I’ve received some very good questions from folks who have had a chance to listen to podcast #10 on the state of the dead and the nature of hell. This is a pretty hot topic!
Let’s take the Bible passages one by one and observe what I think is the only way to harmonize all of the relevant biblical texts. We’ll mainly be dealing with the topic of hell, since that is what has sparked the most discussion.
First of all, a review of the content from podcast #10:
1. The Bible clearly teaches that human beings in their sinful state are not immortal, but God alone is immortal (1 Timothy 6:16). Satan’s lie to Eve was that she would continue to be immortal in a sinful state (“you will not surely die”). The Bible says that only the righteous put on immortality, and that even we are mortal and perishable until the resurrection clothes us with immortality (1 Corinthians 15:53).
2. It is not merely the body of the wicked that will die, but the soul of the wicked will die. While the righteous will put on immortality, the wicked will experience the second death, a complete soul death, after their resurrection. Unlike the righteous, the wicked do not put on immortality at the resurrection.
3. The lake of fire (hell) is the second death (Rev 20:14, 20:8). The nature of the hell experience is not an eternally conscious hell. The notion that the wicked live forever in hell presupposes the untrue belief that human beings are naturally immortal (a pagan, Greek notion that slipped into the church after the first century). The following is what the Bible says about the fate of the wicked. Rather than eternal existence in hell,
- They will be ashes and stubble (Mal 4:1-3)
- Neither root nor branch will be left (Mal 4:1-3)
- They will be no more (Ps 37:10)
- They will vanish like smoke (Ps 37:20)
- They will perish (Ps 37:20)
- They will be burned up like chaff (Matt 3:11-12)
- They will be stubble (Is 47:14)
- The soul will be “destroyed in hell” (Matt 10:28)
- Their destiny is destruction (Phil 3:19)
- They will be devoured by the fire (Rev 20:9)
- Sin pays its wage, and its wage is death (Rom 6:23)
- The soul will die (Ez 18:20)
- The opposite of eternal life is to perish (John 3:16)
- Everything will melt with fervent heat (2 Peter 3:12-13)
- The fire of God is a consuming fire (Heb 12:29)
- They will melt like wax (Ps 68:2)
- They will be blown away like smoke (Ps 68:2)
- Where righteousness leads to eternal life, sin leads to corruption/destruction/decay (Gal 6:8)
4. Isaiah 33:14-15 asks the question we’re asking, which is about dwelling in the fire. Isaiah asks, “Who of us can dwell with the consuming fire? Who of us can dwell with everlasting burning?” The Bible’s answer surprises those who have heard the popular teaching on hell. Most of us would say the wicked dwell in the everlasting burning. The Bible says the following are those who will live in the eternal fires for eternity: “Those who walk righteously and speak what is right” are those who dwell in the consuming fire, the everlasting burning. It is the righteous, not the wicked, who will live forever in the fire. So, yes, the Bible says there will be a group of people who are eternally conscious in the fire; but it is not the wicked, it is the righteous. Only the righteous can dwell in the fire, the Bible says; the wicked cannot dwell in the fire.
All of the above is clear enough. But there are passages that need to be discussed in light of the above. They are important passages to account for in our understanding of the nature of hell.
1. The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31).
This passage paints a strange picture of immortal human beings who live during death in “Abraham’s bosom” and “Hades.” Aside from this one parable, this picture of an “afterlife” is entirely absent from the Bible. So, what do we make of it? Do we conclude that the wicked are burning in hell right now from this one parable alone? I think that would be imprudent and hasty. Let every matter be established by the testimony of 2 or 3 witnesses. The way I understand this is that it’s simply a parable, a dramatic story. It wasn’t meant to teach about the state of the dead, but was meant to be a spiritual lesson about greed and poverty. It’s important to note that those who believe the dead are in heaven and hell right now do not picture it as this parable does anyway – a situation where people talk to each other from heaven to hell and where heaven is not called heaven, but Abraham’s bosom. This passage is simply a parable that pulls from strange Greek understandings about death that were prominent in Jesus’ day and thus familiar to the people of his day to be used as a teaching tool, and this parable was not intended to instruct on the matter of death, but an entirely different matter altogether.
2. Matthew 25:41 calls hell “everlasting fire.”
To some, this sounds like the wicked will burn for eternity. But, reading closely, notice that the passage says that the fire itself is what is everlasting, not the experience in the fire. The fire is everlasting, because it is God himself who is the consuming fire.
