As of this moment, I do not believe in Hell. There is not a place called Hell where people are burning, screaming or suffering.
I remember many years ago hearing about someone who dug a hole in the earth so deep, he could hear the screams of Hell. I got really excited at the time, thinking it confirmed my worldview that Hell is a real place that unbelievers go to when they die. There are many reasons why I should not have believed that story, but, first and foremost, I should have rejected it because Hell does not exist. So many believe that unbelievers die and immediately go to this fiery pit of despair. So many are disturbed because they think that many people they know are suffering in this terrible place. But I do not believe this is true. I don’t believe Hell exists.
Now, before you begin to throw things are your computer screen, cursing me out, telling me to go to Hell, hear me out. I did not say that I do not believe in the doctrine of eternal punishment or that I don’t believe in Hell at all. I said that I don’t believe in Hell right now. Let me put it this way, I don’t believe that Hell is open for business yet . . . at least for humans.
When people who have not trusted in Christ die they go to a place to await judgement. I am not sure what this place is or what it is like, but I am increasingly convinced that unbelievers are not in Hell yet. God will not assign them to this darkness until they have been judged. You see, there are two types of people: 1) those who had Christ take their judgement on the cross and 2) those who would rather stand before God on their own to be judged.
The book of Revelation chapter 20 helps me out here:
11 Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. 12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. 13 And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. 14 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15 And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
This suggests that it is not until people are resurrected (Rev. 20:5) that God judges them. God does not judge those who have trusted Christ and are in the Book of Life. But he does judge those who do not trust Christ. They will be judged according to their works and then assigned various levels of punishment based on what they have done (Luke 12:27-28).
Why Do People Believe Hell Exists Right Now?
I could be wrong about this. There may be a Hell before judgement. After all, it would seem that there are certain demons who are already in Hell suffering for their sins.
And angels who did not keep their own domain, but abandoned their proper abode, He has kept in eternal bonds under darkness for the judgment of the great day. (NAS)
However, even here, the angels are kept in “eternal bonds under darkness.” What is the purpose of these bonds? To hold them until “the judgement of the great day.” Properly speaking, this is not Hell yet. Again, Hell does not open for business until after judgement.
What About the Rich Man and Lazarus?
The story of the Rich Man and Lazarus is probably the primary reason most people believe Hell exists right now. And it might very well teach this. Here is the key part:
Luke 16:22 The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, 23 and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side.
Doesn’t this prove that Hell (or a temporary type of Hell) exists right now? It could, but I think there is another way to look at it. Parables are very difficult places to arrive at systematic theology. We often try to make them walk on all fours, drawing theological conclusions from every detail. However, parables are only meant to have one main point. The rest of the story supports this point, but should not be taken too literally. For example, this parable speaks about the punishment of Hell being from fire (Luke 16:24). But I don’t think that we need to conclude that Hell is literal fire. Also, this parable suggests that we will be able to see those in hell across a great chasm, but I don’t think this is true. It is just an illustration of the eternality and agony of Hell. I believe that the main point of the parable is directed to the Pharisees, who, as we see just before the parable, were lovers of money (Luke 16:14) and thought that one’s status in the afterlife was reflected by how much money they had. Christ shows that the rich man (who was never named, suggesting his lack of influence in eternity) goes to Hell and the Poor man (who was named “Lazarus,” meaning “God Helps”) goes to Abraham’s bosom (a symbol of high status). I see this as speaking of both men’s places after the judgement, but we need to be careful about seeing this as a doctrine of Hell.
So Where Do Unbelievers Go Before the Judgement?
Where do unbelievers go when they die? I believe it is some sort of waiting place. It is not in the presence of God and it is not a great place to be. Those who die without Christ are existing without their bodies in a state of consciousness, at least to some degree. We don’t know much about them. The Bible is virtually silent on the subject. Their may be some “place” they are all at or they may all be here roaming the earth. This might explain some people’s encounters with ghosts! We are just not sure.
If Hell is not open for business yet, what difference does that make for us? I think it makes a lot of difference. Foremost of all is this: if God is waiting for the final judgement to assign people to Hell, how much more should we reserve our judgement. It is so hard to think of someone being in Hell right now. Many of us have had loved ones who have died and we don’t believe that they ever trusted Christ. The anguish we suffer because of this is both disillusioning and, often, unbearable. However, we do not have to suffer from such thoughts now. Indeed, we should not suffer from them. One day those of us who have trusted in Christ will stand with God at the Great White judgement throne. Then we will see and understand why people go to hell and understand their various levels of punishment. Because of this, we will understand that their assignment to Hell is just.
So, in the end, let us be very careful about speaking about those who we believe are going to Hell. If God waits until the general resurrection to judge them, how much more should we?
C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminar (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. He can be contacted at [email protected]