Any time you discuss an issue of great importance, there can be a tendency to oversimplify the issues, exaggerate the differences, and fail to appreciate the areas of agreement. In discussions concerning the doctrine of hell, there is, generally speaking, more heat than light. While the chasm can be wide and varied between evangelicals on this topic, there are some major points of agreement between Bible-believing “traditionalists” (those who affirm the traditional teaching of hell as eternal conscious torment) and Bible-believing “conditionalists” (those who affirm the hellfire will ultimately destroy the finally impenitent, they will cease to exist). The fact that major harmony can be found between the two camps might come as a surprise to many, since the debate is often cast in terms by defenders of the traditional position as liberal versus conservative, progressive versus traditional, orthodox versus heretical. But despite the visceral reaction toward any evangelical who espouses a different viewpoint, traditionalists should consider six points of substantive agreement on which folks from both sides of this theological debate can agree:
1. The Bible is the final arbiter. Traditionalists have effectively persuaded many people that any denial—however seemingly minor or nuanced—to the orthodox understanding of hell is tantamount to jettisoning the doctrine of inspiration and the doctrine of God. To deny hell as an experience of unending conscious torment in body and soul is to deny Jesus himself, as one notable evangelical proclaimed in his book. A different evangelical made the assertion in his published work that if we don’t view the “hell” passages in Scripture as conscious torment, then, well, we just don’t believe in the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture. Wrong, and even more wrong. This form of argumentation is no more convincing than it would be to say, for example, that anyone who denies the clear teaching of Scripture regarding paedobaptism doesn’t take the Bible seriously. Conversely, credobaptists could make the same argument toward those who embrace infant baptism—and it would be just as unconvincing and equally problematic. The point here is that one should not simply assume an infallible understanding of doctrine and then accuse others who see the biblical text differently as taking the Bible less seriously. Evangelicals on both ends of the spectrum are convinced of their positions because of what the Scriptures say. When it is the testimony of Scripture we look to in order to arrive at our conclusions, then we are well on our way to productive dialogue. In the end, Scripture must guide our understanding on the doctrine of hell.
2. God will punish sinners. Any parent who has had to discipline his or her child(ren) has inevitably thought about how much greater the pain is to the parent inflicting the punishment than it is to the child. We have all used the line: “This is going to hurt me more than it’s going to hurt you.” And how true that can be. Our heavenly father, likewise, does not delight in the destruction of the wicked (Ezek. 18:32; 33:11). There is nothing pleasurable about the act of the punishing, but it is sometimes necessary. It is necessary because of God’s holy character. God’s holiness is the only attribute trebled in praise (“Holy, holy, holy,” Isa. 6:3); holiness is the quality mankind is commanded to posses (“Be ye holy, for I am holy,” 1 Pet. 1:16), and it is the one attribute God singles out to swear by (Psa. 89:35). When we discuss “holiness” in terms of God, what we are saying is that holiness is conformity to his own perfect nature. He is law; he is righteous by nature and of necessity. So, this divine holiness is expressed in giving a moral law to mankind and repercussions for not abiding by those commands. This brings to view the attribute of justice, as a mode of holiness. In other words, it is the attribute whereby God gives to everyone what is deserved. And, as is clearly set forth throughout all of Scripture, there is a wage (a punishment) that is due to sin.
3. The punishment is horrible. The book of Acts tells of the apostle Paul who stood before Felix and proclaimed the certainty of the coming day of judgment. Felix responded to this proclamation by trembling and ordered the apostle to go away (24:25). Jesus likewise warned about impending doom and cautioned all to fear God who has the power to destroy both body and soul in Gehenna (Matt. 10:28). If our message to the ungodly and the unrepentant is not a message that could make them tremble with fear, it is not the same message proclaimed by the apostle and not the same message heralded by Jesus. While it is certainly true to speak of Jesus’ love for sinners and to present the free offer of the gospel, the truth of what we are being saved from must also be told. The punishment that awaits the finally impenitent is an indescribably horrible fate that should cause all of us to tremble in reverential fear at the power of the Almighty and weep for those who will certainly experience the wrath of God.
4. The punishment is eternal. The charge is often leveled that the eventual termination of the wicked in the hellfire is not an eternal punishment. Some have even gone so far as to use the hyperbolic language that conditionalism is tantamount to “no punishment at all.” The absurdity of this position is manifest if we were to take this argument and apply it to something in our own experience. For instance, if we were to say the execution of a condemned prisoner is really no punishment at all since the process of dying is merely momentary and the amount of pain experienced during that death process will not last in perpetuity, no one would take us seriously. No one would take us seriously, because to argue in that manner is just plain silly, since, after all, everyone—whether they agree with this form of punishment or not—recognizes this is the highest measure of punishment humans are able to inflict upon other humans. But notice no one calls capital punishment an “eternal punishment.” This label is not used for capital punishment because had the criminal been spared the death penalty, his life would have ended some time later, eventually. The life, had it been spared, would have at some point in time expired. But, what if the life that was taken would have otherwise lived on forever and ever? Wouldn’t that rightly be an “eternal punishment?” I think so. If the body and soul had to forfeit what would have otherwise been an ongoing existence, then the loss of that life can rightly be called an “eternal punishment.” Nonetheless, evangelicals agree that the results of the punishment imposed in the next life is forever—it is eternal.
5.The punishment can never be undone. Both sides agree that there is no indication from Scripture in what is called post-mortem repentance or post-mortem salvation. So goes the saying, What is sown in time, is reaped in eternity. The consequences for our decisions in this life carry over into the next. The punishment can never be undone or rectified. It is an irreversible course of action. Throughout all of eternity, there is no undoing what has been done, no second chances, no mulligans, if you will.
6. The punishment will be efficacious. Both sides claim God wins in the end and justice is served. Yes, quite right. God is, in fact, victorious over evil. He will be “all in all” and shall make all things new. Granted, how each side defines “victory” and the reconciliation process are radically different according to each perspective (but that’s a different topic for an entirely different day!), but the important point to remember is that what God aims to do, he does so in a way that is consistent with his nature. In other words, God will prevail over evil for all time, and sin will, once-and-for-all, be adequately dealt with. And, when that happens, there will be no more tears, no more death, no more shame or sorrow (Rev. 21:4). And what a splendid thought that is!
While there are many evangelicals in this debate who question the orthodoxy of any evangelical who questions the nature of hell, it is well worth remembering there are many foundational principles we still hold in common, including the most fundamental points of basic Christian doctrine.