Milton through Wesley

John Milton (1608–1674)

Milton’s influence on later views of hell comes largely through his poetic masterpiece Paradise Lost, which pictures a humanized Satan in contrast to the medieval traditions which portrayed the Devil as grotesque and monstrous. Satan famously described his predicament as more psychological than physical:

Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell;
And in the lowest deep a lower deep
Still threat’ning to devour me opens wide,
To which the Hell I suffer seems a Heav’n.

Many writers of the Romantic era, with their penchant for anguished, outcast heroes, found this portrait a sympathetic one and considered Satan the real hero of the poem.

Milton’s physical description of hell—large, dark, hot, painful, endless, and centering around a lake of fire—is a traditional one but has particularly vivid staying power:

No light, but rather darkness visible
Served only to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all; but torture without end.”

John Locke (1632–1704)

Locke is well known as a writer who favored religious toleration and argued for Christianity as a reasonable religion suitable for belief by Enlightenment intellectuals. In at least some of his writings, he endorsed annihilationism—the view that whereas the saved enjoy eternal life with Christ, the damned are simply annihilated, either immediately or after a defined period of punishment, rather than suffering torments for eternity. (Regarding the “unquenchable fire” mentioned at several points in the Bible, he commented that this did not mean “that the bodies which were burnt in it were never consumed, only that the worms that gnawed and the fire that burnt were constant and never ceased till they were destroyed.”)

Like John Milton, Locke is often claimed on Unitarian Universalist websites, but like Milton, this rests more on his unorthodox beliefs about the Trinity and his advocacy of a tolerant Christianity (within limits—he refused to tolerate either Catholics or atheists) than it does on any universalism in his writings.

Isaac Watts (1674–1748)

Hymnwriter Watts held to the traditional view of hell as an eternal place of torment for the sinner, and he portrayed it as such often in his poetry. Watts wrote many hymns that focused on God as sovereign and majestic, including in his righteous damnation of sinners, a damnation that the saved observe from heaven with rejoicing (“Thy hand shall on rebellious kings/ A fiery tempest pour,/ While we beneath thy shelt’ring wings/ Thy just revenge adore.”) His Divine and Moral Songs for Children was one of the first known hymnals written specifically with children in mind (it is the source of one of his most famous hymns on God’s sovereignty, “I sing the almighty power of God”), and many of its hymns remind those children of their potential for damnation.

Like Edwards, Watts often used fear of hell as a motivating factor to encourage his listeners to repent. One of the most famous hymns from Divine and Moral Songs reads:

There is beyond the sky
A heaven of joy and love;
And holy children, when they die,
Go to that world above.
There is a dreadful hell,
And everlasting pains:
There sinners must with devils dwell
In darkness, fire, and chains.
Can such a wretch as I
Escape this cursed end?
And may I hope, whene’er I die,
I shall to heaven ascend?
Then will I read and pray,
While I have life and breath,
Lest I should be cut off today,
And sent t’ eternal death.

Other hymns threaten hell as the reward for cursing, blaspheming God, insulting others, being influenced by “sinful children,” lying, becoming hardened in sin, and conforming to “wicked fashions” rather than standing up for the truth.

William Law (1686–1761)

Law is chiefly known for his Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, a call to moral living and single-minded focus on God. It was influential on religious and cultural leaders of his day from John Wesley to William Wilberforce to Samuel Johnson to Edward Gibbon (whose children Law served for ten years as a tutor. Gibbon disliked religion, but he respected Law.) While he was always focused on “heart religion,” his later writings, under the influence of the mystic Jacob Boehme, became themselves more mystical and speculative as he sought to explain Boehme’s ideas to a lay audience.

Law was a universalist who saw God’s punishment and God’s love as two sides of the same coin, both directed towards the ultimate end of eliminating sin and death from the world: “And if long and long ages of fiery pain, and tormenting darkness, fall to the share of many, or most, of God’s apostate creatures, they will last no longer, than till the great fire of God has melted all arrogance into humility, and all that is SELF has died in the long agonies and bloody sweat of a lost God, which is that all-saving cross of Christ, which will never give up its redeeming power, till sin and sinners have no more a name among the creatures of God.”

Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758)

Part of Edwards’ vision of hell is imprinted in the mind of every high school or college student who ever read his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (“The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked...”). Certainly Edwards held to traditional doctrines regarding the existence of hell, its torments, and its infinite duration. He also believed that our eternal destiny is fixed in this life; change and growth might occur in heaven, but hell is a place of punishment, not purification or purgation.

His vivid visions, however, were preached in a larger context which impressed on his hearers the glories of heaven, the majesty of God and God’s justice, and the necessity of escaping hell’s torments: “And now you have an extraordinary opportunity, a day wherein Christ has thrown the door of mercy wide open, and stands in calling and crying with a loud voice to poor sinners; a day wherein many are flocking to him, and pressing into the kingdom of God. Many are daily coming from the east, west, north and south; many that were very lately in the same miserable condition that you are in, are now in a happy state, with their hearts filled with love to him who has loved them, and washed them from their sins in his own blood, and rejoicing in hope of the glory of God. How awful is it to be left behind at such a day! To see so many others feasting, while you are pining and perishing! To see so many rejoicing and singing for joy of heart, while you have cause to mourn for sorrow of heart, and howl for vexation of spirit! How can you rest one moment in such a condition? Are not your souls as precious as the souls of the people at Suffield, where they are flocking from day to day to Christ?”

John Wesley 1703–1791
Charles Wesley 1707–1788

John Wesley’s sermons made it clear that he believed in hell as a place of eternal punishment, with the chief focus being on the loss of fellowship with friends and with God, and on the endless physical fire suffered by the damned. (Regarding any other torments he wrote, “Let us keep to the written word. It is torment enough to dwell with everlasting burnings.”) As a believer in unlimited atonement, Wesley thought that salvation from sin, death, and hell was available to all through the grace of God, though he did not think all had chosen it.

Charles Wesley did write a few hymns about the torments of hell, but far more of his hymns focus on the offer of free grace and the powers God gives us to defeat evil (“Lo! to faith’s enlightened sight,/ All the mountain flames with light;/ Hell is nigh, but God is nigher,/ Circling us with hosts of fire.”)

By Jennifer Woodruff Tait

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #100+ in 2011]

Next articles

Three Views of Hell

Christian history displays three prominent strands of thought about hell

The editors

Letter from the editors

Welcome to this guide

The editors

Early Christian Texts

What did the close successors of the apostles have to say on this theme?

Edwin Woodruff Tait

The Middle Ages

Views of hell from Anselm to Dante

Chris Armstrong
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Issue 100+

History of Hell Guide

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