The ultimate destiny of those who reject God’s offer of salvation is a place the Bible calls hell. Some of the most terrifying content in Scripture is what it says about hell. With vivid imagery, the Bible describes it as a destiny of eternal conscious punishment and belief in such a place has been a consistent tenet of orthodox Christianity.
At the second council of Constantinople in 553, the nine anathemas of the Emperor Justinian against Origen included the following: “If anyone says or thinks that the punishment of demons and of impious men is only temporary and will one day have an end . . . let him be anathema (accursed)” (Nicene & Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 14, p. 320).
Most people know that the Bible doesn’t describe a pleasant end for those who reject God’s offer of salvation through Jesus Christ. But what type of judgment falls on unbelievers? Is it eternal suffering or annihilation? Eternal in consequence or in duration?
Some respected evangelical scholars have questioned eternal conscious suffering based on conditional mortality of the soul and belief in ultimate annihilation of the wicked. This rethinking is emotionally appealing but does it honestly align with Scripture.
The debate centers on whether ‘eternal’ is in consequence (i.e. eternal punishment not punishing; the result is eternal destruction,) or in duration (i.e. never-ending –a process rather than a result).
The Scripture teaches that all humans will be resurrected (Jn. 5:28-29; Dan. 12:2; Acts 24:15); all humans will also be judged by God (Heb. 9:27; Rom. 2:4-10; 14:10-12; Rev. 20:11-15), and there will be two distinct eternal destinies (Mt. 25:32,41,36; Jn. 3:36; 14:1-3; Rev. 21:3-8).
The destiny of unbelievers is described as:
- Daniel 12:2 – Everlasting contempt
- Matthew 18:8; 25:41 – Eternal fire
- Matthew 25:4 – Eternal punishment
- II Thess. 1:9 – Everlasting destruction
- Jude 6-7 – Everlasting chains
- Matt. 8:12; 22:13 – outer darkness with weeping and gnashing of teeth.
- Matt. 8:42,50- the furnace of fire where there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
- Mark 9:48-49 — A place where the worm does not die and the fire is not quenched for everyone will be salted with fire.
The use of fire:
John R/ W. Stott suggested that, “The fire itself is termed ‘eternal’ and ‘unquenchable’ but it would be very odd if what is thrown into it proves indestructible. Our expectation would be the opposite: it would be consumed forever, not tormented forever. Hence it is the smoke (evidence that the fire has done its work) which ‘rises forever and ever’ (Rev. 14:11; cf. 19:3)” (p. 316, Evangelical Essentials, David Edwards).
But how does this same approach apply to the burning bush of Exodus 3:2-3 which “burned with fire yet was not consumed”? Consistency of metaphor would lead one to think that smoke rising forever and ever indicates something is burning in the fire.
Other arguments against the doctrine of eternal punishment.
1. The issue of justice:
Sins committed in a finite realm should not suffer an eternal consequence. Justice demands punishment in proportion to the crime. This argument may sound appealing on the surface but it fails at the Cross of Christ. Why did the infinite, eternal God have to come and die for the sins of finite creatures? Sin against an infinite God is infinite in consequence. Are we implying that people can sufficiently pay the consequence of sin against God? I am sure we are incompetent judges of the penalty sin deserves.
“Unless we come to grips with this terrible doctrine, we will never even begin to understand the depths of what Jesus did for us on the cross. His body was being destroyed in the worst possible way, but that was a flea bite compared to what was happening to his soul. When he cried out that his God had forsaken him, he was experiencing hell itself.” “It is only because of the doctrine of judgment and hell that Jesus’ proclamation of grace and love are so brilliant and astounding (Tim Keller).
2. The conditional immortality of the soul:
This is argued by Philip Hughes in The Image Restored, pp. 398-407. He believes that immortality belongs to God in the purest sense and to believers only through Christ (I Tim. 6:15-17; II Tim. 1:9f). This seems to be based on a limited understanding of death as extinction. But, if spiritual and physical death do not result in cessation of existence, why would the second death? (Eph. 2:1-3; Heb. 9:27; Rev. 20:6; 14:21:8). Scripture does not equate death with non-existence. The evidence points in the opposite direction.
3. Luke 16:19-31 is a parable and should not be considered a literal source of information:
To begin with, this text is not identified as a parable. Even if it is parabolic in nature, treating it as an unreliable source tends to ignore the one who is giving the account. Should we believe that Christ would engage speculative imagery on such a serious matter? If this refers only to a temporary intermediate state to end in the judgment of annihilation, it makes the judgment a welcomed end. This is clearly not the point Jesus is making.
4. The problem of eternal dualism:
Philip Hughes (whose commentary on Hebrews is one of the best!) unfortunately used this argument against Scriptural teaching on hell. He wrote: “With the restoration of all things in the new heaven and the new earth, which involves God’s reconciliation to himself of all things, whether on earth or in heaven (Acts 3:21; Col. 1:20), there will be no place for a second kingdom of darkness and death” (p. 406, The Image Restored).
One should not think of the lake of fire as a kingdom. It is anything but a Kingdom. Ongoing punishment itself would be a continuous testimony to the defeat of evil. The reality of victory over death secured by Christ is not threatened by hell (Heb. 2:14-16; ;I Cor. 15:54-55; Rev. 20:14; 21:4).
In the final analysis, eternal annihilation of unbelievers fails to deal adequately with the testimony of Scripture (See: Lk. 12:47-48; Matt. 25:41, 46; w/Rev. 14:9-11; 20:10, (note on Rev. 20:10 – The beast and the false prophet are real people, not symbols. There would be no point of symbols suffering).
While it is true that Jesus used some metaphors to describe hell, D.A. Carson wisely recommends that, “… even if we assume that the language is metaphorical, it is evoking images of a horrible existence.” Jesus warned his followers not to “… fear those who kill the body, but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).
Admittedly, the thought of unending suffering and separation from God is emotionally difficult (if not impossible) to understand. However, we cannot ignore the facts because we find them emotionally disturbing. Nor are we at liberty (if we want to be called Christians) to pick and choose only those biblical teachings we find acceptable. Furthermore, the Scripture reminds us that God does not desire that any perish but that all come to repentance (II Peter 3:9).
“The Bible does not present us with a God who chances upon neutral men and women and arbitrarily consigns some to heaven and some to hell. He takes guilty men and women, all of whom deserve his wrath, and in his great mercy and love he saves vast numbers of them. Had he saved only one, it would have been an act of grace; that he saves a vast host affirms still more unmistakably the uncharted reaches of that grace. Hell stands as a horrible witness to human defiance in the face of great grace” (D. A. Carson).
C. S. Lewis:
“In the long run, the answer to all those who object to the doctrine of hell is itself a question: What are you asking God to do? To wipe out their past sins and, at all costs, to give them a fresh start, smoothing every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But he has done so, on Calvary. To forgive them? But THEY will not BE forgiven. To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that’s what he does.”