Can people get out of hell?

Dante and Virgil in Hell
by William-Adolphe Bouquereau, 1850
In a previous post titled, Will all be saved?, I noted a question raised by Rob Bell in his controversial book, Love Wins. That question is this: Can people get out of hell? To answer this question, we must consider two others:
  1. Is a person's fate determined permanently at death?
  2. If not, on what basis might those in hell get out?
Many Christians answer "yes" to question number one. In support of their position they frequently cite Hebrews 9:27, understanding this scripture to assert that upon death, a person is judged and the decision rendered is irreversible.

However, using this passage to make this point is, in my view, questionable. Note that the context is the universal scope of Jesus' substitutionary, atoning work, which he did "once for all" (Hebrews 9:26). He does not accomplish this work at some future time (such as some point prior to or including the moment of our death). Also, note that Hebrews 9:27-28 points forward to a future time when Jesus will "appear a second time...to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him." Might it be that some of these people who are "waiting" have not yet met Jesus personally, but will welcome him with a heart of repentance when they see him at that time "face to face"?

I would also note that what we find in Scripture is not an emphasis on the moment of the death of an individual person, but on the moment when all people will rise to face Jesus in what is often termed the "general resurrection" (a time Jesus refers to in John 5:28-29).

Some take Jesus' words to mean that when a person rises they rise to hear pronounced an irreversible sentence determined by the life that ended in their death before the resurrection. With that reasoning, we're back to square one, namely that one's fate is determined irreversibly at the moment of death.

But not so quick! One also has to give credence to the verses that at least hint at an opportunity for a postmortem change of heart. Note the sequence: In Revelation 20:1-15 we find the general resurrection and the judgment that comes at that time. Then in Revelation 21:1-5 we find the ushering in of a new heaven/earth with its Holy City, wherein everything is made new. In Revelation 21:8, certain persons, having been excluded from the blissful life within the Holy City, are consigned to "the fiery lake." Now that sounds pretty final. However, in Revelation 21:25 we find the gates of the Holy City remaining open. Is this an indication that those outside (those consigned to "hell") are able to enter in? Note in Revelation 22:14 the reference to certain people who at this time, "wash their robes," and thus "go through the gates [which remain open] into the Holy City." Still, on the "outside" (of the City, and thus in hell?) are found people who refuse this washing. Nevertheless, Revelation 22:17 tells us that "The Spirit and the bride say, 'Come!' And let him who hears say, 'Come!' Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life" (which flows in the Holy City). We understand that this invitation is being given in our time, but this passage seems to indicate that it will continue to be given at this latter time, after the "final" judgment, to people outside the Holy City.

And so it seems that there is Scriptural reason to at least wonder about the possibility of a postmortem, post-resurrection, post-final judgment change of heart. Does hell have a cleansing/educational value? Perhaps some who, in this life or in the general resurrection, repudiate the forgiveness and acceptance they have with God in Christ, will, in hell, change their mind and enter through open gates into the Holy City (a symbol of communion with God).

As for my personal view on this matter, I don't think we can say with certainty, one way or the other, "thus saith the Lord." We simply are not given to know these details. I think what we can say is this: God never stops loving his children (including those in hell who continue to repudiate his love). We know this of God because we know Jesus who is the perfect, complete and final revelation of who God is and what God is like.

One final note: To believe that some people might leave hell, is not the same thing as embracing Universalism, as it is classically construed. If some leave hell, it will be because they, using the freedom God gives them, repent and thus decide to leave. But God will force such a decision on no one, and thus the possibility remains open that some will decide to repudiate God forever, and thus stay in hell forever. Thus we can not say that all will be saved (in the ultimate sense). For a post about universalism, click here.

Comments

  1. I was asked to post the following comment from Richard Parker:

    Thank you for this blog on judgement as it relates, for instance, to Hebrews 9:27.

    And throughout human history, the idea of a judgment from God has weighed heavily on the minds of many. This idea usually takes the form of what I call the "trapdoor" judgment. In this judgment, the person to be judged will have the "good points" he has earned in this life balanced against the "bad points" he has earned in this life. If there are more good points earned than bad points earned, then off to heaven that person will go. However, if the bad points predominate, well…, the trapdoor to hell opens up, and that person will drop down to hell--forever.

