Do other passages teach eternal conscious torment?

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This is the fifth post in a series on the nature of hell. The series begins here.

As I wrote in my last post, whenever I had cause to explain or defend the idea of eternal conscious torment, I always relied on two foundational claims:

  1. that the unequivocal wording of Scripture teaches the eternal conscious torment of the lost.
  2. that this belief has been consistently held by the vast majority of the church throughout our history.

As we’ve seen in the last two posts, both of these claims are weak, if not outrightly incorrect. We don’t have any evidence of an overwhelming consensus regarding the nature of hell in the first 600 years of church history. (And a claim that the eternal conscious torment view was predominant in the early church is particularly suspect.) Significant, soundly orthodox Christian leaders have held other views of hell throughout the history of the church. In the last post, we took a closer look at the Greek word aionios and found that it does not mean “eternal,” but “pertaining to the age” or—in the context of the hell passages—“of the age to come.” So the hell passages that speak of “eternal fire” or “eternal punishment” are more accurately referring to the fire of the age to come or the punishment of the age to come (and the life of the age to come). It’s obvious that this strongly diminishes the biblical case for eternal conscious torment. But are there any other passages that might explicitly teach this view? Let’s look at some Scriptures:

Luke 16:19-31 Lazarus and the rich man

In discussions of hell, someone will almost always bring up this familiar story. So let’s take some time to think about it. First of all, we should note that the story Jesus tells has to do with Hades or “the grave.” This isn’t talking about the fate of the lost after the resurrection and judgment, so this actually tells us nothing about hell. But let’s consider it anyway.

Many would accept this story as either describing something that literally happened or at least a faithful explanation of the nature of the afterlife. But a great many Bible scholars would caution us about being too quick in how we interpret this story. Why? Because they understand the historical context. The story that Jesus tells is noticeably similar to a folk story that was common in the Jewish culture at that time, but with some striking differences. The way the story was commonly told, the rich man was invariably the hero. The Jewish people of that time typically associated wealth with the blessing and favor of God. So this was a moral tale intended to contrast the responsible, godly rich man with the lazy, sinful beggar. Jesus tells this familiar story but he turns it on its head. It’s Lazarus, the poor beggar, who enjoys the blessing of paradise after he dies, and it’s the rich man who experiences the anguish of judgment! This would have been a shocking reversal to the people hearing Jesus’ story—especially to the Pharisees.

Some would understand all of this, but yet insist that Jesus is still describing something that actually occurred. Why? Because he gives us the name of Lazarus. We don’t see any other place where Jesus includes someone’s name in a parable, so, the thinking goes, this must not be a parable. But, while it’s true that Jesus does name Lazarus, and this is unusual, this interpretation also misses the actual significance of Jesus giving us this name. What was the rich man’s name? Jesus never tells us. Think about that. This rich man would have occupied a place of prominence in his community and in the life of the Jewish people. But in this story the man dies nameless, just some generic rich guy, with no identity or legacy. But the person they would have thought of as a nameless, faceless, generic poor beggar—he is given a name, an identity. The contrast is dramatic and would have added to the shocking impact to those hearing the story.

But—others might say—surely Jesus wouldn’t tell a story that doesn’t correspond to reality, even if it was intended to be a parable. Yet Jesus often included elements of parables that, though understandable, differed somewhat from actual reality. (Sowers wouldn’t have scattered their seed everywhere indiscriminately; no one would actually begin plowing and then not look where they were going, etc.) And it’s quite common for teachers to utilize folk tales that aren’t literally true as illustrations, as long as the people they’re teaching know they’re folk tales. Imagine a pastor in a church beginning a story with: “So, these three people die, and they each go to Saint Peter at the pearly gates . . .” Would anyone listening to this assume that this evangelical pastor is affirming the theological truth that when we die we’re each interviewed at the pearly gates by Saint Peter?! Of course not. They would understand the pastor was using a familiar scenario as an illustration to make a point. And Jesus was doing much the same thing.

