Contents of this chapter
101 Sheol, Hades, Gehenna and Hell
102 The rich man and Lazarus
103 What is the outer darkness?
104 Purification, annihilation or eternal torment
105 The Biblical view of immortal souls
106 The Old Testament
107 The New Testament
108 The Lake of Fire
109 The Justice of God
110 Does ignorance of God’s law excuse us?
111 God gave us stewardship over His creation
112 What purpose does punishment serve?
113 Punishment can be exclusion, exile and expulsion
114 Restorative and retributive justice
115 The apostles are silent
116 The Judgment Seat of Christ
100 What is the second death?
The term second death is used in the Revelation four times:
- The first is an encouragement to the overcomers in the church of Smyrna (Rev 2:11). Those faithful servants, who stand fast against Satan, even to the point of giving their lives, will not be hurt by the second death.
- The second is an assurance to the Tribulation Saints who do not take the mark of the beast, but are martyred then raised in the first resurrection (Rev.20:6) The second death has “no power” over the saints who have a part in the first resurrection.
- The third usage (Rev 20:14) describes the final destruction of death and hell. They are cast into the Lake of Fire where the second death eliminates death (1 Cor 15:26, Rev 21:4) and, we can assume, hell also (there is no reason to believe their fates are different).
- Finally (Rev. 21:8) unbelievers are also cast into the Lake of Fire to experience the second death.
The first death is, of course, the death of the body. No one could deny the reality of the bodily death of people, who have lived throughout the ages, but many questions surround the fate of their spirit and soul. Christianity teaches that human, mortal life will end with death, because death entered the world following Adam and Eve’s rebellion against God. The Bible tells us that individuals have a choice between two resurrections, two judgments and two eternal destinies following physical death.
All of humanity will have been offered the free gift of eternal life, enabling them to be part of the resurrection of the righteous – the first resurrection; the alternative is the unbeliever’s resurrection, after which those who have rejected Christ’s gift of salvation will perish (John 3:16) in the second death (Rev 21:8). Believers are resurrected to eternal life before the thousand year millennial reign of Christ, and unbelievers are resurrected to condemnation and the second death after the thousand years have passed (Luke 14:14; 20:35-36; John 5:29; Acts 24:15; 1 Cor 15:12-13; Heb 11:35; Rev 20:5-6).
As with the eastern and New Age religions, many Christians believe The Bible teaches that humans possess an immortal essence. The popular understanding of this concept is that humans have immortal souls; although Christians who subscribe to this belief claim it is the spirit that is immortal. Those believers, who accept the doctrine of the immortal spirit, broadly accept one of three understandings of the second death. These three views are that unbelievers will experience:
- being cast into outer darkness, living eternally separated from God.
- a purification or cleansing process in the Lake of Fire, which destroys rebellion and brings unbelievers to faith by an understanding of Jesus’ love for them.
- an eternal existence of perpetual torment in the Lake of Fire mentioned in the Revelation.
A fourth possibility for the fate of the unbelieving dead is sometimes referred to as annihilation. Those who subscribe to this understanding, claim the biblical verses concerning the second death indicate that none of the three proposals listed above are scriptural. We are told the second death destroys death and (probably) hell, so that they are “no more”. People who accept the concept of annihilation suggest there is no biblical reason to assume the second death will have a different effect on human spirits, they can legitimately be assumed to be “no more”. People who accept annihilation as the biblical teaching on the second death also believe the doctrine of the immortal spirit is not a biblical concept. They suggest the second death means the absolute, eternal end of life for the unbelieving individual.
The period between death and resurrection for the unbeliever is usually referred to as hell or the grave. Let us examine The Bible’s teachings concerning this period before looking into life beyond the grave. Revelation 20:13 tells us:
The sea gave up its dead, and death and the grave gave up their dead. And all were judged according to their deeds.(Rev 20:13)
From this verse we learn that the grave, which is also referred to as the place of the dead, is a temporary abode. Eventually, every person who has ever lived will be resurrected from the grave to stand before their Creator, who will determine their eternal destiny. The Bible looks at two aspects of the grave. Occasionally the sepulchre, the physical structure surrounding the grave is mentioned, but by far the most common use of the word “grave” concerns the place of the dead. This abode is often referred to as hell.
101 Sheol, Hades, Gehenna and Hell
The four words in The Bible that are translated as hell are Sheol, Gehenna, Hades and Tartarus. The last term, Tartarus, is found in 2 Peter 2:4 and refers to a place where angels who have sinned are kept in gloomy darkness until the Day of Judgment. It does not seem to have any relevance for the children of Adam and Eve.
Sheol is used throughout the OT and is generally accepted as the place of the dead, both righteous and wicked. It occurs 65 times in the Hebrew Bible and the KJV translates it as “hell” 31 times, “grave” 31 times and “pit” 3 times. Most modern versions of The Bible translate Sheol as the grave. OT saints hoped to be delivered from Sheol (Psalm 16:10, 30:3, 49:15, 86:13, Prov 15:24, Hos 13:14), but there was no clear OT teaching concerning a fulfilment of this hope. It was not until Jesus had died and risen that a full understanding of God’s provision for human life after death was revealed. Until that time there were only hints and hopes.
Gehenna, in Jewish theology, refers to a place of punishment for immoral people. According to some rabbis this punishment lasted no longer than twelve months, after which sinners were purified and ready to move on. By NT times it is likely that some of Jesus’ listeners would have been aware of this intertestamental rabbinic teaching.
The origin of the word Gehenna was the smouldering rubbish dump just outside the walls of Jerusalem. This city dump was situated in the Valley of the son of Hinnom (in Hebrew “ga ben Hinnom”), which was known as Gehenna (a derivative of the Hebrew phrase). Refuse, dead animals and the corpses of criminals considered unworthy of burial were cast into this repellent valley. Most people aspired to a tomb that showed status or at least was part of a family plot (2 Sam19:37), while Gehenna would be reserved for criminals and outcasts. The bodies cast there did not pile up perpetually, but were visibly reduced to ash, and the place it symbolised was never seen by the Jews as a place of eternal torment. No Israelite would expect those who were cast into this fiery pit to live there forever, it was a place of dreadful death and destruction. To be thrown onto this dump would have been abhorrent to Jews, who had clear guidelines concerning the burial of the dead.
The valley of Gehenna was chosen as the Jerusalem rubbish dump because of its grisly past. It was here that wicked, rebellious Israelites had burned their children alive when worshipping pagan gods (2 Kings 23:10, 2 Chron. 28:3. 33:6, cf. Jer. 7:31, 19:5ff). The shameful history of this valley meant it was a fearful place and it came to be seen as the place of the damned in Jewish literature. To be cast into Gehenna would be the worst possible scenario for a person after death and would have brought disgust, shame and dishonour to the dead person and their family.
Jesus only used the word Gehenna when speaking to the people of Jerusalem and surrounding towns, who would be well aware of the city’s dump. These people would never have considered Gehenna as a place where life went on eternally, to them it was a place where all life ended and was completely consumed (or was purified and moved on, if they accepted the rabbinic teachings on the afterlife in Gehenna rather than the OT teachings). Jesus used this word for hell eleven times when addressing a Jewish audience, but this in no way endorsed the shameful practices of the past or the traditions that had grown up around the concept; it would, however, have evoked a sense of horror at the thought of this being the destiny of the wicked dead.
Hades is the brother of Zeus in Greek mythology. He was the ruler of the nether world, which was referred to as the domain of Hades.
In Greek mythology Hades was a place for the dead, which was divided into two compartments, one for the wicked and the other for the blessed. In the NT the Greek word Hades is used 11 times (4 times by Jesus and 4 times in Revelation) and it is the equivalent of Sheol in the OT. Hades is often mentioned alongside death (Rev 1:18, 20:13, 20:14) and in Revelation 6:8 Hades and Death are actually personified.
While the Sheol of the OT had generally been thought of as the domain of the dead, the NT reveals that the abode of believers immediately after death is with Christ and God (Lk 23:43, 2 Cor 5:6-8, Phil 1:23, Rev 6:9, 7:9 ff, 15:2 ff) and not in a compartment of Hades. In NT times this Greek word for the place of the dead was often used, but the pagan Greek understanding of this place is not part of biblical teaching.
Jesus used both words, Gehenna and Hades, when speaking of the afterlife for unbelievers. He may well have been alluding to the time before the judgment when He used the word Hades, which is the place of the dead. When relating the final destiny of individuals after the judgement He used the word Gehenna to remind us that the second death takes place in the Lake of Fire.
102 The rich man and Lazarus
In Luke 16 Jesus used the term Hades when He told the story of two men who died and moved on to the afterlife, one was a rich man and the other a beggar called Lazarus. There has been considerable debate about whether this story is actually a parable, an account from real life or prophecy. The story follows four other stories, which are clearly parables, The Bible actually tells us this fact in Luke 15:2. Jesus told the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son to show the love and grace of God towards sinners. He then turned His attention to the scribes and Pharisees, who had been murmuring against Him about the company He kept. The last two parables regarding the wasteful steward and the rich man and Lazarus are directed towards these self righteous, religious men. Both stories admonish the listeners to prepare in this life for the life to come, while the Lazarus parable adds condemnation for covetousness and pride.
Jesus came up against these religious leaders again and again. While claiming to know God they failed to realise that He was, in fact, standing before them. They were so preoccupied with their own earthly standing they could not see that they were sealing their fate concerning their eternal destinies. In John 8 the Pharisees asked Jesus just who He thought He was, they were highly offended that this “man” could claim to be God. Their hearts and minds were so far from the God they claimed to represent they totally missed the truth; Jesus was not a man pretending to be God, He was God, who had chosen to become a man, so that they could have eternal life and be part of His Eternal Kingdom.
There are those who reason that the story of the rich man and Lazarus is not a parable, because, unlike every other person in a parable, Lazarus was named. Jesus no doubt had a reason for doing this, but the idea that it would indicate we are hearing a story from life is in no way supported by the beggar being given a name. Perhaps Jesus gave a name to this destitute man because, more often than not, beggars remain nameless during their lives on Earth. In this story it is the rich man who remained nameless, while the poor beggar, Lazarus, was given a name. This, in a sense, emphasises the transience of wealth and power on earth. What we do know is that this is not the Lazarus whose amazing story is told in chapter 11 of John’s gospel. The Lazarus Jesus raised from the dead was a man of means; he had a home in Bethany with his sisters, where Jesus often spent time.
Jesus told this story of the rich man and Lazarus to illustrate the point that money should be used to help the needy, not to support sumptuous, extravagant lifestyles during our time on Earth. The OT had plenty to say about looking after the poor and needy and Jesus was reinforcing this concept. Although they no doubt did give to the poor, Jesus had just admonished the hypocrites for “blowing their own trumpets” while doing so. In order to appear righteous in public, they would have someone blow a trumpet in the street, so that no one could miss them as they gave alms to the poor (Mat 6:2).
In this parable Jesus was emphasising the point that God knows people’s hearts, and their final destiny will depend on how He views them, not on how the world views them. God is not impressed by piety, position, prosperity or power, and perhaps if that is all we seek in this life, we will forfeit true riches in God’s Eternal Kingdom, which is to come.
Many traditionalists use this story to support the doctrine of eternal torment, but it does not actually say the rich man would be in torment eternally. The Greek word for torment used here is básanos and it is only found three times in The Bible. The word means “touchstone” and indicates a trial by testing the purity of something. Such a trial would not go on indefinitely, nor would the Jews, who were aware of the rabbinic teachings on purification in the afterlife, view this as a teaching on eternal torment. This form of trial is aimed at revealing the truth and Jesus was assuring His listeners that an individual’s standing before God will be openly revealed and conspicuously evident in the afterlife.
As with all parables, allegory is utilized throughout the story, but it is clear the main thrust concerns Jesus’ rejection of the sort of religious piety that ignored the spirit of the law and the prophets, while overemphasising more trivial matters (Mat 23:23; Luke 11:2-42). When we look more closely at some of the details of the parable, the use of symbolism is clear. Abraham’s bosom is not actually a place where believers are seated on Abraham’s lap immediately after death, and the fiery inferno in the parable need not be seen as a literal picture of hell. Although the Greek view of Hades included something similar to these two compartments, which was a common concept of hell in Jesus’ time, it was not a concept the listeners would have found in the OT. Some Jewish writings do hold an adaptation of this concept, but Jesus did not reveal the true picture of the afterlife until after His death and resurrection. Even today, most would agree that it is very unlikely believers will ultimately be found seated on Abraham’s lap, while looking down upon those suffering torment in the flames after their death. This is certainly not the sort of heaven we understand from the rest of NT scripture, but it would have been common as the Greek understanding of Hades and the afterlife. As He often did, Jesus was telling a parable, using a well known idea from day to day life, to illustrate a principle.
It is telling that Jesus uses the word Hades here and not the word Gehenna. As mentioned before, Hades seems to be used when Jesus is referring to the place of the dead before the resurrection and judgment, while Gehenna appears to refer to the Lake of Fire, which is the final abode after the Day of Judgment.
