The question of “What the Hell?!” could theologically be re-worded into the question, “Which Hell?” Christian Hell has a few variants
There are four major views on hell, and we’ll explore each one. This won’t explore if folks are going to heaven or hell, but rather just the views of what’s cooking up in the hell’s kitchen. Not wanting to go to hell is a normally sentiment; however, here I won’t discuss avoiding it.
In the end however, I feel the need to not toss out the oldest option or embrace a newfangled view point, but to rather shift the question to think more about how hell relates to grace, and unmerited grace at that.
The Nominal View is of a “Contrapasso” Hell
The sentiment that eternal hell is a place of retribution probably comes from the popular conception of hell as a divine contrapasso. A contrapasso is a law of divine retribution where the punishment is said to match the crime. It seems to be a universal conception. It is not particularly Judeochristian, expressed in other religious traditions with very different worldviews to Christianity.
Ideas like karma/dharma, or yin/yang still allow for a hell,  and paganism in multiple cultures have posited the ideal of realms of punishment.
“Hope not ever to see Heaven. I have come to lead you to the
other shore; into eternal darkness; into fire and into ice”
Dante’s Inferno -click to tweet
Divine Judgement as grounds for Christian Contrapasso
In a particularly Christian context, there are grounds for such a view. A similar ethic is found in the Jewish Psalms (7, 35, 55, 58, 69, 79, 83, 109, 137). Likewise, the Old Testament prophets who talk of God as punishing his people and the nations around them in eternalized terms and the New testament followed suite. And in the Church age, as early as Irenaeus in the 2nd Century A.D., there were Christians who even looked at the existence of hell as a good thing.
So while in 1 Cor. 15:28 it would seem that the early church offered baptism for the dead in some lost ritual, the idea soon became that the dead were not only without hope but doomed.
Even where the Ethiopic text of the Apocalypse of Peter (c. A.D. 132-6) appears to hold out hope that salvation may still be possible for those who are damned to hell, Michael Gilmore of Providence College states the Apocalypse of Peter seems to be written to relieve the conscious of those who felt joy at the plight of the wicked or laughed. 
Tertullian especially looked forward to the day in Heaven when he could laugh at his opponents burning in hell.
Dante’s Inferno was like the “Hell” official version
By the time Medieval western culture was established there was not even a question anymore. Some could argue it nearly found canonization in Dante’s Inferno. Dante’s premise in that Dante, going through hell, relates all the possible punishments there
Dante’s work utilizes the ideal of contrapasso to describe the punishments of the damned and drive his plot. More still, this was very poignant usage. The term itself is even invoked by a beheaded individual “In me you see the perfect contrapasso!” The joke being that the speaker swings his severed head as punishment for beheading a saint.
I have just learned you can get the whole thing free here.
The counter arguments – Universalism
Some Christian thinkers have always been unable to reconcile the idea of a loving God creating Hell. A vengeful God, eternally torturing sinners just like the pagan gods is for such thinkers impossible to reconcile with the loving God that sends his Son to die in sinners’ stead. But they might not like annihilationism any better! Their preferred view of hell, Universalism is the perhaps the oldest most radical reaction to doctrines of a retributive Contrapasso-hell.
Lacking the easy prooftext or cultural currency of fire and brimstone, universalism has expanded with fewer boundaries. Mainstream contemporary universalism is typified by writers like Ted Peter. In his article, Where are We Going? He takes the position is that God has limitless love and that saints reflecting that love would pity those in hell. No laughing Tertullian. Peter feels God would in fact must harrow any hell; heaven cannot exist side-by-side with hell because heaven would be too busy lamenting hell.
His argument sounds nice, but for technical reasons universalism has always been a tough sell.
That God has limitless love stands in stark contrast to the biblical picture. God is free to hate Esau (Rom 9:13). His mercy is not compelled by anything other than his good pleasure (Exodus 33:19).
In fact, a God that is swayed risk charges of God vacillating, lamenting doing Justice, etc. and all the negatives implied. Not for nothing is God theologically “no respecter of persons” and for persecuted persons, it is calm comfort indeed that the abuser dies warm and comforted with God’s ears death to their prayers.
