Raising Hell about Razing Hell: Evangelical Debates on Universal Salvation

Draft version: not for quotation or citation. For the final published version see

Perspectives in Religious Studies, 40, #3 (Fall 2013): 267-281.

Abstract: It is commonly thought that all North American evangelicals understand hell as eternal conscious punishment where those who reject divine grace are consigned to horrible torments about which they are forever aware. However, in 2011 well-known evangelical pastor Rob Bell published the best-selling Love Wins which rejects the eternal torment view and makes a case for an open discussion of universal salvation. No less than six books by Calvinist evangelicals were quickly rushed to press in order to counter Bell’s book. This most recent flare-up over the doctrine of eternal conscious punishment arises out of “the battle for hell” that occurred in evangelical theology in the 1990’s. This article surveys the recent history of the debate about hell in evangelical theology via a typology of five views. The final section focusses on the contemporary dispute over universal salvation and concludes with an assessment of where the debate now stands.

In the spring of 2011 evangelical pastor Rob Bell published the best-selling Love Wins,[1] a broadside against the doctrine of eternal conscious punishment. This is not the first time evangelical scholars have criticized this doctrine. A couple of decades ago eternal punishment was challenged by proponents of annihilationism (those who reject God’s grace cease to exist). In response to the proposal of annihilationism supporters of eternal torment published a number of withering attacks including The Battle for Hell and Hell Under Fire.[2] Today, a new group of evangelicals is attacking the very gates of hell intent upon Razing Hell to the ground.[3]  Bell and some other evangelicals suggest that eternal conscious punishment is immoral, unbiblical, and incompatible with the love of God manifested in Jesus. They argue that God genuinely wants to save everyone and pursues them beyond the grave. A Time Magazine article and a USA Today editorial sensed an ensuing controversy between Bell and conservative evangelicals and they were correct.[4] In the summer of 2011 no less than six books were published which sharply criticized Bell’s proposal to raze hell. Also, a documentary film, Hellbound?, was released in the fall of 2012 which interviews many of the participants in this debate.[5] The “battle for hell” has once again heated up in evangelical theology but this time the very gates of hell are under assault. This article provides a typology of five views on the nature of hell defended by North American evangelicals and summarizes the primary biblical and theological arguments used to support each view. The final section of the article concentrates on the contemporary dispute over universal salvation and concludes with an assessment of debate.

  1. Eternal Conscious Punishment with No Chance of Leaving

The stereotype is that North American evangelicals uniformly affirm that hell entails the following four aspects: it is active punishment, lasts forever, there is no exodus from hell, and those punished remain fully aware of their suffering.[6] This is certainly a dominant view among evangelicals and many scholars take it for granted to such an extent that they often claim that it is the only legitimate view for an evangelical to hold because it is what the Bible expressly teaches.[7] Esteemed theologian J. I. Packer, for example, says that eternal torment is the clear biblical teaching while all other views are “read into the Bible”.[8]

Several biblical texts are commonly used to support this view of hell. To begin, Jesus declares a day of judgment on which one group is given eternal life  another “will go away into eternal punishment” (Matthew 25:46). Proponents argue that the parallelism of the text requires that if those in heaven have consciousness then those in hell must be conscious as well. A favorite passage used to support this position 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 thirst (Luke 16:19-31). From this it is claimed that Jesus taught that those in hell suffer literal pain. Also, Jesus said that in hell “the worm does not die” (Mark 9:48) so the suffering must be forever. The wicked must be aware of their situation because there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 13:49-50). Finally, appeal is made to the book of Revelation which says that the damnede 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).

Several theological arguments are typically used in defense of the position. First, it is argued that it is the traditional teaching of the church and was affirmed by Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Wesley.[9] Second, proponents argue that though God is loving, which might tempt us to conclude that God will redeem everyone, it must be remembered that God is also holy and just and so cannot simply turn a blind eye to human sin.[10] God’s holy justice requires that God punish sin, “injustice must be paid for”.[11] Hence, the retribution of hell is “fundamental to the biblical concept of God” because it manifests divine justice.[12] Critics object that a finite sin does not sanction an everlasting punishment. However, proponents argue that sin committed against an infinite being justifies the penalty of eternal conscious punishment.[13] The critics, they say, simply fail to appreciate that God abhors sin. Third, proponents argue, contra annihilationism, that those punished must be aware of being punished if it is to count as punishment.[14] An individual that does not exist cannot be punished. Fourth, it is claimed that only the threat of eternal conscious punishment adequately supports the motivation for evangelism which is very important to evangelicals. Because nobody wants others to suffer eternally it is important to share the gospel with others and the threat of a horrible punishment furnishes a great incentive for unbelievers to convert.

Proponents of eternal conscious punishment disagree about whether the flames mentioned in the Bible are literal or metaphorical[15] Through the production of a “Hell House” or “Judgment House” at Halloween each year a number of evangelical churches graphically portray the literal tortures of hell.[16] However, “[m]ost evangelical Christians who believe that hell is  an actual place and that its duration is forever do not interpret the fire imagery literally.”[17] This was true as far back as 1974 when 5,000 evangelical college students at the Urbana conference for world mission were surveyed. Only 42%  affirmed a literal hell of fire.[18] Theologians who affirm metaphorical flames include Donald Carson, J. I. Packer, Carl Henry, Roger Nicole, and Robert Peterson.[19] Billy Graham, considered the quintessential 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”[20] Whether the flames are literal or  metaphorical both sides agree that the damned are conscious of their endless suffering and that it is horrible.

