What about annihilationism?

This is part of a series on the nature of hell. See below for the rest of the series.

Some of you may have noticed I haven’t spent much time directly addressing the view of annihilationism or conditionalism. This isn’t because of a lack of respect for those who hold this view or because I don’t include it as a view that sincere, faithful evangelicals Christians can follow. I would certainly agree there were Christian leaders and thinkers who held this view in the early church. While I’m not able to comprehensively address the arguments for this view—whole books have been written propounding this belief—I do want to offer some general thoughts and responses, especially in the context of this blog series on the nature of hell.

Terminology

First, let me comment on terminology. Many who hold this view refer to it as “conditionalism” because of the necessity of also holding to belief in conditional immortality. The idea here is that human beings are not intrinsically immortal as the creation of God. Our immortality is only in Christ. So our immortality—our ability to exist eternally—is only for those who are in Christ, not for the lost in hell. Consequently the judgment of hell actually brings about their death in the sense that it causes them to cease to exist. They are annihilated. 

The problem is that people who hold the other views of hell, whether eternal conscious torment or universal restoration, can also believe in conditional immortality; they can believe that humans aren’t inherently immortal but only receive their immortality from God. Certainly this would make eternal torment more gruesome because God would then be actively sustaining the lost in eternal torment, but there’s nothing incompatible about these beliefs. And there’s nothing preventing a Christian universalist from believing in conditional immortality, indeed many seem to believe this very thing. So the term conditionalism is fitting but it doesn’t adequately distinguish this view from the others. This is why I prefer to use the description annihilationism, because it communicates more clearly the distinguishing aspect of this view.

Already covered (albeit briefly)

You’ve probably noticed that I actually have mentioned the annihilation view in many of my previous posts. I’ve often been focusing on the question: “Will anyone be eternally lost?” The way we answer this question distinguishes universal salvation from both eternal conscious torment and annihilationism. Many of the challenges to the eternal conscious torment view are also challenging to annihilationism, and I’ve included both views in many of my comments.

We noted that love is an essential aspect of the character of God, that God can no more be unloving than he can be unholy. We can ask in what sense hell is loving, how would it be in the best interest of the lost. We can equally ask the same thing of annihilationism. Is killing people for all eternity a loving act? Is it in their best interest? How can it be what’s best for them when they were created for loving relationship with God for all eternity just as we were? How can it be loving—in their best interest—to snuff them out of existence? How can heaven be truly heaven for us if our dearly loved spouses, parents, siblings, children have been annihilated, ceasing to exist forever? How can we grieve but with hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13) if we’ll never see these loved ones again? How can God claim to love me if he doesn’t also love my spouse or parent or sibling or child?1 Does God not love the lost enough to save them? Or is he unable to save them? These challenges apply to both eternal conscious torment and annihilationism.

If God’s desire is to save everyone (1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9), in what way is he victorious if a great many, possibly the vast majority, of his creation will never be saved? If the lost are lost to God, and he wishes to restore to himself what he has lost (Luke 15),2 how is he victorious if he never restores to himself many or most of what he has lost? In what way has he made “everything new” (Revelation 21:5)? If many or most of God’s creation will remain dead for all eternity, in what way has God been victorious over death? In what sense has he destroyed his last enemy, death (1 Corinthians 15:26)? How is not the triumphant challenge, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55) not an empty boast if death can respond: “Right here! in the countless billions of your precious creation who I will hold in my clutches for all eternity!”

How is God victorious if he is doing to his own creation what the enemy wants done to God’s creation—killing and destroying them (John 10:10)? How is the universal praise and worship of God we see in passages such as Isaiah 45:22-24, Philippians 2:9-11 and Revelation 5:13 not hollow and artificial when it’s only accomplished by killing all of those who refuse to praise and worship him? Isn’t this like a president boasting of unanimous support when they’ve silenced or eliminated anyone who would oppose them?3 Is this truly the glorious victory of God? Is the God of the Bible truly a God who achieves universal worship by exterminating anyone who resists worshiping him—and then triumphantly exults in his “victory”?

Which view is most consistent with both the biblical character of God and with the gospel? Is the gospel about the salvation of a few and the extermination of most? Is God a God who permanently terminates his enemies,4 or one who transforms his enemies (Romans 5:10), making peace with them and reconciling them to himself (Colossians 1:20), making them righteous (Romans 5:18-19), and even adopting them as his children (Romans 8:15-17)? Which one is most consistent with the entire biblical story of a creation perfectly created, ruined and then restored?

In his response to the terminal punishment view (i.e. annihilationism), Robin Parry addresses this:

The problem is that God’s answer to evil here is not a gospel solution (i.e. to eradicate sin from the sinners), but a terminator solution (i.e. to eradicate the sinners themselves). This is a drastic way of winning creation — like winning all the votes in an election by killing those who would have voted differently. Hypothetically, God could annihilate the vast majority of human beings and then claim to have won a glorious triumph in a universe filled with creatures that love him. But is this not a pyrrhic victory? The cost of winning was so very high. And given that this was a cost that God really did not want to pay, then it is as much a failure as a victory. It looks to me as if on this view sin and death have their wicked way in the end — forcing God to abandon and obliterate many of those he loves [emphasis in original].5

Dependent on over-interpretation of key words

Many observe that this view relies to a great degree on a particular understanding of certain words in Scripture, what many of us would see as over-interpretation of these words. This is a bit ironic because we’ve seen that the eternal conscious torment view rests essentially on the misinterpretation of one word. Just as—once we understand the meaning of aionios—we see no place where Scripture describes eternal conscious torment, so we find no passage of Scripture that clearly and unambiguously describes the lost as ceasing to exist. But we do hear many proponents of this view emphasizing certain key words. Let’s briefly look at some of these words.

It’s common for annihilationists to summarize their belief by calling our focus to all the places in Scripture that describe the ultimate fate of the lost as death (such as Romans 6:23), and then stressing: dead means dead. It doesn’t make any sense, we’re told, for “death” to mean anything other than actual death, as in ceasing to exist. And this sounds simple and compelling, honoring the wording of Scripture. The problem is that the Bible often uses the word death in ways that obviously do not mean annihilation. Let’s look at one example in Ephesians 2:1-5:

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.