But this idea is gaining popularity, even if it is indirect like I feel many “missional” scholars are making it…
However, there are better reasoned arguments against an eternal retributive hell than universalism. Origen was the first major theologian to include a balanced contrapasso in a systematic theology. He made a temporary Hell.
While Origen even saw a possibility for the salvation of the devil, he did so without appealing to God’s “Omni coddling” like Universalist. He wanted to do justice to the reality of evil, and he came to his view as a moderator between the contrapasso exclusivists and universalists in his own era.
Origen’s held to the doctrine of apokatasis, “or the universal restoration of all things.” Origen, in a rather Greek fashion that could sidetrack a reader for days, held that souls are pre-existent and co-existant for the entirety of creation. This meant the saints and sinners had a shared “soulness.” He also felt Origen felt that time was cyclical, so that all that was at the beginning will be at the end.
Nothing is ever “lost” for God
Even more, in his frame of thinking it followed then that souls lost to sin would need to be restored for “creation” to be whole. Origen therefore posited Hell as an unpleasant purgatorial place where lost souls, exposed to not having Jesus would quickly turn towards the only source of salvation.
We may think Origen too Oriental for western culture, and that something like this would fade away, but the allure of his thought has continued to today. Jurgen Moltmann claimed in his work The Coming of God that divine punishment is temporary and divine grace eternal. Ted Peter repeated being open to the same sentiments.
How did we get purgatory?
Hell as a temporary construct raised issues about atonement; however, if Jesus is a substitutionary atonement, what is the substitution for a soul already damned? hasn’t he served the sentence? Without careful controls the system, which I have failed to mention has no biblical basis, denigrates quickly.
The Apokatasis who claims that “Jesus did save those people, but they need to go through hell first” promotes a view of hell that makes hell somehow a rectifier of Jesus’ perceived failures. If then hell does what Jesus cannot, it not opens discussion for claims that ritual purgation is itself salvific. Paul’s argument in Romans starts to fall apart.
The “Half-Hell solution” or Jesus paid “most of it”
To correct this, and address mounting waves of perfectionism that made people disparage of ever “making heaven” the Roman church eventually placed the temporary hell behind the decision to follow Jesus. It was a compromise to satisfy popular belief in a retributive hell and any proof-text about it, while still allowing for those who died “less than fit” could still find mercy from God.
Like all compromises, however, it failed to do much other than exacerbate the issue. The new nexus kept Jesus’ blood watered down, and purgatory did not happen drives towards aesthetic purification but only added the need to collect indulgences.
Apokatasis becomes a grizzly safety net to mop up what Jesus failed to finish. It allows dangerous ideas, that the Jewish law or works must purify the souls Jesus cannot, a foothold.
This also made people really work to stack up the brownie points. And while some things like the Jesus prayer remain useful from this era… most the whipping, etc. is a waste of time.
There may still be a position to say that God is merciful, that hell’s horrors are not eternal, and avoids the issues raised by universalism or Apokatasis. The option of annihilationism has more backing than the other alternatives to a contrapasso schema.
Biblically, there are a lot of things that make the traditional hell hard to read out of the some of the often cited proof-text
Gehenna is the word normally taken for hell
Gehenna (Matt 13:42) is a term for a crematorium for burning criminals’ bodies outside of Jerusalem. At the very least, it is hard to pull Dante’s Inferno out of such references. Biblically, Hell is not seen as a factory of horrors, but often as a place of waste disposal. Also, while there is parity between the “unquenchable” fire in Mark 9:43 the unquench-ability of a fire itself does nothing to indicate objects burned by it do so indefinitely. The most used proof-text, that of a pool of fire or lake of sulfur in Revelation (Rev 20:13, 21:7-8), still other scholars feel are metaphorical references in a metaphorical book.
