There are some things which Christians believe which are (or should be) non-negotiable. These are the great doctrines of the Church expressed in the creeds: the trinity, the incarnation, the atonement, the resurrection. One can hardly remain a Christian and deny these truths. At the other end of the spectrum are issues on which the Scriptures are silent. It is left for us to work out a Christian position on the various issues and situations which are not specifically addressed by the Bible, and we must admit a degree of flexibility in accommodating or tolerating interpretations and views different from our own. One of the important principles established by the Church since the Reformation is that no Christian should be compelled to believe any teaching which cannot be proved from Scripture. One of the 39 Articles (the official statement of belief of the Anglican Church) says:
Holy Scripture contains all things necessary for salvation, so that whatever is not found there, or which cannot be proved from it, is not to be required of any person… or thought to be essential for salvation. (Article 6, paraphrased)
It is important, then, to recognise that while there are some “absolutes” in Christian belief and practice, there are many areas on which Scripture is silent, and such things cannot be regarded as essential for salvation. For example, the Bible says quite clearly that Jesus is the Son of God, and every Christian is bound to believe it. On the other hand, the Bible does not tell us what He did for all eternity before the creation of the universe, and any teaching on the subject must be regarded as conjecture. However, Christians have tended to create and defend dogma which has dubious Biblical authority.
In between these two extremes—things which are unambiguous in Scripture and things which are not mentioned at all—are a great many things on which the Bible says something which is open to interpretation. For example, the Bible tells us that Jesus will return, but the timing and exact nature of His coming is unclear. There are therefore a number of theories about the End Times, and Christians are free to choose the view which seems to them to be the best explanation of the teachings of the Bible. However, since there is a range of possible views and interpretations, we should not be dogmatic, and must hold to our own views lightly.
Hell is one of those subjects on which there are some different possible explanations of the Biblical evidence. Scripture affirms that there is a hell—a punishment for the wicked in the afterlife—and so we may not simply dismiss this as a myth. However, Scripture is not entirely clear as to where hell is or what it is—or even if it is a “place” at all. There are a range of possible interpretations of the Biblical evidence, the most common of which is the traditional view of hell as a place of fire and eternal torment.
It should be acknowledged that the traditional view of hell is able to be argued and defended from Scripture. However there is an alternative view—called annihilationism or conditional immortality—which is also arguable. Since the Bible is ambiguous, we cannot argue dogmatically either way—either by saying that hell is certainly a literal place of eternal torment in the middle of the earth, or that hell is certainly a state of non-existence. We may however carefully consider the options and the alternative points of view. In this little booklet I want to present a case for annihilation, but do so with the realisation that many readers—perhaps most—will be unconvinced. But as with theories about the Second Coming, when we talk about the nature of hell we are in the realm of speculation. No one really knows, this side of eternity, what heaven and hell will be like. We can, and should, discuss and debate what Scripture says, and consider the various options and interpretations. What is the right interpretation will be a matter of conjecture until we, like the good thief, cross over to be with Jesus in Paradise.