Some Thoughts on Hell

Originally posted on 15 August, 2008

Some time ago I skim-read Brian McLaren’s The Last Word and the Word After That (get it at or This past week, I have gone back to it, and am devouring it in depth. It is a story-based reflection on the issue of salvation, with specific reference to hell. It really has got me thinking, and has helped to clarify some questions (see previous post at this blog), if not entirely provide adequate answers. These are issues we should be dealing with in our churches, but are not.

I think a key part of the problem with our understanding of what it means to be saved, and the issue of hell, the life hereafter and “eternal life”, is that the historical church has created such strong camps/entrenched positions. I don’t find any of them convincing or coherent. And none of the traditional positions gives a “unifying theory of everything” – a consistent and coherent explanation of the whole of the Biblical witness. I find that I have sympathy (and concerns) with every position, from exclusivism (that everyone not personally, consciously, individually “born again” will be excluded from heaven), or inclusivism (that some will be saved through Jesus without ever knowing the name of Jesus), to conditionalism (that hell does not last forever – after a period of conscious punishment, the damned in hell are annihilated) or universalism (that everyone will ultimately be reconciled to God through Jesus, with hell ultimately being empty).

The key to understanding the importance of the issue of hell, is not actually the concept of hell itself, but rather the God to which that concept points. “God loves you – like the greatest father’s unconditional love – and has a wonderful plan for your life, and if you don’t love God back and cooperate with God’s plans in exactly the way He wants you to, God will torture you with unimaginable abuse, forever!” Yes?

Lesslie Newbiggin summed up my current position quite well in The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Eerdmans, 1989, p182f) (buy it at or (as quoted by McLaren, italics are my comments):

“It has become customary to classify views on the relation of Christianity to the world religions as either pluralist (universalist), exclusivist, or inclusivist. [My] position is exclusivist in the sense that it affirms the unique truth of the revelation in Jesus Christ, but it is not exclusivist in the sense of denying the possibility of the salvation of the non-Christian. It is inclusivist in the sense that it refuses to limit the saving grace of God to the members of the Christian church, but it rejects the inclusivism which regards the non-Christian religions as vehicles of salvation. It is pluralist (universalist) in the sense of acknowledging the gracious work of God in the lives of all human beings, but it rejects a pluralism which denies the uniqueness and decisiveness of what God has done in Jesus Christ.”

I do not think that it is good enough to just fall back on our traditional answers in this case. The stakes are too high. I am going to do more work on this issue in the next few months, but for now, I do not think it is possible to come to a coherent view on hell (and salvation) without addressing at least the following issues:



  • Why does the Old Testament make no reference at all to eternal, conscious torment? The Jewish tradition was consistently that of annihiliation at death, with the Pharisaic tradition of a resurrection (which most likely meant a temporary physical resurrection of the worthy, to enjoy the victory they hoped for at the re-establishment of the Kingdom of Israel) only emerging in the inter-Testamental period.

  • What will it feel like to “have a party in the living room, while there’s torture in the basement” (McLaren’s concept)? How could we not be aware of hell (as we know it) when we’re in heaven? And if we are, then surely that won’t be heaven (as we conceive it)?

  • Would the God I worship really impose infinite punishment for finite wrongdoing?

  • If God doesn’t want anyone to go to hell, then why do some people end up there? If its because God is somehow constrained by some higher authority – some “rule” or “legislative issue” of justice – then God is not really God, is He?

  • What will happen to all those people who lived before Christ came to earth? And what will happen to the majority of people in history who have never heard about Him?

  • If Jesus is going to return to earth from the clouds with a loud fanfare, and everyone will see him, what will happen to those who bow the knee then and recognise Him as God – will they be saved, or is it too late already? If they will be saved, is it not a really unfair advantage for them compared to people who have died without seeing that miraculous event? If they won’t be saved, why not – they have bowed the knee to Jesus?

  • If only those who have heard about and rejected Christ are guaranteed to go to hell, how many times and at what level of quality/intensity must one “hear” the Gospel in order to qualify? (And in that case, wouldn’t it be better to just not tell people? And if so, why is it “good news”?)

