Some Christians insist on the scriptural reality of a Dante-esque hell of eternal horror. Some of us, however, have a hard time reconciling the idea of a loving God with traditional doctrines of hell, or we have objections to fear-based theology or to belief systems that over-emphasize the afterlife and turn Christianity into little more than a religion of requirements and rewards. As it turns out, there are biblical alternatives to the hellfire and brimstone approach.
There are scriptural arguments to support not only the belief in eternal conscious torment for the unrepentant in a literal fiery hell, but also the belief in annihilationism or conditionalism (that those who are unreconciled to God are simply annihilated, rather than existing eternally) and even the hope for universalism (that all souls are eventually reconciled to God). In his documentary Hellbound? Kevin Miller claims that the amount of scriptural support for these three positions is roughly equal (see his list of scriptures here, and find a link to the documentary website below).
What this means is that we don’t have to accept an understanding of hell or the afterlife that is inconsistent with our understanding of a loving God who through Christ is reconciling the world (all of it!) to Godself.
Below are resources to listen to, watch, or read that present various arguments for annihilationism/conditionalism and universalism, beginning with an excellent and thorough discussion from the podcast That God Show. If you are looking for alternatives to eternal conscious torment, here are some places to begin:
“The Biblical Alternative to Hell” (Podcast) That God Show, Episode 17 with Benjamin L. Corey and Kurt Willems. Synopsis: “Most of us grew up believing that those who reject God will spend eternity in a literal place called hell, where they are consciously tortured day and night, for ever. But is that what the Bible actually teaches? Not quite– in fact, the Bible doesn’t teach hell as we were taught it at all. In this episode, BLC sits down with Kurt Willems to talk about hell, and the theology of “conditionalism.” If you’ve ever questioned hell, but didn’t want let go of something that was in the Bible, this episode is for you– you’ll walk away with your Bible intact, and a totally different view of hell.”
“The What the Hell Show” (Podcast) from The Moonshine Jesus Show. Mark and David tackle the topic of hell. They aren’t as thorough as Benjamin and Kurt, but in my opinion, the MJS is always worth a listen.
Hellbound? A Documentary by Kevin Miller (Currently available for instant viewing on Netflix). Synopsis: “If God is our pure, all-loving creator, can he really turn his back on sinners and allow them to suffer for eternity in hell? Where did this vision of hell come from? Is it possible we’ve got hell wrong? Or are recent challenges to the traditional view merely an attempt to avoid the inevitable? “Hellbound?” is a feature-length documentary that seeks to discover why we are so bound to the idea of hell and what our views on hell reveal about how we perceive God, justice, the Bible and, ultimately, ourselves.”
Benjamin L. Corey’s “Letting Go of Hell” Blog Series. This series has some excellent, easy reads that make great starting points for exploring biblical alternatives to eternal hellfire and brimstone. The post “What Jesus Talked About When He Talked About Hell” is particularly eye-opening for people who have never been taught about the actual Greek words translated as “hell” in the New Testament. BLC also gets down to the nitty gritty of whether eternal conscious torment is “biblical” with “25 Bible Verses that Disprove Eternal Conscious Hell.”
“What [the] Hell? Is Annihilation Within the Bounds?” This is another Biblical case against eternal conscious torment, from Prof. Ed Christian.
Rob Bell, Love Wins. In this controversial book (which was influential enough to cause the Southern Baptist Convention issue a resolution to double-down on the reality of eternal conscious torment) Rob Bell makes a scripturally-based argument for a kind of Christian universalism. The book references C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, which offers another alternative take on hell. You can also find Rob Bell discussing his views in youtube videos like this one.
Kurt Willems also has a blog series on hell: “Hell Yes. Hell No! Or Who the Hell Cares?”, and more recently he suggested that Christians give up the doctrine of hell for a year to see how it could revolutionize our relationships with others. Food for thought: “Giving Up Hell for a Year.”
Mark Sandlin, in “Hell: Yeah, I’m Going There -or- Hell yeah, I’m Going There,” has a different take on hell that overlaps somewhat with Rob Bell, but with a unique spin on how we’re all going to hell (but that’s not the end of the story!).
Rethinking Hell: Exploring Evangelical Conditionalism: This website put together by a variety of evangelical Christians contains blog posts, podcasts, and other resources related to beliefs about hell, particularly conditionalism.