God has not made this aspect of the afterlife completely clear in the scriptures. From NT teachings we can discern that the place of the dead for unbelievers is actually a temporary abode, a sort of holding place until the resurrection of the dead on the Day of Judgment (Rev 20:5). Ultimately hell will be destroyed, and therefore it is not an eternal abode. At the end of this present creation the place of the unbelieving dead will cease to exist, it will be cast into the Lake of Fire along with the unbelievers (Rev 20:12-15).
103 What is the outer darkness?
One possibility that has been suggested as the eternal destiny of the unbelieving dead, is that after judgment they will be cast out into a place where they are eternally separated from God, in “outer darkness.” There are three verses in Matthew’s gospel that may be at the root of the idea that the eternal destiny of the unbelieving dead is a conscious, eternal existence in outer darkness. These verses are all records of Jesus’ words and the first is:
But many Israelites—those for whom the Kingdom was prepared—will be thrown into outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Mat 8:12)
Next we find:
Then the king said to his aides, ‘Bind his hands and feet and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ (Mat 22:13)
Finally Matthew records Jesus saying:
Now throw this useless servant into outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ (Mat 25:30)
In each of these verses Jesus is instructing the listeners concerning the fate of the Jewish people who have had the light of the OT scriptures, and have heard His preaching, but have nevertheless refused to accept that He is the long awaited Messiah. By rejecting the light of the gospel they are condemned to the outer darkness of ignorance and error concerning God’s divine plan for humanity.
The word “darkness” in these verses comes from a Greek word that means shadiness or obscurity. For those who reject God’s Messiah there is only a darkened or obscured understanding of the great plan of Yahweh to create an eternal family for Himself. In the end, when they finally understand their folly, there is nothing left but weeping for those who refuse to come into the Light, while many will gnash their teeth in anger at God for not doing what they think He should do.
In John’s gospel Jesus gives a further hint about the darkness that influences our thoughts and deeds in this present world. He says:
He who believes on Him is not condemned, but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only-begotten Son of God. And this is the condemnation, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than the Light, because their deeds were evil. (John 3:18-19)
John also records:
Jesus spoke to the people once more and said, “I am the light of the world. If you follow Me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life.” (John 8:12)
Once again Jesus explained that we can choose to remain in the darkness of disbelief, but He offers each one of us the “light that leads to life.” The darkness of the grave is also referenced in the term outer darkness, but unbelievers will not remain forever in the grave, they will be resurrected for the Day of Judgment. Regarding this outer darkness as an eternal, conscious existence, separated from God, cannot be sustained in the light of 1 Corinthians 15:28, which looks forward to a time when God is all in all. Darkness is often contrasted with light in the scriptures and it usually represents the absence of God’s wisdom and light. Eternal darkness cannot exist when God is all in all. This doctrine also assumes that every person possesses an immortal spirit. We will examine this concept shortly.
104 Purification, eternal torment or annihilation
Apart from outer darkness, the three main scenarios for the fate of the unbelieving dead are:
- eternal torment.
If we accept that the Lake of Fire is a place of purification we overlook the fact that people can and will reject Christ (Mat 10:33, John 6:64), and it is only those who are in Christ who will survive the final destruction of this present, fallen creation. Adherents of the purification concept are usually called Universalists, and they suggest that purification allows people to see Jesus as God and that all of humanity will naturally accept Him once they have met Him. This is not consistent with scripture. There are numerous passages that speak about there being many who will perish or be destroyed. One such passage is:
For Moses said, ‘The Lord your God will send you a prophet, just as He sent me, and He will be one of your own people. You are to obey everything that He tells you to do. Anyone who does not obey that prophet shall be separated from God’s people and destroyed.’ (Act 3:22-23)
The Bible teaches that people will choose to reject Christ. They have free will and they will exercise that free will to go their own way rather than God’s Way. In his letter to the Corinthians Paul discusses the secular world’s view of the gospel. He writes:
The message of the cross is foolish to those who are headed for destruction! But we who are being saved know it is the very power of God. As the Scriptures say, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise and discard the intelligence of the intelligent.” So where does this leave the philosophers, the scholars, and the world’s brilliant debaters? God has made the wisdom of this world look foolish. Since God in His wisdom saw to it that the world would never know Him through human wisdom, He has used our foolish preaching to save those who believe. It is foolish to the Jews, who ask for signs from heaven. And it is foolish to the Greeks, who seek human wisdom. So when we preach that Christ was crucified, the Jews are offended and the Gentiles say it’s all nonsense. But to those called by God to salvation, both Jews and Gentiles, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. (1Co 1:18-24)
This passage is clear, some people (those headed for destruction) will reject the Messiah, God’s Son. Thus the question remains, “What is the eternal destiny of the unbelieving dead?”
If we are to believe the Lake of Fire is a place of eternal torment, we must make allowances for evil to go on eternally, after God has brought it to an end. God does not see torment as good, He has distinctly revealed in His Word that He takes no pleasure in disciplining His children. Our Creator wants all of humanity to turn back to Him (1 Tim 2:3,4; 2 Peter 3:9) and live righteous lives, but when we refuse He acts reluctantly (Gen 6:6). After describing their appalling behaviour He pleaded with Israel:
Oh, how can I give you up, Israel? How can I let you go? How can I destroy you like Admah or demolish you like Zeboiim? My heart is torn within Me, and My compassion overflows. No, I will not unleash My fierce anger. I will not completely destroy Israel, for I am God and not a mere mortal. I am the Holy One living among you, and I will not come to destroy. (Hosea 11:8-9)
God held back from the destruction of Israel many times, but eventually He allowed destruction to overtake the nation when they refused to follow Him. Israel is strategically placed in the Middle East and has always been surrounded by powerful neighbours. God need only loose His restraint on these warlike neighbours to bring about His chastisement on the rebellious nation He created. It is with reluctance that God allows us to suffer and His heart is torn as He lifts His hand of restraint or brings about judgment.
Another area to be considered is that if the “second death” is synonymous with “eternal torment”, it must be some kind of never-ending process. The OT prophet Isaiah declared that death will ultimately be eliminated, it will not exist after God destroys this present creation. Although the Revelation adds the word “second”, it does not mean this death is exempt. Isaiah declared:
He hath swallowed up death for ever; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from off all faces; and the reproach of his people shall he take away from off all the Earth: for the LORD hath spoken it. (Isa 25:8)
The second death cannot therefore be something that will continue forever. After it has done its work, death, even the second death, will be swallowed up forever.
As mentioned earlier the doctrines of purification and eternal torment are based on the idea that some part of the human is immortal. Many cultures and religions around the world today believe we have immortal souls; however, many biblical Christians have a different perspective. In one of his newsletters Dr Edward Fudge so beautifully explains:
We are mortal, dependent creatures, who exist at God’s will, through his power and by his grace. Although we consist of earthly elements, we bear the divine image. Yet from Adam forward, we humans have denied our mortal limitations and coveted the place of God.
Dr Fudge presents the case for the last of the three potential destinies for unbelievers listed above. He asserts that unbelievers will be annihilated (see) in the Lake of Fire. I came to this conclusion myself before I found his teachings, and I find it the most biblically convincing. Those who accept this final possibility for the destiny of the unbelieving dead see the words of Jesus in John 3:16 as a literal and correct understanding of the gospel, without the gift of eternal life, unbelievers will perish, completely and eternally. And death will be no more (Rev 21:4). Dr Fudge also asserts that the idea of an immortal spirit is not a biblical concept. Many other religious traditions teach that the soul is immortal but does the Holy Christian Bible teach the concept of an immortal spirit?
105 The Biblical View of Immortal Souls
Dr Fudge contends that the idea of immortal spirits was introduced into the Christian community in the second century by converted Greek philosophers like Tertullian, whose pagan backgrounds were influenced by the doctrines of Plato and Socrates, both believers in human immortality. In the 1st century, Jewish tradition was mixed, however, most Jewish and OT scholars believe that immortality of the soul or spirit is not an OT teaching (see), but rather a philosophical concept included in some extrabiblical Jewish teachings. There is also good reason to believe the NT church rejected the concept of human immortality and it would be difficult to construct such a doctrine from NT scripture.
The OT does not discuss the afterlife in any great detail, leaving Jewish scholars plenty of room for speculation, thus many rabbis stress that Olam Ha Ze, or life in this world, is far more important than Olam Ha Ba, or the life to come (see). Jews are exhorted to concentrate on the here and now, and to strive to live good and productive lives, while appreciating the time on Earth God has given them.
Throughout the centuries since Jesus’ time on Earth, both Jewish and Christian traditions have developed many and varied teachings about the spirit and soul. Contact with other communities of faith has brought the concepts of immortal and even pre-existent spirits into consideration.
Many secular scholars insist the majority of Jewish and Christian traditions are derived almost entirely from Zoroastrianism and other, earlier religious teachings, but once again this idea rests on certain assumptions. The dominant humanist assumption that influences this claim is the assertion that God is a human construct. This assumption is the antithesis of the Christian understanding of God as the Creator, who revealed Himself and His truth to specific individuals throughout time. After carefully preparing a nation, He was born into their midst as a man, so that He could endorse and further reveal that truth, then die and rise to life to redeem humanity.
As a biblical Christian I now understand that God has been revealing Himself to individuals since Adam and Eve first walked with Him in the garden. Over the millennia since that time, when humans filled the earth after the Flood, people groups carried stories of God and His dealings with humanity into the four corners of the world. These communities have then passed the stories down to their descendents with embellishments and alterations over time. However, since God Himself came to Earth, endorsed the existing OT scriptures and instructed the writers of the final, authoritative books of the Word of God, we know where to find the absolute truth concerning spiritual and historical matters. Consequently, we should look to The Bible to discover what it teaches concerning human immortality.
106 The Old Testament
Let us begin at the beginning. In the book of Genesis we find Eve conversing with Satan:
We may eat the fruit of any tree in the garden,” the woman answered, “except the tree in the middle of it. God told us not to eat the fruit of that tree or even touch it; if we do, we will die.” The snake replied, “That’s not true; you will not die. (Gen 3:2-4)
From the beginning of time Satan has been lying to humanity about our mortality. He told Eve she and Adam would not die if they disobeyed God; but death, pain and suffering have plagued humankind ever since they believed Satan’s lie. Another interesting aspect of this exchange is that Eve told Satan she was not to touch the fruit of the tree. This stipulation was not part of God’s original decree (Gen 2:17), thus Eve had made God’s command sound far more restrictive than it actually was.
After Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, God set in motion the consequences He had warned would follow their disobedience. This disobedience was not so much about them actually eating the fruit, but rather, about them choosing to ignore God’s guidance and believe Satan’s lie. And so God decreed:
In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return. (Gen 3:19)
God did not assure Adam and Eve they possessed an immortal spirit that would go on forever. Instead, after their disobedience, they received the explicit declaration that they would return to the dust from which they came. During the creation week the Creator had miraculously transformed this dust into human beings, and although this was distinctly different to the way He created everything else, there was no mention of immortality.
To be more precise, God informed the people He had created that they would eventually return to the dust from which they came. Only a few verses on, we find God ensuring Adam and Eve would no longer have free access to the famous symbol of immortality mentioned in Genesis.
And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever: Therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken. So He drove out the man; and He placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life. (Gen 3:22-24)
In these verses we discover humans were cut off from the source of immortality at the very beginning of time. This was a direct result of their turning away from their Creator and rejecting His guidance. They had chosen to follow their own understanding and rather than trusting in God’s directions, they believed Satan’s lies. The consequence of their actions was that they no longer had access to the Tree of Life, which was the symbol of immortality. In John’s gospel Jesus tells Thomas “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one can come to the Father except through Me”. (John 14:6) It is as we live in Christ that this Life is imparted to us and we can once again have access to immortality.
Later in Genesis we find God promising Abram:
….. thou shalt go to thy fathers in peace; thou shalt be buried in a good old age.(Genesis 15:15)
Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, Aaron, Moses and Josiah were all “gathered to” their people after death (Gen 35:29; 37:35; 49:33; Num. 20:24, 28; 31:2; Deut. 32:50; 34:5; 2 Chron 34:28). This could be understood as a family gathering beyond the grave, but perhaps God had introduced the hope of an afterlife to the children of Adam and Eve as He developed their understanding of the promised Seed (Gen 3:15) and a resurrection and renewed access to eternal life. In the book of Genesis this hope is only briefly glimpsed, and later, when Abraham is discussing the fate of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah with God we find:
And Abraham answered and said, Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord, who am but dust and ashes: (Gen 18:27)
Abraham appears to express a sense of the transient nature of humanity, which perhaps enables us to view the earlier text as the dead joining their ancestors in death when they go to their graves.
Jehovah killeth, and maketh alive: He bringeth down to Sheol, and bringeth up. (1 Samuel 2:6)
This is the first clear reference to the possibility of life beyond the grave. In Samuel we find God can kill and God can resurrect a human being. Samuel understood that the Creator is the One who holds life and death in His hands; He created life and He can take it away and bring it back again.
From Job we learn:
Drought and heat consume the snow waters: So doth Sheol those that have sinned. (Job 24:19)
Here we find the idea that the sinner can only look forward to being consumed in the same way snow waters are consumed by heat and drought.
The Psalms also include many verses concerning the fate of the unbelieving dead.
Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel. (Psalm 2:9)
The writer declares that those who are “against the LORD, and against his anointed” (Psalm 2:2) will be shattered like a pottery vessel – they will return to dust. David also writes:
For in death there is no remembrance of thee: In Sheol who shall give thee thanks? (Psalm 6:5)
And from Solomon we find:
For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten. (Ecc 9:5)
These verses appear to indicate that there is no consciousness in Sheol.
Also from David we learn:
For yet a little while, and the wicked shall not be: yea, thou shalt diligently consider his place, and he shall not be. (Psalm 37:10)
Once again the wicked will “not be,” there is no mention of an ongoing existence. Some may suggest that this statement is from the perspective of those who remain alive on Earth, proposing that while the dead may no longer be evident to the living, they may continue to exist beyond our awareness. The problem with this idea is that it is based entirely on the pre-existing assumption that we actually are immortal beings. This idea is most definitely not evident from the text. David continues:
But the wicked will perish; the enemies of the LORD are like the glory of the pastures; they vanish–like smoke they vanish away. (Psalm 37:20)
Once again the wicked are warned they will perish – this verse actually elaborates on the idea by telling us they will vanish away like smoke. To accept the concept of human immortality one needs to change the understanding of the words “perish” and “destroy” that are used repeatedly throughout The Bible. If we accept that the unbelieving dead continue on in some state of perpetual existence beyond the second death, we must also admit they can never perish, nor be destroyed.
The Psalms continue:
They are appointed as a flock for Sheol; Death shall be their shepherd; And the upright shall have dominion over them in the morning; And their beauty shall be for Sheol to consume, That there be no habitation for it. (Psalm 49:14)
As smoke is driven away, so you shall drive them away; as wax melts before fire, so the wicked shall perish before God! (Psalm 68:2)
But they flattered Him with their mouths, and they lied to Him with their tongues. For their heart was not right with Him, neither were they faithful in His covenant. But He, full of pity, forgave their iniquity, and did not destroy them; yea, many times He turned His anger away, and did not stir up all His wrath. For He remembered that they were but flesh, a wind that passes away and does not come again. (Psalm 78:36-39)
When the wicked spring as the grass, and when all the workers of iniquity do flourish; it is that they shall be destroyed for ever: (Psalm 92:7)
Let sinners be consumed from the Earth, and let the wicked be no more!! (Psalm 104:35a)
Fire also broke out in their company; the flame burned up the wicked. (Psalm 106:18)
But from Solomon we find:
Treasures of wickedness profit nothing: but righteousness delivereth from death. (Proverbs 10:2)
In the way of righteousness is life; and in the pathway thereof there is no death. (Proverbs 12:28)
Solomon is extending the hope of deliverance from death. These verses make no sense unless the death mentioned is eternal death. We know the righteous do not live on forever in their mortal flesh. The death from which they are delivered is the second death.
However Isaiah writes:
The light of Israel will become a fire, and his Holy One a flame, and it will burn and devour his thorns and briers in one day. The glory of his forest and of his fruitful land the LORD will destroy, both soul and body, and it will be as when a sick man wastes away. (Isa 10:17-18)
…but with righteousness shall He judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the Earth: and He shall smite the Earth with the rod of His mouth, and with the breath of His lips shall He slay the wicked. (Isa 11:4)
My righteousness draws near, my salvation has gone out, and my arms will judge the peoples; the coastlands hope for me, and for my arm they wait. Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look at the Earth beneath; for the heavens vanish like smoke, the Earth will wear out like a garment, and they who dwell in it will die in like manner; but my salvation will be forever, and my righteousness will never be dismayed. (Isa 51:5-6)
For, behold, the LORD will come with fire, and with His chariots like a whirlwind, to render His anger with fury, and His rebuke with flames of fire. For by fire and by His sword will the LORD plead with all flesh: and the slain of the LORD shall be many. They that sanctify themselves, and purify themselves in the gardens behind one tree in the midst, eating swine’s flesh, and the abomination, and the mouse, shall be consumed together, saith the LORD. (Isa 66:15-17)
And they shall go forth, and look upon the carcasses of the men that have transgressed against me: for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched; and they shall be an abhorring unto all flesh. (Isa 66:24)
This verse is often quoted to make a case for the dead having some form of perpetual existence. However, the verse does not say the carcasses go on living forever, they are dead bodies. In fact this verse reminds me of the refuse dumps that have existed from time immemorial and were still reasonably common during my childhood. There was just such a garbage dump in a Sydney suburb not far from my childhood home, where animal carcasses and rubbish were thrown. If we had gone to “look upon the carcasses” in that dump we would not have seen living animals, instead we would see dead creatures in the process of being completely consumed.
I can distinctly remember that the dump smouldered continuously, year after year. At one time the carcass of a circus elephant was added to the perpetually smouldering fire. The elephant was completely consumed, first by the fire that was heaped up around it and was not quenched (as it was continuously being fed with new fuel) and then by the worms that consumed what was left as the fire moved on to more flammable material in a different part of the dump. Eventually, as the fire returned to burn new material deposited over the elephant carcass, even the bones would be turned to ash and ultimately nothing but ash would remain, while the worms and fire continued their work.
In our text we find the worms feeding on the carcasses do not die, their role and that of the fire was to completely consume the dead. As explained earlier (under the heading Gehenna), in biblical times not just animals, but also the bodies of those who were considered unworthy of a proper burial, were thrown on these city dumps to be consumed by the fire and worms. At times the corpses of enemies who had been killed in battle were also disposed of in this way. The worms and fire would be seen to consume all that remained of the bodies of those considered unworthy of a grave. Although the bodies would be completely turned to ash and dust, the fire and worms could go on.
It is worth noting here that this passage does not say that the worms will “never” die. There is a Hebrew word (עוָֹלם ôlām ) that gives further meaning to the word “not” used in this text; the addition of this Hebrew word literally changes the meaning of “not” to “will not ever” or “never.” This word is used in other parts of the OT (Judges 2:1; 2 Sam 12:10; Ps 15:5) but in the above verse the text simply reads, “will not die.”
In Genesis 42:20 Joseph directs his brothers to, “Bring your youngest brother to me, so your words may be verified, and you will not die.” Later, when God is giving Moses instructions for the priests of Israel in Exodus 30:20 we read, “When they enter the tent of meeting, they shall wash with water, so that they will not die.” Also we find Zedekiah assuring Jeremiah in Jeremiah 38:24, “Let no man know about these words and you will not die.” No one would assume from these verses that Joseph’s brothers would live forever, nor did the priests Moses was referring to or the prophet Jeremiah suddenly become invulnerable.
As Chris Date points out:
….the promise is not of everlasting life ….. Joseph’s promise was that his brothers would not die by his hand as suspected spies, if they followed his instructions at that time. God’s promise to Moses was that a priest would not die while performing his service, if he washed his hands as part of that service during the course of his natural life. Jeremiah was not put to death by the officials of the king of Babylon before Jerusalem was captured, because he did not reveal the nature of his conversation with Zedekiah until its capture. (He continued to live, but this had nothing to do with Zedekiah’s advice.)
When the statement is recorded in Scripture, that someone or something “will not die,” a specific context is in view; no life is promised beyond that context. And in Isaiah 66:24 that context is the consumption of a corpse. Their worm, it is promised, will not die in that context, will not be prevented by death from consuming its host. This is an assurance that the abhorrent process of decay will continue unabated until the corpse is completely consumed; the worm is promised no life beyond that. (see)
In our verse, Isaiah also refers to the fire that will not be quenched. An unquenchable fire consumes all in its path until the fuel is spent and the fire burns out. The fires that burn in the Australian bush are often unquenchable, when they cannot be put out they continue to burn until the fuel is spent and eventually they die down leaving only the smoke and ashes.
Jeremiah (Jer 17:27) warned Israel that if they rejected his words and refused to keep the Sabbath holy, a fire that “will not be quenched” would be kindled in the gates of Jerusalem. This prophecy was later fulfilled by the Chaldeans (Jer 52:13) when fire utterly destroyed the city. The fire did the work God had decreed it would do, it could not be quenched until its work was done and it finally went out.
Ezekiel also spoke of an unquenchable fire that would burn the forest of the south, burning every green tree and every dry tree (Ez 20:47,48) in its path. This image is not of an eternal, ongoing judgment, but rather a judgment that will endure until its consuming work is completely accomplished. The emphasis here is that these fires cannot be put out, they will not be quenched; they will do the work God has decreed of consuming the fuel set before them.
Let us resume our examination of OT passages relating to human immortality, in Jeremiah we find:
Were they ashamed when they had committed abomination? nay, they were not at all ashamed, neither could they blush: therefore shall they fall among them that fall: in the time of their visitation they shall be cast down, saith the LORD. I will utterly consume them, saith the LORD: (Jeremiah 8:12-13a)
And from Ezekiel we discover:
Say unto them, As I live, saith the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live: turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die, O house of Israel? (Eze 33:11)
God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, His desire is for all to turn from evil and live. Ezekiel declared that those who continue in their “evil ways” will die.
Hosea informs us:
But the people of Israel have bitterly provoked the LORD, so their Lord will now sentence them to death in payment for their sins. (Hosea 12:14)
Hosea reiterates God’s original decree, death is the penalty for sin.
Now they continue to sin by making silver idols, images shaped skillfully with human hands. “Sacrifice to these,” they cry, “and kiss the calf idols!” Therefore, they will disappear like the morning mist, like dew in the morning sun, like chaff blown by the wind, like smoke from a chimney. (Hosea 13:2-3)
The prophet Zephaniah gives a vivid description of the end of days:
I will bring distress on mankind, so that they shall walk like the blind, because they have sinned against the LORD; their blood shall be poured out like dust, and their flesh like dung. Neither their silver nor their gold shall be able to deliver them on the day of the wrath of the LORD. In the fire of His jealousy, all the Earth shall be consumed; for a full and sudden end He will make of all the inhabitants of the Earth. (Zeph 1:17-18)
The word “day” in “the day of wrath” mentioned here is the same Hebrew word that is used for the creation days. This is a literal day when God will swiftly destroy all that is not preserved by His Spirit. The Earth will be consumed and a full end will be made of all evil before God creates the new heaven and the new Earth. God has revealed that He will use His wrath in a powerful and effective cleansing and purification of His creation.
Malachi also refers to the day when fire will burn up “all that work wickedness:”
For, behold, the day cometh, it burneth as a furnace; and all the proud, and all that work wickedness, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the LORD of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch. (Mal 4:1)
And ye shall tread down the wicked; for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet in the day that I do make, saith the LORD of hosts. (Mal 4:3)
Both these verses in Malachi mention the activity of a day. On that day all evil and wickedness will be consumed by the fire, so that only ashes remain.
To the very last book of the OT there is no mention of human immortality. The fate of the wicked was quite frequently to be reduced to dust or ashes and returned to the ground from which humans were created. However, there was hope for the righteous in the OT; some were assured they would rise again. Daniel was instructed:
As for you, go your way until the end. You will rest, and then at the end of the days, you will rise again to receive the inheritance set aside for you.” (Dan 12:13)
David had a heart after God (1 Sam 13:14). He instructed his son Solomon (1 Chron 28:9) and others to seek the Lord.
O give thanks unto the LORD, call upon His name; make known His doings among the peoples. Sing unto Him, sing praises unto Him; talk ye of all his marvelous works. Glory ye in His holy name: let the heart of them rejoice that seek the LORD. Seek ye the LORD and His strength; seek His face evermore. Remember His marvelous works that He hath done; His wonders, and the judgments of His mouth. (1Ch 16:8-12)
No doubt because of this close relationship with God, David had a sense of life beyond the grave. He believed he would be reunited with his dead son (2 Sam 12:23). Solomon also hoped for life beyond the grave, in Proverbs he writes:
The path of life leads upward for the wise; they leave the grave behind. (Pro 15:24)
For the Jewish people the hope of being reunited with family in the afterlife was also intertwined with the ongoing lives of their descendants and the restoration of the nation of Israel to its pre-eminent state in the Middle East. In Isaiah we find:
And a great road will go through that once deserted land. It will be named the Highway of Holiness. Evil-minded people will never travel on it. It will be only for those who walk in God’s ways; fools will never walk there. Lions will not lurk along its course, nor any other ferocious beasts. There will be no other dangers. Only the redeemed will walk on it. Those who have been ransomed by the LORD will return. They will enter Jerusalem singing, crowned with everlasting joy. Sorrow and mourning will disappear, and they will be filled with joy and gladness. (Isa 35:8-10)
Throughout the OT a number of godly people expressed hope for life beyond the grave, but the fate of the wicked dead was rather ambiguous. It would be difficult to construct a doctrine of immortality for the unbelieving dead from the OT. However, there are a number of Hebrew words for “the dead” and one in particular appears to relate to departed spirits. This word is rapha and it is used in a number of OT passages (Job 26:5; Ps. 88:10; Prov. 2:18; 9:18; 21:16; Isa. 14:9; 26:14,19). Departed or disembodied spirits are mentioned as gathered together in “the congregation of the dead” (Prov 21:16), but Isaiah explains they are nonetheless subject to eventual destruction. He declared:
Those we served before are dead and gone. Their departed spirits will never return! You attacked them and destroyed them, and they are long forgotten. (Isa 26:14)
By contrast those who “die in the Lord” will rise up and sing for joy:
But those who die in the LORD will live; their bodies will rise again! Those who sleep in the Earth will rise up and sing for joy! For Your life-giving light will fall like dew on Your people in the place of the dead! (Isa 26:19)
107 The New Testament
By Jesus’ time there were a number of major sects amongst the Jewish people, but the ones we will look at here are the Sadducees and the Pharisees. These two groups are thought to have originated about 200 BC, during the time between the recording of the Old and New Testaments, when the Maccabees ruled in Judah. The Jewish-Roman historian, Flavius Josephus, mentions them, as do a few rabbinic texts, but they are mostly remembered because of their presence in the books of the NT.
