What Has Happened to Hellfire?

WHAT image does the word “hell” conjure up in your mind? Do you see hell as a literal place of fire and brimstone, of unending torment and anguish? Or is hell perhaps a symbolic description of a condition, a state?

For centuries, a fiery hell of excruciating torments has been envisioned by religious leaders of Christendom as the certain destiny for sinners. This idea is still popular among many other religious groups. “Christianity may have made hell a household word,” says U.S.News & World Report, “but it doesn’t hold a monopoly on the doctrine. The threat of painful retribution in the afterlife has counterparts in nearly every major world religion and in some minor ones as well.” Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Jains, and Taoists believe in a hell of one sort or another.

Hell, though, has acquired another image in modern thinking. “While the traditional infernal imagery still attracts a following,” states the aforementioned magazine, “modern visions of eternal perdition as a particularly unpleasant solitary confinement are beginning to emerge, suggesting that hell may not be so hot after all.”

The Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica observed: “It is misleading . . . to think that God, by means of demons, inflicts fearful torments on the damned like that of fire.” It added: “Hell exists, not as a place but as a state, a way of being of the person who suffers the pain of the deprivation of God.” Pope John Paul II said in 1999: “Rather than a place, hell indicates the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God, the source of all life and joy.” As to the images of hell as a fiery place, he said: “They show the complete frustration and emptiness of life without God.” Had the pope described hell in terms of “flames and a red-suited devil with a pitchfork,” church historian Martin Marty said, “people wouldn’t take it seriously.”

Similar changes are taking place in other denominations. A report by the doctrine commission of the Church of England said: “Hell is not eternal torment, but it is the final and irrevocable choosing of that which is opposed to God so completely and so absolutely that the only end is total non-being.”

The catechism of the United States Episcopal Church defines hell as “eternal death in our rejection of God.” A growing number of people, says U.S.News & World Report, are promoting the idea that “the end of the wicked is destruction, not eternal suffering. . . .  [They] contend that those who ultimately reject God will simply be put out of existence in the ‘consuming fire’ of hell.”

Although the modern-day trend is to get away from the fire and brimstone mentality, many continue to adhere to the belief that hell is a literal place of torment. “Scripture clearly speaks of hell as a physical place of fiery torment,” says Albert Mohler of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, U.S.A. And the report The Nature of Hell, prepared by the Evangelical Alliance Commission, states: “Hell is a conscious experience of rejection and torment.” It adds: “There are degrees of punishment and suffering in hell related to the severity of sins committed on earth.”

Again, is hell a fiery place of eternal torment or of annihilation? Or is it simply a state of separation from God? What really is hell?

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A Brief History of Hellfire

WHEN did professed Christians adopt the belief in hellfire? Well after the time of Jesus Christ and his apostles. “The Apocalypse of Peter (2nd century C.E.) was the first [apocryphal] Christian work to describe the punishment and tortures of sinners in hell,” states the French Encyclopædia Universalis.

Among the early Church Fathers, however, there was disagreement over hell. Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Cyprian believed that hell was a fiery place. Origen and theologian Gregory of Nyssa thought of hell as a place of separation from God​—of spiritual suffering. Augustine of Hippo, on the other hand, held that suffering in hell was both spiritual and sensory​—a view that gained acceptance. “By the fifth century the stern doctrine that sinners will have no second chance after this life and that the fire which will devour them will never be extinguished was everywhere paramount,” wrote Professor J.N.D. Kelly.

In the 16th century, such Protestant reformers as Martin Luther and John Calvin understood the fiery torment of hell to be figurative of spending eternity separated from God. However, the idea of hell as a place of torment returned in the following two centuries. Protestant preacher Jonathan Edwards used to strike fear in the hearts of 18th-century Colonial Americans with graphic portrayals of hell.

Shortly thereafter, though, the flames of hell began to flicker and fade. “The 20th century was nearly the death of hell,” states U.S.News & World Report.


Justin Martyr believed that hell was a fiery place

Augustine of Hippo taught that suffering in hell was spiritual and physical