|1a.||The traditional position|
|1b.||The scope of this article|
|1c.||A gentle start|
|2a.||More about the traditional position|
|2b.||The alternative position|
|2c.||Greek and Hebrew souls|
|2e.||The meaning of 'eternal'|
|3.||Two Key Texts|
|3a.||God so loved the world|
|3b.||The wages of sin|
|4.||Old Testament Evidence for Destruction|
|4a.||In the beginning|
|4b.||After the fall|
|4c.||Blown away like chaff|
|4d.||Consumed like stubble|
|4e.||Their final destiny|
|4f.||Like the idols|
|4g.||Death and destruction|
|4h.||And others in the Old Testament|
|4i.||What is missing|
|5.||NT Evidence for Destruction|
|5a.||Broad is the way|
|5b.||Great was the fall|
|5c.||Soul and body in Hell|
|5d.||Those who are thrown out|
|5e.||Sowing to the flesh|
|5f.||Those who refuse to follow Jesus|
|5g.||Those who oppose Jesus|
|5h.||'Destruction' means destruction!|
|5i.||Burning in the New Testament|
|5j.||Not literal fire|
|5k.||The Day of the Lord|
|5l.||Passing through fire|
|5m.||No more tears|
|5n.||Rejecting the Creator|
|6.||The Weak Evidence for Eternal Torment|
|6a.||The sheep and the goats|
|6b.||If your eye causes you to sin|
|6c.||Causing to sin|
|6d.||Fire and darkness|
|6f.||Shame and contempt|
|7.||The Strong Evidence for Eternal Torment|
|7a.||The lake of burning sulphur|
|7b.||Smoke of torment|
|7d.||Day and night|
|8.||Objections to Destruction|
|8a.||The evangelistic message|
|9a.||The reality of Hell|
|9b.||The reality of judgement|
|9c.||Distorting the gospel|
|•||Index of Biblical Passages|
|•||Some Relevant Biblical Words|
What happens to us after death? People have always had an understandable fascination with this question. It is hard to find anyone who has not given thought to the subject, and every religious tradition around the world has something to say about it.
Mainstream Christianity, like many of the world's faiths, offers people the prospect of two very different possible futures. Perhaps inevitably, one is good and the other bad, We usually describe them as 'Heaven' and 'Hell', although the Biblical writers use a variety of terms (1).
We generally talk about Heaven and Hell as places: when people die, we say they 'go to Heaven'; when we dislike someone, we say, "Go to Hell!" In the Bible, neither Heaven nor Hell are understood primarily as places we can go to – what matters is not so much the place as what happens in the place.
There is a danger in talking about the afterlife. The main focus of Biblical teaching is (despite the impression you may gain from some speakers) on this world and this life. Wherever you look in the Bible, what matters is how you live here and now; despite our fascination with the question, there is very little in the Bible about what happens to us after death – and most of what we are told is about what doesn't happen!
But, even if we place our efforts and energy on this life and how to live it, the question remains: what happens to us after death?
We seem reasonably content, in mainstream Christian teaching, to be fairly agnostic about the joys of Heaven. On the one hand, nobody really believes the popular image of floating on clouds with harps; on the other hand, we don't reject the idea and go searching for a better description. We are happy to leave the picture reasonably unclear.
But if our image of Heaven is a vague one, our image of "the other place" is disturbingly clear. Not only clear, but also (I argue) harmful and wrong. And that is the point of this discussion.
The nature of Hell is not just a nice, interesting theological issue, something to discuss on a long Sunday afternoon when you have nothing more urgent to do. What we believe happens after death affects us in many ways.
When people we care about die, the question of their eternal fate forces itself upon us. When we have no assurance that they are 'in' (or, possibly, 'on their way to') Heaven, then the nature of hell becomes bitingly relevant.
I have lost count of the number of people I have talked with, who had recently lost someone and who were struggling to cope – not only with their loss, but also with the teaching they had always accepted: teaching which they never really paid much attention to when it was remote and abstract, but which suddenly has dreadful meaning when it is very present and concrete.
"Do you think," I have been asked on various occasions, "that my wife (/husband/ parent/ child) is now burning in Hell?"
The pain of that question, sometimes the obvious agony of the person asking it, stays with me. A friend can duck the question: "I don't know," is an honest and acceptable (if not helpful) response. But a Pastor is expected to do better. A Pastor is expected to know about such things.
A Pastor is expected to comfort the bereaved, but is also expected to tell the truth. How do you do that if you believe the loved one is suffering unspeakable torment, which will continue for all eternity? I don't know.
You may not be a Pastor, Vicar, Priest, or any other form of church leader, but the chances are that at some point you will be with someone struggling with this question. At some point, you may be facing it yourself.
The suffering of those left behind is not always what you might expect. When a child has been traumatised by an abusive parent for years, the death of that parent can bring welcome relief – which generally carries in its wake a load of guilt for feeling glad that someone has died. But then a well-meaning friend (who probably knows nothing about the trauma) assures the distressed child, "Don't worry: your father (/mother) is waiting for you in Heaven," and the pain takes on a sinister edge. You really need to have something to say then.
But, again, what can you say? "Don't worry – I'm sure they are burning in Hell right now," may be the 'correct' answer according to mainstream Christian teaching, but will probably cause emotional and psychological scarring for life (2). So, if you believe this is the truth, do you say it or do you fudge the issue? I don't know.
Fortunately, I don't have to make such choices. And neither do you. Mainstream Christian teaching about Hell is, in my view, and in the eyes of many people I have talked with, cold and harsh. That does not, in itself, make it wrong, but it probably should alert us to the possibility that we might have missed something.
Quite frankly, I find this hard to believe. But, after years of study and prayer and research and long, long conversations, I have come to the conclusion that, yes, we have missed something. We have missed the consistent, simple, clear and humane teaching of the Bible on this subject.
This subject matters. Not just because we need the be able to talk to people who are suffering and offer them some help, but because it directly addresses the largest and most important question of them all: what is God like? What we believe about the character of the God we worship affects our lives. What we believe about the way He treats those who oppose Him will feed through in some way to the way we treat those who oppose us. Our beliefs shape our lives, and believing untrue things about our Heavenly Father can harm the way we grow, both emotionally and spiritually.
Conversations about the probable fate of a loved one will never be easy. But if we follow the Bible's teaching on this matter, we can talk about the things it tells us, with clarity, integrity and compassion.
More importantly, we can talk to people about a God Who is love, a God Who is good – good to everyone, not only to those who follow Him.
Is Hell a place where demons stick pitchforks into writhing bodies? Is it a place where the unsaved suffer eternally, while the saved look on and enjoy watching their pain? You probably reject both of these descriptions, but they have both been popular ideas about Hell, taught and believed by many Christians in the past. Over the years, our understanding of Hell has changed.
So – what do people today believe about the fate of the wicked; and, more importantly, if we are to follow the teaching of the Bible, what should we believe?
For some time now, mainstream evangelical Christianity has consistently believed (or claimed to believe) fairly consistent teaching about Hell. The demons-with-pitchforks routine has been rejected, as has the idea of the saved enjoying the suffering of the damned; but the core part of the traditional teaching has been retained: after death (or so we are taught), the unsaved will suffer eternal deliberate conscious torment.
in my experience, when faced with this idea, most nonbelievers recoil in horror. If that is what you believe, the general reaction goes, then I don't want anything to do with you. But it gets worse: not only do we teach that the unsaved will suffer for all time, but we then explain that this punishment is justified because we have sinned against a Holy God.
Very few Christians have any idea just how much this doctrine shapes the way many people outside the Church understand the Christian faith. (3)
I have heard evangelistic sermons which spell this out in agonising detail. If the only think you have ever done wrong in your life was to steal a bar of chocolate when you were six, you are still a sinner and deserve to be tormented for all time. One sin makes you a sinner, and sinners have to be punished like this. It is the only thing a Holy and Righteous God can do. (4)
Outside a few evangelistic sermons, it may well be that the doctrine is not often preached with relish any more, but it is still consistently taught (5). How far it is actually believed is another question, but in my experience, when pressed, most evangelical Christians will confirm that they believe the official doctrine.
Is this what the Bible teaches? If we want to follow Jesus honestly and faithfully, do we have to believe that the unsaved will suffer eternal torment?
This question matters, because the answer we give affects a number of important issues.
People have a number of questions concerning what happens after death and when. The Bible does not seem too clear about the answers to some of these questions – and it seems especially unclear about the timing of various events. I would like to avoid these questions as far as possible: the Bible's teaching is not clear, at least to me; I do not wish to speculate about these matters; and the answers to these questions do not have a significant impact on the subject we are considering. (6)
People who have a problem with the traditional teaching about Hell often explore the possibility of Universalism: the belief that Hell (as it is commonly understood) really exists, but either nobody actually goes there or nobody stays there for all eternity. A full response to this idea is beyond the scope of this work, but in brief: Universalism solves one problem (God is no longer presented as being a cruel monster) but it creates more problems (among them, making sense of the many passages about Hell).
In any case, if my reading of the Bible is correct on this point, then there is no need to turn to Universalism on the grounds of preserving God's character; and the main Biblical texts used to support Universalism are addressed in the section on 'No more tears'.
So there are many interesting questions I do not attempt to address here – in any case, this article is quite long enough already. In particular, I ignore many of the arguments concerning the exact makeup of the soul, details about the afterlife, what happens to animals after death, and the question of who will go to Hell and why. (7)
However, the Bible does tell us about other aspects of what happens after death; in particular, it talks repeatedly and clearly about the fate of the unsaved, so let us concentrate on what the Bible actually tells us.
What I seek to do in this article is to present an understanding of what will happen after death that is faithful to the Bible, that upholds God's goodness (as well as His holiness), that Christians can believe and live with, and that other people today can understand and respond to.
I am very aware that the Bible says much more than I talk about here. I am trying to hold a careful line between answering all the essential questions but not confusing the message with unnecessary detail. (8)
One final point at the outset: I use various terms to talk about the subjects of this article – 'the wicked', 'the unsaved', 'people who are not Christians', 'unbelievers', and so on. In using these words, I am attempting to reflect the Biblical use of language: I do not want to suggest that all unbelievers are particularly wicked, or more wicked than the believers. We will be considering the eternal fate of the unsaved, however they are described.
We are going to be looking at a lot of Biblical passages, seeking to understand them and be clear about what they are actually saying.
But before we do, I would like to point out something I only noticed recently.
There are a surprising number of passages where 'save' and 'destroy' (or similar terms) are put together. I'm not suggesting that this proves anything, but it does seem to provide an insight into how the Biblical writers understand the concept of salvation and what the alternative might be.
So, to get us started, I will just list a few passages without comment. They can hover in the background while we consider other passages in more detail.
Then Jesus asked them, "Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?" But they remained silent. (9)
But He turned and rebuked them, and said, "You do not know what kind of spirit you are of; for the Son of Man did not come to destroy men's lives, but to save them." And they went on to another village. (10)
and saying, "You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!" (11)
There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. (12)
'I am with you and will save you,' declares the LORD. 'Though I completely destroy all the nations among which I scatter you, I will not completely destroy you.' (13)
Before we jump into the details and start to chop up individual texts, I would like to establish a few basic points that do not depend on individual texts. Any discussion of this area will be confused or mistaken unless we get the context right – unless our 'big picture' is a Biblical one.
In mainstream evangelical thought, the dominant teaching about Hell (when we are taught anything at all!) is that it is a place where the unsaved suffer eternal, deliberate and conscious torment.
