Since the bible does not teach the theory that unredeemed human beings possess immortality or the view that ungodly people will suffer eternal torture, the only way adherents of these beliefs can defend themselves is by milking a small number of texts for details which the entire rest of the bible refutes. The purpose of this chapter is to honestly examine these passages. Ironically, as we shall plainly see, a close examination of these texts actually gives further support for literal everlasting destruction.
Our first supposed proof text for eternal conscious torment is this passage from Daniel:
Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. (3) Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.
This text speaks of two resurrections—the resurrection of the righteous to everlasting life, and the resurrection of the unrighteous to shame and everlasting contempt. Please notice how this text clearly states that only the righteous will be resurrected to everlasting life. “Life” here is the Hebrew word chay (the equivalent of the Greek zoe as shown in Chapter Four) which simply means “living thing” or the state of being “alive” (Vine 138). This is the very same Hebrew word used to describe the “breath of life” that God breathed into Adam to animate him (Genesis 2:7) and the “breath of life” of animals as well (Genesis 6:17; 7:15,22). This “life” is spoken of in the bible as the express opposite of death (Deuteronomy 30:19; 32:39). My point is that there’s nothing profound or mystical about the word “life” here. It simply refers to life, the state of being alive—the condition of simple conscious existence. According to the above text only one class of humanity, the righteous, will be resurrected unto everlasting life.
What about the class of humanity that is resurrected unto “shame and everlasting contempt?” Well, one thing’s for sure, we know that they are not resurrected for the purpose of being granted life, because only the righteous will be resurrected for this purpose, the text makes this very clear. The resurrection of the unrighteous is a resurrection of shame because they are resurrected for the express purpose of judgment and condemnation. As Jesus declared:
“Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice, (29) and come out—those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned.”
As in the passage from Daniel, we see here that only the righteous will be resurrected to live. “Those who have done evil” will be resurrected for the purpose of judgment and condemnation. Condemnation to what? Condemnation to the lake of fire where they will suffer “the second death” (Revelation 20:11-15), which consists of God destroying “both soul and body” (Mathew 10:28). Isaiah 41:11-12 explains that the ungodly will be “shamed and dishonored” in the sense that they “will perish,” “be as nothing, and non-existent” (NASB). This is the ultimate shame—to have one’s life judged so worthless and defiled that it must be blotted out of existence and memory.
What about the “contempt” that the unrighteous will suffer which is said to be everlasting? The Hebrew for “contempt” here is deraown (day-raw-one’). Perhaps it will enlighten us to view this very same Hebrew word in another Old Testament passage, which also pertains to the eternal fate of the unrighteous. Here deraown is translated as “loathsome:”
“As the new heavens and new earth that I make will endure before me,” declares the LORD, “so will your name and descendants endure. (23) From one new moon to another, all mankind will come and bow down before me,” says the LORD. (24) “And they will go out and look upon the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathsome (deraown) to all mankind.”
According to this text, what will be “loathsome to all mankind?” The dead bodies of those who rebelled against the LORD! Notice that these people are dead—all that remains of them are their lifeless “carcasses” (as the KJV states). Just as a grotesque, rotting corpse would be loathsome to you or I, so the proud and wicked people who dared to rebel against the Almighty will be everlastingly loathed and abhorred by the LORD and the righteous.
Would you like further reinforcement that these rebels are indeed dead? Eight verses earlier it states:
For with fire and with his sword the LORD will execute judgment upon all men, and many will be those slain by the LORD.
This text speaks for itself: On judgment day there will be many “slain by the LORD.” The ungodly will be slain, not kept alive and sadistically tormented forever. Their carcasses will be loathsome to all humanity blessed with everlasting life.
(We will examine the phrase “their worm will not die; nor will their fire be quenched” in the forthcoming section on Mark 9:43-48).
Lastly, immediately after informing us of the two classes of resurrections, Daniel 12:3 states how the righteous will “shine like the brightness of the heavens… like the stars forever and ever.” Notice that the text does not go on to share anything about the state of existence of those who are resurrected “to shame and everlasting contempt.” Why? Naturally because they will be “slain by the LORD.” They will not be granted everlasting life; consequently, they will have no existence of which to speak. They’ll be dead. They’ll be revolting carcasses—condemned to death for all eternity.
Let’s observe a phrase Jesus used which adherents of the eternal conscious torture theory often cite to support their view:
“As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. (41) The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. (42) They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
(49) “This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous (50) and throw them into the fiery furnace where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
The key phrase here that adherents of eternal torment use to support their position is, of course, “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” The bible shows Jesus using this phrase four other times in Matthew (Matt. 8:12, 22:13, 24:51, 25:30) and once in Luke (Luke 13:28).
Devotees of never-ending conscious misery seem to think that Jesus was saying, “They will endlessly weep and gnash their teeth in fiery conscious torment forever and ever.” But the fact is that this is not what Jesus said. We need to be careful to let a biblical passage speak for itself and resist the temptation to read more into it based upon our doctrinal biases. When we read more into a simple statement like this, as just shown, we become guilty of adding to the Word of God (Proverbs 30:6; Revelation 22:18; Deuteronomy 4:2, 12:32).
