The doctrine, held by most Christians today, that God burns the wicked in hell forever bothers many (and rightly so, I would say). Usually Christians reply to such concerns by saying that people have an incomplete understanding of three things: the nature of God, the nature of man, and the nature of sin. As fallen human beings, the nature of God and of His holiness is a difficult concept for us to grasp. We tend or want to see God as a kind, merciful Being whose love for us overrides all His other attributes.
No Christian would deny that God is loving, kind, and merciful (1 John 4:8, 1 Cor. 13), but He is also a holy and righteous God and judge. He is so holy that He cannot tolerate sin. His anger burns against the wicked (Isaiah 5:25; Hosea 8:5; Zechariah 10:3). He hates all manner of sin (Proverbs 6:16-19). And while He is merciful, there are limits to His mercy. “Seek the LORD while he may be found; call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon” (Isaiah 55:6-7).
Humans are sinful. Let’s not beat it around the bush. I think it was the famed twentieth century historian Will Durant who pointed out that, in 3,500 years of recorded history, mankind has only seen 268 years of peace (about 8% of its history). Not a great performance.
I think everybody knows that we deserve punishment. Yes, we might consider ourselves good people when judged by human standards (we are better than Hitler, right?). Yet our standards are fairly low when compared to God’s (Matthew 5 to 7) . Our life in this matrix is a stress test that determines if we are fit to judge angels (1 Cor. 6:3) and administer a quadrant of God’s next matrix (maybe the other 7 dimensions we can’t see) in the next life (my humble understanding); what makes this life important in this Matrix is not the physical, temporary aspect of it, but its moral aspect, for I believe that this latter aspect is eternal and universal, and that it bounds God Himself (Numbers 23:19, Titus 1:2).
Yes, God loves us (John 3:16) and wants us to be saved from hell (2 Peter 3:9). But because God is also just and righteous, He cannot allow our sin to go unpunished. Someone has to pay for it. In His great mercy and love, God provided His own payment for our sin. He sent His Son Jesus Christ to pay the penalty for our sins by dying on the cross for us. If we confess our sin and place our faith in Christ, asking for God’s forgiveness based on Christ’s sacrifice, we are saved, forgiven, cleansed, and promised eternal life in heaven.
What happens to those who refuse Christ’s sacrifice on the cross?
As sad and terrifying as it is, they are on their own. The wages of sin is death (Rom 6:23). Their destination is hell.
But does hell mean eternal torment? Does God punish the wicked forever and ever for 70 years or so of sins?
Most Christians tend to believe so.
I don’t believe that hell equals eternal torment. Rather it’s the place that will destroy the souls of the wicked. This is the second death mentioned in Revelation 20:14, 15.
Yet God is love. He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked. “As I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasurein the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live: turn ye, turn ye from you evil ways; for why will ye die?” Ezekiel 33:11
To illustrate the fate awaiting the lost, the Bible points back to the Flood and to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. On the Flood, see Genesis 6-9and 2 Peter 3:5-7. Concerning Sodom and Gomorrah, see Genesis 19:24-29, 2 Peter 2:6, and Jude 7.
Also, in the Bible, eternal fire is a fire that destroys forever, as in Sodom and Gomorrah. See Jude 7; Matthew 25:41; Matthew 10:28.
Brimstone is burning sulfur that suffocates and destroys. This imagery comes from the destruction of Sodom, which was incinerated without a trace. The Bible really means it when it says the wages of sin is death. See Genesis 19:24-25, 29 Deuteronomy 29:22-23; Psalms 11:6; Ezekiel 38:22; Revelation 14:10; Romans 6:23.
Throughout the Bible, “gnashing of teeth” denotes not eternal torment, but extreme anger and hostility. See Job 16:9; Psalms 35:16; Psalms 37:12; Psalms 112:10; Lamentations 2:16; Acts 7:54; Matthew 13:43, 49-50; Matthew 22:13-14; Matthew 24:50-51; Matthew 25:30; Luke 13:28.
When Scripture speaks of smoke rising “forever,” it means irreversible destruction. See Isaiah 34:10-15; Revelation 14:11.
The “worm” in the expression “worm that dies not” is a maggot that feeds on something dead until there is nothing left on which to feed. The idea of everlasting agony in torment originated with former pagan Greek philosophers who also thought human beings had a “soul” which will never die. Isaiah 66:24 read in context helps clear up the confusion. See also Mark 9:47-48.
The expression “unquenchable fire” in the Bible always signifies fire which cannot be resisted and which therefore consumes entirely. See Isaiah 1:31; Jeremiah 4:4; Jeremiah 17:27; Ezekiel 20:47-48; Amos 5:5-6; Matthew 3:12. Contrast human fire which can be quenched or put out, mentioned in Hebrews 11:34. Long after Christ, some church fathers understood the doctrine of hell as a fire which burns forever but never burns up what is put in it.
The Old Testament’s final book describes the end of sinners as ashes under the soles of the feet of the righteous. See Malachi 4:1-3. Long after Malachi, the apocryphal book of Judith introduced the non-scriptural idea that God will put fire and worms in people’s flesh so they will feel pain forever.
Jesus compared the end of the wicked to someone burning chaff, dead trees or weeds; he also said it will be like a house destroyed by a hurricane or someone crushed under a falling rock. See Matthew 3:12; Matthew 7:19; Matthew 13:30, 40 Matthew 7:27; Luke 20:17-18.
Jesus described Gehenna (hell) as a place where God can destroy both soul and body — the entire person. See Matthew 10:28.
By portraying hell’s punishment as “eternal,” the Bible indicates that this punishment takes place not in this life, but in the coming age; it also means that its results will be everlasting. See Matthew 25:46; 2 Thessalonians 1:9.
The context and lesson of the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus are about the urgency of responding to God while there is still time. The context of the parable has little if anything to do with what happens to the wicked after resurrection and judgment. See Luke 16:9-16 for the context, and Luke 16:31 for the lesson to be derived.
The New Testament uses the adjective “immortal” to describe the resurrection bodies not of the lost, but of the saved. See 1 Corinthians 15:54-57; 2 Timothy 1:10; 1 John 5:11-13.