The Not-So-Traditional View: Does Your Particular Belief About Hell Really Have Church History On Its Side? (Part 1)

If there is one area where traditionalism has an advantage, it is in church history. After all, there is a reason why this is called “traditionalism” and “the traditional view.”

That isn’t to say the view has always been held unanimously (although it is all too often treated as though it has been); resources here at Rethinking Hell address conditionalism among the earliest church fathers.12 Universalism also appears to have had a considerable following in the early church.3 The same can be said for the generic denial of “eternal punishment,” which at the very least precludes traditionalism.4 Nevertheless, the traditional view has been the predominant view in church history, and this is an advantage for traditionalists.

Well, it has been an advantage for traditionalists. Simply put, many traditionalists today, and quite possibly you who are reading this now, envision hell in ways that depart materially and substantially from what traditionalists throughout church history have taught about hell. And therefore, the strongest argument for the traditional view, that of church history, is lost for many traditionalists today.5

Here in part 1 of this three-part series, I will be looking at how hell is now presented by many who believe in eternal conscious punishment. In part 2, I will explain why I believe that this increasingly common version of an eternal conscious hell is not in line with what traditionalists throughout church history have generally taught. I will do this primarily by way of example. Part 3 will examine a few potential outliers to the general trend in church history, and whether or not they really departed from the norm or blurred lines as much as some might think.

Eternal Conscious Hell in Modern Christianity

For a long time, I have been hesitant to write about the subject of this article. That is because it involves looking in-depth at the specifics of eternal torment in hell. This can be quite nasty and unpleasant to think about, and although I do want to convince everyone that the conditionalist view is correct, I want to do it by showing that it is what the Bible teaches, not by hitting people over the head with thoughts of unimaginable horror and torture, of people burning alive in fire and being torn apart by God’s wrath while always alive for ever and ever.

Of course, some who believe in eternal conscious suffering in hell do not envision hell that way in the first place, which means any talk of that kind of hell wouldn’t have that kind of emotional impact on them anyway. And that is actually what this is article is about.

You see, I didn’t want to write about any of this because it seemed that it had no value except to maybe get some traditionalists to abandon their view for emotional reasons. There was seemingly no objective argument to be made. To use legal parlance, it was prejudicial with little or no probative value.6 However, I eventually realized that there is an actual, objective argument to be made by talking about different traditionalist views.

Two (Traditionalist) Views of Hell

If you are a traditionalist reading this, what do you believe about hell? I know that you believe that hell is a place of eternal suffering of some sort, but what are the specifics?

Within what we typically refer to as traditionalism, there are different views when it comes to the specifics. Depending on how detailed one gets, one could say there are many views. Depending on what our focus is, we could divide subsets of the traditional view in any number of valid ways. Some ways of classifying traditionalism can be based on a clear, objective dividing line. Is the fire literal or metaphorical? You could divide traditionalists into two groups based on that factor, for example.

Other ways to look at it are based on multiple factors and can be a bit more organic and amorphous. They look more at the big picture differences. This can sometimes be better demonstrated through example than clear-cut criteria.

Where views held by some modern traditionalists differ from those of traditionalists throughout most of church history is ultimately a big picture difference. That isn’t to say that there are not clear factors that differ between them, just that it is a little more holistic.

One useful way to look at it, I think, is based on two different defining images: fire and darkness. When I say fire, I am talking about a hell of God’s active wrath and vengeance, a hell of incredible misery inflicted by God, either directly or at least by his intentional design.7 It is a hell that involves either literal fire that burns people alive, or fire as a metaphor for God’s active wrath because it is worse than anything we could imagine and so the Bible authors went with fire because it was the worst pain they could think of to make the point. If there is one key factor, I would say that it would be God’s vengeance and active involvement. Within this, there is some variation. Some simply think of burning alive. Some think of cleverly sadistic tortures like in Dante’s Inferno. Some focus more on God’s direct wrath as the main vehicle of the unrepentant’s misery. But whatever the specifics, it organically comes together to form this picture of people suffering pain and misery and in a sort of swirling torrent of fiery horror that people would do anything to get out of but will never ever be able to ever. Ever.

