In a recent comment, Xanga’s resident Theologian suggested that objecting to Christianity because the doctrine of hell seems cruel is like objecting to mathematics because it is too rigid and unbending.
I understand the idea. Reality is what it is, and your feelings don’t make a whole lot of difference. But at the same time, whether hell is a place of conscious torment is not the same kind of fact as 2+3=5. It is not self-evidently true, and we could imagine it being otherwise. In fact, in the case of hell, there is no one section in the Bible from which our beliefs are culled. Instead, we construct our image of the afterlife from numerous sections, some of them quite poetic.
What we end up with is a range of possible interpretations.
- Hell is eternal conscious torment. This is probably the most common view held by evangelicals. It is also the most strongly objected to by Christians on moral grounds.
- Hell is self-inflicted suffering. In this view, made popular by C. S. Lewis in works like The Problem of Pain, those in hell choose to be there rather than with God the same way an alcoholic chooses alcohol over his own health. There is suffering, but it is not inflicted by God in retribution for sins committed, but is the natural result of choosing anything other than God.
- Hell is annihilation. In this view, eternal judgment is not eternal in its duration, but in its consequences. Rather than forever torturing those who will not or cannot be rehabilitated, God simply unmakes them.
- Hell is empty. Finally, it is not impossible for a Bible-believing Christian to hold that all humans will eventually be saved. The letters of Paul support this view the most, with statements like, “All who died in Adam will be made alive in Christ.” Proponents of this view often hold to the idea that things aren’t necessarily settled when we die, and that there is still room for moral and spiritual change in the “afterlife,” an idea Lewis explored in The Great Divorce.
In addition to the range of possibilities over what Hell actually is, scripture is not explicit about who will be there. Again, we have a range of plausible interpretations.
- Only those who have heard and accepted the gospel will be saved. This is perhaps the most common Christian view, and the one usually assumed by non-believers.
- Some may be saved through Christ without knowing they are saved through Christ. Some Christians point to Biblical passages that claim that, “God has not left himself without a witness,” and the concept of general revelation, as well as general fairness, to argue that those who are in no position to hear or accept the gospel may be saved nonetheless on the basis of how the responded to the revelation they did have. This could be applied to the very young, the mentally handicapped, those who have not heard the gospel and those who have very legitimate reasons for rejecting the gospel they did hear, whether that means because of intellectual objections or because of inhumanity committed by those entrusted with the message.
- Some may have a chance to accept the gospel after their death. Because scripture consistently presents God as desiring that all be saved, and portrays Christ as having conquered death and as holding the keys to death and Hades, some interpreters question why death should be a barrier to a person’s salvation. Several passages also seem to imply that acceptance or rejection of God can take place in the afterlife.
- All might be saved. Some interpreters have argued that the passages describing hell may only describe what it is we are being saved from. Nobody necessarily has to go there. Not all Christians accept Christian universalism as orthodox, but universalists argue that it is predicated on the same logic as Calvinist accounts of predestination, only with the conclusion that God has chosen all to be saved, rather than a few.
Christians definitely disagree over which of these best fits the full testimony of scripture, but these are the biblical possibilities.