Is There an Eternal Hellfire?
I’ll be your guide and you will follow me,
And I will lead you through a world of pain,
Where dead souls writhe in endless agony and clamor,
As they cry to die again.”
Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy
The doctrine of an eternal Hell was around at the time when Italian Poet Alighieri wrote the poem as an allegory of human life in the form of a vision of the world beyond the grave, with the hope of converting an evil society to righteousness. The poem describes Dante’s imaginary journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise-but is there really an ever-burning Hell?
Dante’s poem is not a correct reflection of the Holy Bible’s teaching on the fate of the wicked. As we will see in this article, the true biblical teaching is not of an ever-burning Hell, but rather annihilation, the Second Death, from which there will be no resurrection.
Before we begin, we must first ask these questions: What is Hell? Does it exist? For who was it created? Is it a physical place, and most importantly, is it infinite? What does the scripture teach about Hell? The Merriam Webster’s Dictionary defines Hell as, “a place of turmoil and destruction” while the Farlex Dictionary defines it as, “a state of separation from God, or a place of evil, misery, discord, and destruction.” How does the Bible describe Hell and how do we know it exists? (Matthew 5:30; 2 Peter 3:7; Malachi 4:1).
2 Thessalonians 1:9 describes Hell as a place of punishment; Matthew 25:30 a place of banishment; Mark 9:42, a place of fire and worms; Jude 1:13, a place of darkness; Revelation 20:10, a place of torment; Luke 16, a place of consciousness, thirst-a place without hope, unfulfilled desires, unanswered prayers; Matthew 25.30, a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth. There are various meanings of the word ‘hell’ used in these scriptures. In fact, the Bible speaks of three different types of hell.
In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word sheol is the same as the Greek hades in the New Testament, and refers to a place of the dead or the grave (Psalms 16:10; Acts 2:27; 1 Corinthians 15:55). The other Greek words are tartaroo and gehenna. Tartaroo, used once in the Bible, refers to the place where fallen angels or demons are restrained awaiting judgment (2 Peter 2:4). Gehenna refers to a valley just outside Jerusalem, and is derived from the Hebrew Ge-Hinnom, the Valley of Hinnom (Joshua 18:16). At the time of Jesus, it was a city dump, where garbage and other refuge were thrown and consumed by the fire.
It’s interesting to note that Jesus used this particular locale, and what usually occurred there, to help us understand the fate the wicked and unrepentant sinner will suffer in the future (Mark 9:47-48). This fiery punishment meant they will be consumed by the fire and not the eternal torment wrongly portrayed by Christianity throughout the ages. The text also referred to the worm that dieth not. However, the worm is not symbolic of sinners, but maggots among the garbage. No one is in Hell right now. Scriptures show that this Hellfire is to come (Daniel 12:1-12; John 5:25-29; 2 Peter 2:9; Revelation 20:13-15).
Various denominations have long held the view that Hell is an everlasting punishment based on Revelation 14:11, “…the smoke of their torment ascendeth up forever and ever;” Matthew 25:46, “…and these will go away into eternal punishment but the righteous into eternal life;” Revelation 20:10, “…the devil, who deceived them, was cast into the lake of fire…and they will be tormented day and night forever;” Isaiah 34:5-10, “…the streams thereof shall become burning pitch…the smoke thereof shall go up forever and ever;” and Jude 13, “…to whom is reserved the blackness of darkness forever.”
In all the passages above, the Greek word, aion translated ‘forever,’ does not mean eternity or infinity. Forever and ever simply means the object will continue to last as long as conditions permit-a limited time. The fire will burn until everything is consumed or destroyed.
Matthew 3:12; Mark 9:43; Luke 3:17; and Isaiah 34:10 speak of a fire that shall never be quenched. When we look at the Greek for unquenchable, we realize Jesus was simply saying that the fire will burn until the bodies of the wicked are consumed. An unquenched fire is one that has not been extinguished. It burns itself out when it consumes everything and has no more combustible material to keep it going. Ezekiel 20:47 speaks of fire that consumes entirely. In Jeremiah 17:27, Yahweh said he would kindle an unquenchable fire in Jerusalem. This was fulfilled in 2 Chronicles 36:19-21. Is Jerusalem still burning?
