One always unpleasant but ultimately necessary task that comes into play when discussing the nature of final punishment is digging into the specifics. Historically, Christian writers have not shied away from expounding on hell beyond just the basic question of whether hell is a place of eternal torment, annihilation, or temporary discipline that that leads to universal salvation. And this is the case today as much as ever, as more and more who hold the traditional view expound upon the specifics of it in a way that I argue makes it increasingly untenable (and less traditional).
Increasingly among evangelicals (though not only among evangelicals), hell is seen not as a place of eternal conscious burning, of the unsaved being tormented by fire and manifestations of God’s wrath, but as a place where the chief element of the suffering is sadness from being separated from God. The fire is seen as a metaphor. The torment is described as emotional and spiritual, not physical torture inflicted by God or his agents. An attempt is made to depart from the common pop culture trope of the eternal torture chamber.
For example, according to JP Moreland:
Well, for one thing, hell is not a torture chamber…God doesn’t torture people in hell. 1
Frank Turek further elaborates on the idea of hell not being “torture” but rather passive, non-physical “torment.”
God Tortures People in Hell – No, the Bible never describes hell as “torture.” Hell is described as a “place of “torment,” which is the anguish one experiences being separated from God. And those in hell have made their choice and do not ask to get out. 2
This distinction between the English words “torture” and “torment” is a fairly common refrain among advocates of the form of eternal conscious punishment in question – more on that below. 3
Similarly, according to William Lane Craig:
I don’t think that hell is what is depicted in medieval paintings of torture racks and pictures of red hot irons and things of that sort. It seems to me that the essence of hell is what Paul describes in 1 Thessalonians 1:5 [sic] when he says “they shall suffer the punishment of exclusion from the presence of the lord and from the glory of his might.’ And I think that is the anguish of hell, the separation from God, from all that is good and beautiful and lovely. To be left with one’s own crabbed and selfish heart forever; I think that is the essence of what hell is. 4
I could not even attempt a guess as to what percentage of believers view hell this way. It may actually be very high, or it may just be overrepresented in certain circles. But based on the teachings of numerous apologists, high-profile preachers, and other important figures, it is at least common enough to be considered mainstream. 5
I take issue with this view of hell for a number of reasons, both biblical and otherwise. Some of these reasons have been expounded upon here and there elsewhere at Rethinking Hell, so the following serves mainly as an overview that brings together the multiple reasons I find this view of hell especially weak, with numerous notes and references for further study (see below).
This Modern, Metaphorical View Isn’t Biblical
Needless to say, I don’t think the doctrine of eternal torment in any form is biblical. Nevertheless, this view of hell is especially problematic.
First of all, their isn’t much of a positive case for it to begin with. No passage actually spells out a fireless, metaphorical eternal conscious hell. No passage negates the idea of fire or physical torture. At most, passages believed to spell out eternal conscious hell do not go one way or another.
Even worse for this metaphorical view, a number of the passages commonly appealed to in order to demonstrate the doctrine of eternal conscious hell also explicitly speak of fire (e.g. Matthew 18:8, Mark 9:48, Luke 16:19-31). 6 7 8 Obviously, fire itself does not prove eternal conscious burning. After all, in nature, fire kills all living creatures and destroys many inanimate objects. In fact, one could argue eternal conscious burning in hell would involve a very strange fire indeed. 9 But a doctrine is never helped when key passages needed to prove a doctrine (i.e. fireless eternal torment) also have elements that, on their face, contradict said doctrine (i.e. fire).
Appeals to “torment” instead of “torture” are also problematic because they aren’t based on anything in the actual Greek of the New Testament. Both are usually translations of the same word, basanizo. And even in English, although there can sometimes be different connotations they both mean largely the same thing. For this reason, even English translations use “torment” when describing the infliction of physical pain by an external agent. One example is Revelation 14:10 where, whatever is ultimately meant by John’s vision, within the vision what John is told is that people will be tormented by fire (which means they are caused physical pain).
