Do people really burn forever in hell?

Last post we saw what happened when the righteous die, the sequence of events surrounding Christ’s return, and what happens between the time we die and Christ returns.

This post we’re going to look at what happens to the wicked.  What awaits them when Christ returns?  Where do they go for eternity?

The common belief in Christianity is that when the wicked die, they immediately go to hell to burn for eternity.  But, what does the Bible say.  Let’s first look at the when.

Firstly, we know it won’t happen until judgement is over (2 Peter 2:9), after all, how can you convict someone without judging them first.  We also know from Jesus that it won’t happen until the “end of this age”, which is a term relating to His second coming (Matthew 13:40-42).  And we also know from Revelation, as shown in the previous posts, that first Jesus will return, then the righteous will be raised, then 1000 years will pass, and finally the dead will be resurrected only to be killed again, thrown into the lake of fire, when they try to attack the New Jerusalem (Revelation 20:7, 9, 15).

So, it’s not possible that the wicked are burning now in hell.  That would conflict with everything the Bible says about the sequence of events at the end-times.

Where does this happen?  Of course, the cultural myth is that Heaven is “up there”, and hell is “down there”, somewhere beneath the earth.  Of course, most don’t really believe there is a hell under the earth’s surface somewhere.  Most believe it is somewhere “else”, another dimension perhaps.  But what does the Bible say?  Where will this burning take place?

Well, it happens right here on earth.  As the wicked are attempting to overthrow the New Jerusalem, fire comes down from heaven and consumes them (Revelation 20:7). In fact, the entire world will be consumed and burnt up.  The Bible says that both the earth and everything in it, all it’s works will be consumed (2 Peter 3:10-12).  The fires of hell are here on earth.  Not in some magical place.  Like the flood in Noah’s time, the fire will consume everything, wiping the slate clean again.  And then God will create a new heaven and a new earth, one that has never seen sin (Revelation 21:1).

This leads to a problem though.  I mean, if these fires burn and consume the earth, and then God remakes the earth…doesn’t that mean the fire can’t last forever?  Aren’t the wicked supposed to burn for eternity?  Isn’t that what Christianity teaches about hell?  I think we should again turn to the bible for the answer to that.

As we learned in the last post, we are not immortal.  The only immortal being is God.  However, the righteous will put on immortality when Christ returns.  That means those who do not accept Christ will never become immortal.  We need to believe in Him in order to have everlasting life (John 3:16).  This brings up the question: How can these wicked people live forever burning if they aren’t immortal?

David says the same, that the wicked will be cut off from God, which means they won’t be able to take on immortality.  He says that when you look for them, you won’t be able to find them, because they will not exist any longer (Psalm 38:9-10).  They will die and vanish, like a puff of smoke (Psalm 37:20).  Malachi tells us they will be burned up, consumed, there will be nothing left (Malachi 4:1).  In fact, the only thing left will be ashes (Malachi 4:3).

That’s a bit different than what we’ve been taught isn’t it?

What about Satan?  Surely he is punished for eternity, right?  I mean, he must burn forever.  Well, the Bible says that Jesus is going to destroy the devil (Hebrews 2:14) by throwing him into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:21).  This lake of fire is called the second death (Revelation 21:8).  Ezekiel says that he will be devoured by fire, reduced to ashes, the same fate as the wicked (Ezekiel 28:18), and he will be no more, forever (Ezekiel 28:19).

Well, how can this be?  I mean isn’t the punishment for sin eternal life in pain?  That’s what all the movies teach us, after all.  But, the Bible tells us that the wages of sin are death, not life (Romans 6:23).  After all, eternal life can only be gained through Jesus (1 John 5:11), which Satan wants no part of.

Jesus died to pay for our sin.  He took the punishment on Himself.  One of the strongest evidences we have that hell is not eternal suffering is that if it was, then Jesus would still need to be burning in hell for our sins.  But He isn’t.  He died (the payment), and overcame that death.  If we don’t accept Jesus as our savior, then we would have to pay that same punishment: death.  Instead, we are raised to everlasting life.

But there are some verses that cause some conflict in people’s minds.  There are a few that people like to take and build an entire doctrine out of instead of gathering all the verses on the subject and finding what the bulk of the Bible teaches.  So, let’s go through them, because if we believe the Bible is infallible, then we shouldn’t be afraid to confront passages that seem to conflict.  In fact, God invites us to come to Him and reason together (Isaiah 1:18) instead of just having blind faith.

