Project Parameters and Goals
One of the most engaging issues in Christian theology is the question of hell. Here my goal is to gather together best attempts to exegete standard prooftexts from Christian scriptures that are cited by people in favor of hell. (Any historically significant church’s canon is welcome, as are non-canonical texts that also shed light on the topic of how people may have viewed these issues at various times).
This is a living and changing document, which is part of a public process of exploration and systematization of thought. It was last modified on 10/20/2020.
The goal is not to attack or defend any of the major positions, or minor ones. Instead, it is to systematize the discussion itself in a publicly-available document, in order to help it become more rooted in consistent logic and careful observations that center the texts themselves. The primary views I’ll discuss are: infernalism (the dominant traditional teaching on hell after Augustine), annihilationism / conditional immortality and patristic universalism. Most minor positions amount to variations on these themes, although I’m open to considering new positions that don’t fit within this typology.
I want to be up front about my own motivations here: I am not a patristic universalist or annihilationist or infernalist. I am devoted to following Jesus, especially the teachings he calls foundational (Matthew 5–7, Luke 6) and I am a Christian. My motive for starting this project has come from my efforts to carefully evaluate the exegetical value of the main Christian views on God’s judgment as fairly as possible. At the moment as I start this project, I have been very disappointed by what infernalists (including scholars) have been able to offer within this discussion, and want to work hard to uncover the best possible exegetical arguments in their favor when it comes to their preferred texts. However, I want to do this fairly and systematically, without assuming that they have the strongest readings just because they have ruled the roost for a long time.
This is a living document that may be updated as I try to evaluate different exegetical assumptions and how well they help us understand various texts, especially but not solely in their original contexts. I’ll generally use ESV or NIV translations when presenting texts, since these translations are often preferred by infernalists.
The format is simple, but the project itself is somewhat complicated. I will present a relevant passage in its entirety, along with notes on its location in the broader context. I’ll then make a note on why a prooftext is drawn from it. After that, I’ll apply a consistent and codified model to help represent a fairly comprehensive synthesis of possible arguments for various views. Finally, I’ll share (largely by way of disclosure) which readings seem best to me.
My standard for “best” is rooted in the idea of plausibility. In other words, I want to share what looks like the most broadly praiseworthy reading of the text from an exegetical standpoint. Of core interest to me here is the ability of a viewpoint to make sense of the entire text as well as possible, with priors that are simple and contextually warranted enough to be the sort of background assumption that a contemporary writer may have brought to the text. In a sense, we are trying to reconstruct how ideal authors and ideal hearers may have encountered, received and reflected on the text.
Of course there are also non-ideal authors and non-ideal hearers of any text, and they are worth attending to as well. There are also plenty of ways to try to articulate “best” from an exegetical standpoint. What I have offered here can’t even fully account for my own sense of what is praiseworthy in exegesis, since that also involves a lot of unconscious processes. Still, I think it provides a nice focal starting point.
Throughout, I will use a system for glossing key arguments that refers to them with a brief notation like (Indie). (Indie) refers to the entire set of arguments made by all parties that their preferred texts are intended to refer to individuals (you and me), rather than groups (things like nations and Empires). I’m not trying to be stuffy here, but simply want to help focus attention on the core moves so that they can be easily referenced, critiqued, evaluated, and checked for consistent application by interpreters. I do this so that people can notice the way the various parties use the same arguments against each other in different contexts, often with a degree of inconsistency. When something is abbreviated this way, it means that it is an important and recurring feature of the discussion itself, and an important anchor for efforts to make the discussion fair and comprehensive. It will also allow for highly dense and general summaries of the terrain of debate that can then be unpacked in much more detail. While these notations may be somewhat annoying to memorize, that is also part of the point: if you want to understand my approach or the arguments in it, you need to take at least enough time and focused attention to memorize a few abbreviations. In my mind this is a feature rather than a bug, since so much of engagement around these issues involves people not bothering to pay any attention at all to the actual arguments involved.
Often, because these topics are so extremely highly charged for people, it is easy to lose sight of core claims and stop functioning reflectively and discursively. This method represents a gentle nudge toward, and facilitation of, serious truth-seeking engagement rather than defensive rhetorical flame-warring.
