Hope in Hell (is hell eternal, hopeless and punitive?)

I’m sure you’ve all seen those amusing cuttings from church bulletins, like ‘What is Hell like? Come and hear our new organ’. One thing I’m fairly sure hell isn’t like is the classic view held by most evangelicals (and many others). The extreme version of this is that hell is a literal place of never-ending, conscious, punitive or retributive torment (physical and/or psychological), ordained and even delivered by God, without hope of redemption, and applying to all who have not put their faith in Christ as saviour. In my view this is nothing but an insanity-inducing nightmare, and I reject it wholeheartedly. Let’s look more closely at the main elements of this picture.

Eternal?

The classic view is that hell is unending, based on biblical phrases like ‘everlasting destruction’ or ‘tormented day and night for ever and ever’. But the biblical concept of eternity (or ‘everlasting’) is a complex and varied one. Most instances are not to do with endless temporal time, an unending succession of hours and days. It can sometimes refer to a very, very long time; or it can mean an intense quality of time, such as when lovers gaze into each other’s eyes (or something like that); or indeed something entirely outside our normal experience of time.  In Love Wins, Rob Bell suggests that ‘everlasting punishment’ in Matthew 25 (the story of the sheep and goats) would be better translated as ‘an intense period of pruning’ (or correction). There’s also the argument that infinite and eternal punishment cannot be appropriate for finite, temporal sins. Even in the Old Testament, punishment is strictly limited and commensurate – an eye for an eye, a life for a life. Even assuming that something like this OT model of justice applies here (rather than a grace-based NT version), there must surely come a point when even a Hitler’s crimes are duly paid for. Jesus said ‘you shall not get out until you have paid the last penny’: not ‘you shall never get out’. Of course, there’s another possibility suggested by ‘everlasting destruction’ which is simply annihilation – the blotting out of the unrighteous from existence. This is everlasting in its effect; those who are annihilated cannot return. This isn’t my own preferred interpretation, which tends more towards a hopeful universalism; but it’s one I have some sympathy for.

Hopeless?

If hell isn’t necessarily endless, it can’t be entirely hopeless either. And even if it is potentially endless, I still don’t accept that there can be no possible chance of redemption after death. According to 1 Peter, while Jesus’ body was in the tomb he went and ‘preached to the spirits in prison’, so that they might be ‘alive in the spirit’ (1 Ptr 3:18-20, 4:6). If God genuinely wills all to be saved (1 Tim 2:3-4), there seems no logical reason why physical death should be the cut-off point at which salvation becomes impossible. It may be unlikely and difficult, but I believe there must always be a chance and a hope. My favourite literary exploration of hell is C.S. Lewis’s Great Divorce. In it, the shadowy inhabitants of Grey Town (a kind of Hades/hell) are encouraged to visit the heavenly country, or at least its outlying borderlands. They also have the opportunity to stay and belong, if they can only let go of the things and ways that tie them to Grey Town – which is too hard for most, but not all. Of course this is only a story or parable, and Lewis never claimed that it represented reality. But it presents an intriguing picture of hope for those in hell, one that I’ve found helpful.

Punitive torment?

