I don’t really like this question. No, let me be stronger: I hate this question. Please forgive me. I understand the question and empathize with it on just about every level, no matter what it’s source may be (philosophical, biblical, or emotional). However, when you ask me this question you put me in a difficult position. I want to be as honest as possible, yet remain aware of the pastoral nature that addressing this subject requires. In other words, it is not an impossible question, and should never be seen as such.

This question, and others like it, are becoming more and more common today.

  • If I become a Christian, do I have to believe in Hell?
  • Do I have to believe that those who have never heard of Christ are going to hell?
  • Does God really elect some people to go to heaven and not others?
  • Do I have to believe in inerrancy, a six-day creation, the sinfulness of homosexuality, or the reality of a literal being named Satan? Really?

Don’t get me wrong, not all these questions have equal gravity. Some are more debatable than others. Moreover, there are many questions similar to these which leave me relatively unsure that I have the best answer. Therefore, it is not so much the questions themselves that are most important. The difficulty comes down to the fact that we are often tempted to give people a loophole to theological issues that may be, otherwise, too intellectually or emotionally unpalatable. Often, for the sake of peoples’ acceptance, we will reduce the tenets of Christianity down to a minimal set of truths that are the easiest to swallow.

In some ways, it is not unlike another question that I don’t like: “If I commit suicide, can I still go to heaven?” I was asked this by my sister in 2003. I was asked this by my very depressed sister in 2003. I did not want to answer. At least I did not want to answer honestly. I believed my answer would somehow give her permission to do something we all feared she was about to do.

Technically speaking, whether or not one believes in an eternal hell, a literal Satan, or whether or not God used evolution to create man, these issues, while important, are not cardinal issues of the Gospel. What I mean by this is, if you push my back against the wall, I would not say that someone who says they don’t believe in a literal Satan is not a Christian. Nor would I say that all the other questions, including the one concerning the existence of an eternal hell, is so doctrinally central that a denial of such is a damnable offense (or evidence of one’s retribution). This would include the question of suicide. Suicide is not an unforgivable sin, nor does it keep people outside the gates of heaven. (Though I would often rather this to remain a secret.)

So, if someone asks me these theological questions in a more academic or objective sense (which is almost never the case), I am comfortable—indeed obligated—to say that their respective positions regarding such beliefs do not evidence or determine their status as a child of God (as I was with my sister who, as some of you know, did commit suicide in 2004). But I am not a fan of making Christianity “palatable enough” for anyone to accept. In other words, my goal is not to win you to a Christ that is necessarily easy to believe or follow. And I am afraid that some of those who are attempting to be theologically astute wind up becoming academically agnostic. That is, they are agnostic enough to find every place where they don’t have to take a stand, which allows them to remain neutral for the sake of evangelism.

However, if you were to look at the life and ministry of Christ, you would never find him lowering the bar of doctrine or life in order to make people feel more comfortable. Rather, at every turn he seems to close loopholes, up the ante, and make the Gospel not less difficult, but more difficult to believe.

In the Gospel of John, for example, we frequently find Christ gaining a significant following. A good thing, right? Then people begin to question some of his more difficult teachings. In John 6, Christ claims to have come down from heaven (John 6:41-42). I mean, who does he think he is? This is a hard teaching. However, Christ does not make things easier. In fact, he makes it a lot harder, pushing those who may be on the fence in the opposite direction. He basically tells them that they are having trouble believing that his is the bread that came down from heaven because the Father is not with them. Notice: “Do not grumble among yourselves. No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44). When they raise another eyebrow and further question him, he not only says that he is bread that came down out of heaven, but his followers must eat his flesh and drink his blood. Again, the doctrine becomes harder to accept, not easier. Additionally, upon their misunderstanding of his statement (thinking that he meant they would literally have to eat and drink his body), he does not correct their misunderstanding (which is characteristic of Christ cf. Luke 8:10;  John 2:18-21, John 3:3-4, John 4:31-33, John 12:40).

