by Babu G. Ranganathan
Although I am a conservative Christian (Reformed Baptist), I no longer believe that the Bible teaches or supports the traditional view of hell with its doctrine of eternal torment or suffering.
The Bible does teach eternal punishment, but that eternal punishment ultimately is not eternal suffering.
Although the wicked in hell, for a period, will suffer consciously for their individual sins, the ultimate penalty for sin itself will be the eternal literal death of soul and body and the eternal loss to immortality. That is what the Bible means by their eternal punishment. It is not the "punishing" that is eternal but, rather, the "punishment."
If pain is necessary for punishment then why do some societies have the death penalty? When a murderer is put to death he does not feel pain. If he did then he wouldn't be dead. One thing for sure is that a murderer put to death by society no longer feels pain from society. Does that then mean that society did not punish him?
God's righteous wrath is not an end in itself but a means to an end - that end being the eternal and literal destruction or death of the wicked (Romans 9:22). God will not allow sin to exist for eternity by keeping sinners alive for eternity in hell. Eternal torment is not necessary for God to satisfy His eternal justice.
But, what about those passages in the Bible which say that the wicked will go into "eternal fire" and that in hell there will be "weeping and gnashing of teeth forever," and other similar passages that seem to teach eternal torment? We shall examine, in this article, those and other passages from the Bible in the light of the context of Scripture and by comparing Scripture with Scripture.
Few in society realize just how much ancient Greek philosophy influenced early Christian thought on hell.
The ancient Greeks believed and taught that the human soul is immortal and indestructible. When early Christianity adopted this belief then it became only logical to believe that those who go to hell must suffer eternal torment.
More than anyone else, the early Church bishop Augustine influenced early Christianity's adoption of this ancient Greek belief about the nature of the soul. Augustine was a great admirer and follower of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato even after converting to Christianity. It was Plato who systematically formulated ancient Greek belief and thought concerning the nature of the human soul.
The Bible, however, teaches that man by nature is completely mortal and that immortality is a gift of God to be realized only on Resurrection Day for those who have put their faith and trust in God's Son Jesus Christ for salvation because Christ's death on the Cross fully paid for our sins and His resurrection from the grave is the guarantee of future immortality for all who believe in Him.
Interestingly, even Adam and Eve were not created as immortal from the beginning. That is why there was placed the Tree of Life in the midst of the Garden of Eden.
Some have argued that because man was created in the image of God then all humans must possess an immortal soul. However, being created in the image of God doesn't necessarily mean that we must possess every attribute or even possible attribute that God possess. For example, God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent - but we are not. The Bible is clear that immortality is an attribute that will be given only on Resurrection Day for those who have put their trust in Christ for salvation.
In Genesis 2:17 God told Adam not to eat the fruit of a certain tree (the tree of the knowledge of good and evil) and God also told Adam that if he did eat of it he would die on that very day. Specifically, God said to Adam, "For in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die." But the Biblical record shows that Adam did not physically die on the very day he disobeyed God and ate of the forbidden fruit. Because Adam did not physically die on the very day that he disobeyed God most Christians believe that God was referring to spiritual death and not physical death.
However, in the original Hebrew, in which the Old Testament was written, the grammatical tense of the word "die" in Genesis 2:17 is in the imperfect mood. The imperfect mood denotes a process. Thus, what God was actually saying to Adam is that he would start dying on the day he ate the forbidden fruit. The literal translation from the Hebrew of what God said to Adam is: "Dying you will die." God was not, therefore, referring to spiritual death but to physical death. The fact that God later prevented Adam and Eve from having access to the tree of life (Genesis 3:22-24) so that they would not live eternally in sin proves that God was referring to physical death and not spiritual death.
Many Christians are confusing result of sin for penalty of sin. Sin does result in spiritual separation from God, but separation from God is not the penalty for sin. The penalty for sin is death, literal death of soul and body. That is what Scripture teaches.
