Over the centuries Hades, Eternal Judgment, and the Lake of Fire (which is the technical term for Hell) have been issues of great debate within various Christian circles. I myself have long had the struggle of trying to understand exactly what the Bible is attempting to communicate when it speaks of Hell and the eternal punishment of the wicked. This struggle is something that one would expect every Christian to undergo with immense carefulness and cautious openness to how God's word truly addresses it in the original manuscripts. In this paper I will discuss the historical views within the church regarding what hell will be like and also do an analysis regarding what the word “eternal punishment” means in the original language and exegetically.
Currently there seems to be three dominant views regarding the Bible's revelation of Hell and Eternal Judgment. Those views are as follows: Eternal Conscious Torment, Universal Reconciliation, and Ultimate Annihilation. The traditional view for the past several hundred years in the Church has been Eternal Conscious Torment and the alternate minority view has historically been ultimate annihilation, both are considered to be evangelical by most respected theologians. The Eternal Conscious torment view goes as follows: After the Great White Throne Judgment those whose names are not written in the Lamb's book of Life will be thrown into a lake (all-encompassing geographical location) of literal fire which is often depicted as being thousands of degrees hot (some writers compare it to the temperature of the center of the earth). After being thrown into this lake of literal fire unbelievers will experience the conscious torment of being encompassed by fire for all of eternity for the sins they committed in life. Traditionalists usually use scriptures such as Revelation 14:11 to support this view. This view was thought to have been first formally systematized in the early 400’s by Saint Augustine.
“In no way did Augustine “invent” the idea of Hell, this idea had been around in many cultures for centuries by the time that he wrote his most graphic, detailed arguments for a punitive judgment. The City of God, Books XX and XXI concern these topics, and were completed in 426, four years before his death, and so represent his mature thought. Book XX is an exhaustive examination of the theme of judgment, with the emphatic emphasis on its retributive nature. Ideas taken up at the height of Hellfire preaching by the likes of Jonathan Edwards some 1300 years later find their origin here.” (1. Patton, Nic. soundandsilience)
The Universal Reconciliation view has only recently begun to find traction in the Evangelical Christian world, influenced greatly through a book by Rob Bell called "Love Wins." In this view, advocates use scriptures such as Colossians 1:20 to justify the idea that after a period of time in a lake of "purifying fire" the wicked will then be allowed to come and join the righteous to partake in eternal life with them all. The problem I have with this view (among many things) is that the gospel is about being saved by grace in this life, not by a process of purification by hellfire which punishes us into changing in the next life. Secondly, Revelation 21:27 states that anyone whose name was not in the book of life cannot ever partake of the blessing given to the righteous by grace (paraphrased). When the method of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone seems to change, I usually have a very difficult time giving merit to the idea, which is ultimately why I reject Universal Reconciliation.
The Ultimate Annihilation view has actually been around for centuries. It has usually taken a minority position next to Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT) due to the seemingly clear depiction of ECT in Verses like Revelation 14:11. Nevertheless, Annihilationists have put forward quite a few good questions regarding the original usages of words translated "forever and ever" in our English Bibles, which are derived from Greek words that have often been used to mean "age" or "eon" rather than "time without end." The annihilationist view generally believes that the wicked will receive God's just punishment in proportion to their sins by a process of being totally destroyed by literal fire in hell (the lake of fire). Many traditionalists argue that this would take away the fear of hell in people, but on the contrary most annihilationists believe that each man will certainly suffer a wrathful punishment by hellfire (in accordance with God's holiness and the particular person's sins) of which the timeframe is undetermined, this process will eventually lead to total destruction of soul and body. Annihilationists use quite a few seemingly unambiguous scriptures in order to support their view, such as 2 Thessalonians 1:9- "They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might," the Greek word here for "destruction" is "olethron" which means " ruination with its full, destructive results." They also use scripture like Isaiah 47:14, Matthew 10:28, Matthew 7:13-14, Matthew 13:40-42, 2 Peter 2:6 to communicate the idea that at some point the punishment of the wicked will become complete. It's important to note that annihilationists believe that the term "everlasting punishment" means a finite (yet severe) punishment that has everlasting results, not a continual "punishing" from God that lasts forever without end. Ultimate Annihilation has held a minority evangelical position during the majority of church history.