What of the view that those in hell must suffer terrible but deserved punishment for their earthly sins? There are some crimes so terrible that we feel there must be full recompense. There are some people who we simply feel must pay for the awful things they’ve done; must be made to suffer as they have made others suffer. I feel the emotional power of this argument, and I cannot say that there is no validity in it. But as I argued above, this punishment need not be limitless; it is not justice that they suffer more or for longer than their victims. And even in the most extreme cases, I believe that Jesus offers a higher way of justice, the redemption hard-won by his own suffering. Furthermore, in the standard evangelical view, there is no necessary gradation between the fate of a Hitler and a nice atheist, or someone in a rainforest tribe who’s never heard of Jesus. All suffer eternally and hopelessly in hell. And even if some might hope that the atheist or animist suffers less, I’m not sure that endless low-level suffering is ultimately a hugely preferable fate. So, if those in hell must indeed suffer, I would strongly question both the nature and the degree of these torments. I believe that they must at least be proportionate to the crimes and sins committed in life. Perfect justice surely demands this at the very least, if not something a whole lot better. Hell’s torments do not have to be the worst possible (the Bible speaks of ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’ not ‘screams of agony’). Nor does hell have to be the most terrible place that we can imagine. Hell may even be merciful, a divinely-imposed limit on the extent of suffering we can place on ourselves – this was certainly C.S. Lewis’s idea, and one I’ll return to. Lewis also suggested that hell might not be without its pleasures and comforts, whether physical or psychological. We can see something of this even in this world and in our own experience. There are pleasures in this world that are hellish in the sense that they tend to harm and corrupt those who partake of them. Anyone who’s ever known an addict can testify to this, whether it’s addiction to alcohol, drugs, pornography, or indeed to vengeful hate or even religious self-righteousness. In The Great Divorce, those who are unable to enter the bright reality of heaven are the ones who cling on to and nurture their little hellish pleasures of hate, lust, vanity, pride, etc; or to their cherished but relationally destructive views of themselves as victims or martyrs or intellectual heroes or whatever.

Divinely-imposed torment?

Assuming for argument that hell does include some ‘torment’, I also question who is doing the tormenting. In the medieval picture, it was devils with toasting forks, but this is completely anti-biblical – if hell is real, the spiritual forces of evil will be its primary inmates and sufferers, not its jailors and torturers. So then, is it God or even the saints who are hell’s torturers? I cannot believe so. An idea I’ll explore another time is that hell’s ‘torments’ are essentially self-imposed, even self-devised; that the prison of hell is simply one’s self. Any suffering may be that of the self in rebellion against good, or else in regret at the ruin it has made of itself through selfish living. The metaphors of fire, pit, prison, outer darkness and exclusion don’t work together if you take them literally, but they might convey something of the inner state of a person in these circumstances. There is also perhaps a withdrawal of the light, life and love of God’s presence – an exile or estrangement, a passive not active punishment. But again I believe all this is just for a season – not for eternity without hope. For non-Christians? Finally, whatever hell is, I don’t believe that it is the automatic destination for all who haven’t heard the gospel, or who’ve heard but haven’t made a conscious decision to follow Jesus. I think the truth is far more complicated than that. God looks on the heart. The Bible includes several righteous ‘pagans’, Gentiles and non-Jews whose faith or deeds were credited to them as righteousness by God – Melchizedek, Job, Rahab, Ruth, Naaman; in the NT, a Roman centurion, a Tyro-Phoenecian woman and Cornelius in Acts (not to mention the fictional ‘Good Samaritan’). Those who seek the truth and who follow the light they have in their conscience and their own scriptures or moral codes are, in a sense, following Jesus without knowing Jesus. I don’t know how salvation works but I do know that ‘the judge of all the earth will do right’ (Gen 18:25). I’ll devote a full post to this at some point; all I’m saying for now is that I do not believe that everyone who isn’t ‘Christian’ (as we understand that) will ‘go to hell’, by any means. For those who think that the Bible teaches a neat binary message of heaven for Christians and hell for others, Jesus’ story of the sheep and the goats should give pause. Here the people singled out for heavenly reward are those who have responded with practical compassion to the needs of the poor, hungry, hurting and oppressed; the ones headed for punishment are those who have ignored these needs. In short, heaven is self-giving love; hell is closed-in self. ‘Without love, I am nothing…’

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
This entry was posted in Hell, Salvation, Universalism and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Hope in Hell (is hell eternal, hopeless and punitive?)

  1. James Pruitt says:

    Good post. I agree with it.

    This may be more light-hearted than you want, but I offer an American/political perspective.

    American presidents have often referred to Hell. During a time in 1862 when his party was suffering political defeat, the Union armies had had large losses and England seemed close to recognizing the Confederacy, Abraham Lincoln said, “if there is a worse place than Hell, I am in it.” When Herbert Hoover was president in 1929 his wife was criticized in the southern press and elsewhere for inviting a black woman to an official White House function. The woman was the wife of a congressman. Hoover told his wife that one of the advantages of being an orthodox Christian was “that it included a hot hell” adding that her critics would find “special facilities in the world to come.” In 1960 former President Harry Truman told people that if they voted for Richard Nixon for President over John F. Kennedy, they deserved to go to Hell. Nixon protested Truman’s language. JFK in mock-seriousness said he would tell Truman “that our side” should “try to refrain from raising the religious issue.”

