A little over a year ago, I wrote an article titled “The God of Hell,” which was published in the July 2011 issue of Signs of the Times®. In this article, I expressed the view that a God of justice and mercy will not punish the wicked with eternal torment in hell. Rather, hell, or the lake of fire, will last only a short time, during which the wicked will be annihilated. They will not suffer everlasting torment.
I’ve received a number of letters and e-mails responding to my article, some agreeing with what I said and others quite disagreeing. One reader sent me an e-mail in which he asked if I understood the difference between hell and the lake of fire. Since my response to this reader is much too long to include in the “Your Bible Questions” section of Signs of the Times®, I decided to publish it as an article. The following is an adaptation of what I wrote to this correspondent.
Hell in the New Testament
The word hell in the New Testament is usually a translation of the Greek word Hades. Hades is cast into the lake of fire, so Hades cannot be the same thing as the lake of fire, because it will be destroyed in the lake of fire. However, the most common view among Christians today is that hell is where the wicked will suffer torment throughout the ceaseless ages of eternity. Thus, while Hades and the lake of fire are not the same thing, I propose that today’s common understanding of hell as a place where the wicked will be destroyed is, in fact, the same thing as the lake of fire—and the lake of fire will have an end.
The New Testament makes it very clear that the world will be burned up at the end of time. Second Peter 3:10 says that “the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.” Verse 12 says, “That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire [a reference to the atmospheric heavens surrounding the earth, not the starry heavens out in the universe], and the elements will melt in the heat.” I understand this to be a description of the same event as the lake of fire in Revelation 20.
Revelation 19:20 says that the beast and the false prophet will be “thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulfur,” which is the same thing as the lake of burning sulfur in Revelation 20:10, where Satan is also cast.
One problem we have to deal with is the fact that the lake of fire (or sulfur) appears both at the beginning of the millennium (Revelation 19:20) and at the end of the millennium (Revelation 20:10–15). I had someone bring this to my attention many years ago, and it took me some time of pondering it to figure it out.
I have come to the conclusion that the river of fire that flows from God’s throne in Daniel 7:10 and the “sea of glass mixed with fire” in Revelation 15:2 on which the redeemed stand (some Bible versions say they stand by the sea of glass) are both related to the lake of fire (see also Revelation 4:6). Wherever God’s throne is, there we see this fiery stream, this lake of fire. The righteous are not destroyed by it, which is why Revelation 15 shows them standing on (or beside) it. The wicked, on the other hand, are destroyed by it, as is the entire earth.
Revelation 6:16 makes it clear that God and His throne will accompany Christ at His second coming. Since the sea of glass or the lake of fire always proceeds from God’s throne, wherever His throne is, the lake of fire is there also. That explains why the beast and the false prophet can be cast into it at Christ’s second coming at the beginning of the millennium. God also appears on His throne at the end of the millennium (Revelation 20:11), and therefore we again see the lake of fire into which Satan and sinners will be cast (verses 10, 15).
This lake of fire obviously cannot last forever, because it happens on the surface of the earth. Revelation 21 shows the earth being re-created as the eternal home of the redeemed, so obviously the lake of fire will have to eventually cease to burn. Otherwise, the earth could not be made into the eternal home of the redeemed.
That’s my understanding of hell and the lake of fire.
Now I will raise an issue that my correspondent did not ask about. In our world, and I presume throughout the entire universe, things that are set on fire eventually burn out because the substance they are burning has been consumed. Every Christian I know of agrees that we humans do not have immortal life within ourselves. So for the wicked to burn in hell throughout eternity, God will have to keep them artificially alive just so they can suffer forever. My question is this: How can a just and merciful God do that to anyone?
I simply cannot reconcile this concept of God with everything else the Bible says about God’s love, mercy, and justice. God is either fair (just) and merciful, or He is an eternal Hitler. Take your pick. It can’t be both ways.
One of the principles of biblical interpretation that I adopt is that there are certain biblical concepts that are foundational to our religious understanding, and any doctrine that contradicts one of these foundational teachings is a false doctrine, which means that the biblical evidence must be reexamined in light of the foundational biblical teaching, not the other way around.
Two of these foundational teachings are salvation by grace alone through faith and the biblical teaching about God. Any doctrine that contradicts the biblical teaching of salvation by grace alone through faith is a false teaching and must be reexamined in light of what the Bible says about salvation by grace. And any teaching about God that contradicts the foundational teaching of God as a God of love, justice, and mercy must be reexamined in light of that biblical teaching about Him. That’s one of the primary reasons why I reject the doctrine of eternal torment. It’s why I look for other ways to interpret those biblical statements that seem to suggest eternal torment.