The traditional doctrine of hell has a number of scripture passages used to support it, a number of theological and philosophical arguments to support it, and no shortage of major church figures to appeal to in order to give it credibility. It also is based on some major assumptions that have little or no support.
One assumption that often comes up is a general paradigm, a general presumption, that the eternal and conscious experience of the kingdom of God to come (called “heaven” here for convenience) must be mirrored by hell. Therefore, just as heaven is eternal, conscious reward and joy, so hell must be eternal, conscious punishment and suffering.
I call this phenomenon the gospel of parallelism because it is so deeply ingrained in the minds of many and it influences how they approach hell broadly, as well as how they interpret certain passages. Needless to say, it is not an issue that actually affects the gospel that the Bible considers of the utmost importance in passages like Galatians 1:6-9 or 1 Corinthians 15:2-9. Nevertheless, this paradigm is of great influence for many, and the name is easy to remember.
That said, although this general assumption does appear in more developed literature – such as when Matthew 25:46 comes up – it is usually in more informal settings, such as social media and in-person conversations, that the assumptions are presented more explicitly.
This is something I have seen and thought about for years, and it is something I was reminded of in a recent conversation with another conservative, evangelical Christian. She had not spent much time studying the topic previously, but was beginning to do so and, therefore, had a number of questions and concerns.
At several points, she brought up philosophical or theological concerns about annihilationism, and an assumed parallelism between the eternal conscious experience of heaven and the experience of hell was part of that discussion. In addition to a few relevant passages that come up, I will bring up a couple of specific claims from that conversation that are representative of these kids of arguments for eternal conscious hell.
Matthew 25:46 and the Parallelism Between “Everlasting Life” and “Everlasting Punishment.”
Matthew 25:46 is perhaps the most commonly cited passage in favor of eternal torment in the whole Bible, and the fact that it grammatically parallels elements of heaven and hell is a big reason why.
These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.
Matthew 25:46 has been dealt with in depth on this site, of course. For a more in-depth look, see “Matthew 25:46 Does Not Prove Eternal Torment,” Part 1 and Part 2.
Note: For our purposes here, the English words “eternal” and “everlasting” are to be used interchangeably, as the two are translated from the same Greek and Hebrew words in the relevant passages. Arguments based on a distinction between the two English terms have no basis in the actual, God-breathed text of scripture.
The argument for eternal torment from this passage is that both “life” and “punishment” are qualified as eternal/everlasting. Since those in Christ will live forever with the Lord, the unsaved must be punished forever (since both are said to be everlasting). Therefore, if the unsaved are punished forever, they consciously exist forever.
The meat of the conditionalist response, in a nutshell, is that conditionalists can fully grant that in this passage, both the life and punishment are said to be eternal. This does not challenge annihilationism, since annihilation, as the permanent and eternal loss of life, can properly be called eternal punishment.
Conditionalism does not require denying parallelism. It simply requires that we assert a parallelism only where the Bible actually demonstrates one and not assume more is parallel than what is in the actual text.
This will be a recurring theme. If we do not impose upon the Bible parallels between heaven and hell beyond what is in the actual text, there simply is no case for eternal conscious hell that is based on the Bible paralleling heaven and hell.
Regarding Matthew 25:46, a conditionalist can treat “eternal punishment” the same as “eternal redemption” in Hebrews 9:12, “eternal judgment” in Hebrews 6:2, the “eternal sin” of Mark 3:29, etc.
In each of those cases, the “eternal + [noun of action]” does not speak of the underlying action continuing eternally. God is not judging for eternity. Jesus is not redeeming us throughout eternity (Hebrews 9:12 makes a point that He completed it once and never again). Rather, these actions occur (e.g. judging, redeeming), and the consequences (judgment, redemption) are what go on for eternity. It would be the same here, for Matthew 25:46. God punishes the unsaved by killing them (i.e. inflicting the second death of Revelation 21:8). They are alive and conscious to be punished at that point in time. Once punished, the result, their punishment (i.e. being dead and deprived of life in every sense), lasts for eternity.
Contrary to popular assumptions, eternal punishment does not require the ongoing act of punishing to continue throughout eternity.
With that all in mind, the only thing that the scripture here keeps paralleled is that the Greek words translated as “life” and “punishment” are both qualified with the Greek word aionios. Even if we grant that aionios properly means everlasting, and that it is meant the same way when describing punishment and life, this does not indicate that hell is an eternal conscious existence.
One may object that since life is both eternal and conscious, therefore punishment must also be eternal and conscious. However, the passage does not say “eternal and conscious,” does it? That conclusion is therefore just an assumption, not an interpretation of anything in the text.
Daniel 12:2 and the Parallelism Between “Everlasting Life” and “Everlasting Contempt.”
And many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt.
Like Matthew 25:46, Daniel 12:2 parallels the everlasting life of the saved with one aspect of the fate of the unsaved as also being everlasting. Note that it does not say that “heaven” and “hell” are both everlasting. Only a specific element of the fate of the unsaved is called “everlasting,” and it does not require that the unsaved people be conscious (i.e. alive) for eternity for this to be fulfilled.
In this case, what is qualified as everlasting is the Hebrew deraon, often translated as “contempt.” As has been noted before, this only describes how others (i.e. the saved) will regard the wicked who are ultimately lost. One need not be conscious and feeling anything to be viewed with contempt. Even atheists would have no qualms about saying that they view the worst villains of history with contempt, even though they believe that those men have truly ceased to exist.
