Destruction of the Wicked
Another very common doctrine among Christians presents an erroneous view of God's judgment. It is commonly held that the wicked will "burn in hell" for all eternity. There are a few variations. The more traditional holds that everyone goes to either heaven or hell depending on what kind of lives they lived. Another version holds that a person goes to heaven if he has accepted Christ as his savior, but if not, he will go to hell and be tormented for all eternity. Just on the surface there are several things wrong with such an idea. God is a just judge, and would not mete out a punishment that exceeds the severity of the sin. What kind of sin would deserve an eternity of everlasting conscious torment, with no hope of reprieve? Even Jesus, who paid the price for our sins, did not have to endure that in order to pay the price.
Some Christians will get around it by claiming that it is not eternal torture necessarily, but simply the unending grief of being consciously separated from God forever. But consider this. God is everywhere present, and even the Psalmist asked, "where can I go to flee from Your presence?"
If there is nowhere one could go to flee God's presence, where could the wicked be put that would be eternally separated from God? The only way to be separated from God is to no longer exist. That is exactly what the Scriptures say the destiny of the wicked is.
Part of the confusion comes from the fact that the word "hell" in the King James Version is used as the translation of more than one word. One of them is the Greek word hades. The Hebrew equivalent is sheol, and both words, as used in the Bible, simply mean the state of being dead. Everyone that dies goes to sheol/hades. Another Greek word translated "hell" is ge'enna, which is the lake of fire into which the wicked are cast. Yet a third Greek word translated "hell" in KJV is tartaros. This word refers to the place in which the wicked angels from before the flood are held imprisoned (II Peter 2:4). It only occurs once. These three words must be carefully distinguished, since everyone that dies goes to sheol/hades but only the wicked are cast into ge'enna, the lake of fire, and then only at the end. It will exist in the future but does not exist yet.
The lake of fire is not a place of endless torment, but rather a place of final destruction. As seen in Revelation 21:8 (above) it is called "the second death." The wicked are to be destroyed, not kept alive and tortured unendingly. Man is not inherently immortal, as we discussed in the Closer Look article on the State of the Dead. In order to keep sinners alive to torture them unendingly, God would have to grant them eternal life. But we read that eternal life is the gift of God for those who believe in the Son of God. The wages of sin is death, not endless suffering. "He that does not have the Son of God does not have life" (I John 5:12).
The flood in Noah's time and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah were meant to be examples of God's judgment (II Peter 2:4-6). In both cases, the judgment resulted in destruction, not endless torment. Jude 7 says that Sodom and Gomorrah suffered "the vengeance of eternal fire." Does that mean they are endlessly burning? Do they still exist, smoldering somewhere? The fire is not eternal, but its effects are. Likewise, II Thessalonians 1:7-9 refers to the vengeance on those who do not obey the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It says that they "shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord." The process of destruction is not everlasting, but the result of it is. When they are destroyed, it is forever.
It is important to understand the Greek word for "everlasting" and "eternal" in these verses. We saw in another article that the word for eternal or everlasting is aionios. It literally means "age-lasting" or "belonging to the age." It does not in and of itself mean "without end" but refers to the duration of a period of time. The context in which it is used determines how long it is. In the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), aionios is used to translate the Hebrew word, olam, which has the same meaning. We are told that God is everlasting (Genesis 21:33; Deuteronomy 33:27; Psalm 41:13; 90:2) and in that context it means unending, because God has no end. However, we also read of "everlasting hills" in Genesis 49:26, which will only last as long as this earth, and we read of an "everlasting priesthood" in Exodus 40:15 and Numbers 25:13, which was done away with when Jesus completed his ultimate sacrifice. Jonah says that while he was in the whale's belly, "the earth with her bars was about me for ever" (Jonah 2:6). "For ever" is the same word here (Hebrew olam, Greek aionios) even though he was only there three days! None of these examples is "unending" but lasting for the duration of the time to which they apply.
So when we read in the New Testament of "eternal" or "everlasting" life, using aionios, which means age-lasting, the context of those references shows that it is referring to life in the age to come. When we read of Christ's "everlasting kingdom" it is referring to the Kingdom of the coming age. The word for "eternal" or "everlasting" does not mean unending by itself, but we are told elsewhere that Christ's kingdom will not pass away (Daniel 7:14) and will have no end (Luke 1:33). Likewise, we know our life will be unending because we are told that we will be given immortality (Romans 2:7; I Corinthians 15:53-54; II Timothy 1:10). It is these other words that carry the sense of unending, not the word aionios.
