The Problem of Hell

Harold R. Booher, Ph.D.

September, 2013

Copyright 2013 Harold R. Booher

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: Conscience versus Inerrancy

Chapter 2: Concepts to Ease Pain of Hell

Chapter 3: Philosophical Considerations

Chapter 4: What does Bible Say about Hell

Chapter 5: Problem Scriptures – Concepts

Chapter 6: Problem Scriptures – Words

Chapter 7: Summary and Conclusions

Chapter 1: Conscience versus Inerrancy

History of “Hell”—Tradition and Inspired Word

Like many Christians living today, I have never heard a sermon on hell.1 When I started this study I would have been surprised to find any Christians who believed hell was a real place where the wicked spent eternity in conscious torment. I was literally dumbfounded therefore to find out that the majority of conservative evangelical thinkers still believe in an orthodox hell. They all wish it were not true, and their preachers do not talk about it, but to be honest to their belief in an inerrant Bible and consistent with Christian tradition, they need a literal hell. If they are to believe in an eternal place of bliss called heaven for the redeemed, they must also accept the eternal place of suffering known as hell for the condemned.2 That is why a thoughtful person like Lee Strobel who otherwise does a commendable job of apologetics for the Christian faith on issues like the problem of evil, miracles, and Jesus as sole path to God, feels he must accept everlasting conscious punishment for evil-doers as well.3 These conservative Christians believe the Bible teaches a literal hell for the living dead who were not saved by believing in Jesus. How can we, they argue, accept Jesus when he says, “he that believes in me shall have everlasting life,” but reject him when he uses a parable to describe a literal hell for the rich man in hades or when he says “Be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt 10:28). John Walvoord (Chancellor of Dallas Theological Seminary) is unbending on what he claims is the literal view. He appropriates “inerrancy” of the Bible combined with tradition dating back to the first church fathers and the current “no longer silent” majority of conservative Christians to back his view.4

Over the history of the church, teaching has been mixed on the hell issue. Are the wicked dead annihilated or forced to endure everlasting punishment? These two major views of hell find support from very different sources.

We find the Pharisees in Jesus’ day, early Christian Fathers’ writings like Ignatius of Antioch’s letter To the Ephesians (ca. A.D. 117), the Epistle to Diognetus (ca. A.D. 138), 2 Clement (ca. A.D. 150), and the Martyrdom of Polycarp (ca. A.D. 156-60), and the majority of Christian theologians throughout the history of the Church (with varying degrees of severity until at least the last century) have consistently taught hell to be a place of eternal, conscious torment.5 Although there can always be found outliers like Clement of Alexandria and Origen who at the close of the 2nd century opposed eternal, conscious suffering, and such protestant reformers like Calvin and Luther, who preferred allegorical images of hell, the Christian teaching of hell has traditionally, almost overwhelmingly, favored everlasting conscious punishment over annihilation of the wicked.6 In other words, on the side of eternal conscious torture are the majority of church leaders and theologians from the 2nd century until the 20th century. The orthodox view of the church, yet today, is that the damned face an eternity of conscious hell.

On the side of destruction of the wicked we find nearly all of the inspired word. The Hebrew Bible, the Acts of the Apostles, and the epistles never mention hell as a place for eternal suffering.7 If hell is mentioned at all as the end of evil people in the Old Testament, it is indistinguishable from the state of death. Both the good and the bad enter hell, but only the good are resurrected out of it into life everlasting. Sheol, the Hebrew word for hades in Greek almost always refers to the grave or the state of death in the Old Testament. In the 31 occurrences in the KJV where sheol is translated hell, all have disappeared in the NIV and NSBV. Even more strikingly, hell was not part of the first-century apostolic preaching. Randy Klassen in What Does the Bible Really Say about Hell points out:

It must be taken seriously that the content of the first-century proclamation according to the book of Acts lacks any reference to hell; judgment is addressed, yes, but hell, no.8

Clark Pinnock, Professor of Systematic Theology at McMaster Divinity College, challenges the traditional view of hell by developing a case for “conditional immortality” (a term that means God can grant immortality to the “saved” while withholding immortality from the wicked).9 Although granting the traditional view has been taught for centuries, he will give no room to traditionalists making “it sound as if the infallibility of the Bible were at stake.”10 Pinnock urges: “although there are many good reasons for questioning the orthodox view of the nature of hell, the most important reason is the fact that the Bible does not teach it.”11 As will be demonstrated with examples in Chapters 5 & 6, we agree with Pinnock “it is a little annoying to be told that no biblical case can be made for annihilation of the wicked when it is the traditional view that most needs proving.”12 For “any honest reader,” Pinnock argues, the Bible conveys most readily the impression that “hell denotes final destruction.”13 One need only read a few exemplar verses from both the Old and New Testaments to see how clearly the idea of destruction of the wicked is the prevalent biblical view of eternal punishment.

Psalm 37
Do not fret because of the evildoers, (v 1) …
For they shall soon be cut down like the grass (v 2)…
the wicked shall perish and the enemies of the Lord …
shall vanish into smoke ..v 20)
the transgressors shall be destroyed together ..(v 38)

2 Samuel 23: 6,7
The sons of Belial shall be all of them as thorns thrust away… and they shall be utterly burned [destroyed] with fire in the same place.

Philippians 3:19
Whose end is destruction, whose God is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things.

Matthew 7:13
Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction; and many are they who go in by it.
Change from the hard view of eternal consciousness in hell to eternal punishment by destruction is not only possible but desirable if scripture is to continue as the standard of truth for most conservative Christians. Like those evangelicals supporting civil rights in the past and turning “green” on the environment in the present, conservative Christians can change when conscience and logic win out and scripture can be interpreted to support the changed view. There is a growing minority of conservative evangelicals who as John Stott puts it, “find the concept [of eternal conscious torment] intolerable and do not understand how people can live with it without either cauterizing their feelings or cracking under the strain.”14

It is ultimately scripture exegesis that will decide the fate of the orthodox view. With a change in the direction away from “everlasting conscious torment” toward a more liberal view by many conservatives, perhaps some liberal views could change as well. Those liberals who recite the Creed might start by accepting the reality of sin, the need for a personal savior and the historical fact of Christ’s death and resurrection in making atonement for our sins. With hell out of the way and the resurrection back in, any other differences between conservatives and liberals would pale in comparison.

Seared Conscience

In Christianity’s Lost Dispensations one of the major principles urged in interpreting scripture is to listen to our conscience.15 If a verse, passage, lesson, or Christian doctrine appears unreasonably harsh for a God having so much love and grace, that he could give his only begotten son to die on the cross for our sins, then it deserves a critical look to see if such a hard text could in some legitimate way be softened. Perhaps it could be a matter of translation, interpretation, or flawed doctrine that is to blame, rather than God or His inspired word. For the orthodox view of Christian hell, the principle of conscience is obviously needed first. It is unconscionable for people today who have any sensitivity to the horrors of burning human flesh to contemplate the reality of such a condition as eternal fiery destiny for any living thing.

There is no question that some of the verses in the Bible clearly support the idea of God’s wrath coming upon the wicked somehow, beyond them just dying in the same way as the righteous. The concept of God’s justice demands something more than what we see in the here and now for wicked behavior. Alan Bernstein concludes that “belief in punishment after death becomes necessary when no sign of restoration is visible in life.”16 As far back as Job, wise men have reasoned that the righteous are rewarded and evil doers punished in this life. But as Job knew, this could not be true. He was being punished for no fathomable reason. And obviously to anyone who has lived very long on this earth, many are the wicked who fare quite well. So since Job, if there were no hell, someone would have to invent one if people are to believe in any ultimate justice.

The concept of hell as a place to punish the wicked has been part of history for at least 4000 years. The earliest recorded are the Mesopotamians where their “Gods consigned evildoers to a torturous nether region filled with demons and fire.”17 But images of hell are found in nearly all religions of ancient times, including the Egyptians, Hindus and Buddhists. The Hindus have several million hells and Buddhists can count into the thousands, although these are generally not eternal consignments, but rather stages of purgatorial-like reincarnations. The Greeks and Romans with ideas of gods and goddesses having good and evil virtues also had ideas of heaven and hell as places of reward and punishment in the afterlife. The poet Hesiod spoke of the birthplace of Tartaros (one of the words for hell used in the New Testament)18 that was created for defeated gods. It was in a place far below the earth, surrounded by a bronze wall and guarded by the “Hound of Hell.”19 It is perhaps Plato’s concept of the “immortal soul” suggesting the final destiny for both the good and the evil could be a forever, conscious existence that has had the greatest influence upon Christian theologians historically believing conscious hell lasts forever.

An agonizing hell for the wicked being considered unconscionable is quite a recent phenomenon. Any one of conscience today wonders how the graphic depiction of hell portrayed by famous spokespersons for God in the past could have been less evil if dreamed up by Hitler, Po Pot, or Satan himself. Jewish literature around the time of Christ was particularly prurient in its description of hell as a. torture chamber.

Jewish literature is often more graphic than the frightful descriptions of hell found in Christian apocalypses. The rabbis speak of licentious men hanging by their genitals, women who publicly suckle their children hanging by their breasts, and those who talked during their synagogue prayers having their mouths filled with hot coals.20

But the difference between Christian and Jewish vivid depictions of hell seems more a matter of lurid taste than degree. In Christian literature in the second and third centuries “we find blasphemers hanging by their tongues” and ‘adulterous women who plaited their hair to entice men dangle over boiling mire by their necks or hair.” We can also find murderers being “cast into pits filled with venomous reptiles,” where “worms fill their bodies.” Punishment of women was especially macabre. Women who had abortions were made to “sit neck deep in the excretions of the damned.” Women who chatted idly during church had to “stand in a burning pool of burning sulfur and pitch.”21 Christian illustrations of hell were quite popular, leaving nothing for the imagination from 400 AD until about 1400 AD. According to Klassen the doctrine of hell during this period “was refined, printed, preached, and luridly envisioned by authors and playwrights whose depictions might be called a form of “sanitized pornography.”22 It took Dante’s Inferno and Divine Comedy with his elaborate descriptions of a fictional hell to deliteralize hell. For those with a twinge of conscience Dante gave room for allegory in those questionable fearsome scriptures of Jesus and John. But official church spokesmen and the many hell fire and brimstone preachers continued until at least the 19th century with sermons embellishing how the wicked would burn eternally.23 In 1731 Jonathon Edwards- in his famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” brought up images of a person being roasted over a fire like a spider on a thread. “O sinner, you hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder.”24 The following century Charles Spurgeon portrayed the literal fiery torture of the wicked as being:
… in fire exactly like that on earth thy body will lie, asbestos-like, forever unconsumed, all thy veins roads for the feet of Pain to travel on, every nerve a string on which the Devil shall forever play his diabolical tune of hell’s unutterable lament.25

Extent of Suffering for the Dammed

First, it is very painful. Even without the visual enhancements of tortures, it does not take much imagination to appreciate how ghastly the Christian hell must be. As a minimum traditional hell starts as something extremely painful for the condemned person, like flesh on fire. Christians beginning with Tertullian early third century (200-212) “did not hesitate to elucidate on the pains and agony of the damned.”26 This view has continued until the present day. With respect to a literal fire in hell, Walvoord in the 21st century concludes, “there is sufficient evidence that the fire is literal,” and the punishment “is painful, both mentally and physically.”27 Even those who take a purgatorial view of hell, accept that the suffering is very painful. According to Zachary Hayes, teacher at Catholic Theological Union, the inhabitant of hell suffers “because the pain is intrinsic to the encounter between the holy love of God and the still imperfect human being.”28

