The Doctrine of Hell

David Bovenmyer
© Great Commission Churches, 2002, 2007, used by permission

A passage from Dante’s Inferno

On either hand a wide plain stretched, to show

A sight of torment, and most dismal woe.

At Arles, where the stagnant Rhone extends,

Or Pola, where the gulf Quarnero bends,

As with old tombs the plains are ridged, so here,

All sides, did rows of countless tombs appear,

But in more bitter a guise, for everywhere

Shone flames, that moved among them.

Every tomb

Stood open, white with heat. No craft requires

More heated metal than the crawling fires

Made hot the sides of those sad sepulchres;

And cries of torture and most dire despair

Came from them, as the spirits wailed their doom.

I said, “Who are they, in these chests that lie

Confined, and join in this lamenting cry?”

My Master answered, “These in life denied

The faith that saves, and that resisting pride

Here brought them. With their followers, like to like,

Assorted are they, and the keen flames strike

With differing anguish, to the same degree

They reached in their rebellion.”

While he spake

Rightward he turned, a narrow path to take

Between them and that high-walled boundary. —Dante’s Inferno, Canto IX

Hardly a more despairing description of hell could be imagined than that of Dante’s inferno, written in Italy in 1307. Dante’s hell consists of nine levels each designed to bring recompense appropriate to particular sins.  Drawing on the apocryphal Apocalypse of Peter, Dante’s work fired the imagination of the middle aged religious world with never-before-heard descriptions of the torment of the damned.

So, what of the doctrine of hell?  Will hell be anywhere similar to Dante’s imagination of it?  Does the Bible teach a literal hell with eternal torment, or is the idea of hell a fiction produced by the overzealous imagination of the medieval church? What does the Bible teach about hell? If the Bible teaches such a place of eternal torment, would not this make God a cruel monster, punishing people far in excess of their crimes? These are some of the questions we hope to answer today.

Why is it important to study the doctrine of hell?

The doctrine of hell has direct bearing on the nature of God, especially his love and justice.

Will God punish sin?  Is He just?  Will people “get away with murder”?  But how can a loving God send anyone to hell?  Why not rather never create them in the first place?

The doctrine relates to the nature of man.

  • Are we eternal beings?

The doctrine affects our attitude toward sin

  • When we see sin as rebellion and hatred of God and that it deserves the utmost of punishments, we will abhor it all the more.

The doctrine affects our passion and message in evangelism

  • The doctrine of hell has been a major motivation for evangelism. A clear understanding of what the Bible teaches about Hell will help us to give a clear warning about the consequences of not accepting the gospel.

The doctrine gives us greater appreciation for our salvation.

  • Our appreciation of God’s gift of grace and its immense value is much enhanced as we fully comprehend what we have been saved from.

Three views of the destiny of the unrepentant

1) Universalism — Universalism believes that through the atonement of Jesus, God will ultimately reconcile all men to himself regardless of whether they have believed in Jesus during their lifetime.

Universalists believe that eternal punishment in hell is a false doctrine. There are two main camps within Christian Universalism. One camp believes that, after death, people will be punished in hell for a period of time and in ways appropriate to their sins.  The other camp believes that punishment for sins occurs solely in this life.

2) Annihilationism — After a period of punishment for their sins, the unredeemed will be annihilated and will cease to exist forever.  God will condemn them to extinction, which is the second death.

Annihilationists have two views concerning the eternal nature of mankind. Those who believe in what is called “conditional immortality” deny that man is inherently immortal in nature.  Only the righteous are granted the gift of eternal life and the wicked die a second death and cease to exist.  Others— true annihilationists—believe that man is eternal in nature but that God, in His power, can still destroy them so that they no longer exist.

Jehovah’s Witnesses, Herbert Armstrong’s Worldwide Church of God, the Mormons, Christian Science and Seventh-day Adventists all hold to some form of annihilationist teaching.

Today, a growing number of individuals who have been regarded as within the evangelical camp are adopting various annihilationist scenarios.  Most notable among them are John R. W. Stott and Clark Pinnock.