The people who point to the fluidity of these versus to mean that the plight of the damned is to be burnt into non-existence are collectively referred to as Annihilationists. Annihilationism also raise some pretty good theological points away from the hell proof-text. Such as “If the wages of sin are death, why is there a need for eternal punishment once the sinners are dead(Rom 6:23)?”
The problems with Annihilationism
The biggest hurdle to annihilationist views, however, is political. Colin Sedgwick notes in Confessions of a Would-Be Annihilationist not only are annihilationist going to have to square off with the more traditional views, but “Annihilationism is a belief more readily associated with sects and fringe groupings of the church such as Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses.” 
But that political issue did not come out of thin air.
Revelation speaks of “and the smoke of their torment will rise for ever and ever. There will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image or for anyone who receives the mark of its name” (Rev 14:10-11). Unless we think it is only for those who worship the beast or serve it, the writer makes it clear the same fate is found for ‘whosoever’s name is not written in the book of life’ (Rev 20:15). This sounds a lot like an eternal hell.
But Revelation’s interpretations are never solid. There is wiggle room here to claim metaphor.
Likewise, there is the parable of Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). Hard to say that does not look like the traditional hell; again, we run the risk of literalizing a metaphor.
Biblically, that is the best defense for annihilationism. Scanning the concordance, all I found were metaphors regarding Sheol (Isaiah 14:9-10, Daniel 12:1-2). The idea of an eternal punishment was only really concretely promoted by one verse outside of Revelation, Isaiah 66:24.
The evidence is not conclusive; it is a lot of circumstantial evidence for the retributive view.
I do not think annihilationism is a doctrine that will ever be totally flushed from the Christian conscious. Contemporary believers have a different sense of humor these days. Yet, I wonder if the revelation matches the view.
“the doors of Hell are locked from the inside”
C.S. Lewis – Click to tweet
In studying all the angles: hell as eternal divine retribution, Apokatasis, Universalism, and annihilationism, I find myself balanced between a the classical view and annihilationism. In balance, the traditional view took on a role as more than just a matter of divine payback.
Justifying the plight of the damned, in terms of choice or it being deserved, seems to be the prevailing opinion. Many who focus on personal conversion tends to see the choice to follow Jesus as a yes/no decision with consequences. C.S. Lewis expressed this sentiment, “the doors of hell are locked on the inside.”
Considering certain passages of scripture, however, the yes/no ideas have never sat well with me.
In fact, any “just fruits theory,” makes no sense when we realize everyone deserves hell (Rom 3:23). Paul watched Stephen be stoned and yet was eventually saved. There are people better and worse than any of us who are in or are going to hell.
Never to be discussed lightly
Reflecting on “is hell real?” should lead a Christian to think, “Why did/ do you spare me?” God loving by his own criteria/ whim should make election as much of a mystery to the elect and as to the reprobated. So as far as the individual making personal decisions, I do not count them for much. Just like Jesus counts those who prophesize and do miracles among the damned (Matthew 7:22) answering an alter call does not “earn” you anything.
We are not justified in saying that the damned never wanted to follow Jesus. Judas regretted his acts enough to hang himself! Many want to follow Jesus but find they cannot. When theologians try to suggest that such people will say an eternal “No!” to Jesus when facing hellfire and damnation, it shows them arrogant.
The fact that persons who have walked with the Spirit will fall should raise hard questions about versus like Romans 8:9 and sola-fide. Scripture portrays the image of God spitting out the lukewarm (Rev 3:16), or getting rid of salt that has lost its saltiness, or good seed that just cannot make it because of the weeds.
Such images are not directed at people who have outright rejected God. Nor at people who would be “raped” by his love being forced on them (as per the Armenian “Bible Answer Man”).
God’s love, and in return his lack of love, is far more complex than that.
One Final Warning…Remember… what contrapasso would be for yourself.
The freewill metaphor tends to produce something haughty in believers. I earned salvation because I picked right.
We shouldn’t think “He was sent to hell only because he picked wrong.”
That’s the view I can’t stand! So maybe, the whole discussion needs to change. It is not divine eternal Contrapasso versus universalism, or temporary Contrapasso versus annhilation. But rather it is more a discussion of eternal versus temporary. And what each side would say about who we hold God to be.
