Hell and The Fire of Purgatory

image The idea of Purgatory is the last of the major doctrinal positions that Christians hold on Hell and the final things. It is almost exclusively held by the Roman Catholic church with very few Protestant theologians finding the position credible. Purgatory refers to a state or condition where souls come to rest between the final destinations of Heaven and Hell. The soul in purgatory endures a purifying suffering necessary to prepare them for the final judgment. After that day, according the the Catholic theology, Purgatory will cease to exist as its mission will be fulfilled.

The idea of an interim state is not unusual in general Christian theology. It answers the question, “what happens when we die?” The popular idea of immediate ascent or descent does not take into account the scriptural references to a day of final judgment in the future in which some are assigned to perdition and others to glory. Purgatory is the Catholic attempt to explain this state, expanded to include the notion of purification.

The symbolism of purgation is not rooted in Christianity but is widespread throughout all religious history. It is bound up in the distance of holiness between gods and men and in the human desire to approach the gods. The perfection of the gods requires that the human affect some measure of holiness themselves in order to stand in the god’s presence. The holiness is gained by a purifying ritual that takes many forms. As it was adopted in Catholic theology, this purifying process included a measure of punishment for the sinner according to their faults in their earthly life. The punishment is sped along by the mortal intercession of the Church and the sinner’s survivors. Catholics understand human nature as not perfect but not perfectly horrible either. Purgatory grants them an extension on their ability to be perfected for the next phase of eternal life.

What do the scriptures say about Purgatory? Very little if anything at all but we need to understand the Roman Catholic approach to the scriptures and theology in order to understand the formulation of the doctrine. In the Apocryphal book, 2 Maccabees contains a passage that supported the historical development of the doctrine. In the context of the text, some of the soldiers of Judas Maccabeus were wearing idolatrous amulets when they were killed in battle. Judas took up a collection as an expiatory sacrifice intended to release the dead from their sin.

They all therefore praised the ways of the Lord, the just judge who brings to light the things that are hidden.

Turning to supplication, they prayed that the sinful deed might be fully blotted out. The noble Judas warned the soldiers to keep themselves free from sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened because of the sin of those who had fallen. He then took up a collection among all his soldiers, amounting to two thousand silver drachmas, which he sent to Jerusalem to provide for an expiatory sacrifice. In doing this he acted in a very excellent and noble way, inasmuch as he had the resurrection of the dead in view; for if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been useless and foolish to pray for them in death. But if he did this with a view to the splendid reward that awaits those who had gone to rest in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be freed from this sin. (2 Maccabees 12:41-46)

In the New Testament, some will read in Matthew a similar reference:

And so I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in in this age or in the age to come. (Mt 12:31-32)

The Catholic reading of this passage points to the possibility of being forgiven in the next world. Protestant theologians (cf Eph 1:21) do not generally share this reading. Catholic theologians will admit that the scripture is ambiguous at best and will also readily state that the doctrine is rooted in tradition rather than sola scriptura. Tradition will cause the Catholic reader to understand these and other passages in the light of the Roman Catholic theology of grace and works.


For the Roman Catholic, purgatory is a final opportunity in death to find our love for God. It is a state of His continuing grace and mercy to continue to seek a way in which the human might be restored to holiness and finally to God’s presence. Mortal intercession can aid those who find themselves suffering in a purification process until the day of judgment when Heaven or Hell will be the only choices remaining.


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Total Annihilation or Eternity in Hell


“’Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.” (Luke 16:24)

God is love. (1 John 4:16)

There is a difficult tension that many believers confront when the doctrine of eternal punitive condemnation in Hell is contrasted to the pure love and holiness of God. How could a God of such love and mercy create such a place as the torturous horror of the chambers of Hell? Not only that, how would he condemn his creations to this painful punishment forever? In the course of answering these questions and responding to a call for the reconsideration of the doctrine of Hell, the concept of Annihilationism has been created. This school of thought believes that although not everyone will be saved (cf: universalism), those who are not saved will not face unending punishment. Instead, those not saved will simply cease to exist; they will be destroyed or annihilated. The core belief that supports this modified doctrine is that no one, regardless of the enormity of their sin, deserves eternal suffering.

A form of annihilationism known as conditional immortality states that the human being in his nature is mortal. Those who die unredeemed will be allowed by God to pass out of existence while the believer is granted immortality so that they survive death. A more developed form of this doctrine sees the unredeemed participating in the resurrection but that they will again pass out of existence while the saved enjoy the new heavens and new earth. Another form of annihilation envisions a period of punishment but that it is not eternal. After some measure of time has passed, perhaps in proportion to the sinfulness of the person, the soul finally ceases to exist.

The difficulty with annihilation is that there is little direct support in the Scriptures for the doctrine. The typical annihilationist reads the passages that refer to the final states, specifically those referring to destruction, literally. For example, Matthew 7:13 says:

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.

