Eternal Torment, Eternal Fire, Eternal Death?

In my previous post, I looked at every New Testament verse that refers to hell (or Gehenna) and showed that none of these verses mention eternal torment. I also pointed out that Paul, James, and other biblical authors wrote that unrepentant sinners would die, life and death being the culmination of the two paths of humanity.

There is very little in the Bible which might be taken to imply that all unrepentant sinners will be punished with eternal conscious torment. Nevertheless, let’s take a look at the verses which contain the ideas of “eternal” and “fire” in regards to the future judgement, verses typically used by Christians who believe in the eternal torment of the unredeemed.

Eternal Punishment and Destruction

Matthew 25:35-46 mentions “eternal punishment” for those who have not fed, clothed, and visited “the least of these.” 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9 mentions the disobedient who “pay the price (or suffer the punishment) of eternal destruction (olethros).” Both these passages may be referring to death rather than some kind of continuing torment.[1]

The devastating punishment of death (or the “second death” mentioned in Rev. 2:11; 20:6, 14; 21:8) means that the disobedient are eternally excluded from the everlasting life that Jesus offers to every human being on the planet (Matt. 25:46; John 3:16). Death or destruction is an irreversible, eternal punishment because for all eternity there is no opportunity for a second chance at life.

Some read the idea of eternal torment into Matthew 25:46 and 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9 even though the text doesn’t plainly mention it.[2] Other verses used to support the idea of eternal torment are equally tenuous and even less compelling.

Eternal and Unquenchable Fire

Several verses in the Bible refer to an eternal or unquenchable fire in regards to judgement (e.g. Matt. 3:12; Mark 9:43, 48). In Matthew 25:41, Jesus tells a parable which includes this line:

Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”

This verse seems to support a traditional understanding of hell as a place of eternal fire, and yet Jesus may be using “eternal fire” rhetorically here. We need to keep in mind that Jesus is telling a story, a parable. Jesus used parables to teach, illustrate, or highlight spiritual and moral principles, not to narrate actual or future events.[3] Nevertheless, eternal torment is not mentioned here either.

Note especially that Jesus says the fire is for the devil and his angels. This may indicate that “hell-fire”, whether metaphorical or real, is for fallen angels and not for torturing people (cf. 2 Pet. 2:4).

Jude 1:7 is another verse that is used to support the idea of eternal torment, and yet again it is fire, not torment, that is described as eternal:

Likewise, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which, in the same manner as they, indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural lust, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire. (NRSV)

The people of Sodom and Gomorrah were punished by being killed. They did not suffer prolonged torment but were reduced to ash (2 Pet. 2:6). So if they do indeed serve as an example, then it seems the ungodly will be destroyed. Moreover, an “eternal fire” no longer burns in Sodom and Gomorrah, and was not burning when Jude wrote his letter, indicating that “eternal fire” may be a metaphor rather than a reality.

Fire’s Ferocious Force

It seems the imagery of fire is used for God’s wrath and judgement because of fire’s spectacular, terrifying, and deadly power (e.g. Matt. 13:41-42; 2 Thess. 1:7b-8; 2 Pet. 3:7). Adjectives such as as “eternal”, “unquenchable”, and “raging” have been used by some of the biblical authors to highlight and strengthen the imagery of fire’s ferocious force at the judgement.

Though I am using the word “imagery”, this is not meant to imply that I discount the likelihood that a terrifying cataclysmic fire will be a feature of God’s final judgement. It could very well be that God uses fire to bring about the death and destruction of the unredeemed.

In Hebrews, the fire of judgement is described plainly as “a raging fire that will consume the enemies of God” (Heb. 10:26-27 cf. Heb. 12:29). In Malachi 4:1 we are told the fire of judgement will set evildoers ablaze like flammable chaff. Thus the fire of God’s judgement kills and consumes and reduces its victims to ash (cf. 2 Pet. 2:6).

Here’s another example of this fiery image of devastation:

. . . fury will be shown to his foes.
See, the Lord is coming with fire, and his chariots are like a whirlwind;
he will bring down his anger with fury, and his rebuke with flames of fire.
For with fire and with his sword the Lord will execute judgment on all people,
and many will be those slain by the Lord. Isaiah 66:14b-16 (Italics added)

Thankfully, the redeemed are spared God’s wrath and his judgement of death.

Eternal Worms

Mark 9:48 is another verse sometimes used to support the idea of eternal conscious torment for unrepentant sinners. This verse quotes from Isaiah 66:24 and mentions both unquenchable fire and worms that never die. Isaiah 66:24 does not indicate, however, that people are eternal or that they suffer eternal torment, on the contrary in fact: the worms eat the dead bodies of people God has killed in judgement.

Both worms and fire are symbols of utter destruction. The death and destruction of the unredeemed will be horrific and complete.

At the final judgement there will be weeping (a display of sorrow and regret) and gnashing of teeth (a display of anger and indignation), but weeping and gnashing of teeth do not necessarily continue for all eternity. Nowhere does the Bible say that the people who have been judged and condemned are eternal.[4] The consistent description of their fate is death and destruction.[5]

Eternal Torment

As far as I can make out, there are only two passages in the Bible which explicitly mention eternal torment as a punishment. (Please let me know if I’ve missed any.) One of these passages concerns the torment of fallen angels. Hell-fire, or more specifically the lake of fire mentioned in Revelation, might be thought of as a place reserved for fallen angels (Matt. 25:41; 2 Pet. 2:4); and in Revelation 20 the devil, and the demonic figures of the beast and the false prophet, are thrown into “the lake of fire and brimstone” where “they will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (Rev. 20:10). This verse clearly refers to eternal torment.