2. Annihilationism—the Impenitent Cease to Exist

Though eternal conscious torment remains very popular among evangelicals a number of alternative positions have found a home among evangelical theologians. The most common alternative is annihilationism which holds that hell is forever but it will not involve eternal suffering because those who resist God to the end will simply cease to exist. In the past twenty-five years this view has been endorsed by a number of evangelical thinkers such as John R. W. Stott, John Wenham, Clark Pinnock, Steven Davis, and Edward Fudge.[21]

Several biblical texts are cited in support of this position. 2 Thessalonians 1:9 says that the impenitent “will suffer eternal destruction.” The Gospel of John says that unbelievers will “perish” (3:16 and 3:38) and  to perish means to no longer exist. Also, Jesus said to “fear God who can destroy both body and soul” (Matthew 10:28). Proponents of annihilationism claim that if the soul is destroyed then consciousness end. Annihlationists acknowledge that the Bible speaks about “unquenchable fire” and “eternal punishment” but interpret these terms as indicators to the finality of the divine judgment, not its length. That is the punishment of the impenitent is permanent but they do not suffer endlessly.

One biblical argument leads to a variation of this position. Some theologians appeal to the biblical teaching that God is the only immortal being (1 Tim. 6:16) and that humans are by nature mortal. In order to become immortal humans must receive this gift from God by an act of faith (1 Cor. 15:53). Those who do not trust God are denied immortality and so will cease to exist.  When will the impenitent be destroyed? Some say it  is concurrent with physical death while others hold that it  occurs after the eschatological judgment.[22] Either way, proponents of conditional immortality and annihilationism agree that  hell is not eternal conscious suffering.

Several theological arguments are used to support annihilationism. Chief among them is that eternal conscious punishment is morally repugnant. John Stott says, “I find the concept intolerable and do not understand how people can live with it without cauterizing their feelings or cracking under the strain.”[23] Clark Pinnock sees it as incompatible with a God who loves people: “What purpose of God would be served by the unending torture of the wicked except those of vengeance and vindictiveness?”[24]  The Bible defends the legal principle of lex talionis (the punishment must fit the crime, Exodus 21: 23-25) but the idea that sin committed by a finite being deserves infinite punishment is incompatible with this principle. Another line of argument holds that the biblical texts which affirm that God will triumph over all evil in the end are in conflict with the notion of eternal conscious punishment which implies an eternal metaphysical dualism. A third reason is that the scriptural assertion that the state of the redeemed will involve no tears, death, or sorrow (Rev 21:4) seems impossible if they know people who are suffering eternally.

In response to this proposal, evangelical traditionalists published: Hell Under Fire, The Battle for Hell, and Hell on Trial. The titles clearly indicate that some people felt an essential evangelical doctrine was under attack. Most troublesome to traditionalists was John Stott’s apparent defection from evangelical orthodoxy. Stott, the beloved pastor and writer, sometimes called the “evangelical Pope” for his role in shaping global evangelicalism, held to annihilationism “tentatively” but he did think it had greater biblical support than the eternal conscious torment tradition. He called for evangelicals to dialogue on the issue and felt that “the ultimate annihilation of the wicked should at least be accepted as a legitimate, biblically founded alternative their eternal conscious torment.”[25] Because of these remarks John Gerstner questioned Stott’s salvation.[26] J. I. Packer remained friends with Stott even though he said that those who rejected eternal conscious punishment were intentionally rejecting “the obvious meaning of Scripture.”[27] The debate over eternal punishment became a prominent part of a 1989 conference called “Evangelical Affirmations” which was held to determine the correct evangelical doctrines. I was present at this meeting where proponents of eternal conscious punishment forcefully argued that all other views were outside the boundaries. However, Kenneth Kantzer, then Dean of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, pleaded with the delegates not to exclude annihilationism because that would mean that John Stott could not be called an evangelical. The conferees decided that Stott could not be excluded so the statement was carefully worded to allow for annihilationism.[28] In my opinion, if it had been someone of lesser stature in the evangelical community than John Stott, annihilationism would have been excluded by the participants at the conference. Hence, the boundary of acceptable evangelical doctrine was decided, in this case, by who held the position and not the biblical or theological arguments.