“Weeping and gnashing of teeth” is simply a solemn reminder that “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31) for God’s enemies will experience “a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God” (Hebrews 10:27).
Regarding the “weeping,” if you were an unrepentant rebel against God, would you not be weeping the day you finally fell into His hands for judgment? And would you not be wailing as you are judged unworthy of living and subsequently cast into a vast fiery furnace? And would you not wail the entire time it takes the fire to consume you—however long that would be? Of course you would. That’s why James warned rich oppressors to weep and wail for fear of God’s coming judgment, referred to as “the day of slaughter,” when fire will devour them (James 5:1-5).
As for “gnashing of teeth,” most of us might think that this is a reference to the experience of pain, but in the bible “gnashing of teeth” describes the wrath of an adversary about to kill his victim—the teeth belong to the tormentor, not the tormented (see Job 16:9; Psalm 35:16, 37:12; Lamentations 2:16 and Acts 7:54). Psalm 112 is the only exception. The psalm starts by stating how “Blessed is the man who fears the LORD” (verse 1), and goes on to describe such a person in verses 2-9. The final verse mentions the wicked person by contrast:
The wicked man will see and be vexed, He will gnash his teeth and waste away; the longings of the wicked will come to nothing.
As in the other texts regarding “gnashing of teeth,” the wicked man’s gnashing of teeth is evidently an expression of his fury against the righteous. Yet even while He grinds his teeth in ineffective rage, He wastes away and comes to nothing. The phrase could, in this one instance, be interpreted as a reference to pain, but the pain clearly does not last forever; the gnashing of teeth ends and the person is ultimately extinguished.
Edward Fudge’s conclusions on “weeping and gnashing of teeth” is well expressed:
In scriptural usage the expression ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’ seems to indicate two separate activities. The ‘weeping’ reflects the terror of the doomed as they begin to realize that God has rejected them and as they anticipate the execution of his sentence. ‘Gnashing of teeth’ seems to express their bitter rage and enmity toward God, who has sentenced them, and toward the redeemed, who will forever be blessed. The common assumption that ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’ describes the everlasting agony of souls in conscious torment is the interpretation of a later age and lacks any clear biblical support (The Fire that Consumes, 104-105).
Mr. Fudge does a fine job of wrapping up the matter, but let me add this: The reason I quoted the “weeping and gnashing of teeth” passage from Matthew chapter 13 above is because, unlike the other five times this phrase appears, Matthew 13 gives us enough information to properly draw a sound conclusion. In verse 42 Jesus is still explaining The Parable of the Weeds, and therefore what He is saying must be interpreted in light of what He has already said. What did He already say? In verse 40 Jesus stated “As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age.” Do weeds burn forever without ever quite burning up? No, they burn for a period of time until they completely burn up. It will be the same way with ungodly people on judgment day.
In addition to this, Jesus describes the lake of fire in verses 42 and 50 as “the fiery furnace.” As we’ve already determined, “fiery furnace” is an unmistakable example of complete incineration. No one can argue with this fact. By adding that “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” Jesus is simply describing the miserable way it will be on judgment day. Can you imagine the horrible scene that it will be? The weeping, the wailing, the gnashing of teeth as God’s enemies are cast into the lake of fire and consumed by raging fire? This is the only sound way we can interpret this phrase. After all, if Jesus meant to say that these sinners would perpetually weep and gnash their teeth throughout all eternity, don’t you think He would’ve mentioned it somewhere? Yet, He mentions no such thing. Instead He continually warned against the utter death and destruction of the second death, and backed this up with a multitude of easy-to-understand examples.
In three of the “weeping and gnashing of teeth” texts—Matthew 8:12; 22:13 and 25:30—Jesus refers to the lake of fire as “outer darkness” (or as the NIV states “outside, into the darkness”). “Outer darkness” is merely one of many names the bible uses for the lake of fire. For example: Gehenna, burning sulfur, eternal fire, etc. “Outer darkness” is a fit name for the lake of fire since it is the eternal spiritual realm prepared for the devil and his angels where the light of God’s presence does not shine. When people are damned to “outer darkness” to suffer the second death, there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, but God will ultimately utterly destroy both soul and body. That’s why the lake of fire is referred to as “the second death” for unredeemed human beings, but not the devil and his angels who possess intrinsic unconditional immortality. The nature of the lake of fire is such that it exterminates those that are mortal and torments those that are immortal.
Jude spoke of wicked, godless people as “wandering stars, for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever” (Jude 13). How do we harmonize this statement with the many passages that portray the lake of fire as a gigantic garbage dump where God’s raging fire utterly consumes his human enemies? Obviously “blackest darkness” refers to the state of utter, total oblivion. This is the blackest, most extreme darkness imaginable to the human mind—complete obliteration of conscious being in which there is no hope of resurrection or recovery. There is no blacker darkness than this. They “will be as nothing and non-existent” (Isaiah 41:12 NASB):
OBADIAH 16 b (KJV)
…they shall be as though they had not been.