    (Note: JFK, the first – and so far only – Roman Catholic President wore his religion lightly. A writer once told one of JFK’s sisters that he wanted to write a book about JFK’s personal religion. Her reply: “That will be a very short book.” JFK was once asked: “What kind of Catholic are you?” He answered: “I go to church on Sundays.” “Like so many presidents, Kennedy and Nixon were raised by devout mothers who tried, with mixed success, to shape their sons’ spiritual lives.”)

    I grew up in a church going family. The two churches that were most prominent in my family were the First Baptist Church of Alameda California and the First Baptist Church of Santa Clara California. I attended these churches from age six through 22 (1957 -74). Our doctrines included original sin and the need to accept Christ as one’s savior but I don’t recall a single sermon about Hell. “The Great Divorce” influenced my thoughts about it more than any other book. Cheers.

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    • Cheers Jim – I’m always up for light-hearted! That’s an interesting perspective. Did George W. Bush or Ronald Reagan ever mention hell? I can’t imagine any recent or current British politician ever talking of hell, except perhaps Margaret Thatcher.

      I grew up in two churches as well, but neither were Baptist – my mum was Anglican / Church of England, and my dad and sisters were Roman Catholic (though all have now turned Protestant!). Both churches were quite moderate/liberal, and I grew up without any strong belief in hell. It was only when I re-converted into charismatic evangelical Christianity in my early 20s that I started to encounter more hardline and frankly terrifying views. Fortunately, I was also introduced to ‘The Great Divorce’, and like you that profoundly influenced my thinking on the subject.

      All the best,
      Harvey

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  2. John Marsden says:

    Hi Harv,

    Some thoughts on what is hell [or, Who’s hell is it anyway?…]

    Love the Mad Marsie [Male, Senior!]

    Hell is the bitter fruit of a final no to God (Bread for the Journey, Henri Nouwen 15.12)

    The Freedom to Refuse Love

    Often hell is portrayed as a place of punishment and heaven as a place of reward. But this concept easily leads us to think about God as either a policeman, who tries to catch us when we make a mistake and send us to prison when our mistakes become too big, or a Santa Claus, who counts up all our good deeds and puts a reward in our stocking at the end of the year.

    God, however, is neither a policeman nor a Santa Claus. God does not send us to heaven or hell depending on how often we obey or disobey. God is love and only love. In God there is no hatred, desire for revenge, or pleasure in seeing us punished. God wants to forgive, heal, restore, show us endless mercy, and see us come home. But just as the father of the prodigal son let his son make his own decision God gives us the freedom to move away from God’s love even at the risk of destroying ourselves. Hell is not God’s choice. It is ours.
    Henri Nouwen Bread for the Journey 16.12

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    • Thanks John – and lovely to have you commenting!

      Henri Nouwen is a dude :). Those quotes broadly line up with my own thinking on hell these days. I would go so far as to say that not only is hell our choice, but hell is our selves. Hell comes from within us, not imposed from without. It’s who we become if we continue to turn away from the only source of light, life, love and reality. But I’m pre-empting my next posts….

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  3. James Pruitt says:

