.The question of “What the Hell?!” could theologically be re-worded into the question, “Which Hell?” Christian Hell has a few popular variants.
There are four major views on hell, and together we’ll explore each one. This won’t explore if certain folks are going to heaven or hell. Rather, this is an investigation regarding what’s cooking up in Hell’s kitchen.
By discussing these views, I hope to make clear the need is not to toss out the oldest option or embrace a newfangled view-point. Rather, we need to 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 is the most popular conception of hell. Theologians call this ideal a divine contrapasso.
A contrapasso is a law of divine retribution where the punishment matches the crime. It is a universal conception. It is universal in that it is not particular to Judeo-Christian religions, but is also expressed in other religious traditions that have very different worldviews than 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. Even our term “Hell” steams from a Norse myth of a realm of terror or sinners called Nieblheim ruled by the half Zombie goddess Hell.
“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.
The New testament followed suite with the familiar verses I won’t list out here. After the first generations, 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.
This Contrapasso Hell wasn’t a bad thing in its heyday
This was uncomfortable, yet for some the only acceptable teaching. The Ethiopic text of the Apocalypse of Peter (c. A.D. 132-6) is an example of how the early church ultimately needed to preach “tough love.” And, it’s also a document that proves it is hard to say people living in a fallen world struggle with the idea of judgement.
The book at first reading, appears to hold out hope that salvation may still be possible for those damned to hell. Yet, on closer reading, Michael Gilmore of Providence College states the Apocalypse of Peter was written to relieve the conscious of those who felt joy at the plight of the wicked or laughed. 
Tertullian, in the same vein, 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
Because it was even viewed positively, by the time Medieval western culture established itself, no-one questioned the view anymore. Some could argue it nearly found canonization in Dante’s Inferno.
The Inferno is a fictional account Dante going through hell. It relates all the possible punishments there, and promotes a high view of Classical Culture.
Dante’s work utilizes above all the ideal of contrapasso or “just deserts” to describe the punishments of the damned and drive his plot. This was very poignant usage, and the book still today finds wide readership. Dante is in no way ignorant in using the ideal, for the term itself is even invoked by a beheaded individual. “In me you see the perfect contrapasso!” jokes a being that the swings his severed head in punishment for beheading a saint.
I have just learned you can Dante’s Inferno for free here
The polar argument – Universalism
Some Christian thinkers have always been unable to reconcile the idea of a loving God creating Hell. These days, the media presents the view as novel or radical; it is actually quite established.
A vengeful God, eternally torturing sinners just like the pagan gods is for such thinkers impossible to reconcile with the loving God. The God that sends his Son to die in sinners’ stead indeed seems less than vengeful.
While some have felt the same and not gone as far, Universalism is te polar opposite of contrapasso. These thinkers do not like the middle grounds like annihilationism any either!
Their preferred view of hell, Universalism is the perhaps the oldest most radical reaction to doctrines of a retributive Contrapasso-hell.
Universalism is very multivariant
Lacking the easy proof-text or cultural currency of fire and brimstone, universalism has expanded over church history with fewer boundaries. For that reason, strictly historical discussions might only skip across the surface of any given contemporary discussion. What needs real focus in discussing the “No Hell” option is the Unitarian/Universalism nexus it introduces
For example: 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 in fact 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 first 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). Some theologians find such ideals to reformed; the idea is scriptural and must be accounted for.
In fact, a God that is swayed in judgement is one risking charges of being vacillating, even lamenting doing Justice, etc. and all the negatives implied. Ground for assurance in Jesus “The same yesterday, today, and Tomorrow” is risked, for the “firm” aspect of God cuts both ways…
In fact, there are so many breaks with Scripture and just plain theology of God that Universalist systems normally implode. They drop Trinity, they drop the Divinity of Christ etc. It’s its own topic; I would put good money that Ted Peter and preachers like him even if they shy away from confessing themselves Unitarians, make almost the exact same arguments otherwise.
It also suffers pragmatically, as the world will celebrate that it no longer has any reason to fear God and everything it does is loved… it’s just…
One loses words.
What relevance does the church or morals have anymore?!
Heresy aside, I critique Universalism the most as a trend found in affluent societies
Not for nothing is God theologically “no respecter of persons.” For persecuted persons, it is a comfort indeed that while their abuser dies warm, comforted by family, with peace and wealth… that evil doesn’t win like it has in this life.
For those that suffer want, are persecuted for being righteous, and witness war crimes the idea their enemy’s getting into heaven makes God’s ears practically death to their prayers. No power is effective except those of evil in such a universe.
In societies were the average citizen is in some way the abuser, it becomes apparent that the “powers of this age” become baptized. “Hitler’s camps worked” is a hard message to mesh with “God is Love”
I do not decry good works, yet the idea of “money’s power” as redeemable for charity, or “war’s power” for establishing peace, etc. creates a paradigm were the evils of the age become the only way God can work. They are the divine powers become God’s themselves!