This above view, I will argue, is the historical Christian view (among traditionalists).

In contrast to those for whom an image of fire best captures the nature of hell, hell is best captured for others by an image of darkness. Those in hell are not in literal fire. They are not even being actively tormented by God or God’s wrath. Their suffering consists of being separated from God and his goodness. The biblical images of fire represent things like unquenched jealousy in their own hearts, or the pain of regret, or other elements like that.

Again, there can be some differences in the specifics. For example, some who hold this will embrace it as a softer, more humane version of hell while others would even argue that their version of hell entails worse suffering that a literal hell of flames and torture. But whatever the case, we have a hell that removes God’s active wrath and infliction of vengeance.8 There is torment in the sense of emotional pain and regret, but no torture inflicted at the hands of anyone else.9 Most would find it much more palatable from an emotional and philosophical standpoint, even ifs advocates claim it is no more bearable than eternity in a literal lake of fire. If the fire view envisions hell as a torture chamber (as some who think of hell as “darkness” would call it),10 then one might say this view of hell envisions a sadness chamber.

Modern Evangelicalism and A Less Fiery Hell

Among modern evangelicals, this “darkness” view, this view of hell as being without fire, without God’s active wrath, as being mainly about separation from God, is common. I don’t pretend to know if it is the majority view, but it pops up often enough among scholars, pastors, and lay Christians alike.

Of course, if you believe hell is a fiery dungeon of agony and wrath, then we would probably both agree that you hold to a view that is historically attested. But what if you do not? Or what if you just would like some examples of the “darkness” view? To finish out part 1, I will provide a few examples of contemporary traditionalists who think of hell in terms of separation from God instead of God’s wrath, the torment of regret instead of the torture of immortal flesh, and ultimately, darkness over fire (to use the images I proposed above). Since my goal is to give an idea of how the view plays out, and not to make a case for how common it is, I will include only a handful; you will have plenty of quotations to sift through in part 2.

William Lane Craig

I don’t think that hell is what is depicted in medieval paintings of torture racks and pictures of red hot irons and things of that sort. It seems to me that the essence of hell is what Paul describes in 1 Thessalonians 1:5 when he says “they shall suffer the punishment of exclusion from the presence of the lord and from the glory of his might.’ And I think that is the anguish of hell, the separation from God, from all that is good and beautiful and lovely. To be left with one’s own crabbed and selfish heart forever; I think that is the essence of what hell is.11

There is much to say about Dr. Craig’s description of hell in that passage (and Glenn Peoples does just that in the video linked in the footnote). For our purposes, though, William Lane Craig’s view on the nature of hell is sufficiently clear.

J. Warner Wallace

Prolific “one-dollar” apologist J. Warner Wallace has addressed the topic of hell in a number of articles and podcasts. In doing so, he repeatedly and emphatically paints hell as a place where God does not actively inflict suffering on others. There is no externally imposed torture, but only the internal torment of regret.1213 I have included a number of citations in the foot notes, but in the interest of space, I will include just one especially noteworthy quote below to show how emphatic Wallace is that hell is nothing like torture and that God does not have an active hand in it.

I think the nature of God is even more horrific and much less moral under the annihilationist perspective, because in order to say that some are punished more than others – and I think there are degrees of punishment in hell – well, the torture that leads to that annihilationism, to the annihilation of the soul, is more severe for some than others. So now we’ve kinda said ‘Well gosh, God really is in the business of torturing some worse than others, making their death, their spiritual death more horrific than others’…I don’t see any evidence of this in God’s character.14

In other words, even temporary infliction of pain and suffering on the part of God is more torturous than the eternal torment in Wallace’s conception of hell.15

J.P. Moreland

Christian philosopher J. P. Moreland likewise describes hell more in line with my metaphor of darkness than with one of fire. For example, he had the following to say about it in an interview with Lee Strobel that was included in the book The Case for Faith:

Well, for one thing, hell is not a torture chamber…God doesn’t torture people in hell.16

Dr. Moreland elaborates further in the same interview.

