Before I continue, I just want to give credit where it’s due: Several teachers and theologians have made me aware of many of the things that I will be writing on over this and the next several posts, John Stott, Steve Gregg, and Clark Pinnock foremost among them. I would not have been able to see much of what I will be writing about from here on out without reading their work.
Our preconceptions about what the Bible teaches often prevent us from recognizing good alternative theological views and prevent us from seeing problems with our own beliefs. Additionally, legitimate alternative views suffer because most of us don’t know the Bible as well as we should (I most definitely include myself in this). Both of these problems work in favor of the Eternal Torment view of Hell.
Let’s start with the word “eternal,” the backbone of the Eternal Torment view. The regular appearance of this word in describing various attributes of Hell has, understandably, led many to the conclusion that the suffering of the lost in hell lasts forever.
It should be pointed out that the Greek word “aion” or aionios” which is most often translated in these passages as “eternal” is defined by Vine’s Expository Dictionary as,
“Duration, either undefined but not endless, or undefined because endless.”
Right out of the gate, we find that the word we’ve always understood to mean everlasting may not mean that at all. Of course, “eternal” or “everlasting” could just as likely be the proper translation; I am not a Greek scholar by any means, and so far all Greek scholars involved in translating these passages have concluded that “eternal” is the best word. Unfortunately, I am not in a position to judge how justified their choice of translation is, except to say that translators are not free of their preconceptions and are just as capable of being swayed by them as you or I. It also seems that translators believe a great deal in precedence; that is, since aion was first translated as “eternal,” they will also translate the word as “eternal” unless they have a very good reason not to. Since we don’t have an ancient Greek scholar available to us, for the rest of the post let’s assume that “eternal” and other words that imply eternality are translated correctly.
As it turns out, the word “eternal” and similar words only appear eight times in the passages said to be describing Hell, and most of these passages are apocalyptic in style – that is, among other things they make use of hyperbole to make their points. This is the case for what are probably the two strongest passages supporting Eternal Torment: Revelation 14:11 and Mark 9:47-48.
…he also will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he 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, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.
To anyone who has studied the Book of Revelation in light of the rest of the Bible, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that the Apostle John is borrowing imagery directly from the Old Testament. In Isaiah 34 the prophet records a judgment against the nation of Edom:
Isaiah 34:8-10While John is not quoting this passage directly, his imagery is borrowed from it. In both texts the picture of judgment brought against the lawbreakers makes use of fire, sulfur, and smoke ascending eternally. But is the unending state pictured in these passages meant to be understood literally? In Isaiah 34, I believe the answer is unquestionably no.
For the Lord has a day of vengeance, a year of recompense for the cause of Zion. And the streams of Edom shall be turned into pitch, and her soil into sulfur; her land shall become burning pitch. Night and day it shall not be quenched; its smoke shall go up forever. From generation to generation it shall lie waste; none shall pass through it forever and ever.
Edom was utterly destroyed by the Nabataeans just as God predicted through Isaiah. The land of Edom is no more, there are no more Edomites (the last known Edomite was Herod the Great), there has not been a descendent of Esau on the face of the Earth for 2000 years. Yet, if we were to travel to the former land of Edom, on the southern shore of the Dead Sea, we would not find the smoke of the Nabataean conquest still rising into sky, yet this passage speaks of the smoke from their burnt land ascending forever. This is a word picture, poetically written, meant to convey the message that Edom would be destroyed and never recover. Smoke is what is left after what has been burned is consumed. That it “go[es] up forever” might be understood to mean the Edomites will remain consumed forever. They are dead and gone two millennia ago, and will never cease to be consumed. Is this the way John means to use this imagery? I can’t say that I know for sure that he does, but it does seem possible.
However, if eternal torment is not what’s in view in verse 11, then why does the end of that sentence read, “and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name?” No rest seems to imply continued consciousness throughout the process that lasts “forever and ever.” While that might be the case, if we read just 2 verses down from this statement it appears that John himself explains:
And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Blessed indeed,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them.”
The rest that John writes about Revelation 14 appears to be another description of Heaven. The saints that die in Christ enter their "rest," those that perish without Him never enter that rest. It is entirely possible that by saying they will never experience rest day or night John is implying that they will not enter Heaven - not that they will remain conscious forever.
Interestingly, the other passage most often cited as teaching that Hell is a place of eternal torment, Mark 9:47-48, is also borrowed from the very last verse of the last chapter in Isaiah:
And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell [lit. Valley of Hinnom], ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’
“And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.”
No matter which view of the final six chapters of Isaiah you hold to (these chapters are very controversial) this last verse of the book makes it clear that the prophet is not referring to souls or people in hell eternally suffering worms and flames. The prophet is referring to the bodies of the dead which experience these things, not their conscious souls or their resurrected bodies.