Paul was a Pharisee who undoubtedly understood the differences in the beliefs of the Sadducees and Pharisees. In the book of Acts, Luke records Paul using these differences to his advantage:
But when Paul perceived that the one part were Sadducees, and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, Brethren, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees: touching the hope and resurrection of the dead I am called in question. And when he had so said, there arose a dissension between the Pharisees and Sadducees: and the assembly was divided. For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, neither angel, nor spirit: but the Pharisees confess both. And there arose a great clamour: and some of the scribes of the Pharisees’ part stood up, and strove, saying, We find no evil in this man: and what if a spirit hath spoken to him, or an angel? (Acts 23:6-9)
From the preceding passage we learn that the Sadducees did not believe in a resurrection, angels or spirits, which would appear to indicate they rejected the idea of spiritual beings other than God and therefore the concept of an afterlife and human immortality. By contrast, the Pharisees believed in spirits, angels and a resurrection, but this does not necessarily serve as evidence for belief in human immortality. It appears the Pharisees embraced the ideas of holy and unholy supernatural entities and godly people being brought back to life, but they did not necessarily believe that every person would continue to exist in some form after death.
There is a great deal of speculation about the beliefs of the Jewish people during Jesus’ time on Earth. Like all people groups, there is no doubt they had a vast range of beliefs within their community. They had been under the influence of Babylonian, Greek and Roman cultures and may have adopted concepts from each of these traditions, but we are here interested in The Bible’s teachings.
A few commentators have suggested that the NT reveals a belief in departed spirits becoming ghosts. Like the Hebrew language, there are a number of words for “the dead” in NT Greek, but the Greek word that has prompted the idea that the NT refers to disembodied human spirits or ghosts is phantasma. It is this Greek word that is used when The Bible records the story of Jesus walking on the water and the disciples’ fearful reaction because they thought He was a spirit (Mt 14:26; Mk 6:49). Some Bible versions translate phantasma as ghost, but a more accurate translation today would be spirit.
There is good reason to believe the disciples thought Jesus was either an angel or a demon, both of which would cause fear and trembling. The Jews had a tradition of demons taking on human form and carrying off children in the night. They certainly did not at first believe it was a human person walking on the water and there is no reason to believe they thought He was the spirit of someone who had died.
There are many verses in the NT, which continue the theme of the eventual, total destruction of the wicked dead that is carried throughout the OT. From Matthew through to Revelation numerous verses depict our ultimate destinies as either eternal life, or death. Paul used the terms death, perish and destruction when discussing the tragic, eternal destiny of unbelievers. A plain reading approach to scripture would view all of these terms as clearly indicating an end of life and not some form of immortality. All the verses that include such terms must be reinterpreted to fit the doctrines of either purification or eternal torment.
When discussing the concept of eternal torment there are a few verses that are usually mentioned by traditionalists to reinforce the doctrine of immortality. Having dealt with the parable of the rich man and Lazarus and the concept of Gehenna earlier, we will put aside the contentious parable and verses referring to that odious place for the moment and concentrate on one particular verse in the NT, which is frequently quoted by traditionalists as supporting the concept of human immortality. In Matthew 25:46 Jesus says:
And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life. (Mat 25:46 English Standard Version)
The Greek word translated as “punishment” in this verse is kolasis and in NT times this word was commonly used for the act of pruning. It comes from a root word meaning to dwarf or curtail and can be translated as “cut off.” The question a believer must ask is, “What does this eternal punishment mean?”
Dr Fudge addresses this issue when he writes:
Of the 70 occurrences of the adjective “eternal” in the NT, six times the word qualifies nouns signifying acts or processes rather than persons or things. The six “eternal” acts or events are:
1. salvation (Heb 5:9)
2. judgment (6:2)
3. redemption (9:12)
4. sin (Mark 3:29)
5. punishment (Matt 25:46)
6. destruction (2 Thess 1:9).
In four of the six, “eternal” refers to the results or outcome of the action and not the action itself. “Eternal judgment” does not mean that the judging will last forever, but that its outcome will. “Eternal redemption” does not mean that the process goes on without end—for the redemptive work was done once and for all—but that its issue will have no end forever. “Eternal salvation” is the result; we do not look for an eternal act of “saving.” And the “eternal” sin is called that because its guilt will never be forgiven, not because the sinning continues throughout eternity.
Given this regular usage of “eternal” to describe the results of an action or process, we suggest that it is perfectly proper to understand the two disputed usages in this same ordinary way. The “everlasting destruction” (2 Thess 1:9) of the wicked does not mean that Christ will be forever in the process of destroying them but that their destruction, once accomplished, will be forever. The wicked will never reappear. Paul’s phrase “eternal destruction” is in fact a clearer picture of Jesus’ generic term “eternal punishment” in Matt 25:46. This destruction is not accidental, nor is it self-inflicted. It is the penal outcome of God’s judgment. It is punishment, in this instance capital punishment. And, unlike even the capital punishment man may inflict, it is irreversible capital punishment. It is, truly, “everlasting” or “eternal” punishment, “everlasting destruction,” the second death from which there is no resurrection or return forever. It is the very fate we have met time and time again throughout The Bible. The wicked’s destruction will be just as long-lasting as the life of the saved. We give the dualism full weight, in keeping with the regular usage of the word “eternal” with nouns of action and in light of Jesus’ clear statement in Matt 25:46 placing “eternal life” and “eternal punishment” side by side. Never, ever after, in all eternity, will the wicked be.(60)
Matthew 25:46 could then be paraphrased as:
These will pass away to be cut off from life eternally, but the righteous will enter into eternal life.
They will go to the punishment that has eternal results, while the righteous will enter into eternal life. (Mat 25:46)
Once again this verse actually highlights the momentous decision each person must make. We can choose between light or darkness, goodness or evil, God’s Way or Satan’s way, life or death.
The overwhelming tragedy associated with the loss of individual potential can never be overstated; we were each created with a unique, eternal potential, which we can choose to realize – or forfeit. This verse tells us that those who reject the Lord of Life’s offer of eternal salvation will be cut off from their eternal potential forever; they will never, ever realize what they could become in eternity. The punishment for choosing Satan’s lies rather than God’s Truth has devastating, irreversible, eternal consequences.
Many other NT verses indicate that death is indeed the absolute end for those who do not accept the gift of eternal life. Matthew writes:
…whose fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly cleanse His threshing–floor; and He will gather His wheat into the garner, but the chaff He will burn up with unquenchable fire. (Mat 3:12)
This verse is part of a short diatribe from John the Baptist when he sees the Jewish leaders coming to him for baptism. He warns them that his baptism and their Jewish heritage will make no difference to their eternal destiny; they must bear godly fruit to avoid the unquenchable fire. He is emphasising the need for true repentance that leads to true holiness and he warns them that He who is coming will judge their hearts by fire.
Once again this is the fire that cannot be extinguished; this fire will burn for as long as the fuel remains. There is no indication that unbelievers will be given an eternal spirit that can endure the flames forever, they are spiritually dead and as with chaff, we would expect the fire to totally consume body and soul, leaving only ash. As Jesus said:
And be not afraid of them that kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. (Mat 10:28)
The word Jesus uses for hell in this verse is Gehenna, the inhabitants of Jerusalem would know exactly what happened to anything that was cast into that awful place (see Sheol, Hades, Gehenna and Hell). They would know bodies were completely consumed by the maggots and fire in the Jerusalem city dump that bore this name, and here Jesus declares that the soul can also be destroyed in the Gehenna of the afterlife this disgusting place had come to represent.
Jesus also said:
Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into the eternal fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels: (Mat 25:41)
This verse reveals that the everlasting fire was actually created for the devil and his angels. Sadly, the unbelieving dead will also find their end in this place. This end will be swift but sure as Jesus tells the people:
For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? (Mark 8:36)
The gospels of Matthew and Mark both record Jesus informing His listeners that they should deal severely with any obstacle that would hinder them entering eternal life. He said:
If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It’s better to enter eternal life with only one hand than to go into the unquenchable fires of hell with two hands. If your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It’s better to enter eternal life with only one foot than to be thrown into hell with two feet. And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out. It’s better to enter the Kingdom of God with only one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, ‘where the maggots never die and the fire never goes out. (Mark 9:43-48)
Jesus references Isaiah 66 when He warns that anything that is likely to take us to hell should be seen as expendable; something that must be dealt with and destroyed, even to the absolute extreme of sacrificing a part of our own body. He uses this improbable case to emphasise the importance of His teaching. This warning reminds me of news reports I have heard that relate stories of people who have been trapped, and are forced to remove one of their own limbs in order to free themselves, so that they might live. In just the same way, Jesus declared it is far better to lose a small part of the body, which will ultimately be transformed into a perfect, whole body, than to ultimately lose access to eternal life.
Once again the word for hell in this verse is Gehenna and the listeners would have a clear understanding of what happened in that place. The continuously smouldering fires would destroy all hope of life. He explains that the worm will not die and the fire will not be quenched; they will effectively do the job of completely consuming absolutely everything that is subject to their destructive work. Whatever the hindrance keeping us from repentance might be, it is a small loss to relinquish it compared to the loss of our body and soul.
Although there is no mention of the spirit being immortal, the righteous in Christ are informed they will “enter into eternal life,” they do not already possess immortality, but must enter into life through the righteousness of Christ. There is no teaching here, or anywhere else in scripture, of God specifically giving an immortal spirit to the lost so that they can enter into eternal torment.
Jesus makes it clear:
For God loved the world so much that He gave His one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
Also in John we find Jesus’ words:
I tell you the truth, those who listen to My message and believe in God who sent Me have eternal life. They will never be condemned for their sins, but they have already passed from death into life. (John 5:24)
Later in his gospel John records:
Jesus saith unto her, “Thy brother shall rise again”. Martha saith unto him, “I know that he shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” Jesus said unto her, “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this?” (John 11:23-26)
Jesus assured Martha that those who die as believers will be resurrected to eternal life in Him, after which they will never die again. However, after Jesus raised him in this passage, Lazarus did die again, but at the end of time, after the believers’ resurrection, he will never die again. Lazarus, and any other saints who were raised from the dead during Jesus’ time on Earth (Mat 27:52-53), will have experienced a second death of sorts, but this is a very different “second death” to the one that will take place in the Lake of Fire, that death will be eternal. No one will be resurrected to life again after that death, as the consequences of the second death are eternal.
Further on in John’s gospel we find Jesus saying:
If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. (John 15:6)
The listeners would surely have understood this to mean that this burning devoured the branches and there would be nothing but ash and dust remaining. Jesus gave no indication that this fire was unique, holding special properties that meant it did not completely consume the branches. Nor did He say that the branches had special properties that made them indestructible, like the burning bush. A plain reading of this passage would lead us to believe that He was referring to complete and utter destruction.
As we continue through the NT we find in Paul’s writing:
For as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without law: and as many as have sinned under law shall be judged by law. (Rom 2:12)
Here was the perfect opportunity for Paul to elaborate on the eternal torment awaiting the wicked dead, if he did indeed believe this was the fate of the unbeliever. However, in his letters Paul often declares the unsaved are destined to perish (1 Cor 1:18; 2 Cor 2:15; 2 Cor 4:3; 2 Thes 2:10). This is the same word (perish = Gk apollumi ) that is used by James, when he describes the end for the beauty of flowers and grasses (James 1:11). Like the flower’s beauty, our lives are fleeting; miraculously lovely, but destined to disappear unless we are imparted with the immortality available only to those who accept the gift of eternal life from Christ Jesus. Without this gift of eternal life we will perish, just like the flowers of the field. God’s gift of mortal life in this world is marvellous indeed, but this life is short and fleeting, like the flowers and the grasses.
Later in Romans Paul writes:
For the wages of sin is death; but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 6:23)
Here Paul tells the Romans that death is the penalty for sin, he does not mention any change in God’s original declaration to Adam and Eve. We have learned from Ezekiel 18 that this teaching had continued throughout the OT and Paul, as a noted theologian of the early church, is reiterating this teaching. He is completely silent concerning inherent human immortality or any form of eternal torment. It is difficult to know exactly what the common understanding would have been at the time but it is probable that many of his listeners had not been influenced by the Greek idea of an immortal soul and they would therefore presume death was the end for those who were not partakers of the gift of eternal life. Paul certainly did not say anything to make it clear that this was not what he meant by death.
In fact Paul teaches that we are mortal, not immortal, he writes:
But when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting? (1Cor 15:54-55)
Paul was probably contending with the Greek influence in this passage, as the Corinthian church was in the heart of the ancient Greek world. He was making a definite statement; our bodies are corruptible and our souls are mortal. The sting of death is that it is the end of life: the victory is that we can have everlasting life through Jesus Christ. We are not immortal until we have “put on immortality” through Christ, and only then does death no longer have a hold over us.