There are good Scriptural reasons to believe that the soul also is physical but distinct from the rest of the body, but that is another subject. Whether physical or not physical, man's soul, along with the rest of man, was created completely mortal and that is the primary point being addressed here.
The penalty for sin, then, is the death of both soul and body so that man will not live eternally in sin. Not only is God not cruel in His eternal justice, but a holy God will not allow His moral creatures to exist eternally in sin. God will not immortalize sin and evil by making the wicked in hell immortal! All of this contradicts the traditional doctrine and teaching, taught in most churches, about the wicked having an immortal soul and body in hell.
What about "eternal fire", "unquenchable fire", "weeping and gnashing of teeth forever", the account by Jesus about the Rich Man and Lazarus, and other similar passages in the Bible that seem to teach eternal torment? The key, in many cases, is in understanding the context in which these and other similar phrases are used in various parts of Scripture.
For example, figures of speech such as "unquenchable fire" are used in the Bible to mean that the process of destruction is unstoppable or irreversible. We see an example of this in the Old Testament book of Ezekiel 20:47-48 where God says that when His judgment comes on the land even every green tree will burn and that the fire "will not be quenched". Obviously, those trees are not still burning. It is important to understand just why God uses such terms in Scripture as "unquenchable fire".
In the Bible, there were some judgments of God in which His wrath was quenched or stopped such as in the case when Moses interceded and pleaded before God for the rebellious Israelites in the desert. When Moses did this God stopped or quenched His wrath against the rebellious Israelites. Thus, when God says, in Scripture, that the wicked in the end will be destroyed with unquenchable fire what He simply means is that nothing can intervene to prevent Him from carrying out His wrath fully through to its completion. Over and over in the Scriptures God is described in judgment as being a consuming fire. God's righteous wrath in judgment is not an end in itself but a means to an end.
Unlike the burning bush in Exodus that Moses observed was not consumed by the fire but was preserved by God, the Scriptures teach that God, in the end, will not preserve the wicked in the fire of hell but instead will completely consume and destroy them!
Contrary to popular belief and interpretation, the phrase in Scripture "where their worm dieth not" is not a reference to the undying human soul or conscience. We have already seen statements in Scripture that God will destroy, not preserve or keep alive, the bodies and souls of the wicked in the Day of Judgment. The worm and fire were figures that people in Jesus' time could readily identify and understand because in that time the dead bodies of those who suffered dishonor in society were all commonly thrown into a certain valley where fire and worms devoured these bodies. Jesus simply seeks to convey, in figurative language, that in hell (gehenna) neither the fire nor the worm will cease until the wicked are totally consumed or destroyed!
The word "forever" is another example. In Scripture the word "forever" does not always mean endless or eternal duration. For example, in Exodus 21:6 (KJV Version) we read that certain people were to be servants "forever". Obviously this cannot mean eternity. The word "forever" or "everlasting", in the original Hebrew and Greek languages of Scripture, simply means the entire length or duration of something. If that something is immortal then the word "forever" or "everlasting" must mean eternity. But, if that something is mortal or temporary in nature then, obviously, the word "forever" or "everlasting" cannot mean eternity.
What about where the Bible says in Revelation 20:10 that the devil (or Satan) will be tormented forever and ever? Before answering this question, I wish to point out that Bible definitely teaches the devil will be consumed and destroyed.
We read a description of Satan's ultimate and eternal destruction in Ezekiel 28:14-19. Although this passage is immediately addressed to the ancient King of Tyre (verse 11), it is clear from the context of the passage that God is speaking to Satan (the evil spirit behind the King of Tyre) because the descriptions given cannot fit that of any human being or human king.
We read in verses 14 and 15: “Thou art the anointed cherub that covereth; and I have set thee so: thou wast upon the holy mountain of God; thou hast walked up and down in the midst of the stones of fire. Thou wast perfect in thy ways from the day that thou wast created, till iniquity was found in thee.” This passage is referring to the devil when he was Lucifer (a good angel or cherub) before he sinned against God.
