Welcome to Part 4 of this blog series on eschatology. So far we have had an introductory post and have dealt with the topics of the rapture and the millennium. 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 says, “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.

Purgatory
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 Roman 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 does the Catholic Church 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.

Conclusion
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!

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Posted by Travis Flanagan

I am a believer, husband, and expectant father who loves serving the Lord and the local church. I am currently an associate pastor of youth/discipleship and a pastoral research assistant for three pastors. Educationally, I have a BA and an MA in Biblical and Theological Studies from Criswell College. I am currently pursuing a PhD in Theology from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. My research interests include the early church and Greco-Roman voluntary associations (and especially the relationship between the two!).

15 Comments

  1. What is the Greek translation for hellfire? I am unsure what version of the Bible you are using, mine does not say hellfire in those passages.

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    1. The verses in this post are from the HCSB. “Hellfire” is a translation of the Greek phrase “Gehenna tou puros,” literally Gehenna of fire or fiery Gehenna. The fact that Jesus puts Gehenna and fire together is very enlightening. Which translation are you using and what does it say?

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  2. Good analysis. Yet I hold the Annihilation for a couple of reasons.
    You said: “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?
    If you read the Greek for this passage, The first is the Devil and False prophet are thrown into the Lake of Fire. And THEY will be “tormented forever and ever”.
    Vs 14-15 says “they” (people) will be thrown in as well. the assumption is “forever and ever” Yet, how is it that we require everlasting life from Jesus to live forever, and yet, those who go to hell will get everlasting life (from who? Satan?) Is Elohim father giving them everlasting life to burn? .We can’t have it both ways.
    If Everlasting Life is bestowed by the father, then where does the everlasting life come to “survive” constant burning in hell?
    It is established that Satan and Demons already have everlasting lives. Hence their punishment will be everlasting burning. Yet mankind is not everlasting. We received the sentence of death with the commission of sin. Each one of us. Death is Death. spiritual or physical! Never-ever does the Bible teach sinners have any kind of everlasting life with the one single exception of our interpretation of Hell. That is a thin margin to hang an eternity of fiery punishment on mankind for the punishment given to fallen angels.
    You said 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.”
    Note this follows the description given in the OT by the major and minor prophets. They illustrate it with cut grape vines, or thorn bushes, and chaff, which all burn hot and quick “like sparks going up to heaven”. In this the fire eventually goes out, but the branches and chaff are “consumed”.
    ***** Our modern interpretation depends upon our understanding of how the Jews (Yeshua Jesus) used the world-view of their generations. Their understanding (cosmology) was not centered around time (chronos) as is ours is. We see everything about time in the role of sequential (chronos). They relied heavily on the relational time (kairos) time. “It will get done when it’s done”. Like my friend from Africa says about what time to get to church and how long will it last. “It will start when we’re all there, and its over when God has finished his time with us.” that is a big difference in interpretation of “how long”.
    I suggest a reading of “Misreading the Scripture with Western Eyes” by E Randolph Richards and Brandon J O’Brien. It will open your eyes to what we often miss. Especially on thorny problems like Hell.
    I am not trying to object to Elohim God’s purpose here. Sin is death no matter what the “length” of time (chronos or kairos) involved. I objecting to how we see our deity in his punishment of those who fail to believe. I cannot and will not see his “Love” to punish those who reject him forever and ever. That sounds more like what Satan would do.
    I strongly feel that once the end has come, we will not see any burning lake “forever and ever’ smoking with the crying remains of those whom we loved and yet they did not find Jesus. They will be gone, and we will not have “any more crying” for our everlasting lives with YHWH Father.
    Thanks for letting me spout off.
    Ray

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    1. Death is the separation from God , Himself.

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    2. Ray:

      Our bodies are not eternal, but out spirits are, They are the ones that will live forever in either heaven or hell. It is our spirit that is made in the likeness of God, not our bodies. This eternal spirit of ours will never die in the lake of fire, as satan and his minions won’t either. That is how I read it and see it.

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  3. Great post, Travis. Well explained and reasoned. We will live eternally, and we are given the opportunity to choose where. I’m glad I chose heaven, for hell fire for eternity will not be pleasant at all.

    Be blessed

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    1. Pete, thanks for always reading and providing feedback!

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  4. I think that Hell is a literal place where not only the demons and Satan reside, but also where the non-believers are sentenced. Take a look at the story of Lazarus and the Rich man, once the Rich man does he went to a place described as fire and that no water could quench his thirst.

    I like when you stated in the blog post, “So for those who never placed their faith in the cross of Christ for the forgiveness of their sin, their punishment will be eternal.” It’s for that very reason that they are in Hell.

    Hell was never destined for humanity, but for Satan and his fallen angels.