The traditionalist might counter that the mortality referred to here is only of the body and soul, not the spirit, but Paul informed Timothy, using the same Greek word (athanasia = immortal ), that God alone is immortal:
He alone has immortality, dwelling in inaccessible light; no one has ever seen Him, as no one is able to see Him; to Him be honour and power forever. Amen. (1Tim 6:16)
Paul told Timothy that only God is immortal. Therefore we can confidently presume he was declaring the need for mortal humans to be born again in order to put on immortality. Paul was informing the Corinthians they should put on incorruptible bodies – their bodies were corruptible and they needed to put on incorruptible bodies; he then moves his attention to their souls, which also needed to be transformed from mortal to immortal souls. This transforming process is the province of Christ alone; no other can take a person who is composed of a corruptible body and mortal soul and transform them into a being with an incorruptible body and immortal soul, fully prepared for an eternal existence. But then the traditionalist may contend that it is the spirit that is immortal.
In another letter Paul explains to the Ephesians:
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ–by grace you have been saved. (Eph 2:4-5)
In this verse Paul explains that no one has everlasting life; we are spiritually dead because of our sin natures. We must be brought to life by our spiritual union with the immortal Christ, and it is His spiritual life that will then enable us to endure beyond the death of our corruptible bodies.
When writing to the Colossians Paul declared:
And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath He quickened together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses.
In the Good News Bible this verse reads:
You were at one time spiritually dead because of your sins and because you were Gentiles without the Law. But God has now brought you to life with Christ. God forgave us all our sins; (Col 2:13 King James Version (KJV)/Good News Bible)
The Greek word translated as “quickened” (suzōopoieō) in the KJV comes from two root words, one is a preposition denoting union and the other word means to vitalize. Thus, quickening means to reanimate conjointly with or quicken together with. It is as we are in union with Christ through His Spirit that we are brought to eternal life spiritually. Until this rebirth, our spirits are cut off from God and function as a mere flicker of what they should be. This concept reminds me of the pilot light in my gas heater. It is a small flame that is separate from the main gas jets, but when the gas jets are opened the true flame burns brightly as the connection with the source is fully functioning. The NT teaches us that it is this quickening union that imparts us with immortality, without this union we are spiritually dead and the small spiritual flame that is not directly connected to the source of Life will eventually go out. However, although we are all born mortal, destined for death, those who hear and respond to God’s Son are born again of the Spirit and will live eternally through their union with Him. Jesus announced:
Verily, verily, I say unto you, The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live. (John 5:25)
Some commentator interpret this verse as Jesus informing His listeners He will preach to the dead in their graves. This is not apparent from the text. Paul and Jesus both refer to those who do not have a spiritual, reanimating union with the Son of God as dead. These people where not physically dead, they were spiritually dead.
Luke records Jesus’ words:
And He said unto another, “Follow me”. But he said, “Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father.” But He said unto him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead; but go thou and publish abroad the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:59-60)
No one already physically dead could be expected to bury a body. Clearly Jesus is talking about those who are spiritually dead.
As we move on through the NT we find in Paul’s writing:
And to you who are troubled rest with us, when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power. (2 Thess 1:7-9)
The word for vengeance used in this passage has the sense of bringing justice to the situation. This is not revenge but divine, perfect justice – God will judge His creation according to His perfect justice and all that is outside of His redeeming work will suffer everlasting destruction. To view this everlasting destruction as some sort of ongoing, eternal process is once again to add to the text. Most people would accept that when something is destroyed it ceases to exist, it is broken down into its basic elements and it no longer functions. When this destruction is combined with a consuming fire, there is quite clearly nothing left at all. The result of the destruction Paul is warning about will be eternal.
Paul continues the theme of everlasting destruction:
Then the man of lawlessness will be revealed, but the Lord Jesus will kill him with the breath of His mouth and destroy him by the splendor of His coming. This man will come to do the work of Satan with counterfeit power and signs and miracles. He will use every kind of evil deception to fool those on their way to destruction, because they refuse to love and accept the truth that would save them.(2 Thess 2:8-10)
As stated earlier, when writing to Timothy, Paul declared unequivocally that God alone is immortal. It is only as we love and accept the truth that we can be in union with the Lord of Life, who bestows on us the gift of eternal life and saves us from the way of destruction. In his second letter to Timothy, Paul writes:
…..He has made all of this plain to us by the appearing of Christ Jesus, our Savior. He broke the power of death and illuminated the way to life and immortality through the Good News. (2 Timothy 1:10)
It is difficult to know how this verse can be read any other way than to see it as a declaration of human mortality apart from union with Christ.
The writer to the Hebrews informs us:
For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. (Heb 10:26-27)
While Peter explains:
For the time has come for judgment, and it must begin with God’s household. And if judgment begins with us, what terrible fate awaits those who have never obeyed God’s Good News? And also, “If the righteous are barely saved, what will happen to godless sinners?”(1 Peter 4:17-18)
Peter does not go on to answer his question here, but leaves it hanging. This would be a perfect opportunity for the acknowledged leader of the early church to set the ground rules and warn his readers about eternal torment, he does not. Like Paul, Peter is absolutely silent on the subject.
In his second epistle he writes about a number of people who have turned away from “the way of righteousness….. turning back from the holy commandment delivered unto them.” He warns:
But there arose false prophets also among the people, as among you also there shall be false teachers, who shall privily bring in destructive heresies, denying even the Master that bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. (2 Pe 2:1)
Perhaps one of the most destructive heresies to enter the church is the idea that humans have inherent immortality. Satan wanted Adam and Eve to believe this lie and he has cleverly planted it in the traditions of the church, even though it cannot be found in the scriptures. Peter goes on to inform his readers:
So you see that the Lord God knows how to save those who are devoted to Him. He will save them when troubles come. And the Lord will hold evil people to punish them on the day of judgment. (2 Peter 2:9)
After giving a vivid description of their activities Peter announces that these false prophets are:
….. springs without water, and mists driven by a storm; for whom the blackness of darkness hath been reserved. (2 Peter 2:17)
If eternal torment were the ultimate end for these people surely something that is so overwhelmingly important, something that should be loudly proclaimed to all, would be clearly outlined here. But any mention of this eternally significant event is completely absent from Peter’s sermons and writing. He writes that they will bring “swift destruction” upon themselves, that “the blackness of darkness hath been reserved” for them and that the Lord “will hold evil people to punish them on the day of judgment.”
Taking these three statements together we have a picture of Peter’s understanding of the destiny of the unbelieving dead. He begins by saying their destruction will be swift – no hint of eternal torment. After passing from this life the unbeliever is kept in the darkness of the grave (Job 17:13) until the end of time. A closer inspection of the Greek reveals this darkness will last until “the end of the age” (2 Peter 2:17).
Next Peter mentions the Day of Judgment (Rev 20:12), when unbelievers are punished. This is the Greek word kolazō, which means to curtail or cut off. What does this punishment curtail if it is not the eternal potential of each person who has rejected the gift of eternal life? This is indeed a terrible punishment, but one which can be avoided. The method of this punishment is “swift destruction.” God will not linger on the Day of Judgment, the die will be cast and destruction (Gk apōleia) will be swift.
Moving on through the books of the NT we come to the epistles of John from whom we learn:
We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brothers. He who does not love his brother abides in death. Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer: and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him. (1 John 3:14,15)
John reiterates the teachings of Jesus and Paul. We are dead until we meet the Lord of love. He goes on to say:
And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. (1 John 5:11-12)
My brethren, if any among you do err from the truth, and one convert him; let him know, that he which converteth a sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall cover a multitude of sins. (James 5:19-20)
From Jude we discover:
….. Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire. (Jude 1:7)
We know that the fire that consumed Sodom and Gomorrah was not an eternal fire in the sense that it went on burning forever and ever. The morning after Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed Abraham looked down upon the valley where these infamous cities had been and all that remained was the smoke rising from the ashes (Gen 19:28). The fire burned only until all of the fuel was spent, but it definitely had eternal consequences. Neither of those cities was ever built again, nor has anyone lived in that place, it remains an example, even to this day, of judgement and total, permanent destruction by fire. These cities were so completely destroyed by the eternal fire it is now quite difficult to determine just exactly where they stood.
When we come to John’s Revelation we find:
The one who has an ear, hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The overcomer shall not be injured by the second death. (Rev 2:11)
Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years. (Rev 20:6)
And the devil that deceived them was cast into the Lake of Fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever. (Rev 20:10)
Although I have no feelings of horror at the idea of Satan and his evil cohort being eternally tormented, the word in this verse translated as ever (aion) actually means an age. God may eventually destroy all that is evil so that nothing is left that He does not totally indwell with His holiness. He would then indeed be “all in all,” just as Paul writes:
And when all things have been subjected unto Him, then shall the Son also Himself be subjected to Him that did subject all things unto Him, that God may be all in all. (1Co 15:28)
Also in the Revelation we find:
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 man according to their works. And death and Hades were cast into the Lake of Fire. This is the second death, even the Lake of Fire. And if any was not found written in the book of life, he was cast into the Lake of Fire. (Rev 20:13-15)
Generally, traditionalists accept that this is the point at which death is completely destroyed in the Lake of Fire. As stated earlier, death and Hades (hell) are often mentioned together (1 Cor 15:55; Rev 1:18, 6:8, 20:13, 14) and in the preceding verses we find their fates are united. If death is destroyed by the second death and is “no more” (Rev 21:4) then it is reasonable to assume Hades is also destroyed.
Finally, the people who were not found written in the book of life and thus experience the second death must also be consumed by the Lake of Fire. For them to go on experiencing some form of life, forever in either outer darkness or eternal torment, would surely be a contradiction in terms. They are not found in the book of life because they do not have eternal (immortal) life: they have not been born again of the Spirit of God. They do not have any form of life that will endure eternally and here they experience the second and final death (Mat 10:28).
And He shall wipe away every tear from their eyes; and death shall be no more; neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain, any more: the first things are passed away. (Rev 21:4)
It seems traditionalists believe mourning, crying and pain will continue eternally in some “other dimension,” outside the new creation, while the second death shall endure forevermore, even though this verse clearly states “death shall be no more.”
But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death. (Rev 21:8)
The idea of each person possessing an immortal spirit cannot be supported by either the Old or New Testaments. This strongly held tradition entered the church very early in its history, but surely, now that we have free access to the scriptures and many excellent resources to help us examine them, we can see that it is a tradition that should finally be put to rest forever. In this life every person has a momentous choice to make: our eternal destinies are in our own hands. We can choose to accept the gift of eternal life from the only One able to offer it, or we can settle for the second death in the Lake of Fire. This second death is the end of life, there is no hope beyond this eternal punishment.
108 The Lake of Fire
When John is discussing the people who are cast into the Lake of Fire he always adds the term “second death.” Unless we continue the practice of redefining words, the plain meaning of the scriptures seems to indicate that unbelievers are destined for:
- the place of the dead (hell), which can be viewed as a type of outer darkness (Mat 25:30; 2 Peter 2:17), the blink of an eye (as described earlier), or a kind of soul sleep.
- at God’s appointed time they will be raised to judgment (Mat 25:31) at the resurrection of judgment (John 5:29), which occurs after the thousand year reign of Christ on Earth (Rev 20:5).
- the unbelieving dead will then be judged according to those things that are “written in the books, according to their works” (Rev 20:12). As Matthew records the sheep will be separated from the goats (Mat 25:32-40).
Perhaps those people who have not had the opportunity to consciously accept Christ as their Saviour during their life on Earth will have responded to Him in some other way (Mat 25:40, 45) and they will discover their names have been written in the Book of Life. John records:
And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. (Rev 20:12)
Following the Great White Throne judgement (Rev 20:11), the unbelieving dead are cast into the Lake of Fire, where they experience the second death. This death, as we have seen, is the absolute end for Death and (probably) Hell, and it seems reasonable to assume it is also the swift, eternal end for the unbelieving dead. There is no biblical reason to assume human beings possess immortal spirits, nor does The Bible teach that God will distribute immortal spirits specially equipped to suffer eternally. The second death would appear to be final, it has eternal consequences; these tragic souls will never again be raised to life.
I have heard many traditionalists complain that this understanding of the Lake of Fire gives the unbeliever “a way out.” Perhaps they assume God desires the suffering of those who have rejected Him to go on forever, which is the opposite of the biblical understanding of God’s love and forgiveness. Jesus clearly taught that He wants to forgive us and that God is forgiving. Ezekiel 33:11 declares unambiguously that God does not take pleasure in seeing His children choose death rather than life. He is not a vindictive God, as the doctrine of eternal torment infers, He is merciful, gracious, longsuffering, compassionate and abundant in goodness (Ex 34:6, Ps 86:15). We are told in the NT that the fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness and faith (Gal 5:22). If the manifestation of the Holy Spirit brings these qualities then these are the qualities of the presence of God. The doctrine of eternal torment slanders the character of the God who is thus revealed in The Bible.
