Does Matthew 8:29 Teach the Eternal Torment of Unclean Spirits?

Do the demons expect that one day, Jesus will torment them in hell for ever and ever? And is that what will ultimately happen to them?

The wording of a group of demons in one of the encounters Jesus had with a demon-possessed man is sometimes brought up as indicative of the eternal torment awaiting demons (according to the traditional view of hell):

And they [the demons] cried out, saying, ‘What business do we have with each other, Son of God? Have You come here to torment us before the time?’” (Matthew 8:29).1Unless otherwise noted, all scripture is quoted 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. 

Some have taken this to mean that demons will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.2Robert Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Thomas Nelson, 1998), 1076.3Michael burgos, Jr., “Hell No: The Terrible Hermeneutics of Annihilationism,” Biblical Trinitarian [blog], posted on October 21, 2016, http://www.biblicaltrinitarian.com/2016/10/hell-no-terrible-hermeneutic-of.html (accessed August 11, 2018).4“Hell,” Let Us Reason Ministries, n.d., http://www.letusreason.org/doct12.htm (accessed August 11, 2018).

On the surface, I can see the appeal. You have demons. You have a reference to torment/torture (the two terms mean effectively the same thing for our purposes).5In Greek, the word basanizó is translated as both “torment” and “torture” in different translations of this passage. Those who jump on the distinction between the English words “torment” and “torture” and say that those in hell suffer the former but not the latter run into trouble because this distinction isn’t being made in the actual Greek text of the New Testament. Furthermore, basanizó speaks of physical pain in many (perhaps even all) of the handful of times it is applied to sentient creatures (for example, Revelation 9:5 and 14:10). And you have Jesus being the one the demons fear will do it. If you already believe that Jesus will torture demons in hell forever, then this is the kind of thing you might expect to see.6Contrast the idea of demons supposedly being afraid that Jesus will torture them forever with the more modern idea that hell is eternal conscious suffering but separated from God and not involving any sort of torture but rather just sadness and regret.

Eternal Torment Is Read Into The Passage

However, it should be evident from the start that this interpretation reads a lot into the passage that simply isn’t there.

The demons simply ask Jesus if he is going to torment them. It never speaks of eternality. It never speaks of judgment or the end of the world. The doctrine of eternal torment is not laid out by this passage, as though the passage affirmatively teaches it. Instead, the doctrine of eternal torment, already believed by the reader, is used to fill in the blanks. The undefined “appointed time” is determined to be the end of the world when the demons are sent away to hell forever. The torture is the torture that God is believed to inflict on demons in hell forever.

Now, there is nothing wrong with using what you already believe the Bible teaches to fill in the blanks. There is a common saying in Protestant circles that we should use clear scripture to interpret unclear scripture. The same general idea applies here. However, if one is already using their view of hell to fill in the blanks in an unclear passage, they cannot then use that unclear passage as though it is strong evidence for their view of hell. That would be circular reasoning.

The most a traditionalist could fairly say is that their view of hell helps illuminate an unclear scripture, and therefore, the passage could lend some weight to the idea. It is fair to say that if an interpretation makes sense of various scriptures then this does help its case a little bit. Conditionalists do the same thing when the doctrine of evangelical conditionalism helps fill in the blanks in places.

But a traditionalist cannot say that just because the demons mention “torture” and an “appointed time” that this therefore gives strong evidence for eternal torment, since they have to read into the passage many of the elements of the eternal torment doctrine.

The Accounts In Mark and Luke Shine Light On The Encounter

Furthermore, this passage has additional elements that make it problematic as a text used to support the doctrine of eternal torment. Both Mark and Luke add details not included in Matthew, which help shed light on what exactly is happening in this passage. According to Mark 5:6-10:

Seeing Jesus from a distance, he ran up and bowed down before Him; and shouting with a loud voice, he said, “What business do we have with each other, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I implore You by God, do not torment me!” For He had been saying to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” And He was asking him, “What is your name?” And he said to Him, “My name is Legion; for we are many.” And he began to implore Him earnestly not to send them out of the country.

Luke further clarifies what the demons had in view (while still mentioning “torture”). He adds, “They were imploring Him not to command them to go away into the abyss” (verse 31).

With that in mind, it seems implied here that the “torture” the demons were speaking of was not being burned alive in hell, but being sent away. After all, in Mark, the demon begs Jesus not to torture him, and when Jesus doesn’t  respond, the demon repeatedly asks not to be sent away. The demons weren’t begging Jesus to not physically torture them.7Some might quibble that demons are not physical but you know what I mean. Obviously the doctrine of eternal torment means they are believed to be able to suffer some equivalent of physical pain, at least insofar as eternal conscious hell has historically included (quite emphatically) physical pain. They didn’t want to be sent out of the country and, as Luke further specifies, into the abyss. That was the “torture” they feared.