If we’re supposed to understand this story as giving an accurate depiction of the afterlife, then we have more problems than the torment it describes. Let’s look at a couple of other details in the passage:

  • According to the story, heaven or paradise is characterized primarily by association with Abraham, and Abraham is somehow the key figure of authority there. Ask yourself this question: Does this emphasis of Abraham as the key figure best fit a biblical understanding of heaven or paradise, or does it fit much better with a first century Jewish folk understanding of heaven or paradise?
  • In this story, what determines who ends up on which side of the chasm? Jesus hasn’t died yet or been resurrected. So it has nothing to do with that. In fact, nothing is said about faith at all. Is this story teaching us that poor beggars all go to “heaven” and rich people all go to “hell”? Someone might respond: no, it has to do with the way they treated others. Okay, so that means their works determine whether they go to heaven or hell? Lazarus was saved because of his own righteousness?

No, if we try to understand this story as a literal depiction of hell for the purpose of preserving belief in eternal conscious torment, we end up with some very problematic theological baggage. It makes much more sense that Jesus was using a common folk story of the time to challenge the moral and spiritual assumptions of the people, just as a great many Bible scholars tell us. Regardless, as we observed above, this story is about Hades, not hell, so it doesn’t tell us anything directly about the fate of the lost after judgment.

Mark 9:43-48 “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched”

In a passage where Jesus is speaking of Gehenna [for more background regarding Gehenna, see my previous post], Jesus quotes this reference from Isaiah. Strangely—even though there’s no other place in Scripture where “worm” is a metaphor for one’s soul or spirit—some would assume this worm is speaking of the immortal soul of the lost. This is even less plausible when we take the time to look at the verse Jesus is quoting from Isaiah 66:24, where the passage is poetically describing the fate of those who would be judged, and what happens to their physical bodies. This passage in Isaiah is describing the decay and consumption of physical, mortal corpses, not spirits or souls. This is even more clear when we read this verse in Mark from a more current translation. For instance, the NLT renders this phrase: “where the maggots never die and the fire never goes out.” When we look at this in context—especially going back to the section in Isaiah that Jesus is quoting—it’s difficult to read into this anyone’s immortal soul. It actually strengthens the interpretation that Jesus is following the same understanding of Gehenna we see consistently in the Old Testament, and using this to warn of the coming judgment of Jerusalem in AD 70 (see this post). For a Jewish person to not be buried after death, but to have their corpse subjected to such a shameful end, would have been horrific.

But what of this unquenchable fire? The NASB translation of this in Isaiah 66:24 gives the sense of the Hebrew here: “And their fire will not be extinguished.” Let’s make sure we’re thinking about this according to the original context (to which Jesus was referring). Isaiah is speaking of the destruction of literal corpses that will horrify those who see what happens to these rebellious people. So are these corpses still being eaten by maggots somewhere today? Is this fire still consuming their bodies? No, it’s not. So, what is this saying? Simply that this is the judgment of God, and no one else can extinguish the fire of God’s judgment. It will burn until it accomplishes God’s will. It is “unquenchable,” not meaning that it will never go out, but that no one else can quench it. (If Captain Kirk begins an “unstoppable” auto-destruct sequence, that doesn’t mean it will go on forever, just that no one else can stop it!)

Daniel 12:2 “shame and everlasting disgrace”

Many of those whose bodies lie dead and buried will rise up, some to everlasting life and some to shame and everlasting disgrace.

This is a significant passage because it’s the only place in the Old Testament where we see an unambiguous reference to resurrection, bodies that were lying dead and buried being raised up. But it’s also often brought into the discussion of the nature of hell because of the mention of “everlasting disgrace” or contempt. That’s not quite a description of eternal conscious torment, but it is a distinction between “everlasting life” and “everlasting disgrace.” What are we to make of this?

I was interested to see that the Hebrew word translated “everlasting” here is the word olam. This caught my attention because I was already very familiar with this word. Long before I was doing serious study regarding the nature of hell, I wrote a blog post on Christians and the Old Covenant law. In the ensuing comment thread, the issue of the Sabbath became a point of contention. Some would quote a verse such as Exodus 31:16 (ESV):

Therefore the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout their generations, as a covenant forever.