Therefore, if Christ is unconcerned that people get tripped-up by non-cardinal hang-ups, we don’t really see much evidence of this in the Scriptures. From Christ’s perspective, when one believes God he believes God. That is, becoming a believer is not the simple act of believing one or two not so difficult things about God, but of having one’s life immersed in the belief of everything that God says, no matter how hard, no matter how difficult. It is in the trusting that God’s knowledge and understanding are perfect, and that our emotions, will, and intellect always bow to his revelation.

So when someone asks whether or not they can reject an eternal hell and still be saved, the most important thing for me to attempt to discern is the underlying reason why this person is asking such a question. More times than not, people reject hard doctrines such as this due to an emotional allergy toward it. They end up putting God on the stand and presume to pass judgement. “I would never believe in a God who allows people to suffer in Hell for all eternity!” As I said at the beginning, it is not that I don’t empathize with such emotional reactions (Lord knows, I do.), but do you really want the alternative? Do you want to believe in a God who ultimately bows to your preferences? Do you want God to seek your permission before he can claim something to be true? At this point, it is much more important to deal with your definition of what it means to be “God.” The biggest problem in your theology is not likely within the individual discipline that gave rise the the question, but the epistemological approach to authority in your life.

Having said this, it is important to realize that I am not asserting the opposite view. It is not as if (as in the discipline of textual criticism) “the harder reading is preferred.”I am not saying that we should always be looking for the least palatable option. Neither am I saying that because the palatability of a doctrine does not determine is veracity, that palatability will not have some voice in the decision-making process forming our theology. After all, while we are fallen and our moral compass is damaged, it does not follow that the palatability of a doctrine does not work at all. We are still in the image of God. Therefore, our emotions should often guide us and inform our understanding of God and his attributes.

Technically speaking, people can be saved and have all sorts of wrong doctrine (after all, I do). But that is not the right question. It all comes down to whether or not we are allowing God to have the right to reveal and have his revelation be the authority even when the truths of his revelation do not sit well with us, emotionally. I would never ask anyone to blindly believe in an eternal hell, unconditional election, the doctrine of the Trinity, the authority of the husband over his wife, or any number of emotionally difficult doctrines. Neither am I saying that those who disagree with me concerning these issues are doing so based on their emotions, or that there are no valid logical or biblical reasons for rejecting the traditional doctrines. What I am saying is that, more often than not, I find that these questions and the persistent rejection of traditional views in these areas are based on the premise that we have permission to create God in our image rather than forming our understanding of him according to his revelation.

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

    73 replies to "Can I Reject an Eternal Hell and Still Be Saved?"

    • JasonPratt

      Sorry for the delay — doing other things for a while, and waiting to let everyone have a turn so I can reply in a group. 🙂


      No I was talking about Isaiah 2 (where the language is about being destroyed “from the terror of YHWH and from the splendor of His majesty”, in the same Day of the Lord situation. The people being punished thereby aren’t being simply annihilated, though they might be being killed and then in chapter 4 appealing to the survivors to be accepted and cleaned by the spirit of judgment and the spirit of burning.

      True, the purifying per se is only for the repentant sinners; but part of the point of Isaiah 1 going into Isaiah 2 is that the sinners are going to be punished first because they won’t repent. The fire in chapter 4 is definitely not to kill the wicked but to purify those who didn’t survive the first time and then repented; and even at 1:24-31 the terms are technical refining terms, smelting away the dross and removing the alloy of those being so punished so that those punished will shine forth as pure gold (such as in Malachi chapters 3 and 4, aimed at the same rebel religious leadership).

    • Jason Pratt

      I think the forum system’s auto-link to scripture refs, which also results in a post being sent to moderation for approval due to outside links, is delaying my post from Wednesday March 12. Argh. (Sometimes good ideas conflict with each other…)

      Assuming therefore I had better stay away from actual scriptural refs to avoid the problem — in a discussion about scripture refs — {sigh}… I guess I’ll skip to the end to address the most recent question asked me by Jay. Sorry.