Speaking of Revelation 14:10, this single verse pulls together several biblical weaknesses with the modern, metaphorical view in one place. As noted above, Revelation 14:10 is problematic because the “torment” is clearly physical pain, physical pain that is inflicted by an external agent out of wrath. Not only that, but it is caused by fire. Rather than a place of no fire and only non-physical “torment,” this passage pictures physical pain caused by fire.
And just to make matters even worse, at least in many translations, this torment (i.e. torture) with fire takes place in the presence of the Lamb (i.e Jesus)! Now, I understand that the Greek word enópios (“in the presence of”) is sometimes rendered “in sight of” or “before” in other passages, but in most contexts that still presumes some sort of presence. I suppose it is possible that the point is that Jesus and the angels are watching from far away, but that at best provides a possible out, not a real reason to actually doubt the presence of God.
Traditionalists of all stripes readily appeal to this passage to prove that hell is a place of eternal conscious suffering. But it seems rather inconsistent to cite a passage describing people being physically tortured by fire in the presence of God (or at least “in the sight of” God) to prove your belief that hell is place of fireless, non-physical emotional torment caused by the lack of God’s presence…
At the very least, someone who takes Revelation 14:10 that non-literally is not in a position to out-of-hand dismiss annihilationist interpretations of this passage (and others) that rely on relevant symbolism and Old Testament background. 10
Of the fire passages, Matthew 25:41 is sometimes appealed to as evidence that hell is really just about separation from God. After all, Jesus tells the wicked to depart from him. However Jesus doesn’t just tell them to depart from him; rather, the very next words after “depart from me” are “into the eternal fire” (emphasis added).
It has also been said that hell was created for the devil and his angels and therefore, the fire must not be literal since spiritual beings would not be affected by fire. 11 Admittedly, there is something to this. Physical fire ostensibly would not affect spirits. However, someone who believes that hell will consist of literal fire that was made to be able to affect spiritual beings, perhaps a special divine fire, could easily respond that Matthew 25:41 doesn’t just say that hell was prepared for the devil and his angels. It says that the fire itself was prepared for the devil and his angels! It isn’t as though the Bible mentions demons in one place and fire in a different context. It specifically says the demons will be subject to fire, and even that the the fire was specifically prepared for them.
To put Matthew 25:41 into a nutshell, arguments used to show that hell is not fire are largely diminished by the fact that the verse describes hell as eternal fire. 12
2 Thessalonians 1:9
2 Thessalonians 1:9 requires a moment of special attention. It is often appealed to because some translations imply an element of being away from the Lord. For example, in the NASB the passage reads, “These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power” (emphasis added). 13
However, two things should be noted. First of all, not all translations imply a sense of being apart from God. For example, the King James simply reads “…everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord” (emphasis added). There is reason to believe that the passage may not necessarily indicate a separation from God, but rather destruction coming from the presence of God as its source.
Secondly, even if it is correct to say the eternal destruction takes place “away from the presence of the Lord,” and this destruction is meant in a non-literal manner consistent with eternal torment (as opposed to actually meaning destruction), that does not mean there is no fire or physical torture involved. In fact, the prior verse spoke of Jesus coming in fire and flames, and dealing out retribution. Of course, this fact further calls into question the idea that separation is in view here at all, since Jesus himself is actively bringing the fire and vengeance that the wicked suffer. But even if there is separation in view, this supposed metaphorical hell passage still can’t get away from connecting hell with fire. And separation would be consistent with the Lord casting people away from himself and into a raging fire – just like Matthew 25:41 talks about. 14
Fire and Darkness Do Not Necessitate Metaphorical Fire
A common refrain of those who hold to firelless forms of hell is that the Bible speaks of hell as fire in some places and darkness in others. These two entities are incompatible, and therefore, we shouldn’t take the fire references literally. Instead, both fire and darkness should be seen as metaphors for emotional or otherwise non-physical realities.
