What the Bible Really Says (and Doesn’t Say) About Hell
By Bill Lenhart
Let me preface this article by stating unequivocally that I believe in the hell of the Bible. Christ said that God can destroy both body and soul in Gehenna, and I believe it. This article is not being written to question the reality of hell, but to point out the very real possibility that the traditional teaching on hell is just that…a teaching that puts more weight on tradition than on Scripture. Hell is not being questioned – the nature of the hell commonly being taught is. Is hell just hot enough to blister and torment the condemned, or does the Bible describe one that is so hot that it turns one to smoke and ashes? I think the Bible’s answer to this question just might surprise you!
Not long ago I came across a very thought-stimulating article on the internet by Keith Stump (“The Battle Over Hell,” http://www.wcg.org/lit/prophecy/hell-frames.htm ) regarding the ever-thorny topic of hell. His article served as a reminder that, although traditional Christianity does seem to have most of its doctrinal ducks in a row, it certainly does appear to have a few ugly ducklings mixed in with the flock – the doctrine of a hell that tortures forever being one of them.
Mr. Stump’s article got me to pondering once again, with a bit of perplexity I must admit, as to how the standard teaching in support of an ever-torturing hell ever made its way into the everyday set of standard Christian beliefs. Scripture is clear that there is a hell, and that it will cause those who must face it a period of much anguish and torment. But the nature of that hell as taught by traditional Christianity needs to be called into question, as it has little in common with what the scriptures actually say on the subject. How could a teaching that, to even the most casual observer, appears to go totally against the nature of a loving God (and even against normal every day mercy and compassion), and that is based on such vague scriptures ever get such a foothold in Christian dogma?
Admittedly, Dante had his influence in the formation of the doctrine, but where are the modern-day Bible scholars, with their penetrating insights, when you need them? When was the last time this doctrine was thoroughly gone over with a fine-tooth comb? Is it possible that the current view most of Christianity holds regarding hell could be false? Most of Christianity would be quick to reassure us that they indeed have and teach the truth regarding hell, and that eternal torment is actually a good and just thing! But can they back up these assertions with unassailable scriptural proof? I think not.
Sure, I’ve read the standard time-worn argument that God in his wisdom must have deemed this as the appropriate punishment for such a heinous sin as rejecting Christ’s sacrifice: that rejecting the greatest of all sacrifices demands the greatest of all punishments. But all too often eternal hell-fire adherents use this argument as a proof of an ever-torturing hell, when in actuality it is at best just a rationale to somehow excuse what appears to most thinking people, including many Christians, as extreme sadistic overkill.
For example, Lee Strobel in “The Case for Faith” devotes an entire chapter to the subject of an ever-tormenting hell. He attempts to rationalize why eternal torment is acceptable, but the few scriptures he references in no way provide any real proof of this type of torturous hell. He merely confirms what we already knew – God will punish the wicked with destruction. Of course, “destruction” means something quite different to torturing hell advocates than it does to the average person…something that they can’t quite prove from the scriptures. Even Lee admits that of all aspects of mainline Christianity, this teaching gives him the most discomfort (and for good reason, I might add).
In another example of wasted effort, John Blanchard, in his book “Whatever Happened to Hell,” does his level best to “maintain biblical truth” through 298 pages of text, but instead seems more intent on preserving tradition than on examining biblical evidence regarding the nature of hell. Because of presenting nothing of any real substance, and failing to address both sides of the issue openly and fairly, Blanchard only ends up preaching to the choir. He, and all other fired-up ever-tormenting hell proponents, don’t seem to realize that they are much like chickens deceived into nesting on wooden eggs: they may cackle and strut all they want, but I firmly believe that the object of their affection will do nothing in the future but disappoint them.
Not a Core Doctrine
Though some portray the issue of hell as central, history tells another story.
According to Keith Stump in “The Battle Over Hell” (see web address at the beginning of this article), “the doctrine of hell evolved long after the core doctrines of the historic Christian faith were established. The views of the early Church fathers about hell were far from unanimous. It took the Christian community hundreds of years to come up with a consensus on the issue. The majority view -- that hell is a place of eternal fiery torment -- emerged only after a long debate within the Church.
“By the Middle Ages, the concept of a fiery underworld had become a dominant element in people's minds. To the medieval faithful, hell was a place of suffering and despair, of wretchedness and excruciating pain.
“The medieval Church used fire-and-brimstone rhetoric to its fullest to keep believers under control. The Church considered hell a useful prod to piety, a strong incentive to refrain from evil.
“Though criticism was raised by some churchmen against the overdramatization of hell, the brutal imagery of medieval theology tended toward ever-more-vivid portrayals of hell's horrors. And nowhere were those horrors so dramatically depicted as in The Inferno, the first part of The Divine Comedy, an epic poem by the Italian author Dante Alighieri (1265-1321).
