Is Hell Eternal? – Part 1

Dr. Ron J. Bigalke

The witness of Scripture is that unbelievers will suffer eternally in hell. The church has traditionally affirmed this doctrine, yet this belief has become quite contested in the present age.

For nearly two thousand years, there has been little opposition to the traditional doctrine of hell. Disbelief in a literal, eternal hell as punishment for those who reject God, has not become popular because of new exegetical discoveries in modern biblical scholarship; rather, “These truths have become awkward and disconcerting to hold not because of new light from the Bible but because of new darkness from the culture.”1

The darkness from the culture is a reason why many people are rejecting the teaching of everlasting damnation and torment. Some of the various beliefs concerning the doctrine of hell include the following: (1) life after death is unlikely; (2) universalism; (3) the possibility for unbelievers who did not hear the gospel to believe after death; (4) annihilationism; and, (5) the traditional view. British philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) advocated the notion that life after death is unlikely. He believed the idea of an afterlife was created to provide comfort for those who may fear death. Russell thought that the goal of modern science is to dispel the myth of an afterlife, either heaven or hell. Belief in an afterlife is not empirical, meaning heaven and hell cannot be subjected to the five senses (sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch); therefore, it should be denied. Russell also believed the doctrine of hell was absolutely cruel.

Universalism is the belief that all persons will be saved. The notion that salvation will be universal necessitates denying belief in an eternal hell. Universalists believe that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection apply to all humanity; that this union with Christ will lead to the fullness of time, in which every person will be liberated from the penalty of sin and be reconciled to God.

The possibility for those who did not believe the gospel during their earthly lives, to be given an opportunity to believe the gospel after death (and so be saved), is known as postmortem evangelism. The idea is that every person’s destiny is not determined at death. Clark Pinnock, who served as professor emeritus of systematic theology at McMaster Divinity College, was a noted proponent of this view. Mormonism denies that postmortem evangelism is “second chance” soteriology, by arguing that only people who never heard their “restored” gospel will receive a chance after death, to determine whether to believe it or not.

The doctrine of annihilationism is that people who reject the gospel message of faith in Jesus Christ will be annihilated (entirely destroyed). God will judge the wicked and cast them into the lake of fire, where they will cease to exist. Some annihilationists propose that this destruction will occur instantaneously, while others suggest that unbelievers might experience a brief time of consciousness. Every annihilationist believes that unbelievers will not suffer an endless, conscious torment in hell at the hands of an angry God.

The traditional (and biblical) view is that the lost will suffer eternally in a lake of fire. While the doctrine of eternal retribution is not a pleasant teaching to proclaim, the overwhelming evidence of Scripture is in support of it. It is certainly a truth that people desperately need to understand with all their emotional, mental, and volitional faculties. Certainly, the ultimate disaster is to suffer eternal condemnation at the hands of the almighty God, when one’s earthly life is brought to an end, which is why clarity is needed regarding this important topic.

The Biblical Concept of Death
Death is separation of the soul (spirit) from the body, resulting in the cessation of animal or natural life. Scripture refers to death in a threefold manner. First, physical death is separation of body and soul (Jas 2:26). This is the most common use of the word “death.” Adam began to die physically (“return to the ground,” Gen 3:19; cf. Eccl 12:7) when he violated the prohibition to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Adam’s sin is imputed to all humanity (Rom 5:12-21), and thereby every person incurs the penalty of physical death as a consequence (Gen 2:17; Rom 5:12; 6:23; Jas 1:15).

Second, spiritual death is the separation of unregenerate humanity from God as a result of the sin nature. Adam’s soul was separated from God the moment he rebelled, and his body began to die. Both physical death and spiritual death entered the world when Adam sinned. Physical birth results in physical life; however, only the second birth (rebirth) results in one being made alive (regenerated) spiritually. Spiritual death is overcome by spiritual regeneration (John 3:3-8; 1 Cor 2:12-13; Tit 3:5-7; 2 Pet 1:4).

Third, eternal death is the ultimate separation from God of those who die physically without ever being regenerated, or born again. In their natural state, human beings are “dead in sins and trespasses” (Eph 2:1) and are progressing toward this ultimate spiritual death, unless made alive together with Christ Jesus (v. 5). Eternal death is contrasted with eternal life (John 5:28-29; Rev 20:6), and is imposed as the “second death” subsequent to the judgment at the “great white throne” (Rev 20:11-15). The eternal destiny of the unregenerate is determined at the time of their physical death; whereupon they are lost in hell (hades), and will remain there until the second resurrection (v. 13), where they will eventually and eternally be confined to the lake of fire.

