How is the word used in the Scriptures?
Is It Eternal?
Is It Just?
By J.R. Ensey
The subject of the afterlife for either believers or unbelievers is one we all wish was so clear in the Scriptures that no speculation could be justifiably generated. The traditional views of Heaven and Hell have been clear enough to satisfy most of us, but the recent liberalization of Western Christianity during the last one hundred years has raised up significant persons who have created questions in many minds, including some in the Apostolic ranks, particularly about the reality and nature of Hell. While eternal punishment in Hell is still the majority view among Evangelicals, and Apostolics, a fresh look at the topic seems to be timely.
Our questions will primarily be addressed to the Word of God and not to scholars and professors, although we will draw some information and facts pointed out by those who are considered to be objective thinkers and/or expert in original Bible languages. We will look closely at Hell as it is expressed in the Scriptures, whether it is eternal or temporary, and whether the concept of Hell is compatible with the nature and character of God. We enter this study seriously, subjectively, hopefully without prejudice or with an ulterior motive. Jesus talked about Hell more than anyone else in the New Testament; therefore, if we take Jesus seriously, we must take Hell seriously.
I. HELL AS EXPRESSED IN THE SCRIPTURES
There are four words in the Scriptures that are often or always translated “Hell” in most English Bibles published in the High Middle Ages:
Sheol: This is the Old Testament Hebrew word for “the realm [grave, pit, place] of the departed dead.”1 It appears approximately 30 times in the OT translated as Hell (e.g., Deuteronomy 32:22; II Samuel 22:6; Psalm 18:5; Proverbs 9:18; et al.) Other times it is rendered as “grave” (e.g., Job 7:9) or “pit” (e.g., Isaiah 14:15). There seems to be little distinction between the destiny of the wicked and the righteous in these verses. All go to the nether world, a place cast as being below or beneath the living, separated from God and from the living (Job 10:20-22; Psalm 88:3-6). There are various references to degrees of consciousness there (Job 14:13-15; Ezekiel 32:21; et al.), with one verse stating that “the dead know not anything” (Ecclesiastes 9:5). Jewish writers spoke of Sheol as an uninviting, foreboding and dismal place where the threat of eternal judgment might be experienced (Deuteronomy 32:22; Psalm 39:13; Isaiah 38:18).
During the 400 silent years between the close of the Old Testament canon and the First Advent, the concept of a division of Sheol to reflect a region of the unrighteous and one for the righteous was developed. Overall, the faithful OT Jews held “belief in a future and continued existence beyond death, however shadowy and indistinct.”2
Hades: This word first appears in the Greek Scriptures in the Septuagint (LXX), a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, published about 250 years before Christ. This first Greek Bible has Hades as a rendering of Sheol. Like Sheol, the word itself does not carry a definite doctrine of reward or punishment (Acts 2:27; Revelation 20:13).3
In Matthew 16:18, Jesus referred to its “gates” as representative of forces in opposition to Himself. Other NT references (eleven in all) begin to give us a view of Hades as a place of punishment for the wicked dead prior to final judgment (Matthew 11:23; Luke 10:15; and Luke 16:23). Its tenants will eventually be cast into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:14). Only once in the NT (I Corinthians 15:55) is it translated “grave.”4 “The OT only begins to suggest a diversity of eternal destinies. However, when the Lord Jesus Christ brings life and immortality to light (II Timothy 1:10), He reveals both eternal gain and eternal loss. Even Hades, otherwise equivalent to Sheol, cannot resist this further significance. This simultaneous maturing of truth is ignored by every attempt to divest the NT of its grim, but dominical, doctrine of eternal punishment.”5
Tartarus: This Greek word is used only once in the NT and is translated Hell in II Peter 2:4. In Greek minds, this seems to be viewed as being beyond Hades, but a place where divine punishment was endured comparable to that in Hades.6 Peter used the term as an abode of fallen angels who were committed to a dark place where they were bound and kept until the final judgment. Such a fiery place was not originated for human consignment, but for the angels “who sinned.” If we go there, it is by choice as intruders.
Gehenna: This Greek term is perhaps the one that carries the greatest threat. Jesus’ hearers could easily relate to the continual burning in the Valley of Hinnom (of which Gehenna is a transliteration), a ravine on the south side of Jerusalem. It was the city’s garbage dump where a fire, or the smoke of it, was always in view. In ancient times children were offered there as sacrifices to the heathen God Molech (II Chronicles 28:3; 33:6). It became a synonym for the eternal fires of Hell (Matthew 5:29; 10:28).
The word appears in several NT passages to suggest the fiery place where the wicked will ultimately be consigned (Matthew 5:22,29,30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15,33; Mark 9:43,45,47; James 3:6).
II. IS HELL A PLACE OF ETERNAL TORMENT FOR UNBELIEVING SINNERS?
The terms listed above give us an indication of the afterlife for unbelieving sinners, but other phrases and passages serve to clarify the actual punishment and its duration. The punishment for unbelief and disobedience is presented in numerous passages as “everlasting fire” (Matthew 18:8,25,41; 25:41), “fiery indignation” (Hebrews 10:27), “hell fire” (Matthew 5:22), “unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:12; Luke 3:17), “eternal fire” (Matthew 18:6-9), “fire that never shall be quenched” (Mark 9:43), “furnace of fire” (Matthew 13:42), “lake of fire” (Revelation 20:14), “fire and brimstone” (Revelation 21:8). It seems plain that the judgment to be suffered by unbelieving sinners is one in the midst of an eternal fire.
