Fate of the Damned
A Discussion on the Nature of Hell
by Cathy Ramey
In an interview with an ultra-liberal newspaper man, the writer noted with a tone of amazement that I discussed issues of abortion, true moral guilt of those who commit these murders, and even a "fire and brimstone" hell without batting an eye or blushing in apology.1 His comments to this effect only highlighted a truism, namely that, these days, there is little or no talk of eternal consequences for those who reject God's offer of salvation. By, without embarrassment, infusing an ultimate consequence to sin into our conversation, I had surprised him.
While I recall, in that interview, making no reference to a hell with licking flames and the overwhelming scent of sulphur, I did proffer to him the notion that there will be a "pay day"the very words that I did usefor those who willfully reject salvation and opt instead for sin. But historical ideas of damnation had created a picture image in his mind that introduced itself into our conversation without my saying specifically what I meant by my reference to God's judgment.
While it is good that there is a historical sense of God's final judgment impressed upon the minds of even the unsaved, and while we ought to speak out to reinforce this eventuality upon the world, there are many variations on the theme of hell. And it can be claimed that our conclusions about the ultimate end of infants or others considered too young or incompetent to reason out their need for salvation may actually be arrived at based upon historical images rather that potent Scriptural arguments.
To approach a discussion on the nature of hell is something that is done with a great deal of trepidation as most Christians have often vaguely defined but strongly held ideas about what hell is or is not. When perceptions on the subject are challenged, it is not uncommon to see brother against brother, dueling over the differing paradigms that have settled upon us almost through saturation rather than study.
In preparing to open a door for legitimate discussion on the nature of hell I experienced some degree of hostility. The responses seemed to imply that writing on this topic was needless or would have no end but to stir up unnecessary controversy. But it is legitimate to argue that controversy seeds discussion, no matter which view you hold, and discussion of a very real and terrifying reality can be good. After all, we are quick to warn children against putting their hands on to a hot stove lest their fingers get burned. How much greater the danger then if we fail to warn others of the fiery lake which will swallow up the unsaved.
Dr. Carl Laney, a professor at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon, lecturing on the book of Genesis, says "The first doctrine to be denied is the doctrine of judgment" (Gen 3:4). He points out that "it's still being denied today." A Harris Poll reported by NBC on August 28, 1995 indicated that while most Americans are prone to worry over money and medical care issues, only 8% had any apprehension over hell. Regrettably, it is a subject which is apparently of concern to far too few people. Yet, the message of hell is ultimately vital in any age, to every person, and certainly legitimate when we speak prophetically about abortion and the judgment of God.
We can theorize that God may judge America in one way or another; we can question how God's wrath may effect the temporal lives and careers of those engaged in killing; we can contemplate about how God may choose to turn the hearts of His people toward repenting of their own involvement with these murders, but without a true revelation from God much of our ideas about "God's judgment," here and now, are merely speculation.
What we do know, beyond all of this speculation, is that there will be an ultimate judgment that will include punishment far more complete and painful than any temporal act imaginable.
"A human being should know . . . should be told that his deeds are evil [because], after all, there is not only heavenly, but also earthly justice"2 an Auschwitz survivor was quoted as saying. And in our own age we would do well to fine-tune his conclusion so that it is in harmony with Scripture; there is not always earthly justice, but invariably there is heavenly justice and judgment. This judgment has been little spoken of with clarity and conviction even in the midst of protesting history's most egregious evil, the murder of untold millions and billions of innocent unborn people, but certainly now is the time to sound the warning like it has never been sounded before.
The purpose in discussing hell, and perhaps inviting some anger and controversy, is first and foremost motivated by faith in God's Just nature and an interest in the unfettered truth of His Word. After that, it is motivated by a desire to hear more clearly and frequently the prophetic warnings about this final judgment, which, when it falls, will hold every rebel accountable. Why discuss hell? Because proclamation of this final and awful judgment is the common domain of prophets and of prophetic messages. And because abortionists need not fear the bullet from one like Michael Griffin or Paul Hill nearly to the degree that we all ought to fear hell.
Points of agreement
To begin, it is important to state those beliefs which all Christians are in agreement upon (including those who hold the views we'll talk about).
First, There is a hell (Mt. 5:22; Mk 9:43-47; Lk 12:5; and Js 3:6). Old and New Testament, the Scriptures are clear on this. There is a place or point of accounting where the wicked will be punished by God; no longer allowed to rebel against Him or left free to oppress the righteous.
Second, There are gradations of torment inflicted upon the wicked depending upon the offenses committed (Lk 12:47-48; Mk 12:40).
