Is Hell a Real Place?

Are heaven and hell real places or not? What do you think about what the Bible says?

My friend Doug Pagitt just posted a transcript from an interview with Todd Friel, a self-described fundamentalist from Way of the Master Radio. The conversation went to hell. Heres a snippet;


Todd: OK, Doug, hold on Doug… Doug hold on a second. I have no idea what you just said. Here’s what I think Hell is: eternal damnation, God sends lawbreakers to a place where there’s weeping, there’s gnashing of teeth, a lake of sulpher, the worm never dies, eternal conscious torment. Agree or disagree?

Doug: Disagree.

Todd:What do you think Hell is?

Doug: I think Hell is disconnection and disintegration from God.


Todd Friel gives Doug and hard time for not believing that hell is an actual place and Doug suggests Todd has a view of hell influenced more by Plato than the Scriptures. Its a fascinating interview and although neither Todd nor Doug succeed in presenting strong cases for two opposing views, this tension point between eschatologies has been a huge issue this year in church circles. And it worth a look. Why? Because our views on these things affect they way we live now and our mission on the earth.

The most interesting book I have read this year on the topic, hands down, is N.T. Wright’s “Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church”. While the book is not primarily about hell, and while Wright is not even dogmatic about his views of hell [see this interview], he does tackle the subject and lands in a place somewhere in between a fundamentalist eternally conscious torment view on one hand and a universalist ‘everyone gets in’ perspective on the other, as well avoiding the annihilationist option. Wright says that hell is not a ‘place’ in the way we Westerners understand “place” but rather is a different kind of space, time and matter. He also points out serious flaws with the “Left Behind” perspective of the second coming and offers a way of reading the Scriptures that focuses more on the new heaven and earth coming to us rather than believers “going to heaven when they die”. I think Doug would mostly agree with Wright while Todd Friel would strongly disagree.

How ’bout you? Anyone read the book?

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Andrew Jones launched his first internet space in 1997 and has been teaching on related issues for the past 20 years. He travels all the time but lives between Wellington, San Francisco and a hobbit home in Prague.


  • Kyle says:

    I think Friel came across as really arrogant and pushy in that interview, but that Doug seemed to be, I don’t want to say out of touch, but uncomfortable and without solid answers. He seemed either like he was trying to avoid answering things or like he simply didn’t have an answer. But with that said, I understand why he didn’t have an answer. I think Friel has actually taken a very simplistic route and was pushy in defending it.
    Let me be really honest and say that I’m not sure about what hell means, but I’m sure that Jesus’ words imply that it is some sort of reality. I’m not sure it’s a place per say as we Westerners think, but I’m not really unsure either. The English translations often say, “in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth,” but the Greek simply says “Ones weeping and gnashing teeth will be there,” leaving it simply at “there” and not including the word for “place.” This imagery is clearly figurative though, and in other places the Greek seems to imply annihilation. Paul often seems to imply annihilation.
    Furthermore, when the Bible speaks toward ‘eternal’ punishment it seems to be talking about Satan and his angels and is somewhat unclear about humans at that point. This all gets even more complex when we consider that sometimes the Greek word for eternal can simply mean “age-lasting” or until the end of the age. How does that factor into everything?
    On the wonderful blog “Faith and Theology,” Kim Fabricius said one time that he doesn’t think that an eternal Auschwitz is just punishment for a temporal one. I tend to agree, but at the same time am willing to allow God to define justice on his terms and not on my western, democratic terms.
    So yeah, I simply have no idea what the right answer is.

  • Chris Hubbs says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed Wright’s book, but felt that for as directly as he spoke about heaven, he rather ducked or avoided the discussion of hell. I’m pretty much with Kyle on this one – I really have no idea what the right answer is. Probably another place it’s wise not to be too dogmatic.

  • andrew jones says:

    thanks Kyle. The original word for “hell” in the passage you just quoted is “Gehenna” which was the rubbish tip in the south west corner of Jerusalem. Wright’s interpetation of that verse is Jesus telling the Jews that if they dont repent (change their mind) about their crazy idea to establish God’s kingdom on their own terms, the Romans will turn their city into a smouldering rubbish heap.
    So in this case, Wright would believe “hell” or Gehanna is a real place but not a reference to the eternal state of separation from God that many Christians believe it to be.
    you could say, therefore, that Wright has a LITERAL view of gehenna as hell, as opposed to a figurative interpretation that points gehenna towards a future state of being or place.
    that doesnt mean Wright does not believe there is judgment after death because he does. he just cannot use that verse to build a case for it.

