Hell Yes! Hell No! Evangelical Debates on Eternal Punishment

Draft version: not for quotation or citation. For the final published version see  Margaret Toscano and Isabel Moreira eds., Hell and Its Afterlife: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives (Ashgate, 2010), 137-152.


It is a popular myth that North American evangelicals love to preach about hell fire. The fact is that sermons on hell have fallen on hard times while the message of love and grace predominates.[1] Though they prefer not to talk about it a majority of evangelicals continue to affirm the doctrine of hell and believe it is important to do so. As recently as 2005 Wheaton College, considered a flagship evangelical school, hosted a conference on heaven and hell. Presidents at some evangelical colleges make it a point to ask prospective faculty members if they believe in hell. If they do not have the “correct” view they are not hired. The heat of debate about hell has intensified in recent years among evangelicals. Those who see themselves as guardians of orthodoxy decry views that encroach upon what they take to be the clear teaching of the Bible. Witness some of the recent titles published: Hell Under Fire, Hell on Trial, and The Battle for Hell.[2] What is the battle and who are the antagonists? It may surprise readers to learn that the strong disapproval noted in the titles of these books is not directed against liberal theologians but against fellow evangelicals. A sizeable number of important evangelical theologians have recently sharply criticized the “traditional” notion of unending torment for being both unbiblical and incompatible with the nature of God and they have put forward several alternative conceptions of hell into the evangelical theological marketplace. This chapter will examine the “battle for hell” raging within evangelicalism via a survey of the views found among contemporary North American evangelicals on two issues: (1) the nature of hell (what it is thought to be like) and (2) its population.


Part 1 The Nature of Hell

In the past fifteen years there have been at least eleven books by evangelicals devoted to the nature of hell. From these, four acknowledged views and one possible position may be discerned.[3] These will be examined in decreasing order of the severity of hell.


  1. Eternal Conscious Punishment

The most common view among evangelicals is that punishment lasts forever and those punished remain fully aware of their suffering.[4] Proponents of this view repeatedly claim that this is the biblical teaching so to vary from it is to reject the authority of the Bible.[5] In support of this claim they cite a number of biblical texts and the focus especially on the teaching of Jesus. Jesus says that on the day of judgment those who know him will be given eternal life while those who do not know him “will go away into eternal punishment” (Matthew 25:46). Since those who receive eternal life will be conscious of it, those who receive eternal punishment must be aware of it as well. A favorite text for proponents of this view is the parable the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in which the rich man dies and then finds himself “in Hades, where he was being tormented” by flames that made him suffer excruciating thirst (Luke 16:19-31). Hence, Jesus taught that those in hell will literally suffer. Elsewhere Jesus taught that in hell “the worm does not die” (Mark 9:48) so the suffering must be endless. Also, in hell there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 13:49-50) which confirms that the wicked are conscious of their situation. Finally, the book of Revelation says that the wicked have no rest (14:10-11) and that those in the lake of fire are “tormented day and night forever and ever” (20:10-15).


Five theological arguments are commonly put forth in support of eternal conscious punishment. First, proponents argue that it is the traditional teaching of the church.[6] Augustine affirmed it and after the Second Council of Constantinople (543 C.E.) it became the default position in the Western Church and was taught by Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and John Wesley. Second, it must be understood that God is both loving and righteous. Consequently, retribution, including hell, is “fundamental to the biblical concept of God” because it manifests divine justice[7] Critics object that even if punishment is required an eternal punishment is disproportionate to the finite sin committed. However, proponents argue that the penalty of eternal conscious punishment is justifiable on the grounds that sin against an infinite being demands an infinite punishment.[8] Third, God grants humans freedom and will never revoke it so those who have chosen hell will eternally experience their chosen destiny.[9] Fourth, against those who maintain annihilationism (the wicked cease to exist) it is argued that those punished must be aware of it or it is not punishment.[10] One cannot be punished if one no longer exists. Fifth, it is claimed that the other positions undermine the motivation for evangelism as well as the incentive for unbelievers to convert. Evangelism is very important to evangelicals so anything that might diminish this activity is suspect. Eternal conscious punishment, on the other hand, encourages believers to evangelize since nobody wants to see people go to hell and it provides a huge incentive to unbelievers to convert in order to avoid a ghastly punishment.


