[This page was totally rewritten in November, 2016.]
Traditionally, Christianity has always taught that those who are not saved are tormented for all eternity in Hell. Most people with a conscience will want to deny that this can be so. But doesn't the Bible teach exactly this? I used to think so, but now I am not so sure.
The kinder and saner view is that Hell is a place of destruction. The damned are not tortured eternally; they are simply destroyed in fire. Does the Bible support this view? Well, certainly the language of death and destruction is used for the wicked many times...
But the wicked will perish; the enemies of the Lord are like the glory of the pastures; they vanish - like smoke they vanish away. (Psalm 37:20)
But transgressors shall be altogether destroyed; the future of the wicked shall be cut off. (Psalm 37:38)
The person who sins shall die. (Ezekiel 18:20)
For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. (Malachi 4:1)
Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. (Philippians 3:19)
Et cetera. One might argue that these verses are talking about what happens to the wicked in this mortal realm. But what exactly is the point of such verses? The wicked will die; but so too will the just. If these verses are simply about the mortal world, they don't really say anything interesting. So aren't these verses about the state of things in the afterlife?
It is commonly said that the faithful will have eternal life, and victory over death:
He will swallow up death forever. (Isaiah 25:8)
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:23)
[Jesus will] destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. (Hebrews 2:14-15)
These verses imply that the natural end of humanity is death (destruction) rather than eternal life in torment. Furthermore, consider 1 Timothy 6:15-16:
Surely this should mean that everyone else, by default, will not live forever, in Hell or anywhere else.
Most passages about death do not mention Hell. But some do. This is Matthew 10:28:
Hell is a place for the destruction of wicked souls, it seems. Later, in Revelation, Hell is described as a place of death, e.g. Revelation 20:14-15:
So doesn't "death" just have its obvious meaning, destruction, as Matthew implies?
This is Revelation 14:9-11:
While the obvious reading is that the torment foes on forever, it is interesting that the Bible says only that the smoke goes up forever. Similar language is used in Isaiah 34:10, about the destruction of the country of Edom; yet in that case the message is surely about permanent destruction, rather than literal smoke always rising. A similar message is found in Revelation 19:3 regarding Babylon.
But what about the phrase "they have no rest"? Various writers argue that this is the state of the beast-worshippers while on Earth. I think this is a stretch (why write things in this order, rather than chronologically?). Alternatively, one might say they do indeed have no rest during their torment, while still denying that the torment goes on forever. (Only the smoke goes up forever.) Since this is so critical, I've tried to make a really strict translation based on a Greek Interlinear:
My feeling now is... Yes, it says the smoke rises into eternity, and it says there is no rest during the torment, but it does not quite say that the torment itself is eternal.
Finally, note that the complete passage above says angels and Jesus are present during the torment, which strongly suggests the location described is not even Hell.
It seems to be repeatedly stressed that Hell is an eternal fire. While this does not itself mean that people are suffering in it forever, it is curious. Verses include Matthew 3:12 ("unquenchable fire"), Matthew 25:41 ("eternal fire"), Mark 9:43 ("unquenchable fire"), Jude 1:7 ("punishment of eternal fire").
The Jude verse is slightly doubtful since it is speaking of cities rather than people. But as for the rest, they make the most sense if they are considered as warnings that the suffering in Hell is eternal. I'm not sure what other motive there is for stressing the eternity of Hell. Perhaps to remind the reader that this punishment is still in force, even thousands of years later? I suppose this is possible.
Other verses speak not of eternal fire but "eternal punishment" (e.g. Matthew 25:46), and while one can argue that annihilation is an eternal punishment (because the dead are forever missing out on eternal life), I think the traditional reading is a bit more plausible.
This is Luke 16:22-24:
Although this is a parable, I think a Christian can't see Jesus as presenting a bogus picture of the afterlife. However, there's nothing in this passage to say that the torment of the rich man will go on forever. Also, Jesus speaks of Hades rather than Hell ("Gehenna" in Greek). Hades is the initial place of the dead (or some of them), but not their final fate, as seen in Revelation 20:13-15:
So Hades is not Hell, but rather a temporary place which will itself be destroyed later.
This is 2 Peter 2:4:
Curiously, the Greek word here translated as "Hell" is "Tartarus". This is the only place this word appears in the Bible; it originates in Greek myth as a place of punishment for the titans. In Biblical terms, one might interpret this as a separate prison for the fallen angels. But let's suppose it means Hell. Such fallen angels have been in Hell for a considerable time, one might imagine, without being destroyed. Still, it is not totally implausible that demons are affected by Hell in a different way from human beings. This is Revelation 20:10:
It is remarkable that the one place in the entire (Protestant) Bible that explicitly describes eternal suffering is speaking only of these demonic creatures. (The "false prophet" is earlier (13:11) described as a second Beast, with horns, and so is apparently not a human.) There is no such totally clear statement about humans.
This is Mark 9:47-48:
Is this a description of the torments of Hell, where the damned forever experience worms wriggling inside them and flames engulfing them? One might think so, yet this is a direct quotation of Isaiah 66:24, which is explicitly talking about the decay of corpses, not eternal suffering.
The Book of Judith is canonical for Catholics, but considered apocryphal by Protestants. This is Judith 16:17:
It seems like the author has taken the message of Isaiah 66:24 and "clarified" it. So Catholics likely can't escape from the doctrine of eternal suffering (and anyway Catholics believe in the authority of tradition, which is quite clear on this matter).
Admittedly, the passage above is quoted speech: the words of the character Judith, who is only human. In principle, such quoted speech can contain false teachings. But such an interpretation is ugly; surely we're meant to interpret this as the truth.
On this page I am mostly interested in the morality of the Bible. If it teaches that it's proper to torture people forever, then the Bible is wrong. There is, however, the issue of consistency to bear in mind as well, and the reader may feel that the Bible's teachings on Hell are inconsistent, with some Bible verses arguing for the destruction of wicked souls, and others arguing for their eternal torment. That is a separate issue.
To conclude, I no longer think it's obvious that the Bible teaches eternal conscious suffering. The opposite view is now somewhat respectable amongst even Bible-reverent Christians, and I think the amount of mental contortion needed to reach that position is fairly low (Revelation 14:11 is the greatest challenge). It should be noted that Hell is certainly not pleasant; there is "weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matthew 8:12), but perhaps not forever.
Back to errancy.org main index