Should we believe in hell?

Last week the Pope garnered some unwanted press coverage (unwanted especially during Holy Week) when it was claimed that he had denied the existence of hell as a place of conscious punishment for the wicked. The words were reported in an Italian daily publication La Repubblica by its founder, Eugenio Scalfari, a 93-year-old atheist who is apparently friends with Pope Francis. The discussion is quoted as follows:

Scalfari: Your Holiness, in our previous meeting you told me that our species will at some point disappear and God will always create other species from his creative seed. You have never spoken to me of souls who have died in sin and go to hell to suffer for it forever. Instead, you have spoken to me of good souls who are admitted to the contemplation of God. But the bad souls? Where are they punished?

Pope Francis: They are not punished, those who repent obtain God’s forgiveness and join the ranks of souls who contemplate him, but those who do not repent and cannot therefore be forgiven disappear. Hell does not exist; the disappearance of sinful souls exists.

(I must confess to finding some of the Pope’s comments about creation rather odd, but that’s for another day.) The Vatican immediately issued a denial that these were the exact words of Pope Francis:

“What is reported by the author in today’s article is the result of his reconstruction, in which the literal words pronounced by the Pope are not quoted,” the Vatican said. “No quotation of the aforementioned article must therefore be considered as a faithful transcription of the words of the Holy Father.”

Previous popes have said a range of things about the nature of hell.  In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI said hell “really exists and it eternal, even if nobody talks about it much anymore.” In 1999 Pope John Paul II declared that Heaven was “neither an abstraction nor a physical place in the clouds, but that fullness of communion with God which is the goal of human life.” Hell, by contrast, was “the ultimate consequence of sin itself … Rather than a place, hell indicates the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God, the source of all life and joy.”

The particular reason for bru-ha-ha amongst Catholics is the tension between the Pope’s comments and the 1922 Catechism of the Church, which has been taken as an authoritative statement of the Church’s teaching, and on Hell includes these comments:

1033 We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him. But we cannot love God if we sin gravely against him, against our neighbor or against ourselves: “He who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” Our Lord warns us that we shall be separated from him if we fail to meet the serious needs of the poor and the little ones who are his brethren. To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called “hell.”

1034 Jesus often speaks of “Gehenna” of “the unquenchable fire” reserved for those who to the end of their lives refuse to believe and be converted, where both soul and body can be lost. Jesus solemnly proclaims that he “will send his angels, and they will gather . . . all evil doers, and throw them into the furnace of fire,”and that he will pronounce the condemnation: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire!”

1035 The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, “eternal fire.” The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.

There are three things worth noting here. First is the dependence of this teaching on the notions of ‘mortal sin‘ (as distinct from ‘venial sin’) and the idea of the (immortal) ‘soul’ of a person, neither of which properly reflect New Testament language. In contrast, the second thing worth noting is the place given to Jesus’ teaching in the gospels of the seriousness of the consequences of decisions we make on whether we respond to his teaching, something that not a few Anglicans find it convenient to ignore. But the third thing to note is the tension or ambivalence in the catechism itself, whereby hell is chiefly the experience of ‘eternal separation from God’—as much in line with the comments of John Paul II as anything.

Both the tension and the conflation of different ideas need to be explored. It is not often noticed the extent to which popular ideas conjured up by the word ‘hell’ depend on mediaeval images of eternal conscious torment of the wicked, which are in turn dependent on the thinking of St Augustine.

Augustine insisted that hell is a literal lake of fire in which the damned will experience the horror of everlasting torment; they will experience, that is, the unbearable physical pain of literally being burned forever. The primary purpose of such unending torment, according to Augustine, is not correction, or deterrence, or even the protection of the innocent; nor did he make any claim for it except that it is fully deserved and therefore just. As for how such torment could be even physically possible, Augustine insisted further that “by a miracle of their most omnipotent Creator, they [living creatures who are damned] can burn without being consumed, and suffer without dying” (City of God, Bk. 21, Ch. 9). Such is the metaphysics of hell, as Augustine understood it.

Augustine brings to this theological interpretation of judgement in the NT not only his own personal experience, but important cultural assumptions including a Greek sense of dualism and rationalism, and the combination of ideas outside Christian belief with NT imagery, and the inability to distinguish between literal and metaphorical language—rather important when dealing with the apocalyptic imagery associated with judgment in Jesus’ teaching and elsewhere in the New Testament.

Come to the book launch for my new commentary on the Book of Revelation on Thursday April 19th.

So we might wish to dispense with the Augustinian ‘bathwater’ of eternal torment—but it is not so easy to throw out the ‘baby’ of the NT language of judgement, responsibility and consequences—a theme we find interwoven with NT teaching at every point. Jesus’ predecessor, John the Baptist, castigated his listeners: ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?’ (Matt 3.7). Jesus’ follower Peter, in his Pentecost speech ‘with many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation”’ (Acts 2.40). Central to Jesus’ own teaching was the call to ‘repent and believe, for the kingdom of God is at hand’ (Mark 1.15 and elsewhere). And Jesus makes repeated use language of ‘the darkness outside, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth’ (Matt 8.12, 13.42, 13.50, 22.13, 24.51, 25.30, Luke 13.28). We only need to look at the best-known verse in the New Testament about the love of God:

God loved the world in this way, that he sent his only Son, so that those who believe in him might not perish but have eternal life. (John 3.16)

John (or Jesus in John’s gospel) isn’t here suggesting that Jesus makes life just a little bit better; he is asserting that, without belief, there is no life, only death and judgement—and ‘belief’ here is something radical and whole-hearted, something that draws a sharp line between those who believe and those who do not.

Despite the seriousness of this language, there are two things that the NT never does. First, it never gloats over the suffering or punishment of the lost. Secondly it never offers the kind of systematic account of ‘hell’ that Augustine and others seek—not actually using the word, which itself derives from a different mythological background. If we were to look anywhere for either of these things, we would surely find it in the Book of Revelation. But Revelation includes four underworld domains, and refuses to reconcile them into a neat order:

  1. The domain ‘under the earth’ (5:3, 13) appears to be home to natural creatures, and its inhabitants acknowledge and worship God.
  2. ‘Hades’ (1:18; 6:8; 20:13, 14) is thought of as the realm of the dead in Greco-Roman mythology, and appears to correspond to the Old Testament realm of Sheol. Revelation does not describe it in the same terms, but it is viewed as a temporary abode of the dead until the final judgement.
  3. The ‘lake of fire’ (20:14, 15) is the place of final judgement and destruction, and corresponds in this regard to the realm of ‘Gehenna’ in the gospels (e.g. Matt. 10:28; Mark 9:43; the only reference elsewhere is in Jas. 3:6).
  4. In the Old Testament, the ‘abyss’ (Hebrew tehom; Greek abyssos, meaning ‘bottomless’) refers to the chaotic primeval waters from which God formed the seas (Gen. 1:2; Ps. 77:16) and so signifies the threat of chaos that threatens to overwhelm people as well as the source of rebellion against God. In Revelation, the abyss is the source of evil.

These four regions are conflated in different ways in other parts of the Bible and in Jewish apocalyptic, but in Revelation they are kept distinct. And while the devil, the beast and the false prophet (non-human figures in Revelation) are ‘tormented day and night’ in Rev 20.10, the emphasis of the lake of fire for others is not on torment but on destruction—as it is in Jesus’ teaching about ‘Gehenna’, the Hebrew term for the Valley of Hinnom where rubbish was dumped in Jerusalem and which therefore smouldered with fire the whole time.

Difficult though these ideas are, there are important pastoral issues around the idea of judgement. Adrian Hilton helpfully explores why this matters in our quest for justice: if we campaign for justice in the world, and seek to stand up for the abused and the oppressed, what do we hope will happen to the abusers and the oppressors?