There are disagreements among proponents of eternal conscious punishment on four issues. The one most debated is whether or not the imagery of flames in the Bible should be taken literally. In the book, Four Views on Hell, the first contributor defends “the literal view” while the second contributor affirms a “metaphorical view” of the flames.[11] Though a majority of those who affirm literal flames tend not to use the vivid language of earlier evangelicals, there are churches that graphically portray the tortures of hell through the production of a Hell House or Judgment House at Halloween each year.[12] The more common stance among proponents of eternal conscious punishment is to interpret the texts about flames symbolically. In 1974 a survey was taken of 5,000 evangelical college students at the Urbana conference for world mission and, what surprised many people, only 42% reported that they believed in a literal hell of fire.[13] Billy Graham, considered the preeminent evangelical, has said, “When it comes to a literal fire, I don’t preach it because I’m not sure about it…fire…is possibly an illustration of how terrible it’s going to be…a thirst for God that cannot be quenched”[14] However, whether the flames are literal or symbolic both sides agree that the sufferers are aware of their endless suffering.


The second, and related, issue they divide over is whether the occupants of hell suffer (A) both mentally and physically or (B) just mentally. Some maintain that the suffering will be literal flames and that entails physical suffering while others hold that the flames are metaphorical which implies only mental anguish. A few proponents of eternal conscious punishment question whether those in hell suffer at all. These have adopted a view put forward by C. S. Lewis: hell is real but it is each individual’s own creation. It is not so much punishment as the individual’s own self made prison.[15] In this case, people get what they want but it never satisfies. They may not even be aware they are in hell because they are so wrapped up in themselves.


Third, proponents of eternal conscious punishment disagree over whether or not there are degrees of suffering in hell. Though not discussed at length some believe that hell is the same punishment for all unbelievers while others agree with Dante that some deserve greater punishment than others. Finally, they disagree whether those in hell have the ability to continue to sin (break God’s law). Donald Carson writes: “What is hard to prove, but seems to me probable, is that one reason why the conscious punishment of hell is ongoing is because sin is ongoing.”[16] If people cannot continue to sin then why would their punishment continue forever? However, Henri Blocher says most contemporary evangelicals agree with Augustine in saying that those in hell cannot sin.[17] If God is in sovereign control then creatures will not be allowed to continue sinning against God forever.


2. Annihilationism or Conditional Immortality

A view that has seen a rapid increase in popularity among evangelicals in the past two decades is that the finally impenitent will have their existence removed. Some proponents prefer to call this “conditional immortality” because, they argue, humans are not immortal by nature. Rather, immortality is a gift from God and in order to receive this gift one must exercise faith in God. Those who do not trust God are not granted immortality and so will cease to exist. Proponents disagree over when exactly the impenitent will cease to exist. Some say it occurs at the moment of physical death while others hold that it happens after God’s eschatological judgment.[18] Either way, they all agree that God will not punish the impenitent with eternal conscious suffering.


In 1988 revered evangelical author and pastor John R. W. Stott gave the position some respectability when he endorsed it.[19] A number of other evangelicals have affirmed it including John Wenham, Clark Pinnock, Steven Davis and Edward Fudge.[20] The affirmation of conditional immortality by Stott and these other evangelicals set off a fire storm in defense of eternal conscious punishment. John Gerstner went so far as to question Stott’s salvation.[21] The books Hell Under Fire, The Battle for Hell and Hell on Trial make it clear that Stott had stirred up the proverbial hornets nest. In 1989 a conference called “Evangelical Affirmations” was held to determine which doctrines could legitimately be held by evangelicals. I was present at this meeting where proponents of eternal conscious punishment pushed hard for it to be the only evangelical option. However, theologian Kenneth Kantzer pleaded with the delegates not to vote annihilationism out as an evangelical option for the specific reason that this would exclude John Stott from evangelicalism. The conferees could not stomach that so they worded the statement in such a way that allowed for conditional immortality.[22]


The primary biblical texts used to support this position are the following. 2 Thessalonians 1:9 says that the impenitent “will suffer eternal destruction.” Similarly, the Gospel of John says that God gave his only begotten son and that whoever believes in him would not perish (3:16 and 3:38). The straightforward meaning of perish is to no longer exist. Literal destruction of persons is incompatible with their continued existence in hell. Proponents of annihilationism agree that Jesus taught about hell but, they argue, Jesus did not teach eternal conscious punishment because he said humans should “fear God who can destroy both body and soul” (Matthew 10:28). If the soul is destroyed then consciousness must cease. Regarding the nature of the soul proponents of conditional immortality argue that only God is immortal by nature (1 Timothy 6:16) and that God must give humans immortality in order for them to survive physical death (1 Corinthians 15:42-54). Annihlationists argue that the texts about “unquenchable fire” and “eternal punishment” refer to the finality of the divine judgment, not its length. In other words, unbelievers suffer eternal punishment but not eternal punishing.