You can see why some people would cite this verse. It clearly seems to be saying the observation of the Sabbath is a covenant that lasts forever. But I had to explain that the word olam—in a way that’s similar but not identical to the Greek word aionios—can be used to convey the meaning of “forever” but it’s primary meaning is closer to “lasting” or “perpetual.” This can be confirmed by referring to a Hebrew dictionary such as the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, or one could just compare translations. For instance, the NIV translates Exodus 31:16 this way:

The Israelites are to observe the Sabbath, celebrating it for the generations to come as a lasting covenant.

The NET and NRSV read “perpetual covenant,” and the NASB and CSB render it “permanent covenant.”

This isn’t an isolated example. There are many references in the Old Testament law that were traditionally rendered “This shall be a statute forever,” that more current translations now more accurately clarify as a “perpetual law” or “permanent law.” We can see why the traditional rendering doesn’t make sense in passages such as Exodus 21:5-6 where a slave can decide he doesn’t want to be freed from his master but he “shall be his slave forever” (ESV). Will this slave actually be a slave to his master forever? Of course not. That’s why most current translations render this more accurately that this slave will serve his master “for life.” Another example is Genesis 49:26 where it speaks—depending on the translation—of either “the eternal hills” (are any hills eternal?), or of the “age-old” or “ancient” hills. This is also why we need to be careful with such passages as Isaiah 34:10 that says the smoke of Edom “shall go up forever” (ESV). Can we see the smoke of Edom still going up? No, we can’t. And translations such as the NET translate this word more accurately as the smoke “will ascend continually.”

The very most that could be said of this passage is that the context of the verse has to determine whether olam means eternal in that context. This would mean we can’t just assume a meaning of “eternal” or “everlasting” in Daniel 12:2—when the word most often means something else—and then use the passage to somehow prove that hell is eternal. That would be circular reasoning, assuming our understanding in the text to use the text to prove our understanding! It seems much more accurate to understand this verse as speaking of lasting or continual disgrace without specifying any final outcome.

Hebrews 9:27 “destined to die once and after that comes judgment”

When we’ve had group studies and discussions about the differing views of hell, someone will always bring up passages that explicitly mention hell or judgment—as if this disproves all other views and settles the issue. But we can’t forget that all of the views that evangelicals hold regarding the nature of hell include the judgment of God and a very real hell. Showing references to hell or judgment in Scripture doesn’t do anything to disprove any of the other views. (Just as showing that personal faith in Jesus Christ is necessary for salvation doesn’t do anything to disprove the view of universal salvation, because evangelical universalists also insist that we must all be saved through faith in Christ.)

Some will use Hebrews 9:27 to argue that there’s no possible opportunity to be saved after death. Let’s look carefully at what the text actually says (and what it doesn’t say):

And just as each person is destined to die once and after that comes judgment . . . 

Hopefully you can see the problem. This verse says that we’ll all die once. So this could be a good verse to counter something like reincarnation. And it also tells us that after death will come judgment. So far, so good. We all agree on this. But what happens after judgment? Is there any chance of repentance and restoration? The text doesn’t say. It doesn’t address at all what happens after judgment. So if we try to use this passage to argue what happens—or can’t happen—after judgment, we’re reading this into the text. (This is what Bible scholars call “eisegesis,” reading our meaning into the text of Scripture rather than drawing it out from the text of Scripture, which is “exegesis.”) We’re so locked into the idea there’s no chance of salvation after death, that we’re shocked when we realize the Scriptures never clearly tell us this at all. To use this passage to teach one particular view of hell would be like saying that after conception comes the birth of the child—and this somehow confirms my views about parenting!