3) Eternal suffering — The unredeemed will be resurrected to eternal suffering and punishment in hell.

This has been the orthodox view of both Catholics and Protestants. We must be careful not to assume that the “orthodox” view is necessarily the Biblical view.  The issue is not who believes in a particular doctrine or even if the doctrine has historically been taught in the church, but rather, “what does the Bible teach?”

Indeed, there is evidence that, through the ages, the church’s thinking in regard to hell has been significantly influenced by extra-biblical material, especially the Apocalypse of Peter.  For a time, this apocalypse, supposedly written by Peter, enjoyed fairly wide acceptance within certain parts of the church as an authentic revelation of God.  Here is a summary from the web site http://www.ntcanon.org/Apocalypse_of_Peter.shtml.

“The Apocalypse of Peter is best known for its lurid descriptions of the punishments of hell. It is as outstanding an ancient example of that type of writing by means of which the pictorial ideas of Heaven and Hell were taken over into the Christian Church. In contrast to the Revelation of John which displays the final struggle and triumph of Jesus Christ, its interest no longer lies on the person of the Redeemer, but on the situation in the after-life, on the description of different classes of sinner, on the punishment of the evil and the salvation of the righteous. If the Apocalypse of Peter as a book lost its meaning in time, the ideas represented in it lived on in various ways — Sybyllines II; Apocalypse of Paul; apocalypsis seu visio Mariae virginis; right up to the full tide of description in Dante’s Divina Commedia.

What does the scripture teach about the destination of the wicked?

1) Old Testament teaching

The Old Testament says little about punishment of the wicked after death, referring primarily to the punishment they receive in this life.

The word “hell” appears 31 times in the King James translation of the Old Testament as a translation of the Hebrew word “Sheol.”  However this Hebrew word has the meaning “the underworld” or “the place of the dead,” and is always translated “Sheol,” “grave” or “the realm of the dead in the NIV and NASB.

The word “Sheol” is translated in the Septuagint as “Hades.”  The Septuagint is a Greek translation of the Old Testament that was translated around 70 B.C.  The Greek word “Hades” also occurs in the New Testament and is roughly equivalent in concept to the Hebrew “Sheol.”

(Daniel 12:2 NIV)— Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.”

This verse teaches a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked and that the wicked will suffer shame and everlasting contempt.  Although eternal punishment is not specifically stated, it may be implied by the fact that the wicked will be resurrected and by the phrase “everlasting contempt.” The word “contempt” comes from a root that means “to repulse” and means “aversion, abhorrence.[1] The word is used only in Daniel 12:2 and Isaiah 66:24.

(Isaiah 66:24 NIV) “And they will go out and look upon the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.”

This verse is quoted by Jesus in Mark 9:48 and may refer to unending fire and destruction in hell.  In context the word “they” refers back to “all mankind” in verse 23, who will be bowing down to the Lord week after week and month after month as long as the “new heavens and new earth …endure.”   This might imply that their looking upon the dead bodies of those God has judged could also continue forever.

On the other hand, this verse may simply be stating that nothing will be able to stop the worms from eating their dead bodies or the fire from consuming them.

(Isaiah 33:14 NIV) The sinners in Zion are terrified; trembling grips the godless: “Who of us can dwell with the consuming fire? Who of us can dwell with everlasting burning?”

This verse is sometimes thought to refer to the everlasting fires of hell yet, in context, it appears to figuratively refer to God’s judgment on the wicked in Judea through the conquering Assyrian armies.

2) All sin will be justly punished.  God will punish people in accordance with the severity of their sin and the amount of light they have received.

(Romans 2:5-6 NIV) But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. God “will give to each person according to what he has done.”

God’s judgment will be in accordance with the evil deeds that men have done.

(Colossians 3:25 NIV) Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for his wrong, and there is no favoritism.

(Matthew 11:20-24 NIV)Then Jesus began to denounce the cities in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. 21 “Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. 23 And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No, you will go down to the depths. If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. 24 But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.”

