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About the afterlife

Seven contrasting views of Hell
as held by conservative Christians

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Specific beliefs about Hell:

Most conservative Protestants believe that the descriptions of the afterlife throughout the Bible are consistent. They believe that every person has eternal life; their soul is immortal. After their death and judgment, most believe that only those who have repented of their sins and have trusted Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior will be saved and attain heaven. (Some religious conservatives do not include the requirement for repentance, because it is a personal activity, and they believe that no human work is required for salvation.) Most of the world's population, the unsaved, are believed to spend eternity in Hell, including those who:

bullet Have heard the Gospel, and have rejected it.

bullet Have never had the opportunity to be saved because they have never been presented with the Gospel.

But Fundamentalist and other Evangelical Protestants disagree on the precise nature of Hell. There is a general consensus on beliefs about Hell within most conservative Christian denominations. However, there is great diversity among faith groups.

The Bible appears to be ambiguous on the topic of Hell, as with so many other important Christian beliefs. A fascinating book, "Four views on Hell," edited by William Crockett, features himself and three other Evangelical systematic theologians debating their conflicting personal beliefs about Hell. 1 Each of the four contributors passionately believes that their own interpretation of Hell is accurately derived from the Biblical text. 

Beliefs covered in the book are:

bullet Literal or orthodox view:  ("Orthodox" means traditional or historical belief in this context, not the beliefs of the Eastern Orthodox churches.)
bullet This has been the historical teaching of the Christian Church.

bullet Hell is a place of punishment that lasts forever. "There is not a single passage in the Bible that ever states that the punishments of hell are temporarily or will be terminated.1, Page 80

bullet The descriptions of the horrors of Hell that are found in the Gospel of Matthew and in the rest of the Bible are literally true. Everlasting and terrible levels of torture are required by "a righteous God who demands absolute justice of the wicked." 1, Page 12

bullet Some inmates of Hell would be punished more severely than others, depending on the seriousness of their crimes. This is implied in Mark 12:40 and Luke 12:47-48.

bullet Punishment is physical, mental, and emotional. Hell is described in the Bible as a very dark place. Its inmates will realize that there will be no relief from their endless punishment. These factors would add greatly to their suffering.

bullet Metaphorical view: 
bullet This view has only been promoted since the 16th century.

bullet Hell is a place where the unsaved will spend eternity.

bullet The extreme pain and environmental conditions described in the Bible are not to be interpreted literally. The biblical descriptions of heat, bondage, darkness, thirst, worms, pain, flogging, fire, etc. are symbolic -- perhaps symbolizing the emotional pain of being separated from God. 

bullet Two characteristics of Hell that are mentioned throughout the Christian Scriptures are fire and darkness. Interpreted literally, these factors conflict. It is necessary to interpret at least one of them symbolically; perhaps the other characteristics of Hell should also be interpreted symbolically. As Billy Graham stated: "I have often wondered if Hell is a terrible burning within our hearts for God, to fellowship with God, a fire that we can never quench.2

bullet Purgatorial view: 
bullet This is a belief taught by the Roman Catholic church.
bullet Everyone, at death, is immediately judged. Those who have committed  one or more mortal sins that have not been repented and erased through church sacraments will go directly to Hell. A very few who have lived unusually spiritual lives will go directly to Heaven. The rest will go to Purgatory which many Roman Catholics believe is a place of punishment -- a type of temporary Hell.
bullet After a period of punishment, which may extend over many centuries or millennia, each inmate will become sufficiently purified. They will then be accepted into Heaven.
bullet Purgatory was originally interpreted in symbolic terms. It later became viewed as an actual location; a form of Hell. More recently, the church has returned to a more symbolic interpretation. In 1999, Pope John Paul II described a concept of Purgatory which is at variance with the popular view. He stated that Purgatory "does not indicate a place but a condition of life..." 3

bullet Alternative beliefs not covered in the book: These many views have been proposed by a minority of conservative Protestants who cannot harmonize "the doctrines of everlasting punishment" with "a God of love and grace." As C.H. Pinnock, an Evangelical writes: "Everlasting torture is intolerable from a moral point of view because it pictures God acting like a bloodthirsty monster who maintains an everlasting Auschwitz for his enemies whom he does not even allow to die. How can one love a God like that?  I suppose one might be afraid of him, but could we love and respect him? Would we want to strive to be like him in his mercilessness?" 1