Ultimately “all paths lead to heaven.” Sanctify the child sacrifice to Molech! bow to Baal! At least as much as worship the Lord in the temple.
I for one lament that this idea is ever gaining popularity, even if it is indirect like I feel many “missional” scholars are even making it…
What’s worse is that such has wiped out the American church before in the Unitarian struggles if the 18th century. Such a relevancy crises is more before us than behind us as the list of “sins” or “evils” gets whittled away.
For the most part, this ideal steams a perversion of “Love”… yet again it’s a full discussion better suited to a future post.
Middle ground towards Universalism – Apokatasis
Moving on, there are better reasoned arguments against an eternal retributive hell than universalism than don’t risk moral insolvency or the technical Theological issues/ voiding all “proof-text.”
Origen, who was influential in the development of the Trinity, was the first major theologian to leave us writings that include a middle view between contrapasso and Univeralism in a systematic theology.
He made a temporary Hell.
With this ideal Origen opened the possibility of salvation to even the devil!
He came to his view as a moderator between the contrapasso exclusivists and universalists in his own era. Yet, it was a creative enough idea in his day that it is more nuanced than simply electing the middle.
The Restoration of All Things
Origen authored the doctrine of apokatasis. It actually doesn’t mean “temporary hell” but rather “ 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 coexistent for the entirety of creation (Souls have always been a doctrinal issue). I leave it to the reader to be familiar with Platonism.
This meant the saints and sinners had a shared “soulness” that was a base unit of reality. Origen also in a Classical sense felt that time was cyclical, so that all that was at the beginning will be at the end.
Salvation for the form “soulness” includes the accidentals
In his frame of thinking, it followed then that souls lost to sin would need to be restored for “creation” including the time circle and “soulness” to be whole.
Origen posited Hell as an unpleasant purgatorial place where lost souls, stripped of the pleasures and protection of “bodies” were then in turn exposed to not having Jesus would quickly turn towards the only source of salvation.
We may think Origen too Gnositc or 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. And to his credit even Ted Peter repeated being open to some of the same sentiments. But even more… It’s actually found in a church near you!
Digression – 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.” Eventually, the Roman church 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-texts about that, all while still allowing for those who died “less than fit” to still find some mercy from God.
Like all compromises, however, it failed to do much other than exacerbate the issue. First, selecting Purgatory shelved the doctrinal issues of grace, forgiveness, and what-not until the Church fractured on them. Second, the new nexus still kept Jesus’ blood watered down.
Third, Purgatory when it did not drive the church towards blind praising of aesthetic purification, still managed to add the new abuse of indulgences.
I feel Apokatasis/Purgatory still falls towards Unitarian style issues
Apokatasis becomes a grizzly safety net to mop up what Jesus failed to finish. It allows dangerous ideas, that the Jewish law or even philosophical 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… common sense these days is most the whipping, etc. was a waste of time.
As compares to Universalism, this system at least has a “moral bar” to meet. Yet, I contend it still lacks a distinctly “Christian” salvation schema, as all will qualify when they meet the standard by hook or crook. It allows the idea that other religions promote progress (which has spiritual implications), and it’s hard to say all the virtues hold in the system (moral courage?), and..etc.etc.
Middle Ground towards Contrapasso -Annihilationism
There may still be a position to say that God is merciful, that hell’s horrors are not eternal, and avoids the theological issues raised by universalism or Apokatasis. That option, annihilationism, has more backing than the other alternatives to a contrapasso schema.
Even more when we appraise the issue Biblically, there are a things that make the traditional hell hard to read out of the some of the often cited proof-text.
While some traditionalist balk at the idea, it is no less radical than saying Virgil touring us through Dante’s hell is not really a 1st Century idea.
Investigating Gehenna the word normally taken for hell-fire
Gehenna (Matt 13:42) is according to some the term for a crematorium for burning criminals’ bodies outside of Jerusalem  and to others is simply a location for burning refuse.
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 these versus and conclude the plight of the damned is that they are 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 is concretely promoted by only one verse outside of Revelation, Isaiah 66:24.
The evidence is not conclusive; it is a lot of circumstantial evidence for the retributive view.
Annihilationism is a doctrine that will never 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.
Where if find Annihilationism most attractive is that it differentiates “eternal” from “forever.” (See how I handle such a thing regarding God’s eternity). The idea of a forever hell, and one of an eternal hell is a rather fine point distinction that allows contrapasso to scale.
“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.
Still, the traditional view has taken on a role as more than just a matter of divine payback. It has become a dogma that dissuades in-depth inquiry by promoting “pious lazyness.” (much like calling Lucifer the devil dissuades actually studying the Isiah passage).
9x outa 10, the Hell discussion is nothing but a veiled discussion of other ideals… so I’ll end with that:
Justifying the plight of the damned, in terms of choice or it being deserved, is the prevailing trend.
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 discuss hell too 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 a mystery. As much to the elect and as to the reprobate. 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.
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 cannot 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 is.
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