For most of us, the idea of an eternal hell is almost universally accepted as being what the Bible teaches. We almost cannot imagine any other view being taken seriously.
However, that was not always the case. In fact, for MOST of early Church history, there were 3 different views of Hell, and the eternal suffering viewpoint was in the minority.
Note this reference in the New Schaff-Herzog Christian Encyclopedia which says:
“The earliest system of Universalistic theology was by Clement of Alexandria who was the head of the theological school in that city until 202 A.D. His successor in the school was the great Origen, the most distinguished advocate of this doctrine in all time.” (From the New Schaff-Herzog, page 96, paragraph 2)
“In the first five or six centuries of Christianity there were six known theological schools, of which four (Alexandria, Antioch, Caesarea, and Edessa, or Nisibis) were Universalist; one (Ephesus) accepted conditional immortality; one (Carthage or Rome) taught endless punishment of the wicked.” (From the New Schaff-Herzog, page 96, paragraph 3)
So, what are the other two views?
One view is “Universalism”. This view teaches that those who die without Christ will suffer for a season of time but that this suffering has a purpose: To bring correction and to purify their souls to “burn away the wood, hay and stubble and reveal the gold, silver and precious stones,” because “the Lord disciplines those He loves” and this correction is intended to lead us to repentance. In this view, everyone will eventually accept Christ as Lord.
The other view is the “Annihilationist” view which teaches that those who die without Christ will suffer for a limited time in Hell and then be destroyed forever and cease to exist.
There are plenty of verses in the Bible to support both of these views of Hell.
Many Christians are also unaware that when Augustine attempted to refute the Universalist view of hell – which was the majority view in his day – he freely admitted that his doctrine (Eternal Suffering) was against the grain and in the minority.
What are we to make of this?
Well, it seems that the Old Testament scriptures hardly mention the topic, and when Jesus speaks of the “death” (perishing, destruction, etc.) of the unrepentant sinner, it’s more likely that he was referring to the fate of those who would die in the horrific events of AD 70 when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem, and the Temple, not an eternal conscious torture that would happen after the end of time.
We also know that the early Church had no widely-accepted concept of eternal suffering.
Plus, Paul never used the word “Hell” in any of his writings. When he did speak of fire it was a cleansing fire, not a punitive one.
All of this makes it more likely that the views of Annihilationism and Universalism are much more in line with what Scripture teaches.
Even if you don’t agree with that statement, I have to admit that my own studies have led me to move away from the commonly held doctrine of Eternal Suffering as it seems very weak in comparison to the other two views.
So, this has led me into some fascinating conversations with some of my Christian friends. Many ask me, “If the doctrine of Eternal Conscious Torment isn’t true, why preach the Gospel at all?”
This question really disturbs me, honestly. It reduces the Gospel to little more than a “Get-Out-Of-Hell-Free” card.
If knowing Christ doesn’t make your heart sing, and if your daily walk with Jesus isn’t a reward enough, then I’m not sure I can explain it to you.
Without Jesus there is no life. Without Jesus there is no love, or peace, or joy.
Why evangelize others if God doesn’t plan to torture people forever in the lake of fire? Because Jesus is the best thing about being alive and there’s nothing in the world more amazing than knowing Him.
Asking this question betrays the reality that many Christians really haven’t fully experienced the beauty of being in communion with the Creator of the Universe.
Why evangelize if hell isn’t forever?
Because His love is better than life.
Because in His presence are joys everlasting.
Because He has the words of life.
Because we have tasted and seen that the Lord is good.
Because He loved us so much that He gave up His life for us.
Because we love Him and we want to bring Him joy when another one of His children learns to love Him as we do.
How many more reasons do we really need?
WANT TO LEARN MORE? Watch my YouTube Series on Hell
Keith Giles is the author of several books, including the Amazon best-seller “Jesus Untangled: Crucifying Our Politics To Pledge Allegiance To The Lamb.” He is also the co-host of “The Heretic Happy Hour” and lives in Orange, California with his wife and two sons.