Sunday, 21 February 2016

Exploring parallels between the differing views on hell and the atonement theories.

For most of my life I held to the belief that hell was a place of eternal conscious torment, in addition to this I believed that Christ died on the cross to appease His Fathers wrath, thus redirecting God’s anger toward the innocent Lamb that was stricken in my place. For thirty years the idea of hell as a place of eternal conscious torment (which I will refer to as traditionalism or the traditional view from here on) and Christ’s atoning work on the cross being viewed as a substitutionary act of appeasement satisfaction (or Penal Substitution in theological jargon) were simply the only views I had ever been exposed to. When I was eventually exposed to alternate ideas about the afterlife such as Universalism and Conditional Immortality as well as alternate theories of the atonement, I became persuaded by scripture that there were more biblical sound options out there than those I had always held to before.

Conditional immortality (which is where I landed) basically says that only those who are in Christ will inherit eternal life while those who have rejected Him will be cast from His presence and suffer a second, final and eternally lasting death. Similarly, I began to understand the cross more in the sense of a spiritual battle between the Father, Son and Spirit against sin, death and Satan. The atonement was no longer about Gods need to satisfy His wrath or a means to finding a balance between His need for retributive justice and love but rather, the atonement was about the godhead's victory over the powers of darkness (theologians call this view Christus Victor).

While I have already written quite a lot about hell as well as atonement theories in the past (and I will put a list of links to those articles at the end of this post for those who want to dig deeper), I have never explored the relational links between the traditional view of hell and Penal Substitution as opposed to those I now hold to of Conditional Immortality and Christus Victor. I should add that not everyone who believes in Conditional Immortality necessarily believes in Christus Victor and likewise, not everyone who believes that hell is a place of eternal conscious torment believes in Penal Substitutionary theory. Nevertheless, I will lay out a few thoughts below as to why I think that Christus Victor and Conditional immortality compliment one other and together give us the best interpretation of scripture; simultaneously I will mention some of what I believe to be the shared problems between traditionalism and penal substitution.      

1 - Traditionalism and penal substitution both downplay death.

The traditional view of hell tells us that the wicked will not perish but that the wages of sin will be eternal conscious torment. Although the word ‘death’ still gets thrown around by adherents, it has being completely redefined. Death to traditionalists does not mean the permanent ending of life but rather gets reinterpreted as an ‘eternal conscious separation from God’ or as having to endure ‘immortality in hell’.
   Similarly, penal substitution emphasizes the suffering of Christ on the cross as a payment made to God on our behalf. The death of Christ is hardly significant or even necessary within this theological framework. Penal substitution says that on the cross God placed all the sin of the world onto Jesus and when the Fathers wrath had been fully poured out on Him the separation within the Trinity was once again restored. This is why Jesus says “Father, why have you forsaken me?” but soon afterward can say, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit’ and then “It is finished”. Under this interpretation the only reason Jesus died and rose again would be as a confirmation of God’s acceptance of His sacrifice.      

But even if penal substitutionists disagree with me there is still another problem. If they do indeed say that it was Christ’s death that satisfied God’s wrath then why do we all still die as Christ did? How was His physical death equal to God torturing billions of souls in hellfire for all eternity? Why was His substitutionary sacrifice not eternal conscious torment instead? There are no satisfactory arguments against these questions, yet I believe that Christus Victor deals with these problems, the immortal God comes as a mortal man that He could defeat death through death. Yes, He took our sin upon Himself and suffered the consequences of it (which is death) but by His resurrection He defeated death and made a way for us, not to escape death, but to overcome it in Christ:-

When the perishable has been clothed with imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory’.” – 1 Corinthians 15:54

“Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me  will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die’.” – John 11:25

“He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death.” – Revelation 2:11

And they have defeated him by the blood of the Lamb and by their testimony. And they did not love their lives so much that they were afraid to die. – Revelation 12:11

Conditional Immortality and Christus Victor are about restoration, Traditionalism and penal substitution are about holy violence.

I read a statement on a discussion in a Facebook group that really caught my attention a few days ago, it simply said, “I struggle to see how death is both an enemy AND God’s punishment”. It was a fantastic observation that was being made because it highlights another area where conditional immortality and Christus Victor stand in contrast to traditionalism and penal substitution. Traditionalism sees death (defined as eternal conscious torment) as a punishment dished out at the hands of God. Hell is viewed as a place where God sends people and keeps them alive under the ghastliest, most macabre and violent conditions imaginable. It is an utterly hopeless predicament as this form of justice is purely retributive. Really it is a no win situation for anyone, not even for God because His wrath remains unsatisfied forever and ever and so the lashes and torment must continue forever and ever.
   Likewise, penal substitution says that God poured out His own wrath on His own Son, anyone who has ever watched the Passion of the Christ movie before has some idea of just how violent Christ’s death actually was. While the Bible explicitly speaks of death as an enemy (1 Corinthians 15:26) and a tool of Satan (Hebrews 2:14, John 10:10), it bewilders me that it has somehow become associated with God in two of the major doctrines in the evangelical church of today.

