While I’m itching to get into more detail about why and how I think we should reform our view of Hell, I think we first need to establish what the current views of Hell are. This is hard to do accurately because not many people talk about Hell, and of those that do, it seems that quite a few are required to promote a particular view (e.g. there are some seminaries, ministry positions, and denomination memberships that require it). However, a broad definition could be, “The fate of those who aren’t saved in this life.”
Religions have different views about what this fate is and the quantity of those who will experience it. However, for the sake of this discussion, I’m going to focus on the religion, Christianity, that I’ve got some knowledge1 of and experience with. Even within Christianity, there are at least 5 common views of the fate of those who aren’t saved in this life:
- Probably everlasting conscious torment2 or punishment3. It’s hard to know what label to give this view, some suggest “Traditionalism” but all views have a long tradition. I’ll use “Hellism” – not because other views don’t have a view of Hell but because none of the others have Hell as the final fate of anyone.
- Probably cease to exist4. Known as Annihilationism, Conditionalism, or Conditional Immortality.
- Probably all will be saved eventually5. Known as Universalism, Universal Reconciliation, or Universal Restoration.
- Probably all go “straight to heaven”6. Sometimes known as Ultra-Universalism.
- Too hard to predict7. Sometimes known as Soteriology Agnosticism.
As you’ve probably noticed, I’ve said “predict” and “probably”. This is because epistemologists explain that knowledge of anything is difficult, and I assume future events are particularly so. Anyway, here’s my very rough estimate8 of how many Christians hold each view:
One of the reasons I think view 5 is common is because it seems to be the unofficial Catholic position9, although I’ve also met plenty of Protestants who hold it, at least for specific individuals (i.e. if you ask someone if they think person X is in Hell, many will say they don’t know).
In my first blog post (“Ecclesia semper reformanda” – the church is always to be reformed), I was mainly thinking about those who hold view 1 but on further reflection, I think it applies to all the views, including my own.
Do you think my estimate of the distribution of views is reasonable?
1. Unfortunately the opportunity to study this topic at a tertiary level hasn’t occurred yet but I have privately studied the topic for about 7 years, and have been a Christian for about 30 years.
2. Based on passages like Revelation 14:9-11.
3. Some believe the punishment is being inflicted by God, others believe people are tormenting themselves and getting the natural consequences of their sinful behaviour. See Theology In The Raw for more details.
4. Some believe God simply stops sustaining mortals, some believe God actively destroys people, and some believe people slowly destroy themselves until there’s nothing left. See Rethinking Hell for more details.
5. Some believe it will only be a little while, some believe it will a fair while, and some believe it will be many ages. There are also different views on where the unsaved reside and what happens to them before they are saved. See Universalism and The Bible for more details.
6. Some believe as each and every person comes face-to-face with God they will repent, believe, have faith in Christ, etc. (like Saul/Paul did at Damascus) and go to heaven. See Tentmaker for more details. Some believe they are already good enough to go to heaven.
7. e.g. some believe the Bible reveals multiple possible endings. See God’s Final Victory for more details.
8. I couldn’t find a recent, comprehensive study but the following influenced my estimates:
George Sarris’ blog
George Sarris’ survey
Barna 2003 study
Baylor Religion Survey, Wave 2, 2007
“Rethinking Hell” Facebook group
“Evangelical Universalism Invitation and Debate” Facebook group
9. I’m not a Catholic but I get the impression from the current Popes and the previous one, that they hope and pray for view 3 e.g. Pope Francis seems even closer to UR than previous 2 Popes!. Although it seems their official position is still view 1 – see What about the Catholic Church?