A number of theological arguments are also invoked. Proponents of annihilationism appeal to the nature of God. If God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11) then God could not possibly take pleasure in tormenting people forever. Eternal conscious punishment is morally repugnant because it undermines divine love. Pinnock asks, “What purpose of God would be served by the unending torture of the wicked except those of vengeance and vindictiveness?”[23] John Stott writes: “I find the concept intolerable and do not understand how people can live with it without cauterizing their feelings or cracking under the strain.”[24] Second, biblical texts affirm that in the end God will triumph over all evil and no shadow will remain. But if eternal conscious punishment is true then there remains an eternal metaphysical dualism. Third, scripture states that for the redeemed there will be no more tears, death, or sorrow (Rev 21:4). But how could the redeemed rejoice if they know people who are suffering eternally? Fourth, according to the principle of lex talionis (the punishment must fit the crime) eternal conscious punishment is immoral. The idea that a sin against an infinite being requires infinite punishment is dependent upon the medieval notion that sin by a person of lower social rank against a person of higher rank was a more grievous sin than sins committed within the same social rank. Neither the Bible (e. g. Exodus 21) nor contemporary understandings of law agree with such a view. Finally, proponents of conditional immortality admit that theirs has been a minority view in church tradition but they counter that some important church fathers such as Justin Martyr and Arnobius affirmed it and that if the other fathers had held onto the Hebraic understanding that humans are not immortal by nature instead of accepting the Greek notion of the immortal soul, then conditional immortality would likely have become the traditional view.


3. Eternal Conscious Limbo

A new position has been tentatively suggested by one of the biggest names in all of New Testament scholarship today, N. T. Wright, an evangelical Anglican Bishop. He says most people are shocked when he declares that there is very little in the Bible about hell and that Jesus did not mention it.[25]  According to Wright, the apocalyptic language of the gospels is not about a far off future or even about a realm for the dead.[26] He believes these texts have been misunderstood for generations to refer to the end of history. Instead, they are a vivid and forceful way to speak about divine judgment and vindication within history. The flames of Gehenna are not about what some humans will experience after death but about the events leading up to the cataclysm of 70 C.E. when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem, killed many Jews and sent thousands into exile. Jesus’ threats about weeping and gnashing of teeth refer to what his listeners were going to experience in their lifetimes if they continued on their nationalistic course to rid the land of Roman occupation.


Wright goes on to argue that there is very little in the rest of the New Testament about what happens after death though he does believe Paul speaks of a “final judgment” in Romans (2: 1-16). Andrew Perriman has applied Wright’s approach and concludes that only one passage in the New Testament is about a final punishment (Rev 21-22).[27] The other texts are all about the manifestation of divine judgments in the first century. [28]


According to Wright, the church has gotten it miserably and disastrously wrong for many centuries and the majority of evangelicals continue to misread these texts. This misunderstanding has, he believes, allowed Christians to develop horrible views such as an eternal “torture chamber” as well as views that are unduly optimistic such as universal salvation. Wright also rejects the conditional immortality view though he is sympathetic to the objections against an everlasting “concentration camp.” Instead, he attempts a middle ground between eternal conscious punishment and conditional immortality. He admits that he is “speculating” and puts forth only a bare bones proposal. He suggests that it is possible for human beings to habitually turn away from God, love, and goodness such that they ultimately, after death, become “beings that once were human but now are not.”[29] Though they are beyond hope of salvation, those in heaven will feel no pity for them since they are no longer human. They will continue to exist forever as “ex-humans” though they will not suffer any punishment. It is due to this last idea that I have labeled his position “eternal conscious limbo” because he seems to imply that these ex-humans have consciousness but they experience neither joy nor suffering. In Medieval thought limbo was the outermost circle of hell where the occupants experienced neither pain nor happiness.

4.  Remedial—Some Leave Hell

A small group of evangelical theologians posit that hell entails genuine suffering but the purpose is to redeem the occupants. Proponents of this view believe that the old adage “You haven’t got a preachers chance in hell” is false. Respected evangelical theologian Donald Bloesch writes: “Hell is a reality….But it is not the final word on human destiny because God’s grace pursues the sinner into hell.”[30] Hell is thus a place for possible redemption since Jesus and/or his followers continue to evangelize those in hell. The concept of postmortem evangelization makes use of an ancient doctrine known as Christ’s descent into hell (descendit ad inferna).[31] Christ, it is said, descended into hell (Ephesians 4:8-10) where the gates could not stand against him. Proponents of this model also appeal to 1 Peter 3:18-4:6 to explain what Jesus did in hell: he preached the gospel and liberated those who put their faith in Jesus.


