The thought of hell is rightly concerning to anyone who believes the painful eternity that the Bible promises for those who die apart from faith in Jesus Christ. Therefore, we will answer some of the major objections to hell in an effort to bring clarity to those who have concerns.
Hell is Unloving
In a very important sense, God doesn’t send anyone to hell. The only ones there are those who have rejected his revelation, choosing to suppress the truth he made plain to them. [FOOTNOTE: Rom. 1:21, 24–25.]
God made people in His image, after His likeness, with the power to say no and to reject the universal revelation of himself. Subsequently, sinners have no one to blame but themselves if they are damned.
To get to Hell, someone must reject the God who shows them his goodness [FOOTNOTE: Acts 14:17] and out of love for all “gives to all mankind life and breath and everything”; [FOOTNOTE: Acts 17:25] reject the Spirit who “convicts the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment”; [FOOTNOTE: John 16:8] and reject the crucified Son who said, “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” [FOOTNOTE: John 12:32] Obviously, God has been exceedingly gracious to sinners.
The Lausanne Covenant (1974), [ENDNOTE #1] an evangelical manifesto that is one of the most influential documents in Christendom, puts it this way:
All men and women are perishing because of sin, but God loves everyone, not wishing that any should perish but that all should repent. Yet those who reject Christ repudiate the joy of salvation and condemn themselves to eternal separation from God. To proclaim Jesus as “the Saviour of the world” is not to affirm that all people are either automatically or ultimately saved, still less to affirm that all religions offer salvation in Christ. Rather it is to proclaim God’s love for a world of sinners and to invite everyone to respond to him as Saviour and Lord in the wholehearted personal commitment of repentance and faith. Jesus Christ has been exalted above every other name; we long for the day when every knee shall bow to him and every tongue shall confess him Lord. [ENDNOTE #2]
People who reject Jesus in this life will not rejoice in Him after this life. Revelation tells us that all sinners flee from the vision of Jesus precisely because they do not desire Him. [FOOTNOTE: Rev. 20:11.]
Unrepentant sinners hide from Him, even preferring death to seeing the face of Jesus. [FOOTNOTE: Rev. 6:15–17.] Even when faced with the unmistakable reality of Jesus, they “did not repent of the works of their hands nor give up worshiping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk, nor did they repent of their murders or their sorceries or their sexual immorality or their thefts.” [FOOTNOTE: Rev. 9:20–21.]
Hell is only for those who persistently reject the real God in favor of false gods. So, in the end, people get to be with the god they love. To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, either people will say to God, “Thy will be done,” or God will say to them, “Thy will be done.” [ENDNOTE #3] Not only is God loving, but he is also just. Heaven and hell are the result of his love and justice.
Hell is Intolerant
Everyone draws lines. We do not let drunk people drive. We do not let smokers light up in hospitals. We do not let sex offenders teach children at school. We do not let 30-year-old men marry 15-year-old girls. We do not let people lacking eyesight join the military and shoot guns. We do not let illiterate people graduate from Harvard. Why? Because we know these things are wrong. So wrong that we deem them intolerable. The question is not will lines be drawn but rather who draws them and where?
The truth is, we are all intolerant of some people and their actions which is why we have doors on our homes and locks on those doors. God has the same right, which is why He has a door on His Kingdom Home, and that door is Jesus Christ. Those who pass through the door are part of the family, and are welcome to enter in. Those who are not part of the family do not enter in for the same reason that strangers and enemies are not welcome at your home.
It might surprise you that, even as the Bible speaks of God in terms of holiness, love, justice, and mercy, it never suggests tolerance as one of His attributes. A simple English word search of the entire Bible in the most popular English translations shows few if any appearances of the word tolerance. The handful of times it does appear in various translations, it is used pejoratively to describe an evil done by God’s people as they “tolerate” things such as sexual sin [FOOTNOTE: 1 Cor. 5:1] and false teaching. [FOOTNOTE: Rev. 2:20] The New Living Translation speaks of God not tolerating other religions [FOOTNOTE: Exod. 20:5; Deut. 5:9], injustice [FOOTNOTE: 2 Chron. 19:7; Mic. 6:11], sinful behavior [FOOTNOTE: Ps. 5:4, 101:5], or teaching based on the beliefs of other religions. [FOOTNOTE: Rev. 2:14] Reading the Bible does not support the conclusion that the God of the Bible is tolerant.