Those in Tyre and Sidon were far from God and from righteousness and were strangers to His covenants of promise.  The people of Sodom, because of the utter depravity of their sin, were legendary examples of those who deserved the judgment of God.  Yet Jesus states that the outwardly righteous Jews who heard Him and refused to repent would be judged more severely on the Day of Judgment than either of these.  The Jews in Jesus’ day had so much light and so much evidence for the coming of the Messiah that their sin of rejecting Him outweighed even the sin of Sodom and would be judged more severely.

(Luke 12:47-48 NIV) That servant who knows his master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what his master wants will be beaten with many blows.  But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.

Differences in the severity of punishment is clearly taught here and in the above passage.

3) Unrepentant sinners will be physically resurrected

(John 5:28-29 NIV) Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out—those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned.

If annihilation were the ultimate penalty, why would the wicked be physically resurrected to be “condemned.”  The fact that they will be resurrected would seem to imply that annihilation will not be their ultimate penalty.  Many Annihilationists and Universalists do believe that the unrighteous will be resurrected and punished in hell, yet that punishment will not be eternal.

4) Unbelievers will perish and be destroyed.

(John 3:16) For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

The words “perish” and “be destroyed” would seem to state that they cease to exist.  Does this teach that the unrighteous will be annihilated?

Here perishing is contrasted to eternal life. If “eternal life” means to live forever, “perish” would seem to mean cease to exist.

(Matthew 10:28) Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

In this passage, the destruction of the soul parallels the destruction of the body.  The body decomposes and ceases to exist, why not the soul?

The Greek word “ἀπόληται,” translated “perish in John 3:16 and “destroy” in Matthew 10:28 can have the meanings of “ruin” or “lose” as well as the more prevalent meaning of “destroy” and “destroy utterly.”  Examples of this are: Luke 5:37, where the wineskins are “ruined” (NIV); Luke 15:4, where the shepherd “loses” (NIV) a sheep; John 6:27, where food “spoils” (NIV); and where those who serve will not “lose’ (NIV) a reward.

It is not adequate, however to show that a word can have a certain meaning.  We must show that in actually has that meaning in this particular context.  In John 3:16 and Matthew 10:28, the NIV translation of “perish” and “destroy” seem to be the appropriate translations for their contexts.  Yet, even translated this way, the words “perish” and “destroy” may not require the meaning of annihilation, but could mean utter ruin.

5) The unbelieving will be excluded from the kingdom—from the presence of God and the presence of the righteous

Matthew 8:10-12 (NIV)When Jesus heard this, he was astonished and said to those following him, “I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Jesus says that many of the “subjects of the kingdom” (Jews) will be excluded from the kingdom they are longing for.  This exclusion from God and from what is good and from what they thought would be their inheritance will be an incredible source of grief and remorse and anger, so much so that they will weep and gnash their teeth.

Other verses where Jesus warns of this type of exclusion and banishment are found in parable form in Matthew 22:13 (a guest is not dressed in wedding clothes) and Matthew 25:30 (a servant hoards his master’s money)

2 Thessalonians 1:5-10 (NIV)All this is evidence that God’s judgment is right, and as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering. 6 God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you 7 and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. 8 He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9 They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power 10 on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed.

Those who partake of the pain of persecution and the hatred of opponents to the gospel can perhaps better understand the judgment of God.  Those who persecute the godly are worthy of judgment and those who patiently endure in faith are worthy of the reward of the kingdom of God.

When Christ returns, He will punish those who do not know God or obey the gospel.  Their punishment will be everlasting destruction and banishment from the Lord’s presence and power. These verses seem to imply a sense of justice.  These people hated God and persecuted His people.  They wanted nothing to do with God, the gospel, or righteousness.  In a sense, he gives them what they wanted—separation from His presence.

6) Hypocritical unbelievers will be condemned to blackest darkness.

Jude 13 (NIV)They are wild waves of the sea, foaming up their shame; wandering stars, for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever.

2 Peter 2:17 (NIV)These men are springs without water and mists driven by a storm. Blackest darkness is reserved for them.

