Several weeks ago in the Poiema ACG we discussed four views of hell. Actually, we only discussed three because time ran out. Unfortunately, the one we didn't get to is, in my opinion, the most satisfying. In light of all the buzz surrounding Rob Bell's forthcoming book, Love Wins, I thought I'd post my notes from the discussion, tie it in to Bell's views (as expressed in the video promo's) and outline my understanding.
First, lets start with Bell's [apparent] position - universalism. I say 'apparent' because the video isn't a lot to go on, but it is striking and horribly wrong in what it implies. It seems Bell is advocating an understanding of hell that goes back to Origen (185-254AD), though condemned by the church as heresy. Here's the video:
From this, it could be that Bell is advocating everyone experiences the blessings of God immediately after death, or, more likely, that the while some suffer in hell for a time, God's love overcomes and wins them to himself, at which time they are translated to heaven. Thus, in the end, hell is empty. As I said, this goes all the way back to Origen. For Origen, all souls, including the devil himself, will eventually achieve salvation, even if it takes innumerable ages to do so. Origen believed that God’s love is so powerful it will soften even the hardest heart, and that the human intellect – being the image of God – will never freely choose oblivion over nearness to God." Origen was unable to conceive of a God who would create souls that were capable of dissolving into the "oblivion of evil" (non-being) for all eternity or of being created to suffer the ravages of hell for all eternity. For Origen, hell was a purifying reality - much like purgatory (see also John Hick and the idea of suffering as "soul building"). For support, Origen turned to 1 Cor. 15: 24-28 and argued that for "God to be all in all" meant that all souls would eventually be reunited with God. (Origen also had some bizarre ideas about reincarnation until souls received enough education or healing to accept God.) To say there are major problems with this view is a gross understatement (and I plan on posting more on Bell's video later).
To begin, there is virtually no biblical support for such an idea. On the contrary, there are way too many passages that speak of eternal punishment (see below on the third and fourth view). They simply cannot be ignored or explained away. Also, philosophically, it creates a huge problem for those who believe in a certain type of free will. Calvinists won't have too much of a problem on this point, but Wesleyan Arminians will choke on it. How can God assure that people will ever respond positively to his overtures?
Second, there are some who believe that those who die apart from Christ will be punished in hell for a time, but will pass into nonexistence when the demands of justice have been met. This position is sometimes referred to as annihilationism or a conditional view of hell. The chief (evangelical) advocates have been John Stott and Clark Pinnock. In Four Views on Hell, Pinnock point out that while the Apostles Creed affirms Christ will return to judge the living and the dead, it does not detail what that judgment will look like. Pinnock notes that alongside the many texts that speak of the eternality of punishment are those that speak of the death and destruction of the wicked. For example, Psalm 37 declares the wicked will fade like the grass, be cut off, be no more, perish, and vanish (see also Malachi 4:1-2). Jesus told his listeners to fear the one who could destroy both soul and body in hell (Matt. 10:28). Other NT authors used similar language (see 1 Cor. 3:17; Phil. 3:19; 2 Thess. 1:9; 2 Peter 3:7; Jude 6-7). On this view, judgment is eternal in that it will never ever be reversed – it is eternally irrevocable (unlike the universalist). The main arguments offered by Pinnock are not, however, exegetical, but instead theological and philosophical. Chiefly, Pinnock finds the idea of eternal torment/punishment irreconcilable with a loving, just, good God. Some have pointed to God’s response to man’s first sin as an indication that God does not want man to live forever suffering the consequences of sin (Gen. 3:22-24). Moreover, he finds hell hard to reconcile with a totally renewed creation. So for Pinnock and those who follow this line, hell is real, punishment is real. It is eternal in that it is irrevocable. In the end, however, hell is also empty because eventually every person once consigned to it will pass into nonexistence.
In the end, Pinnock's position should be deemed sub-biblical for several reasons. For instance, Pinnock's treatment requires us to treat the word eternal (aionios) differently even when it appears in the same context. Jesus says in Matthew 25:46, "and these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” It seems improbable at best that eternal means 'irrevocable' in one instance but 'everlasting' in the other. Moreover, there is a total lack of support for Pinnock's view from the history of the church. In fact, the Council at Constantinople (543AD) condemned exactly this view, declaring "if anyone says hell is temporary and that punishment ceases, he is anathema." Ultimately, the annihilationist view is a bending of revelation to fallen man's reason.