All people will live forever somewhere, yet the destinies of the lost and the saved are vastly different. While the unbeliever is confined to hades (a place of torment according to Luke 16:23), the believer is immediately united with Christ (2 Cor 5:1-10) in a place of bliss, known as heaven (2 Cor 12:2; Heb 12:23) or paradise (Luke 23:43; 2 Cor 12:4). Presently, if a believer dies, he or she will experience what is termed the intermediate state, which is a person’s condition between physical death and the resurrection of the body. For the believer, it is an experience of conscious bliss in the presence of the Lord; however, for the unbeliever, it is a state of conscious torment. Contrary to popular thought, Christians do not become angels during the intermediate state, nor will they ever become angelic beings.

Believers will “inherit the imperishable” at the future resurrection of the body (1 Cor 15:50, 52). Presently, however, believers who have died prior to that time will be in a disembodied state. Scripture reveals that this intermediate state is preferable to earthly life (2 Cor 5:2-5) because, presently, the believer groans: “being burdened” not only with the stresses of life, but also with physical ailments and limitations. Scripture describes this disembodied state as being “naked” (v. 3) and “unclothed” (v. 4), which implies that it is an imperfect and temporary existence. Yet it is still preferable “to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord” (v. 8). To be “at home” with the Lord is “pleasing to Him” (v. 9), which is meaningless if the soul is in a state of unconscious sleep. The immaterial being of the believer will never lose consciousness; though the intermediate state is a disembodied, incomplete condition, the believer is conscious of being “at home with the Lord” and enjoying the bliss of that experience. Truly, “to depart and be with Christ . . . is very much better” (Phil 1:23).

Platonic teachings are sometimes said to have unduly influenced the idea of a disembodied soul. Plato did believe in the immortality of the soul and the mortality of the body. At death, the body released the imprisoned soul for eternity. Christianity and Platonism agree that the soul continues to exist without a body; yet the Bible distinctly teaches that humanity is incomplete without a body. The doctrine of the intermediate state is derived from the revelation of Scripture, not ancient Greek thought. Moreover, the human soul is not to be regarded as naturally mortal, as if a human being is a radical unity with no components (viz. when a person dies, so does the entire person: body and soul).

Monism is a theological perspective that considers humanity as having only one component or element. This means that even though the soul is identified as an aspect of human nature, it is not considered to be a separable part. In other words, human beings are not composed of separate entities or parts, but should be regarded as a radical unity: a self. According to a monistic understanding, human beings are not dichotomous (body, soul/spirit) or trichotomous (body, soul, and spirit)—which are the normal evangelical understandings of human nature—but rather should be viewed as an essential unity. The following quote is an example of the viewpoint that the soul is not conscious when the physical body dies: “The Scriptures, both Old and New Testament, represent individual personality as a complex and totally mortal monism, a unity that can be viewed from different perspective, but that cannot be broken into separately existing parts.”2

Contrary to this perspective, the resurrection involves the entire person. While Scripture does reveal that human beings are unified, it is not an absolute, radical unity, because the Bible indicates that the body is dead without the soul, yet the soul has a conscious existence without the body (cf. Isa 14:9-11; Matt 17:1-8; Luke 16:19-31; 20:38; Acts 7:59-60; Phil 1:23; Heb 12:23; Rev 6:10). One of the primary reasons to oppose a monistic understanding of humanity, is the inability to explain the biblical distinctions between the body and the soul. Jesus, however, did make a distinction between the body and soul when He said, “‘Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt 10:28).

Scripture reveals that the soul is conscious when the body dies, because though disembodied, it has not immediately received its complete and final condition. The body and soul must be united again, in order for the entire person to inherit the imperishable. The intermediate state for the believer is described as a condition of bliss, in contrast to the torment of the unbeliever. The biblical revelation concerning the distinct state of the faithful is truly interesting, for it is described as “a state of rest, a state of consciously living to God, a state of being with Christ, a state of Paradisiacal bliss, a state of mutual recognition and of holy fellowship, a state of victory and of assurance of reward, a state of earnest expectation; [thus] how abundantly is the Apostle’s declaration proved, ‘To depart and be with Christ is FAR BETTER’ (Phil. i. 23).”3

The believer has two prospects of hope awaiting him or her: (1) the resurrection of the body should death occur; or, (2) translation from corruption to incorruption if alive at the coming of the Lord. Paul said he was reluctant to die and thus be temporarily disembodied (“found naked,” “unclothed,” “absent from the body”). His hope was to receive the new, glorified body without having to experience death, which will be true for those believers who survive to the coming of the Lord for His church. At the rapture, the living will receive glorified bodies through translation (transformation), and the deceased through resurrection.

1 David F. Wells, “Foreword,” in Robert A. Peterson, Hell on Trial: The Case for Eternal Punishment (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1995) x.
2 Christopher M. Date, Gregory G. Stump, and Joshua W. Anderson, eds., Rethinking Hell (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014) 128.
3 E. H. Bickersteth, Heaven and Hell (New York: Robert Carter and Brothers, 1869) 43.

Midnight Call - 07/2021

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