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:
- 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).
- 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?
- 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.