However, this argument has a number of weaknesses. As Ronnie Demler of The Consuming Fire blog points out, fire and darkness can exist at the same time in the same general place. Just imagine a brush fire that burns at night. You see both fire and darkness in one area. It isn’t absolute darkness, but the Bible never says there is absolute darkness to begin with. There are also a number of different ways how hell could consist of fire that is not visible. These include supernatural fire or fire that is enveloped in thick smoke.
Perhaps of most significance is the fact that believers throughout millennia not only have believed that hell was literal fire, but they also have written specifically about how hell could consist of fire and darkness. It is not as though past believers failed to put together the problem of fire and darkness. They were aware of it and have already addressed it successfully. 15
All Forms of Fireless Eternal Conscious Hell Fail to Make Sense in Light of Certain Biblical Descriptions
One problem with any form of hell that consists of eternal suffering but no fire is that the Bible, in several places, speaks of hell as not only fire, but also as fiery destruction. It speaks of the incineration of Sodom and Gomorrah being an example of what will happen to the wicked (2 Peter 2:6). Jesus spoke of hell as a fiery furnace where people are burned (up) like tares (Matthew 13:40). Malachi 4:1-3 paints judgment as a fire that burns the unsaved to ashes. 16
On its face, these passages and others like them are great evidence of annihilationism. But at least a traditionalist who believes there is literal fire can say that hell is like these descriptions because there is fire, even if the unsaved don’t actually burn up. But how can being burned up to ashes be reasonable metaphor for a fate that involves no fire and also involves eternal conscious existence? 17
It Is Historically Novel (Despite Its Adherents Still Appealing to Church History)
I have previously written at length about how, among those who believed in eternal torment throughout church history, the dominant view of eternal conscious hell was very much the fiery torture chamber that an increasing number of evangelicals are trying to distance themselves from today. Therefore, traditionalists who hold the fireless, tortureless view of hell that is in focus here go against the dominant view in church history. They are at odds with everyone from Charles Spurgeon, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, medieval traditionalists like Thomas Aquinas and Peter Lombard, early church traditionalists like Tertullian of Carthage and Augustine of Hippo, and many, many more. 18
Although I certainly don’t consider the church history aspect a dealbreaker – being a conditionalist puts you in a relatively small historical minority, after all – I do believe that the church history argument is the strongest argument traditionalists have (by far). This strongest argument for eternal conscious hell is lost when your own view of eternal torment varies so substantially from the bulk of believers throughout history.
Of course, this does not stop those who hold this non-traditional form of traditionalism from appealing to church history. For example, in his chapter on the afterlife in Reason for the Hope Within, Michael J. Murray, after reminding the reader that he has argued in his chapter that a view of “eternal physical torture” is “mistaken,” begins his conclusion with the following:
The Testimony of the Lord, the Scriptures, and the tradition of the Christian church speak almost with one voice in favor of the traditional doctrine of hell” (emphasis added). 19
Murray is not alone in appealing to church history in advocating eternal torment while himself departing substantially from what traditionalists in the church have taught throughout most of church history. 20 21 But it’s hard to justify appealing to church history to support your view over an opposing view when your view itself is not consistent with church history. 22
It Often Relies On A False Dilemma
This modern, metaphorical view of hell often relies on a false dilemma, especially when put forth by Christian apologists reaching out to unbelievers. The discussion is framed as though any hell of physical suffering inflicted by God and his agents (such as by burning people alive in literal fire) amounts not only to torture (which many past traditionalists openly said hell is), but torture done to give God a sadistic joy. 23 24
Obviously, I am no fan of eternal torment for many reasons, but I grant that the idea of eternal torture in hell has typically been based on it being done for justice, out of God’s just wrath against the unrepentant wicked. One does not have to view God as a sick and twisted deity who laughs at pain for its own sake to see eternal torment the way the vast majority of those who have believed in eternal torment have seen it. 25 It is a false dilemma to say that eternal conscious hell must either be without any fire or active infliction of suffering by God or else God is a cruel sadist who tortures people unjustly because it makes him smile.
