“All who are not true worshipers of God… shall be consigned to the punishment of everlasting fire… which… does not consume what it scorches, but while it burns it repairs.” (Tertullian, Apology 48:31-33)
“And they shall know that their torment in that fire never will have an end… They shall know that they shall forever be full of quick sense within and without; their heads, their eyes, their tongues, their hands, their feet, their loins, and their vitals, shall forever be full of glowing melting fire, fierce enough to melt the very rocks and elements; and also that they shall eternally be full of the most quick and lively sense to feel the torment.” (Jonathan Edwards, Works, Sermon 30)
While the traditional view of hell has, for the most part, been maintained as a place of “eternal torments” (Westminster Confession, 33.2), things have changed in recent times. As Bertrand Russell wrote, “Hell is neither so certain nor so hot as it used to be.” Despite the fact that modern churches seem to ignore the topic of hell entirely, one facet of this change is the shift in language from “eternal torments” to “eternal separation”. In America, we see this new approach to hell reflected in statements of faith such as this one from NewSpring Church (Pr. Perry Noble): “You were created to exist forever. We believe that forever is spent in one of two places: eternally separated from God because of sin or in union with God because of His forgiveness and salvation. When you die, you will either spend eternity in heaven or hell. Eternal separation from God happens in hell.” Nearly word for word statements can be found at LifeChurch.tv (Pr. Craig Groeschel), Saddleback Church (Pr. Rick Warren), Elevation Church (Pr. Steven Furtick), and Second Baptist Church (Pr. Ed Young).
Ok, so what really “happens in hell”? We went from Tertullian and Edwards’ teaching about burning physical flesh- real hands, feet, and nerve endings being subjected to melting fire only to be repaired and burned again for eternity to the more palatable notion of “eternal separation from God”. What (the hell) happened?
Among other contributing factors such as the socially repugnant idea of unending torture, I have noticed this shift in language consistently point back to one person – C. S. Lewis. I would argue that his writings, more than anyone else, have shaped modern Christian thought on the matter of hell. Lewis scholar, Peter Schakel writes, “Separation seems for Lewis to describe the essential idea of hell, capturing what is conveyed by the biblical imagery of torture, destruction, and privation… The essence of hell is not physical torture… The pain of hell is internal, the agony of literal self-absorption (growing ever less and less in personhood) and of resulting increases in quarrelsomeness and isolation. As souls become fixed in these attitudes, they are in hell; they are hell.”
Notable Christian apologist, J. P. Moreland builds off Lewis when he writes, “God will have absolutely no choice but to give us what we’ve asked for all along in our lives, which is separation from Him. And that is hell… hell is separation or banishment from the most beautiful being in the world- God himself… Make no mistake, hell is punishment–but it’s not punishing. It’s not torture. The punishment of hell is separation from God, bringing shame, anguish, and regret… the pain that’s suffered will be due to the sorrow from the final, ultimate, unending banishment from God, His kingdom, and the good life for which we were created in the first place… the only alternative is to sentence you away for all eternity.” (The Case for Faith)
Lewis has taught us – the essence of hell is separation. The pains of hell are no longer physical, but strictly internal. Instead of a tormenting fire, we now see hell as place where God gives the wicked what they want, namely, life apart from Him. In contrast with the biblical descriptions of God’s active retribution- inflicting destruction on body and soul in Gehenna (cf. Mt. 10:28), hell has become something we do to ourselves- a passive judgment where, to quote Lewis, “the doors of hell are locked on the inside”. In short, we have softened hell.