We see here that we were previously living in a state of death, existing but needing to be made alive. This is common language in the Bible, a common way to speak of death. So it is not all nonsensical to speak of people existing in a state of death when we speak of the judgment of hell. Some will go so far as to argue that death in the Bible primarily (or often) explicitly means a total cessation of existence. I can’t find even one place in Scripture where the word death unambiguously connotes such an idea. Since death can be used in very different ways—often meaning to exist in a state of death spiritually and other times meaning simply the end of one’s physical life—to argue that “dead means dead in the sense of ceasing to exist” is circular reasoning, assuming one’s point to make one’s point.

Some argue that the Greek word translated “perish” in verses such as John 3:16 (apollumi) actually means to die in the sense of ceasing to exist. This word most often means to be lost (see for instance throughout Luke 15), and also frequently conveys the similar meanings of to perish or to be ruined or destroyed. (At least three translations render John 3:16 as should “not be lost but have eternal life” ISV, NCV and Phillips.) 

So let’s think about the word “perish.” What does it mean to perish (especially taking into consideration how frequently this Greek word is similarly rendered to be “ruined” or “destroyed”)? When we say something is “perishable,” what do we mean? If you leave something that’s perishable indefinitely in your refrigerator, does it cease to exist? We’d probably wish it would cease to exist! What does it do? It decays, it rots. It might even decay to the point we no longer know what it is! But it doesn’t cease to exist. It actually continues to exist but in a ruined state.

It’s surprising to me how many of those who hold this view refer to the ruined wineskin Jesus spoke of in Matthew 9:17 to support the idea of annihilation. The point often made is that the ruined wineskin would have to be discarded. The problem is that the text doesn’t say anything about discarding the wineskin. The ruined wineskin does not cease to exist, it continues in a state of ruin. Now, someone could subsequently discard the ruined wineskin, but they also may not. To discard the wineskin would be a separate act. The fact that the wineskin is ruined does not mean or require that it ceases to exist. (Actually, even if it’s discarded, it doesn’t cease to exist.)

We have the same problem with the word “destroy.” This sounds very extreme, no doubt, but it doesn’t require a cessation of existence. One can easily think of a car, a building or a city that is destroyed but continues to exist in a ruined state. We even refer to a destroyed city or building as “ruins.” And we also can’t forget the pattern we saw in Scripture that what God destroys he also restores.

It’s often emphasized that fire consumes things. That’s what it does, this is true. But we all know that Scripture also speaks of fire as something that purifies instead of destroying. Actually fire often destroys and purifies at the same time, burning away the dross and leaving the purified silver or gold. We can’t simply assume a particular connotation for fire. Fire does consume, but it doesn’t only consume and it doesn’t always consume.

My point here is that there is no lexical or textual basis for claiming that the words “death,” “destroy,” “perish,” “ruin” or “fire” in Scripture require or even suggest that anyone ceases to exist. And it’s inappropriate to assume this meaning, and then use this assumed meaning as a basis on which to establish this belief. This is going beyond the meaning of the text and reading into it something that’s not explicitly and unambiguously there.

Theological inconsistencies

Many annihilationists rightly stress that they, too, believe in God’s judgment of the lost in hell. They point out that their belief includes the suffering of unrepentant sinners in hell, in a way that corresponds to the individual’s sins. They’re clear that the unsaved will suffer to a greater or lesser extent depending on their actual sins. In a chapter on “terminal punishment” (i.e. annihilationism), John Stackhouse Jr explains repeatedly that the unsaved must suffer in hell in order to “make their own atonement” for their sins.6

But wait a minute. Hasn’t Jesus already atoned for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2; John 1:29)? One might respond, “Yes, but if people don’t accept Christ’s atonement for them, then they must atone for their own sins.” [And, yes, I do understand that many Calvinists would not agree that Christ atoned for the sins of the world, although that seems to directly contradict the Scriptures I referenced.] Fair enough. So they must atone for their own sins. And according to annihilationists such as Stackhouse, the lost do this by suffering in hell.

But this begs an important question: If the lost reach a point in their suffering when they have atoned for their own sins, why are they then annihilated? If they’ve actually atoned for their own sins—atoning for their sin that separated them from God—why are they not restored to God? Isn’t this the very essence of the word atonement, intentionally combining the words at-one-ment? If they’ve atoned for their own sins, why are they not then at one with God as the word requires? This seems to me confusingly inconsistent theologically.

(Please understand, Christian universalists aren’t arguing that the the lost actually do atone for their sins by suffering in hell. I’m simply responding to an annihiliationist argument, and showing where I think it’s theologically problematic.)

Some annihilationists don’t believe that people will atone for their sins by suffering in hell. Some believe that hell is simply the means of execution; it’s the way God brings their life to an end. They are cast into hell and they die because, we’re reminded, humans are not intrinsically immortal. If we don’t have eternal life in Christ, then we will naturally die in hell and cease to exist.

But this brings up more questions. If “dead is dead,” what is the state of the lost when they die in this lifetime? Do they cease to exist? How could they not, since the human soul is not immortal? Or is the soul not immortal . . . but it’s a bit more immortal than the body? Does the soul have a slightly longer shelf-life? Is God sustaining the souls of the lost for some reason? Or does the lost person actually cease to exist, and then when God resurrects the lost (Daniel 12:2; Revelation 20:11-13), he’s actually re-creating them? But then why would God re-create someone who had ceased to exist . . . just to painfully exterminate them again? That seems pretty chilling! But if the soul does live on beyond the body . . . just how much fire does it take to consume a soul? The more we actually think this through, the more confusing and theologically problematic it becomes.

The strong case for universal reconciliation and restoration

When annihilationism was beginning to be increasingly considered and discussed back in the 1980s and 90s, few were including Christian universalism in the broader discussion. What’s interesting is that when we go back and read many of the cases for annihilationism at that time, they were using many of the passages and challenges to eternal conscious torment that evangelical universalists now use. It makes us ask: Doesn’t universal reconciliation and restoration fit these passages even better? Doesn’t it challenge eternal conscious torment even more effectively? And isn’t annihilationism actually vulnerable to many of the same challenges?

Clark Pinnock challenged eternal conscious torment by writing:

What purpose of God would be served by the unending torture of the wicked except sheer vengeance and vindictiveness? Such a fate would spell endless and totally unredemptive suffering, punishment just for its own sake. But unending torment would be the kind of utterly pointless and wasted suffering which could never lead to anything good beyond it.7

And John Wenham agrees:

Whatever anyone says, unending torment speaks to me of sadism, not justice.8

But couldn’t the same challenges be made of annihilationism? Doesn’t this challenge any punishment that is purely retributive, punishment for punishment’s sake, any punishment that isn’t loving and redemptive? What if we use the same quotes above, but replace the words “endless” and “unending” with purely retributive punishment followed by complete annihilation?

