Auschwitz, Dachau, Buchenwald. These World War II concentration camps have become symbols of a world gone wrong. Coupled with the prolonged torture used by Hitler’s Gestapo and Stalin’s secret police, often in the name of medical experimentation, they represent the apex of humanity’s cruelty toward its own kind.
Unfortunately, the traditional doctrine of hell advocates that same view, and as evidence its proponents point to certain Bible verses that speak of a “lake of fire (Revelation 20:14),” “eternal punishment” (Matthew 25:46), “unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:12), “eternal fire” (Matthew 25:41), “the fire of hell” (Matthew 5:22), and “eternal damnation” (Mark 3:29, KJV). Many Christians have interpreted these verses to mean that the wicked face an endless, conscious burning in hell throughout the ceaseless ages of eternity. In other words, God will be an infinite Hitler! Is this the Bible’s God of love?
Jonathan Edwards, one of the foremost American preachers of the eighteenth century, preached a sermon titled, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” He warned his wayward parishioners that they were being held like “loathsome insects” by the hand of God over the fiery “pit of hell.” He will, claimed Edwards, “be so far from pitying you when you cry to Him, that it is said He will only ‘laugh and mock’ ” at those who rejected His mercy and reaped their just reward.
Of course, this theory has some obvious problems. Everyone knows that real bodies in real fire eventually burn up. Augustine, the most influential thinker for more than 1,000 years of Christian history, had the answer to that dilemma. He assured his readers that God will employ His miracle-working power to keep sinners alive and conscious in those never-ending torments.
Hard question about God
As might be expected, such open talk of hellfire has not been as popular in the twenty-first century as previously. Influential Catholic theologian Hans Küng put his finger on the key reason for the topic’s unpopularity when he asked, “What would we think of a human being who satisfied his thirst for revenge so implacably and insatiably?” And he went on to note that “the idea not only of a lifelong, but even eternal punishment of body and soul, seems to many people absolutely monstrous.”
A growing number of evangelical leaders agree with Küng’s conclusion. Clark Pinnock, for instance, wrote that “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. . . . I suppose one might be afraid of [a God like that], but could we love and respect him?”
The late John R. W. Stott, who in his day was Britain’s leading evangelical, agreed. He said that he found the idea of eternal consciousness in a forever-and-ever hellfire to be “intolerable” and he did “not understand how people can live with it without either cauterizing their feelings or cracking under the strain.”
Another British theologian, John Wenham, said, “I believe that endless torment is a hideous and unscriptural doctrine, which has been a terrible burden on the mind of the church for many centuries and a terrible blot on her presentation of the Gospel.”
If the traditional view of the nature of hell has not been a stumbling block for many believers, it has been an effective weapon in the hands of skeptics. The upshot is that more and more modern and “enlightened” Christians don’t want to talk much about hell, and those who do often speak of it in metaphorical terms that spiritualize and soften the doctrine in an effort to make it look respectable. Other Christians, rather than believe that God is some kind of infinite Hitler, conclude that He will eventually save everyone.
But there is a better way to solve the problem of the nature of hell. That better way, suggest Pinnock, Stott, Wenham, and others, is to see what the Bible has to say on the subject. And the good news is that many readers will find themselves refreshingly surprised when they read what the Bible says about hell.
The Bible on hell
According to the Bible, the eternal fate of the wicked is death rather than everlasting suffering. For example, Paul said that “the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23; italics added). Please note: the wages of sin is death, not eternal torment. One wonders how anyone can read Paul’s words and at the same time interpret the future of the wicked in terms of endless conscious suffering.
Revelation 20:9 tells us that the fire that God sends to purify the earth will devour the wicked (see also 2 Peter 3:9–14). Psalm 37:20 says the wicked will perish, and Paul tells us they will be destroyed (2 Thessalonians 1:9; 1 Corinthians 3:17; Philippians 3:19).
Probably one of the clearest passages on the final and complete destruction of the wicked is found in Malachi 4:1. “See,” wrote the inspired prophet, “the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all 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” (NRSV).* Clearly, this passage indicates that the future of the wicked is total destruction.
