Eternal Hell – Or is it?
In a previous Hub we discovered that according to the Bible, the soul is not immortal. It was shown that only God is immortal and the soul can, and does die (cf. Exe. 18:20, Rev. 16:3). We also saw that people, both good and bad, go the grave to wait for the resurrection when Christ returns.
So where does the doctrine of an eternally burning hellfire come from? Is the devil really in charge of hell? Virtually all the world holds view about hell that is not taught in the Bible and it’s very tragic because not only is it crucial to understand the truth regarding this teaching, but also because it mars the character of God. When I first heard of the fire and brimstone and eternally burning sinners as a youngster, it seemed pretty obvious that this was contradictory of an all-loving God. If God tormented His enemies in a flaming eternity, He would be more cruel and unfeeling than man has ever been in the worst of war atrocities. It’s easy to see why this teaching has led many to turn their back on God. However, an eternal hell of torment would also be hell for God, who loves even the vilest sinner.
What the Bible Really Says
The word "hell" is translated from several different words with various meanings...
31 times from the word "Sheol," which means "the grave"
10 times from the word "Hades," which means "the grave."
12 times from the word "Gehenna," which means "the place of burning."
1 time from the word "Tartarus," which means "a place of darkness."
As noted above, the word "hell" is used 54 times in the Bible, and in only 12 cases does it refer to "a place of burning."
The Place of Burning
The Greek word "Gehenna" is a transliteration of the Hebrew "Ge-Hinnom," which means the "Valley of Hinnom." This valley, which lies immediately south and west of Jerusalem, was a place where dead animals, garbage, and other refuse were dumped. Fire burned constantly, as it does in modern sanitation dump sites. The Bible uses "Gehenna" or the "Valley of Hinnom" as a symbol of the fire that will destroy the lost at the end of time. The fire of Gehenna was not unending. Otherwise it would still be burning southwest of Jerusalem today. Neither will the fire of hell be unending.
2 Peter 2:9 “The Lord knoweth how to deliver the godly out of temptations, and to reserve the unjust unto the day of judgment to be punished."
A close look at this verse indicates that there is no one in hellfire today, but rather that God reserves, or holds back, the wicked until the ‘day of judgement’ to be punished.
Matthew 13:40-42 "So shall it be in the end of this world. The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; And shall cast them into a furnace of fire."
John 12:48 "The word that I have spoken, the same shall judge him in the last day."
These verses also indicate that sinners are cast into hellfire at ‘the end of the world’, or ‘the last day.’ This makes sense when we consider that, according to the popular belief, a murderer who died 2000 years ago would be burning 2000 years longer than one who dies and deserves punishment for the same sin today.
John 5:28, 29 "The hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation."
Job 21:30, 32 "The wicked is reserved to the day of destruction." "Yet shall he be brought to the grave, and shall remain in the tomb."
Here the Bible is being quite specific that both the wicked and the righteous remain in the grave until resurrection day. Just as no one is in hell right now, no one but a select few are in heaven either.
James 1:15 "Sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death."
Romans 6:43 "The wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord."
These verses tell us that the punishment for sin is ‘death’, not eternal suffering.
At this time, we’ll touch on the subject of the terms ‘first death’ and ‘second death’. To put it simply – we all die the first death, but not everyone has to die the second death. That is, everyone dies and goes to the grave to await the resurrection when we all (wicked and righteous) are resurrected to either face our judgement, or to meet Jesus in the air. When the wicked are cast into the lake of fire – this is the second death, from which there is no coming back.
Revelation 21:8 "But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death."
The Bible is clear that the wicked will be obliterated. It tells us that they suffer death (Romans 6:23), suffer destruction (Job 21:30), shall perish (Psalms 37:20), will burn up (Malachi 4:1), shall be destroyed together (Psalms 37:38), will consume away (Psalms 37:20), shall be cut off (Psalms 37:9), shall be slain (Psalms 62:3). God will destroy them (Psalms 145:20), and fire shall devour them (Psalms 21:9). Note that there is no mention of the wicked living forever in misery!
Revelation 20:9 “They went up on the breadth of the earth, and compassed the camp of the saints about, and the beloved city: and fire came down from God out of heaven, and devoured them."
This verse indicates that, at the end of the world, God is the one who kindles hellfire. Interesting to note that it happens on the ‘breadth of the earth’ and not in some deep underground cave possibly near the center of the earth ;)
Revelation 22:12 "And, behold, I come quickly; and my reward is with me, to give every man according as his work shall be."
Matthew 16:27 "And then he shall reward every man according to his works."
Luke 12:47, 48 "That servant, which knew his lord's will, and ... neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes."
In these verses we see that although the Bible does not tell us how long the wicked will be punished before they die, it does specifically state that all will be punished according to their deeds and thusly, some will receive greater punishment than others.
Isaiah 47:14 "Behold, they shall be as stubble; the fire shall burn them; they shall not deliver themselves from the power of the flame: there shall not be a coal to warm at, nor fire to sit before it."
Revelation 21:1, 4 "And I saw a new heaven and a new earth." "And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away."
Here we see that the Bible specifically teaches that hellfire will go out and that there will not be left ‘a coal to warm at, nor fire to sit before it.’ Also, ‘all former things’ will be passed away and hell, being one of the former things, is included. So we have God’s promise that it will be abolished!
Malachi 4:1, 3 "For, behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the Lord of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch." "And ye shall tread down the wicked; for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet in the day that I shall do this, saith the Lord of hosts."
It is important to note here that the wicked burn like ‘stubble’ which will be burned up. That little word “up” denotes completion. Nothing but ashes are left. Psalms 37:10, 20 also indicates that the wicked will go up in smoke and be completely destroyed.