Proponents cite biblical texts that teach that the only reason someone is damned is for rejecting Jesus (e. g. John 3:18; Mark 16:15-16). If damnation depends upon a person’s response to Jesus then all people must have an opportunity to hear the gospel and respond to it. Since most of the world’s population has died without knowledge of Jesus there must be an opportunity after death for them to encounter the gospel. Also, proponents argue that the purpose of most of the divine punishments mentioned in the Bible is to bring sinners to repentance (e. g. 1 Cor 5:1-5). Thus, they conclude that even hell serves God’s redemptive purposes.[32]


Theologically, proponents of postmortem evangelization argue that a loving God perseveres beyond the grave. The eternal God does not run out of time nor is death a barrier for the almighty God. Gabriel Fackre concludes that human destinies are not sealed upon our deaths but at the “day of Jesus Christ.”[33] Bloesch says that this “is not to be confounded with the doctrine of a second chance. What the descent doctrine affirms is the universality of a first chance, an opportunity for salvation for those who have never heard the gospel in its fullness.”[34]


Will hell eventually be completely emptied? Proponents of this view typically say that, though this is possible, God will not force his way on humans and it is possible that some will remain recalcitrant through eternity. If some will refuse God forever will they experience eternal conscious punishment or annihilation? Proponents of this model have not said.


5. Universal Salvation—All Leave Hell

Of the four views on the nature of hell, this view is the most controversial among evangelicals, in part, because the majority of evangelicals simply take it for granted that universal salvation is not an evangelical option. The 1989 Evangelical Affirmations statement as well as a report put out by the Evangelical Alliance (British) in 2000 both explicitly reject universal salvation as viable for evangelicals.[35] Nonetheless, there are genuine evangelicals who hold this position and I am personally aware of several theologians who refuse to publish on the topic for fear of losing their posts at evangelical colleges.[36] In 2006, The Evangelical Universalist by Gregory MacDonald was published.[37] Gregory MacDonald is a pseudonym which seems to confirm that it is not safe to affirm universalism if one teaches at an evangelical institution.


Utilizing the same arguments put forward by proponents of the hell is remedial view, universalists conclude that no one will be left behind. People are in hell for rejecting God’s grace but they cannot hold out eternally against divine grace because God has no permanent problem children.


Proponents of universalism use a number of biblical passages to support their conclusion. For example, they point out that God never closes the gates of the new Jerusalem so the door of salvation is always open (Rev 21:25). A loving God will not rest until all of his children are safely inside the city and out of harms way. Of great importance to universalists are the sweeping texts that claim all humanity is already justified by the faith of Jesus (Rom 5:18) and that God has already reconciled the world to himself in Christ (2 Cor 5:19). God has already redeemed each and every human. It is a done deal and all humanity will realize it when “God will be all in all” (1 Cor 15:22-8) and when everyone confesses that Jesus is lord (Philippians 2:9-11). God will not stand on the neck of people to make them confess Jesus’ lordship. Rather, God will graciously work with people until all put their trust in Jesus.


Thomas Talbott has written extensively in his attempt to persuade evangelicals of the truth of universal salvation.[38] He argues that the New Testament is unequivocal that God loves all and desires to save absolutely everyone. He then says if one affirms Calvinism and believes God exercises exhaustive control over every detail of history then a Christian should conclude that God will redeem everyone. Calvinists who say that God can save everyone but does not want to do so simply ignore the clear teaching of the Bible. If one affirms Arminianism and believes that humans have the freewill to reject God’s grace then it seems God cannot guarantee universal salvation. However, Talbott has developed an argument which he believes gets around this problem. He argues that after death God will enable everyone to make, what he calls, a “fully informed decision” about God. A fully informed decision means that a person could not be ignorant of any fact or deceived in some way so as to misunderstand the facts. A human confronted with the claims of Jesus upon his or her life will understand completely what Jesus has done for them and what is at stake. Given such a situation, it is logically impossible for any to be eternally reject God because “no one rational enough to qualify as a free moral agent could possibly prefer an objective horror—the outer darkness, for example—to eternal bliss…”[39]


Though universalists agree that all will be redeemed they disagree whether hell involves any form of suffering. Some hold that though there will be suffering in hell, it will be temporary while others say that there will be no suffering whatsoever. MacDonald, for example, affirms that hell is real and that some will suffer there until they come to trust God. [40]




Part 2 The Population of Hell and the Criterion for Admittance

In 1992 I published a survey of views held by Christians from the first century forward on the topic of the possibility of salvation for those who have no knowledge of Jesus.[41] One of my intentions was to show that historically evangelicals had affirmed several views rather than just one on this topic. That same year Clark Pinnock published a book criticizing the majority opinion within evangelicalism on this subject.[42] Once again, a hornet’s nest of controversy erupted. A host of books and journal articles were written in response. The Southern Baptist Convention attempted to amend its doctrinal position and in 2002 this topic was the theme of the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. All this activity was an attempt to put a halt to what the evangelical establishment perceived to be the “slippery slope” towards universal salvation.


Several questions are involved in this debate. What are the reasons that someone would be condemned to hell?.[43] What is the fate of the unevangelized—those who die without hearing the gospel of Jesus? Evangelical views range from the claim that the vast majority of people ever born on the planet will be in hell to those who claim no one will be in hell. Eight positions will be mentioned with more space devoted to the two most widely held positions among evangelicals: restrictivism and inclusivism.