There is perhaps no greater terror to the average person than to consider such a fate.
Is the punishment truly “eternal (Jude 7)…everlasting” (II Thessalonians 1:9)? Jesus used these same terms to speak of the reward of the righteous believers (Mark 10:30; John 3:16). There is no suggestion that a difference exists in the duration of life for the believers and the duration of punishment for the sinners (Matthew 25:46). Jesus spoke of those who will be saved as having “eternal glory” (II Timothy 2:10), “eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:12), and an “eternal inheritance” (Hebrews 9:15). Those are never ending joys that we shall reap if we are among the obedient believers. In Matthew 25:46 Jesus said, “And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.” The Lord explained in Mark 3:29: “But he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost…is in danger of eternal damnation.” These passages convey the idea of “everlasting punishment” having the same duration as “life eternal.”
A passage in Daniel also makes the case for eternal conscious torment: “At that time shall arise Michael, the great prince who has charge of your people. And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:1,2). Note the parallelism here with Matthew 25:46.
There is no concept presented in the Bible of the inhabitants of the abode of the wicked dead repenting and finding forgiveness (Revelation 22:11; Mark 3:29). Ralph Powell agrees: “There is no indication anywhere in Scripture that lost sinners in Hell are capable of repentance and faith. If in this life they did not turn away from sin and receive Christ as Savior with all the favorable circumstances and opportunities afforded them on earth, it is unreasonable to think they will do so in the life to come when none of the encouragements to believe and to forsake sin are present. Punishment cannot come to an end until guilt and sin come to an end. When the sinner ultimately resists and rejects the work of the Holy Spirit whereby he is convicted of sin, there remains no more possibility of repentance or salvation.”7
Jesus said that those who “do iniquity [shall be cast ] into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 13:42). In Matthew 8:12, He added “weeping” to the list of sounds coming from Hell. If there is weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth there, that suggests that whatever is happening is ongoing, not temporary. The rich man in the story told by Jesus in Luke 16 was “tormented in this flame” (Luke 16:24). He was not yet in the eternal place where he would spend eternity, but he was conscious of where he would ultimately be. He pleaded for a drop of water, or for someone to go to his brothers with a warning to not come to this awful place. None of that suggests impermanence.
Some play on the term “destroy”—”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” (Matthew 10:28). Annihilationists hold that destroy means to cause to cease to exist. Not really. In a strict sense, nothing created can be destroyed. Form may be changed, as in water to steam/vapor, but the elements still exist. JFB Commentary states, “This verse is proof that there is a hell for the body as well as the soul in the eternal world. In other words, that this torment that awaits the lost will have elements of suffering adapted to the material as well as the spiritual part of our nature, both of which, we are assured, will exist forever.”
There are two different words used by Jesus in that verse as He describes what man can do to men and what God can do to men. Men, He said, can “kill” (apokteino) the body but God can “destroy” (apolesai) the soul in Hell (Gehenna). The root of the word translated “destroy” can mean “lost; suffer loss, loss of well-being,” as if something has come to ruin, or is lost to its original use. Jesus used the same term in describing the “lost sheep” and the “lost coin” (Luke 15:3-9). Neither the sheep nor the coin was annihilated, merely lost to use, each being somewhere other than where they should have been. They continued to exist just like those in eternal fiery torment will exist, although “destroyed.” W. E. Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words explains that the terms used by Jesus and translated “perish,” “destroy,” or “destruction” do not mean annihilation—“the idea is not extinction, but ruin, loss, not of being, but of well-being. This is clear from its use in Luke 5:37; of lost sheep, i.e., lost to the shepherd, metaphorical of spiritual destitution, Luke 15:4,6, etc.; the lost son, 15:24; of the perishing of food, John 6:27; of gold, I Peter 1:7; of the loss of well being in the case of the unsaved hereafter, Matthew 10:28; Luke 13:3-5; John 3:16.” Thayer’s Greek Lexicon agrees and defines apollumi as “to be delivered up to eternal misery”; hence, does not mean to pass into non-existence.
If “destroy” and “destruction” mean cessation of existence, the term aionion translated “eternal” in Matthew 25:46 and II Thessalonians 1:9, would be superfluous. The same word is used again in Jude 13 where the writer said of false disciples and reprobates: “Raging waves of the sea, foaming out their own shame; wandering stars, to whom is reserved the blackness of darkness for ever [aiona].” If those for whom such a fate are annihilated, why would the “blackness and darkness” be “reserved” for them forever and eternally?
