Hell yes or Hell No? A Defense of the Hardest Teaching In Christianity

explosionHell is horrible. It’s a beast of a topic to teach on. It’s easily one of the most difficult and even embarrassing teachings in Christian Scripture. Effectively the doctrine of hell risks two major dangers: It drives people away from God for fear that he’s a cruel sadist. Or it drives people to God for all the wrong reasons (i.e., fear-baiting, threats, coercion).

While I don’t pretend to have all the answers, and I don’t expect this powerpoint presentation to convert the most hardened atheists or theological liberal, this doctrine is still defensible. And for those of us who consider Christianity to be plausible, and the Bible to be reliable, and Christ to be lovable–for those people, there is great comfort in knowing that the doctrine of hell serves an important role in maintaining coherence within a biblical Christian worldview.

Here is a powerpoint presentation detailing the biblical Christian doctrine of hell, together with theological, textual, and historical defenses for this difficult doctrine:

Hell Yes or Hell No [Powerpoint Presentation]

Hell Yes or Hell No [PDF version]

Addendum: One commentor suggested that “death” never really meant “separation.” This claim is only half right. In Hebrew and in Greek, across biblical history and through most of human history there have been at least two senses of the word “death”–cessation, and separation. One needs to tell from context which is in view. The separation definition, according to my work in this study Separation Definition of Death.3 August 2016 is a long-standing tradition deeply rooted in Biblical Christianity, Christian theology, but also commonly accepted by natural revelation among non-Christian scholars in the ancient and modern world.

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32 thoughts on “Hell yes or Hell No? A Defense of the Hardest Teaching In Christianity

  1. it’s not defensible if a historical-critical methodology is followed. there’s no mention of hell in scripture. there is only sheol in the OT (and no heaven), gahenna, in the NT as an analogy (essentially, a landfill, a dump), and hades … but this is clearly to and from hellenized jews. none of these are eternal either.

    1. Steven, did you look at the linked presentation? It’s flatly false to say there’s no mention of hell in scripture unless you mean no mention of the ENGLISH term hell in the Greek and Hebrew text. Contextually, there’s several places in the OT and NT which use the term for hades, hell and the lake if fire but can’t possibly mean “grave” or “pit.” Context is key.

      BTW, I’m not a fan of the historical critical methof as it usually imports an antisupernatualistic bias whereby even if a miracle happened (and scripture reports several of them) that method forces me to disbelieve the text. I prefer an interpretive method that let’s me treat the text neutrally, where if the author says he saw a miracle I don’t have to assume, by method, that he’s lying or that he’s telling the truth.

      1. so in other words, you don’t care what scripture means because you want to believe in miracles, despite any reasons to doubt them?

        will you describe to me what you mean by “hell” and then where you find that in the OT?

      2. I already did describe it. I made a PowerPoint about it and posted it on my blog. You might have seen it. And i care very deeply about the meaning of the text, that why I don’t import an antisupernaturalistic interpretive method which would bias me against the plain meaning of many of the biblical texts.

        I’m willing to entertain objections and doubts. I’m no fideist. We just shouldn’t prejudge texts as false until proven true. That’s a problematic approach, and that’s built into the historical critical (ie, methodologically naturalistic) method.

        Now its possible that you and I are using the same term differently. When I hear “historical critical” method, I understand that to mean a brand of higher criticism which imports methodological naturalism as an operating assumption. Namely, it interprets the text under the assumption that miracles can’t happen. Is that roughly what you mean when you say “historical critical method”?

      3. historical-critical doesn’t speak to miracles. it isn’t anti anything.

        as it is, i can’t view your presentation. is there a problem listing OT passages that describe hell like you do?

      4. It’s just redundant that’s all. And since I’m commenting from my phone I can’t access my list of scriptures. Historical criticism, as I encountered the field in four hermeneutics classes in college and seminary is laden with methodological naturalism which, in critiquing religious texts, becomes an antisupernstualsitiv bias.

        I’ll see if I can make the presentation into pdf slides and add the link just beneath the prior link.

      5. i appreciate that.

        and me, in my very same classes, never once heard H/C characterized as biased, a naturalism, or anti supernatural.

        i would imagine you went to an oddly conservative (ie waaay right) university?

      6. Well regardless of terminology, if the method requires the reader to import methodological naturalism in the course of critiquing (higher criticism) and interpreting (lower criticism) the text then it’s intrinsically biased against religious texts.

