Problem: The eternal suffering of Hell
Verses: Various; Status: Unsure

[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 destruction of the wicked

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)

They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might. (2 Thessalonians 1:9)

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?

Eternal life for the saved

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)

We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death. (1 John 3:14)

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:

He who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen. (ESV)

Surely this should mean that everyone else, by default, will not live forever, in Hell or anywhere else.

Hell as a place of destruction / death

Most passages about death do not mention Hell. But some do. This is Matthew 10:28:

And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (ESV)

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:

This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. (ESV)

So doesn't "death" just have its obvious meaning, destruction, as Matthew implies?

Problem: the beast-worshippers

This is Revelation 14:9-11:

And another angel, a third, followed them, saying with a loud voice, "If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink the wine of God's wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur 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 or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name." (ESV)

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:

And the smoke of the tormenting of them is rising into aeons of aeons, and they are having no rest, day or night, the ones worshipping the beast and its image.

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.

Problem: the language of eternity

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.

Problem: the rich man and Lazarus

This is Luke 16:22-24:

The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham's side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, 'Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.' (ESV)

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:

And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. (ESV)

So Hades is not Hell, but rather a temporary place which will itself be destroyed later.

Problem: the demons in Hell

This is 2 Peter 2:4:

God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment. (ESV)

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:

And the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. (ESV)

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.

Problem: the worm that does not die

This is Mark 9:47-48:

It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, 'where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.' (ESV)

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.

Problem for Catholics: the Book of Judith

The Book of Judith is canonical for Catholics, but considered apocryphal by Protestants. This is Judith 16:17:

"Woe to the nations that rise up against my people! The Lord Almighty will take vengeance on them in the day of judgment; he will send fire and worms into their flesh; they shall weep in pain forever." (NRSV)

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.

Final thoughts

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.

Updated: 2016-11-05

Back to errancy.org main index

Acknowledgements