Hell Isn’t Forever Why the tradition of eternal torment is a myth.

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If the idea of eternal conscious torment in hell doesn’t sit right with you, there is a reason; you were created to instinctively know that eternal torture is pure evil. We could imagine that Satan would keep a place like hell up and running for all eternity, but would God? Certainly not. Yet despite Scripture clearly teaching that hell does not last forever, after the 6th century, the majority of church tradition has taught that it does. Let’s ignore tradition for the moment and look at what the early Church taught and what Scripture actually says.

Where in Scripture is Hell?

You may be surprised to learn how many times the term “hell” shows up in the Bible. There just simply wasn’t a word for hell in the original Hebrew, so there is absolutely no mention of it in the Old Testament.

Hell isn’t mentioned even one time in the Old Testament.

The Hebrew prophets never once mentioned a place where human beings would writhe in eternal torment, gnashing their teeth forever. Nor did the Hebrew prophets ever mention even the possibility of suffering after death. Isn’t that extremely odd, if there really is an eternal hell and God wanted us to know how to avoid it? For thousands of years, silence.

In the New Testament, a word that could be translated into “hell” is only mentioned one time in 2 Peter 2:4. The word is “Tartarus,” which comes from Greek mythology, a temporary holding place where the wicked await judgment. So, the one place in all of Scripture where a word could be translated into hell isn’t even eternal and is only referenced to describe where demons are sent, not humans.

The word “hell” didn’t even exist until around 700 years after the time of Jesus. According to The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology, the word “hell” was adopted into our vocabulary as a way to introduce the pagan concept of hell into Christian theology—which it did so quite successfully.

Sheol, Hades, Tartarus, & Gehenna

But isn’t the word hell all over the Bible? Well, yes and no. In the Bible, a few words get translated into the English word “hell.”

Sheol Hades
Hebrew word meaning “the grave,” a place where everyone goes when they die, not a place of suffering. Greek word meaning “the grave,” a place where everyone goes when they die.
Tartarus Gehenna
Greek word from mythology meaning “place of temporary holding, awaiting judgment,” a place where wicked people go when they die. A valley outside Jerusalem where garbage and dead bodies were burned. Site of child sacrifice by fire to Moloch.

While only the King James Version of the Bible translates all four of these words to “hell,” almost all other translations use “hell” only when referring to “Gehenna.” The western pop-culture idea of “hell” wasn’t something that Jesus ever talked about. Instead, in the Gospels, Jesus uses the word Gehenna 11 times to describe the opposite to life in the Kingdom. Gehenna was a real place just outside the city walls of Jerusalem. It was a garbage dump that was continuously burning. Christ’s listeners would understand his metaphor for what life was like outside the Kingdom of God.

In all of Scripture, Judgement is mentioned 344 times, Sin is mentioned 441 times, and Death is mentioned 456 times, yet we only see Hell mentioned 14 times, even though the actual word is Gehenna. If hell is the natural consequence of sin, one must wonder why sin and death have near-equal appearances, but sin and hell have such a striking imbalance.

When we read the story of the early church in Acts we find them spreading the good news of Jesus—but they never warn anyone about hell. Judgment? Yes. But hell? No.

Eternal Destruction?

Jesus used the metaphor of Gehenna because it would bring to mind total destruction. Bodies heaped onto the fire would be burned up and be completely destroyed. This total annihilation is how almost all verses in the Bible describe the fate of those not in the Kingdom of God.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish [apollymi] but have eternal life.
John 3:16

This well-known verse showcases a dichotomy that appears all over scripture: repent or perish. “Perish” is translated from the Greek word “apollymi” which means “to destroy.” Apollymi is also sometimes just translated into English as “destroy.”

Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy [apollymi] both soul and body in hell [Gehenna].
Matthew 10:28

If one believes in eternal conscious hell, they believe Jesus was wrong on this point, and that souls don’t die at all, but will live forever in hell (Gehenna). Instead, all over Scripture, the fate of the wicked is described as perishing, destruction, or death. (2 Peter 2:3, 3:7, 9; Luke 13:3; 2 Thessalonians 1:9, 2:10; Matthew 7:13, 19, 13:40; John 15:6; James 4:12; Acts 3:23; Philippians 3:19; Hebrews 10:39; 1 Corinthians 3:17; 2 Corinthians 2:15-16; Revelation 11:18, 20:14, 21:8, Romans 6:23)

Fire

Conditional Immortality

Another big problem with the idea of eternal torment in hell is that it claims that everyone lives forever. The traditional view of hell is that everyone in hell is alive and suffering, even if it is a sort of “living death.” This idea comes from the pagan belief that humans innately have an immortal soul.

