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What is the nature of hell? If it is eternal torment or torture, why do certain verses seem to support annihilationism?
Thank you for your interesting question. Firstly can I say that the subject of hell and God's wrath is very deep and I can only provide a basic response below. It is also very sensitive and we encourage you to read the Bible for yourself and talk it through with a local Christian leader.
All Bible believing Christians believe there is a hell but also that God is just and loving nevertheless. Following the teaching of Jesus, we also believe that "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16). It is important to remember, however, that the main teaching about the reality of hell comes from Jesus himself. We must therefore be careful not to imagine that hell is inconsistent with the character of Jesus, who is the unique and perfect Son of God.
Regarding hell, there are two emphases in the Scriptures: one pointing to destruction and the other to something that is everlasting. The majority of biblically faithful theologians throughout Christian history have regarded the eternal continuation of hell as the proper interpretation, although a minority of scholars have rejected that in favour of the destruction of hell at some point. Both of these schools of thought emphasise, however, that hell is real, terrible, and unchangeable as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment (Hebrews 9:27). Both agree that those who reject God will suffer terrible anguish, for Jesus says that in the Day of Judgement God will: "cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." (Matthew 25:30).
To appreciate the issue better, we will discuss the verses in favour of eternal punishment and then deal with some key ones that speak of hell as the destruction of unbelievers. There may be a lot of texts from the Bible below here that are highlighted for you, but hopefully this will give you a reasonable overview.
THE REALITY OF HELL
It is very significant that our Lord Jesus speaks more clearly about hell than anyone else recorded in Scripture. He came from eternity and shares the divine nature so no greater authority on what happens after death could possibly exist. There is no doubt that Jesus spoke of everlasting punishment. He says of God at the Day of Judgement: "Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels." (Matthew 25:41), of "eternal punishment" (Matthew 25:46) and of "to the unquenchable fire" (Mark 9:43). His very close friend and follower on earth, John, also wrote about the judgement of people who follow Satan rather than God in similar terms: "And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name." (Revelation 14:11)
Of course, such language is not literal. In fact, even the term 'hell' in English translations of the New Testament is, in the original language (Greek), Gehenna. It is a valley outside the walls of Jerusalem, properly known as The Valley of Hinnom. Today it is a beautiful public park, but at the time of Jesus it was the city rubbish dump and was constantly smouldering so that anything tipped there was quickly consumed by the heat. For that reason, the bodies of executed criminals were ignominiously thrown into it. Not only was it a foul-smelling and disgusting place, it had a terrible history. It had, long before Jesus was born, been the site of pagan child-sacrifice. When Jesus spoke, therefore, of people being thrown into an everlasting gehenna it was obviously a picture of God's ultimate and terrible judgement on sinners in eternity. A spiritual state seems indicated by the fact that Jesus said it was being prepared for spirit beings who do not have physical bodies - the devil and all his angels. On the other hand, the Bible says that all people will be raised from death to face judgement, which suggests a physical continuation of some kind.
Some passages of the Bible seem also to suggest that there will be degrees of punishment in hell but if you want to pursue this further you will need to study the subject more deeply for yourself.
The important point is to note that hell is real, terrible, the expression of God's wrath against sin, and without end. The fact that it is a spiritual, and perhaps also a physical, state of existence does not lessen its dreadfulness but increases it, for it involves the destruction of who we are as human beings and not simply one aspect of that in our bodies. Against such a clear picture, how is it that some scholars believe that there is an end to existence in hell?
HELL AS DESTRUCTION
Those who are not satisfied that hell is never-ending point to another common word describing God's final judgement: destruction. For example, Scripture speaks of the lost thus: their end is destruction (Philippians 3:19), sudden destruction will come upon them (1 Thessalonians 5:3), punishment of everlasting destruction (2 Thessalonians 1:9). These scholars argue that destruction doesn't necessarily imply an end to existence, but that it is everlasting in the sense of being irreversible. It is an everlasting punishment but not everlasting punishing. It is also argued that the word which is translated as 'everlasting' or 'eternal' meant 'outside of time' rather than suggesting any length of time.
A further argument put forward in favour of this view is that Scripture teaches that God alone is immortal (1 Timothy 6:16) and that immortality is an aspect of salvation rather than our natural existence, on the basis that Paul seems to say that it is only by his saving death on the cross that Christ has brought life and immortality to light (2 Timothy 1:10). For these reasons a minority of Bible-believing people believe that unsaved people cease to exist, but there is disagreement as to when that will happen. Some hold it is when the unsaved die, others that it happens on the Day of Judgement, and others that some continuation of punishment will take place before their destruction.
Against this approach, it is argued most fundamentally that it is possible to understand 'destruction' as an unending state rather than as a single act. As mentioned above, Paul speaks of everlasting destruction, and that may suggest a never-ending state of being destroyed as humans in the image of God - of being in a state of pure evil in which there is no longer the great dignity of being created capable not only of evil but of good.
Furthermore, it is argued that the whole purpose of Jesus' teaching on hell is to deter people from scorning God, but it is no deterrent at all to offer what amounts to a 'hope' of ceasing to bear His judgement. Further, it seems rather coincidental that the idea of 'annihilation' began to gain acceptance at the same time as people began to talk of God's love, making it impossible to believe in His wrath and judgement, which clearly is a rejection of what the Bible teaches. It must be said, however, that the main teachers of annihilation accept the authority of Scripture but dispute the majority interpretation of it at this point.
We must admit that the idea of hell is something beyond our explanation because it is eternal rather than in time, a realm outside human experience except for Jesus. However, his testimony should warn us that God's wrath is real against sin, and those who choose existence without him rather than with him will get what they want - not only in time but for all eternity. Most biblical scholars believe that will be a conscious continuing existence in the anguish of being without God, without goodness, without even the human dignity given to us by creation and continuing forever under God's final judgement. That will be an anguish of which physical pain is only an imperfect picture.
Finally, the answer to eternal condemnation is the message of the Gospel.
We all deserve everlasting punishment. We have rejected the Lord of the Universe, and sided with all that is evil so that even the good things we do are polluted by sin.
But here is the incredible news. Jesus went through the pain of God's punishment for us. On the cross he experienced not only the physical pain of crucifixion but the spiritual pain of God's wrath against sin. Hell will be God's wrath poured out on sinners, but Jesus took it upon himself at Calvary until he was able to say, "It is finished" (John 19:30).
Jesus has taken the wrath of God on our behalf. If we turn from a life of rebelling against God and put our faith in Jesus, trusting that in his death he has taken our punishment and committing our lives to him, what we deserve - hell - will no longer await us. When we do this, God accepts the punishment Jesus bore on the cross in place of punishing us. It is like someone paying a fine on our behalf because they have the money and we don't have it. They take our punishment for us and we are set free from it forever. Indeed, when we turn to Christ He takes what we deserve and we get what He deserves as the sinless Son of God, because we receive the same wonderful acceptance and friendship with God that belongs to Him by eternal right.
In summary, there is a hell to be avoided, an "eternal punishment" (Matthew 25:46) and a heaven to be won. We all need to make sure that heaven is our destiny by trusting in the Saviour who died in our place and rose to give us the forgiveness of our sins.
Here are some more Bible Verses for your further consideration:
- Matthew 25:31-46
- Luke 16:19-31
- 2 Thessalonians 1:3-10
I hope this answer helps you to find peace with God through Jesus Christ. If you want to know more about what Jesus has done for you please watch the video on the main part of our site: Watch the video
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*All Scripture references are taken From The English Standard Version of the Holy Bible unless stated otherwise
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