109 The Justice of God
However, The Bible also teaches that God is not only loving, He is also just and He will execute judgment. He does not lightly excuse the guilty but ensures justice is done. In the book of Exodus we find:
I lavish unfailing love to a thousand generations. I forgive iniquity, rebellion, and sin. But I do not excuse the guilty. I lay the sins of the parents upon their children and grandchildren; the entire family is affected—even children in the third and fourth generations.” (Ex 34:7)
We cannot look at the beginning of this verse without paying equal attention to its end. This is a time to allow scripture to clarify scripture. Ezekiel 18 has a great deal to say about the principle of the sins of the father being visited on the child. Perhaps two verses in particular give further illumination on this subject. Ezekiel tells us:
The person who sins is the one who will die. The child will not be punished for the parent’s sins, and the parent will not be punished for the child’s sins. Righteous people will be rewarded for their own righteous behaviour, and wicked people will be punished for their own wickedness. But if wicked people turn away from all their sins and begin to obey My decrees and do what is just and right, they will surely live and not die. (Eze 18:20-21)
How do we reconcile these two passages? It is by looking at the NT that Christians can shine a light on such apparently contradictory OT decrees. From Paul’s writing we know that no one can be saved by their own righteous behaviour, we all need the righteousness of Christ to enable us to stand before the blinding light of the holiness of our Creator and live (Ex 33:20). But when we are in Christ, God’s forgiveness is bountiful, lavish enough for a thousand generations. The underlying truth here is that the children share in the father’s punishment, because they share in the father’s sins, and they both need the Saviour’s gift of salvation.
Ezekiel teaches that any child who turns away from the sinful ways of his father and obeys God will not be punished for his parent’s sin, he will “surely live and not die.” Equally Exodus teaches that any child who goes on sinning like his father, will share the father’s punishment. By allowing the effects of the parents’ sins to take their natural course, infecting and corrupting the hearts of the children, God visits the sins of the fathers upon the children; he does not punish sinless children for the sins of their father unless they continue in those sins themselves.
As Pastor John Piper puts it:
For parents who love their children this is one of the most sobering texts in all The Bible. The more we let sin get the upper hand in our own lives, the more our children will suffer for it. Sin is like a contagious disease. My children don’t suffer because I have it. They catch it from me and, then suffer because they have it. (see)
Many times as a primary school teacher I observed at first hand the negative effects violent or abusive parents can have on their children. Children who grow up in homes where fists are the only conflict resolution method employed, often use this method when dealing with their own problems. Culture, values and disposition can all be passed on to children and grandchildren, but ultimately we are each responsible for our own choices in life.
Romans 3:23 and 5:12 announce that “all have sinned.” Each one of us is responsible for dealing with our own rebellion against God. It is this rebellion that makes us sinners and blinds us to this truth.
Paul goes on to remind us in Romans 6:23 that sin results in death. To insist that justice must be done in the matter of human sin, and then insist that eternal torment is a just penalty for Adam and Eve’s rebellion (and our own), means one must accept that God originally gave Adam and Eve a clear understanding of the penalty for their rebellion, and then at some point in human history He changed that penalty, when scripture gives no record of this change. The Ezekiel 18 passage above reiterates the original decree, those who sin will surely die and Paul reinforces this concept. If God had changed this decree without making it clear, His actions would contradict a principle of scripture. God was very specific about the consequences for breaking the laws when He gave them to Moses and He was insistent that the prescribed penalty should be rendered, no more – no less.
A quick tour through internet sites on the subject of eternal torment reveals some interesting concepts of justice. One site proclaims:
God does not annihilate people, He respects the creatures he created and their own choice so much that he will never take their life away.
It is difficult to know just what this statement is based on, but it certainly does not appear to be biblical. Another site declares:
Eternal sin must be treated justly with eternal consequences. Since sin is against an eternal God and sin’s effects are also eternal, the punishment therefore must have eternal consequences.
To a certain extent I agree with this sentiment, The Bible teaches that sin will attract eternal consequences, however, as we have already clearly demonstrate, if the second death means eternal annihilation, this is most definitely an eternal consequence. Never again will that soul be brought to life. Tragically, they will be eternally cut off from both the love of the Father and their own eternal potential. However, the above site (and many others) insists that the eternal consequences must be eternal torment, no other possibility is considered acceptable.
Perhaps because my entry into the Christian life was anything but orthodox, my understanding of The Bible is also a little unorthodox, but it is also possible that orthodoxy has lost its way and is clinging to unnecessary, unbiblical traditions that God wants the church to abandon. These contorted vindications of eternal torment appear to have very little to do with biblical teaching.
Yet another site insists:
Would not sin against a holy infinite God result in an infinite sentence of punishment?
….our sin is deserving of infinite punishment because of the infinite glory of the One against whom it is perpetrated.
These appeals to the idea that we are rebelling against an infinite God and should therefore attract an infinite penalty for our sin do not reflect the scriptural concept of justice. Nor do most countries that have a heritage and culture that grew out of Christian traditions employ systems of justice that are based on such principles. The status of the victim should in no way influence the extent of punishment for a crime. The perpetrator is not punished more if his or her offence is against a person who is wealthier or of higher social standing (or even one who is an Eternal Spirit). Some jurisdictions do appear to exhibit this sort of reasoning, when they render a far less severe judicial sentence for a crime against a member of their society who comes from a less affluent socio-economic class, while ensuring those of this less privileged part of the community suffer severe penalties for petty crimes; but The Bible does not support this kind of discrimination (see).
A case touching on this principle has recently been decided in the Australian courts. A prominent heart surgeon, Dr Victor Chang, was callously murdered by two men who had been hoping to extort money from his family. The man who fired the shot, which killed the much loved and respected surgeon, had served 21 years of his 26 year sentence when he came before the parole board. The people arguing against his parole attempted to use the surgeon’s standing in the community as a reason for prolonging the sentence and the parole being dismissed; but Australian justice insisted that the status of the victim should play no part in determining the penalty for the crime. The murderer was released after serving the prescribed sentence for his crime, irrespective of the standing of his victim.
The Bible teaches the principle of justice that matches the penalty to the crime. In Exodus we find:
But if there is further injury, the punishment must match the injury: a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot, a burn for a burn, a wound for a wound, a bruise for a bruise. (Exo 21:23-25)
Scripture is very careful to teach that the status of the person should have no bearing on the penalty, it is the crime that determines the punishment.
You shall do no unrighteousness in judgment. You shall not respect the person of the poor, nor honour the person of the mighty; but you shall judge your neighbour in righteousness.(Lev 19:15)
Another comment from the internet declared:
And wouldn’t limiting the duration of hell diminish the seriousness of sin?
This comment touches on two issues. The first is the duration of hell. Annihilation of the wicked dead would in no way affect the duration of hell. If hell is the place of the dead, this abode will be destroyed in the Lake of Fire after hell gives up the dead at the end of time. The duration of the Lake of Fire is uncertain, but it is reasonable to assume hell will be destroyed along with death in the Lake of Fire (Rev 20:14), because there will never again be a need for a “place of the dead.” Some may believe eternal torment refers to people continuing as some form of living dead, following their second death, assuming hell is subsumed or continues to exist within the Lake of Fire. This idea is not found in the pages of The Bible. A plain reading of scripture sees death and hell destroyed.
The second issue this comment touches on is how we understand the seriousness of sin. To believe that the eternal suffering of the wicked dead will serve as some sort of acknowledgment of the seriousness of sin is to totally devalue the death of Christ. It is the death of Christ that shows us the seriousness of sin. The fall of the creation from its perfect beginning and the suffering and death of living creatures and the human population are the products of sin; Christ’s death was the only possible price to pay for that sin. If God was able to deal with sin in any other way He would not have needed to send His own Son to the cross. Humanity could continue in torment in hell for eternity but this would in no way emphasise the seriousness of sin, the voluntary death of the innocent Creator has done that.
The question we must ask at this point is, “What is the offence for which the justice of God demands restitution?” The biblical answer to this question is that the offence is rebellion against the legal authority of the Creator God over His creation. Because of this authority, God had the right to dictate guidelines and laws and Adam and Eve’s rebellion was evident when they ignored God’s direct, specific command. The consequence of this rebellion was that sin became part of the human condition. Humanity was cut off from its original, dependent relationship with God through rebellion, which means we no longer have free and open access to God or eternal life. The Father has informed us that He will not allow sin into His holy presence. Isaiah states:
Behold, the LORD’S hand is not so short that He cannot save; nor are His ears so dull that He cannot hear: but your iniquities have caused a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hid His face from you, that He will not hear. (Isa 59:1-2)
In His Word God has decreed that sin and its consequences will cease.
Those who dwell in eternity will have renounced rebellion against their Creator, understanding that it is rebellion that leads to sin. Instead they will have chosen to live without sin, so that they can enter into a relationship of obedience to the Creator, through the Lord Jesus Christ. As John writes:
And you know that He was manifested to take away sins and in Him is no sin. Whoever abides in Him does not sin and whoever sins has not seen Him, and does not know Him. (1 John 3:5-6)
God gave Adam and Eve clear guidelines on how they should behave in Eden, and He gave humanity the laws and commandments as sound guidelines for living in the world He created. There is nothing arbitrary about God’s laws. He created a universe that has natural laws, spiritual laws, moral laws and fixed consequences; living according to His laws and guidelines means the consequences of our actions are positive. We can no longer revert to living in ignorance of good and evil. Adam and Eve brought the knowledge of good and evil into the human sphere and we must now make choices that have consequences. The Bible makes it clear that God’s way is the only way to live in harmony with Him. It is He who determines what is acceptable and unacceptable, what is right and just.
110 Does ignorance of God’s law excuse us?
Ignorance of the law can have a mitigating influence, but most jurisdictions will exact a penalty for breaking a law, even if the crime is done in ignorance. Scripture indicates that ignorance of God’s laws can affect the punishment for breaking God’s laws. In the OT the penalty was different for those who broke the law in ignorance (Lev 4:27-28; Num 15:27 ff), ultimately God knows what is in a person’s heart. As Solomon says:
If you say, Behold, we did not know; does not He who searches the heart consider it? And the Keeper of your soul, does He know? And He repays to a man according to his works. (Proverbs 24:12)
In the NT Peter told his listeners that he understood they had crucified Jesus in ignorance, but he instructed them to repent of their sin. God ensured they could be forgiven of even this crime; they had sentenced an innocent man to death (a man who was actually their Creator), but His death had been part of the bigger picture they did not understand at the time (Act 3:17) and forgiveness was still possible. The Father was able to use even this crime to His perfect ends. People had made choices, some definitely not in ignorance, but God foreknew the choices that would be made and worked all things together for good.
Paul also mentioned ignorance of God’s law when he spoke to the Athenians (Act 17:30). He revealed to them that the unknown God they had been worshiping in ignorance was disclosing Himself to them and they need no longer worship lifeless idols. He explained:
Being then the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and device of man. The times of ignorance therefore God overlooked; but now He commandeth men that they should all everywhere repent: inasmuch as He hath appointed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He hath ordained; whereof He hath given assurance unto all men, in that He hath raised Him from the dead. (Act 17:29-31)
The main issue here is the need for repentance. We may reject God’s rightful authority in ignorance, but ultimately we will all need to repent of this rebellion. The eventual consequence of our rebellion will be either repentance and forgiveness or the second death; God will bring every person to a point of decision concerning this choice (2 Peter 3:9). I sincerely believe The Bible teaches that even those who are ignorant of their need for repentance in this life will have the opportunity to repent before being consigned to the Lake of Fire. When Paul wrote about his ignorance in his letter to Timothy, he stated that God was merciful because He knew Paul was truly in ignorance:
I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength to do His work. He considered me trustworthy and appointed me to serve Him, even though I used to blaspheme the name of Christ. In my insolence, I persecuted His people. But God had mercy on me because I did it in ignorance and unbelief. (1Ti 1:12-13)
God is merciful towards our ignorance, but at some point He will reveal our need for repentance and ignorance will be removed. Each one of us will then be faced with a choice between continuing in our own way or going God’s Way. In the world today we find willful ignorance in many people. Highly educated and intelligent people cling to their godless beliefs and refuse to examine any alternative to their own worldview. This is hardly the attitude of an open mind. Many choose to ridicule those things they know very little about. The creation/evolution debate is a particularly good example of this. Some people claim they understand creation science, but on closer examination we discover that perhaps a few lines from a website form their view, while they choose to ignore the wealth of scientific evidence that has been made available by numerous highly trained and qualified scientists. Does the choice never to examine any alternatives indicate a weakness in their own worldview?
Satan has been anything but ignorant of God’s rightful authority over him as his Creator. While Satan has been wilfully at war with God, attempting at every turn to thwart the purposes of God and bring evil into the world, The Bible tells us that because we were created as dependent creatures, we also bring evil into the world when we rebel against our Creator’s directions. We have imposed our sin on God’s creation by turning away from our Creator. If the punishment is to fit the crime, could this mean that the Creator would then turn away from us?
