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Millions accept the idea that their loving Creator God and Father will sentence some people to an eternal torment, assuming it is found in the Bible. Does it even make logical sense that a God of Love and justice would impose agonising suffering forever for sins commtted during a relatively short life-span? What evil earthly ruler would even do that?
Mark Robertson examines the traditional religious idea of eternal punishment, in contrast to what the Bible actually says about this vital topic, and in doing so shows the true nature of our Father in Heaven. You will be encouraged by the truth of the Word of God.
How long is eternity? Eternity is a VERY LONG TIME.
People have tried to demonstrate how long eternity is, but something unlimited cannot be described.
What we do know is that after millions and billions of years have passed.
But eternity is not a theoretical topic.
The Bible tells us that God has eternally existed and will eternally exist into the future.
The Bible also tells us that eternal punishment is on the cards for wicked people:
41 “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: 42 for I was hungry and you gave Me no food; I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink;
45 Then He will answer them, saying, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ 46 And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Eternal punishment is usually linked with the concept of HELL. What do we mean by “hell”?
Hell in the vernacular is used to represent something that is about as bad as it gets.
In general religious terms “hell” represents the end of the line for evil doers.
There are not that many verses that support this idea, but there are a few. Here are 2:
9 ….. “If anyone worships the beast and his image, and receives his mark on his forehead or on his hand, 10 he himself shall also drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out full strength into the cup of His indignation. He shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. 11 And the smoke of their torment ascends forever and ever; and they have no rest day or night, who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name.”
47 And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire—48 where ‘Their worm does not die And the fire is not quenched.’
These verses seem to support the idea of someone being tormented forever and ever.
The interpretation of what this torment will actually be like has changed quite a bit over the years in mainstream religion.
In 1741, a famous and highly respected American preacher by the name of Jonathan Edwards delivered a sermon in Massachusetts that was so memorable and so powerful that it is still referred to and studied today in some circles. The name of the sermon was called "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God". (If you go to Enfield Massachusetts today there is a stone plaque on the site commemorating this sermon. That’s how famous it was.)
"The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much in the same way as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; His wrath towards you burns like fire; He looks upon you as worthy of nothing else but to be cast into the fire; … you are ten thousand times more abominable in His eyes than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours.
You shall be tormented in the presence of the holy angels, and in the presence of the Lamb; and when you shall be in this state of suffering, the glorious inhabitants of heaven shall go forth and look on the awful spectacle, that they may see what the wrath and fierceness of the Almighty is…
There will be no end to this exquisite horrible misery. …you will know certainly that you must wear out long ages millions of millions of ages,… and when many ages have actually been spent by you in this manner, you will know that all is but a point to what remains.
No wonder people were terrified into giving their heart to the Lord.
Yet we see no such vindictive attitude by God or Jesus in the Bible. It is a fabrication of men who distort the character of the great God.
Most of the vivid descriptions of hell as people think about it have their origins outside the Bible. Dante in his 3 part Divine Comedy written in Florence in the 1300’s came up with those famous words at the entrance to HELL: "Abandon all hope, you who enter here".
Dante just made all this up. Yet in some ways it continues to represent the thinking of wider Christians to this day, and of critics of Christianity - who mistakenly assume that this frightful imagery comes from the Bible. (GCI)
How the world has changed in recent years! Over the last 50 years or so in particular, the idea of hell has been greatly diminished in mainstream Christianity from a fiery place of endless torment to more of a state of being apart from God.
But regardless of whether you water down a doctrine or not, or whether you express it in more palatable terms:
While man is changing his perspective of hell, during all this time the Bible has not changed.
Before we look at a few of the scriptures expressing an idea of hell, we should start by looking at the big perspective.
The big picture starts with the character of God and His purpose.
And we first should ask the question:
IF IT IS TRUE: Such an idea HAS NO CHOICE BUT TO CHANGE our perspective of a loving and kind God. It MUST.
Now some dismiss this argument as fallacious, saying that regardless of what we think, that if scripture says that people are going to be tortured endlessly forever, then that is what will happen.
But everything that God does must be aligned with His character otherwise He would be inconsistent and untrustworthy.
