Updated: Jul 17, 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:
There will be a place in the afterlife where people will be held accountable for their sins through punishment in accordance with what they had done during their lives.
Our sin and unbelief has consequences and God holds us accountable not just in this life, but in the next, where he will judge us.
These consequences are terrible, and we should fear them greatly.
I would also add something which seems clear to me that may not be clear to all readers. In my view, scripture clearly shows that those who sin when they knew the right way, will be punished worse in hell than those who did not know, or were given less chance of repentance. It does not say these people will not be punished, but that they will be punished less.
So which view are we to take? An annihilationist (the spirit is destroyed eventually and does not suffer for literal eternity and where you are punished according to your offenses while on earth), or the traditionalist view of everlasting conscious torment?
I will leave this up to the reader, though I hope that through considering the information presented here, the “everlasting torment” view will be questioned. In my view, the only view that finds no support from scripture is a universalist view, where everyone will eventually make it to heaven, and hell is either just temporary before you go to heaven, or does not exist at all.
Let’s Talk About Justice
If we are honest with ourselves, I think most of us would agree that the everlasting torment view at least feels unjust. Some traditionalists would say that our finite and fallen selves cannot understand true justice. Others would ruminate on how “unjust” and ridiculous it is that any of us should make it to heaven based on our sinfulness. I’ve always felt this second one is just deflecting legitimate feelings about justice. Sure, none of us deserves eternal bliss, but I would argue that none of us deserve never-ending torture either. I don’t see any where in scripture where it is supposed that all of us deserve everlasting torment regardless of how much we’ve sinned, and that all unbelievers will be judged equally regardless of how much each has offended God during their life.
Am I advocating a conditionalist or annihilationist view because my stomach is too squeamish to handle the idea of eternal conscious torment? No, I’m advocating this view of interpretation because I want to take God’s justice and wrath seriously. And the God I see throughout the Bible is one who “detests dishonest scales” (Proverbs 11:1), who loves justice (Psalm 11:7), and who judges people “according to what they have done (Proverbs 24:12).
In all this I see a God who’s love may be disproportionately greater than his disposition to wrath and punishment (Exodus 20:5-6), but I never in scripture see a God who’s disposition towards wrath is far greater, or even equal, to his inclination to love and forgive. Yes, God is a God of wrath and punishment, but his love far exceeds this inclination, and he seeks to display the latter. I see this as a consistent theme throughout scripture. I say this because such a view would allow for a God who allows those who do not deserve it to experience eternally bliss, but would not allow one to undeservedly face eternal conscious torment.
Take a good long look at the whole character of God as we see it throughout scripture, and there is a God who, yes, is wrathful and brings punishment, sometimes extreme and very severe, but who desires love and mercy far more.
I also see a God who entrusts his people to administer justice on a consistent basis throughout the Old Testament. I do not have the space here to go into every instance of this, but simply mention this to challenge the idea that our sense of justice is completely off because of our fallen nature. If our sense of justice is so unreliable, why did God entrust the Israelites to administer it?
I also want to challenge the idea that we should not question God’s justice when it comes to eternal conscious torment. God did not become angry with Abraham when he questioned if he was really being just in his punishment of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18), so I don’t think God will be angry with us for questioning him on the greatest judgement for mankind of all! God is secure enough to allow us to question him respectfully, and honest questions are part of our relationship with God.
But Wouldn’t an Annihilationist View Lead People to Not Take God as Seriously?
Isn’t an elaborate description of how horrid hell is in vivid imagery of regenerating skin and giant worms the best way to evangelize the masses? Think about the fact that in the most evangelistic book of the Bible, the book of Acts, hell is not mentioned once. Hell was not the primary focus for evangelism, but rather the cross and Jesus’ ascension to kingship. I do not mean to imply that fear and talking about hell is never important. Only that scaring people into the kingdom of God does not seem to be the early church’s primary focus in evangelism. In my opinion, the annihilationist perspective will lead people to take God more seriously as a God who will bring about justice, and that they will face death and punishment for their sins if they refuse to repent and put their trust in Christ.
I hope this article has been enlightening for you and that it was helpful in understanding this very important subject better. If you would like to go more in-depth into this subject, Douglas Jacoby’s book What’s the Truth About Heaven and Hell? is a great resource. For a full defense of the conditionalist perspective on hell, I also recommend Edward Fudge’s book The Fire that Consumes.