And for good measure, the one other time the Old Testament uses deraon is in Isaiah 66:24, describing the disgust with which the living look at the corpses of those who rebelled against God.
For more on Daniel 12:2, see “Daniel 12:2 Does Not Teach Eternal Torment“.
Other Parallels and Fallacious Understandings of Silent Passages
For both Matthew 25:46 and Daniel 12:2, there can be a temptation to say that they both say heaven and hell are everlasting. However, the text of each passage is much narrower and more specific. Anything beyond that is an extrabiblical imposition onto the text. This is where we really see the gospel of parallelism really show itself.
Notice that I am not saying that because neither text teaches parallelism between the length of life in heaven and the conscious experience (i.e. life) of damnation, therefore these texts refute eternal conscious hell. I am only saying that these particular texts are silent on the issue.
Many of you reading this probably have understood that and will find this disclaimer to be a bit redundant. However, I have found that with a lot of people, they have trouble really being able to accept the idea that a specific passage of scripture could be silent or ambiguous on an issue. This is not unique to the topic of hell.
For them, to say that their view is not taught in a passage is to insist that the passage directly teaches against their view. The idea that a passage just isn’t decisive on its own just does not click in their minds. For people like me who use Excel frequently, it is the theological equivalent of a #REF! error. It simply cannot be.
However, I am not saying that because Matthew 25:46 and Daniel 12:2 do not specifically teach that the conscious experience of hell is everlasting, therefore they teach annihilationism. I do believe that they serve as evidence for annihilation for other reasons (see below), but all I am saying here is that we cannot cite passages like these as authoritatively giving us parallels between heaven and hell beyond what is in the text.
With that in mind, understand that at no point does any passage of scripture paint a parallel between heaven and hell such that we can rightfully infer that hell is an eternal conscious experience like heaven. Simply pointing out that a passage speaks of the fates of saved and unsaved together does not prove that both are eternal conscious experiences.
In fact, given that several passages directly contrast the fate of the saved and unsaved as respectively being life versus death and otherwise not-life (e.g. John 3:16, 5:29, Romans 6:23), the comparisons between heaven and hell in the Bible would appear to show us the opposite. Even the supposed parallels in Matthew 25:46 and Daniel 12:2 ultimately serve as a contrast this way: both speak of going to heaven as entailing life, with the logical implication that the fate of the unsaved, their punishment and their state of being viewed with contempt, entails not having life.
So much for the saying “everybody lives forever somewhere.”
Now then, as mentioned earlier, I recently had a conversation with a traditionalist about hell, and a few instances of the gospel of parallelism came up more directly. As I did there, in person, I will address them here as well.
Claim: Heaven Is Everlasting (and Conscious) So Hell Must Also Be Everlasting (and Conscious)
This claim comes in variations as well, such as “if heaven is literal then hell must be literal” (with “literal” being a stand-in to mean eternal and conscious).
But why would this be so? Why must this be the case? One might presume that this is the meaning of Matthew 25:46, but as shown above and demonstrated more in-depth elsewhere, this is not the case. That which is qualified as everlasting, the punishment, is consistent with annihilation.
This sort of thing can be hard to refute in some cases because, as was the case in that conversation, there isn’t really an argument to rebut in the first place. It is just presumed to be that way. It is just ingrained in the minds of many that it just is that way. This presumption is often bolstered by passages like Matthew 25:46 and Daniel 12:2, which then leads it to be read into those passages in a vicious cycle of sorts.
And so, the question that must always be asked with something like this is the simple question of where the Bible actually teaches this. Where does the Bible ever actually tie the length of hell’s conscious experience with that of heaven? It does so nowhere.
What is parallel in passages like Matthew 25:46 is the everlasting length of the two things qualified as everlasting. Any other parallels are assumed and not actually part of the text. So then, what is our actual authoritative source of doctrine? Is it our presumptions, or is it the Bible?
Claim: For Good to Exist, Evil Must Exist. Therefore, If There Is Always Good Then There Must Always Be Evil
This general claim about good and evil is made at times in philosophical circles, but I do not believe I have ever seen this used as an argument for eternal conscious hell by traditionalists in books or literature. I only recall hearing it in conversations and social media. This is understandable, since this view is probably the easiest argument to refute of all.
This argument for eternal conscious hell, and this general claim that evil is necessary for good to exist, is disproven by the fact that God existed in eternity past before creation. Before God created the world, he was the only thing that existed. And yet, God is good and not evil. This means that, at one point, there was only good and no evil. God’s very existence and nature disproves the idea that there must always be evil – and therefore, conscious hell – forever.
It is not enough to just point out that heaven is an eternal, conscious experience to prove that hell is also an eternal conscious experience. A logical connection must be made. That connection is not made in scripture. That connection is not made by the logic of the Christian worldview, especially given that the Christian worldview itself teaches that eternity past had no evil and only good because it had only God.
Because our lives as humans often have a strong sense of balance and dualism, a need for yin and yang, this can be read into eschatology. But as believers, we already abandon a need for this sort of metaphysical balance. We look forward to living in an eternal world without a balance of good and evil, comfort and pain, happiness and mourning. We expect to know only joy and goodness and to be free of the former things that bring us down now (e.g. Revelation 21:4).
We should not be tempted to see symmetry where there is none. Our question should be what God has revealed in the Bible. The more one looks into this matter, the more one should expect to find a final end to the wicked and an eternal world, lopsided in favor of beauty and grace, where God is all-in-all.