      7. wouldn’t it be a bias to name texts “religious”, since it implies it must be understood unnaturally in order to be “properly” understood? 😉

      8. Huh? It’s fair to the text to allow it to speak plainly in religious concept or secular concepts where ever the plain meaning of the text leans. When John says “Jesus wept” I allow that that means Jesus existed and he cried. I don’t have to believe or care about that claim to admit that that’s what the text meant. When John says “God is love” I allow the plain meaning that we could reasonably expect of a first century Jewish person at that time, namely, a theistic God (somehow identical with the God of the Hebrew Bible/OT) is himself love, loving, or does loving things. This isn’t magic or rocket science. It’s just normal evidential standards for a document. We don’t have make a judgment about the veracity of the texts to evaluate what they mean.

        I don’t know of any serious dispute about whether the Bible is a religious text. I’d like to see your argument that it’s not, or that we aren’t justified in considering it a religious text.

        Also, I don’t understand what you are getting at when you insert the world “unnatural” into the conversation. That isn’t the same concept as “supernatural,” or “religious.” And it seems slanted against supernaturalism.

      9. we’re it that simple, thing like “pistis christou” wouldn’t be debated, or everything else about scripture. scripture doesn’t “speak” and “plain” doesn’t mean “literal” and H/C has president be cause OUR reading plainly is not the plain meaning of the ancient author.

        for instance, post enlightenment, bivalent, professional thinking has protestants thinking the prologue of john’s gospel is a nod to the trinity … when taking the THEN meaning of logos, combined with the THEN meaning of hodos, alethea, and zoe leads us to a jesus in abelardian terms rather than transactional nonsense where jesus is the doorman; ie jesus is the revealed truth about humanity and he was the way god intended all humanity to be, which is life abundant.

        the bible IS a religious text! what i’m saying is there isn’t any supernatural way to read it, no “religious” way, as you implied. if you want an exegesis that gives you literal miracles, go for it, what i’m saying is that is the biggest bias of all since these are by definition, rare and scarce. too, a plain read of the brother’s grimm doesn’t equate to informing us as to the literally of the text, nor does labeling a book “religious” tell us either. a plain read doesn’t mean a literal read and as i have just implied, plain reads are also interpreted affairs.

      10. I think we agree that the task of interpreting Scripture is rarely “plain” and “simple.” The “plain meaning” isn’t necessarily easy to access, but it can be relatively plain if we are trying to let the authors mean what they could have reasonably meant at the time of writing. I just don’t want to make it harder than it is, and make it impossible, by allowing the presumptions of historical criticism to forbid us from allowing the Gospel authors to “mean” what our best and fairest methods suggest they mean. I’m well aware of many serious disputes about apparently “easy” texts. John 1:1 is probably trinitarian though (or at least, binatarian–allowing for Jesus and the Father to be both God and somehow distinct from each other), despite a world of opposition from Jehovah’s Witnesses, and some non-trinitarian cult groups.

      11. Conservative yes, “way right” not really. I was taught JEDP theory in college OT classes. I studied a range of interpretive methods in college hermeneutic class. And at my seminary I studied and practiced higher criticism in the course of history of hermeneutics class and philosophy of hermeneutics class. In Greek class we learned how to do textual criticism. In Hebrew class I had to do papers comparing and contrasting methods and it’s in my own study that I came to reject Tubingen/German Influenced rationalist methods in the manner of Bultman (on the far left) and Barth (on the neoorthodox right). Essentially, my beef is with the inherent bias and circularity of methodological naturalism whereever it’s sprouts up, and especially when it’s used, by default, in one’s critique of religious texts. I prefer methods that gave priority to natural causes but which make no ruling about prohibiting their consideration, especially when there’s empirical evidence consistent with supernaturalist accounts (such as ex nihilo creation, fulfilled prophecy, and the resurrection).

        A good source on the problems of historical criticism is Eta Linneman’s work on the subject. She exposes the built-in bias of the system.