When the word aionios is used referring to punishment or torment, it is in the context of the coming judgment. References to "everlasting punishment" in Matthew 25:46 and to "eternal judgment" in Hebrews 6:2 are in the context of future judgment and ultimate destruction. The "eternal fire" that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah according to Jude 7, referred to above, is referring to the age-lasting effect of the fire. It was set forth as an example of the final destruction by fire that is to come. That will be more than a temporary punishment, such as the first death. It is of that coming age and will be final and permanent.
Mark 9 refers to "the fire that never quenches." this is another passage that people misunderstand and interpret it as a never-ending torture.
The worm and the fire in these verses are not unending. The fire cannot be quenched or extinguished, that is, no one can put it out. But when there is no longer anything to burn, it will go out by itself. Likewise the worms which devour dead flesh. They are not immortal, but they will die out when all the decaying matter is consumed. This passage is a reference to Isaiah 66:24, where it says, "And they shall go forth, and look upon the carcases of the men that have transgressed against me: for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched; and they shall be an abhorring unto all flesh." Notice it says "they shall look upon the carcases." This means the men that have transgressed are dead, not endlessly suffering.
Also in Isaiah 66, verses 15 and 16 say, "For, behold, the LORD will come with fire, and with his chariots like a whirlwind, to render his anger with fury, and his rebuke with flames of fire. For by fire and by his sword will the LORD plead with all flesh: and the slain of the LORD shall be many." Notice again, it refers to the slain of the Lord, not the eternally tormented.
Matthew 3:12 also refers to "unquenchable fire" for those who are judged ungodly. But it says it will "burn up the chaff," not endlessly torture the ungodly. Isaiah 5:24 and Malachi 4:1 also refer to burning up the stubble so that nothing is left. The fire cannot be "quenched" but eventually it will have completely consumed that which it is burning. Isaiah 33 also contains a prophecy about God's judgment with fire.
The Jerusalem Bible renders verse 14 as follows: "Sinners in Zion are struck with horror and fear seizes on the godless. Which of us can live with this devouring fire, which of us exist in everlasting flames?" Again the fire is for the purpose of destruction, not endless torment. God destroyed the world once with a flood, and He says He will judge the current world with fire (II Peter 3:7,12; II Thessalonians 1:7-9).
One passage which at first glance might seem to support the idea of endless torment is in Revelation 14.
We have been conditioned to think that this passage describes unending torment, because of the prevalence of that belief. There are several things to consider here, however. First of all, if it did refer to endless torment of the wicked, it would contradict the many Scriptures that speak of the destruction, or annihilation, of wicked ones. Second, this passage is assumed to be about endless torment in the lake of fire, but it is not talking about that. We saw II Thessalonians 1:9 above, which said that the unsaved "shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord." Note it says from the presence of the Lord, and is referring to all those who do not obey the Gospel. In contrast, this passage in Revelation 14:9-11 is specifically referring to those who worshipped the beast and his image, and they shall be tormented with fire and brimstone, in the presence of the angels and of the Lamb. This is not referring to the Lake of Fire, which no one is cast into until after the last judgment in chapter 20 (with the exception of the beast and the false prophet in chapter 19).
This torment with fire and brimstone in chapter 14 is referring to the judgment that is taking place right after the Lord returns. It says that they have no rest day and night, but does it say that it lasts forever? No, it only says that the smoke from their torment ascends up for ever and ever. Again, the word aion is used, "for ever and ever" is literally "age to age" which implies a long time but is not unending. The language used here is taken from the destruction of Edom in Isaiah 34:8-10. In that instance as well, it was not unending. Malachi 4:3 says, "And ye shall tread down the wicked; for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet in the day that I shall do this, saith the LORD of hosts." The NASB says, "they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day which I am preparing." Notice the wicked shall be ashes, not alive and endlessly tormented.
Revelation 15:1 says that the seven last plagues complete the wrath of God. The KJV says "in them is filled up the wrath of God," while the NASB renders it, "in them the wrath of God is finished." the wrath of God is what causes the torment day and night during that time, but once completed only the smoke remains, as a testimony to the utter ruin resulting from God's final judgment.
Furthermore, I Corinthians 15:26 says that the last enemy to be destroyed is death. All other enemies are destroyed before that, and no enemy will exist beyond the destruction of death. Death and hell (hades) are thrown into the lake of fire in Revelation 20, and then the new heaven and earth are revealed in chapter 21. God's judgment is just, and when it comes it will be complete, and all evil and unrighteousness will be destroyed. There will not be a never-ending torture of sinners. Verse 8 of chapter 21 says that for all the wicked, "their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death." It is death, not eternal torment. And the last enemy to be destroyed will be death itself. At that point the new heaven and earth in all their perfection are ready to be inhabited for all eternity.