There are four general schools of thought about Hell.
1. Naturalism – only the observable, material world exists. Hell cannot possibly exist. Life simply ceases to exist at death.
2. The Classical View – Hell is an eternal place of unending torment for the wicked.
3. Annihilation – Hell is real, but not eternal. The wicked are destroyed there.
4. Universalist – No one, or at least very few ever go to Hell. It may or may not exist.
Within the annihilationist view there are two modified views:[i]
1. Conditional immortality – The wicked are resurrected, but they forfeit eternal life and are simply allowed to pass out of existence.
2. Annihilationism proper – God will punish sin, but in time that punishment results in the cessation of life.
Within universalism there are three views:
1. It doesn’t matter if there is a Hell, God would not allow anyone to go there.
2. There is a Hell, but only the worst of the wicked will go there.
3. There is a Hell, but eventually everyone, or almost everyone, will be rescued from there (From what I have read, this seems to be closer to Rob Bell’s view).[ii]
You can see by these views why I took the time to establish the parameters of Biblical theology. That we would not rely on theological or philosophical conjecture, but only affirm what the Bible actually says. Biblically then, naturalism is not an option. Genesis 1:1 completely rules out a naturalistic understanding of life or an afterlife. Furthermore, Hell does not have to be scientifically or empirically observable, due to what the Bible claims it to be as a post-life existence, to be a reality. It is indeed a matter of reasonable faith.
The universalist position completely misrepresents the Biblical reality of Hell. To establish any form of universalism one must affirm the love of God above every other revelation of the Bible. Though I have not read the book, from what I have read about it, this seems to be the most glaring charge most make against Rob Bell’s Love Wins. The burden then, for the other positions (Classical and Annihilationist), is that they must seek to establish a Biblical theology in which the love of God and the awfulness of Hell are compatible. Here is where we must be careful. The way we phrase our questions are critical. The question “Could a loving God send a wicked person to Hell?” is much different than “Would a loving God send a wicked person to Hell?” The first question, “could” begs for philosophical and emotional conjecturing. As human beings it is difficult for us to wrap our minds and hearts around the fact that a loving God would do this. But it is also difficult for me to wrap my mind and heart around the idea that a person could be so evil and perverted that he would sell a child into prostitution. Though it is hard for me to fathom, my emotional and intellectual inadequacies do not change reality. Universalists commit a critical error in relying primarily on human reason to reveal the reality of Hell. This is not to say that a universalist will not cite Scripture, but it is rather to say that they will filter Scripture through their “reasoned” view of the love of God. Asking “Would” is a question of whether or not God is capable, in love, of sending a person to Hell. Yet I would contend, even this, is not the best question to help us arrive at the most accurate conclusions. Therefore, in the case of Biblical theology, the MOST proper question is not to ask “Could God” or even “Would God, but rather to ask , “Has God, or will God send wicked people to Hell?” This question drives us to Scripture. If we are careful in how we phrase our questions we will be careful in how we go about arriving at our conclusions.
This is where, for the most part, the annihilationist and those who hold to a classical view begin their debate. Both agree that it is well within the love of God to send the wicked to Hell. They would both agree that indeed He has and that He will continue to do so. The debate however is over just how long God will do this. With the universalist and the naturalist positions being eliminated from consideration as Biblical positions, the ideas of the annihilationist and those of the classical view will be considered as we go forward.