My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish [be destroyed (apollymi)]; no one will snatch them out of my hand.
John 10:27-28

We have to wonder why Jesus made such a promise that his sheep would never perish since there is no possibility of anyone ever perishing. We’d have to wonder why he didn’t say, “I give eternal life in heaven to them, and they will never suffer eternal torment in hell.” The answer becomes obvious if we look at these verses from a Hebrew perspective instead of a pagan Greek perspective (everyone has an immortal soul).

Scripture claims that only God is immortal.

God, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light. To him be honor and might forever.
1 Timothy 6:15-16

The ability to stay alive forever is not something we as humans have the ability to do. We do not have “souls” that are immortal. We are simply incapable of staying alive forever to be tormented in hell. God offers immortality only as a gift to people who align themselves with his will. Jesus called this “the gift of eternal life.”

For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ.
Romans 6:23

We are told at least 40 times in the New Testament that “eternal life” is the reward for the righteous.1 So it is certainly safe to say that the unrighteous will not receive eternal life, and nowhere in the Bible does it say that they do.

A Failed Victory

How is eternal punishment consistent with the Biblical theme that God’s anger lasts “for a moment,” but his love, mercy and/or favor lasts “forever” (Psalm 30:5; 103:9; I Chronicles 16:34; 2 Chronicles 20:21)? How is eternal punishment consistent with the Bible’s teaching regarding God’s final victory?

He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.
Revelation 21:4

Does God get what God wants? Is God victorious over evil in the end? The traditional view of eternal torment in hell seems to answer, “no, he’s not victorious over death and evil in the end.” The victory of Jesus is final but it cannot reach its goal until evil is abolished. If hell is eternal conscious torment, then clearly “some” of God’s creation is still infected by the reign of sin and rebellion, and ultimately God fails.

Christ came as a result of the fall and introduction of evil into creation. The chief purpose of his life, death, and resurrection “was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). In order for Christ to truly be victorious over evil, (everything that is evil), at some point it must cease to exist. However, if the traditional view of hell is correct, evil doesn’t cease to exist at all but continues on and on for all of eternity. Christ is not the victor in the traditional view of hellhe simply contains evil—allowing it to continue in some corner of God’s new creation.

The Early Church

While the concept of Eternal Conscious Torment was nowhere to be found in the Old Testament, it did start to materialize in some Jewish thought by the time Jesus came on the scene. The Pharisees believed in an afterlife of hellish torture but where did they get that idea if not from the Hebrew scriptures?

During the 400 year span of time between the writing of the Old Testament and the New Testament some Jewish rabbis began compiling materials that would one day come to be known as the Babylonian Talmud. Many of the thoughts, beliefs, and ideas from the Talmud came from their Greek and Egyptian neighbors. Christians reject these writings and beliefs as pagan—which they are—yet one major belief is with us today… the belief of an eternal torturous afterlife.

For the first 500 years of Christianity, the idea of eternal conscious torment was a view, but it was the minority view.2 The two other views held were Annihilationism (Conditional Immortality) and Universal Reconciliation with the latter being the majority view.3 The idea that Hell is eternal torture only became popular once Rome had taken over the religion of Christianity and needed to utilize fear in order to control people.4

Common Objections - Optional Reading (press to read more)