And third, Hell represents punishment and loss of tremendous and painful proportions (Mt. 5:22-29; 25:30).
Beyond these three points of agreement Christian history has held some widely divergent views about just what the nature of hell might be. Does hell have a geographical location? . . . How long does it last? . . . And exactly what is the environment of hell like? . . . Are there actual flames and demons to torment the damned? . . . Or is hell more of a mental state of torment?
Without dispute, hell is a reality to be reckoned with rather than, as some outside the Christian faith might argue, a mere threat based upon the Church's desire to entice or frighten others into involvement with Christianity. But beyond the fact that God has prepared a hell for Satan and his demons and all of the wicked, there is much debate about how hell works.
Historical views on hell have been neatly categorized with references in the Didache; the Presbyterian Confession; doctrinal records of the Roman Catholic Church; in the past by theologians like Bishop Augustine and Thomas Aquinas and more recently by theologians like E.W. Fudge who authored an in-depth look at hell and the language of Scripture.3
Clark Pinnock, William Crockett, Zachary Hayes, and John Walvoord, in their collective work, Four Views on Hell, offer the most concise look at the different ways the Church has attempted to answer questions on the nature of this point or place that we call hell. And many others have added both philosophically and theologically intriguing insights into the debate.
The Literalist or Traditional view
Two-horned demons, charred and blackened with the smoke of the pit from which they have arisen, grasp even at the saints whose feet are planted on the path to heaven's gate. Others seize sinners with ease, dragging them down into the unbounded cavity, dangling some by limbs and dropping others into that endless fiery fall which is broken only by the sharp clawed grasp of yet another of hell's tormentors.
While all of the general views to be covered can be traced back to early Church history, there is one view which has held a position of first place for the greater part of two millennia (5th c. to 16th c.) and can be followed back in time to Greek philosophers like Plato and early Church fathers like Augustine and Aquinas. It is often called the "Traditional" or "Literal" view, and it holds quite simply that the damned will suffer an eternal conscious punishment in a place of fire and smoke specifically reserved for them.
F.F. Bruce, of the University of Manchester in England, argues that the foundation for early beliefs about hell include strong reference to Greek philosophy. Plato, he tells us, theorized about a master creator in his work entitled Timaeus. If this maker existed, he postulated, he would of necessity be intrinsically immortal (Gr. Thanatos: without death). Further, he would have the ability to extend immortality to others for whom it was not an innate quality. He argued that this would be done by imparting deathlessness to a part of man, the soul.4
In the Traditional view, man is, as Plato put forth, part physical, part soul. The soul is an aspect of man's being which Christ himself refers to in Matthew 10:28. And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both body and soul in hell. Under Plato's view, contrary to the concluding statement in Matthew 10:28, man's body may die, but his soul exists as indestructible.
While we are waiting
Under this Traditional view, the many Scriptural references to sheol, "the grave," pertain to a middle place which consists of two compartments; Hades for the unsaved and paradise, perhaps even heaven itself, for the saved. Death moves man into an intermediate state of existence apart from his physical body where he waits for the Great White Throne Judgment, at which point the unsaved will then be cast into their final destiny in hell.
Among the justifications used to support this view of an intermediate state is the parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Lk 16:19-31). The rich man, we are told, is residing in the intermediate state, and like him, the wicked of all ages will long for water and relief from their torment. Instead, at the close of earth's history, they will find themselves consigned to a place where their torment is heightened and destined to keep them in conscious agony in a literal fire that burns for all of eternity.
Adherents to the Literal view freely admit that Scripture offers no strong support for this paradigm of an intermediate state, but they argue that the concept can be loosely drawn from Scriptures like Numbers 23:10 Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my end be like his; and Psalm 73:24 You will guide me with your counsel, and afterward receive me to glory, where death seems to hold better in store for the righteous than it does (implied) for the unrighteous.
Judgment of the damned
As to the nature of hell itself, Traditionalists cite Scriptures like Isaiah 33:14-16, a prophesy concerning the destruction of Jerusalem Who among us shall dwell with the devouring fire? Who among us may dwell with everlasting burnings?; and Isaiah 66:24 which refers to the final destruction of the wicked And they shall go forth and look upon the corpses of the men who have transgressed against Me. For their worm does not die, and their fire is not quenched. They shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.
"Everlasting burning," and their "worm" which "does not die" are viewed by the Traditionalist as having reference to both a place of continual torment and a state of being punished which is never ending.