The punishment of hell is separation from God, bringing shame, anguish, and regret.17

In the end, Moreland’s hell involves no torture, no fire, and no external imposition of agony. Hell is a state of sorrow, not a torture chamber.

C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis discusses hell in a few places, most notably in a chapter of The Problem of Pain. In the totality of the chapter he lays out a position that lacks literal fire but in many ways involves speculation regarding the specifics. The most quotable portion, however, is his declaration that those in hell stay there by their own choice, a declaration that I believe has been the inspiration for many who have taken the darkness view ever since.

I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside. I do not mean that the ghosts may not wish to come out of hell, in the vague fashion wherein an envious man ‘wishes’ to be happy: but they certainly do not will even the first preliminary stages of that self-abandonment through which alone the soul can reach any good.18

Lewis also makes this point in the fictional afterlife drama, The Great Divorce.

All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened.19

Pope John Paul II

This darkness approach isn’t just taken by evangelicals. The late Pope John Paul II made waves in 1999 by teaching that the fire in hell is not literal, and that hell is about separation from God.

The images of hell that Sacred Scripture presents to us must be correctly interpreted. They show the complete frustration and emptiness of life without God. 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.20

As these examples show, as do others,21 this so-called darkness view of hell is not just a position for theological liberals by any stretch. But the question must be asked about this form of traditionalism: is it actually traditional at all? Or, is this view such a material departure from what traditionalists throughout church history have actually believed that to hold these kinds of beliefs about hell is to put oneself in no better a position than that of annihilationists?22

