Is Hell Eternal?

Question from a Site Viewer

Is Hell really ongoing eternal torment? How can a merciful God allow that?

I first want to say how much I appreciate your site and the humble approach you have to your interpretation of scripture, and the passion you have to bring people to Christ. I’ve recently been studying the subject of Hell, as I have always struggled with the notion of eternal pain as a horrible fate for even the most sinful humans that have walked this earth. It has always seemed to me that it is a bit out of the character of God to allow eternal torment.

Given my respect for how you approach your ministry, I am curious of your viewpoint on the subject.

Tim’s Answer

Thank you for your comment and question. We have not previously addressed the subject of the length of punishment taught in Scripture for those who do not follow Christ. Some have argued for a conditional immortality or annihilation of the unsaved. Another position taken by some is the ultimate universal salvation of all humans into Christ, providing a second chance after death. The third position long held in the church is the eternal torment of the wicked. Then, there also have been a few in the fringes of the church who have argued for reincarnation, as providing another opportunity for salvation.

As many have pointed out, the destiny of the wicked is one of the hardest teachings for us humans. We shrink back, and rightly so, from the idea of eternal torment. As you point out, God, who is more merciful than us, would seemingly have even a stronger reaction to such a notion.

Yet, as always, the destiny of the righteous and the wicked is not for us to decide. Rather, our role is to seek to discern what God has said about the subject. Surprisingly, although the Bible has much to say about the destiny of the wicked, there are not many passages on the length of suffering. As those who argue for conditional immortality and/or annihilationism note, the words “destruction” and “perish” are found frequently in Scripture to describe the end of the unrighteous. Both Job (Job 26:6) and Solomon (Proverbs 15:11; 27:20) equate the grave with destruction. In the New Testament, the idea of destruction or perishing is frequently associated with the end of the wicked (Matthew 7:13; 10:28 Luke 12:5; 13:2-5; 20:16; Romans 9:22; 2 Corinthians 2:15; 4:3; Philippians 3:18-19; 2 Thessalonians 2:10; Hebrews 10:30; 2 Peter 2:1-3; 3:7). Nevertheless, these passages do not settle the matter because the same terminology is used of Satan at the cross (Hebrews 2:14—”through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil”), and of the Antichrist (2 Thessalonians 2:8—”whom the Lord will consume with the breath of His mouth and destroy with the brightness of His coming”). From other Scriptures we learn that Satan is still around today (1 Thessalonians 2:18; 1 Peter 5:8) and we learn that the Antichrist remains alive after Christ comes (Revelation 19:20 20:10). Thus, the idea of destruction or perishing in the New Testament writers does not necessarily mean annihilation.

There are two Old Testament passages and three passages in the New Testament that lead me to the conclusion that the church has been mostly right in teaching a continuing punishment for the wicked. In Isaiah 66:24, Scripture sets forth the picture of observing the corpses of men whose “worm does not die” and whose “fire is not quenched.” Those who argue for annihilationism will note that only their corpses are present. But I find it significant that the bodies are not annihilated because the picture Isaiah paints is that their corpses will be around and “their worm(s)” does not die and “their” fire is not quenched. It is not simply that worms will continue to feed and fire to burn, but that the worms are tied to them; that is, it is “their worm” and “their fire.” Such language seems to me to point to something other than annihilation. If the bodies continue forever as the passage indicates, it does not make much sense to me that the souls would be more mortal than the bodies.

In Daniel 12:2, Daniel speaks of a resurrection of some to everlasting life and some to “everlasting abhorrence.” Interestingly, the word translated as “abhorrence” is found in Scripture only here and in Isaiah 66:24 where either the corpses or the men (depending on where one locates the antecedent of “they”) shall be an abhorrence to all flesh. The concept of everlasting abhorrence in Daniel is contrasted to everlasting life. What Daniel says is they are resurrected to everlasting abhorrence, which is not the language of annihilation or of ultimate universal salvation.

Christ often speaks of the coming punishment in terms of weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 8:12; Matthew 13:40-42, 49-50; 22:12-13; 24:51; 25:30; Luke 3:25-28), but He does not often speak to the length of punishment. In Mark 9:48, Christ picks up the Isaiah passage in describing Gehenna as the place where “their worm does not end and the fire is not quenched,” but does not add to what Isaiah says.

The New Testament passages that I find significant to this issue of eternal torment begin with Matthew 25:41-46, in the Judgment of the Sheep and the Goats. In verse 41, Jesus describes the cursed as going into the “everlasting fire.” Then, in verse 46, He states that the cursed shall go away into eternal torment but the righteous into eternal life. The two prepositional phrases “into eternal torment” and “into eternal life” stand in contrast with each other. In Christ’s view, in eternity the opposite of life is not death, but torment. Both are modified by the same word “eternal.” This is fairly compelling to me.

The second New Testament passage that I find instructive is 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10 where Paul says that those who trouble the Thessalonians will be punished with “eternal ruin.” If Paul had simply meant that they would be destroyed, there is no need to add the modifier “eternal.” “Eternal” carries with it the concept of ongoing, forever and ever.

The third New Testament passage that I find instructive is Revelation 14:10-11. In that passage, we are told both that the “smoke of their distress” will ascend into the eternity of eternities” and that “they will have no rest day and night.” That there is never any rest for them signifies to me that they do not simply go away. The language of this passage is not the language of annihilation or of a second chance.