    Not surprisingly, with this trapdoor view of judgment, most people, knowing how they actually lived life and are even now living life, are troubled by what will eventually happen to them when they die.

    But the judgment of God is not a trapdoor judgment. Instead, it is a crisis judgment. You see, God will end up judging everyone. Even now, as Peter says, judgment is on the family of God. But this judgment is based on an idea of good and bad that is rarely considered.

    Simply put, good is believing in the name of Jesus, and bad is not believing in the name of Jesus. Furthermore, bad often takes the form of doing things, usually related to the law, in order to earn God's approval, all the while failing to consider what Jesus told the crowd 2000 years ago after He had fed them with bread:

    John 6:29--“The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” (NIV)

    And this is where the issue of crisis judgment comes into play. You see, everyone, sooner or later, will come face to face with Jesus and will have a crisis of how to respond. If belief is the response, this is good, and eternal blessings are in play. But if belief is not the response, God will continue to judge that person as "not there yet" and will continue to patiently work with that person (for as long as it takes) in order to have them answer His call to belief.

    The point is that, even though God's judgment involves the crisis of meeting Jesus face to face, there is great hope in this judgment. This hope is that He may have mercy on us all.

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  2. Anonymous10/02/2011

    From Sellappan,
    Great comment, Ted! Thanks for the interpretation of judgment - it concurs with Robert Capon's. What a revelation to know that God is intent on saving all His children no matter how long it takes. He doesn't want anyone to miss out on the eternal and abundant life He has for everyone. God's love and grace are without limits and unending - they are forever. That's really Good News for all. Great post - thanks.

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  3. Anonymous10/26/2011

    Sellappan

    Some thoughts...

    Scripture (1 Cor 15, Rev 20) tells that death and Hades will be destroyed, not human beings. Also, in Christ's resurrection and ascension, all are raised to eternal life. So the question is who will live where - heaven or hell?

    The word "saved" refers to life in heaven - living and participating in God's abundant life.
    They are spiritually alive and enjoy all the good things that God offers them.

    The word "unsaved/condemned/perish" refers to life in hell - alienated (not separated) from God, not living/experiencing His abundant life.They are spiritually (not literally)dead. Their life is miserable. Because of unbelief, they live in their own self-imposed, constrained hell.

    That means all will be living either in hell or in heaven. Those who believe and participate will live a heavenly life - enjoy and experience God's riches. And those who don't believe will not enjoy it.

    As God is love, He will never stop loving even if they are in hell. Jesus and the bride/church will continue to woo them. He doesn't put a deadline on His saving grace. God wants to save everyone even if it takes 1000 years (which is actually nothing compared to eternity).

    Those in hell will still have their freedom (that's why we reject universalism). They are free to deny Christ and continue to experience alienation and hell. But for how long? The prodigal son came to his senses only after he had reached the end of his rope.

    It is God's hope that they all in hell will eventually repent of their unbelief and turn to Jesus and live their new life.

    The population of hell will reduce as more and more people repent of their unbelief and turn to Christ. It will get more lonely to live there!

    So God is very positive and hopeful. He will eventually save everyone (even if it takes a long while) while still giving them the freedom to choose life. He loves all His children and doesn't want any to perish. He will work patiently to accomplish His will and yet at the same give freedom to all. (We can have the cake and eat it too!) God's redemption is indeed awesome! "He will never let anyone go" as the song goes.

    Amen

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  4. Some people, including myself, have believed that John 8:24 is a verse that indicates that one must make a decision about Christ before we die.."I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins." What do you think about this Ted?

    And I am not saying am right. In fact my hope is that God in his goodness does allow for a change of heart and reversal of one's final hellish abode. This is simply because I have many family members who have passed away in my life time, and maybe thousands of ancestors that I don't even know who may not have made that decision before their death. I'd like to meet those relatives for the first time and meet those whom I know again.

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  5. Thanks Tony for your comment.

    Jesus' focus here is not what does or does not happen after death. Rather he is making a point about his identity as the Son of God come down from heaven, and returning to heave, and human impotence to gain heaven apart from him.

    The human condition apart from Jesus is to die in one sins with all that this would mean forever (and he does not here address what that means). However, there is hope, for the Son of God, now united to our humanity in Jesus, is returning to the Father in heaven, and thus taking our humanity there with him.

