Thoughts on the possible timeframes of hell…

When writing my previous blog post on the question, “How can a loving God send someone to Hell?” I was aware that there would be more I would have to write on this topic in the future. It’s an incredibly tough subject and one I am not at all comfortable with and more a theological question than an apologetic one.

The associated question: “Why doesn’t God annihilate unbelievers at death?” is one I have often pondered. It is a question that requires in-depth biblical exegesis. However, I believe we can look at Scripture as a starting point of reference to at least begin to formulate an answer.

In this post I offer a some guidelines we can use when searching for the answers to this important question and others like it. In the footnotes, I will also give some follow up links for further study of the topic. 

 

Whichever doctrinal line we decide to ascribe to we need to remember that the authority of the Holy Scriptures are both our starting point and reference for any study on the topic and we should not interpret them according to what we want to find. It is too easy to find a verse or two that could be interpreted in the way that makes us more comfortable, rather than objectively looking at what the verse actually says in both it’s historical, grammatical and contextual state of being.

We also need to acknowledge that until we personally step into eternity ourselves we can only interpret what may be the answer where there are not definitive supporting scriptures.

To begin let us look at the two predominant thoughts about hell. Whether it is an eternal punishment or if it has an end point culminating in the complete annihilation of an unbeliever’s soul. 

There are many Scriptures that point to the ‘eternal torment’ of unbelievers, but there are also some Scriptures that seem to allude to a possible post-punishment termination point. 

The following is a small list of Scriptures often used to support a post-death annihilation of unbelievers (I have underlined the words pointing to these thoughts):

“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter it are many.” Matthew 7:13

“They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and the Glory of His might,” 2 Thessalonians 1:9 (This verse is also used in support of an eternal torment).

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16

“While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled.” John 17:12

“What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory –“ Romans 9:22-23

“and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God” Philippians 1:28

“And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Matthew 10:28

“But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.” Hebrews 10:39

Although Matthew 10:28 appears convincing, I find these Scriptures unhelpful, as they don’t specifically say ‘cease to exist eternally’; it again comes down to context and interpretation that warrant further study.

The following are verses that speak of an eternal punishment:

“And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest day or night, these worshippers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.” Revelation 14:11

“And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. “ Matthew 18:8

“The he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me. And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Matthew 25: 45-46

“….where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.” Mark 9:44-48

“..and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment.” John 5:29

“These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power,” 2 Thessalonians 1:9

“Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt.” Daniel 12:2

Neither of these lists are exhaustive[1], yet as much as I would prefer annihilation to be the answer for those who choose Hell, I personally cannot find indisputable evidence in Scripture that this will be the case.

If we are going to discard the doctrine of eternal punishment because it feels profoundly unpleasant to us, then it seems fair to ask what other biblical teachings we will also reject, because they too don’t square with what we feel. And if we do this, are we not replacing the authority of Scripture with the authority of our feelings, or our limited understanding? Randy Alcorn[2]

We can and should continue to study this topic and there is a wealth of opinion, both scholarly and otherwise, out there to read and meditate through.[3] In the meantime, the reality of there being a hell – eternal or finite – should move us to do all we can to ensure that we get the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ to as many people as possible. We need to be careful that our study does not distract from the Great Commission. As I stated earlier we may only find clear answers to some of these difficult questions when we step into eternity ourselves.

“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part: then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” 1 Corinthians 13.12 ESV

Let us focus on the call God has placed upon all of us through Jesus and be inspired to action by Spurgeon, who said:

“If sinners will be damned, at least let them leap to hell over our bodies; and if they will perish, let them perish with our arms about their knees, imploring them to stay…If hell must be filled, at least let it be filled in the teeth of our exertions, and let not one go there unwarned or unprayed for.”[4]

We cannot allow our ‘feelings’ about the horror of hell and our very human desire for it to be a false doctrine paralyse, us into doing nothing. Let us err on the side of Hope and work hard to do all we can to stop the flow into hell whilst we continue the search for answers.

[1] For more Scriptures that support eternal punishment read: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justin-taylor/ten-foundational-verses-for-eternal-punishment-in-hell/

[2] https://www.epm.org/resources/2014/Jun/18/will-unbelievers-be-annihilated/ This is an excerpt from Randy Alcon’s book  If God Is Good, Chapter 29: Hell: Eternal Sovereign Justice Exacted upon Evildoers.

[3] I suggest reading through some of the following Q & A’s by Dr William Lane Craig: https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/question-answer/bradley-on-hell – particularly Point 3. https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/question-answer/do-the-damned-in-hell-accrue-further-punishment

[4] Charles Haddon Spurgeon, “The Wailing of Risca” (sermon 349, New Park Street Pulpit, December 9, 1860), www.spurgeon.org/sermons/0349.htm, as quoted in Randy Alcorns book If God is Good, Chapter 29: Hell: Eternal Sovereign Justice Exacted upon Evildoers.

 

 

4 replies
  1. Joseph
    Joseph says:

    Hi Michelle, please ignore the previous comments I attempted to post. I’ve edited it and have it here to re-submit. There were several grammatical issues that needed addressing.

    Here you go now… and please note; I’ve not been able to find your first post on hell anywhere, so I comment ignorant of the content in that post.

    1. You mention offhand that there are many scriptures that point us toward the ‘eternal torment’ of unbelievers.

    This really is the crux of the issue though. Those that believe the Bible points towards annihilation would argue that there are in fact no scriptures that point towards eternal torment. They would suggest that such a conclusion comes from a misinterpretation of scripture. I think there is perhaps a fair amount of hyperbole in your comment.