“The Inferno records Dante's imaginary travels among the damned. His purpose was to warn his readers that reward or punishment would surely meet them hereafter.
“According to Dante, hell is divided into nine rings or circles, descending conically into the earth. Within this multi-leveled chamber of horrors, souls suffer punishments appropriate to their sins. Gluttons, for example, are doomed to forever lie like pigs in a foul-smelling sty under a cold, eternal rain of filth and refuse. The lustful -- driven by their passions during this lifetime -- are forever whirled about in a dark, stormy wind.
“Although the fruit of Dante's fertile imagination, The Inferno is generally in keeping with the theology of his age. His picture of hell as a gigantic concentration camp -- a nightmarish place of eternal torment presided over by Satan -- became fixed in the popular imagination. It continues to represent the thinking of some Christians to this day -- and of some critics of Christianity who mistakenly assume that Dante's frightful imagery comes from the Bible.” (end of quote)
Is God Actually That Sadistic?
Based on all that the Bible tells us regarding the nature of God and his all-consuming love and concern for every creature, even the fallen sparrow, common sense should tell the proponents of an ever-torturing hell that this doctrine somehow just doesn’t ring true. That God would have such a plan for some of his creation – to suffer endlessly - a teaching based on just a handful of vague scriptures, should give every torturing-hell proponent reason to pause and re-evaluate. Let me demonstrate what I mean by the following possible scenario:
Suppose you read in the newspaper one day that the police had just discovered a case of severe animal cruelty in a home in the suburbs of your city. It had just come to their attention that a man had been torturing his pet Boston Terrier in a cage in his basement for the past 2 years. Faint muffled howls and yelps had been heard in the neighborhood for many months, but only recently had anyone been able to pin-point where those tormented cries were coming from.
The police questioned the dog’s owner, a gentle appearing man … a slightly balding widower, somewhere in his early forties. He was exceedingly sorry that his dog had been causing a disturbance in the neighborhood, but not bothered in the least by what he had been doing to his dog. Just what had he been doing to his hapless canine, you might be asking? He had been keeping the animal in a metal cage next to the gas water heater and furnace, in a small basement room that was not well vented, and therefore stiflingly hot.
Further, the owner confessed that he had been giving the dog little food or water over the past two years; basically just enough to keep it alive. On weekends and evenings, when not at work, he would occasionally drop in on the poor skeletonized creature and reach through the bars with a soldering iron and sear a welt on the dog’s skin through its pelt of matted, dirty hair. Other times he enjoyed watching the dog moan and drool with hunger as he held a piece of fried chicken or pizza just beyond the famished animal’s reach through the cage’s bars. The dog’s resultant plaintive cry was no doubt what the neighbors had been hearing all these months.
When this story hit the local paper and the TV news, there was a public outcry. PETA wanted this man tried and sentenced to multiple years in prison, and letters to the editor decried that such an atrocity could have happened in their city. Letters and phone calls were received by the local animal shelter inquiring whether the animals in the shelter were by chance being abused. Public outcry in general was for this man’s head to roll for his unconscionable treatment of a helpless dog.
Why, oh why, you may be wondering, did this man stoop to such a despicable act as to torture this poor defenseless creature? And why for such an extended period of time? Upon further examination, it came to light that the Boston Terrier had been bought as a puppy for the owner’s young child after the death of the mother. The father had been assured by the pet store that this breed of dog was indeed very gentle, and would not harm his small son.
Although the terrier had always exhibited a gentle nature, one day while the father was outside getting the mail and the boy was alone with the dog but for a moment, the dog for some inexplicable reason turned on the small child and got a death grip on the boy’s throat, killing him.
The father was inconsolable. The dog was to be disposed of at a nearby animal shelter, but at the last minute the grieving father had a change of heart (or perhaps a hardening of the heart) and decided to keep the pet. The rest of the story (all of which I fabricated) you already know.
Should the dog have been destroyed, or should it instead have been kept alive to suffer for the enormity of its misdeed? After all, the owner, who had provided all the sustenance and love the dog could ask for, had lost his only son to a creature that had apparently not appreciated its blessings and could no longer ever be trusted. Should the dog’s owner be sent to prison for this horrendous treatment of the dog, as even an animal does not deserve to be tortured? Or, as I mentioned above, was the owner justified in taking revenge on the dog as it had certainly earned some extreme punishment by the extreme nature of its crime?
Few people would ever suggest that this creature, which admittedly had forfeited its right to live, should be made to suffer horribly for a few years for its terrible misdeed. Most would agree, I believe (Christians and atheists alike), that death was indeed a fitting enough punishment. But strangely, there are many walking about that would consider God consigning mankind to a similar or even worse torment as not worthy of even a raised eyebrow. Go figure!