These two verses are talking about unbelievers who infiltrate the church and take advantage of believers for their own selfish gain or pleasure.  Yet the idea of “blackest darkness” may very well equally apply to the fate of all unbelievers.

7) The wicked will be thrown into fire and into a fiery furnace.

(Matthew 3: 12 NIV) His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

Fire normally consumes.  Wouldn’t John the Baptist’s statement have communicated the idea of annihilation to his hearers? And the verse says that the chaff will be burned up, not burned perpetually.

Matthew 13:40-42 (NIV) As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil.  They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Again, you would expect someone who is thrown into a fiery furnace to be consumed.  However, Jesus says that there will be anguish there of such a nature that they will weep and gnash their teeth, evidently in remorse.  Yet it is not certain whether the weeping occurs after they are in the furnace or is simply at the location of the furnace.  The word “where” in NIV is literally “there” which means “in or at that place.”[2]

Matthew 5:22 (NIV) But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.

The judgment of sin involves the fire of “hell.” But what is the fire of hell?  Is it eternal suffering or annihilation?  The words translated “fire of hell” in the NIV are literally, “Gehenna of fire.”  What does “Gehenna” refer to?

Schleusner describes it as follows: “Gehenna, originally a Hebrew word, which signifies valley of Hinnom. Here the Jews placed that brazen image of Moloch. It is said, on the authority of the ancient Rabbins, that to this image the idolatrous Jews were wont not only to sacrifice doves, pigeons, lambs, &c., but even to offer their own children. In the prophecies of Jeremiah (vii 31), this valley is called Tophet, from Toph, a drum; because they beat a drum during these horrible rites, lest the cries and shrieks of the infants who were burned should be heard by the assembly. At length these nefarious practices were abolished by Josiah, and the Jews brought back to the pure worship of God. 2 Kings xxiiI After this they held the place in such abomination that they cast into it all kinds of filth, and the carcasses of beasts, and the unburied bodies of criminals who had been executed. Continual fires were necessary in order to consume these, lest the putrefaction should infect the air; and there were always worms feeding on the remaining relics. Hence it came, that any severe punishment, especially an infamous kind of death, was described by the word Gehenna, or hell.” [3]

So, the question is, what did the term “Gehenna” mean in the minds of the hearers?  Did it signify to them the actual valley outside Jerusalem that was their garbage dump?  If so, it would not necessarily carry with it the concept of eternal punishment, but could indicate simply destruction or death. One question that relates to this would be, “What did the Jews who were listening to Jesus believe about punishment after death?”  Jesus would certainly have had an understanding of his hearers’ concepts of punishment in the afterlife and would have addressed his comments with this common understanding.

Flavius Josephus was a first-century Jewish historian and a Pharisee.  Josephus wrote a discourse to the Greeks concerning Hades, in which he lays out the Pharisees’ understanding of Hades and of judgment in the afterlife.  His discourse contains the following:

Hades is a place where the souls of the righteous and unrighteous are detained until the final judgment. In Hades, the souls of the righteous and unrighteous are separated by a chasm that cannot be crossed. The place where the righteous dwell is a place of comfort, called “The Bosom of Abraham.” Next to the unrighteous is a lake of fire that terrifies the unrighteous as they await the day of judgment when they will be cast into it. The righteous and unrighteous can see each other, but not cross the chasm. At the final judgment the bodies of both the righteous and the unrighteous will be physically resurrected and reunited with their souls. The workers of evil will receive eternal punishment: “To these belong the unquenchable fire, and that without end, and a certain fiery worm, never dying, and not destroying the body, but continuing its eruption out of the body with never-ceasing grief: neither will sleep give ease to these men, nor will the night afford them comfort; death will not free them from their punishment…”[4]

If Josephus’ discourse is indeed authentic and an accurate understanding of the Pharisees’ view of Hades and subsequent eternal judgment of the wicked, this would seem to settle any question concerning the meaning “Gehenna” and “eternal fire” as used by Jesus.  He would have understood their theology and spoke in view of their point of reference.  One principle of interpretation is to try to put yourself in the place of the listener.  If the listeners had Josephus’ understanding of punishment in hell, they certainly would have understood Jesus’ words about Gehenna to refer to the eternal suffering that they already believed in.