We should note that there has always been a strong opposition to this position, and many respected (I have heard them described as 'otherwise sound'!) church leaders have not believed it. (14)
If you wish to research this subject further, it is worth looking at the history and development of the various ideas about the nature of Hell. For many centuries, teaching about this topic within Christendom was controlled very carefully. There are at least two good reasons for this: firstly, because of the formal role the institutional church played within the structures of the state; and secondle, because of the social consequences of different doctrines when a powerful elite are seeking to control the common population. (15)
But this work is not about the history of the doctrines; and neither is it about the ways they have been used or the social consequences. All I aim to do here is to look clearly at what the Bible teaches us on the subject.
Some Christians object to the way I refer to the 'demons-with-pitchforks' image of Hell: they neither believe it nor do they teach it. They are (I think, rightly) concerned that very few people today can take seriously the image of creatures with horns and tails sticking pitchforks into the damned. They feel that in rejecting the pantomime image, they have adequately responded to the problem: according to these people, I should not stir up problems where none exist.
However, it seems to me that this objection completely misses the point. Firstly, whether we teach it or not, many people outside the church think this is what we believe, so this is what they hear whether we say it or not – unless we are very careful to say something different. And, secondly, when I talk with people outside the church, their issue is not with the pitchforks, but with what the pitchforks symbolise – with the suffering we (sometimes gleefully?) promise to unbelievers.
If Christians believe and teach that God sends people to eternal, deliberate and conscious torment, it makes no difference whether the torment is caused by the eternal fire God places there, the demons with pitchforks He sends there, any combination of the two – or by anything else.
The exact details of the nature of the torment are completely irrelevant: what matters is that (according to this belief) God sends people to suffer this torment. Forever. With no hope of forgiveness. We say there is no possibility that this suffering will ever end. And we then try to convince people that this same God is a God of love. Pitchforks or not, that's a difficult job.
To make my position clear from the outset, I believe the traditional position is wrong. (You have probably guessed this already.) It is (just) possible to interpret the Biblical texts in a way which supports the traditional position, but there are no Biblical grounds for doing so, and several good reasons not to.
If you came to the Biblical texts without an awareness of the traditional teaching, you would never interpret them in that way. Moreover, there is nothing in the Biblical texts which requires the traditional interpretation, and a great deal which suggests the opposite.
It seems to me the overwhelming weight of evidence in the Bible suggests that people who do not go to Heaven will cease to exist. The usual theological term for this idea is 'conditional immortality'. I talk with people about this subject fairly regularly, and few have heard the term. The theological jargon is unimportant (and I will do my best to steer away from it wherever possible) – but the idea, the truth behind the term is absolutely vital.
At least, that's how I feel. I hope by the time you finish this, you will feel the same way too.
In summary: the clear teaching of the Bible is that, on the last day, the dead will be resurrected; there will be a time of judgement before the throne of God; those who through Jesus have inherited eternal life will go to their reward; and those who have rejected God will be destroyed. The act of destruction may possibly hurt, but when the process of destruction is complete, the pain will also end.
We live in a world which is dominated by Greek thought, and we do not always appreciate the extent to which some of our basic assumptions contradict the Hebrew world view.
After all, Christianity (if it is true!) is the fulfilment of Jewish belief – we believe that God has revealed more than He revealed in the Old Testament, but it is the same God and the same truth (16). Nothing in the New Testament suggests that the Jews were wrong and the Greeks had been getting it right after all.
One of the key differences between Greek and Hebrew thought lies in their understanding of the soul. The Greeks believed in the immortality of the soul – when the body dies, the soul is freed from its earthly prison. Plato (along with many other ancient Greeks) believed in reincarnation, a doctrine which makes sense within this framework.
In Hebrew thought, by way of a contrast, the soul is the life of the living body – without the physical body, it cannot exist. (17)
In Greek thought, it makes perfect sense to talk about punishing the souls of dead people. Several of their stories give us examples: Tantalus suffering eternal hunger and thirst; Prometheus having his liver eaten every day by an eagle; Sisyphus rolling a boulder up a hill every day, only to see it roll back again. These stories are engaging and inventive, but that does not make them true.
By way of contrast, we do not find stories about dead people in the Old Testament: it would not make sense. There is no idea of a soul which is separate from the body or which becomes separated from the body at death. In Numbers 6:6 it even refers to a decaying corpse as a 'dead soul': the rotting flesh is all that is left of the soul.
So the idea that dead souls could be tormented for all eternity – or even for some shorter period – just does not exist in Jewish teaching. You can't torment a disembodied soul any more than you can swim in a dried-up river.
The 'traditional' evangelical position only makes sense if you adopt the Greek view that each person's soul will continue to exist for all eternity – that souls are, by nature, indestructible – and therefore the souls of the damned must be somewhere and experiencing something.
The Hebrew view – shared by the writers of the New Testament, of course – is that Human souls are not, by nature, immortal. Immortality is an attribute of God, not of man. God, and God alone, is immortal (18). The New Testament teaching is that we can inherit immortality, but this is in directly opposition to the Greek doctrine that all human beings are by nature immortal.
If there is any doubt about this, the story of the fall clearly presents a Biblical (Hebrew) view of the soul as opposed to the Greek view. Whether you understand the story as history or myth (or whether you reject both those simple approaches and adopt a more nuanced position) the meaning of the story (in this area, at least) is very clear: we are mortal.
In the story, the fact of Adam's mortality is presented as the reason for his banishment from the garden of Eden. Adam must not be allowed to eat from the tree of life, he must not live for ever – and therefore we are banished from the Garden. (19)
Much of our understanding is clouded because, when we read our Bibles, we have in our minds Greek concepts and expectations, not Hebrew ones. Jesus and the early Christians were all firmly rooted in Hebrew thought. While some of the New Testament writers – Paul is a good example – could use Greek ideas when they were helpful, they were always working from a Hebrew background and mindset.
I should point out that while there is a reasonable amount of controversial material in this article, the point I am making here about the difference between the Greek and Hebrew views of human life is, as far as I know, fully accepted by all reputable scholars – even if the implications are not widely understood. One nice summary puts it this way: "Christianity takes from Judaism the realistic recognition that man is an animated body and not an incarnated soul." (20)
When we switch from a Greek to a Hebrew understanding of the soul, many of the Biblical passages about the afterlife suddenly take on a very different meaning.
We should note at the outset that the hope we are offered in the New Testament is repeatedly described as 'life' or 'eternal life'. You don't need me to quote chapter and verse for all the references here! (21)
But God's offer of eternal life only makes sense if we do not already have it! People who believe in eternal torment do not believe that the unsaved need eternal life: according to them, the unsaved already have it! The problem, as they present it, is not that unbelievers need eternal life, but that they will spend their eternal life in the wrong place.
At this point, the response is generally that I do not understand what is meant by 'life' in the New Testament – it is much more than simply living, and refers to a tremendous quality of life. I am sure I do not understand all that is meant by the word 'life' in the New Testament. It certainly does include the idea of quality as well as quantity of life. But this objection completely misses the point.
By offering us eternal life, the New Testament writers are essentially saying: you already have life, but your life is limited – one day it will run out; but in Jesus you can have a new type of life which will last for ever.
This new life is described as eternal, unlimited. We are not offered 'superior life' or 'better life'. Please hear what I am saying: I do believe that eternal life in Jesus is better than life without Jesus, but this is not the way the New Testament writers describe it. They offer eternal life, in contrast to life which must, inevitably, be not eternal.
There are lots of other differences between the two types of life, but this is the one term which is consistently used to distinguish between them. Why on earth would they use the word 'eternal' to distinguish between the two types of life if they believed that both types of life were eternal? Again, belief in the traditional doctrine of Hell requires us to also believe the New testament writers were completely incompetent in their use of language, or deliberately misleading us.
In many Biblical passages, 'life' means far more than just existing. But 'death' means the end of suffering: you may well suffer as you die, but once you are dead you feel neither pleasure nor pain. Almost all the references to suffering in the Bible (and there are a great many) are about this life. For example, Pauls mentions suffering in a familiar passage in Romans.
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. (22)
There are a few exceptions in the Bible, where suffering does not seem to be limited to this present life, and we will aim to consider them all.
The believers in a traditional Hell usually come back to me at this point with the claim that I am using 'human reasoning'. But I am not seeking to use reasoning of any kind: I am simply trying to understand what the Bible actually says.
If you want me to believe the Bible teaches it, then just show me where the Bible teaches that ordinary human beings can be dead and feel either pleasure or pain. (And, no, the parable of the rich man and Lazarus is not teaching us about the nature of the afterlife – see the section on 'Lazarus' below.)
There are many passages in the New Testament that tell us about 'life' and 'eternal life'. Is there a single passage that qualifies the meaning of 'life', to turn it into something that will fit the doctrine of eternal torment? Is there a single passage which explains we are not supposed to understand 'life' to mean what it ordinarily, obviously means, and explains that it really means something radically different when the New Testament writers use the term? No, not one.
This is probably as good a place as any to directly address the question of the meaning of the word 'eternal' in the Bible.
In many places, the question is fairly academic. But there are various places in the Bible where 'for ever', 'eternal' or 'everlasting' do not mean what we think they mean. We think they refer to duration – to time that will never end – but very often they actually refer to purpose. 'Never fail' would often be a more accurate translation than 'never end'.
Does it sound like I am contradicting myself? Jesus offers us eternal life, but this eternal life does not necessary last for ever? I don't think so: read on, and it should become clear.
But even if eternal life is not something which lasts for ever, the main point of the argument remains unchanged. Jesus offers us eternal life instead of perishing, not pleasure instead of pain. He offers us life, not pleasure; the precise duration of that life is really not that important in understanding His words.
So, back to the question of eternity. Let us look at a few examples. A good place to start is in Jonah (23), where 'for ever' lasted just three days and three nights!
Similarly, God's promise to keep a descendant of David on the throne of Israel 'for ever' (24) lasted more like 400 years.
The threat to Eli that God will 'judge his family for ever' (25) does not refer to a Heavenly court case that goes on interminably, but to a punishment for their sins that is finite (the boys die), but the consequences of which will last for ever.
We are told in Jude (26) that Sodom and Gomorrah serve as an example to us "by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire." – literally, a 'vengeance of eternal fire'. For anyone who has not yet woken up: Sodom and Gomorrah are not still burning! The fire lasted for as long as it took to complete the job. That's as long as any fire needs to burn for.
The Psalmist tells us, talking about the sun, moon and stars,
He set them in place for ever and ever;
he gave a decree that will never pass away. (27)
Despite this assurance, the scientists tell us that the sun and stars will not always remain – in a few billion years, they will have burned out and disappeared.
More relevantly, the Bible teaches us that they will pass away. We read in Revelation that there will be no more sun (28), and that the first heaven and the first earth will pass away (29). But the sun, moon and stars will last for as long as they are needed.
There are many other examples. Naaman's leprosy will cling to Gehazi and his descendants "for ever" (30). We don't know how long this punishment is to last for, but it is hard to imagine his leprous descendants inhabiting the New Jerusalem for all time.
Finally, in reference to Samuel, "always" means 'for his whole life' (31). You have to interpret these terms in their context.
This is a really important point. We can rely on the Bible as God's revelation to us. But in the Bible, we have been given a collection of meaningful documents, not a collection of individual texts which were intended to stand alone out of context.
Some Christians say things like: "The Bible says it, so I believe it." But we must interpret each passage in context, and in the light of what we are told in the rest of the Bible: any serious book on hermeneutics (the subject of how to interpret the Bible) will confirm this. (32)
One simple and obvious example of this can be seen in Acts 23 (33). In verse 12, we read that 'the Jews' formed a plot to kill Paul. Out of context, this has a clear meaning: the entire Jewish nation joined in a plot to kill Paul. But verse 13 says that there were 'more than forty' people in the plot. So it was not the whole Jewish nation, only a little more than forty individuals. In context, the meaning is clear. But if you take the text out of context, you cannot understand it correctly.
