grant or withhold. (And the idea of an eternal soul temporarily bound by the physical limitations of a body is far more indebted to the works of Plato and Socrates than the Bible’s treatment of “soul“).
In 1 Timothy 6:15-16, Paul writes, “God alone has immortality,” and he says in Romans, “To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, He will give eternal life” (Rom. 2:7). In the aftermath of the Fall, God Himself tells Adam that “from dust you are and to dust you will return” (Gen. 3:17-20). And, remember, the cost of eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was death, not eternal torture after death.
Throughout the New Testament, we read “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23) and “whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 Jn. 5:11-12). And we’re warned in Matthew “to be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body” (Matt. 10:28). And, referencing the cities of Sodom and Gomorra, Peter writes, “[God] condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly” (2 Pet. 2:6). James, the brother of Jesus, writes that sin “gives birth to death” (James 1:15).
In perhaps the Bible’s most famous verse, John 3:16 contrasts “eternal life” with “perishing,” not “eternal conscious torment.” And in opposition to the “narrow gate,” “the wide path” Jesus speaks about leads to destruction, not an eternity of torture. All of this collaborates David’s words in Old Testament: “All sinners will be destroyed, there will be no future for the wicked” (Ps. 37:38).
The culmination of the Annihilationism view is the bodily restoration of all peoples – living and dead. Followers of Christ are given new bodies and ushered into the new Heavens and the new Earth. Enemies of the Lord face a judgment. And how does the apostle Paul describe this judgment? “Sudden destruction” (1 Thess. 5:3).
Or, as John puts it in Revelation: “The second death” (Rev. 21:8).
Annihilationists hold that annihilation is eternal punishment – but eternal in its finality. The Bible uses words like “destruction” and “burned up” to refer to the fates of unrepentant sinners – words and phrases that don’t call to mind a state of ongoing torment.
Enlightenment philosopher John Locke argued in the 17th century that sinners in Hell “shall not live forever. This is so plain in Scripture, and is so everywhere inculcated – that the wages of sin is death, and the reward for righteousness is everlasting life…that one would wonder how the readers could be mistaken.”
Annihilationism is an appealing alternative to Eternal Conscious Torment for many reasons, chief among them being that it eliminates the need for an eternal torture chamber to co-exist alongside the “New Heavens and New Earth.” Intuitively, annihilationism also makes far more logical sense and depicts God in a more compassionate light toward his creation without sacrificing a traditional evangelical view of God’s holiness.
Critics of Annihlationism claim that God wouldn’t destroy people after death because it would diminish the sacred “image of God” inherent in all human life. But suppose the alternative to annihilation is never-ending torture. In that case, we’re left with a God who prefers the crown jewel of His creation preserved in perpetual agony rather than mercifully snuffing them out – or, as will explore in the next section, continuing to pursue them in hopes of future redemption.
Crown & Glory: The Case For
Universal Reconciliation (or Universal Atonement) is often confused with Religious Pluralism, or the belief that “all religions lead to Heaven.” But a Biblically-orthodox doctrine of Universal Reconciliation asserts that through the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus, all people – including those in Hell – will eventually be saved.
Let me reiterate: Universal Reconciliation doesn’t claim “Hell doesn’t exist.”
One of the strongest arguments against Universal Reconciliation is the assumption it minimizes the severity of sin and downplays the wrath of God. As Paul reminds us, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” This is not up for debate. And neither is God’s wrath against evil.
However, instead of minimizing humankind’s fallen nature, Universal Reconciliation magnifies the work of Jesus on the cross. Critics of Universal Reconciliation claim that it’s just an eschatology built upon “cherry-picking” Bible verses. But, just like Annihilationism, there’s more Biblical evidence for this view than one might expect.
The New Testament refers to Jesus’s death as the “atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 Jn. 2:2), and that “God desires all to be saved” and Christ “gave Himself as a sacrifice for all people” (1 Tim. 2:4-6) “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Pt. 3:9). In Hebrews, we read Jesus “suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (Hebrews 2:9).
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes, “We are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died” (1 Cor. 15:14) and “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:22).
In the Gospel of John, Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29) and who came “not to condemn the world, but to save the world” (John 3:17) and who will “draw all people” to himself (John 12:32). In those verses, the Greek word used for “world” is Kosmos, or “the whole of creation.”
Even the book of Revelation – with all of its disasters, beasts, blood, and flame – appears to leave the door open for postmortem reconciliation. In Revelation 20, we’re told of the “judgment of the dead,” in which everyone whose name is not found in the Book of Life is thrown into the Lake of Fire (Rev. 20:11-15).
The next chapter reinforces this moment, condemning “the cowardly, unbelieving, vile, liars, murderers, sexually immoral, and idolaters” to “the fiery lake of burning sulfur” (Rev. 21:8). Pretty straightforward, right? Well, something interesting begins to happen if you continue reading: The “wicked” keep showing up.
The focal point of the final chapters of Revelation is the florid description of the New Jerusalem, the capital city of the restored cosmos, which “no one who is shameful or deceitful” can enter (Rev. 21:27).
Which seems redundant, right? If the immoral and wicked are already in the Lake of Fire, they obviously can’t enter the New Jerusalem. But there’s more. Revelation 22 mentions those who “continue to do wrong” (Rev. 22:11), and we’re told of the immoral outside the city gates (Rev. 22:14-15) – described using the same terms used to describe those thrown into the Lake of Fire in the previous chapter.