Let’s look at one of the most frequently cited texts used to support the view of eternal conscious torment:
“ ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.’ ”
(46) “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
First of all, please notice, once again, that this text plainly declares that only the righteous will be granted eternal life. In the previous chapter we saw that “eternal life” (aionios zoe) literally refers to perpetual life in the age to come. If only the righteous will be granted eternal life in the age to come, then the unrighteous will obviously not be granted eternal life in the age to come. The bible is clear about this:
Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.
So what does Jesus say will be done with the unrighteous in Matthew 25:41 and 46 above? One thing’s for certain, He says nothing at all about eternal conscious life in utter misery; He merely states that they will be cast “into the eternal fire,” which is the lake of fire (verse 41), and that this is their “eternal punishment” (verse 46). Please note that Jesus said “eternal punishment” and not “eternal punishing.”
The word “punishment” is translated from the Greek word kolasis (kol’-as-is) which refers to a “penal infliction” (Strong 43) and thus a judicial sentence. Jesus does not say here what exactly the penal infliction will be, only that it will take place in the lake of fire (“the eternal fire”) and that the infliction will last forever (that is, take place in the age to come, which lasts forever). Since Jesus doesn’t specify here what exactly the penal sentence is, we must therefore turn to the rest of scripture for answers. And we know elsewhere Jesus plainly taught that God would “destroy both soul and body” in the lake of fire (Matthew 10:28) and Paul taught that the ungodly would suffer “everlasting destruction” (2 Thessalonians 1:9). Thus the bible is quite clear that the eternal punishment or penal sentence that the unrighteous will be condemned to in the lake of fire is everlasting destruction of soul and body—destruction of the whole person which lasts forever—not eternal punishing.
Let’s also consider the fact that the bible uses the word “eternal” to describe the results of an act even when it is clear that the act itself is not of endless duration. For instance, Hebrews 9:12 speaks of the “eternal redemption” which Christ obtained for us; yet no one absurdly supposes that this redemption will be an endless process which will go on through all eternity “because by one sacrifice He has made perfect forever those who are being made holy” (Hebrews 10:14). Also, Hebrews 6:2 speaks of “eternal judgment,” yet no one ludicrously claims that the work of judging will go on forever and ever without end. In the very same way the act of punishment need not go on endlessly for the punishment to be eternal. Like eternal redemption and eternal judgment, eternal punishment is eternal in the sense that its results are eternal (McFarland 14).
Some contend that Jesus was teaching eternal conscious torment by describing the lake of fire as “the eternal fire.” Yet this is simply a name for, and a description of, the lake of fire which was “prepared for the devil and his angels” as their eternal habitation (verse 41). As pointed out in Chapter Four, these wicked, rebellious angels possess unconditional immortality and thus must be exiled to exist somewhere for all eternity. What else can God possibly do with such evil, irredeemable creatures that can never die?
Furthermore, as we’ve already seen in Chapter Three, Jude 7 plainly states that Sodom and Gomorrah were overthrown by “eternal fire.” Since these cities have long since been completely incinerated, “eternal fire” in this context must refer to total destruction which lasts forever, and not to never-ending conscious torment. As already noted, this complete and permanent destruction of Sodom & Gomorrah is a biblical example of what will happen to the ungodly when they suffer the second death (2 Peter 2:6). So, technically, the phrase “eternal fire” merely refers to destruction which lasts forever when applied to human beings. As always, we must resist the temptation to add our own biased interpretation to various biblical phrases and simply let scripture interpret scripture.
Let’s turn to another text which is often cited to prove the eternal conscious torment theory:
“If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell (Gehenna) where the fire never goes out. (45) And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell (Gehenna). (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 than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell (Gehenna), (48) where ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched. 26 ’”
The best way to handle this long passage is to examine it point by point and then take it as a whole.
First of all, plainly observe that verses 43 and 45 state that it is better to enter life maimed or crippled than to be thrown into “hell” (Greek: Gehenna). Verse 47 enlightens us that those who “enter life” will “enter the kingdom of God.” This is in perfect harmony with what we’ve repeatedly witnessed in the scriptures throughout this study: only the righteous will be granted eternal life and partake of the kingdom of God in the age to come (i.e. the new Jerusalem and new earth—see Revelation 21).
If only the righteous will “enter life” in the age to come, then the unrighteous, who will be “thrown into Gehenna” (the lake of fire), will not enter any kind of life at all. No, they will suffer the second death—everlasting destruction of both soul and body—as we have repeatedly observed.
Secondly, notice that all three times Jesus refers to the lake of fire throughout this passage He uses the example of Gehenna. As already detailed in Chapter Two, Gehenna was the local trash dump & incinerator located right outside the city walls of Jerusalem to the south. Trash, garbage and the carcasses of animals, despised criminals & vanquished enemies were thrown into Gehenna for the express purpose of disposal and eradication. Why would Jesus continually use this local trash dump & incinerator as an illustration of the lake of fire? Because Gehenna was a very certain symbol of destruction which all of his hearers readily understood. We need to keep this important fact in mind whenever viewing biblical texts that speaks of Gehenna. Sadly, most bible readers will miss out on these important facts because 1.) the English word “hell” disguises the Greek Gehenna, and 2.) they lack any historical knowledge of what Gehenna was at the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry.
