Learning to thrive in the new life Jesus offers us – 2 Corinthians 5:16-17

Eternal Torment, Eternal Fire, Eternal Death?

Eternal Torment, Eternal Fire, Eternal Death?

In my previous post, I looked at every New Testament verse that refers to hell (or Gehenna) and showed that none of these verses mention eternal torment. I also pointed out that Paul, James, and other biblical authors wrote that unrepentant sinners would die, life and death being the culmination of the two paths of humanity.

There is very little in the Bible which might be taken to imply that all unrepentant sinners will be punished with eternal conscious torment. Nevertheless, let’s take a look at the verses which contain the ideas of “eternal” and “fire” in regards to the future judgement, verses typically used by Christians who believe in the eternal torment of the unredeemed.

Eternal Punishment and Destruction

Matthew 25:35-46 mentions “eternal punishment” for those who have not fed, clothed, and visited “the least of these.” 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9 mentions the disobedient who “pay the price (or suffer the punishment) of eternal destruction (olethros).” Both these passages may be referring to death rather than some kind of continuing torment.[1]

The devastating punishment of death (or the “second death” mentioned in Rev. 2:11; 20:6, 14; 21:8) means that the disobedient are eternally excluded from the everlasting life that Jesus offers to every human being on the planet (Matt. 25:46; John 3:16). Death or destruction is an irreversible, eternal punishment because for all eternity there is no opportunity for a second chance at life.

Some read the idea of eternal torment into Matthew 25:46 and 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9 even though the text doesn’t plainly mention it.[2] Other verses used to support the idea of eternal torment are equally tenuous and even less compelling.

Eternal and Unquenchable Fire

Several verses in the Bible refer to an eternal or unquenchable fire in regards to judgement (e.g. Matt. 3:12; Mark 9:43, 48). In Matthew 25:41, Jesus tells a parable which includes this line:

Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”

This verse seems to support a traditional understanding of hell as a place of eternal fire, and yet Jesus may be using “eternal fire” rhetorically here. We need to keep in mind that Jesus is telling a story, a parable. Jesus used parables to teach, illustrate, or highlight spiritual and moral principles, not to narrate actual or future events.[3] Nevertheless, eternal torment is not mentioned here either.

Note especially that Jesus says the fire is for the devil and his angels. This may indicate that “hell-fire”, whether metaphorical or real, is for fallen angels and not for torturing people (cf. 2 Pet. 2:4).

Jude 1:7 is another verse that is used to support the idea of eternal torment, and yet again it is fire, not torment, that is described as eternal:

Likewise, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which, in the same manner as they, indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural lust, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire. (NRSV)

The people of Sodom and Gomorrah were punished by being killed. They did not suffer prolonged torment but were reduced to ash (2 Pet. 2:6). So if they do indeed serve as an example, then it seems the ungodly will be destroyed. Moreover, an “eternal fire” no longer burns in Sodom and Gomorrah, and was not burning when Jude wrote his letter, indicating that “eternal fire” may be a metaphor rather than a reality.

Fire’s Ferocious Force

It seems the imagery of fire is used for God’s wrath and judgement because of fire’s spectacular, terrifying, and deadly power (e.g. Matt. 13:41-42; 2 Thess. 1:7b-8; 2 Pet. 3:7). Adjectives such as as “eternal”, “unquenchable”, and “raging” have been used by some of the biblical authors to highlight and strengthen the imagery of fire’s ferocious force at the judgement.

Though I am using the word “imagery”, this is not meant to imply that I discount the likelihood that a terrifying cataclysmic fire will be a feature of God’s final judgement. It could very well be that God uses fire to bring about the death and destruction of the unredeemed.

In Hebrews, the fire of judgement is described plainly as “a raging fire that will consume the enemies of God” (Heb. 10:26-27 cf. Heb. 12:29). In Malachi 4:1 we are told the fire of judgement will set evildoers ablaze like flammable chaff. Thus the fire of God’s judgement kills and consumes and reduces its victims to ash (cf. 2 Pet. 2:6).

