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Could somebody please provide an overview of the various beliefs that the Reformed churches hold regarding hell? If possible, but not required for an accepted answer, it would be great if they could be listed in order from most popular to least.

  • The problem with this question is that there may be many, many such beliefs. How can there be only one correct/best answer? The question is far too broad for us to handle. – Matt Gutting Oct 25 '16 at 13:53
  • I think the question is fine, since it asks for an overview. I expect there to be three main views, with some of them having some variations within them. – Nathaniel is protesting Oct 25 '16 at 15:20
  • @MattGutting This question is important to me, and it may help decide whether I continue translating Gehannah as "an eternal torture chamber where human flesh is burned forever and ever in agonizing pain". I think it's an important question because many do not know there are other options, and I don't know what those other options mean. I've heard they could be worst than flesh burning forever, so now I'm hoping to rid myself of that awful picture and replace it with a worst one. Nathaniel knows what I'm looking for, and he always provides me with excellent answers. – Cannabijoy Oct 25 '16 at 16:30
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    @Nathaniel Would it be better if I limit my question to a specific number of interpretations- like the top three as you suggested? – Cannabijoy Oct 25 '16 at 16:41
  • I don't think it's necessary to do so... I think that including the most important views is implied by the word "overview," and it's possible that others would come to a different breakdown (perhaps seeing only two views with more variations each, for example, or four views with fewer variations each). – Nathaniel is protesting Oct 25 '16 at 16:43
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Like most labels, Reformed theology defies clean boundaries, especially on a divisive topic like this one. But if we consider the term broadly, we will notice that the positions tend to follow those of Protestantism more generally. I'll divide the views into three main categories, each with an admittedly imperfect name:

  • Traditionalism
  • Universalism
  • Annihilationism

Traditionalism

Those in what I call the "traditionalist" bucket are those who affirm what is called "eternal conscious torment" (ECT) in some form. This is the "orthodox" position held by the early Reformed creeds, like the Westminster Standards:

The punishments of sin in the world to come, are everlasting separation from the comfortable presence of God, and most grievous torments in soul and body, without intermission, in hell-fire forever.1

Some Reformed thinkers tend to emphasize the "fire" and "burning" aspects of hell; we might call these the "literalists" within the ECT camp. Charles Spurgeon might be placed in that category:

Could all the misery that ever startled the keepers of our hospitals be conceived, it could not convey the least idea of the pains of the spirits that are doomed to dwell in eternal fire and everlasting burning. The woe however, will act its terrible part on the soul. The memory aghast,—hope and fear, thoughts and imaginations, conscience and judgment, all will be racked, every one stretched on a bed of fire, every nerve strained to its utmost, every vein made a road for the hot feet of pain to travel on.2

Others, however, believe it best to interpret the graphic biblical descriptions of hell as primarily metaphorical. Anthony Hoekema writes:

The various figures by means of which the punishment of hell is depicted are not to be taken literally. For, when taken literally, these figures tend to contradict each other: how can hell be darkness and fire at the same time? The imagery is to be understood symbolically, but the reality will be worse than the symbols.3

Charles Hodge agrees and makes the common argument that the sufferings of hell will not be uniformly felt:

There seems to be no more reason for supposing that the fire spoken of in Scripture is to be literal fire, than that the worm that never dies is literally a worm. The devil and his angels who are to suffer the vengeance of eternal fire, and whose doom the finally impenitent are to share, have no material bodies to be acted upon by elemental fire. As there are to be degrees in the glory and blessedness of heaven, as our Lord teaches us in the parable of the ten talents, so there will be differences as to degree in the sufferings of the lost: some will be beaten with few stripes, some with many.4

Tim Keller offers an explanation of the purpose of these images:

What, then, are the 'fire' and 'darkness' symbols for? They are vivid ways to describe what happens when we lose the presence of God. Darkness refers to the isolation, and fire to the disintegration of being separated from God. Away from the favor and face of God, we literally, horrifically, and endlessly fall apart.5

Universalism

The orthodox view of hell, though historically dominant, has been rejected or ignored more and more in recent centuries among some branches of Reformed theology, broadly considered. The confessional statements adopted in the 20th century by the PC(USA) – the Declaration of Barmen, the Confession of 1967, and the Brief Statement (1983) – make absolutely no mention of the H-word, and many theologians have sought alternatives. Two alternative categories prevail: Universalism and Annihilationism.