    • Jason Pratt


      Yes, universalists (myself included) tend to be very fond of that verse you asked if we had considered, especially in context of the rest of the chapter where Christ Himself is His own most important evangelist (although we’re supposed to help with that, too).

      We don’t think that God (especially the Holy Spirit) needs working physical ears on a person to witness to a person. But even if we did, we don’t (myself included) usually deny the coming bodily resurrection of the wicked, where ears will be among the things provided in a situation where rebels will have much stronger reasons than we do right now to believe in their hearts that Jesus has been raised from the dead — the same situation where Paul (including later in this same epistle) and Isaiah prophecy that someday everyone will confess Jesus as Lord.

      Regarding the Psalms you ref’d: David doesn’t yet think, in those Psalms, that ANYONE even those loyal to God will be rationally functional in sheol. Are we supposed to ignore further evidence, including from other Psalms of David where he reminds himself that God is present in sheol to the evil (who cannot escape Him thereby) and to the righteous (being a comfort to us to remember now when we’re in distress), because David hadn’t learned something yet??

      David in those two psalms also regards himself as being, in effect, already in Sheol thanks to punishment by God, and trusts God to accept his repentance.

      Possibly you were thinking of another Samuel reference: the one you cited uses a common OT theme of God killing people, sending them to Sheol, and then raising them up again, which is regarded as great to praise God about (and in other places sometimes as a coming strong evangelical witness). It does talk about wicked ones being silenced by the darkness, but typically in the OT rebels are silenced in their rebellions by the punishments of God and then repenting which was God’s goal for punishing them to begin with. Thus the foolish…

    • jay altieri

      Jason, TY for acknowledgment on the bodily resurrection for the wicked- Acts 24:15. Agreed. I apologize for writing too quickly and hereby rescind that comment about no physical ears. The wicked will be bodily resurrected so that they can pay for sins committed in the flesh while in the flesh themselves.
      Thus people in Hell will have physical ears, but not for long. This was my point: Eardrum is a membrane stretched across ear canal with air on both sides. It vibrates+tiny nerves translate vibrations into audible sound. Bodily resurrection requires literal physics. The eschatological body will work within the same basic Laws of Physics +ThermoD.

      When cast into fire of Gehenna, the air expands. The eardrum burst. Hearing is no longer possible. Little while later the body itself burns and is incinerated. Fire consumes (Heb 10:27, Heb 12:29), it does not preserve.
      Yes, fire also purifies, but only things that have intrinsic value. Hay, stubble, wood, coal (cheap common stuff) is turned too ash and utterly, irrevocably, reduced to a molecular state. Gold, silver and precious things are refined-made better-because all the cheap stuff, dross, is burnt out, leaving only the precious metal.
      In order to claim that Hell purifies sinners, you must claim that sinners are intrinsically precious and good. Contra:Mal 4:1, Matt 15:19, Jer 17:9, Rom. 3:10.

      As for Silence in death: Job 3:13, Ps 115:17, Ps 94:17, Ps 31:17, 1Sam 2:9, Isa 47:5. If there is total silence, how can the gospel be preached?

    • Wm Tanksley

      Jason, note that the blog trimmed your last post. Also note that this blog is very hard to discuss things on — it swallowed my last comment, and I’m pretty sure it doesn’t intend to give it back.

      However, in order to be a universalist you have to adopt a doctrine of progressive revelation that involves the Holy Spirit inspiring people to say things that are not merely potentially misleading, but actively false. David says that the dead cannot praise God, but because your doctrine of universal everlasting life requires that they can, you mark that part out of your Bible. The Psalmists teach that the wicked will die never to be recalled (Obadiah, Pss 37&73), but because you believe that the wicked will live to repent, you mark that part out.

