What happens when you die? People have been trying to answer this question since the beginning of time. As, Christians, we know the answer.
What Is Theology About Hell? Hell, as described in the Bible, is a place of torment intended for Satan and his followers. It is also the final resting place for people who showed loyalty to God’s enemy during their lifetime. Theology about hell discusses various understandings of what hell is like and what happens to people after the final judgment.
There are a lot of unanswered questions when it comes to Hell, many that won’t be answered on this earth. However, we can discern some things from the Bible, and begin to understand some of the different interpretations of what we find there.
To talk about the theology of Hell we first need to define Hell. Hell is the place, according to Christians, where non-Christians go since they have not repented of their sins and found forgiveness through the sacrifice of Christ. In the Bible, this place is also sometimes referred to as Sheol and Hades.
How To Decide What You Believe
When it comes to our beliefs about Hell it can be very easy to get swept up in what we want to believe instead of what is true. For this reason, it is particularly important to understand where our decision making comes from so that we can make an educated decision based on the truth of God’s Word.
There are two primary ways that people process what they are reading, for better or worse.
Making a decision based on your emotions towards a topic rarely results in proper understanding. In fact, this decision could even be considered a logical fallacy, an “appeal to emotion.” These decisions do not come from reason or sound hermeneutics.
If you hear yourself saying things like, “I just can’t believe in a God that…” or “That can’t be true because I don’t feel that God should…” that be aware, you are likely basing your judgment on emotions. Just because you don’t like the truth doesn’t make it not true.
Ultimately, decisions made in this way promote an attitude of ignorance and bad theology.
Good hermeneutics is the proper way to draw theological conclusions. Hermeneutics is the study of interpreting the Bible. Take the time to prayerfully and exegetically unpack and understand a passage of scripture and its message as a whole. Then you can draw an appropriate conclusion based on that information.
It is also valuable to understand other people’s viewpoints on the passage you are studying. They may have seen something in their examination that you missed.
Once you understand as much as possible the different perspectives on that passage and have completed your own exegetical study, you can decide what you believe that God says to be true. Not because you want something to be true, but because your study leads you to believe that it is true.
What you believe may be different than the majority, however, if you can back it up by good hermeneutics, it is acceptable to believe that way.
What Do We Know About Hell?
Contrary to what you may think, we don’t actually know a lot about Hell. The Bible doesn’t say much about it, and many people’s understanding comes from bits and pieces of leftover Medieval theology, epic poems, and people like Dante Alighieri. However, there are a few things that can be discerned from the Bible.
What is Hell Like?
While Scripture does not say a lot about what Hell is like, we know one thing for certain – it is not a nice place.
One of the popular images that people recall when thinking about Hell is the lake of fire. However, not all people agree that this statement was intended to be literal and some feel that this is actually a metaphor, saying that while Hell does not necessarily have a lake of fire, it is painful as a lake of fire.
Ultimately, it is not super important what it looks like. Hell is not a place you want to experience.
Why Was Hell Created?
Hell was created when Satan rejected God and was cast out of Heaven. At the final judgment, God will send Satan, his demons, the beast, the false prophet, sin, and death to dwell there forever. It was created to punish them for their rebellion against God.
Hell was never intended for humans, however, when people fail to believe, they are choosing loyalty with God’s enemy, and because they are loyal to him, they will also be sent there after death.
…and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.Revelation 20:10 ESV
Is God Present in Hell?
This is an interesting question because it is also part of the debate, where does the torment in Hell come from? Some say that Hell is entirely devoid of God’s presence and that is why it is so evil. However, others argue that it is God’s wrath being poured out over the wicked.
Ultimately, our understanding of God and his character is that he is omnipresent. He is in all places at once. If this is to be true, God would have to be present in Hell.
In this way, it appears that Hell is God’s wrath being poured out over the wicked, not a place devoid of his presence.
So, it is not that Hell is that absence of God’s presence, but that it is manifested in a different way. God is just, and in that, we see his love and compassion for the people who believed in him, and we see his wrath and judgment for those who didn’t.
What Hell is Not
It is a common misconception that Hell is where Satan rules, that he is some sort of governor over Hell. This is not the case. Satan and his demons will be punished in Hell after the final judgment with all the other people who show their allegiance to him.
The Intermediate State
The intermediate state is the time in between a person’s physical death, and the second coming of Christ. On this topic, all evangelicals believe the same thing.
All Christians, people who believed God during their lifetime, will go to Heaven until the final judgment. All non-believers will go to Hell until the final judgment.
Where theologians disagree is what happens after the final judgment. While Christians enjoy their relationship with God in the new earth, what will happen to non-Christians?
There are four main views on what happens after the final judgment. These include eternal conscious torment, conditional immortality also known as annihilation, universalism, and post mortem salvation.
There may be other viewpoints and variations out there but these four are the most prominent.
Eternal Conscious Torment
The Eternal Conscious Torment view, also known as ECT or the traditional view, has been the most prominent belief throughout history.
According to this view, after the final judgment, non-Christians are sentenced to an eternity of conscious pain and torment for their sin.
