This question, which for some should simply be abandoned as a non-starter [for people who would rather not think], continues to be one, at least for me, that should be dealt with. It is not because I haven’t concluded something on this, personally; it is because I think this question occasions an even more important one that lies underneath or behind it. That is, who is God? The way we deal with this question will largely be shaped by what we think about God and how he reveals and deals with his creation, or us.
But before we get to who God is, lets deal with this issue; the issue of whether or not hell should be understood as a place where people who are reprobate (so to speak), or unbelievers when they die (or maybe not so limited?), end up for an eternal, and conscious, and tormentuous time. I have been reading, slowly (relatively speaking), David Bentley Hart’s book Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies; and while his major focus is not this particular quagmire, he does broach it. And it is his broaching that I want to use as the portal into dealing with this question (or not, maybe it’s a non-starter for you). Hart doesn’t commit to anything, himself (he is Eastern Orthodox, so he probably tends towards a Universalism of sorts, but maybe not!), but he does sketch this in a way that might place some question marks, or at least moments into this query that should make some of us pause more. He writes:
[…] The threat of eternal torment is an appeal solely to spiritual and emotional terror, and to the degree that Christians employed it as an inducement to faith, their arguments were clearly somewhat vulgar. The doctrine of hell, understood in a purely literal sense, as a place of eternally unremitting divine wrath, is an idea that would seem to reduce Christianity’s larger claims regarding the justice, mercy, and love of God to nonsense. But, even here, one must take care to make proper distinctions, for it is not at all clear to what degree such an idea was central or even peculiar to the preaching of the early Christians. The earliest Christian documents, for instance—the authentic epistles of Paul [editor’s note: they are all authentic, Hart … don’t play that trope!]—contain no trace of a doctrine of eternal torment, and Paul himself appears to have envisaged only a final annihilation of evildoers. The evidence of the Gospels, moreover, is far more ambiguous on this point than most person imagine; even Christ’s allegorical portrait of the final judgment in Matthew chapter 25 allows considerable latitude for interpretation, and patristic theologians as diverse as Origen, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, and Isaac of Nineveh saw in the phrase aionios kolasis (typically translated as “eternal punishment,” but possible to read as “correction for a long period” or “for an age” or even “in the age to come”) no cause to conclude that hell was anything but a temporary process of spiritual purification. Indeed, it the testimony of several of the church fathers is to be believed, this “purgatorial” view of hell was far from being an eccentric minority opinion among the Christians of the first few centuries, especially in the Eastern reaches of the empire. All that said, though, one must grant that the idea of eternal punishment for the wicked or for unbelievers formed part of Christian teaching from an early date. But one should also note that the idea of eternal punishment was not a uniquely or even distinctively Christian notion; its pagan precedents were many; it was an idea well established among, for instance, the Platonists; and it is not wholly fanciful to suggest that its eventual ascendency in Christian teaching was a result as much of the conventional religious thinking that Christianity absorbed from the larger culture as of anything native to the gospel. Whatever the case, it is doubtful that Christian teaching succeeded much in exacerbating fear of death or the afterlife. All the documentary evidence suggests that the special attention attraction of Christianity in ancient society lay elsewhere, in aspects of the faith that clearly set it apart from other contemporary versions of reality. [David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions, 154-55.]
One of the reasons I like this quote from DBH is because it compresses major disciplinarian ways into this doctrine of hell; i.e. Historical Theology, Exegetical Theology, and Dogmatic Theology. This elicits something, or it should, that there are more ways into considering this issue than a simple commitment to scripture all by itself (solo scriptura, nuda scriptura) will, or can, yield. There are fields of meaning and context that need to be considered when discerning this issue of hell.
The grammatical/exegetical aspect is not as cut and dry as Hart demonstrates (quickly); the history of interpretation is not as precise as us conservative evangelicals would like, and the Dogmatic reality of God as love is thrown into relief when we consider what this means for the eternality of hell (maybe it is temporary).
We all have to come down somewhere (some choose to remain agnostic, but that’s no fun!), and all of the above needs to be considered as we begin our descent downwards to ‘somewhere’. God is love, is hell a loving place; is a concept of eternal unremitting divine wrath (as Hart phrases it) commensurate with the grander doctrine that God is love? Can creation be said to be fully redeemed (Romans 8) and death put under foot (I Cor. 15) if hell continues to be an eternal unremitting reality? Is there an eternal shadow side of God, or is God unremitting light in Christ? Is the koine (NT) Greek able to bear the weight of this question all by itself (lexically, grammatically, and syntactically)? Do earlier Christian thinkers have anything of value to say on this? What did Jesus think?
These are all questions that I won’t try to answer here, I’ll just leave them dangling and let you. I will say though that it won’t do to simply yell your position louder; not if you are serious.