The fact that Jesus employs apocalyptic language does not in any way negate the reality of the experience He is talking about. Metaphors, after all, can have teeth, and the complex metaphors available to first-century Jews had particularly sharp ones. Jesus evokes feelings of pain, regret, shame and frustration (Mt 8:12, 13:42), all of which constitute part of a permanent impossibility of access to God…

It may no longer be possible to believe in Dante’s inferno, or the literal approach to the eternal ‘gnashing teeth’ Hell of Gehenna. But God’s final judgment demands an option for those who have chosen a permanent non-relationship with him, and if Hell may be defined as such – as either a place or a state – then belief in it is both theologically unavoidable and a scriptural necessity.

The experience of people such as myself , people who have battled and (mostly) conquered some pretty serious and rooted personality flaws over many decades, is that hell does indeed exist. I’ll leave questions around the afterlife to the theologians. For quotidian toilers such as me, it definitely exists in the here and now. And one message of Easter, the redemption of the Resurrection, is that it can be conquered, defeated, overcome – in the here and now.

I want and try to be a good person and believe that is the case for most people. Also I am deeply repentant for harm I’ve done to others. Why I love Easter beyond Christmas, and continue to believe and pray it year on year, is because it offers repeated second chances. It offers mercy. Yes, hell does exist. But the Resurrection shows me I no longer have to live in it.

The reason for celebrating the resurrection in this Easter season is not simply that we are offered an escape route from Dante’s inferno and Augustine’s torment, but that Jesus’ death and resurrection together proclaim ‘death of death, and hell’s destruction’ and both now and in the age to come will ‘land us safe on Jordan’s side.’

Come to the book launch for my new commentary on the Book of Revelation on Thursday April 19th.

Follow me on Twitter @psephizoLike my page on Facebook.

Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, would you consider donating £1.20 a month to support the production of this blog?

Signup to get email updates of new posts
We promise not to spam you. Unsubscribe at any time.
Invalid email address

If you enjoyed this, do share it on social media (Facebook or Twitter) using the buttons on the left. Follow me on Twitter @psephizo. Like my page on Facebook.

Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, you can make a single or repeat donation through PayPal:

For other ways to support this ministry, visit my Support page.

Comments policy: Do engage with the subject. Please don't turn this into a private discussion board. Do challenge others in the debate; please don't attack them personally. I no longer allow anonymous comments; if there are very good reasons, you may publish under a pseudonym; otherwise please include your full name, both first and surnames.

80 thoughts on “Should we believe in hell?”

  1. The thing I just don’t get about it, is that faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit. There are lots of people who ‘can’t’ believe, so they haven’t been given that gift. How do judgement and the inability to believe (not a deliberate decision not to) marry up in NT teaching? The categories are too narrow – ‘either’ ‘or’.

    • Thanks Gill. You appear to be taking a pretty Calvinist view here of double predestination—though the ‘double’ bit would for you be an empty set.

      If so, how do you account for the sense of human responsibility that we find in the teaching of the NT?

  2. Indeed – and all through the Bible, from Adam and Eve onwards.
    I think a lot of Christians worry about whether they are going to be judged and banished from God’s presence for ever (I’m not one of them – I think Christ came to save us from exactly that fear, among many other things).

  3. Surely, the most disturbing ethical issue is that God might require such suffering in Hell to be continuous in endless time. The wailing and gnashing of teeth must imply the profoundest regret, but does that imply endless suffering? Christ’s use of the word ‘destruction’ suggests not. We must take seriously the scientific understanding that time, space and matter all came into existence some 13.8 billion years ago. God’s eternity is outside and transcends our experience of time and space. So Hell is not a space/time place and eternity is quite outside our experience and therefore our comprehension.

  4. I am a member of quite of a few Catholic Facebook groups, and the response to these papal comments from those groups is reassuring and consistent, at least from my perspective, it being comprised of;

    1. A general regret that any formal teaching on the subject is rare, or (as a cynic would say) ‘avoided’, despite it having a clear articulation in creed and catechism. Sound familiar? *cough*

    2. A desire for greater emphasis on judgement and the articulation of said doctrine in the public sphere, primarily as a counter to the notion that the church is a soft touch and actively permits or tolerates the degeneracy (perceived degeneracy of course) of the culture it is in.

    Summary; a little bit of ‘fire and brimstone’ from the pope would be a welcome change from what many perceive to be a pope of little backbone, an appeaser of postmodernism rather than it’s enemy.

    • Reading back, perhaps the term ‘postmodernism’ would be better replaced by ‘individualistic’?

      The ideas are connected of course, one derives from the other, but what I meant to convey was how language of judgement, and of how there is future/eternal significance to our actions, both positive and negative, is the natural opposition to the ever-increasing and damaging language of ‘self-determination’ where all actions are relative only to your own standards and have no effect beyond the immediate.

      • Mat, I wonder how you would relate your, to me, dubious points about “postmodernism” or “individualistic” approaches – to the bible? I wonder this because we have been working for over 200 hundred years of modern scholarship with the notion that, for example, the Torah is made up of several “individual” sources which someone else, in ways that might be described as “postmodern” used as the basis for the bricolage we now call the Pentateuch. Neither does such a phenomenon stop there of course. Chronicles rewrites much of the so-called Deuteronomistic History and then stands alongside it. In the New Testament gospel criticism has established that a complex web of inter-relations exists between sources either relatively speculative or relatively demonstrated. And, of course, there are four gospels which, according to John Dominic Crossan at least, is “three too many”. In short, I put it to you that having your own point of view or differing from another that’s been given is neither especially “postmodern” (and I’m not convinced you’re familiar enough with this term to be skilled in its uses and connotations if I’m honest) nor that this is a demonstration that being “individualistic” is a bad thing. Matthew used Mark as a source. He had no qualms about being “individualistic” when it came to writing his own story, often changing what Mark put. In the end I think what you are saying is more simply put: you think one thing and you’d rather that was promoted over things you don’t think.

        In this it is notable that the bible is not univocal on the subject of “judgment” more generally. In some places God is a God of love who will save all nations and all peoples. He is a covenant God and he is jealous in his love for the things he has made. In others, justice is emphasized and punishment becomes necessary. I say the bible does not have one voice here and is made up of several strands of ideas. If this be a “postmodern” view then so be it. But it is beholden on biblical interpreters to explain the whole, in my view, over picking out the bits they like and explaining or de-emphasizing the rest away. In that I’m grateful for all those “individualistic” biblical interpreters who don’t fall into line either with church doctrine or canonised readings of texts. Wasn’t Jesus one such?

          • However, due to your mentioning his name I did a You Tube search and watched one of his lectures in which he basically repeated my own words back to me. So now I understand why you asked!

        • Thanks for the insightful question and for genuinely making me think. I will give you two, probably insufficient, answers…

          First, I had thought it was clear I wasn’t using ‘postmodern’ in a technical sense as it relates to biblical studies and/or an academic method in general (which is what you seem to be admonishing me for?), but in the sense of ‘postmodernism’ as a ‘cultural movement’. I think this a fairly well-accepted use of the term? I openly confess however to not being an expert on such things, and to not handling the terms as well as I might like, but I think it is disingenuous to interpret that I was A) flatly denying any benefit to an individualistic reading of biblical texts, or to the holding of opinions different to my own and/or B) that the bible is univocal on this issue.

          For what it is worth I disagree with Crossan, but I eagerly read his work. His is an opinion I do not share, I think he is badly mistaken, but there is immense value in his work and I would not wish to be deprived of it.

          Second, more as a point of clarification than a direct answer, I am arguing that the balance has shifted too far, not that it has shifted at all..

          I am, like you, pleased that biblical studies and theology has moved away from the dogmatism that so stifled free thought and ideas a century and more ago, but I am not convinced that we’ve found the balance.

        • On the specific question re my use of ‘individualistic’, I probably should have used the term ‘self-centered’ instead, as this would have more accurately described what I meant.