Keeping the above two points in mind let’s now observe Jesus’ statement in verse 43, “Hell (Gehenna), where the fire never goes out.” This was actually true of Gehenna—the Valley of Hinnom—as the fires of this city dump were kept constantly burning for the purpose of burning up refuse. But this is also true of the lake of fire of which Gehenna is an example. As we’ve already covered, Jesus spoke of the lake of fire as “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41). The LORD had no choice but to prepare such a place after the devil and his angels rebelled against him. Since the devil and his demons possess unconditional immortality and can never die, the lake of fire will be their eternal habitation; but for mortal human beings, the lake of fire will be used as God’s chosen instrument to execute “the second death.” The fire never went out in the constantly smoking Valley of Hinnom (Gehenna), but the refuse thrown into it was eradicated—the refuse didn’t ludicrously burn forever. In the same way, the fire in the lake of fire will evidently never go out, but the people cast in it will be completely eradicated.
Let’s now examine Jesus’ statement in verse 48: “Hell (Gehenna), where ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’ ” Despite the obvious ambiguity of the statement, this is one of the major texts cited by adherents of the eternal torment theory to prove their view. Yet, let’s face the facts here: does Jesus say anything in this verse about people being in a state of perpetual, undying torment? No. In fact, if we were to really take this verse literally, then Jesus is evidently teaching on the immortality of worms! The case for the eternal torment theory is pretty sad indeed if its adherents must resort to citing this verse as one of their major proof texts. If the ultimate consequence of sin is as harsh and cruel as everlasting fiery conscious torture, would Jesus Christ, the living Word of God, piddle around making such ambiguous statements? No, He would not fail to clearly spell out the truth regarding such an important subject. That’s why He plainly referred to the lake of fire as Gehenna three times in this very passage, because Gehenna was a very certain symbol of destruction which backs up his many clear and solemn statements regarding the second death.
You’ll notice that verse 48 is in quotation marks. That’s because Jesus is quoting the very last passage of the book of Isaiah. Although we’ve already viewed this verse in the section on Daniel 12:2, let’s go ahead and observe it again (from a different translation), as this is the only way we can properly interpret Jesus’ words.
ISAIAH 66:24 (NASB)
“They (the righteous) shall go forth and look on the corpses of the men who have transgressed against me. For their worm shall not die, and their fire shall not be quenched; and they shall be an abhorrence to all mankind.”
“The corpses” refer to the people who have transgressed against the LORD and will be thrown into the lake of fire. Please notice that they are no longer alive. They are dead. They have been destroyed. They are loathsome, ashen, worm-chewed corpses! They will be “an abhorrence to all mankind” just as an ashen, worm-chewed corpse of a despised criminal would be abhorrent to us.
The fact that these transgressors are, in fact, lifeless corpses is backed up by verse 16 of the same chapter, which states that they will be “slain by the LORD,” and verse 17, which states that “they will meet their end.” The second death is when the ungodly will meet their end, not when they’ll meet the beginning of life in never-ending conscious agony.
The Hebrew for “worm” refers to maggots (Strong 123). The unmistakable fact is that the bodies affected by these maggots are dead. This is natural since maggots exclusively devour dead flesh, not living creatures. And, it should be added, maggots do not die, they turn into flies.
Being that Gehenna was a garbage dump, maggots inevitably bred freely there and preyed upon the filth. When corpses of animals or executed criminals were thrown in, they would either be destroyed by maggots, by the fires that kept constantly burning there, or by a combination of both (Hornor 22).
Understanding the unmistakable context of Jesus’ quote from Isaiah, as well as the historical facts regarding Gehenna help us to properly interpret Jesus’ words from Mark 9:43-48.
By not rightly dividing the Word of God—that is, being biased and superficial in their “studies”—many misguided hellfire preachers have had a field day with Mark 9:48, drawing up all kinds of bizarre interpretations, including how immortal worms will forever chew on the undying souls of the damned in hell. In response to this, I have a much less ambiguous “worm verse” that I’d like to share, which is also from the book of Isaiah:
“For the moth will eat them up like a garment; the worm will devour them like wool. But my righteousness will last forever, my salvation through all generations.”
Just as moths eat or destroy garments, so the ungodly will be destroyed in the lake of fire. Like Mark 9:48, this is undoubtedly a figurative example of everlasting destruction; it is meant to be taken seriously, but not necessarily literally. I doubt, after all, that there will be literal moths or worms in the lake of fire devouring those thrown in. We’ve already deduced from scripture that, literally, the ungodly will be totally consumed by raging fire—both soul and body—when cast into the lake of fire. This will result in the blackest darkness of all—absolute obliteration and extinction of being.
