About hell

The duration of hell

Hell is as an existence as real as this one. Jesus doesn’t do small print. He is honest. He doesn’t hide away the difficult truths. And as the Son of God he warned people about hell on numerous occasions. Yet the language he and the Bible uses, is metaphorical. And this has led to some debate.

On one hand certain passages seem to stress that hell is a place of complete and permanent destruction. When referring to people, the "destroy" word group usually (though not exclusively) refers to a cessation of life. Moreover, much New Testament language on hell is taken from the Old Testament images of God’s judgement as like the burning of unwanted chaff at harvest or the consuming power of unquenchable and eternal fires.[1] At first look these images do not seem to be intended to suggest that such fire and what it burns would literally exist forever (though they may). Rather, their stress is on the irrepressible (and so unquenchable) burning anger of God at sin - an anger that irreversibly (and so eternally) destroys its object. So in 2 Kings 22v17 God declares about Judah: "Because they have forsaken me and burned incense to other gods and provoked me to anger by all the idols their hands have made, my anger will burn against this place and will not be quenched."[2].

The paradigm the Bible itself gives for this is the destruction of OT cities such as Sodom and Gomorrah by "eternal fire" (Jude 1v7). The metaphor doesn’t mean the fires are still burning, but stresses that those places were reduced to rubble, never to rise again. And in this, the fires were unquenchable in that they could not be stopped from doing their work, and so these places could not be saved from their destruction. This is similar to saying that the great fires that swept Australia a few years ago were unquenchable. The firemen could not put them out, and so they utterly destroyed the land, buildings and people in their path.

When Jesus speaks of eternal or unquenchable fire then, some say his focus is not on the length or experience of hell's destructive work per se, but the fact that no matter how long it takes, it is irrepressible, irreversible and so terrible.

Having noted all this, there are passages that suggest hell is actually a place of conscious torment that will last forever. Torment without hope of an end is the rich man’s experience as he tastes hell in awaiting the judgement (Luke 16v23ff). And it is certainly hard to deny that this is the plain sense of Revelation 14v11: “The smoke of their torment rises forever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and his image…” Certainly, some of this language comes from Isaiah 34v10 where it figuratively describes complete destruction, and could therefore be referring only to the destruction of ungodly society (Rev 14v8). However, John seems to equate “forever and ever” with having “no rest day or night,” implying an everlasting conscious experience just as the “labour” that contrasts the “rest” of the redeemed is a conscious hardship (Rev 14v13). Moreover, the meaning of this uncertain passage must be governed by the wider book and New Testament. And here Jesus himself equates hell as the experience of unbelievers with the lake of fire where the devil and false prophet “will be tormented day and night for ever and ever" (Matt 25v41-46 and Rev 20v10, 15).

Especially significant is the fact that in Matthew 25v46 he equates the eternality of this "punishment" with that of eternal life. And he does so having described the punishment throughout that particular gospel not as a cessation of being, but as an experience of "weeping and gnashing of teeth" in a place of darkness and fire (Matt 8v12, 13v42, 50, 22v13, ,24v51, 25v30). Most striking, is that in the immediate context in particular, he links the language of destruction with this conscious experience. Likening his return to that of a master to an unfaithful servant, Jesus says how: “He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matt 24v51). So, for Jesus someone can be physically destroyed whilst still consciously despairing.

With the weight of these passages in mind, it is perhaps no surprise that we find some evangelicals stressing the difficulty in interpreting them in order to assert the more palatable idea of absolute annihilation – but after some period of torment. They explain the phrase “eternal punishment” to simply mean that this annihilation will last forever - that those in hell will never rise again. By contrast, others stress the sense of eternal conscious torment, and interpret the ideas of destruction as referring to the ruined state of humanity in which this will be experienced. One might ponder the ruins and stubble that the OT unquenchable fires would have reduced the places they consumed to. Something was left, though marred, blackened, distorted and void of goodness.

Personally, and with some discomfort, I think we must take this latter view for the following reasons:

1) It seems to provide the only logical harmony of the various texts. Ie. one can understand how something can be destroyed in the sense of ruined but still conscious (as Matt 24v51), but not how something can cease to exist whilst still tormented. Indeed, to fit the passages regarding eternal torment to a view of eventual annihilation means a significant going against their plain sense.
2) These passages seem much clearer in their intent than those describing "destruction." 
3) The predominant view in Jesus' day was that of eternal conscious torment, especially with respect to Isaiah 66v24. Whatever the immediate reference of the idea of “unquenchable fire” in the OT, it was therefore taken to imply unending punishment when it comes to the state of humans beyond death. And we would expect Jesus to go out of his way to correct this if incorrect. But instead, he only reaffirms the language and its seriousness.