  1. Agnosticism

Some evangelicals maintain that we simply do not have enough information in the Bible to know how God will deal with those who die ignorant of the gospel. It is best to “leave it in God’s hands.” Well known evangelical theologian, James Packer, says, “if we are wise, we shall not spend much time mulling over this notion. Our job, after all, is to spread the gospel, not to guess what might happen to those to whom it never comes. Dealing with them is God’s business.”[44]  A favorite text for the adherents of this view is Genesis 18:25: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”


  1. God will Send the Message

According to this view, if an individual is unaware of Jesus but responds favorably to the information about God available to her (knowledge of God through the created order), then God will communicate information about Jesus to that individual via a human agent, angelic messenger, or dreams as sometimes happened in the Bible (Acts 8 and 10).[45] Proponents say that this rarely occurs because most people do not respond favorably to the knowledge of God in creation. Hence, the majority of the human race will be in hell.


  1. Middle Knowledge

Middle knowledge is the name for a specific type of knowledge that some people believe God has. It is knowledge of what each and every person would do in any given situation. Let us say that Rajesh dies unevangelized in India. A God with middle knowledge knows whether Rajesh would have affirmed the gospel had he heard it under ideal circumstances. Let say that Rajesh would put his trust in Christ if he encountered the gospel under optimal conditions. In that case a God with middle knowledge could grant him salvation on that basis. Since it seems plausible that, under ideal circumstances, most people would put their faith in Jesus one could conclude that the vast majority (if not all) of the human race will be redeemed. Evangelicals who take this route believe the population of hell will be quite small or empty. However, most of the evangelicals who affirm middle knowledge have come to a very different conclusion. The most prominent evangelical proponent of middle knowledge is William Lane Craig and he claims that none, or, at best, very few, of those dying unevangelized would have believed in Christ even under “ideal circumstances.”[46] The reason, he claims, is that some people would not put their faith in Jesus under any possible world (set of circumstances) that God could bring about. They suffer from transworld anti-gospel depravity. Since God eternally knew which individuals suffer from this malady God has providentially arranged the world such that those who die without ever coming in contact with the gospel of Jesus are those who would not have put their faith in Jesus under any circumstances. Thus, our consciences can rest at peace knowing that those who die unevangelized (the vast majority of humanity) would not have converted to Jesus anyway. Consequently, some evangelical proponents of middle knowledge believe the population of hell will be sparse while others claim the majority of the human race will occupy it.


  1. Postmortem Evangelization

This view was discussed above under the “Hell is Remedial” heading. Proponents of this approach believe those who die never hearing about Jesus will receive an opportunity after death to put their faith in him. This position holds that the only reason anyone is damned is for rejecting the gospel of Jesus so everyone must have that opportunity. Clearly, the majority of the humans who have lived on the planet have died with hearing about Jesus. Consequently, they must be granted an opportunity after death. According to this view hell is remedial and many will leave it when they encounter Jesus in their postmortem state. The population of hell will be rather sparse.


  1. Universal Salvation

This position was discussed in the previous section. This takes the postmortem view one step further and affirms that the population of hell will be zero (at least, eventually).


  1. Restrictivism

Restrictivism, perhaps the most common view among evangelicals, asserts that there is no salvation for adults unless one exercises saving faith in the gospel prior to death.[47] Outside the proclamation of the gospel there can be no salvation.[48] Salvation is “restricted” to those who know about and trust in Jesus. Thus, the vast majority of the adults in human history are consigned to hell. I say “adults” because virtually all evangelicals believe that young children who die under the so-called “age of accountability” will be in heaven.[49] Given the infant and child mortality rates throughout most of history, heaven will likely contain a higher population than hell. But most restrictivists follow Augustine in describing the world as a massa damnata (a huge number of damned). Dick Dowsett puts it starkly when he says, “according to the Bible, the majority of people are `on the road to destruction’–terminally ill with the most desperate disease. . . . 98 percent of the people in Asia are a write-off. And they make up half the world’s population.”[50]


Restrictivists emphasize biblical texts that affirm the particularity and exclusiveness of salvation in Jesus Christ. “There is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men, by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through me” (John 14:6). Jesus said, “enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide, and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and many are those who enter by it. For the gate is small, and the way is narrow that leads to life, and few are those who find it” (Matt 7:13-14). Restrictivists also highlight biblical texts that classify other religions as false and products of the devil (e. g. Acts 26:18). Other religions, they claim, offer no hope for they are pathways to hell.