Notice how the everlasting destruction of the ungodly is contrasted with the LORD’s righteousness and salvation which will last forever. Those who accept God’s gracious gift of salvation—eternal life—will experience this salvation forever. Those who reject it have no “forever” to look forward to; they will be destroyed like garments devoured by moths or worms. Verses 3,6-8 & 11 also confirm that this is indeed an eschatological text and thus relevant to the eternal fate of ungodly people. Why is it that adherents of the eternal torment theory fail to ever mention this “worm verse”? I’ll tell you why—because it contradicts the religious-traditional position they so dearly embrace. 27
Let us now consider the latter part of verse 48 where Jesus states, “hell (Gehenna)… where the fire is not quenched.” Adherents of eternal torture often attach their own meaning to this statement and suggest that it is supportive of their view. Yet, there are multiple references to unquenchable fire throughout the scriptures and none of these passages refer to eternal conscious torment but rather to fire that cannot be extinguished or resisted and consumes until nothing is left. See for yourself how evident this is from this text:
Therefore this is what the Sovereign LORD says: “My anger and my wrath will be poured out on this place (Judah), on man and beast, on the trees of the field, and on the fruit of the ground, and it will burn and not be quenched.”
“Burn and not be quenched” in this passage could not possibly refer to burning forever without end. After all, will the trees of the field and the fruit of the ground, as well as the men and beasts of Judah, burn forever?
Here’s another example from Jeremiah:
JEREMIAH 21:12 b, 14
“…my wrath will break out and burn like fire because of the evil you have done—burn with no one to quench it.”
“I will punish you as your deeds deserve,” declares the LORD. “I will kindle a fire in your forests that will consume everything around you.”
We clearly see here that God’s wrath will break out and “burn with no one to quench it” in the sense that it will “consume everything.”
These and many other texts which mention unquenchable fire prove that such phrases simply refer to the irrevocability of God’s judgment and wrath—for when the LORD’s judgment is pronounced and the fire is set to destroy, He will allow nothing to quench it until the consumption is complete (see, for example, Isaiah 34:9-11; Ezekiel 20:47-48; Amos 5:6; Matthew 3:12 and Luke 3:17).
Let us now examine Mark 9:43-48 as a whole. Jesus made very similar comments in Matthew 5:29-30 and 18:8-9. The point Jesus is making in these texts is clear: If we want to enter eternal life we must be careful to cut off things in our present lives that cause us to sin, because the wages of sin is death, and this wage will be meted out in Gehenna, the lake of fire, God’s garbage dump & incinerator. More basically, Jesus is simply encouraging us to flee from sin because it will prevent us from entering life, and will, in fact, lead to ultimate extinction. This is a very important matter, but this is all Jesus is essentially saying in these texts. Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, made the same point a bit more succinctly when He declared “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).
This next passage is not often cited in support of eternal torment but it has been thrown at me at least once, so let’s go ahead and take a look at it (we need an excuse to look at it anyway as it is actually a strong proof text for everlasting destruction):
God “will give to each person according to what He has done.” (7) To those who by persistence in doing good, seek glory, honor and immortality, He will give eternal life. (8) But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. (9) There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the gentile; (10) but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the gentile.
(12) All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law,
Paul starts out this passage by quoting Psalm 62:12 and Proverbs 24:12: On judgment day God will give to each person according to what He or she has done. To those who persistently do good and seek immortality, He will grant eternal life. Notice clearly that immortality is not something that people intrinsically possess, it must be sought. Those who seek it will find it, as Jesus himself said, “seek and you will find” (Matthew 7:7). Once again we clearly see that only one class of people will be granted immortality and eternal life—those who seek immortality and actively practice their faith, that is, the righteous. 28 If only one of the two classes of people will be granted life and immortality, then we know that the other class of people will not be granted life and immortality. If these people are not granted life and immortality, it naturally follows that they will be condemned to death. That’s why Paul goes on to state in verse 12 that all who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law. In fact, right before this passage Paul declares that, according to God’s righteous decree, those who unrepentantly practice sin deserve death (1:32).
Paul describes the class of people who will not be granted eternal life and immortality, as “self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil.” He goes on to declare in verses 8 and 9 what this class of people can expect on judgment day: “…there will be wrath and anger. There will be trouble and distress.” “Wrath and anger” describe the scene from God’s perspective, while “trouble and distress” portray it from the perspective of the ungodly people who will suffer His wrath and anger.
Naturally, adherents of eternal torture would have us believe that God’s “wrath and anger” entails never-ending conscious agony; and this is strengthened, they claim, by the proclamation that the recipients of this wrath and anger will experience “trouble and distress.”
There are two obvious problems with this contention: The first is that it is hermeneutically unsound to take a phrase like “wrath and anger” and add to it our own personal interpretation which just so happens to coincide with our pet beliefs. Secondly, scripture must always be interpreted by scripture; this is an interpretational law because God, the author of Holy Scripture, is of one mind.
So what does God’s “wrath and anger” mean according to the bible? The scriptures clearly reveal what results when God’s wrath and anger are poured out:
“So I will pour out my wrath on them (the sinful people of Judah) and consume them with my fiery anger, bringing down on their own heads all they have done, declares the Sovereign LORD.”
Your hand will lay hold on all your enemies; your right hand will seize your foes. (9) At the time of your appearing you will make them like a fiery furnace. In his wrath the LORD will swallow them up, and his fire will consume them.
As you can plainly see, when God’s wrath and anger are finally poured out—after much patience and mercy, I might add—people are utterly consumed and destroyed, not consciously tortured endlessly.