There are so many verses in the Bible that seem to support the idea of ‘conditional immortality’ (Psalm 1:4-6; 2:9-12; 11:5-7; 37:20, 28, 38; 73:16-20, 23-27; 92:7; 94:23; 112:10; 145:20; Proverbs 10:25; 24:12, 19-20; Isaiah 1:28-31; 10:17-18; 24:6; 33:10-12; 41:11-12, 66:24; Ezekiel 18:1-32; Daniel 12:2-3; Malachi 4:1-3; Matthew 3:12; 7:13-14; 10:28; 13:30, 40-42; 16:25-27; 18:14; 19:16, 29; 25:46; Mark 10:17, 30; Luke 10:25; 12:47-48; 13:3-5; 18:18, 20; 20:34-36; John 3:15, 16, 36; 4:14; 5:24, 39, 6:27, 40, 47, 50-51, 54, 58, 68; 8:51; 10:28; 11:25-26; 12:50, 15:6; 17:2; Acts 3:23; 13:41, 46, 48; Romans 2:6-7, 12; 5:21, 6:22-23; 9:22; 1 Corinthians 1:18; 15:50-54; 2 Corinthians 2:15; 4:3; Galatians 6:8; Philippians 1:28; 3:18-19; 2 Thessalonians 1:9; 2:10; 1 Timothy 1:16, 6:9-10, 12, 15-16; 2 Timothy 1:10; Titus 1:2; 3:7; Hebrews 10:27, 38; 12:29; James 4:12; 2 Peter 2:1, 6, 12; 3:7, 9; 3:16; 1 John 1:2, 2:25, 3:15, 5:11, 13, 20; Jude 7, 21; Revelation 11:18; 20:12-14; 21:8) but there are a handful that do seem to support ‘eternal conscious torment’ (Matthew 25:41, 46; Mark 9:47-48; Daniel 12:1-2; Revelation 14:9-11, 20:10-15).

So while the majority of the Bible doesn’t support the medieval view of eternal torment, we should look at the verses that are used to support it.

Parable of the Sheep and the Goats

Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels’… And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.
Matthew 25:41, 46

Take note that the person who spoke of the “eternal fire” and “eternal punishment” in Matthew 25:41, 46 is the same person who warned that God would “destroy both soul and body in hell” in Matthew 10:28. So unless Jesus contradicted himself, the destruction of the souls and bodies of the unrighteous in “hell” must occur in an eternal fire.

The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows.
Luke 12:47-48

The phrases “many lashes” and “few lashes” express the duration of punishment. Both come to an end, but at different times. Keep this in mind as we look at the phrase “eternal fire/punishment.”

The wicked suffer “eternal punishment” (Matthew 25:46), “eternal judgment” (Hebrews 6:2), and “eternal destruction” (2 Thessalonians 1:9) the same way the elect experience “eternal redemption” (Hebrews 5:9; 9:12). Jesus also warned about the sin of blaspheming the Holy Spirit, something he called an “eternal sin” (Mark 3:29). Clearly, he was not speaking of a sin that is committed eternally, but a sin that is a one-time event, the consequences of which are eternal and irrevocable. So “eternal punishment” can rightly describe a one-time punishment that has eternal consequences.

In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire.
Jude 7

If he condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly.
2 Peter 2:6

Disgrace and Everlasting Contempt

Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt.
Daniel 12:2

This verse does not address what happens to those who do not receive everlasting life. This verse only describes what others feel about them. The word disgrace in Hebrew is cherpah, which means “reproach, scorn.” The word contempt in Hebrew is dĕra’own, which means “aversion, abhorrence.” This verse doesn’t address punishment, torment, or anything like it.

The Worm Does Not Die

And if your eye causes you to stumble, cast it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes, to be cast into hell, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.
Mark 9:47-48

Jesus was directly quoting from Isaiah 66:24 when he mentioned the undying worms and unquenchable fire, and he knew it. Jesus, through Isaiah, was irrefutably describing a scene of dead corpses, not living people, that were being eaten by maggots and consumed by flames, a scene that the righteous would view with abhorrence. Jesus was not warning his audience of eternal conscious torment; he was warning them, by means of scripture that they were already familiar with, that the dead bodies of the unrighteous will one day be food for worms and flames. Those corpses would have no hope of a resurrection to eternal life, as the worms and flames would be unstoppable, being undying and unquenchable.

Lake of Fire

And the devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are also; and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat upon it, from whose presence earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
Revelation 20:10-15

What does this passage actually teach about the ultimate fate of the unrighteous, without adding any human assumptions? It teaches that they will each be judged according to their deeds and be cast into the lake of fire, something called “the second death.” It doesn’t teach anything beyond that concerning the ultimate fate of the unrighteous.

Smoke of Their Torment

And another angel, a third one, followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and his image, and receives a mark on his forehead or upon his hand, he also will drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is mixed in full strength in the cup of His anger; and he will be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever; and they have no rest day and night, those who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name.”
Revelation 14:9-11

First, note that the warning of this passage is directed only to those who face the temptation to take the mark of the beast and who ignore the warning that they hear with their own ears from an angel who flies over the earth. Such hard-hearted people are particularly deserving of the “full strength” of God’s wrath, a phrase that implies that less deserving people will not taste God’s wrath in “full strength” (Revelation 14:10) since God will justly recompense everyone “according to their deeds” (Isaiah 59:18; Revelation 20:12-13).

