Will God Punish the Wicked Forever?

When a friend or loved one dies, we grieve. If that person was a faithful Christian, we find comfort in the promise of the gospel: resurrection and eternal life. If, on the other hand, the deceased did not know the Lord Jesus Christ in trusting obedience, we have more cause for sorrow and concern about his eternal fate.

An almost indescribable heaviness must be in the minds and hearts of those who believe that their loved ones who didn’t know the Lord are suffering the torments of eternal hellfire.

Is there any comfort for the surviving spouse, parent, child, or friend who is taught that the one whom they held dear in life already endures the misery and pain of the infernal regions, and that without end?

If the human heart is repulsed by such a gloomy and cruel thought, how much more removed must it be from the mind of a gracious and loving God.

In spite of the utter incongruity of it, many Christians believe that a person who dies without Jesus Christ goes to hell at the moment of death to suffer eternally in the fire prepared for the Devil and his angels. This drastic doctrine may offer incentive for a few sinners to seek the Lord, but it has probably turned more people away from God and our Lord Jesus Christ than it has attracted.

The real issue about this doctrine is not how it impacts those who hear it, but whether it accurately reflects Holy Scripture. In this tract we will examine verses often used to support the doctrine of an everlasting hell, hopefully showing that they fail to prove it. When someone dies without Christ, there may be some consolation in knowing that his punishment, according to Scripture, lasts only a short time and then ends in eternal nothingness. Bible verses that support this thought will be listed below.

We offer for your consideration three biblical reasons why the fate of sinners will not involve endless agony in a burning hell.

  1. The doctrine of eternal torment is incompatible with the overwhelming testimony of Scripture that God is love!
  2. The few Bible texts that suggest the doctrine of eternal torment may be understood in ways that do not oppose the idea of a loving God.
  3. Many Bible texts picture the fate of the wicked and unbelieving as having its end in total destruction and eternal death.

A Loving God

The dark doctrine of eternal torment stands in stark contrast to the fuller and brighter portrait of God painted in the Bible. Let us gaze with gratitude at the One that Scripture repeatedly describes in the noblest of terms:

But you, O Lord, are a God full of compassion, and gracious, longsuffering and abundant in mercy and truth (Psalm 86:15; see also Exodus 34:6, 7);

The Lord is very compassionate and merciful (James 5:11);
God is love (1 John 4:8, 16); and

“His mercy endures forever” (Psalm 136; all twenty-six verses of this psalm end with the same joyous declaration that the mercy of God, not His anger, never ends!)

Many more plain statements of Scripture picture God as merciful, loving, kind, good, gentle, and just. These, in fact, are among His primary attributes. God loves all His creatures, and His holiness insures that He will do what is equitable and right by them, even in the exercise of His wrath by punishment.

God’s nature of love, mercy, and justice does not nullify His promise of punishment for sin. “Though they join forces, the wicked will not go unpunished” (Proverbs 11:21). Romans 6:23 says, “The wages of sin is death.” The final judgment of sinners will result in their death and destruction. Indeed, it may be seen as an expression of love that He will give the wicked the freedom from God they have always wanted. He will not forever allow the evildoer to continue wreaking havoc among His redeemed creatures or in His restored creation.

The doctrine of eternal torment assigns to God attitudes and actions that can never truly be described as loving, merciful, or just. It says that our gracious, long-suffering God has planned the horrific, anguished suffering of human beings for ages without end.

To plan the perpetual suffering of others is not love. To determine endless suffering when it achieves no redemptive purpose is not mercy. To condemn any person to infinite punishment for finite sins is not justice.

Considering the big picture of God in Scripture, it is illogical and impossible to endorse the idea of eternal torment for anyone. Beyond this, it is unnecessary to do so from any single Bible text. Those passages often quoted to support the teaching of an eternal hell may easily be understood in a different sense.

Better Explanations

A few Bible verses are often given by proponents of eternal torment to support their convictions. But is the meaning suggested for these verses the proper one? The alternate interpretations offered here harmonize with God’s essential character of mercy and justice without violating the context or the essence of these passages.

The first three Gospels speak of everlasting fire and punishment, of a fire that is not quenched:

He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire (Matthew 3:12; Luke 3:17)

Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire . . . these will go away into everlasting punishment (Matthew 25:41, 46).

A quick reading of these texts may seem to support the traditional view of hell as a place of eternal torment, but please note: The fire that will destroy the wicked may be described as “everlasting” and “unquenchable” simply because it cannot be extinguished. That is, it will not cease to burn until its work of death and destruction is complete.

An unquenchable fire may burn itself out. Jeremiah 17:27 foretells an unquenchable fire that would burn in the gates of Jerusalem during his day. It burned only a short while, until its work was done. In the same sense, the now non-existent fires of Sodom and Gomorrah are described as “eternal fires” in Jude 7.