And, then we read in verses 18 and 19 what God says to the devil: “… therefore will I bring forth a fire from the midst of thee, it shall devour thee, and I will bring thee to ashes upon the earth in the sight of all them that behold thee. All they that know thee among the people shall be astonished at thee: thou shalt be a terror, and never shalt thou be any more.”
Another good Bible translation (the NIV) puts verses 18 and 19 this way: " ... So I made a fire come out from you, and it consumed you, and I reduced you to ashes on the ground in the sight of all who were watching. All the nations that knew you are appalled at you; you have come to a horrible end and will be no more."
A similar and parallel passage is found in the Old Testament book of Isaiah 14:3-20. God is speaking to the King of Babylon, but it is clear from the context of the passage that he is talking to Satan (the evil spirit behind the King of Babylon) because, again, the descriptions given cannot fit that of any human being.
If Ezekiel 28 teaches that the Devil will be destroyed (consumed) and be no more, how, then, do we explain Revelation 20:10 which says that the devil will be tormented forever and ever?
The first point to realize is that Revelation is a book filled with symbolic language, and, therefore, the book is not to be interpreted literally. The book itself tells us not to interpret it literally. In the very first verse of the very first chapter we read, "The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God (the Father) gave unto Him, to show unto His servants things which must shortly come to pass; and He sent and signified it by His angel unto His servant John" (Revelation 1:1, KJV). The word "signified" in the passage comes from a Greek word meaning "signs" or "symbols."
Bible scholar, theologian, and an attorney-at-law, Edward Fudge makes these comments:
“In these closing chapters of Revelation, even the word torment itself is sometimes a symbol for total destruction and death. The wicked city Babylon is pictured as a woman whose judgment in chapter 18 is “torment and grief,” which turns out to be “death, mourning, and famine,” and she is “consumed by fire.” It is not unthinkable, therefore, to understand torment of the devil, beast, and false prophet as death and consumption by fire which are never reversed” (“No Need to Waver” by Edward Fudge quoted from the Internet site Rethinking Hell http://www.rethinkinghell.com/).
When the Bible talks about eternal judgment, or eternal damnation, or eternal destruction, it is in reference to the result and not the process! It is not the punishing that is eternal but rather the punishment! It is not the destroying that is eternal but rather the destruction! It is not the dying that is eternal but rather the death. Just as eternal redemption in the Bible does not mean that the process of redeeming is eternal but rather its result (no one would be saved if the process of redeeming were eternal) so too the eternal judgment of the wicked refers to the result of their judgment being eternal and not the process.
The example, however, that indisputably settles the issue is the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Jude 7 says that the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah "are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire." The word "example" in the verse comes from the original Greek New Testament word "deigma," and wherever any form of this Greek word is used in the New Testament it means an example that is visible to the eye. Now in what way were Sodom and Gomorrah an example of destruction by eternal fire? They were an example in the fact that these cities suffered total destruction (annihilation) and they also suffered irrevocable destruction because they would never exist as cities again.
One may attempt to argue that the souls of Sodom and Gomorrah are burning forever in hell now, but if that were the case then Scripture cannot use the destruction of these cities as a visible example of judgment by eternal fire, since that is not something that one can observe. When one gives an example of something to another it must be by its very nature visible or observable. After all, the purpose of the example was for living humanity on earth to see what judgment by eternal fire means. Besides, the belief that the souls of the wicked will burn eternally in hell is based on the unbiblical assumption that their souls are immortal or indestructible.