      12. there’s no empirical evidence for creatio ex nihilo. that is first of all, a theological statement to say god didn’t create like man does by altering something already existing. taken to be an argument for god, it fails logically since we observe “something from something” but never “nothing from nothing” and to make god a special exception is to entail that fallacy. instead, BECAUSE nihilo nihil fit, something has always existed and we call that eternality “god”; who created in the non theological sense via creatio ex se. this of course all goes back some time … i believe nicholas of cusa toiled away on this topic, and the advice is a re articulation of his thoughts.

        still, naturalism itself is not circular nor is the historical-critical method, even if we agreed its predicate was naturalism … which we don’t … mainly because you merely assert it is by an argument from silence; that it doesn’t talk about the supernatural, hence it is biased against it.

      13. I think we’re getting off track. You interjected into this blog post, but it turns out you didn’t read the substantial argument linked in the post. And now we’re talking about the physical evidence of the creation/singularity event? I don’t mean to dismiss your point. I’m familiar with a lot of the discussion regarding evidential criteria, physical laws, and big bang cosmology. And there’s an interesting exchange to be had there. My point was a modest one: big bang cosmology is consistent with ex nihilo creation. Big bang cosmology isn’t radically exclusive to Creation doctrine but it’s definitely more consistent with original creation than with the “steady state theory” fashionable until Hubble.

        As for historical critical method, I’m referring to the school of “higher criticism” which seeks to identify the historical development of the text by utilizing methodological naturalism and forbidding any and all supernaturalistic accounts of events (i.e., like the creation story, the 10 plagues, the burning bush, virgin birth, resurrection, etc.). These are all presumed to be “out of bounds” no matter how much evidence exists or might exist in their favor. Eta Linnemann has an excellent, and surprisingly brief critique of this method here: “Historical Criticism of the Bible: Methodology or Ideology?”

      14. H/C is not predicated on naturalism.

        what evidence can there be for an immaterial, transcendent being … when evidence is physical and imminent? you can only mean impressionistic abduction.

        but, i digress.

      15. i didn’t say it was. i implied the very idea that it could be seen as more. however, if you want to equate god with a sentence or an idea, be my guest.

      16. Agreed. We do not currently view everything coming from nothing. I would not expect, on natural causes, to ever find anything (much less, “everything”) coming from nothing. Literal nothingness is devoid of causal power.

        Regarding, historical criticism, You might be picturing something different or something more than what I’m actually saying. I’m saying we should try to let the text speak for itself, making effort not to let our own biases and expectations override the text. My interpretive method, which is the historical grammatical method (aka, “literal” method–but that’s a bit misleading, since this method allows for metaphor and symbolism), I allow (1) clearer passages to help interpret murkier passages, (2) considering historical context, (3) geographical context, (4) textual context, and (5) grammatical-syntactical context, and allowing for (6) the author’s likely intentions to help inform our understanding of the text. I don’t assume that only natural causes are real causes. So, I allow for anomalies, unexplained/unexplainable events, and I even allow for miracles. That way if one were to happen I’m not forced by my methodology to disbelieve real events. I don’t have to ASSUME they happen, but neither do I assume they’re impossible. I do give natural causes the ‘benefit of the doubt’ but don’t bend over backwards, for example, to make big bang cosmology somehow NOT point to an ex nihilo creation. Big Bang comports just fine with ex nihilo creation, so I don’t discard Genesis 1-2 nor the last 100 years of astrophysics.

        I’m not saying we should assume the authors are correct, but neither should we assume they are incorrect by interpreting enlightenment-era fashions (like deism and atheism, and methodological naturalism) anachronistically into 1st century writing.

  2. There’s way too much to interact with here, so I’ll limit my comment to a few quick and easy replies:

    1. Annihilationism was not condemned as heresy at the Second Council of Constantinople. These claims really should be researched before being repeated. Here’s a brief article I wrote about it: http://conditionalism.net/blog/2011/03/conditionalism-and-the-second-council-of-constantinople/

    And why is it that the only time Protestants mention the 5th Lateran (a 16th century Roman Catholic council!) is when they’re arguing against annihilationism?

    2. The torture/torment distinction with regards to hell cannot be intelligently argued for—especially if you believe hell involves literal fire (that’s a new one for me!)—and has no basis in church history. I’ve written about this as well: http://conditionalism.net/blog/2012/10/torture/

    3. “Death” does not mean “separation,” either in English or the biblical languages.

    1. Yes I think you’re right. Death and life are opposing concepts, such that death negates life in a particular way. The most obvious and familiar proposal is that death does this by terminating life. But if death did mean “separation,” it would still have to negate life, which it can only do by separating the object of death from its life. In that case, the cessation view still emerges.

