The Nature of Hell
An Eternal Punishment
or Eternal Torment?
by Dr. David
The Bible presents Hell, like Heaven, as
a real place. The Bible says that God created this terrible place
to serve as the ultimate destiny of the Devil and his angels (Matthew
25:41). The Bible also teaches that Hell will be the destiny of
all people who reject the grace and mercy God has provided through
Jesus and who chose, instead, to reject God by following Satan
Hell is described in the Scriptures as a
place of darkness and sadness (Matthew 22:13), a place of fire
(Matthew 5:22), a place of torment (Revelation 14:10), a place
of destruction (Matthew 7:13), and a place of disgrace and everlasting
contempt (Daniel 12:2).
Its Distinction from
Hell is not Hades. A careful study of the
Scriptures will reveal that Hades in the New Testament is the
same place as Sheol in the Old Testament (Psalms 49:15).
Let's review a few points that I made earlier
in the chapter on death. Before the Cross, Hades (or Sheol) was
the holding place for the spirits of the dead who awaited their
resurrection, judgment, and ultimate consignment to Heaven or
Hell. According to Jesus' story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke
16:19-31), Hades was composed of two compartments Paradise
and Torments. At death, the spirits of the righteous (those who
had put their faith in God) went to a compartment in Hades called
Paradise. The unrighteous went to a compartment called Torments.
The two compartments were separated by a wide gulf that could
not be crossed.
The Bible indicates that the nature of Hades
was radically changed at the time of the Cross. After His death
on the Cross, Jesus descended into Hades and declared to all the
spirits there His triumph over Satan through the shedding of His
blood for the sins of Mankind (1 Peter 3:18-19; 4:6).
The Bible also indicates that after His
resurrection, when He ascended to Heaven, Jesus took Paradise
with Him, transferring the spirits of the righteous dead from
Hades to Heaven (Ephesians 4:8-9 and 2 Corinthians 12:1-4). The
spirits of the righteous dead are thereafter pictured as being
in Heaven before the throne of God (Revelation 6:9 and 7:9).
Thus, since the time of the Cross, the spirits
of dead saints no longer go to Hades. They are taken, instead,
directly to Heaven. The spirits of Old Testament saints could
not go directly to Heaven because their sins had not been forgiven.
Their sins had only been covered, so to speak, by their faith.
Their sins could not be forgiven until Jesus shed His blood for
them on the Cross.
The souls of the unrighteous dead will remain
in Hades until the end of the millennial reign of Jesus. At that
time they will be resurrected and judged at the Great White Throne
judgment portrayed in Revelation 20:11-15. They will be judged
by their works, and since no person can be justified before God
by works (Ephesians 2:8-10), all the unrighteous will be cast
into Hell, which the passage in Revelation refers to as "the
lake of fire" (Revelation 20:14).
The Duration of Hell
How long will the unrighteous be tormented
in Hell? The traditional view holds that Hell is a place of eternal,
conscious torment. According to this view, a person who winds
up in Hell is doomed to a never-ending existence of excruciating
pain and suffering. Hell is a place of no escape and no hope.
Another point of view the one I hold
takes the position that immortality is conditional, depending
upon one's acceptance of Christ. I believe the Bible teaches the
unrighteous will be resurrected, judged, punished in Hell for
a period of time proportional to their sins, and then suffer destruction
(the death of body and soul).
In a moment we will take a brief look at
both views, but before we do, I would like to remind us all of
a sobering truth: Hell is a reality, and it is a dreadful destiny.
Hell exists because God cannot be mocked (Galatians 6:7). He is
going to deal with sin, and He deals with sin in one of two ways
either grace or wrath. John 3:36 says, "He who believes
in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the son
shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him."
Whatever we conclude from the Scriptures
about the duration of Hell, we must remember that Hell is to be
avoided at all costs. Whether the wicked suffer there eternally
or are destroyed after enduring God's terrible punishment, Hell
is an unimaginably terrifying place.
We must also remember that our beliefs about
the duration of Hell are not on the plane of cardinal doctrine.
Sincere, godly Christians may study the same scripture passages
about Hell and end up with differing conclusions about the issue
of its duration. Our varied viewpoints, arrived at through earnest
and godly study, should not be allowed to cause division or rancor
in the body of Christ.
The Traditional Viewpoint
Few traditionalists are happy about the
doctrine of the eternal torment of the wicked, but they accept
it anyway because they believe it to be Biblical. In this they
are to be commended.
Most point to scriptures such as Matthew
25:46 for support: "Then these [the wicked] will go away
into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."
Since the word "eternal" is used of both the wicked
and the righteous, they conclude that the punishment must be eternal
in the same way that the life is.
