Hell is one of the most horrifying concepts in the Bible. For most of the 20th century there was little question among the people in the pews as to what the Bible taught on this tough subject. You don’t want to go to hell, because you don’t want to experience everlasting fire. Oh, by the way, there’s brimstone too. Let me tell you, as a child I had no idea what brimstone was, but it was still a tortuously frightening word. And then as an afterthought you won’t be with Jesus. There is, though, a renewed debate over this issue and it’s time to define the positions for the layman.
TRADITIONALISTS – Most common among mainline evangelicals is the idea that man will experience eternal conscious torment in hell. For that reason, many have come to refer to this view as the ECT position. The traditionalist or ECT position holds that all who die without Christ will ultimately endure an everlasting existence of pain and suffering in which they not only exist, but are also aware of what is happening. This springs forth from passages like Mark 9:43 & 44 which says,
If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life crippled, than, having your two hands, to go into hell, into the unquenchable fire, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.
Those familiar with the passage know that it goes on to similarly describe how one should cast off two other body parts if need be to avoid going to hell. Each time, the refrain appears again, “Where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.” One would be right to assume that Jesus wants everyone to be clear about that point. Taking Jesus at face value, the majority of the church, for centuries, has believed that hell is an everlasting existence in which one will never be free from some sort of conscious suffering. Nevertheless, within traditionalism there is some latitude.
Some traditionalists believe that while one should take this passage, and others like it, to mean that hell will be a place of eternal conscious torment, one should not interpret the flames themselves to be literal. After all, the word translated “hell” here is the word “Gehenna” and refers to an actual geographical location outside the walls of Jerusalem. It is not the focus of this article to explain the history of the Valley of Hinnom, but it will do to simply say that it was a garbage dump to which Jesus pointed as illustrative of the separation we have come to call “hell.” Advocates of the metaphorical traditionalist view will argue that, for this reason, the burning (of garbage perhaps) should not be taken to indicate that the actual existence of an unbeliever in hell will involve this sort of literal fire. Furthermore, this sort of apocalyptic imagery might involve trappings like this that are meant to point to a reality far worse than the image given. Nevertheless, those in this camp still affirm that those in hell will experience eternal conscious torment, it will simply be a different type of torment.
CONDITIONALISTS – The conditionalist view says that the soul, like the body, is not innately immortal. That is, one’s soul will not exist and live for all eternity unless God grants immortality to an individual’s soul which He will only do in the event that one becomes a believer. In other words, immortality is conditional. This is why conditionalism is paired with what is called annihilationism. On the conditionalist/annihilationist view, those who go to hell will suffer for a period of time (or not – this is something annihilationists are divided about) before being annihilated (or ceasing to exist). Such a state can be called everlasting death, since the person in hell will remain dead everlastingly (that is to say, he won’t be resurrected). He is not conscious. He does not feel. He is, body and soul, dead. This view is based upon passages like Matthew 10:28. This passage flatly explains, “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” We understand the killing of the body to entail what we commonly think of as physical death, and this passage includes the death of the soul in the same context. Little comment at all is needed to see why annihilationists understand Psalm 37:38 to support their view. It says, “But transgressors will be altogether destroyed; The posterity of the wicked will be cut off.” Therefore, says the annihilationist, the soul will ultimately meet its end, as will the body.
Now, in fairness, the gut reaction might be to think that these proponents reject the authority of Scripture, or are driven merely by emotion. To this, John Stott explains,
I am hesitant to have written these things, partly because I have a great respect for longstanding tradition which claims to be a true interpretation of Scripture [eternal punishment in hell], and do not lightly set it aside, and partly because the unity of the worldwide Evangelical constituency has always meant much to me . . . I do plead for frank dialogue among Evangelicals on the basis of Scripture. I also believe that the ultimate annihilation of the wicked should at least be accepted as a legitimate, biblically founded alternative to their eternal conscious torment” 
UNIVERSALISTS – The universalist takes a different approach altogether. While some universalists have aligned with unitarians (who deny the Trinity) many simply argue that either (1) there is no hell, or (2) hell is a place of reformation for sinners before they are allowed into the presence of God. This is partly because they see the love of God overpowering His wrath, anger and justice. Scripturally, though, they understand passages that speak to universal atonement (1 Timothy 2:6, 1 John 2:2 etc.) as implying that every individual not only can be saved, but will be saved.
Now, I find it difficult personally to imagine that, in the case of the universalist, the early church martyrs would have been willing to die such grizzly deaths knowing that all men would ultimately be saved regardless. With respect to the Conditionalist I remain unconvinced. The biblical data regarding the horror and everlasting nature of hell still leads me to believe that it is referring to eternal conscious torment. Nevertheless, these are issues that are now rising to the surface in the evangelical church, and conservative traditionalists need to know what their opponents are saying.
1. John Stott and David L. Edwards , A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue, p. 319-20