In Michelangelo’s painting The Last Judgment there’s little doubt about who’s going where. On the left, a swirl of saints and martyrs ascend heavenward, their faces a mixture of rapture and shock. They soar triumphantly, flanking the figure of a risen Christ. On the right, it’s a decidedly downward trend, a slightly more populated mix of victims being dragged, pushed, and hurled into the abyss. Behind the altar are nearly hidden figures of three apelike creatures, seemingly the gatekeepers of a fiery furnace that is glimpsed just beyond.
Alan F. Segal, author of Life after Death: A History of After-Life in Western Religion says, “Most Americans believe they will be saved no matter what they are.” An exclusive survey conducted by AARP about life after death reveals that 40% believe heaven is a “place,” and 47% say it is a “state of being.” As to the alternate destination, of those who think hell exists, 43% say it’s a “state of being”; 42% say it’s a “place.”
The doctrine of an eternally burning hell is based on the assumption of the immortality of the soul. The immediate question arises: how can such a belief be reconciled with a loving God? To resolve this matter I propose to ask three major questions and answer them from the Bible.
I. WILL THOSE WHO REJECT THE SALVATION PROVIDED BY JESUS BE PUNISHED, OR, AS UNIVERSALISTS TEACH, WILL GOD’S MERCY OVERCOME HIS JUSTICE AS HE SAVES EVERYONE?
The biblical answer is very explicit. “The one who sins is the one who will die” (Ezek 18:4)—not live in eternal torment. Sinners have been described with startling specificity as “the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars” (Rev 21:8; cf. Rom 1:18–32). They will perish, having no second chance and no provision for salvation after death. Their punishment is a result of their own choices, and therefore a self-judgment, not something God has vengefully imposed. God is pictured as “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pet 3:9). “God is love” (1 John 4:8) and takes “no pleasure” in destroying the wicked, but rather joyfully offers eternal life to those who will repent (Ezek 33:11; John 3:16).
II. SINCE THE WICKED WILL BE PUNISHED, WILL THAT TAKE PLACE IN “HELL”?
Several years ago a vivid description of “hell” appeared in Tracts for Spiritual Reading, one of which read, “Look into this little prison . . . there is a boy. He is silent; despair is on him. . . . His eyes are burning like two burning coals. Two long flames come out of his ears. . . . Sometimes he opens his mouth and a breath of blazing fire rolls out of it. But listen! . . . The blood is boiling in the scolded veins of that boy. The brain is boiling and bubbling in his head. The marrow is boiling in his bones!” Robert Ingersoll, after hearing a similar description in a sermon, trudged out of the church, muttering to himself, “If that is what God is like, hate Him!”
Is such a horribly graphic description of “hell” as an unending torment a biblical teaching? No! Interestingly, the word “hell” in the Bible has three meanings:
1. Hell sometimes means the “grave.” The Hebrew word widely used for “grave” is Sheol. In Psalm 16:10 we have it rendered “hell,” referring to the “grave”: “For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption” (KJV). In Acts 2:27, KJV, this text is quoted by Peter, where the Greek word for “hell” is hades. Further, in Acts 2:31, KJV, it is a reference to Christ’s resurrection. Christ was not left in “hell”—that is, in the grave—but was raised from the dead. In 1 Corinthians 15:55 hades is translated “grave.”
2. Hell also signifies a place of burning. In the New Testament the word is Gehenna, or the “Valley of Hinnom.” This is where the bodies of dead animals and the refuse of the city of Jerusalem were cast. Fires burned continuously, and worms infested the carcasses of animals. What the fire did not destroy, the worms consumed. Thus Gehenna was a type of complete annihilation.
3. Hell sometimes represents darkness. This meaning of “hell” is found in 2 Peter 2:4: “For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell, putting them in chains of darkness to be held for judgment.” The Greek word here is Tartarus, not Gehenna or hades. In this text hell represents the darkness that enshrouded Satan and his angels when they were separated from God (cf. Isa 60:2).
The biblical meaning of “hell” is plain: it is the grave, a dark abyss, and a place of final destruction, not eternal torment. It is clear, though surprising, that all men go to “hell” (or the grave) when they die (see Job 17:13; 30:23; Eccl 12:7). But the grave is an impartial place (Ps 89:18). Into the grave have gone both the vilest characters and the sweetest mortals whose gentle footsteps ever graced the earth. However, their eternal destinations are different (Rev 20:1–15).
III. WHAT IS THE DURATION OF THE SINNER’S PUNISHMENT? WILL IT BE UNENDING?
It is written, “Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Heb 9:27). For some this judgment will mean a fiery end. That “fire” is referred to in the Bible as “forever,” “everlasting,” and “unquenchable.”
1. “For ever and ever”: There are fifty-six passages in which the word “forever” is used to speak of things that have already come to an end. Further, the length of time is determined by the object to which it is applied. For instance: In 1 Samuel 1:22, KJV, Hannah loans Samuel to the Lord “for ever,” yet in verse 28, the duration of this service is limited to “as long as he liveth.” In Jonah 1:17, the prophet is in the belly of the great fish for three days and three nights, yet in Jonah 2:6, KJV, the duration is referred to as “for ever.”
2. “Everlasting punishment”: In Matthew 25:46 Jesus says the wicked “will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” It is not everlasting punishing, but the punishment of death will be everlasting. In Jude 7, KJV, the licentious people of Sodom and Gomorrah are punished with “the vengeance of eternal fire,” and yet they are not burning today. In fact, 2 Peter 2:6 says that these two cities are an example to “the ungodly.” Again, the effects of the fire are everlasting, but the victims do not burn continually.
3. “Unquenchable fire”: In Mark 9:43–44 Jesus suggests the amputation of offending limbs if they stand in the way of salvation, then adds that their end will be a place “where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched” (KJV). So, the worms will consume what the fire does not destroy. Jerusalem was destroyed by such a fire and is not still burning. The Lord warned Israel, “I will kindle a fire in the gates . . . , and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem, and it shall not be quenched” (Jer 17:27, KJV, emphasis added; cf. 52:12–13). In other words, the fire will not go out until it has consumed everything. So it will be with the wicked.
So we come to the final question: when will the wicked receive their punishment? Let Daniel and Jesus answer that question. Read Daniel 12:2 and John 5:28–29. The reality is that no one is in heaven or hell now. Whether saved or unsaved, all remain in the grave (hades) until the resurrection. Jesus longs to welcome all who believe. We have this hope. Amen.
Rex D. Edwards is a former vice president for religious studies at Griggs University.