Many Christian denominations teach that hell is a place of eternal torment, pain, suffering, and agony. They teach that the souls of the wicked enter hell upon death. Then, they spend all of eternity in the most horrific agony imaginable. They can never escape the torment, not even for a second. After billions and billions of years, their suffering and agony will only have just begun. For the sins committed in a single lifetime, the sinner will spend billions and trillions of years writhing in the utmost agony and suffering.
At the same time these denominations teach that "God is love" (1 John 4:16), and God loves sinners, and God "is kind unto...the evil." (Luke 6:35). Apologists for these denominations write blog after blog, article after article, even entire books, trying to rationalize how God could love sinners, and be kind to sinners, and yet torture them in the most horrific manner throughout all of eternity. Despite this cognitive dissonance, even a child can see the fallacy of such logic. Any child who has burned their finger on the stove knows the severity of that pain. To experience that sensation over the entire surface of the body would be horrendous indeed, even if it lasted only for a minute. To experience that degree of pain for a lifetime would be unimaginable. And yet, how could a good God inflict heinous suffering on humans for millions, billions, and trillions of years? The magnitude of suffering is beyond sadistic.
Furthermore, consider the fact that salvation is a "narrow way and few there be that find it" (Matthew 7:14). This verse would suggest the vast majority of humanity will end up in the lake of fire. Imagine hundreds of billions of sentient beings, writhing in agony for all of eternity. Modern society deplores governments who have secret, underground facilities where they torture a few of their countrymen until they die. It is rightly considered to be evil, satanic, and inhumane. However, we are told that God has a far-superior torture facilty that can inflict pain 24 hours a day. In this facility he tortures the vast majority of the human beings he created for all of eternity. If humans are "evil" and "satanic" for brutally torturing a few people for a short time, then what does that make a god who tortures most of humanity for eternity? Such a facility of systematic torture would make god the most inhumane, brutal, and entirely evil being that has ever existed.
The doctrine of eternal hell fire has caused many a thinking person to doubt the Bible or give up faith altogether. The time has come to re-examine this doctrine to determine what the Bible really teaches about hell.
LIFE versus DEATH
It is critical to understand there is a profound difference between "life" and "death." According to the Bible, Human beings are "mortal" or subject to death. Paul taught that at the Resurrection, the righteous are granted "immortality" (1 Cor. 15:53). The Greek word for immortality is athanasía which simply means without death. The wicked to not receive athanasía. Their punishment is death. God said, "the soul that sinneth, it shall die" (Eze. 18:4). This presents a problem for those believing in eternal hell, because they must come up with some way to make "dead" sinners "live" for eternity in hell fire. This is an impossible proposition, and no amount of mental gymnastics can reconcile the fact that dead people are not alive! Death and life are mutually exclusive. From a biblical standpoint, the dead are not alive, and the living are not dead.
The definition of death is quite simple: It is the opposite of life. The living can breathe, move, think, and feel. The dead cannot. The Bible teaches that the dead know nothing, and they have no emotions or feelings (Eccl. 9:5-6).
In order for a person to feel and experience the pain and agony of eternal hell, that person must be alive. Not only must that person be alive, but in order to experience hell for all of eternity, that person must have eternal life.
LIFE = Reward of the Righteous
The Bible teaches very plainly that eternal "life" is the reward of the righteous, not of sinners:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (John 3:16)
Over and over again in the Bible "everlasting life" and "eternal life" are described as the reward of the righteous (Dan. 12:2; Matt. 19:29, 25:46; Mark 10:30; Luke 18:30; John 3:15, 4:36, 6:40,47,54, 10:28, 12:25, 17:2-3; Acts 13:48; Rom. 5:21; Gal. 6:8; 1 Tim. 1:16, 6:12,19; Titus 3:7; 1 John 2:25, 5:11,13,20).
If everlasting life is the reward only for the righteous, then how could the wicked have "everlasting life" in hell? Does the Bible teach that the wicked also obtain everlasting life?
DEATH = Reward of the wicked
Jesus taught that the wicked would perish, not live forever:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (John 3:16)
Notice how Jesus contrasts "perish" with "everlasting life." The two are not the same! To "perish" means to have everlasting death, not everlasting life in hell!
The Greek word for "perish" is apollymi, which means "to destroy." If a life is destroyed, then it is no longer living. It has perished, ceased to exist. The Greek aorist tense indicates an event at a point in time. The Greek does not suppport this being an ongoing activity.
According to Jesus, there are only two possible future states. One can either perish (cease to exist), or one can have eternal life with God. There is not a third choice of eternal life in hell. The Bible teaches over and over again that the reward of the wicked is death, not eternal life in hell.