          I don’t know though, perhaps some would argue I’m being too conciliatory?

          I’m happy to accept that my use of these terms is unhelpfully broad, but I’m not convinced that you are right either in defining and using these terms solely in terms of methodology.

  5. A caricature of the normal liberal position on a given Christian doctrine:
    X is not literally true…
    …but by complete coincidence it happens to be ”metaphorically true”
    (whatever that means AND whoever is the judge of it)
    …and the same, by much-multiplied coincidence, also applies to all its fellow doctrines –
    plus, we somehow know *that* X is true despite not knowing any of the mechanics that might justify calling it true;
    and by further complete coincidence the metaphorical truth in question corresponds perfectly with a sacred cow of the small age and country and culture in which I now live…
    …and I can’t name a single doctrine or attribute of God which I would rather was not the way it was – because ‘my’ ‘doctrine’ and ‘God’ are bespoke according to my own specification…
    which also makes me think, very conveniently, that heaven exists and hell does not…
    and the fact that ‘we create our own hell’ / ‘hell is other people’ (what a nasty saying!!) [delete as appropriate] etc. is a mutually exclusive either/or with eternal hell.

    Enough said: you can understand why I do not think that thinking people can be typical liberals.

    However –

    When it comes to hell, the infinite awfulness of one’s one and only life ending unresolved and not at peace with God, and the waves of that continuing to spread unstoppably and irrevocably through the universe for eternity – make me think that heaven and hell are something of a given (and also that preachers should certainly, as in every age, preach about coming to Christ not least for fear of hell, and that people should come to Christ partly for that reason. Fear of hell is just one key dimension of the correct perspective on life.). In this case (for once) the ‘literal’/physical specifics scarcely matter; not that the eternal reality which does matter can possibly be termed ‘metaphorical’. Nor do I consider it possible to be a physical-spiritual dualist.

    The Pope could not be more wrong (as quoted) – but it is highly likely that:
    the journalist deliberately dangled the bait,
    he took the bait,
    the journalist works for a company where it is mandatory to produce a bash-the-Christians quote just on time for each Easter,
    he is no better than the rest of us at thinking off the cuff,
    his approachability will lead to situations like this,
    he conceivably has not fully thought through the implications of (nor been sufficiently critical of the fact of) our present age illogically always wanting something new and different (when people have by no means mastered the thought-through conclusions of previous ages and are increasingly unaware both of them and of the reasoning behind them) – new, quite obviously, does not equal true, just as old does not equal true.

  6. for ‘journalist’ read ‘atheist’;
    for ‘journalist works for a company where it is mandatory’ read ‘atheist (if he is like a lot of other proselytising atheists) considers it mandatory’.

  7. I loved Ruth Gledhill’s piece. It has the advantages of being easy to understand, easy for the unbeliever in the street to relate to, and unlikely to cause offence.

    A feeling that “leaving questions around the afterlife to theologians” is something of a cop-out – part of the essence of an all-member-Christianity approach is that very few important questions can be left to theologians. But still 8 out of 10.

  8. As always, an excellent article, but I would argue not three, but four things worth noting 🙂
    As evangelicals, I think we often misrepresent the meaning of metanoia, limiting it to a ‘prayer’ or ‘commitment’ or ‘Admit, Believe, Confess etc.’
    The Catholic quotation of ‘“He who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.”’ is at least trying to do some justice to the radical shift in mind, heart and world view called for by Jesus when He said ‘Repent, for the Kingdom… is at hand…

  9. Hello Ian and all,

    thanks for this piece Ian – I think you make some careful distinctions that need making and that the way you weave in elements of the Gospels and Revelation is valuable and clear.

    I suspect Christopher Shell (above) is at least partly right about some of the reasons for the appearance of this story, and its timing – although I guess the reason for the latter is obvious.

    I’d like to make a handful of comments though…:
    – on wrath: James Alison notes John the Baptist’s words in Matthew 11:3 (& parallels) and suggests his question could be prompted by Jesus’ coming not appearing to be wrathful, as might have been expected (have forgotten the reference for that – apologies). Also, Alison argues that, “it is worth remembering that Paul understands that to talk of the wrath of God in an active sense is merely a human way of speaking (cf. Romans 3:5), whose real content is purely human. On all the other occasions that the term ‘wrath’ appears in his writings, it appears as the impersonal term ‘the wrath’ and not the wrath of God”. He goes on to argue that “it is God’s handing over of Jesus to us which defines what ‘the wrath’ is: the wrath is the type of world in which Jesus was borne to death by sinful humans who could not receive the truth” (Alison, ‘Living in the end times’ [later reissued here under original title, ‘Raising Abel’], London: SPCK 1997, pp46-47). These are a couple of threads from a larger tapestry, and I hope I’m not giving a wrong impression of JA’s argument in pointing to them…

    – it seems to me that when hell is talked about, it’s indispensable to note that hell is a possibility *for me/us*; ie it is never to be ‘brandished’ as a threat or warning solely aimed at others, but to be spoken of with as much self-aware / self-critical edge as can be managed. James Alison makes this point on p176 of the above text, but if memory serves CS Lewis also makes a notably sharp similar comment in ‘Mere Christianity’ (apologies for lack of ref… can’t find my copy of it just now).

    – “We cannot know if anyone is ever in such a condition, but we have to know the proper fear that the choices we make are capable of destroying us. Christian theology has commonly taught that hell is our decision, not God’s… We have made ourselves deaf to God’s words; and the most truthful image we can have of hell is of God eternally knocking on a closed door that we are struggling to hold shut” (Rowan Williams, ‘Tokens of Trust’, Canterbury Press 2007, p151).

    – I’d thought of sketching what James Alison says on pp174-7 of the book quoted above, but I suspect this comment is already (a) too long and (b) too full of others’ words already. One thing I have wondered is whether hell is so to speak a challenge to God’s omnipotence. Put another way: how can God be omnipotent if even one (or more!) of us can reject God? If God is creator, without whom nothing was made that was made and therefore without whom nothing can exist, and if God wills that no-one should perish… how can I/we ‘defeat’ God? (these aren’t meant as rhetorical questions). Without doubt this needs more thought…

    in friendship, Blair

    • Well, I believe in hell – wish I didn’t, but I do, because Jesus did (Matt10:28) and I trust him over the sensibilities and philosophies of others. Whatever/wherever/however it is, I believe it must be worse than described in the gospels and Revelation because language cannot bear a greater weight than the reality it describes.

      A belief in hell magnifies for me the holiness of God, the justice of God, and pre-eminently the love of God displayed in the death of Jesus to save us from hell and for life with him in the new heaven on earth. And, it is this love of God that, as St Paul said, ‘compels me’ in gospel ministry, paired with what Paul also said, ‘knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade people…”

      • Simon, for you a belief in hell magnifies for you “the love of God displayed in the death of Jesus”?

        It seems to me you are saying that causing the eternal suffering of many, which God could choose not to do if he is all-powerful, is somehow shown in bold relief by this same God causing the purposeful suffering of his own son.

        Now I can understand why, in the martyrdom context in which much of the New Testament was created, much of it is very concerned with making suffering purposeful, and that in a Jesus who suffered there is a meaning for Christians who suffered a similar fate. But I cannot for the life of me understand why the pain of imagined millions is embraced so easily and freely by modern Christians today. Frankly, it seems perverse and moral people have a duty to reject and resist it and its accompanying narrative.

        • Hi Andrew – well, I stand by it. You rather caricature me – and indeed the majority of Christians for the majority of the history of the Church.

          As one who believes God has revealed his word in Scripture, whether written in part in the context of martyrdom, I believe it is perverse and immoral to reject and resist such on the basis of one’s own canons of morality and perversity.