What purpose of God would be served by the purely retributive torture of the wicked followed by complete annihilation except sheer vengeance and vindictiveness? Such a fate would spell purely retributive and totally unredemptive suffering, punishment just for its own sake. But purely retributive torment followed by complete annihilation would be the kind of utterly pointless and wasted suffering which could never lead to anything good beyond it.

Whatever anyone says, purely retributive torment followed by complete annihilation speaks to me of sadism, not justice.

Don’t these challenges apply just as well to annihilationism? We can find many arguments for annihilationism that present it as merciful. But the absolute annihilation of human beings, causing them to completely cease to exist, can only be considered merciful when compared to the horror of endless, hopeless torment. When we add biblical universalism to the discussion, annihilation doesn’t seem so merciful anymore. It’s only slightly less horrific than the traditional view.

We see the same kind of thing in even more recent works. In Four Views on Hell, John Stackhouse Jr ends his response to eternal conscious torment9 by quoting Psalm  30:5 from the NRSV:

For his anger is but for a moment;
his favor is for a lifetime.
Weeping may linger for the night,
but joy comes with the morning.

But you can see how we might read this and think, “Doesn’t this passage fit biblical universalism even better?” If God is—in his wrath—permanently and eternally annihilating people, causing them to cease to exist, how is anger only lasting for a moment? The effects of his anger will certainly continue for all eternity. And, from the annihilationist view, is the weeping during the night truly replaced by joy in the morning? Isn’t this torment replaced by extermination? That may give a sense of relief, in some sense, to someone being tormented—but could we, with a straight face, call this joy? When someone is on death row and their final appeal is denied, is that the time they rejoice? Would joy come with their execution, especially if there was absolutely no hope for anything past this death, only completely ceasing to even exist?

Even compared to eternal conscious torment, this is still horrific, just a little less intolerable. When we include Christian universalism in the discussion, the reference to these kinds of passages from annihilationists seems more than a little ironic. In a similar way, the frequent references to the utter destruction of Sodom don’t have the desired impact to evangelical universalists, not only because this destruction was not the same as cessation of existence, but because God tells us explicitly in Scripture that he will restore the Sodom he utterly destroyed (Ezekiel 16:46-63)!

Because for most of us eternal conscious torment has been, by far, the dominant view, annihilationists and conditionalists have welcomed evangelical universalists somewhat as allies. This makes sense, and I certainly appreciate it. I have deep respect and admiration for a great many annihilationist leaders and scholars. But, as Christian universalism has been increasingly discussed and its influence has been growing, I’ve heard from an annihilationist friend frustration that relatively few (from his perspective) are considering conditionalism but seem to be leapfrogging immediately to the universal restoration view. Why is that?

The process of reexamining my views of hell and the bases for the view I once held reminds me a great deal of a much earlier process I went through of reexamining my eschatological view and bases for it. When I examined the foundational claims of my classic dispensational view, I found them wanting. When I examined the foundational claims for eternal conscious torment, I had a very similar result. 

But there’s another interesting similarity here. When I first decided to reexamine my eschatological views, it seemed I had to weigh through a number of possible views. But I quickly realized that the primary question I had to answer was: Does the Bible present the rapture and the return of Christ as separate events or as aspects of the same event? When I looked at it this way, the choice was between historic premillennialism (a posttribulational rapture) and all the other views. I had known about the midtribulational view, of course. I knew a few people who held this view. They tended to be very intelligent students of Scripture, and they had their arguments focusing on what they thought to be key details in Scripture. But I quickly came to see this view as a variation on a theme, an adjustment of the classic pretrib view.

When I eventually came to reject the classic dispensational view in which I had been brought up, I went right to historic premillennialism. Others leaving classic dispensationalism have moved to an amillennial view. But I don’t know anyone who has moved away from classic dispensationalism to the midtrib view. That’s because it’s simply a variation on the same theme, it’s a modification of the classic pretrib view. Even if you completely disagree with my conclusions, hopefully you can understand the thought process. And I think you can see where I’m going with this.

When I decided to reexamine what I believed about hell and why, it seemed I would need to sort through extensive arguments for all the different views. And I did read a great deal from annihilationist scholars. But I quickly began to focus on one key question: Does the Bible teach that anyone will be eternally lost? In much the same way as before, when we look at the issue in this light, it distinguishes biblical universalism from all other views. Annihilationism answers this question in the same way that eternal conscious torment does. It’s still a variation on the same theme. 

Ultimately the answer to the question I and others have received: Why aren’t you more seriously considering anniliationism? is that I’m already thoroughly convinced that God does love everyone and intends for everyone to be reconciled to him and completely restored, that he is more than able to accomplish everything he intends, and that he has planned for all of this from the very beginning, that this very outcome was woven all through his creation from the very beginning. I don’t see any clear passages of Scripture explicitly telling us the lost will suffer eternal conscious torment or that they will ultimately be annihilated. But I do see in Scripture that nothing is lost or destroyed or ruined beyond God’s ability to heal and restore, and that he restores everything he judges and destroys. I find a great many passages clearly and explicitly telling us that God will reconcile and restore all of his creation, that everyone will come to him and worship him.

I find the theological arguments for both eternal conscious torment and annihilationism to be problematic and unconvincing (often in the exact same ways). But the more I study the Scriptures and the more I consider these things in a more broadly theological way, the more I’m convinced that, of course God will save all of those he has created! I respect and love my brothers and sisters who see this differently. But I’m not only confident of this biblical truth and hope, it fills me with overwhelming praise and worship for our glorious God who, alone, could accomplish this perfect outcome to his perfect plan! Because of this surpassingly, gloriously perfect ending to God’s perfect plan, I’m driven to the same kind of worship as the apostle Paul for the same reasons:

For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he might have mercy on them all.

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out!
Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?
Who has ever given to God,
that God should repay them?
For from him and through him and for him are all things.
To him be the glory forever! Amen.

