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Heaven and hell

Does punishment in Hell last forever? A description of two evangelical Christian beliefs: Traditionalism and Annihilationism

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Christianity has traditionally taught that Hell exists as a place of torture and torment for those who have not met certain criteria for salvation -- criteria normally based either on correct beliefs or proper actions. This topic is gradually fading as a subject for sermons, perhaps because of the conflict between historical concepts of Hell and modern-day secular values of religious freedom, personal dignity, prisoner's rights and elementary justice. Some parts of the Bible have sunk into obscurity. For example, Revelation 14:9-11 is very rarely discussed. It describes an endless torture scene, with angels and Jesus present either as observers or as officials who are directing the torture of the victims in Hell.

If one accepts that Hell exists as a place where its inhabitants are in extreme pain, there still remains two concepts about the duration of the torture:

bullet Annihilationism: It is finite.
bullet Traditionalism: It lasts forever.

Traditionalism is fading rapidly, being replaced by annihilationism. It is unclear whether the latter belief will also eventually fade and be replaced by a Hell that is interpreted symbolically.

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This is a.k.a. conditionalism and conditional immortality: This belief states that unsaved individuals will be punished in Hell only for a period of time that is appropriate to pay for the nature and frequency of their sins while they were alive on earth. This belief is vaguely similar to the Roman Catholic Church's belief in Purgatory. However, they differ from the Catholic view in one important point: supporters of annihilationism believe that when the inmates' punishment in Hell is finished, and they have paid the full penalty for their sins, they will be exterminated and will cease to exist in any form. The Roman Catholic church teaches that after the individual is cleansed from the temporal consequences of her or his sins while on earth, they are eligible to be transferred to Heaven.

The term "annihilationism" is derived from the belief that the unsaved will be totally destroyed in Hell without any trace. No trace will be left of their body or soul. The term "conditional immortality" comes from the belief that a person only attains immortality on the condition that they are saved before death. "Conditionalism" comes from the phrase "conditional immortality."

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This belief states that unsaved individuals will be punished in Hell for all eternity without any hope of relief, moderation or cessation of the pain. Their sentence will not be for a year, or a decade, or life-imprisonment like many prisoners on Earth receive. They will be in constant torment not just for a century, or millennia, or even a billion years. Their punishment lasts forever!

The term "traditionalism" is derived from the fact that the belief in unending punishment has been the traditional, historical view of the vast majority of Christians for almost two millennia.

There are many passages in the Bible that appear to describe punishment in Hell as lasting for all eternity.

bullet Traditionalists interpret these passages literally. They view the inmates' physical punishment as unceasing, continuous, severe, and infinite in duration.
bullet Annihilationists teach that punishment is time-limited because the individuals' eventual state is to be exterminated without a trace of their existence remaining, forever. Their final punishment -- to be totally exterminated -- lasts forever. 1

Unfortunately, there does not appear to be any mechanism for harmonizing these conflicting beliefs. The obvious way would be to assess the will of God through prayer. But, this appears to be impossible, at least according to a small-scale pilot study that we have conducted.

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Where believers in traditionalism and annihilationism agree and disagree:

In recent decades, most liberal and many mainline denominations have either rejected the idea of punishment in Hell, or have seriously downplayed it. Most conservative religious denominations maintain their belief in a literal Hell and in the inerrancy of the Bible. This leads them to hold certain beliefs in common:

bullet Hell exists as a place of punishment for individuals have died and who:
bullet Have been exposed to the Gospel but have rejected it and thus have never been saved.
bullet Have been exposed and accepted an invalid version of the Gospel taught by a faith group which deviates from traditional Christian teachings; such groups are often called new religious movements or "cults."
bullet Have never heard of the Gospel, Christianity or Jesus and thus have not had the opportunity to be saved. There is some debate among conservative Protestants about this specific point.
bullet God's moral standards conflict with the most highly developed human moral systems:
bullet Civilized countries regard the torture of prisoners as uncivilized and immoral. One example was the outrage and criminal prosecutions after news of the torture of prisoners at the Abu Grahab prison in Iraq surfaced in the media.  Dictators and countries who engage in it are regarded as pariahs. However, torturing prisoners is the purpose of Hell; it was created by God to perform exactly that function.
bullet Imprisoning people for a thought crime is regarded as immoral behavior on Earth. For example, there was considerable outrage and anger when Abdul Rahman was arrested in Afghanistan for converting from Islam to Christianity and threatened with execution. Civilized countries only imprison people who have been found guilty of some criminal activity, not for people who simply hold minority beliefs. Again, those who imprison people for having thought "crimes" are considered pariahs. However, imprisoning people for their beliefs is the purpose of Hell.
bullet More details

Their main point of disagreement is whether punishment in Hell:

bullet Lasts for all eternity, or 
bullet Is finite in duration, and is then followed by absolute annihilation.

