Eternal Punishment Mark Robertson
The following transcript is edited for grammar and readability
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.
Be sure to listen carefully to this important message.
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
- There is just as much time remaining as when we started out
But eternity is not a theoretical topic.
- Because for us to be here means that someone or something must have eternally existed.
- Theoretical physicist and mathematicians are always trying to explain that something can come from nothing, but they are fighting against every law of the universe and common sense.
- Someone must have been eternally alive to initiate all the laws and create all the magnificence we see around us.
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.
- A place (believed by many people) where those who have not turned to God spend their eternity in endless torment of some sort
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.
- The first major writing on this is from Tertullian in 200AD who expressed (I quote) his “joy”, his “exultation”, his “admiration” at one day hearing the endless screams and agony of those who were pompous and against Christ in this life. Warped!
- In the 3rd century, Cyprian of Carthage also wrote that “the damned will burn for ever in hell. Devouring flames will be their eternal portion and their torments will never be lessened or end”.
- This sort of teaching was maintained in most of the Catholic and Protestant movements up until the 19th century or so.
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 sermon reputedly had such a strong effect on his congregation that some members ran from the church in terror.
- Here is some of what Edwards had to say to the sinners in his audience:
"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.
- We might laugh – but this was no joke. It was deadly serious.
- Edwards was doing what a lot of religious leaders and preachers had done for hundreds of years.
- Using the fear of eternal fiery torment to scare people into turning to God.
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".
- Virgil tells Dante about his tour of hell, "I'll be your guide, and you will follow me, and I will lead you through a world of pain where dead souls writhe in endless agony and clamor, as they cry, to die again”.
- It’s enough to send shivers up your spine.
- A gigantic satanic concentration camp of the worst kind.
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.
- In 1999 Pope John Paul II rejected the reality of a physical, literal hell as a place of eternal fire and torment. Rather, the pope said, hell is separation, even in this life, from the joyful communion with God.
- He also added, "The thought of hell and even less the improper use of biblical images must not create anxiety or despair." Rather, he stated “it is a reminder of the freedom found in Christ.”
- Other mainstream protestant teachers have said similar things.
- And the fiery, scary teachings of the past are being watered down more and more.
But regardless of whether you water down a doctrine or not, or whether you express it in more palatable terms:
- Endless hopelessness is still a horrific thought.
- Imagine being alive forever in a totally bored state without any hope or purpose.
- I would suggest that being in such a mental state for even a hundred years would be absolute torture and would end up being just as bad as some sort of physical torture.
- It would send a person insane.
- So their softening of the idea still doesn’t change the absolute permanent cruelty of the state they are describing.
While man is changing his perspective of hell, during all this time the Bible has not changed.
- And just because a person believes or doesn’t believe something, doesn’t make it so.
- It is either TRUE or it is FALSE.
THE BIG PICTURE
Before we look at a few of the scriptures expressing an idea of hell, we should start by looking at the big perspective.
- It’s easy to simply jump into a verse of the Bible to make a point or to “prove” something.
- But as we have said many times, it is important that everything is kept in perspective of the big picture.
The big picture starts with the character of God and His purpose.
And we first should ask the question:
- How does the idea of people being endlessly tortured EITHER physically or mentally align with the character of God?
- Because it is a horrifying and terrifying concept beyond imagination
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
- When we know He isn’t,
- then we have to go back and see where we went wrong
- It’s the same if we read something which implies that God is a sadistic monster, then we have to go back and see where the perceived anomaly lies
- We cannot just ignore it
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 9:24 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.
- Justice means “righteous judgement”.
- Justice is a concept taught by scripture and held dearly by godly people.
- it is the understanding that punishment must fit the crime.
- it must be proportional to what has been done.
Think about this:
What could a person who lives 80 years possibly do to earn a punishment that never ends?
- It is not possible to show that such a punishment is just.
Imagine the worst possible depraved evil person in the world.
- Think of an evil person that really stirs your blood.
- Who would you pick? Hitler? Stalin? Pol Pot?
- What about some of the depraved sadistic monsters of recent times.
- People who have personally killed and tortured others and been responsible for many numbers of heinous deaths.
Now I want you to imagine watching that person being tortured for what they had done.
- How long could you stand it?
- A week? A day? An hour? Even a few minutes?
Or what about an animal?
- Let’s say a mad rabid dog or a rogue lion that just seems to delight in the satisfaction of killing – and this bad animal killed someone you loved.
- Let’s start torturing them.
- How long could you put up with hearing the cries and pain of even an animal?
You see the idea of eternal torture is against the very nature of a godly person.
- Our Christian walk teaches us to be merciful and kind like our Father in Heaven.
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.
- But God would still have to be in control.
Yet the Bible describes God as kind and merciful. It simply does not align with His character.
GOD OF PURPOSE
- 2. In addition to his fundamental kindness, scripture clearly tells us that God is a God of purpose.
- He does things that have meaning and value and outcomes.
Yet eternal torture serves no purpose
- What purpose is served by torture that has no end?
- It is purposeless since it solves nothing and never ends.
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.
- Imagine parents forever looking at their children being endlessly tortured, and experience bliss?!
- Or a husband being fulfilled seeing his lost wife screaming endlessly.
- This paints God as cruel and merciless.
- Using fear tactics to help His saints get into line.
NOTE THIS: God does not have to use fear to keep us eternally in line.
- FEAR is the technique of despots - not of God.
- The incredible love He has shown through His son will inspire us, not scare us.