          Yes, love, because God’s inviolable holiness and justice lead to the punishment of sin. And hell is the outworking of that. However, God’s mercy triumphs over justice, his love over his wrath and in the mystery of the cross and resurrection God invites us to spend forever in heaven. The choice is ours.

          • Simon, I find it entirely inappropriate to invoke the language of “choice” when the situation as laid out in your apparent theology (which certainly IS a choice) is love God or suffer the consequences.

            There is no such thing as a choice with a gun to your head.

          • Andrew

            You seem to be very angry Andrew – why? with me? with Scripture? with God?

            An open door and free offer to paradise is no gun to the head

  10. Omnipotence…. I just wonder if the usual (only current?) meaning of this is compatible with the notion of freewill. Or is it that God in his omnipotence maintains the reality and choices of our freewill?
    I baulk at Peter May’s “God might require such suffering in Hell “. Are there consequences that even God cannot undo because they are part of the fabric of the truth that God is and acts within? Thus Suffering isn’t ‘required by God’ it is a consequence of truth.

    Maybe attempting the closer definition of ‘hell’ isn’t going to work and we should just take at face value its unpleasantness, ignore the medieval nonsense but heed the clear warnings?

    • Thanks Ian H. Perhaps I should have added above that, influenced by Herbert McCabe OP among others, I’m taking it that free will does not make us independent of God (see e.g. ‘God Matters’, 1987). If God is creator ex nihilo, God is not in rivalry with anything that he creates, so it is God who creates and sustains our free will. Interested by your question, “Or is it that God in his omnipotence maintains the reality and choices of our freewill?” – and rather rustily struggling to think thru’ what it might mean.
      Am with you in baulking at Peter May’s words, though wonder if you’re on to something in saying “Thus Suffering isn’t ‘required by God’ it is a consequence of truth”… but still wondering how that would ‘cash out’.
      “Maybe attempting the closer definition of ‘hell’ isn’t going to work and we should just take at face value its unpleasantness, ignore the medieval nonsense but heed the clear warnings?” …definitely one practical way forward… 🙂

      in friendship, Blair

      • Thanks Blair…. It’s rather stretching my simple mind as well! So I’m grateful to you and the ‘others’.

        I wonder…(it’s easy to do that if rather harder to ‘cash out’) whether there’s room to say that some things are impossible for God to change? It would seem odd to think that God might not have room for manoeuvre concerning ‘hell’ but is it beyond the pale to think that God might not be able to get around the truth with which he is ‘hard wired’? If truth falls then both God and the created order fall to dust and ashes. He can act within truth but cannot put it aside.

        I might be talking nonsense on the back of a 3-0 win for LFC tonight…

        • Hi again Ian H,

          I definitely don’t think you’re “talking nonsense”. I find it mind-stretching (as well as faith-stretching in some ways) and that, as well as my own laziness, is why I reach for those I find to be luminaries, such as Rowan Williams and James Alison.

          Re whether “some things are impossible for God to change”: I don’t know (clearly), but wonder if it could be said that God cannot change (what for us is) the past, and if that resonates at all with what you’re saying? But then another thing I wonder is where forgiveness might be thought to come into this. Not that forgiveness cancels or changes the past, but could it be said to redeem it (Jesus is raised, but still bearing his wounds…)? Jesus when asked spoke of forgiving “seventy times seven”, and it seems a little unlikely that he is asking us to be more forgiving than God… 😉 I wonder if that is one source of Rowan Williams’s image of God “eternally knocking” on a door we’re struggling to hold shut? Or put another way: could it be said that it is possible to (try to) keep refusing forgiveness, but God will not stop offering it?

          I don’t think it can be over-emphasised that this needs to be thought and spoken about very carefully… hoping that doesn’t just sound self-important, but this is such a potential source of scandal and stumbling that it seems to me we need to take great care.

          I wonder also if another impetus behind this discussion, is a question about the character of God (there certainly has been for me). Like Jamie Wood, above, I found Ruth Gledhill’s words resonated with me but feel that to leave things where she does (at least in the words quoted) somewhat bypasses the question about God’s character. Let us not forget 1 John 1:5…

          Lastly for now, I find compelling this discussion by Ben Myers (ditto the Tom Waits song he reflects on):

          in friendship, Blair

  11. Thanks for this Ian – I agree!

    It is important for me that scripture does not speak of eternal torment for the lost (only for the beast etc as you say). It refers to everlasting punishment, but eternal annihilation is an everlasting punishment. The images in the Gospels and Revelation, especially fire, are those of destruction, and the smoke ‘going up forever and ever’ suggests complete destruction rather than ongoing suffering (as with Babylon being ‘found no more’).

    In order to incorporate the images of unpleasantness/pain into an annihilation picture, and in line with the primary image of fire, I consider that there is likely to be a temporary period of suffering (i.e. ‘burning’) prior to the annihilation, following the general resurrection and judgement. This is not purgatorial but punitive, is part of hell, and ends with the annihilation of the lost as their everlasting punishment and separation from God. There is mercy in this, as God could have required eternal torment as the penalty for sin (as he does for the beast), but that would not express his mercy or kindness, even to the finally lost.

    • Will…”suggests complete destruction rather than ongoing suffering”.

      That’s been about my line though I wonder if I’m right. It suggests ‘salvation’ is mostly about ‘being saved for good things in Jesus’ and ‘saved from death’ rather less ‘a benefit’ since to ‘cease existing’ after a transient discomfort won’t worry everybody.

    • Hi Will
      I have wanted to believe as you, but I find it difficult in the face of Jesus own words:
      -Jesus said “their worm shall never die”
      – Jesus said “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” where eternal punishment cannot be the same as eternal death but must be the same as the eternal of life which means for ever and ever (Wenham’s ‘of the age to come’ not withstanding).
      -Jesus parable of Dives and Lazarus depicts the after-life for the wicked as conscious sentient torment
      -Jesus spoke of “unquenchable fire” – is this hyperbole? why would a fire be unquenchable if the condemned are consumed?

      • Hi Simon

        How about this:

        – Their worm shall not die is a quote, as you know, from Isaiah 66:24, where the bodies are dead and decomposing – it is not an image of torment but of display of (horrible) death and destruction
        – The eternal punishment of Matthew 25:46 must surely be the same as the second death of Revelation 20:14, which is an image of fiery destruction
        – The parable of Dives and Lazarus also depicts those in ‘Hades’ as being able to communicate with ‘Abraham’ and petition him for various things, so I don’t think we need to take more from the parable than its basic message. It isn’t a window into the structure of the afterlife.
        – Unquenchable fire is another reference to Isaiah 66:24, and I believe refers to a fire whose action will not be extinguished or stopped, so that the destruction is final and complete.

        • Hi Will
          Yes, all reasonable and possible interpretations.

          Why do you suppose almost no Christian commentators took such a line for 1900 years? Did the Spirit lead us into all confusion? just wondering

          Would like to think you are right

          • Hi Simon

            Good question. Here’s Wikipedia’s excerpt on the history:

            ‘A majority of Christian writers, from Tertullian to Luther, have held to traditional notions of hell, especially Latin writers. However, the annihilationist position is not without some historical warrant. Early forms of conditional immortality can be found in the writings of Ignatius of Antioch (d. 108), Justin Martyr (d. 165), and Irenaeus (d. 202). However, the teachings of Arnobius (d. 330) are often interpreted as the first to defend annihilationism explicitly. One quote in particular stands out in Arnobius’ second book of Against the Heathen:

            Your interests are in jeopardy,-the salvation, I mean, of your souls; and unless you give yourselves to seek to know the Supreme God, a cruel death awaits you when freed from the bonds of body, not bringing sudden annihilation, but destroying by the bitterness of its grievous and long-protracted punishment.

            Eternal hell/torment has been “the semiofficial position of the church since approximately the sixth century”, according to Pinnock.