    I can’t find anything that either said about Hell.
    Here are some comments they made about sin and salvation:
    • Reagan: Reagan’s father was Catholic. His mother was a deeply religious Protestant who had far greater influence on him. Her favorite saying was: “The Lord will provide.” In 1983 Reagan said: “We must never forget that no government schemes are going to perfect man. We know that living in this world means dealing with what philosophers call the phenomenology of evil, or, as theologians would put it, the doctrine of sin. There is sin and evil in the world, and we’re enjoined by Scripture and the Lord Jesus to oppose it with all our might.” At age 80 he said: “My optimism comes not just from my strong faith in God but from my strong and enduring faith in man.”
    • Bush: George W Bush was known for a short temper. His family worried that he would erupt under partisan attacks against his family in his 1994 run for governor. But he kept control of himself citing Proverbs 13:3: “He who guards his lips guards his life. But he who speaks rashly will come to ruin.” In a Republican candidates debate in 2000 George W Bush was asked to name a “favorite philosopher.” He answered: “Christ, because he changed my heart.” The moderator asked him how. Bush replied: “Well, if they don’t know, it’s going to be hard to explain. When you turn your heart and your life over to Christ, when you accept Christ as the savior, it changes your heart. It changes your life. And that’s what happened to me.”
    I believe both of these reflect an American type of Christianity. That’s not me being chauvinistic, just an impression.

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    • Thanks Jim, that’s interesting. It’s probably no surprise to you that I don’t share Reagan or Bush’s political views, and I view many of the things they did while in government with very mixed feelings. But I do warm to Reagan as a person if not as a politician, and I think that Bush was wrongly maligned as unintelligent.

      Probably the two most overtly ‘religious’ prime ministers we’ve had in Britain in my lifetime have been Maggie Thatcher and Tony Blair. Again, I’m not a fan of either of them as politicians – I think they both made some terrible foreign policy decisions with far-reaching ill consequences, not to mention their home affairs policies.

      I do find the link between faith and politics interesting – the two don’t always seem to be comfortable bedfellows!

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  4. James Pruitt says:

    I hope to read more about both Thatcher’s and Blair’s religious views. Here are a couple of more American Presidents who may be closer to your political leanings:

    Franklin Roosevelt was not known as a deep religious thinker. When Eleanor Roosevelt asked him if he believed in the basics of the Episcopalian faith in which he had been raised, he said, “I really never thought about it. I think it is just as well not to think about things like that too much.” When asked about his creed, Roosevelt said: “I am a Christian and a Democrat – that’s all.”
    Bill Clinton: “In 1955, I had absorbed enough of my church’s teachings to know that I was a sinner and to want Jesus to save me…” Decades later as president, Clinton referred to Jesus Christ in his public speeches more often than did his successor, President George W. Bush who was a favorite of conservative Christians.

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  5. TheotheDog says:

    As always, sensible, warm, courageous stuff. One of the real tragedies of the Christian church is, I think, the experience of the nicest, gentlest people (which so many ‘traditionalists’ are) peddling an exclusivist, deeply cruel theology in the belief that they’re doing God’s will (which they might be, I suppose – the likes of you and me, as we know, might have been barking up the wrong tree – I’m good at barking – for years). But no, let’s be honest, we’re not. My belief in hell as traditionally understood didn’t, couldn’t survive the experience of moving to a multi-cultural and multi-religious area, 75% of whose inhabitants, being followers of another religion, were presumably to be consigned to hell for that very reason. You’ve got to be commonsensical about this kind of thing: that just can’t be correct, or God’s will. Indeed it’s sub-human thinking. Like you, I’ve moved more towards universalism in recent years; with some reservations, of course. But the key for me is found in the wise words of an American Lutheran friend whom I remember saying once: ‘I can’t believe God’s grace suddenly gives up on people when they die. I thought grace was bigger than that’.

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    • Thank you Theo. I’m all for barking, or simply being slightly barking.

      I remember how shocked I was when someone first suggested universalism to me a few years ago – it just seemed to be a bridge too far. Though deep down I wanted it to be true, I felt that it surely undermined basic Christian belief and couldn’t be supported from Scripture. Now I feel very differently – that actually a kind of hopeful universalism is the only appropriate response to who Christ is and what he has done. That’s not to say that all will definitely be ‘saved’, whatever exactly that means, but simply to hold out the hope and possibility that they will; that Christ will be all in all, and that all will be well.

