Can people get out of hell?

[Updated 7/25/2023]

Can people get out of hell? To answer this question, we need to 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? 
We'll address both questions in this post.

"Dante and Virgil in Hell" by Bouquereau (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Is a person's fate determined permanently at death?

Many Christians answer "yes" to this question, typically citing Hebrews 9:27. In doing so, they understand this scripture to assert that upon death, a person is judged and the decision rendered at that time as to their eternal fate is then irreversible. However, in my view, using this passage in Hebrews to make that point is questionable. Note that the context of the verse 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 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 (judgment) determined by the life that ended with 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 this 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, which is placed following the "final" judgment, to people consigned to a place outside the Holy City.

On what basis might those in hell get out?

Given what we've noted above, is seems that there is at least some scriptural warrant to at least wonder about the possibility of a postmortem, post-resurrection, post-final judgment change of heart. If that is the case, should we then see hell as having some sort of cleansing/educational value? Will some who, prior to the general resurrection, repudiate the forgiveness and acceptance they have with God in Christ, in hell change their mind and enter following the general resurrection through open gates into the Holy City (a symbol of communion with God)?

My answer to these questions is that we cannot say with certainty, one way or the other, "thus saith the Lord." We simply are not given to know the 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.

Postmortem evangelism does not mean universalism

One final note: To believe that some people might repent and thus leave hell, is not the same as embracing universalism as classically construed. If some exit hell, it will be because they, exercising the freedom God gives all people, have a change of heart and so decide to return to the Father (thus leaving the condition we refer to as hell). However, God will never force such a decision on anyone, leaving at least the possibility that some, in obstinacy, will forever repudiate God's love, and so remain forever in the self-imposed condition we call hell. Thus, though we pray and hope for it, we cannot declare with certainty that all will be saved (in the ultimate sense). Here are other Surprising God blog posts related to this topic:
  • For TF Torrance's view on universalism, click here
  • For Grace Communion International's teaching concerning postmortem evangelism/postmortem conversion, click here.