In the first instance their detractors object to the idea that rhetorical questions, whose obvious answer in the Scriptural context is "no one," can be construed to imply that, indeed, there will be those who do dwell consciously forever with devouring fire and everlasting burning. The idea contradicts what the Scripture is actually saying.
In the second, they warn against the Literalist interpretation of language that was intended to be poetic and figurative. Literalists admit that endless conscious punishment is "not expressly stated" but contest that it is implied. And their opponents, sounding more "literal" than a Literalist, point out that a text which reads "and their worm does not die" cannot be interpreted, absent other supporting Scriptures, to mean that they do not die.
New Testament proof texts are on equally shaky ground. The Traditional view holds that Matthew 10:28 offers the Scriptural link to reconcile the concept of eternal conscious punishment with the New Covenant era. Again, And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both body and soul in hell. The "Him" referred to, they argue, is the devil,5 despite the overall context of the passage which warns that it is necessary to fear God above all else; that it is He who holds the power to destroy both body and soul.
While the Literalist interprets passages that warn of the unsaved being thrown into eternal fire as clear evidence of eternal conscious burning, some of their opponents argue that instead, the concept implies complete burning therefore, no further hope of reconciliation with God and redemption into His eternal kingdom.
John Walvoord, of the Dallas Theological Seminary, in his apologetic on the Traditional view, acknowledges that for("ever") (olam and nesah) are words that often imply a limit to time. However, since the limitation is not expressly stated in Old or New Testament Scriptures pertaining to this final judgment, it is his view and the view of those whom he represents that "everlasting" and "forever" refer to time, "unending in its duration."6
And Charles Spurgeon, revered 19th century preacher, warned the damned that they would suffer "in fire exactly like that which we have on earth thy body will lie, asbestos-like, forever unconsumed, all thy veins roads for the feet of Pain to travel on, every nerve a string on which the Devil shall forever play his diabolical tune of hell's unutterable lament."7
Those who entertain the Traditional (Literal) view imagine that the majority of humankind will exist in never-ending anguish, but even among supporters there is seen to be an effort to ameliorate the ghastliness of hell. Theologians like Charles Hodge and B.B. Warfield postulate that the population explosion in hell is held in check by the automatic salvation of all of those who die in infancy.8
And often the view seems to be appropriated almost by osmosis.
A prominent Biblical theologian puts it like this; "Hell is overwhelmingly horrible. It is a place of real physical fire that burns forever and ever."
Voicing a concern that this is an area into which he has not thoroughly researched, and therefore does not address as an authority, he shares feelings of revulsion at even considering the fate of the unsaved. Still, while he finds it uncomfortable to consider the eternal conscious misery of the damned, he speculates that they will have a body in which they can endure flames, and therefore, they are not consumed. With certainty he states, "I do believe in the eternal torment in hell."9
He is representative of many who seem to almost passively accept the Literalist view. After all, hell is a reality which is largely left undescribed in Scripture. When Judgment happens, then perhaps we will all know how best to describe it. Until then, imaginative visions of anguished sinners weeping and gnashing their teeth in torment almost seem to rob many of the motivation to further dissect the various doctrines of hell.
Challenging the Literal view has often resulted in a splitting of Church leadership and angry accusations of heresy on the part of those who hold to this paradigm. Though much of the view is formulated on extra-biblical ideas, to dispute the doctrine of eternal conscious torment in a place of fire and smoke, they argue, is tantamount to challenging the doctrine of "Scriptural innerancy." No wonder then that a simple theological debate can put men at fiery odds with each other.
The notion that there are degrees of wickedness, therefore punishment, is reconciled by the Literalist as length of time (never-ending), not by depth or quality of punishment. And the fact that Scriptures which speak of the punishment of the damned often refer, by example, to actual physical places on earth (e.g., Valley of Hinnom), leads the Traditionalist to conclude that there is a never ending physical location too.
Traditionalist Louis Berkhof, in his classic Systematic Theology, states, "Moreover, in connection with the subject of 'hell' the Bible certainly uses local terms right along."10 The arguments for a location are persuasive.
But if all of the unsaved reap a never-ending fiery punishment, what of the less active wicked? . . . they suffer the same as the more active wicked. To many, there is a sense that this outcome infers that at some level God is unjust. But, since He is just, and there are Scriptures which imply degrees of punishment (Lk 12:47-48; Mk 12:40), they argue that it is the Literalist's conclusions about hell which are in error.