The everlastingness of the punishment accurately describes the fire’s effect, not its duration. The final punishment for sin is death from which there is no return. Thus, the punishment is everlasting, but the punishing is not. “‘And the day which is coming shall burn them up,’ says the Lord of hosts, . . . ‘That will leave them neither root nor branch. . . . You shall trample the wicked, for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet’” (Malachi 4:1, 3).

None of these verses provides compelling evidence that sinners will be tormented for eternity.

In Mark 9:43-48 Jesus refers to a fire that is not quenched. This passage differs from the ones above in that the word hell is also used. For example, “It is better for you to enter into life maimed, rather than having two hands, to go to hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched — where ‘Their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’” This is repeated twice more in the same text. How are we to understand such a vivid warning and strange expression?

The Bible offers no support for the idea that the “worm” of this text refers to human consciousness or the human soul. Further, the Greek word for hell in this passage, and others in the New Testament, is gehenna. It refers directly to the Jerusalem city dump in Bible times, a place where the ever-smoldering flames and the ever-present worms eventually destroyed or consumed everything cast into it.

Jesus’ remarks here are taken from Isaiah 66:24: “They shall go forth and look upon the corpses of the men who have transgressed against Me. For their worm does not die, and their fire is not quenched. They shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.” The bodies of the condemned were cast into the city dump where they were completely destroyed by fire, decomposition, and worms.

In summary, Jesus uses Old Testament imagery to warn those who persist in sin, and He adds the analogy of gehenna — the city garbage pit where nothing lives but fire and worms — to describe the final destruction of the wicked.

Another text often cited to support an everlasting, burning hell is the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). Taken literally, the story would teach that:

  • Abraham’s bosom is the home of the righteous (v. 22)
  • The wicked dead suffer burning torment (vv. 23, 24)
  • Souls in torment can see the righteous in their eternal dwelling (v. 23)

Communication occurs between Abraham and those in the burning fire (vv. 24-31)
Considering the symbolic nature of at least three of these elements, this parable was obviously not intended to be read literally. What then is its meaning?

In context, Jesus tells the story because the Pharisees ridiculed Him and His teaching that man cannot serve both God and money (vv. 13, 14). Jesus’ judgment of their attitude is “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts” (v. 15). He then relates the parable to illustrate their hypocrisy and the reality of the reversal of fortune that will someday come between those who trust in riches and those who trust only in God.

Jesus’ ministry constantly fulfilled “Moses and the prophets,” yet the Pharisees jeopardized their future by ignoring His words and still rejected Him after His death and resurrection. The folly of their refusal is one important lesson of the parable, not a way of describing hell and heaven within sight of each other, with the lost and the redeemed conversing.

The book of Revelation contains language some use to press the idea of never-ending suffering for the wicked. Please note who will experience what in these verses.

One passage says of anyone who worships the beast “He shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in 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 . . .” (14:10b, 11). Another passage says of the Devil, the beast, and the false prophet “They will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (20:10b).

The Bible’s last book is filled with imagery and symbolism, making it a minefield for over-zealous but ill-informed students who insist on literal meanings. For example, the verse fragments just quoted use the words fire, brimstone, Lamb, smoke, and beast — all of which may have been intended symbolically, not literally.

Further, these verses contain a clear echo of Isaiah 34:9, 10: “Its [Edom’s] streams shall be turned into pitch, and its dust into brimstone; its land shall become burning pitch! It will not be quenched night or day; its smoke shall ascend forever.” This passage refers to an event that occurred hundreds of years before Christ and had long since disappeared. Both Isaiah 34 and its counterpart in Revelation contain poetic language to emphasize the totality and irreversibility of the degradation sinners will suffer, not its eternal duration.

Notice how these punishments are described as producing death: “But the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death” (Revelation 21:8).

But what about Satan? Will he not suffer throughout eternity in hell? We don’t think so. Bible students are aware that “forever and ever” in some texts means merely “as long as the thing shall last.” For example, Exodus 21:5, 6 and Jonah 2:5, 6 refer to forever as either a lifetime or no more than three days and nights. Even the phrase “day and night forever and ever” is not a literal description of eternity (which will have no night) but a poetic way of saying that Satan will never be restored from his banishment and destruction.

What Jesus accomplished by sharing in our humanity was so “that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil” (Hebrews 2:14b).

Given the less-hideous explanations available for each of the texts above, we wonder why those who know of God’s infinite and unfathomable love continue to defend the teaching of eternal torment.

More Conclusive Texts

The larger share of Bible texts that address the fate of the wicked speak with a note of finality about the punishment ahead. Unrepentant sinners will come to their appointed end: death, destruction, and annihilation.

