Whatever else you might say of Rob Bell’s new book Love Wins, the ensuing controversy has made at least this one point clear: many churchgoers doubt the evangelical doctrine of hell, and many others reject it outright. Before long the blog wars will fade, and we’ll turn our attention toward other issues, such as Easter and the hope of Resurrection. However, the underlying issues that generated this episode will remain. Indeed, they will likely recur unless we account for and respond to the serious doubts.
To help us in this task, I turned to Christopher Morgan, co-editor with Robert Peterson of Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment (Zondervan, 2004). Morgan serves as the associate dean of the school of Christian ministries and professor of theology at California Baptist University in Riverside. No one else I know has a better grasp of these topics from a biblical, historical, and theological perspective. I have asked him several questions meant to help us understand the current debate in context. In three parts (on hell, how we relate to other religions, and what happens to those who have not heard the good news) and an ensuing stand-alone article (on hell as being on the outside), Morgan will equip you to know God’s Word and teach it confidently whether inside the church or sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with others.
Why did the early church reach a consensus view on hell?
The church has believed, does believe, and always will believe in hell primarily because every New Testament author teaches the final punishment of the wicked. Some examples include Mark (9:42-48); Matthew (5:20-30; 24-25); Luke (16:19-31); Paul (2 Thess. 1:5-10); the author of Hebrews (10:27-31); James (4:12; 5:1-5); Peter (2 Pet. 2:4-17); Jude (13-23); and John (Rev. 21:8; 22:15).
Plus, the Lord Jesus himself stands out as hell’s chief defender. Neither Thomas Aquinas nor Jonathan Edwards ever spoke as fearsomely about the horrors of hell as Jesus.
The church also teaches hell because of its prominent place in the biblical worldview. Although hell is not the point of the Bible, it is inexorably linked to the doctrines of God, sin, and the atonement. Hell emerges from a biblical understanding of God. It reminds us that though God’s love is monumental in Scripture, it should not be viewed independently of God’s other attributes. His love is in unity with his justice and holiness. God’s love is not sentimentality, but a holy love and a just love. Therefore, God’s love should not be viewed as suggesting that he cannot bear to see justice executed.
Hell is also connected to a biblical understanding of humanity and sin. Hell reminds us that being human comes with awesome privileges and responsibilities. To choose sin rather than God is a high crime indeed. So most fundamentally, hell is correctly understood as God’s just punishment on sin and guilt. In this sense, the horror of hell should offend our modern moral sensibilities—but not primarily because of the dreadfulness of the punishment in hell but because of the awfulness of sin, the crime that demanded such a penalty. But the problem is not hell, and the problem is not God. Sin is the problem, and it is what should repulse us.
The biblical doctrine of hell is also linked to Christian convictions concerning Jesus’ death. Fully God and fully human, Jesus the Mediator died on the cross and rose again as the only substitute for our sin; he is our only sacrifice, our only representative, our only victor, our only reconciler. He bore the infinite penalty of sin for every believer. But those who fail to come to Christ in faith and repentance will have to pay that penalty themselves. In other words, just as there are only two options available for sinners (to receive forgiveness from Christ or to be punished eternally for their sins), there are only two ways to gauge the horror of sin—by reflecting on the cross and by considering hell. Both of these vantage points are key components in the biblical story.
Further, these aspects of the doctrines of God, sin, and the atonement are themselves also interwoven together and can only be understood fully in light of hell. Only when we recognize God’s holiness will we be able to appraise the horror of sin. And only when we become aware of the awfulness of our sin will we sense the dreadfulness of hell and the price of Christ’s death. And only when we grapple with the punishment of hell and the extent of Christ’s atoning death can we begin to grasp God’s amazing grace. Hell is an integral part of the biblical worldview, and thus, the theology of the church.
What has led some to opt for alternatives to eternal punishment such as annihilationism and universalism? Can you explain these views?
The traditional way to categorize the major views concerning hell is eternal punishment, annihilationism, and universalism. These differ as to the nature of hell. Eternal punishment, the historic view of the church, holds that hell is a place of eternal, conscious, and final punishment, banishment, and death.
Proponents of annihilationism and universalism question the historic view of hell for varied reasons. Many of the reasons are theological and related to the doctrines of God and sin, which can be seen in questions like, “How is an eternal hell consistent with God’s love?” or, “Doesn’t endless punishment seem too extreme?” or “Doesn’t an eternal hell mar God’s ultimate victory?” Sometimes they are textual: “How in an eternal hell consistent with Christ being all in all?” or, “How do we understand hell as being outside, banished, or destroyed?”
The second view, annihilationism, and is sometimes known by one of its forms, “conditionalism.” It maintains that the wicked will ultimately be exterminated and cease to exist. In this view, hell is temporary.
The third view, universalism, contends that in the end all persons will experience the love of God and eternal life. All will be ultimately saved and none will be finally lost.
Historically, the church has regarded both annihilationism and universalism as significant errors, with universalism being very serious and even heretical. J. I. Packer reminds:
But in itself [universalism] is a revisionist challenge to orthodoxy, whether Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Protestant evangelical; for the church has officially rated universalism a heresy ever since the second Council of Constantinople (the fifth ecumenical council, A.D. 553), when the doctrine of apokatastasis (the universal return to God and restoration of all souls) that Origen was understood to have taught was anathematized.
 For a careful study on the nature of hell, see Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson, eds., Hell Under Fire (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), For an introduction to the doctrine of hell, see Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson, What Is Hell? (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2010).
 See J. I. Packer, “Universalism: Will Everyone Ultimately Be Saved?” in Hell Under Fire, pp. 169-94.