The book of Maccabees is another source that confirms that many Jews of Jesus’ time believed that the wicked would suffer eternal torment by fire. The books of Maccabees, were written in the inter-testimental period.  Although not inspired, they do give valuable insight and background into first century Jewish thought and life, including their view of eternal punishment.

4 Maccabees 9:8-9 (RSV)For we, through this severe suffering and endurance, shall have the prize of virtue and shall be with God, for whom we suffer; but you, because of your bloodthirstiness toward us, will deservedly undergo from the divine justice eternal torment by fire.”

 

4 Maccabees 12:12 (RSV)Because of this, justice has laid up for you intense and eternal fire and tortures, and these throughout all time will never let you go.

 

4 Maccabees 13:15 (RSV)for great is the struggle of the soul and the danger of eternal torment lying before those who transgress the commandment of God.

 

Luke 12:4-5 (NIV) “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more.  But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.

We see here that Jesus’ words themselves, indicate that He had in mind more than simply a physical destruction in the valley of Hinnom.  In this verse, Jesus describes Gehenna as a place into which God will cast the wicked after they are physically dead. His use of the word Gehenna, then, is metaphorical, referring to more than the physical valley outside Jerusalem, but to a place of punishment after death

8) Unrepentant unbelievers will be tormented forever.

Matthew 25:41 & 46 (NIV) “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels…“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

Note that the punishment that the wicked receive is the “eternal fire” prepared for the devil and his angels. These verses seem to clearly say that the wicked will endure “eternal punishment” in “eternal fire.” Universalists and Annihilationists have responded to these verses by claiming that the Greek word αἰώνιον, “eternal” means “through the ages” and does not always mean “everlasting.”

Although the adjective αἰώνιον does not always mean “everlasting” and can mean “perpetual” or “through the ages,” yet it’s normal meaning is “eternal.”  Once in the NIV it is translated “through long ages past,” and twice “before the beginning of time” (lit. “before time eternal).  But the other 66 places it is translated “eternal.”

It is not enough to show that a word can have an alternate meaning.  It must be shown that the word has this alternate meaning in the context that it is used.  In Matthew 25:46 the duration of the punishment of the wicked forms a parallel with the duration of the life of the righteous: aijwvnio” is used to describe the length of both. We cannot limit the duration of the punishment of the wicked without limiting the duration of the life of the righteous.  But there are many verses that confirm that the phrase “eternal life” does indeed refer to life forever and ever.

Revelation 19:20 (NIV) But the beast was captured, and with him the false prophet who had performed the miraculous signs on his behalf. With these signs he had deluded those who had received the mark of the beast and worshiped his image. The two of them were thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulfur.

The beast or antichrist, a future king who will reign over the whole earth in the end times, and his false prophet will be thrown alive into the lake of fire immediately after Christ’s return to earth.

Revelation 20:10 (NIV)And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.

The devil will be thrown into the lake of burning sulfur a thousand years after the return of Christ.  At that time, the beast and false prophet will have been in the lake of fire for 1000 years. These two men and this fallen angel will be tormented day and night forever and ever.  It is not only the devil who will be tormented, but these two men as well.

The term “forever and ever” is literally “through the ages of the ages.”  In every case that it is used in the New Testament or elsewhere, this phrase always has the meaning of “forever and ever.”

Here we see the final dwelling place of the devil.  It is the place Jesus referred to in Matthew 25: 41 as “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”  Those who will be separated as “goats” will be cast there. The fate of wicked men will be the same as that of their leader, which is eternal torment in a lake of fire.

Revelation 20:11-15 (NIV)Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. Earth and sky fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

On the final judgment day, all men will appear before the great white thrown of God and be judged.  Those whose names are not written in the book of life will be thrown into the lake of fire.

