Before I get started, let me just offer a brief definition of each of the three main views.
1 – The traditional view which can be described as ‘eternal conscious torment’ would be by far the most popular position in the church. Before Rob Bell came along most were probably not even aware that alternative interpretations even existed. This traditional view basically says that all who are not born again will one day be resurrected after death to suffer an eternity in the fiery flames of hell.
2 – Universalism teaches that the traditional view goes against Gods loving nature and that God will continue after death to woo those who never accepted Christ in this life. Hell is seeing more as a purgatorial place where the refiner’s fire will eventually win everyone over.
3 – Conditional Immortality teaches that eternal life is a gift given only to those who have believed the Gospel of Christ. The wicked are raised for final judgment but will taste of the second death when they are thrown into the Lake of Fire. This view does allow for a finite period of time of suffering before one eventually ceases to exist.
So looking at each of them a bit closer, what do they hold in common and what sets them apart from each other? First off, let’s mention what they all hold in common. All three views affirm that there is only one way to God and that is through Jesus Christ. Then even if they cannot agree on what hell is, they all do acknowledge it and agree that it is not a place that anyone would want to end up in. So it is probably unfair and ignorant of anyone to suggest that any of the views seek to downplay the severity of sin or the need for evangelism in this life. While there certainly will be some who see the alternate views as a licence or loophole to loose living, from the people I have listened to all three camps seem to be orthodox when it comes to stressing the importance of holiness and evangelism.
With that out of the way, let’s look at some of those differences that I mentioned between the views.
Traditionalists and Universalists believe that everyone receives Eternal life.
Conditional Immortality, as the name suggests, teaches that eternal life is a gift and not a given for all people. Believers are raised to eternal life but unbelievers will taste of the second death (John 3:16, 6:40, 51, 8:51, 11:25-26, 1 John 5:11-12) and ultimately cease to exist. Traditionalists and Universalists take the biblical language of death to be figurative and hold to the Platonic philosophy of the human soul having being created immortal or alternatively at the time of the resurrection of the dead believe that God will give everyone indestructible bodies.
Annihilationists and Universalists believe in the end of all human evil.
Annihilationists teach that the wicked will perish, be destroyed or consumed in the Lake of Fire (Revelation 21:8). Universalists teach that all will eventually be won over and pass from darkness to light. By either method God will eventually be “all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:24-28) in these views as evil is defeated and done away with. The traditional view stands apart here as evil is never eradicated but continues to exist eternally parallel to the Kingdom of God but contained in the mother of all prisons where it no longer holds influence or power over those outside of it.
Our choices in this life bear eternal consequences
All three camps warn that we have this life to live and after that we will face judgment (Hebrews 9:27); where the split comes in is that Annihilationism and Traditionalism teach that this judgment is final and irreversible (Matthew 25:1-13) and based on the decisions that one made in this lifetime. Universalism though includes the belief in second, third, fourth or even infinite chances to repent and be saved after death. Appeal is made by Universalists from verses like Revelation 21:24-25 and Psalm 136:1 to support their view.
Is justice primarily retributive or restorative?
Traditionally, justice is viewed as being retributive. In the age to come God makes things right by punishing His enemies in an eternal fire and rewarding His followers with a place in heaven. But in the other two views justice is more about the restoration of all things to their original place as it was before the fall (Acts 3:21, Revelation 21:1-8). Annihilationism says that those who choose to remain outside of Christ will perish and have no part in the new creation while Universalism says that no person will remain outside of Christ forever and every human being ever born will experience this restoration.
Punishment is eternal
In the traditional view of hell punishment is an ongoing conscious torment experienced by the lost person in the flames of hell (Revelations 20:10). In the Annihilationist view punishment is eternal in the sense that death is forever (Psalm 92:7, 2 Thessalonians 1:9) and God’s judgment thus bears eternal and irrevocable consequences. Universalists though see punishment as temporal by appealing to the original Greek word ‘aionion’ which is translated as eternal in some places in scripture (Matthew 18:8, Revelations 20:10) but can also mean ‘a temporal age’ as seen in Romans 16:25.
The meaning of death
Lastly, the meaning of death is disputed among Annihilationists and those who hold to the opposing views. Conditional Immortality holds to the literal meaning of the word so for example, “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23) gets taken at face value. The same could be said of other words in the bible such as destroy, destruction, perish and consume. Traditionalists and Universalists reject this idea and teach rather that death refers to a state of separation from God. The wages of sin therefore becomes a state of being rather than the inevitable outcome of choosing to remain outside of Christ (Genesis 3:3).
This article is not meant to confuse anyone but was intended to provide some basic information on the three views of hell for those who may not have been exposed to anything outside of what is popularly taught. The point was not to push or refute any of the arguments here either, if you are interested in my personal views you could click here, here or here to have a look at them. Wherever you find yourself on this one, I would like to hear from you, do you think your position has been fairly represented above? Are there more similarities and distinctions that I may have missed? How important is this issue to you? I would love to know.