The consequence of God abandoning us would inevitably be our total destruction. We were created dependent creatures and if we persist in maintaining our independence from God, we will lose all, because ultimately we cannot exist apart from God. However, until God brings this present creation to a close and those who reject the gift of eternal life experience the second death, we can turn back to God and reconnect with Him, thus reconnecting with the source of eternal life. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians:
Hear what God says: “When the time came for me to show you favour, I heard you; when the day arrived for me to save you, I helped you.” Listen! This is the hour to receive God’s favour; today is the day to be saved! (2 Cor 6:2)
111 God gave us stewardship over His creation
Through our rebellion we have despoiled God’s creation by allowing sin and suffering to enter into our lives and God’s world. At the very beginning of time God gave humanity the responsibility to care for His creation (Gen 1:28; 2:15). Apart from our rebellion there is a crime against God that is best explained by using a parallel for a similar crime in today’s world. Let us consider a group of people who have been found guilty of wilfully destroying every great work of art in a renowned public gallery. If this group had intentionally defaced these treasures we would expect the perpetrators of the crime to be prosecuted. If the vandals were incapable of restraining themselves and unable to hold back their propensity for defacing invaluable treasures, we would ensure they could never come near anything precious again.God created a universe that is so profoundly beautiful it almost takes our breath away. When sin entered the creation, the defacing of this beauty was incalculable, going deeper than any conservator could ever repair. The only way to restore this damage and prevent any future defacing of the priceless creation God made, is to remove the perpetrators and remake the universe. God tells us that we are all perpetrators of damage unless we turn to Him and resume the role we were designed for.
We not only damage the physical creation, but we also damage our relationships with other people when we are cut off from God. There will be no half measures in the new heaven and the new Earth, only those who have completely relinquished their sin nature and taken on the new nature God wants to give us, will be fit for the new, undamaged creation. The Bible teaches that we cannot remake ourselves, apart from the indwelling Spirit of God we are incapable of making ourselves fit for the new creation. God will not create the new universe to accommodate evil, evil will be no more.
112 What purpose does punishment serve?
As mentioned earlier punishment acts as a deterrent and must fit the crime. If we are to be punished for rebelling against God and our part in the defacing of God’s magnificent creative work, what punishment would be appropriate and what purpose would punishment serve? This is the point at which the traditionalist demands eternal torment for the unbeliever, claiming this form of punishment as the ultimate deterrent.
A deterrent is only effective if the potential offenders believe the punishment will actually be administered. Few unbelievers in today’s world would accept such a possibility existed; therefore, fear of eternal torment is not a compelling argument for acknowledging Christ as the Saviour of the world. The potential convert would also come to the Father through fear rather than because of God’s love. This form of outreach is the antithesis of Jesus’ teachings (John 3:16).
Believers in both the Old and New Testaments were instructed to fear God (Lev 25:17, 36, 43; 2 Cor 7:1), but this fear is better understood as an awe filled reverence of the might and authority of the Creator, a reasonable response to an intelligent understanding of the Eternal Spirit and the Greater Reality. A proper understanding of the love and power of God and His Christ should lead us to praise and worship (Luke 5:22-26; Rev 19:5), not dread and terror.
Although The Bible records numerous times when God intervened with judgement and punishment throughout OT history, this is not the dominant method God employs when dealing with humanity. God has continuously demonstrated His love by blessing and redeeming those who respond to His touch; however, His plans will be executed (Psalm 33:8-11; Is 14:24; Prov 19:21)) and those who chose to rebel throughout the OT scriptures were removed. God has been extremely patient and has not brought an end to humanity’s waywardness by bringing this present creation to an early end, but during this era, unrepentant and obstinate people have had to face the consequences of their rebellion. Throughout the OT God’s plan and purpose was never allowed to be thwarted by rebellious people (Jesus must go to the cross for all of humankind to have the opportunity of redemption). If they persisted in rebellion and posed a threat to the overall good of Israel and God’s plan for humanity, God removed them. Their punishment was often total destruction (Is 1:27-31).
Much of the punishment recorded in the OT was directed towards the Jews who had rebelled against God (Isaiah 42:42). Scripture reveals God’s purpose was always to bring His people back into a right relationship with Himself (Eze 14:6-11). Again and again Israel strayed from the path God had directed her to take and again and again God worked to draw her back (2 Chron 30:8, 9; Is 10:20, 21; 44: 21, 22; Jer 36:3; Hos 14:1-7). God was not punishing His people simply as revenge or retribution for their rebellion, His purpose was always that they would see the error of their ways and return to Him (Ez 18:30-32).
In The Bible punishment is often seen as a form of chastisement and the scriptures recount many cases when God chastised His people for positive purposes. In the Psalms we find:
Blessed is the man whom thou chastenest, O LORD, and teachest out of thy law. (Psalm 94:12)
I know, LORD, that our lives are not our own. We are not able to plan our own course. So correct me, LORD, but please be gentle. Do not correct me in anger, for I would die. (Jeremiah 10:23-24)
The NT continues this idea of God disciplining His children. The writer to the Hebrews states:
Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, that we may share His holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:9-11)
The Father uses this positive form of punishment, or chastisement, as a way of turning sinful people into saints. Our God is a purposeful God, He is neither vicious nor vengeful, His actions are always part of His bigger plan. During the last 6000 years He has allowed His beautiful creation to be immeasurably marred by sin, thus the universal laboratory that is the Earth, has vividly displayed the effects of humanity’s rebellion. We live in a world where sin has been permitted to persist almost unchallenged (unless it posed a serious threat to God’s plans for eternity), the results of this living example are painfully clear to all; suffering and sorrow, pain and death surround us.
When people completely reject God’s offer of salvation, the NT informs us that destruction is the punishment God’s justice requires. It is our sin that has brought about the need for God to destroy this present creation and create a new one. Thus destruction will be the penalty for those who persist in rejecting the only Way God has created for us to live without sin and join the new creation, where sin will no longer be the devastating problem it has proven to be in this present creation. The eternal punishment for the unrepentant will be their total destruction before the new heaven and the new Earth are formed.
God has chosen to allow people who have not given themselves into His hands to guide their own lives, in so doing He has permitted humanity to plumb the depths of sin’s appalling consequences.
Despite His permissive sovereignty, God has been continuously active in restraining a great deal of evil through His civilising influence on human society. The humanist puts this civilisation down to human reason and an inner sense of right and wrong, which can be cultivated and educated to serve the community. The Bible teaches that there is a certain amount of truth in this assumption, but it also states that this innate sense of respect for human dignity and an understanding of ethical behaviour were given to us by the Creator (Romans 2:14-15).
Despite God’s design, which gave people a limited sense of right and wrong, many people choose to ignore their consciences and consequently they grow more and more incapable of living ethically. The Bible describes this as the conscience being cauterised or rendered insensitive (1 Tim 4:2). An observer of group dynamics would be aware of the reality of gang mentality. We see human nature at its most base extreme in Sodom, where gangs of men roamed the streets raping any new man who ventured into the city (Gen 19). Just one person can infect a whole group with encouragement to do evil. When writing to the Romans Paul laments:
Their lives became full of every kind of wickedness, sin, greed, hate, envy, murder, quarreling, deception, malicious behavior, and gossip. They are backstabbers, haters of God, insolent, proud, and boastful. They invent new ways of sinning, and they disobey their parents. They refuse to understand, break their promises, are heartless, and have no mercy. They know God’s justice requires that those who do these things deserve to die, yet they do them anyway. Worse yet, they encourage others to do them, too. (Rom 1:29-32)
Following this passage Paul goes on to explain that tribulation, anguish and destruction are the punishment for these crimes (Rom 2:9, 12; 3:16; 9:22). He describes God’s patience and tolerance in allowing us to continue in our rebellion because “His kindness is intended to turn you from your sin.” Once again God is portrayed as a merciful, longsuffering judge seeking the enlightenment of the unsaved, but eventually:
He will judge everyone according to what they have done. (Rom 2:6)
Scripture teaches that God has allowed this time of rebellion and sadness in a fallen world to continue for a specific reason. Peter explains that God is patiently working and waiting for more people to turn to Him and repent (2 Peter 3:9). During this time God has not been idle, even though it would appear death and suffering dominate our world, He has been working all things together for the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28), as He uses the trials life in a fallen world inevitably produces, to enable His people to grow. Our God has a purpose in allowing evil to continue for a season, but eventually He will act and His wrath will also have purpose. He will use it to destroy evil and its associated consequences. It is difficult to understand where eternal torment would fit with this understanding of a just and purposeful God.
Eternal torment would serve no purpose for the sufferers, and God, from the very beginning of time, told Adam and Eve that the penalty for their rejection of His guidance and rebellion against His commands was death (Gen 3:3). Death is the end of life, and eventually death itself will be destroyed in the Lake of Fire.
113 Punishment can be exclusion, exile and expulsion
In the OT, when people flagrantly rebelled, God’s punishment was often to exclude them from His presence. God told the Israelites that He would dwell with them in Israel and He brought them into that land. He chose Israel and the city of Jerusalem for His dwelling place on Earth and when His chosen people rebelled against Him they polluted the land, His Land, with their evil (Num 35:33, 34). God created the whole universe, and when He chose a small part of our planet in which to dwell, He had every right to manage it in a way that suited His purposes. When the evil of the people God had chosen to live in His Holy Land became intolerable to Him, and the people refused to repent, God sent them away from His dwelling place into exile in other lands (1 Chron 5:25; Neh 1:8; Ez 39:23,24; Dan 9:7). God’s purpose was not only to teach them that the consequence of their sin was removal from His presence, He also removed them so that they would no longer contaminate His Holy Land.
Jeremiah warned a group of false prophets who persisted in declaring they were prophets of God:
I am against these false prophets. Their imaginary dreams are flagrant lies that lead My people into sin. I did not send or appoint them, and they have no message at all for My people. I, the LORD have spoken! “Suppose one of the people or one of the prophets or priests asks you, ‘What prophecy has the LORD burdened you with now?’ You must reply, ‘You are the burden! The LORD says He will abandon you!’ …. people are using it (their false prophecies) to give authority to their own ideas, turning upside down the words of our God, the living God, the LORD of Heaven’s Armies. …. even though I warned you not to use it, I will forget you completely. I will expel you from My presence, along with this city that I gave to you and your ancestors. (Jer 23:32-39)
This is the ultimate punishment, and it is the same punishment God gave to the first murderer, Cain, who was also expelled from God’s presence.
Exclusion from God’s presence is mentioned throughout the OT and it often resulted in the destruction of the exiles (Lev 26:44; 2 Chron 30:7). When the people turned against God and His regulations, He withdrew His protection and blessings and eventually He punished them if they continued in their refusal to listen to Him (2 Chron 36:15-23). At times, after they had been carried away from the Holy Land, a remnant in exile repented of their trespasses and God brought them back into His presence. When God is all in all (1 Cor 15:28) there will be no place for the rebellious to be exiled or abandoned, there will be nowhere that is outside of God’s presence.
114 Restorative and retributive justice
The Bible teaches there are times for both restorative and retributive justice. Throughout The Bible restorative justice is prescribed for offences not causing physical harm to another person. The OT describes specific offerings that were decreed to restore those who confessed their guilt (Num 5:7) to a right relationship with God and a place in the community. Often, if property had been stolen or damaged, recompense was exacted, which could be several times as much as the amount originally in question.
When the crime included personal injury, manslaughter or murder retributive justice was called for throughout the OT. Once again the punishment was meant to fit the crime, and so we find an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth and a life for a life (Exo 21:24; Lev 24:20; Deu 19:21). This penalty may sound harsh today but it not only served as a deterrent, it also limited the punishment to fit the crime. It was against the law to extract a life for an eye or a limb for a finger, and one could not take revenge for murder or manslaughter on the culprit’s family, only the life of the offender was forfeited. The idea of destroying an individual, a whole town or an ethnic group for the crime of another person was totally unsanctioned.
The OT law actually made provision for a person who had killed someone accidentally and was consequently being pursued by the victim’s family or friends. A number of cities were set aside (Numbers 35:6ff) as a place of refuge for people who had inadvertently caused the death of another. This was not a complete acquittal for the offender, as the perpetrator would need to leave family and friends behind and remain in the city of refuge until a trial could be organised or until the death of the high priest (vs 28). There was also provision in the OT for a ransom or pecuniary compensation to be paid in cases of maiming, but not in the case of murder. Murder was always viewed as a capital offence (Num 35:31), but it was the murderer’s life alone that was forfeited, no other person was subject to punishment.
In the NT Jesus introduced a new emphasis on forgiveness rather than seeking revenge. As mentioned earlier His Way is the way of forgiveness. He directed His disciples to forgive, even though they might lawfully insist on justice being done in the case of an offence against them. To illustrate this point He told them:
You have heard the law that says the punishment must match the injury: ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also. If you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too. If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile, carry it two miles. Give to those who ask, and don’t turn away from those who want to borrow. “You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For He gives His sunlight to both the evil and the good, and He sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. (Matthew 5:38-45)
Matthew Henry’s commentary on this passage states:
…..we may avoid evil, and may resist it, so far as is necessary to our own security; but we must not render evil for evil, must not bear a grudge, nor avenge ourselves, nor study to be even with those that have treated us unkindly, but we must go beyond them by forgiving them……
This concept was actually mentioned in the OT (Pro 20:22; Pro 24:29; Pro 25:21, Pro 25:22), but Jesus is giving it added significance here. As Henry points out:
…..it is the second blow that makes the quarrel……let us trust God and his providence to protect us in the way of our duty. Perhaps, the forgiving of one injury may prevent another, when the avenging of it would but draw on another; some will be overcome by submission, who by resistance would but be the more exasperated (61).
