It is certain, according to Scripture, that those who knowingly reject God's goodness all their lives are warned of eternal punishment in a condition called hell. Since the third or fourth century, many Christians have taught hell will be a place of unending conscious torment or torture for those who go there. The July 1986 issue of The Examiner carried an article of the above title in which I summarized the biblical evidence that hell will have a different purpose, namely to destroy, consume and burn up the wicked so that they die, perish, are destroyed, corrupt and never return. The brief summary in that article is a kind of index or table of contents to an in-depth discussion of the biblical teaching on the end of the wicked which is contained in my 500-page book entitled The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of Final Punishment. That book, which covers the entire Bible teaching on this subject, as well as the period between the Testaments and the centuries from the New Testament until the present, is available for $19.95 from me at the address given below, or from your favorite religious bookstore.
Such a thesis naturally raises questions from any thoughtful person considering it for the first time. This article will consider some of the most familiar questions my book has elicited, and will offer answers to them for your consideration.
Q: What about the story of the Rich Man & Lazarus? Doesn't this teach everlasting conscious torment in hell?
This is probably the most common question asked, perhaps because we have such a familiarity with the "state of the dead" charts that have been used through the years drawn from the story in Luke 16:19-31. Several points ought to be noted, however.
1. It is likely that this story is a parable and is not intended to be taken literally at all. While Jesus begins with the words, "there was a certain rich man," we observe that, in Luke's account, Jesus used the same language in what are said to be parables. See Luke 12:16; 13:6; 14:16; 15:11; 16:1; 18:1-2; 9-10, 19:11-12; 20:9.
2. If someone protests that surely Jesus would not even use language in a parable that is not true, we should observe that this story's context has nothing to do with the state of the dead, much less final punishment, and that there is no reason in the context to think Jesus intends to teach on those subjects here. He had been teaching on covetousness and stewardship (Lk. 16:1-13). The Pharisees sneered at Jesus, and he warned them against self-justification, noting that God's and man's opinions of other men often differ (vs. 14-15). What is worse, the Pharisees are wasting the one opportunity they have to hear the word of God and do something about it (vs. 16-17). The story of the Rich Man and Lazarus illustrates all these points. The Rich Man's only sin in the story is his covetousness and disregard of the poor man at his door. In Jewish thought of the day, he would be highly esteemed because he was rich; Jesus' story shows that God had a different view of the matter. The Rich Man (and his brothers) wasted the only opportunity they had to hear God's word and do something about it. The "punchline" to the story comes at the end -- if one in the Rich Man's position ignores Moses and the prophets, he would also ignore one sent from the dead. This comes to pass in the case of the Pharisees who mocked Jesus when later Jesus does rise from the dead and they continue to ignore the apostles' testimony to that effect. There is simply no reason to think Jesus is teaching on the subject of the state of the dead. Rather, he uses what was a familiar rabbinic story to get the attention of his hearers, but changes the characters, which surprises his audience and makes his point. The Jewish literature shows that this basic plot was well-known at the time.
3. Even if someone insists on taking Jesus' story literally, and even if one assumes that (contrary to all the context) Jesus intends to teach on the subject of the after-life, this story proves nothing about the final end of sinners in hell. At the most it pictures the condition of a wicked Jew, who dies under the Old Testament system, prior to the resurrection and the Day of Judgment. One might assume that such a picture also describes all the wicked in their final condition, but that is only an assumption. Nothing in Scriptures suggests that to be the case.
Q: How can hell's "punishment" be eternal if the wicked finally cease to be?
As noted in the earlier article, "punishment" is a general word which might mean many things -- stripes, fines, imprisonment, or execution, to name a few. What it does mean is that the condition described is the penal consequence of wrong conduct, prescribed by one with authority to call another into account for misdeeds. "Punishment" is not accidental, therefore, and it is not one's own preference. All who go to hell will go there because God says they must, as the consequence of loving sin more than loving life and God who alone gives life.
Jesus speaks of eternal "punishment" (Matt. 25:46), which probably means both that this punishment belongs to the Age to Come, but also that it is irreversible and unending. The question still remains, of what does this "punishment" consist? Paul answers that for us in his statement that Christ will punish the rebellious with eternal destruction (2 Thess. 1:9). This punishment is not mere stripes, mere fine, mere imprisonment, or mere torture. This "punishment" consists of destruction. And it is eternal destruction because those destroyed in hell will never, ever, ever come back, revive, be restored, be re-created, or be seen again. This is actually the meaning of the phrase "eternal fire" and the expression "smoke that ascends," as used, for example in Jude, II Peter, and Revelation.