Still, Biblically weak though the Traditional view may be, there often seems, on the surface, little to seriously challenge it. After all, history and art have more successfully captured the public's attention, with vivid images that convey a sense of awful judgment and pain, than have the other views. While the notion of never-ending anguish is mentally objectionable, it makes for great drama (Dante's Inferno); has allowed for broad creativity on the part of early Christian and Medieval artists; provides a potent platform for poets and visionaries; and sends a fearful chill up the spines of both the saved and unrepentant perhaps more so than any other paradigm on the nature of hell.
It is important that we not discard long held interpretations out of hand as newer ideas come to the fore. After all, there are great men and women of thought and faith who have held to age-old views. It is therefore wise to consider well why they believed, what they believed before replacing one paradigm with another.
However, an idea need not be true simply because it is long-held. If such were the case, it would be necessary to throw out valid criticisms of those like the monk Martin Luther, men like John Wesley, John Bunyon, and Frances Schaeffer.
Instead, we see throughout history that some views are more clearly articulated over time. It is therefore fruitful to examine other ideas, especially in an attempt to fine-tune our theology so that it is more closely in line with Scripture. The Church has always done this throughout her existence.
The Metaphorical view
"And, now the sound of grief begins to fill my ear. (Grief not for torment but for Loss undying.) I'm come where cries of anguish smite my shrinking sense. And lamentation shrill . . . God they blaspheme, blaspheme their Parents bed, the Human race, the Place, the Time, the Blood, the Seed that got them, the Womb that bred . . . Grief not for torment but for Loss undying. " The Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri, 1300
Another theory which has made headway throughout the Church-age is what is called the "Metaphorical" view. It can be found formally defined in accepted Church doctrine as early as the 16th century when the Traditional view began to lose some of its historical credibility.
Under the Metaphorical view, there is an intermediate state for all men "in the dust of the earth" called Hades, until eventually all souls are raised on Judgment day (Dan. 12:2; Jn 5:29; Acts 24:15).
Even the damned, on that day, are raised to a level of glory, so says the Metaphorist, because they assume a spirit body (Jn 5:29 is the proof text though it does not specify physical or spiritual). Then, while the godly will be given new physical bodies, the damned will suffer on as souls who endure a never-ending conscious punishment. To this point they mirror the pagan Plato's and the Traditional view holders beliefs, however, from here on out there is a twist.
The Metaphorical view holder sees in Biblical references to fire and burning sulphur (Is. 33:14-15; 63:24) simply metaphors meant to describe something else, and New Testament images are said to be equally symbolic.
For example, burning sulphur was an image that was easily understood by the Jews of Isaiah's era. They were well acquainted with the Hinnom Valley which was the public landfill of their day (2 Kings 23:10; 7:31,32; 19:5-7; 32:35).
Throughout the time the Jews lived in proximity to Hinnom Valley, it was meant only as a repository for debris or the wicked dead whose crimes meant denial of a respectful burial. Sulphur was used to fuel the fires in an effort to keep pace with the continual dumping of garbage and corpses. Later, after the Valley became well-known as a location of child-sacrifice, it conjured up dark foreboding spiritual images. Josiah purposefully defiled the Valley in a move toward repenting of the sins of Manasseh and Amon who had sacrificed their sons and daughters in the fires.
Hinnom was eventually called Ge-Hinnom (Canyon of Hinnom) or Tophet (Spittle!) by the Jews. (The latter name was meant to further convey the despised nature of the place.) And by the New Testament age it was simply referred to as Gehenna and understood to be synonymous with the abode of the damned, hell. The imagery, according to William Crocket, was meant to denote banishment and punishment (as with the criminal denied burial within God's sacred city, Jerusalem).11
Of some concern to critics of the Metaphorical view, in addition to a smattering of Scriptures, this assessment is also founded upon ideas and sources (Apocryphal books and 1st & 2nd century Greek philosophy) that are not acceptable to many in the Church community. This has meant that all too often the Metaphorical argument is hastily discarded before other, more convincing discussion, is considered.
Despite their reliance upon extra-biblical sources, Metaphorists argue persuasively that, if Scriptures which are an indication of heaven's grandeur ("many mansions"; a "wedding banquet"; a city having a "great high wall" and gates formed from "single large pearls") are not to be taken literally, then the fires of hell may also be viewed less than literally. Instead, they argue that Isaiah's references to fire are symbolic and represent God's burning wrath poured out in various ways. Here they offer the idea that hell is meant to convey a sense of God's fearsome fury and punishment while actually withholding the actual specifications for that place.
If taken literally, they warn, the Scriptures surrounding hell create conflicting images. There is fire, but there is also darkness (Mt. 8:12; 22:13; 25:30; 2 Peter 2:17), two mutually exclusive concepts. Jude typifies this conflict when he refers to hell, verse 7, as "eternal fire, but then states in verse 13 that the wicked are those "for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever."