First we have this passage:

The devil, who deceived them, was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone where the beast and the false prophet are. And they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. – Revelation 20:10

This gets confused because our language handles thing differently than Greek or Hebrew.  Those languages were very context dependent.  Not a lot of absolutes.  Forever means within the life of the thing you are talking about.  So, when you’re talking about God, it’s forever, because He exists forever.  When you talk about a mortal being, forever means for the life of that person, or if you’re talking about an object, for the existence of that object.  66 times in the Bible, things are described as forever that are no longer happening.  For example, Hannah (Samuel’s mother) dedicates Samuel to the LORD forever (1 Samuel 1:22-28).  Well, he’s not serving in the temple still, of course.  This clearly means for the life of Samuel, as we see in verse 28.  In Exodus 21:6 we see that slaves who decided to remain slaves after their term was ended could be marked so they would be slaves forever.  Again, clearly this did not imbue them with immortality.  They were slaves for the rest of their life.

The story of Joshua tells of monuments built to God that would be a sign forever for the Israelites.  But, many of them don’t exist anymore.  Clearly, not forever, but only as long as it remains.  Even God’s temple that Solomon built, God said He will be there forever, but the temple no longer exists.  How can God still be there?  There are more, but let’s continue.

His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather the wheat into His barn; but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire.” – Luke 3:17

Unquenchable fire sounds like it burns forever, and so this verse gets used to say hell must burn forever.  But Jerusalem was supposed to be burned in unquenchable fire (Jeremiah 17:27), but it’s not still burning today.  Unquenchable means nothing can put it out.  But, it can go out, once what it’s burning is no more.  Here’s another:

Then He will also say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels: – Matthew 25:41

This verse is used to say that the fire will continue forever.  Sound familiar?  Yeah, same sort of deal.  After all, Sodom and Gomorrah were to be destroyed with everlasting fire (Jude 7), but you can’t go and still see them on fire, and it’s only been a few thousands years, not eternity.  Plus, Peter says that the cities were burnt into ashes (2 Peter 2:6), so that settles that.

And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life. – Matthew 25:46

Their punishment is everlasting, no doubt.  They cannot come back.  There is no resurrection from the second death (Revelation 21:8).  It is final.

Lastly, we have a parable that causes much confusion.  The one about the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31.  It’s fairly long, so I’m not going to quote it all here.  You can read it for yourself if you are unfamiliar with it.  The problem is that this is a parable, and it often gets used as reality.  But parables are stories to illustrate a point, and only that point, also they can’t be taken literally.  Let’s look at some of the problems we’d have if we did that this parable literally:

  1. People don’t go straight to heaven when they die, we’ve seen this over and over again in the Bible.  If this is news to you, check out the previous post.  Plus, we know that those who are dead will hear Christ’s return from their graves, not from heaven or hell (John 5:28-29).
  2. Those in heaven will not be able to speak to those in hell.  In fact, those in heaven won’t even remember those in hell (Isaiah 65:17).  Plus, how awful would heaven be if you could look over and see every non-believer being punished or all eternity, hearing their screams?
  3. We know that both the wicked and the righteous will receive their reward after Jesus’ second coming, not before (Revelation 22:12, Matthew 16:27)

The purpose of this parable was to say that if you fail to listen to the Bible now, you will have no hope when Christ returns.  Don’t wait until the last second, you may never get your chance.

So, there you have it, the truth about hell, as told by the Bible.  Next post we’re going to change pace a bit.  We’re going to look at what the Bible says about the food we eat, what we take into our bodies because this is another concept that has been twisted by Christianity over the years.

2 Responses to Do people really burn forever in hell?

  • Hi Jay, your post here was my first introduction to this concept of a temporary hell. From the online reading I’ve done since I find there are quite a few sites with material on the annihilation vs eternal conscious suffering debate but I do have a few questions/thoughts about your perspective I didn’t find answers to elsewhere:

    1) (This question presupposes that you hold the two beasts of Rev 13 as mortal humans and not immortal spirits) At the end of the Tribulation Rev 19:20 (NASB) states that the beast/antichrist and the false prophet will be “thrown alive into the lake of fire which burns with brimstone”. Then Rev 20:7 & 10 state that after the Millennial Reign Satan likewise will be “thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are also. Disregarding for now any disagreement on the “day and night forever and ever” bit that immediately follows, how is it that the Antichrist and his prophet still ‘exist’ in the lake of fire after a 1000 years if this same lake is the one that burns its occupants up to non-existence?