Second, the pain is forever.29 Roman popes consistently decreed this to be absolutely without question. “If anyone says that the punishment of devils and wicked men is temporary and will eventually cease, let him be anathema” (Constantinople, AD 543).30 “If anyone dies unrepentant in the state of mortal sin, he will undoubtedly be tormented forever in the fires of an everlasting hell” (Pope Innocent IV, 1224).31

Third, the pain of hell is not only forever, but is felt both physically and psychologically. “Augustine taught us to view hell as a condition of endless conscious torment in body and soul.” Augustine questioned, “how a resurrected body could burn physically and suffer psychologically forever without being materially consumed or losing consciousness.” “How,” he asked, “could the wicked suffer the sort of burns one would sustain on earth from close contact with raging flames and not be consumed by them?” He reasoned that God would use his miraculous powers “to keep sinners alive and conscious in the fire.”32

Fourth, the saints rejoice in viewing the torments of the damned. Augustine noted that – “the unjust will burn to some extent so that all the just in the Lord may see the joys they receive and in those may look upon the punishments which they have evaded”33 Even Thomas Aquinas taught that the saints in heaven could see and take pleasure in the torments of the damned. “The sight of their suffering increased the pleasure of those saints because they could see divine justice in operation, making their own bliss all the sweeter by contrast.”34 This latter requirement for the pleasures of the redeemed from viewing the wicked in hell, has not lessened for some even today. William Crockett quotes an unidentified professor in a mainline denominational seminary who finds the logic that God is just and because all his acts should bring joy to the righteous so compelling he often states to his students “Once we see the glory of Christ, and the hideous nature of sin as God sees it, hell will be understandable. If my own mother were being carried to the mouth of hell, I would stand and applaud.”35

Effects on Modern Christian faith

By the 20th century it became no longer fashionable to preach a literal fiery hell, even though it still today maintains quiet credibility among a majority of conservative evangelicals. There are undoubtedly many reasons for this. Certainly the world wars and the atomic bomb, humanization of the church, secular humanism, postmodern relativism, civil rights, increased education and economic opportunities that dominated that century can be listed as positive factors in producing attitudes that include concern for the suffering of others, and belief that society is responsible to help alleviate it. In other words, the 20th century produced the overwhelming belief among the general population as well as philosophers and leaders that torture and any gratuitous human suffering is wrong (even for those receiving capital punishment) and that it is the responsibility of any civilized society to conscientiously work toward eliminating all human (and where possible, even animal) pain and suffering. For a society that does not believe in the value of unnecessary pain in the here and now, which sees suffering as an evil to be eliminated, there is no room for a place that would create conscious pain forever for anyone, even the most wicked among us.

But there is another strong reason for the conservative Christian not to teach a literal hell. That is the recognition that hell is poor psychology to enlist believers. Hell was preached in the past largely to create fear. It was believed that fear of a fiery afterlife would drive people to the church. There is perhaps an element of truth in that idea for the pre-modern era. But hell has fallen well behind the positive argument of God’s love as an effective means of conversion. From psychology we know that instrumental learning is far more effective than classical conditioning at changing behavior.36 In fact, hell is not only a poor second to God’s love in attracting new Christians, but hell is likely the strongest argument against Christianity altogether. William Crockett, Professor of New Testament at Alliance Theological Seminary, points out how shocking such a concept as a literal fire burning people alive really is:

But is this what hell will be like? A place where the damned twist and shriek, their eyes bulging with fire, forever consumed by the wrath of God? If this were true, says theologian Nels Ferré, it would make Hitler “a third degree saint, and the concentration camps … picnic grounds.”37

Making God “a cosmic cook”38 today is probably the best way to destroy any hope of converting a non-believer to Christianity. Anthony Flew rightly concluded “if Christians really believe that God created people with the full intention of torturing some of them in hell forever, they might as well give up the effort to defend Christianity.”39 Russian theologian Nicholas Berdyaev once wrote “I can think of no more powerful and irrefutable argument in favor of atheism than the eternal torments of hell.”40 Much earlier John Stuart Mill had already presented the same argument phrased a little differently: “When compared with the doctrine of endless torment, any other objection to Christianity sinks into insignificance.”41

For many people who wish to retain a Christian faith based on a literal Bible and at the same time not sear their consciences, they simply say they don’t believe in eternal conscious punishment even though it is written in the Bible. There are many things we cannot understand. Take the love passages and don’t think about the hell passages. They just become double minded in their faith. In a postmodern age, such mental conflicts are perhaps easier to accept.

Chapter 2: Concepts to Ease the Pains of Hell

Once the principle of conscience becomes a critical factor for people who want to retain the authority of scripture, and who are not too concerned about the authority of tradition, they begin to look for ways to remove cognitive dissonance either by softening scripture, becoming more liberal, or both. These attempts to make hell a bit more acceptable can be lumped into two categories – those making somewhat minor changes to the concept of hell and those making major changes.

Minor Changes to Hell

Minor changes to hell include either reducing the duration or reducing the physical pain endured by the damned.

Reducing the duration: John Walvoord, loyal supporter of the traditional view of hell admits: “even the most ardent advocates of eternal punishment must confess shrinking from the idea of hell continuing forever. It is only natural to harbor the hope that such suffering may be somehow terminated”1 Those who hope to reduce the duration of hell rely on the fact that Old Testament words translated “ever” like olam and nesah do not always mean eternally with no ending. Frequently the context will show forever is limited in duration of time. In Exodus 27:21 (KJV) the lamp in the tabernacle that is always burning is stated to be “a statue forever.” Yet it lasted only as long as the tabernacle. Olam sometimes used for final destiny of people (Dan 12:2) is also used for such things like the everlasting mountains (Hab. 3:6) that can end with natural or human intervention and at most will last only as long as the earth lasts. Walvoord and Morey would argue however that the context eliminates this out for the annihilationist. Olam when used of God, for example certainly means without end, forever into eternity (Ps 90.2; Ps 102:12). Similarly when used to describe eternal punishment of the wicked, olam means no end, forever into eternity.2

Reducing the pain: The metaphorical view of hell is primarily a way to view a hell for its inhabitants that is not quite as painful as burning alive forever more. William Crockett and Robert Morey are supporters of this view. Neither of them believes hell is anything less than eternity, but draws the line at the pain being as great as flesh burning in literal fire. William Crockett says his view of hell is similar to John Calvin, who determined over four hundred years ago that the “eternal fire” in texts like Matthew 3:12 is better understood metaphorically.”3 From his informal survey Crockett concluded that most evangelicals today share his view, finding the literal fire of hell more than their consciences can tolerate. While moving away from a literal fire might allow them to conceive of a hell with reduced pain, few would go so far as C.S. Lewis who conceived of hell as being no worse than “living in a dingy, grey city” with perhaps no physical pain and even some pleasure, none wishes to reduce hell to something less than “the worse possible place—beyond our darkest imaginings.”4 The metaphorical view is relatively easy to support with scripture. Crockett asks: “How could hell be a literal fire when it is also described as darkness (Matt. 8:12; 22:13; 25:30; 2 Peter 2:17; Jude 14)?”5 Jude for example describes hell both as “eternal fire” and the “blackest darkness” (7,13). The images are not meant to convey literal fire but to convey the gravity of being sentenced to hell. Similarly expressions like gnashing of teeth and their worm not dying are not literal but metaphors. The metaphorical view does not envision actual eternal grinding of teeth or maggots of the dead achieving immortality. The problem with the metaphorical view however is “It is a metaphor for what?” Whatever hell is with the metaphorical view, it is still some kind of awful tortuous condition that is to go on forever. Clark Pinnock asks what has been gained with the metaphorical view, exchanging “mental torment alone” over “mental and physical torment?” Perhaps the overall pain would be somewhat reduced, but God would still be “a sadistic torturer.”6

Major Changes to Hell

There are a number of approaches to hell that involve major changes in concepts about what the Bible teaches on hell. Some of the most notable are compromise on inerrancy, purgatory, and universalism.

Compromise on Inerrancy: When tradition clings to doctrine that becomes unconscionable (or at least uncomfortable), the rigidity of “literal” scriptural interpretation is one of the few options evangelists will sometimes bend on. This phenomenon is being seen more and more in conservative circles as a result of debates stirred by New Testament criticism, such as the historical reliability of the scriptures (which frequently addresses the enormous number of variances in extant copies of New Testament text due to copying and other errors). In 1972, for example the Fuller Theological Seminary deleted the term “inerrancy” from its statement of faith. The Seminary leadership decided that inerrancy of the Bible is “unreasonable, unnecessary, and misleading.”7 In some instances one suspects that political motives play as large a role in compromising on scriptural literalness as new insight on scriptural hermeneutics. In the case of Fuller Seminary, fresh rules for interpretation were thought necessary which “followed a faith-oriented historical-critical approach with the word theological included.”8 George Elton Ladd advocated the merits of this change concluding that a correct interpretation for the Christian must “square with the character of God as revealed in Jesus Christ.”9 What this means to Fuller is that “Scriptural words lie under the guidance and illumination of the living Word.”10 The danger of this approach is placing man-made theology over God-made scripture. It is only through the scriptural words we can comprehend the living Word and correct errors in our theology, not the other way around. Pinnock has written a classic on this issue, The Scripture Principle, dealing with any number of interpretation problems that do not square with our concept of a loving God. Even thought he is sympathetic to more liberal interpretations of some of church traditions, he is extremely reluctant to give up on “inerrancy” simply because “In an age when many theologians boldly deny the Scriptures, can we afford to allow a doctrine of Scripture that falls short of the strictest specifications?” On the other hand Pinnock recognizes that inerrancy is not something explicitly claimed by the Bible for itself, so therefore settles for a “moderately phrased category of inerrancy” as “the best operating principle.”11

In the case of hell and inerrancy Pinnock concludes, “the issue concerning the nature of hell does not involve the doctrine of inerrancy at all but is entirely a matter of the valid interpretation of texts and of sound theological reasoning.”12 More importantly with respect to inerrancy, he urges, are the theological problems introduced once inerrancy is eliminated. Without inerrancy, the most reliable scientific standard of Bible interpretation is compromised and allows greater room for more radical theological constructs like the two that follow.

