The Bible is vague about the place, time and/or condition of hell. That's probably because, even if we were told, we would not be able to comprehend it.
All we know – and need to know – is that hell is a horrific reckoning at the end of this life for people who have rejected or ignored God, and we can be saved from it by accepting God's gift (Jesus) for total forgiveness of our sins.
If we tell God in this lifetime that we don't need or want Him except on our terms – not on His terms – He will honor our decision and leave us alone – completely abandon us – in the next lifetime. Hell is separation from God with no second chance.
Surveys show that 53% of Americans believe in some kind of hell. That percentage is consistent among age groups but falls with higher levels of education (62% for less than high school, down to 35% for college post-graduates).
Over the centuries, people have conceived many beliefs about hell. The beliefs can be summarized into four major views:
• Orthodox view. This is the historical teaching of the church. Hell is a place of terrible punishment that lasts forever with no way out. Punishment is physical, emotional, and mental, with torture by real fire.
• Symbolic view. Biblical references to fire, heat, pain, thirst, darkness, bondage, etc., should not be interpreted literally. Two characteristics of hell mentioned throughout the Bible are fire and darkness, which are in direct conflict with each other, so we know that at least one of them must be interpreted symbolically. If one is symbolic, then perhaps both are symbolic. Billy Graham said: 'When it comes to a literal fire, I don’t preach it because I’m not sure about it. When the Scripture uses fire concerning hell, that is possibly an illustration of how terrible it’s going to be, not fire but something worse, a thirst for God that cannot be quenched.'
• Purgatory view. This is a belief taught by the Catholic church. People who die with unforgiven 'mortal sin' (grave sin that breaks a relationship with God) go to hell, but believers with 'venial sin' (less serious) go to purgatory, which in traditional teaching is a place of punishment and spiritual cleansing by fire, which could be a very long time. Purgatory is a kind of lesser temporary hell. When believers are thoroughly cleansed from sin, they are released from purgatory and enter heaven in perfection and thus avoid hell. Catholics believe that they can shorten this process for dead friends and relatives in purgatory by praying for them. Teaching about purgatory has diminished since Vatican II in 1962-65, and in 1999, Pope John Paul II declared a new Catholic understanding of purgatory by stating that 'purgatory does not indicate a place but a condition of existence.'
• Annihilation view. The majority position within this view is that the unsaved are punished in hell for a period of time – could be a very long period of time – depending upon the degree of their sin, but eventually they perish (die) in hell. The fire is eternal (burns forever) and the sinner's punishment is eternal (final). A minority position is that the unsaved cease to exist at time of earthly death and that hell is only for Satan and his demons (Matthew 25:41).
Most people read the Bible to re-affirm what they and/or their group already believe. Very few study the Bible for personal new discoveries.
Tradition usually starts with some new interpretation or idea from theologians ... moves through pastors ... and becomes rooted in major denominations and individual churches.
Pastors are trained in seminaries which exist to perpetuate their theological beliefs to new generations. Pastors are called or assigned to individual churches aligned with certain seminaries, and together they zealously guard their own unique set of beliefs.
Church members generally accept without question the doctrinal beliefs of the group, publicly at least.
Within Christianity, there are more than 2,500 different church denominations in the world today, each believing that it has found the true and correct biblical interpretation for every theological issue. Often these interpretations are formally embedded into church creeds and statements of faith. Whether written or unwritten, they are always understood and protected by the group's leaders.
Churches say that its members should study the scriptures for themselves, but few do. Daily reading is encouraged – the more the better – and reading through the entire Bible once a year is considered a worthy goal. Problem is, that kind of speed reading does more to ingrain tradition than to expand real understanding.
Most Bible study materials are fill-in-the-blanks type, designed to elicit answers intended by the author, thus further reinforcing the group's theological views. In Bible study discussion groups, any deviant answers, questions, or thoughts are usually corrected quickly by the discussion leader or other participants.
The result of all this is that tradition takes a firm hold on what Christians believe. On many issues – like the FOREVER question about hell on this page – tradition has overtaken the Bible.
When Christian are asked, 'How do you know hell is forever?' there is usually a dazed look and then an answer like, 'Because the Bible says so.' But the Bible doesn't say it! Most Christians have never answered this question themselves from the Bible. They just assume it from tradition.
In times past, the fear of hell was used as a scare tactic to bring people to church. For example:
People are better educated today, and the scare tactic rarely works anymore. Now the tactic usually backfires and turns more people away from God than turns people to God.
Think of this study not only as your answer to a very narrow question about whether or not people will burn in hell FOREVER, but also as an example of how tradition can distort scripture in ways that drive people away from God.
The Apostle Paul's advice to Timothy is also good advice to us: 'Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth' (2 Timothy 2:15):