In a recent book on the topic, “The Skeletons in God’s Closet”, Joshua Ryan Butler uses the analogy of marriage to describe the major views of hell. He summarizes pluralistic universalism as “marry me and bring in your old lovers”, annihilation as “marry me or I’ll kill you”, and the traditional view as “marry me or I’ll lock you in the basement.” Joshua describes his own view as “marry me or go your own way” (pp. 62-67). This fresh take on hell bears resemblance to Moreland’s idea of “unending banishment from God”. But Butler’s marital analogy falls apart at the seams. While it is true that a suitor holds no authority over the lady he seeks to marry (they are essentially equal parties), Jesus does. Our situation is so entirely different. Unlike an average suitor, God created us and decides for us what is good and evil, warning us that the choice for disobedience is deserving of death. Like sheep, we turned aside and chose disobedience, breaking His commands and doing great harm to the world He created. In light of this, what is the gospel call? “Marry me or go your own way?” No. Don’t you see? We’ve already gone our own way! And up ahead, lurking like a thief in the night, is the day when God says, “No more!” A day of wrath, recompense, and judgment it will be. Like the breaking forth of the fountains of the deep in the days of Noah, on the day God purges creation with fire, it’s either life or death, not two types of life.
Besides having little biblical support, a central problem with defining hell as “eternal separation” is that it assumes physical, biological, conscious life apart from the Giver and Sustainer of life is possible. Without even realizing it, when we read biblical passages about the punishment of the wicked or have theological discussions about hell, we often assume that the wicked are immortal (i.e. they will have conscious life forever). As the statement of faith goes, “You will either spend eternity in heaven or hell“. But Scripture says otherwise. The reality is that God alone is immortal (cf. 1 Tim. 6:16), human life is dependent on God’s bestowing of it (cf. Job 34:14-15; Acts 17:28), and immortality is a gift God offers through the gospel (cf. 2 Tim. 1:10). To simply “go your own way” does not amount to living on eternally in the hardness one’s own heart, but is the rejection of life and the immortality God offers (i.e. death)- “I set before you the way of life and the way of death” (Jer. 21:8; cf. Mt. 7:13-14).
Despite the plethora of passages with the consuming, burning-up, bringing-to-an-end, absolute-wiping-out imagery of God’s destructive, eschatological fire (cf. Mt. 3:12, 13:40-42; Heb. 10:27; 2 Pet. 3:7; Jude 7), Moreland writes, “What is figurative is the burning flame; what is literal is a place of utter heartbreak. It is a loss of everything.” (The Case for Faith) If hell is truly “a loss of everything”, shouldn’t that include the precious gift of physical life? If not, then this statement is simply untrue. Did not Jesus say, “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it” (Mt. 16:25)? Any doctrine of hell that denies the loss of physical life is a softer version of hell than what Jesus spoke of.
Whether it’s the traditional view of “eternal torments” or the hip view of “eternal separation” and “utter heartbreak”, both (1) fall short of the biblical language of destruction, (2) completely overlook God’s conditional offer of immortality, (3) fail to take seriously the substitutionary physical death of Christ for our sins, and (4) do not adequately harmonize with the biblical promise of complete cosmological restoration (cf. Is. 66:22-24; 2 Pet. 3:13).
Chances are, like me, you were brought up believing the traditional view of hell. If that’s the case, I challenge you to ask yourself what that really means and why. Will the wicked experience physical pain? Or is it strictly mental? What makes you believe this? Instead of appealing to authors like C. S. Lewis, I dare you to examine the Scriptures afresh and with a willing heart, seek the truth. For a list of Scriptures to get you started or to read more about my journey of rejecting the traditional view of hell in favor of “Conditional Immortality”, check out this other post.
“Those most engaged in ‘watering down’ hell’s torments, those most eagerly explaining away its terrors, are not conditionalists who reject unending conscious torment. The folks who seem most eager to find a kinder and gentler doctrine are traditionalists themselves, embarrassed beyond words by the terror-inspiring, ‘hell-fire-and-damnation’ preaching of past centuries by men like Wesley and Spurgeon and Pink. These good brothers and sisters need to realize that their problem is not a harsh delivery but a mistaken message. The only effective solution to their problem will not be a kinder and gentler tone, or even a watered-down message, but the total rejection of the idea (found nowhere in Scripture) that God will keep the unredeemed alive forever for punishment of any kind.” –Edward Fudge