After looking at each of these Scripture passages, we have to conclude that none of them clearly teach the eternal conscious torment of the lost. So, is there anywhere the Bible explicitly and unambiguously articulates the idea of eternal conscious torment? I can’t find anyplace. Does this mean that hell is not eternal? Not necessarily. We still need to look at the broader theological arguments. But it does mean that my previous understanding that eternal conscious torment is an inescapable teaching from the clear and unequivocal wording of Scripture is simply not true. The case supporting eternal conscious torment from the explicit texts of Scripture is decidedly lacking. But is there actually a biblical case to be made that no one will be eternally lost, but that all will be reconciled to God and restored? We’ll begin looking at this next.

[The views I express in this series of posts are my own. The church I serve, The Orchard, doesn’t have an official position regarding the nature of hell but allows the freedom of differing views. Our church association, the Evangelical Free Church of America, includes the explicit belief in eternal conscious punishment as part of the Statement of Faith.]

Understanding the “eternal fire” of hell

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This is the fourth post in a series on the nature of hell. The series begins here.

As an evangelical pastor, there have been times I’ve had to explain, or even defend, hell. More precisely, I was explaining what I understood to be the biblical teaching of eternal conscious torment in hell. I didn’t do this because I loved the idea of endless punishment or because I was a “hellfire-and-brimstone preacher.” I did it because I felt I had to in order to be biblically faithful. On these occasions, I always fell back on what I saw as the two solid foundations of belief in an endless hell:

  1. the unequivocal wording of Scripture.
  2. the historical consensus of the church.

As we saw in the last post, it’s not really appropriate to speak of a consensus regarding the nature of hell in the first 500 years of the life of the church. While, over time, universal salvation became a distinctly minority view, there continued to be Christian leaders and pastors who held this view throughout the history of the church. We didn’t have time to explore later Christian universalists such as the 17th century Puritan universalist Peter Sterry, men who were associated with George Whitefield who came to embrace universalism such as James Relly and John Murray, 18th century Baptist universalist Elhanan Winchester, or universalist authors such as Hannah Whitall Smith and George MacDonald.1 Again, these are just a sampling, but it seems clear the second point above is, at the very best, inconclusive.

But the wording of Scripture does seem to be unequivocal and inescapable. When addressing this issue, I always relied on the three passages I felt speak most clearly about the nature of hell. I would begin with Matthew 25:41-46, which uses the phrases “eternal fire” and “eternal punishment” (contrasted with “eternal life”):

Then he will also say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels! . . .” Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.

I would go from this passage to 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9 (CSB):

They will pay the penalty of eternal destruction from the Lord’s presence and from his glorious strength . . .

And finally I would turn to the description in Revelation 14:9-11:

A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives its mark on their forehead or on their hand, they, too, will drink the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. They will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment will rise forever and ever. There will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name.”

It was hard to see how these passages could be even more clear. So when I first began hearing about an evangelical Christian form of universalism, I was curious how they would deal with such verses. When I heard the suggestion that the words “eternal” or “forever and ever” in these passages don’t actually mean eternal or forever and ever, I was immediately suspicious. That can be a way of skirting around the clear meaning of a text: Oh, what this really means is . . . My initial thought was that the people who believed this weren’t able to deal with these passages, so they were grasping at straws to explain them away.

But there were two things that didn’t let me dismiss this claim so easily. The first was my awareness that tradition does sometimes influence the choices of scholars translating the Bible. For instance, in Ephesians 4:11 there’s no reason why the word poimenas (the plural form of poimen) is translated “pastors” except for tradition. Variations of this word are found 18 times in the New Testament; 17 of those times the word is translated “shepherd(s).” It’s only this one verse where the word “pastors” is used. The word ekklesia wasn’t a religious word at all in the first century, but a common one connoting an assembly or association of people, yet it’s usually translated “church.” Again, this is due to tradition. There are many other examples we could list. So it wouldn’t be unprecedented for tradition to influence the translation of certain words in these hell passages.