  1. Glenn Peoples, “Church Fathers Who Were Conditionalists,” Rethinking Hell [blog], posted July 22, 2013, http://www.rethinkinghell.com/2013/07/church-fathers-who-were-conditionalists/ (accessed December 19, 2013). []
  2. Chris Date, “Deprived of Continuance: Irenaeus the Conditionalist,” Rethinking Hell [blog], posted November 3, 2012, http://www.rethinkinghell.com/2012/11/deprived-of-continuance-irenaeus-the-conditionalist/, (accessed on December 19, 2015). []
  3. Richard Baukham, “Universalism: A Historical Survey Richard Bauckham,” Themelios 4, no. 2 (September 1978): 48, reproduced at Theologicalstudies.org.uk, n.d., http://www.theologicalstudies.org.uk/article_universalism_bauckham.html, (accessed on March 21, 2016). []
  4. Augustine, Enchidrion: On Faith, Hope, and Love, Trans. Albert C. Cutler, (Southern Methodist University, 1955), Chapter 112, reproduced at Tertullian.org, n.d., http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/augustine_enchiridion_02_trans.htm, (accessed on March 21, 2016). []
  5. This point is hardly new with me. Fellow Rethinker Ronnie Demler made this very point in his talk given at our inaugural rethinking Hell conference in 2014, which was recorded and presented as Episode 58 of our podcast (see 51:11-53:07). Glenn Peoples also made this point in a talk given at, recorded in Episode 52 of his podcastSay Hello to my Little Friend (starting around 10:38 to about 15:00). I do, however, really want to drive the point home of how true this is, especially in part 2. []
  6. For those did not go to law school – or who did not grow up on Law & Order like I did – it breaks down like this: Evidence with probative value is that which would give objective, reasonable weight to the case being made. This would include, for example, eyewitness testimony, DNA, forensic evidence, etc. Something that is prejudicial would be something that would sway a juror one way or another for emotional reasons, e.g. an ex-girlfriend coming on the stand and talking about how the defendant, accused of murder, hated puppies. Often times, the same piece of evidence will be prejudicial but will also have probative value, and a judge will have to decide if it has enough probative value to outweigh how prejudicial it is. []
  7. Of course, the first thing that really comes to mind with fire is generally burning up and destruction – but that’s another story. []
  8. The removal of God’s active wrath is more or less the central factor to the view of hell as being “dark.” []
  9. As shown below, a distinction between “torment” and “torture” is made by some. Although no such distinction exists in the Greek of the New Testament, and so any linguistic argument made from the biblical text is unwarranted, nevertheless in 21st century English there is admittedly a degree of nuance between the two words. []
  10. See J.P. Moreland below, for example. []
  11. Peoples, Glenn, “William Lane Craig on Hell,” Rethinking Hell [blog], posted March 3, 2013, http://www.rethinkinghell.com/2013/03/william-lane-craig-on-hell/ (accessed November 13, 2015). []
  12. For example, J. Warner Wallace, “Can The Existence and Nature of Hell Be Defended?” Accessed on March 4, 2016 http://coldcasechristianity.com/2014/can-the-existence-and-nature-of-hell-be-defended-free-bible-insert/. []
  13. J. Warner Wallace, “Why Would God Punish Finite, Temporal Crimes in an Eternal Hell?” Cold Case Christianity With J. Warner Wallace, n.d., http://coldcasechristianity.com/2013/why-would-god-punish-finite-temporal-crimes-in-an-eternal-hell/ (accessed March 19th 2016). []
  14. PCM Podcast 255 – Is the Doctrine of Hell a Non-Essential?” Cold Case Christianity [Podcast], hosted by J. Warner Wallace, May 7, 2012. Begins around 13:50. []
  15. Wallace does, however indicate that he thinks hell will be incredibly miserable – just miserable in a different way. See “PCM Episode 199″ 38:15. []
  16. J.P. Moreland, “Objection #6: A Loving God Would Never Torture People in Hell,” The Case for Faith by Lee Strobel (Zondervan, 2000), 173. []
  17. Moreland continues to elaborate a rather peculiar view here, saying that there is both mental and physical pain. However, in both cases, “the pain that’s suffered will be due to sorrow from the final, ultimate, unending banishment from God, his kingdom, and the good life for which we were created in the first place.” As to where physical pain comes into play there is beyond me.

    See Moreland, 174-175. []

  18. C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (HarperOne, 2015), 131. []
  19. C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (HarperOne, 2015), 75. []
  20. John Paul II. General Audience,” [Sermon] General Audience, July 28, 1999. The Holy See, n.d., http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/audiences/1999/documents/hf_jp-ii_aud_28071999.html/ (accessed November 13, 2015). []
  21. Other examples include:

    - Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster? (Baker, 2011), 202.

    - JP Holding. What In Hell Is Going On? (Tektonic Plates, 2011).

    - Timothy Keller. “The Importance of Hell.” Redeemer.com, n.d., http://www.redeemer.com/redeemer-report/article/the_importance_of_hell (Accessed on October 17, 2015).

    - Al Serato, “God Does Not Torture Souls in Hell,” http://pleaseconvinceme.com/2015/god-does-not-torture-souls-in-hell/(Accessed on March 4, 2015)

    - Roger Olson, “Saving Hell,” Roger E. Olson [blog], Patheos, posted on May 19, 2016, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2016/05/saving-hell/ (accessed May 19, 2016).

    - N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, (HarperOne, 2008), 181-182. []

  22. Or in light of the early church evidence for conditionalism, might this view of hell put one in a worse position than annihilationists? []
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  • Mark

    Joseph, Thanks for this insightful, well-written, well-documented, series of blog posts. Your point that many “traditionalists” today really aren’t even consistently holding to the dominant traditional view in major ways is correct and helpful. I would also add that ideas like Hell being locked from the inside or God not being active in wrath towards unbelievers in final judgment have no Biblical support. They are just failed efforts to prop up belief in eternal conscious punishment that shouldn’t be propped up because it is not even true. Keep up the good work! Grace and Peace, Mark (with Hope and Joy!)

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