Definitions When Discussing Hell

This is about how most people envision Satan and Hell

Time for a post aiming purely to inform as I’ve found the conversation about Hell happening a lot but often without getting too far because people aren’t familiar with any of the positions involved except for the medieval one. We can break down the discussion into multiple dimensions. There are parallels between them, of course, but for the sake of simplicity, here it goes.

The Purpose of Hell

Torture: This is what most people think Hell is for. The theory is usually that God is obligated to torture people even for the smallest sin although there are some who think that God takes pleasure in it. Either way, it is based in a definition of extreme retributive justice.

Extinction: The purpose of Hell in this view is to eliminate souls from existence. This is often, but not always, tied to conditionalism (see below). In the last 100 years, many have taken this position including some prominent evangelicals like John Stott.

Purification/Purgatory: This understanding comes largely from Scripture’s fire metaphor almost always being about purification. It’s painful purification, but the end-result is to be shaped into something better, much like suffering in this life can shape us into something better if we let it.

Update on the final point: The Lonely Disciple makes an important clarification: this is not the same thing as the Catholic understanding which has purgatory as a stopping point of sorts for those who are going to Heaven. Catholics maintain both Hell for the damned and purgatory for the saved. I am speaking here of those who give Hell a purgatorial purpose and do not have the traditional torment or extinction understandings of Hell at all.

Who Goes to Hell

Exclusivism: Only those who have explicitly proclaimed their faith in Jesus in the right way go to Heaven and everyone else goes to Hell. Depending on your tradition, the exact requirements to be in Heaven vs in Hell could be: the sinner’s prayer, baptism, church attendance, acceptance of Jesus’ divinity, acceptance of penal substitution theory (often equated to the Gospel), or any other number of minor variations.

Inclusivism: The central idea for inclusivism is that we don’t know how God will judge people. Some will be saved but not all and like the parable of the sheep and the goats, there will be some on both sides who will be surprised.

Universalism: Universalists believe that Jesus will ultimately save everyone. Hell may exist and serve as a purgatory (see above) or it may be empty from the beginning, essentially being more of a concept than a reality.

Relativism: Relativism is the position held by many in the secular realm and the distinction between this and universalism is very important. While universalism claims that Jesus saves everyone, relativism says that everybody is saved by whatever method they choose because they are all equal. There isn’t anything distinctly Christian about this view and it is debatable whether it should be considered orthodox faith.

Who Decides Who Goes to Hell

God: This is the Reformed double predestination position whereby God has preordained both who are going to Heaven and who are going to Hell. It can also be called monergism which means “one work” or “one will,” namely God’s. Nobody else has any say and most truly Reformed theologians have no qualms about saying that God arbitrarily picks some and not others.

Nobody – It’s the Default: This could happen a few ways and depends on the concept of original sin that we are all judged as sinful as soon as we are born/conceived:

  • A soft Reformed theology would say that it isn’t strictly that God preordains some to Hell. Instead, all would go to Hell by default if God doesn’t save them and he does that for those who he arbitrarily chooses. You could say that this is really the same thing in practice as the  above option but many would make the distinction between predestination (Heaven) and double predestination (both Heaven and Hell).
  • If you’re claiming exclusivism, then Hell is the default including for everybody who has never heard of Jesus or who has heard of Jesus but only in some of the twisted ways that the church likes to promote.
  • Even if you’re claiming most versions of inclusivism, Hell is still pretty much the default because people are still judged based on what they do know and it takes something (they’re just less willing to say what exactly) to change that default.

Human Choice: Most people are going to word it this way when they’re stuck in a debate about Hell because most Christians realize that neither of the other two present a particularly loving image of God. Digging under it, I would argue that they usually mean the Hell by default option and what they are really saying is that the damned have chosen not to do whatever is necessary for salvation.

The Nature of the Soul

Conditionalism: This view treats eternal life as a gift for whichever group it is that is being saved (exclusively, inclusively, universally, even relativistically). In other words, the soul is not inherently immortal but God gives that as a gift. That’s why it is usually but not always going to be paired up with Hell serving the purpose of extinction.

Eternal Soul: I don’t know of any particular name for this common assumption, but it is the idea that the soul is inherently immortal and cannot or will not be destroyed even by God.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.

4 Responses

  1. Matt Spaanem says:

    Doesn’t Jesus refute the idea of an eternal soul when he says “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” This also kind of points to an extinction view of hell.

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