Jesus presents the same picture. Not only does He tell us that the wicked will be burned up just like weeds thrown into fire (Matthew 13:40, 42, 49, 50) but also that both their souls and bodies will be destroyed in hell (Matthew 10:28). In Revelation, this final destruction of the wicked is called the second death (Revelation 21:8).
So if the Bible is this plain on the topic, how have so many people become confused? To begin with, the future state of the wicked was an element of the great deception in the Garden of Eden. God had told Adam and Eve they would “surely die” if they sinned (Genesis 2:17). Satan contradicted God, saying that they wouldn’t die (Genesis 3:4), thereby inferring that sinners would exist eternally.
Once Satan had misled the majority of the human race on the future state of the wicked, he could get them to overlook such texts as 1 Timothy 6:16, which clearly states that only God has immortality; 2 Timothy 1:10, which teaches that humans gain immortality through accepting Jesus; and 1 Corinthians 15:50–54, which says that the gift of immortality will not be granted even to Christians until the second coming of Jesus.
Another look at “forever”
So what does the Bible mean when it says the wicked will suffer “eternal damnation,” “everlasting fire,” and “everlasting punishment” in an “unquenchable fire”?
We must study the biblical meaning of all such terminology. First, we should note that in the Bible “eternal” often refers to eternal results rather than to an endless process. This can be demonstrated by the case of Sodom and Gomorrah. Jude 7 tells us that those wicked cities suffered “the punishment of eternal fire.” Yet they are not burning today. They were burned up by the fire that God sent from heaven to destroy them. Peter tells us that they were turned into “ashes” (2 Peter 2:6). The “eternal” fire burned until there was nothing left to consume, and then it went out.
Other Bible texts use forever to suggest that “forever” has limits. Thus, a slave could serve his or her master “for ever” (Exodus 21:6, KJV), and Samuel was to abide in the temple “for ever” (1 Samuel 1:22, KJV). In these instances and others (see, for example, Jonah 2:6 and Philemon 15), the word forever means as long as a person lives.
But what about texts that suggest that the wicked will be burned with quenchable fire (Matthew 3:12; Luke 3:7)? The answer is simple. To quench a fire means to put it out as opposed to allowing it to burn till it goes out. The fire into which the wicked are cast will burn until they are burned up. That’s why the Bible refers to the fate of the wicked as the “second death.” Its effects will be eternal.
Recognizing these facts, the Anglican archbishop William Temple remarked, “One thing we can say with confidence: everlasting torment is to be ruled out. If men had not imported the Greek and unbiblical notion of the natural indestructibility of the individual soul, and then read the New Testament with that already in their minds, they would have drawn from it [the New Testament] a belief, not in everlasting torment, but in annihilation. It is the fire that is called aeonian [everlasting], not the life cast into it.
” Now that’s good news! It’s good news not only to those who choose to reject God’s love and principles but to those who have accepted the grace provided by Jesus and will spend the ceaseless ages with their heavenly Father. After all, how could anyone enjoy being with Him if He was inflicting infinite torture on people—perhaps including loved ones—who had chosen not to accept His mercy?
The good news is that even God’s eventual work of destroying the wicked accords with His loving character as portrayed by Jesus. He forces no one to accept His ways; He respects their freedom of choice. Thus, those who have chosen to live by the principles of selfishness and destruction will not be forced to live in torment forever and ever. Rather, in His love, God will put them out of their misery.
And there’s more to the good news. The fire that destroys the wicked will also cleanse the earth of all wickedness. On the ashes of the old order, God will create “a new earth, the home of righteousness” (2 Peter 3:13). In God’s re-created new earth there will be nothing impure (Revelation 21:27); nor will there be any sorrow, tears, pain, or death, “for the old order of things has passed away” (verse 4). The saved will truly be able to praise God because even though “the wages of sin is death, . . . the gift of God is eternal life” (Romans 6:23).