This section will summarize and acquaint you with some of the basic exegetical suggestions and moves that are used over and over again when reading almost any of the relevant texts. I also add abbreviations because these are the building blocks of a coherent analysis that tries to use these moves consistently, or at least to be aware of how they are being used selectively to reinforce various positions.
Group vs. Individual: (Group) v (Indie) or (G v I)
A crucial question when exegeting any of these texts is whether the text is talking about individual people or groups. Arguing one way or the other on this is routinely used by all parties because it is often an exegetically justifiable way to read the text in a way that is compatible with their views. Non-universalists often use this move when they encounter things like 1 Cor 15 and Romans 5 and 9–11, to avoid the universalist implications. Non-infernalists routinely use it when the encounter things like Daniel 12 or Matthew 24–25 or Revelation 20. Non-annihilationists routinely use it when they encounter the many death or destruction texts.
Carefully note that collective application (to a nation or a people or a Temple system, etc) doesn’t necessarily exclude individual application. In fact, collective application of an idea to nations pretty much always involves some things happening to individuals. However, the important distinction is between whether something happens to “a whole nation” or to “each person within a nation.”
So for example, what are we to make of the idea of a nation being destroyed, or personified and then killed? If we’re talking collectively, it really doesn’t mean that every individual in the nation is killed, but instead that the system of governance collapses. Now national collapse has huge impacts, arguably on every individual in the nation. However, it doesn’t necessarily implicate each individual within the nation in the same way. In principle, a nation might even die in the sense that its system of governance collapses, without any individuals actually dying. In the ancient world this would be a vanishingly rare, perhaps unimaginable, occurrence. But it isn’t logically impossible.
Still, when someone assassinates a King or President, the whole nation loses its King or President, even if only a single person died. If a nation loses its Temple and leadership and is sent away into captivity or put under “house arrest” as a vassal, it is destroyed as a political entity. Stuff happens to individuals when this happens, including stuff that impacts all of the individuals (who have to now live in subjection). But the “death” or “judgment” of a nation doesn’t mean that all of the individuals in it die, even if it means that all of the individuals in the nation have to deal with the crisis of national “death”. In a similar way, the resurrection of a nation to glory doesn’t necessarily mean that all of the individuals within it are resurrected to glory; it means that the nation is restored and governance systems are re-established.
Timing Windows: (Time) or (T)
There are at least three basic timing windows for judgment language in the Bible that are essentially universally recognized:
(Time h) Historical. This can include a single event, but there’s always room for typological extension to other events in history. So for example, in Matthew 24–25, Jesus typologically extends the destruction of the first Temple (Isaiah’s language) and Antiochus’s profaning of the Temple (Daniel’s language) to the destruction of the Second Temple. We do this all the time, too. For example, in 2007 Bush’s Presidency ended with a catastrophic stock market crash that in many ways resembled the Great Depression. It was often referred to as “another Great Depression” and eventually became known as “the Great Recession” in a deliberate typological echo. The use of typology in Biblical texts shows us that Biblical prophecy isn’t exhausted when predicted events occur; instead, it is validated and made available for other typological applications.
In this, the ancients were a lot like us. Today those who could predict and explain why the Great Depression happened played an important role in explaining what the Great Recession was all about, because both events proceeded from similar shortfalls in aggregate demand which lead to the idling of large amounts of labor and capital. Those who could predict and explain instances of national crisis and collapse in the ancient world also used historical precedent and example to predict and make sense of similar events. Most importantly, the destruction of the first and second Jewish Temples in Jerusalem (so central to governance and national life) provide a rich background for the application of typological language that links the two events. These events are obviously central because of their enormous importance to the text’s authors, the immediate connection to national judgment and restoration, and the obvious similarity between a temple, rebuilt, and then destroyed again. (After the second destruction it has been rebuilt symbolically and re-imagined in various ways by the various inheritors of that tradition, Christian and Jewish alike.)
(Time p) Purgatorial. In the cultural context of Second Temple Judaism and the early church, there seems to be a concept of various afterlife states before a final judgment. The Rich Man and Lazarus might provide the clearest example of a text that fits best in this timing window, insofar as it is intended to convey ideas about the afterlife. However, the idea may also be assumed elsewhere, and it provides a fascinating and persistent way of illustrating the ambiguity of many timing windows. While often neglected, especially in Protestant discourse around hell, it is worth considering the possibility of this timing window for a great many texts.