God is not tolerant of people who don’t like the way of Jesus. He is completely committed to a new earth where no one will have to be on guard against idolatry and injustice. The new earth will include a redeemed community that reflects the character of God, who is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty.” [FOOTNOTE: Ex. 34:6–7.] So, it will be a place where community will be characterized by “compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience…[and] love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” [FOOTNOTE: Col. 3:12–14.]
A loving God protects His children from sin and evil by separating them. In this way, God is a father who is tolerant of all who obey him and are safe for His children. But He is intolerant of those who sin against Him and do evil to His children. Subsequently, God is intolerant in a way that is like our own cultural intolerances of those who drink and drive, steal, rape, and murder; we, too, demonstrate our intolerance by separating such people from society. To call such actions on God’s part intolerant is shameful, because tolerance would denote both approval and support of evil. [ENDNOTE #4]
Hell is Unjust
Some argue that the punishment of sinners is annihilation because it would be unjust for our short lives to result in eternal punishment. Annihilationism means that after someone dies apart from faith, they suffer for a fitting period of time and then simply cease to exist so that hell is not eternal in duration. In question is the nature and length of the punishment.
Despite having proponents who are otherwise fine Bible teachers (such as John Stott),[ENDNOTE #5] annihilationism is simply not what the Bible teaches. Daniel 12:2 says, “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” Jesus teaches the same thing and speaks of those who “will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” [FOOTNOTE: Matt. 25:46.] Grammatically, there is no difference here between the length of time mentioned for life and that for punishment; rather, there is simply eternal life and eternal death.
The Bible tells us that “the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image” [FOOTNOTE: Rev. 14:11] and “they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.” [FOOTNOTE: Rev. 20:10.] The word forever (Greek aion) means unending. This word is used to describe the blessedness of God, [FOOTNOTE: Rom. 1:25] Jesus after his resurrection, [FOOTNOTE: Rev. 1:18] the presence of God, [FOOTNOTE: 1 Pet. 1:25] and God himself. [FOOTNOTE: Rev. 4:9; 20:10] As uncomfortable as some may be with it, it also describes eternal, conscious punishment.
The key arguments for annihilationism are (1) the nature of fire (which consumes), (2) the use of the word destroy, which means “the extinction of being,” (3) the concept of justice, whereby God punishes “according to what they had done,” [FOOTNOTE: Rev. 20:12] and (4) the passages that speak of God triumphing over evil, so that God is all in all and reconciles all things to himself. [FOOTNOTE: E.g., 1 Cor. 15:28; Col. 1:20.] We’ll address each point in turn.
First, fire does consume but only things that are inherently destructible. For example, if you put metal in a fire it burns forever, but it does not cease to exist. [FOOTNOTE: Zech. 13:9; Mal. 3:3; Rev. 3:18.] Humans, like angels, are created for unending existence; hence their contempt and punishment is forever and ever. Thus, the result of the unpardonable sin is eternal punishment. [FOOTNOTE: Mark 3:29.] Hebrews 6:1-2 establishes “eternal judgment” as an “elementary” or fundamental and essential “doctrine of Christ”.
Second, the English words “destroy” and “destruction” do seem to indicate the end of existence. If so, passages such as Matthew 10:28 and Philippians 3:19 that describe the destiny of the wicked with these words would mean that these people would cease to exist. However, the Greek words (noun olethros; verb apollumi) never mean the end of existence. In the three parables in Luke 15, the coin, the sheep, and the son are “lost.” Likewise, destroyed wineskins do not cease to exist but become useless. [FOOTNOTE: Matt. 9:17.]
Jesus says, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” [FOOTNOTE: Luke 9:24.] The lost life continues. The people upon whom “sudden destruction will come” at the end of the age still appear before the judgment seat. [FOOTNOTE: 1 Thess. 5:3.] The temptations of riches that “plunge people into ruin and destruction” ruin them but do not end their existence. [FOOTNOTE: 1 Tim. 6:9.]
Paul explains the meaning of “the punishment of eternal destruction” as being “away from the presence of the Lord.” [FOOTNOTE: 2 Thess. 1:9.] This rules out the idea that destruction means “extinction.” Only those who exist can be excluded from God’s presence.
The point of the destruction of the wicked is that they are wrecked, ruined, and useless. Thus, destruction is a sudden loss of all that gives worth and meaning to existence. Those who are destroyed are like the prodigal son: far from home and father. They continue to exist but are broken in spirit, miserable, and without hope in that state.
