In the conclusion of my most recent article (posted nearly four years ago!) I wrote the following: “I understand that many ‘traditionalists’ today soften the traditional view so much that penal suffering is minimized or denied altogether (which is another topic for another day)…” Today is the day that I pick up on that thread—better late than never, I suppose.
I previously suggested that the dominant view of hell throughout church history envisions the damned endlessly suffering physical torture—typically by means of fire, among other torments. That hell will involve literal fire was a view held, for instance, by Tertullian, Chrysostom, Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas, just to name a few.
Of course, there have always been some exceptions. I am not a scholar of church history, but I think it’s accurate to say that the literal fire view of hell was held by the overwhelming majority of Christians up until the 16th century (Calvin, for instance, famously viewed the biblical fire imagery metaphorically). And even then, the literal view was dominant until at least the Enlightenment, and was only eclipsed by the so-called metaphorical view very recently, sometime in the 20th century (thanks, C.S. Lewis). In his 1910 entry, “Hell,” in The Catholic Encyclopedia, Joseph Hontheim writes:
The poena sensus, or pain of sense, consists in the torment of fire so frequently mentioned in the Holy Bible. According to the greater number of theologians the term fire denotes a material fire, and so a real fire. We hold to this teaching as absolutely true and correct. However, we must not forget two things: from Catharinus (d. 1553) to our times there have never been wanting theologians who interpret the Scriptural term fire metaphorically, as denoting an incorporeal fire; and secondly, thus far the Church has not censured their opinion. Some few of the Fathers also thought of a metaphorical explanation. Nevertheless, Scripture and tradition speak again and again of the fire of hell, and there is no sufficient reason for taking the term as a mere metaphor.
Likewise, in the first edition of Four Views on Hell (1996), William Crockett, himself an advocate of the metaphorical view, concedes: “[The] metaphorical understanding of hell rather than a place of literal heat and smoke . . . has been advocated only since the sixteenth century.” Continue reading