See, I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil. (Deut. 30:15)
...for wide [is] the gate, and broad [is] the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat...Because strait [is] the gate, and narrow [is] the way, which leadeth unto life... (Matt. 7:13,14)
That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. (John 3:15)
...He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life. (John 5:24)
For the wages of sin [is] death; but the gift of God [is] eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Rom. 6:23)
For to be carnally minded [is] death; but to be spiritually minded [is] life and peace. (Rom 8:6)
He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life. (1 John 5:12)
The wages of sin is not merely death of the physical body, but also the death of the soul itself:
The soul that sinneth, it shall die (Eze. 18:20).Notice in the verse above that man can "kill" a body, but not the soul. This is the first death. In this Jesus is making a contrast between God and man. God can do more than "kill" a body. God can "destroy" (Greek apollymi) both the body and the soul. This makes it abundantly clear that the purpose of hell is to permanently destroy the body and the soul. The purpose of hell is not to be a galactic dungeon where God and the holy angels delight in torturing and inflicting pain and misery upon the wicked throughout all the ceaseless ages of eternity. Rather, hell is a place where the wicked are destroyed and cease to exist.
And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. (Matt. 10:28)
Is Hell Burning Now?
In Matthew 10:28, Jesus taught that the purpose of hell is to destroy both body and soul. Jesus said of the wicked, "thy whole body should be cast into hell." (Matt. 5:30). When a person dies and is buried, their body remains in the ground until the resurrection. The souls of the wicked are not sent to hell upon death, because hell does not exist yet. Hell is created by God at the end of the age for the purpose of destroying the bodies and souls of the wicked. This is proven by the fact that all those who were not resurrected with the righteous in the first resurrection, remain dead in their graves until the second resurrection:
But the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished...And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened...and the dead were judged... And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire. (Rev. 20:5,12,15)
The Bible refers to the result of being cast into the lake of fire as "the second death." If the wicked are going to be alive in hell forever, then why call it the second death? Why not call it what it is: the second life?
The truth is, no one is in hell today because the judgment does not take place until the end of the Millennium:
The Lord knoweth how to...reserve the unjust unto the day of judgment to be punished. (2 Peter 2:9)
Why would God punish people before the day of judgment? Peter says God is reserving, or holding back, His punishment of the unjust until the "day of judgment." The wicked will receive a fair hearing before the jugdment seat of God before they are punished.
What is the Eternal Punishment that Jesus spoke of?
In Matthew 25:46 Jesus said the wicked would go into "everlasting punishment." This could be understood in one of two ways:
In order to ascertain which is the correct interpretation, other Scriptures must be examined. There is not a single verse in the entire Old Testament about an eternally burning hell, but there are a number of passages which describe a fire that will annihilate the wicked:
...the wicked shall perish...into smoke they shall consume away. (Ps. 37:20)
For, behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the LORD of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch. ... And ye shall tread down the wicked; for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet... (Mal. 4:1,3)
In the New Testament, Paul said the wicked...
...shall be punished with everlasting destruction... (2 Thes. 1:9)
Notice that the punishment is "everlasting destruction," not everlasting torture! The Bible teaches that the wages of sin is "death" (Rom. 6:23). James said sin leads to "death" (James 1:15). Ezekiel said that soul that sins will "die" (Eze. 18:4,20). Therefore, the punishment is death. The mechanism of putting a person to death is fire, and that fire will be tormenting, but the punishing is not everlasting. Rather, it is the effect of the punishment that is everlasting. Eternal death is an everlasting punishment.
The Four Proof-Texts of an Eternally Burning Hell
Many Christians are surprised to discover the entire doctrine of eternal hell fire rests upon only four passages of Scripture. These will be examined in detail.
Jesus told a parable about an unnamed rich man and a poor man named Lazarus. The rich man did little to help poor Lazarus. Lazarus eventually died and went to “Abraham’s bosom” (Luke 16:22). Afterward, the “rich man” also died, but he went to “Hades” (Luke 16:23). What is Hades? Hades was a mythological place invented by the Greeks long before Christ was born on this earth. It was the abode of the dead, under the earth. Through Hades flowed the river Phlegethon which, instead of being a river of water, was a river of flames of fire. In Greek mythology, the people in Hades were not on fire or burning. It was merely a place from which there was no escape. Jesus and all Jews listening to Jesus would recognize Hades as a mythological place. Therefore, they would understand that Jesus was not talking about a real place. That would be like us telling a story about someone getting sent to the land of Mordor (from the Lord of the Rings). Anyone listening to our story would understand that Mordor was a fictional place and not real in any sense. Therefore, from the very start of this parable it is apparent Jesus is speaking about a fictional place.
