Hell Yes. Hell No! Or Who the Hell Cares? (7 – My View: Purgatorial Conditionalism)

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The following is part of a series on Hell, partially as a response to the Love Wins controversy.  To catch up, go here.

As I stated in the first post, this section will be mostly based on Sharon Baker’s Razing Hell.


As I’ve already stated, for some time the traditional view of hell contradicts the overall biblical witness. I resonate with Sharon Baker’s perspective in many ways, however with some nuances. I want to briefly describe two distinctions that I think complement her overall vision.

Distinction #1: Conditional Immortality

A presupposition of mine is the validity of what scholars call conditional immortality. Church Fathers such as Theophilus, Irenaus, and Justin Martyr argued this perspective.[1] Clark Pinnock states: “God created humans mortal with a capacity for life everlasting, but it is not their inherent possession.”[2] The idea that humans are innately immortal is foreign from biblical thought. Greek philosophy fuels this assumption.

Therefore, I am happy to agree with much of Baker’s emphasis on the final Judgment Day, but something needs to be explained. My view is that when a non-Christian dies (after taking into consideration the inclusive grace of Christ) that person is exactly that – dead. Remember, immortality is a free gift, so those who do not have it simply return to the dust. To experience “hell” is to die, be destroyed, or to perish. No one goes to a “place” called hell after death. They simply die awaiting Judgment Day.

When Christ returns, something that bothered me until recently was that it seems cruel that God would “wake up” non-Christians in a resurrection (Dan 12.2-3; John 5.28-29; Acts 24.15). Once they are dead, why shouldn’t they remain so? But, if we take into consideration what Baker argues, then it is possible to view the resurrection of the unrighteous as God’s final pursuit of those who have died without Christ. In this approach, raising the unrighteous is an act of mercy not villainy. The possibility arises that as some people pass through the fire of God’s love that they will choose reconciliation with God. For those who still resist, the metaphorical fires burn until nothing human remains. That is the hell of annihilation, the “second death.”

Distinction #2: The Destruction of Jerusalem

The second brief nuance has to do with Sharon Baker’s nearly complete disregard for the warnings of Gehenna from Jesus, which point toward the prophetic judgment of God. For instance, in Mark 13 (and parallels), Jesus tells his disciples that the Temple in Jerusalem will be destroyed during their own generation. God will judge (according to Jesus) the system fueled by nationalistic zealotry and oppressive religious practices that degrade the poor. I’ve written about the destruction of Jerusalem elsewhere, in case this is a new idea to you (Signs of the Times? – A Study of Mark 13).

This sort of wrath from God was eventually carried out by Rome when they destroyed the city and the Temple (70 CE). Many were killed and their bodies would have been burned in the fires of the Valley of Hinnom (remember: the word “hell” Gehenna literally transliterates from the Hebrew “Valley of Hinnom”). We have substantial evidence of this from Josephus, who tells us that they had to throw the dead bodies into valleys surrounding the city because they were so numerous.[3]

N.T. Wright articulates that impending destruction of the City is what Jesus’ Gehenna warnings have in view, and it is “only by extension, and with difficulty, that we can extrapolate from the many gospel sayings which articulate this urgent, immediate warning to the deeper question of a warning about what may happen after death itself.”[4] He adds:

Unless they turned back from their hopeless and rebellious dreams of establishing God’s kingdom in their own terms, not least through armed revolt against Rome, then the Roman juggernaut would do what large, greedy and ruthless empires have always done to smaller countries (not least in the Middle East) who resources they covet or whose strategic location they are anxious to guard. Rome would turn Jerusalem into a hideous, stinking extension of its own smoldering rubbish heap. When Jesus said ‘unless you repent, you will all likewise perish’, that is the primary meaning he had in mind…. [H]e was not concerned to give any fresh instruction on post-mortem judgment, apart from the strange hints that it was going to be dramatically and horribly anticipated in one particular way, in space-time history, within a generation (176-177).

Finally, Andrew Perriman offers “three horizons” for understanding the New Testament warnings often associated with a traditional “hell.” First, there is the horizon of the Jewish War, discussed above. By connecting imagery of Gehenna with the Old Testament motifs of the finality of death in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, Jesus warns that God’s wrath will come through “giving them over” to the natural consequences of their violent path – destruction by Rome. Second, the horizon is judgment that will come on the hostile pagan world. Jesus and those identified with him, will be vindicated over evil empires who act counter to the Kingdom purposes of God. They will be ultimately destroyed. Finally, at the resurrection there will be a final judgment, which will lead to the destruction of those who ultimately refuse relationship to God in Christ. This is the “second death” or hell.[5]

Purgatorial Conditionalism?

If I were to give language for my view, until I come up with something better, I call this “purgatorial conditionalism.”  This reflects that Judgment Day will be a time for all to enter the metaphorical fires of God’s love, that will burn up the bad and refine what is good.  For those who have not received the gift of immortality, there might be an opportunity to endure God’s loving wrath unto reconciliation with Christ.  For those who yet refuse, they will experience the second death.  This is because immortality is conditional upon reconciliation with God through Christ.  An eternal hell is a Greek construct but the possibility of not receiving salvation remains.  May we continue to share the Good News of Jesus so that none miss out on God renewed creation to come!

Recommended Resources:

Hell and Heaven in Narrative Perspective, by Andrew Perriman

Razing Hell, by Sharon Baker

Surprised by Hope, by NT Wright

Tormented by Flames, by Greg Boyd

Purgatory for Protestants?, by Greg Boyd

Love Wins, by Rob Bell (I like the broad vision of this book, but plan to follow-up this post with a blog about how I’d nuance Rob Bell’s perspective.)