4) There has been pretty much a consensus within the history of the church that this is the correct view. In the light of the above, humility should mean that if uncertain as to the scriptural data, it is wise to side with the consensus, aware that we are part of a culture that has particular struggles with ideas of God’s wrath.

Here of course, we have to submit to scripture acknowledging the limits of our own understanding, and recognising that we are in no place to judge the rights and wrongs of God’s ways (Rom 11v33ff). We do not yet grasp the awful seriousness of our sin nor the extremity of God’s loving outrage at it. Yet he himself says he takes no delight in the death of the wicked (Ezek 18v32), and Jesus wept over the Jews’ rejection of him (Luke 19v41-44). So God does not choose this reality lightly. In fact he subjected his only Son to it so that people could be rescued from it. Hell must therefore be the only right and just penalty for sin. The justice of it being everlasting is probably seen in the fact that people’s sins are sins against an infinite God and may well continue in hell, further warranting its punishments. Yet we should note, their experience of it will somehow be proportionate to their sin (Ex 21v23-25, Rev 20v12-13, Deut 25v2-3 with Luke 12v42-48, Matt 11v20-24).

The nature of hell
In true justice, hell is to give those who choose to have little to do with God just what they ask for, an existence without his benefits and excluded from his kingdom. We should remember this kingdom is ultimately to have God as one’s God and live as his people, the very thing those excluded from the kingdom have shown no desire for. The New Testament therefore portrays hell as an experience of God’s curse in the removal of his blessing. It would therefore seem to entail an absence of the many goods God gives: whether the restraint of evil, the emotions of joy or love, the provision of wholeness and health, or of warmth, shelter, peace, friendship, food, technology, family etc. The metaphor of darkness (ie. absence of light) probably stresses this together with a sense of isolation and lostness, whilst that of fire denotes that this is to experience God's burning anger at sin.

Paul seems to confirm this by writing of God’s wrath currently being revealed in his handing humanity over to their evil desires, and in their experience of physical death with all the suffering from disease or disaster that leads to it (Rom 1v18-32). So hell might include the most heightened experience of this world’s sufferings and of the dehumanising consequences of sinning and being sinned against.[3] This may well be what Jesus means when he says we should fear the one who can “destroy both soul and body” in hell (Matt 10v28). The sense as elsewhere is that it is a fate far worse than death (Luke 17v2) more akin to the phrase "my life has been utterly destroyed."

Yet Jesus stresses that what will bring the most “wailing and gnashing of teeth” by hell's occupants may actually be their ongoing awareness of what they have missed out on (Luke 13v28-30, 16v23). We cannot grasp this because we cannot grasp the wonders of God’s kingdom. But when they are grasped, the despair of those shut out from it will be desperate indeed. Perhaps the only meagre paradigms we have for this are the torment of the disobedient child who has to miss out on the party their friends are enjoying, the employee who misses out on the ideal job, or the lottery winner who realises they have missed their millions by throwing away their ticket.

When we ponder these things, we realise that no matter what our view of hell, we cannot sit back and relax. It is so horrific that Revelation pictures people crying for mountains to fall on them and hide them from God’s judgement. It is so horrific that facing its equivalence caused the Lord Jesus to sweat drops of blood in his anguish. It is therefore something to do our utmost to persuade people to escape from by turning to Christ.

[1] Matthew 18v8-9; 25v41-46; Jude 1v7; Matthew 3v12; Mark 9v43-49; Luke 3v17.

[2] Chaff: Ex 15v7; Is 33v11-12; Mal 4v1; Unquenchable fire: 2 Kings 22v17; 2 Chr 34v25; Is 34v8-10; Jer 4v4, 7v20; 21v12; Ezek 20v47-48; Amos 5v6. It is these many clearer passages that should govern our interpretation of the less clear Isaiah 66v24. Moreover, the parallelism there suggests that “worm does not die” has the same sense.

[3] Babylon in Revelation 18v8-10 is intended to portray a foretaste of this. And we should note that the theme of being handed over to evil and suffering is a dominant idea of God's judgement in the Bible. Adam and Eve are handed over to life outside Eden. Cain is handed over to the wider world. Israel are handed over to the hostile nations. And Jesus himself is handed over to the Romans.