  • Was hell (as we traditionally conceive it) part of God’s original design, or is it part of a “Plan B”? If its “Plan B”, its a fairly horrible thought that the devil was able to so seriously mess up God’s intentions, and that there is no way for God to defeat him on this one. Its even scarier to think that it was part of the original design…

  • But I know there are many (mainly reformed) people who do at least believe that there are some people that God “created for destruction” – people who have no chance of responding to even the clearest presentation of the Gospel, and are destined to hell forever, simply so that Christians can know how lucky they are that God called them to Himself. Do we really believe that God has created some people for destruction – do we truly understand the verses of the Bible that seem to say this? How does this square with everything else we know about God?

  • The Bible is clear that God does choose some, but it is equally clear that He does this not for exclusion of others, but for the benefit of others: “blessed to be a blessing”. How does this impact our thinking about hell?

  • How do we reconcile God’s justice and His mercy – both such strong themes in the Bible?

  • Is judgement at the end of days an individual thing? Is God simply trying to save (individual) “souls”, or is He trying to save His whole creation? If so, what does that mean, and what part must I play? What part does my personal salvation play in the salvation of the whole creation?

  • Have we confused salvation and judgement? Are they the same thing? Is it possible that all could be judged, and some be saved? Salvation by grace; judgement by works – these are two of the clearest themes in the Bible – how have they been reconciled?

  • Who is more likely to go to hell: homosexuals, or those guys who carry “God hates fags” signs? (Thanks, Brian for that one)

  • Why is it, in the Old Testament especially, that the oppressed cry out for the day of God’s wrath, but the oppressors fear it? Is our doctrine of hell linked to our status as “western”, “modern”, “enlightened”, “empowered” Christians?

  • Would we lose anything, or do any injustice to the intention of the Biblical verses that talk about hell, if we read them with the following hermeneutic: that hell is simply a literary device, meant to warn us about the reality of God’s judgement, and to incite us to live appropriately?

  • If all the passages about hell are literally true, then explain how we can have fire and darkness, why the worms will not die in the fire and brimstone, or why the concepts of sheol, hades, tartarus, gehenna and the abyss – all very distinct Jewish, Zoroastrian, Greek, Roman or Mesapotamium concepts of the afterlife (or not, as the case may be) – are all interchangeably translated “hell” in our English Bibles?

  • If universalism is “one of the most dangerous of concepts” and a “threat to the core of Christianity” (both are phrases I have heard recently), then how do you explain the following verses: Matt 20:1-16, Jn 10:16 and 12:32, Acts 3:19-21, Rom. 5:12-21; Romans 11:26, 1 Cor. 15:20-26, 2 Cor. 5:19, Phil. 2:9-11, Eph. 1:10, Col. 1:16-23, 1 Tim. 2:4 and 4:10, Titus 2:11, Heb 2:9, 2 Pet 3:9, 1 Jn 2:2 (Oh, and that’s virtually every book of the New Testament).

  • God is God: why does he need a ‘Plan B’?

For now, these are just musings. But they are important ones – this issue of salvation is at the heart of the Gospel, and of who God is. We must get it right. And if we have been wrong, we must correct ourselves as a matter of urgency.

If you plan to respond to this post, please may I ask of you just two courtesies:

(1) If you plan to quote a Scripture, please do not do so from memory. Please do the work of going back to your Bible and reading at least the 10 verses before and 10 verses after the verse/sentence you wish to quote. Please check the context, and ask yourself at least the following questions: (a) is there anything in the passage that might indicate that the passage is not entirely literal (e.g. when Jesus talks of a place where they will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, it is in the context of “separating the sheep and goats”, and a list of actions on which such separation is done is clearly not prescriptive, but rather illustrative)? (b) Does the passage *specifically* indicate eternal, conscious, painful judgment?

(2) Please do not question my commitment to Scripture. It is *because* I am fully committed to understanding the Bible as the infallible word of God that I am asking these questions, and it is on the basis of a renewed investigation of God’s Word that I’m beginning to doubt the traditional positions on the issues I address at this blogsite.


