Along with great emphasis on God’s love and mercy, Scripture presents God as the Judge who sends some people into hell.
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). Jesus referred to hell as a place where God sends people (Matthew 25:41,46).
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? Part of the debate centers on whether ‘eternal’ is meant as a consequence (i.e. eternal punishment– not eternal punishing; the result being eternal destruction,) or as a duration (i.e. never ending, on going punishing).
Five arguments against eternal punishing
1. The fire is metaphoric
The late John R. W. Stott (a teacher I hold in highest regard on most subjects) 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)” (Evangelical Essentials, David Edwards, p. 316).
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.
2. The matter 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.
“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).
“Unless we come to grips with this terrible doctrine (of hell), 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” (Tim Keller).
3. 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. 1:9-10). This seems to be based on a limited understanding of death as total extinction of existence. 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.
4. Luke 16:19-31 is a parable (and should not be considered a literal source of information)
This text is not identified as a parable, but even if it is parabolic in nature, treating it as an unreliable source ignores the one who is telling the story. Should we believe that Jesus Christ would use speculative imagery on such a serious matter? If this refers only to a temporary intermediate state ending in a judgment of annihilation, the judgment seems like it would be a welcomed end. This is clearly not the point Jesus is making.
5. The problem of eternal dualism:
Philip Hughes 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. 1:19-20), there will be no place for a second kingdom of darkness and death” (p. 406, The Image Restored).
The lake of fire is certainly not 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).
What does Scripture teach?
All humans will be resurrected (Jn. 5:28-29; Dan. 12:2; Acts 24:15); all will be judged by God (Heb. 9:27; Rom. 2:4-10; 14:10-12; Rev. 20:11-15), and all will be separated between two distinct eternal destinies (Mt. 25:32,41,36; Jn. 3:36; 14:1-3; Rev. 21:3-8).
Where people go after death
Theologian Millard Erickson offers a six-point answer to the question of where people go after death. His points are worthy of careful reflection.
- All humans are sinners, by nature and by choice; they are therefore guilty and under divine condemnation.
- Salvation is only through Christ and his atoning work.
- 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.
- The adherents of other faiths, no matter how sincere their belief or how intense their religious activity, are spiritually lost apart from Christ.
- 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.
- 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 (The Evangelical Mind and Heart).
See: Hell bound?