I suppose there is no topic in Christian theology more difficult to deal with, particularly on an emotional level, than the doctrine of hell. In fact, the doctrine has become so controversial in the modern era that it is almost never addressed.
We seem to be allergic to any serious discussion of the doctrine of hell. In fact, there has probably never been a time in the history of the church when more people have challenged this doctrine than in our own day. Liberal theologians, of course, completely dismiss it as part of the mythological worldview of primitive people, a concept unworthy of the love of God and of Jesus. Others, even within the professing evangelical camp, have created quite a stir by suggesting the doctrine of annihilationism, which says that the ultimate judgment of the sinner is not ongoing, eternal punishment in a place called hell, but simply the annihilation of the person’s existence, and that the great punishment, the great loss, that accompanies annihilation is the loss of the happiness promised to those who will live eternally in heaven. So we have moved away from looking very seriously at the concept of hell.
Whenever I enter into discussions about the doctrine of hell, people ask, “R.C., do you believe that the New Testament portrait of hell is to be interpreted literally?” I usually respond by saying, “No, I don’t interpret those images literally,” and people typically respond with a sigh of relief.
If we take the New Testament’s descriptions of hell as symbolic language, we have to remember the function of symbols. The assumption is that there’s always more to the reality than what is indicated by the symbol, which makes me think that, instead of taking comfort that these images of the New Testament may indeed be symbolic, we should be worrying that the reality toward which these symbols point is more ghastly than the symbols.
—R.C. Sproul, excerpt from Unseen Realities: Heaven, Hell, Angels and Demons