    2. Ronnie, thank you for your thoughtful post. It sounds like you’ve done a lot of homework in defending conditionalism. You might be interested in the addendum I just added to the original post. It’s inspired, in part, by your last claim: “‘Death’ does not mean ‘separation,’ either in English or the biblical languages.”. I have scratched at your other claims, but don’t have any clear and defensible thoughts on those yet. I’ll let know if anything changes.

      1. Thanks for the thoughtful response John. I’ll look at the document you drafted in more detail when I have some time, but quickly, I noticed this right at the beginning:

        “It has been suggested that “death” never really meant “separation” but has always had the primary or otherwise literal mean of “destruction” (i.e., annihilation, to be destroyed, wiped-out, etc.).” And then in the footnote you say “By Ronnie…”

        I can’t see that I suggested any of that in my brief comment! All I asserted is that the English word “death” (and its translational equivalents in Hebrew and Greek) does not mean “separation” (notice that in slide 69 you put quotes around separation). In other words, if we replace instances of “death” with “separation” in most utterances, we materially change the meaning of the utterance.

        I actually do not believe that “death” means “annihilation” (or more properly, that it must mean “annihilation”; it occasionally can mean that). My own view is that “death” is a simple word denoting a simple concept, which is more or less universal across cultures: death is the loss, cessation, or absence of life. The word can be used metaphorically or proleptically, but it always ultimately points back to that basic meaning.

        When a dualist, for instance, says “my dog died” and also “my uncle died,” the meaning of “death” in both instances is typically the same: my dog and my uncle have ceased to live. Of course, the dualist has the additional belief that part of his uncle (his “soul” or “spirit”) continues to live in some other dimension (betrayed by comments such as “Uncle John isn’t really dead!”) That’s fine, but that’s not part of the meaning of “death”—at least not typically. Human death may entail the separation of soul and body (either by causing it, or being caused by it), but that doesn’t mean that “death” means “separation.”

        So much more to say, but that’s it for now. Regarding my blog, it’s more or less defunct, with the exception of a recent article. Check out my friends and colleagues at rethinkinghell.com for a robust defense of conditionalism; they have a lot of excellent material.

  3. Steven, I can’t really tell what you are trying to say anymore. Did you even read main link in the post you with which you were disagreeing? It sounds like you are hiding all sorts of assumptions, and presuming without clearly earning the intellectual high ground. If you have something meaningful to contribute in response to the post I welcome it, but please offer something substantial if you have it. If you know of some defense for historical criticism, for example, that Eta Linnemann doesn’t refute, or if you know some way that methodological naturalism can be utilized without biasing an interpretive system against supernature, then please share. I’ve studied mostly evangelical scholars on this, so I may have missed something. Or if you have some definitive reference on the subject of historical Criticism which permits supernaturalist explanations, again, please share. I don’t think I have it all figured out. But I don’t see anything in your claims, so far, that sounds like you’ve fortified historical criticism against a fair-minded critique.

    As I understand historical Criticism, it has an anti-supernaturalistic bias which forces the interpreter to treat any biblical prophecy, for example, as non-prophetic, and miracle claims and illegitimate, and any supernatural claims as false. Are you suggesting that the historical critical method somehow allows these things? So, for example, the NT texts that imply the imminent fall of the Temple (70AD) could have been written prior to 70AD? To my knowledge, every historical critical scholars assumes, by policy, that that doesn’t happen regarding specific, detailed, and highly improbable predictions, So their method leaves them unable to grant a prophecy–even if they did in fact prophesy before the event.

  4. I have some hang ups here. A fire that is dark? A literal fire that burns spirits? If the punishment for sin is eternal torment in hell why isn’t Jesus still there? If eternal torment is not punishment for sin then why does anyone go there. A fire that burns people who normally die in a fire and are completely consumed would require God to sustain their mortal bodies for ever not being consumed. I don’t see anything in scripture that supports immortality for the non believer. The bible does use language like burned up, destroyed, etc. when referring to the lost in hell. The bible also does use the words for ever to refer to things that have already ended. Any answers to these questions would be great.