Clark Pinnock, in his “The Conditional View” (of hell) chapter in William Crockett’s “Four Views on Hell,” agrees that “The traditional view of the nature of hell does not cohere well with the character of God disclosed in the gospel; at least it must make one think twice before concluding that hell spells everlasting conscious punishing.”
He further states that “Our moral intuition agrees with this. There is a powerful moral revulsion against the traditional doctrine of the nature of hell. Everlasting torture is intolerable from a moral point of view because it pictures God acting like a bloodthirsty monster who maintains an everlasting Auschwitz for his enemies whom he does not even allow to die. How can one love a God like that? I suppose one might be afraid of him, but could we love and respect him? Would we want to strive to be like him in his mercilessness ? (emphasis mine) Surely the idea of everlasting conscious torment raises the problem of evil to impossible heights.”
John Stott, in “Evangelical Essentials: A Liberal Evangelical Dialogue” (if evangelicals elected a pope, it would be John Stott; Billy Graham calls him “the most respected clergyman in the world today”) seems to agree: “I find the concept (of eternal torture) intolerable and do not understand how people can live with it without either cauterizing their feelings or cracking under the strain.”
The Abortionist and Child-Killer – Our Friend in Disguise?
The current Christian thinking on hell is that only relatively few who have ever lived will escape a tortuous hell, as the bulk of the Chinese, Indians, Asians, Jews, etc. over the ages have not known, or accepted Christ as their savior. One does not even need to go to the scriptures to prove that this doctrine of eternal suffering in hell is terribly, terribly flawed, and does not stand up to scrutiny.
If indeed this teaching were correct, and if most of those who have ever lived are doomed to excruciating torment for ever and ever, then I propose to you that anyone who could have prevented this from happening, to even a few, would have been doing mankind a tremendous service. And I think you would have to admit that the abortionist, and those who kill very young children fit very nicely into this category, thank you! Personally, I would much rather have been aborted or to have died as a young child, and gone automatically to heaven, as most churches teach would happen, even at a lower heavenly status, than to take the chance of being tortured unrelentingly for eternity.
Therefore, it would appear that the abortionist and child-killer is actually mankind’s best friend. Every unwanted baby girl killed by her parents in China over the centuries is now in heaven (or awaits the resurrection, and will be in the Kingdom – whichever theory you happen to favor), and was actually wonderfully blessed to be murdered, rather than to grow up in a Christless society, and ultimately face eternal torture. And by this same reasoning no doubt every one of the millions of pre-born babies that have been unmercifully and painfully aborted in the United States since the Rowe v. Wade decision are now in heaven; whereas many most likely would have been facing everlasting torment had they not been terminated in the womb.
If the current doctrine on hell is correct, then what I have just said is also correct. If my proposition above is flawed, then so is the current torturing-forever hell doctrine. There is no way around it. If you have found one, please let me know.
Eternal Torment – Fall-back Position for the Non-Thinking?
It has become blatantly obvious over the years that there is very little in the Bible to use as an unshakeable foundation for such an extremely polarizing and sensory-wringing teaching as an ever-tormenting hell. The fact is that the Bible does indeed speak of “hell” (hades, gehenna, etc). But all too many Christians have complacently defaulted on the Bible’s admonition to “prove all things,” and have instead allowed the current teaching of an ever-torturing hell to develop over the centuries a life of its own far in excess of what the scriptures would warrant.
How did things get into this sorry state, where a doctrine that has so little in scripture to support it, portrays God in such a terrible light, and yet has become widely accepted as unassailable gospel? The Greek doctrine of immortality has had a very decided effect on theology that developed regarding the nature of hell. This is a good example of the occasional hellenization of Christian doctrine. The concept of souls being naturally immortal has distorted the interpretation of the biblical texts about hell. It almost forces one to expand destruction at God’s hand into endless conscious torment, for if souls are naturally immortal, they must necessarily spend a conscious eternity somewhere. It is this belief in natural immortality rather than biblical texts that drives the traditional view of the nature of hell as everlasting conscious punishment and prevents people from reading the Bible literally.
The Bible, in spite of what some would say, seems clearly
to refute that we possess any form of eternal life. Ezekiel says clearly that
souls die: "The soul who sins shall die" (Ezekiel 18:4, 20; see
Romans 6:23). Jesus warns in Matthew 10:28 that God can destroy both soul
and body in hell.
Men cannot have immortality unless God gives it to them. Paul writes, "For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 6:23). In I Cor. 15:53 he tells the saints, "This corruptible must put on incorruption and this mortal must put on immortality." God will give "eternal life to those who by patient continuance in doing good seek for glory, honor, and immortality" (Romans 2:7). If we already had immortality, why should we put it on or seek it?