From this fictional place, the rich man saw Abraham and Lazarus in paradise. He called out to Abraham and begged him to have Lazarus dip his finger into water and send him to cool his burning tongue. Some Christians say this parable proves that the righteous go to paradise when they die, and the unrighteous go to hell. The question to consider is, must we take everything in this parable to be literal? If we took every Bible parable as literal, then we would believe that mountains sing and trees have hands that clap (Isa. 55:12). If we take everything in this parable as literal, then the righteous go into Abraham’s bosom when they die, from whence they can witness the suffering of the wicked, and can hear their cries. We must also assume the dead are not spirits but have physical bodies because the “rich man” had a “tongue,” Abraham had a “bosom” and Lazarus had a “finger.” Even those who believe in the literal nature of this parable would be forced to concede that not everything portrayed in this parable is literal. The question is, where does the literal end and the symbolic begin? Was Jesus actually adopting the Greek mythological story of Hades and teaching that hell is filled with wicked people who are either hot or on fire? Or was He using symbolic language to make a point about treating the poor with kindness?
Interestingly, Jesus directly contradicts this parable in other places proving that it cannot be a true reflection of reality. Jesus taught that all who have died and are in their graves will be resurrected to life. The righteous will be resurrected to eternal life, and the wicked will be resurrected to face judgment (John 5:28-29). In Matthew 13, Jesus told a parable explaining the timing of the judgment. A farmer sowed good seed in a field, but an enemy came at night and sowed weeds. In explaining the meaning of the parable, Jesus said:
As therefore the tares are gathered and burned in the fire; so shall it be in the end of this world. The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; and shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 13:40-42).
There are a couple of important teachings in this parable:
It is impossible to reconcile these verses with the parable about the righteous going to Abraham's bosom and the wicked going into mythological Hades upon death. In multiple places Jesus taught that the righteous and the wicked are asleep (unconscious state) in their graves until their resurrection. The resurrection of the righteous takes place at the return of Christ, and then they will receive their reward of eternal life. The resurrection of the wicked takes place at the end of the Millennium, at which time they will be cast into the lake of fire. Since Jesus' other teaching contradicts a literal reading of this parable, the only logical way to reconcile the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus is to understand it as a fictional account meant to prove a point about being kind to the poor rather than it being a teaching on the nature of the afterlife.
When Jesus describes hell in the book of Mark, three times he repeats these words: "Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched" (Mark 9:44,46,48). This same passage, in abbreviated form, is recorded by Matthew and Luke, where only the "unquenchable fire" is mentioned (Matthew 3:12, Luke 3:17).
In Mark 9, Jesus is quoting Isaiah 66:24 which describes "corpses" of the wicked dead (not living people) lying upon the ground and burning. Jesus uses the word "Gehenna" to describe hell. Gehenna was a ravine south of Jerusalem where the residents of Jerusalem disposed their trash. This included the corpses of dead bodies, including animals. The burning trash produced smoke which was visible by the inhabitants of Jerusalem. This provided Jesus with a vivid example that the people of Jerusalem could relate to. Because additional trash was always being dumped into the ravine, the fires continually burned and the smoke appeared to be contantly rising from Gehenna. From a distance, Gehenna presented the illusion of continually burning, but in reality, the trash dumped there only burned until it was burned up. The trash did not burn forever. Gehenna only had the appearance of burning continually because new trash was constantly being added to it. This is a very important point.
Regarding "unquenchable" it should be understood that unquenchable does not mean eternal. It simply means the fire cannot be extinguished. Just because a fire cannot be extinguished does not mean it burns eternally. For example, when firemen encounter an "unquenchable" fire, it does not mean that fire will burn forever. It simply means the firemen do not have the equipment or capability to stop the fire. However, once the fire has burned up all of its fuel, it will extinguish on its own accord. Likewise, no one can stop or quench the fire of hell. However, this does not imply that hell will burn forever. It is reasonable to believe that it will only burn until it has consumed its fuel, which in this case is the bodies and souls of the wicked. Once the wicked are consumed, the fuel will be gone and the fire will cease on its own accord.
In Isaiah 34:10, Isaiah warns Edom (Idumea) that it would be destroyed with a fire that "shall not be quenched day or night." However, in the subsequent five verses, Isaiah descibes a wide variety of birds, animals, and plants that will occupy the land that was burnt with unquenchable fire. As noted earlier, unquenchable fire is a fire that cannot be put out, but will extinguish on its own after exhausting its fuel supply. Anyone can travel to the land of Edom today (southern Jordan) and see that it is not still burning. Therefore, unquenchable fire cannot possibly mean eternal fire.
Regarding the undying worm, it is important to understand that a "worm" is not a human soul. This passage is not talking about human souls not dying, but worms not dying. There is no passage in the Bible where a human soul is ever described as a worm. Anyone listening to Jesus who happened to be familiar with Gehenna, would understand that Jesus was refering to the worms or maggots that eat dead flesh in Gehenna. In other words, the body parts not destroyed by fire would be eaten by worms and maggots. Again, Jesus was not saying the soul would live forever in hell. The point of the entire passage is that the wicked would be entirely destroyed in hell.