    As individuals, we are then able to participate in this ascension of humanity, by believing that Jesus is the one he claims to be (v24), namely the incarnate Son of God, who lives, dies, rises and ascends with our humanity in tow.

    The key here is to see the context and thus the point of what Jesus is saying - and his point is to affirm his true identity, which will be seen even more clearly when he dies and rises again (v28).

    Hope this brief comment is helpful to you.

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  6. Anonymous2/04/2013

    Anonymous and Sellapan,

    In Matthew 25:41 Jesus states in the parable of the sheep and goats: “Then He will also say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels:” - Notice, the fire is described as everlasting. And in verse 46 of the same chapter it states: “And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” - So, the punishment is final and everlasting, not temporary.

    God is a patient God, but He’s also a Holy and Just God. Hebrews 10:26-29 states: “For if we sin willfully after we have rejected the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins..” So if we reject Christ here on Earth, our eternity is settled. It goes on to say: “…but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries. Anyone who has rejected Moses’ law dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. Of how much worse punishment, do you suppose, will he be thought worthy who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which He was sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace?” - Friends, this is precisely why God tells us to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling. (Philippians 2:12)

    As you can see, God takes our choices very seriously. It is a deception to present grace in a manner that lulls one into sleep concerning sin while we are alive, in the hopes that you can have a “change of heart” in hell. We must test the spirits, and not perish due to a lack of knowledge (Hosea 4:6).

    In the same Chapter of Hebrews, in the 31st verse it states: “It’s a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” So, I wouldn’t take a chance in believing that there will be an opportunity for eternity with Christ after death. Please, sir… Meditate on what Jesus said in Luke 12:16-21 and Luke 16:19-31.

    Sir, another example.. In Matthew 26:24, Jesus states of Judas Iscariot: “The Son of Man indeed goes just as it is written of Him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been good for that man if he had not been born.” - Judas was so sorrowful (Matthew 27:3-10) that he brought the money back to the temple and went out and hung himself. But his sorrow, did not lead to repentance, but to taking matters into his own hands; Which in turn caused Judas to leave this world without hope, as Jesus indicated.


    Chris

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    1. Please what did Jesus mean on the cross when he said forgive them for they know not what they do, secondly he said anything I ask of my father, he will grant.

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    2. Anonymous1/10/2017

      @know not what they do -- This proves those men were forgiven for that particular sin (killing him). It doesn't absolutely prove anything beyond that. I think it definitely teaches a principle, but it needs to be applied in context of everything else.
      @ask -- Jesus also says that he only says (asks) what the Father directs him to say, so he would not ask anything that wasn't the Father's will, and if it is God's will to have people in hell stay there, that will be granted.

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  7. Clearly, personal choices - including willful decisions to reject Christ - have consequences. As C.S. Lewis said in his book "The Great Divorce" (and I paraphrase), "Hell is a place with a door locked from the inside."

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  8. Anonymous2/15/2013

    As Jesus said in His book: "10 “But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.

    11 “Later the others also came. ‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’

    12 “But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’ " Matthew 10:10-12

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  9. How sad to have free access to the party but to be unwilling, unprepared or otherwise unable to go in! This is a reminder that though all are included, not all go in--herein is the distinction between the objective status of all humans in Jesus and the personal/subjective experience of that objective status.

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  10. Anonymous4/02/2013

    It seems absolutely ridiculous to me to assert that anyone would choose to jump into, let alone remain, in a live volcano instead of into the arms of a loving Father/God. In order for this to be true, that person would have to be totally insane---that is, broken, damaged, incapable of making a sane choice and, therefore, only deserving of being healed. Can anyone suggest any other possible sane reason anyone would freely make that choice?

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    1. I certainly agree that seeing clearly the Lord's acceptance, and forgiveness, and then knowingly, willfully rejecting that grace seems the epitome of insanity. I pray (in hope) that none go that incomprehensible direction. Indeed, it is God's will that all come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9).

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    2. Joseph2/16/2014

      @Anonymous That same ridiculous assertion is made obvious by you who would choose not to understand other points of view. Therefore, you live in a pit of fire of your own comprehension, and would refuse to be healed of love and salvation for all.