This is why the Bible speaks of hell as conscious, eternal punishment.
One summary of the Bible’s teaching on the pain of hell says:
Those in hell suffer intense and excruciating pain. This pain is likely both emotional/spiritual and physical (John 5:28–29). Hell is a fate worse than being drowned in the sea (Mark 9:42). It is worse than any earthly suffering—even being maimed (Matt. 5:29–30; Mark 9:43). The suffering never ends (Matt. 25:41; Mark 9:48). The wicked will be “burned with unquenchable fire” (Matt. 3:12). Those in hell will be thrown into the fiery furnace and will experience unimaginable sorrow, regret, remorse, and pain. The fire produces the pain described as “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 8:12; 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30). The intensity of the suffering seems to be according to the wickedness of the person’s behavior (Rom. 2:5–8). Hell is utterly fearful and dreadful (Heb. 10:27–31). This punishment is depicted as “coming misery,” “eating flesh with fire,” and the “day of slaughter” (James 5:1–5). Those in hell will feel the full force of God’s fury and wrath (Rev. 14:10). They will be “tormented” with fire (14:10–11). This suffering is best understood as endless since the “smoke of their torment rises forever and ever” (14:11). This suffering is constant because it is said that those in hell “will have no rest day or night” (14:11) and “will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (20:10). [ENDNOTE #6]
Third, we have already supported the points that humans are created to live forever, and their rebellion and rejection of God continues as long as they themselves do. Thus, continued exclusion from God’s fellowship is fully appropriate and just.
Fourth, there are passages teaching that Christ will “reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” [FOOTNOTE: Col. 1:20.]
If this were the only passage in Scripture speaking to the issue, we would have to believe in some sort of universal saving reconciliation with God. But the eternal punishment passages require us to adopt the understanding that the peace spoken of is not a peace of salvation for all sinners but, rather, peace that comes by God triumphing over all sinners. The enemies will be conquered, and their destructive agenda destroyed. The new earth will be a place of only peace and godliness because the enemies have been crushed and removed forever.
In summary, annihilationism is not biblical. For this reason, it was condemned by the Second Council of Constantinople (AD 553) and the Fifth Lateran Council (1513).
Hell is Temporary
Today, though, it is becoming popular to hope that sinners will eventually repent and everyone will end up in Heaven. This is universal reconciliation, the ancient view of Origen. However, there is not a shred of evidence for post-mortem repentance. The continual teaching of the Bible is that we die once and are then judged, without any second chance at salvation. As one clear example, Hebrews 9:27 says, “It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.”
At the end of the discussion, we must admit the total irrationality of those who resist and refuse the grace of Jesus Christ. Any attempt to make sense of their rebellion will have to remain a mystery. But we never stop trying to persuade them to receive forgiveness and new life through the crucified and resurrected Lord Jesus because, among other reasons, the conscious eternal torments of hell await the unrepentant.
- In July 1974, 2,700 evangelical leaders from 150 countries convened the Lausanne Congress, made up of an unprecedented diversity of nationalities, ethnicities, ages, occupations, and denominational affiliations. Time magazine described it as “possibly the widest-ranging meeting of Christians ever held” (“A Challenge from Evangelicals,” Time, August 5, 1974, http://www.time.com/time/magazine/ article/0,9171,879423,00.html). They composed the Lausanne Covenant. In faithfulness to Jesus, it was a direct challenge to the widely held philosophy that Christians do not have the right—let alone the duty—to disturb the honest faith of a Buddhist, a Hindu, or a Jew by evangelizing them.
- The Lausanne Movement, “The Uniqueness and Universality of Christ” (par. 3) in The Lausanne Covenant, http://www.lausanne.org/covenant/.
- S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 75.
- S. Lewis wrote a brilliant essay refuting the liberal approach to dealing with sin and crime, entitled “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment,” that can be found on the Internet or in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), 287–300.
- Evangelical proponents of annihilationism include John Stott, John Wenham, Clark Pinnock, and Edward Fudge. J. I. Packer’s excellent article addressing this topic, “Evangelical Annihilationism in Review,” Reformation & Revival, vol. 6 (Spring 1997), is available at http://www.the-highway.com/ annihilationism_Packer.html.
- Christopher W. Morgan, “Biblical Theology: Three Pictures of Hell” in Hell Under Fire, ed. Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 144.