Some alternative views of Hell are:
bullet No Hell: The unsaved simply cease to exist at death. This belief is held by a few Evangelical Christians who believe that unsaved persons will not be punished in Hell. Some support for this concept can be found in the writings of Paul. e.g. Romans 6:23 "For the wages of sin is death..." (KJV)

bullet Hell is not really that bad: C.S. Lewis, in his book "The Great Divorce" pictures Hell as a rather drab, inconvenient, almost pleasant place, whose inmates can take a day-trip to the outskirts of Heaven. 4This concept avoids the picture of God as a sadistic torturer. However, Lewis' Hell is totally at variance with countless biblical passages.

bullet Annihilation (a.k.a. Conditional immortality & Conditionalism): The unsaved are punished in Hell for an finite interval. The duration of one's sentence is determined by the seriousness and frequency of one's sins while on earth. The individual then experiences the "second death" and cease to exist at all in any form. Supporters of this belief must necessarily abandon the concept of an immortal soul. Some creative interpretations of some biblical passages are needed to fit the annihilation theory:
bullet Mark 9:48, which refers to the worms that do not die and the fire that never ends, could refer to the annihilation process itself, in which the bodies of the inmates of Hell are totally destroyed after their second death.
bullet Matthew 25:46 mentions eternal punishment; but this could refer simply to annihilation itself being permanent, and ending all life and consciousness for eternity.
bullet Revelation 14:9-11 describes the "smoke of their torment" rising forever. But that does not necessarily mean that their torment lasts forever; only the smoke does. 

More details on Conditionalism

bullet Universalism: Origen (182 - 251 CE) taught that the unsaved are tortured in Hell temporarily, with a series of graded punishments, until they are sufficiently cleansed to be accepted into Heaven. This is the historical Universalist belief. It was condemned as a heresy. It formed a major part of the beliefs of the Universalist church (now merged into the Unitarian Universalist Association). Everyone is eventually saved and is welcomed into heaven.

These views are mutually exclusive. Only one, at most, can be true. There appears to be no obvious way in which the truth can be determined. Referring to Bible is not particularly useful, because intelligent, devout, thoughtful, careful theologians have attempted this, and have produced diverse beliefs. Zondervan, the publisher of "Four views on Hell," has also released a series of other books in which leading Evangelical theologians debate their beliefs about evolution/creation, the millennium, the rapture, book of Revelation, salvation, etc. In each case, there is no consensus on these important topics. Determining the will of God through prayer may not be particular effective either. If there were any way to determine the truth of Hell, Christians would have reached a consensus centuries ago. There would not be so many diverse opinions in existence today.

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  1. William Crockett, "Four views on Hell," Zondervan, (1992) Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store has a 25% price reduction on this book. This is one of the Counterpoint series of books published by Zondervan. Each book presents conflicting views by Evangelical leaders on basic Christian beliefs. 
  2. Billy Graham, "There is a real Hell," Decision 25, # 7-8, (1984-JUL/AUG) Cited in Reference 1.
  3. Greg Garrison, "Hell: Pope's speech stirs up ancient debate," Religion News Service. Published in Salt Lake Tribune, 1999-SEP-4. Online at:
  4. C.S. Lewis, "The great divorce," Touchstone, (1996). Read reviews or order this book

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Copyright © 2000 to 2012 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2000-APR-4
Latest update: 2012-OCT-03
Author: B.A. Robinson

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