    2) My major concern with your interpretation removes hell as a deterrent against wickedness. The annihilation perspective seems to lay forth two options to individuals: A) Accept salvation and die to yourself then spend eternity in heaven. B) Reject salvation, live for yourself, then suffer very briefly before completely disappearing from existence. I know dying in a lake of fire wouldn’t be pleasant, but given a lack of immortality from your argument the experience for a mortal would surely take less than 60 seconds. Even as a born again believer with the prospect of heaven before me I would find it tempting* to give myself over to the world if all I was to suffer was 60 seconds of agony at the end. Your thoughts on that?

    *Tempting, but 2 Pet 2:19 sticks in my mind

    3) Speaking of 2 Peter, you referenced 2 Pet 2:9. How do you reconcile a wicked mortal who died in history (let’s use Lamech of Gen 4 as an example) who is still being held for judgement and punishment per Peter. Are you okay with a temporary supernaturally continued existence, just not an eternally continued existence? I haven’t researched enough to understand the Sheol/Hades concept fully; whether Lamech is conscious as he waits, or is “sleeping”, or is transported by God outside of time direct to Judgement Day. In English however, Peter seems to describe the unrighteous man’s state as present and ongoing waiting. That might be muddled, so try this: why would God supernaturally sustain a unrighteous mortal to reach the day of judgement, but then not supernaturally sustain him to survive hellfire post-judgement?

    It took me a week to finally get this posted so no rush on your reply, but I would be curious to hear at some point your response. in Christ, Brendan

    • Lots of stuff here, so I’ll try to answer them all as best as I can:

      This question presupposes that you hold the two beasts of Rev 13 as mortal humans and not immortal spirits

      Actually, I don’t hold them as either. They are each political powers. The first beast seems to be the Catholic Church, with it’s many daughters as many of the churches which split off Catholicism. See this post for an explanation. The second seems to be the United States. I don’t have a post for that one yet.
      But, ultimately, they signify Satan’s power in this world that is trying to deceive us.

      At the end of the Tribulation Rev 19:20 (NASB) states that the beast/antichrist and the false prophet will be “thrown alive into the lake of fire which burns with brimstone”. Then Rev 20:7 & 10 state that after the Millennial Reign Satan likewise will be “thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are also. Disregarding for now any disagreement on the “day and night forever and ever” bit that immediately follows, how is it that the Antichrist and his prophet still ‘exist’ in the lake of fire after a 1000 years if this same lake is the one that burns its occupants up to non-existence?>

      Yeah, the English can be misleading there. A mechanical translation of that verse will yield: “And the adversary the one-deceiving them was-cast into the lake of-the fire and sulphur where also the wild-beast and where to false-prophet and they-shall-be-being-tormented of-day and of-night into the eons of-the eons.” So, firstly, it doesn’t say they are still there. Seems like we stick the “are also” to make it flow better. But, it’s merely saying they were thrown into the same fire. Secondly, the Greek word aionio, which we translate as “forever” or “everlasting” or “into the eons of the eons” doesn’t mean the same in Greek as it does in English. Here’s a quote from Dr. Basil Atkinson:

      When the adjective aionios, meaning everlasting is used in Greek with nouns of action it has reference to the result of the act, not the process. The phrase everlasting punishment is comparable to everlasting redemption and everlasting salvation, both Scriptural phrases. No one supposes that we are being redeemed or saved forever. We were redeemed and saved once for all by Christ with eternal results. In the same way the lost will not be passing through the process of punishment forever but will be punished once and for all with eternal results. On the other hand the noun ‘life’ is not a noun of action, but a noun expressing a state. Thus life itself is eternal. – Basil F. C. Atkinson, Life and Immortality. An Examination of the Nature and Meaning of Life and Death as they are revealed in the Scriptures (Taunton, England, n. n.), p.101.

      And that makes sense when we look at the Bible verses about hell. We have Jude 7 which says Sodom and Gomorrah are “suffering the vengeance of eternal fire”, which means they were burned and the result was eternal (or else the cities would still be aflame), and we have Malachi 4:1-3 which says the wicked will be burned like stubble, leaving nothing but ashes.

