Matthew 25:41 is often cited in support of the doctrine of eternal torment in hell, owing to its description of the unsaved being sent into “eternal fire.” The phrase is also used in Matthew 18:8 and Jude 7, which are commonly cited as well (although less frequently). The idea is relatively simple: if hell is eternal fire, then it would appear to mean that hell is a fire that burns for eternity. If hell is a fire that burns for eternity, it must have fuel to burn forever. And since that fuel is people, it follows that people will be burned in that fire for eternity.1
However, this argument for eternal torment fails when we look more deeply at what the Bible has to say on the matter. In fact, when we understand how it uses the phrase “eternal fire,” it can even be seen as evidence in support of evangelical conditionalism.
What Details Does The Bible Give Us?
As is the case with many of the biblical passages that pertain to the nature and duration of hell, the topics covered in this article have been dealt with more thoroughly elsewhere.2 That said, from our brief survey here, it should become apparent why annihilationists are not frightened by the Bible’s use of the phrase “eternal fire” (pyr aiōnion in the original Greek).
The term appears three times in the Bible: Matthew 18:8, Matthew 25:41, and Jude 7. Neither of Matthew’s uses give much detail on what eternal fire entails. They give us other useful information, such as the fact the devil and his angels will go there and that it is synonymous with gehenna. However, this does not tell us much about what happens to those who are cast into it.
Jude 7, however, tells us a lot, and it flies in the face of the idea that people who are cast into the eternal fire burn for eternity.
…just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities around them, since they in the same way as these indulged in gross immorality and went after strange flesh, are exhibited as an example in undergoing the punishment of eternal fire…(NASB, emphasis added).
Isn’t that interesting? Jude seems to be describing eternal fire as something that Sodom and Gomorrah experienced. How are they an example? They are an example “in undergoing the punishment of eternal fire.” But what happened to Sodom and Gomorrah? We probably all know the story well. God rained fire and brimstone (i.e. sulfur) on the city, burning everything to the ground and killing everyone.
Let that sink in. The fire that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah was described as being eternal fire, yet those cities are not still burning. The fact that they were subject to “eternal fire” does not mean that they burned for eternity.
Twice in the Bible the term is given without explanation, and the only time we are given even an indirect explanation of what the term “eternal fire” means, it is a fire that does not burn things for ever and ever, but rather burns them up completely. Not only does this mean that we cannot assume that eternal fire is something that burns people for eternity in either of Matthew’s uses of the term, but it also provides evidence that eternal fire in the Bible actually means a fire that burns everything up!
Why Would Jude Call Sodom and Gomorrah “Eternal Fire”?
Does it not seem odd that Jude would use the term “eternal fire” to refer to a fire that did not burn for eternity? Why would Jude do so if it burned for only a short time, just long enough to burn up its targets?
There are several possible answers, but keep in mind that Jude said what he said. Whichever answer you think is best, Jude did describe the fire that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah as “eternal fire,” and so we must interpret its meaning accordingly.3 And if Jude meant it this way, there is at least a reasonable chance that Jesus meant it the same way (given that there is nothing in the context of Jesus’s uses of the term to indicate a different meaning).
Jude (And Jesus) Did Not Actually Say “Eternal/Everlasting Fire” in the Original Language
One suggestion is that it really should not be translated as “eternal fire” in this passage. The Greek word aiōnion can have meanings besides everlasting. One meaning is qualitative, describing that which is divine and of the age to come. That meaning certainly makes very good sense in the context of Jude 7, and it is certainly reasonable in Matthew’s less detailed uses. After all, we all agree that the fire is divine. The fire that fell on Sodom and Gomorrah was not a simple earthly wildfire. The burning sulfur fell from heaven at the hand of God. And any fires of hell (Matthew 18:8 and 25:41) would likewise be divine fire in this same way. In fact, the question is not whether the fire that fell on Sodom and Gomorrah – as well as fire in hell – is divine or everlasting. The real question is whether Jude’s words only indicate that the fires are divine, or whether his words indicate that this fire that is definitely divine is also, in some sense, properly called eternal.
This interpretation is that the former is true: Jude was simply describing the divine nature of this fire by qualifying it as aiōnion.
Of course, it is never ideal to hold the position that one or more passages of scripture are widely mistranslated (or at least not translated ideally) by Greek experts. That said, if there ever was an instance where this could happen, it would be here. In these three eternal fire passages, we are dealing with just one single word (aiōnion) with multiple meanings and connotations that is used in a supernatural, otherworldly context. So it is not as though one would need to question the competence of Greek experts for this theory to be correct. It’s just an unusual linguistic situation, that’s all.