Zephaniah 1:14 - 2:3 informs us about the future “great day of the LORD” and describes this day as “a day of wrath” (1:15,18 and 2:2) and “the day of the LORD’s anger” (2:2-3). Notice what will result from God’s wrath and anger:
“Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them on the day of the LORD’s wrath. In the fire of his jealousy the whole world will be consumed, for He will make a sudden end of all who live on the earth.”
Verse 15 describes this day of God’s wrath and anger as “a day of distress” and “a day of trouble” for the people who are subject to His wrath and anger. Of course they’ll experience “trouble and distress,” but they won’t experience “trouble and distress” continuously forever and ever, as the text clearly shows that God’s wrath and anger will ultimately result in the whole world being consumed—bringing “a sudden end to all who live on the earth.”
Because scripture must always be interpreted in light of what the rest of scripture teaches, this helps enlighten us as to exactly what Paul was talking about in Romans 2:8-9 when He stated that there will be wrath and anger, trouble and distress for all those who reject the truth and follow evil.
The second reason we cannot take “there will be wrath and anger… trouble and distress” as a reference to eternal conscious torment is because, as already pointed out, this passage is sandwiched between two crystal clear statements that 1.) according to God’s righteous decree, sinners “deserve death” (1:32), and 2.) “all who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law” (2:12). Keep in mind that originally there were no chapter divisions or verse numberings in the epistles; these were added much later for the sake of convenience.
We could sum up Romans 2:6-12 as follows: Only those who “do good” and seek immortality will be granted eternal life. Those who reject the truth and follow evil deserve death and therefore will experience God’s wrath and anger which always results in consumptive perishment—“for all who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law.”
We are left with one last supposed proof text for eternal torture to scrutinize:
“If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark on the forehead or on the hand, (10) He, too, will drink of the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured out full strength into the cup of his wrath. He will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the lamb (Jesus). (11) And the smoke of their torment rises forever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast or his image, or anyone who receives the mark of his name.”
As you can see, this passage describes the harsh divine judgment that will befall people who choose to worship the beast and receive his mark during the 7-year tribulation period. I admit that a casual reading of this text gives the impression that these people will suffer eternal conscious torment, but this conclusion does not stand up to a thorough biblical analysis. Let me present four solid reasons why we cannot interpret this passage as a reference to eternal conscious torture:
First of all, although this passage might at first glance give the impression that God will sadistically torment people in his presence forever and ever, it does not say that. All it states is that these rebellious people will be tormented with burning sulfur and that “the smoke of their torment rises forever and ever”—there’s a difference. “Smoke” indicates that they will be burned up and “torment” would refer to the anguish experienced while being burned up. This perfectly coincides with what the Holy Spirit inspired David to write in Psalm 37:20: “But the wicked shall perish… Into smoke they shall vanish away” (NKJV).
We’ve already covered the fact that, when people suffer the second death, conscious suffering will be meted out to each individual as divine justice properly dictates. This makes perfect sense when comparing, say, Jack the Ripper and the friendly pagan guy at work who simply wants nothing to do with the Lord. The pagan guy might experience a split second of pain when raging fire utterly consumes him, but doesn’t a fiend like Jack the Ripper justly deserve a bit more conscious suffering before eternal oblivion? Of course He does. That’s why Jesus said judgment day would be more bearable for some than for others and that some would be punished more severely even though they all suffer the same ultimate fate—literal everlasting destruction. This is actually a comforting aspect of judgment day as every evildoer throughout history who has ever “gotten away” with wicked deeds will have to stand before the true “Supreme Court” and answer for his or her crimes. As Erwin Lutzer aptly puts it: “Every court case ever tried on earth will be reopened; every action and motive will be meticulously inspected and just retribution meted out. In the presence of an all-knowing God there will be no unsolved murders, no unknown child abductor, and no hidden bribe” (107).
In the case of Revelation 14:9-11, this passage is solely referring to those who have chosen to worship the beast and receive his mark during the 7-year tribulation period. This is apparently a very heinous sin to God and therefore these people will be punished very severely.
The second reason we can’t take Revelation 14:9-11 as a reference to never-ending conscious torment is because this passage has a “sister text” which uses the very same terminology wherein the meaning can’t possibly be mistaken. This sister text is from the Old Testament and is therefore the foundation upon which Revelation 14:9-11 rests. Let’s go ahead and observe this text:
ISAIAH 34:9-10 a
Edom’s streams will be turned into pitch, her dust into burning sulfur; her land will become blazing pitch! (10) It will not be quenched night and day; its smoke will rise forever.
Reading this passage we get the strong impression that the kingdom of Edom will burn forever and ever without end but the entire rest of the chapter renders this interpretation impossible. The rest of the chapter clearly shows that Edom will become a desolate desert inhabited by owls, jackals and hyenas. Verses 5 & 6 state that the people of Edom will be “totally destroyed” and slaughtered, and Obadiah 10 & 18 back this up, stating that Edom will “be destroyed forever”—consumed by the fire of God’s judgment and wrath. Therefore the statement “it will not be quenched night and day; its smoke will rise forever” cannot be taken to mean what it might casually seem.