9 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Hell”

  1. This post generated a lot of comments. Here are the best:

    C S Lewis THE GREAT DIVORCE is a helpful background. – get his book at or

    An IVP book= “Two Views on Hell” by Edward Fudge and Robert Petersen (it is a dialogue between the conditionalist and traditional/exclusivist approaches)? See a review of it (by a conditionalist group) at, and get it at or

    Also check out IVP’s own site on the book, including some excerpts:

  2. Arlyn Cunwick ([email protected]) replied:

    Hi Graeme,

    I’m not a biblical scholar, so I won’t get involved in hermeneutical questions, but I am a philosopher, so I have something small to say about the rationality involved in your piece. I hope this is helpful.

    One of your points was this:
    -If God doesn’t want anyone to go to hell, then why do some people end up there? If it’s because God is somehow constrained by some higher authority – some “rule” or “legislative issue” of justice – then God is not really God, is He?-

    This is parallel to an approach to answering the Euthyphro problem – a classical philosophical question about the nature of the relationship between God and morality (if you already know this, sorry for the filler…). Of course, you have applied it here to a specific question on final judgment, but it has far greater implications than this, which could help in seeing the correct line of reasoning to take here.

    The Euthyphro problem is expressed in this question: are things good purely because God says so, or does God say things are good because, in his perfect wisdom, he perceives them to be?
    The dilemma brought in by this is that it seems that one stands to lose either the legitimacy of claims to the omnipotence of God, or his goodness.
    To spell this out, if things are good purely because God says so, then that nullifies our concept of “good” because it makes goodness and God’s commands necessary equivalents – they become interchangeable. One is essentially saying nothing. The phrase -things are good purely because God commands them- is identical to saying -God commands things because God commands them.- “Goodness” is made meaningless.
    On the other side, one is faced with a scenario where God appears to be subservient to moral laws that operate independently of him, and thus seem to undermine his omnipotence.

    What is the answer? Of course, as in many things with God, it is both (!) – with a structural paradigm to unite them both into a coherent relationship. I’ll set my argument out in point form, and I encourage you to think on each point until its meaning is clear.

    1) God is clearly the maker and sustainer of the universe, and ALSO the righteous judge.
    God creates the universe according to his perfect wisdom.
    Nothing occurs without God sustaining its existence continually.
    2) Creation has form, structure, dynamics – i.e. space, time, laws of physics, etc.
    Similarly, human social dynamics exist – people have needs, responsibilities and choices.
    Basic (or universal) moral principles, and the breaking of them, are observable in every culture in existence.
    In other words, morality is a function of the structure of human nature and group dynamics.


    3) God creates the moral dynamics in the universe.
    4) As a created thing, you can understand morality as an independent entity, with its own principles that arise from the nature of its context – that being individual and social dynamics.
    God judges humanity according to the dynamics that emerge from the relationships we have to each other, and his relationship to us.


    5) Morality in no way diminishes God’s omnipotence, it merely guides his actions according to the order that he himself created and sustains (and could change whenever he wants).

    6) God’s omnipotence in no way diminishes his goodness. God is love. He always loves us. That’s why he maintains ALL of creation’s and our natural states and dynamics in perfect harmony, so that there is no discord (on the level of functional integrity, at least. Discord comes directly from morality, where the ball is in our court).
    God is righteous because he does not violate the structure he ordained.

    Ok, so to apply that to the concept of final judgment, I’d say, firstly, that God is still sovereign, even though he is moral.
    Secondly, I’d say that God is perfectly moral, and so we can be absolutely sure he’ll be fair, and also that we should be able to understand how he’ll judge, since morality is a created dynamic.
    Thirdly, I’d say (again) that the ball is in our court. We all know what it is to be moral within our inherited culture, and we must act morally.
    Fourthly, I think that good people (i.e. deeply un-selfcentered, humble servant-leaders) who have no faith are extremely rare, probably nonexistent. Think about what it means to lay down one’s life, in everything, consistently. Then think what it would take to do that. I find it difficult to conceive realistically of any other situation than one where a person is made able to love beyond their own needs, by the Spirit of God working inside them, through faith.
    This said, all that remains is possibly to say that God, being all-powerful, easily gives EVERYONE a chance (probably many, since he is merciful) to deny themselves and pursue righteousness according to the measure of faith given to them, and in so doing move towards God. Some are destined to die at an earlier state of “God-dependency” than others, but seeking God is what is important.
    We also know that those who seek God with all their hearts will find him (Jeremiah 29:13). God is a good evangelist. I don’t doubt that we’ll all get an individually tailored, fair, & generous chance to follow him, wherever we may start from. Some of us may be lucky enough to find Jesus!