Death is not, nor ever has been, the cessation of existence. Plato and other ancient Greek philosophers reasoned, whether accurately or inaccurately, that physical death is the separation of the soul from the body.8 Christians later added that spiritual death is the separation of the ˆ In either case, there is no actual cessation of existence. The soul (or “man-before-God”) is immaterial and does not die when the body gives up the life spirit at death: “There is no man that hath power over the spirit to retain the spirit; neither hath he power in the day of death” (Ecclesiastes 8:8).9 If one ceases to exist, would not the “punishment” be ended? There would be no need for an eternal fire that would not be quenched if there were nothing burning in it.
Noted Greek expert Kenneth Wuest, in his Expanded Translation of the Greek New Testament, renders this verse thusly: “And stop fearing those who kill the body but do not have the power to kill the soul. But rather be fearing him who has power to bring both soul and body to the condition of utter ruin and everlasting misery in Hell.” This likely corresponds to “the second death,” a death from which there will be no resurrection—”And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death… But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death” (Revelation 20:14; 21:8). Jesus has authority over both body and soul, and He is the only one who can bring both to eternal condemnation in Hell.
Mark Galli, commenting on this topic in Christianity Today, said, “Other leading Christians have taught or have been open to some form of annihilationism.” C. S. Lewis, for example, rejected the word ‘annihilation,’ because it suggests that nothing would remain. But just as a log which is burnt becomes gases, heat, and ash, he wrote in The Problem of Pain, ‘To have been a log means now being those three things. If a soul can be destroyed, must there not be a state of having been a soul?’ That state, he wrote, could be called ‘torment, destruction, and privation.’”10 Theologians Clark Pinnock and David Boyd are also among those who support the theory of annihilation. Pinnock is one of the prime movers of the Open Theism doctrine, which denies the omniscience of God. Boyd is well known for his debates opposing believers in the Oneness of God.
Is there justification in the Bible for believing in annihilation or a purgatory-like “second probation”? None of the Bible writers seemed to think so, but a substitutionary doctrine or theory has been proposed for virtually every fundamental doctrine of Christianity at some point in history. Already in the third and fourth century there were “universalists” who were denying unending conscious torment in Hell.11 Universalists conveniently trust that in the end everyone will be saved, regardless of what they do or don’t do in this life. Several smaller denominations and a few significant theologians have cast their lot with the annihilationists—those embracing the concept that the unsaved will merely cease to exist throughout eternity. Since no remedy for one’s lost condition after death is conveyed in the Scriptures, they feel that eternal punishment casts God in the roll of a vindictive big bully without love or compassion.
Individuals writing on the subject of Hell find it easy to get their personal feelings involved in the issue. We are tempted to make the Bible say what we want it to say, to bend the Scriptures to fit our preference or our presuppositions. About 1600 years ago, Augustine cautioned us “against following the example of those who, ‘while not slighting the authority of the sacred Scriptures, . . . nevertheless interpret them wrongly and suppose that what is to happen will not be what the Scriptures speak of, but what they themselves would like to happen” (City of God, 21.27).
One individual who has authored a book on the subject of Hell is Edward William Fudge, a Houston attorney. Because it presents ideas out of the mainstream of Evangelical thought, it garnered the attention of both the religious and secular press. The title is The Fire That Consumes: The Biblical Case for Conditional Immortality. Fudge proposes that the soul is not immortal and will ultimately be consumed (annihilation) in the fires of Hell. He holds that the wicked, after being raised from the dead, are destroyed by God’s consuming fire and hence cease to exist. He maintains that the verses about the punishment of the devil, the false prophet, and the beast (Revelation 19:20; 20:7-10) cannot be used to support the traditional view, for the false prophet and beast may represent institutions rather than individuals, and we should interpret the lake of fire as involving annihilation.
He makes a play on words such as “eternal punishment” as opposed to “eternal punishing.” Being forever gone is his concept of everlasting punishment. Does God have us depend on such rhetorical nuances to establish such an important doctrine as the afterlife? At the bottom line, Fudge is an annihilationist, although he appears to eschew the label. He consistently appeals to OT texts in order to solve NT “problems.” Historical judgments in the OT merely serve as types and shadows of the eternal judgment to come. Fudge’s strongest emotional appeal is that a loving God would not do what the Bible says He will do. The third segment below will confront this assertion.
“Building from the Old Testament (Ps. 37; Mal. 4), [annihilationists] point to how Jesus declared that the wicked will be cast into the smoldering garbage heap of Gehenna (Matt. 5:30), where they will be burned up (Matt. 3:10-12) and destroyed in both body and soul (Matt. 10:28). Similarly, Paul spoke of the fate of the lost as death (Rom. 6:23) and destruction (1 Cor. 3:17). Peter also used such language (2 Peter 2), likening the destruction of the ungodly to the burning of Sodom and Gomorrah.12 And John anticipated the wicked being consumed in the lake of fire, which he called ‘the second death’” (Rev. 20:14-15).13
As comforting as that may sound, the theory is not compatible with the presentation of Hell (eternal conscious torment) in the afterlife. Alternate interpretations and possible inferences are not a solid foundation on which to build a doctrine. Scripture must explain Scripture. There are no intentional contradictions in the Word of God. “Eternal” cannot mean “temporary.” “And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever” (Revelation 14:11). Matthew 25:46 is a massive wall in the path to acceptance of annihilation: “And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.” Two destinies—both “everlasting…eternal.” The same Greek word aionion translates both words in the KJV, and both refer to the destiny of the saved and the unsaved. If Hell is only temporary, might Heaven be?
