“There can be no doubt that the desire for a neat and simple argument in support of a truth may dispose even able men to offer some little violence to evidence that points in the direction of complexity. What we consider neatness and simplicity is not always a characteristic of Divine working, or Divine teaching. A passion for simplicity of statement has often blinded men to facts that indicated more complexity than might at first have been supposed.” - Edward White
What is the biblical view of hell?
That’s the question on the table here. It’s a big question about the whole Bible, which means it’s not a question that can be answered by the quick and easy appeal to one or two verses. It’s an all-inclusive question: an historical, exegetical, and theological question.
And it’s a difficult question to answer, for at least two reasons.
First, as we mentioned in the introduction, there are several different words in Scripture which have regularly been translated into the one English word “hell” (Sheol, Gehenna, Hades, etc), and then there are several other images which are routinely assimilated into that traditional portrait (unquenchable fire, undying worms, outer darkness, etc). This has resulted in a great deal of confusion, as we are automatically inclined to misunderstand what those words and images would have meant in their original historical contexts.
But the bigger reason why the question What is the biblical view of hell? is difficult to answer is because of the assumption it carries about the nature of the Bible itself.
A False Premise
The premise behind the question is that there is such a thing worthy of being called the biblical view of hell — a single, monolithic thread that stretches from Genesis to Revelation — and our task as interpreters is to simply locate this thread and call it what it is. If any passage seems to contradict what we believe to be the unified voice of Scripture, we are then bound by our prior commitment to explain the apparent contradiction away and harmonize that passage with all the others.
This is the major weakness of Edward William Fudge’s otherwise praiseworthy defense of annihilationism in his book The Fire That Consumes. Fudge’s instincts are often on target, but his prior commitment to a particular view of the Bible sometimes inhibits him, in principle, from following the evidence wherever it leads. This is what he does when he gets to Revelation 14:9-11 and 20:10-15:
“Although simplistic, it is almost fair to say that this whole debate rests finally on one question: should we interpret dozens of straightforward texts throughout the Bible to match the literal sense of two symbolic texts in the Apocalypse, or ought we to interpret the two apocalyptic texts symbolically to conform to the many others” (The Fire That Consumes, 84)?
Conform — that is the operative word here, and the biggest problem with Fudge’s whole case for annihilationism. Fudge begins with a general truth about what kind of book God would write (“without error in anything that it teaches”) and then deductively applies that general truth to all the available data (The Fire That Consumes, 4-5). This is not the place to launch into a full discussion of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy (for that, see this post). But suffice it so say, in agreement with Craig C. Hill, that the idea is “thoroughly circular; its conclusions are written into its premises, so there is nothing to prove and nothing to doubt... Unless one is willing at some point to think inductively, to weigh and to test, the general truth is unassailable” (In God’s Time, 17). Furthermore,
“The Protestant Reformers were right to insist that the whole counsel of Scripture ought to be consulted, but their dictum, ‘Scripture interprets Scripture’ all too easily becomes license for harmonizing according to one’s prejudices. How often have we selected the biblical view that we prefer and then used it as the key for interpreting out of existence the views with which we disagree? Challenging or controversial texts are dodged; in the process, the theological distinctiveness and integrity of individual biblical authors are lost” (25).
Being faithful to Scripture, if it means anything at all, must mean giving the writers of Scripture the basic dignity of expressing their own thoughts, even if those thoughts are sometimes different than those of other biblical authors. If we are bound by some prior commitment to make two authors agree with one another, then we may boast of having a “high” view of Scripture — so long as “Scripture” remains a cipher for our own system and only occasionally intersects with the intention of the biblical writers themselves — but we cannot say that we have been faithful to the sacred text of Scripture.
If, however, we approach the Bible inductively, as the work of real human beings inspired by the Spirit for a specific purpose at a specific time and place, we are then liberated to acknowledge both the unity and the diversity, both the consistency and the inconsistency, of the biblical testimony concerning hell and divine judgment.
So in response to the question, What is the biblical view of hell?, it must be said, first of all, that there is no single model for understanding the fate of the wicked in Scripture, and “the attempt to assemble one inevitably diminishes the multilayered, multidimensional witness of the Bible” (In God’s Time, 74).
Three Strands of Data
So does that mean the Bible has nothing clear to say about hell and final judgment? Not at all. The unified voice of Scripture concerning God’s judgment is that it is real and that it really matters how we respond to him on this side of death. As the writer of Hebrews puts it, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31). But there are at least three different ways of envisioning postmortem judgment throughout Scripture.
The first way, which is by far the most common, is the language of annihilation: death, destruction, perishing, being consumed, vanishing like smoke, and so on. If there was such a thing as a unified voice in the Bible’s portrayal of hell, annihilationism would surely have the strongest argument for calling itself the biblical view.
The author of 2 Peter gives clear expression to this view when he compares the fate of the wicked to that of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19:
“By turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly... But these, like irrational animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught and destroyed... will also be destroyed in their destruction” (2 Pet. 2:6, 12).
But there are several passages which seem to express something like the traditional view of eternal torment, most notably Daniel 12:2, Revelation 14:9-11, and Revelation 20:10-15. I have argued for an annihilationist reading of all of these passages in the past, but I’m no longer convinced that such a reading works for all of them. Take Revelation 14 as an example:
“If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand… he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night” (Rev. 14:9-11).
Annihilationists are right to emphasize the symbolic form of John’s vision; indeed, I will argue for a slightly nuanced reading of this passage later on. But I find it hard to believe that anyone could read “they will have no rest, day or night” as referring to the destruction of the wicked unless the maintenance of their particular theological system required them to.