  • Charlie Boyd says:

    I have read Tom Wright’s book and also feel he ducked the ‘hell’ question.The problem is poor translation of Greek words and Dante’s medieval pictures of hell.There are 3 different words translated hell in the King James version of the Scriptures.I have found 2 books very helpful and both suggesting an Ultimate Reconciliation of all creation (unbelieving man included) which some of Paul’s ideas seem to suggest as well as the last few chapters of Revelation.I personally have come to the belief that ultimately Jesus is the Saviour of all mankind.A verse that hell preachers hate is 1 Timothy 4 v 10.In the Greek it translates ‘….that we rely on living God,Who is Saviour of all man,especially of believers’This seems to suggest that those who presently believe are not the only ones who will ultimately enjoy Salvation.The 2 books I recommend are ‘The Evangelical Universalist’ by Gregory MacDonald (pretty academic but readable) and ‘Martin Zender goes to Hell’ by Martin Zender ( a short black humoured type of book that takes a Dispensationalist view but holds to a limited punishment/purification process for non believers).Zender believes that the doctrine of eternal conscious torment has done more harm to the spread and acceptance of the Gospel than anything that opponents of Christianity can throw up.Time for us all to get back to the Greek i think!

  • Chris E says:

    The fundamentalist view isn’t annhilationist – because it involves eternal conscious torment.
    I agree that NTW dances around the issue – on the other hand part of the reason why he does so is because he struggles to define what humanity means in the absence of common grace (i.e what does pure evil look like?).

  • Chris E says:

    The fundamentalist view isn’t annhilationist – because it involves eternal conscious torment.
    I agree that NTW dances around the issue – on the other hand part of the reason why he does so is because he struggles to define what humanity means in the absence of common grace (i.e what does pure evil look like?).

  • andrew jones says:

    thanks chris – i will add an edit to my post to reflect that.

  • lisa says:

    Another wonderful book is, The Inescapable Love of God, by Thomas Talbot. Rocked my world.

  • Having just read the comment from the interview I would ask the following question. If the lost – for want of a better word – lose the image of God in the eternal state wouldn’t they lose their immortality too? In fact I would tend to think that our immortal soul is something that is given to us as a result of God’s grace not something that we automatically have as part of his image anyway. Many years ago I read John Stott on this and found his arguments very biblical and very helpful. So I can’t really see a problem with the annihilationist view point. But I wouldn’t be dogmatic about this nor would I call myself a fundementalist.

  • Jason_73 says:

    That is sooooo strange. I just happened to come across that interview on youtube Saturday while clicking around.
    My initial impression didn’t have to do with the subject matter, but how much “attitude” gets in the way. I know it’s a bit off topic, but it kind of clicked for me, attitude is 90% of every debate. I think Doug was turned off by Todd’s attitude, as I would have been and decided to get a little feisty in return.

  • Learning says:

    I listened to the exchange between Todd Friel and Doug Paggit a while back. Friel did seem pushy as well as a bit pharisaical in his tone. On the other hand Doug Paggit seemed confused or he was just a chicken. Lets avoid the ugliness of both sides.

  • Chris E says:

    Hi David –
    I don’t mean to imply that i see an overwhelming problem with the annhilationist view – merely pointing out that it wasn’t the ‘fundamentalist view’. My point on common grace echos the point you make about ‘humanity in the absence of God’
    Just to add to what you said, there are also plenty of questions as to what extent the concept of an ‘immortal soul’ as a distinct entity is a biblical one, certainly it doesn’t appear to be a Hebrew one.

  • Charlie Boyd says:

    Just can’t see this annhilationist thing.Why would a creator destroy a huge percentage of his masterpieces ( even warped ones).Christ wouldn’t be the Saviour of ALL MANKIND but only of a few elect.I can worship a Saviour who has reconciled the world to Himself.