Romans 11:32-36
  1. Thomas B. Talbott, The Inescapable Love of God, 2nd ed. (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014), 126-129.
  2. Steve Gregg, All You Want to Know about Hell (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2013), 57.
  3. Robin A. Parry, “A Universalist Response” in Four Views on Hell, 2nd ed., ed. Preston Sprinkle (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016), 91.
  4. Parry, Four Views on Hell, 89-92.
  5. Parry, Four Views on Hell, 91.
  6. John G. Stackhouse Jr, “Terminal Punishment” in Four Views on Hell, 61-79.
  7. Clark Pinnock, cited by Gregg, All You Want to Know about Hell, 210.
  8. John Wenham, cited by Gregg, All You Want to Know about Hell, 210.
  9. Stackhouse, “A Terminal Punishment Response” in Four Views on Hell, 47.

Related post:

Different evangelical views on the nature of hell

Exploring Hell series:

The question of hell

Hell in the Bible: Understanding the biblical words

Hell in the early church: What did early church leaders believe about hell?

Understanding the “eternal fire” of hell

Do other passages teach eternal conscious torment?

Is there a biblical case for universal salvation? The Old Testament pattern

Is there a biblical case for universal salvation? New Testament passages

Considering the theological case for eternal conscious torment

Considering the theological case for universal salvation

Theological challenges to universal salvation

What about annihilationism?

Some closing thoughts on the nature of hell

Considering the theological case for universal salvation

This is part of a series on the nature of hell. See below for the rest of the series.

We’ve looked at the background regarding our beliefs about hell, we’ve examined the biblical case for eternal conscious torment, and we’ve considered the theological arguments for an eternal hell. After weighing all of this, I fail to see any convincing scriptural or theological reasons why we should believe in eternal conscious torment. But does this leave us in a state of ignorance about the eternal fate of the lost? We have seen many biblical passages that strongly indicate God will ultimately reconcile and restore all of his creation.  Are there also broader theological arguments for this view? And how convincing are they? We’ll look at the theological case for universal salvation in this post, and consider the theological challenges to this view in the next.

Three propositions

To help us think through how we’re approaching all of this, consider three theological propositions or claims. (I’m paraphrasing something originally written by Thomas Talbott.1) Some Christians believe each of the following statements—but no one believes all three:

  1. God loves everyone and intends for each person to be saved.
  1. God will accomplish everything he intends.
  1. Some people will be eternally lost.

One could find biblical passages that—at least superficially—seem to support each of these claims. But all three propositions can’t be true. So each of us will deny one of these claims. Calvinists will disagree with the first statement. They don’t believe that God loves everyone in the same way and that he intends to save each individual person. Arminians and other non-Calvinists don’t believe statement number 2. They would insist that God desires and does everything he can to save each person, but his ability to accomplish what he intends is limited by the individual’s free will. Christian universalists deny the third claim. They don’t see any biblical or theological reason to accept the idea that some people will be eternally lost. They believe God fully intends to save each person and that he is certainly able to accomplish what he intends. Thus, he will do what he intends and will bring each person to the point of repentance and faith in Christ—even if he has to utilize hell to accomplish this.

So we have a choice between: (a) a God who could save everyone but chooses not to; (b) a God who sincerely wants to save everyone but isn’t able to; or (c) a God who both wants to save everyone and does. Do we have a God who lacks loving intent for those he’s created, a God who lacks the power or ability to accomplish what he desires and intends, or a God who lacks neither love nor power? Has God created people he knew would be lost for eternity—people he either chose to leave damned, or whom he knew he wouldn’t be able to rescue? By creating as he has, did God give himself a problem even he can’t solve? Did he actually create a rock too heavy for him to lift?! Ultimately, we have to examine the scriptural support for each of these three claims. I find the first two biblically certain, and the third to be without much support at all.

The love of God

Let’s think about the character of God as we see described in Scripture. Can God ever be unholy? Is there anyone to whom God would not be holy? Of course not. God is always holy, without fail. Can God ever be untrustworthy? Could God ever call people to trust in him and then not be worthy of that trust. Absolutely not. We have complete confidence in the biblical character of God. So can God ever be unloving? Remember, the Scriptures don’t just tell us God is loving, but that God is love (1 John 4:16). Can God ever be unloving? Is there anyone to whom he would act in a way that isn’t ultimately in their long-term best interest? Because—if love is an essential part of his character and he could choose not to love some—then why should we be confident he’ll always tell us the truth, or be holy, or trustworthy, etc.? If he doesn’t always love others, then why should we believe he’ll always love us? And if we say “because he’s told us he’ll always love us,” why should we trust him if he’s not consistently true to his character?

No, our first instinct here is the biblical one. Of course God is always loving. This means that everything God does is loving, just as everything God does is holy. In the same way he calls us to be loving in everything we do (1 Corinthians 13), he is loving in everything he does. Even if his actions are unpleasant for us or seem harsh, we ultimately find they’re loving. This means that hell must be loving. Whatever view we hold about hell must include this unavoidable truth. If God is love, if God never fails to be loving, if everything that God does is loving—then hell must be loving. Hell must be in the best interest of those who are subjected to it.

We understand that hell is the punishment of God for those who haven’t placed their faith in Christ. So let’s think about punishment. This is something we understand well because human parents must sometimes punish their children. So what is it about punishment that makes it a loving act? It’s the intended outcome, right? Parents punish their children for the sake of their children. There may be other reasons as well (to establish order, to be an example, etc.), but what makes the punishment loving is the motivation, the outcome intended by the parent. What would constitute unloving punishment? Unloving punishment would be punishment that isn’t done for the child at all, but simply to express the rage of the parent.

We see all through Scripture that even God’s harshest judgment has loving purpose. His judgment is intended to bring about change in the hearts and lives of those he judges. Hell is the punishment of the lost by God, and it’s something that must be loving because this is the character of God. He can no more be unloving than he could be unholy. So what makes the punishment of hell loving? The intended outcome. It must be in the best interest of those God is punishing. For hell to be loving it must be remedial. It must be intended to bring about change in those being punished. It must be redemptive.

We see in Scripture the kind of love to which God calls us. We’re to love others as Christ loved us. We’re even required to love our enemies (Matthew 5:43-48). Does the Bible give us an end point to this command? Does it ever describe a point when we’re no longer to love our enemies? No, it doesn’t. So does God love his enemies? Does God ever stop loving his enemies?

