Few teachings have troubled the human conscience more than the traditional view of hell as a place where the lost suffer conscious fiery punishment in body and soul for all eternity. The prospect of seeing friends and loved ones agonizing in such a hell can easily lead thinking people to reject God.
So it’s not surprising that today we seldom hear fire-and-brimstone sermons on hell even from fundamentalist preachers, who theoretically are still committed to such a belief. Perhaps they sense that the God who loved the world enough to send His only begotten Son to save sinners cannot also be a God who tortures people—even the worst of sinners—for time without end. This unacceptable paradox has motivated Bible scholars of all persuasions to re-examine the biblical teachings regarding the final punishment.
Unbiblical views of hell
Unfortunately, some have come up with unbiblical solutions to this problem, among them universalism and a metaphorical view of hell.
The metaphorical view suggests that hell will last forever, but the suffering is mental rather than physical—the pain resulting from a sense of separation from God. Billy Graham expressed this view when he said, “I have often wondered if hell is a terrible burning within our hearts for God, to fellowship with God, a fire that we can never quench.”
The problem with this view of hell is that it merely replaces physical torment with a supposedly more endurable mental anguish. But is mental anguish really more humane than physical torment?
Universalists, on the other hand, believe that ultimately God will save every human being, that no one will be condemned to either eternal torment or annihilation. But this explanation overlooks the Bible’s repeated statements that only those who believe will be saved.
Many scholars are recognizing that the annihilation view most satisfactorily explains the Bible’s teaching on hell. This view is based on four biblical considerations: (1) death as the punishment of sin, (2) the “destruction of the wicked” terminology, (3)the moral implications of eternal torment, and (4) the cosmological implications of eternal torment.
The punishment of sin
The Bible pictures death as the cessation of life, and both the Old and the New Testaments consistently portray the final end of the wicked as total destruction: “The soul that sins shall die”; “the wages of sin is death”(Ezekiel 18:4, 20; Romans 6:23).
Scripture speaks of two deaths: the first and the second. Nearly all human beings, the righteous as well as the wicked, experience the first death; but, for the righteous, that death will end at the second coming of Christ. However, there is no resurrection from the second death because those who experience it will be consumed in what the Bible calls “the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:14). That will be the final annihilation.
The language of destruction
The rich imagery of destruction often used in the Old and New Testaments to describe the fate of the wicked comprises the second reason for believing in the annihilation of the lost. Basil Atkinson says the Old Testament uses more than 25 nouns and verbs to describe the final destruction of the wicked. For example, in Psalm 37 we read that the wicked “will be no more,”“like smoke they [will] vanish away,” and “transgressors shall be altogether destroyed” (verses 10, 20, 38).1 And in Psalm 145:20 David affirmed, “The LORD preserves all who love him; but all the wicked he will destroy.”
In his opening chapter, Isaiah proclaimed, “Rebels and sinners shall be destroyed together, and those who forsake the LORDshall beconsumed” (Isaiah 1:28). And the last page of the Old Testament offers us a colorful description of the destruction of the wicked: The day of the Lord “comes, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all the evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch” (Malachi 4:1).
Jesus used a variety of metaphors to describe the fate of the wicked, all of which suggest annihilation: The wicked are “bound . . . in bundles to be burned,” the bad fish are thrown away, the harmful plants are rooted up, the fruitless trees are cut down, the withered branches are burned, and the unfaithful tenants are destroyed.2
Those who appeal to Christ’s references to hellfire to support their belief in eternal torment fail to realize, as David Edwards and John Stott rightly point out, “The fire itself is termed ‘eternal’ and ‘unquenchable,’ but it would be very odd if what is thrown into it proves indestructible. Our expectation would be the opposite: it would be consumed forever, not tormented for ever. Hence it is the smoke (evidence that the fire has done its work) which ‘rises for ever and ever’ (Rev. 14:11; 19:3).”