            Additionally, at least one of John Wesley’s recorded sermons are often reluctantly understood as implying annihilationism. Contrarily, the denominations of Methodism which arose through his influence typically do not agree with annihilationism.’

            It’s interesting that Arnobius’ position is annihilation following punishment.

            In terms of why the Spirit allowed the error, I think it’s quite a subtle difference, since both positions involve a punitive torment and an everlasting punishment, so the traditional idea and imagery is not completely off target. Conceptually it’s really just a little correction in light of what scripture and Christ actually imply (the torment does eventually end with destruction) rather than a big shift in understanding (such as universalism or annihilation without conscious punishment would be).

          • Hi Simon,

            So, we’re just left to work out why the entirety of reprobate humanity will ultimately be annihilated, while the Beast, the False Prophet, the Devil and his angels will be subjected to eternal torment.

            In fact, the ‘traditional idea and imagery’ of eternal fire (prepared for the devil and his angels) clearly and directly relates to the torment which it inflicts (supposedly just on them) forever and ever (Rev. 20:10)

            The more I hear of this annihilationist-plus position, the more it reveals itself as little more than an attempt to ‘rehabilitate’ the unrelenting severity of hell, which is biblically depicted as dwarfing every imaginable punishment inflicted upon those who transgressed Moses’ law. (Heb. 10:29)

        • I tend to think that people speak too confidently about the details of this!

          (1) If the destruction takes place towards the start of the process, why does the fire then need to continue eternally?

          (2) Why is the fire’s (as opposed to the suffering’s) eternity either here or there? Yet it is emphasised. Why?

          (3) The possibility of unfairness makes hell a difficult topic for evangelists. But that has nothing to do with the truth issue.

          The universe is a gratuitous miracle; participation in it is the ultimate privilege. Ingratitude in the face of this is the worst thing possible.

          • Hi Christopher

            The fire is unquenchable in Isaiah 66:24 but the suffering is not.

            Matthew 25:41 says that the eternal fire is ‘prepared for the devil and his angels’ – and Revelation says that the beast etc. are subject to eternal torment, so that might be an explanation. Alternatively the eternal fire might just be an image of an irrevocable destruction, one which God will not (unlike the first death) reverse.

            Interestingly 4 Maccabees does state that those who are torturing and executing the Hebrews will be subject to eternal torment – but such a statement is lacking in any canonical scriptures.

          • Good answer, and not incoherent either. I believe the evidence is very strong that Matt draws on Rev.. Mark 9.48 certainly points back to Isa. 66. The Egyptian story of Setme & Si-Osiris is relevant interpretative background for Dives and Lazarus in Lk 16.

          • Specific data:
            Aland shows up what is taking place. Matt in scribal fashion apparently adds, in the appropriate context of Mk, snippets like ‘all the tribes of the earth shall mourn’, ‘those who draw the sword will die by the sword’ which he found in Rev crying out to be added to one particular Mk context. (The reverse explanation, that Rev just so happens to use Matt’s expansion material rather than Matt’s original Markan material, is implausible; and, moreover, Rev-Mark links are comparatively few.) There are actually quite a few Matt-Rev links (Matt’s Transfiguration edits are in the direction of, and in the light of, Rev ch.1; 7.15 is possible though Matt does like Aesopic double-animals in his own right; etc.), and I am sure Charles and others list them; but as so often happens the question is wrongly framed (as a false dichotomy: *either* [it is said] there’s ‘common oral tradition’ – a suspect category which has not always been thought through, and also an unnecessarily complex explanation which therefore cannot take pole position – *or* Rev used Matt. People then find approx equal evidence for both of these, which would be impossible if one were totally right and the other totally wrong. The reason there is equal evidence for both [I hypothesise] is because both are wrong. Just as in the case of *either* John’s ‘use’ of Luke *or* ‘common oral tradition’. And just as in the case of Matthew and James – see below.).

            General considerations:
            A popular date for Rev is 69 (especially among (a) those who have made the dating their special study, (b) the classically trained e.g. the Victorians), and Matt is generally dated later than that (like all the 4 gospels, which are [or end up being] to some extent a single coordinated project, it’s a document of the 70s in my view, albeit Mark predates the Fall of Jerusalem)…

            …and there are not many pieces of Christian literature at that time for a scribe like Matt to draw on, and even fewer narrative ones. If a Christian writer did not read/hear the very few Christian writings that there were, then who did? The fewer there were, the more likely that anyone (particularly a fellow writer) would have read/heard them.

            One could say: ‘There could have been plenty of Christian narratives that got lost’. But that does not damage the case, since it would be the better-known ones (and the ones emanating from genuine disciples) that survived, and Matt might be expected to know those better-known and authentic ones.

            All general considerations are in the last analysis irrelevant. We don’t need a prioris when we have the data itself (see above: specific data).

            The broad picture:
            Matt’s simple project is to provide the Jesus-as-New-Moses gospel. However, he has not enough teaching material in Mark to make up 5 impressive blocks beginning with a great sermon: where is he to find it? He finds it in the most obvious available place (see the programmatic 13.52): he gathers ‘new’ or ‘New Testament’ material to place alongside the old, namely the apostles’ Jesus-derived teaching. So, as one might expect of him, he makes massive use of James (see above on false dichotomy), and some use of 1 Peter, 2 Peter (= Testament of Peter), Rev (= Testament of John the Apostle), John (headed in 1.19 ‘This is the testimony of John’ – double meaning), 1 John. [There is one Romans 12 parallel that looks unavoidable but I need to do more work on that.] So his use of Rev is in the broader context of substantial use of the main existing apostolic writings. Matthew the Magpie arranges his Medallions in a Montage. This scenario is also the remaining jigsaw piece in my take on the Synoptic Problem (OT templates having already accounted for a high proportion of modifications of former gospels by later ones, assuming the order Mk-Jn-Mt-Lk). I must emphasise: We can’t say ‘Other NT students don’t agree with this take on Matt’s modus operandi.’. Broadly speaking, other NT students have not considered the possibility in the first place, which is quite a different situation; and in order to agree or disagree would need to do so first.

            The theory is not that ‘the NT writers’ had such a modus operandi, but that Matt did; and also that it is a thoroughly Jewish modus operandi – expansion on a base/kernel by means of marginal notes and fuller additions, just as happens from Torah through to Talmud, and just as happens, we’re told, with some prophetic corpora.

            I thought Roelof Alkema’s presentation on the Catholic Epistles at Tyndale was superb.

            Copyright 😉

          • Addendum: transposition of a unit into a different context, such as Matt is doing, will very often necessitate transposition in wording too. E.g., Rev 13 does not speak of swordsmen, only of those destined for the sword; Matt tweaks this oracle (oracles being another precious source of hard-to-come-by dominical sayings).

          • (Vos’s entire monograph, 1965, assumes the said false dichotomy. It is otherwise a really useful work that sets out the existing Rev-Synoptics links – together with an appendix that laments and sets out to remedy, in a touchingly homely manner, the state of play within his local denomination. It is not quite an enquiry into chairs facing south vs facing east but it’s the next best thing.)