We have already established that Matthew’s account does not give an affirmative case for eternal torment, but at most fits within the already-established traditionalist interpretation. However, Luke’s and Mark’s accounts of the same event muddy the waters even further. In both Mark and Luke, what the demons feared was something separate from going to the lake of fire. So it would seem that the demons were not concerned with Jesus simply sending them to their eternal fates early. Rather, they were afraid of him doing something separate from and in addition to whatever their eternal fate was to be. That gives us a reason to reconsider the idea that this passage indicates their final fate is “torture.” They weren’t talking about their eternal fates to begin with.

Secondly, their being tortured and their being sent away seem to be one and the same. All three accounts mention the demons bringing up the possibility of Jesus torturing them. In Matthew, it is simply framed as a question. In Mark and Luke, we are told they specifically begged Jesus not to torture them. Yet in Mark and Luke, we are also told multiple times in that same context that they were begging not to be cast out of the man and also not to be sent out of the country (specifically the abyss in Luke’s account). Therefore, it was being sent away to the abyss, not being condemned to eternal torment, that they feared.

What then is the “abyss” that Luke mentions (and that Mark mentions indirectly)? The answer is not entirely clear, as very little is said in the Bible about this place. Revelation 9:1-6 shows “the abyss” as being a place that was sealed off and that, when opened, smoke rose out like a furnace and the locusts with the sting of scorpions came out to torment those on the earth for five months. It doesn’t tell us much at all about what the experience for those inside the abyss (especially given the highly symbolic and imagery-laden nature of the book of Revelation).

Some see the abyss as something of a rebel base for the fallen angels. According to traditionalist John Blanchard:

The ‘bottomless pit’ (modern Bible translations tend to call it the ‘Abyss’) is the temporary home and headquarters of Satan and his demonic angels. There is a hint of this early in the New Testament when Jesus was about to cast demons out of a man and, ‘They begged him repeatedly not to order them to go into the Abyss’ (Luke 8:31).”8John Banchard, Whatever Happened to Hell?, (Evangelical Press, 1993), 135.

Given the limited information we are given, this idea is at least consistent with what we see.

This does raise the question of why the demons were so afraid of being sent back there and considered it tantamount to being tortured. One possibility is that the abyss is a place of torment.

There is very little in the Bible to actually indicate that there is torment in the abyss. One possible allusion to such a thing is in 2 Peter 2:4, describing God’s treatment of the angels who had rebelled: “For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to pits of darkness, reserved for judgment…”

The phrase “cast them into hell” is the translation of a single verb, tartaroó, which stems from the Greek tartarus. This is the only place in the Bible tartarus is mentioned, so understandably it is the only time the word is translated in the Bible as “hell.” In Greek mythology, Tartarus could refer to a place of torment in the afterlife, and so it could be that it had such a connotation when Peter used it.9For more on the different words translated as “hell” in our English translations, and more on tartarus, see my free ebook The Bible Teaches Annihilationism.

Since God sent the rebellious angels to Taratrus until judgment, it would make sense that this refers to the same place spoken of as the abyss in Revelation 9. Thus if 2 Peter 2:4 is saying that God sent the angels to a place of torment, it would follow that the abyss would be a place of torment. This is speculative, based primarily on a single word in 2 Peter 2:4, but it is a possibility.

An alternative reason why the demons didn’t want to be sent to the abyss is not that the abyss is a place of torment per se, but that they did not want to have to stop possessing people. For example, Thomas Aquinas wrote the following while reflecting on Luke 8.31:

They asked for this, deeming it to be a punishment for them to be cast out of a place where they could injure men. Hence it is stated, ‘They [Vulg. ‘He’] besought Him that He would not expel [Vulg. ‘him’] out of the country’ (Mark 5:10).10Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica. Trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province, (Coyote Canyon, 2010), I, Q 64, A 4. 

Possessing people gave them a sick joy in life, and Jesus was sending them away to their cold, meaningless reality. Jesus met them halfway, freeing the man from their clutches but letting them possess a herd of pigs which apparently was still worth something to them (Matthew 8:31).

For what it is worth, I am more inclined to see the abyss as more of a headquarters (like Blanchard) than as a place of torment because demons can come and go from it with some degree of autonomy. The Bible speaks of both the devil and demons being out and about at various times, as if it were the norm. Jesus, after all, was going to make a special command to send Legion back, and Legion was surprised to see Jesus coming. What would be the point of having a temporary place where demons are tortured as punishment for their sins if they can leave?

Whatever the abyss is, cross referencing all three accounts gives a much different picture from what might be wrongly inferred simply by what Matthew said.

