One of the most difficult truths to grasp is the eternality of hell. The misery of it all is simply unfathomable. It is one that must move us to the deepest reverence before God and compassion towards sinners.
In an earlier post, the miseries of hell were briefly described. When the unredeemed enter, there will be a shock as the magnitude of hell sets in. One of the greatest miseries of hell will be the eternality of it: there will be no end to the conscious torment.
However, there have been questions as to the eternality of hell. The biblical teaching of unending punishment in hell has often been under attack. Do those in hell suffer forever?
Today’s post examines the teaching of annihilationism, demonstrating that it is biblically untenable. Several arguments are put forth.
Some annihilationists argue that the words translated “perish” or “destruction” imply the cessation of existence. For example, the use of the words translated “perish” in John 3:16 and “destruction” in Philippians 3:19 and 2 Thessalonians 1:9 are said to indicate annihilation.
This is a case where some texts taken on their own might appear to teach a doctrine. But, we must examine the whole counsel of God from the 66 books of Scripture to understand a doctrine.
Regarding the terms “perish” and “destruction,” both terms are often used in the NT in ways which do not mean cessation of existence. For example, the word translated “destruction” in Philippians 3:19 is used elsewhere to describe the idea of wasting something of value (Matt. 26:8).
interestingly, the same word is also used in Revelation 17:8 to describe the punishment of the beast. Then, in Revelation 20:10, the beast is said to be “tormented day and night forever and ever.” Clearly, though the beast is said to be destroyed, that does not mean he ceases to exist, since his torment is unending. Therefore, the word translated “destroy” need not speak of annihilationism. In fact, in the context of hell as in Revelation 17 and 20, it is consistent with the eternal punishment.
In the case of John 3:16, the word translated “perish” often does not refer to cessation of existence. For example, in Johannine literature, the word frequently refers to loss, in the sense of no longer in one’s possession (e.g. John 6:12, 39; 17:12; 18:9). In Matthew 9:17, for example, the word is used to describe damage (“the wineskins burst, and the wine pours out and the wineskins are ruined”).
The word translated “destruction” in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 is a different NT word. Elsewhere, for example in 1 Corinthians 5:5, Paul uses the word to describe the destruction of an individual’s body in the case of church discipline. The purpose of that destruction is repentance and restoration. Thus, the meaning cannot mean annihilation of the individual’s body, for then, he would be unable to repent and be restored. There is no repentance and restoration in the next life. The meaning of “destruction” there has the idea of damage. Paul desires that the disciplined experience physical suffering in order that they might be moved to repentance.
Further, we should step back for a moment and allow plain sense to speak. If cessation of existence was meant in places like 2 Thessalonians 1:9, then the modifier, “eternal,” would be useless. To paraphrase, the rendering would be, “eternal ceasing to exist.” If NT writers wanted to communicate cessation of existence, they would have not included the term “eternal” to describe hell.
Thus, to conclude annihilationism from the NT words “perish” and “destruction” is a forced interpretation which imposes upon the greater context of the respective passages and additional verses which speak of the eternality of hell.
One of the biggest problems for annihilationism is Matthew 25:46, which reads, “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Annihilationists often teach that the NT words translated, “eternal” or “everlasting” do not refer to endless duration but “pertaining to the age to come” or “having eternal consequences.”
There are serious problems with this view, however. First, the assertion that “eternal” refers to “pertaining/belonging to the age to come” is an imposed rendering of the word αἰώνιον in the context of Matthew 25:46. If NT writers wanted to communicate “pertaining/belonging to the age to come,” they would have used a different phrase in Greek; something along the lines of phrase and not the adjective, αἰώνιον, as Jesus did.
Second, even if the word is taken as “pertaining to the age to come,” that does not further the annihilationist position. Scripture always refers to the age to come as one of unceasing duration. Thus, the age to come, whether for the redeemed or unredeemed, will be unending.
Third, Greek references predominantly render the word αἰώνιον as “eternal” and/or “unlimited duration” (e.g. DBL, Louw-Nida, TDNT).