Only God has immortality. He is, Paul writes to Timothy, ". . . the blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality" (I Tim 6:15-16). John says of the Word, "In Him was life" (John 1:4), meaning as Creator of all things (verse 3), He had life inherent. Jesus affirms this in John 14:6, "I am the way, the truth, and the life." Men must go through Him to receive eternal life. To assume that we already have some sort of eternal life, even if it is in a condemned state, is not scriptural.
According to Clark Pinnock, “Belief in the immortality of the soul has long attached itself to Christian theology. There has been a virtual consensus that the soul survives death because it is by nature an incorporeal substance. This assumption goes back to Plato’s view of the soul as metaphysically indestructible, a view shared by Augustine, Aquinas, and Calvin. This concept has influenced theology for a long, long time, but it is not biblical.
“The Bible does not teach the natural immortality of the soul; it points instead to the resurrection of the body as God’s gift to believers. God alone has immortality (I Tim 6:16) but graciously grants embodied life to his people (I Cor. 15:21, 50-54; 2 Tim 1:10). God gives us life and God takes it away. There is nothing in the nature of the human soul that requires it to live forever. The Bible teaches conditionalism: God created humans mortal with a capacity for everlasting life, but it is not their inherent possession.
“Immortality is a gift God offers us in the gospel, not as an inalienable possession. This soul is not an immortal substance that has to be placed somewhere if it rejects God. If a person does reject God finally, there is nothing in biblical anthropology to contradict what Jesus plainly taught—God will destroy the wicked, body and soul, in hell. Once this is seen, a person is free to read the Bible on hell naturally and straightforwardly.”
Pinnock further points out that Augustine did much to popularize the belief in the endless conscious torment of body and soul in hell, and this thinking has dominated the Christian imagination for over a millennium. As this belief allowed the church to play on human fear to bring souls to God, it was probably not questioned and tested as well as it should have been.
He continues: “A careful study of the scriptures regarding the nature of hell leaves the reader with a strong general impression of final, irreversible destruction, of closure with God. As the Bible’s language and imagery is so powerful in that direction, it is surprising that more theologians have not picked up on it. Scripture uses the language of death and destruction, of ruin and perishing, over and over again when it speaks of the fate of the unrepentant. It uses the imagery of a fire that consumes whatever is thrown into it; images of fire and destruction would suggest annihilation. One receives the impression that “eternal punishment” refers to a divine judgment whose results cannot be reversed, rather than to the experience of endless torment (eternal punishing).
“There are many good reasons for questioning the traditional view of the nature of hell, but the most important reason is the fact that the Bible does not teach it. Contrary to the loud claims of the traditionalists, it is not a biblical doctrine. It is a bit annoying to be told that no biblical case can be made for the annihilation of the wicked when it is the traditional view that most needs proving. Let the reader judge the true situation. The Bible gives a strong impression to any honest reader that hell denotes final destruction, so the burden of proof rests with those who refuse to believe and accept this teaching.”
(Short Pinnock quotes are used occasionally throughout the rest of this article without credit)
Thankfully, the past few decades have seen a gradual awakening in some sectors of Christianity as to the flimsiness of the eternal hell-fire doctrine. Many church pastors choose to label those who will not make it into eternity with God as “being eternally separated from God.” This is indeed a valid way of putting things, as no matter whether one believes in eternal suffering or just plain annihilation, one would indeed be “eternally separated from God” if condemned.
I felt that Mr. Stump’s article was so well-done and thought-provoking, that I e-mailed a copy of it to about 50 or 60 of my closest friends – most of them Christians (but not with a Worldwide Church of God background). I wrote the following cover-letter e-mail, to which I attached the Stump article:
I just read a very interesting article on that ever-thorny topic of hell. This is a subject I have studied rather intensively off and on over the years, and I find that this article rings very true... to me, at least. I think the issue of hell is one that deserves careful reconsideration by Christianity as a whole. In fact, I believe there is somewhat of an underground push to do just that. But all too often, certain topics become “off-limits” for further examination, to the oft-times ultimate embarrassment of all Christians.
Doctrines can and do change over the centuries, based upon re-examination of the facts. Just look at the doctrine of the secret rapture, for example. It made its first appearance in Christianity in the early 1800’s! Many Christians have thought that this has always been a basic bedrock belief. Not so! And how about the 3 competing doctrines regarding Christ’s return? The current popular teaching of pre-millennialism (the belief that Jesus will physically reign on the earth, at some point in the future, after his second coming) is a relative newcomer to Christianity, if you consider the last 2000 years as a whole.
Amillennialism (the belief that Jesus will not reign on this earth, but is already reigning from heaven and in our hearts) holds the honor of being the doctrine of choice for the majority of Christianity for the longest span of time for the past 20 centuries! Shocking? Yes. Although it could be debated just which of the 3 doctrines is correct, this is just a reminder that Christianity should never allow itself to refuse to re-examine doctrinal issues now and again.
