Edward Fudge

There can be no question about the reality of hell. The Bible warns of it very clearly, and Jesus said more about it than anyone else reported in Scripture. It is important that we study carefully what Scripture actually says, and not merely repeat what others have said.

Hell is punishment. Some people will go away into "eternal punishment" and others into "eternal life" (Matt. 25:46). The same adjective describes both destinies.

But what does "punishment" mean? It is a general word, quite inclusive as to its possibilities, but vague when standing alone. In our criminal law system, for example, "punishment" might consist of a fine, imprisonment (short or long) or execution and forfeiture of life. Either way, "punishment" means that the fate suffered is (1) not accidental and (2) not voluntary. It is influenced by a judicial authority, as the penal consequence of culpable wrongdoing. So with the "punishment" of which Jesus spoke. Hell's population will be there by the decree of God the Judge, as the penal consequence of their actions and attitudes throughout life on earth. People in hell will be those who have rejected and ignored God all their lives --consciously, deliberately, and consistently. Regardless of its character, nature or effect, hell will clearly be "punishment."

Hell is eternal. Hell is also "eternal" in two senses. This is a punishment of the Age to Come. It is qualitatively different from anything we can know or experience now, just as "eternal life" is different in kind from any life people presently experience (apart from God). Both the life and the punishment are described by the Greek adjective aionios. Both belong to the Age to Come. They are not of the present age.

But this life and this punishment are "eternal" in another sense also. Both are everlasting and will never end. Those who go to hell will never come out again. The results of this punishment will be forever.

Hell is portrayed as fire. Jesus also tells us that this punishment involves "fire" -- fire of the Age to Come, "eternal" fire (Mattˇ 25:41). What does fire do to something put into it? We might think of three things, depending on the circumstances, the object put in and the character of the one in charge.

Sometimes fire tortures. I once knew several little boys who caught a rat in a barn and decided to torture it. They hooked a wire around it for a handle, built a little fire, and held the rat over the fire. When it was nearly dead, they removed it from the fire long enough to revive some strength, then repeated the treatment. That was torturing fire (and some very naughty boys).

Some people believe that God's "eternal" fire will torture. They believe that God will torture those who go there almost to death, allow them reprieve sufficient to barely survive, and repeat the process forever and ever. Tertullian was one of the first Christian teachers to adopt this idea, some 200 years after Christ. But this is not the only view of the matter. A great many thoughtful Bible students have decided that this view is horribly incorrect, that it slanders God and misrepresents the Bible.

Sometimes fire purifies. Gold and silver are cleansed by fire. Christian character is refined by the "fire" of affliction. About 300 years after Christ, Origen suggested that hell would be a purifying fire. Origen was reacting to Tertullian's idea of a torturing fire. He believed that God would be more likely to purify his creatures than to torture them forever. Origen suggested that hell would purify its inhabitants, so that they all would eventually be cleansed of sin and graduate to heaven.

The Bible does not teach Origen's idea. But it does not teach Tertullian's idea either. Many Christians still believe that Origen's idea sounds more "like God" than Tertullian's idea.

Sometimes (in fact, most of the time) fire destroys. According to both the Old and New Testaments, this is the function of the fire of hell. Jesus warned people to fear God who is able "to destroy both body and soul in hell" (Matt. 10:28). The eternal "punishment" of which ,Jesus spoke is, in fact, eternal destruction (2 Thess. 1:9). The last day will see the wicked totally burned up, left neither root nor branches (Malachi 4:1). All that will remain will be ashes and smoke (Malachi 4:3).

The fire is unquenchable. No one cast into hell can avoid this destiny of total destruction and escape by putting out God's fire. This fire is "unquenchable" and cannot be extinguished (Mk. 9:43, 48). If fire is not quenched or extinguished, it keeps burning until there is nothing left to burn. It ought not to surprise us that whatever is put in "unquenchable" fire will be "burned up." That is exactly what John the Baptist said Jesus' punishment will do to those who experience it, and it is precisely why he said that would result. Jesus will "burn up" the chaff with "unquenchable" fire (Mattˇ 3:12).