Fourth, rendering the word “having eternal consequences” does not serve in favor of annihilationism. If the damned ceased to exist, there would not be eternal consequences. Instead, the consequences of their unredeemed state are finite: they cease to exist, therefore, the consequences cease with their annihilation.
Fifth, the parallel description of heaven and hell with the word “eternal” invalidates the annihilationist position. Outside of Matthew 25:46, heaven is frequently spoken of as unending (e.g. Matt. 19:29, John 10:28, Rev. 21:4). Matthew 25:46 speaks likewise. And, Jesus uses the same word to describe heaven and hell. Consequently, since heaven is unending, and described as such with αἰώνιον, hell must also be unending since αἰώνιον is also used. The miseries of the unredeemed in hell will last as long as the glories of the redeemed in heaven. To assert otherwise violates the plain sense rendering of the verse.
Finally, it sometimes asserted that it is the fires and/or smoke of hell which endures forever, but not punishment upon the unredeemed. However, it would not do to speak of the annihilation of hell’s occupants but the continuation of hell as a place. The purpose of hell is the upholding of justice upon unredeemed image-bearers.
Therefore, the annihilationist position does not hold up in light of the NT use of the word αἰώνιον.
As mentioned above, the annihilationist position argues that words translated “perish” and “destruction” indicate the termination of existence in hell. However, if NT writers wanted to describe the cessation of existence, they could have used the Greek words, παύω or καταπαύω. These words carry the idea of cessation, to cease, or stop. Considering the perspicuity of Scripture and the severe nature of the doctrine of hell, we can safely assume that NT writers would have used these words, since they would clearly communicate annihilation. However, the word is never mentioned in reference to the unredeemed in hell. Instead, words communicating unceasing duration are frequently used.
Daniel 12:2 “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.”
Some annihilationists propose that it is the emotion of contempt which is everlasting and not the existence of unredeemed individuals. However, that is an irrelevant assertion. First, a statement is made regarding the dealings of “those who sleep in the dust of the earth.” They shall awake, or be resurrected bodily. Then, two modifying phrases are given to describe the absolute fate of both. The first, “some,” to everlasting life. The second group, to “shame and everlasting contempt.”
Matthew 18:8 “And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire.”
The same word translated “eternal” in Matthew 25:46 is used here to describe the eternality of the fire. And even if the word did refer to “belonging to the age to come,” it would be irrelevant: the age to come is unending.
Mark 9:47-48 “And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, 48 ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched’.”
Here, Jesus does not use the word “eternal.” However the modifying phrase in v. 48 speaks clear enough as to the duration of hell. But, some argue that the idea of unquenchable refers to the destruction of the fire, not the duration, citing OT verses to demonstrate the point.
The Greek rendering of the word has the idea of extinguish or put out a fire. Even so, a rendering which refers to destruction, not duration, however, would not further the annihilationist position, in light of the clear teaching of hell’s eternality in places like Matthew 25:46. However, the natural sense is duration: the flame is never extinguished.
Annihilationists assert that hell cannot be eternal since the worms referenced inMark 9 are from Isaiah 66:24, a passage which mentions corpses. Thus, individuals are dead and have ceased to exist. This poses a major problem, however. First, this interpretation clashes with the several other verses which teach the eternality of hell. We must not create a doctrine from a verse which contradicts clear teaching elsewhere. Further, that the worms do not die indicate an eternal existence. Doubtful it is meant that there is literally an infinite supply of food for the worms, such that they exist forever. Instead, the picture is of a miserable existence for eternity, which would coincide with the plain teaching of hell’s eternality elsewhere.
2 Thessalonians 1:9 “They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.”
The Greek word rendered “eternal” here is the same used in Matthew 25:46. Also, if those suffering ceased to exist, it would be unnecessary to mention that they will be located “away from the presence of the Lord.” The mention that they will suffer (future active) indicates a durative process taking place in the future. As the text says, it will be a punishment without end.