For the sake of clarity here, we use this timing window to refer to any judgment that happens after death, but before an utterly final judgment.
(Time u) Ultimate. The idealized version of a final judgment text involves a general resurrection of all the dead individuals, followed by an utterly final judgment on everyone, followed by a literally endless state of affairs that proceeds from it. This state might be dynamic in all kinds of ways, but lacks the crucial features of having any kind of remaining evil or wrong that would still need to be judged.
There is a broad agreement in current exegesis and Christian theology that some kind of ultimate judgment, followed by some kind of perfect and ultimately utterly stable state of affairs, is anticipated. Essentially, the concept involves a truly final judgment after which everything is ultimately set right for good. The crucial questions center on whether any particular judgment text is telling us about this truly ultimate state, or whether it is talking about historical or purgatorial timings. Especially because the texts that most clearly represent this view are highly figurative, there are also important questions about what they are actually meant to refer to. Which leads us to our third broad type of argument:
Prophetic language (and apocalyptic language, which is closely related if not just a variant on the theme) is explicitly and highly figurative. For example, Ezekiel talks vividly about a general resurrection in chapter 37, but in context it is widely agreed that this is vivid, figurative, collective language that predicts national restoration. This makes a great deal of sense in its historical context: the text speaks from the standpoint of a prophet writing in Babylon before the national restoration of Judah and the building of the Second Temple. The relationship between figurative and group language is also important to consider. For example, Daniel 7 quite clearly refers to Alexander’s Hellenistic Empire using the evocative image of a four-winged and four-headed leopard. We can easily imagine a number of ways in which this image is especially fitting: the Empire was like a vicious and deadly animal that spread “to the four corners” of the known world very quickly, like a flying animal moves quickly, and then was quickly divided among four generals. We may not know exactly why this “political cartoon” worked, but the view of it as something like that is well-established and relatively non-controversial among informed readers.
Figurative language works a lot like political cartoons: it routinely refers to real things, especially social things, even if those real things don’t look like the figure in any kind of direct sense. The widespread use of figurative language in Biblical judgment texts is uncontroversial, and its use means that a case must generally made to bridge the gulf between the figurative image and its reference. It also means that people from all positions can argue that any particular use of language that doesn’t precisely fit their views is intended to refer figuratively to their desired conclusion.
A Note on Epistemology
Part of what often makes these discussions unfruitful and exhausting is the fact that the various parties routinely attempt to resolve uncomfortable discussions by way of an epistemological shortcut. For example, some will argue that they alone are trying to read the text, and that their own assumptions and priors dictate the “plain meaning”. Others will appeal to the authority of their various traditions in a similar way, essentially arguing that their tradition offers assumptions and priors that dictate the “true meaning”.
I take both of these tendencies to be transparently self-defeating, hypocritical, absurd, and very easily dismissed by anyone who has spent even a little bit of time trying to take the text itself seriously. The trouble with these shortcuts is that on the face of it, there really are a variety of plausible ways to read all of the contested passages. While people arguing in this way are eager to accuse others of eisegesis, their method is in fact the surest way to actually eisegete the text: by imposing their own assumptions and backgrounds on an ancient text, they see their own assumptions “plainly” but miss the text itself.
The previous section on common moves illustrates this powerfully. Ultimately, these bad approaches subvert both the careful reading of the texts and the careful reading of our own traditions by rushing up and claiming to represent the tradition or the text. They amount to nothing but audacious question begging. Those efforts to lay claim to ownership of the text or tradition uniformly fail to convince any remotely informed reader who earnestly wants to understand and center the text or tradition. They should not be taken seriously for even a moment, except as a token of the enormous ignorance and arrogance of the people who make them.
Instead, here I adopt an approach of trying to model our discussions logically (we want to avoid true contradictions), to observe everything as carefully and fairly and completely as possible, and to give warranted levels of trust to experts insofar as expertise warrants trust. In all of this, as a Christian, I also proceed from the conviction that all truth is God’s truth and that a prior act of grace by God is required for any of this sort of constructive inquiry to proceed toward truth. My conviction is that we can only do any of this insofar as God has ultimately given us a coherent and comprehensible created order and minds that are remarkably capable of making sense of that created order.
