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Hell is Forever

by Barry L. Davis

In the sixth century the English historian Bede wrote of a person in hell with fire bursting out of his ears, eyes, nostrils, and every other pore of his body1. This is a graphic picture of hell, a hell of punishment and torment, a hell where human beings who have rejected Jesus Christ will spend eternity. Jesus himself painted a picture no less graphic than the historian Bede. Jesus said that hell was a place where "their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched" (Mark 9:48--NIV used throughout).

Although the Bible has much to say about hell there is much disagreement over what it means by what it says. The 1981 IEA/Roper Center Theology Faculty Survey revealed that fifty percent of the theology teachers they interviewed did not believe in a place of eternal torment2. A 1990 Gallup poll revealed that sixty percent of Americans now believe in hell, which has grown from similar polling done some forty years earlier3. Obviously, there are different interpretations of what Scripture has to say about hell, but the Bible clearly teaches that hell is a place of eternal torment where all those who have rejected Christ in this life will spend eternity.

There is much diversity among Christians concerning hell. Those who hold to the literalist position insist that Jesus meant exactly what he said when he spoke of eternal fire and torment. John Walvoord contends that the fire mentioned in the Bible is to be understood as actual fire as we know it today and claims that the Scriptures give sufficient evidence to support this4. J.I. Packer points out that Jesus declares in Matthew 25:41,46 that the lost person's state is a "departure into eternal fire"5. A position closely tied to the literalist position is the metaphorical position. Most conservative Christians hold to one of these views. Both views insist on hell as an eternal state but differ as to the nature of hell. While the literalist insists on eternal fire, the metaphoricalist insists that we cannot know the true nature of hell, only that it is everlasting. Leon Morris believes that Christians have caused harm by speaking "too confidently about the nature of hell"6. Although the metaphorical view does not attempt to explain the exact nature of hell it does admit that the Bible pictures the person in hell as being in a "condition that is unimaginably dreadful"7. When the Bible speaks of the fire and darkness of hell both images speak of the same situation, one in which the lost person finds himself without hope and filled with misery8.

Two other interpretations of hell have so much in common that they are, to a point, inter- changeable. They are annihilation and conditional immortality. The annihilationist and conditional immortalitist believe that all who do not accept Christ will cease to exist in any form at the end of their physical life. John Stott claims that even though the fire in hell is described in terms of being "eternal" and "indestructible," it would be strange to believe that what was thrown into the fire would also exist for eternity. Stott believes that we should expect those who are exposed to eternal fire to be "consumed forever, not tormented forever"9. As the title to Edward Fudge's book suggests, the fire of hell is The Fire That Consumes10. The annihilationist believes that God is immortal because he is the only being that was not created. Man was created by God, but not to be an immortal being11. Immortality is only achieved by the grace of God and the only ones who "survive death" are those whom God chooses to grant life12. Those who reject Christ in this life are those who have not accepted God's gift of immortality. When this gift is rejected, God simply allows man's mortality to take its natural course, which is the course of death and destruction. Clark Pinnock explains that "the ultimate result of rejecting God is self-destruction, closure with God, and absolute death in body, soul, and spirit"13.

Universalism is the last major view and is held mainly by more liberal Christians. Many well-known theologians have leaned toward universalism including, Karl Barth, C.H. Dodd, John A.T. Robertson, and Nels F.S. Ferrere14. The universalist teaches that no people will experience any form of punishment from God, whether believer or non-believer, and in fact, all will be rewarded by spending eternity with God. Talbot15 claims that Jesus purposely expressed himself in such a way as to "leave room for reinterpretation" by his followers as they became stronger Christians. The universalists make no claim that the Bible does not teach the doctrine of eternal punishment, instead they try to reinterpret what the Bible says concerning it. They feel that the doctrine of eternal punishment goes against the basic purpose of the New Testament16. Theirs is a progressive theology, changing with the times and what they would believe to be the forward motion of the evolution of man.

All Christians with differing interpretations tend to appeal to the Bible to back up their various assertions. But when the Bible is studied concerning hell it must be admitted that the eternal punishment of the wicked is much more in line with the Scripture than any of the other views17. Talbot18 claims that there is not one passage in theBible that would demand a Christian believe in the eternal punishment of the wicked, but that is hardly the case.

Those who believe in the doctrine of annihilation teach that the biblical terminology concerning the fate of the wicked is one of destruction rather than eternal torment19. They take passages from the New Testament that speak of destruction20 and claim that these passages teach the final annihilation of the wicked rather than a continuous punishment. The person has experienced eternal destruction in the sense that they are eliminated forever. A major hurdle in the annihilationists' way is a basic rule of hermeneutics that demands we understand the natural meaning of the text. When Revelation 14:11 is taken into consideration "the smoke of their torment rises forever and ever," it is hard to make this text mean anything else than eternal suffering21.