Of course, this is not the only explanation put forth as to why Jude might have described the fire the way he did.
The Source of Fire Was An Actual Everlasting Fire in Heaven
Another possibility that has been suggested is that the fire comes directly from some sort of ever-burning fire from heaven, or even from God Himself. After all, God is described as a “consuming fire” (Deuteronomy 4:24). It could just be that this was meant at least a bit more literally than is normally thought.
It could be that this heavenly fire always burns, and literally is eternal. This fire is what came down from heaven. So while Sodom and Gomorrah did not burn for more than maybe a few days, the source fire is eternal. It is like how the Olympic torch is said to be the same fire that is lit on the top of Mt. Olympus at the start of the games, despite having been lit from another torch just seconds prior. The source of the fire is the fire on Mt. Olympus. Here, the fire that came down onto Sodom and Gomorrah emanated from heaven, from a fire that always burns, even though the inferno that this heavenly fire started went out.
Note that in this case, the phrase “eternal fire” does actually mean a fire that burns for eternity. However, the one time we see the term used and described at all, it is used to describe destruction and a period of burning that is temporary. Those subject to this everlasting fire do not themselves burn for eternity.
The Eternal Fire Was Eternal In Its Consequences, Not Its Duration
One more possibility is that it is called “eternal fire” because the results of the fire are eternal. This would be reminiscent of how Mark 3:29 (in many manuscripts, anyway) refers to an “eternal sin.” The sin itself is not an eternally continuing act, as if someone who blasphemes the Holy Spirit says “he has an unclean spiiiiirrrrrrriiiiii….” for eternity and never reaches the end of that sentence. The point is that the sin has an eternal consequence. Similarly, the “eternal judgment” of Hebrews 6:2 describes not the eternal act of judging, but the eternal results of a temporary act. This principle of “eternal” results is also applicable to Matthew 25:46 and “eternal punishment.” More on that, as well as additional examples of this in scripture, can be found in “Matthew 25:46 Does Not Prove Eternal Torment – Part 1.”
Here, the consequences of the fire are eternal. Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed and will never be rebuilt. Now, one might initially say that fire always destroys and burns things up, so wouldn’t all fire that burns something be “eternal fire” by that standard? However, while the literal log or piece of paper burned up can never be remade (except by the power of God), typically, when a building or city are burned, they are rebuilt. It is not the same physical material, but it is considered a rebuilding or re-creation of what was destroyed. But if Sodom and Gomorrah are never rebuilt, this could explain Jude’s use of “eternal fire.”
Interestingly, Jonathan Edwards, the famous fire-and-brimstone traditionalist, argued that Sodom and Gomorrah both suffered “eternal fire” and “eternal destruction” because they were destroyed and are to never be rebuilt.
The destruction to which Sodom is appointed is an everlasting destruction. This is said of the literal Sodom, that it suffered the vengeance of eternal fire [Jude 7}…The destruction that Sodom and Gomorrah suffered was an eternal destruction: those cities were destroyed, and have never been built since, and are not capable of being rebuilt; for the land on which they stood at the time of their destruction sunk, and has been ever since covered with the lake of Sodom or the Dead sea, or as it is called in Scripture, the Salt Sea.4
Edwards still asserts that the fire that fell on Sodom and Gomorrah is called “eternal fire” because it is meant as a type of what will happen to the unsaved, which he believed was eternal torment. Nevertheless, he grants all the points sufficient for the annihilationist here. Sodom and Gomorrah themselves suffered the vengeance of “eternal fire” in the eternal destruction of those cities, i.e by being destroyed and never coming back, not by their inhabitants being in a state of burning for eternity. The idea of swift incineration serving as a type of what will happen to the ungodly also doesn’t exactly hurt the case for annihilationism,
Additional Point: Use of “Eternal Fire” in the Dead Sea Scrolls
It is also quite noteworthy that the Dead Sea Scrolls use the Hebrew equivalent of “eternal fire” to describe a destroying fire.
Be thou cursed in all works of thy guilty ungodliness! May God make of thee an object of dread by the hand of the avengers of vengeance! May he hurl extermination after thee by the hand of all the executioners of judgment! Cursed be thou, without mercy, according to the darkness of thy deeds. Be thou damned in the night of eternal fire! (1 QS 2:2-8).5
According to the writer of this document, “eternal fire” is something that leads to extermination (and also, it is extermination that at least ostensibly can happen in the course of a night, not throughout eternity).