Many traditionalists also cite Revelation
20:10 a verse specifically about the Devil, the Antichrist
and the False Prophet to prove that a God of love can indeed
sentence at least some of His creatures to eternal torment: "And
the devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and
brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are also; and
they will be tormented day and night forever and ever." If
it is possible for God to treat one set of His creatures in this
way, they reason, why should it be impossible for Him to do the
same thing with another set?
Still another Revelation passage also figures
in the traditionalist argument. Revelation 14:9-11 reads:
"And another angel, a third one,
followed them, saying with a loud voice, 'If anyone worships the
beast and his image, and receives a mark on his forehead or upon
his hand, he also will drink of the wine of the wrath of God,
which is mixed in full strength in the cup of His anger; and he
will be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the
holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of
their torment goes up forever and ever; and they have no rest
day and night, those who worship the beast and his image, and
whoever receives the mark of his name.'"
Traditionalists notice that not only are
these unbelievers tossed into the lake of fire where "the
smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever," but they
have no rest "day or night." This is in stark contrast
to the saved, who will enjoy rest eternally (Revelation 14:13).
To traditionalists, both the "rest" of believers and
the "unrest" of unbelievers seem to imply a conscious
In other parts of the Bible, several passages
which talk about Hell use the word "destroy" or "destruction"
to describe what happens to the unrighteous. Traditionalists claim
that the picture in these passages is not of obliteration but
of a ruin of human life out of God's presence forever. In this
way they are able to conceive of a "destruction" which
A more philosophical traditionalist argument
concerns Mankind's creation in the image of God. Some traditionalists
believe that the torments of Hell must be eternal, since humankind
was made in the image of God and that image cannot be "uncreated."
Thus they believe that immortality was bestowed on Mankind when
God created male and female in His image.
Last, many traditionalists believe that
Hell must be eternal because of the nature of sin itself. All
sin is an offense against God, goes this argument, and since God
is infinite, all sin is infinitely odious. Jonathan Edwards, the
great Puritan theologian, took this line of argument in his book
The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners.
As you can see, these arguments seem both
biblical and substantial. And yet they are not without significant
problems. Allow me to explain why I believe the conditionalist
approach is a better solution to the difficulty.
The doctrine of the duration of Hell has
been so strongly held throughout the history of Christianity that
few have dared to challenge it. Adding to the reluctance has been
the fact that most modern challenges have come from the cults.
Thus, a person who dares to question the traditional viewpoint
runs the risk of being labeled a cultist.
A classic characteristic of modern-day "Christian"
cults is their denial of the reality of Hell. Some argue that
everyone will be saved. Most take the position that the unrighteous
are annihilated at physical death.
The views of the cults regarding Hell have
always been repulsive to me because they deny the clear teaching
Scripture that the unrighteous will be sent to a place of suffering
called Hell. Yet, I have never been able to fully embrace the
traditional viewpoint of conscious, eternal punishment.
My first difficulty with the traditional
view is that it seems to impugn the character of God. I kept asking
myself, "How could a God of grace, mercy and love torment
the vast majority of humanity eternally?" It did not seem
to me to be either loving or just. I realize He is a God or righteousness,
holiness and justice, but is eternal suffering justice?
The concept of eternal torment seems to convert the true God of
justice into a cosmic sadist.
Second, the concept of eternal torment seems
to run contrary to Biblical examples. God destroyed Sodom and
Gomorrah with fire suddenly and quickly. He destroyed Noah's
evil world with water suddenly and quickly. He ordered
the Canaanites to be killed swiftly. In the Law of Moses there
was no provision for incarceration or torture. Punishments for
violation of the Law consisted either of restitution or death.
Even sacrificial animals were spared suffering through precise
prescriptions for their killing that guaranteed a death that would
be as quick and painless as possible.
As a student of God's Prophetic Word, I
found a third problem with the traditional view. It seems to contradict
a descriptive phrase that is used in prophecy to describe Hell.
That term is "the second death." It is a term peculiar
to the book of Revelation (Revelation 2:11; 20:6,14; 21:8). How
can Hell be a "second death" if it consists of eternal,
The Problem of Destruction
A fourth reason the traditional view has
always troubled me is that it seems to ignore an important Biblical
teaching about Hell; namely, that Hell is a place of destruction.
Jesus Himself spoke of Hell as a place of "destruction"
(Matthew 7:13). Further, in Matthew 10:28 Jesus says: "Do
not fear those who kill the body, but are unable to kill the soul;
but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body
Likewise, in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 Paul says
that those who do not obey the gospel "will pay the penalty
of eternal destruction." The writer of Hebrews says that
the unrighteous will experience a terrifying judgment that will
result in their consumption by fire (Hebrews 10:27). Even one
of the most comforting verses in the Bible speaks of the destruction
of the unrighteous: "For God so loved the world, that He
gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should
not perish, but have eternal life" (John 3:16).
