A friend asked me recently for summary of Bible teaching on hell, as her son was challenged by his university friends that eternal punishment did not seem logical to them. They suggested that a spirit would be incinerated in hellfire and so any judgment would be over quickly, not a protracted experience. Following are the notes I put together to give an overview of the subject from a Biblical standpoint.
Eternal Judgment is one of the foundational doctrines listed in the Bible.
“Therefore leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on to perfection; not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God, Of the doctrine of baptisms, and of laying on of hands, and of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment.” Hebrews 6:1,2
By its very label this judgment is “eternal”, not transitory.
Repulsive as the thought is to our minds the Bible makes it clear that ongoing torment will be given to those who reject the salvation God offers us through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
Consider these warnings from Jesus and their reference to enduring punishment:
“And if your hand offends you, cut it off: it is better to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that is never quenched: Where their worm doesn’t die, and the fire is not quenched. And if your foot offends you, cut it off: it is better for you to enter life lame, than having two feet to be cast into hell, into the fire that is never quenched: Where their worm doesn’t die, and the fire is not quenched. And if your eye offends you, pluck 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 fire: Where their worm doesn’t die, and the fire is not quenched.” Matthew 9:43-48
“And these will go into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.” Matthew 25:46
What we understand from the Bible is that mankind has at enduring (eternal) soul (or spirit) which will either enjoy eternal blessings in God’s heavenly Kingdom (heaven) or eternal pain and torment in hell.
Hell is described for us as a place of continuous torment of fire without being burned up.
Jesus gives us a picture of this in His account of a rich man and a poor beggar named Lazarus. After death the rich man went to a place of enduring fiery torment while the faithful beggar went to a place of comfort, called Abraham’s bosom.
“And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and sees Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus so he can dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.” Luke 16:23,24
“Then he said, I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father’s house: For I have five brothers; that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.” Luke 16:27,28
In each of these depictions of punishment for the wicked the pain and torment is enduring, not a temporary incineration.
Sin is just that horrible, not just to God and to the standards of holiness, but also to ourselves. Our selfish sinful heart wants to believe that sin is an excusable slip and something that can be justified away by blaming our past unhappinesses or the pressures of the moment. But when sin is measured against God’s holiness it is so horrible and so destructive that it warrants eternal punishment of the extreme kind. Sin damages us beyond our comprehension and all God’s warnings to us to avoid sin are for our protection, not to spoil our fun. God knows how toxic sin is.
Wonderfully none of us is ever intended to endure the eternal punishment that sin deserves. God wants all men everywhere to repent (2Peter 3:9). God’s overwhelming love compelled Him to become the very sacrifice for our sins so that man could be saved from eternal torment. However, if we snub such amazing sacrifice and hold the immeasurable love of God as something to be ignored we remain under condemnation and will have to face the just punishment for the abhorrent sin we have committed and refused to repent of.
“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. He who believes on him is not condemned: but he that believes not is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.” John 3:17-19
“He who believes on the Son has everlasting life: and he that believes not the Son will not see life (eternal life with God in heaven); but the wrath of God rests on him.” John 3:36
Note also that hell was never designed for mankind, but as the place of punishment for the fallen angels.
“Then will he say to them on the left hand, Depart from me, you cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:” Matthew 25:41
If the devil can seduce us to reject God’s salvation and live in our sinful nature then the devil will drag us into the place of eternal torment that was not made for us but for him.
These insights come to us by God’s revelation in the Bible (the Word of God). Truth comes from God and our source of truth is God’s Word, the Bible. Our selfish hearts will try to wrestle with the Word of God and even twist it to say what we want to hear, but those with faithful hearts will accept what God says as God’s Word and seek to understand it, not neutralise it.
Eternal judgment, as in judgment that endures for eternity causing those who are punished to be in perpetual torments, is what the Bible describes. The idea of annihilation is more tolerable than the idea of enduring torment. But one of the foundational doctrines of the Bible (as quoted earlier from Hebrews 6) is “eternal judgment”.
On a pastoral note, be aware of your own heart. The human heart is dangerous territory.
“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” Jeremiah 17:9
“But those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart; and they defile the man. For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies:” Matthew 15:18,19
“Keep your heart diligently; for out of it are the issues of life.” Proverbs 4:23
Every time our heart reacts to some truth given to us in God’s Word that reaction indicates there is a wrong setting in our heart. Reaction to the truth of eternal judgement may indicate we have a “fear of eternal damnation” and need prayer to be free from that tormenting fear. Or it may be that we resent God’s authority because we have unresolved offences from authority figures who offended us in the past. Or we may have such pride that we want to rule our life and even eternity on our own terms, instead of submitting ourselves to God. Or reaction could spring from many other impulses in our heart. Stay attentive to “reactions” because those things that come out of a man reveal his heart and show the “issues” they need to deal with to truly walk in the freedom that truth brings.
“You will know the truth and the truth will make you free.” John 8:32