Purgatory: The Bible seems to break people into two kinds, the righteous and the wicked. Jesus talks of separating the sheep from the goats, the weeds from the wheat, and on judgment day sending the righteous to everlasting life while the wicked go into everlasting punishment. Few of the people I know or have ever met would classify themselves as being clearly in either camp. We see ourselves as trying to do the right thing most of the time, but every day we fall short of the glory of God. On the other hand we are not wicked like Hitler, or Stalin, or not even as despicable as the thieves of Enron. We don’t murder, commit adultery, or steal. We try to love God and love our friends, but fail miserably when trying to love our enemy or giving away our riches to the poor. The idea of good people going to heaven while bad people go to hell doesn’t seem easy to justify even with the examples given in the Bible. Starting with Abel who was apparently
righteous and Cain who murdered him, their outcome in the afterlife is not apparent. Abel we can imagine going to heaven, but what about Cain. Even though he was a murderer, God protected him by putting a mark on his forehead (Gen 4:15). Why so much concern for Cain if when he dies and is judged he is destined to hell. Notable flaws are found in nearly all of God’s chosen leaders. Starting with the patriarchs, continuing with the leaders of the exodus, and on into the kingdom of Israel, God’s favorites all have serious flaws. Abraham caused much unnecessary trouble for God-fearing kings of Egypt and Gerar with his white lies about Sarah being his sister. He and Sarah cause the tragedy of Hagar and Ishmael being sent into the wilderness by not trusting God’s promise of inheritance. Jacob lies to get his inheritance and his sons lie to him while selling Joseph into slavery. Moses kills an Egyptian; Aaron permits mass idolatry with a golden calf; David not only commits adultery with Bathsheba but is instrumental in her husband’s death. Even the three most righteous individuals of the Old Testament, Noah, Daniel, and Job (Ezekiel 14:14), fell short of the glory of God. We are reminded of Noah succumbing to strong drink, “Daniel’s prayer of confession and Job’s hand across his mouth with nothing more to say in his own defense.”13

As Christians we believe we have found an easy way out. I saw a bumper sticker once that said, “We are not perfect, we are just saved.” Most Christians believe that because they believe in Jesus, that covers all their sins and on judgment day, Jesus will be their advocate and they will be saved. Some Christians may still think all unbelievers are doomed to hell, but generally it is best to remain silent on the fate of unbelievers. Many, myself included, take the position if unbelievers are “righteous” in their moral behavior and have not overtly rejected Jesus, God will consider that to their credit on judgment day.

There is something all too smug about believing we are saved and counted among the righteous when we know we really aren’t anywhere near the holy quality of what God expects. At the same time, many are the people who may not believe and may not do much in the way of good works either, but still they just don’t qualify for “wicked.” The real problem is there seems to be another class, not mentioned in the Bible, cattle perhaps, who are also mixed among the sheep and goats. Only the sheep and goats are culled out. The cattle (which may make up most of us) are left with no place to go.

This is where purgatory comes in. Zachary Hayes points out that the concept of purification after death did not begin with Roman Catholicism, nor with Christianity, nor even with the Bible.” It is in fact a symbolism “widespread in religious history.”14 This symbolism reflects a sense of distance between human creatures and God. Not only are human creatures limited and finite, while God is infinite, but human creatures are sinners. This leaves an enormous gap to bridge between human beings and God, “if the concern of the religious journey is to move to ever greater closeness and intimacy with God in a relationship of love.”15 Hayes explains, so far as hell and the sinner, purgatory allows the idea of some form of purification of the creature, “frequently expressed in symbols such as fire. The idea of purifying fire was present in extrabiblical and biblical tradition long before the Christian/Catholic concept of purgatory used it in its own way.”16 Early Church thinkers like Augustine and Cyprian of Carthage were perplexed with the dilemma that if there were only heaven or hell, and considering the failures of even basically good people, hell would be heavily populated indeed. From about the middle of the third century, the idea of some type of interim state, “ a sort of outer court of heaven” has existed to more fully prepare such people “for entrance into the presence of God.”17 During this interim process, it is believed that the living may “through prayers and charitable works,” produce “a beneficial effect on the healing of the dead.”18 By the end of the twelfth century the idea of a specific place of purgatory emerged. Intermediate between heaven and hell, purgatory is the place where people who are neither bad enough to go to hell nor good enough to go to heaven go upon death.

If there should be some interim state or place after death to minimize the idea of eternal suffering, an issue still remains regarding the type of state. Is it something like C.S. Lewis envisioned for the here and now? “The soul suffers not because God takes pleasure in suffering, but because the pain is intrinsic to the encounter between the holy love of God and the still imperfect human being.”19 The greater the evil still remaining after death, the greater the pain and duration in purgatory. Or, could there be an interim state more as the Eastern Christians envision? They practice a sort of communion among all Christians, the living and the dead. While not like the Catholic purgatory, they see something taking place between death and heaven, where prayers for the dead are valued. The Eastern concept is not a punitive state of suffering, but more “a process of education, maturation, and growth.”20

The problem with purgatory or some other interim state after death is it just has no scriptural basis. Silence on a topic does not rule it out, but if we are to make a case for an interim state after death on something other than wishful thinking, we need something in scripture to go on. In previous chapters we have considered the possibility that the kingdom of God might be an avenue for some type of interim process of education and growth of individuals who enter the kingdom on earth.

Universalism: This is the most extreme view, because it does away with hell altogether, and essentially eliminates God’s justice from the formula. The majority of people who believe that eventually everyone who has lived will end up in heaven, regardless of their life on earth, do not hold a high regard for scripture. When I quoted some of the statements of Jesus which support hell for the wicked to a Methodist reverend friend of mine who holds to this view, he responded “there are many verses in the Bible that scholars [Jesus Seminar] do not believe Jesus actually said; the things on hell he probably never said.” People like my friend have never held a literal view of scripture. For them hell is not a problem of conscience and they have no issues to resolve with a literal Bible. But there are those individuals who understand the need for stronger interpretation of scripture yet their consciences will not endure the traditional concept of hell. If conscious eternal torment of hell does not drive a person from traditional Christianity to atheism, it is most likely to convert them to universalism.

Pinnock, who is an annihilationist, believes that many evangelicals have become universalists simply because they believe they must chose conscience over inerrancy.21 If biblical inerrancy requires a belief in hell, and people have immortal souls, then the only alternative for them seems to be that all people must eventually be saved in order for no one to live forever in torment. Pinnock however argues that one does not have to choose between inerrancy and conscious eternal torment. He does so by eliminating conscious torment from the definition of hell, not by a radical reinterpretation of scripture or eliminating eternal punishment for the wicked. Still another group of evangelicals are those who argue for universalism based on scriptural interpretations that retain those controversial statements of Jesus or Paul on hell.22 These seem to be growing in number as they consider God, a God of love for all people, who has redeemed all people, and who has a universal redemptive purpose. They are convinced that God being omnipotent and infinitely patient will eventually succeed in that purpose. Positive texts that can be argued to support universalism include Romans 5:12-21; 1 Cor.15:20-28; 2 Cor.5:17-20; Eph 1:10; Phil. 2:10-11; Col 1:20; 1 Tim. 2:3-6; and 2 Peter 3:9. Thomas Talbott, who presents one of the strongest exegetical arguments for universalism, believes in a real hell, but one that is purgative and restorative.23 There are philosophical and scriptural problems with the universalist’s solution to hell. Some of the philosophical problems are discussed in Chapter 3. The scriptural problems with conscious eternal torment covered in Chapters 5 & 6 show there is another option besides universalism to save our conscience from a literal hell.

Chapter 3: Philosophical Considerations of Hell

There are three overriding philosophical considerations regarding the reality of hell. First the philosopher must deal with the question of whether the soul is immortal. If the created person (whether he turns out to be good or bad) has an immortal soul, then it follows that whether he goes to heaven or hell, it will be there forever. (He/she cannot be destroyed).

The second critical question for philosophy regarding hell depends on the relationship of free will and universalism. If God grants free will to choose salvation, then what happens to those who do not chose salvation? Obviously not everyone chooses freely to live under the conditions that promise salvation. How then can there be both free will and univeralism?

A third philosophical question concerning the afterlife (hell, heaven, etc.) centers on logical issues. For example, where in the whole program of an afterlife, do paradise, hades, gehenna fit with heaven and hell? Also how does one logically reconcile someone dying, going to heaven or hell, then later resurrected on earth, and then judged for a second life or death?

Is the Soul Immortal?

From his comprehensive study on the soul Robert Morey concludes the soul is something other than the body and that it is immortal. He notes that the Old Testament Hebrew word nephesh, is translated “soul” 472 times and when referring to man means “the inner being which departs at death and returns with life at the resurrection.”1 Morey recognizes that nephesh does sometimes refer to animals (as Genesis 1:20, 21, 24, 30; 2:19; and 9:10), but he argues this applies only to live animals when only the idea of the life principle is being conveyed.2 Although Morey probably represents the majority of traditional Christians, many modern evangelical thinkers are changing their views on both of Morey’s conclusions about the soul. According to them the soul is not something separate from the person that leaves him upon death and the soul is not necessarily immortal. Malcolm Jeeves, Royal Society of Edinburgh neuro-psychologist and author From Cells to Souls –and Beyond notes that conservative biblical scholars have been saying for decades that the Scriptures do not teach that we have a separate part of us called a “soul” but that we are “living souls.”3 Also many are beginning to agree with Pinnock that immortality of the person is conditional on the judgment of God. This is an uphill battle against traditionalists because as Pinnock comments:

Belief in the immortality of the soul has long attached itself to Christian theology. There has been a virtual consensus that the soul survives death because it is by nature an incorporeal substance. The assumption goes back to Plato’s view of the soul as metaphysically indestructible, a view shared by Augustine, Aquinas, and Calvin. … This concept [the human soul cannot die] has influenced theology for a long, long time, but it is not biblical.4

As we will show in Chapter 5 scripture does not teach that everyone who had ever lived will live into eternity. The concept of an immortal soul comes from Greek thought, not the inspired word. Man being made in the image of God does not automatically assure him immortality.

Free will and universalism

The idea of God granting people (and angels) free will to do evil is as old as the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden. But free will as an argument against universalism is less well recognized. C.S. Lewis who seemed to believe in an immortal soul for everyone viewed the wicked as those who just would not choose to accept God and His conditions. Given that God would not force anyone to come to Him unwillingly, He has allowed Himself no choice but to doom some to an eternal hell. Pinnock agrees with Lewis that “universalism is not a viable position because of the gift of human freedom.”5 God has allowed people to choose salvation or damnation. “God does not save people against their will, and the existence of hell underlies how seriously He takes the gift of freedom.”6 It is only if one is a predestinarian that universalism is theological defensible. In predestinarian theologies where God is a denier of human freedom, universal salvation is possible. In fact, Pinnock urges, a predestinarian ought to be a univeralist in principle. “All that would have to happen for universal salvation to result would be for God to increase the number of elect to one hundred percent and save everyone by sovereign (coercive) grace.”7

Logical Process of Death and Afterlife

The traditional Christian view of death and the afterlife requires certain underworld compartments for the dead that are neither purgatory nor ultimate hell. These compartments for the dead involve a special understanding of paradise, hades, and gehenna. I believe the average Christian probably thinks paradise is just another term for heaven and hades and gehenna equivalent Greek words for hell. When Jesus told the malefactor on the cross “today you will be with me in paradise” one probably thinks Jesus means he was telling the malefactor he would go to heaven after dying on his cross; although it seems a bit of a problem since Jesus didn’t go to heaven that day. When the scriptures say Jesus descended into hell (hades) and rose again on the third day, one may not be sure what that means. Maybe his unconscious body went to hell and his soul went to heaven (paradise) with the malefactor. Maybe he went down to hell and preached to the lost. Or maybe he was just dead in the grave for three days.

Those who study the theology of death and the afterlife recognize a number of logical problems with the conventional idea that good people die and go immediately go to heaven whereas evil people go directly to hell. Why should someone first go to heaven and then later be returned to earth to be resurrected? And why should someone go to hell before Judgment Day that comes at the end of the millennium (Rev. 20:12-13)? To be consistent with scripture and the ideas of a soul that leaves the body upon death traditional Christianity has worked up a fairly complex model to answer questions such as these. Inherent in this model is the bizarre teaching that there are different compartments in the underworld that temporarily hold invisible conscious spirits.