- And it will inspire us for eternity.
GOD’S ANGER IS LIMITED
- 3. Where the idea of an everlasting ongoing torture really comes unravelled - is in the clear biblical statements that show that
- God has no delight in the death of the wicked.
- And that his anger is always limited. It is never forever.
- Anger is not his natural state.
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.
Ezekiel 18:32 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.
- Such a God is not presented in the Bible
- God takes NO delight in the death of the wicked. Why would He inflict sadness and pain on Himself - forever seeing people endlessly unhappy?
Psalm 103:8-10 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.
ETERNAL LIFE IS NOT INHERENT
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.
- It is a very special gift,
- A gift only reserved for the faithful.
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?
- Of course He isn’t!
- If He created it, He can destroy it. That should be obvious.
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.
HELL AND THE BIBLE
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.
The original authorised King James Bible of 1611 had the word hell – 54 times.
Yet the earlier Geneva Bible of 1599 had hell only 42 times.
The New King James only has it – 32 times.
The Revised standard version has only - 12 times.
NIV only uses the word 13 times.
New American Bible 1970 – zero.
Youngs Literal Translation done in 1891 – zero.
The Jewish Tanakh (OT) – zero.
Yet the relatively new Message paraphase has it 68 times!
Bible in Original Order by Fred Coulter – zero.
(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.
- Hell was a wrong translation and a wrongly used word from the start.
- The word doesn’t bear any resemblance to Hebrew and Greek words of either the old nor the New Testament.
- It is a German (teutonic) word (HEL) with pagan origins.
- The word itself means nothing more than concealed or covered
- But it was used in pagan Teutonic mythology to describe an evil underworld of punishment and horror
- Even Wikipedia notes this: “the word (HEL) was used to transfer a pagan concept into Christian theology and its vocabulary”
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
- People do not realise the awful consequences of some doctrinal errors.
- It led to the terrible practice of burning heretics at the stake.
- It is a heretical doctrine that has warped man’s view of God’s grace, kindness and justice.
There are 4 words in the Bible that are sometimes translated HELL.
OLD TESTAMENT (Hebrew)
SHEOL: In the Old Testament we have the Hebrew word SHEOL which simply means a pit or a grave. It has nothing to do with a place of burning fire or punishment. It should never have been translated hell.
NEW TESTAMENT (Greek)
HADES: This is the equivalent of the Hebrew SHEOL. It again simply means grave or pit. It has nothing to do with everlasting fire or fire of any sort. Again, It should never have been translated hell.
TARTARUS: This word is used only once in Bible in 2 Peter. It is the place of darkness and abyss where demons are restrained. (Maybe it’s the dry places that Jesus spoke of).
GEHENNA: The last word is Gehenna. The Greek word Gehenna is derived from the Hebrew expression ge-hinnom which means the "valley of Hinnom." Gehenna is the valley of Hinnom. The valley is on the south side of Jerusalem.
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.
- In His day Gehenna was Jerusalem’s dump
- Gehenna was a place of utter destruction as all His listeners of the day would know
- It was a horrible dump - nothing like a tip of our day
- It was full of putrid garbage and included rotting animals and even executed criminals
- (If Jesus hadn’t been rescued by Joseph of Aritamea his body would have been thrown in Gehenna like other criminals.)
- It was very unhygienic and riddled with worms and maggots
- Sulphur-fed fires burned there continually and they never went out year after year because new garbage was being added all the time
- fires were there to keep the filth and vermin under control – at least a little
- The worms ‘never died’ so to speak because new carcasses were added all the time. The flies and maggots were always there.
And Jesus used Gehenna to depict the ultimate fate of evil and unrepentant people.
- They will end up like the garbage of Gehenna
- Finally burned to ash and be dust under the feet of the righteous
There was no concept of Gehenna being a place of eternal torture.
- It was simply a very powerful symbol used to represent a future fire that will burn and renew this earth
When we understand that the word HELL shouldn’t even be in the Bible.
- And we understand these 4 words (SHEOL, HADES, TARTORUS and GEHENNA) –
- Then everything changes.
All of a sudden the topic of HELL changes perspective totally.
- And is not that hard to understand at all
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.
- It is final. They will never live again.
- There is no concept of someone being alive here and being tortured.
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:
- Fires sweeping through a house or bushland with such savagery that it consumes everything in its path
- Or fires that smoulder underground for months or even years
- These fires are often not able to be quenched, they eventually just burn themselves out.
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.
- That incredible burning event is called the lake of fire
- It is an unquenchable fire that will consume whatever is left on the earth at that time
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.
TORMENT ASCENDS “FOREVER”
Let’s also look again at the verse I read at the start in Revelation 14 about the torment rising forever.
- Again, if we remove preconceived ideas of hell we see that it is nothing to do with a place of eternal torment.
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.
- There will be no rest day and night at this time.
- It was like that for many people towards the end of WW2
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”)
LAZARUS AND THE RICH MAN (Luke 16:19-31)
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.
- a parable done as an allegory
- Never meant to be understood literally
- And one allegorical story can’t negate God’s character and all the solid references to this topic that we do have
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.
WHAT HAPPENS AFTER DEATH?
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.
- God doesn’t have to punish someone forever
- He simply does nothing and they remain dead
- And they fade from memory.
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.
- The small and great will stand before the judgement throne
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
- His mercy and kindness
- His love of justice
- We can be absolutely confident that no one will ever be treated unjustly
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: