Several Christian scholars—including F. F. Bruce, Michael Green, John Stott, John W. Wenham, Clark Pinnock, to name a few—have voiced opposition to the traditional view of hell: that is eternal conscious punishment. Does the punishing of the wicked last forever? The Bible can be interpreted in different ways on that. Some verses suggest eternal suffering (eternal conscious punishment), while others suggest a limited duration (annihilation). But either way, hell is real.
A) Here are a sample of passages that use language that seem to suggest finality in the end of the wicked.
1. Wicked: perish
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
2. Wicked: destruction
“What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction?” (Romans 9:22).
“Whose end is destruction, whose god is their appetite, and whose glory is in their shame, who set their minds on earthly things” (Philippians 3:19).
“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” (Matt. 10:28).
3. Wicked: death
“For the wages of sin is death, but the gracious gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).
4. Wicked: burned
“So just as the tares are gathered up and burned with fire, so shall it be at the end of the age” (Matthew 13:40).
“If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them and cast them into the fire and they are burned” (John 15:6).
“For this reason, in one day her plagues will come, pestilence and mourning and famine, and she will be burned up with fire; for the Lord God who judges her is strong” (Revelation 18:8).
5. Wicked: uprooted, cut down
“But He answered and said, “Every plant which My heavenly Father did not plant shall be uprooted” (Matt. 5:13).
“And he said to the vineyard-keeper, ‘Behold, for three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree without finding any. Cut it down! Why does it even use up the ground?’ (Luke 13:7).
6. Wicked: Day of Judgement for the wicked like days of Noah, Lot.
“And just as it happened in the days of Noah, so will it also be in the days of the Son of Man: 27 people were eating, they were drinking, they were marrying, and they were being given in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. 28 It was the same as happened in the days of Lot: they were eating, they were drinking, they were buying, they were selling, they were planting, and they were building; 29 but on the day that Lot left Sodom, it rained fire and brimstone from heaven and destroyed them all. 30 It will be just the same [what people were doing as well as the destruction to come on them?] on the day that the Son of Man is revealed” (Luke 17:25-30).
B) Here are a sample of passages that use language that suggests eternal suffering for the wicked.
1. Wicked: Everlasting Contempt vs. Righteous: Everlasting Life
“And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2)
2. Wicked: Eternal fire
“It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire” (Matthew 18:8).
3. Wicked: Eternal punishment vs. Righteous: Eternal life
“Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. . . . And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:41,46).
4. Wicked: Fire is not extinguished
In Mark 9:43, Jesus spoke about those who might go into hell, where the fire never goes out. “And if your eye is causing you to sin, throw it away; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, than, having two eyes, to be thrown into hell, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not extinguished” (Mark 9:48).
5. Wicked: Everlasting destruction
Regarding those who were persecuting the church at Thessalonica, Paul wrote, “They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power” (2 Thessalonians 1:9).
6. Wicked: Utter darkness reserved forever
“[These people are] wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars, for whom the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved forever” (Jude 13).
7. Wicked: Smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever
“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” (Revelation 14:11).
8. Wicked: Tormented day and night forever and ever
“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. . . . 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” (Revelation 20:10, 14-15).
C) Some observations
1. So, some verses imply that the suffering of the wicked in Hell is final, while other verses indicate the suffering is eternal.
2. The imagery of “fire” in hell, we must acknowledge that it carries a metaphor, and thus not press the terms to prove something about it that were never intended to communicate. Just think of hell in the New Testament being described at one time as “utter darkness” and at another time as “a lake of fire”. How do these two coexist if they are strictly literal? Yet the punishment on the wicked is real. Yet the question remains, is it unending suffering or finite suffering.
3. Some portray hell with all the horrors of literal fire, roasting, torture, etc., and then represent that this is just what orthodox churches believe. But no one believes or teaches such things. Material things of earth are used to represent spiritual things of Hell. Hence, it is fire in one place, outer darkness in another. We do not claim to know exactly what it will be, only that it will be a fearful state of punishment.
4. What is it that is eternal or unending: the act of punishing unbelievers, or the effect of their punishment? Does the ascending smoke of their torment point to the unending conscious experience of suffering they endure? Or does it signify a lasting, irreversible effect of their punishment in which they are annihilated?
5. The idea of “destruction” (oletheros) in Scriptures may not necessarily mean “cease to exist.” If I were to say that “My car was destroyed in a crash last week,” no one understands that to mean that the car ceases to exist. They understand it to mean that the car was completely ruined and lost to me because of the accident. That is the sense in which the Greek term oletheros is sometimes used. For example, “But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction” (1Tim. 6:9). Those who suffer destruction are destroyed. But it does not necessarily follow that those who suffer destruction cease to exist. So, “destruction” can have a meaning of ruin or loss, not necessarily end to existence.
6. Can the idea of sinning against God — and not only in a moment but for one’s whole lifetime — not merit eternal damnation when one sin justly plunged the world into death and darkness? Is not the nature of the punishment not come from how long you offend dignity, but from how high the dignity is that you offended? The Old Testament penalty for rejecting Moses was death, but anyone who deliberately rejects Jesus deserves a greater punishment. “Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think someone deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant” (Hebrews 10:28-29).