      My major concern with your interpretation removes hell as a deterrent against wickedness. The annihilation perspective seems to lay forth two options to individuals: A) Accept salvation and die to yourself then spend eternity in heaven. B) Reject salvation, live for yourself, then suffer very briefly before completely disappearing from existence. I know dying in a lake of fire wouldn’t be pleasant, but given a lack of immortality from your argument the experience for a mortal would surely take less than 60 seconds. Even as a born again believer with the prospect of heaven before me I would find it tempting* to give myself over to the world if all I was to suffer was 60 seconds of agony at the end. Your thoughts on that?

      You’re absolutely right, it takes away following God out of fear. Rather, it requires us to follow God out of love. That fits in well with the Biblical teaching of “God is love”. Plus, the Bible constantly says that we are to love God, not that we are to fear hell. See 1 John 5:3 “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments”, John 14:15 “If you love me, keep my commandments”.

      For me, I follow because I love God. Why to I love Him? Because He first loved me (1 John 4:19). Not “Because if I don’t, He’s going to burn me for eternity.” Actually, I grew up in a church that taught that, and I remember forming, at a young age, the theory that “Christianity is not about loving people, it’s about staying out of prison.” But, that’s not an accurate picture of God is it? If God is love, then the only real reason to follow is to love Him in return.

      As for being tempted…No, the little I have done “in the world” has brought me nothing but pain in the long term. Sadly, I keep going back (thank you sinful nature), but it keeps me reminded of just how good God is. When I follow Him…I’m so much happier, in this life. Temptation is a lie, it is a deception to say “this will bring you happiness”…but it doesn’t. Not in the long run. Not even in our short existence here.

      Speaking of 2 Peter, you referenced 2 Pet 2:9. How do you reconcile a wicked mortal who died in history (let’s use Lamech of Gen 4 as an example) who is still being held for judgement and punishment per Peter. Are you okay with a temporary supernaturally continued existence, just not an eternally continued existence? I haven’t researched enough to understand the Sheol/Hades concept fully; whether Lamech is conscious as he waits, or is “sleeping”, or is transported by God outside of time direct to Judgement Day. In English however, Peter seems to describe the unrighteous man’s state as present and ongoing waiting. That might be muddled, so try this: why would God supernaturally sustain a unrighteous mortal to reach the day of judgement, but then not supernaturally sustain him to survive hellfire post-judgement?

      Our entire existence is supernaturally continued (Colossians 1:17). Whether we be alive or resting until judgement day, I don’t see a problem with it. For myself, I believe Lamech to be dead. Not sleeping in a literal sense, nor transported through time. At this moment in our timeline, he does not exist. After all, he has no body (it must be decomposed by now), and the spirit of God (his breath) has departed. So, he is not a soul at this time. Assuming he is not saved (I won’t presume to judge his heart), then come the 2nd Resurrection, he will be remade (Revelation 20:12-13).

      So, why remake him only to be destroyed again? To prove God’s just. God is going to judge the wicked, but it’s generally considered unjust to judge someone in abstantia (while they’re not present) if one can avoid it. All attempts must be made to bring them to the trial. In God’s case as the judge, Resurrection of the offender if within His power. But, hell, in my viewpoint, is a mercy. The heaven and Earth will be remade, there will be no more sin. How then could someone who daily chooses to live for himself instead of God (on purpose) be happy in such a creation? They couldn’t. And so, hell, being nullified, is an act of mercy, or else they would find a literal hell here on earth and in heaven, being constantly reminded that a God they do not serve is in control. So, then, what gain would be had from extending punishment? Is the hope rehabilitation? Surely not, because there is no escape. Is the hope repayment for their sins? No, a human cannot pay for his sins. So, then what would a loving God benefit from torturing humans forever? The answer is that He must then not be a loving God, but a masochistic one, deriving pleasure from the pain of others.

      So, why would God supernaturally sustain an unrighteous mortal to reach the day of judgement, but then not supernaturally sustain him to survive hellfire post-judgement? Because He is just, and loving.

      Thanks for being patient in my response. I hope I’ve answered your questions adequately. But, I invite any follow up questions. I quite enjoyed the process, thank you.

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