We’re commanded to forgive those who sin against us. How many times are we to forgive those who have sinned against us? Not seven times, but seventy times seven (Matthew 18:22), right? Does that mean we can count up to the 491st time someone asks for forgiveness, and then we don’t have to forgive anymore? No, it doesn’t mean that at all. Study Bibles and commentaries explain the context of this verse, that Jesus is showing how God’s grace is completely without limit, and that we must follow his example. So how can we then claim that God has a point past which he will no longer forgive those who sin against him? Is God a “do as I say not as I do” kind of God?

And let’s think about God’s love for those of us who are now his, those of us who will experience heaven. Does God love us? Of course he does. We can have complete confidence in God’s love for us. But what if your beloved spouse or son or daughter isn’t a believer when they die? Will God stop loving your spouse or your child? How can he claim to love you, but not love your spouse or your child? 2 How could God claim to love you, to be committed to what is best for you, and not also love the child you love so much, not also be committed to what is best for your child? 

How could God expect us to enjoy the bliss of heaven while those we love are either being consciously tormented for all eternity or completely snuffed out of existence? Some would say God somehow removes the memory of our lost loved ones. But this is horrific. And how would it work anyway? Would he actually remove the memory of a spouse to whom someone’s been married for 60 years? What’s left remaining wouldn’t be your life! This would be deception, and God does not deceive. We’ll gain clarity in the life to come, not lose it. We will know fully even as we are fully known (1 Corinthians 13:12).

Some say we’ll gain a greater appreciation of God’s holiness and judgment and so, somehow, be accepting of the eternal conscious torment of our loved ones. But certainly we will be more loving in the life to come, not less! 3 If we share the heart of God, our hearts will break even more for those who are experiencing hell. And we’ll be even more aware of just how horrible this judgment is. No, this will give us an even greater longing for their salvation. And even if we are somehow unaware of this eternal suffering, God will certainly be aware. Will he stop loving his lost creation? Will he live for eternity in a state of grief and mourning for those either being tormented or who were extinguished? Or will he accomplish what he desires and save all of his creation?

How can heaven be fully heaven—for any of us—while anyone remains in hell? Isn’t our God the one who loved his fallen world so much that he sacrificed himself—taking on our death and condemnation—so that we could all be reconciled to him and receive his life? In Revelation, Jesus is the Lion of the tribe of Judah and he’s also the Lamb who was slain. Jesus will eternally be the God who was crucified, who laid down everything for his creation. Do we really believe he will come to no longer love his lost creation?

The victory of God

We know from Scripture God will ultimately triumph over all his enemies, and that the last enemy to be destroyed will be death (1 Corinthians 15:24-28). In 1 Corinthians 15:55 we have this confident challenge to death:

Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?

This is the glorious victory of God over all his enemies! But let’s think this through. If: (a) the consequence of sin is death (Romans 6:23), and (b) the ultimate consequence of sin, the ultimate death is either an eternal, conscious death in hell or death by completely ceasing to exist, and (c) much, or even most, of God’s creation remains eternally in this state of death . . . how exactly is God triumphing over death? How is this victory? How will death have been “destroyed”? Would 1 Corinthians 15:55 above not be an empty challenge? Would not death be able to respond to these questions: “Where is my victory? Right here! In the countless number of your precious creation who will eternally remain dead.”

We use the term “lost” for those who aren’t yet saved, and it’s a biblical word. But when the shepherd leaves the 99 sheep and seeks the one that’s lost (Luke 15:1-7), to whom is the sheep lost? Who is the one in the story who has experienced the loss? It’s the shepherd! And he’s seeking to restore his lost sheep to himself. 4 When the widow loses one of her silver coins (Luke 15:8-10), to whom is the coin lost? To her! And she searches to restore the coin to herself. To whom is the prodigal son lost (Luke 15:11-32)? To his father! And he watches and waits until he can restore his son to himself. So to whom are the lost actually lost? To God. And he longs to restore even the last one who’s lost to himself. Will he experience eternal loss? Or will he be victorious?

Again, imagine you have seven children. And let’s say your children all become victim to a mind-controlling cult that will ultimately destroy them. So you endeavor to do everything you can to rescue each of your children from this cult and bring them to freedom. In the end, you’re able to rescue only two of your children. The other five remain, and take part in the mass suicide of the cult. Would you then exult, “I have been triumphant! I have completely won the victory!”? Is this really the kind of victory for God that Scripture is describing?

We read 1 Thessalonians 4:13 that believers “do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.” This a wonderful, blessed truth to which we hold tightly when we experience the loss of a loved one. But is this only true for our loved ones who we know have placed their trust in Christ before they died? For the rest, are we back to grieving like the rest of mankind with no hope? Is our hopeless grief actually worse than the rest of mankind because we know so well the consequences of death without faith? Or does Scripture give us hope for all our loved ones who die because our trust is in the unconquerable love of God (Romans 8:38-39) and his sacrifice for all people (1 John 2:2)?

In John 10, Jesus contrasts himself as the Good Shepherd, who comes “that they may have life and have it to the full [v. 10],” with the thief, who comes to steal, kill and destroy. But according to both eternal conscious punishment and annihilationism, what does God do with those who are lost? Does he not kill and destroy them? Is he not doing to them exactly what the enemy desires to do? How, then, is God victorious over Satan? Even if Satan is eternally bound, can’t he go to hell with a smile on his face because he’s taking so many of God’s created beings with him, and even seeing God accomplishing Satan’s intended design for them: their death and destruction? How is this victory for God?

Will evil actually exist for all eternity? Will sin remain in the hearts of those in hell forever? Will God truly be utterly supreme over everything everywhere (1 Corinthians 15:28) . . . except for his rebellious creation in hell who still resist and refuse him as Lord and King? Or does he remove his opponents by killing them—somewhat like ensuring a unanimous vote by killing all those who vote against you? Is this really the complete and glorious victory of God?

Which view best fits the gospel?

While arguing against the universal restoration view, Jerry Walls wrote:

I will also concede that his view [evangelical universalism] represents the end of the biblical story that is most to be desired. The universalist view delivers on the promise of a truly perfect end of the story. 5

But how can the “truly perfect” end of the story not actually be the end of the story? How can we come up with a better end of the story than God did? Could it be that this conclusion isn’t too good to be true, but that it’s too good to not be true? As we’ve seen, this view isn’t based on warm and fuzzy wishful thinking, but on rigorous exegesis of Scripture. And which view best fits the good news of Jesus Christ? Which best fits into the whole biblical story?