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About the debate between Annihilationism and Traditionalism:

The debate between these viewpoints is not grounded in what the biblical text says. Evangelicals generally accept the accuracy of the words in the New International Version, the King James Version of the Bible, and/or the surviving copies of Greek Hebrew and Aramaic texts. The core problem is disagreement about what the Bible's words actually mean. The Bible is clearly ambiguous, because intelligent, devout, sincere, thoughtful theologians read the same Bible text and yet have come to very different beliefs about Hell and many other topics.

Unfortunately, there does not appear to be any hope of harmonizing these conflicting beliefs. The obvious way would be to assess the will of God through prayer. But, this appears to be impossible, at least according to a small-scale pilot study that we have completed. And so, the debate continues.

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What is at stake in the debate?

Emotions run high in the writings of Evangelicals on both sides of this issue:

James I Packer is one of the leading Evangelical theologians. He supports traditionalism and has written:

"Does it matter whether an evangelical is a conditionalist [annihilationist] or not? I think it does, for a:

bullet Conditionalists' idea of God will miss out on the glory of divine justice, and
bullet His idea of worship will miss out on praise for God's judgments, and
bullet His ideal of heaven will miss out on the thought that praise for God's judgments goes on and 2
bullet His idea of man will miss out on the awesome dignity of our having been made to last for eternity, and
bullet In his preaching of the gospel he will miss out on telling the unconverted that their prospects without Christ are as bad as they possibly could be, for on the conditionalist view they aren't."

"These, surely, are sad losses. Conditionalism, logically thought through, cannot but impoverish a Christian, and limit our usefulness to our Lord. That is why I am concerned about the current trend towards conditionalism. I hope that it may soon be reversed." 3

John Wenham, another leading Evangelical, supports annihilationism. He has written:

"Unending torment speaks to me of sadism, not justice. It is a doctrine which I do not know how to preach without negating the loveliness and glory of God. From the days of Tertullian it has frequently been the emphasis of fanatics. It is a doctrine which makes the Inquisition look reasonable. It all seems a flight from reality and common sense....I believe that endless torment is a hideous and unscriptural doctrine which has been a terrible burden on the mind of the church for many centuries and a terrible blot on her presentation of the gospel. I should indeed be happy if, before I die, I could help in sweeping it away." 4

Theologians on both sides of the issue are totally convinced of the correctness of their position. They are often critical of their opponents' reasoning:

Packer writes:

"The biblical arguments [for annihilationism] are to my mind flimsy special pleading, and the feelings that make people want conditionalism to be true seem to me to reflect, not superior spiritual sensitivity, but secular sentimentalism..."

Wenham writes:

"The extraordinary thing about these [traditionalist] replies [to annihilationism] is that none of them actually addresses the arguments used by the conditionalists...While not answering the conditionalist arguments with any seriousness, these writers do of course state their own case. They set out certain well-known texts and claim that their meaning is 'obvious.' I would claim that the natural meaning of the vast majority of relevant texts is quite otherwise."

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. E.W. Fudge & R.A. Peterson, "Two views of Hell: A biblical and theological dialog," InterVarsity Press, (2000) Read reviews and/or safely purchase this book from online bookstore
  2. See Revelation 16:5-7 and 19:1-5.
  3. James Packer, "The Problem of Eternal Punishment," Crux 23, #3, (1990), Pages 24-25.
  4. John Wenham, "The case for conditional immortality," in Nigel M. de S Cameron, "Universalism and the doctrine of Hell," Baker, (1992), Pages 187 - 190.
  5. Jeff Spencer, "The Destruction of Hell: Annihilationism examined," Christian Apologetics Journal, Volume 1, #1, 1998-Spring, at:

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Copyright 2001 to 2006 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2001-APR-5
Latest update: 2006-MAY-15
Author: B.A. Robinson

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