The following scriptures speak of eternal judgment: Jude 7, “…even as Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities about them…suffering the vengeance of eternal fire;” Mattthew 25:46, “…these shall go into everlasting punishment;” Matthew 25:41, “…depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire;” Hebrews 6:2, “…resurrection of the dead and of eternal judgment.”
In the above texts, the Greek for eternal is aionou, which means final and complete. Sodom and Gomorrah are not burning- they burnt to ash long ago (Matthew 11:23; 2 Peter 2:6). Eternal destruction means the consequence is eternal. Once you are burned up, you will not return (Psalms 104:35).
Dr. Samuel Bachiocchi in his book, Advent Hope for Human Hopelessness says,
this can hardly mean that the wicked will be agonizing in the midst of inextinguishable fire.”
In Jonah 2:6, the prophet cried out while in the belly of the great fish,
I went down to the very roots of the mountains into the land whose gates lock shut forever.”
In this illustration, forever lasted only three days and three nights. In Philemon 15, Onesimus was received by Philemon
forever, but when he died he could no longer be a servant. Deuteronomy 15:17 speaks of a servant serving his master forever, but this forever ended with the death of the servant. 1 Chronicles 28:4 said David was to be king forever, but he ruled for 40 years.
The story about Lazarus in Luke 16 is baseless regarding everlasting punishment. Jesus was merely using a parable to explain the torment unrepentant sinners will experience before they are totally consumed by fire. The rich man was in hades (the grave) about to be thrown into the lake of fire.
Anti-annihilationists argue that in order to be fair there must be extremes for good and evil-everlasting life vs. everlasting punishment. However, Romans 6:23 destroys that argument: the wages of sin is death, the gift of God is eternal life (see John 3:16).
The Apostle John saw the vision of a new Heaven and a new Earth in Revelation 21, following the vision of the lake of fire in Revelation 20, where death and Hell were cast into the fire. Now, after all is burnt up and the Earth is renewed, where would that everlasting place of fire be? Notice Revelation 21, the New Jerusalem and God come down to Earth after sin, sinners, and the effects of sin, are destroyed.
It’s clear from the rest of scripture, that the final fate of the wicked is complete destruction. The unrighteous will be destroyed: Ezekiel 18:20; Psalms 37:38; Psalms 92.7; Psalms 145.20; Matthew 10:28; 1 Timothy 6:9; Proverbs 13:13; Philemon 3:19; 2 Thessalonians 1:9.
The wicked shall surely perish: Proverbs 9:19; Luke 13:3; 2 Thessalonians 2:10; 2 Pet. 2:12
The wicked shall be burned up: Malachi 4:1-3; Isaiah 33:12; Matthew 3:12; Matthew 13:30; Hebrews 6:8.
The wicked shall be consumed: Isaiah 1:28; Psalms 37:20.
The wicked will be devoured: Psalms 21:9; Hebrews 10:27; Revelation 20:9.
The unrighteous will be cut off: Psalms 37:2; Psalms 37:9; Psalms 37:22; Psalms 37:34; Proverbs 2:22; Obadiah 15-16.
This is what the Bible teaches: the unrighteous will receive their eternal punishment, not eternal punishing, they will be completely destroyed-annihilated. The question then is: will a loving God punish people forever in Hell? Why are so many willing to accept the idea that the God they worship and hold in high esteem would willingly inflict such punishment on a great multitude of people? How can such a belief go hand in hand with the Bible’s description of Yahweh, who is forever loving and merciful?
The Church of England’s Doctrine Commission 1995 report entitled, The Mystery of Salvation states,
Christians have professed appalling theologies, which made God into a sadistic monster. Hell is not eternal torment, but is the final and irrevocable choosing of that which is opposed to God, so completely and so absolutely, that the only end is total non-being.” (p. 199)
Remember the story of Noah and the flood. When God saw the bodies, He made a resolve that He would never again destroy the world by water but by fire instead.
Theologian John Wenham, an advocate for the annihilation doctrine wrote:
I believe that endless torment is a hideous and unscriptural doctrine, which has been a terrible burden on the mind of the church for many centuries and a terrible blot on her presentation of the gospel. I should indeed be happy, if before I die, I could help in sweeping it away.”
Editor’s note: This article was adapted from the winning speech at the annual Herbert W. Armstrong Memorial Speaking Competition, held by the Church of God International, Jamaica, at the Feast of Tabernacles in Ocho Rios, on October 3, 2007.