Updated: Jul 18, 2021
In the first part of this series on hell, I talked about the Old Testament theology of the afterlife, and then I started getting into some scriptures about the New Testament theology of hell. In this post I will continue getting into New Testament passages about hell and then make some statements about how the subject of hell relates to justice and evangelism. If you have not read the first part, I highly recommend going back and reading that first before starting this one.
Let’s start with Jude 1:7:
“In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire.”
We’ve already heard from Jesus himself that the towns that rejected the gospel by the preaching of the 70 would undergo worse punishment than Sodom or Gomorrah. So we know that there will be different levels of punishment. If “eternal fire” is to be interpreted as everlasting, as in eternal conscious torment, we must take into account that Jesus said Sodom would undergo less punishment than the Capernaum of his day, so is it a less strong eternal fire? We also heard elsewhere where Jesus said those who knew less would receive “few blows.”
Elsewhere Jesus refers to hell as being outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 8:12). So which is it? Fire or blows or darkness? Can there be both fire and darkness? Can there be both few blows and everlasting fire? If the type of punishment isn’t consistent throughout scripture, perhaps these ways of talking about hell are more rhetorical than literal in nature.
There is also 1 Thessalonians 1:8-9 where those who do not obey the gospel will be “punished with everlasting destruction” and Matthew 25:46 where the “goats” go to “eternal punishment.” In order to understand these scriptures we should look at the words like “forever,” “eternal,” or “everlasting” to see if they are consistently used in the literal sense throughout scripture. Then, we may feel better equipped to decide if the word “everlasting” used in this passage is meant to be taken literally. For one, the word “eternal” in scripture is not always meant to be a continuous action or state, but in the sense of a consequence or result. There are a number of scriptures using these words that do not entail infinite duration. Consider an excerpt from an article on this point by Dr. Douglas Jacoby:
“The following list is based (only) on the Greek root aion*, which appears in the LXX (the Greek OT) and the NT numerous times, with the general sense of (world) age, forever, always, eternity, etc. In none of the following cases does the word aion* bear the sense of infinite eternity.
Genesis 6:4—‘Men of old’ (giants/ungodly persons/fallen ones/sons of Cain) did not live infinitely
Jeremiah 25:12—Destruction of Babylon (though not literally destroyed)
Genesis 9:12—Perpetual generations
Exodus 21:6—The man or woman would become one’s servant ‘forever’ (!)
Leviticus 25:34—Perpetual possession of fields
Deuteronomy 23:3—‘Forever’ || the 10th generation
1 Samuel 2:22—Young Samuel was to serve at the house of the Lord ‘forever’
1 Chronicles 16:5—‘Forever’ ~ 1000 generations—also Psalm 105:8
Ezra 4:15, 19—Israelites had been ‘eternally’ resisting political domination
Psalm 24:7—‘Ancient’ doors
Proverbs 22:28—‘Ancient’ boundary stone
Jonah 2:6—Prophet confined in (the fish) ‘forever’
(Similarly, Josephus uses the phrase ‘eternal chains’ to refer to life imprisonment in BJ 6.434, while Jude speaks of angels in ‘eternal chains’ in Jude 6, even though the chaining lasts only until the day of judgment.)
In the same way, ‘everlasting’ in 2 Thess 1 refers to the permanence and irreversibility of the situation of the lost. We could say that their lostness is forever, even if they are not going to be tormented forever.
Paul teaches in 2 Thess 1 that three things happen to the lost when Jesus returns.
Privation – they are separated from the ‘party,’ and from all access to heaven.
Punishment – they are punished in the fire (if the fire isn’t literal, then it’s something even worse) – for as long as justice demands.
Perdition – they are destroyed. Matt 10:28 – God destroys even the soul – what Rev refers to as the second death (Rev 2:11; 20:6,14; 21:8).” (https://www.douglasjacoby.com/qa-1543-the-meaning-of-everlasting/)
So what are we to make of New Testament teaching about hell, or doctrine, regarding what hell will be like. The only thing that is clear in every passage, whether it refers to Gehenna, Tartarus, or other imagery, is that: