I’ve been feeling compelled to write about hell now for some time. It frequently comes up in conversations with skeptics and believers alike. It’s an issue many people find to undermine the idea of God’s goodness. Honestly, if you just take a few minutes to think about the traditional understanding of hell- where people suffer terribly for all time– it will probably make your heart drop and your skin crawl. One can understand why the idea of hell is an issue people struggle with.
If you were raised like in a Christian environment similar to me, an environment I would call ‘generic evangelicalism’, then you probably were raised to think of hell in terms of this eternal conscious torment (ECT, ‘the traditional view’). This wasn’t really debated, it was assumed. Hell was occasionally referenced to incentivize ‘getting saved’, but in general it wasn’t talked about all that much. My church and Christian school weren’t ‘fire and brimstone’ preaching places, but there was an underlying belief in the traditional view of hell. As a teenager I didn’t question this teaching, though I would say I had an underlying discomfort about the idea of the unsaved being burned or otherwise tormented for eternity.
At some point in my early 20’s I became aware that the ECT view wasn’t the only perspective. I don’t recall what precipitated this awareness, but it was probably something Greg Boyd said and it was definitely before the Bell/Hell controversy. The idea of a different understanding of hell drew me because of my aforementioned discomfort. Might the traditional view be wrong? I hoped so and would have to find out. I gave this new idea, this ‘annihilationism’ idea, some consideration. When I did, I found it to biblically and morally compelling.
Before I launch into what this view entails and why I find it persuasive, let me take a moment to speak about one of the most basic questions we have in our hearts and minds when we think about God. We want to know: is He good? We need to know that we can trust Him. You can fear and obey a God who you believe to be all powerful, but to truly love Him, trust Him, and find peace in Him, you need to believe He is truly good. I can’t overstate how much the traditional view of hell, especially if combined with Calvinism or restrictivism (the belief that only those who have explicitly heard and committed to Christ have hope of escaping hell), undermines the goodness of God. Before you start telling me about how “it might not look good and loving to us, but that His ways are higher“, let me just stop you to say that the Bible speaks quite a lot about what goodness and love is. The traditional view of hell certainly seems to be at odds with goodness and love as generally defined in scripture, and it doesn’t sit well with our conscience either, and that rightly concerns many of us.
So let me tell you about what annihilationism is and why I find it quite compelling:
The basic idea of annihilationism is that when the Bible says (over and over) that sin brings death and destruction, it actually means total death and destruction- annihilation. It means, as scripture says, that the wicked ‘will be no more’.
Reading through scripture, looking at all the places where sin, judgment, death, and hell as spoken of, we see this idea that judgment is actually total death and destruction. I never had realized this thing that now seems so ‘obvious’ when I read scripture, but the overwhelming idea of judgment in the Bible is DEATH:
‘The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life.’
‘Don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil or you will surely die.’
Phrases like perish, destroy, be no more, vanish, blotted out from the book of life, be as though they had never been, consumed, consuming fire are used over and over… and they convey annihilation, not an eternal experience of torment.
(A sampling of references for the ideas I’m putting forth: Ps1:4,6; Ps2:9; Ps69:28; Ps9:6; Ps34:16,21; Ps37:38; Nah1:10; Mal4:1; Prov12:7; Prov24:20; Heb6:8; Jude 7; Matt7:13; Matt 7:19; Phil3:18-19; 1Thes5:3; Rom6:23; 2Cor2:15-16; James1:15)
I used to read ECT into these verses. For example, I’d read about the consuming fire and because of my prior assumptions interpreted that people would eternally experience such a fire. But the verse doesn’t say that the person is forever experiencing being consumed, but that that fire consumes completely.
When you read about hell, one of the first things that gets pointed out is that the word Jesus used for hell was ‘Gehenna’. Gehenna was the trash heap outside the city. It was believed to have been a place of evil (human sacrifice) in the past and in Jesus’ day had been the place where trash was thrown to be burned up. The fires of Gehenna burned all the time, consuming all the trash that had been throw out of the city. So when Jesus speaks of judgment he refers to an actual place where things are literally destroyed.