I hope you find the attached article interesting and thought-provoking. Keep in mind that the doctrine of the nature of hell is NOT a core Christian belief, and that we should never let it, or any other non-core belief separate us from other believers in Christ.
I got pretty much the response to this e-mail that I expected: almost none, with the little bit that I did receive being negative. Actually, I received a total of two responses; both of which took me to task for my stand which differed from the standard Christian teaching on this subject. The first respondent admitted that he hadn’t read the article at the time of his response, but had just glanced over it, and “knew” that it was off base, and wanted to set me straight as a Christian brother (in love, of course).
The second response came several weeks later from someone in my small group from church. He e-mailed me an article that he had cut and pasted, which apparently he felt knocked the legs out from under the position I had taken on this subject. This was the same person, by the way, who vehemently denied that “tithing” might not be a new covenant teaching – that is, until his wife read my article on that subject and admitted it had changed her opinion (and probably his, if truth be known…see article on tithing at www.members.tripod.com/whistler4truth). These responses are why I wrote this article.
As I read over the article he e-mailed me (“Is There Really a Place Called Hell?” by Steve Rudd), I was struck by the shallow reasoning and research that this article embodied. Was this the best shot my friend could take at annihilationism? Was this, by chance, the same quality of reasoning that had gone into the formation of the doctrine of eternal torment over the centuries?
For example, let me lift one of the most powerful paragraphs out of the heart of this article, and then let us carefully examine it:
“Furthermore, the reality of hell is clearly seen because Christ clearly taught it. He once said, "And if thy hand offend thee, cut if off; it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched" Mark 9:43. And, in giving a picture of future judgment, the Lord represented himself as saying to those on his left hand, "Depart from me, you cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels" Matthew 25:41.
“We should not hesitate to say that we believe every statement that Jesus ever made to be a true statement. These statements that he made about a literal hell of torment cannot be dismissed as inconsequential to our study. There can be no doubt that there is a real hell, for Christ taught it. This doctrine is not, as some have suggested, from men; but it is from God and is clearly taught in the Scriptures.”
Let’s ask a few hard questions of this paragraph of “proofs” of eternal punishment:
1. Does “go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched" prove that man shall suffer forever in fire? I think most of us are aware that a fire that is not extinguished or “quenched” will eventually burn itself out, and will not burn eternally.
2. Does "Depart from me, you cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels" prove that those thrown into that fire will not be burned up, but will suffer? I think not. And could not the word “everlasting” just as easily mean “age-lasting,” just as the “everlasting” covenant of circumcision with Abraham’s offspring eventually ended when that particular age came to an end?
3. “We should not hesitate to say that we believe every statement that Jesus ever made to be a true statement”. True statements are only as true as the understanding of their real intent or meaning. For example, when Christ was questioned about what fate would eventually befall the apostle John, he replied, “What is it to you if he should linger until I return again?” Those who thought John would live until Christ’s 2nd coming totally misinterpreted Christ’s statement. Christ was known to speak in ways intended to misdirect the listener.
4. “There can be no doubt that there is a real hell, for Christ taught it.” This is very true. Actually there are 3 hells referred to in scripture: (1) the grave [where all go], (2) the place the condemned await final judgment [see Lazarus’s “rich man” below], and (3) the place of final destruction [gehenna fire]. None of them can be proven to be used to torture or punish mankind forever.
How About “Lazarus & the Rich Man”?
A favorite scripture used by many to try to justify the teachings of an ever-torturing hell can be found in the parable about Lazarus and the rich man in Luke, chapter 16. Verse 22 – 23 states:
22So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham's bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. 23And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.
Many try to say that this is not a parable, but more of a statement of fact. As L. Ray Smith points out in his very insightful article, Lazarus and the Rich Man - A Scriptural Journey Through the Intriguing Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man:
“Unfortunately, the parable of Lazarus and the Rich man has become a sort of theological passport to the annihilation of hundreds of plain and exact verses of Scripture. Next to the gross error in translating the Greek aion (a period of time with a beginning and an end) into an English eternity (no time at all, neither having a beginning nor an ending), I know of no greater misrepresentation of any section of scripture than this parable.”
“… Jesus spoke in parables throughout His whole ministry. In Matthew chapter 13 we are given seven different parables. No parable is literal or historical. The second we make a parable literal, it ceases to be a parable. Jesus spoke ONLY in parables (not true life or historical stories) among the masses of people who followed Him wherever He went.”
“…Parables are not to be taken literally. They are to be understood "figuratively." The real meaning is not in what they literally say, but in what the symbols and figurative language represent. That’s why they are called "parables." This is axiomatic!”