Along with this realization, I began to run across (without looking for them) comments by trusted, solidly conservative, evangelical scholars admitting that the Greek word for “eternal” or “forever” in these passages doesn’t actually mean eternal or forever. For instance, no less an authority than Greg Beale, in his monumental commentary on the book of Revelation, has this to say:

Strictly speaking, even the expression “they will be tormented forever and ever” is figurative: eis tous aionas ton aionon literally can be rendered “unto the ages of the ages”; at the least, the phrase figuratively connotes a very long time. The context here and in the whole Apocalypse must determine whether this is a limited time or an unending period . . . 2

New Testament scholar F.F. Bruce consistently understood the word aionios in Scripture, usually translated “eternal,” to mean, not eternal, but “of the age (aion) to come.” 3 Greg Strand is the executive director of theology and credentialing for the EFCA (our church’s home association). In a blog post, commenting on Matthew 25:41, 46, he wrote: “It is true that the word translated ‘eternal’ here (aiōnios) means ‘pertaining to the age.’” 4 Both Beale and Strand go on to argue why the word should be understood as eternal in these contexts, and we’ll consider that argument later in this post. But you can understand why I was surprised to find theologically conservative stalwarts treating this seemingly unequivocal wording as . . . well . . . equivocal. And these were certainly not exceptions. It’s hard to find any reputable scholar arguing that the word in these passages unambiguously means “eternal.” Disturbingly, though, many then interpret the passage as if the meaning of “eternal” is certain. I needed to know more about the meaning of this word.

There’s a Greek word used in the New Testament (and in first century literature) that consistently connotes the meaning of “eternal.” That word is aidios. This word isn’t used in any of our hell passages above or anywhere the Scriptures are referring to the judgment of humanity. The word in question for us is aionios (and grammatical variations). The core of this word is the word aion, which is where we get our word eon. The essential meaning of the word in the first century was similar, typically translated “age.” Here are some familiar passages that use the word aion:

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age . . .

Galatians 1:4

. . . when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.

Ephesians 1:20-21

. . . in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.

Ephesians 2:7

The word aionios is the adjective form of aion. As the evangelical scholars above acknowledge, the basic meaning of the adjective aionios is “of the age” or “pertaining to the age.” It can also be used descriptively to connote “age-long.” We see the word aionios translated this way in passages such as Romans 16:25:

Now to him who is able to establish you in accordance with my gospel, the message I proclaim about Jesus Christ, in keeping with the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past . . .

The mystery wasn’t hidden for “eternities” past, but for long ages past. We also see the word translated similarly in 2 Timothy 1:9, which says: “This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time.” The ESV and NRSV both translate this as “before the ages began.”

Most evangelical scholars acknowledge that this word doesn’t mean eternal, but means “pertaining to the age” or “age-long.” Many, though, hedge this by saying this word doesn’t necessarily mean eternal or it may be translated differently. As part of her exhaustive study of early Christian leaders and their views of universal salvation, Ilaria Ramelli needed to determine precisely what this word meant to the people at that time. So she and David Konstan completed the most extensive and detailed study of this word to date. They published this research in a separate book, in which they conclude:

What emerges from the present analysis is that, apart from the Platonic philosophical vocabulary, which is specific to few authors, aionios does not mean “eternal”; it acquires this meaning only when it refers to God, and only because the notion of eternity was included in the conception of God: for the rest, it has a wide range of meanings and its possible renderings are multiple, but it does not mean “eternal.” In particular, when it is associated with life or punishment, in the Bible and in Christian authors who keep themselves close to Bible usage, it denotes their belonging to the world to come [emphasis in original]. 5

I’m not aware of any major challenges to this incredibly comprehensive research. Ramelli and Konstan do show that the word aionios can acquire the meaning of eternal when, for instance, it’s used to describe God. This is much the same as we see when teachers use words such as “lasting” or “enduring” to refer to something that’s eternal. If I were to say: “Do you want to invest your life in what is temporary or what is lasting?” the word “lasting” here doesn’t mean eternal but, in the context of a specific sentence, it can be used to convey the meaning of eternal. We don’t take this meaning from the word itself, but from what it’s describing. So, when used for God, we can understand aionios as conveying the meaning of eternal in that specific context even if that’s not part of the definition of the word. But Ramelli and Konstan make clear that aionios does not mean “eternal.”