The traditionalist argument that the word
"destroy" or "destruction" should be interpreted
as "irreparable loss" seems a stretch to me. It seems
much more likely that "destroy" should be taken to mean
The Meaning of Punishment
Fifth, there is a difference between eternal
punishment and eternal punishing. It is one thing to experience
a punishment that is eternal in its consequences; it is another
thing to experience eternal punishing.
The Bible also speaks of eternal judgment
(Hebrews 6:2). Is that a judgment that continues eternally, or
is it a judgment with eternal consequences? Likewise, the Bible
speaks of eternal redemption (Hebrews 9:12). But this does not
mean that Christ will continue the act of redemption eternally.
That act took place at the Cross, once and for all. It was an
eternal redemption because the result of the redemption had eternal
Sixth, I noted earlier that traditionalists
often cite Revelation 14:9-11 to demonstrate that the suffering
of the wicked will be eternal. They most often highlight two phrases.
The first refers to those who take the mark of the beast during
the Tribulation, who will be "tormented with fire and brimstone
in the presence of the holy angels." The second is that "the
smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever." Notice
that this passage does not speak of eternal torment. Rather, it
speaks of "the smoke of their torment" ascending forever.
The Bible is its own best interpreter, and
when you look up statements similar to this you will find that
they are symbolic for a punishment that has eternal consequences,
not a punishment that continues eternally. For example, consider
Isaiah 34:10 which speaks of the destruction of Edom. It says
the smoke of Edom's destruction will "go up forever."
I have been to Edom (the southern portion
of modern day Jordan in the area around Petra). I have seen its
destruction. But there was no smoke ascending heaven. The reference
to eternal smoke is obviously symbolic, indicating that Edom's
destruction will give eternal testimony to how God deals with
a sinful society.
The same is true of Jude 7 when it says
that Sodom and Gomorrah experienced "the punishment of eternal
fire." Again, I have been to the area at the southern tip
of the Dead Sea where these twin cities existed. The area is one
of utter devastation, but there is no smoke going up to heaven.
They are not burning eternally. They simply suffered a fiery destruction
that had eternal consequences.
Last, many traditionalists believe that
the soul is immortal. But is it? I believe the Bible denies the
immortality of the soul point blank.
In 1 Timothy 6:15-16 Paul says that God
alone possesses immortality. And 1 Corinthians 15:53 teaches that
the Redeemed will not become immortal until the time of their
In other words, immortality is a gift of
God which He gives in His grace to the Redeemed at the time of
their resurrection. There is no need to believe in an eternal
Hell if the soul is not intrinsically immortal. And it isn't.
Can History Decide
You should see by now that both the traditional
and the conditional positions on Hell can muster good, Biblical
support for their point of view. Can church history help us decide
which is right?
Unfortunately, it cannot, for both viewpoints
can be found in very early writings. The idea of a Hell where
the impenitent were eternally tormented can be traced to a time
even before Jesus. The intertestamental Book of Enoch,
as well as the Fourth Book of the Sibylline Oracles, both
speak of the eternal suffering of the wicked. The great Rabbi
Hillel, who lived at about the same time as Jesus, taught that
one class of sinner would be punished "to ages of ages"
even though he maintained that most of the damned would
These are all non-Christian sources. But
Cyprian, a Christian from the Third Century, wrote that "the
damned will burn forever in hell." If we ask who was responsible
for systematizing and popularizing the traditional viewpoint,
we find that it was Augustine around the year 400 A.D. But the
position certainly was taught before his time.
The conditionalist viewpoint can also be
traced back to Bible times. For example, it can be found in the
writings of Justin Martyr (114-165 A.D.). In his Dialogue with
Trypho the Jew, Martyr states that the soul is mortal, that
the souls of the unrighteous will suffer only as long as God wills,
and that finally their souls will pass out of existence. The concept
is also affirmed in the Didache, a Second Century Christian
handbook. That book speaks of "two ways" the
way of life and the way of death. It says the unrighteous will
The Reality of Hell
Which viewpoint is right? I have already
cast my vote for the conditionalist understanding. You may decide
that the evidence points in the other direction.
But whatever you conclude, based on our
study of Scripture, we can agree that Hell is a terrifying, horrendous,
ghastly place that should be avoided at all costs. You certainly
do not want your friends or your family to go there there
will be no parties in hell! and you should do all you can
to make sure it is not your final home.
The truth is as I have stressed repeatedly
your eternal destiny is in your hands. You can choose eternal
life by receiving Jesus as your Lord and Savior. Or, you can choose
eternal destruction by refusing to accept God's gift of love and
grace. I urge you to choose life by accepting Jesus (Deuteronomy