The Nature of Hell
An Eternal Punishment or Eternal Torment?
by Dr. David R. Reagan
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 (Matthew 25:46).
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 Hades
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 state.
Other Traditionalist Arguments
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 lasts forever.
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 Conditionalist Viewpoint
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, conscious torment?
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 in Hell."
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 exactly that.
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 consequences.
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 resurrection.
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 the Question?
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 be annihilated.
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 perish.
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 30:15-19).