In the past thirty years the doctrine of hell has been the subject of much controversy. The dominant historic Christian view is that hell is a place of eternal conscious torment for rebellious, unbelieving humans (and demons and Satan). Notice that there are five necessary elements to the traditional view of hell:
- a place in the afterlife,
- for rebellious humans,
- who will be conscious,
- and suffering,
What is the nature of the suffering? While many understand the suffering as mental and emotional anguish, some see it as bodily pain from literal flames.
But does the Bible clearly teach eternal conscious torment (ECT)?
Some evangelicals do not think so. In 1982, Edward Fudge, a lawyer and fervent student of Scripture, published The Fire that Consumes. In that book, Fudge presented a strong biblical case for the view known as annihilationism, or as some call it conditionalism. According to annihilationism, the wicked will receive the punishment they deserve in the afterlife, and then they will be annihilated or they will cease to exist.
But is that just one person’s eccentric views? No. Several early Church Fathers, such as Ignatius, Irenaeus, and Polycarp, spoke of the literal destruction of the wicked. And several modern Christian scholars have either affirmed that view or shown openness to it. Among their ranks are E. Earl Ellis, John Wenham, I.H. Marshall, F.F. Bruce, John Stott, R.T. France, Richard Bauckham, N.T. Wright, John Stackhouse, and Preston Sprinkle. Here’s how Stott expressed himself on the subject:
I do not dogmatize about the position to which I have come. I hold it tentatively. But I do plead for frank dialogue among Evangelicals on the basis of Scripture. I also believe that the ultimate annihilation of the wicked should at least be accepted as a legitimate, biblically founded alternative to their eternal conscious torment.
So what is the biblical case for annihilationism?
Scriptural Support for Annihilationism
I. The clear teaching of Scripture regarding the fate of the wicked is found in the most commonly used words in Scripture regarding their fate: death, perish, and destruction. The key words are highlighted in the following verses.
- Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (Matt. 10:28)
- For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (Jn. 3:16)
- For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom. 6:23)
- For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1 Cor. 1:18)
- If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple. (1 Cor. 3:17)
- Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. (Gal. 6:8)
- without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved—and that by God. (Phil. 1:28)
- Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. (Phil. 3:19)
- They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might. (2 Thess. 1:9)
II. The Greek words translated death, perish, and destruction, mean death, perish, and destruction. They do not indicate eternal conscious torment. The New Testament was originally written in Greek and the same Greek words used above to describe the fate of the wicked are used below to refer to death and destruction in everyday speech.
- The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!” (Matt. 8:25)
- But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus. (Matt. 12:14)
- For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. (Matt. 16:25)
- The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. (Matt. 22:7)
- “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. (Matt. 26:52)
- But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed. (Matt. 27:20)
- You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” (Jn. 11:50)
- After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered. (Acts 5:37)
- We should not test Christ,as some of them did—and were killed by snakes. And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel. (1 Cor. 10:9-10)
- Though you already know all this, I want to remind you that the Lord at one time delivered his people out of Egypt, but later destroyed those who did not believe. (Jude 5)
“In order to compare the usage of apollumi (destroy) in relevantly similar contexts, we may observe that in the Synoptic Gospels whenever this verb is used in the active voice to describe what one person or agent does to another, the intended meaning is always literal killing.” (Peoples, ch. 2, Rethinking Hell.)
Matthew 9:17 (“ruined wineskins”) and John 6:12 (“spoiled food”) are sometimes used as two examples of the Greek word for destruction not meaning literal destruction. But they are not used in reference to humans and they still indicate destruction of the item that used to exist: the wineskin is no longer usable as a wineskin and the food is no longer edible.
III. There is no explicit statement of eternal conscious punishment for condemned human beings in Scripture. Keep in mind the five elements needed to support the traditional view of hell: 1.) a place in the afterlife, 2.) for rebellious humans, 3.) who will be conscious, 4.) and suffering, 5.) forever.