Robert Morey describes the death and afterlife model in detail. Starting with the Hebrew sheol translated “hell”, “grave”, and “pit” in KJV Old Testament and recognizing hades is the same word in Greek in the New Testament, Morey explains sheol/hades is a place of departed spirits, an invisible spirit world, that before Jesus’ resurrection comprised two compartments or sections. “One section was a place of torment to which the wicked went while the other was a place of conscious bliss, often called “Abraham’s bosom” or “paradise” to which the righteous were carried by angels.”8

Before Christ’s resurrection both good and bad people went to sheol/hades, but into separate compartments (paradise or the place of torment) where they lived as invisible spirits. During the three days of Jesus death, he proclaimed his atonement to the spirits in hades (most likely the paradise section where he was accompanied by the malefactor).9 After resurrection paradise was moved to heaven (the third heaven no less) so now good people go straight to heaven (or paradise). Bad people still go to hades but only to the old torment compartment. At some point in the future, when Jesus comes back to earth, perhaps, the people already in spirit form in heaven will be resurrected on earth into earthly, spiritual bodies. Later, after the millennium at Judgment Day those still in hades will be resurrected to stand in judgment and given the second death moving them into the ultimate hell, gehenna (probably worse than hades). Whether the good stay on earth or go back to heaven is not discussed in the model.

One can hardly imagine a more complex, convoluted concept to deal with death and the afterlife. If we are meant to have any understanding from scripture where we go upon death, the traditional model is certainly not compelling to anyone with a logical mind. Occam’s razor demands a simpler, more logical model for death and the afterlife. Such a model would need only to recognize and integrate three basic teachings of the Bible. One: Accept the Bible teaching that we are living souls who die and return to the dust, while the spirit (breath) of God that gave us life returns to God. Two: Accept the clear teaching of the Old and New Testaments that everyone (good and bad) goes to sheol/hades upon death, because sheol/hades is the state of death. Just as Jesus did for three days, we stay in the grave (state of death) until we are resurrected on earth.10 Three: At some point, whether in stages or all at once, all people, good, bad, and those between, will be resurrected and judged by God. Some, we cannot judge who or how many, but some, will be judged as wicked and cast into hell (second death) and thereby extinguished forever (not tortured forever). Such a model is logical, uncomplicated, scriptural, just, and conscionable.

In this and the preceding chapters we have stated the moral and philosophical problems with the traditional view of hell. Although conscious eternal torment is considered unconscionable by most Christians in the 21st century, the traditional view has been accepted for so long by the traditional Christian Church that it is assumed to be based on clear biblical exegesis. Also it is often maintained that to reject the traditional view is the same as rejecting biblical inerrancy. Errors in this type of thinking tend to compromise the authority of the Bible and encourage the acceptance of more radical theologies such as purgatory and universalism. Chapters 1 and 2 introduce another view of hell, annihilationism (destructionism), in considering it a better option for the final destiny of the wicked. Destruction seems to be the predominant teaching of the Bible, is conscionable because it eliminates conscious eternal torment, and is philosophically consistent with a loving and gracious God who allows for free will but who also administers justice as part of his character. Although annihilationism is finding acceptance among evangelicals, a convincing scriptural analysis needs to be done to solve the problem of the traditional view. The next several chapters attempt to provide a solution that will make the annihilationist view not only the preferred view on conscionable and philosophical grounds, but also the best scriptural view.

Chapter 4: What Does the Bible Say about Hell?

Sheol, Hades, and Gehenna

Three words appear in the English Bible that are frequently translated hell in the KJV; the Hebrew word sheol, and two Greek words, hades and gehenna.1 Sheol and hades have exactly the same meaning. This is shown by the “divine interchange principle” where a verse in the Old Testament containing a Hebrew word is quoted in a verse in the new testament containing the equivalent word in Greek.2 There is no issue among scholars about the equivalent meaning for these two words. Whatever hades means, sheol means the same thing. There are however considerable differences of opinion on what sheol/hades actually means. Morey speaking for the traditionalist position defines hades and sheol as “the place of disembodied souls or spirits” but relies on progressive revelation to read the greater detail of hades in the New Testament backwards into sheol.3 He runs into trouble however with many of the verses containing sheol in the Old Testament where sheol cannot mean a place of disembodied souls or departed spirits.4

Sellers on the other hand first establishes what God meant by sheol through examination of all its occurrences in the Old Testament and then applies this same meaning to hades in the New Testament.5 When this is done Sellers concludes that sheol in every occurrence means either “grave or death with resurrection in view.” It never means a place of departed spirits. Hades, then, is simply Greek for grave or death with resurrection in view. Gehenna with no equivalent word or verses in the Old Testament means something entirely different from sheol/hades. To traditionalists like Morey, gehenna is that ultimate hell where conscious punishment is administered to the dammed forever. Actually gehenna was a waste dump outside Jerusalem where any thing put into it was left for complete and utter destruction. Such an item no longer had any retrievable value. Fully supporting the annihilationist view, Sellers concludes that when hell is the English translation of the Greek gehenna, it always means “destruction without resurrection in view.”6 So summarizing

Sheol is Hebrew for grave or death with resurrection in view
Hades is Greek for grave or death with resurrection in view
Gehenna is Greek for destruction without resurrection in view

With these meanings established for hell, we can see that anyone’s body that is in sheol or hades is dead in the grave awaiting resurrection. On rare occasions a person has been raised from sheol/hades (both Lazareth and Jesus, for example). However, nearly all of the dead await resurrection in the future. To date, no one has been thrown into gehenna, the ultimate hell. Anyone unfortunate enough to get cast into gehenna (such as Satan and the Beast) will not experience this fate until sometime in the distant future, after the current dispensation of grace, after the Kingdom on Earth, after the tribulation, after the millennium, after the final judgment.

For the reader who accepts the traditionalist view, these definitions will probably give her some difficulties. However if she will read the rest of the solution and then come back and look at these definitions again, perhaps some of the difficulties will disappear. Essentially the argument presented here requires an iterative approach. First, define the meaning of hell. This has just been done. Second, determine what is actually said about hell in the Bible. That is the purpose of this chapter. Third, reconcile scriptural problem texts on hell. These are discussed in Chapters 5&6. All three steps need to be considered together to defeat the traditionalist view through scripture.

Scriptural Support For and Against Traditional Hell

In the battle of conscience over tradition on the topic of hell, scripture must be carefully weighed. Admittedly Christian tradition has consistently held the upper hand over interpreting the hard view of hell. The fact that tradition is so uncompromising on the issue of hell, and scripture is claimed by traditionalists to clearly support their view, the continued existence of scripture as the principle influence on Christian faith is at stake on this issue if they are correct. The following outline summarizes the major scriptural support for and against the traditional doctrine of hell.

1. Against - Acts and Paul’s epistles essentially ignore hell
2. Against - The Old Testament does not present the doctrine of hell
For: Jesus presents “hell” in fearsome way for the unsaved.
For: Revelation presents “hell” in fearsome way for unsaved.

Acts and Epistles – Against Hell

Randy Klassen summarizes what the Bible says about hell from the point of view of the apostles (Acts and the Epistles). Starting with Peter’s Pentecostal Message (Acts 2:14-40) he notes that Peter spends at least half of his sermon quoting from the Old Testament to show the authenticity of Christ as the messiah. The remainder is a call to the Israelite audience “to repent, be baptized, receive the gift of pardon and be identified with Jesus Christ and his church. There is no reference to hell.”7

Klassen continues with the next major event in Acts -- Peter’s second sermon (Acts 3:12-26). It too works in background from Moses and the prophets. This sermon:

centers in the risen Christ and credits his power for enabling a lame man to walk again. … A reference to a rooting out of the people is stated for the disobedient (verse 23), but no reference to hell is made. The purpose of God’s Servant-Savior was to “bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways” (verse 26).8

It is clear from the start of apostolic teaching that a doctrine of hell is not part of the motivation for turning people toward Christ.

The next two major events recorded in Acts are (1) Stephen’s defense before the high priest and council (Acts 7:2-50) and his subsequent stoning, and (2) Philip meeting an Ethiopian eunuch returning from Jerusalem and helping him understand a passage from Isaiah. Philip uses this opportunity to proclaim the good news about Jesus, whereupon the eunuch responds with “an affirmation of faith, baptism, and rejoicing” (Acts 8:36-39). In neither of these cases does the doctrine of hell play any role. The topic simply is not raised. In the case of Stephen where a little reminder of hell might have been appropriate for the slayers to consider for their cruel behavior, Stephen utters a final prayer “Lord, do not hold this against them” (Acts 7:60). In all the messages of Paul recorded in Acts, there is no mention of hell. In fact all the Acts of the Apostles are void of any teaching about hell. Hell is simply “absent from the apostolic preaching.”9 The only references to hell at all in Acts are 2:27, 31 where Peter quotes from Psalm 16:10 and applies the prophecy to Christ. Peter mentions Christ’s soul not being left in hell long enough for his flesh to see corruption. These verses clearly speak to the Christian faith that Christ died, was buried, and arose from the dead on the third day (before his flesh could see corruption).

In all of Paul’s epistles, hell (hades) is mentioned only once and there translated “grave” in reference to its defeat (I Cor. 15:55). The strongest teaching of Paul of God’s judgment bringing His wrath on evil doers is II Thessalonians 1:9 where they “shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of His power.” Note the punishment is “everlasting destruction,” not conscious torment.

The English translation “hell” only appears once in all the other epistles. That translation is not from hades but rather from tartaros in 2nd Peter 2:4 and refers to the temporary destination of fallen angels, “kept unto the judgment”10 So far as we know any such angels have never died.

For something as central as hell to much of the history of the church, it is amazing that next to no interest in the doctrine is shown by apostolic teaching. Apart from Peter’s reference to the destination of fallen angels, one wonders if the apostles had any concept of a place for the dammed.

The Old Testament – Against Hell

There is no specific teaching in the Old Testament of hell as perpetual punishment of the dammed.11 The Hebrew word sheol occurs 65 times in the Old Testament of which it is translated hell 31 times, grave 31 times, and pit 3 times in the King James Version. Because there really is no English equivalent for sheol, the newer versions (ASV; NIV; NRSV) carry over the word sheol into English. If each occurrence of sheol is examined, the most that can be inferred from some passages is a hint of “a netherworld.” As in Deut 32:32 the writer describes God’s anger as “burning unto the lowest hell” (KJV). But even here the purpose is not to describe a place. It is clear this example is figurative to dramatize the intensity of God’s irritation with His people. This verse describes a non-literal fire that begins with God in His all-consuming anger, so great it travels to the other extreme (sheol) and touches everything in between (including the earth and the mountains). When Job (ll:8; 26:6) speaks of sheol it is to describe the extent of the wisdom and greatness of God, as “higher than heaven, deeper than sheol.” It is also used to show the omnipresence of God as Psalm 139:8 “If I ascend into heaven, thou art there: If I make my bed in sheol, behold thou art there.” Is God really present in a place of departed spirits? Most verses that include sheol seem clearly to mean the state of death or the grave and are often reflected as such in poetic imagery. Some examples of this are:

Let death seize upon them and let them go down quick into sheol: for wickedness is in their dwellings and among them. (Psalm 55:15)

Like sheep they are laid in sheol; death shall feed on them; and the upright should have dominion over them in the morning; and their beauty shall consume in sheol from their dwelling. But God will redeem my soul from the power of sheol for He will receive me. (Psalm 49:14-15)

Her feet go down to death; her steps take hold on sheol. (Proverbs 5:5)

Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work; nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in sheol whither thy goest. (Ecclesiastes 9:10)

Similar examples reflecting poetic death or the grave are found in Psalms (6:5, 9:17, 16:10,18:5; 86:13; 116:3) and Proverbs (7:27; 15:11;23:14; 27:20).