What about Revelation 14:9-11 where it says: "the smoke of their torment ascendeth up forever and ever; and they have no rest day nor night"? Doesn't this passage in Scripture prove eternal torment? No. We also read in Isaiah 34:10 that while Edom was burning day and night the smoke of the city would ascend up forever and ever. Does that mean that Edom would never stop burning? Of course, not! The language simply signifies that the burning of Edom will ultimately end in permanent (or irrevocable and eternal) destruction. We know that Edom doesn't exist anymore. Similarly, we are to understand the same from the passage in Revelation 14:9-11. The smoke of their torment arising "forever and ever" in the passage does not mean that the torment of the wicked will never end. The language simply signifies that the torment of the wicked will lead to their permanent (or irrevocable and eternal) destruction. During the process of their destruction the wicked will be tormented but that process will ultimately end in their eternal annihilation, which is what is signified by the use of the figure of smoke arising "forever and ever". This is the only interpretation of Revelation 14:9-11 that would be consistent with how the rest of Scripture uses such language and with what the rest of the Scriptures teach concerning the final and ultimate end of the wicked.
The context of Holy Scripture teaches that the eternal punishment of the wicked is ultimately their eternal annihilation and not eternal torment or suffering as the traditional doctrine of hell teaches. As one preacher has put it: "Eternal punishment is the eternal loss of life, not an eternal life of loss".
Eternal life in Scripture has the same meaning as immortality (i.e. Romans 2:7) which Christians will possess only in the future on Resurrection Day. Various Scripture passages teach immortality and eternal life to be a future possession for Christians. Why then did Jesus use the present tense when saying those who believe in Him have eternal life? The answer is that sometimes in the Bible the present tense is used to describe future events for the purpose of demonstrating their certainty. Scripture says God "calleth those things which be not as though they were" (Romans 4:17).
The Bible says Jesus Christ "hath abolished death, and hath brought life and immortality to light through the gospel" (2 Timothy 1:10). The opposite of eternal life (or immortality) is eternal death (the eternal and literal death of soul and body) - not eternally living in torment and suffering! "The wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord" (Romans 6:23). "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting (eternal) life" (John 3:16). The issue is not what we think eternal punishment ought to be. The issues are God's character, God's definition of ultimate justice, and God's eternal purposes.
That the Lake of Fire (in the Book of Revelation) stands for annihilation is indisputable because Revelation 20:14 states that the Lake of Fire is the second death. What is the second death? Well, it is certainly not spiritual death or spiritual separation from God because those cast into the Lake of Fire (i.e. the wicked on judgment day) were already spiritually dead and spiritually separated from God. The difference between the first death and the second death is that the first death is temporary since everyone, the righteous and the wicked, will be resurrected in the Last Day to face final judgment. The book of Daniel tells us that the righteous and the wicked will all be resurrected on the same day. The second death, on the other hand, is eternal (or permanent) with no resurrection to follow. Only the wicked will experience the second death. It is not the punishing that is eternal but rather the punishment (the cessation of being) that is eternal and permanent. The wicked will experience the second death (permanent cessation of being) only after they suffer consciously for their individual guilt and sins.
In Ephesians 2 the Apostle Paul says that believers were once dead in trespasses and sins but were made (or raised) alive with Christ and raised to sit together in heavenly places. Paul is talking about physical death and life. What Paul is saying is that believers were once under the sentence of death because of their sins but because of Christ’s resurrection they were raised with Christ and will live eternally. How was Christ raised? Physically. The resurrection hasn’t happened yet when Paul was writing this but Paul puts it all (even being seated with Christ in heavenly places) in the past because of its certainty.
We must base our views of hell and the after life on what the Bible teaches, not on tradition or mere human philosophies and opinions. We must not impose our philosophy of what God ought to be upon Holy Scripture! Not many people realize the fact that in the New Testament there are different Greek words for the word "hell." But unfortunately the English Bible translates these different words for hell as one word, and this has been a cause of much confusion for those who wish to study the subject. The New Testament Greek words for hell are "Hades" and "Gehenna" and they both have different meanings. Hades means the unseen world of the dead and is only a temporary abode. It has nothing to do with punishment or reward. It is equivalent to the Hebrew word "Sheol" in the Old Testament in its meaning. Gehenna, on the other hand, is the abode of eternal punishment of the wicked.