“From what is literally stated in the parable about these two individuals it is hard to find condemnation or praise for either party. We know for sure that the Rich man is in a state of condemnation and that Lazarus is in a state of consolement, but there is nothing in the narrative to tell us why this is so.
If taken literally, this parable consists of statements that are illogical, unscriptural, contradictory, and impossible. But, when we understand the symbolism of this parable, it opens up our understanding to God’s dealing with all peoples on earth! We must know the real identity of these two individuals before we can know that their treatment is a just treatment based on their lives and based on God’s grace.” (end of quote)
To make a long story short, Mr. Smith puts together a very scripturally sound argument that the rich man in the parable represents the Jews, and Lazarus represents the Gentiles. It is a rather long but interesting article, full of research and scriptures, far and away the best explanation of the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man that I have ever read. To read the full length article yourself, see article #39, “Lazarus & the Rich Man – the Parable Explained” at www.members.tripod.com/whistler4truth
But perhaps the scripture that hellfire proponents might refer to that appears to be the hardest to explain is Rev 20:10.
“The devil, who deceived them, was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone where the beast and the false prophet are. And they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.”
At first blush, this scripture would appear to state that the supposedly flesh and blood beast and false prophet are to be tormented day and night forever, along with the devil. This would deal a serious blow to the teaching of annihilationism. Note that the word “are” is in italics. This denotes that this word did not actually appear in the original texts, but has been added in an attempt to give the scripture clearer meaning.
John W. Ritenbaugh, in his “Five Teachings on Grace,” explains: “ In English grammar, such silent verbs take the same tense as the verb in the main clause of the sentence. The translators ignored this rule, however. The primary verb of the sentence, "was cast" (an aorist verb usually translated as simple past tense), demands that the silent verb should be "were cast" (past tense) to agree with the plural subject, "the beast and the false prophet."”
Thus is becomes apparent that this scripture should actually read, if grammatical rules had been followed:
“The devil, who deceived them, was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone where the beast and the false prophet were cast. And they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.”
Or, as the New English Bible so aptly puts it:
“and the devil, their seducer, was flung into the lake of fire and sulphur, where the beast and the false prophet had been flung, there to be tormented day and night forever.”
This gives credibility to our contention that no human being will ever suffer eternal pain, for the fact that the beast and false prophet “were cast” into the lake of fire at some previous point in time cannot be used as proof that they are still alive and suffering. The scriptures could now be said to fully support our belief that the beast and false prophet were incinerated when Christ returned and cast them into the lake of fire (Rev 19:20), with the devil having been cast into the lake of fire at the end of the millennium approximately 1000 years later.
But wait! One small problem still remains. What about the word “they” in the sentence “And they will be tormented day and night forever and ever”? How could a singular devil be referred to as a plural they? Doesn’t this destroy our whole theory of annihilationism?
Actually, the answer to this little conundrum is very simple. A parallel verse in Matthew 25:41 states that sinners will be cast into "the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels." John Ritenbaugh explains:
“"The devil" is used in a figure of speech called metonymy. Technically, it is "the use of the name of one thing for that of another of which it is an attribute or with which it is associated." More simply, one part of a thing represents the whole. Thus, "the devil" represents in himself all of the group we call demons, devils, fallen angels, angels that sinned, etc.”
By the way, how can anything, physical or spiritual, “be tormented day and night forever” when “day and night” will no longer exist once the New Jerusalem comes down out of heaven? Rev 22:5 tells us that there will be no night, and that there will be no sun, for the Lord God will be our light. This scripture alone hints that “everlasting” only means age- or era-lasting as it is used in Revelation.
This shows that the lake of fire's primary purpose could be for the eternal torment of demons, but it will also be used as the means of execution for the wicked among humans. While men will be completely annihilated, the unkillable demons will simply suffer. Some would argue that this is in error – that the Bible is clear that some will suffer eternal punishment. True, the Bible does definitely teach eternal punishment, but it makes no mention of eternal punishing.
Other “Tricky” Scriptures
Rev 14:9-11 This speaks of those persons who worshiped the beast and received its mark as being “tormented with burning sulphur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb.” It further states that “The smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast…”
While the text does state that the smoke (the product of something being incinerated) goes up forever (possibly as a memorial), it does not say that the wicked are tormented forever. It merely states that they have no relief from their suffering as long as the suffering lasts, but does not say how long it lasts. There may well be a period of suffering before oblivion, but not unending. The Bible is very clear in its teaching that there will be a second death, which means just what it appears to mean … death, not some form of life.
Mark 9:48 Regarding those cast into gehenna, Jesus states: “Their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.” Some think that this implies everlasting conscious suffering. But it does not imply it if you go back to the imagery of Isaiah 66:24 from which the phrase is drawn. Here the dead bodies of God’s enemies are being eaten by maggots and burned up. The fire and worm in this figure are destroying the dead bodies, not tormenting conscious persons. By calling the fire unquenchable, the Bible is saying that the fire is not quenched until the job is finished. The tradition misreads this verse when it sees everlasting suffering in it.