Regarding the Beast and the False Prophet, Fudge’s premise partly stands on the assumption that they might not be humans but institutions. But will “institutions” be sentenced to Hell? I think not. These will be players on the stage of human life in the endtime. They and all those who receive the mark of the Beast will ultimately be sentenced to Hell where “they have no rest day or night”—a way of saying there is never any hope of relief. Revelation 20:14,15 confirms that all whose names are not found in the book of life will join them in the lake of fire. There will never be “rest” for any who are in the lake of fire. There is no interpretation for those verses other than conscious torment forever. Jesus said, “It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48).14 Jude 13 corroborates the words of Christ with this proclamation: “[These people are] wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars, for whom the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved forever.”15 That does not sound like a temporary situation.
Annihilationists and proponents of conditional immortality, such as strains of Armstrongism, Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Edward Fudge, et al., are persuaded that somehow the fires of eternal Hell will burn themselves out after the people that are sent there are consumed. But not only are the fires “unquenchable” but “are not quenched” (Mark 9:48). They point to terms like “perish” (John 3:16) as suggesting that unbelievers are simply “burned up” or their existence is terminated. However, the Greek word apoletai in that verse is the same that is used in II Peter 3:6—“The world that then was, being overflowed with water, perished.” That pre-flood world “perished” but it was not annihilated.
If annihilation was God’s program, He missed lots of chances to tell us. “If Jesus wished to teach something other than eternal retribution, it is curious that He has not left one saying which plainly says so. In the NT there is no indication that the punishment of sin ever ceases.”16 He kept driving home the eternality of the sentence, comparing it to the everlasting bliss of the saved in Heaven. Those who are saved have made many positive choices along the way—choices that involved self-denial and even social separation from friends and loved ones (Matthew 16:24; Matthew 19:29). I agree with those who say that annihilation trivializes the wrong choices people make in denying the existence of God, failing to obey His commands, and hurting other people in the process. “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (John 3:36).
What does the term “second probation” refer to? Some liberal theologians, mostly Europeans in the 19th century, posited that between death and the final resurrection the unsaved dead will have the opportunity to accept Christ and be saved. This possibility will extend to all children who die in infancy and to the adult heathen who in this life have not heard of Christ. It may even extend to all unsaved persons. No details of how this will happen are set forth. The speculation is based in part on I Peter 3:19 and 4:6, which seem to suggest that Christ had such a ministry between His death and resurrection. That is a precarious foundation on which to construct such a broad and fundamental concept. Luke 16:19-31 proves this doctrine is fallacy. Judgment is based on that which is done in this life, “in the body,” and not in the intermediate state. Such a doctrine would extinguish all missionary zeal, since ignorance and inaction now would leave them a greater opportunity and a simpler decision in the future.
Purgatory is a similar doctrine affecting the afterlife that is foisted on the 1.2 billion Catholics in the world. Constituents are told that after death the faithful can undergo suffering and purification in the intermediate state and then be released to continue on to Heaven. Monetary gifts and services for the church by friends and loved ones on their behalf are said to shorten or even eliminate further purification. The doctrine is not in the Bible but is suggested in the Apocryphal Book of II Maccabees 12:39-45. Such extra-biblical doctrines helped speed the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century. The writer of Hebrews makes it clear that “it is appointed to men once to die, but after this the judgment” (Hebrews 9:27).17
Somewhere in this presentation there must be some mention of the possibility of degrees of punishment. If we acknowledge that there will be differing rewards for the righteous, we might also consider the possibility of varying levels of punishment for lost offenders (Luke 12:42-48; Matthew 11:20-24). The agency, timing, and severity of any differences are not in our purview. I am merely conveying what Jesus intimated in His teaching. The way the “stripes” are meted out will have to be left to His knowledge and discretion. This does not, however, affect whether such penalties are temporary or eternal. There may be degrees of punishment, but there cannot be degrees of non-existence.
Do sinners deserve Hell? That is not a question that we can answer. We should not even go there since it is beyond our capacity to judge. It evokes emotions that get in the way of objectivity. That is God’s determination. Let’s keep out of His business.
I think perhaps everyone who studies this topic is conflicted to some degree. We would like the alternative to salvation to be something less than eternal punishment in a lake of fire. No one wants to think about loved ones having to spend an eternity in Hell. We might even have some suggestions for God if He would only consult us. What is to be was established and destined long before we were born into the world, however. God does not need our subjective advice. We are not capable of running the universe and making the decisions for God.
That leads us into our next question:
III. IS OUR VIEW OF HELL COMPATIBLE WITH GOD’S CHARACTER?
This is a question that atheists and anti-Bible nominal Christians love to put forth. They are sure that the traditional answer will make God and all Bible believers look bad. It has been answered countless times in many ways for two millennia. Regardless of how any Christian will answer the question, some fault will be found or some means will be deduced in the attempt to discredit it. Unbelievers just don’t think that Hell is a fair way for God—if there is a God—to treat them. Conditional immortality proponents (those who doubt the immortality of the soul) and the annihilationists think this is possibly the one point that will swing the conversation their way—the concept that a loving God would not allow such a harsh destiny as an eternal Hell.