It is not easy to see the fate of the wicked as anything less permanent than that of believers.While we rightly rejoice in the fullness of meaning involved in "eternal life," we must not overlook the fact that there are also some very grim realities, such as eternal fire, eternal punishment, and eternal death. The use of the same adjective for all three means that the more meaning we put into "eternal life," the more meaning we must put into these other realities22.

Another argument the annihilationists use is based upon God's justice. While Russell Boatmen still held to the traditional view of an eternal hell he said that something within him told him that "God could not possibly be that sadistic"23. But if God has determined that eternal punishment is necessary, as the Scriptures indicate, who is man to question God's means of distributing justice? Many believers cannot fully comprehend the necessity of eternal condemnation, but it does not give them the freedom to change the plain meaning of the Bible just because they cannot align themselves emotionally with it.

Universalists use the "all"24 passages of the New Testament to prove that all human beings will eventually be saved. They feel that if God truly loves all people, he is also unable or unwilling to see any of them punished regardless of how sinful they have been in life. The problem with this view is that it tends to ignore the biblical passages that clearly teach that the unbeliever is under the condemnation of his own sin. The New Testament says that the unbeliever is under sin, law, wrath, and death (Rom.1:18;3:9,19; 5:17), alienated from God and without hope (Eph. 2:12), and will ultimately be separated from God for not subjecting themselves to God's truth that has been made evident to them (Rom. 1:18-2:16). To hold the view of universalism a person must pull scripture out of context, pit scripture against scripture, or ignore what the Bible says altogether.

The Bible clearly teaches that hell is a place of eternal punishment for those who have rejected Jesus Christ. Jesus himself is the author of the phrase "eternal punishment"25. Jesus, speaking of the day of judgment, declares to those on his left, "Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire," and then says that the lost will "go away to eternal punishment" (Matt. 25:41,46). In Mark 9:43,48 Jesus describes hell as a place "where the fire never goes out," and "their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched." Jesus also says that the wicked will be thrown into the "fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matt. 13:42,50). It needs to be understood that "no Greek myth-maker or Jewish apocalyptic fantasist ever spoke of eternal punishment with such weight and gravity as Jesus did"26. Paul also teaches on the eternal nature of hell. In 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9 he declaresthat those who reject Christ will receive the punishment of "everlasting destruction" and that they will be cut off from the presence of the Lord. Jude claimed that Sodom and Gomorrah were an example of those who would suffer in "eternal fire" (v.7).

Although many are uncomfortable with the idea of an eternal hell, the biblical evidence must be foremost when deciding what a person should believe concerning it. The Bible clearly teaches that hell is where the wicked will spend eternity experiencing some form of punishment. These people will be there, not by God's choice, but because they have personally chosen eternal damnation by rejecting Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord27. There is some comfort in accepting something less than eternal torment for those who are lost, but the Bible definitely teaches that this is their fate without Christ.

End Notes

1Larry Dixon, The Other Side of the Good News, Bridgepoint: Wheaton, 1992, p.17.

2Jerry L. Walls, Hell: The Logic of Damnation, University of Notre Dame: Notre Dame, 1992, p.3.

3Ibid, p.3.

4William V. Crockett, ed., Four Views on Hell, Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 1992, p.28.

5J.I. Packer, "The Problem of Eternal Punishment," Crux Summer 1990, p.19.

6Leon Morris, "Hell: The Dreadful Harvest," Christianity Today 27 May 1991, p.34.

7Packer, p.20.

8Ibid, p.20.

9David L. Edwards and John R.W. Stott, Evangelical Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue, Inter Varsity: Downers Grove, 1989, p.316.

10Edward W. Fudge, The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of Final Punishment, Verdict: Fallbrook, CA, 1982.

11Russell Boatman, Beyond Death: What the Bible Says About the Hereafter, By the author: Florissant, MO, 1980, p.56.

12Dixon, p.70.

13Crockett, p.137.

14Dixon, p.32.

15Thomas Talbot, "The Doctrine of Everlasting Punishment," Faith and Philosophy Winter 1990, p.20.

16Ibid, p.19.

17Dixon, p.74.

18Talbot, p.19.

19Dixon, p.74.

20Ex. 22:20; Job 21:18; Ps.52:5; 73:18; 92:7; 145:20; Matt. 25:46; Rom. 9:22; Phil. 3:19; 2 Thess. 1:9,10; 2 Pet. 3:7; Jude 5.

21Packer, p.20.

22Morris, p.36.

23Boatman, p.80.

24John 12:32; Acts 3:21; Rom. 5:18ff; 11:32; 1 Cor. 15:22-28; 2 Cor. 5:19; Eph. 1:10; Col. 1:20ff; Phil. 2:9-11; Heb. 2:9; Titus 2:11; 1 Tim. 2:4; 1 John 2:2; 2 Pet. 3:9.

25Packer, p.19.

26Ibid, p.19.

27Morris, p.36.