I realize that there are a few other scriptures that proponents of eternal suffering like to refer to. Every scripture in the Bible that seems to support eternal suffering can be explained. You might want to get a copy of Edward Fudge’s “The Fire That Consumes” and do some further study on this topic.
We have tackled, and I believe, pulled the stinger out of the traditionalist’s main bedrock scriptures to support eternal suffering. Thus I would strongly contend, that after a bit of study and examination, all scriptures can be brought into a harmonious relationship with our assertion that God is a very merciful, non-vengeful being, just as the Bible has been trying to tell us all along.
Some would argue that annihilation isn’t really punishment, as the condemned would be getting off scot-free through death. But isn’t it strange that when a killer in the United States is on death row, and faces the gas chamber, all of a sudden capital punishment is just too cruel and extreme for the crime, and is considered “cruel and unusual punishment” by some. Few seem to think that the killer is getting off “scot-free” who is about to be annihilated from among the living. Strange, isn’t it?
Carefully consider this: Being destroyed eternally, which means that it will never be reversed … that it is a permanent condition, is indeed a horrible fate to face. Especially once one has had a chance to be in the presence of God and marvel at the love and joy that emanates from his presence – a presence that one could have basked in for eternity. But now only destruction awaits, and indeed there will be weeping at what might have been, and gnashing of the teeth at the prospect of being vaporized forever. Those facing this fate will not be considering themselves as getting off scot-free, trust me on this!
The Bible speaks of judgment day as being “more tolerable” for some (such as the residents of Sodom) than for others, which would seem to indicate that some may experience more pain or punishment than others before their final destruction. Perhaps God will make those who deserve greater punishment, such as Hitler, certain of the Pharisees, etc., to witness the destruction of others, up close and personal, before their own turn finally arrives. Or perhaps God will let each condemned person personally mentally and physically experience the pain and anguish they have caused each and every individual they have ever wronged. If this were the case, I imagine Hitler would have to be kept alive for quite a few years (if “years” still exist) of intense suffering before being incinerated!
But perhaps we’re jumping the gun a bit on just who will eventually be condemned.
Is There a Plan for the Lost?
To quote from Keith Stump in “The Battle Over Hell” (quote extends to next topic):
“Are non-Christians synonymous with the incorrigibly wicked? Are those who died without accepting Jesus enemies of God?
The need for a more precise definition of the damned is indicated -- and may well point to a solution to one of the more stinging objections to the concept of hell. The issue would seem to come down to how and when the damned are defined.
Such considerations have prompted some theologians to suggest that a dead but unsaved person may yet avoid the final fate of gehenna fire if he never had a full and unhindered opportunity to know and accept Jesus Christ during his physical lifetime. In other words, such an opportunity might yet be provided prior to the final judgment!
Might it be possible that their decision of faith, or non-faith, might take place in the realm of death?
In his novella The Great Divorce (1946), C.S. Lewis observed that God's purpose for humanity is salvation, not damnation, and he suggested that God may have a plan to save even the lost.
"I do not think that all who choose wrong roads perish," Lewis wrote, "but their rescue consists in being put back on the right road."
Is God powerless to put people back onto that right road merely because their physical lives have ended? Is it too much to say that God's grace might extend even beyond the grave?
Might it not be possible that God will yet give all an opportunity to believe and repent -- even after death? And that many will then recognize Christ as the deepest longing of their soul, and, at last, know and accept him?
Hell -- whatever its character -- makes considerably more sense if those who end up there are only those who, with full knowledge, willfully and deliberately reject God. And if that's the case, the alleged unfairness and cruelty of hell vanishes! No longer is hell a case against Christianity!
Only willful, continuing refusal to respond to God's grace and mercy can condemn an individual. God will send no one to hell unless they force him. Sadly, it appears that some will not accept the grace of God (Matthew 25:46; Revelation 19:20; 20:10,15). Some will refuse to face the evil of their lives and repent.
As C.S. Lewis summarized: "Any man may choose eternal death. Those who choose it will have it. There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, 'Thy will be done,' and those to whom God says, in the end, 'Thy will be done.' All that are in Hell, choose it."
One of the main objections to the Christian concept of hell is the undisputed fact that the vast majority of humans have died without ever hearing the gospel and accepting Jesus Christ. Presumably they are -- or will be -- consigned to hell forever as a consequence.
Are the billions who did not accept the gospel before they died eternally lost? Are billions consigned to eternal flames because no missionary reached them before they died?
Putting it another way: Would God establish a salvation methodology that the vast majority of humans could not meet and then condemn them to eternal punishment because of it?