Even if 2 Peter 2:4 teaches that the demons go to a place of torment, and for that reason the abyss was a place of torment, this would still not indicate eternal torment. The only torment in view would be temporary, and even that much is not a given. The scripture tells us that God “committed them to pits of darkness, reserved for judgment” (emphasis added) (2 Peter 2:4). As traditionalist Eldon Woodcock notes, they are “to be held there until the final eschatological judgment (2:9).”11Eldon Woodcock, Hell: An Exhaustive Look at a Burning Issue (WestBow, 2012), 133. Neither 2 Peter 2:4 nor any mention of the abyss speak of the eternal fate of the demons, but only a temporary abode. So then, no matter what happens there, eternal torment would not be proven by the angels being cast there, or by Legion worrying about getting sent there by Jesus.

Reading Between the Lines?

Of course, it is possible to imagine a scenario where the demons really were talking about hell. Maybe the demon asked if he was being sent to hell early (recorded only by Matthew), and with that fear in mind started begging Jesus not to send him (i.e. them) there (recorded only in Mark and Luke). Jesus then told them this was not the case – a response recorded nowhere in scripture. And so once that was established, they were afraid of being sent back to the abyss, a fear unrelated to what they originally were afraid of.

But that seems like an awfully complicated way to interpret the passage when there is no compelling reason to do so – other than making sure that the passage is taken in the manner that is most friendly to eternal torment.  The three accounts are much more easily harmonized if we’re just willing to say that this particular mention of torture and demons is not speaking of eternal torment in hell.

What is “The Time”?

The question then must be raised as to what the demon meant by “the time” in Matthew 8:29.

In the past, I have gone through a number of speculations.12e.g. The Bible Teaches Annihilationism, Section XXV. But at this point in time, judgment day seems to make the most sense to me. That said, it is not my view that the torture the demons speak of is the eternal torment awaiting them on judgment day. Let me explain.

I am also very sympathetic to the view an individual on Facebook shared with me some years ago that it isn’t that there was an appointed time where the demon expected to be “tortured.” He was just using the term “the time” to speak of judgment day. The demons hadn’t expected Jesus to torture them at all, whether 2,000 years ago or at “the time.” They didn’t expect to encounter him prior to “the time,” so when they saw him, they feared he might come to “torture” them (by which we now know they just meant being sent to the abyss).

We cannot figure out what view of hell is true from Jesus’s encounter with the demon alone. Eternal torment makes sense in light of this passage. I’m not saying that this passage in any way disproves the doctrine. However, if annihilationism is true, it also makes perfect sense. The demons expected Jesus to at least try to destroy them on judgment day. They didn’t expect to see him prior to judgment day. When they saw him, they got frightened and were like “why are you here? Are you going to torture us before you destroy us in the future?”

Keep in mind they really, really did not want to be sent to the abyss, so even if it is not a place of torment, it would be understandable that like a child being really overdramatic because they don’t want to do their chores, they might call it “torture.”

That’s all. This encounter need not be very complicated.

Mark 1:24: “Have You Come to Destroy Us?”

There is a separate encounter that the Lord Jesus had with a demon who was possessing a man in Mark 1. In verse 29, the demon speaks and asks Jesus “have you come to destroy us?”

Now of course, in the debate over hell, the meaning of the Greek world apollumi (translated “destroy”) is always under scrutiny and debate. But it certainly does not hurt that another demon raised the possibility that Jesus might “destroy” him. In this case, the demon gives no additional detail to suggest “destroy” means anything other than to literally destroy. It makes as much sense as anything else for the demon to have meant “have you come to kill us?” Nothing in the context indicates that the demon must have meant “have you come to ruin us (and subject us to a state of eternal torment)?”

Robert Yarbrough: Destroy = Torture?

Now, Dr. Robert Yarbrough did raise an issue from the Mark 1 encounter in Hell under Fire in an attempt to make it evidence for traditionalism.

Second, in Jesus’ usage “destroy” can also mean to inflict enduring torment. That is, unclean spirits who ask whether Jesus will “destroy” them (apollymi; Mark 1:24; Luke 4:34) understand that destruction in terms of unending torment (basanizō; Matt. 8:29; Mark 5:7; Luke 8:28).13Robert Yarbrough, “Jesus on Hell,” in Hell under Fire. Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment (Zondervan, 2004), 81.

The idea is that if one demon said “destroy” and the other said “torture,” then it must be the case that these two words can be used to mean the same thing. And since there is some ambiguity and disagreement regarding apollumi (i.e. “destroy,”), then it must be the case that you can say someone who tortures someone “destroys them.”