- The story of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16 cannot be used to support the traditional view because it does not include an explicit statement of duration. Additionally, the place where the rich man goes is called Hades and according to Revelation 20, Hades will be thrown into the lake of fire which is the second death. Therefore, Hades is a temporary holding place.
- The strongest support for the traditional view of hell comes from Matthew 25:46, Revelation 14:10-11, and Revelation 20:14-15. (These passages will be analyzed below.)
Scriptural Support for Eternal Conscious Punishment
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. . . Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (Matthew 25:41, 46)
Since the time of Augustine (AD 354–430), these verses referring to “eternal punishment” and “eternal life” have been used to support the eternal, conscious torment view. Why? Because Augustine argued, a parallel is set up between the righteous and the wicked. If the righteous are enjoying life forever, the wicked must be suffering punishment forever. Both fates are eternal, right? Hold on. There’s more to it than that and Augustine was admittedly not a Greek scholar.
- The English word eternal comes from the Greek word aionios. Aionios comes from the Greek word aion, which enters English as eon. Aionios does not necessarily include the concept of infinite duration. For example, Jude 7 says that Sodom and Gomorrah suffered a punishment of eternal (aionios) fire, but the fire in those cities ended long ago. In addition, two scholars who studied this Greek word extensively concluded that many of the early Church Fathers viewed aionios punishment as punishment pertaining to the era to come and not necessarily eternal punishment (Ramelli and Konstan; Konstan’s summary). By translating aionios as eternal, English readers automatically think infinite duration, but it may be more accurately translated as “age-to-come punishment.”
- The Greek word used for punishment in “Then they will go away to eternal punishment” is kolasis. Kolasis emphasizes a refining and correcting process not retributive punishment. One author writes,
Had penal retribution been intended, Matthew could have used the applicable Greek word, timōreō/timōria (Acts 22:5; 26:11; Heb 10:29). Instead, he chose the restorative term kolasis, usually [over]translated as punishment, but which actually carries a connotation of corrective discipline or chastisement. The Greek word for punish and punishment appears just three times in the NT . . . Our common version translates two Greek words, timōreō, “punish,” and kalazō, “chastise,” with the same English word, “punish.” Chastising carries the idea of correcting with a view to amendment of one’s mistakes, while punishment is penal action. These two words were defined by Aristotle in his Rhet. 1, 10, 17, as, “kolasis is corrective, timōria alone is the satisfaction of the inflictor.” (Jersak, Loc. 633)
And William Barclay writes, “in all Greek secular literature kolasis is never used of anything but remedial punishment” (Talbott, Loc. 1807). If these first two points stand, “eternal punishment” should be translated as something like “age-to-come chastisement” and therefore, Matthew 25 could not be used to support the eternal, conscious torment view. Of course, if only one point stands, Matthew 25 cannot be used to support the traditional view of hell.
- The traditional view assumes that “eternal punishment” means the act of punishing continues forever. But in light of other uses of the adjective “eternal” it usually refers to the result of the action and not the action itself. The result or consequences of an act can be eternal without the action itself being eternal. For example, “eternal judgment” in Hebrews 6:2 does not mean that the act of judging continues forever, but rather that the act has an eternal consequence. (See also “eternal salvation” in Heb. 5:9, “eternal sin” in Mk. 3:29, and “eternal destruction” in 2 Thess. 1:9). So if kolasin aionion should be translated as eternal punishment there is a strong reason to think it may not refer to a punishment that continues forever.
- A traditional view of this verse contradicts the clear teaching of the fate of the wicked in many other places listed above, e.g., death, perish, destruction.
A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives its mark on their forehead or on their hand, they, too, will drink the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. They will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment will rise for ever and ever. There will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name.” (Revelation 14:9-11)
- Revelation is apocalyptic literature. It is filled with symbolism which we should not interpret literally.
- There are elements in this passage that no one interprets literally. For example, no one argues for a literal cup filled with literal wine in reference to the wine of God’s fury and the cup of God’s wrath. Everyone sees some elements of symbolism in these verses.
- Technically, this is a description of the fate of a select group of people—those who worship the beast and its image and receive its mark on their forehead or on their hand. Therefore, it cannot be used as a description of the fate of all condemned people.