Without reading Christian concepts of hell back into the Old Testament, it is difficult to see how one would see anything in sheol that isn’t lifeless. Clearly the wicked go there, but so do the righteous. Even though traditionalist Morey argues for sheol being a place for departed spirits which separates the righteous from the unrighteous, he admits the Christian concept of hell is “vague in the Old Testament.” He relies therefore on the “fuller revelation of Christ and the apostles” in the New Testament for such details.12 We have already seen that the apostles avoid the topic altogether so there is no fuller revelation from them. Any better understanding of hell as a place of eternal torment for the dammed will have to come from Christ, alone. And as we see it is Christ who has the most to say about the fearsome nature of hell.

Jesus – For Hell

The following include some of the major “hell” teachings of Jesus. Jesus uses the two primary Greek words for hell, hades and gehenna, when referring directly to hell. He also mentions hell indirectly with references to “everlasting punishment,” “everlasting fire,” and “worm that never dies.” Clearly taken together Jesus teaches a not very pleasant future for the unsaved. To the traditionalist Jesus’ teaching on hell as conscious eternal torment is clear from these verses. When combined with some from Revelation the traditionalist view is a formidable position.

1. There was a certain rich man [and] … there was a certain beggar named Lazarus… So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off and Lazarus in his bosom. Then he cried and said “Father Abraham, have mercy upon me and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.” (Luke 16:19-24)

2. And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it form thee; for it is profitable for thee that one of they members should perish, and not that thy whole body be cast into hell (gehenna). (Matt 5:30; cf Matt 5:29; 18:9; Mark 9:43,45,47)

3. And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both body and soul in hell (gehenna). (Matt; 10:28; cf Luke 12:5).

4. The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; and shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Matt 13:41-42

5. And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life. Matt 25:46

6. It is better for you to enter life maimed, rather than …to go to hell (gehenna) … where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched. (Isaiah 66:24; Mark 9:43, 44; 46; 48; cf. Isaiah 66:24)

Revelation: For Hell

1. Then a third angel followed them, saying with a loud voice, “ If anyone worships the beast and his image, and receives his mark on his forehead or on his hand, he himself shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out full strength into the cup of His indignation. He shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment ascends forever and ever, and they have no rest day or night, who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name.” (Rev. 14: 9-11)

2. The devil, who deceived them, was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone where the beast and false prophet are. And they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. (Rev. 20:10)

Chapter 5: Problem Scriptures – Concepts

Problem Texts from Jesus and John

As discussed earlier, most of scripture’s problem texts for the annihilationist come either from Jesus directly or from John’s vision in Revelation. These two inspired speakers provide nearly all the threats from scripture that could imply conscious eternal punishment in hell awaits the dammed. Pinnock, for example, selects four verses (Mark 9:48; Matt 25:46; Luke 16:23-24; and Rev 14:9-11) from those listed in Chapter 4 as “the proof texts that are appealed to in support of the doctrine of the nature of hell as everlasting conscious torment.”1 Taken together these verses convey such frightening words and phrases as “torment,” “everlasting fire,” “smoke going up forever,” and “worm that never dies.” Pinnock allows that these portions of scripture could appear to describe a hell covered in the traditional view, but he argues that their vagueness can also be interpreted in an annihilationist view. For example, in Matt 25:46 the adjective “conscious” does not appear along with “everlasting punishment.” He argues, “the text allows for both interpretations [‘eternal punishing’ and ‘eternal punishment’] because it teaches the finality of the judgment, not its precise nature.”2 As a further example, regarding the most difficult proof text of all (Rev. 14-11) Pennock notes, “we observe that, while the smoke goes up forever, the text does not say the wicked are tormented forever. It says that they have no relief from their suffering as long as the suffering lasts. As such it could fit hell as annihilation or the traditional view.”3

Pennock’s basic argument is that the power of the traditional proof texts can be diminished because nobody can really be sure what the “imagery” of Jesus in the gospels and the “genre” of Revelation are attempting to communicate. Vagueness about hell rather than certainty of its eternal fiery torture of live people is certainly more acceptable to our consciences but we should be able to find stronger interpretations to remove all lingering doubts.

In order for the annihilationist to reclaim the totality of scripture as more clearly supporting his view, first he must provide more credible interpretations of the following scriptural concepts as they are generally taught with the traditional view of hell.

The story: Rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31)
2. Immortal soul

Rich man and Lazarus

This story of Jesus in Luke is the most detailed of any teaching on hell in the Bible. It is well to read it in its entirety before considering the rather unique interpretation that will be presented here.4

There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day. And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores. And desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table; moreover the dogs came and licked his sores.

And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried; and in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried and said, Father Abraham have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.

But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst the good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented. And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence.

Then he said, I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldest send him to my father’s house: For I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment. Abraham saith unto him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them. And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent. And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead. (Luke 16:19-31)

Considered by most scholars a parable, the story of the rich man and Lazarus is clearly the strongest scriptural argument for an afterlife place containing conscious people who are rewarded or punished depending on how they lived their lives. Jesus’ presentation mentions a rich man and a poor man (Lazarus) spending conscious torment and bless respectively in Hades. There is nothing in the entire Bible to compare with this portion of scripture in support of a traditional hell. Morey relies on it to show such specific concepts as no second chances for repentance after death, no returning of the dead before resurrection (to judgment), and Sheol/Hades comprising two parts, one part a place of torment for the unrighteous dead and the other a paradise (known as Abraham’s bosom) for the righteous dead.5 From a scriptural standpoint, the Christian concept of hell seems to rise or fall with the interpretation of this parable.

The annihilationist tries to weaken the story by emphasizing the detail as “Jewish imagery” rather than a literal description of the future life.6 But, this approach is unsatisfactory since it avoids describing what such imagery means. Even if a literal placing of Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom where he could be seen and is within hearing distance of the rich man but can not touch him seems far stretched, a parable has to teach something. As a minimum a parable would seem to indicate the conditions of the rich and the poor on earth will be reversed in the afterlife. If that is what Jesus is teaching, then a parable would seem to indicate the rich are destined to something like a literal hell? Figurative depiction alone does not help the annihilationist cause. Jewish imagery also does not detract from the fact that the Pharisees taught a literal gulf between paradise and hell and that first century Christians refer to a literal afterlife for both the righteous and unrighteous.7

A far better solution results from recognizing this story to be a satire, not a parable. All the conditions for satire are there. Jesus is speaking to the Pharisees who can identify with the rich, and who teach that the poor will have their day in paradise. The first clue that something is wrong with this story as a parable is that it does not show a separation of righteous from unrighteous. It depicts a “gulf” between a rich man and a poor man. The story does not indicate the rich man was unrighteous or the poor man righteous. The ideas of a) a place in hell (hades) known as Abraham’s bosom separated by a gulf from another place in hell (hades) of temporary punishments, b) a caste system in Israel which maintained separation between the rich and poor, and c) people who received evil things in this life would receive good things in the future life were all taught by the Pharisees. However Jesus’ portrayal of the rich going to a place of torment would not fit a parable for the Pharisees, since they taught riches in the here and now were a sign of God’s favor; moreover they expected to go to paradise as well. What makes a satire work, on the other hand, is the hypocrisy inherent in the Pharisees’ teaching. Jesus simply presents a satirical story where the foolishness of their teaching is put into a logical outcome if their reasoning is followed. If there is a place that divides Abraham from the tormented, and the poor like Lazarus could expect paradise later provided they accept their state in this life; then to be consistent the rich should go to the place of torments.

The last sentence “If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead,” is closest to parable form where Jesus is predicting that the Pharisees, who have not listened to Moses and the prophets, will not change, even though one (Jesus) should rise from the dead.

The Pharisees would have easily recognized the purpose of Jesus’ message. The Pharisees were teaching self-serving lies to the people. These lies were foolish when carried to their logical conclusion.

The second clue is the outrageous depiction of the characters and their behavior. Jonathon Swift could not have created a more bizarre treatment of the topic. The rich man is super rich “clothed in purple and fine linen.” The poor man, Lazarus is so hungry he desires any table crumbs and is so sickly that dogs are licking his sores. When they both get to Hades they are so close the rich man can see Abraham with Lazarus in his bosom (note the ludicrous depiction; Abraham holding Lazarus in a literal bosom). Is there room for anyone else in Abraham’s bosom? Abraham and the rich man can talk with each other but apparently can’t touch one another or visit one another (like prisoners in separate cells) because of this gulf between them. Even though Abraham was rich in his day, he has no compassion to even allow a finger of water to cool the flames of this rich man. Abraham and Lazarus are apparently filled with bliss while they look onto a suffering human being. Why is the rich man talking with Abraham anyway? Shouldn’t all pleas of mercy be offered to God? And if they are un-bodied spirits, do they have tongues to talk with and fingers to dip in water? The entire story is absurd, just as the Pharisee teaching of a literal place in hades with compartments for the righteous and unrighteous, separated by a gulf.

Once it is understood that the one place in the entire Bible where one might construe a conscious suffering afterlife is a satire then any idea of it supporting traditional hell disappears. Since a satire is a most reasonable interpretation of the story in Luke, other less clear descriptions of afterlife concepts must bear the scriptural basis for the reality of hell.

When all verses that refer directly or indirectly to hell are examined, we find that the rich man and Lazarus can be eliminated because it is satire and that all references to hades can simply mean the state of death without implying conscious torment. Jesus use of gehenna is not as easily eliminated. Also some of the more fearsome statements in Revelation indicate a punishment for the dammed that is everlasting. The question is whether this punishment is experienced by a conscious soul or whether this soul (person) is eliminated forever – by destruction. After the rich man and Lazarus, the greatest problem the traditionalist has is the body and soul question. If the soul is something separate from the body and it never dies, and Jesus says the soul of the dammed goes to gehenna, then it is very difficult for the traditionalist to accept the position that the eternal soul of the unsaved does not experience conscious eternal torment.

Immortal soul

Pinnock points out the difficulty the concept of an immortal soul presents for the traditionalist view of hell. “They have mixed up belief in divine judgment after death (which is scriptural) with their belief in the immortality of the soul (which is unscriptural) and have concluded (incorrectly) that the nature of hell must be everlasting conscious torment.”8 If the soul is immortal regardless of how one lives out his life on earth, then obviously both saved and unsaved souls must live forever. If Jesus says that the wicked are to be cast into gehenna, then that unsaved immortal soul must be conscious and alive forever in gehenna, regardless how much metaphor we place upon such a punishment. The annihilationist answer is that the soul is not immortal; it is only conditionally immortal, depending on the criteria God uses in His decision to grant such immortality. The Christian belief is that believing in Jesus and acting accordingly fulfills God’s criteria for granting life everlasting. He may grant it to others, but whoever receives eternal life it will be for righteousness sake, not simply because one is born as a living soul.