    Finally, my resolution of the Euthyphro problem involves a process I loosely call “transcendence.” I have found that I tend to get a lot of this kind of thing with God. Therefore I would urge you, whenever You’re faced with a dilemma, to search deeply and prayerfully for clear knowledge, and not to make a compromise that rests on ambiguities and incomplete understanding. I would be very hesitant to write off all the scriptures on hell as being merely -a literary device.- I think it is far more likely that the images described are important metaphors for spiritual realities that are impossible to imagine. I relish the details in any description, especially those in the word of God…

    Arlyn Culwick

  3. Dear Graeme,

    You always stimulate me! You have a questioning mind, and I’m curious too. The issue of HELL (and Heaven) is part of a package of Biblical themes which we humans wrestle with because of our finiteness. I find great relief in realising that the infinite God chose in grace to communicate with us finite creatures, but was forced to use OUR human language, not His heavenly language (which we could not understand).

    Biblical descriptions of Hell cannot be taken literally (as fundamentalists do) because they are mutually exclusive. You can’t have a “lake of fire” in “outer darkness”! (You mention this anomaly). But we must not lose sight of the reality that whatever the metaphor used, it is a terrible place to be, a horrible destiny.

    God is a God of love and so could not send anyone to hell. God is a holy God, and so should send everyone to hell. Here too are Biblical doctrines taken to extremes and ending up in opposite conclusions. I believe that Hell is the very best place God could find to accommodate those who reject Him. I was helped by CS Lewis “The Great Divorce” allegory which describes Hell in terms of boring unreal monotony, with God-rejecters given the opportunity of a day-trip to heaven, and on arrival finding it all so REAL that they voluntarily choose to return to Hell because although awful is better for them than the reality of Heaven.


    About the endlessness of time in Hell ….. I believe this is based on a false concept of Eternity as “endless time”. No, Eternity is the opposite of Time. It is the every-present NOW, without past or future. I AM THAT I AM, the Eternal One, inhabits Eternity. All time-bound language (PRE-destination, FORE-knowledge etc) are meaningless to God in eternity. I’ve written an aritcle “God doesn’t believe in Pre-destination” that fleshes this out. Apply this to Hell, and the idea of endless suffering falls away. Time-lessness is a concept so foreign to all we know in this world that we cannot delve into these mysteries. Suffice it to know that endlessness is NOT a feature of the next life!

    So I can confidently rest in the acceptance that God is Bigger than I am, that if I understood God I would be God, that there are many mysteries I will never understand simply because I’m human and do not have the capacity to understand them. A preacher I heard likened our best experiences on Earth to being like a baby on the kitchen floor totally content in a dry nappy, a full tummy and a rattle. And to Heaven to being an adult with a good grasp and enjoyment of philosophy, astronomy, engineering, the arts, music, biology, etc etc. If he tried to explain even a little to that baby of what adulthood is like, the baby wouldn’t understand a thing – no capacity to understand. The baby thinks he has fulfilment on that kitchen floor – but the adult knows that fulfilment is far richer. In fact, the adult would be totally bored (tortured) by having to be what that happy baby is.

    So in these ways I try to build faith and confident Christianity amid the many doubts that are so easily sown in our questioning human minds ~ often by un-thought-through assumptions dogmatically preached.

    Blessings! Hugh Wetmore ([email protected])

  4. We should be careful of dismissing a concept purely because our present state of enlightenment cannot perceive it to be true, namely you question how we can possibly have fire and darkness and how the worms will survive in the fire? The first question has been scientifically answered in the last 15 years – before that the best scientific minds could not conceive it. Basically in the context of one of Stephen Hawkings\’s “black holes” it is entirely plausible to have fire, heat and even light in a state of total darkness. ( the density of matter is so great that it exerts a gravitational pull so strong, that nothing (including light) can depart from that matter)
    On the fire proof worm question – it is true that we cannot perceive now how this could be scientifically possible, however there are two biblical examples I can think of where a similar fire resistance property was imparted to normally combustible matter – the burning bush and Shadrack / Meshak & co. So there is proberly a scientific explanation / law on how living things can survive in fire – our scientists have just not discovered it yet.
    My point, I guess, is that there may be many God created laws of the universe out there which have yet to be understood and discovered by science. Some might actually prove “ridiculous concepts” like human eating fire resistant superworms, and some might disprove things which we often take for fact, like ….. (I\’ll stop here!)