Another thing concerning the topic of hell is that the Old Testament doesn’t have much of a frame of reference for the idea. The Old Testament is not focused much on the afterlife, but on this life. There are references to destruction and death and the grave, and references to the idea of the righteous who have dies being in a place of peace, as well as a select few passages about resurrection. By and large though, the Old Testament was much more concerned with matters of this life.
It is when we reach the New Testament that the ideas of heaven, resurrection, and new creation become a more developed theme. Along side these ideas the teaching of final judgment and hell find their place. Those found ‘in Christ’ will be raised and granted eternal life… and those who reject Christ will ultimately suffer destruction. The wages of sin is death… But the gift of God is eternal life.
C.S. Lewis and some others have spent a decent amount of time in both theological pondering and fictional writing expounding on what it might mean to completely die- body, soul, and spirit. Closely related is the idea of what it means to be human and what it means to lose our humanity. N.T. Wright said, “It seems to … that if it is possible, as I’ve suggested, for human beings to choose to live more and more out of tune with the divine intention, to reflect the image of God less and less, there is nothing to stop them finally ceasing to bear that image, and so to be, as it were, beings who were once human but are not now. Those who persistently refuse to follow Jesus, the true Image of God, will by their own choice become less and less like him, that is, less and less truly human. We sometimes say, even of living people, that they have become inhuman … I see nothing in the New Testament to make me reject the possibility that some, perhaps many, of God’s human creatures do choose, and will choose, to dehumanize themselves completely”
Wright is suggesting, as many have, that ultimately it will be people themselves, and not God, who determine whether they are destroyed. To go there for just a moment, let me throw an idea at you. The Bible presents a couple of ideas: 1. That God is our source of life and 2. That sin and rejection of God bring death.
Now let us imagine something: say that, to use a well known metaphor, we are each a branch on a vine. Say that we decide we don’t need the vine, and hack ourselves off at the connection point between branch and vine, disconnecting ourselves from our source of nutrients and hydration. What will ultimately happen to us in this case? The branch can not supply it’s own life, and if it decides to disavow the vine, it dies and gets thrown in the burn pile.
This is an overly simple metaphor, I realize. I would be bullshitting you to say that I thought I had the issue exhaustively resolved in my own mind… and I certainly didn’t completely unpack the topic here. The Bible is a huge and even diverse book with some metaphors for judgement and salvation that push at the edges of this view, I will not argue that. However, I think annihilation captures the most basic essence of judgement in the Bible.
Before I close this out, I want to return to that core question I began with: is God good? While it is important to reexamine the doctrine of hell, I don’t think having a new perspective on hell will ultimately resolve this question. The answer to this is found in Jesus. I don’t believe God is good because I’ve fully nailed down the nature of hell (and who goes there and other related issues we didn’t even address). I believe God is good because I believe He became human, entered into our pain, bore our sin, and provided life. I believe He is good because I believe Him to be full of love. The Bible tells us that Jesus is the ultimate picture of what God is like. A God who would rather suffer the effects of our sin and rejoin us to Him than lose us. That’s the core of what I hold on to in the midst of questions about hell or suffering or justice.
Still, the topic of hell is an important one… it behooves Christians in particular to examine it and make sure that we are not weaving an unbiblical and unjust view of judgement into our understanding of the gospel. If we do, it will have consequences both in both our own hearts and in the way we express the ‘good news’ to others. We want to make sure we are knowing and reflecting the heart of Christ in all things, even in our thinking about hell.
Lastly, I want to offer a couple of resources for those inclined to look into this more:
Greg Boyd’s case for annihilationism
Questions for Edward Fudge
Across the Spectrum, a book I’d highly recommend to anyone interested in the different ‘sides’ of evangelical doctrines.
And finally, a three part teaching on hell from Greg, looking at the parable of the rich man.