Hell: Eternal? Temporary? Figurative?
Dr. Jerry Nelson
Does the Bible teach that unbelievers will spend eternity in hell in conscious punishment? First, let’s get our terminology straight; what do we mean by “hell?” If we mean where unbelievers go after they die, we are correct but not as correct as we might think. Immediately after death, unbelievers (as well as believers) are separated from their bodies (which are dead) and await the resurrection of the body when Christ comes again. Until the resurrection, the spirits of believers are “with the Lord” which we often refer to as “heaven.” The spirits of unbelievers are in “hell/hades.” Remember, neither believers nor unbelievers have bodies until the resurrection. After the resurrection believers spend eternity on the “new earth,” which many also refer to as “heaven” (though clearly this is not the same as where believers are before the resurrection); unbelievers, already in “hell/hades,” are cast into the “lake of fire (Rev 20:14).” I think it is that “lake of fire,” to which most people are referring when they speak of “hell.”
So again, is the “lake of fire/hell” eternal, temporary, figurative or something else? Traditionally, Bible scholars have pointed out that a straight-forward reading of the Bible would lead one to conclude that this “lake of fire” is the Bible’s way of describing a literal, eternal, conscious punishment.
(2 Thessalonians 1:8-9; Mark 9:47-48; Rev 20:15; Rev 21:8. In Rev 20:12 it specifically says the devil, beast and false prophet will experience eternal , conscious torment.) The witness of evangelical scholars for centuries has been that the evidence of Scripture supports eternal, conscious punishment. We yield to the authority of God’s Word . That said, nearly everyone recognizes this view is not without difficulty both theologically and emotionally. And so we ponder “how these things may be so.” People wholly committed to God and his Word are still troubled by some of the apparent implications. There is no present comfort in believing that one’s departed, unsaved loved one is now and will for eternity suffer conscious torment. And it is beyond imagination how we might ever be comforted in such knowledge.
The difficulty many have with this interpretation is that it seems somehow “unfair” that temporal sin should yield an eternal punishment (a person sins for 75 years but is punished forever). Many would accept that justice must be served and that some punishment is deserved but question the idea of “forever,” “conscious, punishment?” Some think such severity is inconsistent with the nature of God’s love.
How do we think rightly about such things? We quickly admit that eternal conscious punishment is difficult to imagine. Let us suggest several ideas that should be considered in trying to understand the eternal state of the unbeliever.
- The nature of God. It is imperative that we not judge God’s actions when we don’t fully understand the holiness, justice and love of God. Eternal punishment seems unduly severe but I must admit I don’t have an appreciation for holiness, especially the holiness of God. To state it another way, We don’t know how sinful sin is because we are more acquainted with sin than we are with holiness. Is it possible that when we do understand the holiness of God and the awful affront sin is to his holiness, we will understand better why even eternal conscious punishment may be appropriate? John Piper following Jonathan Edwards, wrote,”The essential thing is that degrees of blameworthiness come not from how long you offend dignity, but from how high the dignity is that you offend?” (Let the Nations Be Glad! 127). Is it also possible that when we understand God’s justice (not our weak ideas of compensation) we will understand that nothing short of eternal conscious punishment is appropriate justice?
- Using C.S. Lewis’ comment that “Hell is locked from the inside” differently than he used it, we wonder if the idea may still help us. What if you knew that unbelievers not only rebelled against God in this life but continued to rebel against God for eternity. D.A. Carson wrote, “If the holy and those who do right continue to be holy and to do right, in anticipation of the perfect holiness and rightness to be lived and practiced throughout all eternity, should we not also conclude that the vile continue in their vileness in anticipation of the vileness they will live and practice throughout all eternity (533 The Gagging of God)?” Would eternal rebellion merit eternal punishment?
- T. Wright (in Surprised by Hope) suggests that maybe unbelievers so completely desecrate their own humanity (the “image of God”) that, in something akin to what Paul describes in Romans 1:18-27, they eventually cease to be human (“ex-humans”). While Wright is sometimes difficult to fully understand, he seems to suggest a kind of eventual annihilation. Theologians differ on whether the immortality of the soul is an essential human characteristic or subject to revocation by God.
- It is important to be aware of what we do know on this subject. We do know that unbelievers will not enjoy the new earth in the presence of God (Revelation 21:7-8); we do know they will be shut out from the presence of the Lord (2 Thessalonians 1:8-9); we do know such loss is forever, there is no second chance (Hebrews 9:27). We do know that an unbeliever will receive only the punishment he/she deserves; “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25) And we also know that God, more than us, does not wish for any to perish (2 Peter 3:9).
- It is also important to be admit there is much we don’t know. We don’t know how God’s election (John 6:44) fits with his desire that none should perish. Whether we believe in particular election or not, we don’t understand why God would knowingly create billions of people who apparently won’t ever become believers. While we accept God’s glory as the ultimate outcome of both heaven and hell (Romans 9:22-23), we, again, don’t understand how that fits with his sovereignty and goodness. And what we don’t know is only the tip of the iceberg of the mystery (yet unrevealed) that surrounds the “after life.”
- One last truth we can depend on is that our God is holy, just and love; we do know when we understand him more fully, as we only will when we are with him, we will conclude without reservation that his judgment and actions are perfectly consistent with his character.
Together these ideas should lead us to be less than dogmatic (maybe even charitable toward others?) about the eternal state of the unbeliever. The end of the unbeliever is tragic enough whether it is eternal conscious punishment or annihilation.