Eschatological Confusion Part 4: Hell and Eternal Punishment

Heaven_Hell sign

Welcome to Part 4 of this blog series entitled “Eschatological Confusion.” So far we have had an introductory post (Part 1) and have dealt with the topics of the rapture (Part 2) and the millennium (Part 3). Today we will turn our attention to hell and eternal punishment.

Who knew there was more than one view concerning hell? Haven’t you seen the imaginative pictures? Haven’t you read Dante’s Inferno? Isn’t hell that fiery place where Satan is and where all the non-believers will go after the judgment? How could anyone believe anything different?

No scholar denies that the Scriptures speak of hell. Finding hell in the Old Testament can be confusing, because the meaning of the word sheol, variously translated as “grave,” “pit,” or “hell,” is hard to ascertain. It possibly refers to a place of punishment for the unfaithful, but could simply be the place of the dead. Whatever the case may be, the concept is undeniably present. When we come to the New Testament, however, there is no such confusion. New Testament authors use three different words to describe the afterlife of the unsaved: hades (11x), gehenna (12x), and tartaros (1x). Here is an example of each:

In Matt. 11:23 Jesus used the word hades when He said, “And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will go down to Hades. For if the miracles that were done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until today.”

In Matt. 5:29 Jesus used the word gehenna (translated “hell”) when He said, “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for the whole body to be thrown into hell.”

The word tartaros is only used once in the NT, in 2 Peter 2:4, which reads, “For if God didn’t spare the angels who sinned, but threw them down into Tartaros…”

Even though the scriptural mentions of hell are clear and are not debated, their meanings are. Let’s take a second to sort through the issues…

Literal vs. Metaphorical
This first point of debate centers around what we might call the “furnishings” of hell. When using the terms “literal” and “metaphorical,” I am not referring to the reality of the place (for that is not in question), but rather what that place looks like and will be like. The overarching question goes like this: Should the New Testament descriptions of a fiery hell be understood literally or figuratively?

Let’s see how the New Testament describes hell. The very first mention of hell in the New Testament is found on the lips of Jesus in Matthew 5:22, “…But whoever says, ‘You moron!’ will be subject to hellfire.” Another way to translate that final phrase is “the fire of hell.” In this instance, there is no reason to take Jesus’ statement as anything but literal. In His famous Sermon on the Mount, of which this is a part, He did use several metaphors, but this does not seem to be one of them. Here Jesus speaks of hell as a place of fire.

Jesus again refers to a fiery hell in Matthew 18:9, when He said, “And if your eye causes your downfall, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye, rather than to have two eyes and be thrown into hellfire.” And in the previous verse, though hell is not mentioned, Jesus speaks of one being thrown into the “eternal fire.”

Within the gospels, hell and fire are also mentioned together in Mark 9:43, 45, and 47. Outside the gospels, James mentions that the tongue is “set on fire by hell” (3:6). The combination is found one final time on Revelation 20:14, where “Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire.”

There are also places where, even though hell is not specifically mentioned, the concepts of fire and punishment are present. Take, for instance, Matthew 7:19, “Every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” Also, in the parable of the wheat and weeds, Jesus declares (through the mouth of the landowner), “Gather the weeds first and tie them in bundles to burn them” (Matthew 13:30).

In each of these instances, as well as a few others, hell is described as a place of fiery judgment. This begs the question, Why would anyone believe it to be anything less?

The answer, in short, has to do with the interpretation of the word gehenna. The term is derived from the Valley of Hinnom, a valley located south of Jerusalem where criminals were buried and trash was burned. Since most of the New Testament references to hell and fire occur when the word gehenna is used, some argue that the word was only used as a metaphorical way to describe the place of eternal punishment. If this is the case, then we shouldn’t understand hell to be a place of literal fire.

So what do you think? Is hell literally a fiery place of punishment? Or are the references to fire only metaphorical?

Eternality vs. Annihilationism
The second point of debate asks this question: How long will unbelievers suffer in hell? Will it be an eternal punishment or will it come to an end at some point?

First of all, it should the pointed out that both the Old and New Testaments speak of an eternity. Psalm 10:16 states that “The LORD is King forever and ever.” One of the prophesied names given to Jesus in Isaiah 9:6 is “Eternal Father.” In Romans 9:5 God is the one who is “blessed forever.” Yet all of these mentions of eternity speak of God’s eternal nature. What about the eternal life of mankind?

