Long after I’ve forgotten anything else Jimmy Allen ever taught me, I’ll remember his sermon on hell. It frightened me to death as a teenager; it lingers in my imagination as an adult. I’ve never heard anyone preach with more certainty than Jimmy did about hell — its reality, its eternity (described in a series of images . . . an ant walks around a metal orb the size of earth and by the time it begins to wear a path around that orb eternity has just begun . . .), and its torture. More medieval imagery than scripture, it was the opposite of Ambien: it could keep you awake all through the night.
It wasn’t until many years after I first heard that sermon — and I’ve heard it many times! — that I realized that there are other understandings of hell by “Bible-believing Christians.” Here are three options:
First, there is the literal interpretation that Jimmy presented. Hell is a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth. It is eternal, conscious torture. To some, it is because of God’s sovereign choices (Calvinism); to others, it is because of our choices (Arminianism).
Second, there is a view called Annihilationism. This is the position ably staked out by Ed Fudge in The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment. This view understands that hell is eternal, but not conscious. Those who are lost are destroyed/annihilated.
And third, there is Universalism. In this view, the scriptures about hell are to be believed — but not literally. They are images, drawn from the garbage heap of Jerusalem (named Gehenna), of a world where the reign of God is opposed. In the words of N. T. Wright:
“The point is that when Jesus was warning his hearers about Gehenna he was not, as a general rule, telling them that unless they repented in this life they would burn in the next one. As with God’s kingdom, so with its opposite: it is on earth that things matter, not somewhere else. His message to his contemporaries was stark, and (we would say today) ‘political.’ Unless they turned back from their hopeless and rebellious dreams of establishing God’s kingdom in their own terms…Rome would turn Jerusalem into a hideous, stinking extension of its own smouldering rubbish heap.”
Universalists believe that nothing is more powerful than the love of God, and that in his final triumph all will be reclaimed. Recent posts by Scot McKnight and Richard Beck might serve as an introduction to this reading of scripture.