    1. Ever been around a camp fire at night? It’s possible to have fire and still be surrounded by darkness.

      According to Christian teaching hell comes after the resurrection. So all human beings will be embodied. No disembodied human spirits. As for angels, they wouldn’t have to physically burn. The experience of “burning” is technically a mental process, interpreting pain receptors. One doesn’t have to burn physically to feel the sensation of burning. So, and I’m just spit balling here, perhaps fallen angels encounter an experience of burning without physically burning.

      As for immortality, there might be some confusion over the terms. Theologically, people’s afterlives are conscious whether it’s eternal death in hell or eternal life in heaven. So scripture would deny immortality of nonbelievers (they are dead) even while affirming their conscious eternal existence in the afterlife.

      I’m just free wheeling from my phone right now. So I apologize for any typos.

      1. Hi John! We may sometimes need to remind ourselves that the unsaved are brought back to life via resurrection, in order to be judged and condemned. Thus they move from a disembodied conscious state in the interval between death and resurrection, to the embodied state that they were in before dying. This of course is true as well of believers.

        Both groups are alive in the body, so to speak, as opposed to being conscious in death, so to speak. But only one of them will receive eternal life and immortality, as you rightly note.

        You can place them in a distinct place called heaven if you like, but increasingly the evangelical world is locating them in situ, with the present order of the world being superseded by the everlasting kingdom, to which only the righteous belong. Perhaps that’s also your view, but either way, the point serves to illustrate that their location doesn’t modify their state, which is the life with which we are all familiar.

        So if after being resurrected the unsaved move from life to destruction, this cannot mean that they are separated from their bodies again, since, for example, Matthew 10:28 reminds us that both “body and soul” are destroyed in Gehenna. If taken as separate components, we are still left with the constraint that whatever happens to the body is just what happens to the soul, and with the puzzle of their being alive in the full embodied sense both before and afterwards (a puzzle only if they are to live eternally on the eternal torment view, as opposed to the eternal destruction of annihilation). After all, everlasting life is what immortality as “deathlessness” entails.

      2. Agreed. The resurrection vivifies and embodies the redeemed and the unredeemed alike. There is a prior period of disembodied existence, where some sort of life is happening but humans are incomplete, and in-between. But after the resurrection, and the great white throne judgment, all people–physically embodied spirits–will see their fate in heaven or hell (the Lake of Fire).

      3. Hi John! We may sometimes need to remind ourselves that the unsaved are brought back to life via resurrection, in order to be judged and condemned. Thus they move from a disembodied conscious state in the interval between death and resurrection, to the embodied state that they were in before dying. This of course is true as well of believers.

        Both groups are alive in the body, so to speak, as opposed to being conscious in death, so to speak. But only one of them will receive eternal life and immortality, as you rightly note.

        You can place them in a distinct place called heaven if you like, but increasingly the evangelical world is locating them in situ, with the present order of the world being superseded by the everlasting kingdom, to which only the righteous belong. Perhaps that’s also your view, but either way, the point serves to illustrate that their location doesn’t modify their state, which is the life with which we are all familiar.

        So if after being resurrected the unsaved move from life to destruction, this cannot mean that they are separated from their bodies again, since, for example, Matthew 10:28 reminds us that both “body and soul” are destroyed in Gehenna. If taken as separate components, we are still left with the constraint that whatever happens to the body is just what happens to the soul, and with the puzzle of their being alive in the full embodied sense both before and afterwards (a puzzle only if they are to live eternally on the eternal torment view, as opposed to the eternal destruction of annihilationism). After all, everlasting life is what immortality as “deathlessness” entails.

  5. Indeed. But then in what consistent sense can we meaningfully deny that eternal torment entails eternal life and immortality? Those entering that predicament are alive, having just been speaking to Jesus in protestation, now weeping real tears of regret, gnashing real teeth in bitter anger—and they will remain alive in this way forever. Since we have been tracking with the state of the individual up to this point, and not how they may or may not feel about their experience of life, be it overall wonderful or tormenting or anything in between, in what sense will they go on to die a second death? Or if that final inversion can’t be consistently unfolded, should one just concede that there is everlasting life in hell, not death, reducing the matter from that point on to the qualitative, subjective experiences of being alive? J.P. Moreland has considered hell to be “a low quality of life,” and in this admission he follows many classical proponents of eternal torments. It’s my conviction, however, that there is an incoherence at that point, which is only exacerbated the more one investigates biblical usage of the cognates for life, death and immortality.

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