I don’t believe that Hell will have literal fire. I side with the Eastern Orthodox Church on this issue. Hell is a place where either separation from God or the power of his presence is punishment. The way to understand biblical passages on hellfire is to understand them in a metaphorical manner (given that there are other instances of fire where literal fire is not meant [Exodus 15:7, Isaiah 42:25, Zephaniah 1:18, John 15:6, 10:26-30, 1 Corinthians 3:12-15]).
A REAL HELL
A). The Scriptures say eternal conscious punishment is real, and that it is a place you really don’t want to be in. This is the data supporting hell as a real place: Numbers 16:30, Matthew 3:12, 5:22, 29-30, 8:12, 13:41-42, 50, 18:8-9, 25:41, 46, Jude 7 Revelation 14:9-11, 20:15, 21:8 and Luke 16:19-31. Luke 16:19-31 is perhaps the most detailed account of hell. It is the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Jesus’s teaching here is that all men have enough knowledge accessible (the Law and the Prophet) to be held accountable for their eternal residence. Interestingly enough, the rich man is in Hades is conscious, and is holding conversation (contrary to what we might think happens when we are in excruciating pain) with Abraham, who is in paradise.
A) Annihilationism doesn’t make sense of the biblical data or seem consistent with our knowledge of the character of God. Verses used to support annihilationism such as Philippians 3:19 and 2 Peter 2:7 don’t refer to the cessation of existence, but rather the wasting of a thing (the same word is used in Matthew 26:8 but refers not to the cessation of existence). 1 Thessalonians 5:3 and 2 Thessalonians 1:9 are also used in support, but it seems the conclusion must be presupposed to gather that Paul is referring to the ceasing of existence. Aside from the biblical data, annihilationists must show they have a full understanding of the severity of sin. Annihilationists believe that the soul ceases to exist. But how do we really know that annihilatoinism will be a punishment that fits the crime? It seems that very evil men like Hitler and Stalin will get off the hook here, and perhaps men who were unrepentant, but not sinful to such an extreme (perhaps like Ghandi) would be given a punishment they didn’t deserve. This one-size-fits-all punishment also seems to deny Paul’s words that God will judge “each man according to his deeds” (Romans 2:6).
NO SECOND CHANCES
A) Universalism has, I think, the greatest challenge of the three views. It faces a large task to reconcile the biblical data on eternal punishment. It faces the challenge of the Gospel, in the sense that ‘If all will be saved, why not just do what I want because even though the punishment will hurt, it will stop eventually and I’ll be in bliss?’ I think universalists are mistaken on the difference between retribution and reconciliation.
B) It is often that universalists want to show verses to illustrate God’s reconciliation with his people (both in the OT and NT). However, this is to miss the point: reconciliation is with God’s people. These people are already repentant; the lost are unrepentant and not considered part of God’s people. Last, universalism faces the difficulty of human freedom. If it is true that humans are free, and also true that some humans reject God on sufficient knowledge (Romans 1), then they are making a free, informed decision about what they think of their Creator. And if the mind and heart has rejected God, then it will already have a perverse view of who God is. The universalist must show enough support that God’s presence would be enough for people to change their minds. And if Satan and his demons can continue in their rebellion, having a better-than-human knowledge of who God is, then I don’t see why humans might be any different once we see more fully.
For these reasons, I believe eternal conscious punishment is the best view that fits with the biblical data both explicitly and implicitly (meaning, compatibility with our biblical knowledge of the character of God).
T. Kurt Jaros is the Founder of Real Clear Apologetics and a Master’s student at King’s College London studying Systematic Theology
Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, “Hell,” (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), pgs. 1148-1153.
Murray Vasser, http://murrayvasser.blogspot.co.uk/2012/02/biblical-view-of-hell.html