Lest some find in this view reason to believe that hell is merely an inconvenience to its inhabitants, Medieval artists depicting the Metaphorical view painted scenes of women dangling by their breasts from meat hooks. These miscreants had been caught nursing a child in public. Men who had committed sexual sins were likewise painfully suspended by their genitalia. Other sinners were bereft of limbs which ought to have been cut off during a wicked lifetime, or eyes that had been gouged away as punishment for lusting after women.
The torture in this version of hell is not limited to a literal fire, but, at least until the 20th century, was seen as exactly fitting the particular sins committed and torturing the specific member of the body used in the crime.
Metaphorists throughout Church history have rejected the idea that God would actually burn human beings. In their view that would make God no more righteous than Hitler.12 But detractors counter that they offer no new insights into the nature of hell other than the possibility that there might be equally repugnant alternatives to the Traditional idea of hell-fire.
More recently, those holding to the Metaphorical view have softened the image so that theologians (notable ones like C.S. Lewis and Billy Graham) define the nature of hell in less dramatic terms while still assuring believers and unbelievers alike that it will be a grave loss to be consigned to hell instead of entering into heaven.
C.S. Lewis, in his fictional work entitled The Great Divorce, speculates that perhaps hell is merely a gray-drab abode where there is a sense of depression and loss, but no real Lake of Fire. In this fanciful view, there is almost a bitter-sweet feeling that fills the souls of those consigned to that place. Punishment is not actively and directly administered by God, rather it is the sum of the constant knowledge that there is no further hope for redemption. Hell, in this 20th century model, is miserable, but it is certainly not bad in the way that the Traditionalist would paint it. And conversely, it is this portrait of hell that Traditionalists argue has "taken the hell out of hell."
But for most Metaphorical view holders like Crocket, their vision of hell is not a "soft" view and can best be summarized as a place where "the rebellious will be cast from God, without any hope of restoration. Like Adam and Eve, they will be driven away, but this time into 'eternal night,' where joy and hope are forever lost."13
The Purgatorial view
"As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire. He who is truth says that whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in this age nor in the age to come. From this sentence we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come." St. Gregory the Great, Dial. 4,39:PL77,396
Of all of the historical notions of hell, the most extensive view is that paradigm which is unique within the Roman Catholic Church, and which, again apart from its pagan Platonic underpinnings, can be traced back as far as the third century AD. This paradigm initially calls man's attention less toward a final fiery torment, and more toward a place of recompense called Purgatory. It is, according to apologist Zachary Hayes, the serious theological thinker's attempt to reconcile mediocre Christianity and the questions that arise as to their being in the same heavenly state as the Christian zealous for service to God. It is a concern that has been voiced historically throughout much of the Church age.
"Cyprian of Carthage sensed the same dilemma when he was confronted with the problem of basically good people who had failed the test of heroic martyrdom in the time of persecution. Cyprian was clear and unambiguous about the heavenly destiny of heroic martyrs who were victims of the persecution. He was equally clear on the definitive character of hell. His problem had to do with the fate of the well-intended Christians who had weakened under persecution. . . .Were such basically good people to be consigned to hell?"14
The 1994 Catholic Catechism states simply that "All who die in God's grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven."15
The Purgatorial view is based upon philosophical theology; man musing about his relationship with God in light of symbolism from a broad pool of ideas. Purgatorial view holders argue that by synthesizing the evolving "voice of the people," "insights of the Old Testament," Apocryphal books, and literature common to other religious traditions, we can arrive at a rather detailed geography of the "other world" home of the lost.
"In Roman Catholic thought, Christians never deal solely with the texts of Scripture."16 Scripture provides the "irreplaceable" foundation, but with regard to the ongoing growth of the Church and future revelation, Catholics believe that "not everything was said in the Bible and that new and important insights and therefore new formulas may legitimately emerge later in Christian history."17 Church tradition as practiced by early Roman Catholic theologians is of equal importance.
Under this paradigm hell is seen to be a fact for some as it will be their ultimate destiny. For others, hell is a possibility which they are able to avoid. But while hell may only entrap some, Purgatory - peacefully or painfully - entraps almost all, at least for a time.
On the way to heaven
In fact, the Purgatorial view is really not at all a view of hell. It is doctrine of what is considered to be an in-between state located somewhere between heaven and hell. For the Purgatorial view holder its purpose is to provide a place of purification through suffering for those Hayes refers to as "flawed lovers," who have died and are still in need of a greater degree of cleansing. It is a place to learn to love in a way that parallels God's love.