God’s plan includes all of his children. Somehow, someway, every person will have a full opportunity to hear the gospel and repent. The justice of God demands it!” (end of Stump quote)
The Conclusion of the Matter…
I think Pinnock, in his The Conditional View chapter of Crockett’s “Four Views of Hell” summarizes nicely what I believe to be a very accurate view of the current situation regarding the various teachings on the nature of hell:
“I conclude that the traditional belief that God makes the wicked suffer in an unending conscious torment in hell is unbiblical, is fostered by a Hellenistic view of human nature, is detrimental to the character of God, is defended on essentially pragmatic grounds, and is being rejected by a growing number of biblically faithful, contemporary scholars. I believe that a better case can be made for understanding the nature of hell as termination—better biblically, anthropologically, morally, judicially, and metaphysically.
“But whatever hell turns out to be like, it is a very grim prospect. Though annihilationism makes hell less of a torture chamber, it does not lessen its extreme seriousness. After all, to be rejected by God, to miss the purpose for which one was created, to pass into oblivion while others enter into bliss, to enter nonbeing—this will mean weeping and gnashing of teeth. Hell is a terrifying possibility, the possibility of using our freedom to lose God and destroy ourselves. Of course, we do not know who or how many will be damned, because we do not know who will finally say No to God. What we do know is that sinners may finally reject salvation, that absolute loss is something to be reckoned with. I do not think one needs to know more about hell than that.
“In the current situation, given the difficulties that attend the traditional view of the nature of hell, I think it is possible that changing our view would be a wise step. Rather than threatening the doctrine of hell, it may actually preserve it (emphasis mine). The fact is that the tradition of everlasting conscious torment is causing more and more people to deny hell altogether and accept universal salvation in order to avoid its sadistic horror; on the other hand, the view of the nature of hell that I am proposing does not involve sadism, though it does retain belief in the biblical category of the second death.
“In any case, the objections to the traditional view of the nature of hell are so strong and its supports so weak that it is likely soon to be replaced with something else. The real choice is between universalism and annihilationism, and of these two, annihilationism is surely the more biblical, because it retains the realism of some people finally saying No to God without turning the notion of hell into a monstrosity.” - Pinnock
If we would stop trying to make God fit into an ogre costume of our own design, and actually teach only that which can be proven positively from the Bible, one of the greatest objections of both Christians and non-Christians alike to Christianity could be defanged and booted out the back door. One of the greatest horrors of those who fill the mental hospitals of the world is the belief that eternal hellfire is their destiny. What a shame that so many millions over the centuries have suffered mental anguish over a theory of eternal torment that will no doubt someday be shown to be totally bogus. Personally, when I learned what I feel certain is the truth about the nature of hell, I experienced some of the greatest peace and joy, and increased love and admiration for God that I have ever known. It was as if the giant missing piece of a puzzle regarding the character of God had finally been found!
Churches that adhere to and actively teach the doctrine of an everlasting tormenting hell could be equated to a wrestler adopting the wrestling style of competing with one arm tied behind his back. It’s rather hard to do your best when you deny yourself the use of one of your best attributes. And one of Christianity’s best attributes is its message of the all-consuming love and mercy of God.
But this truth is severely weakened, and sometimes destroyed, when we inform the potential convert that, “Oh, by the way, if you don’t accept this love from God, he has a little bit of torment set aside, just for you, that will make living in a concentration camp seem like a walk in the park. And I almost forgot to mention, that torture will last for eternity unending.”
Thus, traditional Christianity’s gospel can be boiled down to it’s quixotic essence, which is: “God says to love him, or you will be tormented and tortured forever.” Imagine living with parents who told you that they demanded this kind of love from you as a child or you would be tortured. It would have stifled all the joy and security in your heart, and put unimaginable pressure on you to perform. It would certainly not have fostered love and trust between you and your parents. And it can have the same effect in our relationship with God. If ever there was a doctrine from hell (no pun intended), this would have to be in the running for first place!
Mainline Christianity should, at the very least, be willing to admit that when it comes to God’s handling of man’s condemnation, annihilation is a very real possibility, instead of just raising its hackles and digging in its heels to defend a teaching that has not been revisited for centuries. And if traditional Christianity isn’t willing to reexamine the nature of hell as taught, as Pinnock points out, it may eventually become, under the weight of its own error, an extinct teaching in most churches, replaced by the unbiblical teaching of universal salvation.
But I prefer to look at this issue in a positive light. I believe the day is coming when the truth on this subject will burst out of the wraps that have constrained it all these years, and liberate Christianity from a doctrine that has had the effect of covering its light with a basket. Perhaps the changing of just this one doctrine will loosen the power of God to work in a way that has not been seen upon this earth for nearly 2000 years! God speed that day!