Throughout The Bible the principle of justice is that the punishment should fit the crime, irrespective of the status of the victim, and justice should be seen to be done. Our rebellion against God is not an offence causing Him personal injury or death but our rebellion is a form of treason and we are guilty of criminal damage to the creation. There is no reason to believe that these offences should call for a punishment that entails torment that endures for all eternity. This was not the penalty God originally decreed would be exacted for rebellion. God does not use torment as a punishment throughout the OT. Instead we find rebellion against God, for which there was no repentance, brought exclusion, destruction or death (2 Chron 12:7; Ez 18:24).
In the NT forgiveness is called for when the crime does not cause personal injury, or the criminal is not likely to cause public mischief and therefore need to be restrained. The God who asks us to forgive, even when we have a justifiable reason to avenge ourselves on those who have offended us, does not torment sinners for eternity. The second death is just that, a second and final death, from which there is no hope of resurrection. This is the just penalty the God of justice and mercy decreed from the beginning would be exacted for rebellion against Him. This punishment means total exclusion from the new heaven and new Earth He will create in the world to come. We will either be made fit for this new creation, or excluded from it.
115 The Apostles are Silent
If the second death meant eternal torment, and it had been plainly outlined from the very beginning of time – rather than having been based on one questionable verse in Matthew – it could be accepted as the unmistakable consequence of an obviously momentous and catastrophic choice. This is not the case. God distinctly told Adam and Eve the penalty for their sin was death. Throughout the OT there are hints at the possibility of a resurrection after the death that so obviously awaits all people, but the NT informs us that immortality is only given to those who accept Jesus’ gift of eternal life. It also teaches that the alternative to eternal life is to perish by the second death and there is good reason to believe this death is eternal; when life is finally, completely extinguished, it will indeed be an eternal punishment.
If, when they carried the gospel message out into the world throughout Acts, the early church leaders had emphasised the horrendous certainty of eternal torment for all who rejected Christ’s gift of salvation; or they had written about it in their letters, we could say that God had given everyone an opportunity to hear and understand the new options. However, Peter and Paul do not mention eternal torment. Earlier, when examining the case for human immortality, I touched on the teachings of Peter and Paul concerning eternal torment and we discovered they were both silent on the topic. There are many places one would expect them to outline the vivid details of the hideous destiny awaiting those who reject the Saviour’s gift of eternal life, if the alternative was indeed eternal torment, but they do not.
This passage from Paul illustrates the point:
He will judge everyone according to what they have done. He will give eternal life to those who keep on doing good, seeking after the glory and honour and immortality that God offers. But He will pour out His anger and wrath on those who live for themselves, who refuse to obey the truth and instead live lives of wickedness. There will be trouble and calamity for everyone who keeps on doing what is evil—for the Jew first and also for the Gentile. But there will be glory and honor and peace from God for all who do good—for the Jew first and also for the Gentile. For God does not show favouritism. When the Gentiles sin, they will be destroyed, even though they never had God’s written law. And the Jews, who do have God’s law, will be judged by that law when they fail to obey it. (Rom 2:6-12)
God’s anger and wrath are not mindless emotions, He will not be venting thousands of years of pent up frustration. God’s anger and wrath will have the most prodigious purpose, He will finally destroy evil completely. As Revelation 11:18 says, He will destroy those who, through their own destructiveness, have made it necessary for Him to destroy the present creation.
King David had a close relationship with God and in the Psalms he wrote:
For His anger is but for a moment; in His favour is life: weeping may tarry for the night, but joy cometh in the morning. (Psalm 30:5)
John gives us further insight when he records:
For the great day of His wrath is come; and who shall be able to stand? (Rev 6:17)
The OT saints and NT apostles depicted God’s anger and wrath as a short lived, but unimaginably powerful, resolution to the problem of evil. He will use His wrath with swift precision and there will be no need for it to be worked out for eternity. It will perfectly achieve its purpose in “the day of God’s wrath.”
Rather than an eternally drawn out time of punishment Peter tells us our lives are short and fleeting unless we have been born again of the Eternal Spirit.
For you have been born again, but not to a life that will quickly end. Your new life will last forever because it comes from the eternal, Living Word of God. As the Scriptures say, “People are like grass; their beauty is like a flower in the field. The grass withers and the flower fades. (1 Peter 1:23-24)
He is the stone that makes people stumble, the rock that makes them fall. They stumble because they do not obey God’s word, and so they meet the fate that was planned for them. (1 Peter 2:8)
He is very clear when he later writes:
But these, as natural brute beasts, made to be taken and destroyed, speak evil of the things that they understand not; and shall utterly perish in their own corruption. (2 Peter 2:12)
As an aside, this verse always brings to mind a terrifying incident that happened in my hippie days. I was living in a beach house with a friend and we had encountered a group of surfers who lived in a nearby town. My friend invited them back to our place and they arrived one wet afternoon when I was alone in the house. They were anything but friendly. They barged their way into the house and were intent on trouble.
One of the young men was called Ropehead and he decided he was going to rape me. I tried to reason with him but he was like an animal. I told him I had no intentions of giving in to him and he would be facing serious charges if he touched me. He grunted and raged and told me to shut up and lie down. In the end I told them I had a venereal disease that was extremely contagious and after smashing a few things they decided to go elsewhere for some “fun.”
These young men were like a pack of animals. Later, when I read this verse in Peter’s letter, the memory of this incident came flooding back and I knew exactly what Peter was saying. Some people do act like “brute beasts” when they listen only to their own base human instincts and refuse to listen to God’s moral guidelines. These surfers cared nothing for my feelings or wellbeing, they were totally bent on appeasing their own lusts. The fact that they did not hurt me had nothing to do with me, it was all about them. They went as far as they could without bringing retribution upon themselves. However, eventually people who live their lives like brute beasts will “perish in their own corruption,” along with the corrupted creation.
Peter goes on to say:
Their destruction is their reward for the harm they have done. (2 Peter 2:13a)
I was fortunate, the only harm done to me was that I was scared out of my wits and some household objects were destroyed. But people acting like brute beasts, who intentionally harm other people for their own satisfaction, will eventually meet their Judge, and Peter tells us their destruction is their reward. Those who are not prepared to accept Jesus’ gift of purification, so that they are made ready for God’s new creation, will be destroyed along with the old creation. Thus evil will be “no more.”
One of Peter’s sermons is recorded in the book of Acts, where we find:
….. You will not leave My soul in Hades, nor will You allow Your holy One to see corruption. You revealed to Me the ways of life. You will fill Me with joy with Your countenance.” (Act 2:27-28)
Peter is quoting from a Psalm here and is talking about Jesus’ resurrection. He explained to his listeners that it is through Jesus that they can find the “ways of life.” He instructs them to repent of their part in the death of Jesus, who is both Lord and Christ, and then informs them they should:
……. Save yourselves from this untoward generation. (Act 2:40b)
The words “untoward generation” can also be translated as “warped age“. This phrase could perfectly describe our present times. In our current age people are in danger of being so caught up in the world’s passing promises, pleasures and pursuits they may ignore the importance of paying attention to their eternal destinies.
Peter’s sermon resulted in many souls realising the importance of attending to eternal matters and about 3000 people gave their lives to Jesus Christ and received His gift of eternal life.
Later, when Peter and John were going to the temple, they saw a man who had been lame from birth lying at the temple gate and they healed him. The man then went into the temple, leaping and praising God. This caused quite a crowd to gather and Peter once again took the opportunity to preach to the people.
Peter told the crowd that even though they had chosen a murderer to be released when Pilate asked if he should release Jesus, God knew they had done this out of ignorance. He explained that this was a fulfilment of OT prophecies, which actually predicted Jesus was destined to suffer. Peter went on to tell them that Jesus was now in heaven and He would return to restore all things. He warned the people that if they wanted to be part of this restoration they needed to repent of their sins and turn to God. Peter then pointed out that Moses had spoken of a Prophet, whom they would need to listen to, and he declared that this Prophet was Jesus. He cautioned them:
…and it shall be, every soul that will not hear that Prophet shall be utterly destroyed out of the people. (Act 3:23)
The captain of the temple guards and some Sadducees heard Peter preaching and were worried. Luke goes on to tell us:
These leaders were very disturbed that Peter and John were teaching the people that through Jesus there is a resurrection of the dead. (Act 4:2)
Peter and John had been making and taking every opportunity to share the gospel message with the crowds in Jerusalem, but they said nothing about eternal torment. Instead they told the people that any soul who did not listen to Jesus would be utterly destroyed. They must have mentioned the resurrection of the dead, but there is no mention of the unbelieving dead being eternally tormented or separated into outer darkness.
As noted earlier Peter also wrote:
And by the same word, the present heavens and Earth have been stored up for fire. They are being kept for the Day of Judgment, when ungodly people will be destroyed. (2 Peter 3:7)
And finally he tells us:
And remember, the Lord’s patience gives people time to be saved. This is what our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you with the wisdom God gave him—speaking of these things in all of his letters. Some of his comments are hard to understand, and those who are ignorant and unstable have twisted his letters to mean something quite different, just as they do with other parts of Scripture. And this will result in their destruction. (2 Peter 3:15-16)
There is nothing ambiguous about Peter’s understanding of the unbeliever’s destiny. Peter and Paul both make it clear, the second death means destruction; they never mention eternal torment.
The writer to the Hebrews proclaimed:
With His own blood—not the blood of goats and calves—He entered the Most Holy Place once for all time and secured our redemption forever. (Heb 9:12)
He then informs us:
…..it is appointed to men once to die, but after this the judgment. (Heb 9:27)
After which he warns:
There is only the terrible expectation of God’s judgment and the raging fire that will consume His enemies. (Heb 10:27)
…..for our God is a consuming fire. (Heb 12:29)
God’s enemies (Heb 10:27) are those who oppose Him. The Greek word in this verse translated as “enemies” comes from a word meaning opposition. This opposition towards their Creator will be what forces God to fulfil His original decree. Those who disobey Him will not continue to enjoy God’s gift of life, they will die. Our text informs us that they will be consumed when all that is outside of God’s rule and reign is destroyed by the consuming fire of His presence. Only those who are made pure by God’s Holy Spirit can withstand the consuming fire of God’s presence. Just as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego (Dan 3) were able to withstand the fiery furnace that destroyed Nebuchadnezzar’s soldiers, those souls who have been born again by His Eternal Spirit will be prepared and purified for His presence and will survive His final solution for evil and its consequences.
116 The Judgment Seat of Christ
Some believers complain that this understanding of the second death would mean that the atheists are right, they will have no existence after their life on Earth. This is not the case. The unbelieving dead will be resurrected to stand under judgement before the Great White Throne. Here they will finally be compelled to listen, and will then understand just what it is they have chosen to reject. There is no biblical reason to believe these resurrected unbelievers will be granted immortality at this point, The Bible does not say they will be given the gift of eternal life, or even eternal death.
We have a very limited understanding of God’s gloriously, wondrous gift of eternal life, if we are prepared to believe that the final realisation of what it is unbelievers will be losing by choosing the second death, rather than life in Christ, is not an unimaginable punishment in itself. But it seems the traditionalists want more, they believe people deserve to suffer eternally for rejecting God’s gift, while the believers enjoy a life of eternal love for accepting that offer.
This is human reasoning at its worst, and in this case, with virtually no scriptural evidence to support such a doctrine. We are imposing this desire for revenge on the God who has declared He loves us and wants to forgive us. To support this doctrine we must contort the scriptures over and over, reinterpreting the plain understanding of the words death, perish, destroy and consume. We all deserve the death God warned from the beginning of time would be the consequence of our rejection of His rule in our lives and His plan for the universe: we don’t deserve the glorious gift of eternal life our loving Father has provided for every individual in and through our Saviour and Lord, Jesus Christ. It is because of His righteousness that we are no longer counted amongst the “wicked” and will be enabled to stand before the consuming fire of God’s presence, we have nothing to boast about. As Paul writes:
For who makes you to differ from another? And what do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it? (1Co 4:7)
When Christians stand before the judgment seat of Christ they stand clothed in the righteousness of Christ. As Paul explains:
For the sin of this one man, Adam, caused death to rule over many. But even greater is God’s wonderful grace and His gift of righteousness, for all who receive it will live in triumph over sin and death through this one Man, Jesus Christ. Yes, Adam’s one sin brings condemnation for everyone, but Christ’s one act of righteousness brings a right relationship with God and new life for everyone. (Rom 5:17-18)
He tells the Galatians:
And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. (Gal 3:27)
Adam’s sin brought death to the creation and death “ruled” as our ultimate destiny; but it is not Adam’s sin that keeps us from eternal life, it is our own sin, the sin of refusing to accept God’s way of redemption. Jesus Christ has been divinely appointed as the Redeemer and Judge. At the end of time, after the resurrection of the dead, the destiny of every person who has ever been born will be determined by God’s only Son. He is the just and compassionate judge, and ultimately we will all be faced with one of two alternatives, eternal life through God’s saving grace or the second, eternal death.
60 JETS 27/3 (September 1984) 325_334
61 Matthew Henry (1662 – 1714), Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible. E-Sword.