This level of argument is generated by emotion. As James Anderson suggests: “The problem of hell isn't really an intellectual problem. It's an emotional problem. This is easily proven. How many people reject God because God sends people to heaven? How many people reject God because they can’t figure out how God could permit people to go to heaven?”18 I confess—I know not any. Given the choice of extinction after judgment or suffer eternal conscious torment, all would doubtless choose the former.
The temptation of a few to try to re-make God in our image has caused some to question the doctrine of eternal punishment on the basis that it stands in opposition to His nature and character—“It’s not fair to make people suffer for eternity for a mere 70 years of sin, unbelief and disobedience.” So we force God into limitations that we feel are right for Him. That is backwards and it amounts to arrogance. We are not capable of deciding what the parameters of God’s justice should be. Our definitions of “justice” and “fairness” are not necessarily in accordance with God’s. Solomon gave us some good advice: “Be not rash with thy mouth, and let not thine heart be hasty to utter any thing before God: for God is in heaven, and thou upon earth: therefore let thy words be few” (Ecclesiastes 5:2).
Some say that more people would be attracted to Jesus if we hid certain facts about Him (e.g., “His eternal power and Godhead” – Romans 1:20) and particular declarations He made about the afterlife. They would like to reword and soften some of His statements, such as changing “must” to “if you want to” in John 3:7 and “everlasting” to “temporary” in Matthew 25:46. Those verses sound too harsh and demanding. If He had been nicer and a little more lenient, perhaps the Jews would have embraced Him as their Messiah. If Stephen’s message in Acts 7 had been less cutting and divisive, perhaps he would not have been stoned. But if his message was softer and his life had been spared, what of Paul? How would he have been affected? And would the spread of the gospel have occurred so soon and so effectively (Acts 11:19-21)? In the moment, men cannot see the big picture.
We understand these seemingly altruistic thoughts and respect the desire for more folks to be drawn to Christ, but truth does indeed divide, no matter how discreetly and judiciously one proclaims it. We are obligated to truth, and to Him who is the Truth (John 14:6), regardless of the displeasure that it brings to wicked unbelievers. That does not justify poor manners, buffoonery, or cockiness in our presentation, but we have to speak truth and leave the rest up to God.
In the context of this question, it is imperative that we consider God’s sovereignty. Sovereignty means that He can take any course of action He determines without remorse of conscience. Whatever He decides about judgment and punishment will not make Him stay awake at night worrying whether it is pleasing to the unbelievers here on earth. He is not trying to fit His program into the narrow confines of fallen man’s mental capacities to decide what’s right or proper. His definition of justice is different from our own. He explained this through Isaiah the prophet: “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:7-9).
Man’s ideas of what is fair and just varies between cultures here on earth. To which should God subject Himself? We Americans want to force God into accepting our Western cultures’ concepts of justice. But every society and culture decides its own definition and level of retributive justice. The Native Americans of the Southwest had ways of exacting justice that would make our skin crawl. Many countries of Africa and Asia have severe means of handling criminals and law-breakers. Ancient cultures often employed extremely painful methods in meting out their brand of justice. Should God set their practices as the standard for all people—even for Himself? We Americans hail the Judeo-Christian ethic as a desirable standard of justice, but who wants to stone their disobedient son (Deuteronomy 21:18-21) or see innocent children die because their father stole Babylonian garments (Joshua 7:22-25)? Who wants to force a wife to drink bitter water made filthy by scrapings from the floor of the Tabernacle, which would cause her bowels to swell and her groin to rot—simply because her husband was suspicious or jealous (Numbers 5:11-31)? Would we today want to use that as a test to determine her guilt or innocence? Would we raze the home of a leper (Leviticus 14:44,45)? “O, no…those seem like extreme measures!” But they are in your Bible as God-ordained Jewish practices. Would we initiate a worldwide flood, drowning all the people on earth except one family? Would we send fiery judgment on Sodom for the wickedness of their lifestyle (Genesis 19)? Unlikely. We would probably choose a more “humane” method of dealing with certain people because our judgment is prejudiced, biased and tainted with selfishness. That is why God is God and we are not.
We are foolish to question whatever God does or allows to happen because we are apt to draw conclusions from false premises. We don’t always see the big picture (Ecclesiastes 5:2). Job was guilty of this. He wanted to make God explain why he had to suffer so much, complaining that it just didn’t seem fair. What had he done that was worthy of such degradation and pain? He had lived a pious, God-fearing life and he knew it. He had clothed the naked, fed the hungry, comforted the mourners, delivered the poor, had been eyes to the blind and feet to the lame (Job 29:12,15,23). What was fair and just about this whole episode, Job wanted to know. He bellowed out his self-defense in chapters 29-31. He used the personal pronoun “I” 58 times in those three chapters.