3. Eternally Conscious non-Humans

Two evangelical theologians attempt to find a position in between eternal conscious punishment and annihilationism. In a 2001 book Greg Boyd asserted that the Bible teaches both that hell is eternal conscious suffering and also that the wicked will be annihilated. Since Boyd “does not believe that Scripture can contradict itself” he develops a view which affirms elements of both views.[29] Boyd combines Barth’s idea of das Nichtige (the nothing) and several of C. S. Lewis’s ideas to argue that those who expend their energy opposing God will eventually “come to nothing”. This does not mean that they literally cease to exist (as in annihilationism) for God, says Boyd, never withdraws the gift of existence. He quotes Lewis in support: “To enter heaven is to become more human . . . What is cast (or casts itself) into hell is not a man: it is ‘remains’ . . .to have been a man.”[30]

N. T. Wright, a giant of contemporary New Testament scholarship, sets forth a position very similar to Boyd’s but seems to exclude the idea of suffering in hell. Wright says most people are shocked when he tells them that the Bible says little about hell and Jesus never brings it up.[31] Wright believes the apocalyptic language of the gospels is not about either the “end times” or what happens after death.[32] He claims these texts have been grossly misunderstood by the majority of Christians to refer to hell. Instead, Wright says they are God’s judgment and vindication within history. The flames of Gehenna are not about hell but refer to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 C.E. in which many Jews lost their lives and others were exiled. Wright claims that there is  virtually nothing in the New Testament about what happens after death other than when Paul speaks of a “final judgment” in Romans (2: 1-16).[33]

Wright believes the church has been disastrously wrong about these texts and this error has led to the development of the horrible notion of an eternal “torture chamber.” Wright rejects universalism for being unduly optimistic and he disavows annihilationism though he  does reject an everlasting “concentration camp.” Wright readily acknowledges that he is “speculating” when he suggests that it is possible for human beings to so thoroughly turn away from love and God that, after death, they become “beings that once were human but now are not.”[34] Beyond hope of salvation, they will continue to exist forever as “ex-humans”. He argues that his position rejects two important aspects of the eternal conscious punishment position: (1) that human beings continue to be human beings in hell and (2) that they are punished endlessly.[35] He believes this solves the problem of how the redeemed can enjoy heaven if they are aware of loved ones in hell because the redeemed will feel no sympathy on beings who are no longer human.[36] Wright’s position that those in hell retain consciousness but experience neither joy nor suffering is similar to the medieval concept of limbo in which those in the outermost circle of hell (limbo) experienced neither pain nor happiness.

4. Remedial—Some Leave Hell

Some evangelicals reject the adage, “You haven’t got a preachers chance in hell,” because they believe that some are evangelized in hell. This idea has been defended by George Beasley-Murray, Charles Cranfield, Donald Bloesch, Gabriel Fackre and Nigel Wright.[37] Bloesch says, “we do not preclude the possibility that some in hell might finally be translated to heaven.”[38] He wrote that in 1978 and later, in his seven volume systematic theology, said, “Hell is a reality….But it is not the final word on human destiny because God’s grace pursues the sinner into hell.”[39] “God does not give up on any soul. . . . He will snatch them from the jaws of hell.”[40] Proponents of this view affirm postmortem evangelization and use the ancient doctrine known as Christ’s descent into hell (descendit ad inferna) to suggest that Jesus and then his followers went to hell upon their deaths in order to preach the gospel.[41]

Appeal is made to Ephesians 4:8-10 interpreted to teach 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 transported to heaven those who accepted the gospel. Proponents also cite biblical texts that teach that the sole reason for damnation is the rejection of Jesus (e. g. John 3:18; Mark 16:15-16). They reason that since damnation depends upon a person’s response to Jesus then everyone must have an opportunity to receive the gospel. Since most of the world’s population has died unevangelized then there must be a postmortem opportunity to put their trust in Christ. Neither the gates of hell nor time can prevent the eternal and almighty God from working to redeem creatures. Gabriel Fackre holds that human destinies are not sealed upon our deaths but only on the final judgment.[42]

Will hell eventually have no occupants? Proponents of this view are content to argue that some are evangelized from hell but typically 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. Bloesch says that though the Bible gives hints that hell is pillaged it does not teach universal salvation.[43] If some do refuse God in the end then will they experience eternal conscious punishment, annihilation or something else? Proponents of this model are typically silent on the issue. Bloesch, citing deep agreement with the view of C. S. Lewis, asserts that people are conscious in hell and that they experience retributive punishment but it is no “torture chamber or concentration camp.”[44] Bloesch argues that Jesus, not the devil, is lord of hell and though “there is real torment in hell” its purpose is both retributive and remedial. He says we should “envision hell as a sanatorium for sick, incurable souls” for whom God provides medicine which “alleviates the pain of being alienated from God and preserves the sinner from annihilation.”[45]

5. Universal Salvation—Hell Will be Emptied

All four of the positions covered thus far agree that there are people who remain forever unreceptive to God’s love and are incurable. But what if they are not incurable? In the past decade several evangelicals have published defenses of universalism.[46]

