I was raised in the Roman Catholic Church and attended parochial school and catechism classes. We were taught about heaven and hell and instructed as to what behavior or beliefs would lead people to end up in one place or another. Heaven was an eternal paradise and hell a place of neverending torment. Their existence was a given and we were expected to accept them as fact.
As I grew older I struggled to reconcile how a God of love could consign people to an eternity of suffering with no hope of redemption. Reading the gospels, the Jesus I found there and the hell that was described to me as a child just didn’t seem to make sense.
In 2011 Christian History magazine published a booklet called The History of Hell: A Brief Survey and Resource Guide. Page two of the booklet listed three views of hell:
- the traditional,
- conditional immortality or annihilationism, and
- restorationism or universalism.
Struggling over the existence or not of hell was nothing new. Christians throughout the centuries had different opinions on the subject.
The traditional view was what I had been taught and what I had been led to believe was the only way to look at the topic. The traditional view holds that some people will not be saved and will be sent to hell, which is a place of endless punishment; once condemned to hell there is no possibility of leaving the place. Conditional immortality or annihilationism also states that some people will not be saved but that the time of punishment for them will be temporary; at the final resurrection they will be destroyed and cease to exist. Restorationism or universalism believes that all people will eventually be saved and, if there is a hell, it is temporary and will lead sinners towards repentance and union with God.
As early as the 2nd and 3rd centuries, Christian leaders such as Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus, and Origen believed in such things as the return of all created beings to God, the fire of judgment as purification rather than destruction, a non-bodily resurrection, damnation as the fate only of those who reject redemption, and that the Scriptural texts which spoke of eternal punishment were actually deceptions by God meant to shock people into repentance. Throughout the centuries, Christian had widely varying views of hell. Thankfully, those who try today to defend the traditional view of hell as the only theologically correct position have plenty of well-known Christians throughout the ages who disagree with them.