Is Hell A Place of Eternal Torment?

This question has really been pushed to the forefront with the recent release of Rob Bell’s book, “Love Wins.”  However, it is not a recent controversy.  For centuries good and faithful Christians have not agreed on what the Bible says about the subject.  It is a rather ancient source of discussion.

Most modern Christians in America have grown up under the very traditional view: that Hell is a place of everlasting punishment; eternal torment.  We have been taught this from our very youngest days, and we are aware of a few passages of scripture which seems to support the concept.

In a nut shell, the Eternal Torment doctrine holds that when the wicked are judged by God they are cast into Hell.  Their treatment in Hell will be in proportion to their sins on earth. However, the length of that punishment will have no end.  They will suffer in hell throughout eternity with no end in sight.

Whenever we hear any other viewpoint we tend to get defensive since this seems to be a long-standing, hard-held view of both Protestants and Catholics.  But, that wasn’t always the case.

Back in the early third century, a doctrine was growing among many Christians, which was then called “Apocatastasis.”  People like Clement and Origen taught it.  Today, it is known under a different name: Universal Reconciliation.  This seems to be the view put forth by Rob Bell in his book.

In short, Universal Reconciliation holds that after this life there will be a judgment.  The wicked will be cast into Hell for judgment.  However, they do not believe that Hell is an eternal place or state.  Rather, they believe that hell is a place meant to bring people to true repentance.  In Hell the wicked are punished proportionately to their sins.  It lasts as long as it takes a person to be punished and brought to true repentance.  The person who holds this view would say that Hell is designed to bring about genuine repentance, and God is not fooled by anything less.

Another viewpoint that very good Christians have held is called Annihilationism.  Traces of this doctrine go as far back as the fourth century.  Since then it has been held by various Christian groups.

Annihilationism can be summed this way: that on the Day of Judgment the wicked are cast into hell for punishment.  When the exact amount of punishment has been meted out – no more and no less – than the wicked person is annihilated.  This means that the person ceases to exist, with no more consciousness.  Their souls do not go on living in any sense.

What is noteworthy as we look at these three historical views is that none of them deny the existence of Hell.  Hell is part of each of their viewpoints.  Occasionally, when someone from one of these camps is criticizing someone from another they tend to accuse them of denying the existence of Hell.  This is simply untrue.

So, you may ask, which one of these is true?  Well, that’s the problem – I’m not real sure because I don’t see the Bible clearing the matter up completely.  There seems to be support for all three!

Let me show you what I mean. I am going to list three passages of scripture.  Below each passage I’ve indicated which of the three views that scripture bests supports.

Matthew 25:41: Then He will also say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from Me you cursed, into everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angles.”

Eternal Torment/Universal Reconciliation/Annihilationism?

1 Cor. 15:22: For in Adam all die, so shall in Christ all shall be made alive

Eternal Torment/Universal Reconciliation/Annihilationism?

Phil. 3:18-19: …they are the enemies of the cross of Christ: whose end is destruction…

Eternal Torment?  Universal Reconciliation?  Annihilationism?

Now these are just three passages, and I didn’t take the time to explain each one. But the point is that it is easy to see how someone could read any of them and walk away with a different viewpoint. (You may have noticed that I picked one verse from each viewpoint).

So … is Hell a place of eternal torment?  In all honesty, I am not sure.  However, my study of the subject has made me lose a lot of confidence in the traditional view.  There are only about 5 or 6 passages in the Bible that seem to suggest Eternal Torment, but a closer inspection of these verses has not convinced me.

In any event, Hell is a place to avoid at all costs.  Jesus said that if your hand causes you to sin it is better to cut it off and lived maimed then it is to be wholly cast into hell.

In summary, I don’t feel that this is an issue that should come between Christians.  I think we can still disagree on what the Bible teaches about this subject and still love and serve Jesus.  And that’s what it’s all about anyway …