In chapter 32 Job’s sin was finally revealed—”So these three men ceased to answer Job, because he was righteous in his own eyes.” He was a good man but he “knew” it. His human pride and self-righteousness were a stink in the nostrils of God that negated all the good works he had just enumerated. After Elihu finished calling him out for his failure to see God in the proper perspective, God Himself questioned Job in a way that totally humbled him and caused him to develop a clearer view of himself. When God got through, Job cried, “I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee. Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5,6). He fully realized that he was wrong to have demanded of God the reason that such negative events had befallen him. God never told Job why he went through such a trial of hardship, loss and pain. God is God. He owes us no explanation. The truly wise and righteous will demand none. It is a serious mistake to try to force God into our earthly, carnal mindset. As one individual said, “It took time in my relationship with God until I got to the point where I didn’t need this question answered.” Perhaps that is a point to which some others of us need to come.
Liberal English historian David Edwards accuses evangelicals of believing in a God who is the “Eternal Torturer.”19 He is sure that such language will make Christians squirm, denounce Hell as an unfair judgment, and perhaps even cause some to forsake their faith. Wouldn’t you want him for a judge in the event that your daughter was gang-raped by a dozen thugs? Or if your son was kidnapped, assaulted, dismembered and eaten by a Milwaukee cannibal?20 Perhaps they would get a slap on the wrist and have to promise not to do that anymore. This is only being said to help us to understand that judgment and punishment is relative, and none of us is capable of co-opting God in whatever decisions He makes concerning eternity.
Edwards and those of that ilk seem to overlook the fact that Hell was not prepared for humans, but for the angels that rebelled with Satan: “Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41). Although it was prepared for the devil and his angels, humans that follow him rather than Jesus will join the demonic angels in “everlasting fire.” People who will ultimately be consigned there will be intruders who insist on joining them in that dark inferno.
The truth is that God doesn’t send anyone to Hell. It is His expressed will that no humans go there: “The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (II Peter 3:9). If we go to Hell, we will have sent ourselves there. God has done everything He possibly can to keep us out of Hell and still leave us as persons with free will and not just as a robot. That’s the way He made us—after His image, after His likeness, the power to say “yes” and the power to say “no,” the option to reject our own Creator and accept the consequences. What’s not fair if we have knowingly made the choice to follow Satan into an eternal Hell?
This question concerning a loving God and an eternal Hell is just as naïve and irrelevant as when a child asks: “Why would my loving parents discipline me for the disobedience and wrong deeds that I’ve done against them?” Or when a murderer asks: “Why would the caring cops send me to a dangerous prison merely for killing people.” It largely depends on which side of the courtroom rail one is on that determines his sense of fairness.
But aren’t we all God’s children? Would a just God allow His children to go to Hell? The “Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man” is a hackneyed cliché that was a favorite of the social gospelers a century ago. In the context of this topic, it is exhumed for the benefit of the Universalists. However, not everyone is God’s child by the second birth. Not everyone who says, “Lord, Lord, shall enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 7:21). He made the rules. He established the laws by which we are to live. If we break those laws, they break us (Matthew 21:44), and we pay the consequences. If there were no severe consequences, there would be less motivation to believe and obey. So if the reality of Hell moves some people to repent, might that in a sense make Hell a positive factor of mercy? Although “the wages of sin is death,” Paul also says “the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). Those who don’t particularly “like” God or His “stupid rules,” are always shopping around to find a better bargain. And, sure enough, the old Garden Snake himself will see that they are offered one—not a better one, mind you, but one based on deception.
Where is the “terror” in annihilation (II Corinthians 5:11)? “Is the ‘terror of the Lord’ to be forever in a state like before one is born? Were we experiencing the ‘terror of the Lord’ before we were born? If annihilation were correct why not preach fear in people’s hearts and tell the pedophiles and the mass murders of this world that if they don’t get their hearts right and live for Christ they stand in jeopardy of returning to a state like before they were born for all eternity. That’s sure to scare the Hitlers of this world.”21
As a parent, someone might ask me: “Why did you allow your son to become a violent criminal and be confined to death row?” If that was my experience, I would have to answer, “It was not my choice. I tried everything I could do to turn him before he was convicted and sentenced, but to no avail. When he was grown, he insisted on a rebellious path and that is where it took him.” Is that not the position God finds Himself in?22
The questions might be asked: Does God allow war? Does he allow starvation? Cancer? Leprosy? Plague? Tsunamis? Nuclear holocausts? Pictures of horrible circumstances offend our eyes when we read the National Geographic magazine and similar publications—twisted bodies, children blinded by chemical warfare, limbs blown off by hidden mines, bodies bloated by malnutrition. Have you seen pictures of the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Did God not love the Japanese of those cities? Does He not love the diseased and crippled children on the streets of Calcutta? I believe He does, but the horrible effects of sin will never be obliterated from the earth until the time foretold in II Peter 3:10: “But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up.”