Here’s another example of this fiery image of devastation:

. . . fury will be shown to his foes.
See, the Lord is coming with fire, and his chariots are like a whirlwind;
he will bring down his anger with fury, and his rebuke with flames of fire.
For with fire and with his sword the Lord will execute judgment on all people,
and many will be those slain by the Lord. Isaiah 66:14b-16 (Italics added)

Thankfully, the redeemed are spared God’s wrath and his judgement of death.

Eternal Worms

Mark 9:48 is another verse sometimes used to support the idea of eternal conscious torment for unrepentant sinners. This verse quotes from Isaiah 66:24 and mentions both unquenchable fire and worms that never die. Isaiah 66:24 does not indicate, however, that people are eternal or that they suffer eternal torment, on the contrary in fact: the worms eat the dead bodies of people God has killed in judgement.

Both worms and fire are symbols of utter destruction. The death and destruction of the unredeemed will be horrific and complete.

At the final judgement there will be weeping (a display of sorrow and regret) and gnashing of teeth (a display of anger and indignation), but weeping and gnashing of teeth do not necessarily continue for all eternity. Nowhere does the Bible say that the people who have been judged and condemned are eternal.[4] The consistent description of their fate is death and destruction.[5]

Eternal Torment

As far as I can make out, there are only two passages in the Bible which explicitly mention eternal torment as a punishment. (Please let me know if I’ve missed any.) One of these passages concerns the torment of fallen angels. Hell-fire, or more specifically the lake of fire mentioned in Revelation, might be thought of as a place reserved for fallen angels (Matt. 25:41; 2 Pet. 2:4); and in Revelation 20 the devil, and the demonic figures of the beast and the false prophet, are thrown into “the lake of fire and brimstone” where “they will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (Rev. 20:10). This verse clearly refers to eternal torment.

A few verses later, still in Revelation 20, the unredeemed are thrown into the lake of fire, but so are Death and Hades, marking the end of an era (Rev. 20:14-15). Torment is not mentioned here.

Revelation 14:9-11 is the only passage in the Bible that explicitly mentions people who are tormented, and “have no rest day and night,” as part of God’s judgement. These people are those who worship the beast and receive his mark:

Then another angel, a third one, followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and his image, and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is mixed in full strength in the cup of His anger; and he will be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever; they have no rest day and night, those who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name.” Revelation 14:9-11

I do not know precisely who these people are (or were), but it is unlikely that they represent the whole of unredeemed humanity.

It is important to acknowledge that the only two passages in the Bible which clearly mention eternal torment are found in Revelation. Revelation typically uses cryptic symbols, and not plain facts, to convey its message. We need to take care how we interpret these symbols and not presume to take their imagery and symbolism at face value.

Furthermore, it is unwise to suppose that one or two passages from Revelation satisfactorily upholds the notion of the eternal conscious torment of unredeemed humanity, when many more verses simply state that death is the consequence and punishment for disobeying God and rejecting Jesus as Saviour (e.g. Rom. 5:12; 6:16b, 23; 7:5; Jas 1:15).

The verses which speak about God’s judgement on unrepentant sinners are vivid and horrifying. They are written in such a way as to convey the devastating seriousness and lasting consequence of judgement. The scriptural support for eternal conscious torment, however, is tenuous and ambiguous at best.

Eternal Life

As Jeremiah wrote in a more immediate context, ‘This is what the LORD says: ‘See, I am setting before you the way of life and the way of death.’” (Jer. 21:8).[6] For many reasons, I’m choosing life—the gift of the wondrous new life in Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:17; 8:2; 2 Tim. 1:10; 1 John 3:14). My earnest hope is that you have accepted Jesus’ words and chosen life also:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16 (Italics added)

Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life. John 5:24 [7]