Also, we have an actual example of everlasting fire, so let’s let scripture interpret scripture: Jude 7… “In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire.” As the everlasting fire consumed the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah, so also it will consume the wicked in the end. Peter also says the same thing … 2 Peter 2:6 “if he condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly.”
3. Revelation 20:10 says that the devil will be tormented “forever” in the lake of fire.
The problem with taking Revelation 20:10 literally is that if we do, the Bible contradicts itself. Consider Ezekiel 28:18, speaking of Lucifer or Satan: “By your many sins and dishonest trade you have desecrated your sanctuaries. 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.” How can the devil be CONSUMED/reduced to ASHES AND be tormented “forever and ever?” The only way to harmonize these is to do a careful word study of the use of the word “forever” in the Bible. (See below)
4. Revelation 14:9-11 says that the smoke of the torment of the wicked will rise “forever.”
Again, if we take this literally, we have the Bible contradicting itself. As we’ve seen in many passages above, the Bible teaches that the wicked will be consumed, be ashes, no more, be stubble, be dead, perish, be destroyed etc. Consider Isaiah 34:9-11, which Revelation 14:9-11 is a direct reference to. (Most of Revelation is citing Old Testament passages that can help us understand the difficult passages of Revelation.) Isaiah 34:9-11 gives more detail than Rev 14:9-11. Notice that it says that the land will be “DESOLATE” after the smoke of their torment rises “forever.” NOT that it will be heavily populated with souls that burn forever and ever for eternity. Desolate. This sounds a lot like ashes, be no more, dead, perish, destruction, etc., which the many passages clearly teach us.
How do we understand this thing about the devil and the wicked burning “forever” before becoming ashes? That doesn’t make sense in our English language to say that they burn forever and then are destroyed! But that is what the Bible very clearly says; there’s no way around it. Either we have a contradiction, or… The answer comes when we realize that the term “forever,” as used in the Hebrew and Greek language and mindset, means simply a period of time, limited or unlimited.The phrase “forever” is used 56 times in the Bible in connection with things that have already ended. In Jonah 2:6, “forever” means “three days and nights.” (See also Jonah 1:17.) In Deuteronomy 23:3, this means “10 generations.” In the case of man, this means “as long as he lives” or “until death.” (See 1 Samuel 1:22, 28; Exodus 21:6; Psalm 48:14.) So indeed, the wicked will burn “forever” in the biblical sense: the wicked will burn in the fire as long as they live, or until death, until they are consumed. No doubt, this fiery experience will vary according to the degree of wickedness for each individual, as Jesus said with regard to the stripes each will be “beaten” with. But while some will indeed receive “many” stripes, nobody will be beaten with stripes endlessly for the ceaseless ages of eternity.
[It should be noted that our our confidence in the belief in the literal eternal/forever nature of God and the literal eternal/forever nature of our heavenly experience do not rest solely on the use of the ambiguous word “forever” in the Bible. The Bible clearly says that the righteous will put on immortality and not die and that God is immortal. These are unambiguous, unlike the Greek word for “forever.”]
5. Matthew 25:46, “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
I affirm the fact that the punishment of the wicked is truly eternal in the sense that it is irreversible. The consequences of the punishment are eternal. But as we’ve seen, the Bible explains that the experience of the punishment is not eternal, but that the wicked are destroyed. Also, consider this treatment of the Greek used in the passage:
The entire concept of eternal or everlasting punishment hinges primarily on a single verse of Scripture–Matthew 25:46. This is the only place in the entire Bible where we find these two words together AND only in some Bibles. There are over a dozen English translations which do NOT contain the concept of “eternal punishment” on ANY of their pages, NOR the pagan concept of Hell.
The Greek form for “everlasting punishment” in Matthew 25:46 is “kolasin aionion.” Kolasin is a noun in the accusative form, singular voice, feminine gender and means “punishment, chastening, correction, to cut-off as in pruning a tree to bare more fruit.” “Aionion” is the adjective form of “aion,” in the singular form and means “pertaining to an eon or age, an indeterminate period of time.” (Note: the two words in many, not all translations become reversed changing the Greek into English.)
“Aionion,” as shown above, is the singular form of the adjective of the Greek noun “aion.” Many people unfamiliar with the Greek do not realize that the endings of the same word change (inflection) to indicate its mood, case, gender, etc. Therefore, “aionion” may appear with different endings. “Aionion, aioniou, aionios,” for example, are all different inflections of the adjective form of the noun “aion.”
