Must Christians Believe In Hell?

Many Christians would say the answer has to be “yes” if you believe what the Bible teaches. However, it is not quite so straightforward, because a key question is how the biblical passages about “hell” should be interpreted. It is at this point that Christians have been unable to reach consensus. What follows is a survey of some of the different understandings of hell that Christians have held and still hold.

What may be called the “traditional view” is known as eternal conscious punishment. It is the idea that hell is a place where those who rejected God in this life are punished and are aware of their suffering forever—it never stops. A favorite text for proponents of this view is 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). Another  passage used to support this view is the text in which 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). Those who reject the God, it is claimed, deserve an eternal punishment. The idea of eternal conscious punishment has been the traditional view of Roman Catholics and Protestants. It is what most people think of when the term hell is used.

A second understanding of hell is known as “annihilationism” (the impenitent are destroyed) or “conditional immortality” (only believers receive the gift of immortality). According to this view hell lasts forever, but it will not involve eternal suffering because those who resist God to the end will simply cease to exist. Proponents of this view appeal to biblical passages such as 2 Thessalonians 1:9 which says that the impenitent “will suffer eternal destruction,” and 1 Corinthians 15:42-54 which says that in order for us to live forever, God must give us the gift of immortality. This view was held by some in the ancient church and has been revived by some significant evangelical Christians in the twentieth-century such as John R. W. Stott.

A third view is put forth by one of the giants of contemporary New Testament scholarship, the evangelical N. T. Wright. Most people are shocked, he says, when he tells them that there is very little in the Bible about hell and that Jesus did not mention it.  Wright believes the apocalyptic language of the gospels is not about either the “end times” or what happens after death.  Instead, he says, this language is a vivid way to speak about divine judgment and vindication within history. Yet, Wright does believe in hell, but he rejects both what he calls an everlasting “concentration camp” (eternal conscious punishment) as well as annihilationism. He believes that those who ultimately turn away from God’s grace continue to exist forever, but because they reject all love they cease to be human. He says that they do not experience any pain, even as they are aware of themselves.

Another understanding of hell is that it will be, at least for some people, remedial. One of my former professors, Donald Bloesch, wrote: “Hell is a reality….But it is not the final word on human destiny, because God’s grace pursues the sinner into hell.” Appeal is made to Ephesians 4:8-10 which is interpreted to mean that Jesus went to hell and set the captives free and to 1 Peter 3:18-4:6 where Jesus preached the gospel to those in hell and liberated those who put their faith in Jesus.  Neither the gates of hell nor time can prevent the eternal and almighty God from working to redeem creatures. Will hell eventually have no occupants? Proponents of this view are content to argue that some are evangelized from hell but typically they do not claim more than that. They believe that divine grace and love are never forced on people so it is possible that some will eternally reject God.  However, it will be their choice, not God’s.

A final view, known as universal salvation, takes the hell is remedial idea and uses it to conclude that, in the end, hell will be emptied and every single person will eventually be welcomed into the heavenly kingdom. They point out that God never closes the gates of the heavenly city so the door of salvation is always open (Revelation 21:25). God never gives up on people and, even if it should take eons of time, God will eventually bring all people into the divine love. This position was held by the third-century clergyman Gregory of Nyssa, the key theologian for the Eastern Orthodox Church, which is why it has always been a respected view in that Christian tradition. The view became popular among many Protestants in the late nineteenth-century and in the last six years three evangelical Christians have written books defending universal salvation.

So, must a Christian believe in hell? It depends upon what one means by hell.   Christians hold to a range of views on the topic. Perhaps what could be concluded from this survey is that God is going to hold people accountable for the way they lived their lives. What we do now matters, in part, because God does not let us get away with living lives that are less than loving.

This is our calling in life: to love others as we love ourselves.

We all fall short of a life of complete love, sometimes through sins of omission (we fail to love other when we should do so) and commission (we harm others).  We cannot hide from this falling short; we are accountable for what we do.  But how this accountability is accounted for – even by God – is a question on which Christians disagree.  Is there a hell?  Again, it depends on what is meant by hell.

The song below is “Big White Gate” by Grace Potter and the Nocturnals.  It is about her grandmother.  Some of the lyrics to the song speak to the concerns in the article and about the hope, felt by so many people, that the gates to the heavenly city never close.

My body’s aching from laying in this bed,
I went singing in the rain and the cold got to my head.
I don’t know who’s paying I just know what the doctor said,
84 years of a sinning life and in the morning I’ll be dead.

I had three daughters,
A new man for every one.
The only man that I ever loved,
Left me with my only son.
I was a no good mother,
I was a no good wife,
There’s only one thing that I did right
in this godforsaken life.

Saint Peter won’t you open up the big white gate,
Cause I heard about forgiveness and I hope it ain’t too late.
I ain’t no holy roller but you go tell your king,
That all the folks up in heaven might like to hear me sing.

I sang to my children,
Before they strayed so far.
I sang for my lovers,
Or a nickel in a tip jar.
I never knew Jesus,
I never read the good book.
But on my day of dying,
I’m giving life a second look.

Saint Peter won’t you open up the big white gate,
Cause I heard about forgiveness and I hope it ain’t too late.
I ain’t no holy roller but you go tell your king,
That all the folks up in heaven might like to hear me sing.

It’s coming on time now,
My body’s getting cold.
I’ve got no will I’ve got no prayer,
My story’s all been told.
I’m ready for the land of fire,
But I’d love to see the land of gold.
So nurse bring me my guitar,
One more song before I go.

This article first appeared on Jesus Jazz and Buddhism.

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.

1 reply
  1. Clif
    Clif says:

    Whenever there is a cafeteria line for belief, you can certainly KNOW that nobody knows, and that it’s all fiction. The bottom line isn’t,”God will hold us accountable in some way.”, but that this is a random set of notes with no tune. The exact thing happened with the Hebrew concept of Sheol. At first it was just annihilation, but it was subjected to cultural evolution and therefore ended up in the cafeteria line. As societies get more complex, and as varieties of tribes and temperaments intermingle, a lot of recipes emerge on how to cook a goat. This is all very interesting from a “What makes us Human?” quest. The ability to use language, thought, and imagination to discover facts and create fiction, are huge pieces of our human distinction. Tolstoy, Poe, Melville, Ishiguro can all show us parts of our humanity, through that magic of fiction. But, studying the breadth and depth of human imagination is not the same as studying reality. What does seem to be a bedrock of creating societies that work, is mutual cooperation, trade, respect, and finally love of self and one’s neighbors. There’s no cafeteria line for that.


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.