Eternal Hell Belongs to the Gospel of Hope- A Response to Rob Bell’s “Love Wins” Part 3- A Brief History of Hell

Until the nineteenth century almost all Christian theologians taught the reality of eternal torment in hell. Here and there, outside the theological mainstream, were some who believed that the wicked would be finally annihilated. . . . Even fewer were the advocates of universal salvation, though these few included some major theologians of the early church. Eternal punishment was firmly asserted in official creeds and confessions of the churches. It must have seemed as indispensable a part of the universal Christian belief as the doctrines of the Trinity and the incarnation. [1]

The change in the modern attitude towards the traditional understanding of hell can be traced philosophically and theologically.  In his essay, “Is Hell for Real”, Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr. notes that early church teaching on hell was based on New Testament passages and was viewed as “God’s just judgment on sinners who did not put their faith in Christ. It was seen as real and eternal, characterized by fire and torment”. [2]But a challenge soon arose.

The first major challenge to this view came from a theologian named Origen, who taught that everyone and everything would ultimately be reconciled to God. He reasoned that God’s victory could only be complete when nothing was left unredeemed, and that hell would not be eternal and punitive but rather temporary and purifying. Origen’s teaching was rejected by a church council held in Constantinople in AD 553, however, and the church’s consensus on hell continued to be widely held for another thousand years. Rejections of hell during these years were limited to sects and heretics. Indeed, hell was such a fixture of the Christian mind that most persons understood all of life in terms of their ultimate destination. Men and women longed for heaven and feared hell.[3]

Though a Christian understanding of life, with a framework of an eternal heaven and hell, was for centuries the dominant influence in European and American thought, it is an influence that has dramatically waned in the last few centuries, due to new patterns of thinking that began to emerge during the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods. As Dr. Mohler relates, various streams of atheism and skepticism first emerged during the 17th century, raising doubts about hell which continued into the Enlightenment and Victorian eras.  At first this changing thought did not infiltrate the Church, but in the 19th century, opposition to the traditional understanding of hell became more vociferous.  As the thinking on hell of Victorian preachers, writers and thinkers both in Europe and America was evolving, this in turn influenced the aristocracy and educated classes, and there began to be widespread calls for changes to be made to traditional Christian teaching.  But the evolution in thought was having a wider impact than just the doctrine of hell.

Victorian-era doubts about historic Christian beliefs were not limited to hell, though. As Western nations colonized countries around the world, Westerners confronted other people’s gods, practices, and worldviews. This discovery led some Victorian thinkers to emphasize the universal fatherhood of God, and they came up with ways to soften Christianity’s claim of salvation through Christ alone. In Germany, a “history of religions” school of thought treated Christianity as just one form of human religion alongside others, with all religions understood to be human inventions. Above all, when they thought about God, Victorians increasingly came to the conclusion that he was universally benevolent. This concept of a humanitarian God would have doctrinal repercussions in the twentieth century.[4]

In the 20th century,

Technological revolutions… led to an outlook that gave science and the natural world preeminence, with spiritual truths relegated to mere personal or speculative interest. As a result, the place of religion was diminished in the public sphere. Secularization became the norm in Western societies, alongside advanced technologies and ever-increasing wealth.  [5]

For liberal Christians, heaven and hell became more about the grim realities facing us in this life than the next.  Facing such horrors as the gas ovens of Auschwitz, we could witness “hell” right now, in the present.  Influential theologians such Reinhold Niebuhr, Karl Barth, and Jürgen Moltmann also promoted ideas that departed from traditional views, with reformed theologian Barth holding out the possibility that God’s sovereign victory in Christ might lead to salvation for all.  Thus,

“By the end of the century, many liberal Christians had abandoned claims of exclusivity for the Christian faith. In accommodating themselves to the secular and antisupernatural worldview of the times, belief in a literal hell became incredible and unacceptable — an embarrassment to the Christian faith.”[6]

These historical trends bring us to our current day of pluralism, desensitization to evil, biblical illiteracy and institutionalized secularism, with Western emphasis on freedom and autonomy of the individual.  In today’s climate, the traditional teaching of a literal hell seems outmoded.  Modern technologies such as the Internet enable cultures around to mutually encounter one another in ways previously unimaginable.  Nations like America, with its diversity of religions, lifestyles, cultures and opinions living side by side, embrace “tolerance” as a supreme virtue, viewing this is as necessary to maintaining harmony and goodwill.  Everyone must be free to choose their own way, thus the Christian conception of heaven as destiny for believers and hell for non-believers, is seen as too exclusive and divisive, and as a relic from the past to be discarded and replaced.