Revelation 14:11 describes those who receive the mark of beast, saying "the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever." Does this verse prove the wicked are tormented in hell forever? Revelation 14:11 quotes from a passage in Isaiah 34 that has already been fulfilled. Therefore, if we can determine how Isaiah's prophecy unfolded in the past, then it will give us insight into how Revelation 14:11 may unfold in the future. Isaiah, in describing the Lord's vengeance upon the nation of Edom, wrote, "the land thereof shall become burning pitch. It shall not be quenched night nor day; the smoke thereof shall go up for ever..." (Isa. 34:9,10) Immediately after making this statement, Isaiah goes on to say that the same land shall be occupied by animals and birds and plants (Isa. 34:11-15). How could birds nest in a burning land? How could plants grow in burning pitch? How could wild beasts inhabit a land on fire? That could only happen if the fire was extinguished. Thus, the fire Isaiah is describing—whose smoke ascends forever—is obviously only temporary. It is clear that Isaiah is using hyperbolic or symbolic language to warn of Edom's destruction. While Edom did indeed cease to exist, history records that it died out gradually over many centuries, and not in a burst of brimstone and fire. Furthermore, it is certainly not burning and smoking to this day. This proves that the symbolic language of Revelation 14 cannot be used to justify an eternally burning hell any more than Edom's fire was eternal.
After a fire is extinguished, the smoke can still be observed in the sky for hours or even days after the event. When the Bible says their "smoke shall ascend for ever," it means that the evidence or effect of the punishment will be seen forever. It does not mean the torment lasts forever!
Revelation 20:10 says the devil, the beast, and the false prophet will be tormented in the lake of fire "for ever and ever." When one reads that verse, one might easily conclude that hell burns forever, but it is important to consider the Biblical meaning of the word "forever." Many times it does literally mean forever, but there are other times when it does not. Let us consider some examples.
Therefore, the Biblical usage of the word "forever" allows for it to refer to events that do not last forever. When Jude described the "judgment of the great day", he writes that "Sodom and Gomorrha...are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire" (Jude 6,7). Anyone who has been to the Middle East knows that Sodom and Gomorrah are not burning today. They burned until the wicked were destroyed and then the fire went out. This proves that "eternal" fire does not equate to continual and endless burning, but instead describes a fire whose results are eternal.
While Revelation 20:10 does indeed say the devil will be tormented "for ever and ever," the same passage also refers to the lake of fire as the "second death" (Rev. 20:14). Therefore, it is reasonable to assume the devil will be tormented until his death, and not for all of eternity. This is verified by an Old Testament text that many scholars believe is a reference to the devil:
...therefore will I bring forth a fire from the midst of thee, it shall devour thee, and I will bring thee to ashes upon the earth in the sight of all them that behold thee. All they that know thee among the people shall be astonished at thee: thou shalt be a terror, and never shalt thou be any more. (Ezek. 28:18-19)
The doctrine of eternal torment creates a tremendous discontinuity between the Jesus who loved sinners so much that He rebuked the disciples for even thinking about calling down fire upon the Samaritans, and the Father who plans to roast people in hell for all eternity. Let us review some of the problems caused by this mininterprettation of the Bible:
The Bible describes Hell as an event that takes place at the end of the Millennium, when the wicked are raised to life, appear before the judgment seat of God, and are burned up and destroyed in hell fire. They suffer in torment, but only until they are destroyed. The wicked will receive a punishment that is commensurate to the degree of their wickedness (Rev. 22:12; Matt. 16:27; Luke 12:47,48).
God, who is a being of supreme love and mercy, has no pleasure whatsoever in the destruction of sinners (Eze. 33:11). However, He cannot permit sin to exist unpunished forever. Hell is necessary to rid the universe of those who stubbornly refuse to be saved and join God's kingdom of love. In similar fashion, a person with cancer in a part of their body has no pleasure in having that body part surgically removed. However, it is better to remove one part of the body than to lose the whole body to disease. Likewise, God, out of necessity, must perform His "strange act" to remove sin from this universe in order to prevent the disease of sin from being spread throughout the universe and infecting and destroying the rest of His creation.
Those Christians teaching everlasting hell fire may be doing so sincerely, but any Christian believing this doctrine cannot possibly have a correct conception of who God really is. A god who tortures people forever is not a god but a demon of the worst sort. Any church that represents God as being in the business of eternal torture is blaspheming the character of God and misrepresenting the truths of the Bible. The Biblical truth is that God loves sinners, and hell is a place of destruction, not a place of eternal torture.
For further study on what happens when a person dies, see the study Life after Death.