When punishment has been exacted which is commensurate with the crimes committed in the body, and purification is complete, the individual is elevated to heaven.
When this elevation occurs is a point of controversy. Most who hold to this tradition believe that saints are being elevated on a continual basis, that this process is ongoing right up until the day of God's judgment when all will be assigned their eternal home; the righteous to heaven, and the incorrigibly wicked to hell.
Under this view, the truly wicked never escape while others tarnished by sin are thought to eventually have opportunity to ascend to heaven. Repentance is a necessary component. (Baptism too, either before death or after "baptism of desire" is required, even for infants and those otherwise thought to be incompetent. In fact, it is only with the advent of the "pro-life movement" that many Catholics have embraced the idea that, even without baptism, all unborn infants are automatically saved.)
Roman Catholicism has embraced the complex view of an interim state called Purgatory based upon Scriptures like Acts 2:24 and 1 Corinthians 15:21-22, speaking of Christ's resurrection from the dead, and see in them a process of reconciliation. While Christ has been fully reconciled to the Father and has made reconciliation possible for man, that reconciliation is not yet fully worked out. It remains necessary to allow time and place for a purging of sins not repented for or overcome in the individual's lifetime on earth.
This of course raises concerns with those who see in it a challenge to the all-sufficiency of Christ and His sacrifice on the cross. The Purgatorial view, they argue, infers that Christ's atoning work was not enough. E.W. Fudge states that, indeed, "Luther and Calvin both rejected the Roman Catholic doctrine of Purgatory not because they made a thorough study of Scriptural eschatology and found it missing, but because Purgatory clearly contradicted the doctrine of justification which they had discovered in the Bible."18
Purgatorial view holders counter criticism along this line by arguing back that this is part of the "mystery of Christ " revealed in Roman 8:11, 23-24. "The history of salvation," Hayes argues, "is incomplete until the end. Therefore, the situation of all individuals remains incomplete until history has run its course." After all, does not Hebrews 11:39-40 say that only together will the saints be made perfect?
In all of these citations from Holy Scripture, opponents of the Purgatorial view criticize the way Biblical text are explained in expansive ways that allow other concepts, even seemingly unconnected ideas, to be read in to the text. They argue that Scriptures are made to provide an apologetic for "the voice of the people," rather than being used as a foundation for God's people to frame their experiences within.
An aspect of the Purgatorial view which clearly evolved from "the voice of the people" is the idea that the living can somehow impact the final destiny of the dead. A verse out of the book of Maccabeus (not regarded as part of the canon of Scripture in the Protestant tradition) makes mention that "[Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin"(2 Maccabeus 12:46). The verse became significant in forming the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory when, over time, leaders observed that the living naturally prayed for their dead in much the same way that the living were prayed for. In fact, they postulated that Purgatorial suffering emanated from the tarnished dead and expressed itself in the desire to act on their behalf.
By faith, acts of charity, and prayer, the living are said to be able to assist in the fate of those who would otherwise be damned. This is explained by drawing on the concept of community. Since the dead were once part of the human community, it is argued, they retain some intrinsic solidarity with the living. The living, by their various acts of faith, can work to bring about "healing" (reconciliation with God) for the deceased.
All of these complex ideas surrounding an interim state and purification for the not fully sanctified erupt from a very different Roman Catholic theology of grace. Augustine summed up that view stating, "He who created you without your help does not justify you without your help."19 So, like Dante's Divine Comedy, where the soul climbed up the mountain and becomes purified more and more with each step, the deceased must engage in painful purification in Purgatory until their redemption and adoption is complete.
For those who have utterly rejected salvation obtained through Christ, all that is left is to "descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, 'eternal fire.'" But while The Roman Catholic Church accepts the paradigm of fire and eternal conscious torment, "The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God." 20
The Conditional view
"Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life." John 3:15,16
The Conditional view is the final chronicled significant doctrine of hell accepted within the Church, and is unique among all of the historical views in that it begins at an entirely different place than do the others.
To the Conditionalist, other non-Judeo/Christian religious traditions are irrelevant. And even Jewish tradition which is apart from Scripture is not viewed as credible in forming a reliable doctrine of hell. A truly dependable paradigm must be founded on Scripture and nothing else. No mystical visions or early Greek philosophies, they argue, can be viewed as trustworthy unless they first are aligned with Scripture.
