What Is Hell?
A short, biblical defense of the traditional understanding of hell, highlights from church history & two major challenges to hell.
Hell is a place of eternal conscious punishment for the wicked.
What ever happened to hell? At one time, pastors preached sermons like The Eternity of Hell Torments by Jonathan Edwards in the mid-eighteenth century. But by the early-20th century, famed Baptist pastor Henry Emerson Fosdick commented on hell when he said, “obviously, we do not believe in that kind of God any more.” How times have changed!
The traditional view of hell has been under attack both inside and outside the church. Hell does not go with the positive spirit of the age nor with the religious pluralism endemic in our culture. It belongs in a museum of antiquated theological mistakes, not in the pulpits of sensible churches. Or so many believe. In short, hell has disappeared.
But the doctrine of hell should not disappear. It should be reaffirmed as both Biblical and true as well as serve as a warning about the terrifying, ultimate punishment for anyone who rejects the salvation God offers in Christ.
In this post, I aim to illustrate the Biblical roots of the traditional understanding of hell, review highlights from church history, and show two major challenges to hell.
Hell & The Bible
Theologian Wayne Grudem gives a good definition of the traditional view of hell: “a place of eternal conscious punishment of the wicked”. The doctrine of hell finds ample support in the Bible. Here are a few verses that argue for each of these core aspects of the doctrine of hell.
Punishment in hell will last forever.
“And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.” (Isaiah 66:24)
“At that time shall arise Michael, the great prince who has charge of your people. And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” (Daniel 12:1-2)
“This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering—since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.” (2 Thessalonians 1:5-9)
People will be conscious in hell.
“While the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 8:12)
“The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 13:41-42)
“The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’” (Luke 16:22-24)
Punishment of the Wicked
The wicked will be punished in hell.
“His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Matthew 3:12)
“Just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.” (Jude 7)
“And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” (Revelation 20:13-15)
Hell & Church History
The vast testimony of church history also affirms the traditional doctrine of hell. Theologian Richard Baucham affirmed, “Until the nineteenth century almost all Christian theologians taught the reality of eternal torment in hell.” To reject the traditional understanding of hell is to reject the majority opinion throughout church history.
In his book Historical Theology (2011 – pgs. 702-722), Gregg Allison sites those theologians who taught the traditional understanding of hell as “eternal conscious punishment of the wicked” prior to the modern age. Here are some of the more well-known theologians, though this is not an exhaustive list…
- Justin Martyr
- Athansian Creed
- Augustine of Hippo
- Thomas Aquinas
- John Milton
- Martin Luther
- John Calvin
- Jonathan Edwards
Hell & Its Two Major Challengers: Annihilationism & Universalism
However, something changed in the early 19th century. As other traditional doctrines were challenged, so also the doctrine of hell was assailed. It was possibly the most attacked doctrine in all the creeds.
The most popular alternative view on the final judgment of the wicked is annihilationism or conditional immortality. Primarily, it challenges the “eternal” aspect of the traditional view of hell claiming that people will ultimately be destroyed and all souls don’t live forever. The concept of annihilationism is gaining followers in the last days, but most Evangelical theologians reject it even still.
The second most popular view on hell is universalism. Universalism teaches that all (or most) people will ultimately be saved and enter heaven. To universalists, verses on hell are either allegorized or dismissed. Hardly any Evangelical theologian affirms universalism, but it can be popular in churches with a low view of Scripture.
In Conclusion: Praise God or Flee to the Savior
Hell is a controversial topic. It’s uncomfortable to mention and usually a conversation-stopper in most social circles. But that doesn’t make it wrong. The idea that God will judge sinners forever in conscious punishment is a difficult truth. But it is true. May the Lord impress upon all of our souls the gravity of such a place.
If you are a Christian, then praise God he will save you from the terrors of eternal punishment. Christ has redeemed you from the curse of the law (Galatians 3:13) and part of that curse is just punishment in hell for your sins.
If you are not a Christian, I urge you to believe the gospel and flee from God’s punishment today. To learn more about becoming a Christian, checkout How To Be Saved.
- For more Biblical support for the traditional view of the doctrine of hell, checkout Matt Slick’s excellent overview: Hell.
- To dig even deeper, see Michael Marlowe’s resource with several helpful links: bible-researcher.com: Hell
Photo by Chirag Nayak on Unsplash.