Within "Universalism" I include not only those who expressly call themselves universalists (all will be saved), but also those who hold to "continued probation" and "universal hope" theologies, as well as those whose views are commonly characterized as logically leading to universalism.

It is perhaps not completely out of line to include Friedrich Schleiermacher here as a "Reformed theologian," given his roots in the German Reformed church, though his theology came to bear little resemblance to traditional Reformed theology. Schleiermacher was a universalist; he held that "all human souls" would be restored.6

Some in the "New School" branch of 19th century Presbyterianism adopted a view of future probation,7 in which the unsaved would receive an additional chance to accept salvation, and at least one of their number, Edward Beecher, openly advocated a doctrine of universal restoration.8 And in the 20th century, two leaders of the neo-orthodox movement from the Reformed tradition – Emil Brunner and Karl Barth – had difficulty distancing themselves from universalist label. Karl Barth's view of the universal election of men is commonly cited as evidence of his universalism, and some of Brunner's writings seem to strongly imply it, for example:

That is the revealed Will of God and the plan for the world which He discloses, a plan of universal salvation, of gathering all things into Christ. We hear not one word in the Bible of a dual plan, a plan of salvation and its polar opposite. The Will of God has but one point, it is unambiguous and positive. It has one aim, not two.6

Annihilationism

Continuing the streak, annihilationism is a poor name for a category, since it includes both annihilationism proper (that the immortal souls of the lost are ultimately annihilated by God) and conditionalism, which holds that no soul is immortal until God grants it eternal life.

Like universalism, annihilationism is widely seen as a heterodox view by conservatives, but, interestingly, it has been adopted by some respected evangelicals, such as John Stott. Stott, however, was an Anglican, and many prominent advocates of this view associate with non-Reformed Protestant traditions. Those most closely associated with Reformed theology would include Lyman Abbott9 and Horace Bushnell, though Bushnell saw souls not being extinguished (as in annihilationism proper) but transformed so as to be incapable of feeling.10 I've had little success in identifying contemporary Reformed theologians who advocate annihilationism, but lay proponents are easier to find.

Summary

Historically the most common view of hell in Reformed theology has been the traditional or orthodox view, and many would consider it the only view of "true" (confessional) Reformed theology. Within this camp there are different approaches with respect to how literal or metaphorical the scriptural imagery should be understood, with some emphasizing burning and pain and others the isolation and destruction.

Of the two remaining positions, universalism and annihilationism, both have their advocates among those associated, more or less loosely, with Reformed theology. In most cases these views coincide with other divergences from Reformed confessional standards, such as on the theology of the atonement and the reliability of Scripture. Of the two, it seems that universalism has historically been more closely tied to Reformed theology, whereas annihilationism, though perhaps relatively more prevalent in evangelicalism, is more closely associated with the Anglican, Lutheran, and Arminian traditions.


  1. Westminster Larger Catechism, 29
  2. "Woes to Come", in Storm signals, 77
  3. The Bible and the Future, 273
  4. Systematic Theology, 3.868
  5. "The Importance of Hell"
  6. Quoted in Harry Buis, The Doctrine of Eternal Punishment, chapter 6. Buis's survey is helpful in tracing the history of the debate from a traditionalist perspective.
  7. The Andover Review, April 1890, 441
  8. History of Opinions on the Scriptural Doctrine of Retribution, 298
  9. Our Day, Volume 9, 345–46
  10. B. B. Warfield, Annihilationism, in The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge
  • Great answer! I didn't expect to see universalism in the mix. I knew there was eternal "concious" torment, but I wasn't sure if the Reformed churches accepted this. Now I have a thousand other questions, so I'll have to think about this more. Thanks and answer accepted! – Cannabijoy Oct 27 '16 at 17:23
  • You might be surprised what the mainline "Reformed" churches accept =). For example, the predecessor of the PC(USA) first accepted a pastor who rejected the divinity of Jesus in 1981. – Nathaniel is protesting Oct 27 '16 at 17:34

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