If we read something in scripture for example which seems to imply that God is a liar
Because the Bible tells us that God’s character is consistent and unchanging.
So how does God describe Himself? (and does so many times)
Jer 9:23-24 But let him who glories glory in this, That he understands and knows Me, That I AM the Lord, exercising lovingkindness, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these I delight,” says the Lord.
He is a kind and righteous God of justice.
Think about this:
What could a person who lives 80 years possibly do to earn a punishment that never ends?
Imagine the worst possible depraved evil person in the world.
Now I want you to imagine watching that person being tortured for what they had done.
Or what about an animal?
You see the idea of eternal torture is against the very nature of a godly person.
Some teach that all this terrible torture on people would be going in some different realm and the righteous in heaven would not be aware of it.
Yet the Bible describes God as kind and merciful. It simply does not align with His character.
In addition to his fundamental kindness, scripture clearly tells us that God is a God of purpose.
Yet eternal torture serves no purpose
One religious author said there was a purpose. He put forward the idea that righteous saints will forever contemplate the torments of the damned. The idea he wrote is that the sight of these tortured souls will give them joy, “because it provides a contrast which heightens their awareness of their own bliss” (References: Walker, DP (1964) The Decline of Hell: Seventeenth-Century Discussions of Eternal Torment, University of Chicago Press, p29, and Heaven & Hell: What Does The Bible Really Teach, United Church of God an International Association, p18).
That sounds like very warped reasoning.
NOTE THIS: God does not have to use fear to keep us eternally in line.
Where the idea of an everlasting ongoing torture really comes unravelled - is in the clear biblical statements that show that
Even when people did incredible evil things, there was always a limit to God’s anger and wrath.
Micah 7:18 Who is a God like You, Pardoning iniquity And passing over the transgression of the remnant of His heritage? He does not retain His anger forever, Because He delights in mercy.
32 For I have no pleasure in the death of one who dies,” says the Lord God. “Therefore turn and live!”
Isaiah 57:16 For I will not contend forever, Nor will I always be angry; For the spirit would fail before Me, And the souls which I have made.
Genesis 6:3 And the Lord said, “My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, for he is indeed flesh; yet his days shall be one hundred and twenty years.”
Having people tortured in a hell forever endlessly would require a God whose anger was never satisfied.
Psalm 103:8 The Lord is merciful and gracious, Slow to anger, and abounding in mercy. 9 He will not always strive with us, Nor will He keep His anger forever. 10 He has not dealt with us according to our sins, Nor punished us according to our iniquities.
So when we look at God’s character and standards, we see that there are so many fundamental problems against an endless hell that it really does not pass the most basic character test.
I think: Even in churches that do teach the idea of an ever-burning hell to unbelievers, people subconsciously seem to realise there is something wrong with this teaching. Probably because it simply doesn’t feel right. It’s unjust. Go to funerals of unbelievers and listen. There is never any talk of hell – always the positives in that person’s life.
Another flaw in the belief of everlasting torment is the idea of an immortal soul. Because to have an everlasting place of torment means people must be alive forever.
(this is another subject) But briefly: the Bible is clear that eternal life is not given to everyone.
And logically, why would God give an incredible gift of eternal life to an untested person and then be somehow unable to remove that gift. Because that is the scenario that is presented to many church-goers.
That God creates a person as an immortal soul but then for some unexplained reason cannot destroy them, and so instead they just have suffer endlessly as a disembodied spirit?
Why should God be powerless to terminate a spirit being?
But all that aside, the Bible is clear that eternal life is a GIFT – ONLY for those who believe in Jesus Christ.
1 Corinthians 15:52–55 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. 53 For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. 54 So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” 55 “O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?”
John 3:16 For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life
Romans 6:23 For the wages of sin is death, BUT the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
So this idea of a never ending hell collapses on multiple fronts.
Let’s just look at this word HELL. What does the word Hell actually mean?
Here’s a question for you: How many times does the word “Hell” appear in the Bible? You might be surprised.
(Reference: Amirault, G (2018) Hell is Leaving the Bible "forever." www.tentmaker.org/articles/Hell_is_Leaving_the_Bible_Forever.html)
So how many times should it appear?
The answer is that the word HELL should not be in the Bible at all.