It is true that past traditionalists have expressed a belief that God and the redeemed would get joy out of seeing the wicked tortured in hell. 26 27 28 Traditionalists today who find that idea repulsive have all the more reason not to try to appeal to church history to convince people of their view…But even past traditionalists who took things that far weren’t rapists or serial killers who got sick pleasure from making other people suffer for no just reason. They believed that the physical, horrifying torment that God inflicted on the unsaved was the just and right punishment for the sins of the unrepentant. And praising God for justly avenging not only himself but also his people is a thoroughly biblical concept (even if eternal torture is anything but). 29 30
This View Softens Hell (Which We Conditionalists Are So Often Accused Of)
The fact that this view softens the narrative of hell that has traditionally been preached does not in and of itself bother me. If it is biblical then it is biblical. And it is not as though I had to be dragged away from the traditional view kicking and screaming because I just loved the idea of people being burned alive for ever and ever. While there are conditionalists who disagree, I do believe that being killed fully and completely (i.e. annihilation) is a less terrible fate than eternal torment (at least in most of its forms). It is still terrible, but less terrible. 31
It just annoys me when those who hold this eternal but metaphorical view still see themselves as being just as much defenders of tradition and of the hard doctrine of hell as the traditionalists of old whose view was actually traditional.
They aren’t. And if you hold this view, then you aren’t. Charles Spurgeon openly mocked those who believed there was no literal fire in hell. 32 Reformed theologian A.W. Pink even questioned their salvation. 33 And historically, the view is novel (especially the more passive, “separation from God” model of fireless hell). You can’t have your cake and eat it too.
I am aware that some who hold to a fireless, tortureless eternal conscious hell will say their view is even worse than being burned alive. 34 But to me, that largely comes across as lip service. I’m not saying that I think that anyone is intentionally lying, but that it is something people feel compelled to say so that they can still be part of the club and not be like those people who simply aren’t tough enough to accept the hard truth and who therefore deny eternal conscious punishment entirely.
It is reasoned that hell just simply has to be as absolutely horrible as is absolutely possible. So, although humans are simply not wired to imagine abstract despair with the same level of primal, instinctual fear and horror as the thought of incredible physical pain that goes on for ever and ever (and being burned alive is probably the worst physical pain one can imagine), it just simply has to be the case that the abstract despair of this modern version of hell is still just as bad or, for good measure, worse.
I just don’t think most people of any belief really internalize the claim that hell as envisioned by many today is as terrifying as the hell of old and truly believe this claim deep down. It seems more the case that those who hold such a belief deduce that logically it should be the case, and therefore choose to accept it. It certainly isn’t intuitive, and it is based on assumptions about abstract concepts (the Bible certainly never lays it out).
The eagerness of apologists to put forth their belief that hell is not a torture chamber is not consistent with a belief that hell is actually worse than a torture chamber. Trying to make God’s role in hell less active doesn’t solve the problem of hell, since God is sovereign over all creation and must therefore at least allow what happens in hell to happen. So what is the point of appealing to unbelievers who think an eternal torture chamber is too harsh if your view is really and truly that hell is worse than an eternal torture chamber?
Like I said before, I freely admit that I believe my own hell is not as hard as what has traditionally been believed. I’m not concerned about softening hell because I am convinced that the “softer” view of evangelical conditionalism is biblical and therefore true. But if the thought of softening hell does give you pause, then can you honestly tell me, if you really think about it, that the modern, metaphorical view of hell is not softer than what has traditionally been believed?
I am somewhat surprised that this view of hell has become as common as it is among otherwise conservative traditionalists. Many of the reasons people have for objecting to conditionalism also apply to this view. Many of the same passages of scripture often used to prove eternal torment also speak of fire and weigh against this view. Some go even further against the idea of it all just being a metaphor. This view goes against the bulk of church history (I believe much moreso than conditionalism). This view also goes against the culture-wide paradigm of what “hell” means. No doubt conditionalism seems suspect to many at first because it goes against the conventional wisdom. But the conventional wisdom also says that hell is fire and torture.