          • Positively last thoughts (and clarification on Mt 26.52):

            It is not Matthew itself but Matthew’s nonMarkan material that is so enamoured of Rev-friendly material. However (for those who think such things significant) this does not indicate ”Q”, since the parallels are mostly in ”M”. Limiting ourselves to the more ‘apocalyptic’ (aargh) material (for other possible links that show Mt has Rev in the back of his mind and is capable of being influenced by its phrasing, see 5.12, 5.14-15, 7.15, 26.26):

            4.8 carried off to high mountain to see city/-ies
            4.8 kingdom(s) of world
            10.34 not peace but a sword (Rev. 10.34)
            12.33 be good or bad not in between (Rev. 3.16, 22.11)
            13.39,41 harvest by reaping angels at end of time presided over by Son of Man; wicked thrown in fire
            16.18-19 Keys of death and Hades
            16.27 Render to each according to works
            17.2-7 Additions to Mark are: Face shone like sun; when heard this, overcome with fear; then Jesus touched them and said ‘Fear not’. Cf Mt 28.3ff. triple link with Rev. – very similar in its closeness to Rev 1. These things might be thought topoi, but in some cases the question is whether they are yet topoi or only became topoi later. The important point is that regularly there is a simple pattern in passages like the transfiguration and the resurrection that Mt = Mk + Rev, which source-critically can mean only one thing.
            19.28 New world
            20.16, 22.14 kletoi kai eklektoi
            21.21 mountain in sea (but Mt does also like Jeremiah).
            22.11-12 Special robes in heaven
            24.27-30 Son of Man on clouds as impossible to miss as lightning, seen by everyone. All tribes of earth shall mourn. (Rev. 1.7)
            25.1-13 Virgins
            25.10 Marriage feast of bridegroom
            25.31 (and all of vv.31-46) Son of Man on throne, angels at judgment. He will ‘come’ and ‘give’ ‘to each’ according to ‘work’
            25.34 From the foundation of the world
            25.41 Eternal fire for: devil, devil’s angels (who are an important link in their own right, more at home in Rev than in Mt), the wicked.
            26.18 The time is near / at hand.
            26.26 Take, eat
            26.52 If kill with the sword will be killed with the sword. Superficially this looks like Mt has spliced one of his favourite authors Jer 15.2//43.11(LXX 50.11) with Gen 9.6 – as indeed he has. However, in addition to that, there is substantial agreement with Rev 13.10b against Jeremiah (and he will like Rev. 13.10 because it is an oracle, a hitherto uncollected saying of Jesus): EN MACHAIREI plus verb.
            27.28 Purple robe becomes scarlet (Rev. 19.13)
            28.3ff. (cf. 17.2-7) white as snow (nowhere else in NT), fall as one dead, ‘fear not’.
            28.20 Behold, I am… (cf. Rev. 1.18).

            The point is not the links but the case-by-case analysis of them:
            -in which writer do they fit in a more coherent system?
            -which writer would be more interested initially in such matters?
            -are there signs of awkward splicing of 2 sources together (e.g. inconcinnity)?
            -within Matt, are they spread evenly or unevenly between Mk, Q, M, MtR (Matthean redaction)? There are a lot in M and MtR; yet most of Mt is Mk. By my calculation there are 3x as many in M and MtR as there are in the double tradition. There are as many in Luke as in Matt (e.g. beatitudes Lk 11.28, 12.37-8, 14.15).

        • Hi Will,

          So, let’s take up this discussion where we left off last October.

          In response to similar arguments in favour of annihilationism, I wrote:
          ’a post-death punishment which precedes annihilation has no redemptive value. The law (whether written in stone or hearts) concludes all to deserve the same fate, only for God to suspend that fate temporarily in order to inflict additional levels of prior torment. Now that is medieval cruelty.

          This reverse of purgatory is Dantean in levels of punitive torment with each member of reprobate humanity left uncertain of when God will step in to supposedly end punishment by exacting annihilation for the ultimate guilt (which humanity shares) of unyielding rebellion against God’s supreme majesty and innocence, and His infinite holiness and meekness of Christ’s incarnation and crucifixion for our sins.

          Of course, the Annihilation theory doesn’t explain why the Devil, the beast and the false prophet will be singled out for unending torment in a place which is described as prepared for not only him, but also his angels.

          Your answer appears to be: ‘yes, hell was also prepared for the devil’s angels, but, for them, only as temporary accommodation’.

          Ultimately, the fact that you don’t see why your notion of annihilation should not be so neither makes the case for it being so, nor does it make it scriptural.

          I’m still with Packer on this.

          The previous exchange starts from here:

          • Thanks David

            I appreciate Will’s argument from Scripture for annihilation. And there are long and strong, patristic and evangelical, arguments to be made for conditional mortality. I can’t be doing with the arguments some muster from how they think God should act and what they think is just and moral. God is not constrained by sensibilities – and decrees as he wills.

            I’m still with you (and Packer) on this: ‘Ultimately, the fact that you don’t see why your notion of annihilation should not be so neither makes the case for it being so, nor does it make it scriptural.’

            The older I get the more I see the sinful kernel in my body and soul – and can readily say with the old Salvation Army officer James Allen’s deathbed testimony: “I deserve to be in hell but God interfered”

          • Hi David

            ‘A post-death punishment which precedes annihilation has no redemptive value.’
            I didn’t say it did. It is entirely punitive.

            ‘The law (whether written in stone or hearts) concludes all to deserve the same fate, only for God to suspend that fate temporarily in order to inflict additional levels of prior torment. Now that is medieval cruelty.’
            The fate is indeed the same for all – punishment and destruction (as per the image of fire as second death). God isn’t suspending the fate; he’s carrying out the complete sentence. I don’t see how someone who believes in eternal torment can criticise temporary torment as cruel. It is the just sentence which God has pronounced – second death by ‘fiery destruction’.

            ‘This reverse of purgatory is Dantean in levels of punitive torment with each member of reprobate humanity left uncertain of when God will step in to supposedly end punishment by exacting annihilation for the ultimate guilt (which humanity shares) of unyielding rebellion against God’s supreme majesty and innocence, and His infinite holiness and meekness of Christ’s incarnation and crucifixion for our sins.’
            Again, it is bizarre for a proponent of eternal torment to criticise an annihilationist position for cruelty. Here you suggest that the cruelty is in the uncertainty; but why is that more cruel than continuing the torture forever? Besides I never suggested the endpoint would be uncertain; if it wasn’t would that remove the cruelty charge? Again, annihilation isn’t ending punishment it is carrying it to completion, as with the execution of those who are first incarcerated.

            ‘Your answer appears to be: ‘yes, hell was also prepared for the devil’s angels, but, for them, only as temporary accommodation’.’
            I didn’t say it was temporary for the angels. Perhaps ‘the Devil, the Beast and the False Prophet’ includes all their minions by implication.

            ‘Ultimately, the fact that you don’t see why your notion of annihilation should not be so neither makes the case for it being so, nor does it make it scriptural.’
            My position is scriptural because, as Ian explains, the biblical imagery of fire, Gehenna, second death, Isaiah 66 etc is all of complete and permanent destruction. Given the clear nature of the imagery, the burden must be on the proponents of unending torment to explain why despite the nature of the imagery provided in scripture and the lack of explicit warrant for their own position it should still be believed. The fact that an explicit text stating eternal torment for some people is present in the OT apocrypha but even so is absent from the canonical NT should give much pause for thought.

          • Hi Will,

            1. Your own comment: ‘Death does not negate the significance of prior suffering so why should annihilation negate the significance of prior punishment?’ prompted my response that prior suffering before death is, at least, redemptive.
            You have now clarified your position that what you call ‘the complete sentence’ is torment followed by annihilation and that this is solely punitive.

            You are admitting (as Packer explained) that ‘If, however, God’s justice really does require some penal pain in addition to annihilation, and continued hostility, rebellion, and impenitence Godward on the part of unbelievers remains a postmortem fact, there will be no moment at which it will be possible for either God or man to say that enough punishment has been inflicted, no more is deserved, and any more would be unjust.

            2. You wrote: ‘ it is bizarre for a proponent of eternal torment to criticise an annihilationist position for cruelty…’it is bizarre for a proponent of eternal torment to criticise an annihilationist position for cruelty. Here you suggest that the cruelty is in the uncertainty; but why is that more cruel than continuing the torture forever?

            However, the criticism levelled at the ‘post-mortem torment plus annihilation’ argument is not about relative cruelty, but about its assertion that eventual annihilation (at some point indeterminate to the lost) magically dispels all charges of unproportionate cruelty for post-mortem torment.