Endnotes

[1] (This endnote is also included in part 1.) E. Earle Ellis has noted that nouns for the judgement of the unrighteous connote obliteration. They include annihilation (apōleia): Matt. 7:13; John 17:12; Acts 8:20; Rom. 9:22ff; Phil. 1:28; 3:19; 2 Thess. 2:3; 1 Tim 6:9; Heb. 10:39; 2 Pet. 2:1; destruction (olethros): 1 Thess. 5:3; 2 Thess. 1:9; 1 Tim. 6:9; death (thanatos): Rom 1:21; 6:21ff; 7:5; 8:6; 1 Cor. 15:21f; 15:56; 2 Cor. 2:16; 7:10; Jas 1:15; 5:20; 1 John 5:16; Rev. 2:11; 20:6; 20:14; 1 Pet. 4:17; end (telos): Rom. 6:21f; 2 Cor. 11:15; Phil. 3:19; 1 Pet. 4:17; and disintegration or corruption (phthora): Gal. 6:8; 2 Pet. 1:4; 2:12.
“The most important and frequent terms for the punishment of sin are death and destruction or annihilation and their corresponding verbs.” E. Earle Ellis, Christ and the Future in New Testament History (Leiden: Brill, 2001) 193 & 195.

[2] Matthew 25:46 says that the righteous enter eternal life while the cursed enter eternal punishment. This is another verse which gives the two options of  life and death, though this is not stated as clearly as in many other verses.

[3] The story of Lazarus and the rich man may be a parable. I have not discussed it in these posts because it is not about hell or the final judgement. The story mentions Hades, which is regarded as an intermediate state. Hades is equivalent with the Hebrew Sheol and refers to the grave, or possibly the “first death”. The Greek word Hades occurs 10 times in the New Testament.

[4] Only God is immortal and eternal (1 Tim 6:16). We on the other hand are mortal and perishable (1 Cor. 15:53-54). Yet God has graciously bestowed immortality on believers, through Jesus Christ:

[God] has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity, but now has been revealed by the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. 2 Timothy 1:9-10.

[5] “Outer darkness” seems to be another metaphor for the death or annihilation of sinners. It is used in Matthew 8:12; 22:13; 25:13.

[6] The widely circulated early Christian text The Didache (c. AD 100) opens with: “There are two ways, one of life and one of death!” (Did. 1:1).
“Ignatius (c AD 35-110), Justin Martyr (c. AD 110-165), Arnobius (303-330) and Athanasius (c. AD 296-373) are prominent examples of [Patristic writers who believed in and wrote about] conditional immortality, that is, immortality given only to those in Christ, and of its corollary, a punishment that is everlasting in it is effect, i.e. an extinction of being.” E. Earle Ellis, Christ and the Future in New Testament History (Leiden: Brill, 2001) 179. See also pages 181-185 for quotations from these writers, and Irenaeus and Theophilus of Antioch, about conditional immortality.

Some eminent 21st century scholars who hold to the view of conditional immortality include John Stott, I. Howard Marshall, David Instone-Brewer, John Stackhouse, Richard Bauckham, and Michael Green.

[7] Like Paul (mentioned at the beginning of part 1), John the gospel author, and the author of the three letters that bear his name, never mention hell or anything like eternal torment. Life and death are given as the two options for humanity. John frequently spoke about “life”; he wrote his gospel so that his readers “may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31, italics added).

Image credit: The Great Day of his Wrath, John Martin, c. 1853 (Wikimedia)

Further reading: For more on the subject of hell, I recommend the website Rethinking Hell. See also Graham Wade’s comprehensive article Why I am a Conditionalist here.

Posted July 19th, 2016 . Categories/Tags: Christian Theology, Salvation and Eternal Life,

Unkind, judgemental, bizarre, and off-topic comments will be deleted.

26 comments on “Eternal Torment, Eternal Fire, Eternal Death?

  1. Louis Warren says:

    I would also recommend Edward Fudge’s book Hell a Final Word as well as the movie Hell and Mr. Fudge. He has also written a more scholarly book, The Fire That Consumes (3rd edition released in 2011).

  2. Mark Neale says:

    Great post, this is a vital subject that deserves our attention. Thanks!

