If you grew up going to church in the U.S., then you know that the idea that hell isn’t a real place of punishment experienced by the unsaved after death is certainly one of the dumber beliefs a person following Jesus could hold.
After all, Jesus talked about hell more than anyone else in scripture right? Not to mention those passages in Matthew 25 and 2 Thessalonians 1 (among many others) that talk about eternal separation and torment. Even if you’re not a biblical scholar who knows how to read the Bible in the original Greek, it really just does not get much clearer: hell is real, eternal, and a place of physical torment that is experienced by the unsaved.
Much more to the point, it’s why we have the Gospel in the first place. If Jesus didn’t die to save us from the fires of hell, then what the hell (pun intended) did He even save us from?
The above sentences were all things I repeatedly said to myself as I started to learn about hell in scripture. They’re very good questions and thoughts. If the above sentences reflect something similar to your worldview, then I am sure that when you’re done reading this article, you’ll have some rebuttals for me, as well as I am sure that I will have more things I wish I had said here too.
But what about the actual question: “How can a Christian think Hell isn’t a real place of everlasting torment?”
The simple answer is that many of us who don’t hold onto the belief of hell as a place of eternal conscious torment (aka ECT/infernalism) take God very seriously when scripture says things like, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” (1 John 4:8)
Now, at first blush, that sounds a lot like hippie-kumbaya crap. I thought so too. I thought it was new-age stuff that people came up with because the idea of hell offended their sensitive dispositions. It’s actually, arguably, the oldest viewpoint on hell. In the fourth-century, the early church father, Basil of Caesarea noted that a large majority of his fellow Christians believed that hell was not everlasting.
Indeed, one of the main proponents of the Nicene Creed (which is broadly seen as the main standard of what is “orthodox” in Christian faith) was St. Gregory of Nyssa, an early church father whose work is best known for espousing the belief that hell is a redemptive process.
He’s not alone. Clement, Didymus, Cassian, Isaac the Syrian, Maximus the Confessor, Origen, The Cappadocians, and others were all members of the early church who shaped the faith in its infancy away from heresy and toward orthodoxy – and they all believed that hell was not forever.
So then that begs the question of what to do with all those passages of scripture that talk about hell. If these people were orthodox, how could they just toss aside scripture so easily? The answer, of course, is that they didn’t. They just likely read it differently than we do.
I don’t want to pick apart all the scriptures that people use to say that hell is eternal. We don’t have the space for that. But what I can say, is that every single scripture I’ve come across, has a historical way of being read, that actually points to hell not being a place of ECT. I will give two examples for the sake of illustration:
First, in Matthew 25, (specifically, verse 46) the word that’s translated as “eternal” is a Greek word that is transliterated as aionios, and while eternal/everlasting is one of its meanings, it certainly is not the only one. Another common meaning was that of “an age” or “an epoch.” Similarly, the word that we often find translated as “punishment” is kolasin. Here, the word actually has the connotation of discipline or correction. This is especially interesting since the entire previous portion of Matthew 25 is all about people being merciful. Discipline and correction are merciful. Outright punishment is not.
Before going to the second example, I should point out, that this reflects the viewpoint of all the early church thinkers who believed hell was not a place of physical everlasting torment. The idea was that hell is a place of redemptive correction. The fires of hell, are the fires of God’s love. The lake of fire is God’s very presence, which burns away the impurity of our sin. To stand in the presence of God, in an unrepentant state, is something that is miserable.
Think of how horrible it feels to be shown unequivocal mercy when you’ve done something terrible. You keep beating yourself up until you can accept that you have been accepted. Here, it is the same idea. The fire of God’s love will burn brightly, and hotly, and will most certainly be a kind of torment… and eventually, we will succumb and God will get what God wants – our redemption.
Indeed, the end of Matthew uses the same word, aionios, when Jesus says that He will never leave us or forsake us, even until the end of “the age.” This is why there’s a saying in some parts of the Eastern Orthodox church that as long as even one soul remains in hell, you can be sure that Christ will remain there with them – because God will not leave us or forsake us, even until the end of “the age.”
This then leads to the second example, 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9. This is the passage where we get the oft-heard belief that hell is “separation from God.” Here, the words translated as “vengeance” and “punishment” are again, probably better translated as something more akin to “chastening,” “discipline” or “correction.” Furthermore, the word translated as “separated from” can also mean “coming from” or “emanating from.”
Now, this passage that “clearly” talks about hell as being a punishment where we’re separated from God, we see instead a picture of fiery mercy emanating from the throne of God. God’s very presence is our correction that burns away our sin. All this points to just a few of the ways in which a person can believe that hell isn’t a real place of everlasting physical punishment. Collectively, this doctrine is known by a few names, “Apokatastasis” (meaning the restoration of all things), Patristic Universalism, Hopeful Universalism, or Ultimate Reconciliation.
For now, if you want to read more about this from people smarter than me, I recommend the following books:
“Her Gates Will Never Be Shut” by Bradley Jersak,
“That All Shall Be Saved” by David Bentley Hart,
“The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis” by Ilaria Ramelli,
“The Evangelical Universalist” by Robin Parry/Gregory MacDonald,
“Dare We Hope ‘That All Men Be Saved?’ “ by Hans Urs von Balthasar
Adam Brewster lives in Des Moines, IA with his wife and kids. He is a Christian who curses sometimes, and enjoys playing with yo-yos in his spare time.