  • andrew jones says:

    yeah – i already said that neither person did very well.
    but the argument itself is indicative of something much larger and deeeper and this might be the reason doug just posted the transcript.

  • hmmmm it sounds like Todd was up for a fight so to speak to prove his opinions on EV…. or those associated with it…. (sorry Doug that kinda sucked!)
    Though i do think Heaven and Hell is a place per say, that would come with dimensions and portals- and i’ve seen too much of those realms to think, feel or perceive otherwise.
    Sounds like Todd was proof texting….. (looking at the continuity in the gospels is good, i think we can gather a lot there) however, Jesus is not a text, He’s a person…. ( While i blog… you can only get to know me sooo far by my words, you don’t see my facial expressions, nor do you know my humor with a cheeky grin) that takes relationship with me… – and that is always a choice. (don’t think i need diagrams in that correlation)
    Though it might be considered Dantesque – life without God is Hell… and eternity without God would cause some serious gnashing of teeth.
    I don’t think contentions argument is helpful (leaves out that part about “working out our own salvation in fear and trembling”)- but i do understand when someone is challenging a stream of thought, things can get a bit testy, when it comes up against theologically transcripted DNA.
    My sense is that much of this comes down to fear…. “fear of Heaven” and “fear of hell” Fear of the unknown, so then we scramble to make sense of that so we don’t have to experience the “fear” part of it. To say that God is bigger than that, with all my questions, and is much more able than I in the judgement department, doesn’t make me a universalist – it makes me humbly human.
    Jesus made it pretty clear that there are other forces at work… (demons and the pig thing)- so there IS other than just what we see and can experience in the finite…. with which to contend…. perhaps that is some of the deeper picture. Perhaps that’s some of the contentions influences that keeps the Body of Christ bickering and wielding swords against each other.
    Tony Campola got into trouble some time ago for saying (loosely translated here) that he saw the face of Jesus in unbelievers…. Why would that cause such a hub-bub – ? I hope we would look for that face in everyone we meet….. since we love Jesus, we might just love another better…. i just pray they too can see Jesus in me.
    i’m gonna go ponder a bit… might post more later …

  • why is he posting this now? i listened to this quite some time ago. wasn’t enjoyable to listen to. didn’t think Pagitt was much more helpful than Friel, actually. danced around the questions, and was really dishonest, i think, in his glib dismissal of the term “place” (i.e. equating it with Platonism). if not annihilation, then some sort of “place” necessarily exists. but whether it’s physical or metaphysical really makes little difference. the point of the biblical imagery of hell, however allegorically one takes it, is clear: it’s the worst possible “place” imaginable. when one considers that all things good and right and beautiful are bound up in and sustained by God, then the absence of God is the absence of all that is good and right and lovely. i don’t think we can fathom what this would be like. but i think we can get that it’s far worse than the worst we’ve experienced, or even heard about, in this life.

  • bryonm says:

    i loved n.t. wright’s book…

  • Jon Reid says:

    More interesting to me than the differing opinions of hell were the different approaches to Scripture.

  • Danny says:

    No one seems to have mentioned yet that Pagitt seemed to know nothing about Friel. If Pagitt had known something about Friel, I think that the would not have done the interview. The whole time it seems like Pagitt is trying to simply finish the interview and leave Friel, with his loud and annoying rhetoric, for others to deal with. I feel bad for Doug because he didn’t know what was coming.
    I think it is unfair to say that Doug was unprepared, he just wasn’t expecting to get barraged by a million fundamentalist questions. The two languages of emergence and fundamentalism have been so dichotomized that they have difficulty having any sort of dialogue. This is what I think happened here.

  • I found Thomas Talbot’s view on universal salvation very persuasive and well argued from the Bible. But in the end I couldn’t quite go with it and I think I would plump for Stott’s annihilationism. Having looked at both these viewpoints I can no longer see the view that I was initially taught – that of everlasting conscious torment – is very Biblical. But I admit it is a difficult subject and I might be wrong.

