The whole idea of hell is a complicated one. It’s also very important, and I would encourage readers to work through the material in this post and read the scriptures to which I have added links.
There is first of all difficulty in defining what hell is. Conservative Protestants generally consider it to be a place, while Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican theologian typically define hell as a state of separation from God. The influential King James Version of the Bible translates three different biblical terms – Hades, Gehenna, and Tartarus – as “hell”, masking shades of meaning in each term.
The basic premise, outlined by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, is that all of humanity will face a final judgment. The righteous will enjoy paradise, while the wicked will suffer punishment. Righteousness in this passage is exemplified by virtues of compassion: feeding and clothing the poor, helping the sick, and visiting prisoners. Wickedness is the failure to do these kinds of things.
In the Gospel of John, we find what on the surface appears to be a different interpretation. Belief in Jesus, rather than good works, becomes the primary dividing line between eternal life and condemnation.
In the Gospel of Luke, we see examples of both of these ideas. The Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man shows the agony of a man who feasted well in life, while neglecting the poor. However, Luke also tells how Jesus promises paradise to a criminal who was crucified next to Him, not because of any good works but because the man defended Jesus with his words and showed faith in his heart.
The connection between the two concepts is best illustrated by St. Paul. In his New Testament letter to the Romans, Paul explains that the demands of the moral law (such as compassion) cannot be fulfilled perfectly by anyone. Our sinful natures are too strong, and God’s standard is perfection. To satisfy the demands of justice, Jesus offered His own life to “save” us from our sins (a difficult concept for many to understand, so I wrote a separate Q & A post on that). Faith in Christ accepts the gift of salvation and covers up the wickedness in our lives. To summarize, it is wickedness that makes us all deserve punishment, but it is coming to Jesus in faith that gives us hope of avoiding it. So “faith vs. works” is really a false dilemma (as the letter of James discusses); the various New Testament passages are all ultimately saying the same thing.
This whole idea of being saved by faith in Jesus is quite troubling to many people, understandably so. First of all, what about those who have never heard of Jesus at all, or never heard a clear presentation of the Gospel? Second, what about people who sincerely believe Jesus was not God’s Son, or that God does not exist? The Bible is simply not clear about what happens in those cases, and Christians are not unanimous on their views. While many Christians do teach that both groups are lost, I hold a more optimistic view. When something is not made clear in the scriptures, the ultimate guide to interpretation is the character of God, revealed in the life and sayings (and selfless death) of Jesus. The most relevant point for me is Jesus praying about His executioners (men of apparently neither faith nor good works): “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” In the Parable of the Watchful Servants, Jesus again appears to suggest that hold those who know better are held to a different standard than those who don’t. In other words, to truly reject Jesus, you have to know what you are doing. The Pharisees and the various towns which encountered and then rejected Jesus’s ministry firsthand receive the brunt of His warnings about punishment.
Most problematic of all is the teaching that hell is eternal. It offends almost everyone’s sense of fairness (including my own) that God could punish (or allow the Devil to punish) someone infinitely for crimes that, however bad they may have been, were committed in a finite lifetime. Even the most cold-hearted Pharisee who met Jesus in person, or even (to use a popular example) Hitler, surely can’t deserve an infinity of torment. What would be the purpose? Wouldn’t that make God into a monster?
There are three ways I can see to resolve the problem. The first way is Christian Universalism, the idea that Christ eventually saves everyone. This teaching does not deny hell or judgment, but finds extensive biblical support for the view that God wants everyone to be saved, and in the end God will get what He wants. In this view, the word “eternal” is held to be a tragic case of poor translation, and “fire” is taken to represent purification, not final damnation. Some of the most lucid and beautiful prose on this topic comes from George MacDonald, in his Unspoken Sermons. Christian Universalism has a long history stretching back to the early church and throughout most of American history as well, but in the present day they are not well organized. This is the viewpoint towards which I lean, with great hope.
A second approach I find plausible is the view is that spending eternity in hell is possible, but only by extreme stubbornness on man’s part. This is the idea that the gates of hell are locked “from the inside”, explored in C.S. Lewis’s excellent book The Great Divorce. Lewis was not quite a universalist, although he thought very highly of MacDonald and had a very inclusive view of salvation (carefully but unsympathetically outlined here). Pope John Paul II held a somewhat similar view.
Finally, I do have to consider the possibility that conservative theology and traditional translations are literally correct, and that hell is really a place (or state) of eternal torment. Yet another theological alternative involves annihilation. I have a very hard time reconciling either of these with the abundant mercy Christ expressed towards His executioners, or the “never give up on anyone spirit” so beautifully on display in the parables of Luke 15. If there is an eternal hell, I suppose the likely explanation has something to do with Satan, and his dominion over man, and some kind of rules to which God agreed long ago, for reasons unknown to us. (Even if there is not, I find that thinking along those lines can help me understand what salvation might be all about.)
It’s prudent to keep all possibilities in mind and be mindful of how little man can know, in this life, about God’s deepest purposes. I believe, however, that we can safely trust that our own sense of fairness comes from God, and that whatever He is up to is for the best.
It saddens me to see so many people so understandably turned off by this idea of an “eternal hell” to which everyone but the right kind of Christian is headed. I hope I’ve communicated here a much simpler way to make sense of hell. Hell is, first and foremost, a warning about the serious consequences to sin. Sin is, first and foremost, a lack of compassion to the needs of our fellow man; perhaps the only equally emphasized Christian virtues are mercy and forgiveness (see The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant, which also suggests to me, in verse 34, that God’s punishments are of limited duration, proportionate to our offenses). Christ, through His mercy, worked to save us, giving us the opportunity to avoid the punishment we are due if we’ll put aside our pride and come to Him with a contrite heart. God wants all people to be saved, so there is good reason to hope that He will succeed at that with everyone, either in this life or the next.
(Update 12/17/12: I just finished reading an excellent book that explores this question more eloquently than I have done here. It’s called Love Wins, by Rob Bell. I highly recommend it.)