Hell: Eternal torment or annihilation?

Hell is a biblical doctrine. But what kind of hell? A place where the impenitent sinners burn forever and consciously suffer pain in an everlasting and never-ending fire? Or a penal judgment through which God annihilates sinners and sin forever?

Traditionally, over the centuries, churches have taught and preachers have thundered hell as an eternal torment. But in recent times, we seldom hear the old “fire and brimstone” sermons, even from fundamentalist preachers, who may be theoretically still committed to such a belief. Their reticence to preach on eternal torment is more likely not due to a lack of integrity in proclaiming an unpopular truth, but to their aversion to preaching a doctrine they find it hard to believe. After all, how is it possible that the God, who so loved the world to send His only begotten Son to save sinners, can also be a God who tortures people (even the worst of sinners) forever, time without end? How can God be a God of love and justice and yet torment sinners forever in hell fire?

This unacceptable paradox has led Bible scholars of all persuasions to re-examine the biblical teachings regarding hell and final punishment.1

The fundamental question is: Does hellfire torment the lost eternally or consume them permanently? Responses to this question vary. Two recent interpretations designed to make hell more humane deserve brief mention.

Alternative views on hell

Metaphorical view of hell. The metaphorical interpretation holds that hell is everlasting torment, but the suffering is more mental than physical. The fire is not literal but figurative, and the pain is caused more by a sense of separation from God than by physical torments.2

Billy Graham expresses this metaphorical view when he says: “I have often wondered if hell is a terrible burning within our hearts for God, to fellowship with God, a fire that we can never quench.”3 Graham’s interpretation is ingenious, to say the least. Unfortunately, it ignores the fact that the biblical description of “burning” refers not to a burning within the heart, but to a place where the wicked are consumed.

William Crockett also argues for the metaphorical view: “Hell, then, should not be pictured as an inferno belching fire like Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace. The most we can say is that the rebellious will be cast from the presence of God, without any hope of restoration. Like Adam and Eve they will be driven away, but this time into ‘eternal night,’ where joy and hope are forever lost.”4

The problem with this view of hell is that it merely wants to replace physical torment with mental anguish. Some may question if eternal mental anguish is really more humane than physical torment. Even if that were true, the lowering of the pain quotient in a non-literal hell does not substantially change the nature of hell, since it still remains a place of unending torment.

The solution is to be found not in humanizing or sanitizing the traditionalist view of hell so that it may ultimately prove to be a more tolerable place for the wicked to spend eternity, but in understanding the true nature of the final punishment which, as we shall see, is permanent annihilation and not eternal torment.

The universalist view of hell. A second and more radical revision of hell has been attempted by universalists who reduce hell to a temporary condition of graded punishments that ultimately leads to heaven. Universalists believe that ultimately God will succeed in bringing every human being to salvation and eternal life so that no one, in fact, will be condemned in the final judgment to either eternal torment or annihilation.5

No one can deny the appeal universalism has for the Christian conscience, because any person who has sensed God’s love longs to see Him save everyone. Yet, our appreciation for the universalists’ concern to uphold the triumph of God’s love and to refute the unbiblical concept of eternal suffering must not blind us to the fact that this doctrine is a serious distortion of biblical teaching. Universal salvation cannot be right just because eternal suffering is wrong. The universal scope of God’s saving purpose must not be confused with the fact that those who reject His provision of salvation will perish.

While both the metaphorical and universalistic views represent well-meaning attempts to soften the concept of eternal suffering, they fail to do justice to the biblical data and thus ultimately misrepresent the biblical doctrine of the final punishment of the unsaved. The sensible solution to the problems of the traditionalist view is to be found, not by lowering or eliminating the pain quotient of a literal hell but, by accepting hell for what it is: the final punishment and permanent annihilation of the wicked. As the Bible says: “The wicked will be no more” (Psalm 37:10, RSV)* because “their end is destruction” (Philippians 3:19).

The annihilation view of hell

The belief in the final annihilation of the lost is based on four major biblical considerations: (1) death as punishment of sin; (2) the biblical vocabulary on the destruction of the wicked; (3) the moral implications of eternal torment; and (4) the cosmological implications of eternal torment.

Death as punishment of sin. The final annihilation of impenitent sinners is indicated, first of all, by the fundamental biblical principle that the final punishment of sin is death: “The soul that sins shall die” (Ezekiel 18:4, 20); “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). The punishment of sin, of course, comprises not only the first death, which all experience as a result of Adam’s sin, but also what the Bible calls the second death (Revelation 20:14; 21:8), which is the final, irreversible death experienced by impenitent sinners. This means that the ultimate wages of sin is not eternal torment, but permanent death.

The Bible teaches death to be the cessation of life. Were it not for the assurance of resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:18), the death that we experience would be the termination of our existence. It is the resurrection that turns death from being the final end of life into being a temporary sleep. But there is no resurrection from the second death, because those who experience it are consumed in “the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:14). That will be the final annihilation.