The book that has received the most media attention surrounding universal salvation is the New York Times bestseller Love Wins by evangelical pastor Rob Bell. However, perhaps the first thing to say about Bell’s book is that it is easier to know what he rejects than what he affirms. He definitely rejects some dominant evangelical positions such as the penal substitution model of the atonement and eternal conscious punishment. These, he says, are not good news. “Telling a story about a God who inflicts unrelenting punishment on people because they didn’t do or say or believe the correct things in a brief window of time called life isn’t a very good story.”[47] A better story, according to Bell, is the God who loves every single person, desperately wants to reclaim wayward creatures, and pursues such beyond the grave. Bell appeals to tradition when he observes that universalism was affirmed by some of the greatest church fathers such as Gregory of Nyssa. He also provides biblical support from texts, for example, that say that the gates of the heavenly city are never shut (Rev. 21:25) which he uses to back his claim that people can leave hell to enter heaven. “This God simply doesn’t give up. Ever.”[48] On the other hand, Bell repeatedly says that God has granted humans the freedom to refuse divine grace such that God will give us what we want even if this means turning away from God.[49] Divine love does not force itself on us. This raises the issue as to whether some sort of eternal separation from God is possible (i. e. annihilation not eternal conscious punishment). So he asks, “Will everybody be saved, or will some perish apart from God forever because of their choice? Those are . . . tensions we are free to leave fully intact. We don’t need to resolve them or answer them because we can’t. . .”[50]

Bell could be interpreted to mean that these two possibilities should be left in play and that he is only trying to get evangelicals to discuss universalism as a legitimate Christian view. However, the authors writing against him believe Bell is claiming more than this. They think Bell at least defends “hopeful universalism” according to which one can strongly hope all will be redeemed but given human freedom we cannot be certain it will occur.

The hopeful universalism position is by no means new on the theological scene but it is fairly new for North American evangelicals to say, as does Miroslav Volf: “Though those who have been touched by God’s love ought to hope for a universal nonrefusal, if they are not blind to the human condition they will be hesitant to count on it.”[51] Sharon Baker’s book, Razing Hell: Rethinking Everything You’ve Been Taught about God’s Wrath and Judgment, makes the case that Christians have misunderstood the meaning behind the imagery of the biblical texts on hell. [52]  She argues that God loves all individuals and seeks to rid them of evil by a holy fire which purifies the sinner after death. However, because God has granted freewill to people they still have to make a choice to accept the divine love—God does not force reconciliation on anyone.[53] One possible result of this purifying process will be that there is absolutely nothing of the individual worth saving. “The fire would burn all of him. . . .There would be nothing left of him, which means that he would be annihilated.”[54] The more likely result, she says, is that after the divine purification “we have been freed from our slavery to evil and sin” such that no impurities remain.[55] A purified person would “naturally choose life with God” which means that God’s desire to save all people will be fulfilled. “No one spends eternity in hell. They stand in the fiery presence of God and find themselves forgiven, tested, purified, reconciled, restored, and transformed by divine power and love”[56] Baker says she is not certain this is how it will work out but she is definitely hopeful that all will be redeemed.

Several evangelicals move beyond a “hopeful universalism” and speak with confidence that universal salvation is what will happen. Proponents of this position include some in the Reformed theological tradition such as Yale philosopher Keith DeRose and Jan Bonda.[57]  More recently, Gregory MacDonald, Thomas Talbott and others have defended this approach. MacDonald published The Evangelical Universalist but it should be noted that MacDonald is a pseudonym which suggests that the author felt that the potential repercussions within evangelicalism were great enough to warrant anonymity.[58]

These “confident” universalists highlight biblical texts which speak of God’s all encompassing purposes such as the notion that all humanity is already justified in God’s sight by the faith of Jesus (Rom 5:18) and that through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus God has reconciled the world to the divine self (2 Cor 5:19). The result is that in the end “God will be all in all” (1 Cor 15:22-28) and everyone will confess that Jesus is lord (Phil. 2:9-11). This confession will not be forced by God standing on people’s necks. Rather, all will come to confess Jesus in loving trust and thankfulness.

Through many publications Thomas Talbott has attempted to convince evangelicals of the truth of universal salvation.[59] He argues that the New Testament  clearly teaches that God loves every single person and works to redeem everyone. He then applies this to both the Calvinist and freewill versions of evangelicalism. The theological determinist, he says, believes that God exercises exhaustive control over every detail of history and should thus conclude that all will be saved. The Calvinists, he says, attempt to escape this conclusion by rejecting the clear teaching of the Bible that God wants to save everyone. Talbott acknowledges that the freewill theist believes that humans have the freewill to resist God’s grace so it seems God cannot guarantee universal salvation. Nonetheless, Talbott believes the freewill theist should affirm universalism as well. In a postmortem encounter God will enable everyone to make a “fully informed decision” about God. A fully informed decision means that a person is aware of all relevant information, correctly understands the information, and is not deceived in any respect. Each person will then understand precisely what Jesus has done for them and what is at stake. Hence, in this situation it will be logically impossible for anyone to eternally reject God because “no one rational enough to qualify as a free moral agent could possibly prefer an objective horror . . . to eternal bliss…”[60]

6. Conservative Evangelical Response to Bell

In 2001 Daniel Strange wrote: “I know of no published evangelical who holds to the doctrine of universalism.”[61] The 1989 Evangelical Affirmations statement as well as the 2000 Evangelical Alliance’s (British) report The Nature of Hell both claim that universal salvation is not a legitimate option for evangelicals.[62] One of the purposes of Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins, is to make a place at the evangelical theological table for a discussion of universal salvation. It is an attempt to get past the dismissive attitudes of proponents of eternal torment. However, within five months of the appearance of Bell’s book there were at least six books rushed to publication by proponents of eternal punishment each sharply rebuking Bell’s ideas. In addition, there were some malicious tweets from evangelical theologians asserting that Bell was no longer an evangelical, a sentiment captured in the title of a book: “Farewell, Rob Bell”: A Biblical Response to Love Wins[63] The cover of the book shows a ship named “Orthodoxy” and Rob Bell in a small boat rowing away from the ship. The acrimony previously poured out against proponents of annihilationism in the 1990’s is now directed at Bell’s rejection of eternal conscious punishment and hope for universal salvation.

