, , , ,

Hell 4 — is hell forever?

Hell - Conditional Immortality

Hell 4 — is hell forever?

The popular view is that wicked people will burn in hell forever.

Hell is understood implicitly by people to be a place where fire burns. It is the destined location of wicked people after they die. And what’s more it will be burning them forever.

Many gritty dramas will have a character curse another saying, ‘Burn in hell, you ************!’

The traditional theological view is also that hell means eternal conscious torment.

In that view the answer to ‘is hell forever?’ is ‘Yes.’

This is what I used to believe as a Christian. That belief rested on three key verses in the Bible — two in Revelation and one in Matthew 25. Yes, I know that one or two other passages appear to point that way, but that’s it. There really are not that many passages on which to base belief in eternal conscious torment in hell for the wicked.

The number of passages is, however, not a way to evaluate a doctrine.

One clear passage that is exegeted correctly is adequate ground for a doctrinal position. However, in this case I do not think there is clear exegetical ground to believe in eternal conscious torment of the wicked in hell.

A key step in my mind being changed was to see that Matthew 25:46 was not the slam dunk that I always thought it was.

This is the fourth of a series of posts in which I explain why Scripture has moved me to change my view of the nature of hell, and to adopt what is commonly called conditional immortality, or annihilationism, or evangelical conditionalism, or terminal punishment (other labels have been proposed none of which are ideal to my mind).

In the first post I explain some background.

In the second post I told the story of how Scripture changed my mind.

And in the third post I dug into the question of whether human beings are intrinsically immortal, or not.

This post will tackle a passage that seemed to me in the past, to be a convincing proof that hell meant eternal conscious torment for the wicked. It is an effort to answer the question: ‘is hell forever?’

What does Matthew 25:46 say?

In the New International Version it reads:

46 ‘Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.’

This is the concluding statement of the section that starts at verse 31 and describes final judgment.

There is little question that this passage is about the eschatological destiny of the righteous and the wicked (although James Webb Mealy does dispute this in his argument for conditionalism).

In looking at Matthew 25 I will set aside the question of who has the status that can be described as righteous or wicked, and propose that readers should be able to agree that Jesus definitely envisaged a contrasting destiny for these two groups.

It was my previous conviction that unless I subscribed to that view of hell that it is eternally experienced torment, I could not assert that eternal life was eternally experienced goodness and rightness and bliss in the eternal age. The latter is so definitely taught across many Scriptures that I was, thereby, convinced that hell must be eternally experienced.

Matthew 25:46 is in the form of two parallel phrases indicating a contrasting outcome for the people in the two groups.

First, notice that the wicked will experience punishment.

Hell is not about essentially to do with pain — it is in essence about a just punishment. It is a just retribution for wicked deeds, words and thoughts. I still believe that.

However, the word punishment in itself does not tell us what that punishment is. This passage on its own does not speak to the nature of the punishment.

But does this passage speak to the duration of the punishment? Is hell forever?

There are good reasons to think that it does speak to that question.

Compare the two parallel phrases in Matthew 25:46.

We have two different nouns: punishment and life.

We have one common adjective used to modify both nouns: eternal.

The parallel phrases indicate the contrasting outcome or destiny of the two groups. I always thought that the nouns carried the entire weight of that contrast. I am now persuaded that the adjectives contribute to that contrast. How?

I began to see that the contrast set out by Jesus in verse 46 is even greater than what I supposed.

An important step in my developing understanding of the nature of hell was to realise that eternal punishment can, and even should, mean ‘eternal in effect’, rather than ‘eternal in enactment’. So to answer the question, ‘is hell forever?’ I would now answer no.

If the punishment is eternal in effect, rather than in duration, it is just as irreversible and final as I have always believed — but now the contrast in the destinies of the two groups is even greater. And the maintenance of the contrast is what is required.

Not that I came to this conclusion in this way.

My route to the conclusion above was by means of the way the adjective ‘eternal’ is used in the New Testament texts.

How is the adjective ‘eternal’ used in the New Testament?

I will leave for another post a fuller exploration about the semantic range of the Greek adjective aiōnios (αἰώνιον), which is translated ‘eternal’ in this verse — a subject for which Greek Lexicons will be our guide.

The usage I want to address today concerns the question of whether ‘eternal’ means ‘eternal in duration’ or ‘eternal in effect’. The aim is to answer the main question: is hell forever?