Eternal smoke rising from eternal flames does not prove the eternal existence of those cast into that fire, and the proof is found in the book of Revelation itself. We read in the 18th chapter that, after the wicked city “Babylon” is “burned up with fire” (Revelation 18:8), “her smoke rises up forever and ever” (Revelation 19:3). That eternal smoke does not symbolize the eternal torment of Babylon’s populace, because John describes Babylon as being obliterated and completely absent of life after God’s judgment (Revelation 18:21-23). The continual smoke symbolizes Babylon’s complete and irrevocable destruction, as John wrote, “And a strong angel took up a stone like a great millstone and threw it into the sea, saying, ‘Thus will Babylon, the great city, be thrown down with violence, and will not be found any longer'” (Revelation 18:21). Babylon will be completely gone, but its smoke will rise forever. So we shouldn’t assume that the eternal smoke of the torment of the beast-worshippers proves their eternal, tormented existence. (For a similar biblical example of eternal smoke rising from utterly destroyed Edom, see Isaiah 34:1-10).

The State of Eternity

The traditional concept of an eternal hell as a place of torment isn’t anywhere to be found in Scripture. The word “heaven” appears over 600 times in the Bible. A word that actually could be translated to “hell” appears only once in the Bible, and that hell (Tartarus) is for fallen angels awaiting judgment and thus is not for human beings and is not “eternal.”

Humans also could not survive in an eternal hell because humans do not innately possess eternal life. Eternal life is something that is only given to disciples of Jesus. The promise repeated in Scripture for those not in Christ is destruction and death, not eternal torture.

The concept of an eternal hell strips God of his ultimate victoryvictory over evil.

The Bible clearly teaches there are consequences for sin and that there will be a coming judgment. That judgment is likely painful and likely eternal in consequence, but not eternal in duration. We are told that all people, even citizens of the Kingdom of God, will pass through the fire of judgment that is used to reveal and refine, not torture (1 Corinthians 3:12-15, Mark 9:47-49). Scripture simply doesn’t teach the pagan concept of an eternal hell.


Go Deeper

Footnotes

  1. see Matt. 19:16, 29, 25:46; Mark 10:17, 30; Luke 10:25, 18:18, 20; John 3:15, 16, 36, 4:14; 5:24, 39, 6:27, 40, 47, 54, 68, 12:50, 17:2; Acts 13:46, 48; Rom. 2:7, 5:21, 6:22; Gal. 6:8; 1 Tim. 1:16, 6:12; Tit. 1:2, 3:7; 1 John 1:2, 25, 3:15, 5:11, 13, 20; Jude 21
  2. Augustine, Enchiridion, sec. 112.
  3. “In the first five or six centuries of Christianity there were six known theological schools, of which four (Alexandria, Antioch, Caesarea, and Edessa, or Nisibis) were Universalist; one (Ephesus) accepted conditional immortality; one (Carthage or Rome) taught endless punishment of the wicked.” – New Schaff-Herzog, page 96
  4. “I am a theologian and work in a working group for Patristics at the University of Bonn, and I am also a lecturer with emphasis on early Christian doctrine. Over the last few years, we have been scrutinizing the writings of the earliest Christianity and the patritic writings right up to John Cassianus with a Europe-wide team of over 40 patrons. Our result would be that the patristic universalism actually makes up a large majority, about 85%. Whoever claims otherwise, such as Michael McClymond in his monumental work, from my point of view either simply did not want to have sufficient insight into all available texts or a deliberately one-sided (Calvinistic) defense for his own point of view. The argument that the majority can often be wrong, I think here for nonsensical nonsense, because this majority did not arise because this view was the easier. On the contrary, many church fathers and scholars of the later patristic period paid for this conviction with their lives, because an eternal fire of hell was a much desired political decision. We also see this with Jerome. He writes e.g. in his comment on Isaiah, that “the true fate of the so-called damned must of course be withheld from the church, otherwise the church would lose its power.” Here, the early Christian gospel was simply replaced with an everlasting theory of hell more useful to the Church’s power.” – Theologian and Biblical Scholar, Michael Trenkel