So: you have to interpret passages in context, and you can't just assume that when the Biblical writers use terms like "for ever" and "eternal" they are talking about unlimited time.
You may be thinking at this point: Ah! I know where this is going – the threat of eternal torment in Hell does not mean the torment will never end. Yes, and no.
Yes, it is the case that if the Bible threatened us with eternal torment, this torment would probably be completed at some point and cease. But no: even if, in the relevant passages, 'for ever' really does mean for ever, the 'for ever' does not refer to eternal torment.
In summary: my aim here is to look at what the Bible teaches about the fate of the unsaved. I aim to look both at the key passages which contain relevant material, and also at the context of those passages to enable us to understand their meaning correctly. If you think I have missed something significant about either the content of the passages being considered, or their context, please let me know. (34)
We can now come back to the theology for one moment: the technical term for the theological position I describe here is 'conditional immortality', not 'annihilationism', although the two are often confused.
The difference between 'conditional immortality' and 'annihilationism' is that the former assumes the Hebrew understanding that the human soul can become immortal, while the latter assumes the Greek understanding that the human soul is in essence immortal, and it takes a deliberate act of God to take this immortality away.
Just to be clear about the language we are using here: 'immortal' means 'not subject to death'. God alone is immortal by nature, but He can grant us immortality. In that sense, He makes us like him: we are, like Him, without end. Of course, He remains unique in not having a beginning.
There is one slightly confusing consequence of using the term 'conditional immortality' and it comes about when we start to talk about the state of Adam and Eve before the fall – again, it makes no difference whether or not you understand the story to be history or mythology. In a sense, they were immortal, in that they were neither dying nor destined to die; but they were immortal neither in the way that God is by nature nor in the way that we inherit.
The natural way to describe their original state is one of 'conditional immortality' – but it is almost the opposite of the conditional immortality we are talking about here. For us, we can gain immortality if we believe in Jesus; for them, they could (and did!) lose immortality when they chose to disobey God. (35)
I probably need to say something here about extremism. It is not really within the scope of this discussion, but in the modern world it is hard to avoid the issue, so let's say a few quick words.
Please be clear: I am not suggesting my fellow Evangelicals are fanatical extremists. But I think we need to recognise that the doctrine of eternal torment is one which naturally (and, some would argue, inevitably) plays into the hands of extremists and fanatics.
The point, I think, is fairly obvious. Suffering unspeakable torment for all eternity in Hell is the worst possible fate anyone could possibly face. So anything you can do to prevent this from happening must be justified – it must be a good idea.
After all, this is pretty much what Jesus seems to tell us.
If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell. (36)
But this is not what Jesus is actually saying. If it were that simple, the choice would be clear. But plucking out your eye, or cutting off your hand, will not prevent you from sinning; maiming yourself will not in any way protect your from Hell. If it did, the choice would be worth it – but it doesn't.
And that is the point Jesus is making here. It is really, really important that you avoid Hell. Do whatever you can to ensure you do not end up there. But you will have to find a better strategy than simply cutting away parts of your body: go down that route, and you will find you don't have much left. Jesus makes it quite clear that it is what comes out of the heart that makes us unclean. (37)
Also, we should note that Jesus talks about plucking out your own eye. He says nothing about plucking out someone else's eye.
So you can't use Jesus' words to justify hurting others, even with the intention of saving them from Hell.
But people don't need Jesus to justify hurting others. If you believe in Hellfire, then it makes complete sense to burn heretics alive: it probably will not save them; but if there is even the slightest chance it might, it is worth taking, and if they are destined anyway for eternal fire it makes no difference if the fire lasts for an extra few minutes; and maybe someone else will see the heretic suffer, take the warning, repent and be saved from the eternal flames. If you believe in Hellfire, burning heretics can be justified.
Again, I am not saying my fellow Evangelicals do justify burning heretics. But if you have that theology, such an activity makes sense. After all, you are only doing what you see (or think you see) your Father in Heaven doing.
On the other hand, if you really believe that God loves people, and demonstrates this in the way He treats us, then you will seek to avoid hurting anyone if you can.
I can't help feeling that there is a connection between fundamentalists and religious extremists believing that God chooses to inflict suffering on people, and these same people believing that it is acceptable for them to inflict suffering on other people – as long as it's in a good cause, of course.
I know this has nothing to do with the basic question: what does the Bible say about Hell? But, according to Jesus, you can tell a lot about a tree by looking at its fruit (38); it is just another reason why I feel this is a vital subject, another reason why we need to get our theology straight here.
Finally – the final point in the introduction, that is! – I want to clear up one misunderstanding that sometimes gets in the way.
Some people object to this teaching about destruction on the grounds that 'it is only what most non-Christians believe anyway.' I don't see why this should be such a problem. After all, most non-Christians believe that water is wet and fire burns. But, in this instance at least, what they believe is quite different.
If we only look at the end point, both options are the same: in both cases, you are no more – not only are you dead, but there is nothing of you left; nothing beyond, perhaps, a few fading memories. If we only look at the end point, that is. But most people don't care only about the end point: most people care a great deal about the route we take to get there.
Most non-Christian seem to believe that death is the end: you live, you die, and that is all there is. Mainstream Christian teaching, on the other hand, says that death – physical death – is not the end. One day, we will all be resurrected and stand before the throne of God (39) to be judged. People who have rejected Him in this life will be rejected by Him in the next. (40)
The two positions are only the same if you focus on the end point and completely ignore everything else; but this does not reflect how people feel and the way they behave in real life.
After all, you are going to die one day: if only the end point matters, then it makes no difference if someone kills you today. But I don't see it that way, I suspect you don't either – and our legal system certainly doesn't.
If I'm wrong and death really is the end, I'll never know my mistake; but if death is not the end, if there will be judgement one day, then the question of what happens next will matter more than anything else in the world. (41)
People can imagine, perhaps, what it must be like to be on trial for your life. But a human court can only take away – at worst – your life. They can only take away from you what you will have to give up in a few years anyway. When you stand before God, you will know His offer of eternal life was real; and your response to His offer will determine whether you can look forward to eternity – or not.
From a human court, you may go to the gallows convinced that the jury was mistaken, or perhaps you might attempt a degree of revenge by maintaining your innocence to the end. But when God pronounces judgement, you (and all creation with you) will know that what He says is right.
Whatever we believe about the nature of the punishment the wicked will suffer, we must not ignore the Bible's clear teaching that the punishment will only be inflicted after we stand before the Judge of all the Earth and hear His verdict. It is what the Bible teaches us to expect; and, in my experience, the Judgement Seat is a far more believable prospect for most people than the traditional pantomime 'demons-with-pitchforks' they usually hear – or imagine they hear – us talking about.
I am sometimes asked if there is any Biblical evidence to support this strange idea that the unsaved will cease to exist. The questioner always assumes that the Bible clearly teaches about eternal torment, and that people like me only believe in destruction because we ignore the Biblical evidence and choose to indulge in wishful thinking instead.
In fact, the situation is precisely the opposite. All the way through the Bible, we are taught that the wicked will be destroyed; the Biblical justification for belief in eternal torment rests on one possible interpretation of a single text (42) whose meaning is far from clear.
Most evangelicals find this hard to believe, because they are so used to reading the Bible in the light of their belief in eternal torment. We will go into more detail in chapters 4 and 5, but just to get started on what the Bible actually says, let us look at two verses many Christians will be familiar with.
Let us begin by considering the best known verse in the Bible – John 3:16.
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (43)
What Jesus actually says seems to be pretty clear. You have two choices: if you do not believe in Jesus, you will perish; if you believe in Jesus, you will gain eternal life. You can perish – which means to die or be destroyed – or you can live eternally. Through Jesus, you have the choice.
What Jesus is saying here makes sense. At least, it makes sense if you assume He means what he says. But if you believe in the doctrine of eternal torment, and believe that this doctrine is what Jesus taught, understanding this passage becomes much more difficult.
If eternal torment is true, then what Jesus should have said, if He were being honest with us, is more like this:
"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not suffer eternal torment, but have eternal pleasure."
Or am I missing something?
The believers in eternal torment explain that I don't understand what Jesus means by the term 'eternal life'.
Unfortunately for these believers, there is a well-known passage later in the same gospel, which explains exactly what Jesus means when He talks about eternal life. When Jesus is praying in John 17, He says:
Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. (44)
What is eternal life, according to Jesus? It is to know God. He does not say that eternal life is to be rescued from the flames; He does not say that eternal life is to enjoy eternal bliss or to avoid eternal torment. Eternal life is to know God, to know Him personally, to be in a relationship with Him. That sounds good to me.
Was Jesus really that bad a communicator? The doctrine of eternal torment turns John 3:16 completely on its head. In this verse, Jesus says He offers us eternal life as an alternative to perishing; but (if this doctrine is true!) what he really intended to say is that we don't need to be given eternal life because we already have it, and we don't need to worry about perishing because we can't; that we need to believe in Him in order to have a good time, and the punishment for not believing in Him is eternal torment.
If the doctrine of eternal torment is true, then we need to explain why John 3:16 is so misleading. It seems to me that there are only four possible explanations, and I find each one of them to be unacceptable.
If you believe in the doctrine of eternal torment, which of these possibilities do you choose? (45)
I refuse to distort Jesus' clear teaching about this subject. But then, I feel no need to: I am content to understand His words as meaning exactly what they appear to say. A straightforward, natural, obvious, common-sense reading of this text is entirely consistent with the teaching we find in the rest of the Bible.
So we can take Jesus at His word without creating any theological problems or conflicts with the teaching we find in the rest of the Bible.
The New Testament is pretty clear on this subject – eternal life is something we do not naturally and automatically have as human beings: it is something given to us by God when we believe in Jesus Christ. We do not have an immortal soul when we are born, but we can be given one.
For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (46)
Things could not be much more straightforward, could they? The wages of sin is death, not eternal survival in torment. The gift of God is eternal life, something you don't already have. There is a simple choice: you either take the gift of life and live, or you keep the wages of sin and die. You either live or perish, just as Jesus tells us.
If eternal torment were true, then Paul really should have told us the truth – he should have written something more like this:
"For the wages of sin is eternal torment, but the gift of God is eternal pleasure in Christ Jesus our Lord."
So both Jesus and Paul offer us life; for Jesus, the alternative is that we perish, for Paul the alternative is that we die. There seems to be a fairly coherent theme emerging here.
I don't know about you, but if I discover that both Jesus and Paul teach something very clearly, then I tend to think that it is probably true, and might well be important.
Note too: the idea of eternal torment is completely missing from both these key passages. If eternal torment is such an important doctrine, how do we explain the fact that it is not mentioned in these key passages dealing with the question of what happens after death? (Actually, how do we explain the fact that it never gets mentioned in any passage dealing with what happens to people after death?)
What the people who believe in eternal torment would like is a passage in the Bible that describes such a fate. Of course, there isn't one, but what they would like to find is a passage that reads something like this:
"anyone who has died is suffering unspeakable torment unless they believed in Jesus."
In fact, just a few verses earlier in Romans, Paul addresses precisely this topic. Unfortunately for those who cling to eternal torment, what he actually said was:
anyone who has died has been freed from sin. (47)
Not quite the same, is it?
In this chapter and the next, we will look at what the Bible says about the fate of the wicked, first in the Old Testament and then in the New.
We have already seen that Jesus teaches that the unsaved will 'perish'. In this, He is simply repeating the clear teaching of the Old Testament. The destruction of the ungodly is clearly and consistently taught in both the Old Testament and the New. Let us look at a few examples.