And what’s the “Spirit and the Bride” doing after the apparent final judgment? Extending invitations. “Whoever is thirsty let him come…and let him take the free gift of the water of life” (Rev. 22:17). That “water of life?” It’s from the symbolic river that flows down the center of the New Jerusalem, from which the Tree of Life draws water and produces fruit for “the healing of the nations” (Rev. 22:1-2).
Finally, the New Jerusalem is described as a city whose “gates will never be shut” (Rev. 21:24-25). And, remember, where was the original Gehenna located? Outside the original gates of the old Jerusalem.
In short, the hope of Universal Reconciliation can be summed up with quote by Christian author Madeline L’Engle:
“No matter how many eons it takes, [God] will not rest until all of creation, including Satan, is reconciled to Him, until there is no creature who cannot return His look of love with a joyful response of love…I cannot believe that God wants punishment to go on interminably any more than does a loving parent. The entire purpose of loving punishment is to teach, and it lasts only as long as is needed for the lesson. And the lesson is always love.”
But, does Universal Reconciliation negate the need for evangelism and “disciple-making” as commanded by Jesus in the Great Commission? Absolutely not. Our word gospel means “good news,” and this is indeed the best possible news!
Furthermore, post-mortal judgment still exists. And it may last as long as someone decides to resist. Therefore, the mission of an “Evangelical Universalist” is to spread the good news of Jesus’s ultimate victory of evil and help people align their lives with the values of the Kingdom of Heaven in expectation for the future redemption of the cosmos.
Addendum: Raise Hell
In 1886, French archeologists uncovered fragmented copies of The Apocalypse of Peter. Allegedly written by the apostle Peter, this widely-read 2nd-century manuscript depicts Jesus giving his disciples a tour of the afterlife. While Heaven barely makes an appearance (and is described in vague and indistinct terms), the real centerpiece of the manuscript is the harrowing depictions of the fate that awaits sinners in Hell.
The Apocalypse of Peter makes anything Stephen King has ever written look like a child’s bedtime story. Blasphemers are hung by their tongues over a fire. Women who had abortions were tortured by their unborn fetuses and flesh-eating creatures produced by their breast milk. Adulterous men are suspended by their genitals above a blazing furnace. Unfaithful women are strung up and eaten alive by vultures. Disobedient slaves are forced to gnaw their tongues off.
Roman historian Ramsay MacMullen considers these Christian writings to be “the only sadistic literature I am aware of in the ancient world.”
The Apocalypse of Peter wasn’t a fringe piece of Biblical fan fiction; it was so widely circulated, it almost made it into the New Testament canon. It’s included in the Muratorian fragment, the oldest surviving list of New Testament books.
We talk about Hell a little differently today. You’re more likely to hear it colloquially referred to as “eternal separation from God” than described as some genital-mutilating medieval torture dungeon – as if that will somehow soften the blow and not offend our modern sensibilities.
But, from Augustine and Thomas Aquinas to John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards, our foundational Christian writers and philosophers spoke about Hell in grisly, unrelenting language. “Fire and brimstone” rhetoric is the historical reality of Hell’s theological legacy.
I think for many of us, the belief in Hell acts as a strange comfort amid life’s chaos and unpredictability. We believe in Hell just enough to assure ourselves that we’ll be one of the “winners” in the afterlife, but not enough to live a life defined by that which such a belief should necessitate.
However, the doctrine of Eternal Conscious Torment may exist in our heads as a belief we acknowledge (and defend), but does that belief actually influence our day-to-day lives in a meaningful way? Because no one who believes in Hell thinks they’re going there. For that reason, the question “Do you believe in Hell?” isn’t nearly as interesting to me as the question, “Do you live as if you believe in Hell?“
If we were to audit your weekly budget or daily schedule, would we be able to discern a belief in a hellish afterlife reserved for people who don’t share your religious convictions? How much time, money, and comfort are you sacrificing right now to help people – friends, family members, neighbors, co-workers, strangers on the street, children born in far-off countries – avoid Hell?
These questions may seem harsh, but so is believing a lot of people are going to be tortured for eternity and not doing a lot about it. At the very least, I hope I’ve helped you question what a particular belief really is worth to you – and whether or not your life reflects that conviction.
Though I hope for Universal Reconciliation, I probably lean toward a hybrid form of Annihilationism. (Within a generation or two, I believe Annihilationism will become the dominant view of Hell among most Evangelical Christians). I think the kind of life offered by knowing Jesus in the present is far better than putting it off to some indeterminate date in the future.
Either way, I don’t think I believe death is the end of the story. If Jesus is who He says He is, then I have to believe grace, justice, and mercy extend beyond death’s universal embrace. Maybe some people will meet Jesus for the very first time after they die and immediately fall in love. Perhaps some people will shy away in shame, anger, and fear, and their redemption won’t come for a hundred, thousand, or ten thousand years.
And maybe others will resist and resist and ultimately decide they want nothing to do with this King Jesus, and thus spiral away from the gift of eternal life and into nonexistence. In The Reason for God, Timothy Keller writes, “Hell is simply one’s freely chosen identity apart from God on a trajectory into infinity.”
I could be wrong.
And I probably am.
But I’m holding out hope for an ending better than we can imagine.
I probably can’t answer your questions. Here are some recommendations for further exploration and conversation: Four Views on Hell (CounterPoint series); Jesus Undefeated – Keith Giles; Her Gates Will Never Be Shut – Bradley Jersak; That All Shall Be Saved – David Bentley Hart; Surprised By Hope – N.T. Wright; Heaven and Hell – Bart Ehrman; The Skeletons in God’s Closet – Joshua Ryan Butler ; Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God – Brian Zahnd