Some teachings may say that it is the ‘spirit’, or ‘soul’ which is punished, but I’ve discussed that idea in my Hub about the Afterlife. In case it was not made clear in that Hub, the Bible tells us that real, live people enter hell in bodily form and are destroyed both body & soul. The fire from God will fall upon real people and blot them out of existence.
Matthew 5:30 "It is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell."
Matthew 10:28 "Rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell."
As for the devil being in charge of hellfire…
Revelation 20:10 "And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire."
Ezekiel 28:18, 19 "I will bring thee to ashes upon the earth in the sight of all them that behold thee. ... And never shall thou be any more."
The Big Picture
If you have read my Hub on The Bible Story, it may make it easier to understand God’s purpose in hellfire, which is that hell will destroy all sin and sinners, including the originator of sin – the devil, making the world safe for eternity. It is God’s plan to isolate sin and blot it out of existence for all time. From this perspective, it should be easy to see that an eternal hell of torment would actually perpetuate sin and make its obliteration impossible.
God’s Mercy and Love?
It has always been the work of God to save rather than destroy. As such, the work of destroying the wicked in hellfire is so foreign to God's nature that the Bible calls it His "strange act."
Isaiah 28:21 "For the Lord shall rise up ... that he may do his work, his strange work; and bring to pass his act, his strange act."
God's all-loving heart will ache at the destruction of the wicked. He works to save every soul! But if one rejects His love and clings to sin, God will have no choice but to destroy the sinner with his sin when He rids the universe of that malignant growth called "sin" in the fires of the last day.
Ezekiel 33:11 "As I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live: turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die?"
Luke 9:56 "For the Son of man is not come to destroy men's lives, but to save them."
Sin Will Not Rise Again
Nahum 1:9 "He will make an utter end: affliction shall not rise up the second time."
Isaiah 65:17 "For, behold, I create new heavens and a new earth: and the former shall not be remembered, nor come into mind."
Revelation 21:3, 4 "Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain."
In His word, God has promised that sin will not rise again. His people will be filled with peace, love, joy, and contentment. Their lives of total happiness will be far more glorious and breathtaking than mere words could ever describe. The real misfortune of hell is in missing heaven. A person who fails to enter this glorious kingdom has made the saddest choice of a lifetime.
According to the Bible, hellfire isn't even meant for human beings. It is "prepared for the devil and his angels" (Matthew 25:41). Yet because countless people refuse to accept Jesus' great sacrifice for them and decide instead to follow the great enemy of souls, they must share his fate. Satan and all sinners will be destroyed, the earth will be cleansed, and "affliction shall not rise up the second time" (Nahum 1:9). Sin and sinners will be completely destroyed, forever separated from God, the source of all life.
Eternal Hell a Man-made Theory
As should be clear by now, the "eternal hell of torment" supposition originated not from the Bible, but rather from misguided people who were, perhaps inadvertently, led of the devil. And, by the way, no one will be in heaven because he feared hell. People are saved because they love and obey Christ.
As with most of the popular doctrines that you may read about on my Hubs, this teaching of an eternal hell stems from misinterpreted Bible texts or texts that are taken out of context, typically resulting from a poor exegesis. Let’s examine a few of these texts…
Revelation 14: 11 “And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night, who worship the beast and his image, and whosoever receiveth the mark of his name.”
Revelation 20:10 “And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever.”
From these verses, the idea of an eternal hell may seem plausible. However, a proper study of Scripture shows that "for ever" is often used in conjunction with an event that has already taken place.
For instance, Hannah promised God that she would take her infant son Samuel to serve in the temple at Shiloh, where he would abide "for ever" (cf. 1 Samuel 1:22). Rather than take this out of context, we can read on to where it tells us what this actually means. Verse 28 tells us Samuel would serve in the temple for "as long as he liveth"
Also, Jonah said that he was in the belly of the fish "for ever" (cf. Jonah 2:6), but we know that he endured his eerie journey beneath the sea for "three days and three nights" (cf. Jonah 1:17).
More than 50 times the Bible uses "for ever" to mean "for as long as time lasts in that specific case." The term is used colloquially today to describe a downpour or a hot summer's afternoon that "went on forever."
The Rich Man and Lazarus
Another story from the Bible that many find difficult to resolve with the truth about hellfire is the story of the rich man and Lazarus, found in Luke chapter 16 (please read). But by realizing that this passage is a parable-at the end of a long list of parables-we can understand better the imagery which Jesus uses.
It should be obvious that “Abraham's bosom” is not the eternal home of the redeemed, and it seems unlikely that the lost in hell can communicate with the saved in heaven. When we remember that hell takes place at the end of the world, and that there are no people suffering in hell at this present time, we can determine more exactly three major points contained in Jesus' remarks.
1 - By representing the beggar as being in heaven and the rich man as lost, Jesus was teaching His hearers that, contrary to the dominate view at the time, wealth was not necessarily an sign of divine favour, just as poverty was not a sign of God's judgment upon a person.
2 - Jesus was also seeking to teach the Jews that salvation would not be theirs by inheritance. The rich man in torments calls out to "father Abraham," the same way the Jews of Jesus' day were mistakenly pointing to heritage as proof of their assurance of salvation.
3 - Jesus was looking for a way to lead His hearers to recognize that only faithfulness to God's Word would groom them to enter into eternal life. He told them, "If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead" (cf. Luke 16:31).
To use the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in order to promote the false doctrine of an eternally burning hell is to misuse God's Word and to misrepresent His character.
It is my hope that this Hub will remove the dark cloud that has been placed over the character of God, and that many will have a new understanding of His magnificent love and mercy for all mankind.
Special thanks to Pastor Doug Batchelor and the Amazing Facts ministry