Theologian Michael Horton believes the doctrine of eternal torment in hell is essential to Christianity because the alternative positions “all challenge orthodox views concerning God’s attributes, the person and work of Christ, and sin and redemption.”[64] This sentiment is echoed by Albert Mohler Jr., Robert Peterson, and Christopher Morgan.[65] For proponents of eternal conscious punishment the rejection of this teaching entails a rejection of the gospel of Jesus.

The books written against Bell display a rather homogenous set of arguments. First, they argue that Bell’s understanding of God is “too small” and fails to allow for significant mystery.[66] Mark Galli, senior managing editor of Christianity Today magazine, writes in his book, God Wins, that Bell’s Love Wins “does not communicate the gravity, the thickness, the mystery of God.”[67] Instead of accepting the divine mystery concerning why God chooses not to save all humans Bell, instead, places “God on trial”.[68] The reason is Bell’s purported failure to properly understand the relationship between the divine attributes of justice and love.[69] Bell has a “diminished view of God’s holiness.”[70] He walks up to the “Bible buffet”, loads up on the teachings he likes and skips over the rest: “give me an extra helping of love but hold the stuff about wrath.”[71]

Second, Bell’s critics claim that his reasoning fails to conform to God’s revelation. Wittmer says, “Scripture clearly teaches that some people will go to hell forever.”[72] This idea is strongly captured in the title of the book Erasing Hell: What God said about Eternity, and the Things We’ve Made Up. Bell and other critics of eternal conscious punishment, they claim, ignore what is “clearly” taught in the Bible and make up what they prefer to believe instead.[73] The explanation for why these otherwise faithful readers of the Bible ignore the transparent teaching about hell is that they have bought into American cultural values, stemming from the Enlightenment’s emphasis on human autonomy and the value of the individual human.[74] Morgan and Peterson claim that “hell stands for everything our contemporary culture rejects” such as divine justice, the sinfulness of humans, that Jesus is the only savior, and that all sin will be punished.[75] “Bell reinterprets Scripture’s stern warnings about hell until they fit the modern idea of what a loving God must do. And so he produces an indulgent, nonjudgmental God who sounds exactly like the god of popular culture.”[76]

The third argument against Love Wins is that it fails to grapple with the depths of human depravity and, thus, the need for divine grace. Bell’s theology is “textbook Pelagianism” because it fails to affirm an Augustinian understanding of the human condition and divine grace.[77] Galli asserts that for Bell, “the human will is free, autonomous, and able to choose between alternatives. The discussion assumes that the will is not fallen, that it needs no salvation, that it doesn’t even need help.”[78] Humans are not only blinded and deafened by sin they are also “dead” in sin which means they are incapable of responding to God “without a miracle.”[79] God gives this miracle to some people so they can affirm divine grace and be saved while “sometimes God actually makes it impossible for people to believe.”[80] God graciously decrees that some people will be saved while God righteously allows everyone else to receive the eternal punishment they deserve. In other words, a correct (read biblical) view of sin and salvation is only found in the Augustinian-Calvinist tradition along with its doctrines of unconditional election and irresistible grace.

7. Assessment of the Current Debate

This final section contains some brief observations about the current debate. First, though some of the defenders of eternal torment employ caustic rhetoric against Bell two of the books written against Bell (God Wins and Erasing Hell) manifest a tone that does not demonize Bell and attempt to present his arguments fairly. For evangelical theological debates this is a positive development.

A second factor to notice is that some of the current critics of universalism are willing to grant John Stott’s request that annihilationism (conditional immortality) be considered a legitimate option for evangelicals. Galli, Chan, and Sprinkle hold that while the Bible is clear that some people experience eternal separation from God the Bible is not clear about whether the nature of hell will be conscious punishment or annihilation.[81] Though none of these three authors endorses annihilationism it is significant that they say it is a legitimate interpretation of the Bible for evangelicals. The reason why they think that annihilationism and eternal conscious punishment are both legitimate is that each position affirms what they take to be the core truth of biblical teaching about hell: there is no escape so the consequences are eternal. It seems that the idea of a postmortem salvation in a redemptive hell has become the more important dividing line at the moment than the notion of conscious punishment in hell. Thus, there appears to be some movement on the issue since the debate in the 1990’s.