The word destruction is interpreted literally as matter being destroyed, fulfilling the annihilationist’s view of the end state. The Greek word apoleian does not support this literal interpretation but English readers have continued to do so. The annihilationist must also explain the number of passages that support the eternal measure of perdition. Many complex scriptural structures have been constructed to perform this task but the majority of the Church has not been convinced.

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Hell, Metaphorically Speaking

image “As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Mt 14:40-41)

Could a God whose primary characteristic is His love truly condemn sinners to an everlasting punishment of fiery pain and unending agony? This is one of the first questions that must be answered in a theological examination of the doctrine of Hell. Could such a thing be literally true? In the previous post, the literal view says that there is a Hell and that it is as described in the Bible, a place of eternal punishment.

A second approach to Hell is known as the metaphorical view which denies that the Bible does not support a literal picture of a burning abyss. Some say that this has become the dominant evangelical view and that it best aligns with the revelation of Scripture. At the heart of this position is the exegetical understanding that the images of Hellfire and brimstone are not meant to be interpreted as literal depictions of hell. Instead, they are to be read as figurative language intended to warn the sinful of their impending doom. Jean Calvin was a supporter of the metaphorical view saying that the ‘eternal fire’ in passages such as Matthew 3:12 are better understood metaphorically. Luther also dismissed the horrific images of Hell portrayed by the artist, saying they held no value in the discussion. Proponents of the metaphorical view are careful to limit discussion of the description of Hell to only what is revealed in the scriptures. It is noted by this camp that many of the impressions of Hell that we hold today have come from the fanciful imaginations of authors outside of the Bible.

Is there an adequate foundation for this approach to Scripture? The first assurance that the metaphorical camp issues is that they in no way intend to do away with the doctrine of Hell. There will be a judgment of all people to perdition or peace. With this point established, the question of how to approach the texts on this matter must be answered. The metaphorical view states that it was common practice to use hyperbolic language (rabbinic hyperbole, which would include Jesus) to emphasize their points. A pair of texts from different contexts give examples of this type of language:

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple.” (Lk 14:26)

“If your right eye causes you to do, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” (Mt 5:29)

Do we take these statements literally and gouge our eyes out or hate our beloved? No, and nor did Jesus intend for these statements to be taken literally. In the portrait of Hell that the Scriptures provided, especially in the NT, hyperbole is utilized in order to emphasize the end that awaits those who do not follow Christ into a positive judgment. It was common in Jewish literature to use vivid pictures in order to demonstrate that God has ordained an end to wickedness.

The image and use of fire in Jewish literature is often non-literal. It is used to portray the gravity or seriousness of a situation and not necessarily an intense heat or consuming flame. [ In the NT, examples of this usage include Rev 1:14, Luke 12:49, 1 Cor 3:15, James 3:5-6. ] The use of fire in conjunction with Hell is understood to be a convenient image portraying the intensity of the burning wrath of God. The imagery that is provided is meant to convey the seriousness of the final judgment and it was to included to bring gravity to the entire message of the gospel. The decision to ignore the message is at your own peril, it is not a decision to be dismissed without thought.

Proponents of the metaphorical view support their understanding of the figurative language by examining the language used to describe Heaven. If the scriptural images of Heaven are examined the reader discovers a thoroughly first century picture of the place of eternal rest. It is portrayed as a magnificent city built of gold and jewels and surrounded by high walls, something that is unseen in the modern world. We must ask why the image doesn’t portray a Los Angeles or Paris, modern day magnificent cities. The metaphorical camp challenges the hermeneutic used to interpret the imagery, asking, doesn’t God use images appropriate to the time to help readers of a specific era comprehend His message?


The metaphorical view of Hell interprets the imagery used to described the place/condition of the wicked following the final judgment as figurative. The images of fire and sulfuric smoke are not to be taken literally. They are hyperbolic vignettes meant to convey the serious nature of the judgment and the need to align one’s life appropriately. The metaphorical view does not deny the reality of Hell, it simply challenges the horrific punitive imagery that has developed over the years from the snippets of revelation in the Bible.

Image Jan Hoogendoorn

Hell, Literally

imageHell is portrayed clearly in the scripture as the punitive, eternal punishment of the unredeemed. It is not described geographically as the subterranean caverns of flame and horror somewhere beneath our feet. Instead, it is understood as a state of being as the wicked stand separated from God into eternity. The inspired authors of the references to Hell were less concerned with painting horrific visions of the nature of Hell and more motivated to spell out the seriousness of the coming judgment. The literal view of Hell has fallen from favor with modern Christians who often attribute it to the fevered dreams of the early fathers, saying that it is unseemly for the educated Church to further such a doctrine.