Besides annihilationist and eternal torment texts, however, there are quite a few passages which seem to support the wider hope of ultimate reconciliation, such as Romans 5:18, Romans 11:32-36, and Philippians 2:8-11. Some of the imagery in Revelation may also point in this direction, most notably Revelation 21:24-25, which pictures the “kings of the earth” (the same guys who were previously slaughtered by the sword that came from the mouth of the rider on the white horse) bringing their tribute through the perpetually open gates of the holy city. It’s a small but significant detail which hints at a remarkable reversal of the barring of mankind from the garden of Eden. Gates are meant to keep things out, and these gates are always open.
But perhaps the clearest expression of this wider hope appears in the climactic hymn of Colossians 1:
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created… All things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together… For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:15-20).
Happening upon a passage like this, many readers have become accustomed to simply screening out the face-value implications of Paul’s words. But if we do not rule it out in advance, a universalist reading surely has the evidence in its favor. Just as Christ is the agent through whom “all things” were created (v. 16), so he is the agent through whom the same “all things” will be reconciled (v. 20).
We’ll explore some of these passages in more depth later, but the point at present is this: Ultimately, every attempt to find a unified voice for “what the Bible says about hell” is inevitably selective, either bending annihilationist and universalist texts into the shape of eternal torment texts or vice versa. So it won’t work to simply point to this or that text and say “Case closed! This clearly supports my view.” There are always other texts to be found, and no single view has the monopoly on biblical support.
A Better Way
So what do we do? How do we decide between the various strands of data? Is there a better way than the “proof-text arms race”?
I believe there is. Given the fact that these three different types of passages do not lend themselves to an easy harmonization, the pertinent question is not which type of language represents the greatest percentage of the data, or which one is the hardest to explain away, but rather which one reflects a deeper insight into God’s redemptive plan according to the overall trajectory of the biblical narrative.
In order to arrive at something that might be called “the biblical view” of postmortem judgment, I believe more attention should be paid to the character of Israel’s God as it has been revealed throughout Scripture and to the outworking of this God’s redemptive-historical purpose in Christ.
This is, after all, how we instinctively approach many difficult subjects in Scripture. Consider, for example, the plurality of the biblical witness concerning slavery. Most of the Bible simply assumes the existence of slavery, and many passages (including several NT passages) offer tacit support to it (e.g., Eph. 6:5; Col. 3:22; 1 Tim. 6:1). We have recently developed the habit of ignoring these texts, but for nineteenth-century slaveholders they offered clear biblical support for their livelihood. On a much deeper level than individual proof-texts, however, we can see a God who loves to set captives free, a God who breaks in pieces the doors of bronze and cuts through the bars of iron, and we can see the biblical narrative moving on a trajectory towards a kingdom in which “there is neither slave nor free” (Gal. 3:28). It was to this deeper biblical truth that the abolitionists appealed.
And the same thing could be said about many other subjects of doctrinal and ethical importance, such as genocide, circumcision, justification, or resurrection. In all of those cases Christians regard a few central NT texts as being more decisive for Christian theology than a large number of earlier texts that point in opposite directions. In none of those cases would we say that the few texts at the end of the Bible should be made to conform with the majority of earlier texts.
Craig C. Hill develops this hermeneutical model in his phenomenal book In God’s Time: The Bible And The Future. After discussing the many weaknesses of the harmonization model, he suggests that we ought to regard biblical authority as something derived from Christ and that Christ himself is God’s primary revelation, the centerpiece and climax of the biblical metanarrative.
“Believers today are employed at the same essential task as the New Testament authors, namely, the attempt to make sense of their world in light of God’s self-disclosure in Jesus. I call this the ‘But in Christ’ project. Like us, the writers of the NT were located at particular moments in time and in specific cultural environments. Like us, they accepted much of their situation as given; however, at certain points they realized that their world was challenged by what they had seen of God in Christ. Those are the ‘But in Christ’ moments. Yes, first-century this and first-century that about women, but in Christ ‘there is no longer male and female’ (Gal. 3:28). I would contend that it is precisely at these junctures that the New Testament is most important and most revelatory” (25).
Applying this model to the question of hell and final judgment, it must be said that passages like Philippians 2:8-11 and Colossians 1:15-20 have not usually been allowed the place in court which they clearly deserve to have. Indeed, only a cursory glance at these and other “universalist” texts would show that they appear at the theological high points of the New Testament, revealing in breathtaking panoramic view the ultimate fulfillment of God’s plan in Christ: all things will be reconciled, every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.
In other words, the “universalist” passages are to the question of hell what texts like Galatians 3:28 are to the question of slavery: just as there is neither slave nor free in Christ, so every knee will bow in the name of Jesus. In both cases we see Paul reaching beyond the nearsighted categories of this broken world and catching a fresh glimpse of what might be possible in the wake of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
There is obviously a lot more that needs to be said, but the foundation has now been laid. Once we acknowledge the diversity of the biblical witness concerning hell and final judgment, the relevant hermeneutical question shifts, from finding the unified voice of Scripture to finding the theological high points of Scripture. The strength of universalism lies in its ability to honestly account for the texts that don’t fit while focusing on the larger biblical testimony concerning God’s character and on the overall direction of the biblical narrative towards the reconciliation of all things in Christ. It is on this basis that I believe universalism does more justice to the biblical data than either traditionalism or annihilationism.