Third, the evangelicals defending the annihilationist, remedial hell, and universalist positions have produced quality scholarship on biblical texts and theological reflection. However, the defenders of the eternal torment view not only fail to engage this scholarship, most of them seem unaware that it even exits. For example, only Erasing Hell even references the work of Thomas Talbott and Gregory MacDonald in support of universalism. The recent defenders of the eternal torment position do not evidence any awareness that evangelical scholars, and not just pastor Rob Bell, have raised substantive criticisms of their view. None of these works cite, let alone engage, the significant arguments against eternal conscious punishment put forward by other evangelicals such as N. T. Wright, Donald Bloesch, Sharon Baker, Robin Perry, Jerry Walls, or Jonathan Kvanvig. Baker and Perry wrote books in support of universal salvation directed specifically to evangelical audiences.[82] Walls and Kvanvig each produced books with detailed and carefully constructed criticisms of many of the arguments discussed above used to support the eternal torment position.[83] Perhaps the proponents of eternal conscious punishment are so assured their view is correct that they do not need to read the scholarship of opposing ideas.

Fourth, behind the current permutation of the debate is the longstanding feud between freewill theists and theological determinists. The evangelicals who reject eternal conscious punishment have typically been significantly influenced by the ideas of C. S. Lewis and tend to affirm human freewill. The proponents of eternal conscious punishment, on the other hand, tend to affirm a stringent form of Calvinism (not to be confused with “Reformed theology” which is much broader and includes hopeful universalists such as Barth and Moltmann) which upholds God’s meticulous control of everything that occurs in history. Each of the authors of the books written in 2011 against Bell’s Love Wins is a proponent of this strict Calvinism and they patrol the evangelical borders in an attempt to prohibit what they consider to be alien theological ideas.[84]

In North American evangelicalism these two opposing models of God, Arminianism (freewill) and Calvinism (theological determinism), predominate so it is no surprise that the different understandings of divine love and justice in the two models lead to different views on hell.[85] Behind the accusations that Bell has a “diminished view of God’s holiness” and is “Pelagian” is Calvinist theology. These are common barbs thrown by Calvinists against Arminians. Evangelical Calvinists believe that only their position properly appreciates the bondage of the will and God’s abhorrence of sin. In the debate on hell the Calvinists believe God is just in condemning people to eternal punishment while those from the Arminian side tend towards either annihilationism or a remedial view of hell.

Bell, an Arminian, asks whether God specifically brought billions of people into being in order for them to experience eternal conscious torment in payment of the sins they committed while on earth for a few years. Galli responds by saying that Bell should stop putting God on trial—we are not the judges of God. Whenever the morality of the Calvinist model of God is called into question, its defenders resort to this escape: “we simply affirm what the Bible teaches and we don’t question God.” The problem with this is that Bell and other evangelicals are not questioning God, they are questioning the theological determinist model of God. They are not putting God on trial, they are putting evangelical Calvinism on trial. However, the tendency for Galli and the other defenders of eternal punishment is to equate their model of God with what the Bible teaches simpliciter. Hence, calling their view of God into question is tantamount to putting God on trial. They forget that it is humans who interpret the Bible and it is human reasoning that formulates theological models of God.


This article has shown that there is more diversity among evangelicals regarding hell than is commonly thought. The debate about hell within evangelicalism surfaced in the 1990’s when several significant evangelicals affirmed annihilationism and the notion of a remedial hell. The debate has intensified with the critique of eternal conscious punishment by a high profile evangelical pastor. Whereas proponents of eternal torment roundly rejected annihilationism in the first round of this debate, today’s evangelical defenders of eternal punishment are more willing to see it as a legitimate option for evangelicals. However, they strenuously attempt to keep universalism outside the evangelical tent. Nonetheless, both hopeful and confident versions of universalism have been published by genuine evangelical scholars. At the core of the debate lies the perpetual conflict between two models of God within the evangelical movement: the God of theological determinism and the God of freewill theism. Because the evangelical Calvinists tend to conflate their interpretation of God with the biblical teaching of God it is no surprise that that they raise hell about evangelical attempts to raze hell.

[1] Bell, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (New York: Harper One, 2011.

[2] 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). Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment, eds. Chris Morgan and Robert A. Peterson (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2004).

[3] Sharon Baker, Razing Hell: Rethinking Everything You’ve Been Taught about God’s Wrath and Judgment (Louisville, KY.: Westminster John Knox, 2010).

[4] Jon Meacham, “Is Hell Dead?” Time Magazine, 177, no. 16 (April, 14, 2011): pp. 38-43. http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2065080-1,00.html. Oliver Thomas, “Should Believers Fear Hell—And God?”USA Today, August, 7, 2011. http://www.usatoday.com/news/opinion/forum/2011-08-07-love-wins-afterlife-hell_n.htm

[5]Hellbound? See  http://hellboundthemovie.com/

[6] Robert Peterson cites leading proponents in his, “Undying Worm, Unquenchable Fire” Christianity Today 44. 12 Oct 23, 2000: pp. 30-37.

[7] 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).

[8] Packer “Does Everyone Go to Heaven?” in Christopher Morgan and  Robert Peterson, eds. Is Hell for Real or Does Everyone Go to Heaven? (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2011),  p. 67.

[9] Peterson uses Western church tradition to support his view in Two Views of Hell: A Biblical and Theological Dialogue, Edward W. Fudge and Robert A. Peterson (Downers Grove, IL.: InterVarsity Press, 2000), pp. 117-128

[10] See Mark Galli, God Wins: Heaven, Hell, and Why the Good News Is Better than Love Wins (Carol Stream, IL.: Tyndale House, 2011), pp. 111, 116; Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle, Erasing Hell: What God said about eternity, and the things we made up (Colorado Springs, CO.: David C. Cook, 2011), pp. 162-3; and  Morgan and  Peterson, eds., Is Hell for Real?, p. 82.