Many of the Bible translators had been so indoctrinated in the idea of an ever-burning place of torment that they made it a self-fulfilling prophecy by using the word ‘hell’. And the word has mislead and confused ever since.
We should also note that wrong beliefs of Hell as a place of torture have carried terrible consequences in history
There are 4 words in the Bible that are sometimes translated HELL.
OLD TESTAMENT (Hebrew)
NEW TESTAMENT (Greek)
The word Gehenna should never have been translated Hell. It was a place name and should have remained as the name ‘Gehenna’ in the Bible.
(This is the heart of the problem in so many ways)
Jesus was the main person who spoke about Gehenna.
And Jesus used Gehenna to depict the ultimate fate of evil and unrepentant people.
When we understand that the word HELL shouldn’t even be in the Bible.
All of a sudden the topic of HELL changes perspective totally.
Let’s take a quick look at a couple of concepts which are simple to understand when we see things in the right perspective:
We read at the start about everlasting punishment.
Matthew 25:46 And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Everlasting punishment simply means the punishment is permanent.
2 Thessalonians 1:8–10 says it this way:
…. those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power, 10 when He comes, in that Day, to be glorified in His saints and to be admired among all those who believe, because our testimony among you was believed.
The Bible talks about an unquenchable fire. What does that mean?
Matthew 3:12 His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
An unquenchable fire is simply a fire that is too big or too hard to be put out. We see those sort of fires on the news many times:
Just as “Eternal fire” was used to describe what happened to Sodom: (didn’t stop!) Jude 7
The Bible teaches us that one day this whole earth with be burned and a new earth created.
2 Peter 3:10–13
10 But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up. 11 Therefore, since all these things will be dissolved, what manner of persons ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, 12 looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be dissolved, being on fire, and the elements will melt with fervent heat? 13 Nevertheless we, according to His promise, look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.
Let’s also look again at the verse I read at the start in Revelation 14 about the torment rising forever.
Revelation is a book of symbols. And many of the symbols relate to the end time tribulation before Christ’s return.
9 Then a third angel followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and his image, and receives his mark on his forehead or on his hand, 10 he himself shall also drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out full strength into the cup of His indignation. He shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. 11 And the smoke of their torment ascends forever and ever; and they have no rest day or night, who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name.”
Context – is on the earth – not in hell. This is an event, not a future state.
People will be tormented because of their involvement in the catastrophic events in the last days immediately before Christ’s return.
A terrible time of tribulation.
Smoke ascending forever is again symbolic of there being nothing to stop or quench it. (the Greek phrase forever and ever here doesn’t mean eternally. Sometimes “age”)
The parable of Lazarus and the rich man is often used to demonstrate there is a “hell”.
I’m not going to look at it today as this parable is a study in itself. (For more detail refer to our free booklet, The Rich Man and Lazarus, available at: https://ucg.org.au/library/the-rich-man-and-lazarus).
But we should remember a few simple things: It’s a parable.
In reality, the parable is an extension of Jesus conflict with Pharisees over money (Luke 16:14) which he used to demonstrate how wrong they were.
So what happens after death to evil people when they die?
The Bible is consistent from start to finish that the dead know nothing and unless a dead person is raised from the dead, they have ceased to exist.
But before that finality, what we are told is that there will come a time when all people who have NOT died in the faith will rise from the grave to a later judgement.
Most people have not had the opportunity to learn about their creator and they will get the chance to live again, and to have their name added to the book of life.
12 And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and books were opened. And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books. 13 The sea gave up the dead who were in it, and Death and Hades delivered up the dead who were in them. And they were judged, each one according to his works. 14 Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. 15 And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire.
Ultimately the wages of sin are death (not torture) and if someone has his eyes opened and still refuses to turn to God, they will seal their own fate.
The good news is, knowing the character of our great God
Scriptures overwhelmingly show God’s great purpose is to give eternal life to as many as possible and to give every opportunity for people to be successful.
You may like to read the following booklets by the United Church of God:
Heaven and Hell: What Does The Bible Really Teach
What Happens After Death
The Christian calling is a combination of grace, faith, law and works. Each has a specific place in the life of a Christian seeking to follow God.