    • Marg says:

      Thanks Mark. It is indeed vital. It affects our view of the nature of God and humanity. And it makes us appreciate the love and sacrifice of God and Jesus even more when we realise what we are saved us from: not eternal torment for a million trillion years and counting, but a violent cataclysmic death resulting in annihilation. Jesus chose to die to spare us from death.

  3. Tim says:

    Thanks for the two posts on the doctrine of hell and punishment, Marg. The lake of fire and eternal fire symbols seem to be subject to being understood not as a place where there is eternal suffering but where there is eternal judgment.

    What I mean is that if someone is thinking that it may be burning in hell (Gehenna) now but perhaps the fire will have died out by the time they get there, they are out of luck. God’s judgment awaits those who choose to oppose him. The judgment of an eternal fire means the fire is waiting for the person, not necessarily that the person will consciously burn forever.

  4. Jessica says:

    Hi Marg,

    I’m still confused on at least one passage, though. Luke 16:22-26 deals with the “rich man” and Lazarus, which scholars say is told not in the style of a parable (for one, parables don’t use first names) and could be a true story. The rich man is said to be tormented in Hades. What do you make of this?

    • Marg says:

      Hi Jessica,

      I briefly refer to the story of Lazarus and the rich man in endnote 3. While it is true that all the other parables did not contain names, it is likely that Jesus used an existing story well-known to the first-century Jews to make his point “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31).

      The point of Jesus telling the story is not to tell us the nature of Hades.

      Hades is neither Gehenna (hell) or the Lake of Fire. It is mentioned 10 times in the New Testament.

      • Jessica says:

        Thank you, I found the footnote. That is helpful. I like how you’ve boiled it down. I’ve long had trouble with the idea of eternal torment for any unbeliever, and especially troubled by scriptures that didn’t mesh with that philosophy. This has given me a lot to ponder!

  5. Donald Johnson says:

    Here is my model. If we were 2D beings, our lives could be represented in a way similar to a loaf of bread. When we sin, God is a consuming fire and burns up that “slice”. If we do not accept God’s promised gift and act in faith, then all of our “slices” get burned up, if we do accept the gift, then some remain.

    • Donald Johnson says:

      P.S. 2D means two dimensional. For the loaf of bread time flows along the length of the loaf, so that time is the third dimension in this analogy. This is so it can be visualized.

      • Marg says:

        I’m still not quite following the analogy, Don.

        • Donald Johnson says:

          I will try again.

          We are 3 dimensions beings in the material world and time can be considered the 4th dimension. However, we cannot visualize that easily. So, for this analogy, pretend we are just 2 dimensional beings (like a shadow) and time is the third dimension. Then our entire life makes up a 3 dimensional object like a loaf of bread that starts out as a cell at one end. Time moves along the length of the loaf. Any slice of the loaf is a specific moment in time.

          For any moment of time, either we are sinning or not. If we are sinning, then that moment gets burned up by God, as God cannot be in the presence of sin. For some people, their entire life will be burned up; for others only some moments in their life.

          1Co 3:12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—
          1Co 3:13 each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done.

          The first 3 will last and the latter 3 with be burned up. What these metaphors mean can be found in Scripture.

          • Marg says:

            I’m beginning to understand.

            I often wonder about the time element in all this. Does all of humanity line up and literally stand before God at one particular point in history to be judged, or does judgement happen more “automatically”.

            In a similar vein, I’m inclined to believe that as soon as we die we enter in the next phase of our existence with everyone already there also. I don’t believe in a soul sleep for the deceased, for example, because, after we die, time as we understand it is no longer relevant. Needless to say, I hold these views loosely, because we don’t really know how it will all work out.

  6. Karen says:

    Dear Marg,
    Though I’ve appreciated much of your teaching, this is where our paths differ.