In his book examining the different views on hell, Steve Gregg tells us he’s still struggling with this issue, that he hasn’t definitively reached a conclusion yet. I certainly respect that kind of transparency. But we can perhaps see a bit of his process in the headings he chose for the different sections of his book. The 2-chapter section on eternal conscious torment, he titled: “First, the Bad News.” The next section, on annihilationism, he titled: “The Bad News Is Not As Bad As You Thought.” And the final section, on restorationism, he titled: “The Good News Is Better Than You Thought”! 6 Again, how can we think of anything better than God’s good news?

In Robin Parry’s response to another view, he uses playful—but I would say insightful—descriptions of the differing views. He describes those who believe in eternal conscious torment as “tormentors,” and those who believe in annihilation as “terminators.” 7 Those who believe in evangelical universalism would then be “transformers.” As everyone agrees, what we believe about hell reveals what we believe about God. So the question is really: Do we believe in a God who’s ultimately a Tormentor, a Terminator, or a Transformer? Which best fits his character? Which best fits his gospel? Which best fits the biblical story?

What do we see in the gospel, taking it in its whole canonical context? We see God’s creation ruined and then restored. We see his people, Israel, ruined and then restored. We see us ruined by the fall into sin, but then restored. At the heart of his gospel, we see Christ sacrificing himself, taking on the death brought by sin, in order to reconcile and restore his fallen, rebellious creation. We see the mission that comes from the gospel, the mission which we now pursue. And we see the ultimate culmination and final victory of God’s plan, accomplishing what he intends to accomplish, what he accomplished on the cross. So which understanding of hell best fits this gospel, the eternal torment of those lost to God, the termination of those lost to God, or the transformation and restoration of those lost to God? 8

There’s so much more I’d like to write in this post, but much of it would get too involved. Maybe I’ll write a stand-alone post later exploring, for instance, all the ways biblical universalism resolves so many issues debated between Calvinists and Arminians (and other non-Calvinists). There are so many intriguing insights I’d like to include here. For example, Chris Brackett, one of our pastors, pointed out in a group discussion that we believe Christ paid the penalty for our sin. Jesus took on our death so we can receive his life. But if the wages of sin is death, and if that death means either eternal conscious torment or annihilation, then Christ actually didn’t take on our death, the consequence of our sin—because Christ wasn’t eternally tormented or annihilated!

I don’t see sufficient biblical support for eternal conscious torment and I don’t find any of the theological arguments persuasive. But I find many passages of Scripture that show the ultimate reconciliation and restoration of all of God’s creation, and I find the theological arguments for this view profound and compelling. But what of the theological challenges? We’ll look at these next.

If you’d like more expansive arguments for and against the differing views of hell, I’d recommend beginning with one of these books:

Four Views on Hell (2nd ed.) by Preston Sprinkle, Denny Burk, John Stackhouse Jr, Robin Parry, and Jerry Walls

All You Want to Know about Hell: Three Christian Views of God’s Final Solution to the Problem of Sin by Steve Gregg

For much deeper and more complete presentations of the evangelical universalist view of hell, I would strongly recommend the two books listed below. I’ve tried to footnote specific ideas I first encountered in the writings of Thomas Talbott and Robin Parry, but there isn’t much in my thinking on this subject that hasn’t been deeply affected by these brothers. I strongly and warmly recommend both of these books:

The Inescapable Love of God (2nd ed.) by Thomas Talbott

The Evangelical Universalist (2nd ed.) by Gregory MacDonald

  1. Thomas B. Talbott, The Inescapable Love of God, 2nd ed. (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014), 38.
  2. Talbott, The Inescapable Love of God, 126-129.
  3. Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist, 2nd ed. (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2012), 17.
  4. Steve Gregg, All You Want to Know about Hell (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2013), 57.
  5. Jerry L. Walls, “A Hell and Purgatory Response” in Four Views on Hell, 2nd ed., ed. Preston Sprinkle (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016), 141.
  6. Gregg, All You Want to Know about Hell.
  7. Robin A. Parry, “A Universalist Response” in Four Views on Hell, 89-92.
  8. Parry, Four Views on Hell, 91.

Related post:

Different evangelical views on the nature of hell

Exploring Hell series:

The question of hell

Hell in the Bible: Understanding the biblical words

Hell in the early church: What did early church leaders believe about hell?

Understanding the “eternal fire” of hell

Do other passages teach eternal conscious torment?

Is there a biblical case for universal salvation? The Old Testament pattern

Is there a biblical case for universal salvation? New Testament passages

Considering the theological case for eternal conscious torment

Considering the theological case for universal salvation

Theological challenges to universal salvation

What about annihilationism?

Some closing thoughts on the nature of hell

The question of hell

Photo by Tachina Lee on Unsplash

Most evangelical Christians have believed in a never-ending hell. We’ve believed this because it’s what we’ve been taught from Scripture. But regardless of how much we trust what we’ve been taught about hell, when we think of people actually experiencing endless torment, with no possibility of relief, we wrestle with this as reality. Some Christians deal with this unpleasantness by just thinking about it as little as possible. One could even suggest that if someone hasn’t been deeply troubled by the concept of hell, they probably haven’t thought much about it. But, sooner or later, most of us struggle with making some sense emotionally and theologically of hell. And we’re not alone. John Stott once wrote of the idea of eternal, conscious hell:

Emotionally, I find the concept intolerable and do not understand how people can live with it without either cauterizing their feelings or cracking under the strain. 1

J. I. Packer expressed his own struggle with hell: 

Who can take pleasure in the thought of people being eternally lost? If you want to see folk damned, there is something wrong with you! 2

C. S. Lewis wrote of hell: 

There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power. 3

Few Christians relish the thought of unsaved people being subjected to eternal conscious torment (or completely ceasing to exist), but we’re committed to biblical truth and willing to faithfully believe what the Scriptures teach us. Some have shown just how challenging this issue is, though. For instance, read what Denny Burk has to say about the never-ending punishment of hell:

This view of God’s judgment is not a cause for embarrassment for Christians, but will ultimately become a source of joy and praise for the saints as they witness the infinite goodness and justice of God. 4

Even many who believe in an eternal hell will recoil from this picture, but it challenges us to reflect on our own response to hell. After all, hell is a part of God’s plan, something that God himself made part of his ultimate solution for the problem of sin and rebellion. How could we be embarrassed by part of his plan? Are we more loving and merciful than God? But yet, how could we not struggle with the idea of eternal conscious torment? So we need to be very clear about what the Scriptures actually teach, to either be firmly convinced in our mind that this is the teaching of Scripture or to see that maybe this is not what the Bible teaches.

