Wednesday, October 12, 2005

The Afterlife, Part V

Three views of hell seem to prevail today among those Christians who are even willing to make the doctrine a part of their Christian worldview. I will lay out the three and then comment (for previous essays see

1. Hell is eternal separation. This is not a stated view but an implied one. In other words, the opposite of heaven is to spend a “Christ-less eternity.” Those who do not go to heaven simply die into nothingness.

2. Hell is eternal suffering. This is the historical and traditional Christian doctrine, unpleasant as it is. It stipulates that those who reject God’s grace extended in Jesus Christ will spend eternity in agony, being punished (or, if you prefer, existing in a state which is akin to punishment because of the suffering) continually. So, for instance, in Matthew 13:40-42, Jesus says, "As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

3. Hell is eternal destruction. This view is gaining more traction among scholars
who question the presumption view #2 makes about the eternal life of the soul, which has Platonic, not biblical, origins. In other words, the presumption is that if the soul lasts forever, and it’s not in heaven, then it must be forever somewhere, and if that somewhere is hell, then it must be in torment. This view notes how the Bible repeatedly warns that the wicked will “die,” “perish” or “be destroyed” and that none of this suggests endless suffering. In the words of Edward Fudge, author or Two Views of Hell and a leading proponent of this view, “The actual process of destruction may well involve conscious pain that differs in magnitude in each individual case – Scripture seems to indicate that it will. Whatever the case, God’s judgment will be measured by perfect, holy, divine justice. Even hell will demonstrate the absolute righteousness of God.” This view takes scriptures such as Romans 6:23 at face value: “The wages of sin is death…” In the face of such scriptures as Matthew 13 (see above), the “weeping and gnashing of teeth” is not eternal but part of the punishment that precedes eternal destruction.

In my opinion, the view of eternal separation is too weak and the view of eternal suffering is too harsh. The view of eternal destruction seems appropriate both biblically (what the scriptures say) and theologically (what they testify about the character of God). This is not a pleasant topic but it is an important one.

And let me note that, to use a popular analogy, the Good News has always included both “carrot” and “stick..” My preference, style, and theology prompts me to emphasize the “carrot” of a redeemed, joyful, abundant relationship with God through Jesus Christ in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit now and for eternity, and I would hope that to be the case for you as well. But my “biblical conscience” won’t let me ignore the “stick.” And perhaps one could say that our mission as a church is to live out and tell about the carrot with such persuasiveness that no one would think of settling for the stick.


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