The biblical vocabulary on the destruction of the wicked. The second compelling reason for believing in the annihilation of the lost at the final judgment is the rich vocabulary of destruction used in the Bible to describe the end of the wicked. According to Basil Atkinson, the Old Testament uses more than 25 nouns and verbs to describe the final destruction of the wicked.6

Several psalms, for example, describe the final destruction of the wicked with dramatic imagery (Psalm 1:3-6; 2:9-12; 11:1-7; 34:8-22; 58:6-10; 69:22-28; 145:17, 20). In Psalm 37, for example, we read that the wicked “will soon fade like the grass” (vs. 2); they “shall be cut off . . . and ... will be no more” (vss. 9, 10); they will “perish . . . like smoke they vanish away” (vs. 20); “transgressors shall be altogether destroyed” (vs. 38). Psalm 1 contrasts the way of the righteous with that of the wicked. Of the latter it says that “the wicked will not stand in the judgment” (vs. 5); they will be “like chaff which the wind drives away” (vs. 4); “the way of the wicked will perish” (vs. 6). In Psalm 145, David affirms: “The Lord preserves all who love him; but all the wicked he will destroy” (vs. 20). This sampling of references on the final destruction of the wicked is in complete harmony with the teaching of the rest of Scripture.

The prophets frequently announce the ultimate destruction of the wicked in conjunction with the eschatological day of the Lord. Isaiah proclaims that “rebels and sinners shall be destroyed together, and those who forsake the Lord shall be consumed” (Isaiah 1:28). Similar descriptions are seen in Zephaniah (1:15, 17, 18) and Hosea (13:3).

The last page of the Old Testament provides a descriptive contrast of the destiny of believers and unbelievers. On those that fear the Lord, “the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings” (Malachi 4:2). But with unbelievers the day of the Lord “shall burn them up. . . so that it will leave them neither root nor branch” (Malachi 4:1).

The New Testament follows closely the Old in describing the end of the wicked with words and pictures denoting total annihilation. Jesus compared the utter destruction of the wicked to such things as the weeds that are bound in bundles to be burned (Matthew 13:30, 40), the bad fish that is thrown away (Matthew 13:48), the harmful plants that are rooted up (Matthew 15:13), the fruitless trees that are cut down (Luke 13:7), the withered branches that are burned up (John 15:6), the unfaithful tenants who are destroyed (Luke 20:16), the evil servant who will be cut in pieces (Matthew 24:51), the antediluvians who were destroyed by the Flood (Luke 17:27), the people of Sodom and Gomorrah who were destroyed by fire (Luke 17:29), and the rebellious servants who were slain at the return of their master (Luke 19:14, 27).

All these illustrations graphically depict the ultimate destruction of the wicked. The contrast between the destiny of the saved and that of the lost is one of life versus destruction.

Those who appeal to Christ’s references to hell or hellfire (gehenna, Matthew 5:22, 29, 30; 18:8, 9; 23:15, 33; Mark 9:43, 44, 46, 47, 48) to support their belief in eternal torment, fail to recognize an important point. As John Stott points out, “The fire itself is termed ‘eternal’ and ‘unquenchable,’ but it would be very odd if what is thrown into it proves indestructible. Our expectation would be the opposite: it would be consumed for ever, not tormented for ever. Hence it is the smoke (evidence that the fire has done its work) which ‘goes up for ever and ever’ (Revelation 14:11; cf. 19:3).”7 Christ’s reference to gehenna does not indicate that hell is a place of unending torment. What is eternal or unquenchable is not the punishment but the fire which, as in the case of Sodom and Gomorrah, causes the complete and permanent destruction of the wicked, a condition that lasts forever.

Christ’s declaration that the wicked “‘will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life’” (Matthew 25:46) is generally regarded as proof of the conscious eternal suffering of the wicked. This interpretation ignores the difference between eternal punishment and eternal punishing. The Greek aionios (“eternal”) literally means “age-lasting” and often refers to the permanence of the result rather than the continuation of a process. For example, Jude 7 says that Sodom and Gomorrah underwent “a punishment of eternal [aionios] fire.” It is evident that the fire that destroyed the two cities is eternal, not because of its duration but because of its permanent results.

Another example is found in 2 Thessalonians 1:9, where Paul, speaking of those who reject the gospel, says: “They shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.” It is evident that the destruction of the wicked cannot be eternal in its duration, because it is difficult to imagine an eternal, inconclusive process of destruction. Destruction presupposes annihilation. The destruction of the wicked is eternal, not because the process of destruction continues forever, but because the results are permanent.

The language of destruction is inescapable in the Book of Revelation. There it represents God’s way of overcoming the opposition of evil to Himself and His people. John describes with vivid imagery the consignment of the devil, the beast, the false prophet, death, Hades, and all the wicked into the lake of fire, which is “the second death” (Revelation 21:8; cf. 20:14; 2:11; 20:6).