However, to come to this conclusion, Yarbrough has to make several assumptions beyond what the text says and, at times, in contradiction to what the text says (as I have shown above). Yarbrough incorrectly assumes that both demons are talking about what Jesus will do to them at the end of the word, the one in Mark 1 using “destroy” and the others saying “torture.” But I have already shown that final judgment is not the “torment” in view in the encounter mentioned in all three synoptic Gospels.

Beyond this assumption that has been refuted, Yarbrough also assumes that the demons all know what their eternal fate is to begin with, which is not a given.  For all we know, the demons were just guessing at what they think Jesus’s intentions would be.

Not only that, but it is an assumption found nowhere in the text that the demons are speaking of eternal torment when all they even say is “torment”/”torture.” Like traditionalists who appeal to Matthew 8:29 in general, Yarbrough imposes his belief in eternal torment onto what the demons actually said. In fact, if the demons are thinking of non-eternal torment, then both fears of the demons could come true, since it’s possible to be tormented and destroyed so long as the torment is not everlasting.

Also worth noting is that these are not parallel accounts, Yarbrough seems to understand that they are not parallel accounts, but he nonetheless treats them as though they substantially are. Two different encounters are assumed to be about the same exact thing with the same exact meaning, only using a different word (and therefore the words are interchangeable). If they are not parallel accounts, there is no reason to think the two demons were necessarily thinking about the same thing, at least not without making a number of assumptions. Neither demon was giving a systematic explanation of what will happen after judgment day. They were two different demons (or set of demons in the encounter we have been focusing on) in two different contexts.

If annihilationism is true, then it is totally reasonable that in one context, a demon would ask if Jesus had come to destroy him, either because he knew that was his ultimate fate or even just because Jesus was someone to be feared. In the other context, another demon was afraid that Jesus might send them to the abyss (i.e. “torture” them) because they weren’t expecting to see him prior to the judgment day.

Conclusion

To recap, this passage doesn’t even indicate eternal torment on the surface if you don’t already have eternal torment in mind. You’ll find that this is a recurring theme when it comes to texts used to prove the eternal torment doctrine. Assumptions are made and eternal torment is read into the text.

When you dig into the passage deeper, including by comparing it to parallel accounts, it becomes all the clearer that the demons probably weren’t even talking about final judgment, save for a passing mention of “the time” in Matthew. Their focus was on not wanting to be cast out of the man they were possessing and being sent away to the abyss.

And elsewhere, an encounter with another demon raises the reasonable possibility that demons have been expecting that Jesus would destroy them, as evangelical conditionalism would dictate.

There is so much that these accounts of demonic encounters do not say that they really should not be a strong source of guidance as to what hell is going to consist of for demons. And that said, what is said just makes it that much harder to think that just because someone said the word “torture” that therefore the Bible teaches eternal torment.

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1. Unless otherwise noted, all scripture is quoted 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.
2. Robert Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Thomas Nelson, 1998), 1076.
3. Michael burgos, Jr., “Hell No: The Terrible Hermeneutics of Annihilationism,” Biblical Trinitarian [blog], posted on October 21, 2016, http://www.biblicaltrinitarian.com/2016/10/hell-no-terrible-hermeneutic-of.html (accessed August 11, 2018).
4. “Hell,” Let Us Reason Ministries, n.d., http://www.letusreason.org/doct12.htm (accessed August 11, 2018).
5. In Greek, the word basanizó is translated as both “torment” and “torture” in different translations of this passage. Those who jump on the distinction between the English words “torment” and “torture” and say that those in hell suffer the former but not the latter run into trouble because this distinction isn’t being made in the actual Greek text of the New Testament. Furthermore, basanizó speaks of physical pain in many (perhaps even all) of the handful of times it is applied to sentient creatures (for example, Revelation 9:5 and 14:10).
6. Contrast the idea of demons supposedly being afraid that Jesus will torture them forever with the more modern idea that hell is eternal conscious suffering but separated from God and not involving any sort of torture but rather just sadness and regret.
7. Some might quibble that demons are not physical but you know what I mean. Obviously the doctrine of eternal torment means they are believed to be able to suffer some equivalent of physical pain, at least insofar as eternal conscious hell has historically included (quite emphatically) physical pain.
8. John Banchard, Whatever Happened to Hell?, (Evangelical Press, 1993), 135.
9. For more on the different words translated as “hell” in our English translations, and more on tartarus, see my free ebook The Bible Teaches Annihilationism.
10. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica. Trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province, (Coyote Canyon, 2010), I, Q 64, A 4.
11. Eldon Woodcock, Hell: An Exhaustive Look at a Burning Issue (WestBow, 2012), 133.
12. e.g. The Bible Teaches Annihilationism, Section XXV.
13. Robert Yarbrough, “Jesus on Hell,” in Hell under Fire. Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment (Zondervan, 2004), 81.
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