Some people have spent a lot of time studying the issue of hell. A small group of such people got together, and now we have RethinkingHell.com. But for many, this isn’t a top priority. So let me give an overview of some key things that the Bible says about hell, things that I think will surprise a lot of you who haven’t looked into this issue that much before now.
1. The Bible Warns Unbelievers of Death. It Even Says that Their Souls Will Die.
The fate of the unsaved is the “second death” 1 (emphasis added) (Revelation 20:14, 21:8). The wages of sin is not eternal torment, but death (Romans 6:23). Most importantly, the Bible even warns that sin leads to the death of the soul! It is written:
My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth and one turns him back, let him know that the who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. (Emphasis added) (James 5:20)
Just because many people tell us that we have (or are) an “immortal soul” and that “everybody lives forever somewhere” doesn’t make it true. 2
2. The Bible Says that God Will Destroy The Wicked (Including their Souls) in Hell
It is quite common to find, in traditionalist defenses of eternal torment, the emphatic reminder that many times when hell is spoken of, the Lord Jesus Christ himself is the one who spoke of it. However, this can backfire, because Jesus also said the following:
Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. (Emphasis added) (Matthew 10:28)
Hell is where God will destroy the soul! Some say that “destroy” doesn’t mean destruction in a literal sense, that it instead means conscious “ruin” or “loss.” However, aside from the consistent use of the word for “destroy” referring to killing and slaying 3 when describing what one person does to another in the synoptic gospels, 4 we have an indication of what is meant within the immediate context. Jesus directly contrasts what man cannot do (“kill the soul”) with what God can do. If Jesus meant that God would “ruin” body and soul in hell or something like that, then why would he directly contrast it to ability of men to kill the body and their inability to do likewise to the soul? It would amount to him saying, “don’t fear those who cannot kill the soul; instead, fear the one who isn’t going to kill the soul either.”
If God doesn’t do to the soul what humans can do only to the body (i.e. kill it, make it as vivacious and conscious as a corpse), then why would Jesus have even brought it up?
One might argue that even if annihilation 5 was meant, Jesus only said that God can do it, not that he will. But, that raises the question of why Jesus would have warned about what God could do if God would never do it, even to the wicked, no matter what. If this were so, “then the same purpose would be served by some absurd warning like ‘be afraid of the One who can turn you into a melon.'” 6
The meaning is simple. Man cannot render a soul as dead and lifeless as a corpse (which they can do to the body). But what man cannot do, God can and will do, which is to kill the soul, thereby destroying it as a living, conscious entity. 7
Other passages also speak of humans being destroyed. Matthew 7:13-14 has Jesus warning against following the path that leads to “destruction,” a path that is contrasted with the one that leads to life. Those are the options; life or destruction. It is that simple.
Several other passages speak of the same fate for the wicked, including Philippians 1:28; 3:19; 1 Thessalonians 5:3; 2 Thessalonians 1:9 8, and 2 Peter 2:12.
3. The Bible Does Not Teach That the Soul Is Immortal
It’s hard to prove a negative, but it’s a lot harder for anyone to find anything that actually says that the soul is immortal. Frankly, it’s often just assumed. It is as traditionalist Lorraine Boettner wrote: “In general the Bible treats the subject of the immortality of the soul in much the same way that it treat the existence of God – such belief is assumed as an undeniable postulate. 9 British theologian Eryl Davies, in defending the traditional view, expresses the sentiment even more clearly: “This [the immortality of the soul] is everywhere assumed in the Bible, although it is not explicitly stated.” 10
How convenient…But rather than just assume that the Bible assumes the immortality of soul, we should examine what it actually says about immortality. Aside from warning of death for the unsaved and life for the saved, it tells us some key facts about immortality:
[God] who alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see. To Him be honor and eternal dominion! Amen. (Emphasis added) (1 Timothy 6:16)
Immortality is something to be sought, and it is something that the righteous seek. Why seek something that is universal?
“God will repay each person according to what they have done. To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life.” (Emphasis added) (NIV, Romans 2:6-7) 11
Life and immortality both come through the gospel, which again, means that it is only for the saved (for only they accept the gospel) (2 Timothy 1:10). There is no truth, then, to the idea that the unsaved are “dead” (i.e. don’t have “life”) yet also have an immortal soul. 12
Indeed, it is assumed that the Bible teaches the immortality of the soul. Or, when people read the Bible and see such a declaration nowhere, they assume that the Bible must assume it to be true! But based on these passages that actually address the topic, we don’t have to assume anything to see significant evidence for the mortality of the soul. A failure to gain immortality would then logically doom the unsaved to an end to any sort of life, not continued life in torment.