A few verses later, still in Revelation 20, the unredeemed are thrown into the lake of fire, but so are Death and Hades, marking the end of an era (Rev. 20:14-15). Torment is not mentioned here.

Revelation 14:9-11 is the only passage in the Bible that explicitly mentions people who are tormented, and “have no rest day and night,” as part of God’s judgement. These people are those who worship the beast and receive his mark:

Then another angel, a third one, followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and his image, and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is mixed in full strength in the cup of His anger; and he will be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever; they have no rest day and night, those who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name.” Revelation 14:9-11

I do not know precisely who these people are (or were), but it is unlikely that they represent the whole of unredeemed humanity.

It is important to acknowledge that the only two passages in the Bible which clearly mention eternal torment are found in Revelation. Revelation typically uses cryptic symbols, and not plain facts, to convey its message. We need to take care how we interpret these symbols and not presume to take their imagery and symbolism at face value.

Furthermore, it is unwise to suppose that one or two passages from Revelation satisfactorily upholds the notion of the eternal conscious torment of unredeemed humanity, when many more verses simply state that death is the consequence and punishment for disobeying God and rejecting Jesus as Saviour (e.g. Rom. 5:12; 6:16b, 23; 7:5; Jas 1:15).

The verses which speak about God’s judgement on unrepentant sinners are vivid and horrifying. They are written in such a way as to convey the devastating seriousness and lasting consequence of judgement. The scriptural support for eternal conscious torment, however, is tenuous and ambiguous at best.

Eternal Life

As Jeremiah wrote in a more immediate context, ‘This is what the LORD says: ‘See, I am setting before you the way of life and the way of death.’” (Jer. 21:8).[6] For many reasons, I’m choosing life—the gift of the wondrous new life in Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:17; 8:2; 2 Tim. 1:10; 1 John 3:14). My earnest hope is that you have accepted Jesus’ words and chosen life also:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16 (Italics added)

Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life. John 5:24 [7]


Endnotes

[1] (This endnote is also included in part 1.) E. Earle Ellis has noted that nouns for the judgement of the unrighteous connote obliteration. They include annihilation (apōleia): Matt. 7:13; John 17:12; Acts 8:20; Rom. 9:22ff; Phil. 1:28; 3:19; 2 Thess. 2:3; 1 Tim 6:9; Heb. 10:39; 2 Pet. 2:1; destruction (olethros): 1 Thess. 5:3; 2 Thess. 1:9; 1 Tim. 6:9; death (thanatos): Rom 1:21; 6:21ff; 7:5; 8:6; 1 Cor. 15:21f; 15:56; 2 Cor. 2:16; 7:10; Jas 1:15; 5:20; 1 John 5:16; Rev. 2:11; 20:6; 20:14; 1 Pet. 4:17; end (telos): Rom. 6:21f; 2 Cor. 11:15; Phil. 3:19; 1 Pet. 4:17; and disintegration or corruption (phthora): Gal. 6:8; 2 Pet. 1:4; 2:12.
“The most important and frequent terms for the punishment of sin are death and destruction or annihilation and their corresponding verbs.” E. Earle Ellis, Christ and the Future in New Testament History (Leiden: Brill, 2001) 193 & 195.

[2] Matthew 25:46 says that the righteous enter eternal life while the cursed enter eternal punishment. This is another verse which gives the two options of  life and death, though this is not stated as clearly as in many other verses.

[3] The story of Lazarus and the rich man may be a parable. I have not discussed it in these posts because it is not about hell or the final judgement. The story mentions Hades, which is regarded as an intermediate state. Hades is equivalent with the Hebrew Sheol and refers to the grave, or possibly the “first death”. The Greek word Hades occurs 10 times in the New Testament.

[4] Only God is immortal and eternal (1 Tim 6:16). We on the other hand are mortal and perishable (1 Cor. 15:53-54). Yet God has graciously bestowed immortality on believers, through Jesus Christ:

[God] has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity, but now has been revealed by the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. 2 Timothy 1:9-10.

[5] “Outer darkness” seems to be another metaphor for the death or annihilation of sinners. It is used in Matthew 8:12; 22:13; 25:13.

[6] The widely circulated early Christian text The Didache (c. AD 100) opens with: “There are two ways, one of life and one of death!” (Did. 1:1).
“Ignatius (c AD 35-110), Justin Martyr (c. AD 110-165), Arnobius (303-330) and Athanasius (c. AD 296-373) are prominent examples of [Patristic writers who believed in and wrote about] conditional immortality, that is, immortality given only to those in Christ, and of its corollary, a punishment that is everlasting in it is effect, i.e. an extinction of being.” E. Earle Ellis, Christ and the Future in New Testament History (Leiden: Brill, 2001) 179. See also pages 181-185 for quotations from these writers, and Irenaeus and Theophilus of Antioch, about conditional immortality.

Some eminent 21st century scholars who hold to the view of conditional immortality include John Stott, I. Howard Marshall, David Instone-Brewer, John Stackhouse, Richard Bauckham, and Michael Green.

[7] Like Paul (mentioned at the beginning of part 1), John the gospel author, and the author of the three letters that bear his name, never mention hell or anything like eternal torment. Life and death are given as the two options for humanity. John frequently spoke about “life”; he wrote his gospel so that his readers “may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31, italics added).

Image credit: The Great Day of his Wrath, John Martin, c. 1853 (Wikimedia)

Further reading: For more on the subject of hell, I recommend the website Rethinking Hell. See also Graham Wade’s comprehensive article Why I am a Conditionalist here.