      Your excuse is progressive revelation, but the reality is that this is not compatible with any respect for Biblical authority. Even if we suppose that David believed something wrong about the fate of the wicked, when you say that the Psalms are incorrect about the ability of the wicked to praise God from death you’re not correcting David; you’re correcting the Spirit Who inspired those words he spoke. David can believe false things without writing them down in the songs that played 24/7 in the Temple and formed the liturgy of God’s people.

      I’d be delighted to find that the wicked WOULD repent in the end; I think even David would be. But it’s not what the Bible teaches, and we cannot proclaim as truth something the Bible doesn’t teach.

      (IOU a more Biblically referenced response — but I’m trying a post without any to see if it makes it through.)

    • Wm Tanksley

      Jay — to add to and agree with what you’ve said, the judgment passage of 2 Cor 5:10 seems to pin all the good or bad by which we’re all judged to works done “in the body”, which in the broad passage clearly means before death.
      And the other passages provide no relief from this — all of them speak of judgment as regarding good and evil deeds, and that must be read in harmony to mean the deeds done in this life, not the ones in the next life. Matt 25’s sheep and goats makes the good and evil deeds remarkably subtle, and Rev 20’s judgment adds the Book of Life — but the judgment is still done according to good or evil deeds. Now, I’m Reformational in my thinking about this, and ALL Christians agree that forgiveness is possible, so there’s some way to modify the deeds “done while in the body” that’s compatible with the fact of forgiveness — but is that something _after death_?

    • Wm Tanksley

      Here’s another post that got completely dropped:

      Jay said that conditionalism was anathematized at the 2nd council of Chalcedon. It wasn’t. The text that’s taken to mean that is “IX. If anyone says or thinks that the punishment of demons and of impious men is only temporary, and will one day have an end, and that a restoration (apokatastasis) will take place of demons and of impious men, let him be anathema.” As you can see, this is an anathema against universalism, not conditionalism, to which it doesn’t apply at all; but what you can’t see is that this anathema was written by the emporer, not the council; and although the council followed the emporer’s outline and included an anathema that _paralleled_ this one, it instead anathematized Origen’s speculations on “that pretended apokatastasis” instead of the generalized universalism. See http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/const2.asp for text and the full story. You cannot miss that when the church was called to condemn universalists to hell, they _refused_ — and this was the most extreme sort, the type who believe that God will save demons.
      I am not a universalist in any sense; but my mother believes that all babies are saved, and this is a _hard_ kind of universalism using the same mechanism as modern evangelical universalists. If you excommunicate all universalists you’re going to purge most of your own ranks.

    • jay altieri

      WmT- yes thank you. 2 cor 5:10 was the passage I had in mind for “in the body.”

      Jason, I agree that context is important. Let’s look at a few more verses from Rom10.
      How about Rom 10:15? Who exactly is “sent” into Hell for the preaching ministry? Whoever it is, they have feet.
      While quoting Isa, Paul says in Rom 10:18 “all the EARTH”

      Rom 10:10-11. Confessors are not ashamed, compare Ps 31:17. sinners are ashamed and silent to where they cannot confess.

      FYI, I am glad to hear that ya’ll have post disappearance problems too. I thought the problem was with myself. I type it in Word, then cut +paste. So if it don’t work I still have it saved. I don’t think bible references are the cause of post oblivion. I try to use copious references, and that doesn’t seem to eat my post. But I think plain text is important. Sometimes i have put Hebrew words in italics, I am suspicious of that. Does Credo have any technical advice for us?

      Pete Again, are you still out there? A week ago you were not approving of my ecumenism. I had a haunch you might be of an Orthodox persuasion.

      WmT- re:your mother +dead babies- I think there is a distinction to be made between Universalism-wherein all humanity is to eventually be saved by Jesus, and Inclusivism wherein only the incorrigible are lost. I find the difference to be with PME. Inclusivism acknowledges that salvation is graciously merited IN THIS LIFE to any that have not directly, arrogantly spurned God. Thus dead babies although not rationally cognizant of the stereological mechanism may still ride this train. I personally am inclusive, but not universal.