Death and Hades will also be thrown into the lake of fire.  This would seem to be referring to the destruction and annihilation death and Hades.   Some have argued that since death and Hades are evidently destroyed by the fire, so will those who are thrown into it.  Yet we have seen that this is not so, but that at least three individuals will be tormented there forever and ever.

Revelation 14:9-11 (NIV)A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: “If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark on the forehead or on the hand, he, too, will drink of the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. He will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and his image, or for anyone who receives the mark of his name.”

Here an angel warns those who live on the earth of judgment that will come upon them if they worship the beast (antichrist), they will be tormented with burning sulfur and have no rest day or night. The smoke of their torment rises forever and ever.  Again we see the term “through the ages of the ages,” probably the strongest term for “forever” used in the New Testament. Smoke comes from somewhere.  Here it apparently comes from the burning sulfur that is causing their torment.  The fact that the smoke of their torment rises forever and ever means that the torment goes on forever and ever.

Conclusions

There have been many valiant efforts to soften or explain away the Scripture’s terrifying depiction of hell as a place of eternal torment, but they all ultimately come up short.

When referring to Gehenna, Jesus did mean more than the physical valley outside Jerusalem.  He spoke of a place of suffering to which God would cast the wicked after they were dead.

Many if not most of the Jews of Jesus’ day believed in eternal torment for the wicked.  Certainly they would have interpreted Jesus’ words about “Gehenna,” “eternal fire” and “eternal torment” according to their understanding.  Jesus uses these terms without any effort to correct their understanding.

Jesus, Himself, talks the most and the most clearly about Hell, regularly warning his hearers and admonishing them to do absolutely anything possible to avoid it.

The book of Revelation speaks very clearly about the eternal torment of the ungodly forever and ever.

Those who have not been forgiven of their sins will indeed suffer eternally in a hell from which there is no escape. God’s wrath will remain upon them forever.  They will suffer in agony in flames of burning sulfur, yet never be consumed.  They will be cut off from God and banished from all the good that He is and that He gives.  They will dwell in darkness, possibly isolated from everyone else in eternal loneliness and regret.

Is it immoral of God to inflict everlasting punishment on His creatures?

Clark Pinnock regards the doctrine of endless punishment as “morally flawed” and a “moral enormity.” If the “outrageous doctrine” of the traditionalists were true, God would be a “cruel” and “vindictive” deity. In fact, He would be “more nearly like Satan than like God, at least by any ordinary moral standards….” Indeed, the traditionalist’s God is a “bloodthirsty monster who maintains an everlasting Auschwitz for victims whom he does not even allow to die.”[5] The punishmentdoes fit the crime. Universalists and Annihilationists commonly argue that endless torment represents a punishment far in excess of the offense committed. John Stott maintains that if the traditional teaching were true, there would be “a serious disproportion between sins consciously committed in time and the torment consciously experienced throughout eternity.”[6]

In answer to this, we must note that the seriousness of a crime is not necessarily related to the time it takes to commit it. The argument that “sins committed in time cannot be worthy of eternal suffering” is incorrect. Some crimes, such as murder, may take only a moment to commit, whereas it may take a thief hours to load up a moving van with someone’s possessions. Yet, murder is a far more serious crime than theft.

Secondly the nature of the object against which the crime is committed must be taken into account. Stealing in general is a crime, but stealing from your mother is even more despicable because you owe special allegiance to your parents. Torturing an animal is a crime, but torturing a human being is an even greater crime, worthy of greater punishment. The criminal act is the same in each case (i.e., stealing and torture), as is the person committing the act. But the different worth and dignity of the objects against whom the offenses were committed makes the difference in the gravity of the two offenses.

How much more serious, then, is even the slightest offense against an absolutely holy God, who is worthy of our complete and perpetual allegiance? Sin against an absolutely holy God is absolutely serious. For this reason, the unredeemed suffer absolute, unending alienation from God; this alienation is the essence of hell.

It is the annihilationists’ theory that is morally flawed. Their God is not truly holy, for he does not demand that sin receive its due. Those who have an emotional problem with Hell have not understood the true magnitude of our offense against almighty God. If we could truly see sin as God does, we would not have the slightest problem with the doctrine. Rather, we would find ourselves distraught if God did not punish sin for all eternity.

“We should never forget that it was the Lord Jesus Christ, more than any other, who enunciated the doctrine of everlasting torment for the lost.  Christ had no need to attend a modern sensitivity training workshop; He was “sensitivity incarnate.” But He also manifested a perfect balance of love and justice. The same holy God who “shall be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire” (2 Thessalonians 1:7) is the God who stooped to become one of us, and bore the vengeance of God’s fire in His own body on the tree. If God should open our eyes to understand the terrible price He paid, we would in that instant comprehend the awful guilt of spurning that price. If those who scorned the old covenant were consumed with the fire of this present age, “how much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant” (Heb. 10:29)? —Alan W. Gomes, Evangelicals and the Annihilation of Hell[7]

Additional resources

Evangelicals and the Annihilation of Hell, Alan W. Gomes, Christian Research Institute, Summer 1991, Part 1: http://www.iclnet.org/pub/resources/text/cri/cri-jrnl/web/crj0085a.html, Part 2: http://www.iclnet.org/pub/resources/text/cri/cri-jrnl/web/crj0137a.html

Is There Really a Hell? Rick Rood, Probe Ministries http://www.probe.org/docs/hell.html

Many universalist articles and books can be found online at: http://www.auburn.edu/~allenkc/univart.html

The writings of Flavius Josephus are online: http://bible.crosswalk.com/History/BC/FlaviusJosephus

The apocalypse of Peter and other first century apocryphal writings: http://wesley.nnu.edu/noncanon.htm

A list of resources taken from Christianity Today,  October 23, 2000

Annihilationism
John Stott and David L. Edwards, Evangelical Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue (InterVarsity, 1988)

Philip E. Hughes, The True Image: The Origin and Destiny of Man in Christ (Eerdmans, 1989)

John W. Wenham, “The Case for Conditional Immortality” in Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell (Baker 1992)

Edward Fudge, The Fire That Consumes: The Biblical Case for Conditional Immortality (Paternoster, 1994)

Advocates from church history: Justin Martyr and Theophilus of Antioch (proto-conditionalists), Arnobius, John Biddle, William Whiston, Henry Constable, and Edward White.

Traditionalism
J. I. Packer in Evangelical Affirmations (Academie, 1990)

John H. Gerstner, Repent or Perish (Soli Deo Gloria, 1990)

Larry Dixon, The Other Side of the Good News: Confronting the Contemporary Challenges to Jesus’ Teaching on Hell (Victor, 1992)

Kendall Harmon, “The Case against Conditionalism: A Response to Edward William Fudge” in Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell (Baker, 1992)

Robert A. Peterson, Hell on Trial: the Case for Eternal Punishment (Presbyterian & Reformed, 1995)

D. A. Carson, The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Zondervan, 1996)

Advocates from church history: Tertullian, Lactantius, Basil of Caesarea, Jerome, Cyril of Jerusalem, Chrysostom, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, Whitefield and Wesley.


[1] Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon, (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.) 1995.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Schleusner, Lexicon on Gehenna, quoted by Thomas B. Thayer, The Biblical Doctrine of Hell from The Origin and History of the Doctrine of Endless Punishment, http://www.auburn.edu/~allenkc/univart.html

[4] The Writings of Flavius Josephus, Josephus’ Discourse to the Greeks Concerning Hades, Book 1, Chapter 1, http://bible.crosswalk.com/History/BC/FlaviusJosephus/

[5] The Destruction of the Finally Impenitent,” Criswell Theological Review 4, no. 2 (Spring 1990):246-47, 253.

[6] David L. Edwards and John R. W. Stott, Evangelical Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1988), 318.

[7] Alan W. Gomes, Evangelicals and the Annihilation of Hell, Christian Research Institute, Summer 1991, p. 8

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