Jews frequently used the phrase “second death” to describe the final, irreversible death. Numerous examples can be found in the Targum, the Aramaic translation and interpretation of the Old Testament. For example, the Targum on Isaiah 65:6 reads: “Their punishment shall be in Gehenna where the fire burns all the day. Behold, it is written before me: ‘I will not give them respite during [their] life but will render them the punishment of their transgressions and will deliver their bodies to the second death.’”8

For the saved, the resurrection marks the reward of a second and higher life, but for the unsaved it marks the retribution of a second and final death. As there is no more death for the redeemed (Revelation 21:4), so there is no more life for the lost (Revelation 21:8). The “second death,” then, is the final, irreversible death. To interpret the phrase otherwise, as eternal conscious torment or separation from God, negates the biblical meaning of death as cessation of life.

The moral implications of eternal torment. A third reason for believing in the final annihilation of the lost is the unacceptable moral implications of the doctrine of eternal torment. The notion that God deliberately tortures sinners throughout the endless ages of eternity is totally incompatible with the biblical revelation of God as infinite love. A God who inflicts unending torture upon His creatures, no matter how sinful they may have been, cannot be the loving Father revealed to us by Jesus Christ.

Does God have two faces? Is He boundlessly merciful on one side and insatiably cruel on the other? Can He love sinners so much that He sent His Son to save them, and yet hate impenitent sinners so much that He subjects them to unending cruel torment? Can we legitimately praise God for His goodness, if He torments sinners throughout the ages of eternity? The moral intuition God has implanted within our conscience cannot accept the cruelty of a deity who subjects sinners to unending torment. Divine justice could never demand for finite sins the infinite penalty of eternal pain.

Furthermore, eternal, conscious torment is contrary to the biblical vision of justice because such a punishment would create a serious disproportion between the sins committed during a lifetime and the resulting punishment lasting for all eternity. As John Stott asks, “Would there not, then, be a serious disproportion between sins consciously committed in time and torment consciously experienced throughout eternity? I do not minimize the gravity of sin as rebellion against God our Creator, but I question whether ‘eternal conscious torment’ is compatible with the Biblical revelation of divine justice.”9

The cosmological implications of eternal torment. A fourth and final reason for believing in the annihilation of the lost is that eternal torment presupposes an eternal cosmic dualism. Heaven and hell, happiness and pain, good and evil would continue to exist forever alongside each other. It is impossible to reconcile this view with the prophetic vision of the new world in which there shall be no more “‘mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away’” (Revelation 21:4). How could crying and pain be forgotten if the agony and anguish of the lost were permanent features of the new order?

The presence of countless millions forever suffering excruciating torment, even if it were far away from the camp of the saved, could only serve to destroy the peace and happiness of the new world. The new creation would turn out to be flawed from day one, since sinners would remain an eternal reality in God’s universe.

The purpose of the plan of salvation is to eradicate ultimately the presence of sin and sinners from this world. It is only if sinners, Satan, and the devils ultimately are consumed in the lake of fire and extincted in the second death that we truly can say that Christ’s redemptive mission has been accomplished. Everlasting torment would cast a permanent shadow of darkness over the new creation.

Our age desperately needs to learn the fear of God, and this is one reason for preaching the final judgment and punishment. We need to warn people that those who reject Christ’s principles of life and the provision of salvation ultimately will experience a fearful judgment and “suffer the punishment of eternal destruction” (2 Thessalonians 1:9). We need to proclaim boldly the great alternatives between eternal life and permanent destruction. The recovery of the biblical view of the final judgment can loosen the preachers’ tongues, because they can then preach this vital doctrine without fear of portraying God as a monster.

Samuele Bacchiocchi (Ph.D., Pontificia Universita Gregoriana) is a professor of religion at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, U.S.A. This article is based on a chapter from his new book Immortality or Resurrection? A Biblical Study on Human Nature and Destiny (Berrien Springs, Michigan: Biblical Perspectives, 1997). His address: 4990 Appian Way; Berrien Springs, Michigan 49103; U.S.A.

*All Scripture passages in this article are from the Revised Standard Version.

Notes and references

  1. For a survey of recent research on the nature of hell, see Samuele Bacchiocchi, Immortality or Resurrection? A Biblical Study on Human Nature and Destiny (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Biblical Perspectives, 1997), pp. 193-248.
  2. See William V. Crockett, “The Metaphorical View,” in William Crockett, ed., Four Views of Hell (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1992), pp. 43-81.
  3. Billy Graham, “There Is a Real Hell,” Decision 25 (July-August 1984), p. 2. Elsewhere Graham asks: “Could it be that the fire Jesus talked about is an eternal search for God that is never quenched? That, indeed, would be hell. To be away from God forever, separated from His Presence.” See The Challenge: Sermons From Madison Square Garden (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, 1969), p. 75.
  4. Crockett, p. 61.
  5. Basil F. C. Atkinson, Life and Immortality: An Examination of the Nature and Meaning of Life and Death as They Are Revealed in the Scriptures (Taunton, England: E. Goodman, n. d.), pp. 85, 86.
  6. Id.
  7. John Stott and David L. Edwards, Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelistical Dialogue (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1988), p. 316.
  8. M. McNamara, The New Testament and the Palestinian Targum to the Pentateuch (New York: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1978), p. 123.
  9. Stott and Edwards, Essentials, pp. 318, 319.