    2. You list numerous passages speaking of destruction you note them to be unhelpful as they don’t specifically say ‘cease to exist eternally.’

    I wonder then, what do you think destruction means? If I were to say that the Twin Towers were completely destroyed in the terrorist attacks of 9/11, what would you take that to mean? The text always requires a careful reading, but sometimes a careful reading also reveals that the plain meaning is sometimes the actual meaning.

    3. You offer a few scriptures that you think point towards eternal punishment, by which I assume you mean eternal conscious torment. I’ll make a quick comment about understanding eternal and then each scripture.

    Eternal (aion / aionios) in the Bible is a word that has both qualitative and quantitative implications. That is, it speaks to things that are of a certain quality, that are “of the age to come.” Thus “eternal life” is the life of the age to come (breaking in now), “eternal punishment” is the punishment of the age to come etc. And, can also speak in terms of a quantity of time, e.g. “eternal salvation” is a saving that is taking place now, will ultimately take place in the age to come, and will also be eternal never passing away. Though one will not be in the process of “being saved” forever, one will have been saved with the result being ever-lasting result.

    The task when we read the word eternal is to work out what it is in the verse that is qualitative (as in from the age to come) and what is quantitative (as in enduring for eternity).

    Here are a few…

    Eternal salvation in Hebrews 5 is the salvation that will come with resurrection life, in the age to come (qualitative), in terms of time, the effect of salvation will be everlasting (quantitative). It isn’t that someone will be “in the process of being saved forever and ever.” Rather it is a one-time age-to-come action with everlasting implications.

    Eternal judgement in Hebrews 6 is not the process of being judged in an ongoing manner. It is a one-time judgement, in the age to come (qualitative) that has consequences that will extend forever (quantitative). It isn’t being judged forever, it is being judged once, but then the judgement stands forever.

    Eternal redemption in Hebrews 9 is not a process of being redeemed in an ongoing manner. It is a onetime redemption, in the age to come (qualitative), resulting in a redemption that is everlasting (quantitative).

    Eternal punishment in Matthew 25, is not a process of being continually punished, it is an age to come punishment (qualitative) with eternal consequences (quantitative). That is, it is a punishment in the age to come, a one-time punishment that will have consequences that last forever.

    Eternal destruction in 2 Thessalonians 1:9, not an everlasting process of deconstruction, it is a onetime destruction (qualitative) that is everlasting in consequence (quantitative).

    Matthew 18:8 refers to eternal fire, this is the fire in the age to come where the one-time punishment and one-time destruction of judgement takes place. The consequence being everlasting.

    Mark 9:44-48 refers to the worm that does not die and the fire that is not quenched. This simply means the fire and the worm will do their work, they will destroy.

    John 5:29 speaks of a resurrection unto judgement and Daniel 12:2 an awakening to disgrace and everlasting contempt – this is the resurrection unto eternal judgement and then either eternal redemption or eternal punishment and destruction as already explained above – the second death.

    Revelation 14:11 refers to the smoke of their torment going up forever and ever, and having no rest day or night, for these worshippers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.

    This passage needs to be appreciated, along with the rest of Revelation, as apocalyptic literature, which doesn’t mean Armageddon or the end of the world. Rather, it is a literary genre in which fantastical imagery is used in order to overwhelm one’s imagination and help one to see things with fresh eyes.

    Throughout Revelation the visual pictures require interpretation, though clusters of varying imagery are to be understood in a more abstract sense. In Revelation 14:9-11 four elements of punishment are announced in this symbolic vision – the wine of God’s fury into the cup of his wrath, being tormented with burning sulphur in the sight of the angels and the Lamb, the smoke of torment rising forever and having no rest day or night. This cluster of imagery are not intended to be massaged together as one big visual picture, the intent is instead to overwhelm the imagination with imagery that transcends visualization. This passage is not a newsreel but rather a highly-symbolic vision with imagery taken from the Old Testament; wine of God’s wrath, burning sulphur, rising smoke, no rest day or night. You can study each of these pictures throughout the Old Testament. They are symbolic and shouldn’t be taken as the literal final end of the wicked. Rather, it is a great judgement that will be remembered forever, have consequences that will endure forever, as opposed to one that leads to eternal or ongoing suffering.

    Thanks for the chance to comment.

    Grace and peace.

  2. David Billing
    David Billing says:

    Hi Joseph,
    Sorry about not including a link to the previous article. I have updated this piece to include a link, you will be able to find it at the top where the previous article is mentioned.

  3. Yvonne Rahui
    Yvonne Rahui says:

    Just wondering..first can I change the subject & if so could you tell me what the Biblical meaning of communion is please..’as often as you do it remember Me’.
    I’d really appreciate..also..do you believe that the water spoken of in John 3 er being born again..means baptism?
    Thank you.
    Or where could I get these questions answered if not in this forum?

  4. John Benedict
    John Benedict says:

    Our modern views seem to trend away from issues that, as you stated, make us uncomfortable as people. As born again Christians, we should be deeply moved from within to share the Gospel knowing that many folks around us may die in their sin. If they do not believe Jesus is Who He said He was, they will die physically. More importantly, they will remain in a state of spiritual death, separation from God for eternity. To minimize the Lake of Fire is to minimize the fact of sin omitted and committed. Sin is so wicked God’s wrath abides on every sinner right now in the earth. Only by turning to Christ alone to save, as He is the Propitiation for our sin, do we escape the wrath which is to come. By not giving the Blood of Christ, His sacrifice in our place, the gift of righteousness given when a person believes the Good News, and not esteeming the very nature of sin as evil & wicked before God, we tend to lean toward the opinion of men rather than the sure word of God.

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