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  11. Anonymous4/02/2013

    Yes, it is God's will that all come to repentance...and HE CAN HAVE WHAT HE WANTS!

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    1. Yes, of course God can have what he wants. The pertinent issue here is that God's will that all come to repentance makes place for each person's decision to either receive or to reject him. In other words, God wills that we be free to choose; including choosing to reject him. I realize that arguments for universalism say that God's will that all be saved (this is how they interpret 2 Peter 3:9) is the final/complete word on the matter. Others who might be thought of as "hopeful universalists" share God's *hope* that all will embrace his salvation, but seek to allow to each person the freedom that God has granted them to reject the salvation that is theirs in Christ. In that regard, those who hold back from pronouncing a certainty of universal salvation, note various warnings in Scripture that at least hold out a possibility that all will not receive their salvation, thus placing themselves in a position of ongoing alienation from God who has forgiven and accepted them. Personally, I do not see sufficient evidence in Scripture to have a hard and fast, "thus saith the Lord" position on this issue. However, I am full of hope that God, in his goodness, will love most, if not every single person into the bliss found "inside the Holy City" (whose gates remain open to those outside).

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  12. Anonymous4/02/2013

    Thank you Ted for your comments. The free will argument is commonly known. When I say that God can have what He wants, it's based on the fact that He is omniscient and knew before He created a single molecule of matter everything that ever could or would happen; and, because HE has free will, He could have chosen not to create anyone that would wind up in hell as a result of their so-called free will (again, I think someone would have to be insane to "freely" choose hell). He also knows EXACTLY how to influence people to NOT to "choose" hell; consider how He influenced Jonah to go to Nineveh, and how He influenced Saul of Tarsus to stop persecuting the church...) If God CAN have what He wants, He WILL have what He wants. It's illogical to think He would settle for anything less, since He is sovereign and His will is perfect.

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    1. I think your assertions have merit, however, as I noted in my previous reply, I think they draw conclusions about the final resolution of all things beyond what Scripture gives us. Also, knowing that God is *able* to know all in advance, is not the same as knowing that God *chooses* to know all or has predetermined all choices in advance. I think our speculations on such matters must not strip God of his own freedom to change his mind, and to grant a contingent freedom to humans to change theirs. How does God do that? We are not given to know. At some point, our knowledge runs out and all we can do is to trust in God's self-revelation, and place our hands over our mouths and simply worship him, allowing that some things are simply a mystery (to us).

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    2. Anonymous1/10/2017

      [I found this page from a google search; in case others find it this way, I wanted to correct some errors I'm seeing.]

      This is a great example of a "house of cards" argument. It's built on so many blind assumptions, it hardly seems worth the time to try to pick it all apart, but here's some basics. In the first place, nothing says God gets everything he wants. He wanted people to repent NOW, but not all do, as the Bible makes clear (remember Jesus' "but you were not willing" statement?). That false premise tears apart everything else here but you have other false premises too, like ignoring other reasons why creating people who go to hell matters (the "ignoble uses" the Bible teaches). It's also a very bad idea to define certain "overpowering" words like "freely" or "sovereign" and then think you can just wave those around to win any argument. It reminds me of the concept of Buddhism, which takes one single idea and "tries to be the most spiritual" by making it the be-all-and-end-all (focusing on the spiritual over the material). The reality is much more complex and right judgments are made by balanced approaches.

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  13. Anonymous4/02/2013

    Of course we cannot KNOW the the final resolution of all things; we can only speculate, based on what is written in the Word and on our own ability to think and reason. I've just shared my own conclusions. It's wonderful and refreshing that we can discuss these things openly now. (PS Saying that God knew everything in advance is not the same as saying that He ordained or predetermined what would happen, only that He knew what people would "freely" choose. I say "freely" in quotes because our "free" will comes out of a hard-wired sin nature that is spiritually blind and subject to the snares of an invisible enemy. I hardly call that "free"!) I believe that we have free will so we can LEARN, and ultimately become ABLE to recognize, appreciate, thank, praise, worship and serve God faithfully forever. (My name is Dolores)

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  14. Anonymous4/02/2013

    Two more thoughts...I thought God does not change (His mind)...and that He invited us to "come, let us reason together" rather than put our hands over our mouths. (Dolores)

