A hell of a question

How fundamental to Christian doctrine is the teaching about Hell?

Eternal punishment? Outer darkness? Unquenchable fire? There's no doubt that after-life punishment is mentioned in the Bible. But what do we really believe about that? Is the doctrine of eternal punishment a fundamental of Christian faith? It certainly doesn't rank with core doctrines such as the Resurrection of Christ. That's so fundamental that it's stated as a fact or as the basis for further teaching in virtually every book of the New Testament. By comparison, teachings about Hell are concentrated in a few sections of a few New Testament books. But, like it or not, teachings about hell are definitely in the Bible.

We're probably all aware of the medieval concept of Hell, with horned demons, scorching fire, and excruciating screams. It's an image that's been burnt into our minds by classical paintings and modern films. But those images have their roots in a religio-political culture that was proudly willing to burn people to death - and even to treat burnings as public entertainments. Let me ask you - would you tie someone to a stake, build a wood-pile around them, set light to it, then stand back and enjoy the spectacle? If your morality wouldn't allow you to do it, what do you imagine God thinks? In matters of Christian faith, our cultural norms are not the determining factor. If the New Testament teaches a doctrine, that becomes part of our faith. But does it?

If you think that this is a new question arising from modern-day debates, then think again. The question was already being asked in the 2nd century, when most Christians who could read were still reading the New Testament in its original Greek. When we discuss the issue today, most of us look the texts up in a modern translation. But not Iranaeus, a Greek theologian who had been trained by Polycarp, who was a personal friend of the Apostle John - in other words, Iranaeus was only one generation from an original disciple of Jesus. Iranaeus served as a bishop in Lyon (then in Gaul and now in France). He produced a large body of theological literature before his death in 202 - and one of his teachings was that eternal life was conditional on salvation (in other words, that those who were unsaved would not experience an after-life. Hell was not part of his beliefs. Justin Martyr lived even closer to the apostolic age (he died in 165). Much less of his written work survives, but it is known that he taught much the same as Iranaeus did about this subject. Their view is called 'annihilationist'.

A little later than these two theologians, but more famous and a far more prolific writer, was Origen (184 - 253 AD) who taught in Alexandria (Egypt). His solution to the problem was to teach that the redemption won by Christ was meant for all and would eventually reach everyone. He didn't question the seriousness of sin, or the reality of judgement and retribution. But he believed that judgement would be a reforming process that would ultimately bring everyone to submit to God and receive salvation. This view is called 'ultimate reconciliation' or 'universalism'.

Neither of these viewpoints is the official doctrine of the major Christian denominations. On the other hand, it's hard to believe that many Christians genuinely think that the vast majority of humanity will be condemned to extreme suffering for eternity. If we really believe that it must surely change our behaviour. Gandhi is reported as saying to a Christian leader that, if he really believed in Hell, he ought to be preaching the gospel tirelessly until his legs gave way and he was down on his knees. It's a fair point.

So, what does the Bible say on the subject?

© Derrick Phillips - 2018