[11] Galli, God Wins, 42. See also, Morgan and Peterson,  Is Hell for Real?, p. 81. The language of “debt” and “payment” permeates these writers.

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

[13]  See Phillips, “Hell: a Christological Reflection”, pp. 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): p. 565.

[14] Dixon, Other Side, p. 90.

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

[16] See the documentary film Hell House by George Ratliff.

[17] Chan and Sprinkle, Erasing Hell, p. 154.

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

[19] See Chan and Sprinkle, Erasing Hell, p. 154.

[20] Interview with Billy Graham, “Of Angels, Devils and Messages from God,” Time (November 15, 1993): p. 74.

[21] John R. W. Stott, Evangelical Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue with David L. Edwards (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press, 1988), pp. 312-320 and his “The Logic of Hell: A Brief Rejoinder,” Evangelical Review of Theology 18 (1994): pp.  33-34. Wenham, Goodness of God (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press, 1974):  pp.27-41 and “The Case for Conditional Immortality”, pp. 161-191 in  Nigel Cameron (ed) Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell, (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1992); Pinnock, “The Conditional View” (pp. 135-166) in  William Crockett (ed) Four Views on Hell (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1992) and his “Fire, Then Nothing” Christianity Today (March 20, 1987): pp. 40-1; Davis, “Universalism, Hell, and the Fate of the Ignorant,” Modern Theology 6 (1990): pp. 173-186; Fudge, The Fire that Consumes, third edition (Eugene, OR,: Cascade Books, 2011), and Two Views of Hell: A Biblical and Theological Dialogue, with Robert A. Peterson (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press,, 2000).

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

[23] Stott, Evangelical Essentials, p. 312.

[24] Pinnock, “The Conditional View,” p. 153.

[25] Quoted in Roger Steer, Basic Christian: the Inside Story of John Stott (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2009), p. 226.

[26] See Robert Peterson, “Undying Worm, Unquenchable Fire” Christianity Today,  44.12, (Oct 23, 2000): p. 30.

[27] Packer, quoted in Roger Steer, Basic Christian, p. 228.

[28] See Kenneth Kantzer and Carl Henry (eds.), Evangelical Affirmations (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1990), pp. 123-6, 137-148.

[29] Gregory Boyd, Satan and the Problem of Evil: Constructing a Trinitarian Warfare Theodicy (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2001), p. 337.

[30] Boyd, Satan and the Problem of Evil, p. 353 from Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: MacMillan, 1976), p. 125 (emphasis in original).

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

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

[33] Utilizing Wright’s approach Andrew Perriman (The Coming of the Son of Man: New Testament Eschatology for an Emerging Church. Waynesboro, GA: Paternoster Press, 2005) concludes that only one passage in the New Testament is about an after death punishment (Rev 21-22), pp. 5-6, 74-97.

[34] Wright, Surprised by Hope, p. 182.

[35] Wright, Surprised by Hope, p. 180.

[36] Wright, Surprised by Hope, p. 183.

[37] Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans Publishing, 1962), p. 258; Cranfield, First Epistle of Peter (London: SCM, 1954), p. 91; Fackre, “Divine Perseverance” in John Sanders (ed.) What About Those Who Have Never Heard? (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1995), pp. 71-95; Wright, The Radical Evangelical: Seeking a Place to Stand (London, SPCK, 1996),  pp. 99-102.

[38] Bloesch, Essentials of Evangelical Theology (New York: Harper and Row, 1978), vol. 2, p. 226.

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

[40] Bloesch, The Last Things: Resurrection, Judgment, Glory (Downers, Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2004), pp. 237-238. Bloesch’s most complete discussion occurs on pp. 219-238.

[41] For the revival of this doctrine among Protestants see David Powys “The Nineteenth and Twentieth Century debates about Hell,” pp. 100-128.

[42] See Fackre, “Divine Perseverance”, pp. 71-95.

[43] Bloesch, The Last Things, p. 227.

[44] Bloesch, The Last Things, p. 224. Evangelical philosopher Jerry Walls affirms a similar position in Hell: the Logic of Damnation (South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame, 1992). See also his “A Philosophical Critique of Talbott’s Universalism” in Robin Parry and Chris Partridge (eds) Universal salvation? The Current Debate (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2003) especially pages 119-122

[45] Bloesch, The Last Things, pp. 224 and 225. It is interesting that Bloesch says both that God never gives up on anyone but also that there are incurable people.

[46] For precursors to this debate see David Hilborn and Don Horrocks, “Universalistic Trends in the Evangelical Tradition” in Robin Parry and Chris Partridge (eds) Universal salvation? The Current Debate  (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2003), pp. 219-246.

[47] Bell, Love Wins, p. 110.

[48] Bell, Love Wins, p. 101.

[49] Bell, Love Wins, pp. 114, 119, 177.

[50] Bell, Love Wins, p. 115.

[51] Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996),  p. 299, n. 7.