7. Jesus spoke of an eternal (not finite) sin, the sin against the Holy Sprit (Mark 3:29), a sin that “will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come” (Matthew 12:32). Should not, eternal sin, result in eternal destruction (2 Thessalonians 1:9), eternal judgment (Hebrews 6:2), eternal punishment (Matthew 25:46), and eternal fire (Matthew 25:41)? “Let him who does wrong continue to do wrong; let him who is vile continue to be vile; let him who does right continue to do right; and let him who is holy continue to be holy” (Revelation 22:10–11). Does this text indicate, while the heart of righteous will show the desire to continue do the right thing for eternity, will not the ungodly continue to spiral in evil in eternal sin, and so be punished with unending punishment?
8. When the last book of the Bible (Revelation) describes the flames of hell, it does not speak of a destruction that ends, but says the lost “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” (Rev. 14:10–11). However, “death and Hades” (Revelation 20:14) are thrown into the fire as well, which is capable of torment; and, of course, “death and hades” are symbolic imagery. So, should Revelation be interpreted literally when it says God lives “forever and ever” (Revelation 10:6), but not when torments go up “forever and ever” (Revelation 14:11)?
9. In Matthew 25:46, aiōnios, the word for eternal means the same thing both in “eternal punishment” and “eternal life”: they are equally everlasting.
10. Does ‘eternal’ mean forever? In the New Testament, eternal means “agelong,” with the context defining the age. Then is there a usage of “punishment of eternal fire” that is not describing an unending fire burning for eternity. What about this passage. “And angels who did not keep their own domain but abandoned their proper dwelling place, these He has kept [present indicative] in eternal restraints under darkness for the judgment of the great day, just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities around them, since they in the same way as these indulged in gross immorality and went after strange flesh, are exhibited as an example in undergoing the punishment of eternal fire…(Jude 1:6-7).
At Sodom and Gomorrah, God set an example of what happens to immoral people: He reduced them to ashes by His eternal fire. Jude says it was “exhibited” on earth, not in hades or hell. How are they an example? They are an example “in undergoing the punishment of eternal fire.” But what happened to Sodom and Gomorrah? God rained fire and brimstone (i.e. sulfur) on the city, burning everything to the ground and killing everyone. Now why would Jude use the term “eternal fire” to refer to a fire that did not burn for eternity? Was the eternal fire eternal in its consequences, and not its duration?
Alternatively , Jude 1:6 and 7 says the angels are presently being kept in eternal bonds under darkness for the final judgement. These angels must be conscious because, in Luke 20:36, Jesus said that angels don’t die. Then in verse 7, Jude says that the people of Sodom and Gomorrah who went after strange flesh in a similar to those angels (Jude 6) are presently an example in undergoing punishment of eternal fire. Does this mean both angels and the wicked (in some intermediate state) of Sodom and Gomorrah are presently undergoing some sort of punishment, and hence is an example of future punishment?
11. When God creates a new heavens and new earth, God says, all the “former things have passed away”, of which death, crying, pain are said to pass away as well (Revelation 21:4). Is this only limited to the world of the righteous or the entire “new creation”?
- If the way “punishment of eternal fire” used by Jude 1:7 is an example of how the wicked will suffer just as Sodom and Gomorrah was destroyed by fire, then from all texts that speaks of punishment by eternal fire for the wicked, it may be reasonably supported that the fire is eternal in its consequences, not its duration. If this is not the case, then ‘eternal’ must be unending. Now if it is the latter:
- If the argument against an “unending” punishment is that it unjust of God to punish sinners eternally for temporal sins, it is presumptuous for human beings to tell God what is just and unjust. We would do better to determine from His Holy Word what He deems just and unjust.
- If the argument against an “unending” punishment is that God and His saints would never enjoy heaven if they knew loved ones and friends were forever in hell. This is the same argument that universalists use to insist that God will finally save every human being.
- In Matthew 25:46, aiōnios means the same thing both in “eternal punishment” and “eternal life”: they are equally everlasting. However, it is not necessary that here “‘punishment’ and ‘life’ are two continuing states having to do with conscious individuals. Since “eternal redemption” in Hebrews 9:12 does not imply an everlasting process of redeeming, eternal punishment need not imply everlasting process of punishing. The adjective aiōnios makes life and punishment parallel in duration, but the judicial context makes them mutually exclusive in nature: only the righteous will be granted eternal life. The fate of the lost is therefore “the second death” forever—eternal capital punishment. And as Augustine noted, capital punishment is inflicted quickly, but its duration greatly exceeds that of one’s crimes, being measured in how long one remains dead.1
- Hell is real. While some scriptures certainly appear to teach eternal unending punishment view (which is derided by many annihilationist), and I am open to that view, I lean towards the eternal capital punishment view (the more famously known as annihilation, which is derided by many traditionalists). The wicked will be punished in hell fire at the end of age for an unspecified time and will be no more, because “the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4). In any case, we can trust that God is just in His punishment of the wicked whatever the duration of it is.