Of course, it must be noted that the Dead Sea Scrolls are written in Hebrew, not Greek, and so the extent to which we can appeal to parallels in the use of language between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament is limited. But while the parallel is not as ideal as if it were the same actual term in the same language, it is very telling that the general idea of what in English we would call “eternal fire” was used in the biblical era to describe destruction, not the eternally ongoing burning of the people in the fire. This serves as one more reason to see “eternal fire” as describing a destructive fire, and not one of eternal torment.
What Then Are We To Make of This?
What we are left with is the use of this term, “eternal fire,” on just three occasions and, at the very least, some real ambiguity as to how it should be understood. While many traditionalists see it as an unambiguous slam dunk for their view, it really isn’t so clear.
There is very good reason to see its use in Jude 7 as contradicting the idea of a fire that burns living people forever in hell, whichever alternative explanation above you think is correct. Jude used the term “eternal fire” to describe a fire that killed and destroyed what it burned, not a fire that burned them continuously forever. Matthew 18:8 and 25:41 use the same term without expounding upon what it means. If we are to use clear passages of scripture to interpret unclear passages, then the most likely explanation would be that Matthew’s two uses also describe a fire that destroys what is thrown into it and does not burn anyone or anything for eternity. In other words, the Bible’s descriptions of what eternal fire is actually evidence for evangelical conditionalism, not against it.
At the very least, it is a reasonable possibility that Matthew 18:8 and 25:41 used it the same was as Jude 7 (not to mention the Hebrew equivalent in the Dead Sea Scrolls), which means use of the term “eternal fire” when talking about hell does not prove eternal torment by any stretch.
On its face, describing hell as “eternal fire” sounds like it should be a fire that never goes out and burns everyone it in for eternity. But not everything in the Bible is meant to be taken at face value.
Consider this: traditionalists often expect us to accept the claim that the term “death” (and related words like “dead”), used very frequently in the Bible and in daily life outside of the Bible, has a special, Bible-only meaning of conscious separation from God. In any other normal discussion of life and death, we would all agree that in order to be conscious, you must be alive (i.e. not dead).6 And yet we are expected to accept this special, Bible-only meaning of “death” even though it is never actually explained in the Bible. It is ultimately inferred from (or read into) Genesis 2:17.7
In comparison, it is hardly unreasonable to suggest that an uncommon phrase used three times in the Bible might not have the meaning we would expect when taken at face value – especially when two uses are ambiguous and one use very much seems to contradict the face-value meaning we would expect.
In Part 2, we will look at some traditionalist rebuttals to my claims here. Stay tuned!
- Of course, many traditionalists today do not believe that hell is actually fire in the first place, which presents a lot of problems for their view, as discussed in a previous article titled “Why the Modern Version of the Eternal Torment Doctrine Falls Short.”
- For more on eternal fire in the Bible, see Sections XVI and XVII of The Bible Teaches Annihilationism by Joseph Dear.
- In Part 2 I will focus on traditionalist rebuttals to this idea.
- Jonathan Edwards, “Sermon IV. The Folly of Looking Back in Fleeing out of Sodom,” Works of Jonathan Edwards: Vol. 2, (1995), 172, reproduced at Christian Classics Ethereal Library, n.d., (accessed May 28, 2018). http://www.ccel.org/ccel/edwards/works2.pdf.
- A. Dupont-Sommer, trans., Essene Writings from Qumran, (Meridian Books, 1967).
- You can be alive and not conscious – at least temporarily – such as when someone is asleep or in a coma. But you can’t (normally) be conscious without being said to be alive.
- Other passages like Ephesians 2:1 are of course cited, but no actual argument is made from them to show how you get “conscious and separated from God” from “dead.” The crux of this entire traditionalist paradigm is based on Genesis 2:17. God told Adam he would die “on the day” he ate from the tree. Adam did not physically die that day, but Adam and Eve were kicked out of the garden and therefore consciously separated from God (and the tree of life that was necessary to sustain physical life, which is usually ignored…). Therefore, by “die” God must have meant “be alive but separated from God.” For more on Genesis 2:17, see “Warned of Sin’s Wages: A Concise Explanation of Death in Genesis 2:17 and Romans 6:23.”