Restrictivists interpret such texts to mean that a person must have explicit knowledge of the atonement of Christ in order to have an opportunity to be saved. The knowledge of God available through creation provides only knowledge of sin and condemnation; it cannot provide enough light for salvation. Those whose only information about God comes from the created order can know they sinned against God but they cannot acquire the information necessary to avoid hell which is the penalty for sin.  But, it may be asked, how can God justly condemn someone simply because they never heard of Christ? Conservative evangelical R. C. Sproul explains: “if a person in a remote area has never heard of Christ, he will not be punished for that. What he will be punished for is the rejection of the Father of whom he has heard and for the disobedience to the law that is written in his heart.”[51] Restrictivists maintain that all the unevangelized continually reject the information of God available from creation and so are justly condemned. A final theological argument for restrictivism is its value for motivating people to evangelize and donate money to missions.[52] The belief that all adults will be damned unless we inform them of the gospel is used frequently in discussions of missions.


According to restrictivism, the population of hell will be enormous. Though he takes no joy in this conclusion, well-known evangelical theologian, Millard Erickson, claims that the redeemed will be a minority “when compared to the great number of unbelievers.”[53]


  1. Inclusivism

The second most common view among evangelicals is a form of inclusivism that resembles the pronouncements from the Second Vatican Council. Jesus is the only savior of the world but people can benefit from the redemptive work of Christ even though they die never hearing about Christ if they respond in faith to God based on the revelation God available to them in the created order.[54] The quintessential evangelical, Billy Graham, said in 1978: “I used to believe that pagans in far-off countries were lost and were going to hell—if they did not have the Gospel of Jesus Christ preached to them.  I no longer believe that. . . . I believe that there are other ways of recognizing the existence of God—through nature, for instance—and plenty of other opportunities, therefore, of saying ’yes’ to God.”[55]


Inclusivists glean from various biblical texts an optimism of salvation for they see God working outside the bounds of both ethnic Israel and the church. God seems to have looked favorably upon non-Israelites such as Melchizadek, Jethro, Job, and the Queen of Sheba. Special attention is given to Cornelius, a Roman military officer who is described as a God-fearing uncircumcised Gentile who prayed continually. One day an angel informed him that his prayers and alms were a memorial offering of which God took note and he was given instructions to send for Peter (Acts 10:4). Peter arrives and informs the household about the redemption in Jesus whereupon the household is baptized in the name of Jesus. In light of these events Peter declares: “I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the person who fears Him and does what is right, is acceptable to Him” (Acts 10:34-35). The welcome of God extends outside Israel and outside the church.


According to inclusivists, ignorance of Christ does not disqualify one from grace. What God requires is a right disposition towards God and a willingness to do God’s will. The apostle Paul says that God will approve of those Gentiles who, though they do not have the law (the Old Testament revelation), do by nature the things required in the law (Rom 2:6-16). Inclusivists argue that the creator God known via creation is the same God who redeems so all people have contact with the redeeming God. Contemporary unevangelized are just like those who lived prior to Jesus—they are informationally before Christ. Inclusivists believe that though the atonement of Christ it is necessary for any human to be saved, it is not necessarily to be aware of his atonement to benefit from it. 2 Peter 3:9 states that God is not willing for any to perish. Inclusivists believe that God is magnanimous in grace and that the Holy Spirit is working outside where the gospel is known.


Inclusivists believe that God works through the created order and social structures to reach people. Does this mean that God uses other religions to bring the adherents of those religions to redemption? In other words, can non Christian religions function as means of salvation? Evangelical inclusivists differ as to whether God saves adherents of other religions in spite of their religion or works through elements in their religions to save them. Pinnock speaks for the majority, I believe, when he argues that God typically has to work in opposition to the religions in order to save people. He distinguishes between objective religion (traditional rituals and doctrines) and subjective religion (piety of the heart) and says that what saves is the pious response to God’s grace, not their allegiance to the objective religion in which they are raised.[56]


When it comes to the relative populations of heaven and hell there is no logically necessary conclusion that inclusivists must draw. Hell could be the residence of many or few. Nonetheless, evangelical inclusivists tend to affirm a “wideness in God’s mercy.” Clark Pinnock, for instance, holds that  “God’s concern for the nations will issue in a large redemption.”[57]


  1. A Large Salvation I Know Not How

The final position is one which does not specify the means by which God will make the redemption in Christ available to the unevangelized. John R. W. Stott, a prominent evangelical spokesman for missions and evangelism, does not say whether he affirms postmortem evangelization or inclusivism, yet, he is very clear about the population of hell. He writes: “I have never been able to conjure up (as some great Evangelical missionaries have) the appalling vision of the millions who are not only perishing but will inevitably perish. On the other hand…I am not…a universalist. Between these . . . I am not and cannot be a universalist. Between these extremes I cherish the hope that the majority of the human race will be saved. And I have a solid biblical basis for this belief.”[58] It seems to me that the attempt to take a middle course between restrictivism and universal salvation is gaining ground among evangelicals.