We should never shed tears about calamities that befall men in this natural world if we do not respond in the same way about the terrible torture to which Jesus Christ was subjected. “His visage was marred more than any man, and his form more than the sons of men” (Isaiah 52:14). Look at His beaten back, His pierced brow, His face bloodied by rough hands plucking His beard from His face. Observe His hands and feet with iron spikes driven through them. Now see His heaving body in the throes of death hanging on the cross, struggling for breath, thirsting, blood caked on His lips as He speaks His seven last words—but no hand reaches out to help. He dies more quickly than the criminals that were crucified beside Him. Sinless, but dying so sinners may escape Hell. Some of His last words were spoken in forgiveness of a thief dying beside Him. All of this was done in love and compassion for a lost world. He did it to heal the rift between men and God. Sin had separated us from the Creator, and it was sin—selfish choices made by men and women—that brought all this suffering into the world. We did this to ourselves, and now, after He came to save the world (John 3:17), sinners still reject and deny Him, spit in His face, and “crucify the Son of God afresh” (Hebrews 6:6). God’s justice demanded sinless blood. Finding none among men, Christ was sent into the world in a show of mercy. Mercy overrules justice when it is accepted into our lives in the way prescribed in the Word. God is a good and loving God, and the stupid choices men make will not alter His character. He wants all people to be eternally saved (II Peter 3:9).
No one understands that choices have consequences more than someone in the regions of the unsaved dead. A perfect example is the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). Both died. Lazarus went to paradise, but the rich man went to a place where he was “tormented in this flame.” God was not his tormentor; it was his conscience. Interestingly, he never says, “How did I end up here?” That question will never be asked in Hell. He does not say, “Did I really deserve this? Don’t you think this is a little extreme…a little over the top?” He only asks that someone go to his brothers who are still alive and warn them against his fate. That was not possible, either. They had Moses and the prophets to read and obey, and would not be more motivated toward righteousness even if one rose from the dead and visited them with a warning message. Some might think that response exhibited very little “feeling” for the potential destiny they faced. But who are we to sit in judgment of what God chooses to do? We must not be guilty of that gross humanistic error.
Some confusion has arisen because the first English Bibles, including the KJV, usually translated the four words sheol, hades, Gehenna, and tartarus as “Hell” without making any distinction within the text or margins. In the minds of most English-speaking readers, “Hell” means the final, fiery, eternal judgment of lost sinners. That is not always the meaning of the original language terms. Clarity on this point is essential to understanding of this topic.
Sin had eternal consequences from the beginning. Man’s Fall affected not only Adam and Eve but also every person on earth who would live after them. Sin had “wages”—”The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Adam and all living things had a sentence of death passed upon them. The first death would be a natural one experienced by the human body—the second death would be eternal separation from God in a lake of fire (Revelation 21:8). Theologian Dr. Norman Geisler concurs: “Only eternal punishment will suffice for sins against the eternal God... Furthermore, no sin can be tolerated as long as God exists, and He is eternal. Hence, the punishment for sin must also be eternal.”23 Anything short of eternal punishment would seem to be no punishment at all but an acquittal or exemption from punishment.
God can kindle a fire that does not consume. Moses witnessed this in the Midian desert when the bush from which the voice of the angel came was ignited but was not consumed (Exodus 3:2). The king of Babylon fired a furnace seven times hotter than ever before to burn Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego but when the men were thrown into the fire, the only ones consumed were the ones who tossed them in (Daniel 3:19-27). They themselves were not even singed. Their experiences remind us that human limitations do not apply to God.
“The fact that we may not know how something can be, does not also mean that it cannot be. It is the challenge of all scientific research to discover the how and why of things we do not understand presently. If I were to die unsaved there could be no better judge than Jesus Christ. He is both just and merciful, and, when I face Him, I will not disagree with His decision.”24 As Abraham asked, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25). To impugn the righteous judge of the whole earth as being unjust, and to call Him out for being less than moral according to human judgment, is the height of arrogance.
As the renowned author G. K. Chesterton cogently stated: “Hell is God’s great compliment to the reality of human freedom and the dignity of human choice.”25 “Inasmuch as God has granted us the freedom of choice and self-will, sometimes mankind makes the wrong decisions. And, Hell is a place where God keeps those choices of free will intact and He grants us our wishes via the laws of sowing and reaping.”26
The “loving God cannot send anyone to Hell” argument is not found in the Scriptures. We may not humanly grasp the concept of eternal punishment of the wicked, but neither can we fully comprehend the grace that extends eternal life to obedient believers. Paul lays out both the goodness and the severity of God in Romans 11:22, but who can plumb the depths of either?
We cannot change what God has set in motion simply because it doesn’t seem fair to us fallen men who have a humanistic and perverted sense of justice. For the eternal home of the unsaved, perhaps we would have chosen a place with slightly less bliss, fading flowers, brass streets, fewer trees with healing leaves, and a muddy trickle of water rather than a crystal river. Since choosing is not our prerogative, we should let stand what is obvious in the Word of God and not inject ourselves into that which we cannot change.
1. Encyclopedia of the Bible, Walter Elwell, Ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988), p. 953.
3..J. A. Motyer, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Walter Elwell, Ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984), p. 492.
4.It is interesting to note that Wycliffe translates Hades in this verse as “death.” Tyndale and Cranmer render it Hell, the Geneva Bible used “grave,” the Douay-Rheims Version reverted to “death,” and the KJV translators chose “grave.” Major modern versions use “death.” Vine’s Expository Dictionary of NT Words (p. 528) has this to say: “The most authentic manuscripts have thanatos, death, in the second part of the verse, instead of Hades, which the AV [KJV] wrongly renders “grave,” (“hell,” in the margin.)” Since Jesus pointed to “the gates of Hades” in Matthew 16:18 as the church’s opposition, I personally like the rendering of Hell.