John 3:14-16 reads, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in Him will have eternal life. For God loved the world in this way: He gave His only begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.”

Romans 6:22-23 states, “But now, since you have been liberated from sin and become enslaved to God, you have your fruit, which results in sanctification—and the end is eternal life! For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

These verses, as well as a myriad of others, speak of believers spending eternity with Christ. But does this concept of eternality carry over to hell?

Some, who believe in annihilationism, argue that it does not. They argue that in John 3:16 Jesus does not contrast eternal life with eternal punishment, but rather with perishing. Also, in Romans 6:23 the wages of sin is not eternal punishment, but death. Understanding hell this way suggests that the fiery flames will not eternally torment unbelievers, but instead consume them to the point of death and basically extinction (Clark Pinnock’s view in Four Views on Hell, Zondervan, 1996).

But what about the words of Jesus? Three consecutive times in Mark 9:43-48 He described hell (gehenna) as “the unquenchable fire, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.”

In Luke 3:17 (cf. Matt. 3:12) John the Baptist said concerning Jesus, “His winnowing shovel is in His hand to clear His threshing floor and gather the wheat into His barn, but the chaff He will burn up with a fire that never goes out.”

Though these words make it pretty clear that the punishment of hell will be eternal, Revelation 20:10-15 makes the best case. 20:10 states that, “The Devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet are, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.” Then, in vv14-15, Death, Hades, and “anyone not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.” If the Devil will be tormented “forever and ever” in this lake, then why wouldn’t all the others thrown into the very same lake?

A final argument I will present against annihilationism is this: If believers will spend eternity with God, then why wouldn’t non-believers spend eternity separated from God? It only makes sense.

One final point of discussion is that of purgatory. The concept of purgatory is not necessarily a view of heaven and hell, but rather an explanation of what happens to a person between their death and the final judgment. This understanding of purgatory, held solely by the Catholic church, states that at death most believers are not yet ready for heaven, yet neither do they deserve hell, so they go to a place known as purgatory, where living relatives and friends can pray (and pay) them out of purgatory and into heaven (for further explanation, see Zachary Hayes’ view in Four Views on Hell).

Now have you ever read that in the New Testament??? No you haven’t, because it’s not there.

So where do the Catholics find this doctrine in Scripture. It needs to be understood that the Catholic church has adopted extra books into their canon (on top of the 66 books in the protestant canon). One of these books, 2 Maccabees, is where they find the doctrine of purgatory.

Yet contra Catholic teaching, the New Testament indicates that to be absent from the body is to be “at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8). There is nothing that keeps a believer from entering the presence of Christ immediately after their passing, meaning there is no reason to believe in a place called purgatory.

Where Do I Stand?
As you can probably tell, I can quickly and easily toss purgatory out the window. I cannot find any mention of it in Scripture and therefore it does not fit into my theology. I also have to do away with the thought of annihilationism. Though the New Testament does, in a few places, contrast a heavenly eternity with death and perishing, it also describes hell as a place of eternal punishment. In my mind, this only makes sense. If the reward for believers is eternal, then the punishment for non-believers should be as well. But how could a loving God punish people for all eternity, you ask? Because that same God is also holy and just, and cannot let sin go unpunished. So for those who never placed their faith in the cross of Christ for the forgiveness of their sin, their punishment will be eternal.

So now the only question I am faced with is the literalness of hell. I grew up, as most children do, understanding hell to be a place of literal fire. Even though I can see and understand the metaphorical view, I remain unconvinced. There are too many statements in the New Testament, specifically from the lips of Jesus, for me to believe that hell is anything other than a place of fiery and eternal torment.

So what does all this mean for you and I? It means that one day we will face eternity. And our eternity will be spent in one of two places: heaven or hell. We will either be with Christ for all eternity, or separated from Him for all eternity.

And what determines that? Faith does. Ephesians 2:8 tells us that “By grace you are saved through faith…” And what exactly are we saved from? From hell. From eternal punishment. From being separated from Christ for all eternity.

If you have never placed your faith in the death and resurrection of Christ, I encourage you to do that right now. It is as simple as confessing with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believing in your heart that God raised Him from the dead (Romans 10:9-10). Why is it so important to believe? Because your eternity is on the line!

May these thoughts challenge you and may they change you.