What is the Fate of the Wicked?
(Part 1 of 5)
by Paul Hazelden

FotW Index


•   Preface
1.   Introduction
  1a.   The traditional position
  1b.   The scope of this article
  1c.   A gentle start
2.   Background
  2a.   More about the traditional position
  2b.   The alternative position
  2c.   Greek and Hebrew souls
  2d.   Eternal life
  2e.   The meaning of 'eternal'
  2f.   Theological terminology
  2g.   Extremism
  2h.   Judgement
3.   Two Key Texts
  3a.   God so loved the world
  3b.   The wages of sin


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.

1.   Introduction

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?

1a.   The traditional position

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.

1b.   The scope of this article

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.

1c.   A gentle start

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)

2.   Background

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.

2a.   More about the traditional position

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.

2b.   The alternative position

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.

In brief:

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.

2c.   Greek and Hebrew souls

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.

2d.   Eternal life

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.

2e.   The meaning of 'eternal'

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)

2f.   Theological terminology

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)

2g.   Extremism

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.

2h.   Judgement

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.

3.   Two Key Texts

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.

3a.   God so loved the world

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.

3b.   The wages of sin

So the best known verse in the Bible, shows that Jesus is clear about the choice we have. What about Romans 6:23, probably the second best known verse in evangelical circles?

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?


Note 1. For a brief description of the words used by the Biblical writers, please see the appendix "Some Relevant Biblical Words".

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 7. But I have covered that last topic in reasonable detail elsewhere – for example, in the article: What Happens to Babies When They Die?

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 34. My intention is to publish all corrections and updates on my website and in any future editions of this work. You can contact me through the website: hazelden.org.uk.

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 41. I did not invent this argument: it is a slightly modified version of Pascal's Wager.

Note 42. And, of course, we will in due course, consider the text (Revelation 14:9-11) in some detail – please see the section 'Smoke of torment'.

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

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