These first two views should be rejected as unorthodox and unbiblical. The next two views are orthodox, biblical, evangelical, though the last I'll present is, in my opinion, the best.
The third view to consider is that of a literal fire and brimstone hell. On this view, those who have suffered in the intermediate state in Hades will after the final judgment be cast into the lake of fire (Gehenna) and suffer consciously in all eternity (Rev 20:13-14). The word eternal is taken literally to mean forever and ever without end. Proponents of this position point out that the word used in reference to eternal judgment is the same word used in reference to eternal blessing (John 3:36, 2 Cor. 4:17)and to God's eternality (Romans 16:26). In Four Views on Hell, Walvoord quotes Buis, "“Aionios is used in the New Testament sixty-five times: fifty-one times of the happiness of righteous, two times of the duration of God’s glory, six other times where there is no doubt as to its meaning being endless, and seven times of the punishment of the wicked” (24). The conclusion, "aionios in every instance refers to eternity...no sound Greek scholar can pretend that aionios means anything less than eternal" (24). So, eternal is literally eternal as in unending. And, on this view, fire is literally fire. Walvoord comments, "the frequent mention of fire in connection with eternal punishment supports the conclusion that this is what the Scriptures mean (cf. Matt. 5:22; Matt. 18:8-9; Matt. 25:41; Mark 9:43; Luke 16:24; James 3:6; Jude 7; Rev. 20:14-15)" (28). Additionally, he points to the story of Lazarus in Luke 16 for support. The rich man complained "I am in agony in this fire.". The strongest argument in favor of this literal rendering of hell, honestly, is from church history. This was the understanding of hell in the early church, the church throughout the middle ages, and into today. Though, it must be admitted, that the 'literal view' often degenerated in the church to wild and fanciful imaginative stuff too.
While I agree more substantially with the literal view than any of the others so far, I think Walvoord and others push the literalness of fire too far - though not of eternal, and that is important. Critique of this position will actually come as I outline my understanding, which is often referred to as a metaphorical view of hell.
The fourth position, which I claim as my own, hold that the language used to describe hell is metaphorical, as is the language to describe heaven. Don't misunderstand - I'm not saying hell is a metaphor. Hell is real. Hell is horrible. So horrible it surpassed the limits of human language to adequately describe; therefore, we are given metaphors - word pictures to describe the horrors of hell (and the blessedness of heaven). A few considerations lead me to accept that when the Bible describes hell it is using metaphorical language and not literal language. To begin, we should recognized the frequent use of rabbinic hyperbole throughout Scripture - "picturesque speech to bring home the urgency of the situation" (30). So we're told to gouge out our eye if it causes us to sin, to lop of a hand, to hate our parents, let the dead bury themselves, etc. I think the language of fire and worms never dying are meant to point to the direness of the situation, not the "furniture of hell". In addition, we're told that the lake of fire was created for Satan and the fallen angels (Matt. 25:41) - spiritual beings without physical bodies. How is literal fire to affect being without nerve endings? Walvoord counters that it is a spiritual fire as well as a physical fire, but how is that not metaphorical? Also, when you try to put a composite picture of hell together using all the data given in Scripture, you end up with some quite incompatible details - like utter darkness (Jude 13) and a lake of fire (Rev. 19:20). Matthew uses both fire and darkness to describe hell (Matt. 3:10-12; Matt. 25:41; Matt. 8:12; Matt. 22:13; Matt. 25:30).
What these images are meant to portray is life under the wrath of God, apart from his goodness, apart from his grace or mercy. I don't think it necessary to think of God's wrath in an active way - God pouring out punishment. Instead, I think it best to think of God's wrath in hell in a more passive manner - the withdraw of all good, especially the withdraw of himself and the handing over to wickedness and evil (parallel to Romans 1:18,24,26,28).
The one point I don't think can be taken metaphorically is the eternality, as in everlasting nature of hell. Unless you are prepared to give up on the eternal nature of divine blessing, and there's no good theological or exegetical reasons to do that, you can't neglect what the Bible says regarding the eternal duration of hell for the wicked.