Notice the words used in the following texts dealing with God’s final judgment:

  • Hebrews 10:27: Fiery indignation will devour the adversaries.
  • Philippians 3:19: Their end is destruction.
  • John 3:16: “Whoever believes in Him should not perish,” implying that unbelievers will perish.
  • Ezekiel 18:4: The soul who sins shall die.
  • Malachi 4:1-3: The wicked shall be burned up, leaving neither root nor branch — only ashes under foot.
  • Psalm 1:4: The wicked are blown away like chaff.
  • Proverbs 10:25: The wicked are no more.
  • Psalm 37:22, 28, 34, 38: The wicked shall be cut off.
  • Psalm 37:20: “The wicked shall perish . . . into smoke they shall vanish away.”
  • Psalm 37:36: The wicked cannot be found.
  • Job 11:20: The wicked “shall not escape, and their hope — loss of life!”
  • Romans 6:23: “The wages of sin is death.”

Now consider the words of Jesus in Matthew 10:28b: “Fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell [or Gehenna].” Traditional religious teaching says that every human has an immortal soul that can never be destroyed. Christ says, however, that God is able to destroy the soul also, after which the person will be as if he had never been (see Obadiah 16b).

Combining these words of Jesus with the foregoing passages, we conclude that God not only is able to destroy but also will destroy both the soul and body of the wicked. Now we have a clearer picture of what lies ahead for unbelieving sinners: separation, desolation, destruction, death, annihilation, nonexistence. They perish!

Seldom does Scripture refer to the instrument that God will use to destroy the wicked as hell. This word in English translations usually refers either to the grave (the place of the dead) or to Gehenna (the Jerusalem garbage pit where refuse was burned by fire or eaten by worms).

Instead of hell, God’s plan for the destruction of sinners at the final judgment is called lake of fire (Revelation 19:20; 20:10, 14, 15; 21:8). This is God’s “strange” work — strange compared to His proper work of salvation — and He will “cut it short in righteousness” (compare Isaiah 28:21, 22 with Romans 9:28).

It is a mistake to establish a dark doctrine like eternal torment from the doubtful interpretation of a few verses. Rather, we should let the clear verses regarding the fate of sinners speak for themselves. We need not impugn God’s character by teaching ghastly intentions for the fate of sinners when God has made His merciful and righteous judgment so plain.

Still, that merciful and righteous judgment will not be pleasant, and it will be avoided only by following God’s plan of salvation. A major aspect regarding the punishment of the wicked and unbelievers is that they will miss out on eternal fellowship with God, Christ, loved ones, and the saints of God. Their remembrance will fade away, even as their lives. Eternal life and an abode in God’s eternal kingdom will be awarded only to the faithful who trust, confess, and follow Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

Unbiblical Assumption

The doctrine of eternal punishment is based on the assumption that humans have an immortal soul. However, such a theory has no biblical basis. Immortality itself is a trait possessed only by God, according to 1 Timothy 6:15b, 16). The only human immortality and eternal life known in Scripture come as the gift of God through the gospel of Christ! “[God’s purpose] has now been revealed by the appearing of our Savior Jesus Christ, who has . . . brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:10; see also Romans 6:23).

Positive vs. Negative Motivation

When considering eternal “hellfire and brimstone” to induce sinners to repent and trust Jesus as Savior and Lord, we benefit by evaluating the likely effect of such tactics. The best persuasion to trust and obey the Lord does not focus on a threat of punishment, especially a highly dubious one. The most effective motivation for faith and repentance springs from God’s love, not His wrath: “We love Him because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

We can’t imagine that a benevolent God would use the warning of eternal torment to coerce His creatures, those to whom He had given the right to choose life or death. Luke 14:26-31 teaches us to “count the cost” of giving up life’s sinful pleasures to gain the pleasures of God’s kingdom. Logically, we should count the cost of not accepting God’s salvation. However, it is not right to overstate that cost by spinning horror stories of eternal torment.

Positive, productive motivation includes the desire to know God and be known by Him, the opportunity for loving relationships, the possibility of reward, good examples, and earnest encouragement. Under these influences, we do things because we want to, not because we feel coerced. God showers us with these positive motivations through His Word, His Spirit, and the loving witness of His people, thus changing our desire to something better than it was by nature.

Negative motivation, on the other hand, is heavy with fear, guilt, and threat. This may be effective for short periods, but it commonly has little lasting effect.

Is there room for a holy fear of God in our human experience? Of course there is. Such is needed today more than ever. We should be taught early in life to develop a healthy respect for the judgment seat of God, for “‘The Lord will judge His people.’ It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:30, 31). And “Our God is a consuming fire” (12:29).

However, it is neither biblical nor rational that the doubtful threat of eternal torment should be the strongest motivation to be saved. Rather, it is the loving appeal of Jesus Christ in the gospel, driven home to the heart by the Holy Spirit, which prompts and plants genuine faith and hope.

The goodness of God — not an exaggerated view of His wrath — leads us to repentance (Romans 2:4). God has no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 18:32). How much less would He be pleased to give them everlasting life in torment!

To sum up the matter, yes, God will punish the wicked with destruction. But no, He will not torment them for eternity.

 

Pastor Wesley Walker has also posted the following Bible study resources and / or video sermons.

http://www.mcalestercog7d.com/Articles.html

Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quotations are taken from The New King James Version, copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982, by Thomas Nelson, Inc., Nashville, Tennessee. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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