Right at the beginning, when God spoke to Adam in the Garden of Eden, the consequence of sin was made clear.
but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die. (48)
If the consequence of sin is destruction, God's warning makes perfect sense. When you die, you cease to exist. The threat He makes communicates this penalty clearly and accurately.
On the other hand, if the consequence of sin is eternal torment, God was not being entirely straight with poor old Adam - in fact, He was really being quite economical with the truth. If eternal torment is so much worse a fate than eternal destruction, surely God should have let Adam know the full consequences of disobedience?
At this pivotal point in history, Adam is told he has two options. He can choose life, or he can choose death. It's amazingly close to John 3:16 - you can choose life or you can perish. Of course, you can, if you wish, believe that what this really means is that Adam had to choose between an eternity of pleasure and an eternity of pain - but that is not what the Bible actually says.
This next point is not as obvious as the last one, but I think it is still worth making.
After the fall, God says that Adam must die.
"...[Adam] must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever." So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden, to work the ground from which he had been taken. (49)
The obvious question is: why?
If you believe that God is being wrathful and vengeful here, wanting Adam to suffer as much as possible as a consequence of his sin, then you can read this to say that God here is making sure that Adam will die so that he will go to Hell and suffer for all eternity. But the passage does not say this, and it is not consistent with the picture of God we see here.
On the other hand, if you believe that God still loves Adam and wants the best for him despite his sin, then this passage takes on a completely different meaning. Adam is now alienated from God, knowing what he has lost. Allowing Adam to live forever in this condition would be unnecessarily cruel, so God ensures that Adam will, one day, die, and be released from his guilt and regrets.
Of course, this picture only makes sense if death is the end of the story. To 'release' Adam from a life of regret to an eternity of unspeakable torment would not be a demonstration of love.
The basic question is: does God still love Adam, or is He wanting to get revenge on Adam and punish him as much as possible? And I am not asking about which option you or I would prefer, or which option fits our theology most neatly, but which option best fits the text. Everything in the text, including God's provision of clothing to protect Adam and Eve from the storms and thorns they now have to cope with, suggests that God still loves Adam. Nothing I can find suggests the contrary. So it seems clear from the text that God still loves Adam. Death, in this context, is a blessing and a release.
Let us take another well-known text. The book of Psalms begins with a familiar passage.
"Blessed is the man
who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked
... He is like a tree planted by streams of water." (50)
In other words, the godly man will endure - will last, will live. By way of contrast, what is the fate of the ungodly?
"Not so the wicked!
They are like the chaff
that the wind blows away." (51)
The wicked will disappear. Of course, if you want to be pedantic, the chaff does not cease to exist when it is blown away - it is merely moved and spread across the countryside. But this is not a scientific paper on the conservation of mass - it is poetry. You hold chaff in your hands, and it is there; the wind blows, and it is gone.
The contrast is with the godly. The godly man will endure, will last. The wicked man will disappear - the wind will blow, and the wicked will be no more. They do not have permanence.
This sounds remarkably like the destruction of the wicked to me. The same image is used elsewhere in the Old Testament - in Isaiah, for example, we read that the many enemies of Jerusalem "will become like fine dust, the ruthless hordes like blown chaff." (52)
Similar to the picture of chaff is the image of stubble being burnt away. In the Song of Moses, we hear about the Egyptian army:
"You unleashed your burning anger;
it consumed them like stubble." (53)
This picture is not just used of punishment which has already been delivered. In a picture of the final judgement, we read:
"Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and that day that is coming will set them on fire." (54)
In Psalm 73, the Psalmist is wrestling with the problem of evil. Sin is not punished, the evil prosper - "always carefree, they increase in wealth." It is not right, the Psalmist says: things should not be this way.
The problem and the confusion remain until he receives Divine revelation. According to the Psalmist, I did not understand "till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny."
So the problem of the wicked prospering will not be solved in the here-and-now. The problem is only solved when you take into account their final destiny.
"How suddenly they are destroyed,
completely swept away by terrors!
As a dream when one awakes,
so when you arise O Lord,
you will despise them as fantasies." (55)
This is presented to us as a description of what happens after death. You can read it purely as a statement of what happens in this life, but reading the passage this way throws up a number of significant problems.
Firstly, as an answer to the problem of wicked people prospering, it just does not work. You can see for yourself that many wicked people die rich and comfortable. That is why the Psalmist is unhappy in the first place! To claim that they all get destroyed in this life flies in the face of the evidence.
Secondly, it goes against the meaning of this passage. If you could see the wicked being destroyed, you would not need to ponder the problem of their success until you went into the sanctuary and had the answer revealed to you.
And thirdly, the wicked are once again paralleled with the godly. Verse 24 clearly looks at what happens to the godly person after death - "You guide me with your counsel, and afterwards you will take me into glory" - so the parallel must be with the final destiny of the wicked after death.
There are several passages in the Old Testament which describe the idols that men make. A typical example can be found in Psalm 115.
"They have mouths but cannot speak,
eyes, but they cannot see;
they have ears, but cannot hear,
noses, but they cannot smell;
they have hands, but cannot feel,
feet, but they cannot walk;
nor can they utter a sound with their throats.
Those who make them will be like them,
and so will all who trust in them." (56)
You can take this to mean that those who make and trust idols will have hands but be unable to feel. So you could use this to argue for the continued existence of the ungodly - but if they can feel nothing, there is not a lot of point in tormenting them!
These passages are really saying that idols are nothing. They may look like something to the eye, they may appear to be something, but in reality they feel nothing, they do nothing, they are nothing.
Everyone seems to agree that the idols will not be writhing in torment for all eternity. And we are told that those who trust them will be like them. The conclusion seems inescapable. This passage may not explicitly teach about destruction, but it is hard to see what other fate for the wicked would be consistent with the teaching here.
In the Old Testament, the grave ('Sheol') is the place of the dead. It is sometimes translated as 'Hell' or 'death'. It is a shadowy place, where nothing much happens and nothing much can happen - certainly not torment.
So it is interesting to see numerous passages where Sheol is paired up with 'destruction' - either as an equivalent term, or to provide a comprehensive set of options. For example:
Death is naked before God;
Destruction lies uncovered. (57)
Death and Destruction lie open before the Lord (58)
Death and Destruction are never satisfied (59)
You can summarise the expectation of people in the Old Testament very simply: the godly will reside in Sheol, possibly awaiting a resurrection, while the ungodly are destroyed and have no hope at all of resurrection.
There are many other passages in the Old Testament which give exactly the same message.
You destroy those who tell lies (60)
Kiss the son, lest he be angry
and you be destroyed in your way (61)
Those who are far from you will perish;
You destroy all who are unfaithful to you. (62)
For the living know that they will die,
but the dead know nothing;
they have no further reward,
and even the memory of them is forgotten.
Their love, their hate
and their jealousy have long since vanished;
never again will they have a part
in anything that lies under the sun. (63)
Finally, there is the famous passage in Isaiah 9, which we read every Christmas:
Every warrior's boot used in battle
and every garment rolled in blood
will be destined for burning,
will be fuel for the fire. (64)
A few verses later, Isaiah returns to the theme of burning:
By the wrath of the Lord Almighty
the land will be scorched
and the people will be fuel for the fire;
no-one will spare his brother. (65)
The boots, the garments and the people will all be fuel for the fire. Fuel is burned up: it is destroyed in the process. So what of the people? In the total absence of any suggestion to the contrary, we have to understand that they, too, will be burned up. Being burned may hurt terribly while the victim is alive, but soon they die, soon they are consumed, and all suffering ceases.
There is one final aspect of the Old Testament record to be considered: what it doesn't say. I know an argument from silence is tricky, but in the present context this seems like a strong support for the interpretation I'm putting forward here.
My point here is not so much that the idea of people being tormented in Hell is absent from the Old Testament, but that it is absent even from the places where you would expect it to be.
Take Psalm 109 for example. Verses 6-20 contain an impressive list of curses. David seems to have spent a great deal of time crafting a comprehensive list of curses: this is not an off-the-cuff list of verbal abuse.
David curses his enemy's wife, his children, his belongings, his memory - and yet the one obvious curse is left unspoken. The one thing David does not say is: "May he burn in Hell." Is that because this would be a step too far? Read the Psalm. I really don't think that is the case. David is not holding back here.
The obvious - the only - reason is that being tormented after you die was not something which David considered to be possible. He doesn't even hope that it might happen. This essential piece of mainstream evangelical theology is totally absent from David's thinking.
If we turn to the Sermon on the Mount, we find the same message from the mouth of Jesus. In another well-known passage, we read:
"Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide, and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and many are those who enter by it. For the gate is small, and the way is narrow that leads to life, and few are those who find it." (66)
Yet again, the choice is very simple, and very clear: there are two ways. One leads to life, and the other leads to destruction. Not misery, not pain, not torment, but destruction.
This same theme is picked up a few verses later, right at the end of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus summarises the consequences of following His teaching – and the consequences of ignoring His teaching.
Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash. (67)
I remember singing this story as a child: the wise man built his house upon the rock. The message is quite clear: if you hear and obey the words of Jesus, you will be like a man whose house stands when the inevitable storms come; if you do not obey His words, you will be like a man who builds a house which is doomed from the beginning.
This is not a parable. Jesus does not tell us about a man who built his house on the rock. Instead, He is talking to His followers – to you and me – and giving us a dreadful warning: this is your choice; this is what your life will be like, one way or another.
And again, we are explicitly told that the penalty for ignoring Jesus is not suffering, but destruction.
Jesus does not only talk about eternal life. He also talks about Hell. He seems to be quite clear about what happens in Hell.
"Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell." (68)
Of course, the One who can destroy both soul and body in Hell is God. People who are familiar with images of Satan ruling a fiery kingdom need to understand this very clearly: Hell is not the kingdom where Satan reigns. Satan does not torment anyone in Hell, and he does not have the power to destroy your soul. The One with the power of destruction is God. And what does He do in Hell? What happens there? Jesus is quite clear: what happens in Hell is destruction, not endless torment.
The New Testament does not always promise destruction as the alternative to eternal life - at least, not explicitly. Sometimes the contrast is implicit.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches us that useless people will be 'thrown out'. It is another very familiar passage: "You (presumably, the Jews to whom He is speaking) are the salt of the earth..."
You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. (69)
What do you do with useless salt? You just throw it out, you get rid of it. You throw it onto the path or the road, and it disappears. You don't need to do anything to destroy it: it just disappears as people and animals walk over it.
It is not exactly destruction, but the end point is the same - the useless salt is gone. And, yet again, there is no hint of God wanting to torment those who refuse to participate in the life of His Kingdom.
Another place where destruction is implied can be found in Paul's letter to the Galatians.
"For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life." (70)
Paul describes two possibilities: you can sow to your flesh, or you can sow to the Spirit. If you sow to the Spirit, you reap eternal life. The alternative is that you reap - what? Suffering? Torment? No: you reap corruption. If Paul wanted to teach that we need to avoid eternal torment, then he was an incredibly poor communicator.
Just to be clear here: the word 'corruption' refers to the process of decay which happens to a dead body. The dead body eventually returns to the soil; it disappears. Corruption is the process which turns a human being into ... nothing. The choice we face is literally eternal life, or nothing. It is the same truth that we find elsewhere in the Bible, described in slightly different words
So, if you refuse to follow Jesus, you face destruction. This simple message is consistently taught throughout the New Testament.
"We are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved." (71)
The parallel is simple and unavoidable. There are only two options presented to us: we can shrink back, or believe. If we believe, we shall be saved; if we shrink back, we shall be destroyed. The choice is salvation or destruction. You can either live, or perish.
