Many Christian denominations teach that hell is a place of torment, pain, suffering, and agony. They teach that the souls of the wicked enter hell when they die, and they spend all of eternity in the most horrific agony imaginable. They can never escape the torment, and after billions and billions of years, their suffering and agony will only have just begun. They teach that for the sins of a single lifetime, the sinner will spend billions and trillions of years in the utmost agony and suffering.
At the same time these denominations teach that "God is love" (1 John 4:16), and God loves sinners, and God "is kind unto...the evil." (Luke 6:35). Apologists for these denominations write page after page, article after article, even entire books, trying to rationalize how God could love sinners, and be kind to sinners, and yet torture them throughout all of eternity. Despite this colossal heap of explanations, even a child could see the fallacy of such logic. Many a thinking person has been driven to doubt the Bible or even become agnostic by this horribly flawed doctrine.
The time has come to reveal what the Bible really teaches about hell.
LIFE versus DEATH
The first point to understand is the difference between "life" and "death". While most small children can easily distinguish between life and death, many a learned theologian has great difficulty wrestling with this concept. The reason for their struggle is that these theologians are attempting to make "dead" sinners "live" throughout eternity in hell fire. This is an impossible proposition, and no amount of mental gymnastics can reconcile the fact that dead people are not alive!
The definition of death is quite simple: It is the absence of life. The living can breathe, move, think, and feel. The dead cannot.
In order for a person to feel and experience the pain and agony of hell, that person must be alive. Not only must that person be alive, but in order to experience hell for all of eternity, that person must have eternal life.
LIFE = Reward of the Righteous
The Bible teaches very plainly that eternal "life" is the reward of the righteous, not of sinners:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (John 3:16)Over and over again in the Bible "everlasting life" and "eternal life" are described as the reward of the righteous (Dan. 12:2; Matt. 19:29, 25:46; Mark 10:30; Luke 18:30; John 3:15, 4:36, 6:40,47,54, 10:28, 12:25, 17:2-3; Acts 13:48; Rom. 5:21; Gal. 6:8; 1 Tim. 1:16, 6:12,19; Titus 3:7; 1 John 2:25, 5:11,13,20).
If everlasting life is the reward of the righteous, then why do preachers tell us that the wicked have "everlasting life" in hell? Does the Bible teach that the wicked also obtain everlasting life?
DEATH = Reward of the wicked
Jesus taught that the wicked would perish, not live forever:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (John 3:16)Notice how Jesus contrasts "perish" with "everlasting life". The two are not the same! To "perish" means to have everlasting death, not everlasting life in hell!
The Greek word for "perish" is apollymi, which means "to destroy." If a life is destroyed, then it is no longer living. It has perished, ceased to exist. The Bible teaches over and over again that the reward of the wicked is death, not eternal life in hell.
See, I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil. (Deut. 30:15)The wages of sin is not merely death of the physical body, but also the death of the soul itself:
...for wide [is] the gate, and broad [is] the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat...Because strait [is] the gate, and narrow [is] the way, which leadeth unto life... (Matt. 7:13,14)
That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. (John 3:15)
...He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life. (John 5:24)
For the wages of sin [is] death; but the gift of God [is] eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Rom. 6:23)
For to be carnally minded [is] death; but to be spiritually minded [is] life and peace. (Rom 8:6)
He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life. (1 John 5:12)
The soul that sinneth, it shall die. (Eze. 18:20)The above passage makes it abundantly clear that the purpose of hell is to destroy the body and the soul. The purpose of hell is not to be a galactic dungeon where God and the holy angels delight in torturing and inflicting pain and misery upon the wicked throughout all the ceaseless ages of eternity. Rather, hell is a place where the wicked are destroyed, both body and soul.
And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. (Matt. 10:28)
Is Hell Burning Now?
In Matthew 10:28 we learned that the purpose of hell is to destroy both body and soul. Jesus said of the wicked, "thy whole body should be cast into hell." (Matt. 5:30). When a person dies and is buried, their body remains in the ground until the resurrection. The souls of the wicked are not sent to hell upon death, because hell does not exist yet. Hell is created by God at the end of the Millennium for the purpose of destroying the bodies and souls of the wicked:
But the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished...And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened...and the dead were judged... And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire. (Rev. 20:5,12,15)The Bible refers to the effect of being cast into the lake of fire as "the second death." If the wicked are going to be alive in hell forever, then why call it the second death? Wouldn't it have been more correct to call it the second life?