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  5. I also believe that hell is a literal and eternal fire where where eternal souls will languish forever due to their choice to reject Jesus. Here are a few of my thoughts on this matter that this post & comments have stirred up.
    Perhaps another word/phrase we struggle to understand/interpret correctly is “death.” God told Adam & Eve that they would most certainly die if they ate the fruit of the one & only tree He restricted them from. But did they immediately die? No. But God is not a liar, either. As we all know, dying can be a long, drawn-out process. So, it’s not hard for me to imagine that these referred-to passages that speak of death, might be better interpreted in a constant present state (I don’t remember off the top of my head what the Greek tense is for that). Anyone still breathing is considered as living, but not all are “fully living/really alive”–lacking vitality. So even secular language makes a distinction between being technically alive and having vitality of life. Likewise, I think we could make some distinctions about death and dying. Paul said the consequence of sin is death in Rom. 6:23, but perhaps we misunderstand him by assuming that he speaks of a singular point in time instead of a constant state of dying.
    Along these lines, I have learned that the Greek Orthodox Church has a very unique interpretation of hell. Based on the belief that God is everywhere and the conclusion then that there really cannot ever be a place where God is not present, they would say that hell is more like being constantly in God’s presence but only experiencing His wrath for all eternity, while believers are constantly experiencing His love, peace, etc. When I learned this perspective, I immediately imagined it as being similar to eternal exposure to massive radiation without the protective suit of Jesus Christ!
    Finally, if “gehenna” is the most common term we interpret as “hell,” then it is paramount to understand what Jesus’s listeners would understand. What image would have come to their minds? Gehenna was basically the city dump, which was constantly on fire to burn the steady influx of refuse. Maybe not California wild-fire flames, but still on fire…and stinky due to the sewage-type trash as well as acridness of things burning. You did not want to even pass by there much less be a worker there!
    Whatever our interpretation is of hell, I think Jesus makes it very clear that you do NOT want to go there. He recommended drastic measures to help make sure you avoid it (Matt. 5:29-30, 18:8-9), because whatever hell is, it is that awful!

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  6. I’m not lifting Catholic tradition over Protestant, but there is something we Protestants get wrong. Catholics did not add books to an approved cannon. Protestants REMOVED books we found questionable. I think it was Luther who felt the book of James was in conflict with his doctrine of salvation by faith alone. At one point an English missionary society omitted some books in order to publish a more compact edition to mail overseas.

    There has been debate over whether Revelation belonged as part of our cannon.

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  7. I’ve never cared much for the old fire and brimstone sermon. Always seems more for the preacher to induce fear and power over the congregation. Your views, not so much a sermon, are very interesting and enlightening. Something to ponder based on scripture. There are many things I don’t understand, being that I just do my best with each day which is enough for me most of the time. Today has enough challenges within it. Tomorrow will come with it’s own challenges. Hopefully, when this experience is over, I will have done enough to please the One I love most.
    I also find it interesting the debate that comes from theological views. From the extremes of those who are angry with God as well as those who believe in God but with different views from others. It would be nice if it was all cut and dry but this is a messy world and such are the many ways to believe in our Lord. I can only try to believe the best i can based on my perspective of the our Lord. I enjoy experiencing the views of others, pondering and considering their perspective. It is through this that we learn and also discern. Thank you.

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    1. Alex, thanks for sharing your thoughts. One thing you mentioned stuck out to me: “Hopefully, when this experience is over, I will have done enough to please the One I love most.” I could be understanding you wrong, but just know that the Lord’s acceptance of us is not based on what we have done, but on our belief in what He has done, namely His death and resurrection. That is THE theological point that cannot be debated—salvation is by grace alone through faith (Eph 2:8-9). Do our works matter to God? Yes, of course they do. Faith without works is dead (James 2). But our works do not save us; instead, they are an outworking of our gracious salvation.

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      1. Hi Travis. My statement is more based on the overall and on what my comment was primarily about, the fact that within theology and the Christian community, there are various ways that people perceive things. Some might say that we are in God’s grace when we are prosperous and wealthy. Others might say that it is when we suffer for the Lord that we are in His grace. I have spoken with people who attended the same bible study class who came out with differing points of view from the very scripture that was being studied. My statement is based on the fact that I allow the Spirit to guide me in the way it deems fit for me. I find powerful guidance from seemingly random verses of scripture that seem to know my mood, the day I’m experiencing and how I am viewing life within the moment. There is far more to it but, in the end, I can only hope that who I am, the things I understand and will understand as well as the action that I will do through the Spirit, such as helping others or loving others, which happens as part of accepting Christ and the Spirit within me through that acceptance. As one who feels like an alien in this world, all of it so strange to me, I simply wish to go home to the One I love most who makes sense of my being here, but not so much of what is going on around me.

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  8. […] and eternal punishment were dealt with in Part 4. The Scriptures, and especially Jesus, seem to describe hell as a place of literal and eternal […]

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  9. Thanks for the follow.

    https://religiousrealist.wordpress.com/2016/07/08/hell-hades-abyss-etc/ my blog about “hell” – keep in mind this is an analysis.

    The general misconception is that Satan and his demons are the ones who do the tormenting in hell. Satan and his demons are busy deceiving the masses on earth until Judgment Day and then they are imprisoned for 1000 years or so (Rev 20:1-3, 7; 2 Peter 2:1-4). Those with the mark of the beast are tormented under the supervision of the lamb and God’s angels (Rev 14:10-11).

    There are even some that believe that Jesus spent 3 days in hell between death and resurrection based on Acts 2:31.

    Christians are divided on the subject. JWs, SDA and most non Trinitarians believe the 2nd death is destruction (with two exceptions: Iglesia Ni Cristo and Members of Church of God International). In the spectrum, Trinitarians believe hell is literal, most Unitarians believe it is symbolic and then some in the middle believe it is a spiritual or soul torment.

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