I for one think the answer trends towards hell being eternal more by benefit of who is the actor (God) than by it being a sense of “just desserts.”
What do you think? How do we view this in light of Luther’s sentiment, ‘Be grateful God has never given you true justice… for you would not stand’
Here’s an excellent source on Preaching Hell.
Kloosterman, Nelson. Biblical Universalism: Structure and Starting Point in MidAmerica Journal of Theology 1 no. 1 spr. 1985, pp25
Oestigaard, Terje. The materiality of hell: the Christian hell in a world religion context in Material Religion 5 no 3 N 2009
Weber, Eugene. Apocalypses: Prophecies, Cults and Millennial Beliefs Throughout the AgesHarvard University Press: Cambridge, Mass. 1999
Tertullian; De Spectaculis, Chapter XXX
Gilmour, Michael. Delight in the suffering of Others: Early Christian Schadenfruede and the Function of the Apocalypse of Peter, Bulletin in Bibilical Research 16 no 1 2006, p 129-139
Peters, Ted Where are we Going in Essentials of Christian Theology ed. William C Placher. Westminster: Louisville 2003
Greggs, Tom. Exclusivist or Universalist? Origen the ‘Wise Steward of the Word’ (CommRom. V.1.7) and the Issue of Genre in International Journal of Systematic Theology 9 no 3 Jl 2007 pp315
Sedgwick, Colin. Confessions of a Would-Be Annihilationist in Evangel 21 no 1 Spr 2003, pp18-19
Lewis, C.S. The Problem of Pain. Geoffrey Bles: Fontana. 1940 e-book
Musa, Mark Introduction to Dante copyright Mark Musa 1984 in Dante Alighieri The Divine Comedy trans Mark Musa. Penguin, New York 2003
 Mark Musa Introduction to Dante copyright Mark Musa 1984 in Dante Alighieri The Divine Comedy trans Mark Musa (Penguin, New York 2003) pp48-9
 Terje Oestigaard The materiality of hell: the Christian hell in a world religion context in Material Religion 5 no 3 N 2009
 Eugen Weber, Apocalypses: Prophecies, Cults, and Millennial Beliefs throughout the Ages (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Mass. 1999) pp32
 Michael Gilmour, Delight in the suffering of Others: Early Christian Schadenfruede and the Function of the Apocalypse of Peter, Bulletin in Bibilical Research 16 no 1 2006, p 129-139
 De Spectaculis, Chapter XXX
 Mark Musa Introduction to Dante copyright Mark Musa 1984 in Dante Alighieri The Divine Comedy trans Mark Musa (Penguin, New York 2003) pp48-9
 Ted Peters Judgement, Heaven, And Hell pp356
 Tom Greggs, Exclusivist or Universalist? Origen the ‘Wise Steward of the Word’ (CommRom. V.1.7) and the Issue of Genre in International Journal of Systematic Theology 9 no 3 Jl 2007 pp315
 Tom Greggs, Exclusivist or Universalist? Origen the ‘Wise Steward of the Word’ (CommRom. V.1.7) and the Issue of Genre in International Journal of Systematic Theology 9 no 3 Jl 2007
 Here “everyone but Christian’s go to Hell”
 Tom Greggs, Exclusivist or Universalist? Origen the ‘Wise Steward of the Word’ (CommRom. V.1.7) and the Issue of Genre in International Journal of Systematic Theology 9 no 3 Jl 2007, p315
 Ibid pp317
 Ibid pp317
 Ted Peters Where are we Going in Essentials of Christian Theology ed. William C Placher (Westminster: Louisville 2003) pp364
 Terje Oestigaard The materiality of hell: the Christian hell in a world religion context in Material Religion 5 no 3 N 2009, pp 319
 Ibid pp 319
 Colin Sedgwick Confessions of a Would-Be Annihilationist in Evangel 21 no 1 Spr 2003, pp18-19
 C.S. lewis, The Problem of Pain (Geoffrey Bles: Fontana 1940) e-book pp114