- It is not clear that this passage is referring to final judgment. The imagery of “burning sulfur” was used in the temporal destruction of Sodom, Gomorrah (Gen. 19:24), and Edom (Is. 34:9). And the imagery of smoke rising forever is used of Edom’s destruction (Is. 34:10; i.e. Rev. 19:3). But no one argues that Edom’s smoke is still rising. Smoke rising forever is best understood as a symbol for final destruction.
- While the phrase “No rest day or night” seems to indicate duration, some argue that it is an idiom for a continuous state that does not include duration. In that case, the meaning could be stated in this way: As long as the torment endures there will be no rest.
- A literal interpretation of this passage contradicts the clear teaching of the fate of the wicked in other places, e.g., death, perish, destruction.
And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever. Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire. (Revelation 20:10-15)
- Revelation is apocalyptic literature. It is filled with symbolism which we should not interpret literally.
- There are elements in this passage that no one interprets literally. For example, how can concepts such as death and Hades be thrown into a lake of fire?
- Technically, the reference to torment only applies to three specific entities/persons: the devil, the beast, and the false prophet. Therefore, it cannot be used as a description of the fate of all condemned people.
- Many interpreters view the beast as a symbol of oppressive government and the false prophet as a symbol of false religion. If that common interpretation is correct, none of the three who are said to be tormented forever are literal human beings.
- If the beast and false prophet are specific human beings yet to be revealed, the text only explicitly relates the torment to those two individuals and Satan. Yes, v. 15 says “Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire” but it does not proceed to affirm “They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever” as it did with Satan, the beast, and the false prophet in v. 10.
- The image of the lake of fire is explained as “the second death” (Rev. 20:14; 21:8). The explanation of the image takes priority over the image because the explanation gives the direct meaning of the image. The lake of fire = the second death, therefore our focus should be on the second death, not the lake of fire.
- The second death = extinguished out of existence. In Revelation 20:14, death is thrown into the lake of fire “which is the second death.” A few verses later, John writes, “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev. 21:4). Therefore, death being thrown into the lake of fire means death will cease to exist – “There will be no more death.” That means everything else that is thrown into the lake of fire will be destroyed or will cease to exist as well. This corresponds with the statement of Satan’s destruction made in Hebrews 2:14 (ESV). Remember, however, that annihilationism also affirms the references to suffering, such as “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 8:12). That means there will be a period of just and conscious punishment followed by ultimate extinction.
- A traditional view of this verse contradicts the clear teaching of the fate of the wicked in other places, e.g., death, perish, destruction.
The bottom line with both passages in Revelation is that they come from a highly symbolic book and it’s not wise to use such a book as the foundation for a particular doctrine that is not clearly taught elsewhere. Perhaps, then, the verses in Matthew 25 provide the best biblical support for the traditional view, but as we have seen, it does not provide as strong a support for that view as many assume.
Other passages are used to support the traditional view such as Mark 9:43-48 where Jesus warns about the danger of being thrown into Gehenna (the word is usually translated as hell, but the Greek word is Gehenna which was a place outside the walls of Jerusalem), where the worm doesn’t die and the fire is not quenched. But when the grid of the traditional view’s five necessary elements is applied, annihilationists are unable to see support for the traditional view.
For example, a place where “the fire is not quenched” (Mk. 9:48) doesn’t mean that what goes into the fire will burn forever; it means the fire will not be stopped until it fully destroys. Again, the passage simply doesn’t give us enough explicit support for the eternal conscious torment view. For that reason, I think the best support for the traditional view comes from the three passages analyzed above.
Finally, there are other passages that don’t use the words perish, death, or destruction, which sound like explicit support for the annihilation view. For instance,
“If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.” (Heb. 10:26-27)
The biblical evidence for the traditional view of hell is not as strong as many assume. The view called annihilationism appears to have much more biblical support.
This post has been revised and included in my new book Surprised by Hell: Unexpected Discoveries in the Bible and Church History.