The basic belief of the Conditionalist is that hell equals destruction, mind, body, and spirit, of the damned in what is referred to in Scripture as "the Second Death" (Rev. 20:14; 21:8). To arrive at this conclusion, Conditionalist Clark Pinnock reasons against the immortality of the soul.
"If a biblical reader approached the text with the assumption that souls are naturally immortal," he argues, "would they not be compelled to interpret text that speak of the wicked being destroyed to mean that they are tortured forever, since according to that presupposition souls can not go out of existence?
". . . It is this belief in natural immortality rather than biblical texts that drives the traditional view of the nature of hell as everlasting conscious punishment and prevents people reading the Bible literally.
". . . The assumption goes back to Plato's view of the soul as metaphysically indestructible."21
And notions about the soul's immortality, though often unspoken and ill-defined, even embody the idea that souls are existent prior to conception and only awaiting God's placement of them into host/mothers.
This unscriptural belief in immortality is most obvious among those who argue for abortion. Often supporters of abortion interject the idea that the soul is a separated part joined to the infants body at some undetermined point in gestation or after birth. Until that joining occurs, they claim, we are not really talking about a complete human person. Assumed here is the idea that while God may be operative in creating the body shell, He does not fashion the soul. It already exists. And if the soul cannot find habitation in one body, it is merely a matter of waiting until another body and another host are available.
If the soul is pre-existent before birth, then it is perceived to carry it's immortal nature beyond death, and in the case of the wicked, into a place of conscious eternal torment. The righteous on the other hand are carried into glory.
When Christians except this idea, it raises serious concern over the fate of the millions upon millions of innocent children miscarried, killed before birth, or deceased in early childhood. If the soul is immortal, it leaves room only for the child to suffer eternally in hell an unthinkable conclusion to most or it must allow for their salvation despite the normal process of faith and obedience. Salvation by faith is then over-ruled by a de facto salvation by youth ideology.
Instead of relying upon ancient philosophical ideas, Pinnock and others point out that Scripture clearly defines that there is only One (referring to God the Father) who is immortal (1 Tim. 6:16), and that He has given immortality to His Son by raising Him from the grave (Ps. 16:10-11; Heb. 5:7). Beyond that, immortality is based upon meeting biblical conditions. Only those who are of the family of faith will eventually gain eternal life (1 Jn 5:11-12; Jn 3:14-16; 6:40; Rom. 2:7).
Some opponents of the Conditional view argue the very definition of "life."
"[N]ow this is eternal life; that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent"(John 17:3), the critic of the Conditional paradigm will argue, speaks of a quality of true life in the presence and knowledge of God, in opposition to a tormented existence apart from Him.
However, without narrowing the view of "life" in a way that the whole of Scripture does not, with the premise then that eternal life is a gift to those who are saved, and that those who are damned are not given eternal life, Conditionalists like Pinnock then ask, "Does hellfire torment or consume?"
E.G. Selwyn in his book, The First Epistle of St. Peter, writes, "There is little in the NT to suggest a state of everlasting [conscious] punishment, but much to indicate an ultimate destruction or dissolution of those who cannot enter into life: conditional immortality seems to be the doctrine most consonant with the teaching of Scripture."22
language of destruction
Old Testament and New, the language of hell involves images of utter destruction, death, perishing, and loss (Gal. 6:8; Ps. 37:2; Heb. 10:39; Rev. 20:14-15). And specific references to fire are addressed by the Conditionalist, not as actual eternal conscious burning, but, as an indication of the nature of the judgment to come based upon the nature of fire.
Fire consumes to oblivion. And just as the fires in the Valley of Hinnom were kept burning in order to assure the complete destruction of debris and corpses, so the fires of judgment, spoken of in Matthew 3: 7-12 and Luke 3:17, will not be quenched before the complete destruction of the wicked. It cannot be avoided or escaped, and there will be no further hope of rescue. No fragment of the damned will survive unto everlasting life.
Conditionalists warn that Scriptures like Mark 9:48 "their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched must be read in light of the Old Testament context from which they were taken, in this case Isaiah 66:24 where the context implies that the fire is not quenched until it has thoroughly consumed those thrown into it. The sinner is unable to impact his eternal destiny.
Beyond seeing in these Scriptures the nature of the punishment to be visited upon the ungodly, painful consuming destruction and death, the Conditionalist view does not speak to the actual physical outworking of the process or to the length of time in which it will be accomplished.