The worm that does not die. This is also Scripture's meaning when it speaks of the "worm that does not die" (Mk. 9:43, 48). Jesus borrowed this language from Isaiah 66:24. When we look at that text, we learn what this "worm" is all about. And we avoid the fanciful and unscriptural notions some have invented -- that it represents everlasting remorse, or that doomed sinners will wriggle like worms forever in everlasting torture.

Isaiah describes the final end of the righteous and the wicked. The righteous will be with God forever to enjoy his company and engage in everlasting worship (Isaiah 66:22-23). They will also view the completed destruction of those who rejected God throughout life. "They shall go forth and look on the corpses of those who have rebelled against God; where their worm [maggot] dies not, and the fire is not quenched" (Isa. 66:24).

This is the scene of the Valley of Hinnom outside Jerusalem. It is the city garbage dump, a place of smoldering, constant fire. Here are thrown carcasses of dead animals and criminals and sometimes enemy soldiers. The maggots feed on the corpses. The fire feeds on the corpses. Finally nothing is left to feed on. This is the Bible's picture of the place "where the worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched." It is a place of disgust, of abhorrent and repugnant sights and smells (Isa. 66:24; Dan. 12:2). It is a place of absolute, total, irreversible destruction.

Weeping and gnashing of teeth. Before the destruction is accomplished, there will be such conscious suffering as the infinite wisdom of God justly apportions in each individual case (Rom. 2:6). This will be a time of "tribulation and distress, of wrath and indignation" (Rom. 2:8,9). Precise divine justice will be measured out. God is righteous in all he does, and hell will be no exception. But let us back up even another step.

After God pronounces the judgement sentence, he will separate the wicked from the righteous, they will be banished, or thrown out, into hell. In hell there will be great remorse (weeping and wailing). There will also be the same defiance and anger against God and his people which characterized these people throughout their lives on earth. This is the meaning of "gnashing of teeth" in the Bible. It is a picture of someone who hates another so much that he grinds his teeth at him, as if he would chew up that person as a mad dog might, given the chance (Job 16:9; Psalm 37:12-13; Acts 7:54). The Bible never uses "gnashing of teeth" to describe the pain of the gnasher. It always uses the expression to express the gnasher's fury and hatred toward the gnashee. This time, however, all the gnashing of teeth will be in vain.

Although the wicked will gnash their teeth at God and the righteous, they will be unable to resist God's judgment sentence or to avert their own destruction. Even while they gnash their teeth in anger and defiance, the wicked will melt away, until they are completely gone (Psalm 112:10). Then all evil will be eradicated from the universe forever. There will be new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells {Isa 65:17-25; 2 Pet. 3:13; Rev. 21:1).

Jesus speaks of this terrible separation of the wicked from the righteous in many parables. He presents a scene of terror, of banishment, of rejection from God to God's people and all of God s good blessings. It is a scene of doom, of forfeiting forever the possibility of everlasting joy in God's presence in a perfect universe. (Matt. 8:11-12; 13:40-42, 49-50, 22:13-14; 24:50-51; 25:30).

The Second Death. But the ultimate end of it all will be total destruction, an extinction that can never be undone. This is the "second death" and from it there will be no recovery forever (Rev. 20:13-15; 21:8). This is the "lake of fire and brimstone," a figure which comes from the annihilation of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19:24-25), and which, throughout Scripture, symbolizes a destruction that is entire and complete. Sodom's destruction was also irreversible, and in that sense was "eternal" in its results. The New Testament says that Sodom was a type or example, therefore, of the "eternal fire" which will destroy the wicked in hell (Jude 7). This is "eternal" fire because it is fire of the Age to Come, but also because its results are everlasting.

We may therefore take at face value the Bible's repeated warning: the wages of sin is death (Gen. 3:3-4; Ezek. 18:20; Rom. 6:23; Rev. 21:8). This is not merely a death of the body. It is the death of the body and soul (Ezek. 18:20; Matt. 10:28). When hell's function is finished, its results will be forever. This is indeed eternal punishment, eternal destruction--just as eternal as eternal life.

Where, then, did the notion come from that God would torture the wicked alive forever in hell? I discuss that in detail in the second half of The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of Final Punishment (500 pages, hardback, $19.95). Here I simply say that it came from the pagan doctrine of the immortality of the soul, which crept into the church during the third and fourth centuries after Christ.