How should we approach this kind of study?

So, how do we approach studying this kind of issue? There are a few things I’d suggest:

First, begin with any necessary background. There’s some information we need to understand before trying to compare different views. So, in the next post, we’ll go over the different words used in Scripture for hell, and what they meant in their original context. After that, we’ll look at some of the history of how the earliest Christians understood hell.

Next, we need to spend some time delving into the exegetical [drawing from the explicit reading of Scripture] case for our traditional view and for any other view. We’ll look at the foundational claims supporting the eternal conscious punishment view. We’ll also carefully, biblically examine the core question: Will some people be eternally lost? The eternal conscious torment view and the annihilation view both say, “Yes, some people will be eternally lost.” The universal reconciliation and restoration view says, “No, no one will be eternally lost. God will ultimately reconcile and restore all of his creation.” We’ll see which scriptural case is the strongest.

After making sure we understand relevant background information and have studied the key biblical passages, we’ll look at broader theological arguments. How does the character of God affect how we understand this issue? Which view best fits what Scripture teaches about the gospel of Christ? Which best fits into the whole span of the biblical story? How do we deal with scriptural themes such as judgment, love, forgiveness, justice, mercy, death, reconciliation, punishment, restoration and victory?

When I compare differing theological views, I’m not looking for merely the one that can marshal the most impressive list of Scripture passages and arguments.  Most views can be presented in a rhetorically effective way, especially if we consider one view by itself. No, what I’m looking for are proponents of one side who can do an even better job explaining the other side’s passages. I’m looking for the view that makes the best sense of all of Scripture, not just a narrow list of proof texts. When observing an exchange between a Calvinist and an Arminian, I want to see if the Arminian can give a better understanding of Romans 9, and if the Calvinist can give a better understanding of Romans 11, and which one can make the best sense of the flow of Romans and the rest of Scripture. So in considering differing views of hell, I want to see who can best explain all of the relevant passages and who can present the most biblically and theologically comprehensive and coherent view.

We want to make sure we’re not basing any belief on our emotional preferences. However, we also can’t divorce our emotions from a study that includes concepts such as the love of God, restoration of relationships, and the suffering of judgment. If we were to remove all the passages in Scripture that speak of emotion or intentionally affect our emotions, we’d be cutting out a huge chunk of the Bible! So we recognize this kind of issue will touch us emotionally, but we don’t make our emotions the court of final appeal.

How does this work? Let me give you one example. I hesitate to use this particular example because I don’t want to alienate any readers, but I think it’s helpful to show the approach I’m describing. So if you happen to disagree with me regarding the issue I’m about to use, please be patient with me, hear my heart and see past the issue itself to the point I’m trying to make.

Before I was able to serve vocationally in pastoral ministry, I worked for years in business management. I worked with female peers and worked for female supervisors. I’ve seen wonderful managers—men and women, and I’ve seen horrible managers—men and women. The effectiveness of any manager never had anything to do with their gender. So I was inclined to accept a more egalitarian view of gender roles in church ministry [with no distinction at all in church leadership roles for men and women]. Especially considering my views on church polity (church leadership by a team of coequal pastoral elders without one senior pastor), it would have been so easy to simply include women in our team of pastoral elders.

And so I’ve read all the major books and articles from the different views on this issue, being perfectly willing to be convinced of the egalitarian view. But I’m not just looking for a view that’s plausible, one that’s convincing enough. For me as a pastor, it not only has to be a view I can accept, it has to be a view I can teach consistently and faithfully from Scripture. And if it’s a view I’d like to believe, I’m even more careful to make sure I’m not simply seeing what I want to see. No, any view has to stand up to the scrutiny through which I know our people will put it when I teach it to them interactively! The more I studied the books and articles presenting the egalitarian view, the more convinced I became of the soundness of the complementarian view [men and women are equal but with different roles in church leadership].

Now, some will strongly agree with me, and others will just as strongly disagree with me. But the issue itself is not my point (and I’m always willing to reconsider any viewpoint). I’m also not holding myself up as some perfect standard of balance, implying that you can trust my conclusions. I’m only saying this is the way I try to process different claims of biblical truth—even to the point of rejecting views I’d like to embrace—and this is the kind of approach I think we all need to take in examining these kinds of issues.

If we’re not willing to consider an alternative viewpoint concerning a belief such as hell, then we’re dangerously close to assuming our own omniscience, that we already have all knowledge and perfectly understand all truth. Of course, that would make us God, and we know that’s not true! We like to say that we “just go by the Bible,” but we always study the Bible from the perspective of our traditions, our preconceptions, and often our lack of knowledge regarding the original context of what’s been written. Nobody “just goes by the Bible,” and it’s actually kind of arrogant for us to think that—in 2,000 years of church history—we’re the ones who automatically have the untainted, unobstructed view of what the Bible is actually saying. This doesn’t mean we can’t come to real, confident conclusions, but we need to make sure we’ve done our homework. That also means we’ve taken the time to truly understand alternative viewpoints before we disagree with them or dismiss them. Ultimately, we may not be convinced of a new view (new to us, that is); that’s fine. But we need to be wiling to change our views if that’s where a careful study of God’s Word leads us. I love the old saying:

If you never have to change your mind,
you’re probably not using it.

So, we’re willing to change our mind, but we’re first going to rigorously examine the differing views—including our own. We’re going to push up our sleeves and do our homework. Amen?

  1. John Stott and David L. Edwards, Evangelical Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 314-315.
  2. J. I. Packer, “Evangelicals and the Way of Salvation” in Evangelical Affirmations, ed. Kenneth S. Kantzer and Carl F. H. Henry (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 117.
  3. C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1940), 94.
  4. Denny Burk, “Eternal Conscious Torment” in Four Views on Hell, 2nd ed., ed. Preston Sprinkle (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 19.

Related post:

Different evangelical views on the nature of hell

Exploring Hell series:

The question of hell

Hell in the Bible: Understanding the biblical words

Hell in the early church: What did early church leaders believe about hell?

Understanding the “eternal fire” of hell

Do other passages teach eternal conscious torment?