    I do see the concept of some form of consciousness existence and suffering after the physical life has ended, represented in scripture, though I wish it were not so. The eternal fire is to be considered as a metaphor for whatever this state will be like. I do see God as gracious, kind and loving. I think CS Lewis’ representation of ‘hell’ as one that is locked from the inside, best describes to me the nature of clearly having chosen to exclude God’s life from theirs and a gracious God respecting their wishes to do so, needs
    to result in a place where eternal creatures might reside but God is no longer present (as he still is on this earth). This place would of course be unpleasant. God is life so the place where he is excluded would be one of death, even though some form of existence may still be present.

    I guess for me the bigger question is are we eternal creatures? If we indeed are eternal creatures then some sort of eternal place where those who have not chosen God, must exist. The Bible talks about several types of life and several types of death, fires that are physical, metaphorical etc.

    But perhaps we are not eternal creatures and those who have not chosen God (or life which is what He is) will ultimately be completely extinguished, though I am not sure that is clearly supported in scripture.

    I do think there are so many things that we can not fully understand in this life, being yet in our mortal bodies. Questions around the ultimate nature of eternity (seeing as it is existence in a different dimension that we can not yet fully understand….like explaining a symphony to a deaf man) being chief among them. Paul speaks often of the mystery. Jesus said eye has not seen, nor ear heard and neither has it entered into the heart of man. I do not think this is a poetic description but an acknowledgement that we just can’t fully grasp, what’s to come.

    But I do see God as respectful and kind, honouring people’s wishes to self determination, not as punitive unleashing tormenting judgement (though that is what it would look like from the outside).

    Anyhow, just some of my thoughts on the subject.

    • Marg says:

      Hi Karen,

      I think 1 Corinthians makes it plain that we are not intrinsically immortal, but mortal and perishable. Immortality is a gift from God who alone is immortal. I mention this briefly in endnote 4.

      This idea of mortal humanity spans the Bible from Genesis 3 to Revelation 22. Adam and Eve were banished from the garden so that they would not eat from the Tree of Life and have immortality. In the new Jerusalem redeemed humanity have access to the Tree of Life (Rev 22:2).

      If the only verses which referred to our eternal destiny were the ones I focus on in this article, then I could understand why people believe in some kind of continued existence for the unredeemed, but there are many, many more verses which simply mention death and destruction for the unredeemed. But I fully respect your concerns and your caution on this matter.

  7. Christine says:

    Generally speaking most christians and many non believers know of John 3:16 and many if not most christians can rattle it off without a second’s thought, but not many would know the meaning of the Greek word ἀπόληται translated as ‘perish’ in this verse.
    HELPS Word-studies defines it’s meaning as:
    622 apóllymi (from 575 /apó, “away from,” which intensifies ollymi, “to destroy”) – properly, fully destroy, cutting off entirely (note the force of the prefix, 575 /apó).
    622 /apóllymi (“violently/completely perish”) implies permanent (absolute) destruction, i.e. to cancel out (remove); “to die, with the implication of ruin and destruction” (L & N, 1, 23.106); cause to be lost (utterly perish) by experiencing a miserable end.
    …that sort of spells it out pretty well I think!
    Have really enjoyed your post/s Marg, well done for hosting and researching this hot topic! Blessings in Yeshua!

  8. Karen says:

    Hi again.
    Just wanted to add to my other comments. Realized I misquoted saying Jesus said…. Eye has not seen. That was Paul.

    To sum up my thoughts, it seems to me that scripture does speak of eternal consequences for choosing not to love God and follow his ways. I do not think we can understand fully the nature of eternity in this life, despite our wish to define it and land in one camp or the other. I think it is safe to say that there is some ambiguity on the subject. Trying to reconcile a loving God with the concept of eternal suffering poses challenges for sure. I can live with the difficulty of this tension but do not want to try to make the scriptures say something they do not, because perhaps it makes me feel uncomfortable, which it does.

    I think these questions, while great to grapple with are a work in progress that we won’t fully understand until farther along. But I think it is safe to say Biblically that there is an eternal consequence to choosing death, even though we don’t fully understand the nature of it. As we don’t fully understand the eternal consequence of choosing life either.

