Steve Gregg: Three Views on Hell
We had the honor and privilege of interviewing our friend Steve Gregg. We first met Steve years back while he was serving at a local church that we had been thinking about attending, after the bible study, Steve could tell that my friends and I were passionate about theology and God. Steve being Steve (really nice) invited us to his house. Little did we know at the time who Steve was, Steve is host of the radio show The Narrow Path and has written two books on Revelation and Hell. In this Brief Interview I wanted to ask Steve questions concerning hell and what does the Bible actually say about this topic.
1). What are the three major views of Hell about? and why did you write on the topic?
Some may think, when they hear of the “three views” of hell, that we are considering three views of the nature of hell—for example, whether it will be literal fire, or whether fire is some metaphor for incessant regret, unfulfilled desires, etc. However, the three views of hell that I discuss in my book are three entirely different opinions as to the duration and purpose of hell. There are, of course, some people who deny the existence of hell altogether, or who say that hell is somehow experienced here in this life, but these are not among the views taught historically in the Christian church.
The three views that can be scripturally defended, and which have been held by evangelicals since earliest times, differentiate between various possible reasons for God’s having created hell, and what He intends to accomplish there.
The first, the traditional view, is that hell is a place of eternally unending conscious torment for the lost. Since it never ends, it clearly does not accomplish any positive result. No one is improved by it, and no one is relieved from it. If it serves any purpose at all, it is merely the eternal ventilation of divine wrath, which never becomes exhausted. A slightly less-monstrous version of this same view holds that God is not eternally angry, but that people, being naturally immortal, must necessarily exists forever somewhere, and hell is simply the only option apart from the bliss of the redeemed.
A second view is called “Conditional Immortality.” It holds that immortality is not a default human condition, and that it can be obtained only through faith in Christ. Those who do not meet this condition are not imbued with immortality, and so they do not live eternally, whether in bliss or in torment. The bottom line for this view is that unbelievers’ ultimate destiny is not eternal torment, but eternal extinction. Sometimes this view is called “annihilationism,” because the lost cease to exist in any form after they have been judged. Most who hold this view do believe that sinners, prior to extinction or annihilation, will be put to some degree of painful punishment, according as their crimes may warrant, but that their suffering will not be eternal. Eventually they will cease to exist. On this view, the purpose for which God made hell is simply to finally remove those who do not qualify to live in His presence from the universe—thus ultimately ridding the cosmos of all sin.
The third view is that hell is intended as a kind of rehab for those who have remained obstinate—addicted to their sins—throughout their lifetimes. On this view, God is committed to saving every soul for which Christ died—and that excludes none. Since most people, in their lifetimes, do not come to faith in Christ (the same condition for salvation in all the views), the restorationist (or “Universal Reconciliation”) view suggests that death is not the final opportunity for repentance. Hell will be a place of misery, but it is not a misery intended to punish or torture for its own sake. It is a misery intended for discipline and correction. On this view, given enough time (something that God has in infinite supply) no one will ultimately remain obstinate, and all will be brought to repentance and salvation.
Those are the three views presented, defended and critiqued in my book. The reason I wrote the book was due to the widespread ignorance of the Church as to her theological heritage. Few Christians have even heard of all three views, and fewer still are aware that all three have impressive historical and scriptural support.
2). Can you maybe explain the traditional view of hell?
The traditional view is the view that sinners, after the judgment, will be abandoned eternally in a place of unending torment. This presupposes, of course, either that people are naturally immortal, or else that God will providentially sustain them eternally in a conscious and miserable state. The idea that men are by nature immortal has no scriptural support, and is denied even by most mainstream traditionalists. It is a Greek idea brought into the early church by Greek-philosophers-turned-Christian-apologists. Yet, those who teach that God will providentially sustain the lost in a perpetual state of consciousness, merely so that they can eternally continue to be tormented, need to come to grips with the unflattering picture of the character of God that this policy would reveal. Those who believe that man is naturally immortal, and that God would gladly end the suffering of the wicked after a certain point, but cannot do so, must admit that their view of God renders Him impotent to change a situation that He abhors, and requires Him to endure an unsatisfactory situation for all eternity.
3). Tell me more about the second view, Conditional Immortality
The Bible teaches that God alone possesses immortality (1 Tim.6:16). This seems to tell us that immortality is not naturally possessed by man. John 3:16 teaches that anyone who believes in Christ will have everlasting life—that is, sharing in His life which is immortal. The same verse, and many others, describe the alternative awaiting the unbeliever as “perishing” which word suggests destruction.
The normal words throughout scripture that speak of the fate of the wicked as words like “be destroyed,” “die,” “vanish like smoke,” “burn up,” “be consumed,” “melt like a snail,” etc. This is the wages of sin, according to scripture. God did not tell Adam and Eve, “in the day you eat of it, you will incur unending torturous existence.” He said, “dying you shall die” (literally, in the Hebrew). The lake of fire is described as a place of eternal torment for Satan, but for ordinary sinners, it is called “the second death.”
Not all sinners sin equally, or with equally bad motives. They would not all seem to deserve equal punishment. There are verses that seem to teach a proportionality in God’s punishing of sinners (e.g., Luke 12:47-48). Therefore, many conditionalists believe that there will be varying degrees of punishment suffered by different sinners prior to their annihilation. On this view, God does not have to neglect the severe and just punishment of sinners, but He also does not have to endure their perpetual agony in some remote corner of the universe.
4). What is universalism?
There are different kinds of universalism, some of which are not Christian in the least. The writers of this persuasion whom I consulted were all evangelicals who drew and defended their position from serious biblical exegesis. Not all will agree with their exegesis, of course, but they followed the same rules of exegesis that the most responsible evangelical scholars employ. I was surprised how much scripture seemed to bolster their assumptions.
