Is Hell Eternal? – Part 4

Dr. Ron J. Bigalke

The notion that there is a place of conscious, eternal punishment is not a delightful thought. The doctrine of hell is probably the most difficult teaching of the Bible for many people to accept. Even demons abhor its reality (Matt 8:29; Jas 2:19). 

Nevertheless, the Bible reveals that all people will live forever somewhere. To be a Christian is to confess (at the very least) that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and to make this confession is (at the very least) to submit to the Lord’s teaching, since Jesus especially taught the doctrine of eternal retribution.

The biblical revelation concerning hell cannot be denied, without assuming either that the Lord Jesus was not knowledgeable regarding the abode, or that He affirmed its reality in error. If the Lord did not have complete knowledge concerning hell, then how would He have enough to warrant trust in His ability to save? If the Lord knew hell was not everlasting yet still affirmed its reality, such deception would mean He is not holy enough to die for sinners.

The doctrine of eternal retribution was taught more by Jesus than any other person. He referred to those who “will go away into eternal punishment,” in contrast to “the righteous into eternal life” (Matt 25:46). The Lord either proclaimed a state of conscious, eternal punishment or a permanent cessation of conscious existence. God’s wrath upon the unbeliever is either irrevocable in its length or in its effect.

The Doctrine of Eternal Retribution
Jesus frequently used the Greek word gehenna to warn of the consequences of sin (Matt 5:22, 29-30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Luke 12:5). He described gehenna as the place where the “WORM DOES NOT DIE AND THE FIRE IS NOT QUENCHED” (Mark 9:48; cf. Isa 66:24). Jesus associated the punishment of gehenna with “eternal fire” (Matt 25:41). Gehenna is the transliteration of the Hebrew phrase gê hinnōm (“the Vally of Hinnom”). The Valley of Hinnom is south of Jerusalem and was where the ancient (heathen) Israelites offered their children to the Canaanite god Molech (2 Kgs 23:10; 2 Chron 28:3; 33:6; Jer 7:31; 19:2-6). In later years, gehenna served as an unclean place for all varieties of putrefying matter and anything that would defile the city of Jerusalem. Consequently, it became representative of the place of everlasting punishment, especially since its fire was never quenched as it was always burning with dead bodies and rubbish.

Gehenna is not to be confused with hadēs or sheol, which is the intermediate state of the lost prior to the Great White Throne Judgment and the eternal state. Gehenna is identical in meaning to the term “lake of fire,” which the Apostle John used in the book of Revelation (19:20; 20:10, 14-15). The lake of fire is the final destiny of those not in vital union with Christ Jesus. The idea that there is an ultimate place of eternal punishment by fire is frequent in the Old Testament (cf. Lev 10:2; Deut 32:22; Ps 50:3; Isa 30:27). All the dead in hadēs will be resurrected for judgment at the Great White Throne, and then be ultimately cast into the lake of fire. Confinement to the lake of fire will be “the second death” (Rev 20:14). The terms “lake of fire” and “second death” describe the eternal state of the lost, as forever separated from God and consigned “into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt 25:41).

The language of Revelation 19:20 and 20:10 indicates that annihilation is foreign to the concept of the “second death,” for the beast and the false prophet still exist undestroyed in the lake of fire even when 1,000 years have passed. The lost are tormented “day and night” (Rev 20:10), which means no intermission. The same phrase is used of the eternal state of the redeemed (4:8). As the bliss is eternal, so is the anguish and misery of the devil and the lost. Moreover, the phrase “forever and ever” (20:10) literally means “to the ages of the ages,” and is as definite an expression for the absolute and endless punishment of the lost as could be made. The same phrase is used in Hebrews 1:8 of the duration of God’s throne, which is of perfect administration and constitution and of eternal continuance.

The Greek in Hebrews 1:8 is aiōna tou aiōnos (“forever and ever”) and aiōnas tōn aiōnōn (“forever and ever”) in Revelation 20:10. The same Greek word, aiōnios, is used in both verses. The root word for aiōna and aiōnos in Hebrews 1:8—and aiōnas in Revelation 20:10—is aiōn, with the essential meaning of “an age.” Thus, the idea is of an unending age (viz. eternity or time without end) in Hebrews 1:8 and Revelation 20:10. The basic meaning of aiōnios in Revelation 20:10 (which is translated “eternal” in regard to the punishment of the accursed in Matt 25:46) is “agelong” or “eternal.” Aiōnios (“eternal”) can have another meaning, such as “the age to come” or pertaining to “the next aiōn” (“age”), yet even this understanding would be an unending age to come. The notion that the age to come is eternal for the redeemed, while the punishment will cease (which is the doctrine of the annihilationist) is foreign to New Testament usage. The annihilationist engages in petitio principii, which is the logical fallacy wher
e one assumes in the premise of an argument what one desires to prove in the conclusion (hence, a begging of the question or circular argument). Annihilationism uses circular reasoning by assuming the punishment of the lost is not sustained indefinitely; rather, that “eternal” means the enduring consequences of the punishment in the age to come.

