Is Hell Fire Endless?

An Article By
Dr. Leroy Garrett

Which Appeared In
Restoration Review
November, 1990

I begin with the assumption that we will all agree, if we stop to think about it, that the "fire" of hell is a figurative term and cannot be taken literally. Just as "the street of the city is pure gold" that describes heaven (Rev. 21:21) is figurative, so is "the lake of fire and brimstone" that describes hell (Rev. 20:10). That the fire of hell is figurative takes nothing away from its horror is as evident as that the gold of heaven is symbolic takes nothing from its magnificence. When God speaks to us it has to be in symbols that we can understand. Gold is precious and splendid, so he tells us that heaven is like that. Fire is dreadful and painful, so he tells us that hell is like that.

There are only three possible positions to take as to the nature of hell fire in regards to its duration. The traditional view is that it is everlasting in the sense of being unending. The conditionalist view holds that hell fire is consuming, annihilating the wicked but not tormenting them unendingly. The universalist or restorationist view is that hell fire is purgatorial in that it punishes the wicked and cleanses them of their sin and ultimately restores them to God and to heaven, which means that by God's grace eventually everyone will be saved.

There you have the three views: unending torment of the wicked; destruction of the wicked (after just punishment); corrective punishment of the wicked but eventual redemption.

My position in this installment of the hope of the believer is that in light of Scripture the first position (the traditional view) is untenable and unacceptable. It is the least acceptable of all three positions in that it has an impossible theology. That God would raise the wicked and give them immortality only to torment them in a devil's hell unendingly is both gross and vulgar, even blasphemous. Such a God is not the one described in the Bible.

The third view is a modified universalism in that it recognizes that there are indeed wicked people who will go to hell and will be punished for their sins. But the God of love and mercy cannot and will not lose the vast majority of the souls he created. He will eventually redeem all creation -- the world, the universe, and all mankind. So hell fire will be penitential. The wicked will be purged of their sins, justly punished, some with few stripes and some with many, but in the end God will be victorious and all souls will be his for eternity. This fulfills Paul's promise of "For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive" (1 Cor. 15:22). Not a tiny fraction, but all, eventually.

This view is both philosophically and theologically persuasive, even intuitively persuasive, for we are inclined to conclude that yes, of course, that is what we would expect of a God who is "eager to show mercy" and is not willing that any should perish, and it also satisfies God's justice in that the wicked are punished. But it has a serious problem in that it is more theological than biblical. Biblical evidence is strong that the wicked will be finally and eternally lost, however tragic and unacceptable that may appear to us. "The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life" (Rom. 6:23) is unequivocal. If the wicked eventually die because of their sins then they are dead forever, never to live again, or so it seems.

That passage, by the way, comes near single-handedly proving the "consuming fire" position. If the wicked die, then they do not "live forever" in hell fire. Moreover, this passage states a crucial truth that is often overlooked: that immortality is not innate in people but is a gift of God. Only God has immortality (1 Tim. 6:16). We are not destined to live forever, either in heaven or hell, simply because we are human beings, for human beings are mortal. To the contrary, we are all destined to die, not only because of our sins but because we are finite creatures. We live forever only if God gives us immortality, which he does in Jesus Christ to those who believe.

There are other texts that indicate that the wicked will perish or be destroyed (after being punished in hell fire), such as Matt. 10:28, "Fear rather Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell." Again and again the Bible says that "The wicked shall perish," as in Ps. 37:20 and Ezek. 18:4. Malachi 4:1 describes the wicked as being "stubble," as being "burned up," and as having "neither root or branch." Jesus makes it plain in Matt. 10:40-43: the wicked, like the tares of the parable, will be cast into the furnace of fire and burned. As for Paul he makes it clear that the end of the wicked is "eternal destruction from the presence of the Lord" (2 Thess. 1:9). In Gal. 6:8 the apostle says that the one who sows to the flesh shall reap corruption or destruction, while the one who sows to the Spirit shall reap everlasting life.

Nowhere in Scripture will you find the idea that God bestows upon the wicked everlasting (unending) life or immortality so that he can then torment them forever in hell fire. The wicked die forever for two reasons: they do not have the gift of immortality, and they have to receive the wages earned for their life of sin, which is death.

It goes without saying that the traditional view of unending torment for the lost has what appears to be strong biblical support, even if it does contradict the above references. I can here make response only to a few of the passages that are resorted to that make God "an eternal fiend that tortures his enemies forever," as Robert Ingersoll put it.

One incontrovertible proof text is said to be Rev. 14:10-11, where "the smoke of their torment ascends forever and ever; and they have no rest day or night." Apart from what poetic license may be taken in such a symbolic book as Revelation, the idea of torment being forever does not necessarily mean endless. If you trace the word through Scripture you will find numerous things described as "forever" that were not endless but endured as long as necessary to fulfill their purpose, such as the Jewish Passover being forever (Ex. 12:24) and Solomon's temple being forever (1 Kings 8:13).

The word "eternal" (or "everlasting") is also used in ways to suggest endlessness, such as Matt. 25:41, "Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels." When coupled with verse 46 where "everlasting punishment" and "eternal life" are both used, this argument appears impregnable. The everlasting punishment has to be as enduring as the eternal life, they argue.

While it is true that eternal or everlasting does sometimes mean never-ending, it is not always the case. Jude 7 refers to Sodom and Gomorrah being destroyed by "eternal fire," but those cities are not still burning. A similar reference in 2 Peter 2:6 says those wicked cities were reduced to ashes and condemned to destruction, which is what eternal fire meant. That is, it was fire that burned until it accomplished its purpose.

"Eternal," whether in reference to punishment or life refers more to result than to process, and it is more qualitative than quantitative. The point of "eternal punishment" does not mean that it goes on forever (What father would punish a child endlessly?) but that its result cannot be undone. It is the result, not the act of punishing, that is unending. So with "eternal destruction": the process of being destroyed is not perpetual but its result is final and irreversible. Sodom was destroyed and stayed destroyed, that is "eternal destruction." So with the wicked. They are "eternally destroyed" or are burned in "eternal fire" without existing forever.

The basic issue in all this is the nature of immortality. If we concede that only God is immortal, as the Scriptures tell us, then no one "puts on immortality" (1 Cor. 15:53) except as it is given him of God. The Bible nowhere indicates that the wicked have endless existence or immortality. If God extends it to them, it would be so they could be tortured in perpetuity, and this is risky theology.

That God raises all the dead, including the wicked, is clear enough. But does he raise the dead to give them endless existence and perpetual punishment? Or is it not to judge them? He judges them, condemns them for their sins, and punishes them in hell. In exactly what way he punishes them or for how long we do not know, but it is probably determined by the severity of the sin, some with many stripes, others with few. Then at last they are destroyed, finally and forever.

This is the conditional view, meaning that immortality is not given to all people unconditionally, but only to those to whom he bestows grace and salvation through Jesus Christ.

This impresses me as the most defensible view when all of Scripture is considered. It liberates the Christian faith from teaching a dogma that tempts people to see God as some cosmic fiendish savage. If the God of heaven subjects innumerable billions to unending and indescribable torment, it can only be seen as the one infinite horror.

If on the other hand it is as Paul says, "The wages of sin is death," it will be seen as at least understandable if not just. Even men sometimes execute their fellows for crimes committed. But when they hang them or electrocute them they do not keep on hanging them or electrocuting them in perpetuity. They are hanged or electrocuted "forever" in that its result is final and cannot be repealed.

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