    • Marg says:

      These questions are certainly a work in progress for me. :)
      And I completely agree that we have no real understanding of our eternal life, let alone death.

  9. Rebecca says:

    If unbelieving loved ones are ultimately destroyed forever, how can we be eternally happy in heaven? God is supposed to wipe away all tears, but I’m pretty sure if my unbelieving friends and family members are annihilated then I will be crying for all of eternity.

    • Marg says:

      It does sound awful that unbelievers will be annihilated. Nevertheless, the Bible is pretty clear that those who do not believe in Jesus will die (e.g. John 3:16, 36; Rom. 6:23).

      Several verses in the New Testament state that unbelievers stand condemned already (unless, or until, they change their mind.) Perhaps the time to cry–and pray!–is now.

  10. Michelle says:

    Hello Marg, the Bible shows that human beings can “visit” heaven or hell. Apostle Paul speaks about being taken up into heaven and Jesus went down to hell. Moses and Elijah appeared back on earth with Jesus, centuries after their death.

    So the Bible I believe, shows that human beings (or their spirits) can indeed move within the three places of heaven, earth and hell.

    I said that, to ask this: There are many people who have given testimonies of being caught up to hell, and what is to come. I’m sure some of us have read/seen their testimonies. Never once have I heard any of them give the description of hell you have put forth.

    My question is what do you say of numerous testimonies from people who saw or went to hell, that say that hell will in fact be literal fire, and do you have any link/book of someone who went to hell and described it as you have, as a place where people die and simply cease to exist? I would appreciate it.

    • Marg says:

      Hi Michelle,

      I don’t doubt or minimise the “outer body” experiences or visions of someone who has suffered a serious traumatic episode. But I imagine they interpret what they experience by what they already know. What does heaven really look like? What does the new earth look like? What does judgement look like? Having an outer body experience may or may not be related to any of these places or states. The Bible is our guide, not people’s experiences, no matter how wonderful and real.

      I can’t think of a person in the Bible who visited “hell”. Let me know if I’ve forgotten someone. (Gehenna (“hell”) or the lake of fire are not the same as Hades or Sheol.)

      In regards to heaven, another factor to consider is that the Greek word “heaven” is exactly the same word for “sky”. And the verses about the one or two people in the Bible who visited heaven are not 100% clear.

      Paul

      Did Paul really visit heaven? Paul is speaking about visions and revelations of the Lord in 2 Corinthians (2 Cor. 12:1). And he calls the third heaven “paradise” (2 Cor 12:4). Paradise is not the same as heaven.

      Did Paul simply have an amazing vision of paradise which seemed very real? This is entirely possible.

      Moses

      The Bible says nothing about Moses going to heaven. Rather, it says that when Moses died, God buried him.

      Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command. He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day. Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died . . . (Deut. 34:5-7; cf. Jude 1:9).

      Just because Moses appeared at the transfiguration (a prophetic vision of the resurrection) does not necessarily imply that Moses was in heaven. Jesus’ connection and conversation with the figures of Moses and Elijah at the transfiguration are intended to signify that Jesus is the end time prophet who will not experience (permanent) death, and will usher in the kingdom of God in the eschaton (or end time).

      Intertestamental Jewish literature, such as the Assumption of Moses, have a different story than what is in the Bible. Unlike the Bible, they say that Moses did not die, but was translated into heaven. I accept the biblical account.

      Elijah

      Elijah is the only person who the Bible states did not die and went to heaven (2 Kings 2:1, 3, 5, 11-12). But the actual information in these verses about heaven is scant. All we really know is that Elisha saw Elijah going up in the sky in a fiery chariot until Elisha couldn’t see him any longer. We don’t know what happened to Elijah after that.

      All in all, the biblical evidence that people can actually visit heaven, or that heaven is the destiny of believers, is minimal. And I don’t know of any biblical account of a real person visiting “hell”.

      The accounts of Paul, Moses and Elijah say very little, if anything, about heaven in regards to believers. The New Testament, however, repeats the message many times that sin leads to death and belief in Jesus leads to eternal life.

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