    Peter Schumacher ([email protected])

  5. Kathryn added:

    A verse I just found:
    2 Peter 2:4
    For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell, putting them into gloomy dungeons to be held for judgment;

    Is hell just a temporary waiting place between “now” and the final judgement?

    Maybe believers go straight to the judgement, and non-believers wait in hell for it to happen?

    Just a thought.

  6. You asked in your post that “Why does the Old Testament make no reference at all to eternal, conscious torment?”

    What about Daniel 12:2?
    “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt.”

  7. A response to the previous comment:

    In Daniel 12:11-12, it clearly states the time frame in which Dan 12:2 muts be considered: “From the time that the daily sacrifice is abolished and the abomination that causes desolation is set up, there will be 1,290 days. Blessed is the one who waits for and reaches the end of the 1,335 days.”

    So, this happened well before Jesus was even born.

    If you would claim that Daniel 12:11-12 is not literal (as I would), then Daniel 12:2 is not literal either.

  8. Here’s something Brian McLaren recently wrote:

    Q: A reader of A New Kind of Christianity writes …
    I hope you are enjoying and soaking up your trip to Asia! What a wonderful experience it must be.
    I know you are busy, so I understand if you don’t have time to respond to this, or maybe you could even jot me a quick place to look for more thoughts on this.
    I know Revelation is a different sort of text and difficult to interpret. But I am wondering about Revelation 21. What do you do with the verses about a lake of burning sulfur that the cowardly, vile, liars etc go to in the second death? This just sounds so much like the “theos” form of God.
    I loved what you said about 1)giving myself permission to not like a verse and then 2) to see if there is another way this could be understood. I am stuck with this one though…
    I want to scratch it away.

    Here’s the R:

    Thanks for the question. First, it’s probably best to take Rev. 20:11- 21:27 together for context’s sake. And you’re right – it’s a difficult text – but for different reasons, I think, than many assume.
    First, it’s important to notice what this passage doesn’t say:
    1. It doesn’t say “I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, the book of life. And the dead were judged according to their beliefs and religious affiliation. Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, atheists, homosexuals, and liberals were thrown into the lake of fire … Christians were spared.” Nothing like that at all! The judgment occurs according to works … “what they had done.” (Now I belief in justification by grace alone through faith alone – but I don’t believe in “justification by believing in the doctrine of justification alone by faith alone through grace alone.”) So what some Christians commonly say about judgment is quite different from what this text itself says.
    2. Interestingly, when “the devil who had deceived them” is thrown into the “lake of fire and sulphur” in 20:10, along with “the beast and the false prophet,” it says “they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.” When human beings are judged in 20:11-15, it says they are plunged into “the second death.” Nothing about torment, etc., is mentioned beyond being judged.
    Now even with those provisos, I don’t read these passages as descriptions of the afterlife. As I explain in a few of my books, Revelation is a genre piece – it fits in the genre of “Jewish Apocalyptic Literature.” This genre is in turn part of a larger genre called “Literature of the Oppressed.” In literature of the oppressed, an oppressed group tells the truth about the powers that be, but they do it in a “slant” or indirect way so that they won’t be arrested, tortured, and killed for doing so.
    So, I think the Beast represents the Roman Empire (and by extension – recalling Daniel 7 – all oppressive, violence/fear-based domination systems). I think the false prophet represents religious establishments that baptize those powerful violent, heartless, inhuman (hence “beastly”) systems. And I think the point of Revelation is that the powerful people who did the killing will ultimately be judged as the villains of history, and the powerless people who got killed for their witness against the beastly systems will be judged the heroes in God’s eyes. It says God is on the side of the marginalized and oppressed (remember Exodus and Pharaoh?), not on the side of the powerful who control the status quo.
    I hope that helps a little!


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