            3. Concerning condemnation to the lake of fire, you wrote: ‘I didn’t say it was temporary for the angels. Perhaps ‘the Devil, the Beast and the False Prophet’ includes all their minions by implication.

            Yet, this differs from your assertion in our exchange last October, that there was a specific distinction in Rev. 20:10 of eternal torment meted out to the devil, beast and false prophet.

            If, by reasonable implication, instead of what you call ‘an explicit warrant’ for such a position, you can now suggest that eternal torment ‘perhaps…includes all their minions by implication., why shouldn’t the condemnation of reprobate humanity to into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels’ (Matt. 25:41) include the same eternal torment for them by implication?

            4. Given that, for you, it’s entirely permissible to make a reasonable implication from scripture, there is nothing preventing others who reject annihilationism from doing the same (see point 3). There is no greater onus on us than on yourself.

            As I wrote before:
            ‘The use of ‘consumed’ is applied to those who die in the final earthly battle against Christ.

            The contrast made in Rev. 19:20-21 is between God’s summary execution of the beast and false prophet (who are cast alive into the lake of fire) versus the physical death of those joining forces with them in this final battle.

            The use of katephagen,/i> for consumed in Re. 20:9 is telling and so clearly an echo of 1 Kings 18:38, where the LXX employs the same word.

            It reminds that John, despite Christ’s warning against rashly calling down fire on Samaria, was made aware of an eventual time for God to exact the kind of earthly punishment as He did in Elijah’s time.

          • Hi David

            I just don’t think it is a reasonable implication. The imagery is universally of a comprehensively destructive process, a place of irreversible destruction. Consider Matthew 10:28 – clear reference to the destruction of the soul in hell, in case there was any doubt. There is no reason to infer ‘the lost’ from ‘the devil and his angels’.

          • Hi Will,

            In Matt. 10:28, Jesus didn’t contrast killing just the body with killing the body and soul. Instead, He contrasted the former with suffering loss (apolesai) to body and soul.

            There’s ample evidence that, concerning the soul, Jesus meant loss vs. annihilation. For instance, in John 6:39, Jesus declared: ‘This is the will of him they sent me, that I shall lose (apoleso) none of those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day.’

            In His high priestly prayer: ‘this happened so that the words he had spoke would be fulfilled: “I have not lost (apolesa one of those you gave me” (John 18:9)

            In fact, the word is translated as lost (vs. killing) in Matt. 18:11, 12 and Luke 21:18 (of sheep), Acts 27:34 (of even one hair), Rev. 18:14 (of wealth), Ezek. 34:4, Matt. 10:6, Matt. 15:24 and Luke 19:10 (of a lack of spiritual insight).

            So, there is no basis for your refusal to accept this repeated figurative use in scripture of the word for ‘destroy’ in order to shore up the case for it either to only (or more likely) mean annihilation.

          • Hi David

            Ok so not a clear reference, but still apt given the context, hence the common translation of the passage.

            In any case, the biblical imagery remains univocally of a comprehensively destructive process, without any explicit statements to the contrary (for human beings, despite there being statements for angelic beings).

          • Hi Will,

            The ‘common translation of the passage’ (cf. doesn’t detract from the repeated translation of the Greek word for ‘destroy’ as loss, given that reprobate humanity will be cast to the selfsame fate ‘prepared for the devil and his angels’.

            You also haven’t explained why eventual annihilation (at some point indeterminate to the lost) magically dispels all charges of unproportionate cruelty for post-mortem torment.

            Clearly, it is not reason alone which permits you to infer from scripture (and without explicit warrant) eternal torment for fallen, reprobate angels, but not for fallen, reprobate humanity.

  12. Thank you, Ian, for another interesting and informative article.
    I believe in hell, and if it’s a place, I certainly don’t want to go there. The suggestion that hell might be a ‘place or a state ‘ resonates with me. When we pray that God’s Kingdom will come *on earth* as in heaven, I often wonder if heaven can also be a state that we can also exist in on earth , and that maybe hell,too, can also be a state that we can exist in on earth – separation from God, ‘the dark night of the soul.’ Just one glance at the news on most days makes think that there is hell on earth in many parts of the world. Amongst the many atrocities that we see and have seen on the news I remember one picture that I thought of as a shining light – the faces of Coptic Christians who were about to be executed by members of ISIS.Those Christians looked so peaceful that I was convinced that they were close to God and were in state of heaven on earth in the midst of that hell on earth.

  13. Here is a 4/5 part series on Hell by Dr Johnathan Gibson.
    God revealed the existence of hell to me at the point of death of my mother, who was trying literally to run away from it, from a hospital bed, with life support wires and tubes trailing, dying with a mask of terror on her face. If anyone had said there wasn’t a hell, my reply would have been, “please don’t insult my intelligence.”
    Her death resulted in full blown clinical depression, a cotton wool mind, and monosyllabic communication, described as existential depression by a Consultant Psychiatrist. I was an unbeliever, but was caused to wonder about the meaning of life, and there could be any God, after what had happened to my mother.
    I was shown both a dying and a living hell, before God showed me his goodness in his miraculous intervention at the death of my dad, some three years afterwards, who after two strokes was on life support. A thoght came into my mind that there should be a bible in the bedside table. There was, NT and Psalms, placed by the Gideons Society. I read all the pertient scriptural, topical references, and ended with the last chapter of John, At around 2am, I could stand my dad’s rasping distress anymore, and as I got out of a bedside chair and walked to the end of the bed and prayed to to God I wasn’t certain existed, “If you think my dad has suffered enough, would you please deliver him up”, no even knowing what I was asking. By the time I reached the end of the bed, my dad was sitting upright, his face glowing, eyes open, smiling. He hadn’t been able to speak. Dad, “you look wonderful”. “Yes”, he said. “Dad, do you feel wonderful?” “Yes”, again was the reply. “Can I get them to give you something to make you more comfortable”? “Yes” again, and I then got the nurse, who asked my dad the same question. Again he replied,”Yes. ” Dad had had all medication withrawn, 3 days earlier. My wife was also a witness the sitting at the other side of the bed. It was as if Dad had come awake in heaven, was my wife’s comment.
    Deeply, affected I went out of the ward to a stairwell. God had spec, and spectaculary answered a prayer. But I was jealous of Dad, not that he was dying, but that he had a peace, that deep down I’d been searching for all my life. Three extremely simple questions came into my mind. Do I have to wait till just before I die? What if there is no one there to pray for me? What if I get run over by a bus?
    The CoE minister who carried out the funeral service, said that I needed an Alpha course, and I could barely wait for the start of the next course. On the course I experienced the love of God being poured into my heart, the peace of God that is beyond understanding.
    I believe that I was shown the reality of Hell, in life and in death before God showed me His Goodness, Himself, his resurrection life with a foretaste of heaven with Him in His presence.
    This, however, is not a life of hunky dory glory as we live in the Kingdom now, but not yet, between two worlds
    God’s Judgment and Hell is a reason to warn, in love, with tears for the lost and puts some sense of urgency into the spreading of the evangel. As salvation is not only being saved FROM but, almost unbelievably, too -good -to -be-true, saved FOR.
    If people want a life and death without our triune God, how can they complain if He gives them what they want? In effect they are masters of their own destiny.

    As for annihilation – annihlation is nothing more than atheist believe .

    As for free will, here is a link to a free downloadable PDF by Dr Sam Storms on Jonathan Edwards “Freedon of the Will. ” Happy scholarly wrestling with God:
    Apologies for the likely many errors in this comment – too tired, really, to be doing this,

    • Goeff, I think you’re right to see people’s settled state at the point of death as the crucial consideration.

      There are 2 things which (a) look like wishful thinking, and moreover (b) are based on no evidence (and indeed also (c) are without biblical warrant):

      (1) The idea that we have the chance to change our minds after death,

      (2) the idea that ‘it is appointed to humans to die once and then the judgment’ is untrue.