Is there a biblical case for universal salvation? The Old Testament pattern

Is there a biblical case for universal salvation? New Testament passages

Considering the theological case for eternal conscious torment

Considering the theological case for universal salvation

Theological challenges to universal salvation

What about annihilationism?

Some closing thoughts on the nature of hell

Different evangelical views on the nature of hell

Photo by Chris Barbalis on Unsplash

We recently posted the article below on our church website.

Updated May 19, 2022

There’s an old saying that the church should be “reformed and always reforming.” This means that we’re “reformed” in the sense of holding to the authority of God’s Word above all else, and we’re “always reforming” by not assuming any doctrine is true simply because it’s traditional for us. Instead, we seek to be good Bereans (Acts 17:11) by searching the Scriptures to see what’s true. We want to be so committed to biblical truth that we’re willing to reexamine any particular teaching in light of Scripture to make sure it really is biblical.

The right for each believer to scripturally examine teachings and to determine for themselves the biblical soundness of any view is a sacred one given to us by God. Because of this, we strive to protect the freedom of people in our church—as much as possible—to hold sometimes differing views. Of course, we must be united in our commitment to the biblical gospel of Jesus Christ for us to be a Jesus-following church. And there are certain issues about which we have to be reasonably on the same page to be able to function as a cohesive church (for example, issues such as speaking in tongues or baptizing infants). But we try hard to not unnecessarily encroach on the freedom and conscience of each Christian.

The Orchard is rooted in the evangelical free church tradition, one that’s historically been committed to a similar approach. For instance, evangelical free church associations often don’t have official positions on such issues as predestination, the security of the believer, spiritual gifts, baptism, the timing of the rapture, the age of the universe, etc. We leave these issues up to each church to work out for themselves. This “majoring in the majors instead of the minors” has long been part of the heritage of the evangelical free churches. Early in our history, this was referred to as the “significance of silence.” The idea is that we remain “silent” about these kinds of secondary issues in the sense of refraining from make any official pronouncements (but we continue to study and discuss together any issues concerning Scripture, theology and the life of the church).

Some beliefs can become so traditional that Christians end up unaware there even are other viewpoints. When Martin Luther and other reformers began challenging certain traditional beliefs, these beliefs had been the accepted teaching of the church for over 1,000 years. Most Christians at that time weren’t even aware there could be a biblical alternative. It’s not quite as dramatic, but many of us can remember when most of the people in our churches weren’t aware there’s any biblically viable view of the rapture other than the belief it would happen before the tribulation, seven years prior to the return of Christ. For example, this was true of the Evangelical Free Church of America (a free church denomination in the U.S.). In the early 1980s, the churches in the EFCA had to reexamine the issue of the rapture and decide whether they would allow Christians and churches in the denomination to hold differing views. (At that time, they didn’t allow any other view except the pretrib or “Left Behind” view.) Ultimately they decided they would allow people to hold differing views, and now a large number of people, including pastors and leaders, in their association hold views on the rapture of the church that differ from the “traditional” view of a pretrib rapture.

Another belief about which Christians have historically held differing views is the nature of hell. This is another issue where many of us are surprised to learn that other biblical views even exist! Even for pastors, it can be illuminating to learn that 1st century Jews (during Jesus’ life on earth) didn’t hold just one default view on the nature of hell, but had multiple, differing views. We can also be surprised to learn that for the first 600 years of the history of the church, pastors and leaders held differing views regarding hell, that this wasn’t a point of great debate or controversy, and that it’s very unlikely that our traditional understanding of hell was the dominant view during this time. Throughout the history of the church there have been leaders and groups of Christians who held different views than the current traditional view. And now the question of the nature of hell has again become a topic of discussion the last two decades, and increasingly so the last few years. Just what are these differing views that believing Christians have held over the centuries? Here’s a very brief description of each view:

Eternal Conscious Torment (or Punishment)
This is the belief that’s probably most familiar to all of us. It’s the teaching that those who have not placed their faith in Christ will go to hell, where they will suffer for eternity without hope of any release or end to their torment.

Annihilationism (or Conditionalism)
This is the belief that when the Bible describes the wages of our sin as “death,” it means death in the sense of actually ceasing to exist. It’s the teaching that those who have not placed their faith in Christ will go to hell, where they will suffer for a certain amount of time but will be ultimately consumed, they will finally die and will cease to exist.

Universal Reconciliation and Restoration
This is the belief that God not only loves each person and desires that each person be saved, but that he will ultimately accomplish his desire by bringing each individual person to salvation through faith in Christ, completely triumphing over hell and death. It’s the teaching that those who have not placed their faith in Christ will experience the judgment of hell, but that hell is both loving and redemptive, that it accomplishes God’s purpose of bringing even the most recalcitrant sinner to the point of repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, and thus God will completely restore his creation.

Two of these views may be completely new to many, and even sound very strange. Notice that each view includes the reality of hell and judgment. Each view also insists on faith in Jesus Christ as absolutely essential for salvation. None of the views contradict any core, essential teaching of historical, biblical Christianity, and proponents of each view build their case drawing directly from Scripture. Where they differ is in how they understand, in light of Scripture, the purpose and final outcome of hell. As we previously noted, leading Christian pastors and leaders of the first 600 years of the church held these differing views on this issue without any major controversy. The early creeds produced by the church didn’t address the nature of hell at all. Throughout church history there have been pastors and teachers who held these views concerning hell. And there are solid, reputable evangelical pastors and scholars today who hold these same views. 

After much prayer and multiple studies and discussions, our church has decided that—while we may not all completely agree regarding this issue—all of our people, including our pastors and leaders, should have the freedom to hold and teach from Scripture these differing views on the nature of hell. As always, we pray that the way we address this issue would result in God being glorified, that the church would be edified and strengthened, and that we would be faithful witnesses of God’s truth and love to the world around us.

I plan to write more on this subject, but if you’d like to check out books that compare these differing views on hell, you could begin here:

All You Want to Know about Hell: Three Christian Views of God’s Final Solution to the Problem of Sin by Steve Gregg

Four Views on Hell, second edition by Preston Sprinkle, Denny Burk, John Stackhouse Jr, Robin Parry, and Jerry Walls

Perspectives on Election: 5 Views by Chad Owen Brand, Jack Cottrell, Clark Pinnock, Robert Reymond, Thomas Talbott, and Bruce Ware