Scripture teaches that both the wicked and righteous will be resurrected, but only the righteous (in and through Christ’s redemptive work) will obtain immortal bodies. The wicked will not inherit immortal bodies. They will be judged for their sins and in hell will suffer consciously for their individual sins before they are eternally destroyed in body and soul.
What about Daniel 12:2 where we read that the wicked will awaken to shame and everlasting contempt? The word “contempt” here is translated in other parts of Scripture as “disgust” or “abhorrence.” GJ Griz pointed out that in Isaiah 66:24 “the word is used in the context of disgust expressed by onlookers as they view the dead bodies or corpses of those slain in battle.” On Judgement Day when the wicked are destroyed, their destruction will evoke everlasting contempt in the minds and memories of the righteous.
The story of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16 has often been used by many Christians, especially preachers, as a depiction of the punishment that the wicked will suffer in hell. But this is not the case. In the first place when Jesus refers to the Rich Man being in torment in the flame of hell the Greek word for "hell" in the passage is not "Gehenna" (the place of final and eternal punishment), but rather it is the Greek word "Hades" (which in Scripture is the temporary abode of the dead). The story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, like the other series of parables before it, was used of the Lord to illustrate or depict the end of the rule of the Pharisees and to depict the end of the Jewish Era and dispensation (as represented by the Rich Man being in torment) and it was also used of the Lord to depict or illustrate the elevation of Gentile Christendom (as represented by Lazarus). Actually, Lazarus represented the poor Jews of Jesus' time who were ignored by the self-righteous religious leaders of Israel and he also represented the gentiles who, although rejected by the Jewish leaders, would nevertheless be accepted into the bosom of Abraham through their new found faith in Jesus Christ as the Messiah. The religious leaders of Israel had lived only for themselves and ignored the spiritual needs of the spiritually sick and starving people around them.
The concept that Hades was a place divided into two compartments, one of suffering for the wicked and the other of bliss for the righteous, was a Jewish belief that had developed during the Intertestamental period, the period of time in between when the Old and New Testaments were written. Thus, this particular view of Hades was not canonical, that is it was not something that God Himself had revealed to the Jews through Scripture. There is no evidence in Scripture that Hades is a place where the wicked suffer while awaiting their final and permanent judgment in Gehenna. Such a concept of Hades developed as a result of ancient Greek influences on Jewish thinking about the nature of the soul. In the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, Jesus was simply borrowing this popular Jewish folklore of Hades to use as an illustration to make a point to the Pharisees and religious leaders of His day, but He was not necessarily endorsing the folklore as being doctrinally valid or correct. There are various passages in the Old Testament, such as in Psalms, that tell us that there is no consciousness in Sheol (the Hebrew equivalent of Hades in the Old Testament).
Some argue that the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus is not a parable because Jesus did not formally introduce it as a parable. But, Jesus did not always formally introduce His stories as parables, and there are various examples of that in the Gospels. Now, it is true that in His parables Jesus used things that actually existed to fill in for illustrations and figures, but in the particular case of the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus the Lord used a popular existing Jewish myth about Hades for the purposes of constructing a story. Jesus simply used the Pharisees' own superstitious belief about Hades against them!
Why didn't Jesus rebuke the Pharisees' belief about Hades as being wrong? Jesus didn't go around always rebuking every wrong doctrine. For example, in Jesus' time it was a common Jewish belief (from the influence of Greek philosophy) that souls could commit individual sins before birth. That is why we read in John 9:1-3 that Jesus' disciples believed a certain man was born blind because he may have committed some great sin before his physical conception in the womb. Jesus didn't respond by telling His disciples that such a belief is doctrinally wrong but instead healed the blind man.
Many Christians find it difficult to believe that the soul as well as the body can die. The soul, they say, can live on and be conscious even after the body decays into the dust. Christians generally believe that Jesus confirmed the existence of consciousness in hades because of what He said to the repentant thief who also was dying on a cross beside Him. But it must be kept in mind that in the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament there were no punctuation marks such as commas. The punctuation marks found in our English Bibles, for example, were provided by the translators. So depending upon where the comma actually is in a sentence can change the entire meaning of the sentence. The passage in Luke 23:43 of the English Bible is translated with the comma before the word "today" so that Jesus is saying to the repentant thief, "Verily I say unto thee, today shalt thou be with Me in paradise." It gives the meaning that the thief would join Jesus in paradise on that very day. But what if the comma in the sentence is placed after the word "today." Then the sentence that Jesus said would read, "Verily I say unto thee today, thou shalt be with Me in paradise." It changes the entire meaning of the sentence. Then Jesus is not necessarily saying that the repentant thief would join Him in paradise on that very day. The Bible repeatedly refers to Christians who had died as being "asleep" indicating that their death is only temporary since they will one day be resurrected to immortality and eternal life.
But if there is no consciousness for the dead until Resurrection Day why did the Apostle Paul say that he desires "to depart, and to be present with Christ" (Philippians 1:23). In 2 Corinthians 5 Paul defines that to be absent from the body and be present with the Lord means to be clothed in our resurrected bodies. Paul didn't mind death because he knew that the very next conscious thing he would experience after death would be joyful and perfect eternal fellowship with Christ at the Resurrection. This is why the early Christians thought so much about the resurrection, because they knew that is when they'll see the Lord again and have eternal fellowship with Him.
Why is the resurrection so important if the person (the soul) doesn't actually die with the body? Why is the resurrection so important if the souls of Christians will already be with Christ and enjoying fellowship with Him even after death of the body. Why are most Christians so big on Christ rising from the dead on Easter Day if He really didn't die at all but only His body?
If Jesus was truly God and He died completely (in both body and soul), how then could He have raised His own body from the grave as He said He would. There are two possible answers. One is that when His soul was given back its life Christ then entered His own body and raised it up from the grave. The other possible answer is in understanding what Jesus said about His authority over His own life and death. Jesus said that the Father had given to Him authority to lay down His life and to have His life raised from the dead (John 10:11-18). Shortly before Jesus died He exercised this authority by entrusting to His Father His spirit (not the Holy Spirit in this case but rather the spirit which is the principle of life, the breath of life). Remember His words on the Cross, "Father into Thy hands I commend My spirit" (Luke 23:46). By doing this He gave authority for death to overtake Him on account of our sins for which He died but He also had delegated His right and authority over His own life to the Father to raise Him up from the dead. In this way Jesus was very much responsible for both His own death and resurrection. What great love and condescension the Son of God subjected Himself to on our behalf! The reader is urged to examine in more detail the Biblical fact of Christ's Godhood and Deity in the author's Internet article: Christ Was Begotten - Not Created.
By no means is the doctrine of conditional immortality new teaching. A minority of Christians, of various denominations, have held to this view of hell throughout the centuries. Even some very prominent Christians of the past have held to this view and there are a number (albeit a minority) of Christian theologians and scholars in the present who hold to this view. However, this view on hell, unfortunately, is known so little outside the Christian community and even inside the Christian community for that matter.
Many of the early Protestant Reformers, including Martin Luther, held to the view that man, by nature, is entirely mortal (including the soul), but the great Reformer John Calvin opposed this view and specifically wrote against it and insisted that all of the Reformers present a united front. An excellent Internet site containing information on all of this is: Champions of Conditional Immortality In History.
I highly recommend to all readers Dr. Edward Fudge's thoroughly biblical and scholarly work "The Fire That Consumes". The book is foreworded by the great evangelical scholar F.F. Bruce. This book should be required reading in every seminary and Bible school!
I encourage all to read my larger article "The Bible Vs. The Traditional View of Hell" at my website http://bgrnathan.blogspot.com/2010/04/bible-vs-traditional-view-of-hell.html for more comprehensive and in-depth coverage of this subject. Other questions and arguments, not raised here, are answered thoroughly in my larger article. I also hope that this information will shed new light in reading the New Testament, particularly the Gospels.