Christ’s solemn declaration “They will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life”(Matthew 25:46) is often used as proof of conscious eternal torment. This interpretation ignores the difference between eternal punishment and eternal punishing. The term eternal, which in Greek (aionios) literally means “age-lasting,” often refers to the permanence of a result rather than the continuation of a process. For example, Jude 7 says that Sodom and Gomorrah underwent “a punishment of eternal [aionios]fire.” It is evident that the fire that destroyed the two cities is eternal not because of its duration but because of its permanent results.
Another fitting example is found in 2 Thessalonians 1:9, where Paul, speaking of those who reject the gospel, says, “They shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction.” Destruction presupposes annihilation. The destruction of the wicked is eternal, not because the process of destruction continues forever but because the results are permanent.
The language of destruction appears particularly frequently in the book of Revelation. There the devil, the beast, the false prophet, death, Hades, and all the wicked are cast into a lake of fire that is “the second death”(Revelation 20:14). To interpret the term second death as eternal conscious torment or separation from God, one must negate the biblical meaning of “death” as cessation of life.
Unacceptable moral implications
A third reason for believing in the final annihilation of the lost is the unacceptable moral implications of the doctrine of eternal torment. The notion of a God who deliberately tortures sinners throughout the endless ages of eternity is totally incompatible with the biblical revelation of God as infinite love. However sinful His creatures may have been, a God who inflicts unending torture upon them is far more like Satan than like the loving Father revealed to us by Jesus Christ.
Regarding the moral implications of the doctrine of eternal torment, David Edwards and John Stott perceptively ask, “Would there not, then, be a serious disproportion between sins consciously committed in time and torment consciously experienced throughout eternity? I do not minimize the gravity of sin as rebellion against God our Creator, but I question whether ‘eternal conscious torment’ is compatible with the biblical revelation of divine justice.”
Ultimately, any doctrine of hell must pass the test of morality, and the doctrine of literal unending torment cannot pass that test. Annihilationism, on the other hand, can, because it recognizes that God’s final punishment of the wicked is not vindictive, requiring everlasting torment, but rational, resulting in their permanent annihilation.
The cosmological implications
A fourth reason for believing in the annihilation of the lost is the fact that eternal torment presupposes an eternal cosmic dualism. According to this view, heaven and hell, happiness and pain, good and evil, will continue to exist forever alongside each other. But it is impossible to reconcile this view with the prophetic vision that says of the new world that there shall be no “mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4). How could crying and pain be forgotten if the anguish of the lost were within sight, as in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus? (Luke 16:19–31).3
The presence of countless millions forever suffering excruciating torment, even if it were far away from the home of the saved, could only serve to destroy the peace and happiness of the new world. The new creation would turn out to be flawed from day one, since sinners would remain an eternal reality in God’s universe, and God would never be “everything to every one” (1 Corinthians 15:28).
Ultimately, God designed His plan of salvation to eradicate sin and sinners from this world and, indeed, the entire universe. So we can truly say that Christ’s redemptive mission was an unqualified victory only if human sinners and Satan and his demons are consumed in the lake of fire and experience the extinction of the second death. Everlasting torment would cast a permanent shadow of darkness over the new creation.
In summation, our age desperately needs to learn the fear of God; so we must preach on the final judgment and punishment. We need to warn people that those who reject Christ’s principles of life and the provision of salvation will ultimately experience a fearful judgment and “suffer the punishment of eternal destruction” (2 Thessalonians 1:9). The recovery of the biblical view can loosen preachers’tongues because it means that they can preach this doctrine that the human race desperately needs to hear without fear of portraying God as a monster.
1. Italics in Bible verses throughout this article were added by the author.
2. Matthew 13:30, 40; 13:48; 15:13; Luke 13:7; John 15:6; and Luke 20:16; respectively.
3. Jesus told this fanciful parable to make two points: (1) that the choices one makes in this life have eternal consequences, and (2) that one’s faith should depend on Scripture rather than on miraculous signs. This parable should not be taken as a literal picture of hell.