The evangelical universalists make several affirmations—each of which, they believe, they can support from multiple scriptures:
•That God genuinely loves all people, desires their salvation, and that Christ died for all (a view denied by Calvinists);
•That God is capable of saving all whom He determines to save (a view denied by Arminians);
•That all men can eventually be persuaded—by clearer revelation, by mercy or by suffering—to repent, if given enough time;
•That there is nothing in the Bible suggesting that God cannot extend the opportunity for repentance and restoration beyond the grave—indefinitely, if He so desires.
•That the Bible frequently speaks of a time in which all things are reconciled in Christ—every knee bowing and every tongue confessing to Him;
•That Christ’s death is frequently described as a great triumph over sin, Satan and death—which it would not be, if any whom Christ died to save ultimately are lost.
I can’t provide all the scriptures here to which these writers appeal, but they are numerous.
5). Did the early church fathers teach hell, and if so what were their views concerning the final judgment?
There was no unanimity on this subject for the first four centuries after the death of the apostles. All three of the views outlined above were taught by church fathers of equal prestige in the third century. The eternal torment view was that of Athenagoras, Tertullian and the Latin theologians; the annihilationist view was that of Irenaeus and the Ephesian school; and the restorationist view was advocated by Clement, Origen and the schools of Alexandria, Jerusalem, Antioch and Edessa.
These leaders were more or less contemporary. Each of them was familiar with the views alternative to his own, but there was no established view and none were regarded as heretical despite their differences.
That changed with the influence of Augustine, in the fourth and fifth centuries. Augustine, like others of the Latin school, held to eternal torment, and his writings became the guiding influence of almost all Western Church theology in the centuries that followed. That is how the eternal torment view became the “traditional” view of the church. Eventually, the alternative views were labeled as “heretical” by the Catholic Church.
6). I have wondered this for a while and would like to know, does the OT teach hell in how we in the west for the most part have interpreted hell/the final judgment?
There is no clear teaching in the Old Testament about hell (nor about heaven either, for that matter). The details of the afterlife simply were not a focus of the Old Testament prophets. Israel’s mission was an earthly one—namely to glorify God and spread the blessing of Abraham to all the families of the earth. Long life, health, prosperity and progeny were the loftiest goals that the average Jew sought, and little else was promised to the obedient in the Torah, the Psalms or the Prophets.
This does not mean that Old Testament Jews never speculated about the afterlife. I doubt if there has ever been a society that did not do so. However, any speculations they had could not claim divine revelation as their basis. There just was no clear word from heaven on that subject at that time.
7). When you were writing this book did you have any aha moments? Any new discoveries?
In writing my book, I did extensive research, reading at least eight or ten books advocating each of the views, as well as a great deal of material on the internet. Before I began my research, I knew what the three views were, and I knew some of the scriptures used by the two views alternative to the traditional one.
What really surprised me, in my research, was the discovery of just how strong the scriptural cases are for the two alternative views, and how comparatively weak was the case for the traditional view (which had been my default view for over 50 years!). I had earlier thought that, at best, the three views might have approximately equal support from scripture.
What I discovered is that there are not more than four or five verses in the Bible that seem to support the special claims of the traditional view (i.e., the eternality of the suffering in hell), while the scriptural passages in support of the other two views numbered in the scores (if not hundreds). I did not expect to find this to be the case. I went into my research with the traditional view as my life-long default view, and came from my studies realizing that it was, of the three views, the one that enjoyed by far the least scriptural support.
8). Did second temple Jews believe in hell?
Yes, but they did not get much of their beliefs from scripture. The Old Testament prophets seldom mentioned the afterlife—and when they did, they gave no details that could contribute to a clear picture of the postmortem state of the lost.
In the intertestamental period, the majority of the Jews lived in Alexandria, Egypt, and in the former Greek dominions conquered by Alexander the Great. The Greeks and the Egyptians, among whom they lived, had highly-developed images of the afterlife, from which Judaism borrowed heavily. Less than two centuries before Christ, an anonymous Jewish writer calling himself “Enoch” wrote an influential book describing the place of the dead (Hades) as a place divided into two compartments. The wicked dead were said to go to the compartment called Gehinnom, where they would be tormented in flames. The righteous would go to the other compartment, called Paradise, or Abraham’s bosom. This picture influenced popular Jewish thought, and is even adopted by Christ in His parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19ff).
Some rabbis taught that the wicked would go to Gehinnom forever, but it was more commonly believed that those in that place of torment would remain there only twelve months, followed by either annihilation or restoration to God.
Therefore, even before the arrival of Jesus, the Jews had adopted versions of all three of the present views of hell.
9) What do you hope people will learn by reading your book?
I hope that reading my book might have at least two results in the lives of the readers.First, that they may come to appreciate the true character of God as He has revealed Himself in Christ and in scripture. Whatever view of hell turns out to be true will speak volumes of the character of the God who created it. Second, that the exposure to so much biblical material in support of each view will inspire a new humility in the reader, resulting in a more teachable spirit, and a greater tolerance for those who hold different views on a subject of controversy.
10) How is a person saved? what is salvation and life beyond the grave? Is there a life after this one?
Salvation is the restoration of a proper relationship between the sinner and God. It is God's reclaiming for Himself that which was lost to Him. Salvation is in Christ. He alone possesses life, righteousness and immortality. We possess these things only by virtue of being found in Him and sharing in His. The Holy Spirit places us in Christ when we change our course of life to follow Him and submit ourselves to His lordship and His competence to save. Salvation is for this life, but since it is eternal, it lasts beyond this life into eternity. Ultimately, the life after this one is enjoyed in the resurrection in the new earth.