Here I found Terrance Tiessen’s chapter in the book, A Consuming Passion, (2015, edited by Chris Date and Edward Fudge) remarkably helpful.

I would also recommend Tiessen’s account of his journey prior to writing this chapter which you can read here: How will God finally punish unrepentant sinners? Part 1: My journey in quest of an answer. – Thoughts Theological

What Tiessen showed, based on Fudge’s careful work, is that…

There is ample evidence that the use of the word eternal often signifies ‘eternal in effect’, rather than ‘eternal in duration’.

The key passage where this is important is: Matthew 25:46 (this time taken from the ESV).

46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Tiessen writes:

I gained a better understanding of the significance of the range of meaning of aiōnios, which is commonly translated “eternal.” It can have the sense of “age long” or refer to something derived from God, the Eternal One, so that it describes qualitatively rather than quantitatively (cf. Rom 16:25–26, and phrases like “eternal life” and “eternal fire” [Matt 18:8 and 25:41; cf. Jude 7 and 2 Pet 2:6]). When I revisited Edward Fudge’s work, I realized more keenly the importance of the fact that “when the [NT] word aiōnios modifies words which name acts or processes as distinct from persons or things, the adjective usually describes the issue or result of the action rather than the action itself.” (Fudge, Fire that Consumes [1982 edn.], 49)

“This is indisputably true in four of the six New Testament occurrences. There is eternal salvation [Heb. 5:9] but not an eternal act of saving. There is eternal redemption [Heb. 9:12] but not an eternal process of redeeming. The eternal sin [Mk 3:29] was committed at a point in history, but its results continue into the coming age which lasts forever. Scripture pictures eternal judgment [Heb. 6:2] as taking place ‘on a day,’ but its outcome will have no end. In the light of this usage, we suggest that Scripture expects the same understanding when it speaks of ‘eternal destruction’ [2 Thess. 1:9] and ‘eternal punishment’ [Mt 25:46]. Both are acts. There will be an actual destroying and the punishing will issue in a result. That resultant punishment of destruction will never end. (A quote from Fudge)”

(Tiessen, chapter 2 in Date (2015), p. 30)

When asked the question, ‘is hell forever?’, Fudge and Tiessen conclude that it is not forever experienced, but it is forever in the sense that its destruction is irreversible.

Some of the passages Tiessen refers to are reproduced below so the reader can verify what is asserted:

Mark 3:28-29 ESV

28 “Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.”

This is a much-discussed passage but for the purpose of this paper it is just the final two words we need consider. The phrase ‘eternal sin’ does not mean a sin that continues being committed for ever. The adjective ‘eternal’ here is describing the issue or result of the action, not the persistence of the action itself.

is hell forever
is hell forever – clock mechanism

Hebrews 5:8-10 ESV

Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, 10 being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek.

Again here the adjective ‘eternal’ is describing the everlasting result of Christ’s atoning work. The author is not telling us that Christ’s atoning sacrifice is continuing forever. After all that would contradict the claim this author makes in Hebrews 7:27 that Christ “…has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself.”

Hebrews 9:11-12 ESV

11 But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) 12 he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.

The same argument pertains here as for Hebrews 5:8-10.

Hebrews 6:2 ESV

1 Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith towards God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgement.

The author is listing several basic beliefs of the Christian life. The list is chronological and moves through the responses to the gospel, to beliefs about personal eschatology. Scripture elsewhere teaches us that there is a Judgment Day. The rulings of that assize will be eternal in effect — but the assize itself does not continue for ever.

There is no assured reason why we must say that in Mathew 25:26 Jesus means to tell us that the act of punishing of the wicked will continue forever. It is at least as likely, if not more than likely, that Jesus is affirming that the effect of the punishing will be eternal and, therefore, irreversible.

This is now my convinced position since the preponderance of texts (as I will show in a future post) make clear that what Scriptures sets before us is life or death, salvation or destruction.

Tiessen concludes his chapter with these helpful words:

“To really grasp the immensity of the loss that God’s enemies will ultimately experience, we need to know what God has in store for those who love him and are loved by him. All Scripture is profitable, and we should not shrink from declaring the truth that those who fight God all their lives will be very severely punished. God can use those warnings as means of graciously drawing people back from the brink of hell. But we must not neglect to paint just as clearly, for those who are rejecting God’s grace, a biblical picture of the wonderful and endless life that God has planned for his children by faith, in the new heaven and earth which will be more glorious than anything we can possibly imagine. No decision human beings make in their entire lives is more important than the one that will finally determine whether they experience endless joy with God through Christ in the new earth, or lose all of that and perish in the second death.”

