A Comedy of Terrors: The Biblical Doctrine of Hell

“A Comedy of Terrors: The Biblical Doctrine of Hell”

Matthew T. Stephens

November 2008

Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
Deerfield, Illinois


Few theological subjects are as hotly debated among academic, clerical and lay theologians of the day as the subject of hell. Perhaps a better way of putting it is that the traditional doctrine of hell is growing less and less popular by the day, even by those who affirm it as being taught by Scripture. The waning of preachers’ confidence in the particulars of the traditional view (or at least in the helpfulness of articulating it) is manifested by the considerable diminishment of the number of sermons on hell over the past several decades. In the present post-Christendom era of Western society, the idea that an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-wise, all-loving God would create beings whom he foreknew (if not predetermined) would spend eternity in conscious, agonizing torment seems contradictory at best, and utterly repulsive at worst. Some theologians have been scandalized by this and determined to “rescue” the doctrine of hell—and thereby the credibility of the whole Christian faith—by revising (in various degrees) the traditional doctrine into something more compatible with contemporary sensibilities.

In the book Four Views on Hell, William Crockett (gen. ed.) and Stanley Gundry (series ed.) offer four competing theologies of hell by scholars John F. Walvoord (the Traditional/Literalist view), William Crockett (the Metaphorical view), Zachary J. Hayes (the Roman Catholic/Purgatorial view), and Clark H. Pinnock (the Conditional/Annihilationist view). What follows will be a sort of reconstructed dialogue between these theologians, contrasting the various perspectives and drawing out the hermeneutical factors that shape the theology of each. As moderator and sovereign scriptwriter, I intend to relay vividly my biases and conclusions. The dialogue will occur in four segments representing the four views, each beginning with an opening statement from the proponent of that view.

The Traditional-Literal View

LITERALIST: Hell is real, and the Bible presents it exactly as it is: everlasting, conscious torment, through literal fire and utter darkness, for all those who fail to trust in Jesus as Lord and Savior in this lifetime. Let’s begin with first matters: hermeneutics. How we approach biblical truth will determine the shape of the conversation, so it’s essential that we get our presuppositions on the table right up front. The debate hinges, I think, on whether one interprets prophecy in general—and more broadly, eschatological literature—literally.

FORM CRITIC: Can you explain what you mean by “literal”? Do you honestly believe that Scripture never uses symbolic, or metaphorical, imagery to communicate truth? The scholarly consensus is practically unanimous that eschatological literature employs rich, symbolic imagery to communicate its truth.

LITERALIST: I think the present scholarly consensus is due to distaste for the truth claims of Scripture. People are projecting their cultural presuppositions on the Bible instead of taking it at face value.

FORM CRITIC: Believe what you want to, but linguistic analysis easily proves that certain genres or “forms” are employed by biblical writers to communicate what God wants them to communicate. If that is true, then the “face value”, or intended meaning, of any given passage of Scripture is relative to the genre or form a particular author used to convey what God moved him to convey.

LITERALIST: OK, then. How do you interpret the Bible’s teaching on hell?

The Metaphorical View

FORM CRITIC: Since I’ve already stated my working assumptions, let me make a couple of clarifications. First, I do not share Origen’s allegorical view Scripture, which views essentially all of Scripture’s meaning as lying “beneath” the text. I simply recognize, along with the broad consensus of scholarship since the Reformation, that Scripture is given to us in a variety of genres and forms, each of which has special interpretive considerations. Eschatological literature in particular, under which genre teaching on hell naturally falls, is characteristically rich in symbolism. That said, I offer the following thesis: Hell is the state of everlasting, conscious torment, prepared by God for those who do not believe His gospel during their earthly lifetime, but it ought not be understood in terms of literal fire.

LITERALIST: What then does fire symbolize?

FORM CRITIC: The fire, like the other metaphors for hell, such as “gloom” or “darkness” (Matt 8:12; 22:13; 25:30; Col 1:13; 2 Pet 2:4; Jude 6, 13; Rev 16:10), simply communicates the horrific nature of the punishment people will experience in hell. It is the worst possible torture imaginable.

CATHOLIC: But wait. In the Bible, doesn’t fire symbolize purification?

ANNIHILATIONIST: Isn’t the wrath of God portrayed in Scripture as a “consuming fire” that annihilates everything in its path?

FORM CRITIC: The fire metaphor is used in a variety of ways in Scripture, including those you just mentioned. The question is, How is it used to describe hell?

DISSENTERS: That is the question!

FORM CRITIC: We obviously cannot argue, then, from generalities about the fire metaphor. Let’s examine the biblical data, in context.


FORM CRITIC: First, we should outline some key biblical terms surrounding the concept of hell. It’s fairly apparent that there is an intermediate state between death and the Day of Judgment, at which time people go to either heaven or hell. The Hebrew term Sheol, and its New Testament equivalent Hades, seems to refer to this intermediate state, as it is never contrasted with any sort of concept of heaven in the immediate context.

CATHOLIC: Could this be describing Purgatory?

FORM CRITIC: No.  As I was saying, Hades refers primarily to the place where the dead remain until the Day of Judgment. Gehenna is the term we really want to look at, as it is translated “hell” in all twelve of its NT occurrences.

LITERALIST: Gehenna is a transliteration of the Hebrew phrase Ge-Hinnom, or the Valley of Hinnom, which was a valley south of Jerusalem where garbage (and at one point, even child sacrifices) was burned. The Jews anticipated this as the final destination of judgment for the wicked. So it is no surprise that “hell” (Gehenna) is described as being a fiery place!

FORM CRITIC: OK, let’s settle this fire thing once and for all. What other dominant metaphor does the New Testament use to describe hell?


FORM CRITIC: Can literal fire and literal darkness simultaneously exist in the same exact place?

LITERALIST: I guess I never thought of that before… Well, I guess it doesn’t ultimately matter whether the torture is by literal fire or some other means. The point is that our infinitely holy God renders just retribution for sin, which is infinitely offensive to Him.

FORM CRITIC: Right you are, my friend.

ANNIHILATIONIST: Alright, I think I’ve heard enough of this sadistic banter. Why don’t we talk about the real issue, which is the nature of that which “hellfire” symbolizes? All of us at least agree that hellfire in some sense symbolizes the wrath of God, correct?


The Annihilationist View

ANNIHILATIONIST: The next question then is, What is the nature of God’s fiery wrath as it is poured out on the wicked? I would contend that it is like a consuming fire that utterly destroys whatever it touches, and I believe the biblical data demand this.

TRADITIONALISTS: Those are some strong words. Can you back them up?

ANNIHILATIONIST: I was just about to, thanks. The fate of the wicked is portrayed largely in terms of “destruction” (Matt 10:28; 2 Thess 1:9; Gal 2:8 ; Phil 1:28; 3:19; 2 Peter 3:6-7; Heb 10:39) and “death” (Rom 1:32, 6:23; Rev 20:14). It is compared to the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah (complete destruction by fire) in 2 Peter 2:6 (as well as Jude 7), in which verse is also stated that the Lord “keeps the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment,” suggesting that this judgment is indeed final in the most literal sense. It is also compared to the Great Flood, which outcome was total destruction (2 Pet 3:6-7).

TRADITIONALISTS: Certainly “destruction” can indicate annihilation, but if the destruction is “eternal”, as is so clearly and consistently stated, how can hell possibly be construed as in any sense temporal?

ANNIHILATIONIST: Well, Jude 6 and 7 provide a significant link. In verse six, it is an obvious hyperbole, meaning “a very long time”. But verse seven says that Sodom and Gomorrah foreshadowed the final judgment “by undergoing a punishment of eternal (aioniou) fire.” So eternal must be construed here in some sense other than temporal. I would suggest that “eternal” refers here to a peculiarly divine quality or magnitude.

TRADITIONALISTS: We’re still not persuaded that this one verse dictates how all the other occurrences of aionios are to be translated. It still seems rather clear that “eternal death” and “destruction” correlate to “eternal life”, which ubiquitously and indisputably denotes unending duration. Likewise, Revelation 19:3 says, “The smoke from her (the great prostitute) goes up forever and ever.” This clearly indicates eternity.

ANNIHILATIONIST: Couldn’t that be a metaphor for her ceasing to exist or for perpetual fire that instantaneously incinerates the wicked?

TRADITIONALISTS: What is smoke a tell-tale sign of? That is, what is required for there to be smoke?
Annihilationist: Uh, fire, I guess.

TRADITIONALISTS: You guess right!

ANNIHILATIONIST: Well, are there any other prooftexts for eternity that prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that hell is eternal?

TRADITIONALISTS: Revelation 20:10-15 is possibly the strongest passage in support of the eternal view. In 19:20, the beast and the false prophet are “thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur.” In 20:10 Satan is thrown in as well, and it appears that the beast the false prophet were not incinerated upon being cast into the lake, but had remained there in conscious torment. Here’s the clincher: “they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.” No ambiguity there. The lake of fire symbolizes not disintegration, but eternal, conscious torment.

ANNIHILATIONIST: Wow, I never really saw that before. But still, it doesn’t say anything about unbelievers…

TRADITIONALISTS: Keep reading. In verse 14, we see that Death and Hades are thrown into the lake of fire…

ANNIHILATIONIST: But verse 13 says they “gave up the dead who were in them”, so verse 14 cannot mean that the souls who were previously resting there were now thrown into the lake.

TRADITIONALISTS: Ah, but verse 15 settles it: “If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” That is, all those who have not believed in the name of Jesus Christ and been saved will share the fate of the false prophet, the Beast, and Satan. “They will be tormented day and night forever and ever.” In sum, while we will concede that your interpretation is possible, responsible exegesis requires us to give greater weight to that which is most probable. In light of the virtuously ubiquitous meaning of aionios as infinite in duration, it seems that understanding “eternal destruction” according to this sense is by far the most probable interpretation. And by doing so, we are in the company of 2,000 years of orthodox Christian consensus. The burden remains yours to prove them—and us—wrong.

ANNIHILATIONIST: But there are other serious challenges to the traditional view.


ANNIHILATIONIST: The moral and judicial problems. The moral problem is that God, as all-powerful, all-knowing, all-wise, and all-loving, contradicts Himself by creating beings that he foreknows, if not predetermines, will suffer unspeakable horror—consciously and eternally. The judicial problem is God’s inconsistency with the Old Testament law of equivalent retribution: “eye for eye; tooth for tooth” (Exod 21:24). Everlasting torture is nowhere near equivalent to even the gravest offense committed against God in this fleeting life. How could one actually wrack up enough sin debt to deserve an eternity of conscious torture? I don’t buy the argument that the infiniteness of the offense is derived from the infinite holiness of the One offended.

TRADITIONALISTS: You’re just looking at this from the wrong perspective. When you compare the plight of the eternally damned with the gracious gift of eternal life through Christ, it ought to stir up inexpressible gratitude to God for His mercy towards you!

ANNIHILATIONIST: That’s horrifically sadistic. I cannot worship a cosmic torturer.

TRADITIONALISTS: Well, then you must not be truly born-again.

ANNIHILATIONIST: Not your type of born-again, that’s for sure.

TRADITIONALISTS: Maybe some day you’ll see the light.

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