Love Wins Companion, by Rob Bell


[1]. Alister E. McGrath, The Christian Theology Reader, 2nd ed. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2001), 613.

[2]. Clark H. Pinnock, “The Conditional View,” in Four Views on Hell, ed. William Crockett (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1996), 148.

[3]. Andrew Perriman, Hell and Heaven in Narrative Perspective, e-book ed. (Online: www.postost.net, 2011), 452ff.

[4]. N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: HarperOne, 2008), 176.

[5]. Perriman, Hell and Heaven in Narrative Perspective, 1133ff.

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  • http://brgulker.wordpress.com/ brgulker

    The “catch up” link appears to be broken :)

    Perhaps you’ve already said this in a previous post, but I think it’s pretty important to take a posture of epistemological humility when it comes to any type of life after death; we are speculating, and we should be honest about that. We don’t really know what happens after death. We speculate based on a variety of other things, some we know, and some we trust are true. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/davewainscott Dave Wainscott

    great post. so glad you did this series.  I may have missed it, but have you read Jerry Walls’ book (a Protestant seminary prof of mine)?:
    Purgatory: The Logic of Total Transformation 

  • Aaron

    As usual glad to hear your perspective and very informative. Keep it up please!

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_SDJYIPTIC4IKKAANQ4YBTI6OE4 RobS

    For those who have not received the gift of immortality, there might be an opportunity to endure God’s loving wrath unto reconciliation with Christ.”  To me, the (scary) key word here is “might be”.  I think the conclusion is very solid.  I don’t think it’s being done here, but anyone who turns “might be” into doctrine would leave me very nervous indeed.  The idea of “speculation” was already used below, and I think we need to be firmly prefacing a lot of discussion on these topics with that disclaimer.

  • http://nailtothedoor.blogspot.com Dan Martin

    Interesting, Kurt. Totally with you on conditional immortality, which I think is solidly Biblical. Intrigued, too, by the preterist interpretation of the Gehenna warnings. I don’t find that approach objectionable, though I’ll have to think about it. The purgatorial cleansing seems a bit of a reach to me though. It doesn’t particularly bother me, as long as we keep the boundary between acceptable speculation and doctrine clear.

    • http://nailtothedoor.blogspot.com Dan Martin

      … I should have added… and as long as we remember that “eternal destiny” is not the central issue too many Christians have made it out to be.

  • http://www.kellenfreeman.net Kellen Freeman

    This series has only reinforced me desire to read Razing Hell. Besides that it has been really interesting hearing your perspectives. It’s making me think mine through further, again.

  • http://beunfallen.wordpress.com/ Brian

    Do you have any Biblical evidence for this view? Not just church fathers, but Biblical evidence. I’ve scanned Love Wins, and am reading Erasing Hell (Francis Chan), and I’ve read through and am re-reading the Biblical texts on the subject. What you describe doesn’t seem to align with anything I’ve read in the Bible…

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/ Kurt Willems

      Did you read the whole series? I’ve outline biblical texts there…

    • http://www.faith-wideopen.blogspot.com/ Matthew James Bryant

      I tried to read Erasing Hell, but I could not get on with Chan’s writing style. Cumbersome is a good way to describe it I think! Does he shock with the conclusion because I figured you could guess it from the introduction?

  • http://www.facebook.com/asherton Ashley Hall

    Thank you for this series, Kurt. This blog has actually been very helpful on that it helps me develop an authentic view of the afterlife which meshes with what I have experienced and seen. Of course, we could all be wrong. No one really “knows” what the afterlife will be like. However, based on all the factors at play, this seems like the most plausible view, and a good assumption to live by. Thank you! 

  • Austin Roebuck

    Kurt, this seems to be about where I am on this subject. It is a hard subject to tackle and grateful to have some solid conversation on it. I’ve been looking into this for only a little while so I’m sure I have missed some things but it seems that Revelation 14:11 is one of the only texts in the NT that seems to be the hardest to reconcile. Any thoughts on this? Apocalyptic literature seems to be the hardest for me to wrap my head around. Thanks for your thoughts as always.

  • http://whytheology.wordpress.com/ Trey Medley

    Of any of the annihilationist views I’ve encountered, this is my favorite (and seems the most consistent). Still haven’t made up my own mind of where I fall along the spectrum, but this have given me some very interesting thoughts. It’s hopeful about people’s eternal fate (which I think Christians should be) without neglecting some clear indications that there is a second death (and it doesn’t definitively say that any will, in fact, experience a post-mortem conversion; it just doesn’t close the conversation).

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1479831165 Tarnya Burge

    Thanks for the article. You might be interested in a article on Gehenna
    or some of the other article on our site. 

  • Chris Date

    Hi, Kurt. While I don’t share the purgatorial aspects to your conditionalism, I have become convinced of conditional immortality and annihilation over the past year or so. Several other evangelical conditionalists and I have started http://www.rethinkinghell.com and you may (or may not) find some of our articles helpful :) We also recently launched a podcast, beginning by interviewing Edward Fudge. Tomorrow morning I’m interviewing John Stackhouse. Perhaps you’ll enjoy the podcast as well. Thanks!

  • Sean

    I wish I could believe that I have the personal ability to create a future reality for humanity that is most comfortable to me. Unfortunately, coming up with your own version of hell based on some reading you have done does not give your view any grounding in reality, even when you add a cool, neo-theological name-brand. The true and Biblical view of Heaven and Hell that God has communicated to man in the Bible is difficult to grasp and often hard to believe, but as fallen, sinful, broken people who want deep down to take God’s place and rule on our own, should we expect any different?