Whereas violence and death are central to traditionalism and penal substitution, restoration and life are central to the teachings of conditional immortality (one of the reasons I prefer the term over annihilationism) and Christus Victor. While there are conditionalists who believe that God annihilates the wicked, others (including myself) believe that death is not God’s punishment but the natural conclusion of life outside of Christ (Romans 6:23). God never said to Adam that if he ate the forbidden fruit He would kill him, rather, He warned Adam of certain death in rejecting the tree of life and trying to go it alone (If you eat of the fruit you will surely die - Genesis 2:17). Conditional immortality is about God making a way in Christ for us to find life. It’s about restoration and eternal life through the cross to all those who believe in Jesus (John 3:36). This fits well inside the Christus Victor framework which likewise is about restoration. Christ’s victory over His enemies (death, sin, Satan and those who followed after him) means that one day everything will be restored or renewed, everything will be ‘very good indeed’ as it was in the Garden of Eden. When only that which is subject to Christ’s reign and rule remains, then He will truly be ‘all in all’.

Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free, but Christ is all, and in all. - Colossians 3:11

Traditionalism and penal substitution are about constraint whereas conditional immortality and Christus Victor deal with annihilation.

In the traditional framework of hell evil is never ending, God’s creation is never restored to its original state but rather, is split into two sections. Firstly, we have heaven and/or a new earth where God’s will is done and creation is good, this is the Kingdom of never ending peace. Then we have hell, where everything outside of God is imprisoned, it’s a little like the old movie Demolition Man, with Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes, where you have this perfect, non-violent society that has been created while at the same time there is this not so perfect society coexisting underground. The movie, much like Dante’s idea of hell, only deals with evil in the sense that it drives it away or banishes it to the shadows.
   Similar to this we have penal substitution which seeks to constrain or redirect God’s wrath from you and me onto Jesus (and those who do not accept Him). One gets a picture of Jesus holding His Father back in restraint, saying, “No dad, this person is one of mine”! God’s wrath is not avoided through free forgiveness but only satisfied in its redirection or payment taken from another source.

Conditional immortality though, while not ignoring God’s wrath or the consequences of sin, promises a restoration of all things in Christ. Not in the sense that Universalism teaches (on an individual level) but in the sense that all of creation will be redeemed from the curse. Mankind (those who inherited eternal life) will be sanctified and glorified and we will be as He is. This is where conditional immortality and Christus Victor really overlap because creation itself will be redeemed from the curse as well (Romans 8:21-22) in the same sense that mankind is. Not every mosquito, tree or pet that ever lived will be raised again but the animal and plant kingdoms will be restored to their initial states of beauty. It’s not that there are no casualties along the way but Christ’s victory over death and the curse on nature will be total and complete in the end.

Conditional Immortality and Christus Victor paint a more Christ-like picture of God.

Sometimes it is hard to reconcile the violent imagery of the Old Testament (generally speaking) with the more loving, non violent imagery found in the New (generally speaking). It is hard to reconcile Jesus’ teachings of enemy love and non violence as well as His example of dying at the hands of his enemies for the benefit of His enemies with the idea of a God who tortures His enemies. Most Christians feel a personal repulsion at the idea of burning anyone alive but conclude that it is simply a mystery beyond understanding and that “Gods ways are not our ways”. The problem with quoting this verse found in Isaiah 55 though is that the context is about God’s mercy which is beyond that of ours and makes an argument for the exact opposite picture of God :-

Seek the Lord while He may be found, call upon Him while He is near, Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, and He will have mercy on him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,” says the LORD, “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts”. – Isaiah 55:6-9

Eternal conscious torment and penal substitution both portray God in a manner that does not look like Jesus. It is hard to imagine Jesus throwing stones at the woman caught in adultery or harboring unforgiveness toward others until someone had been killed. In contrast conditional immortality and Christus Victor do offer us a more Christlike picture of God. When one sees God warring not against flesh and blood but against principalities, rulers, authorities, powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces, we begin to see the cross and the final judgment as a victory against sin, Satan and death. We begin to see the Father as a God who has done everything outside of forcing someone against their will to be saved from their sins and death.
   When I read John 3:16, I see a loving Father’s rescue mission for a people who were headed toward destruction. Somehow, even though I had read it a million times before and it is written rather plainly, I used to read penal substitution and traditionalism into the text. I interpreted it as saying that, ‘God was so angry with those He loved that He had to punish His own Son, and whoever believes this would not suffer eternal burning with no hope of death but inherit eternity in paradise’. But now when I read it, I see Christ, victorious over death and the hope of eternal life for those who are bound to Him.

For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life.    

Related articles

On Hell
On the atonement


  1. Excellent. I think I pretty much agree with you. I have travelled the same journey about the traditional view of hell and the atonement, although I think there may be truth in many different views of the atonement including penal substitution, but I too favour Christus Victor. But I don't think I had put the two together the way you have here. Thanks.

    1. Thank you, I agree as well that the atonement is not limited to the Christus Victor model, some of the other theories add valuable insights into Christ's work on the cross as well. I even agree that there was a penalty paid and a substitutionary sacrifice being made, I just don't agree with the way penal substitution teaches it. What I like about Christus Victor is that it forms a solid framework on which to discuss other aspects of the atonement in. Always appreciate your comments :)