No one is in hell today because the judgment does not take place until the end of the Millennium:
The Lord knoweth how to...reserve the unjust unto the day of judgment to be punished. (2 Peter 2:9)Why would God punish people before the day of judgment? Peter says God is reserving, or holding back, his punishment of the unjust until the "day of judgment". The wicked will receive a fair hearing before the jugdment seat of God before they are punished.
Does Hell Burn Forever?
In Matthew 25:46 Jesus said the wicked would go into "everlasting punishment". Now, this could be understood in one of two ways:
In order to ascertain which is the correct interpretation, we need to examine other Scriptures. There is not a single verse in the entire Old Testament about an eternally burning hell, but there are a number of passages which describe a fire that will annihilate the wicked:
...the wicked shall perish...into smoke they shall consume away. (Ps. 37:20)In the New Testament, Paul said the wicked...
For, behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the LORD of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch. ... And ye shall tread down the wicked; for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet... (Mal. 4:1,3)
...shall be punished with everlasting destruction... (2 Thes. 1:9)Notice that the punishment is "everlasting destruction", not everlasting torture! Therefore, we can conclude that the punishing is not everlasting, but rather the effect of the punishment.
Jude, in describing the "judgment of the great day", says "Sodom and Gomorrha...are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire." (Jude 6,7) If you have been to Palestine, then you know that Sodom and Gomorrah are not burning today. They burned until the wicked were destroyed and then the fire went out. This proves that "eternal" fire does not equate to continual and endless burning, but instead describes a fire whose results are eternal.
Revelation 14:11 describes those who receive the mark of beast, saying "the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever." Does this verse prove the wicked are tormented in hell forever? Isaiah, in describing the Lord's vengeance upon Zion, wrote, "the land thereof shall become burning pitch. It shall not be quenched night nor day; the smoke thereof shall go up for ever..." (Isa. 34:9,10) Immediately after making this statement, Isaiah goes on to say that the same land shall be occupied by animals and birds and plants (Isa. 34:11-15). How could birds nest in a burning land? How could plants grow, and how could wild beasts inhabit the land if it is on fire? That could only happen if the fire was extinguished. Thus, the fire Isaiah is describing, whose smoke ascends forever, is obviously only temporary.
Even after a fire goes out, the smoke can still be observed in the sky for hours or even days after the event. When the Bible says their "smoke shall ascend for ever", it means that the evidence or effect of the punishment will be seen forever. It does not mean the punishment itself lasts forever!
In Rev. 20:10 the Bible says the devil, the beast, and the false prophet will be tormented in the lake of fire "for ever and ever". When one reads that verse, one might easily conclude that hell burns forever, but it is important to consider the Biblical meaning of the word "forever". Many times is does literally mean forever, but there are other times when it does not. Let us consider some examples.
Therefore, the Biblical usage of the word "forever" allows for it to refer to events that do not last forever. While Rev. 20:10 does indeed say devil will be tormented "for ever and ever", the same passage also refers to the lake of fire as the "second death" (Rev. 20:14). Therefore, it is reasonable to assume the devil will be tormented until his death, and not for all of eternity. This is verified by an Old Testament text that many scholars believe is a reference 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. (Ezek. 28:18-19)
The doctrine of eternal torment creates a tremendous discontinuity between the Jesus who loved sinners so much that He rebuked the disciples for evening thinking about calling down fire upon the Samaritans, and the Father who plans to roast people in hell for all eternity. Let us review some of the problems caused by this foolhardy doctrine:
The Bible describes Hell as an event that takes place at the end of the Millennium, when the wicked are raised to life, appear before the judgment seat of God, and are burned up and destroyed in hell fire. They only suffer until they are destroyed. The wicked will receive a punishment that is commensurate to the degree of their wickedness (Rev. 22:12; Matt. 16:27; Luke 12:47,48).