Revelation 14:9-11 “And another angel, a third, followed them, saying with a loud voice, ‘If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, 10 he also will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. 11 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.’”
A natural reading of the text communicates the eternality of hell. However, some argue that the smoke rising and inability to rest in v. 11 is in the present tense, and, therefore, must be speaking in a current, temporal sense (i.e. at that time, unbelievers currently have no rest because of the annihilationist fate which awaits them). This violates the context of the passage, however. In vv. 9-10, the angel declares what will happen in the future. To indicate such, he uses future tense verbs; “he also will drink” and “he will be tormented.” Verse 11 continues to describe the same future scene. Future tense verbs are not necessary since we are observing the same future scene introduced in vv. 9-10. Hence, the eternality of the rising smoke and inability to rest further describes those experiencing punishment. Contrary to the annihilationist position, nothing indicates a change of scene until v. 12. Also, the present tense verbs in v. 11 can communicate durative activity. Therefore, Revelation 14:9-11 speaks to the unending nature of hell’s punishment.
Several other passages could be cited to support eternal punishment, such as Matthew 3:12, Luke 16:26, Jude 7, and Revelation 20:10-15.
Those who argue such have ventured into territory where angels fear to tread.
This argument is more sentimental than exegetical. It simply cannot be demonstrated biblically. God is an infinite being. Indeed, he is infinite in holiness. There is no one holy like the Lord (1 Sam. 2:2). Annihilationism fails to account both for the holiness of God and the severity of sin. Sin against an infinitely holy God demands coinciding punishment.
Consider the infamous “Malice at the Palace” NBA brawl between the Indiana Pacers and the Detroit Pistons on November 19, 2004. A fan threw a drink at Ron Artest. He then proceeded into the stands, decking some left and right. Now, if he had merely hit a player, he would have been suspended, perhaps, a game or two. However, since he hit fans, he was suspended 86 games and five million dollars. According to the NBA, the punishment fit the crime. So it is and far more with an infinite God.
In terms of justice, the eternality of hell makes sense: the debt of sin against an infinite Being can never be paid by finite, sinful beings. Therefore, passages such as Matthew 18:23-35 speak of a debt that is infinite, for all practical purposes. The indebted slave in that story would never be able to pay his debt. Jesus mentions an amount which, in that context, is practically infinite. This coincides with the truth that hell’s punishment will be eternal: at no time could it be said that finite sinners have sufficiently paid an infinite debt to an infinitely holy God.
Therefore, God is not unjust in the eternal punishment of the unredeemed; quite the opposite. The eternality of hell is necessary to demonstrate his justice. Everlasting punishment reveals God’s righteousness. His goodness and love for good demand that the contrary be held to justice, hence, the unending nature of hell. He is righteous in all his ways (Psa. 145:17).
Finally, annihilationism does a disservice to the holiness and righteousness of God. By communicating a finite punishment, it diminishes the magnitude of both.
It is understandable to struggle with reconciling God’s goodness and the doctrine of hell. Most, if not all, Christians have had to grapple with this at some point. However, similar to above, it must be recognized that the issue here is not textual/exegetical, but emotional/sentimental.
Because God is good, he must punish all that is contrary to good. Sin, therefore, must be punished. Since sin is not an abstract, impersonal thing, but the nature and doing of men, they must be punished. Thus, to uphold his goodness, God must punish sin in accordance with his infinite goodness.
Further, the speculation as to God’s goodness is objectively forever silenced in the shadow of the cross. God the Father unleashed the hell of all the redeemed upon his beloved Son at the cross. And he did so, not for darling souls who delivered him delight and praise, but for depraved wretches, whose sin it was that put Christ under wrath. “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10).
It’s worth contemplating what is required to forgive a sinner. Nothing less than the death of the Creator-in-the-flesh; the God-man, was necessary to eliminate a sinner’s punishment. The One dying upon the cross speaks clear enough to the utter severity of human sin.