I have not included passages such as the fellowship of the pit in Ezekiel 32:17-32 or the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31, because it seems that many of the passages of Scripture dealing with the afterlife of the ungodly deal with the intermediate state, and not the final state. I read Revelation 20:13-14 as stating the intermediate state (Hades) is not the final state. And I think that most who advocate for annihilationism agree that Scripture teaches some degree of distress for the wicked in the intermediate state.

Based on these passages, I have a hard time arguing that the punishment of the wicked will be limited in time. However, I do not think that the church’s concept of what eternal torment entails has always been right. Some pictures and teachings on the eternal state have been extreme and more morbid than I expect may actually be the case. The eternal state is not the same for all. Jesus taught that there will be degrees of punishment or anguish (Matthew 11:22, 24; Mark 6:11; Luke 10:14; 12:45-48). Some will have greater judgment and others lesser judgment. Thus, the suffering is not uniform, and I suspect the lack of uniformity is not simply a matter of small degree. I believe that there will be considerable variation in the degree of discomfort in the eternal state. In Revelation 20:11-15, the unsaved are judged out of the books “according to their works.” Judgment will be based on what the person knew, according to Luke 12:48, and what they did according to Revelation 20. Thus, while the state of the unsaved is not heaven, the state will not be equally bad for all.

I know that some will respond with Christ’s frequent statements about weeping and gnashing of teeth. But here, I think that some of the critics of the church’s position on eternal punishment may have some validity in challenging what Christ meant with these words. Gnashing of teeth is generally in Scripture a display of contempt and anger (Psalm 35:16; 37:12; 112;10; Lamentations 2:16; Acts 7:54) rather than an indication of the degree of suffering. While the church has long viewed the gnashing of teeth as being a sign of agony, it may be that the gnashing stems from anger rather than agony, given the other Biblical uses of this term. This is not to say that the end of the wicked is not torment or distress, as described in Revelation 14:10-11, but the nature and extent of that torment or distress I think remains unknown to us.

While Scripture is always the final arbiter of a Biblical theology, I find very instructive what the early church taught on the subject, since they had the closest linkage to the apostles themselves. Ignatius, the third bishop of Antioch and one who personally knew at least some of the apostles, on his way to martyrdom in 107 A.D., wrote a letter to the Ephesians in which he speaks about the defiled. Those who listen to the defiled shall go away into everlasting fire (Epistle to the Ephesians, Ch. 16). In the Martyrdom of Polycarp, Ch. 2, another early church document, again the fire of judgment is described as “eternal.”

Justin Martyr, who wrote around 150 A.D., states: “…when also He shall raise the bodies of all men who have lived, and shall clothe those of the worthy with immortality, and shall send those of the wicked, endued with eternal sensibility, into everlasting fire with the wicked devils” (The First Apology of Justin, Ch. 52). In Chapter 18, he speaks about the eternal punishment that is laid up for the wicked.

Irenaeus, a disciple of Polycarp, writes around 175 A.D.: “…thus also the punishment of those who do not believe the Word of God, and despise His advent, and are turned away backwards, is increased; being not merely temporal, but rendered also eternal.” He then supports his statement by quoting Matthew 25:41 (Against Heresies, Bk. 4, Ch. 28).

Accordingly, not only does it seem to me that Scripture supports the concept of ongoing discomfort for the unrighteous, but that this view was also the way the earliest church understood the Scriptures.

I know that none of this works to solve the problem you raise. If punishment is eternal, how can that be compatible with a merciful God? I suggest there is another issue in play. How many days would it take for those who have rejected Christ to rue their decision? I find instructive in the book of Revelation that despite the temporary torment God brings upon this earth, men do not repent or give God glory (Revelation 9:21; 16:9, 11). I suspect the same will occur in eternity. Each day of eternity will not yield a softening of hearts towards God, or a willingness to turn to Him. I suspect that if people will not repent when the Holy Spirit is actively convicting the world of sin, or righteousness, and of judgment (John 16:8-11), they will not repent when He is withdrawn.

Nevertheless, we are left with the question of why God does not simply completely destroy the unrighteous rather than leave them in discomfort forever. I do not have a good answer for this. But this I know, God is more merciful than I am or ever could be. The unbelieving are far better off in His hands than in mine. The punishment of those remaining under His wrath is a subject that remains for me bound up in the person and character of God. The same God who is self-described as merciful promises not to leave the wicked unpunished (Exodus 34:6-7; Numbers 14:18). It is a righteous thing to God to punish with eternal destruction those who do not obey His gospel (2 Thessalonians 1:6-9). Even though I do not understand this, I have learned to leave the problem in God’s hands.

I hope this helps. It is a difficult subject, perhaps one of the most difficult when trying to come to grips with the revealed God. We are not comfortable with wrath and punishment being part of the same God who is so loving and merciful. For some, because of this problem, they reject the God described in the Bible. But their rejection does not solve the problem; for God is who He is whether we accept or reject Him. We do not alter reality by creating a mythical god in our minds. So, unless one can come up with a good explanation for Scriptural prophecies and the miracles of Christ, including the resurrection, that does not conclude that the God of Scripture is the true God, one cannot easily dismiss the Biblical description of God. If He is who He describes Himself to be, then it is in our best interest to draw close to Him and find our refuge in Him, so that we are not subject to His wrath.

May Christ Jesus and His Spirit be with you and lead you into truth,

a pilgrim,

the name Tim

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