We saw in the previous chapter that the teaching of people having an immortal soul is a Hellenistic view stemming from Plato. Although early Christianity was influenced by Greek philosophy and the idea of an immortal soul was and continues to be accepted, this view (outside the proof text “Rich man and Lazarus” above) has almost no Biblical support. For example, it was pointed out in the last chapter from comments of some evangelical scientists that the scriptures do not teach that we have a separate part of us called a “soul” but that we are living souls.” The soul is neither a separate part of us nor immortal. Early in Genesis we find “man became a living soul” made so by God giving “the breath of life” to Adam’s material body of dust (Genesis 2:7). When we die the breath of life goes back to God and we go back to dust (Eccl. 12:7). An important contribution to the issue of the immortal soul is Whatever Happened to the Soul? This book brought together many outstanding scholars in science and theology to address their central theme of “a nondualistic account of the human person that does not consider the “soul” an entity separable from the body.”9

Let us read again the proof text (from Jesus, Chapter 4) that includes body, soul, and gehenna all in the same verse.

And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both body and soul in hell (gehenna). (Matt; 10:28; cf Luke 12:5).

If it is true then that neither the Bible nor science teaches the soul is immortal and separate from the body, how do we explain the proof text? First, it is clear this verse teaches destruction in gehenna, not eternal torment, so there is little here to support the traditional view. On the other hand, Jesus is clearly teaching something that uses the word “soul” in a way that means something different from the word “body.” How can that be reconciled with the idea of a person is a living soul? The answer is that Jesus is not teaching something about the soul that contradicts the well-established Biblical concept that we are living souls. The subject of this verse is not to define “body” or “soul” or even to distinguish body from soul. The subject is the difference between human judgment and God’s judgment. Our being souls is our true essence, what we are in this life and our identity for any future afterlife. Jesus is saying human judgments are limited to the body (our flesh and blood that keeps us temporarily alive), but really do not determine the final outcome of the person, himself (who is a soul). They can kill me now on this earth (my body) but as a person created in the image of God my afterlife as a soul will be determined by God. And it is only God who is able to can inflict final destruction upon both body (one’s current temporary life) and soul (one’s potential afterlife) in hell.

Although the Bible does not teach that people have immortal souls and the proof text above does not speak of tormenting a soul in gehenna, there is still other scriptural phrases and words which do seem to imply eternal conscious punishment. The next chapter covers such terms as “torment” “everlasting fire,” “worm that does not die,” “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” These clearly are frightening terms, but do they have to mean conscious eternal pain (physical, mental, or both)? Are there logical explanations for these phrases that could just as easily mean “annihilation?”

Chapter 6: Problem Scriptures – Words

There are certain expressions and special words in the Bible that just seem to imply great conscious pain. When connected with the word “fire” it is hard not to imagine extreme never ending conscious pain; like burning live flesh.

Four of these words/short phrases supporting the traditional view of hell are:

  1. Everlasting fire, everlasting punishment
  2. Wailing and gnashing of teeth
  3. Worm and fire that never dies
  4. Torment

Everlasting fire, everlasting punishment

Whenever the Bible makes reference to everlasting or eternal fire the first question is what does fire refer to; sometimes the fire is a metaphor for God’s wrath, sometimes it is a metaphor for something within or inherent in a person (as “tongue of fire” in James 3:6). Usually when the fire refers to gehenna, it can best be interpreted as the character of gehenna, not anything or anyone that is put into it. The gehenna refuse fire outside Jerusalem was probably continually smoldering and burning, but any thing put into it was consumed rapidly. Weeds put into a fire (Matt 13:30) do not stay alive somehow and get burned over and over again. When the Bible speaks of everlasting punishment (which would apply to the person), we must agree with Pinnock that without the adjective “conscious” any punishment that lasts forever can certainly include everlasting destruction (as described by Paul in II Thess. 1:9). When capital punishment is exercised in the present world, it is final. There is nothing that will ever extinguish that punishment. The only reason the Bible emphasizes a future eternal punishment is to distinguish routine death (Hades) that can be reversed by God (through resurrection) and is therefore not eternal from complete destruction (gehenna) which is eternal.

Wailing and gnashing of teeth

Matt 14:41-42 states that “The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; and shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.”

The first observation is that the people being sentenced to a furnace of fire come out of the Son of man’s kingdom. Since no such kingdom currently exists, this appears to be an event that is future, after individuals have already experienced the enlightenment of God’s kingdom on earth. The second observation is that the phrase “wailing and gnashing of teeth” is a figurative expression expressing great sorrow. There is no teaching here that the wailing goes on forever. It could happen upon sentencing, prior to capital punishment. “Weeping and gnashing of teeth” could readily apply to someone like Judas, who was so remorseful for his act of betrayal that he hanged himself (Matt 27:3-5). Further, this proof verse does not even say who is sorrowful. Is it those condemned, those not condemned who are sorry for the sentence of others, or could it be God, who does not wish anyone to be lost (2 Peter 3:9)? “Wailing and gnashing of teeth” does not imply conscious eternal torment. The strongest conclusion from this scripture is that it is announcing sometime in the future a sentence of capital punishment for those gathered out of the kingdom who have committed “offense” and “iniquity.”

Worm and fire that never dies

In the Mark verses (9: 44; 46; 48) Jesus repeats three times, “Their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.” This imagery is drawn from Isaiah.

And they shall go forth and look upon the corpses of the men who have transgress against Me. For their worm does not die, and their fire is not quenched. They shall be an abhorrence to all flesh. (Isaiah 66:24)

Pinnock interprets Isaiah to be speaking of “dead bodies of God’s enemies are being eaten and burned up.”1 His annihilationist interpretation is “the fire and worm in this figure are destroying the dead bodies.” He understands the unquenchable fire (and undying worm) to mean “the fire is not quenched until the job is finished.”2 Although Isaiah clearly seems to be speaking of dead bodies, the idea of maggots and burning dead bodies is not an adequate metaphor. Something more is needed to fully capture Isaiah’s image, a prophetic statement so important that Jesus repeats it three times in Mark.

Sellers offers a better interpretation.3 First we notice that Isaiah speaks of “their worm” and “their fire.” Mark also states “their worm.” Since both worm and fire are their’s (i.e., the dead corpses) in Isaiah, we should understand the Mark references to “the fire” to mean “their fire.” There is no need in these verses to consider the unquenchable fire to be a literal fire burning the dead bodies or even the lake of fire mentioned in Revelation. Both the fire and the worm are metaphors referring to the individuals who have been sentenced by God to the second death. Their fire is the verdict that comes upon those individuals when the sentence of death is laid upon them because of their sins. Such a metaphorical use of fire is found in Psalm 97:3 “A fire goeth before Him, and burneth up His enemies round about.” This figure of speech is also seen in Jeremiah 5:14 where God said to the prophet “Because ye speak this word, behold I will make My words in thy mouth fire, and this people wood, and it shall devour them.” In these instances, God does not add unquenchable because such a sentence to death could be reversed. But in the case of a sentence to gehenna, God has said “their fire shall not be quenched.” Also with every divine decree that consigned a person to gehenna there was an additional shame, and additional act of degradation, “and they shall be an abhorrence unto all flesh.” This is the shame, disgrace, infamy and stigma of all that are destroyed in gehenna. It is spoken of as “their worm,” a condition as far from being a person made in the image of God, as one can imagine. One should note that the word “worm” is seen to refer to Jesus in the prophecy of his shameful and humiliating death. “But I am a worm, and no man, a reproach of men, and despised of the people.” (Psalm 22:6) Sellers concludes

This was His fire [verdict], the worm [shame] that came upon Him when He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross (Philippians 2:8). However, His fire was quenched and His worm died, for as we read on we find that God reversed the judgment of men, raised Him from the dead, highly exalted Him, and has given Him a name which is above every other name.4


Of all the proof texts that are used to support eternal conscious punishment, the ones in Revelation which have the words torment and tormented (Rev 14:9-11; 20:10) are the most difficult to interpret in a way that supports annihilation over eternal conscious pain for the dammed. Pinnock considers Rev 14:9-11 as the closest of any verse in the Bible to confirming the traditional view. “It would be ironical,” he comments, “if the issue came down to the interpretation of a single verse in Revelation, given its uniqueness as a piece of literature.”5 Pinnock does not quibble with the meaning the traditionalists apply to torment, assuming it does mean some kind of suffering. He would allow there could be a period of suffering only not unending. It would end with oblivion.

Again we must turn to Sellers to find anyone who has done a serious study on the Revelation “torment” verses. Shortly before he died Sellers completed a complete review of the word “torment” as it appears throughout the New Testament and applied his results to the difficult passage in Revelation 14:9-11.6

The first observation that one should make when taking a second hard look at Rev 14:9-11 is that anyone who worships the beast “shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and the presence of the Lamb.” One should be curious of any location or event that requires not only the presence of angels but also God. This sounds more like heaven than traditional hell. The presence of angels and God to observe those being tormented suggests something special is expected to come from this torment – something much like a judge and jury observing evidence as to guilt or innocence. We know this period of torment (when “the smoke of their torment ascends forever and ever, and they have no rest day or night”) is not the second death that comes at the end of history (Rev 20:14-15). Neither can it be the punishment imagined from being in Hades. It comes to people alive on earth who have taken the beast’s mark, which is before the second coming of Christ.

This passage sounds very much like an intense examination, “a trial by fire,” but a fair trial, one that is being looked at closely by the Lord Jesus and the angels. We know the entire passage is figurative since it begins with an obvious metaphor “drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out full strength into the cup of His indignation.” There is no literal wine, nor cup. Similarly there is no literal fire, brimstone, or smoke. The words “in fire and brimstone” are likely metaphorical terms used to set forth the full, exacting nature of this test, even as we today speak of “the acid test” when no actual acid in involved.”7 The “smoke of their torment” could be figurative for “the results of their trials” and these findings will “ascend forever” figurative for “becoming eternally part of the fixed truths of God.” Those being examined will definitely be put under a great deal of stress, being unable “to rest day or night” until the Lamb determines the results. There is no question that a great sin has been committed. But it seems these are people who have given into economic pressures. They could not trade without the mark. On the one hand perhaps they should have known better or had greater strength to resist the beast, given the wonderful blessings they had experienced under God’s kingdom. On the other hand, God gave deceptive powers to the beast, who in turn deceived these people who took his mark. So all things considered, is their sin greater than Adam’s sin when he was deceived by the Serpent? God did not torture Adam in His presence as a punishment. Rather He decreed the results of Adam’s fall, which would bring death into the world, but at the same time He provided Adam with protection from the elements (Genesis 3:21).

Is there a grammatical basis for softening the word “torment” to mean a trial or examination of such a nature for this passage, rather than some kind of torture? The Greek word in this passage translated “tormented” is basanidzo, which comes from basanos. Greek lexicon (Liddell-Scott) defines basanos as “the touchstone, a dark-colored stone on which pure gold, when rubbed, leaves a peculiar mark,” then “the use of this as a test,” and “generally, a test, trial whether a thing be genuine, solid or real,” then “inquiry or examination by torture.” The original meaning was a touchstone to see if it was real gold which evolved to any act of testing, trying or investigating. Basanisteos is another word evolved from basanos which did mean to be proved or tested under suffering. This particular word (basanisteos) is not found in the New Testament, but four words derived from these root forms did find their way into the New Testament. One of these is basanidzo. Because the history of typical questioning by an examiner was frequently by using torture to acquire a confession, one of the meanings of basanidzo is what we commonly think of as “torment.” When this word is found in the New Testament to refer to trial by torture, or suffering is involved from any cause, then the English translation of “torment” is correct (as Matt 4:24, where intense pain is involved, or Matt 8:6, used to describe the severe pain of the centurion’s paralyzed slave).

