This page in brief
Most religions have some concept of an afterlife where there is justice: retribution for those who have behaved badly, reward for those who have lived well and compensation for those who have suffered. The logic is understandable – we want there to be justice and yet this world is manifestly unjust to some, so we may hope that there is justice after we die.
But the concept of hell – an eternity being repaid for sins in this life – as believed by many Christian and Muslims seems very harsh. Finite sins yet infinite punishment?
So can anyone believe in a loving God and also believe in hell? Is hell a reality, or not? Is belief in hell an essential part of christian belief?
This page explores both philosophical and scriptural ideas on the possibility of hell.
The conventional christian view of hell
For many centuries, christian believed that all people would face the judgment of God after they died. Some would pass the test of God’s judgment – because of the merit of their life, or because of their belief in Jesus, or both – and others would fail the test. The blessed ones would go off to enjoy the perfection of heaven, while the damned would suffer eternal separation from God, and punishment.
That was the belief, and paintings like those of Hieronymus Bosch and writings like Dante’s Divine Comedy and Milton’s Paradise Lost portrayed the two alternatives in lurid detail.
In recent years, hell has become as much the subject of jokes as a reality to be feared. Conservative christians continue to believe in hell, but many “progressive christians” reject the idea and most non-believers (in my experience) find the idea ludicrous and repugnant.
Origins of belief in hell – Jesus and Gehenna
The English word “hell” is of Germanic origin and has been used as a translation of several Hebrew and Greek words used in the Bible. But modern (and hopefully more accurate) translations now mostly translate the Greek Hades and Hebrew Sheol as “the grave”, for they described the state of being dead without any connotations of punishment or suffering.
So modern Bible translations only use the word “hell” to translate the Greek word Ge’enna, and it is mostly (11 times out of 12) spoken by Jesus. The meaning is neither straightforward nor literal.
In Hebrew Ge Hinnom means “the valley of Hinnom”, an actual valley just outside the city of Jerusalem. Hinnom was a person’s name, and the valley is referred to several times in the Hebrew scriptures as Gei Ben-Hinnom, “the valley of the sons of Hinnom”. It had been in the past a place where child sacrifices had been carried out, and was at the time of Jesus a garbage dump where refuse was burned.
It was thus an unclean, unsavoury place in reputation and in fact, and had become a metaphor for the future punishment of God.
Why would anyone believe in a monstrous thing like hell?
The idea of judgment in the afterlife meets the human need to see justice done. It is natural to think that good but downtrodden people need to receive some reward and compensation for their suffering, while those who cause suffering and pain while making themselves comfortable in this life, surely deserve to get repaid for their evil and mistreatment of others.
So that is the argument. God, being perfectly just, it is said, must make amends and put things right. Evil people must pay for their sins. We can see this most often when an unspeakable crime is committed, especially if against a child, and the victims and their sympathisers are so eager to see the perpetrator punished. “Let him rot in gaol!” or “Let him rot in hell!” are common cries.
We may not like it, but we can see the argument and the desperate wish for justice.
Philosophical and ethical difficulties with the idea of hell
There are a number of reasons why many people, including many christians, find the idea of hell repugnant.
God is love?
Christians believe that the most fundamental and important fact we can state about God is “God is love.” So, it is argued, how could a loving God consign huge numbers of people, perhaps the majority who ever lived (depending on who you think God sends to hell), to continued, never-ending suffering?
If that is God, it is said, he is a monster, not loving.
God is just?
It is a principle of justice that the punishment must fit the crime. The more heinous the crime, the longer should be the sentence.
So even if we accept that justice demands some reparation and punishment in the next life, there seems to be no way that never-ending punishment can can be a fair sentence for the sin of even the worst life. A finite life of sin surely deserves only a finite punishment.
But there is another problem. Many people these days believe the best and only right form of justice is restorative justice, where the aim is to restore both the victim and the perpetrator. Whatever form the punishment takes, it must contribute to ultimate restoration. Retributive justice, where the criminal is harmed, is seen by many as being as evil as the harm done by the perpetrator in the first place.
Yet the traditional idea of hell is all retributive, with no restorative element at all.
One argument sometime used to justify the traditional view of hell is that justice demands God punish those who refuse his love, and since God made us with immortal souls, that punishment must be forever.
But there are two things wrong with this argument.
- If God is almighty, he is surely capable of bringing to an end a life that was intended to be immortal.
- The concept of an immortal soul was not a Jewish or an early christian one. The Jews, if they believed in an afterlife at all, believed in resurrection, not immortality. And the christians took up and developed this belief, so the christian hope is not immortality but the resurrection of the body into a new life as an act of God.
And it gets even worse. Many christians believe that the universe, and all human life, only continue second by second because God actively keeps it going. (That isn’t my belief, I think God has made a universe capable of existing independently of him, but it is a common christian understanding.) Thus on this view, God would have to actively keep alive those suffering in hell – they are only immortal because God continues to maintain their life so they can be eternally punished. It isn’t an attractive picture!
