The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire. . . .
“. . . You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder.”
These words were spoken by the British preacher Jonathan Edwards in a sermon he preached in 1741, titled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”
Are sinners really in the hands of an angry God? Is God a sadistic deity who suspends sinners by a thread over the hungry flames of hell—eventually to plunge them into the churning inferno below? Does He then watch as they writhe and shriek through all eternity in flames hot enough to bring agony but somehow not hot enough to bring death?
Some of my friends tell me that I don’t believe in hell—or at least not in a very hot hell. The truth is that I believe in the hottest hell of all—a hell that’s hot enough to burn up the wicked and not just scorch them through all eternity.
I base my conviction on several Bible passages that predict the complete annihilation of unrepentant sinners. For example, Malachi 4:1 says, “Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire,’ says the Lord Almighty. Not a root or a branch will be left to them’ ” (emphasis added).
And Psalm 37:20 says “But the wicked will perish: Though the LORD’s enemies are like the flowers of the field, they will be consumed, they will go up in smoke” (emphasis added).
Following are several errors that I find with the doctrine of the eternal torment of the wicked in hell.
1. Error: love prolongs suffering
The doctrine of eternal torment has the erroneous view that love prolongs suffering. When I was a boy, a mad dog chased me into the house one day. Men in the neighborhood soon came with guns and destroyed the pain-crazed animal. Rational human beings put sick animals to death to end their misery. They do not wish even the innocent animals to suffer endless torture.
Job 4:17 asks, “Can a mortal be more righteous than God?” Are we to believe that our heavenly Father hates unrepentant sinners so much that He tortures them in flames through ceaseless ages when sinful humans wouldn’t even submit a dog to that kind of suffering? It’s far more consistent with God’s mercy to understand that He will destroy the wicked quickly. It’s because He loves them that He will permit their rapid destruction.
To escape the horrors that are implicit in the teaching of eternal torment, some Christians resort to a doctrine called universalism, namely, that God will save everyone—the wicked along with the righteous. However, the idea of universal salvation contradicts what the Bible teaches about salvation. According to the Bible, some people will be lost. Jesus said that at the end of time the world’s people will be divided into two groups. One of His parables compared the righteous to wheat and the wicked to weeds (Matthew 13:24–30, 36–43). In another parable He called the righteous sheep and the wicked goats (Matthew 25:31–46). And in both cases Jesus said that the wicked will be destroyed.
Unrepentant people would not be happy in heaven, for they objected to the principles that govern His kingdom in this life. If they are not comfortable in the company of good people here, they would certainly be uncomfortable with them in heaven. Moreover, the Bible says that God will make “a new earth” (Revelation 21:1) “nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful” (verse 27). There will be no place for the wicked in heaven. “A little while,” we read in the Psalms, “and the wicked will be no more; though you look for them, they will not be found” (Psalm 37:10).
2. Error: a blemished heaven
The Bible teaches that both the righteous and the wicked will receive their final reward on this earth. “If the righteous receive their due on earth, how much more the ungodly and the sinner!” (Proverbs 11:31). And 2 Peter 3:10 says that a day is coming when “the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare” (emphasis added). Notice the italicized words in these texts. The Bible is very clear that our planet will be burned up in the flames of hell.
But Peter went on to say that “we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth” (verse 13), and in Revelation John said that he saw “ ‘a new heaven and a new earth,’ for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away” (Revelation 21:1). How could God create new heavens and a new earth out of an earth that was an eternally burning hell?
3. error: disproportional punishment
The doctrine of eternal torment also contradicts the biblical teaching that the punishment of the wicked will be commensurate with their sins. Using a figure of speech, Jesus said that when He returns in judgment, some people “will be beaten with many blows” and others “will be beaten with few blows” (Luke 12:47, 48). And in Matthew 16:27 He said that everyone will be rewarded “according to what they have done.” The apostle Paul spoke of the “righteous judgment [of God]. . . . God ‘will repay each person according to what they have done’ ” (Romans 2:5, 6). Surely it would be all out of proportion to their guilt to punish the wicked age after age without end for the sins of a brief lifetime.
Supposedly, the lost will cry for water, but a just and merciful God through unceasing ages will refuse even one drop to alleviate their pain. But God’s character of love will not change when He deals with the finally impenitent. Then as at all other times, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25). I believe God will always be a God of justice. “His righteousness endures forever” (Psalm 111:3), “His love endures forever” (Psalm 118:3). God has never been a vengeful tyrant, and He won’t become a vengeful tyrant when the time arrives to punish the wicked.
4. Error: life without Christ
The doctrine of eternal torment is wrong because it contradicts the biblical teaching that there is life only in Christ. “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 John 5:12). A person burning in hell would not have a pleasant life, but he or she would have life. According to the Bible, though, “The wages of sin is death,” not eternal torment (Romans 6:23).
5. Error: confusing time and results
The unquenchable fire spoken of in Matthew 3:12 and Luke 3:17 refers to the kind of fire and the effect of the fire that will destroy the wicked, not the duration of that fire. Jeremiah foretold that Jerusalem would be destroyed by fire that is an “unquenchable fire” (Jeremiah 17:27). When an enemy came and set fire to the city, the flames could not be extinguished, but the fire did go out after it had accomplished its work. Jerusalem is not burning today.
The “eternal fire” spoken of in Jude 7 reduced the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah “to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly” (2 Peter 2:6).
6. Error: judgment at death
While the doctrine of eternal torment teaches that human beings go to their reward at death, the Bible teaches a future day for settling accounts. Jesus said, “Look, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to each person according to what they have done” (Revelation 22:12). In Peter’s day the judgment was yet future: “the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials and to hold the unrighteous for punishment on the day of judgment” (2 Peter 2:9). Jesus taught that the wicked would be resurrected before being consigned to hellfire “A time is coming,” He said, “when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out—those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned” (John 5:28, 29).
The day of judgment is not at each person’s death. Rather, it is an event still to take place in the future.
7. Error: punishment versus punishing
Jesus said, “Then they
[the wicked] will go away to eternal punishment” (Matthew 25:46; emphasis added). He did not say eternal punishing. The wicked shall be visited with “everlasting destruction” (2 Thessalonians 1:9). “All sinners will be destroyed” (Psalm 37:38). “The wicked . . . will be destroyed forever” (Psalm 92:7). The punishment of the wicked is a destruction that will be everlasting.
How hot is hell? Hot enough to devour the wicked (Revelation 20:9). Hot enough to reduce them to ashes (Malachi 4:3). Hot enough to cleanse the earth and melt the very elements (2 Peter 3:10, 12). Happily, after the fire has burned up all evil and every evil thing, then those who love God may confidently anticipate that “in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13).
That, as I see it, is the Bible’s truth about hell.