Hell — eternal in consequence or duration?

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“Does hell exist? If so, who ends up there, and why?”

These questions are the focus of the film “Hellbound?” (to be released this fall). “Featuring an eclectic group of authors, theologians, pastors, social commentators and musicians, “Hellbound?” is a provocative, feature-length documentary that will ensure you never look at hell the same way again!” (Hellbound?)

Without revealing his personal views, Kevin Miller (Writer/Producer/Director) promises to explore different beliefs people hold about hell. The film will no doubt pick up the same wave of attention drawn earlier from Rob Bell’s controversial book, “Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.” Bell, however, tried to make the case that a loving God would never sentence human souls to eternal suffering.

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 them? Is it eternal suffering or eternal annihilation? Eternal in consequence or in duration?

The final destiny for those who reject salvation is a place the Bible calls hell. With a variety of images, the Bible depicts hell as a destiny of eternal punishment. Some of the most terrifying contents of Scripture describe this destiny of final judgment. Belief in a literal hell has been a consistent tenet of orthodox Christianity.

But some evangelical scholars have expressed hesitation about the traditional understanding of hell as a destiny of eternal conscious suffering. In place of this view, they’ve  postulated theories of conditional mortality of the human soul and the possibility of ultimate annihilation of the wicked. This rethinking of hell is emotionally appealing, but does it accurately align with Scripture?

Consequence or duration

Part of  the debate centers on whether ‘eternal’ is meant as a consequence (i.e. eternal punishment or destruction — not eternal punishing; the result rather than a process) or as a duration (a never-ending reality rather than a result).

Scripture speaks:

Putting things in order, Scripture teaches that all humans will be resurrected (Jn. 5:28-29; Dan. 12:2; Acts 24:15); judged by God (Heb. 9:27; Rom. 2:4-10; 14:10-12; Rev. 20:11-15), and separated between 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. 

Five arguments against the doctrine of eternal punishment:

1. The use of fire implies annihilation

The late John R. W. Stott admitted to being agnostic on the question of the duration of hell (see: David L. Edwards and John Stott, Essentials (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1988), 313-20). He 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 in Exodus 3:2-3? The bush 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. 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).

2. 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. One could also ask, “Why did the infinite, eternal God have to come and die for the sins of finite creatures?” Is it possible that sin against an infinite God is infinite in consequence? 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).

“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” (How Long, O Lord?: Reflections on Suffering and Evil, p. 92, D. A. Carson).

3.  The conditional immortality of the soul:

This is argued by the late Philip Hughes in The Image Restored, pp. 398-407. He taught 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.

“Jude 6 and Matthew 8:12; 22:13; 25:30 show that darkness signifies a state of deprivation and distress, but not of destruction in the sense of ceasing to exist. Only those who exist can weep and gnash their teeth, as those banished into the darkness are said to do. Nowhere in Scripture does death signify extinction; physical death is departure into another mode of being, called sheol or hades, and metaphorical death is existence that is God-less and graceless; nothing in biblical usage warrants the idea, found in Guillebaud30 and others, that the “second death” of Revelation 2:11; 20:14; 21:8 means or involves cessation of being” (J. I. Packer, Evangelical Annihilationism in Review)

4. Luke 16:19-31 is a parable not a literal source of information:

This text is not identified as a parable. But even if it’s parabolic in nature, treating it as an unreliable source ignores 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.

While it is true that Jesus used metaphors to describe hell, D.A. Carson wisely suggested 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).

5. The problem of eternal dualism:

How could God’s kingdom put an end to evil if there existed a place like hell? The late Philip E. Hughes used this argument against Scriptural teaching on hell when 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).

But 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).


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 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).

I feel deeply the sentiments expressed by J. I. Packer. “It is distasteful to argue in print against honored fellow-evangelicals, some of whom are good friends and others of whom are now with Christ, so I stop right here. My purpose was only to review the debate and assess the strength of the arguments used, and that I have done. I am not sure that I agree with Peter Toon that ‘discussion as to whether hell means everlasting punishment or annihilation after judgment . . . is both a waste of time and an attempt to know what we cannot know,’ but I am sure he is right to say that hell “is part of the whole gospel’ and that ‘to warn people to avoid hell means that hell is a reality.’ All who settle for warning people to avoid hell can walk in fellowship in their ministry, and legitimately claim to be evangelicals” (Evangelical Annihilationism in Review).

A six-point answer to the question of where people go after death 

1. All humans are sinners, by nature and by choice; they are therefore guilty and under divine condemnation.

2. Salvation is only through Christ and his atoning work.

3. In order to obtain the salvation achieved by Christ, one must believe in Him; therefore Christians and the church have a responsibility to tell unbelievers the good news about Him.

4. The adherents of other faiths, no matter how sincere their belief or how intense their religious activity, are spiritually lost apart from Christ.

5. Physical death brings an end to the opportunity to exercise saving faith and accept Jesus Christ. The decisions made in this life are irrevocably fixed at death.

6. At the great final judgment all humans will be separated on the basis of their relationship to Christ during this life. Those who have believed in Him will spend eternity in heaven, where they will experience everlasting joy and reward in God’s presence. Those who have not accepted Christ will experience hell, a place of unending suffering and separation from God (from: The Evangelical Mind and Heart, by Millard Erickson).

Steve Cornell
Senior pastor
Millersville Bible Church
Millersville, Pennsylvania
See also: Heaven:

About Wisdomforlife

Just another worker in God's field.
This entry was posted in Annihilation, Eternal life, Eternal security, Fear of death, Final judgment, Hell. Bookmark the permalink.

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