Let’s talk about everyone’s favorite topic…hell!
I’m obviously kidding. I know that talking about hell is literally the worst thing we can talk about. But the Bible talks about it so, from time to time, we need to as well. When we look at what Christians have believed about hell throughout all of church history one thing becomes really clear. Almost all Christians (with a few outlying exceptions) have believed that the final home of the lost is a place of literal, eternal, conscious torment.
However, in recent years Evangelical scholars such as Clark Pinnock, John Wenham, and, most famously, John Stott have all declared that the traditional view of an eternal, conscious lake of fire for the unfaithful is incorrect. What they support is an alternate position called “annihilationism” or “conditional immortality.” Their view states that unbelievers do not suffer conscious punishment eternally but rather are put out of existence after suffering for a period of time. The unbeliever is ultimately “annihilated” out of existence instead of suffering consciously forever.
However, is this view correct?
Consider these passages:
Matthew 25:46 - “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
2 Thessalonians 1:9 - They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might,
Revelation 14:11 - And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.”
Mark 9:47-49 - And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’ For everyone will be salted with fire.
Despite these verses (and many others) many would still say that the conscious torment of judgment is not eternal. Below I have listed a few of their arguments and a response to each:
The idea of an immortal soul is a Greek idea and not something taught in the Bible.
This is true! Only God inherently possesses immortality (1 Tim 6:16). However, this statement misses the point. God can keep people existing eternally in judgment just like he keeps people existing eternally who are saved. We are not inherently immortal but God can keep us existing forever.
The words “forever” and “eternal” don’t always literally mean “forever” and “eternal.”
This is true! There are times when the words “forever” and “eternal” are used somewhat metaphorically to mean something like “a long time” or “in the age to come.” However, this totally misses the point again. The way that one knows if the word “eternal” is being used literally or metaphorically is due to context. Consider the following passage:
Matthew 25:46 - “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Here, the word “eternal” clearly means that the torment never ends because the very next line (in parallel, using the exact same Greek word) means that the blessing of the faithful never ends. This verse really does dispel the idea of annihilationism because whatever you think is happening to believers (which is conscious, eternal bliss) is true in the opposite sense for nonbelievers (which is conscious, eternal torment). To say it another way, punishment is not really eternal, then the state of the redeemed is also not eternal.
In Revelation 14:11 the context shows that the word “forever” literally means forever because it says 1. “forever and ever” (which modifies the phrase to emphasize its eternal duration) and 2. It modifies the torment by saying that they have “no rest, day or night.”
There are passages in the Bible that talk about judgment using terms that sound finite like “destruction,” “death,” “perish,” and others.
This is true! But again it misses the point. The question is not, “does the Bible uses terms such as ‘destroy,’” but rather, “when the Bible uses terms such as ‘destroy’ should we always think this means annihilate?” Again, context is king. If we come across the word “perish,” or “death” or “destroy” we have to ask ourselves if this destruction is meant to be finite or infinite. For example, consider 2 Thessalonians 1:9 (listed above). We may think that the word “destruction” means that non-believers will be annihilated until we see that it says they have an “eternal destruction.” The punishment is “destruction” in the sense of judgment and not in the sense that the person is destroyed out of existence.
The “eternal” punishment the Bible talks about is eternal because the lost cease to exist for all eternity, not because they experience torment for all eternity.
There are a few problems with this line of reasoning. First, it seems to be inconsistent. If the righteous inherit eternal life (which means a conscious experience of bliss) then we should understand eternal death or destruction the same way (which means a conscious experience of pain).
Also, passages such as Revelation 14:11 seem to show that it is the torment, not the fact that one ceases to exist, as what is eternal, “And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.”
Notice here that it is the smoke of their torment that is what rises up for forever, not the fact that if they ceased to exist. The fact that they have “no rest” is further proof they still exist and have not been annihilated.
It would be unjust or unloving for God to eternally torment finite creatures who commit temporal sins.
It is not unjust or unloving because the finiteness of the creature or the finiteness of the sin is not the issue. The issue is that the sin is committed against an eternal being (God). God can punish people eternally since their sins were committed against an eternal God. When someone thinks that sinners don’t deserve eternal torment it is only because they either don’t understand the vileness of sin or the holiness of God. God is so holy and sin is so bad that eternal torture is exactly what it merits.
The objection that eternal torment does not sync with a loving God is typically made more on emotional than exegetical grounds. We don’t like the idea that people we love will be tormented forever. Someone could suffer for trillions of years and they are no closer to being done with their sentence than when they first began. This is a difficult doctrine! It is easy to see why we don’t want it to be true. But if it is taught in the Bible (as I believe it is) then it is actually what is best for God’s glory.
Annihilationist Clark Pinnock says:
“I was led to question the traditional belief in everlasting conscious torment because of moral revulsion and broader theological considerations, not first of all on scriptural grounds. It just does not make any sense to say that a God of love will torture people forever for sins done in the context of a finite life . . . It's time for evangelicals to come out and say that the biblical and morally appropriate doctrine of hell is annihilation, not everlasting torment.”
The eternal lake of fire is just for the death and Hades (and maybe even the devil) but not for humans.
Wait a second. So the word “eternal” does literally mean eternal now? You cannot have it both ways. This argument now goes back on the earlier objection that torment is not eternal and now just says that it is actually eternal. This argument says that conscious, eternal torment is for some finite beings (like demons) but not others (like humans). It is true that the devil is worse that us, but this argument still runs into the problem of how a holy God can punish finite creatures for finite sins forever.
Also, this argument is just not true. Those in the lake of fire are those humans who followed the beast (Rev 14:11) and humans whose name was not found to be in the Lamb’s book of life (Rev 20:15). Revelation 21:8 names explicitly who the lake of fire is for, “But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”
Fire burns things up so they cease to exist.
In the same way that the worm does not die and the fire is not quenched (Mark 9:47-49) so also the fire doesn’t completely annihilate the lost because their smoke goes up “forever and ever” (Rev 14:11). Think about how strange this argument is. It basically say, “because fire burns things up on earth it must do the same in eternity.” But this is not correct. Worms die on earth (but not in Mark 9). Fire goes out on earth (but not in Mark 9). If those two things are eternal for the damned then why would torment not be as well? This argument confuses the role of analogy. Either one must make the image literal and be consistent or make it metaphorical and be consistent.
The idea of being tormented in hell is metaphorical language.
I would agree that there is some degree of metaphor here. For example, how could hell be a place of utter darkness but also contain fire (which produces light)? However, this objection again misses the point. If hell is metaphorical then for what it a metaphor? Is it a metaphor for something really good or something really awful? Answer: Really awful.
Whether it is metaphorical or not the words of Charles Spurgeon ring true to the biblical witness of the torments of hell:
"Now, do not begin telling me that this is metaphorical fire: who cares for that? If a man were to threaten to give me a metaphorical blow on the head, I should care very little about it; he would be welcome to give me as many as he pleased. And what say the wicked? “We do not care about metaphorical fires.” But they are real, sir—yes, as real as yourself. There is a real fire in hell, as truly as you have now a real body—a fire exactly like that which we have on earth in everything except this—that it will not consume, though it will torture you."
The torment of the damned is eternal. I know that this is not the most encouraging topic. But, can we end on a note of encouragement? What is encouraging is to see what Christ has saved us from. To know that God is so loving that, though we deserve eternal punishment and torture, he sent Christ so we can have eternal life instead is incredible. Hell shows how grievous our sin is to and how holy God is. But for those who have trusted Christ we don’t have to fear any of this. For us, the only type of “eternal” we have to worry about is “eternal life.”