The following article was written by a good friend of mine named Matt Hixson, a professor at Johnson Bible College. I know this topic is controversial, but Matt’s freestyle and candid treatment can at least give us a foothold on some basics. If you are not familiar with the ongoing controversy, good for you! But, you must understand that today, if you are going to share the gospel with an unbeliever, this subject inevitably will arise. So to bury our heads in the sand is folly to be sure. So my readers know, I don’t have an opinion on the matter as yet. I know that the Bible has some terrifying things to say about the destiny of those who do not choose to put their faith in Christ, and I don’t believe Rob Bell is doing Christendom any favors either! The following treatise on hell will give you the overview, an opportunity to find some resting place for yourself, and arm you with enough ammo to have an intelligent conversation/argument with someone who takes an alternate view to Matt’s. God bless you all and enjoy the ride!
How Can a Loving God Send Someone to Hell? by Matt Hixson
There are three major notions about the fate of the wicked in Christianity today. The first is Universalism, that the wicked will ultimately be saved. The second is the traditional view of hell, that the wicked will suffer conscious torture that is eternal in duration. The third is commonly referred to as Annihilationism, that the wicked will die; that is, their punishment will result in a consequence of death, a death that is eternal and irreversible, but is only metaphorically comparable to hell. It’s my assertion that Annihilation, scripturally referred to by the biblical terms, death, destruction, perish, and consume, accurately depicts Bible teaching and is the proper concept of God’s justice and judgment. I have no space to discuss universalism in depth, so I will not address it, in detail, only to mention that it takes theological gymnastics to argue that all dogs go to heaven.
On to Hell: The Bible uses quite a few different expressions describing the fate or state of those who die without Christ. Those convinced that sinners will suffer in hell point to phrases like eternal punishment, eternal condemnation, etc. They assume those phrases refer to a punishment that is ongoing and eternal rather than a punishment that occurs once but creates a state that is eternal. In other words, “eternal punishment” is better understood as judgment and death than as torture of a person who essentially has eternal life. A basic principle of hermeneutics is to interpret obscure references through the lens of clear biblical teaching. In plain prose, the Bible teaches that the wages of sin is death, not torture. For example, God told Eve if they ate of the fruit they would die, not suffer constant pain through all of eternity. God has not pulled a gotcha and added to the sentence of Eden. John announced Jesus’ mission to prevent people from perishing. The writer of Hebrews says the enemies of God will be consumed. Paul says the destiny of the wicked is destruction. The scriptures use these terms repeatedly. In short, the fate of the wicked is referred to with finality in these prose terms more often than any other way, particularly when biblical authors were writing in prose.
Second, the Bible’s descriptions of hell seem to be metaphorical rather than logical or literal. The Bible refers to hell simultaneously as outer darkness, a lake of fire, a prison, an abyss or pit, and Gehenna-the burning garbage dump. These are at least 5 distinct contexts for torture. It’s not likely all these contexts exist simultaneously, especially when the characteristics such as light and fire, water and fire are mutually exclusive. They are also ancient conceptions. Why would God use punishments which are locked in a specific historical period? Jack, action hero in the series 24, has come up with more ingenious torture methods since then. No, the descriptions are metaphors.
Neither do the various metaphorical descriptions end with the New Testament. The New Testament Apocrapha, written only a hundred or so years after the NT takes the gore to all new levels. The Apocalypse of Peter states that adultresses “would be swallowed up in a pit to their necks and tormented with great pain. Or that the milk of their breasts would congeal and from it come beasts devouring flesh.” The adulterers will be hung by their loins. Details are given about the pit which is said to be full of excrement and worms will devour their entrails. The idea that certain types of sinners would receive specific gory punishments which was incorporated by Dante in the Inferno were already in print 1,200 years earlier in the apocrypha. That, however, does not mean the NT writers had any such concept or even that they understood their more vague descriptions literally. Many Christians today not only fail to recognize metaphor but have a ghastly view of hell that goes way beyond even biblical description and posits God as brutal and sadistic.
Well then, why use metaphor at all. Here’s the rub on hell. Just because judgment does not entail eternal torture doesn’t mean we should not shudder at the thought of dying without Christ. The Bible does make it clear that the dead will rise for judgment. They will either live eternally or die a second death. That judgment will be so devastating, that it requires a metaphorical description to capture the dread of knowing that one could have had eternal life, and that one will be separated forever from God and others. To know that one will never be remembered again as if they never existed. Annihilationism also holds out the possibility that although the suffering will not be eternal, it could take quite a while. If one dies slowly on earth, might the second not take a while as well? The context of Luke 12 concerns the second coming. It reads from verse 46 “The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. That servant who knows his master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what his master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows.”
So why annihilationism rather than eternal torture? First, as I have said, I believe it provides the soundest interpretation of the biblical texts. Second, it is more consistent with the character of God. He judges and punishes, but does not torture. He does not behave as a sadistic, torturous serial killer who revels in the agony of others. Third, it is a more reasonable fate for those who have never heard the gospel. It punishes brutal dictators and those who have never heard the gospel differently. Fourth, it helps with evangelism. Hell fire and brimstone preaching may scare a few people into Christianity, but it will produce a church of people with fire insurance rather than disciples who love God for who He is. In evangelizing areas who have never had the gospel, new converts see it as a reasonable fate for their ancestors rather than an unreasonable one. Fifth, it is a view held by some surprisingly astute and conservative Christian writers and leaders such as CS Lewis, John Stott, Karl Barth, Carl Henry, John Wesley, and even church father Justin Martyr. Seventh and finally, annihilationism does not grant the wicked eternal life. The doctrine of eternal conscious torment conflicts with biblical teaching that eternal existence is a gift for those who repent only. How does a loving God send anyone to Hell? He doesn’t. But neither do they experience eternal life, either in quality or duration. The wicked will perish. We see it every day passing tombstones on the way to work.