It also appears that undying worms and unquenchable flames should not be taken literally. As I pointed out in an earlier post, in Mark 9:47-48, Jesus refers in the passage specifically to the Valley Hinnom, which was a garbage dump for the city of Jerusalem. When Jesus spoke about Gehenna, or the Valley of Hinnom, his audience would not have thought about a distant future judgment after death, but simply of the valley just outside of Jerusalem's wall. The fires there burned day and night and the worms constantly consumed the garbage, refuse, and the bodies of criminals disposed of in that place.
We in the west make very similar statements all the time, yet for some reason we insist on holding the Biblical writers to a woodenly literal use of language. When you have a problematic ant infestation that you have tried to kill off unsuccessfully, it would not be unusual to complain that these ants “just won’t die.” No one would take you literally and conclude that you were saying these particular ants were immortal or would infest your house for eternity. In this light it is probably safe to say that neither statement about the flames and worms have anything to do with eternity, but are simply common expressions about what one would find in the Valley Hinnom at any given time.
The Valley of Hinnom was also mentioned by the prophet Jeremiah, who spoke of it several times while proclaiming the coming judgment on Israel carried out by Babylon in 586 BC.
Jeremiah 7:31, 32
And they have built the high places of Topheth, which is in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind. Therefore, behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when it will no more be called Topheth, or the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter; for they will bury in Topheth, because there is no room elsewhere.
Jeremiah 19:6-9, 11-12
…Therefore, behold, days are coming, declares the Lord, when this place shall no more be called Topheth, or the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter. And in this place I will make void the plans of Judah and Jerusalem, and will cause their people to fall by the sword before their enemies, and by the hand of those who seek their life. I will give their dead bodies for food to the birds of the air and to the beasts of the earth. And I will make this city a horror, a thing to be hissed at. Everyone who passes by it will be horrified and will hiss because of all its wounds. And I will make them eat the flesh of their sons and their daughters, and everyone shall eat the flesh of his neighbor in the siege and in the distress, with which their enemies and those who seek their life afflict them’…and say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts: So will I break this people and this city, as one breaks a potter's
vessel, so that it can never be mended. Men shall bury in Topheth because there
will be no place else to bury. Thus will I do to this place, declares the Lord, and to its inhabitants, making this city like Topheth.
The question is, in citing the passage of Isaiah and referring to the place which figures somewhat prominently in Jeremiah’s prophesy of destruction upon Israel, could Jesus be warning of something similar occurring again? It is very possible. The similarities between the Babylonian destruction of Israel and the Roman destruction 600 year later are striking.
Josephus writes extensively about the siege and eventual destruction of Jerusalem in “The Jewish Wars,” and he records that during the height of the Roman siege there were rotting bodies laying in the streets of the city and bodily fluids running in the gutters. The people of Jerusalem cast so many bodies over the walls that they filled the Kidron Valley. While Josephus never mentions the Valley of Hinnom, it may well have seen the same result from this war, especially seeing as this was it’s general use anyway.
These ancient prophets may provide us with a better understanding of these two passages which have long been cited as the support for the view of eternal torment, but they don’t shed any light on Jesus’ statement in Matthew 10:28 that we should “fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell [lit. Gehenna, or Valley of Hinnom]. One explanation that has been suggested is that Jesus is simply saying that when the offending individual is dead God is not done with them yet. I don’t know of any other possible explanations of this particular verse, which I find quite mysterious.
A number of the scriptures that are generally cited in support of the Eternal Torment view of Hell talk about eternal fire. The argument is that the fire of Hell is eternal and so the suffering and torment of those condemned there must be eternal as well. While one can easily see how descriptions of eternal fire would lead one to assume an eternal Hell, the fact is that neither suffering, torment, nor punishment are mentioned in these passages; only eternal fire.
An explanation of this could be that the modifier “eternal” actually refers to something other than duration of torment. It’s quite possible that in describing eternal fire the author is not saying that the fire itself lasts forever but that the fire has it’s source in eternity, which is an attribute solely of God. This idea is not without some scriptural support.
Genesis 19:24As I pointed out before regarding Edom, if you were to travel to the west bank of the Dead Sea, where the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are believed to have been located, you will not see a fire continuing to burn. Genesis tells us that these cities were destroyed with fire “from the Lord out of heaven.” While the fire that burned these cities has long since gone out, the source of the fire is the God who holds eternity in His hand. If this is the case, then to say that the condemned suffer eternal fire would not be saying anything more than that they suffer the judgment of God.
Then the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the Lord out of heaven.
…just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.
One final point is that the Bible does not say anywhere, that I am aware of, that unbelievers live forever. We often assume it because we understand that those who enter into the New Heaven and the New Earth will reign with God forever; but eternal existence of the damned isn’t taught in the Bible to the best of my knowledge.
Like I said at the beginning of this series, I don’t know what position to believe at the moment. While I have been critical of the Biblical arguments offered in support of the Eternal Torment view Hell, nothing I have laid out is concrete. I have simply offered what I believe to be reasonable questions about the traditional interpretations of the passages used to support the view of Eternal Torment.