If you refuse to follow Jesus, you face destruction. But what of those who go beyond refusing, beyond shrinking back? What of those who actively oppose Jesus? Surely they deserve a worse fate?
Yet again, we do not have to guess. Paul tells us very clearly about the fate of these people.
"[Many] live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction..." (72)
Paul is simply following the teaching of Jesus here. The same message is found in the parable of the Ten Minas. We cannot take one detail from a parable to establish doctrine, but it is valid to note yet another place in the New Testament where the punishment for opposing God is death and not torment. At the conclusion of the parable, the King (representing God) pronounces a final judgement:
"But those enemies of mine ... bring them here and kill them in front of me." (73)
We need to be clear about this: when the Biblical writers talk about destruction, these are not vague or polite references to something completely different. That sort of thing does happen in the Bible - for example, several references to 'feet' in the Old Testament are polite ways of talking about sexual organs. But there is not a shred of evidence that the word 'destruction' is used in this way. When Jesus says that Judas was "doomed to destruction" (74), that is exactly what He intended to communicate.
At this point in the discussion, I am usually asked about all those passages in the New Testament which talk about Hell fire - surely these texts teach us that sinners are tormented? Okay, let us look at Hell fire next.
In the Old Testament, the fate of the wicked is usually described as 'destruction'. In the New Testament, the doctrine is unchanged, but the language is slightly different. When talking about the fate of the wicked, the central image in the New Testament is that of fire. As we have already seen in the section on Consumed like stubble, this image is also used in the Old Testament.
We have to be very careful here. People are so used to the idea of 'hellfire' that it becomes very difficult to read these passages for what they say. Please excuse me if I labour this point, but it really is essential, and experience suggests that I have to go slowly here.
Imagine you have a photograph you want to get rid of - perhaps of a lover who cheated and left you. You could just throw it in the bin, but you would know it was still somewhere. No, the most satisfying option is to burn it. That way, you destroy the photograph. It cannot come back and haunt you - and hopefully, neither will the person concerned.
You burn the photograph to get rid of it - to be free, not to inflict pain on the photograph or the other person. In the Bible, fire has various functions, but it mainly cleanses, purifies and destroys. Of course, fire can hurt - but that is a side effect, not the main function.
Go back to the quote from Malachi. (75) The evildoers will be like stubble, and the day of the Lord will set the stubble on fire. You do not burn stubble in order to inflict pain on it; you don't burn it as a punishment - you burn it to get rid of it.
Fire destroys. In the absence of any other context (the "refiner's fire", for example), that is the basic meaning of all references to fire and burning. What do you burn? There are two basic options.
Firstly, you can burn something in order to produce a fire for light, heat or cooking.
Secondly, you can burn rubbish in order to get rid of it.
Those are the options. Either you make a fire to produce light or heat, or you make a fire to get rid of the objects being burned. Take, for example, this quote from John the Baptist:
"The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire." (76)
The fire is not a punishment: it does not teach the tree a lesson; it does not serve as a warning to the other trees. A tree that does not bear good fruit is rubbish - it has failed to fulfil its purpose - and so it is disposed of. The dreadful news is that the same fate awaits the ungodly.
John goes on to repeat the point. After telling his hearers that the Messiah will baptise them with "the Holy Spirit and fire" (77), he goes on to say that the Messiah "will gather his wheat into the barn, but he will burn the chaff with unquenchable fire." (78)
The point is surely clear: the chaff is not being punished or tormented. The useful stuff - the wheat - is carefully gathered and safely stored; the rubbish is disposed of - completely disposed of. The unquenchable fire will get rid of every bit of chaff. Everything that is not productive will go. It seems likely (given what we are taught elsewhere in the Bible) (79) that this includes not only the people who refuse to be a part of God's new Kingdom, but also the parts of us which are not submitted to God's will.
The same idea is found in John's gospel. We are familiar with the idea that unbelievers will be consigned to the fire; possibly even more worrying is the idea that the same fate can await the believer who does not abide in Jesus. Jesus warns us:
"If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned." (80)
Again, the meaning is quite clear. The fire is not a warning or a punishment. It is simply what you do to clear away the rubbish. The branch is already dead: it withered because it did not remain in Jesus.
If we do not abide in Jesus, we cannot bear fruit; if we do not bear fruit, we are removed to make space for a branch that will abide and be fruitful. We can argue for ages about eternal security for the believer and whether salvation can be completely lost, but that is not what Jesus is talking about in this passage. (81)
The role of fire in this passage is simple, clear and consistent with the rest of Scripture. There is no mention of punishment or suffering; fire is used to clear away the rubbish.
Turning back to Matthew, we find the same message in the parable of the weeds (82). The fate of the weeds is to be burned. Jesus goes on to explain the parable:
"As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (83)
Weeping and gnashing of teeth indicates suffering and regret, but there is no suggestion or hint that this will last for all eternity. On the contrary, the parable tells us that "all who do evil" will be burned up and disappear, just like weeds are burned to get rid of them.
In the parable of the net, a few verses later (84), Jesus gives us the same message. You burn the stuff you don't want in order to get rid of it.
When I talk with people about this subject, we frequently go down an odd cul-de-sac.
I explain that the function of fire in these Biblical passages is to destroy, not to torment for eternity. In response, people often look at me with pity and explain patiently that I have completely missed the point.
The obvious point they feel I have missed is that souls are not material objects, so they cannot be consumed by fire.
The conversation often gets a bit tricky at this point. Each of us are trying to be patient with the other, making allowance for their strange inability to see the obvious.
Fire - literal fire, the thing that burns weeds and trees - is a rapid oxidation of combustible material. Rusting is a slower version of oxidation, and dynamite exploding is a faster form. Fire can only burn physical material: it is a chemical process which can only affect physical material. Physical processes act on physical objects.
It is clear that fire cannot consume a human soul, because fire is a physical process, and a soul is not a physical object. But, for the same reason, fire - literal fire - cannot cause pain to a human soul.
You cannot have it both ways: fire, as a physical process, cannot consume a human soul, but neither can it cause the soul pain. A spiritual equivalent of fire can cause pain to the soul, but then a spiritual process can also destroy a spiritual entity. At least, that is what Jesus tells us over and over again.
What believers in a traditional Hell want Jesus to have said is something like this:
"If anyone does not remain in me, he is thrown into the fire and burned."
Instead, Jesus is quite clear: "If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers ..." (85). What happens in the spiritual realm is like a process we all recognise in the physical realm: just as a branch which is not connected to the vine will wither and die, so too - in the spiritual realm - anyone who is not connected to Jesus will wither and die. And as, in the physical realm, "such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned," so too in the spiritual realm, these withered, dead people will be gathered up and disposed of.
I do apologise, but experience suggests I need to be painfully clear on this point: literal, physical fire cannot either hurt or destroy a human soul; when Jesus talks about souls being consigned to the fire - as in Matthew 13, where "all who do evil" will be thrown into the blazing furnace (86) - He is not talking about a literal fire.
Fire has the same function when the Bible talks explicitly about the Second Coming. The consistent message is that the 'day of the Lord' will come with fire. Three examples, starting with the familiar Malachi passage, spring to mind.
"Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire," says the LORD Almighty. "Not a root or a branch will be left to them." (87)
"their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person's work." (88)
"This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels." (89)
And on that day:
"He will punish those who do not know God and will not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power." (90)
So, for these people, their punishment is destruction. That seems pretty clear. And, just to make it even clearer, the destruction is described as 'everlasting' - there is no hope of re-creation. No possibility of resurrection is offered. Once destroyed, forever destroyed. The message about destruction is repeated later in the letter, just in case anyone failed to get the point first time round.
"And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow with the breath of his mouth and destroy by the splendour of his coming." (91)
With the exception of two passages in Revelation (which we shall shortly be looking at), references in the New Testament to Hell fire are references to destruction, not to torment. So, in the New Testament, the vast majority of the passages that touch on this subject point to destruction rather than torment being the fate of the wicked.
The passage in 1 Corinthians 3, mentioned above in passing, deserves to be looked at again.
The day of the Lord will come 'like fire' - but this fire will not judge us: it will test the quality of each man's (in context, each Christian's) work. If, in our lives, we have built nothing of any value, our work will be burned up. Whatever remains after the fire - whatever survives into eternity - will be our reward.
This passage clearly teaches that a Christian who does not live right will be saved, but will 'suffer loss' (92). In contrast, the local congregation (the plural 'you' of verse 16) is sacred: you are God's temple. And, we are told, "if anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him" (93) - another situation where we are explicitly told that God's punishment is destruction, not suffering.
In this passage, the fire is something the Christian passes through, not the non-Christian. But the Christian's future is totally secure - he will be saved, no matter what. The Christian's reward will depend how how he or she lived - it will be what remains, whatever has been built of gold, silver and precious stones.
And the explicit fate of some unbelievers is that they will be destroyed. We are not told of the fate of the unbelievers who do not commit the sin of destroying God's temple, but it is hard to see how the threat of eternal torment could fit in to the picture Paul is giving us here. If the doctrine of eternal torment is so important, why is it missing here?
Whatever the image or symbolism being used in any given passage, the teaching of the New Testament is simple and clear: the ungodly will perish.
The final substantial argument that the ungodly will perish also serves a secondary purpose: it solves a problem that many evangelicals struggle with - the apparent universalism of various passages. Take this well known passage for example.
"And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfilment - to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ." (94)
If 'all things in heaven and on earth' will be brought together under Christ, does this not mean that everyone will eventually be saved? It violates the sense of the passage to argue that the ungodly are included here, but if that interpretation is not possible, what can the 'all things' possibly mean?
I'm sure you are ahead of me. If the ungodly will one day perish, then all those who remain can be brought together under the headship of Christ.
This interpretation is simple, straightforward and (dare I say it?) obvious. It preserves the obvious meaning of the passage, and avoids the danger of universalism. The same interpretation solves the same problem with 'all things' in Colossians:
"For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross." (95)
This also solves the problem in Revelation that so many who believe in eternal torment fail to address:
He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. (96)
John here describes a new creation - 'a new heaven and a new earth' (97) means that everything is new. How can it be that there is no more crying or pain? Because the ungodly are not writhing in torment: they are, quite simply, no more. They didn't make it into the new creation. They perished with the old.
There is one further line of thought pointing us in the direction of destruction as the fate of the wicked. I can't claim it is a major Biblical theme, but there are various passages that suggest another way of reaching the same conclusion as the ones we have looked at so far.
God is consistently revealed to us as the Creator, the source of everything. Satan can twist and pervert, but he can't create; all he can do is to damage what has been created.
God is more than just a Creator who fashions a clockwork universe and sets it going: He not only created in the past, He continues to sustain His creation (98).
Any experience of creation is, in some sense, an experience of God. God is revealed in creation - He communicates Himself through what He has made. The air you breathe is a blessing from God, the food you eat is an expression of His grace. Your own body continues to exist because He loves you.
However, you cannot presume on God's grace. The blessings He continues to pour out on you will one day come to an end if you do not choose to return His love. He requires a response from us.
And what of those who choose not to respond to His love? If, in the end, you reject God, then surely you reject His blessings. Almost every passage of the Bible teaches this, one way or another. If you receive God, you receive His blessings; if you reject Him, you reject His blessings. The good God and the good things from God, in the end, go together.
But if those who reject God - whether they realise it or not! - also reject His blessings, in the end, what will they have left? Since all things come from Him, those who reject God, reject everything. Our continued existence is an act of God's love and grace. Those who reject Him are rejecting, in the end, their very selves. You cannot exist without enjoying God's blessing, so if you reject God and all His blessings, what can possibly be left? Only the prospect of eternal destruction.