God, who is a being of supreme love and mercy, has no pleasure whatsoever in the destruction of sinners (Eze. 33:11). However, He cannot permit sin to exist unpunished forever. Hell is necessary to rid the universe of those who stubbornly refuse to be saved and join God's kingdom of love. In similar fashion, a person with cancer in a part of their body has no pleasure in having that body part surgically removed. However, it is better to remove one part of the body than to lose the whole body to disease. Likewise, God, out of necessity, must perform His "strange act" to remove sin from this universe in order to prevent the disease of sin from being spread throughout the universe and infecting and destroying the rest of His creation.
Those Christians teaching everlasting hell fire may be doing so sincerely, but any Christian believing this doctrine cannot possibly have a correct conception of who God really is. A god who tortures people forever is not a god but a demon of the worst sort. Any church that represents God as being in the business of eternal torture is blaspheming the character of God and misrepresenting the truths of the Bible. The Biblical truth is that God loves sinners, and hell is a place of destruction, not a place of eternal torture.
QUESTION: Matthew 3:12 and Luke 3:17 says the wicked will be burned with unquenchable fire. Doesn't that prove they will burn forever?
When firemen encounter an unquenchable fire, it does not mean the fire will burn forever. It simply means the firemen do not have the equipment or capability to stop the fire. However, once the fire has burned up all of its fuel, it will extinguish on its own accord. No one can stop or quench the fire of hell, but this does not imply hell will burn forever. It will burn until it has consumed its fuel, which in this case is the bodies and souls of the wicked. Once the wicked are consumed, the fire will cease.
QUESTION: What about the Rich man and Lazarus?
Jesus told a parable about a poor man named Lazarus who died and went to “Abraham’s bosom” (Luke 16:22). The “rich man” also died and went to “hell” (Luke 16:23). From this place of torment, the rich man saw Abraham and Lazarus. He called out to Abraham and begged him to have Lazarus dip his finger into water and send him to cool his burning tongue. Some Christians say this parable proves that the righteous go to paradise when they die, and the unrighteous go to hell. The question to consider is, must we take everything in this parable to be literal? If we took every Bible parable as literal, then we would believe that mountains sing and trees have hands that clap (Isa. 55:12). If we take everything in this parable as literal, then the righteous go into Abraham’s bosom when they die, from whence they can witness the suffering of the wicked, and can hear their cries. We must also assume the dead have physical bodies because the “rich man” had a “tongue”, Abraham had a “bosom” and Lazarus had a “finger.” Even those who believe in the literal nature of this parable would be forced to agree that not everything portrayed in this parable is literal. The question is, where does the literal end and the symbolic begin? Was Jesus actually teaching that hell is filled with wicked people who are burning, or was He merely using symbolic language to make another point? The bottom line is that one should not rely upon a parable to determine Biblical truth upon the nature of hell.
QUESTION: When Jesus describes hell in the book of Mark, three times he repeats these words: "Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched." (Mark 9:44,46,48) This proves the fire burns forever and the soul does not die in hell. What say you?
In Mark 9 Jesus uses the word "Gehenna", which was essentially a trash dump south of Jerusalem. Not only was trash disposed of in this valley, but the corpses of dead bodies, both animal and human. As the trash burned, the smoke could be seen by the people of Jerusalem, thus providing Jesus with a vivid example that He could use to explain hell fire. Now, to address your question:
First, regarding the "unquenchable" fire, please refer earlier in the study to Isa. 34:10, where Isaiah describes a fire that "shall not be quenched day or night". However, in the subsequent five verses, Isaiah descibes a wide variety of birds, animals, and plants that will occupy the land that was burnt with unquenchable fire. As noted earlier, unquenchable fire is a fire that cannot be put out, but will extinguish on its own after exhausting its fuel supply.
Secondly, Jesus did not say the "soul" would not die, but that their "worm" would not die. The soul is not a worm, and a worm is not a soul. There is no passage in the Bible where a soul is described as a worm. In this passage, "worm" refers to the worms or maggots that feast upon dead flesh. That is to say, in Gehenna, whatever part of the body that was not destroyed by fire, would be consumed by worms. Therefore, Jesus was not saying the soul would live forever in hell. The point Jesus is making is that the destruction of the body and soul in hell will be complete.
For further study on what happens when a person dies, see the study Life after Death.