Whatever the case, the view that hell is eternal conscious suffering without fire, torture, or active wrath is just not a strong position. It ultimately seems to me like an unstable middle ground between evangelical conditionalism and the fiery, torture chamber view of hell historically held by most traditionalists, a view they held based on their reading of the handful of scripture passages believed to prove eternal conscious hell.
At the end of the day, if you are going to hold to eternal conscious punishment within a broader historical and biblical Christian framework, you have to own what that really entails.
- J.P. Moreland, “Objection #6: A Loving God Would Never Torture People in Hell,” The Case for Faith by Lee Strobel (Zondervan, 2000), 173.
- Frank Turek, Stealing from God, (Navpress, 2015), 225.
- For example, see also J. Warner Wallace, “Can The Existence and Nature of Hell Be Defended? (Free Bible Insert),” Cold-Case Christianity, July 1, 2014, http://coldcasechristianity.com/2014/can-the-existence-and-nature-of-hell-be-defended-free-bible-insert/ (accessed September 10, 2018).
- Peoples, Glenn, “William Lane Craig on Hell,” Rethinking Hell [blog], posted March 3, 2013, http://www.rethinkinghell.com/2013/03/william-lane-craig-on-hell/ (accessed November 13, 2015).
- For more on this, see “The Not-So-Traditional View: Does Your Particular Belief About Hell Really Have Church History On Its Side? (Part 1).”
- For more on evangelical conditionalism and the phrase “eternal fire” (used in Matthew 18:8), see “What the Bible Actually Says about ‘Eternal Fire’ – Part 1” and Part 2.
- For more on evangelical conditionalism and Mark 9:48, see “Introduction to Evangelical Conditionalism – Mark 9:48.”
- For more on evangelical conditionalism and Luke 16:19-31, see “Introduction to Evangelical Conditionalism: Luke 16:19-31 (The Rich Man and Lazarus).“
- For more on this, see “Strange Fire: Distorting a Biblical Symbol.“
- For more on evangelical conditionalism and Revelation 14:10, see “A Primer on Revelation 14:9-11.“
- For example, see oneminuteapologist (Bobby Conway feat. Frank Turek), “946. Should We Take The Descriptions Of Hell Literally?” YouTube video, posted March 23, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C73t-dgfG2Q (accessed September 12, 2018).
- For an explanation of why the phrase “eternal fire” does not imply eternal conscious experience in hell, see “What the Bible Actually Says about ‘Eternal Fire'” – Part 1 and Part 2.
- The NIV translation is is very non-literal and adds multiple words not in the actual Greek when it says “and shut out from the presence of the Lord.” See Glenn Peoples, “Why I Am an Annihilationist,” 24, Right Reason, n.d., http://www.rightreason.org/article/theology/annihilationist.pdf (accessed July 26, 2017).
- For more on evangelical conditionalism and 2 Thessalonians 1:9, see “Annihilation in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 (Part 1)” and Part 2.
- For more on this, see Ronnie Demler, “Yes, Fire and Darkness Can Coexist,” Consuming Fire [blog], Patheos, posted July 11, 2016 (accessed May 27, 2018).
- For more on evangelical conditionalism and Malachi 4:1-3, see “Malachi 4:1-3 and the Final Destruction of the Unrepentant.“
- For more on this, see “Why the Modern Version of the Eternal Torment Doctrine Falls Short.”
- For more on this, see “The Not-So-Traditional View: Does Your Particular Belief About Hell Really Have Church History On Its Side? (Part 1)”, Part 2, and Part 3.
- Michael J. Murray, “Heaven and Hell,” Reasons for the Hope Within, (Eerdmans, 1998), 316.
- See also Jerry Walls rebuttal to conditionalist John Stackhouse in Four Views on Hell (Second Edition), (Zondervan, 2016), 96.