We have seen so far that the vast majority of the Biblical text supports the idea that the unrighteous will perish. What about the texts which are used to support the idea that they will not be destroyed, but instead will suffer eternal torments?
Let us take a work of systematic theology that argues for the eternal torment of the lost, and examine every one of the texts presented to support this view. If anyone wishes to supply any other passages, I will be glad to add them to this list.
For reasons which, I hope, will become obvious, I have divided the list into two parts: the weak evidence, and the strong evidence.
The weak evidence comes in these passages.
The strong evidence comes in just two passages.
This list comes from Know the Truth (99). To be fair, Milne does note that "conditional immortality is viewed by some as a viable biblical understanding of the future state of the impenitent" (which suggests to me that he does not fully grasp the concept); he also admits that the terms commonly used in the Bible, "such as 'destruction', 'ruin' and 'perishing' can imply some eventual termination of life" (as if you can perish or be destroyed without having your life terminated!) - but he clearly prefers the traditional position, even if it is uncomfortable.
We have already looked at the 2 Thessalonians passage in the section on The Day of the Lord. Here are the others. And, remember, this is the best evidence in the Bible that the wicked will suffer eternal conscious torment.
Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.' (100)
"Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life." (101)
The first thing to note is that this is a parable - the parable of the sheep and the goats. A parable is a story with a message. It is not an allegory: you cannot take every detail in the story as significant.
The point of the story is that one group of people enjoy a good destiny based on the way they lived, the other group a bad destiny based on how they lived. However, if we assume that the details are significant, what are we actually told?
The goats are to depart into eternal fire, which is eternal punishment. Remember - fire means destruction, not pain. Punishment can involve pain, but there are many forms of punishment which do not.
So there is nothing in this parable to suggest that the wicked suffer eternal conscious torment. Instead, it fits very well with the 2 Thessalonians passage we looked at - being consigned to the fire as an eternal punishment corresponds perfectly to the doctrine of everlasting destruction: destruction which can never be reversed, a final punishment which can never be changed.
If the punishment is destruction, why is the fire described as being 'eternal'? The answer is given in the passage. The fire is eternal because it is not designed for people. The fire was prepared for the devil and his angels.
There is a serious case which can be made for the Bible teaching eternal conscious torment. But it is not the eternal conscious torment of human beings: it is the eternal conscious torment of the devil and his angels. We will come back to this when we look at Revelation.
"And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell." (102)
Jesus is repeating a point He made in the Sermon on the Mount (103). This time, He is answering the question, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?"
There is not a lot here about eternal conscious torment. Unless you have already decided, against all the evidence, that 'the fire of Hell' must mean eternal conscious torment, you would naturally read this as describing two possible fates: you can either enter life (and thus, presumably, live), or you can be thrown into the fire of Hell (and thus, presumably, die).
The parallel passage in Mark says much the same as the Matthew passage we have just looked at.
If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where 'the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched.’ Everyone will be salted with fire. (104)
The fire never goes out - this could be a reference to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; it could mean you should not hope to get lucky - don't gamble on the possibility that someone will have let the fire go out on the day you arrive down there; but it is probably just recognising that there is a fairly constant supply of food for the worms and fuel for the fire.
The word for 'Hell' is 'Gehenna', which comes from the Valley of Hinnom to the South-West of Jerusalem (ge'hinnom in Hebrew) where the rubbish was dumped and burned. The fire never went out because there was always rubbish being burned.
Mark is quoting from Isaiah 66, a passage which is not entirely clear. It seems to be describing a massive procession in which all the redeemed people go and look at the dead bodies of those who rebelled against the Lord. Talking about these dead bodies, Isaiah ends with the following description (partly quoted by Mark).
And they will go out and look upon the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind. (105)
The description is of dead bodies rotting and burning, not live souls writhing in agony. The worms and the fire serve to emphasise the horror of their fate, the deadness of these dead bodies, as opposed to the vitality of the survivors. It emphasises that these people are well and truly dead, and nothing is going to change that. There is not a single hint of the dead people suffering in any way.
The final part is a bit obscure, but it is probably a reference to the idea Paul refers to in 1 Corinthians 3:13, where "fire will test the quality of each man's work". It certainly does not contain any suggestion of eternal suffering.
And the angels that did not keep their own position but left their proper dwelling have been kept by him in eternal chains in the nether gloom until the judgement of the great day; just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise acted immorally and indulged in unnatural lust, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire. (106)
The punishment of Sodom and Gomorrah is eternal, in the sense that it will never be changed or undone, but it is not not eternal in the sense that the fire has now stopped because the occupants are all dead. Their punishment is complete. Being killed by fire probably hurt - I am not trying to suggest that God's punishment does not involve any pain - but it does not hurt for all eternity.
Talking about the same people, Jude goes on to say that these men are:
"wild waves upon the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars for whom the nether gloom of darkness has been reserved for ever." (107)
I am not entirely sure what the 'nether gloom of darkness' means exactly - but it is not exactly convincing proof of the reality of eternal torment.
And, for those who think that these details are all intended to be taken literally - how do you combine eternal fire with eternal darkness? A special kind of dark fire, perhaps? In that case, maybe it is a special sort of dark fire that does not hurt as it burns?
From this passage, yet again it is clear that the New Testament writers never intended us to take 'fire' literally. It is symbolic, and it means 'destruction', not 'torment'.
The most obvious passage which is not referenced by Bruce Milne is the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (108). The reason, of course, is that no respectable teacher suggests that you can derive doctrine from the incidental details in a parable.
Jesus is taking a popular story of His day, and twisting the message. The details in the story are the details His hearers are familiar with. In telling this story, He is not offering us teaching about the afterlife, just as, if I tell you a story which begins "An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman walk into a pub..." I am not offering you a sociological analysis of what it means to be English.
If you want to take this one parable as an accurate piece of on-the-spot reporting, you must also conclude that Paradise and Hell are close enough to hold a conversation across the gap, and there will be no judgement at the throne of God.
If you want to take this one parable as an accurate piece of on-the-spot reporting, you also need to note that it is clearly a description of a single incident in the after-life. It does not say or suggest that the torment is eternal. In fact, since the stated basis of the torment is the unfairness of their earthly experience (certainly not an eternal state!), the most obvious implication is that the different treatment after life will also be limited in time.
And, if you want to take this one parable as an accurate piece of on-the-spot reporting, you need to ask yourself this question. If Jesus wanted to teach us that people will suffer torment in Hell, why did He hide this vital news in the detail of a parable, and why did He not explain it explicitly to His disciples, as He did for so many other of the other parables they struggled to understand correctly?
The message of the parable is found in the final verse: "'If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'" Everything else is building up to and supporting that one simple message. Milne knows this, as does every other respectable Biblical teacher.
Another passage which is sometimes used comes at the end of Daniel.
Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. (109)
The first thing to note is that this comes firmly within the apocalyptic section in Daniel. This is a form of literature which people were very familiar with when it was written, but seems very strange to us today. You have to interpret what is said very carefully. according to the well established rules, in much the same way as you have to interpret the meaning of a political cartoon in a newspaper: they both use symbols and images to communicate a message, and neither expects to be taken literally.
The great challenge in reading apocalyptic literature lies in interpreting the images correctly: sometimes it seems reasonably clear, but at other times there is no agreement on the meaning and all we have is one person convinced of one interpretation and someone else convinced of another.
My personal rule of thumb is: if it is not clear, I probably don't need to worry too much about it. If God needs me to understand a passage, He is quite capable of making it clear, and has a wide variety of tools at His disposal to achieve that end. I study to understand the Bible in order to apply what I understand.
Other people phrase things a bit differently, but it generally comes down to much the same point: Biblical interpretation works from the passages which are clear, and interprets the passages which are less clear in the light of those which are more clear.
All of which is to say that we don't usually base doctrine on what we find in apocalyptic literature: it can illuminate our understanding of Biblical truth, but it should not be used as the starting point. This becomes quite relevant which we come to look at the passages in Revelation.
That said, this section of Daniel seems reasonably straightforward. It is, rarely for the Old Testament, entirely consistent with New Testament teaching on the end days: there will be a resurrection; some of those resurrected will enjoy everlasting life, while others suffer shame and everlasting contempt.
There is, I admit, nothing here about destruction; but, equally well, there is nothing about about eternal torment. People can look back at your memory with contempt long after you have died. The contempt can be everlasting, even if you are not.
And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulphur, where the beast and the false prophet has been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever. (110)
Let's admit it up front: this passage talks about eternal torment. In fact, it is the only passage in the entire Bible which talks about eternal torment. But notice who is being tormented: it is the devil, the beast and the false prophet.
Jesus may have told us that the fire was "prepared for the devil and his angels" (111), but this passage suggests that in fact most of the angels will escape this fate - if you interpret the passage literally, that is.
And yet again, there is no suggestion here that ordinary wicked human beings will be tormented for ever. Possibly the beast and the false prophet are human - the point is not clear - but, even if this is so, they are the only two humans to suffer eternal torment.
And we should also remember that several passages in the Old Testament (112) suggest that the devil's suffering will also come to an end. And, possibly, the 'no more crying or pain' in Revelation (113) might even apply to Satan. In fact, most of the argument in the 'No More Tears' section (114) could also apply to Satan. The 'day and night' argument below would certainly apply. So maybe, even for him, 'for ever' means 'until it is finished'.
Finally, in passing, I would like to note how easy it is for John to tell us about eternal torment. "They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever." It is not complicated or difficult. Please bear this in mind when we look at the following passage.
A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: "If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark on the forehead or on the hand, he, too, will drink of the wine of God's fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. He will be tormented with burning sulphur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and his image, or for anyone who receives the mark of his name." (115)
I should say at the outset that this is the ONLY passage in the entire Bible that seems to teach us about humans suffering eternal torment. If you want to believe in it, and if you want a Biblical foundation for that belief, this passage is all you have.
And even this passage does not talk about eternal torment.
It does clearly talk about torment. "He will be tormented with burning sulphur" seems clear enough. As I have noted before, the eternal fate of the wicked may be destruction, but this does not mean that no suffering is involved.
But even this passage does not explicitly say that the torment is eternal. It talks about: (a) drinking the wine of God's fury; (b) being tormented with burning sulphur; (c) the smoke of the torment rising for ever; and (d) lack of rest day or night.
The language here is quite fascinating. It would have been very easy for John to say something like, "He will be tormented for ever with burning sulphur," but even here he avoids any reference to eternal torment. The only 'for ever' is the smoke going up - the consequence of the torment can be seen for ever.
The natural way of reading this passage is that these people will be tormented. The torment will produce smoke. The torment will cease, but the smoke produced will continue to rise for ever. Eternal smoke does not mean eternal torment, whatever people who are desperate to 'prove' their beliefs may claim.
If you are still not sure about this point, then a quick look at Revelation chapters 18 and 19 might help. In Revelation 18:1-8, we read about the fall of Babylon the Great. It will probably not be a surprise to discover that she will be 'consumed by fire' (116).
When the kings of the earth who committed adultery with her and shared her luxury see the smoke of her burning, they will weep and mourn over her. (117)
The point of the smoke is that people will see it, and understand what has happened. The point is made again in verses 17-18.
And every shipmaster and every passenger and sailor, and as many as make their living by the sea, stood at a distance, and were crying out as they saw the smoke of her burning, saying, "What city is like the great city?" (118)
The response in Heaven is a great multitude shouting praise to God (119).
And again they shouted: "Hallelujah! The smoke from her goes up for ever and ever." (120)
The point should be clear enough: smoke is going up for ever, but there is no suggestion that the burning goes on for ever. The smoke tells people what has happened: it goes up for ever because they need to remember.