This chapter has examined evangelical understandings of the nature and population of hell and, contrary to popular perception; evangelicals affirm a wide array of views. Regarding the nature of hell, the majority of evangelicals affirm eternal conscious punishment and the majority of these do not believe in a literal hell of fire. A significant minority holds to conditional immortality while relatively few affirm that hell is remedial. Regarding the destiny of those who die unevangelized, eight views among evangelicals may be discerned with restrictivism and inclusivism as the two most common. What will be the final population of hell? Evangelical perspectives range from those who believe the vast majority of the human race will occupy hell to those who believe hell will be sparsely populated or even empty.



[1] See Robert Brow, “Evangelical Megashift: Why You May Not Have Heard About Wrath, Sin, and Hell Recently” Christianity Today (February 19, 1990), 12-14.

[2]These books are produced primarily by “Calvinists.” Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment, eds. Chris Morgan and Robert A. Peterson (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2004), Hell on Trial: The Case for Eternal Punishment, Robert A. Peterson (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 1995), The Battle for Hell: A Survey and Evaluation of Evangelicals’ Growing Attraction to the Doctrine of Annihilationism, David George Moore, (Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1996).

[3] In my writings on the topic I have not affirmed any of the views listed in this section. Though I definitely reject the eternal conscious punishment position I remain undecided about which of the other views to affirm.

[4] For a list of some of the main proponents see Robert Peterson, “Undying Worm, Unquenchable Fire” Christianity Today 44. 12 Oct 23, 2000: 30-37.

[5] This is a main thesis of Larry Dixon’s The Other Side of the Good News: Confronting the Contemporary Challenges to Jesus’ Teaching on Hell (Wheaton, Il.: Bridgepoint, 1992).

[6]  Peterson develops a lengthy argument for this in Two Views of Hell: A Biblical and Theological Dialogue, Edward W. Fudge and Robert A. Peterson (IVP, 2000), 117-128

[7] Timothy Phillips, “Hell: a Christological Reflection” in William Crockett and James Sigountos eds. Through No Fault of Their own, (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1991), 54.

[8]  See Phillips, “Hell: a Christological Reflection” 53-7 and Robert Peterson, “A Traditionalist Response to John Stott’s Arguments for Annihilationism,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 37.4 (December, 1994): 565.

[9] See Henri Blocher, “Everlasting Punishment and the Problem of Evil,” in Universalism and the doctrine of Hell ed. Nigel Cameron (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1992), 295-7.

[10] Dixon, Other Side, 90.

[11] Four Views on Hell ed. William Crockett (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1992).

[12] See the documentary Hell House by George Ratliff and  “Hell House” in the online encyclopedia www.wikipedia.org

[13] Arthur Johnson, “Focus Comment,” Trinity World Forum 1 (Fall 1975): 3.

[14] Richard Ostling interview with Billy Graham, “Of Angels, Devils and Messages from God,” Time (November 15, 1993): 74.

[15] Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Macmillan, 1962), 122-123, 128 and The Great Divorce (New York: Collier, 1984), 127.

[16] Carson, The Gagging of God, (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2002), 533.

[17] Blocher, “Everlasting Punishment,” 304-5. He claims that Rev 22:10-11 “hints at this.”

[18] See David Powys “The Nineteenth and Twentieth Century debates about Hell and Universalism,” in ed. Nigel Cameron, Universalism and the doctrine of Hell, 95.

[19] See his Evangelical Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue with David L. Edwards (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press, 1988) 312-320 and his “The Logic of Hell: A Brief Rejoinder,” Evangelical Review of Theology 18 (1994): 33-34.

[20] Wenham, The Goodness of God (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press, 1974): 27-41 and “The Case for Conditional Immortality” 161-191 in Universalism and Doctrine of Hell; Pinnock, “The Conditional View” (135-166) in 4 Views on Hell and his “Fire, Then Nothing” Christianity Today March 20, 1987: 40-1; Davis, “Universalism, Hell, and the Fate of the Ignorant,” Modern Theology 6 (1990): 173-186; Fudge, The Fire that Consumes (Houston, Texas: Providential press, 1982) and Two Views of Hell: A Biblical and Theological Dialogue, with Robert A. Peterson (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press, 2000).

[21] See Peterson, “Undying Worm,” 30. However, most evangelicals continue to revere Stott.

[22] I dare say that if it had been someone of lesser stature in the evangelical community than John Stott annihilationism would have been excluded. Hence, the boundary of acceptable evangelical doctrine was decided by who held the position and not the biblical or theological arguments.  See Kenneth Kantzer and Carl Henry eds., Evangelical Affirmations (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1990), 123-6, 137-148.