(Tiessen, chapter 2 in Date (2015), p. 31)

This, I contend, is the contrast Jesus signifies in Matthew 25:46.

God assures us there will be judgment.

Many people hope for justice. They hope that someone, God maybe, will bring the wicked to account. That wish is a good one. But please take care: that judgment is promised in the pages of Scripture, and nobody will be able to avoid it.

This passage in Matthew’s Gospel starts like this:

Matthew 25:31-33 NIV-UK

31 ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

All the nations will be gathered before Christ. Please do not think you or I will escape this great assize.

In the final book of Scripture, Revelation, this same Day of Judgment is described in similar terms.

Revelation 20:11-13

11 Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. 12 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. 13 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 they had done.

‘Each person’ we are told will meet their Maker and answer to him.

This will not be optional.

It’s not an RSVP event.

Everyone, absolutely every human being who has ever existed, and also those alive when Christ returns, will be ‘gathered before him’ and will be judged.

Millions of Chinese and Pakistanis and Indonesians and Brazilians will be gathered there.

Millions of Americans and Spaniards and Indians, and Vietnamese will be judged.

Not one person will be left out, or will be able to avoid appearing in the dock. Not even Brits like me (despite our British exceptionalism).

No matter how rich or powerful or famous you are, you shall not escape this judgment. No matter how insignificant, unnoticed and harmless you may think yourself to be, you also will be gathered to this judgment.

On that great and terrible Day you will see Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates appear before God. Tutankhamen and Homer will also appear before God. So will Alexander the Great, and Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, and Boudicca.

Christ will bring before himself Judas Iscariot and Mary Magdalene; Isaiah the prophet, Ruth the Moabitess, and everyone else mentioned in Scripture. Not only them, of course.

Among those gathered for judgment we will see Genghis Khan, and Mohammed, and Michelangelo, and Johann Sebastian Bach, and Martin Luther, and Henry VIII, and William Shakespeare, and Elizabeth I, and Katherine the Great, and Rene Descartes, and Jane Austen, and Charles Darwin, and Mary Wollstonecraft, and Mrs Beeton, and Harriet Tubman, and Florence Nightingale, and Karl Marx, and Marie Curie, and Sigmund Freud, and Adolf Hitler, and Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin, and Harry Houdini, and Albert Einstein, and James Dean, and Elizabeth Taylor, and Indira Ghandi, and George Best, and Marilyn Monroe, and Pol Pot, and Margaret Mead, and John F. Kennedy, and Kurt Cobain, and Jimmy Hendrix, and Marie Stopes, and Eva Cassidy, and John Lennon, and Mother Theresa, and Freddie Mercury, and Whitney Houston, and Amy Winehouse, and Sadam Hussein, and Queen Elizabeth II, AND all of your friends and relatives who have ever lived or ever will do, AND HE WILL GATHER YOU also. God will raise them, and they will stand before him. And so will you too.

Have you made preparation? Are you living life in light of that great Day?

The notification that a Day of Judgement is coming is a central part of the message of Christ (see, for example, Acts 10.39-43 and Acts 17.29-31) and I pray that all who read this will seek God for mercy and grace.

Jesus is willing to be your defence lawyer, to speak up for you on that day. He offers very good terms. Why refuse him? Why will you die? God sent Jesus so that you might have life.

Photo credit: Music4Life on Pixabay.


For the whole list of books refenced or consulted to write this blog series please go to the first post and scroll to the end.

The following is a list of the main books referenced in this post alone.

Christopher M DATE, A Consuming Passion: Essays on Hell and Immortality in Honor of Edward Fudge, (2016), Pickwick (Wipf & Stock)

Terrance TIESSEN, chapter in Christopher M DATE, A Consuming Passion: Essays on Hell and Immortality in Honor of Edward Fudge, (2015), Pickwick (Wipf & Stock)


Share this post...

Related articles

Theologica Logo Aqua Green on White

Andrew Ryland's Blog

To love God thoughtfully

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. Mark 12:30 NIV-UK

Our favourites

Maybe do not try to fix people

Maybe do not try to fix people? Love them, observe them, build community, instead. When I am coaching or mentoring or supervising others I rely mainly on imitation to see people learn new skills and grow in experience. Obviously head knowledge can be imparted directly by instruction – but skills are usually caught more than taught. The same is true for bringing up children.

Read more »