The noun “aion” in Greek literature has always meant “an indeterminate period of time. It could be as short as the time Jonah spent in the belly of a fish (three days or nights), the length of a man’s life, or as long as a very long age.
[It should be noted again that recognizing the limited duration of the “aion” of the punishment of the wicked need not undermine our confidence in the unlimited duration of the “aion” of the reward of the righteous, since we have clear biblical teachings on our future immortality whereas we have clear biblical teaching on the destruction of the wicked.]
6. “Worm will not die”, “weeping and gnashing of teeth” and “outer darkness.”
These are three biblical statements referring to the hell experience, which have been raised. None of these indicate that the wicked will live forever in the fires of hell. The presence of weeping and gnashing of teeth does not imply that the weeping and gnashing of teeth goes on and on for eternity. Indeed, the experience of hell will be blackest darkness. And the worm, which is pictured as a consuming agent, will not fail of completing its task of decomposing the refuse. Notice that worms are not the object of punishment, but are the means of destruction. So, the fact that the worm doesn’t die shouldn’t be taken to meant that immortal souls live on forever in the fire. [UPDATE… Isaiah 66:24 says that the worms are eating “dead bodies,” not tormenting immortal living souls in hell. The picture given is that the wicked are destroyed, dead, and consumed by unstoppable fire and (perhaps figuratively) unstoppable worms. See the comments for further discussion on the worms and unquenchable fire.]
To sum up, we have two categories of Bible verses. One category says that the wicked will be ashes, stubble, no more, vanish like smoke, nothing will be left, will perish, burn up like chaff, souls will be destroyed, destiny is to be destroyed, will be devoured, will die, will melt, will be consumed, and will be blown away like smoke, will experience a second death, will reap decay/destruction/corruption. This is a huge amount of testimony teaching annihilation. The other (very small and using ambiguous Greek) category of verses use the phrases, “everlasting fire,” “eternal punishment” and “forever.” At face value, these two sets of verses do contradict each other. Above, I’ve tried to explain the only logical way I have found to harmonize the two sets of verses. If there is another way to harmonize the verses, I am open to that. Above we’ve seen how “forever,” “eternal,” and “everlasting” can mean something different in the Bible than what we suppose in English and according to church tradition.
Here’s the challenge and the invitation for those who presently believe in an eternally burning hell experience: take each of the descriptions of what happens to the wicked (ashes, stubble, being consumed, being destroyed, perishing, death, a second death, being no more, vanishing like smoke, burn up like chaff, soul destroyed, be devoured, decay/destruction/corruption, etc.) and show in the Bible where we get permission to re-interpret each of these to mean eternally conscious existence. In other words, do with those passages what I’ve attempted to do with the forever/eternal/everlasting passages. Just as I haven’t been able to find an answer to the question, “how can love torture people for eternity?” I also have not found an explanation for how all of those descriptions that speak of annihilation are really meant to point to eternal consciousness. But I am open to it, just as I assume you’ve been open and perhaps convinced by the biblical testimony pointing to the complete destruction of the wicked.
I want to be clear on something, because several people have accused me of having a bias, looking to find what I wanted in the Bible in order to support my preconceived view of a benevolent God. THIS IS EXTREMELY UNTRUE!! At the time when I was first confronted with these Bible verses many years ago, I had a bias in favor of established tradition on hell, and I did NOT have the view of God as a kind and loving Father, which I have today. The whole “a loving God wouldn’t burn people in hell” argument didn’t interest me when I first explored this topic and came to believe as I do on hell. I simply wanted to know what the Bible said. I searched it out and found only one way to reconcile the two different sets of verses that seemed to contradict.
If you also set aside your bias and preconceived notions and you come to a different conclusion after objectively and fairly analyzing the above verses and finding your own way to harmonize them, then I respect your honest pursuit of biblical truth. I am not looking to argue or fight or get people riled up. This is what I see in the Bible. I will not accuse you of looking for what you want to find in the Bible. I also ask for the same respectful understanding from those who disagree with me. Unfounded accusations need to be set aside as we engage in healthy Christian dialogue, seeking biblical truth together.
In the comments under this post please list any other passages that need to be addressed in order to have a full biblical picture of the nature of hell in case I have neglected to write about them here.