Observe how Isaiah 34:9-10 and Revelation 14:10-11 use the same terminology:
Her dust (will be turned) into burning sulfur
He will be tormented with burning sulfur
Its smoke will rise forever
The smoke of their torment rises forever
It will not be quenched night and day
There is no rest day or night
This proves that the terminology used in Revelation 14:10-11 cannot refer to eternal conscious torment, because just as the entire rest of Isaiah 34 renders this interpretation impossible for Isaiah 34:9-10 a, so the entire rest of the bible renders this interpretation impossible for Revelation 14:10-11.
Please notice that Isaiah 34:10 plainly states that Edom will burn and “not be quenched night and day.” This proves that the phrase “night and day” or “day or night” does not refer to an unending amount of time. The burning sulfur that destroyed Edom was not quenched “night and day” until the entire kingdom was destroyed. Likewise, the wicked people spoken of in Revelation 14:10-11 will have no rest from their torment “day or night” until the burning sulfur totally destroys them. “Burning sulfur” is simply another name for the lake of fire (see Revelation 21:8); so being “tormented with burning sulfur” is a reference to the second death. For further proof, Paul stated that He worked and prayed “night and day” (1 Thessalonians 2:9; 3:10), but He did neither non-stop, and both working and praying ceased when He died. Acts 9:24 and Revelation 12:10 give additional support that this phrase refers to a temporary period of time.
The third reason we can’t regard Revelation 14:10-11 as a reference to eternal conscious torment is because there are other texts in the very same book of Revelation that also use the same terminology as Revelation 14:10-11, but like Isaiah 34:9-10, these texts also distinctly refer only to complete destruction by fire: Chapter 18 of Revelation deals with the fall of Babylon, which is the result of God’s judgment. “Babylon” here prophetically refers to a modern-day city that will be the governmental center of Satan’s kingdom on earth. Chapter 18 speaks of “the smoke of her burning” (verses 9 & 18) and of “her torment” (verses 10 & 15), and 19:3 states, “The smoke from her goes up forever and ever.” This terminology gives the impression that “Babylon” will be eternally tormented and burn forever and ever, but Revelation 18:8 makes it clear that “She will be consumed by fire”—completely destroyed—just as this entire present earth will also be destroyed (see 2 Peter 3:10-11). Thus, the statement “the smoke from her goes up forever and ever” can only refer to complete and final destruction.
These passages, which use the terminology of smoke rising forever, coincide with God’s total destruction of Sodom & Gomorrah which is a biblical “example of what is going to happen to the ungodly” at the second death (2 Peter 2:6). In the Genesis account of Sodom & Gomorrah’s destruction, Abraham saw “dense smoke rising from the land, like smoke from a furnace” (19:28).
Fourthly, there’s even further reason why we can’t take Revelation 14:10-11 as a reference to never-ending conscious torture. Notice clearly from this text where the tormenting is taking place: “He will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the lamb. And the smoke of their torment rises forever and ever.” Being tormented with burning sulfur is referring to suffering the second death (again, Revelation 21:8); according to this text this “death” will take place in the presence of God and his holy angels. So whether we view “tormented with burning sulfur” as a reference to eternal conscious torture or as a reference to the anguish of being completely burned up, it is certain that, in either case, it will take place in the very presence of God. This presents a problem for the view of eternal conscious torment as it shows a God who sadistically tortures his human enemies in his presence forever and ever. Yet it presents no such problem for the view of everlasting destruction as it shows God present at the second death to judge his human enemies and execute their sentence of total, everlasting extermination by his chosen instrument of fire. As already covered in Chapter One, 2 Thessalonians 1:9 states that ungodly people “shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power” (KJV) “and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power” (NIV), not tortured in the presence of the Lord forever and ever.
In addition, consider the fact that there are numerous scriptures that plainly show how there shall be no memory of the ungodly because the Lord will so thoroughly blot out their names forever and ever (see, for example, Psalm 9:5-7; Isaiah 65:16-17 and Obadiah 16). Needless to say, it will be rather hard to forget about the ungodly if they’re being tormented in the Lord’s presence throughout all eternity. As already examined, Isaiah 66:24 states how the righteous shall “go out and look upon” the carcasses of the damned as worms and fire devour their remains. The faithful will obviously not be able to forget about them until they are totally destroyed, so both Isaiah 66:24 and Revelation 14:9-11 cannot be references to never-ending conscious torment.
As you can see, the claim that Revelation 14:10-11 supports the eternal torment theory simply does not stand up to a thorough biblical analysis. This specific case proves that it is a mistake to take one or two scriptural texts in which we read our own biased meaning into the terminology, disregard the entire rest of the bible, and try to prove something. It is unsound to do this for scripture must always interpret scripture; this is a hermeneutical law. After all, I could easily take one or two scriptural texts and “prove” just about anything; that is, as long as I disregard the entire rest of the bible. For example, I could “prove” that women must remain absolutely silent in the church (1 Corinthians 14:33-38; 1 Timothy 2:11-14) or that the homosexual lifestyle is okay (2 Samuel 1:26). In both of these cases I was able to come up with what appears to be clear scriptural support to prove my point, yet despite how clear these scriptures are by themselves, in both cases the entire rest of the bible renders my initial casual interpretation false. Such is the case with Revelation 14:10-11. The terminology used in this text is used elsewhere in scripture and only refers to literal everlasting destruction, not eternal conscious torment. (For further proof of this passage see www.jewishnotgreek.com under “answering critics.”)