Who is enjoying heaven?
Most christians have friends and family members, sometimes deeply loved ones, who have not lived what we may call “godly” lives and are not believers, and so may be presumed to be facing God’s judgment.
Are the believers going to be enjoying all the pleasures and bliss of heaven even while knowing their loved ones are suffering unimaginable pain in hell?
Re-visiting the Bible’s teaching
So there are compelling philosophical and ethical reasons to question the idea of hell. But can christians escape what the Bible says?
It turns out that the Bible doesn’t actually say what many christians think.
Jesus, but not his followers
Jesus several times warned people to fear the possibility of ending up in hell. However we have no record of any of the early christians using the word. That means whatever meaning “hell” has for christians must come from how Jesus meant the term.
Jewish views at the time
The Jewish scriptures (the christian Old Testament) say very little about an afterlife, but the idea developed in Jewish thought in the couple of centuries before Jesus. Four views were apparently held by different Jews:
- Some Jews, for example the powerful Sadducees, did not believe in an afterlife.
- Some Jews thought that everyone would be resurrected at the end of this age, and there would be a time of purging from the sins of this life before people could enter into life in the age to come.
- Others thought the virtuous would enter the age to come but the evildoers would be judged and not resurrected, and there would be no afterlife for them.
- A minority thought that evildoers would be punished, possibly forever, in the afterlife.
The theology of all this was still very much speculative and much argued over, but Ge Hinnom was often used as a picture or metaphor for the place of purging, destruction or punishment.
Jesus’ sayings must be seen against this background.
Jesus clearly opposed the Sadducees, and taught there would be a resurrection to an afterlife where we would face God’s judgment. But when he spoke of ‘eternal punishent’, the words do not mean the punishment endures forever as we might think. The Greek word aionios (from aion = ‘age’), translated as ‘eternal’, does not mean ‘forever’ but ‘in the age to come’.
So Jesus was speaking of judgment or punishment in the afterlife without defining the duration or permanence of that punishment.
Jesus never once suggested that the punishment would go on forever. (He does say the worm doesn’t die and flames don’t go out, but that seems to be taking the metaphor of the garbage dump in Ge Hinnom and pointing out that we cannot avoid judgment, for it will still be there whenever we die.)
Instead, Jesus several times used the word “destruction”, apparently indicating an end to life, similar to the third view (above) commonly held by his fellow Jews.
A number of New Testament passages suggest that God’s purpose is to eventually save everyone, lending support to the view that hell is just a place of temporary purging. However this doesn’t seem to have been Jesus’ view, and there are plenty of other scriptures that suggest otherwise. Nevertheless, the idea remains a belief, or at least a hope, of many who believe that the Biblical statements about punishment must be seen as not the ultimate reality for anyone.
Christian thought since Jesus
The early christians didn’t emphasise hell, and their views on punishment in the afterlife were not well developed. But if any view predominated, it was probably the view that evildoers would forfeit their life (sometimes called conditional immortality or annihilationism).
The idea of everlasting punishment (eternal conscious torment) came more from Greek philosophy about the immortal soul and from some pagan religions. It really only became mainstream in the church with Augustine around 400 CE, and has been the main doctrine in both Protestant and Catholic theology since then.
Current christian thought
Contemporary christian interpretation is split between the same views the Jews argued over and the early church didn’t define strictly. Traditionally christian theology has taught everlasting punishment, while conditional immortality and the view that after purging, all will enter heaven (universalism) have always had their adherents.
But these alternative views are experiencing a resurgence today, for the reasons outlined on this page, and it wouldn’t surprise me if eternal conscious torment was no longer the most common view of those under (say) 40.
So, does hell make it impossible to believe in God?
It seems to me that hell cannot be a reason not to believe in God, because you can be a sincere christian and believe any of a variety of views about hell.
You can still (I suppose) believe in eternal conscious torment and emphasise God’s holiness and justice more than his love, though it doesn’t appear to be what Jesus taught, and I’m not sure I could believe that doctrine and stay a christian.
On the other hand, you could believe in universalism and emphasise God’s love and restorative justice over his holiness, though you probably have to stretch Jesus’ words a little to do it.
Or you can believe in conditional immortality, and emphasise God’s love while also recognising his holiness and his respect for our choices.
I think the latter best balances scripture, philosophy and ethics, but I wouldn’t want to be dogmatic about it.
You can google “Biblical teaching on hell” or “ancient Jewish views on the afterlife”, or “early church teaching on hell”, and find an enormous number of pages from all different viewpoints. Here is just a small selection of ones I have looked at to write this page:
Photo: Valley of Hinnom, Jerusalem, by Deror avi, in Wikipedia.