Note that Walls not only denies that hell is a place of physical torment, as has historically been taught, but he also believes that people in hell, throughout eternity, will be able to leave at any time if they choose to, and many will. Some will remain simply because they, out of their free will, will continue to reject God forever despite the option of repentance and salvation always being available to them. One has an easier time finding full universalists than finding such a view as this in past epochs of church history. See Wall’s chapter “4. Hell and Purgatory: Jerry Walls” in Four Views on Hell.
- See also J. Warner Wallace, “What Did Early Christians Believe About Hell?” Cold Case Christianity, January 19, 2018, http://coldcasechristianity.com/2018/what-did-early-christians-believe-about-hell/ (accessed June 17, 2018).
- For more on early church fathers who did not believe in eternal torment, including among those sometimes listed (incorrectly) as traditionalists, see the following:
– “Introduction to Evangelical Conditionalism: The Doctrine of Eternal Torment Was Not Universal in the Early Church.”
– Glenn Peoples, “History of Hell: Hell before Augustine,” Afterlife [blog], posted May 20, 2013, http://www.afterlife.co.nz/2013/church-history/history-of-hell/(accessed June 7, 2017).
- J. Warner Wallace, “Why Would God Punish Finite, Temporal Crimes in an Eternal Hell?” Cold Case Christianity, September 6, 2017, http://coldcasechristianity.com/2017/why-would-god-punish-finite-temporal-crimes-in-an-eternal-hell/ (accessed June 10, 2018).
- Dr. Sean McDowell, “Is hell A Divine Torture Chamber?” Youtube video, posted August 22, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=__OqEFm7JDQ (accessed June 10, 2018).
- For more on the use of the term “torture” by past traditionalists, including among English-speaking theologians, see Ronnie Demler, “Torture,” The Consuming Fire Blog [blog], posted October 5, 2012, https://conditionalism.net/blog/2012/10/05/torture/ (accessed June 10, 2018).
- Tertullian, De Spectaculis, chapter 30, trans. S. Thelwall, Ante-Nicene Fathers: Vol. 3, ed. by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, (Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885), reproduced at New Advent, n.d., http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0303.htm (accessed June 19, 2018).
- Thomas Aquinas, The Summa Theologiæ of St. Thomas Aquinas 3s:94:1 Second and Revised Edition, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (1920), reproduced at New Advent, n.d. http://www.newadvent.org/summa/4027.htm#article4 (accessed June 19, 2018).
- Matthew Henry, “Isaiah 66,” Matthew Henry Commentary on the Whole Bible, n.p., reproduced at Bible Study Tools, n.d., https://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/matthew-henry-complete/isaiah/66.html (accessed June 19, 2018).
- See Psalm 69:24-28; Psalm 139:19-22; Psa 143:12; Jeremiah 18:23; Romans 12:19; 2 Thessalonians 1:4-10; Revelation 6:10-11; Revelation 18:20; Rev 19:1-3.
- I go into this a bit more in my free ebook: Joseph Dear, The Bible Teaches Annihilationism, 1st edition, Section XLIV, Subsection C, found at 3-Ring Binder, n.d., https://www.3ringbinder.org/uploads/1/9/1/0/1910989/the_bible_teaches_annihilationism__1st_edition_pdf_version__final.pdf (accessed June 16, 2018).
- Lest anyone confuse the idea of an outcome being less terrible with being good or desirable, see “The Unsaved in Hell Would Want To Be Annihilated to End their Suffering!’: Why This Argument Completely Misses the Point.”
- Charles Spurgeon, “Sermon 66, 67,” [Sermon], London, UK, February 17, 1856, The Complete Works of Charles Spurgeon: Vol. 2, (Delmarva, 2014), Kindle edition, Locations 13191 to 13215.
- A.W. Pink, Eternal Punishment, (n.p., 1940), 36, reproduced at archive.org, n.d., https://archive.org/details/EternalPunishment (accessed January 30, 2016).
- For example, see Timothy Keller, “The Importance of Hell.” Redeemer.com, n.d., http://www.redeemer.com/redeemer-report/article/the_importance_of_hell (Accessed on October 17, 2015).