In theological history, four general Christian schools of thought or approaches to life after death (literal, metaphorical, purgatorial and conditional) have appeared.  These in turn influenced various positions regarding the nature of hell.   The literal view has much in common with what we have been calling the “traditional” view, holding that hell is eternal, conscious, irreversible punishment.  But the literal view also is distinguished by regarding the Bible’s descriptions of hell (unending fire, worms that don’t die, black darkness, etc.) as literally true, whereas some traditionalists (e.g., Calvin, Martin Luther,) have considered these images to be symbolic in nature.

William Crockett, a leading proponent of the metaphorical view, defines it as follows, “the metaphorical view says that hell is a real place, a place of serious eternal judgment, but a place whose exact nature is best left in the hands of God.”[7] Some who hold the metaphorical view seem to be trying to escape or soften the painful physical realities of hell, but traditionalists who take a metaphorical stance think the reality the symbols point to is actually far more awful than the symbols themselves.

 The purgatorial view is mostly associated with Roman Catholic theology.  In addition to heaven and hell, in Roman Catholic thought there is a third state after death known as purgatory, in which a person not yet holy enough for heaven, but not sinful enough to be condemned to hell, goes through a painful period of cleansing of their sins.  Those who apply purgatorial concepts to hell see hell not as a final destination but as a place where sinners undergo rehabilitation, as God continues to reach out to them in love.

Universalism teaches that everyone will be saved regardless of specific deeds or religious beliefs.  As mentioned earlier, Bell has been charged with being universalistic in the ideas expressed in “Love Wins.”  Michael E. Wittmer does a good job of analyzing Bell’s position on this score.  He writes,

Bell’s emphasis on human freedom prevents him from becoming a full-fledged universalist. He does allow for the possibility that someone will reject God’s love and choose to remain in hell. However, it seems fair to call Bell, as with Barth, an “incipient universalist.”… Bell apparently believes that it’s unlikely that any mere human will be able to outlast the omnipotent God, who “never stops pursuing,” who “simply doesn’t give up. Ever” (p. 101). I also think it’s fair to call Bell a “functional universalist,” for one undeniable takeaway from Love Wins is that everyone who desires to leave hell will be able to do so[8].

Finally, inclusivism refers to the idea that everyone who will be saved is saved by Christ, but that the knowledge of Christ required for salvation doesn’t have to be explicit but may be implicit.  For example, a person may live as a faithful Jew, Hindu, or Buddhist, yet in their own tradition encounter Christ unawares and be saved by Him.

Having outlined the major approaches to the afterlife/hell and looked at a brief historical background on hell, we can now better evaluate Rob Bell’s postmodern take on hell.   We conclude that Bell is mistaken to locate his views within the orthodox stream, for we see that not only is this contrary to the historical record, but also that his view has more in common with lines outside of the mainstream.  In our next article we’ll continue our series on hell and how it fits into the Christian gospel, as we take a closer look at Bell’s particular brand of inclusivism.

[1] Richard Bauckham, “Universalism: A Historical Survey,” Themelios 4, no. 2 (1978, September 1): 47.

[2] Timothy R. Keller et al, Is Hell for Real or Does Everyone Go to Heaven?, Kindle Edition, ed. Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Petersen (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), Location 86.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid. Location 160

[5] Ibid. Location 188

[6] Ibid.

[7] Zondervan Academic, “Four Views On Hell: An Interview With William Crockett,” Koinonia (blog), accessed July 2, 2012,

[8] Michael E. Wittmer, Christ Alone: An Evangelical Response to Rob Bell’s “Love Wins” (Grand Rapids, MI: Edenridge Press, 2011), 71.


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Filed under "Love Wins" Series, Controversy, Hell, Theology

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