The annihilationist recognizes the Bible uses “fire” to describe hell (gehenna), yet assumes that the lost will cease to exist because a lake of fire would consume those cast into it. Scripture reveals that hellfire is eternal (Matt 18:8; 25:41; Mark 9:48; Jude 7). The fire of hell is a furnace and unquenchable (Matt 13:42; Mark 9:44); it is a place of “agony” and “torment” (Luke 16:24-25, 28). Certainly, the fact that Scripture reveals the fire to be unquenchable means it does not cease from existence. It blazes without “rest day and night” (Rev 14:11; 20:10), which would mean it is endless and eternal.

The lost are “tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb” (14:10). The “smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever” (v. 11). Smoke necessitates fire, and this requires a catalyst; namely, the “forever and ever” lost. There is “no rest” for the unsaved; the torment continues “day and night,” meaning annihilation is not possible. The annihilationist wrongly judges the nature of God’s eternal fire, in addition to the nature of the resurrected body.

Scripture teaches that both the saved and the lost will have resurrected bodies. The present bodies of the saved and the lost are temporary (2 Cor 5:4). The resurrection body of the redeemed will be entirely different from the present mode, for it is “imperishable” and thereby adapted to the heavenly realm (1 Cor 15:35-49). Nevertheless, the resurrection body will have a relationship to the present form, at least in regard to identification. “This is the first resurrection”; and, “Blessed and holy is the one who has a part in [it]” (Rev 20:5-6). A millennium will transpire between the resurrection of the just and the unjust (vv. 4-6). The lost will experience resurrection (John 5:29), yet it is revealed to be the “second death” (Rev 20:6, 14). The lost will receive some type of body in which to stand before the Great White Throne, and will then be “thrown into the lake of fire” (vv. 11-15).

Jesus 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). Jesus introduced a set of contrasts: (1) fear of a person versus fear of God; and, (2) kill versus destroy. In the present world, people can “kill the body” yet cannot “kill the soul.” God, however, “is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” The Lord is able to destroy the two essential parts of a person: both soul and body. Jesus did not say “to kill,” because the soul is immortal. The temporal body and its death are not significant in comparison to the soul and eternal death. Jesus warned that temporal death should not cause terror; rather, one should fear God, who can destroy both soul and body forever. God will resurrect the bodies of the lost to be punished eternally.

In every place the word gehenna is used, it properly means hell. Therefore, it would be accurate to conclude that gehenna, hell, and the lake of fire refer to the very same place. All the unsaved dead suffer the same degree in hadēs until the Great White Throne Judgment. Hell is the place of future punishment; it will be a place of conscious, eternal suffering. Matthew 25:46 speaks of the time when the lost “will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” The phrases “eternal punishment” and “eternal life” parallel each other and indicate that while the destinies of the lost and the redeemed will be quite different, the future for both will be “everlasting.”

Perhaps the greatest difficulty with the traditional doctrine of an eternal hell arises from an incomplete concept of God. For instance, the Lord is not only holy and loving, but also wrathful against all sin. Thus, His anger must be propitiated if the sinner is to be forgiven. God lovingly made provision in the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ. His wrath abides eternally upon those who persist in sin and reject the divine remedy for sin. The holiness and justice of God must be satisfied (propitiated). God’s love will never permit what His righteousness condemns.

God’s wrath, of course, must be distinguished from pagan notions of divine wrath that are arbitrary and capricious. The wrath of God abides upon the one who does not trust in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and propitiation is the means by which His wrath is averted. God is not arbitrary; rather, He is a principled sovereign (cf. Tit 1:2; 2 Tim 2:13; Jas 1:17). He is not bound by any rule higher than Himself; therefore, all His actions are consistent with His immutable character. Scripture reveals the love of God as both diverse and dynamic, as opposed to being abstract and somewhat impersonal. The love of God is not contradictory to His wrath. The wrath of God toward sinners is consistent with His love. His wrath is not the consequence of capricious anger; rather, God’s wrath is the expression of righteous indignation for His holiness and honor.

Midnight Call - 10/2021

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