In the previous section I stated that Revelation 14:9-11 was the last proof text for the eternal conscious torment theory that was necessary to examine. Some readers might object that I’ve failed to address the rich man and Lazarus, an often-cited support passage for eternal torment.
This objection refers to Luke 16:19-31 wherein Jesus tells the story of a rich man and poor beggar named Lazarus who die and go to “hell” (verse 23). “Hell” in this text is translated from the Greek word hades. Although both the rich man and Lazarus go to hades in this story, they each experience diametrical conditions—the rich man is shown to be in a horrible state of torment, whereas the poor beggar is comforted in “Abraham’s bosom.” Jesus’ “punch line” for the story is that some people will not repent and believe even if someone rises from the dead.
It is easy to see why casual bible readers and non-advanced students might suggest that this passage supports the theory of eternal conscious torment. After all, the passage portrays the rich man in hell after death and in an obvious state of torment, but let me explain why this section of scripture is not relevant to the subject of eternal punishment.
As pointed out above, the word “hell” in this passage is the Greek word hades (verse 23). Hades is equivalent to the Hebrew sheol (sheh-ole’).29 Sheol/hades refers to the intermediate state of the soul between decease and resurrection30 and is therefore a temporary condition (Vine 286). Since sheol/hades does not refer to the lake of fire, it is obviously not relevant to the subject of eternal punishment in the lake of fire, the subject of this study.
There are differing views regarding the precise nature of sheol/hades. For instance, is it an actual place where souls exist in conscious torment (or comfort, as was the case with Lazarus)? Is it a well of sleeping souls awaiting resurrection? Or is it simply the condition of death itself (“gravedom”) where souls are extinct and “awaiting” resurrection? Sheol appears 66 times in the Old Testament and hades appears 10 times in the New Testament. There are numerous other scriptural references to sheol/hades as well (e.g. “pit,” etc.). I believe a prayerful, thorough and unbiased examination of these many passages will clearly reveal the biblical truth on the matter and I encourage all to do just such a study. In fact, this is the very purpose of Part II of this book (not contained in this edition).
Regardless of what view one accepts concerning this “intermediate state,” the fact of the matter is that biblical passages referring to sheol/hades are not relevant to the subject of eternal punishment—the everlasting fate of ungodly people. Needless to say, it is absolutely erroneous to take passages that refer to sheol/hades—like Luke 16:19-31—and teach on eternal punishment. Unfortunately, but to be expected, many adherents of the eternal torment theory habitually use Luke 16:19-31 for this very purpose, no doubt because of their abysmal lack of proof texts. Those who make a practice of this—such as Norman Geisler and Robert Peterson—do so to their own shame (Discipleship Journal 32,34; In Covenant 10 and Two Views of Hell 139).
The bottom line on the matter is this: whether you regard the story of the rich man and Lazarus as a literal teaching or as a symbolic parable, it is not pertinent to the subject of this study, whatever the case. See Appendix B for more biblical details on the nature of sheol/hades and also visit my other web site at www.sheol-know.org for more excellent information. .
Taking the story of the rich man and Lazarus and using it as a proof text for never-ending torture (like Bill Wiese does in 23 minutes in hell) is a good example of “unrightly dividing” the scriptures. Let’s view a passage that instructs us on proper scriptural study and interpretation to explain what I mean by this:
2 TIMOTHY 2:15 (KJV)
Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.
First of all, notice that we are encouraged to “study.” This means that our interpretation of the scriptures should not be based on superficial observation, but upon a thorough examination wherein we interpret scripture with scripture. As long as we do this and are honest with the scriptures, letting go of all biases, the truth should be plain to see on any given subject. This is called “rightly dividing the word of truth,” which simply means to handle it correctly (see the NIV translation of this passage).
If it is possible to “rightly divide” the scriptures it is also unfortunately possible to “unrightly divide” them. We’ve seen in this study that a thorough examination of the Holy Scriptures strongly supports the view of everlasting destruction; but a person could very easily “unrightly divide” the scriptures and “prove” that the bible supports eternal torture. All they would have to do is take a handful of texts in which they add their own biased meaning instead of properly allowing scripture to interpret scripture. We’ve seen many examples of this in this very chapter. Another example would be to take a passage and misapply it. This is the case with the story of the rich man and Lazarus. Even if we were to take the story literally it still only refers to the temporary state between physical decease and resurrection; it therefore cannot be applied as a reference to the second death which concerns the eternal fate of the ungodly.
Needless to say, watch out for those who unrightly divide the scriptures!
This ends our examination of the few texts which adherents of eternal torment cite to support their view. A careful biblical examination has shown that none of these passages actually support their position; as a matter of fact, they actually provide further proof for literal everlasting destruction. Revelation 14:9-11 is their most promising text, but, as we have seen, the terminology contained in this passage is used elsewhere in scripture wherein it clearly refers to literal destruction that lasts forever, not never-ending conscious agony.