    • Wm Tanksley

      Jay — I have my suspicion about Pete again. His claims are the ones an Eastern Orthodox would have good reason to make; but his wording and some of the examples he chooses lead me to believe he’s a Roman Catholic who takes his magisterium’s polemical claims at face value.

      Let’s see if I’m right.

    • Wm Tanksley

      Oh, very good point about universalism versus inclusivism! I’ll be more careful about my phrasing in the future, and I definitely agree that it’s a proper distinction to make.

      However, I have to add that as I’ve considered the hell texts more carefully I’ve developed more respect for my evangelical universalist brethren; they are not the same as the 1800’s universalists who simply put their conclusions about God ahead of all Biblical texts to the point of repudiating the reliability of Scripture. Because I have developed this respect, I see less difference between “hopeful universalism” and inclusivism than I did before — it’s more like the difference between “annihilationist” and “conditionalist”, as they mean the same thing in the long run even though they do a better job at saying the _reason_ and distinguishing from modern heresies.

      (And, as a conditionalist, I have less pressure to affirm an escape hatch for people who don’t “obviously deserve” eternal torment — a quiet death after a just judgment that the person has no right to inherit Him is a Biblically plausible fate that doesn’t have to be squeezed into any texts, even though it’s not clearly affirmed in any.)

    • Jason Pratt

      Well, the forum engine may not be swallowing posts anymore — in fact several posts on this thread from back in March suddenly arrived in my email box! So after several months I’ll try to catch up on the reactivated thread. But in case script-ref links are still a problem (it may be a browser issue), I’ll try to avoid typing those directly.

      Jay (and hereafter): {{Who exactly is “sent” into Hell for the preaching ministry? Whoever it is, they have feet.}}

      Contextually, and also in rabbinic tradition by the way (which is relevant to St. Paul being a rabbi), YHWH or the Messiah (or both for Paul of course) is the person first and foremost in view as the chief evangelist, specifically including the feet on the mountain reference. I affirm and don’t deny God’s omnipresence, or the related ability of God Incarnate to go anywhere He wants, including into a ‘merely’ spiritual hades, so this is hardly a problem; moreover, I affirm and don’t deny the bodily resurrection of the wicked, so evangelism by someone with feet if that’s strictly necessary isn’t a problem either (nor is verse 18’s “all the Earth”). But feet aren’t strictly necessary: no one has to go bring the Word (Who is Christ Himself) down from heaven or up from hades/sheol, for God can operate in the heart as a witness.

      Beyond that, I would adduce things like the end of RevJohn where those fondling their sins outside the city are being evangelized by the church as well as by the Son and the Spirit; but that depends on its own contextual argument as to when that scene is supposed to be happening.

      Jay: {{Confessors are not ashamed… sinners [in Sheol] are ashamed and silent to where they cannot confess.}}

      The very next verse of that Psalm indicates what they’re being silent about, which is not confession: their lies, arrogant speech against the righteous, pride, and contempt, are put to silence. (Beyond this, David has a habit of expecting God to accept his repentance and save him from Sheol, even if David literally goes to Sheol as a result of God’s punishent, but not other sinners. He gets past this eventually in some Psalms, but possibly not in this one.)

      At any rate, confessors don’t have to be put to shame anymore, so won’t be; but that doesn’t logically prevent those who haven’t confessed yet from being put to shame, which is treated elsewhere as a prerequisite of confession. Otherwise no sinner ever could be saved!

      Moreover, Romans is one of the epistles where (in the 14th chapter) Paul affirms that God swears by His own eternal life that every knee will bow to Him and every tongue shall confess (a technical term for praising God for His mighty saving victories), which Paul directly connects as a result of all persons standing before the judgment seat of God. To this end God Incarnate died so that He might be Lord of the dead ones as well as of the living ones — and there is only one way in which God was not already the Lord of those who rebel against Him: they rebel and so reject His lordship. I’m certainly not going to cite a Psalm against what Paul says is God’s own goal for the death of Christ!

      To which I might add that anyone who cites that Psalm as a constraint against speech so powerful it precludes repentance (as though repentance of one’s spirit is of no account and necessarily needs physical speech), should be careful to never appeal to the Rich Man in hades as evidence of anything regarding hades/sheol. {lopsided g} Which would be ironic, since I include the story of Dives in my account.

    • Jason Pratt


      While there were 1800s universalists, particularly in the late 1800s, who denied the reliability of scripture (and even on their theological grounds eventually abandoned Christianity per se), there were also many who held to scriptural reliability — usually in the early 1800s or late 1700s, but even into the late 1800s sometimes. Baptist evangelist Elhannan Winchester, who spent his later years leading a strong revival in Great Britain, explicitly became a Christian universalist on his respect for scriptural testimony, and personally regard his “Universal Restoration” (pseduo-)dialogues (a literary convention of course, but based on actual conversations) to still be the highest-density scriptural argument for its size. (Though there were authors who wrote larger scriptural arguments.)

    • Jason Pratt

      Incidentally, I posted a somewhat longer comment (apparently still within the character limit), that got swallowed by the sheol of the site and hasn’t been released yet. {eye rolling} {g} I kept out scriptural references that the blog engine might auto-link, but I did include the name-terms of the two books Jay talked about in his most recent post; those might have flagged the system after all. ARGH!

      One thing I noted at the start of my comment was that the forum engine ONLY JUST NOW delivered the last five or six post notifications, from back in March, to my email box. So I was hoping the engine problems had been ironed out. Guess not. Sigh.

    • Jason Pratt

      Correction: what got delivered was Tara’s replies to various people from yesterday — I went back to my email and double-checked. So not forum engine lag.

      Why a post with even slight references to scripture would be non-posted, I have no idea. I hate being handicapped from talking about the scriptures like this.

    • Jason Pratt

      All right, let’s try a hard 2000 character limit (though somehow other posters get beyond that…)

      Jay: {{Who exactly is “sent” into Hell for the preaching ministry? Whoever it is, they have feet.}}

      Contextually, and also in rabbinic tradition by the way (which is relevant to St. Paul being a rabbi), YHWH or the Messiah (or both for Paul of course) is the person first and foremost in view as the chief evangelist, specifically including the feet on the mountain reference. I affirm and don’t deny God’s omnipresence, or the related ability of God Incarnate to go anywhere He wants, including into a ‘merely’ spiritual hades, so this is hardly a problem; moreover, I affirm and don’t deny the bodily resurrection of the wicked, so evangelism by someone with feet if that’s strictly necessary isn’t a problem either (nor is verse 18’s “all the Earth”). But feet aren’t strictly necessary: no one has to go bring the Word (Who is Christ Himself) down from heaven or up from hades/sheol, for God can operate in the heart as a witness.

      Beyond that, I would adduce things like the end of RevJohn where those fondling their sins outside the city are being evangelized by the church as well as by the Son and the Spirit; but that depends on its own contextual argument as to when that scene is supposed to be happening.

    • gary

      Does forbidden-fruit-eating merit eternal punishment?

      Dear Christians, have you ever stopped to think about what the Christian story really says: Someone committed a crime. There is a severe penalty for committing that crime. And there is one means to avoid the penalty for that crime and to expunge the record of the perpetrator of that crime.

      Crime: Forbidden fruit eating.

      Penalty: A lifetime of hard labor, disease, war, rape, torture, starvation, agonizing physical death, and horrific eternal punishment/torture in the after life.

      Means of Restitution: A human sacrifice.

      Dear Christians: Isn’t it obvious? This is an ancient fable. No one living in the modern 21st century should believe this tall tale.

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