This view assumes that all souls are immortal and will last forever wherever they are (a key difference from the annihilation perspective).
Unfortunately, while some people do have good hermeneutical reasons for not taking this view, many reject this view for emotional reasons. It usually begins with something like, “I just can’t believe God would send people he says he loves to hell for eternity. It doesn’t seem fair.” This often is a result of a small view of sin, of God, or both.
…ECT advocates point out that the language of “destruction” (or “perish,” Greek: apoleia or olethros) doesn’t have to mean “pass out of existence” but can simply mean “ruin” or “to end the original function of something/someone.”Preston Sprinkle
Preston Sprinkle, author of Stop Erasing Hell, a proponent of this interpretation, would say that one of the strongest arguments for ECT is the use of this kind of “destruction” language, which does not refer to annihilation, but ruin.
He also points to passages such as Matthew 25:46, the words “eternal” mean the same thing in both instances, indicating an eternal existence in Heaven, or in Hell.
And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.Matthew 25:46 ESV
According to this perspective, not all souls are immortal. While Christians will spend eternity in Heaven, the soul of a non-Christian will, at some point, cease to exist. There are two variations of within this view relating to when the soul ceases to exist: instant and progressive.
This view is interesting because its acceptance has varied throughout history. Throughout most of history, it was considered a heresy, however, there have also been moments where it was instead labeled as a heterodoxy.
Within the instant model, there are yet two more variations. One which has been labeled a heresy, and another which is viewed somewhat more favorably by evangelicals.
Under the first model, once a non-Christian dies their physical death on earth, that’s it. There is nothing else. Their soul ceases to exist. This ideology is mostly held by Christian cults such as Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Under the second model, some evangelicals think that once the final judgment is passed, then the soul will instantly cease to exist. The main distinction is that under this model, they do believe in the intermediate stage and that the final judgment will occur. The first model does not believe this.
The second view within annihilation is that, after the final judgment, the soul of the non-Christian will “burn up” over time, like a piece of paper in a bonfire, until it ceases to exist. The main question sprouting from this view is, how long does it take for a human soul to “burn up” or cease to exist?
Scripture consistently teaches that the fate of the unsaved is to die, to perish, to be destroyed forever—in ways those words are ordinarily understood.Chris Date
Chris Date, author of Rethinking Hell, is a proponent of this interpretation. In this statement, he is speaking of words like “death,” “destruction,” “perish,” and so forth, claiming that these words indicate an end for the human soul who does not believe in Jesus.
He would argue that Christians are granted eternal life when they accept that gift from Jesus as our savior. However, since Jesus was our substitute, taking on the punishment (death) that we should have endured, and non-Christians have rejected it, they are now no longer from that fate. Therefore, their soul will die (cease to exist) at some point.
For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.Romans 6:23 ESV
According to universalism, Christ’s atonement covers all people regardless of their sin. They do not believe that there will be a judgment at all. This ideology has long been labeled a heresy by the church.
People who fall into this view tend to refer to Philippians, however, they ignore a lot of other scripture that contradicts this ideology.
Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.Philippians 2:9-11 ESV
Essentially the key belief in this view is that people can still be “saved” after their death. There are many different variations however they all generally fall under this idea.
For example, Mormons, another Christian cult, believe in the baptism of the dead. They believe that a person must be baptized to enter into the kingdom of Heaven and so in baptizing a living person, on behalf of a dead person, they can get that person to heaven.
A prominent theologian, Rob Bell, author of “Love Wins,” does hold to this view. According to his book, God’s love is so powerful that we can’t all help but love him eventually, and that at that point we would all end up in Heaven.
Like the universalists, many people understand this perspective in light of Philippians while ignoring many other passages of scripture.
Why Is This Topic Important?
While your stance about Hell is not necessarily going to keep you from Heaven, it can still have a big impact on how you live your life, and as such should be considered carefully.
For example, someone who holds to a universalist perspective may not comprehend how much God hates sin or the extent of his justice. If this is the case, then they may live their life casually, and not particularly concerned about their sin, or the fact that other people don’t know the Lord.
Again, this decision will not necessarily determine your salvation, however, it may affect the way you live your life and how you view God in a critical way. This is why it is so important to understand
I think that we can all agree that Hell is a terrible place, and not a future we want to find ourselves in. As humans, we were born with a sin nature that dates back to the Garden of Eden. We are full of wickedness and are spiritually dead. But it doesn’t have to stay that way.
God desperately wants a relationship with us, his creation, but sin bars us from engaging in that kind of relationship. God sent his only son, Jesus Christ, to die and take on the sins of all creation, past, present, and future in order that we could be in a relationship with him.
When we believe in the sacrifice that Jesus made, we are freed from our bondage to sin, and are able to pursue a relationship with God. We are made new in Christ.
Whether you realize it or not, this choice is available to you today. Repent of your sin, and embrace a life with Christ! Things won’t be easy, in fact, the Bible actually says it will be really hard. But you will have the Holy Spirit inside of you to guide you and strengthen you through these difficult times. You will have hope!
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.2 Corinthians 5:17 ESV