4. The Bible Envisions Eternity in a Way that Renders Impossible the Eternal Existence of Anyone that is Unredeemed
For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth,and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Emphasis added) (Philippians 2:9-11)
If every knee bows, it’s hard to imagine how sinners could still be around, rebelling against God. Some have argued that they bow their knee out of abject terror, but there is something to be said about the argument that God does not delight in or appreciate false worship or submission. 13 Jesus certainly did not have a high view of that attitude, as it is written: “And He said to them, ‘Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: THIS PEOPLE HONORS ME WITH THEIR LIPS/BUT THEIR HEART IS FAR AWAY FROM ME'” (Mark 7:6). God does not delight in people honoring him with their lips (or their knees) when their hearts still hate him. And yet, Philippians tells us that all creatures bowing their knee to Jesus this was the very purpose of God sending him! That certainly sheds some light on what God had in mind there.
Some will argue that there is nonetheless evidence that the unsaved will sin and oppose God in hell for ever and ever (usually based a single misinterpreted passage in Revelation and their own theological assumptions), but that has been dealt with here already.
He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him with a view to an administration suitable to the fullness of the times, that is, the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth. In Him…(Emphasis added) (Ephesians 1:9-10)
Not just generically “all” things, but all things in heaven and earth. Everything that exists, will be in Christ. While one could say that the unsaved, in the traditional view, are under Christ’s judgment, they are surely not in Christ, which is the complete transformation of reality that the Bible describes.
When all things are subjected to Him, then the Son Himself also will be subjected to the One [the Father] who subjected all things to Him [Jesus], so that God may be all in all. (Emphasis added) (1 Corinthians 15:28)
If there is a place somewhere in creation where live, sentient creatures are stored away and kept apart from God (and according to most, sinning against him), how is God all-in-all? The language suggests a complete overtaking and filling of his presence. God is already everywhere in terms of geographic location (Psalm 139:7-8), so this must be meant in some even deeper sense, where he is all things to all things. That sure doesn’t sound like something that allows for some place filled with people that are detached from his goodness and fullness.
5. Many Passages That Are Said to Prove the Traditional Doctrine Actually Do the Opposite.
Mark 9:48 is a commonly cited by traditionalists. The passage speaks of hell, “where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.” It is reasoned that in hell, the fire burns forever and the worms keep eating the wicked (or something along those lines). But there are issues with that.
First of all, you don’t need a Ph.D in theology to know that to quench a fire means to actively extinguish it, and that a fire that burns everything up and is not extinguished but dies out on its own has not been quenched. Put another way, all fires that burn for eternity are fires that will never be quenched, but not all fires that will never be quenched are fires that burn for eternity. That’s why numerous times, the Bible speaks of fires that are not quenched yet are clearly not fires that burn forever (e.g. Jeremiah 17.27; Ezekiel 20.47). Instead, the fires in view consume everything because no one can put them out (i.e. quench them). A fire that dies out when it has burned everything up is still a fire that has not been quenched.
Even more important is the fact that Jesus is quoting the Old Testament. His words are not newly revealed descriptions of a place where people are constantly burned and eaten by immortal worms for eternity. Here is what he is quoting from:
Then they will go forth and look
On the corpses of the men
Who have transgressed against Me.
For their worm will not die
And their fire will not be quenched;
And they will be an abhorrence to all mankind. (Emphasis added) (Isaiah 66:24)
And what is Isaiah 66:24 speaking of? Corpses. Dead bodies. The bodies of the people God spoke of slaying in Verse 15. It should be obvious why this is significant; you cannot torment a dead body! Whatever Jesus meant by quoting that verse, he was using language that referred to what happened to dead, untormentable bodies.
Because of tradition, we all have this idea of a place where people go and live forever (even though they are “dead”) and are burned alive. Thus, when we hear Jesus speak fire of in hell, we are conditioned to think of that and see his words as proof of it. But if he’s alluding to God slaying people and their corpses being left to fire and worms, that really doesn’t sound like what we have been taught that Jesus meant. If Jesus was trying to convey the idea of people being conscious in torment, why on earth would he quote a passage about corpses? I would dare say that there is nothing further from the idea of eternal conscious existence than a reference to burning corpses! In light of Jesus’ God-breathed source material (the book of Isaiah), a much more reasonable interpretation than eternal torment is that the fires of hell will completely and permanently consume the wicked, like the fire and worms consume the corpses of God’s enemies slain on earth. They will be destroyed without any hope of another resurrection in eternity. 14
Numerous other examples exist, but hopefully for now, your appetite has been whetted.