5. Motyer, Evangelical Dictionary…; p. 492.
6. Ibid.; p. 506.
7. Ralph E. Powell, Encyclopedia of…, p.954
8.Five Great Dialogues, Classics Club edition, 1969; p. 93.
9.God breathed into a pile of clay the breath of life and man became a living soul (Genesis 2:7; Job 33:4). As C. S. Lewis said, “You do not have a soul; you are [in a sense] a soul.” Although this breath of God, or soul, is not itself material, it gives life and identity to that which is material—the body. When detractors of the immortal soul concept quote the verse from Ezekiel 18:20—”The soul that sinneth, it shall die”—it must be acknowledged that there are many places in the OT that use “soul” (Heb., nephesh) in references to actual people, not an immaterial entity (Genesis 46:15,26; Exodus 1:5; Ezekiel 13:19; et al.). Jesus spoke of “hell, where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 10:48 ESV). This reference cannot but mean there is something immortal in Hell. It cannot mean physical earthy worms, except in symbolism. Note that “maggots and larvae usually feed upon a carcass until it is consumed. Then it’s done. But Mark 9:47,48 says the worm or maggot does not ever die.” (James Anderson, personal correspondence; accessed online 3/20/13; p.3.)
10. Quoted by Mark Galli, Heaven, Hell, and Rob Bell: Putting the Pastor in Context,” Christianity Today archives, 3/2/2011.
11. Stanley J. Grenz, “Is Hell Forever?”, Christianity Today archives; Oct. 5, 1998; p. 1.
12. Most annihilationists will concede that they fires of Hell are literal, but will refuse to take what they symbolize literally. Sodom’s destruction was with literal fire, they say, but what it symbolizes is not literal. There is an inconsistency involved in this approach. For instance, OT antitypes were literal but the NT types were also literal (incense for prayer; sanctuary for our human bodies, etc.). So to point to Sodom as literal but deny that its type is not literal is inconsistent. That would be like saying that incense is literal but prayer is not.
13. Stanley J. Grenz, “Is Hell...”; p. 1
14. “Gnawing worms meant ‘concious torment’ in the Jewish mind.” (Robert Morey, Death and the Afterlife (Ada, MI: Bethany House Publishers, 2001), p. 89,90.
15. Annihilationists believe that the “Unquenchable Fire” of Mark 9:43 is temporary: “Does this mean the fire burns forever? Not at all. Take a match, light it and set a piece of paper on fire. Let it burn. Don’t put it out, or snuff it out. Just let the paper burn, until it burns up. Soon it will burn itself out. Now, what do you have? A burned-up piece of paper. But did you put it out? Did you “quench” it? No. You left it unquenched. It was not quenched. Not at all! Even so, the final Gehenna fire will not be “quenched,” or “put out.” Nevertheless, in time, it will burn itself out when the wicked and all their wicked works are burned up! Any fire will go out when it runs out of fuel. That’s the way the final Gehenna fire will be. In time, it will naturally burn itself out! W. F. Dankenbring, Heaven, Hell And The Hereafter, Triumph Prophetic Ministries (Church of God). This is mere speculation without a scripture to back it up. All things that are seen by mortals are temporary, but invisible things are eternal (II Corinthians 4:18). The invisible part of man is eternal.
16. L. Morris, Evangelical Dictionary…, p. 370.
17. Not only is there no mention of a purgatory in this verse, or the hope of such, it also reveals that physical death is not the end of man’s existence. “Death” is used in a number of ways in the Scriptures, none of which indicate a sense of finality of spiritual existence.
18. Anderson, James N., Unpublished paper on "The Doctrine of Hell"; 2013.
19. Quoted by Mark Galli, “Heaven, Hell, and Rob Bell: Putting the Pastor in Context,” Christianity Today article archives, 3/2/2011.
20. This is a reference to convicted sex offender, murderer, and cannibal Jeffrey Dhamer of Milwaukee, WI who murdered and dismembered 17 men and boys. Consider what those parents went though.
21. Anderson, James N. Unpublished paper on "The Doctrine of Hell"; 2013; p. 1.
22. Another question closely related is, “Will the saved be happy in heaven knowing some of our loved ones are in Hell?” Nothing will quench our joy in heaven—not disappointments, not regrets, not the fate of loved ones. Who might be lost in Hell will not be in our thoughts. “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away” (Revelation 21:4).
23. Quoted by Jeff Spencer, “The Destruction of Hell: Annihilationism Examined” Christian Apologetics Journal, Volume 1, No.1, spring 1998.
24. Anderson, James N. Unpublished paper on "The Doctrine of Hell"; 2013.
25. Quoted in Cliffe Knechtle, Give Me An Answer (Downer’s Grove, IL; InterVarsity Press; 1986), p. 42.
26. Roger Perkins, personal correspondence; accessed 3/21/13.