Three words are used for Hell in the Old and New testaments. In the Hebrew of the OT, the reader encounters the word sheol (שׁאול). The term appears 65 times with a variety of translations being made in the modern Bible (KJV): 31 times it is translated as ‘grave’, 31 times it is ‘hell’, and as ‘pit’ three times. It is important to note in the case of translations, this usage is not universal. The NIV does not apply the specific label Hell in the OT, unlike the KJV. Sheol is the destination of the dead and in many cases it carries the connotation of nothing more than the place of interment (cf: Ps 49:14, Num 16:33). The instances where sheol is translated more directly as hell do not present a consistent theological position. Some see a clear teaching of a place of judgment while others do not see the ultimate state as one of punishment. In order to decide contextually which translation is appropriate, the reader must evaluate the whole of OT scripture and theology. An understanding of final states emerges which can direct the exploration as the instances of sheol appear. There is a belief in life after death. For the righteous it will be blessed and for the wicked it will be punitive. Details on the nature of the punishment, destruction, etc. are obscure and the reader is cautioned against reading interpretations into the text that do not exist.

The Greek of the NT uses three different words for Hell. Hades appears 9 times, Gehenna is used 8 times, and Tartaros is used once. Hades is the Hellenistic translation of sheol while Gehenna is the more literal word for Hell. In the New Testament, the scriptures add considerably to the Christian doctrine of life after death and the doctrine’s concept of everlasting punishment. Jesus contributes significantly to the understanding of the punitive nature of Hell and the eternal length of one’s stay. The theological ideas are not always expressly stated but when read as a whole, the statements regarding Hell (Mt 5:22, Mt 5:29, Mt 18:9, Mk 9:43, Lk 12:5, etc.) carry the implication that the punishment of Hell will have a duration and that duration will be endless. Various word pictures portray an eternity of fire (cf Mt 13:18-23) and crushing sadness (Mt 22:13). The idea of degrees of punishment is also found in the words of the Lord. The severity of one’s punishment is dependent on their understanding of will of God.

Taken literally, the scriptures teach a doctrine of everlasting punishment though the details of that punishment are few. Like many theological concepts, it is not without challengers, especially in the modern Church where tolerance has become more important and the idea of everlasting punishment in flame and horror an embarrassment that the Evangelical church would prefer not to deal with. One point of difference has to do with duration and whether or not there is a chronological limit to the punishment. The Greek word aionios is often challenged but in every case, the word refers to eternity. (Many people challenge its use with regard to punishment but the same word, when associated with heaven or blessing, is found to mean eternity. Poor hermeneutics.) Another popular challenge to the notion of eternal punishment comes in the form of harmonizing this punishment with the love and grace of God. Many who would like to soften the doctrine say that the concept of unending horror is anathema  to God’s love, that He would not wish this retributive eternity on His creation. This theological desire does not align with the exegetical evidence presented in the Scriptures.


If the Scriptures are faithfully interpreted with sound exegetic principles as a guide, the literal picture of eternal blessing for the redeemed and eternal punishment for the wicked is clear. A portrait of an eternal duration for this punishment is also recorded; there is no promise of end to the horror. The nature of Hell is less clear and many through the centuries have been guilty of fabricating more and more horrific visions of the eternal fire that are not directly recorded in Scripture. If the picture of Hell is derived strictly from the words of the Bible, it can be said to be partly mental, partly physical, and partly emotional. Hell may be an unpopular doctrine but the Scriptures clearly support the concept.

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Hell, An Introduction


C.S. Lewis postulated a view of Hell that says human sin is a person’s way of telling God to go away throughout life. Hell then is God’s way of saying okay, have it your way.

Hell is the final destination of the unrepentant sinner—the wicked—in God’s economy. Sheol, Gehenna, or Hades, all name an eternal condition contrasted with heaven in the Bible. Countless horrific images have been developed to describe the location or conditions of Hell and, no surprise here, many different theological interpretations have arisen through the centuries regarding the idea of Hell. Also unsurprising is the lack of attention Hell receives on Sunday morning. Hell becomes more culturally unpopular as the insistence on tolerance and accommodation works its way into the Church and sermons and teaching shy away from any topic that threatens to bring on the stamp of intolerant.

There are four general views of Hell that persist within the Christian theological community. Some originate in exegetical interpretation while others are more theological in nature. The views are categorized as the Orthodox position (hell is eternal punishment), the Metaphorical view (diminishes the punishment aspect), Purgatory (a place where divine cleansing takes place), and an very open view named the Conditional position which can describe both Universalism and Annihilationism. Separate posts will discuss each of these positions.

The view that the Christian adopts regarding Hell has an effect on numerous other aspects of life. A universalist belief, for example, will remove any sense of urgency with regard to the Great Commission. Though the modern Church may choose to avoid it, Christians who take their faith and theology seriously should not succumb to that intellectual laziness. Join me as we explore the Scriptures.

Image Giampalo Macorig