So, to recap. The unsaved will suffer death. Their bodies and souls will be destroyed. The Bible ties immortality to God and the saved only. The Bible, in straightforward descriptions, describes an eternity where everything that exists is in Christ and where God is all-in-all. And as you’ll see, as you read more on this site and study the issue more, the passages that are used to prove the traditional doctrine fail. At least some, when looked at in light of clear Old Testament allusions or when looked at beyond just going “see, it says eternal,” actually lend weight towards the conditionalist position.
Now, this has been mostly one-sided, but that is because this is meant to be an introduction, not an exhaustive look at all the passages involved. Obviously, traditionalists have responses and rebuttals that we haven’t addressed in this article. That said, as you look into this deeper, I think you will find that, though some such rebuttals may sound convincing at first, they are insufficient. Don’t think that our arguments are superficial and that this is all we have. I wrote a 500+ page ebook on this topic; obviously our whole case doesn’t rest on a few snippets here and there!
But for some of you, I bet this is quite an eye-opener. We aren’t told about these things above, things that are right there in front of us but that we don’t expect to find and thus often overlook. Little things like this are why more and more Christians, when they seriously look at the Bible’s teaching on eternity, are rethinking hell.
- Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quotations I give are from the New American Standard Bible (NASB). Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright © 1960,1962,1963,1968,1971,1972,1973,1975,1977,1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
- Now, traditionalists will argue that by death, it doesn’t mean death like what happens to a dead body (which cannot feel or think or anything). They will argue it has a different meaning in the Bible. It is usually said to be a somewhat technical theological term simply for separation of two things. However, as shown previously, though death can mean more than one thing, and separation is involved, it is much more like what happens to a dead body than we have been told.
- Technically, killing and destroying are not necessarily the same thing (as you can destroy non-living things that cannot be killed), but it is a way to refer to the killing of live creatures as well (which is why many translators leave it as “destroy” in passages like Matthew 2:13). As discussed in a previous article, the important thing is that the unsaved are rendered as lifeless as corpses for eternity, regardless of how the inert material components are rearranged or disassembled. Of course, if Jesus did say “destroy” in order to convey that the soul would not only be slain like a corpse but would be blown to soul-smitherines, then that would get the job done all the same
- For more on this, see Dr. Glenn People’s article on the topic.
- As defined here
- Glenn Peoples, “Why I Am an Annihilationist,” Right Reason, n.d., http://www.rightreason.org/articles/theology/annihilationist.pdf (accessed October 28, 2013).
- Of course, many conditionalists do not see the soul as a separate, immaterial part of a person, but the point remains the same. If there is no immaterial “you” that consciously exists after death, and instead Jesus is speaking of a person’s identity that God maintains after the first death, or of some life force, or even if he is just saying that men can’t really take your life even when they kill your body because God resurrects the dead after the first death, the point still remains that the whole wicked person, body and “soul,” will be as dead and gone as a corpse that will either burn up or soon rot away
- 2 Thessalonians 1:9 is often appealed to by traditionalists as well, due to the use of the word “eternal” (which is assumed to mean that it must be an everlasting and conscious state or process), and because it speaks of something being outside of the Lord’s presence (in most but not all translations), which is assumed to mean that the lost are separated from God and remain conscious in that state for eternity. For rebuttals of these unwarranted assumptions, good resources include “Why I am an Annihilationist” by co-contributor Glenn Peoples, The Fire that Consumes by Edward Fudge, or, if I may, my own free ebook The Bible Teaches Annihilationism.
- Lorraine Boettner, Immortality (Presbyterian & Reformed, 2001) 78; emphasis added
- Eryl Davies, The Wrath of God: The Biblical Doctrine of Wrath, Final Judgment, and Hell (Evangelical Press of Wales, 1984) 56; emphasis added
- The NIV was picked here solely because the punctuation and structure of the translation of this verse make it ideal to quote. There is no difference in content between the NIV and the default translation
- In a recent article, fellow contributor Chris Date rebuts the notion that the unsaved, under the traditional view, can be considered “dead” and not having “life” despite being resurrected, conscious, and able to feel pain and sadness
- Julie Ferwerda. Raising Hell: Christianity’s Most Controversial Doctrine Put Under Fire (Vagabond, 2011), 121
- There is still the issue of the worms being said to “not die.” This has previously addressed here (and a more in-depth look at the fire not being quenched can be found here). However, even if we were to say that the worms are there for eternity and that the fire never ever goes out, we still have to deal with the fact that Isaiah is speaking of corpses, not sentient beings. What we are then left with is not traditionalism, but simply a bizarre and awkward situation where we have an everlasting pile of untormentable corpses being continually devoured yet never disappearing. So whether taken literally or pictorally, this passage does a better job of getting traditionalists to rethink hell than it does help the traditional doctrine