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  6. Howard Cole says:

    Hi Harvey,
    As ever I am torn (you are always doing this to me!). Strongly agree with the second part of your blog – incidentally, you really will enjoy Richardson’s ‘Eternity in their Hearts’ about how God engages with all cultures .
    My problems are with the argument :- (i) God is love – totally agree again, and (ii) He can do anything he wants, so he will redeem all from hell – not so sure, because the Bible talks about things that God cannot do. In particular, he cannot deny himself and he cannot go back on his promises whatever the cost to himself. In fact, we depend upon his dependability and commitment . We need him to be rock-solid;
    And we need him to be just and fair. Calvary is all about God’s reconciling his justice with his love, at an appalling cost to himself. If retribution (I agree, horrible word!) is not part of justice – then the cross would not have been necessary.
    Isaiah 28:21 talks about judgement as God’s strange work (sorry, King James!). ie He does not like it, and he is not willing that any should perish, but it is part of justice., although love will do all he can to rescue us.
    Hope that helps,
    be blessed,
    Howard

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    • Hi Howard,
      I’m certainly not a definite universalist, just a hopeful one. For me, there has to be a hope and a possibility that God will save all, because (a) I’m convinced that he wants to and (b) if he can save me he can save anyone.

      I’m not fully convinced by the argument that we need God to be rock-solid in the sense that you mean – and even in the Bible, God does not always carry out the punishments he threatens. We need God to be himself, but sometimes he will surprise us by doing things that are better or kinder, more generous or more gracious than we’ve been led to expect by his law. Justice is a good and important principle, but I still believe that it’s trumped by love.

      Bless you as ever,
      H

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  7. Saclometis Belial says:

    Hell is the only true release from a tyrant who plays games with the fates of mortals, we are the toys of God, He breaks us all in time. God may save you for a time, but eventualy He gets bored of his creations and casts them down. Hell is peace in knowing you must no longer be afraid of your actions.

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    • Hi again Kasey (or Saclometis),
      That’s certainly an intriguing viewpoint, though I couldn’t disagree with you more! 🙂

      I’d be interested to know how you square this view with the idea you expressed in your previous comment. There, if I understood you rightly, you seemed to be suggesting that hell is a horrible place, thus revealing the evil character of the God who created it. Here though you seem to be saying that hell is the place of true freedom and peace?

      For the record, I don’t believe that God created hell, I don’t believe that he sends anyone there, and I don’t believe that any suffering that there might be after (or indeed before) death is ordained or inflicted by God.

      All the best,
      Harvey

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  8. Kasey says:

    I have several points that I wish to lay before you, I do not contridict myself. I simply wish to see how you react, not to insult or anger, it comforts me to see you maintain your faith as I say these things to you.

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    • Hi again Kasey, sorry for the delay in replying.

      I wasn’t sure from what you said if you had some further points you’d like to lay out? If so I’d be interested to hear them.

      What I’d be particularly interested in though is to know what you really think about these matters – about God and hell, about whether God’s real and whether he’s evil, and whether hell is real and whether it’s a place of torment or of freedom. And indeed about anything! I’m far more interested in people’s genuine views and beliefs than in hypothetical positions.

      I don’t feel threatened by alternative viewpoints – I welcome them, and I think it’s good to have diversity and difference. I certainly don’t claim to have the definitive answers. I do personally believe strongly that God is good and God looks like Jesus, but it’s not for me to say what others should believe.

      Thanks
      Harvey

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  9. Kasey says:

    My views on such things are not as I have said at all, I am fully aware of gods presence in our lives,but I do not worship him as one should. To be quite honest I can be spiteful in nature and spout rants of what others would call blasphemis lies, but is it all lies? I don’t intend my words to be labled as such, no one can say for sure but god himself. As I pass by churches various, it is always the same thoughts: does He care, is there really any merit to the tales of heaven, if one so perfect created us why are we so violent greedy and spiteful? I know this is not all the human race I speak of but the majority, why does it have to be that way? I have so many questions that no mortal man can answer. I have so many doubts about it all, and yet I keep bibles on the shelf above my bed,and I couldn’t tell you why. I see hell in my dreams and the beings that call it home,thing is it feels normal, not at all like a nightmare. These types of things worry me,that visions of hell seem like home and that despite reading the bible,attening church, and praying nothing changes. Perhaps it gives me hope to see others maintain their faith while I cannot.

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