And this only leaves the final phrase. There is just one small phrase in the entire Bible on which you can attempt to build a doctrine of eternal torment.
John tells us, "There is no rest day or night" for these people. Now, God is quite capable of being clear when there is something He wants us to know, understand and believe, and whatever this means, it is not a clear statement of the doctrine of eternal torment.
You can interpret 'no rest day or night' as referring to eternal torment. But that is your interpretation: the doctrine is not in the text.
People claim that this statement (that some people will be tormented day and night) proves the reality of eternal torment because the Bible fails to say that this day and night torment will come to and end, but this rather stretches the principles of sound Biblical interpretation. The argument being used is very simple: "I am going to believe that the torment is eternal, because the Bible does not explicitly say that it is not."
If you start down the road of believing things on the basis that the Bible does not explicitly deny them, I can only say that we part company here. I would rather worry about believing the things that the Bible does explicitly teach.
What John seems to be saying is that the torment continues day and night, which is why there is no rest. But 'day and night' is not forever. Even if this is the right interpretation, it does not establish the doctrine of eternal torment: it only says that the torment, while it is taking place, continues without a break.
If a person is tormented day and night, we would normally expect this to go on for days or weeks. There is no reason (no reason in the Bible, that is!) to suppose that 'day and night' is actually intended to convey the idea of eternity.
Moreover, in the context of the book of Revelation, the phrase 'day and night' is almost proof that the lack of rest is not eternal: by the time we reach chapters 21 and 22 (121), there is no more night.
But even if we put all these considerations to one side, it is still a very odd choice of words. If you want to convey the idea of continual torment, it is very easy to say something like, "He will be tormented day and night with burning sulphur" - but John avoids saying it clearly.
Instead, the words John uses suggest a very low level of suffering. Having 'no rest' makes it sound more like they are worrying about something. It certainly does not suggest that they are suffering unspeakable torment.
The phrase 'no rest' suggests that the discomfort is mental rather than physical. I could keep you awake for a long time by continually inflicting pain, but would you describe this process as being given 'no rest'? I think not.
On the other hand, if you have done something dreadful, if you have let down and hurt someone you loved or someone who deserved a much better response from you, then remorse, guilt and regret may give you no rest. And this makes perfect sense in the context of the passage: these people have chosen to worship the beast, and now they know the full extent of their folly.
If it is the regret which produces no rest day or night, then the most natural way to read the "tormented with burning sulphur" bit is as a symbolic representation of the internal torment these people inflict on themselves.
I know this suggestion is a bit radical. I have been accused sometimes of 'distorting the Bible' by suggesting that a reference to burning sulphur in the book of Revelation might best be interpreted symbolically. But if you read the book very carefully, you might find a few other places where John slips in references to other things which might be intended to be interpreted symbolically.
So the reading of this passage which makes the most sense in context is that these people are tormented - they torment themselves for their own folly.
In any case, the passage does not say that they will be eternally drinking the wine of God's fury, that they will be eternally tormented, or that they will have no rest for ever.
So the only passage in the entire Bible which can possibly be taken as the basis for a belief in the eternal torment of unbelieving people still does not teach - still does not even mention - eternal torment.
We have already noted that terms like 'eternal' and 'everlasting' are generally used in the Bible to refer to purpose, not duration. That is still the case here.
We have already noted that a few chapters later, the smoke from Babylon ('the great prostitute') is described as going up 'for ever and ever' (122) without any hint of eternal torment.
And, shortly afterwards, we see 'a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away' (123). Are we expected to imagine the smoke from these suffering souls and from Babylon drifting up somewhere in the new heaven or the new earth? I honestly can't imagine that this is what John is describing.
All of which is to say, that in the Bible generally, and even more so in the context of this part of Revelation, I would not rely too much on the words 'for ever' meaning 'time without end'. As in many other passages, the obvious, simple and consistent understanding is that it refers to purpose, not duration.
Perhaps I don't need to say this, but just in case... It is a well-established principle of exegesis that you do not attempt to establish doctrine on the basis of a single text. Another well-established principle says that you do not use obscure passages to establish doctrine which contradicts other clearer passages.
Both these principles caution us against using the only passage in the Bible which suggests there may be eternal torment as a simple 'proof text' for the doctrine.
It is, moreover, my personal opinion that anyone who tries to establish a doctrine on the sole basis of finding it in a single passage in the book of Revelation needs their heads examined.
Pardon me for being blunt here, but if you believe are the one person in the world who can accurately distinguish between what parts of the book of Revelation should be taken literally and what parts should be understood symbolically... please do not get in touch with me. I have spent enough time talking with such people to last me a lifetime.
I have just one final point to close off this section: even if we are supposed to interpret this passage literally, even if it does talk about eternal conscious torment, it is still (as yet) an academic issue. Nobody who has yet died has suffered this fate - not according to the passage being quoted.
This passage does not currently allow you to say anything to anyone about the possibility of them suffering eternal torment.
Remember the context: if you do decide, against all sound theological advice, to base your belief in this one passage, you cannot apply it to anyone until after the angel flying in mid air has proclaimed the gospel to everyone living on the earth, and after Babylon the Great has fallen (124), and even then you can only promise this dreadful fate to people with the mark of the beast on their foreheads or their hands.
There are many passages in the Bible, both Old and New Testament, that clearly teach the wicked will perish, die, or be destroyed.
In contrast, there is not a single passage that teaches the wicked will suffer eternal torment. What we have are a number of passages which might refer to eternal torment, if that was what the Bible taught elsewhere, but which clearly do not teach or even suggest the idea of eternal torment themselves.
There is only one passage (125) which might possibly teach that a few specific wicked people will be tormented for ever - but even that passage does not explicitly state this doctrine, and is more likely to be talking about a limited period of intense regret for personal sin.
The only clear reference to eternal torment in the Bible (126) is not about people, but about the devil, and this one passage needs to be balanced against other passages which suggest the torment will not be for ever, and even Satan will one day be turned to ashes and the fire be allowed to go out.
As I said at the outset, it is possible to hold to a belief in eternal torment for the wicked. But in the light of all the Biblical evidence on this subject, is it not much more likely that the wicked will be destroyed?
People often object to the idea that the unrighteous will perish because they think this teaching will have all kinds of bad consequences. The more common of these fears are:
We will look briefly at each of these fears in a moment.
But first, we need to get these responses into perspective. Even if the fears are well founded, they are irrelevant. We still have a responsibility to examine whether the doctrine is true.
After all, we can easily point to other doctrines which reduce the probability of people being saved because they do not like the message - salvation by grace alone is a prime example! We preach God's truth because we believe it to be true, not because we have a personal liking for it - or because we have discovered a set of ideas that people are likely to respond to!
The basic issues here are truth and integrity. Will we allow our doctrine to be determined by its popularity or its anticipated consequences? Or will we allow our doctrine to be determined by God, through His revealed Word in the Bible?
Will our evangelistic message be blunted if we cannot warn sinners that they will be eternally tormented if they do not repent?
I do not believe so.
I am not afraid of blunting our evangelistic message. However, it is true that some Christians are motivated to do evangelism by the desire to rescue people from eternal torment. What of them?
Firstly, we have to say that being effective does not make it right. I may be able to motivate you to have a 'quiet time' each day by promising that you will suffer in purgatory for each day you miss. That would not justify the lie.
More importantly, it is possible for any Christian to discover how the wonder of God's love can motivate us in all our worship and our work for Him. We do not have to be motivated by the threat of torment: there is a better alternative.
Jesus offers life to dying people. Is that not a tremendous gift, and one to get excited about? As we meditate on what the Bible teaches us, and as we grow in grace and Christian maturity, so we will discover ourselves being motivated by the things God intended. The result will be greater enthusiasm and energy for God's work, not less.
I think we have established that God is not a monster. He is not a sadist who deliberately chooses to inflict more pain and suffering on people than any tyrant in history. We have established this through a careful examination of what the Bible teaches.
I would like to make, in conclusion, three brief points.
I have heard people who claim that this belief (that the wicked will be destroyed) is a denial or rejection of Hell. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is not a denial of Hell, but an honest recognition of the reality of Hell.
It is a dreadful thing for a person to be consigned to Hell - to be branded a failure, to be worth nothing, to be rubbish, fit only to be burned up. Can we begin to appreciate the horror of such a judgement? And can we begin to understand the pain that making such a judgement gives to our loving Heavenly Father?
Our God is the creator and sustainer of the universe. He delights in His creation. Imagine His sorrow when a part of His creation fails so completely that it has to be destroyed.
In suggesting that the ultimate punishment is death, not torment, we have to remember the Bible's clear teaching about judgement.
We will all one day come before the Judgement Seat. It is clear from many passages that the Judgement is not the same as simple cessation of existence at the point of bodily death - Hebrews says it as clearly as any:
"man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgement" (128)
The question we have been addressing here is the fate of the wicked after they have been judged and found guilty.
Whatever the punishment turns out to be, we believe that the ungodly will go to that punishment knowing that their punishment is just, and having no complaint concerning their fate, no matter what their regrets may be.
The doctrine of eternal torment distorts the gospel message.
The gospel message offers people life, as opposed to death. This other doctrine would have us offering pleasure, instead of pain (129).
And what sort of pleasure is it? It consists of enjoying ourselves while living in a universe which is shared by millions of souls suffering unbearable eternal torment. It is a pleasure which makes us forget about (or just not care about) the lost writhing in Hell. It does not sound like the sort of pleasure the God I know and love would offer to anyone.
This doctrine of eternal torment makes the gospel message both hedonistic (I am seeking pleasure instead of pain) and self-centred (I will enjoy myself in Heaven, no matter what anyone is suffering in Hell). Does such a message express the character of Jesus as you know Him? It is not the Jesus I know.
The Bible teaches us the Sovereign Lord takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (130). It does not tell us how He feels about the prospect of them suffering eternal torment, but I think we can guess.
All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The "NIV" and "New International Version" are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™
Mark 4:38 (New American Standard Bible)
Luke 9:55-56 (New American Standard Bible)
Romans 8:18 (New American Standard Bible)
Most people are familiar with the old 'three tier' idea of the world: we live on the Earth; God lives in Heaven, above the clouds; and Satan lives in Hell, in the ground beneath our feet. Unfortunately, this picture belongs to the Middle Ages more than it does to Biblical times.
The Biblical writers, in common with much of the ancient world, recognised a basic distinction (but also a basic connection) between earthly things and heavenly things: together, they make up all of creation.
Which is why the author of Genesis says that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth (131), when he means that God created everything.
The same basic understanding can be seen in the Greek myths, where all the gods we are familiar with are descended from the union of Ouranos ('heaven' or 'sky' – we know him better as Uranus) and Gaia ('Mother Earth'). And in Ancient Egypt you had the same pairing with the sexes reversed: Geb (the male main deity of the earth), whose consort was Nut (the female sky).
The world view of the Biblical writers is entirely consistent on this subject. In the Bible, as with other ancient literature, there are two fundamental aspects of reality: Heaven and Earth, the spiritual and the physical.
It is this context which gives significance to the story in Genesis about the creation of the human race.
Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. (132)
The Hebrew makes the connections even clearer: the word for 'man' (as in human) is 'adam' – the name of the first man; the word for 'ground' from which the adam is taken (and to which he will return (133))is 'adamah'.
The human race, uniquely in all creation, is a combination of the physical (the dust of the ground) and the spiritual (the breath of God, the breath of life). This combination defines us. This is why our destiny is not to be disembodied spirits floating around with etherial harps, but as spirits in resurrected bodies inhabiting a new Earth.
In Hebrew 'ruach' can be 'wind' or 'breath' or 'spirit' (either God's or man's); the Greek 'pneuma' has the same range of meaning.