So explaining that the word aionios, used in the hell passages in Scripture, doesn’t actually mean eternal but instead means “pertaining to the age to come” isn’t some fringe view, but in harmony with the most current and most complete research into the meaning of the word. It also reflects what Greek-speaking Christians were specifically clarifying to their Latin-speaking brethren in the early church.6 This understanding is confirmed by current research, by ancient observation and by the reticence of non-universalist scholars to insist on eternal conscious torment in the hell passages based strictly on the meaning of this word. 

Drawing from all of this, it seems clear we should understand passages such as Matthew 25 to be referring to the life of the age to come and the fire or punishment of the age to come. This fits the meaning of the word as we’ve confirmed, and it fits the context. This means it would be inappropriate to use these passages to teach eternal conscious torment. But some might say (and I’ve said): “Wait a minute. Matthew 25 is speaking of both the punishment of the lost and the life we receive as believers in Christ. If the life is eternal, then the punishment must be as well. And if the punishment isn’t eternal, then neither is the life.”

At first this sounds very logical and convincing. But let’s consider this a bit more carefully. This verse is referring to both punishment and life, and it uses the same word to describe both. So whatever this word is saying about one it’s also saying about the other. It doesn’t mean that everything that’s true of one is also true of the other; it just means that whatever aionios means about punishment it also means about life. If aionios meant that the punishment is torment, then it would also be saying the life is torment; if aionios meant the punishment is eternal, it would also be saying the life is eternal. The question is what does the word mean. Since—as virtually everyone seems to be acknowledging—the word aionios in this verse means “of the age to come,” then this verse isn’t addressing the duration of either the punishment or the life at all. It’s not saying anything about how long either last; it’s saying something else entirely about both. This means that to insist that the punishment mentioned must be eternal because the life is eternal is simply erroneous, in the same way that to insist that the life mentioned must be torment because the punishment is torment would be erroneous. This verse is no more addressing the duration of either the punishment or life than it is their temperature

It’s completely understandable that non-scholars would make the kind of challenge we just considered. (By the way, we have many other passages that tell us the life to come is, in fact, never-ending. We don’t need this passage to establish this truth.) What’s alarming is to see respected scholars make the same kind of argument when they should recognize what poor reasoning this is and how specious is the argument. The word aionios doesn’t mean eternal (as most seem to agree). So it’s completely improper to import this meaning of “eternal” into this verse when it’s not what the Scripture is saying in this verse about either punishment or life. We want to humbly hear what the Word is saying to us.

What about the Revelation 14 passage? As Beale pointed out above, this would literally be rendered unto or into “the ages of ages.” This kind of phrase should be familiar to us from similar ones such “the Holy of holies,” “King of kings and Lord of lords,” etc. This was a familiar Hebrew way of indicating the ultimate example of something, not the duration of anything. (Remember, aionios doesn’t mean eternal, so repeating it in this phrase doesn’t somehow make it mean eternal or forever.) [I’m curious why the ESV includes a footnote for “forever and ever” in 1 Timothy 1:17 noting “Greek to the ages of ages” but not for this verse.] We also need to be careful in basing too much on the description of this verse because it is, as Beale also reminded us, highly figurative.

So what does all this mean? It means the passages in Scripture that are referring to “eternal” fire, punishment, etc., are actually speaking of the fire of the age to come or the punishment of the age to come. This is what the word means, and I don’t find anyone really contesting that. It also means these verses aren’t telling us anything about the duration or final outcome of hell. Does this disprove the idea of eternal conscious torment? No, it doesn’t. Having a more clear understanding of these passages doesn’t necessarily mean the eternal conscious torment view of hell is wrong. But it does weaken the biblical case for this view considerably. What we’ve understood to be the unequivocal wording of Scripture is, at the very best, highly debatable, and, much more likely, it’s decidedly incorrect. This makes better sense of the number of Greek-speaking scholars and leaders in the early church who held views of hell other than eternal conscious torment (see the previous post). It’s difficult to understand how they could have done so if aionios meant “eternal.” So does this leave any biblical reasons for believing in an eternal hell? We’ll consider some other passages used to support this view in the next post.