But torment can have softer meanings in the Bible. For example besandizo can mean “tossed” or “toiling” when a ship or oarsmen were put to the test by wind and waves (Matt 14:24; Mark 6:48). Also besandizo can reflect a trial, test, or examination without torture with such meanings as “put us on trial” (Matt 8:29; Mark 5:7; Luke 8:28) or “put to the test by testimony” (Rev 11:10). From his study of the words translated torment in the New Testament, Sellers concludes the concept of torment generally set forth in the KJV for this passage is too strong and therefore misleading.

There are two meanings for torment, a strong one and a weaker one that might be indicated by the context. The strong one involves pain and suffering as inferred by the traditional view, whereas the weak one “indicates a most rigorous and stringent examination that will bring out all the facts why the “beast worshippers” became involved in this great sin.8 The weaker sense of “torment” fits well with the interpretation set forth above.

This leaves only Revelation 20:10 with Satan, the beast and false prophet being tormented in the lake of fire and brimstone forever. Sellers died before he could complete his study of this passage. While few of us get too exercised over the fate planned for these most evil creatures, to be consistent a metaphorical study of torment and lake of fire might here too find an interpretation other than eternal torture. As Pinnock noted on the previous passage, this is not the end of history. It occurs before the second death. Perhaps this is one of those passages that does allow for some relative difference in degree of punishment. This is left for the diligent student of the Word of God.

However, a concept I find appealing for this final proof text in Revelation is a Nuremberg type trial with God as Judge. If such a trial could give all the victims of evil inflicted by the perpetrators of evil their time in court and if the free will provided by God’s grace to the greatest of all evil powers could be examined, understood, and the results put on record for all future existence, then the “torment by fire and brimstone” would be something positive that not only ends but maybe helps explain the suffering of the old heavens and earth.

When all of the proof texts are considered, we find only two or three that might be strongly argued for the traditional view, and these are clearly in verses that are either metaphoric, parable, or satire, with much room for interpretation. In view of the strong teaching of destruction in the Old Testament, the omission of hell by the apostles in the New and the basic teachings of Jesus on love and justice throughout the New, it is difficult to see how the traditional view can claim inerrancy as a basis for rejecting annihilationism. The destruction view of the future for the dammed is the better answer for hell, whether determined by conscience, philosophy, or scripture.

Chapter 7: Summary and Conclusions


Three Steps Study

This study on the solution to the problem of hell was conducted in three iterative steps

  1. Determining the meaning of hell;
  2. Determining what the Bible says about hell, and
  3. Interpreting difficult scripture that provide proof texts for the traditional view.

Three Words for Hell

Three words Sheol, Hades and Gehenna account for nearly all the translations of hell in the Old and New Testament.

Sheol is Hebrew for grave or death with resurrection in view
Hades is Greek for grave or death with resurrection in view
Gehenna is Greek for destruction without resurrection in view

Bible Teachings about Hell

In determining what the Bible says about hell, it was found that

The apostles and Acts are essentially silent about hell. Hell pays no part of the gospel they teach.

The Old Testament does not present the doctrine of hell. Most occurrences of sheol can mean grave or state of death. There is no equivalent concept of gehenna mentioned in the Old Testament.

The traditional view of hell finds support primarily in the teachings of Jesus and in Revelation

Problem Scriptural Concept and Words

In order for the annihilationist to claim the totality of scripture more clearly supports his view, he must provide credible interpretations of the following problem scriptural concepts and words, showing logical and scriptural reasons for these problems. He must show these concepts and words traditionally supporting the traditional view mean something quite different from what they suggest from a non-exegetical reading.

  1. The story: Rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31)
  2. Immortal soul
  3. Everlasting, eternal fire and punishment
  4. Weeping and gnashing of teeth
  5. Worm and fire that never dies
  6. The word “torment.”

Reasonable Interpretation of Problem Proof Scriptures Support Annihilation View

Based on works of Sellers, the problem proof scriptures were analyzed to determine if a rational interpretation could support the destruction (annihilation) view as well or better than the traditional interpretation. It was found that without exception a reasonable interpretation favoring annihilationism could be made for each of these verses. The story of the rich man and Lazarus, for example, appears to be satire, rather than parable, so does not teach the reality of hades, only the foolishness of the Pharisees teaching about it. The idea of an immortal soul is not Biblical but rather Greek. The Bible teaches that a person is a living soul, not having something separate (called a soul) from the rest of the body. Further current science supports the view that the soul is neither a separate part of the body nor immortal.

Phrases like everlasting fire, weeping and gnashing of teeth, worm and fire that never dies in the context of gehenna are metaphorical, expressing the finality of God’s judgment of the wicked. Each of these difficult phrases more readily expresses destruction than conscious eternal punishment. Finally the passage Revelation 14:9-11 is entirely figurative in which the word “torment” indicates a most rigorous and stringent examination by the Lord Jesus to determine the facts of those who took the mark of the beast, not to inflict physical pain upon them.


Two conclusions are drawn from this study.

1. Destruction (annihilation) of the “wicked” is the best scriptural view of both the Old and New Testaments. The traditional view of conscious eternal punishment is not only unconscionable but is not Biblical.

2. The destruction view saves the concept of God’s justice for those who have freely chosen to live evil lives and created great harm to innocent people. It allows one to believe both in God’s love and His justice. Universalism need not be the only option for people whose conscience will not tolerate a belief in conscious eternal torment.


Notes and References

Chapter 1: Conscience versus Inerrancy
1. John Walvoord notes many Christians today will probably never hear a sermon on hell. In Gundry, Stanley N. and Crockett, William (Eds) Four Views of Hell, Grand Rapids: MI, Zondervan (1996), p. 11.
2. Morey, Robert A., Death and the Afterlife, Minneapolis: Bethany House, (1984), p.242. Walvoord argues that to understand the requirement for everlasting punishment one must realize the infinite nature of sin must be contrasted to the infinite righteousness of God. “If the slightest sin is infinite in its significance, then it also demands infinite punishment as a divine judgment” (Ibid, p. 27).
3. Strobel, Lee, The Case for Faith, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, (2000), pp. 169 ff.
4. Walvoord, op. cit., note 1, pp. 11-28, 77-81, 167-180. Walvoord tries to tie the infallibility of scripture to the hard view of hell and feels he is in a strong position because it is only due to “wishful thinking” not “what the Bible teaches” that the traditional view is challenged.
It may be concluded that conditional immortality is wishful thinking by those who want to escape the problem of hell by maintaining it is a doctrine not taught in the Bible. It may also be concluded that the nature of hell, its eternity, and its punishments can only be determined by what the Bible teaches. If what the Bible teaches is inaccurate or false, then one is free to deny eternal punishment. But if the Bible is true here, …the interpreter does not have the right to say, “I do not believe what it says,” …If the Bible is verbally inspired and accurate, and it is the only revelation we have concerning life after death, we have no alternative to what it reveals—and that is to acknowledge that eternal punishment for the wicked will last forever. (p.170)
5. Klassen, Randy, What Does the Bible Really Say about Hell, Pandora Press, (2001), p.42-44. Crockett in Gundry and Crockett, op. cit., note 1, pp. 65-67. Morey, op. cit., note 2, pp.163-167. The Apocryphal Jewish writings available to the early Christian Fathers in the 2nd century support two differing views, some the “destruction of the wicked (e.g. Wisdom of Solomon 4:18-19; 5:14,15) and others an eternal existence of ongoing torment (e.g., I Enoch 27:1-3; Baruch 44)” (Klassen, p.43). cf Crockett, in Gundry and Crockett, op. cit., note 1, p.64, esp. footnote.
6. Ibid. See Crockett, p. 67 for relevant citations to Clement of Alexandria and Origen.
7. Klassen, op. cit., note 5, pp. 31-44, 55-61. Clark Pinnock in Gundry and Crockett, op. cit., note 1, pp. 143-147. Edward Selwyn, The First Epistle of St. Peter, London: Macmillan (1961) p. 358. Jan Bonda, The One Purpose of God, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans (1998) p.219.
8. Klassen, op. cit., note 5, p.36.
9. Neither “conditional immortality” nor “annihilation” is a term used in the Bible. For philosophical discussions these terms equate to the same result as “destruction,” which appears frequently in the Bible. Equivalent terms like “lost” or “perish” also appear in the Bible.
10. Pinnock, Clark in Gundry and Crockett, op. cit., note 1, pp.144, 159. Regarding changing tradition without giving up on the infallibility of scripture, Pinnock points out there is excellent precedent for it. Evangelicals are hardly in a position “to oppose challenging the old view of the nature of hell just because it is an old tradition.” He illustrates “they have done so regularly” in the rejection of “infant baptism, double predestination, and the sacramentalism of the mass.” Pinnock believes the primary reason for not changing on the traditional view of hell is “they fear that a change on this would indicate they are going liberal.” (p. 159).
11. Ibid.
12. Ibid.
13. Ibid, p.145.
14. Stott, John R.W. in Stott, John R.W. and David Edwards, Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue, London: Hodder & Stoughton (1988) p. 314. My source: Pinnock op. cit., note 1 p. 150.
15. Booher, H.R., Christianity’s Lost Dispensations Pasadena, CA: The Word of Truth Ministry, (2011), Chapter 4.
16. Bernstein, Alan, The Foundation of Hell Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press (1998), p.176. My source: Klassen, op. cit., note 5, p.44.
17. Klassen, op. cit., note 5, p.63.
18. 2 Peter 2:4 is the only place in the New Testament where hell is translated from the Greek word tartaros. All other translations resulting in the word hell come either from hades or gehenna. Morey (op. cit., note 2, pp. 81-91, 125,135-142) makes much of this distinction arguing tartaros, hades, and gehenna are all different places or conditions of hell. Tartaros is a subterranean place lower than hades, reserved for the fallen angels. Hades is a place of temporary torment of the wicked where they await the final judgment.
Gehenna is the place of final punishment, where eternal conscious torment is the ultimate fate of the wicked.
19. Klassen, op. cit., note 5, p. 63.
20. Crockett, op. cit, note 1, p. 46. For more specifics on the graphics of hell in Jewish literature, Crockett refers to Saul Lieberman, Texts and Studies, New York: KTAV, (1974), pp. 29-56.
21. Crockett, op. cit., note 1, p. 46 lists the primary documents that describe the early Christians view of hell. These are The Apocalypse of Peter, The Acts of Thomas, and The Apocalypse of Paul. They may be found in Edgar Hennecke, New Testament Apocrypha, Vol. 2, W. Schneemelcher (ed.), Philadelphia: Westminster (1965).
22. Klassen, op. cit. note 5, p. 66.
23. The preachers embellished the details, but stood on a firm foundation so far as reflecting the doctrines of the Christian Church on hell, some of which remain on the books even to this day. The Westminster Confession states that the non-elect “shall be cast into eternal torments and be punished with everlasting destruction.” (33.2). My source: Pinnock in Gundry and Crockett, op. cit., note 1, p. 136.
24. Pinnock, in Gundry and Crockett, op. cit., note 1, p. 139. See longer quote in Klassen, op. cit., note 5, p.67 or Bruce Bauer, Stealing Jesus, New York: Crown, 1997, p. 211. For more on Edwards see John Gerstner, Jonathon Edwards on Heaven and Hell, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980.
25. Charles H. Spurgeon, as noted by Fred Carl Kuehner, “Heaven or Hell?” in Fundamentals of the Faith, ed. Carl F.H. Henry Grand Rapids: Baker, 1975, p. 239; my source, Crockett, op. cit., note 1, p. 48.
26. Klassen, op. cit., note 5, p. 65.
27. Walvoord, J. F., in Gundry and Crockett op. cit., note 1, p.28. Walvoord bases much of his belief in a literal hell fire on “the rich man and Lazarus” (Luke 16:19-31). Walvoord states, “The rich man in hades asked father Abraham to cool his tongue with water because, ‘I am in agony in this fire’ (v.24). Thirst would be a natural reaction to fire, and the desire to cool his tongue would be in keeping with this description.”
28. Hayes, Zachary in Gundry and Crockett, op. cit., note 1, p.101. In the purgatorial view, the pain varies with the amount of evil in the person.
29. William Crockett, who does not believe in a literal fire, does agree with Walvoord on the duration of the conscious punishment. “I share Walvoord’s view … that hell in the New Testament is a place of endless conscious punishment.” (Gundry and Crockett, op. cit., note 1, p. 29.) Robert Morey (op. cit., note 2, p.101) who like Crockett takes a metaphorical view of hell, states regarding the nature of eternal punishment, “All we are definitely told is that rebel sinners will suffer the eternal mental and physical consequences of their ultimate and irreversible alienation and separation from the person and gifts of God.”
30. Pinnock, in Gundry and Crockett, op. cit., note 1, p. 138.
31. Ibid.
32. Augustine, City of God, (Book 21) as noted by Pinnock, in Gundry and Crockett, op. cit., note 1, p. 139.
33. Augustine, “On the Sacraments of the Christian Faith” 2.18.2 as noted by Pinnock in Gundry and Crockett, op. cit., note 1, p. 155.
34. Crockett in Gundry and Crockett, op. cit., note 1, p. 47, who cites Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Supp. to Third Part, Q. 94, art 1,3; cf. Augustine, City of God, 20.22.
35. Crockett in Gundry and Crockett, op. cit., note 1, p. 48.
36. Classical conditioning uses punishment to extinguish unwanted behaviors, whereas instrumental learning rewards wanted behaviors.
37. Nels Ferré, The Christian Understanding of God, New York: Harper, 1951, p. 228; cf. “Universalism: Pro and Con,” Christianity Today, 7, 1963, p. 540; as noted by Crockett, in Gundry and Crockett, op. cit., note 21, p.50.
38. Celsus, second-century critic of Christianity used this expression. Noted by Crockett, in Gundry and Crockett, op. cit., note 1, p. 50. Celsius in Origen: Contra Celsum, trans. Henry Chadwick, Cambridge: University Press, 1965, p. 5.14-15.
39. Anthony Flew, God and Philosophy, London: Hutchinson, 1966, p. 56-57. Noted by Pinnock, op. cit., note 1, p.150.
40. Nicholas Berdyaev, from Robert Short, Short Meditations on the Bible and Peanuts, Louisville, KY: Westminister/John Knox, 1990, p. 127. Noted by Klassen, op. cit., note 5, p. 104.
41. John Stuart Mill, noted in Sellers, O., “Future Punishment,” Seed and Bread, No.182 Pasadena, CA: The Word of Truth Ministry.