That his Majesty, Jesus Christ, must do nothing less than hang on a cross until death to eliminate our punishment testifies to the infinite nature thereof.
Therefore, though perhaps inadvertently, the annihilationist position desecrates the glory of the Person and work of Jesus Christ by proposing a less than eternal punishment for sinners.
That God’s requirement for the sinner’s atonement is Jesus Christ declares that the sinner’s punishment is eternal.
The giant philosophical elephant in annihilationism’s room is its appeal to the sinful nature. The wicked want it to be true. There is a certain appeal to it. Culpability is annihilated and accountability ceases to exist. That works nicely for the truth suppressor. God isn’t as holy and righteous as their conscious testifies. Annihilationism quiets the smoke alarm of the soul as they near eternity.
But it’s too good to be true. Better yet, God is too good for annihilationism to be true. Annihilationism corresponds more to a false god and a darkened mind than to a holy God and the light of Scripture. Its appeal to fallen man, therefore, gives further evidence to its error.
“If, therefore, any one shall violently suppose that the destruction of the soul and the flesh in hell amounts to a final annihilation of the two substances, and not to their penal treatment (as if they were to be consumed, not punished), let him recollect that the fire of hell is eternal—expressly announced as an everlasting penalty.”
“Now the reason why eternal punishment appears harsh and unjust to human sensibilities, is that in this feeble condition of those sensibilities under the condition of mortality man lacks the sensibility of the highest and purest wisdom, the sense which should enable him to feel the gravity of the wickedness in the first act of disobedience.”
“The fiery oven is ignited merely by the unbearable appearance of God and endures eternally. For the Day of Judgment will not last for a moment only but will stand throughout eternity and will thereafter never come to an end.”
Commenting on 2 Thessalonians 1:9: “The phrase which he adds in apposition explains the nature of the punishment which he had mentioned—it is eternal punishment and death which has no end.”
“[The] wretched soul in hell…finds that it shall not outlive that misery, not yet can it find one space or moment of time of freedom and intermission, having forever to do with him who is the living God.”
“The time will never come when it can be said concerning the wicked in hell that a tenth part or a thousandth or a millionth part of their continuance in hell is past.”
“The incarnation and vicarious satisfaction for sin by one of the persons of the Godhead, demonstrates the infinity of the evil…the doctrine of Christ’s vicarious atonement, logically, stands or falls with that of endless punishment.”
“For ever knoweth no end; eternity cannot be spelled except in eternity. Still the soul seeth written o’er its head, ‘Thou art damned for ever.’”
“A million years shall not make so much difference to the duration of his agony as a cup of water taken from the sea would to the volume of the ocean. Nay, when millions of years told a million times shall have rolled their fiery orbits over his poor tormented head, he shall be no nearer to the end than he was at first.”
S. Lewis Johnson
“And so if we speak of eternal punishment, we necessarily have the continued existence of the one who suffers it. We cannot speak of eternal punishment when the subject of it has ceased to exist.”
It’s odd that virtually no one argues against the eternality of heaven. The silence is telling.
Part of me wants annihilationism to be true. I get it. I’ve stood with dying relatives on the precipice of eternity whose redemption was uncertain. It’s easier to believe. A God who does not punish the unredeemed in hell forever is far more comfortable. But that’s the problem: “You thought I was just like you” (Psa. 50:21).
The overwhelming testimony of Scripture is that all who enter hell will experience unending punishment. Hell will have no end or exit. Annihilationists must repent of the false hope which they give. It’s loving to speak the plain truth to the unredeemed, especially in matters concerning eternal punishment.
Finally, the eternality of hell points to the majesty of the Lord Jesus Christ. Wonder of wonders that, motivated by obedience to the Father and compassion for the sinner, he stepped out of the glories of heaven to endure the horrors of our hell. On the cross, God the Father punished him in the place of all who would repent. What would take sinners an eternity in hell, the sinless Savior absorbed at the cross. By faith alone in Christ alone, our eternity in hell is annulled and eternity in heaven granted.