[The views I express in this series of posts are my own. The church I serve, The Orchard, doesn’t have an official position regarding the nature of hell but allows the freedom of differing views. Our church association, the Evangelical Free Church of America, includes the explicit belief in eternal conscious punishment as part of the Statement of Faith.]

1. Robin A. Parry with Ilaria E. Ramelli, A Larger Hope?: Universal Salvation from the Reformation to the Nineteenth Century (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2019).
2. G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1999), Revelation 14:11.
3. F. F. Bruce, The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1983), 89; “Age” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eeardmans, 1988) 1:67.
4. Greg Strand, “Eternal Conscious Punishment,” Strands of Thought, August 11, 2015, accessed October 15, 2021.
5. Ilaria E. Ramelli and David Konstan, Terms for Eternity: Aiônios and Aïdios in Classical and Christian Texts (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2013), 238.
6. Ilaria E. Ramelli, A Larger Hope?: Universal Salvation from Christian Beginnings to Julian of Norwich (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2019), 105.

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

This is the third post in a series on the nature of hell. The series begins here.

Most evangelical Christians aren’t that familiar with early church writers and teachers, and that’s unfortunate (for many reasons). Because of our lack of historical awareness, we tend to assume the early Christians worshiped pretty much the same way we do every Sunday, and that they believed all the same things we do. When we’re thinking of hell, for instance, even many pastors assume that the vast majority of early church pastors and leaders believed in eternal conscious torment as do the majority of evangelicals today. Is this true?

If pressed, some of us may have some vague recollection that the early Christian scholar Origen held to some form of universalism. And we might even be aware that annihilationists or conditionalists claim Irenaeus as an early proponent of their view. But we would usually consider these people to be outliers in the early history of the church, brilliant theologians who may have been a bit eccentric in some of their beliefs, but overall were exceptions that prove the rule in an otherwise consistently held—and familiar—view of hell. But is this actually the case? It might be good to make sure the early consensus to which we refer did, in fact, exist.

The desire by many to go back and see what these early Christians actually wrote about their beliefs regarding hell has proved a challenge to this common assumption. It’s not that this has never been done before, but there is definitely a renewed—and growing—interest in understanding with greater clarity who believed what about final judgment. Ilaria Ramelli is a respected scholar of historical theology (among other things). In 2013, she published the results of 16 years of painstaking research of early Christian views concerning universal salvation and restoration (apokatastasis in the Greek). [She later published a more affordable, more accessible book covering much of the same material: A Larger Hope?: Universal Salvation from Christian Beginnings to Julian of Norwich (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2019).] 

Ramelli’s work was widely hailed not only for its impressive span and depth, but also for the great care she took in evaluating these ancient authors’ statements in the context of their larger bodies of work, in light of Scripture, and in their historical contexts. Many of her fellow scholars now view her book as a new benchmark on the subject of universal salvation in the early church. (She handily dispatched the challenges of one scholar who attempted an extensive critique of her work, showing his conclusions to be unsupported by the actual historical data.) Ramelli corrected the overreach of some earlier universalists who had tried to show universalism to have been the standard view in the early church. But she also surprised almost everyone by documenting just how extensive belief in universal salvation actually was. Christian universalism was not merely the extreme minority view of one or two isolated thinkers; it was widely held, and taught by many of the people we consider to be great heroes of the early Christian faith.

Origen was by no means the first Christian universalist. Before him were Bardaisan of Edessa and Clement of Alexandria. (There are also indications of belief in universal salvation in Christian writings preceding these teachers. We don’t know the view of many early church leaders because they either didn’t address the issue or didn’t make clear their view.) We shouldn’t move too quickly past Origen himself, though. Possessing an imposing intellect, he’s the only Christian thinker in the first centuries who produced more writing on theology and biblical exposition than did Augustine.