  • I think it’s important that as we discuss whether or not heaven and hell are actual places, we keep in mind that we are dealing with actual people who may be going there. With this in mind, I am a little disturbed by Friel’s attitude, although it is one with which I am very familiar, having grown up in the fundamentalist subculture.
    Somewhere along the way, evangelicals have gotten to a point where they are more offended by the idea of everyone going to heaven than by the idea of everyone going to hell. I’m not sure why that is.
    I think that it takes either a remarkable ability to distance oneself from one’s theology or a very strong stomach to proudly and defiantly embrace the notion that the majority of the human population (many of whom never even heard the name of Jesus Christ) will suffer eternal torment in hell.
    I nearly gave up my faith over this issue, because I couldn’t bear the thought of a God who hates his enemies badly enough to allow them eternal torment. Ever since I was a kid, I worried about this. I remember that after reading the Diary of Anne Frank in fourth grade, I spent hours desperately praying for God to let poor Anne out of hell. It’s easy to talk about hell from a philosophical/theological perspective…not so easy to talk about it from the perspective of a compassionate human being.
    Clark Pinnock’s “A Wideness in God’s Mercy” was particularly helpful for me on this issue. He supports inclusivism regarding salvation and annihilationism regarding hell.
    Honestly, I think it’s time that we stop holding God to lower standards of goodness and morality than we hold ourselves. I think that, in the end, the scope of his forgiveness might just surprise us.
    P.S. – I write about this often on my blog.

  • Jonathan Hunt says:

    Point of order:
    Kyle wrote:
    consider that sometimes the Greek word for eternal can simply mean “age-lasting” or until the end of the age. How does that factor into everything?
    Aion means ‘age lasting’. Aionos (adjective) means ‘everlasting’. It is fallacious to assume that because words have the same root, they have the same meaning. Matt 25.46 means what it says in all our bible translations – everlasting life or everlasting punishment. If you translate it the other way, with the meaning of Aion substituted, it makes no sense at all.
    Carry on.

  • Mike says:

    I have not read the book but I did hear the radio show. Doug seemed very confused about what he believes.

  • Ben Wheaton says:

    Why do you and others insist upon calling the eternal conscious torment view of hell the “fundamentalist” one? Many (indeed most) of conservative evangelicals believe in this notion of hell. (Granted that Friel is a self-proclaimed fundamentalist, but gee guys…)

  • Heather says:

    Something I heard in a sermon by Tim Keller once comes to mind… (it was almost an off-hand comment, not the subject of the sermon) he said that hell is being absolutely immersed in self. And when your focus is absolute, and absolutely inward, nothing else matters but your suffering. I really think it would be possible to be in a physical place just as terrible as every description of hell you’ve ever heard, but not even notice because of self-consumption. Obviously it’s possible to have that experience as mortals, but as long as there is breath there is hope, so hell is not absolute until hope is gone.

  • andrew jones says:

    Hi Ben
    i dont mean to put anyone in a box but rather present the debate as it was presented on Doug’s blog, and Tom Wright’s distinctions as he presented them.
    i am not really trying at all to push my own thoughts on this.

  • Chris E says:

    Tim Keller has an *excellent* sermon on Hell that is available for free download at the redeemer site:
    He explores further the idea that Hell is partly a state of being completely immersed with the self. As always, with Keller, even a sermon on Hell ends up being grace focused.

  • Charlie Bpyd says:

    Aeonian means related to a period of time.Get a Greek New Testament and see how often it appears!This is where Dispensationalists get there ideas from.When Jesus talks to Jews of his day He is refering to something they would have understood – Aeoian life meant life in the Messianic Age – Kingdom of God – which Jesus was offering to the people of His day.The Bible does teach immortality when death and time are no more but most ‘eternal life ‘ references in the Gospels do not refer to this.Sounds like someone is going to have to change a lot of Church Signs with Eternal Life in their messages!!!

  • Charlie Bpyd says:

    Sorry previous post was for Jonathan not Kyle – deepest apologies Kyle!!