Into the Texts
The Rich Man and Lazarus
There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
“The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
“But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
“He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’
“Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
“‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
“He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
Why it is prooftexted
Infernalists will often cite ‘a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us’ and claim that this shows that in the state of final judgment there is an uncrossable chasm. They will also often add that there’s no indication in the text that would condition the notion that no one can cross over it.
Overview of Basic Moves
(Group) v (Indie)
One topic of contention here is whether Jesus is articulating judgment on any particular individual, or on a group. In this case, if a group is in view, that group would presumably be “the rich”. Notable here is the fact that Lazarus is identified as an individual in the story, but “the rich man” is never named. Could the “rich man” be a personalized representative of the idea of the rich more generally? Insofar as one embraces that, the story tends to become more of a general statement about reform / correction / punishment / destruction of the class of “rich people”, or of the economic elite at the time that Jesus was speaking. For this reason, infernalists and annihilationists who want to find support for their position in this text will need to establish and defend (I), while purgatorial universalists may be aided by establishing and defending (Group), especially as it relates to the party who faces judgment.
This is an interesting text to start with, because it probably provides the clearest case for the concept of a purgatorial timing window, (Time p). While the unpassable chasm may be taken to suggest that it will always be unpassable, there’s nothing in the text to indicate whether it is endlessly impassable or not, and it is clear from the fact that Lazarus and others are still living that this is story is not staged after a general resurrection and ultimate judgment. So anyone who wants to argue that this text relates to (Time u) is making a speculative argument.
It is currently rarely considered, but worth a mention, that especially if (Group) is granted then (Time h) may also have something going for it. Is Jesus warning the rich in Judah that a time is coming soon when they will experience thirst and marginalization, and they would be wise to return to establishing and enforcing traditional practices that enjoin care for the poor? While the text itself doesn’t directly say any of this, a deeper immersion in the social and historical context may give this reading a bit of a boost.
It is widely acknowledged that the parable here is quite figurative, and it is generally understood against the backdrop of similar folk traditions. Still, it isn’t generally considered prophetic or apocalyptic in the more common Biblical modes. Infernalists may want to argue against (Fig) to start, but it is worth noting that this isn’t a very high-value text for them to fight over anyways, primarily due to (T). Even granting (Fig), an infernalist can still argue that the text figuratively refers to an ultimate judgment (if not in a strictly literal way).
(Fig) also creates space for those who want to argue all sorts of things: maybe the suffering is a thirst for justice, or a psychological state of empathetic remorse, etc. More generally, the more (Fig) is granted, the more difficult it becomes to argue for any particular afterlife view too stridently from the text. Maybe it is referring to something in the afterlife (or maybe it is merely a commentary on other similar stories).
Even as (Fig) makes eschatological conclusions more remote, it helps the broader point of the parable, its moral lesson, emerge more clearly. And that point is rather clearly this: the rich have a concrete obligation to provide for the needs of the poor and this is a matter of justice and not just moral heroism on their part. Their failure to care for the poor is a violation and a wrong, it warrants severe consequences, and it is not just the absence of a praiseworthy virtue.
Current Best Reading
Insofar as this text contributes to any of our positions, it contributes to variants on all of them that also include purgatory. The traditional Catholic position provides a prominent example of a view that includes purgatory + infernalism. However, there’s nothing incoherent about taking this text to bolster a purgatory + annihilationism or a purgatory + universalism position. There’s also little in the text, if anything of note, to establish any of the three.
Setting all of that to the side, the best reading of the text focuses on its core moral message rather than any of these other debates. The rich, here, are shown to have an obligation to care for the poor as a matter of justice. And while justice may be a long time coming (even past the horizon of this life), the view is that it will come in time. Therefore, the rich should urgently fulfill their obligations to the poor now.
(Thanks R. Andrew Stening for background information that helped nudge me away from focusing so narrowly on parable, and instead situate parable within a broader context of figurative language, including symbolic immanent critique. Any opinions and mistakes here are my own.)