[23] Pinnock, “The Conditional View,” 153.

[24] Stott, Evangelical Essentials, 312.

[25] Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (SanFrancisco: Harper One, 2008), 18, 175-183.

[26] See Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996), 336 and Surprised by Hope, 18, 176.

[27] Perriman, The Coming of the Son of Man: New Testament Eschatology for an Emerging Church (Waynesboro, GA: Paternoster Press, 2005).

[28] It seems to me that this approach to apocalyptic texts could be used to support both the conditional immortality and the hell is remedial perspectives. MacDonald discusses Wright’s view but decides not to

use it as part of his defense of universalism. See Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2006), 141-142.

[29] Wright,  Surprised by Hope, 182.

[30] Bloesch, God the Almighty: Power, Wisdom, Holiness, Love (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1995), p. 144.

[31] For a brief survey of this revival see Powys “The Nineteenth and Twentieth Century debates about Hell,” 100-128.

[32] For a non retributive understanding of hell see Jonathan Kvanvig, The Problem of Hell (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

[33] See Fackre, “Divine Perseverance” in What About Those Who Have Never Heard? Edited by John Sanders (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 71-95 and John Sanders, No Other Name: An Investigation into the Destiny of the Unevangelized (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1992) 197-200.

[34] Bloesch, “Descent into Hell.” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter Elwell (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1984), 314.

[35] See Kenneth Kantzer and Carl Henry eds., Evangelical Affirmations, 36 and D. Hilborn and P. Johnston eds., The Nature of Hell: A Report by the Evangelical Alliance Commission of Unity and Truth Among Evangelicals  (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 2000), 32, 131.  This second document is summarized by Peterson in “Undying Worm.”

[36] For a survey of evangelicals and universalism see David Hilborn and Don Horrocks, “Universalistic Trends in the Evangelical Tradition” in Universal salvation? The Current Debate eds. Robin Parry and Chris Partridge (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2003), 219-246.

[37] MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2006).

[38] See especially his essays in the first three chapters in Universal salvation?

[39] Talbott, “Towards a Better Understanding of Universalism” in Universal salvation?, 5.

[40] MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist, 163-164.

[41] Sanders, No Other Name.

[42] Pinnock, A Wideness in God’s Mercy (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1992).

[43] For surveys of the evangelical positions see John Sanders, No Other Name, Sanders ed., What About Those Who Have Never Heard?, Dennis L. Okholm and Timothy R. Phillips eds., Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), and Terrance Tiessen, Who Can Be Saved? (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2004).

[44] Packer, “Good Pagans and Christ’s Kingdom.” Christianity Today, 30/1 (January, 17, 1986), 25.

[45] For discussion of this view in evangelicalism see my No Other Name, 152-156.

[46] William Lane Craig, “No Other Name: A Middle Knowledge Perspective on the Exclusivity of Salvation through Christ,” Faith and Philosophy 6 (April 1989): 172-188. See also Douglas Geivett and W. Gary Phillips, “A Particularist View: An Evidentialist Approach,” in Four Views on Salvation, 261 and 270.

[47] I coined the term “restrictivism” in order to distinguish the position from “exclusivism” which refers to the idea that other religions have no salvific value. Certainly all restrictivists are exclusivists but not all exclusivists are restrictivists since not all exclusivists believe that God limits the accessibility of the salvation in Jesus to those who hear about and accept the gospel in this life. Those who affirm postmortem opportunities for evangelism, for example, are exclusivists but not restrictivists

[48] Some proponents soften this to allow that God might save a few people who die ignorant of Jesus.

[49] This age is usually unspecified but some claim it is age twelve.

[50] Dowsett, Is God Really Fair? (Chicago: Moody Press, 1985), 16.

[51] Sproul, Reason to Believe (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1982), 56.

[52] See for instance, John Ellenberger, “Is Hell a Proper Motivation for Missions?” in Through No Fault of Their own.

[53] Erickson, How shall they be saved: the destiny of those who do not hear of Jesus (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1996), 215.

[54] For my own defenses of the inclusivist approach see my “Inclusivism,” in Sanders editor, What About Those Who Have Never Heard? 21-55 and my No Other Name, 215-280.

[55] Interview with Billy Graham, McCall’s Magazine (Jan. 1978), 156-7.

[56] Pinnock, A Wideness in God’s Mercy, 111.

[57] Pinnock, A Wideness in God’s Mercy, 153.

[58] Stott in David Edwards and John R. W. Stott, Evangelical Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 327.



John Sanders

John E. Sanders is an American theologian who is a professor of religious studies at Hendrix College. He has published on four main topics: (1) open theism, (2) Christian views on the salvation of non-Christians, (3) Christian views on the nature of hell, and (4) applying cognitive linguistics to theology.

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