As a matter of fact, Scripture used the word "eternal" six times in connection with actions or processes (rather than of persons or things), and all six times refer to the everlasting results or consequences of the action involved rather than meaning that the act itself will never end. All six have to do with the Age to Come. Thus we read of "eternal judgment" (Heb. 6:2), "eternal redemption'' (Heb. 9:12), "eternal salvation" (Heb. 5:9), "eternal sin" (Mk. 3:29), "eternal destruction" (2 Thess. 1:9) and "eternal punishment" (Matt. 25:46). All agree that salvation, redemption and judgment involve results which are eternal, but which are brought about by acts or processes that have an end. God is not eternally redeeming, saving or judging people. Those who committed an eternal sin did not go on sinning forever. They sinned, with everlasting consequences. It should not surprise us that Scripture also speaks the same way in regard to final punishment which will be destruction. God does not go on destroying forever -- that would be a contradiction in terms. But when he has once destroyed the wicked, they will never come back again forever. Their punish-ment is everlasting, therefore, although the punish-ing has an end. This is entirely in keeping with the usage of "eternal" elsewhere, and completely agrees with the ordinary usage in the Bible of the other language which describes the end of the wicked.
Q: But won't the wicked have to suffer at all, in this view?
It is interesting that we often react to the idea of eternal capital punishment as if it were a light matter of little consequence! Scripture does indicate that there will be degrees of punishment, and our view leaves plenty of room for that. Although the final end of the wicked will be everlasting extinction, the actual process of destruction might vary in time, pain and intensity, as God sees fit. We need not worry that someone will get off too easy. We should instead give constant thanks that, because of what God did for us in Jesus, we will never suffer the punishment our own sins richly deserve!
Q: Don't the laws of physics teach us that nothing can really be destroyed?
The same law of thermodynamics which says that nothing can be destroyed also says that nothing can be created. God can create and destroy, and for that reason men ought to fear him above all others. Some have objected that even if one is burned up, he merely changes form into smoke and ashes and is not really "destroyed." We simply note that no martyr approaching the stake ever took comfort by such a thought as that.
Q: Won't this view make people ignore God?
Only if their only reason for serving him is the belief that he will inflict on the wicked a torture unimaginably worse than the most monstrous tyrant among men ever dreamed of inflicting on his victims. The truth is that the traditional doctrine of everlasting torture in hell has created more atheists than almost anything else Christians have ever said. Furthermore, the Bible never attempts to motivate righteous conduct purely on the basis of fear, and it never pictures, describes or speaks of everlasting conscious torment even when it warns of hell.
What this view does do is magnify the justice of God (each doomed sinner receives precisely what he or she deserves and nothing else), the mercy of God (even the worst sinner finally perishes forever), and the holiness of God (his wrath is real, but it is measured with exact precision in keeping with his own character). This understanding also frees us to warn about the wages of sin, without feeling that what we say is something that contradicts all we know about God who gave his Son to die on the cross for sinners. And this view enables us to state exactly what we believe in scriptural language, without having to explain that the words really mean almost the opposite of what they sound like to the ordinary person. We can say with confidence and with understanding that the wages of sin is death, the soul that sins shall die, those who sow to the flesh reap corruption, those who reject God' mercy will perish. And when we have said all that Scripture says, we can stop talking and know that God said what he meant and meant what he said.
Q: Isn't it unreasonable to think that God would raise the wicked from the dead, only to destroy them eternally?
Scripture is quite clear that God will raise the wicked along with the saved, and for no other purpose than to bring them to account for their lives on earth and to sentence them to the appropriate fate they have actually chosen for themselves (Dan. 12:1-2, John 5:28-29). As has often been said, those who are twice born will only die once. Those responsible who are only born once will die twice. And from the second death there will be no resurrection or return forever.
Q: Don't the Seventh-Day Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses teach this view?
The Jehovah's Witnessess do not teach this view, but rather teach that "hell" is the grave and that the wicked who die now will never be raised at all.
The Seventh-day Adventists are one of a few groups who have always taught the view here set forth, though sometimes with more literalness than Scriptures might require. Others holding this view are the Advent Christian Church and the Church of God (Abrahamic Faith). Many Bible scholars have held the same view through the centuries, from across the Christian spectrum. Among those are some of the best known and most highly respected authors and preachers, and I name many of them in my own book.
The only question that matters, of course, is whether Scripture teaches this view. Nothing has hindered Bible study more than the sectarian prejudice which is afraid to think anything which someone else has thought first, or something which is said by some particular group or individual with whom one might expect to differ. If the Seventh-day Adventists happen to have been right on this subject, let us acknowledge the fact and learn from them, if possible. Perhaps God will allow us to lead them into brighter light on some other topic one day. We ought to ask, "What does the Bible teach?" And then we ought to follow that, no matter who else says it or where it leads. We have an advantage here over many other Christian groups in that we have no written creed which binds our understanding in advance. Let us refuse to allow laziness or prejudice to have the same detrimental effect.