  • Martin says:

    I’ve been listening to Way of the Master Radio daily for several years now and thus sort of “know” Todd Friel quite well. I come from a varied background, both traditional free evangelical and charismatic. While I agree that Todd can be quite intense at times, I sympathize with his being annoyed at the “uncertainty” of people like Doug Pagitt when it comes to such basics of the faith. If I remember correctly, Doug does not only doubt that hell is a real place, he does so about heaven too.
    Rachel, I’m certain most Christians struggle with the idea of eternal torment at some point. However, the solution is not to change our view of God so He fits our sensitivities, but to acknowledge His holiness and justice. If a human judge (and our moral sense) doesn’t just let a criminal go but requires that he be punished, how much more the God who not only adheres to “standards standards of goodness and morality” but actually *is* these things! You either are a child of God covered by the blood of Jesus through faith or you are a child of wrath. I think a plain reading of, say, the book of Romans will make this clear.
    This realization of the “lostness” of this world should make us reach out to people with the Gospel even more, and I humbly admit that I am “the greatest of sinners” when it comes to neglecting this.

  • andrew jones says:

    martin, i dont think the arguement being made here is regarding the reality of judgment or justice or punishment. most of us here are evangelicals.
    but whether heaven or hell is a place where you “go” to or not.
    and whether the second coming of Jesus is a reality or not. If Jesus is coming back to earth in a real sense, and there will be a new heaven and earth, then the idea that we will spend an eternity out there in outer space somewhere is bogus and not supported by the apostles or the early church.

  • Rhett Smith says:

    Thanks for posting this…tacking the tough issues. I’m still formulating my thoughts/views on Hell…they have shifted since my seminary days. I haven’t read Wright’s book, but I would probably tend to fall where he lands as you describe it. I’m less convinced of the view that Friel puts forward.

  • Rhett Smith says:

    Thanks for posting this…tacking the tough issues. I’m still formulating my thoughts/views on Hell…they have shifted since my seminary days. I haven’t read Wright’s book, but I would probably tend to fall where he lands as you describe it. I’m less convinced of the view that Friel puts forward.

  • matybigfro says:

    Mnn I rememeber listening to this ages it sounded like doug had been ambushed
    in fact what i felt was that he simply wasn’t up for a fight and bassically spoke a different language to Friel. I think doug’s participation line is very close to what Wright talks about when takling about Gehanna in that i think jesus was as much trying to highlight the present reality of actions and living that are seperate to God as pointing to a future destination of said actions.
    What I really appreciated from Doug was that he simply wasn’t up for a fight about what he belived or his doctrine. I think there is a second half to this intereview in which Doug is prepared to fight, why becase friel launches a personal attack on a freind of Doug’s “Karen Ward” calling her a heretic and speaking in an incredibly negative tone about her. Doug simply doesn’t stand for it and stands up for her against Friel. I very much support and praise him for such action. It seems to me Pete rollins is on to something saying that its not more important what you belive than how you belive and I think that this is what is very great about emergent at its best. It takes love seriously and theology with a pinch of salt.
    Personally speaking reading “the Shack” recently drove home to me how much tension there really is in trying to hold both a view of God that is totaly loving and a view of Hell and eternal punishment. In the end it seems to me that one takes hit or is lessended. Personally i’d rather hold onto beliveing in a utterly loving God (which is hard enough as it is) tighter than a belief in eternal punishment or pain.

  • mike green says:

    Darrin Patrick from The Journey Church recently did a message on hell that I think is very good and it deals with eternal punishment and a lot of C.S. Lewis’s ideas regarding hell as the outgrowth of our charachter

  • Timothy Wright says:

    Lets take the original intent of Hell, Hell was created for the devil and his angels:
    Matthew 25:31-41
    The Judgment
    31″But when (Y)the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then (Z)He will sit on His glorious throne.
    32″All the nations will be (AA)gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, (AB)as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats;
    33and He will put the sheep (AC)on His right, and the goats (AD)on the left.
    34″Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, (AE)inherit the kingdom prepared for you (AF)from the foundation of the world.
    35’For (AG)I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; (AH)I was a stranger, and you invited Me in;
    36(AI)naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you (AJ)visited Me; (AK)I was in prison, and you came to Me.’
    37″Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink?
    38’And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You?
    39’When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’
    40″(AL)The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, (AM)to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’
    41″Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘(AN)Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the (AO)eternal fire which has been prepared for (AP)the devil and his angels;
    Anyone want to go a place that has been designed and destined for Satan and his angels.
    However you describe it: Count me out
    Eternal separation from the Father is real. I think anyone saying that hell is not real is in a very dangerous place.

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