It would take far too long to go through all of the early Christian leaders who believed in universal salvation, but we should comment on a few highly significant examples. Some may be aware that Gregory of Nyssa firmly held a belief in universal salvation and restoration. This is clear in his writings and has been well-documented. Again, this is worth noting because Gregory of Nyssa was one of the most respected theologians of the 4th century, one of the famous “Cappadocian fathers” [the early church leaders are often referred to as the “church fathers”], and honored by the Second Council of Nicea as “father of fathers.” Gregory’s views on universal salvation were well-known, running through virtually all of his writings, and apparently did nothing to hamper the respect or acclaim he garnered. 

Ramelli shows that, while not as clear or outspoken as Gregory of Nyssa, we should include the other Cappadocians, Basil of Caesarea and Gregory Nazianzen, as revered theologians in the early church who evidenced belief in universal salvation. We even see good reason to include the great champion of the Trinity Athanasius among the universalists! Even Augustine believed in universal salvation until later in life (as was also true of Jerome), and he later commented on how prevalent the belief still was at that time. This is just a sampling of a much longer list of prominent Christian theologians in the first 500 years of the history of the church whose theological work incorporated belief in universal reconciliation and restoration.

It’s telling that none of the early creeds include anything at all concerning eternal damnation in hell. And, until the time of Augustine, the fact that Christian leaders and theologians held differing views regarding hell didn’t seem to them cause for debate. Even Augustine didn’t condemn those who disagreed with the view of hell he had come to adopt (eternal conscious torment). We should also note the large number of early church leaders and thinkers who spoke and wrote in Greek who believed in and taught universalism, and the fact that those who advocated for eternal conscious torment tended to be those who spoke and wrote in Latin. This is important because the meaning of the Greek in Scripture became one of the distinguishing points between the views, and the understanding of the early Greek-speaking scholars would have carried much more weight than those who weren’t as conversant in Greek. We’ll look at this in much greater depth in the next post.

So does any of this tell us which view is right and which is wrong? No, it doesn’t. We still have a lot of examining to do linguistically, exegetically and theologically. But looking at this background does keep us from falsely claiming any one view as the overwhelmingly dominant view in the early church. Some overeager proponents of universalism have tried to make it the virtually universal view of early Christians. There’s simply not enough evidence to back up this claim. But we have even less to suggest that eternal conscious torment was the predominant view in the early church, especially among the Greek-speaking believers. However we may debate the specific view of any particular scholar of the early church (and these debates will continue), it seems incontrovertible that the early church of the first five centuries included varying understandings of hell and final judgment. This means we can’t just assume one view as the Christian view, and it makes our continuing study even more necessary if we want to understand what the Bible actually teaches us about 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 this is 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, second edition, ed. Preston Sprinkle (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 19.

Different evangelical views on the nature of hell

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We recently posted the article below on our church website.

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 part of an association of churches, the Evangelical Free Church of America, that’s committed to a similar approach. Because the EFCA is not an individual church, but an association of churches, we can actually be less dogmatic about these kinds of issues at the association level than individual churches can. So, for instance, the EFCA doesn’t have an official position 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 in the association 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, as an association, we remain “silent” about these kinds of secondary issues in the sense of refraining from make any official, denominational 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. [I’ve written a series of blog posts on this topic beginning here.] This was true in the EFCA, as well. In the early 1980s, the churches in the EFCA had to reexamine the issue of the rapture and decide whether we would allow Christians and churches in the denomination to hold differing views. (At that time, we didn’t allow any other view except the pretrib or “Left Behind” view.) Ultimately we decided we would allow people to hold differing views, and now a large number of people, including pastors and leaders, in our 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 these differing views on the nature of hell.

We acknowledge that the Statement of Faith of the EFCA explicitly pronounces a belief that God will assign unbelievers to “eternal conscious punishment.” While we don’t repudiate or exclude this belief from The Orchard, we do not exclusively hold to this interpretation of the scriptural passages regarding judgment and hell. Many of the people in our church, including pastors and leaders, have different understandings of this biblical issue. Our pastors and teachers are free to teach from Scripture other interpretations regarding hell, being careful to distinguish their personal views from the official position of the EFCA. 

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