[52] Baker, Razing Hell: Rethinking Everything You’ve Been Taught about God’s Wrath and Judgment (Louisville, KY.: Westminster John Knox, 2010).

[53] Baker, Razing Hell, p. 141.

[54] Baker, Razing Hell, p. 144.

[55] Baker, Razing Hell, p. 145. Thomas Johnson affirms this position as well in “A Wideness in God’s Mercy: Universalism in the Bible” in Robin Parry and Chris Partridge (eds) Universal salvation? The Current Debate  (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2003), p. 77.

[56] Baker, Razing Hell, p. 146.

[57] DeRose posted a paper “Universalism and the Bible: the Really Good News” in 1998 and has updated it periodically: http://pantheon.yale.edu/~kd47/univ.htm. He also has several blogs on his website in which he defends universalism. Bonda published The One Purpose of God: an Answer to the Doctrine of Eternal Punishment (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1993).

[58] MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2006). However, the name of the author was subsequently disclosed as Robin Parry who coedited the volume Universal Salvation?

[59] See, for example, The Inescapable Love of God (Boca Raton, FL:  Universal Publishers, 1999); “Towards a Better Understanding of Universalism,” “Christ Victorious,” “A Pauline Interpretation of Divine Judgment, and “Reply to my Critics” in Robin Parry and Chris Partridge (eds) Universal salvation? The Current Debate  (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2003); and “The Doctrine of Everlasting Punishment,” Faith and Philosophy 7 (1990): pp. 19-42. For the rest of his publications on this topic see the bibliography in Universal Savlation?

[60] Talbott, “Towards a Better Understanding of Universalism” in Universal salvation?, p. 5. This argument parallels the idea that God, being fully informed and never deceived, could ever fail to choose the good.

[61] Strange, The Possibility of Salvation Among the Unevangelised: An Analysis of Inclusivism in Recent Evangelical Theology (Waynesboro, GA: Paternoster Press, 2001), p. 31.

[62] See Kenneth Kantzer and Carl Henry (eds), Evangelical Affirmations, p. 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), pp. 32, 131.  This second document is summarized by Peterson  in  “Undying Worm, Unquenchable Fire” Christianity Today 44. 12 (Oct 23, 2000): pp. 30-37.

[63] By Larry Dixon, (CreateSpace publishing, 2011). Dixon had previously published The Other Side of the Good News: Confronting the Contemporary Challenges to Jesus’ Teaching on Hell (Wheaton, Il.: Bridgepoint, 1992).

[64] Horton in the preface to Michael Wittmer’s Christ Alone: An Evangelical Response to Rob Bell’s Love Wins, (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Edenridge Press, 2011), p. vii.

[65] See their comments in Morgan and Peterson (eds), Is Hell for Real?, pp. 11 and 81.

[66] Wittmer, Christ Alone, p. 14.

[67] Galli, God Wins, p. 18.

[68] Wittmer, Christ Alone, p. 124 and Galli, God Wins, pp. 6, 14, 125.

[69] Galli, God Wins, pp. 111 and 116.

[70] Wittmer, Christ Alone, pp. 18 and see 134.

[71] Wittmer, Christ Alone, p. 2.

[72] Wittmer, Christ Alone, p. 61. See also pp. 30 and 126.

[73] Galli, God Wins, p. 148.

[74] Albert Mohler details this in his chapter in Morgan and Peterson (eds) Is Hell for Real?, pp. 20-22. See also comments by the other authors,  pp. 8 and 13 as well as Mark Galli, God Wins, pp. 68, 71 and 131.

[75] Morgan and Peterson eds., Is Hell for Real?, p. 81.

[76] Wittmer, Christ Alone, p. 59.

[77] Wittmer, Christ Alone, p. 91 and see pp. 43 and  90.

[78] Galli, God Wins,  p. 71. Galli argues that if people can leave hell then they can also leave heaven which renders the believer insecure (p. 109). The universalist could reply that we will experience theosis or the confirmation of our wills in heaven and so will not be able to “fall” from heaven.

[79] Galli, God Wins, p. 133. See also Packer “Does Everyone Go to Heaven?” in Morgan and Peterson (eds) Is Hell for Real?, p. 71.

[80] Galli, God Wins ,p.  65.

[81] Galli, God Wins, pp. 111, 95-96, 128.  Chan and  Sprinkle, Erasing Hell, pp. 54, 81, 86.

[82] Also, defenders of eternal torment should now address the recent book by John Kronen and Eric Reitan, God’s Final Victory: A Comparative Philosophical Case for Universalism, Continuum Studies in Philosophy of Religion,John Kronen (Author)

Visit Amazon’s John Kronen Page

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(New York: Continuum, 2011).

[83] Walls, Hell: the Logic of Damnation (South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame, 1992) and  Kvanvig, The Problem of Hell (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

[84] It is interesting that though many evangelicals in the Arminian-Wesleyan tradition reject universalism they do not tend to write books against the idea or get riled up about it.

[85] Sociologists Paul Froese and Christopher Bader  label these two views of God the “authoritative God” and the “benevolent God.” See their America’s Four Gods: What We Say About God & What that Says About Us (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

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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