In the Old Testament, the grave ('Sheol') is the place of the dead. It is sometimes translated as 'Hell' or 'death'. It is a dark, shadowy place, where nothing much happens and nothing much can happen – certainly not torment. And torment would not be appropriate in any case: both the righteous and the unrighteous go there.
If you think of Sheol as being the grave, in quite a modern sense, you won't go far wrong. Even today, people talk about the dead 'sleeping in the ground' when there is actually no suggestion that they are doing anything other than slowly decaying. ('Sleeping with the fishes' is a familiar maritime equivalent.) Sheol is under the ground because that is literally where the dead bodies were put.
So Sheol is about as unlike the traditional Hell as it is possible to get. Satan, who is not a dead person, has nothing to do with the place: he can be found, with the other spiritual beings, in Heaven. At least, when the angels 'present themselves before the Lord' (134), Satan comes with them. He has come 'from roaming throughout the earth' (135)
In the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament in common use in Jesus' day) 'hades' occurs over 100 times, most of them translating the Hebrew 'Sheol'. In Homer, 'Hades' is the name of the god of the underworld; in much of the rest of Greek literature, Hades is the place where the dead go.
There are three main words used in the New Testament: 'hades' (the underworld, the place of the dead); 'abyssos' (the pit, the abyss); and 'gehenna' (the rubbish dump). In one place (Ephesians 4:9) we get 'katoteros' (lower), which might be a reference to the underworld, or perhaps simply a reference to this world as lower than Heaven.
The usual word used by Greek speakers in new Testament days for the place where the dead go was 'hades'. In the period between the old and New Testaments, the idea of the immortality of the soul was introduced, and this changed the concept of hades from the resting place of all to the pleace where the ungodly remain while the godly enter some form of heavenly blessedness.
This was a ongoing theological battle in the time of Jesus. The Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the body and eternal torment of the wicked, the Saducees remained faithful to the Old Testament and believed in neither. Jesus was not afraid to voice an opinion on difficut subjects, so it is very odd that He had nothing to say about this important debate. Or it would be odd, if He sided clearly with one side or the other, as most Evangelicals believe. But if he believed both sides were wrong – the Saducees for denying the resurrection, the Pharisees for believing in eternal torment – then His reluctance to side with one group or the other in this debate makes perfect sense.
So hades is the place that dead people go. In contrast, abyssos is primarily the place of demons. When Jesus encounters the Gerasene demoniac (136) the demons beg to be sent into the 'abysson'.
The other main word for 'Hell' is 'Gehenna', which is the name of a place: it is the Valley of Hinnom, immediately to the South-West of Jerusalem (ge'hinnom in Hebrew) where the city's rubbish was dumped and burned. The fire there never went out because people were always bringing new rubbish to be burned.
Just as 'eternal' is not always about time without end, so 'destruction' is not always about totally ceasing to exist. We have already made to point that words have to be understood in context, and the Biblical writers were as sophisticated in their use of language as we are today. They frequently used words in a non-literal way.
So 'destruction' in the Bible has as wide a range of meaning as it does today – like when a football supporter says after a match, "We totally destroyed them!" and means that we scored a couple of goals more than the other team.
In Mark 4, the disciples are in a boat with Jesus and a storm is raging. In terror, they cry out, "Teacher, do You not care that we are perishing?" (137) In this context, they clearly mean (as the NIV shows, along with many other translations) they are afraid of drowning.
The word used in this passage is 'apoleia', which is the main term for destruction used in the New Testament, occurring over 100 times.
Note 2. Actually, I'm fairly sure that the proper 'correct' answer is that your loved one is sleeping right now, but after the resurrection and final judgement they will burning in Hell while you enjoy yourself in Heaven. But opinions vary on the subject, and I'm not sure it makes a lot of difference either way to the emotional damage.
Note 3. But if you go and look, it is very
easy to uncover the 'Christian' message many people have heard
very clearly. Here is just one fairly normal example.
'Even if we were to DO all of the things that religions ask of us, if we do not BELIEVE and SUPPORT 100% of the nonsense, 100% of the errors, 100% of the atrocities, 100% of the inaccuracies, then there is no hope for us. If you do not believe in even an iota of it, then in God's point of view, you are already screwed. He can roast your skin, beat your head, drive rods through your face, and pour molten brass down your throat, all for not believing in things you had plenty of reason to doubt. FOR EVER, by the way. That is 700 billion years, times 900 billion, plus another 700 billion, and another, times a million, plus another hundred billion, times another, and another, and another … you get the idea. Actually, no you do not. You can not. It is insane.
Note 4. I know that we sin because we are sinners, not the other way round; and I know about Original Sin. But these theological details are generally not spelled out in the evangelistic sermons I listen to; and, in any case, instead of helping, they make the situation appear more unjust and harder to understand.
Note 5. If you have any doubts, have a look at any of the standard works of Systematic Theology.
Note 6. The opposite is not the case, however. Once we understand what the Bible teaches us about the fate of those who do not go to Heaven, some of the other questions become much clearer.
Note 8. Some people will appreciate a bit more detail than others, which is why I have provided a reasonable number of footnotes and an appendix which provides more detail about some of the key words used in the original languages: Some Relevant Biblical Words.
Note 9. Mark 3:4
Note 10. Luke 9:55-56 (New American Standard Bible) Not all manuscripts include this passage.
Note 11. Matthew 27:40
Note 12. James 4:12
Note 13. Jeremiah 30:11
Note 14. I'm not going to try listing them: partly because I don't want to get into the 'they couldn't believe that' and 'they probably changed their minds' arguments; but mostly because I want to deal with the question of what the Bible teaches about this subject, not what a range of famous Christians have believed over the centuries – that is a task for another day.
Note 15. If you wish to follow up on the history and social use of the doctrine of Hell, the most helpful text I have found is by D P Walker, The Decline of Hell (RKP, 1964). Sadly, it had been out of print for some time, and second hand copies are often expensive when they can be found.
Note 16. More precisely, it is the same fundamental truth, but explained, clarified and revealed fully and finally in the person of Jesus.
Note 17. So there is no thought, no possibility of reincarnation within Hebrew thought. Instead, the only hope of a future life lies in the possibility of resurrection: a doctrine which is central to much of New Testament thought but largely missing from the Old Testament, despite Job's astonishing and confident affirmation in Job 19:26.
Note 18. 1 Timothy 6:16
Note 19. Genesis 3:22-24
Note 20. John Polkinghorne, The Way the World Is, page 92
Note 21. Okay, then – just a few. Matthew 19:16; Matthew 19:29; Matthew 25:46; Mark 10:17; Mark 10:30; Luke 10:25; Luke 18:18; Luke 18:30; John 3:15; John 3:16; John 3:36; John 4:14; Acts 13:46; Romans 2:7; 1 John 5:13; Jude 21…
Note 22. Romans 8:18 (NASB)
Note 23. Jonah 2:6
Note 24. 2 Samuel 7:13
Note 25. 1 Samuel 3:13
Note 26. Jude 7
Note 27. Psalm 148:6
Note 28. Revelation 22:5
Note 29. Revelation 21:1
Note 30. 2 Kings 5:27
Note 31. 1 Samuel 1:22
Note 32. A good example would be "How to read the Bible for all its worth" by Gordon D Fee and Douglas Stuart, Zondervan, 4th edition 2014.
Note 33. Acts 23:12-13
Note 35. There are, of course, other interpretations of the passage, but none of the debate around the early chapters of Genesis affects the central premise of this work.
Note 36. Matthew 5:29-30
Note 37. Matthew 15:8
Note 38. Matthew 7:16
Note 39. Hebrews 9:27
Note 40. Matthew 10:32-33
Note 43. John 3:16
Note 44. John 17:3
Note 45. Of course, you may choose to reject all these possibilities. If you can find another option, I would like to hear it.
Note 46. Romans 6:23
Note 47. Romans 6:7
Note 48. Genesis 2:17
Note 49. Genesis 3:22b-23
Note 50. Psalm 1:1,3a
Note 51. Psalm 1:4
Note 52. Isaiah 29:5
Note 53. Exodus 15:7
Note 54. Malachi 4:1
Note 55. Psalm 73:19-20
Note 56. Psalm 115:5-8
Note 57. Job 26:6
Note 58. Proverbs 15:11
Note 59. Proverbs 27:20
Note 60. Psalm 5:6
Note 61. Psalm 2:12 - and remember that Psalm 2 is quoted in the New Testament as referring to Jesus.
Note 62. Psalm 73:27
Note 63. Ecclesiastes 9:5-6
Note 64. Isaiah 9:5
Note 65. Isaiah 9:19
Note 66. Matthew 7:13-14
Note 67. Matthew 7:24-27
Note 68. Matthew 10:28
Note 69. Matthew 5:13
Note 70. Galatians 6:8
Note 71. Hebrews 10:39
Note 72. Philippians 3:18b-19a
Note 73. Luke 19:27
Note 74. John 17:12
Note 75. Malachi 4:1
Note 76. Matthew 3:10 and Luke 3:9
Note 77. Matthew 3:11
Note 78. Matthew 3:12
Note 79. As, for example, we read in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15.
Note 80. John 15:6
Note 81. If you follow my argument in the article: What Happens to Babies When They Die? then you will understand why I do not believe this passage teaches that believers can lose their salvation. But that is another subject we are not going to delve into here.
Note 82. Matthew 13:24-30
Note 83. Matthew 13:40-42
Note 84. Matthew 13:47-50
Note 85. John 15:6 again.
Note 86. Matthew 13:40-42 again.
Note 87. Malachi 4:1
Note 88. 1 Corinthians 3:13
Note 89. 2 Thessalonians 1:7b
Note 90. 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9
Note 91. 2 Thessalonians 2:8
Note 92. 1 Corinthians 3:15
Note 93. 1 Corinthians 3:17
Note 94. Ephesians 1:9-10
Note 95. Colossians 1:19-20
Note 96. Revelation 21:4
Note 97. Revelation 21:1
Note 98. Colossians 1:17; Hebrews 1:3
Note 99. Bruce Milne, Know the Truth, page 337 (IVP 1982, revised 1998)
Note 100. Matthew 25:41
Note 101. Matthew 25:46
Note 102. Matthew 18:9
Note 103. Matthew 5:29-30
Note 104. Mark 9:43-49
Note 105. Isaiah 66:24
Note 106. Jude 6-7
Note 107. Jude 13
Note 108. Luke 16:19-31
Note 109. Daniel 12:2
Note 110. Revelation 20:10
Note 111. Matthew 25:41
Note 112. Isaiah 47:14 and Ezekiel 28:18-19
Note 113. Revelation 21:4
Note 115. Revelation 14:9-11
Note 116. Revelation 18:8
Note 117. Revelation 18:9
Note 118. Revelation 18:17-18
Note 119. Revelation 19:1
Note 120. Revelation 19:3
Note 121. Revelation 21:25; the point is repeated in Revelation 22:5.
Note 122. Revelation 19:3
Note 123. Revelation 21:1
Note 124. Revelation 14:6-9
Note 125. Revelation 14:9-11
Note 126. Revelation 20:10
Note 127. Matthew 10:28
Note 128. Hebrews 9:27
Note 129. Of course, there is pleasure in Heaven, and pain in destruction; but the offer of pleasure instead of pain is not the Biblical gospel message, and while the pleasure of Heaven will be eternal, the pain of destruction will not.
Note 130. Ezekiel 18:23
Note 131. Genesis 1:1
Note 132. Genesis 2:7
Note 133. Genesis 3:19
Note 134. Job 1:6
Note 135. Job 1:7
Note 136. Luke 8:26-39
Note 137. Mark 4:38, (New American Standard Bible)