At this point the debate turns to other biblical concepts like "eternal punishment" or "judgment" (Mt 25:46; Heb. 6:2). While opponents of the Conditional view argue that these references are proof that there is a never-ending conscious torment for the wicked, Conditionalists state that instead of referring to time without end, the "eternal punishment" refers to an irrevocable decision on God's part to punish and destroy the wicked. For these there is no future option for redemption as there had been during their earthly existence. And, as indicated earlier, the original Hebrew words for for("ever"), olam and nesah, do often imply a limit to time. The problem of degree of punishment then does not depend on time, but upon God's ability to convey an intensity of punishment commensurate to the wickedness of the lost.
In addition to arguing for a Conditional view through discussions of mortality and immortality, or punishment that is qualitative and complete rather than merely quantitative by virtue of its never ending process, Pinnock and others see in the Traditional view certain moral problems. They suggest that, to imply that God would inflict cruel torture upon the wicked forever and ever is tantamount to challenging God's just and moral character. Scripture supports the idea that in God's economy, the punishment must always fit the crime; not too little, but also not too much. In their view, a loving God would not require torture over time without end.23
Their opponents argue that, indeed, He would, and that the believer must simply trust that in eternity we will all understand how eternal conscious punishment is exactly "just" for those who do not merit eternal life.
Finally, the Conditionalist sees in a paradigm of eternal conscious suffering a conflict with other Scriptures which deal with the age to come. The book of Revelation speaks both to the present epoch of history and to that time in eternity when God will be "all in all." The tenor of the book is that there is a great struggle between God and evil. Evil is allowed to run its course and ensnare the faithless while God is always ultimately in control of events and history. Eventually God triumphs with all of creation once again in harmony with Him.
How, the Conditionalist asks, if in a corner of creation the evil continue to exist, will God be "all in all" in this dualistic reality? How will He effectively "wipe away every tear" if the saints in heaven must continually consider the reality that some of those whom they loved on earth are in never-ending pain? To the Conditionalist these problems arise, not because Scripture says it must be so, but as logical extensions to other paradigms which are less reliant upon God's Word "alone" and more infused with extra-biblical ideology.
For the Conditionalist, the wicked will one day be declared "guilty" and they will perish in the Lake of Fire in a second death. After punishment and assignment to this lake of fire, they are consumed and are no more; they are destroyed by a fire which cannot be tempered. They cease to exist. They do not writhe in conscious never-ending agony.
Discussions on the nature of hell, no matter which paradigm you hold to, are important and legitimate. But it seems that, in truth, the exact nature of hell will never be agreed upon by all people of faith, at least, not until we see its actual outworking. However, splintered though the debate may be, the reality of a fiery and painful judgment is something that we would do well to warn others of.
1 Willamette Week, Vol. 21, No. 15, Feb. '95, Pg. 17
2 Robert J. Lifton, The Nazi Doctors-medical killing and the psychology of genocide, Pg. 381, Harper/Collins, 1986
3 Edward W. Fudge, The Fire that Consumes, Paternoster Press, UK, 1994
4 Ibid., forward, Pg. x
5 John F. Walvoord, Four Views on Hell, Pg. 20 "Luke 12:5 contains a similar thought to that expressed in Matthew 10:28, that one should fear the devil far more than those who might kill them physically." Zondervan, 1992
6 Ibid., Pg. 23-24
7 Fred C. Kuehner, Heaven or Hell?, in Fundamentals of the Faith, ed. C. F. H. Henry, Baker Publ., Grand Rapids, MI, 1975
8 Clark Pinnock, Four Views on Hell, Pg. 150
9 J. Carl Laney, personal interview, April, 1995
10 Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, Pg. 735
11 William Crocket, Four Views on Hell, Pg. 58
12 Nels Ferre', The Christian Understanding of God, Harper, 1951, cited by W. Crocket, Pg. 50, Four Views on Hell, "If this were true, says theologian Nels Ferre', it would make Hitler 'a third degree saint, and the concentration camps . . .picnic grounds.'"
13 William Crockett, Four Views on Hell, Pg. 61
14 Zachary Hayes, Four Views on Hell
15 Catechism of the Catholic Church, Pg. 264, Ligouri Press, 1994
16 Z. Hayes, Four Views on Hell, Pg. 102
17 Ibid., Pg. 103
18 E.W. Fudge, The Fire that Consumes, Pg. 30
19 Augustine, Sermon 169, 11.13, cited by Hayes, Pg. 115
20 Catechism off the Catholic Church, Pg. 270
21 Clark Pinnock, Four Views on Hell, Pg. 147
22 Edward G. Selwyn, The First Epistle of Peter, Pg. 358, MaCmillan, 1961, cited by Pinnock, Pg. 143
23 Rod Behrens, a conditionalist pastor teaching on the nature of hell, January 1995