      • Thanks, Christopher,
        I agree with all the points you make. Rich man and Lazarus.
        A lovely older sister in the Lord, in her 80’s, died last year, in horrible circumstances, when on holiday with her husband in the Lake District. It is not really an exaggeration to say she was besotted with Jesus, in a beautiful, winsome way.
        One of her sons, a CoE minister, took the funeral service in a 12th Century CoE church, her home church. She had been to many funerals he said, from humanist to church and had remarked that they nearly all fell into the category of offering no hope or false hope as he proceeded to give out the gospel message without fear or favour to a full church and as, true to the end to her Saviour, “Why Jesus” booklets were at every pew place. A wonderful, joyful, service of praise it was.

        • I have twice had the privilege of speaking at a memorial service of a woman of God besotted with Jesus.

          The fully yielded vessels have a ball; most of us are rather more earthbound, but could learn that lesson.

      • Hi Christopher,

        it seems to me there are several reasons for questioning your point (1):
        – what about the tradition of praying for the dead, especially on All Souls’ Day?
        – what about those who died before Jesus lived and so before the Gospel could have been told?
        – what about the words from the creed that Jesus “descended into hell” and the Eastern Orthodox tradition that (if what I read is correct) holds that this is not just of one-off or one-time significance?

        in friendship, Blair

        • Hello Blair,
          1 I’d like to see the scriptural warrant to pray for the dead?
          2 Those who died before Christ, believed in, were looking forward to a true King, true Prophet, Priest and King, true deliverer, redeemer, Exodus, in short, the Messiah, Jesus Christ. They no only believed In God, they BELIEVED God, what He had said, promised, and covenanted. They were indeed, a remnant known to the reformers as Old Testament Saints. Like us they hadn’t seen the Messiah and looked forward to His coming.
          Just like us, really, looking forward to His coming and ultimate Exodus and new heaven on earth.
          Others may be along to elaborate.
          A straightforward, popular level book, you may find helpful is “Jesus on Every Page” by Dr David Murray. Others may be able to make other recommendations – there are many on Biblical Theology and Redemptive History. This, really, is meant to be helpful, not patronising, on a site for scholars, very unlike me.

          • Hi Geoff,

            thanks for your response. Re (1): I’d accept there’s no direct scriptural warrant to pray for the dead, although would add that I note there are Catholic and Orthodox traditions of doing so and that it seems specifically Protestant *not* to. I realise that, of itself, that isn’t a very compelling argument… guess I need to grapple more with how a fuller argument might be reasoned. (I don’t find the lack of direct scriptural warrant decisive; this is unrelated and possibly not an ideal example, but there is no direct warrant for the lending of money at interest, yet we’ve been able to (re)interpret the biblical texts on usury such that it is permissible while extortion is not.)

            On (2) I think I see your point but don’t agree that we (ie who live now) are in quite the same position as those who died before Jesus lived; we have not seen him but have received a witness from those who did, unlike those who died before Jesus’ time, hence I wondered if those latter would have had in effect a chance to change their mind (or at least see him more fully?) post-mortem. Again am not sure if that thinking works…

            Thanks for the other link, below, to the piece by Wayne Grudem on “descended into hell”. I’ve only had the chance to read it quickly. It looks clear and comprehensive but I would just note that on some texts, especially Ephesians 4:9 and 1 Peter 3:19, from what he says there is some room for questioning how to read them and that the interpretations he gives aren’t completely definite.

            in friendship, Blair

          • Maybe the dead would be prayed for when people are baptised on their behalf? (1 Corinthians 15:29)

        • (1) The fact that a tradition exists says nothing at all about whether the tradition is warranted. The world has been around a long time. Millions of traditions, millions of contradictory traditions, are bound to exist.

          (2) What I spoke of was people’s attitude, their standing before God, whether or not they are at peace with God, whether or not they are people who would accept the gospel gladly.

          (3) Not totally sure of the point you are making – harrowing of hell is of a piece with the atonement which does have eternal reach. So see (2).

          • Hi Christopher,

            thanks. Re (1), I do realise that – although given that I didn’t flesh out my point earlier, fair enough. But why is this specific tradition unwarranted?

            (2) I’m aware you were speaking of people’s attitude, etc – you said “their settled state at the point of death” earlier – but those who died before Jesus lived couldn’t have heard the full gospel (an argument might go), so how could it be known if they “would accept the gospel gladly” while they lived? Hence my suggesting the possibility of a chance to change their mind after death.

            (3) What does the harrowing of hell mean in your view, if part of it isn’t about setting free those who were / are there – or at least, an offer to set them (us?) free, even if such offer is rejected (recalling again Rowan Williams’ image I mentioned in another comment).

            in friendship, Blair

          • I don’t think it is a ‘change of mind’. They are of exactly the same mind as hearers of the gospel who accept it gladly.

            Far from being ‘change of mind’, this is sticking with exactly the same mind they already have.

    • But – I have to reiterate, that means that the consideration of (the infinite dreadfulness of hell) should be a central part of preaching, and also, secondly, a central part of coming to Christ.

      • read ‘the consideration of (the infinite dreadfulness of ) hell…’

        (As indeed most Christian ages have understood.)

  14. Christopher,
    I meant to convey, that I agreed with all the above points you made.
    While having no desire to get into the theology of CS Lewis, in relation to your last point, this quotation, which you will know well, seems apt:
    “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously – no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.”

    ? C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory

    Many today, seem to subscribe to scientism and a material, finite, world view with little consideration of eternity. As you are aware, this has many ethical entailments, not the least of which is end of life treatment and care. (I am not here suggesting that immortality, of eternal life, in Christianity, is to enter into Gnosticism or dualism.)

    On a lighter note, while on holiday in N Yorkshire not too many years ago, down a side alley in Middleham, there was a Mission meeting house, with a notice of the next meeting: the topic would be “Eternity”. It had no start nor end time!
    We might start with, chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world, as Paul almost breathlessly breathes out God’s word of reality to us:
    Ephesians 1(ESV)
    3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love 5 he predestined us[b] for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, 8 which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight 9 making known[c] to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

    11 In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, 12 so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. 13 In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is the guarantee[d] of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it,[e] to the praise of his glory.”

  15. I do think the key is being big-horizoned.

    We live in an unimaginably big-horizoned universe, so any other attitude is inexplicable and wrong.

    Theories that things matter very much indeed are therefore going to be right. Blinkered or short-termist theories that nothing matters very much are never going to be right.

    Yes, I do strongly affirm the worldview of the Weight of Glory.

  16. As the liturgy so aptly says in several places, “these holy mysteries….”
    I would humbly suggest that the outpourings of idle speculations from so many people are brilliantly answered by the post from Christine about the faces of the Coptic Christian martyrs as they were being butchered by Isis.
    In so much of Christian history we have lost our evangelistic edge by trying too hard to nail down the “sacred mysteries.” Let’s just believe in heaven and hell and proclaim the Gospel without trying to overdefine the indefinable.

    • Nastyface – we are not, as you claim, ‘trying to overdefine the indefinable’ – nor are the contributions here ‘the outpourings of idle speculations’… we are applying our faculties to study, reflect and comprehend divine revelation in Scripture.

    • Hi Jack – thank you for your kind words about what I wrote in my comment – I appreciate it. But this is a blog where discussion of the scriptures is relevant and appropriate. The peace of the Lord be with you.

        • Which bible do you read is my question? Maybe it’s the Ethiopian bible with its 88 books? How do you decide which books are canonical? Or even with our standard protestant bible – how do *you* decide what to hermenutically cherry-pick?

          • The problem is not so much the books that some Christian traditions have added as being inspired, its the content of the canonical books being eviscerated to conform to the canons of a culture that is the problem. One expects those outside the church to do this, but when this surgery is led by those within, we must protest.

Leave a Reply to Geoff Cancel reply