Chapter 2: Concepts to Ease the Pain of Hell
1.Walvoord, John, In Gundry, Stanley.N. and Crockett, William (Eds) Four Views of Hell, Grand Rapids,MI: Zondervan (1996), p. 12.
2. Morey, Robert A., Death and the Afterlife, Minneapolis: Bethany House, (1984), p. 112-118. Morey provides a strong exegesis for olam meaning without end eternally when referring to punishment of the wicked. For example olam is used twice in Daniel 12:2, once to the endless well being of the righteous and once to the endless shame and contempt of the wicked. Note however that endless shame and contempt is not the same as endless pain.
3. Crockett, op. cit., in note 1, p. 44
4. Pinnock, op.cit., in note 1, p. 36 and Crockett, op. cit., note 1, p. 61.
5. Crockett, op. cit., in note 1, p. 59.
6. Pinnock, op. cit., in note 1, p. 85-88.
7. Klassen, Randy What Does the Bible Really Say about Hell? Telford, PA: Pandora Press (2001) p.139.
8. Ibid, p. 74
9. Ibid
10. Ibid
11. Pinnock, Clark H., The Scripture Principle, Grand Rapids: Michigan (2006) p.85-86.
12. Pinnock, op. cit., in note 1, p. 39
13. Wright, N.T., Evil and the Justice of God, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press (2006) p. 72.
14. Hayes, Zachery, op. cit., in note 1, p. 95.
15. Ibid, p. 95-6.
16. Ibid, p. 96.
17. Ibid, p. 97.
18. Ibid, p. 98.
19. Ibid, p. 101.
20. Ibid.
21.Pinnock, op. cit., in note 1, p. 165-6
22.Watson, David Lowes, God Does Not Foreclose, Nashville: Abingdon (1990). 23.Talbott, Thomas, in Parry, R.A. & Partridge, C. H. (Eds), Universal Salvation? The Current Debate Grand Rapids: Eerdmans (2003).

Chapter 3: Philosophical Considerations of Hell
1. Morey, op. cit. note 2, pp. 44-51; 54-60.
2. Morey (Ibid, p. 45-6) contends that nephesh can mean three different things and context must be used to determine which meaning applies to a particular verse. The first definition of nephesh “refers to that invisible and immaterial life principle which animates the bodies of animals and man… Second, the word nephesh is used in figurative language. ….Third, nephesh is used to describe the part of man which transcends the life principle, separates him from animals and likens him unto God.”
3. Jeeves, Malcolm, American Scientific Affiliation Newsletter Vol. 46, No. 5, Sep/Oct 2004.
4. Pinnock, op. cit., note 1, p. 147-6
5. Ibid, p. 128.
6. Ibid
7. Ibid
8. Morey, op. cit., note 2, p. 83-84. Morey finds the compartments of hades idea in rabbinical literature from the intertestament period. For example see 2 Esdras 7:36 NEB “Then the place of torment shall appear, and over against it the place of rest; the furnace of Hell shall be displayed, and on the opposite side the paradise of delight.” (My source, Klassen, op. cit., note 5, p. 64).
9. Morey relies on two scriptural references for Jesus being conscious three days in hades. Acts 2:31 which states regarding his resurrection: “his soul was not left in hell, neither his flesh did see corruption.” 1Peter 3: 18-19 which states “being put to death in the flesh, but being made alive by the Spirit, by whom also He went and preached unto the spirits in prison.” Note neither of these verses says anything about live activity during the three days He was dead.
10. Logically resurrection raises the question of whether good people first go to heaven. Unlike hell, where differences of opinion among scholars have existed for thousands of years, nowhere does one find heaven as the destiny for good people questioned. On the other hand, Sellers has a very strong case based on scripture and logic that no one goes to heaven when he dies. He lies dead in the grave until resurrection on earth. I was raised with the arguments provided by Otis Sellers so the concept of no heaven at death is not so strange an idea to me personally, but as I get older and see how universal the idea of going to heaven when we die is and see how important it is for comfort to the living, I have emotional hesitation to adopt the Sellers model, regardless of its logic. Although the Bible is essentially silent about people routinely going directly to heaven, we know at least three people did so: Enoch, Elijah, and of course Jesus. They all are expected some time in the future to return to earth. There is also the transfiguration of Moses. Where did he come from, if not from heaven? One could speculate therefore that God can, if He chooses, translate anyone directly to heaven; a speculation most of us visualize for our loved ones who have gone on before. Further, it is difficult to conceive that the belief in heaven as an afterlife could be such a universal error that God would allow it to continue for so long. For those reasons (universal belief and biblical evidence of some cases) combined with the comfort it gives to the living makes it almost too firm a belief for most people to relinquish. Unfortunately even though we want it to be true and most of the world believes it to be true, it has very little scriptural support.

Chapter 4: What Does the Bible Say About Hell?
1. In addition to these, the Greek word tartaros is translated hell once (2nd Peter 2:4).
2. Morey, Robert A., Death and the Afterlife, Minneapolis: Bethany House, (1984), pp 83.
3. Ecclesiastes 9:10 is an excellent example. If there are departed spirits in sheol it must be a boring place with “no work, no device, no knowledge, no wisdom”-- literally nothing to do. Further the King James translators found more than half of the occurrences of sheol meant something other than their concept of hell, so usually just called it “grave.”
4. Sellers, O. Q., Sheol, Hades and Destruction, The Word of Truth Ministry.
5. Sellers, O.Q, Seed and Bread Vol Two, No. 185, Pasadena:CA:The Word of Truth Ministry. p 339-340.
6. Klassen, Randy, What Does the Bible Really Say about Hell, Pandora Press, (2001), p. 32
7. Ibid, p. 36.
8. Ibid, p. 36.
9. Ibid, p.56.
10. Isaiah 66:24 speaks of looking upon the corpses of those who have transgressed against Him, and that “their worm shall not die; neither shall their fire be quenched.” This expression, which is repeated by Jesus in the New Testament could appear to support eternal conscious punishment. However it all depends upon what “their worm” and “their fire” means. This is addressed in Chapter 6.
11. Morey, op. cit., note 2, p.83.

Chapter 5: Problem Scriptures - Concepts
1. Pinnock, Clark in Gundry, Stanley.N. and Crockett, William (Eds) Four Views of Hell, Grand Rapids:MI, Zondervan (1996) p. 155
2. Ibid, p.156.
3. Ibid p.157.
4. This is a summary of a much more detailed presentation by Sellers, O. Q., The Rich Man and Lazarus, The Word of Truth Ministry.
5. Morey, op. cit., note 2, pp 234, 261. 207.
6. Pinnock op. cit., note 13, p.156.
7. Klassen, op. cit., note 7, p. 83.
8. Pinnock, op. cit., note 13, p. 149.
9. Brown, W.S., Murphey, N., and Maloney, H.N, (Eds), (1998), Minneapolis MN: Fortress Press.

Chapter 6: Problem Scriptures - Words
1. Pinnock, Clark, in Gundry, Stanley.N. and Crockett, William (Eds) Four Views of Hell, Grand Rapids:MI, Zondervan (1996) p.155.
2. Ibid, p.156.
3. Sellers, O. “More on Gehenna” Seed and Bread Vol. Two, No 185, Pasadena, CA: The Word of Truth Ministry, p 337-340.
4. Ibid, p. 340.
5. Pinnock, op. cit., note 1, p.157.
6. Sellers, O. “What does ‘Torment’ Mean” Seed and Bread Vol. Two, No. 183, Pasadena, CA: The Word of Truth Ministry, p. 329-332.
7. Ibid, p.332.
8. Ibid.

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