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  15. Anonymous5/22/2013

    God hopes that everyone will be saved and so am I, and I believe that this hope will become a reality. No creation of God will be able to out-lived Him throughout infinity and eternity. Only God can see what's in the end of those who love Him and those who hate him. Let us be patient brothers because our loving God is continuously working for the good of all His creation. God bless

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  16. Anonymous9/06/2013

    Matthew 5:26 says .. 'Verily I say unto you, you shall by no means come out of there, till you have paid the last penny.' So... is hell a payment for our sins and once you've paid your due, you'll be freed?? Also, the bible says in Revelation 14:11, 'And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night, who worship the beast and his image, and whosoever receiveth the mark of his name.' Does for ever and ever mean that one ever is a length of time and the next ever is another length of time?? How long is 'ever' ??? Why would it say for ever and ever if for ever is eternal?? But rather it states two ever's as though they are 2 lengths of time together.

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    1. Dear anonymous. The context of Mat 5:26 is not eternal punishment in hell, but being sent to jail in this life due to an inability to settle matters outside of court. The lesson Jesus is teaching here is the importance of seeking reconciliation with other people--this is not a lesson about the state of persons following death. His advice is to "settle matters quickly."

      As for Rev 14:11, the point being made in this chapter (as in the entire book of Revelation) is that the beast (the Roman empire) will dominate the world scene with terrible consequences. Those who resist it (i.e. Christian believers) may be martyred, but they will be eternally blessed. However, those who cooperate with the beast (i.e. "worship the beast") will reap the consequences, which will be very severe--with long-lasting consequences. This is a call to be faithful to Christ, despite opposition from the "powers that be"--in my view, it cannot be read as a detailed descriptor of the consequences for faithlessness in the afterlife; just a warning that there are consequences and an encouragement to be faithful.

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  17. It depends on the persons interiors whether he can get out of hell. Too wicked and evil cannot receive nothing from the Lord so getting out of hell is not possible for him neither he wants to. Also spiritually dead people cannot get out of hell, because they know not anything else that pertains to their current situation so are they not able to come to life. They dont even know or want to believe they are in hell. Many also live in countless spirit realms between hell and heaven. Each to his own place.

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  18. Paul Sheley12/04/2015

    My wife, for lack of a better word, is of the opinion that, thanks to her Jewish grandfather who converted to Christ, that there was a mistranslation. Having taught himself Hebrew, he says, claims, the part where Jesus took the keys to the gates of hell, is inaccurate, claiming that it is actually, Jesus took the keys to the gate of hell, and flung them away permanently/for good, or what have you. Now, on this basis, he has told her, and convinced her, that you may go to hell, but only stay by your own choosing, and that you can leave at any time. Now, I don't know the verses I am considering here, I would have to search them, but does anyone have any input? This is a very concerning thing to me, and I am trying to either get confirmation, or correction, from an educated mind. Thanks. Please feel free to email any responses to me, at paul.floridasbest@gmail.com, thank you

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  19. Anonymous1/21/2016

    I would say that the reality of hell and as a destination to avoid are real. If one can visit hell, I'm sure one would do whatever one can to get out. Thus, in our love for those around us, we need to continue to bring awareness to them of this reality. The question of whether one can get out of hell after the physical death may not be fully or clearly answered, but perhaps that's not the right question to ask. Regardless of what the answer may be, the need to share the gospel to those who are blind and lost remains.

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  20. Anonymous1/21/2016

    Whether the judgment happens at the physical death or later, one definite result of that judgment is hell. Even if one can leave hell after entering it after the physical death, without knowing the gospel, one may not know how, unless the Lord chooses to reveal to those in hell. That's up to Him. Even if I could leave hell after entering it, I would rather be warned about hell and avoid it, than to experience it first hand even for a moment. For those who are not aware of hell, we must let them know about it while they are alive, since, when they die, we cannot communicate with them, and they would end up experiencing hell.

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  21. Yes I also believe that Hell is a place that is timeless, and in that sense eat ternal, but that Jesus can still save people from hell when they call out to him. And so there is still a great need to save people from hell because going there is more horrible than anything here on earth. There are many people on YouTube who share experiences and visions of having been in or visited hell, and it sounds so horrible but their stories offer hope because they came back. They were saved by the Lord Jesus!

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