The vast majority of Christian writers, from Tertullian to Luther, generally held to traditional notions of hell. However, the annihilationist position is not without some historical warrant. Embryonic forms of conditional immortality can be found in the writing of Justin Martyr. Ignatius of Antioch (d. 107) is also supposed to be a conditionalist according to some conditionalist writers. In his Epistle to the Magnesians, he wrote "Let us not, therefore, be insensible to His kindness. For were He to reward us according to our works, we should cease to be". (2. Theopedia)
In light of the top two of these three views (Eternal Conscious Torment & Annihilationism) we begin to see that the debate is rested on two main ideas: 1.) Is the soul naturally immortal or did the curse of death from Adam's sin only affect the body? That is, if the soul is naturally immortal, it would mean the soul of the wicked could be tormented forever, if not the fire "or the second death" would eventually destroy both soul and body, see Matt. 10:28. 2.) What is the duration of time that the wicked will be tormented in the lake of literal fire, will they eventually burn up as some scriptures seems to imply, (2 Thessalonians 1:9, Isaiah 47:14, Matthew 10:28, Matthew 7:13-14, Matthew 13:40-42, 2 Peter 2:6) or will they eternally experience the conscience torment of being encompassed by fire (Rev. 14:11)? I believe that the honest person after evaluating the original manuscript evidence and hearing both sides make their case, no matter which view they concede to, will have to admit that the answer to these two questions is very difficult to completely know from a Greek word meaning standpoint to say the least. Both sides present fairly persuasive scripture and Greek word meaning evaluations (based on my current observations) to support what they believe regarding the nature of hell. To me this begs the question, "What key components regarding hell do we need to be careful not to compromise no matter which view we concede to?"
I think the basic relationship between hermeneutics (proper interpretation of scripture) and sound doctrine gives us the answer that we are looking for. The fundamental principle of hermeneutics is to use what God makes clear in His word to interpret certain concepts or verses that tend to be unclear. In light of this, I will list a series of scriptures that clearly portray what eternal judgment in Hell will be like for the wicked:
-It will be extremely unpleasant:
Romans 2:9- "There will be trouble and distress for all who do evil."
-It will exclude the wicked completely from the Presence of God forever:
2 Thessalonians 1:19- "They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might."
-Each man will be repaid in exact accordance with the sins he committed:
Romans 2:6- God "will repay each person according to what they have done." (Considering the depth of mankind's sin, this is a terrifying thought that must not be taken lightly)
- It will be a terrible day for the wicked when God executes His justice on them:
Malachi 4:5- "See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and terrible day of the LORD comes."
Revelation 20:11-"Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them."
- It will be extremely painful:
Luke 13:28- "There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."
-Every word we have ever spoken will be judged:
Matthew 12:36- "But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the Day of Judgment for every empty word they have spoken."
-Every hidden thing will be brought into the light:
Romans 2:16- "on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus."
Ecclesiastes 12:14- "For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil."
-None of the wicked will ever partake of the eternal blessings given to the righteous:
Revelation 21:27-"Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb's book of life.
The wicked will be punished in a permanent way:
Revelation 20:15-"Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire." (see also Matthew 25:45-46)
The wicked will be punished with fire:
Revelation 20:15-"Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire." (see also Matthew 25:45-46)
So, as you can see there are certain clear statements in the word of God regarding Hell and Eternal Judgment that we can be absolutely sure about. As I mentioned earlier in this paper two major elements of the implications of hell that are currently in debate between Eternal Conscious Torment and Ultimate Annihilation advocates are: 1.) Is the soul naturally immortal or did the curse of death from Adam's sin only affect the body? That is, if the soul is naturally immortal, it would mean the soul of the wicked could be tormented forever, if not the fire "or the second death" would eventually destroy both soul and body, see Matt. 10:28. 2.) What is the duration of time that the wicked will be tormented in the lake of literal fire, will they eventually burn up as some scriptures seems to imply, (2 Thessalonians 1:9, Isaiah 47:14, Matthew 10:28, Matthew 7:13-14, Matthew 13:40-42, 2 Peter 2:6) or will they eternally experience the conscience torment of being encompassed by fire (Rev. 14:11)? Whether or not we ever get a clear answer to these two questions doesn't negate the fact that hell is MOST CERTAINLY depicted as a place where perfect justice will be rendered to the wicked. We can be sure that Hell is the most terrifying place that anyone could ever go to. We can be sure that the enemies of God will regret having ever set themselves up against Him. We can be sure that sin, Satan, death, and evil will never again have a part in the land of the living. Now let’s move onto discussing the meaning of the phrase “eternal punishment” in the original languages and exegetically.
Many Evangelicals may not realize that there is actually a debate taking place regarding the meaning of everlasting punishment. I mean, come on, how much clearer can it get right? At first glance it would seem like having a debate over such a seemingly clear concept found in scripture would be absolutely pointless. Nevertheless, an interesting question has surfaced in reference to this component of the final judgment, that question being: "Does everlasting punishment equate to unending continual and repetitive punishing, or does it equate to a punishment that has an unending result or consequence?"
Let’s look at the most common scripture we find regarding this topic:
Matthew 25:45-4- "Then He will answer them, saying, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Before getting into the particularities of the debate itself I would like to uncover the basis of what exactly is being debated in this passage of scripture. The two words that seem to be in question in this portion of scripture are the words "everlasting" and “punishment." What I mean by "in question" is that these two words, depending on their meaning and usage, could absolutely mean two different things. So the debate centers on what the proper exegetical interpretation of everlasting punishment truly means. Let’s look at the Greek meanings:
Everlasting- Derived from the Greek word "aiōnion" which is used 45 times in the Greek Manuscripts of the New Testament. Aiōnion is derived from aiṓn which means "an age, having a particular character and quality." So aiōnion means properly, "age-like," "like-an-age," "age-characteristic," (the quality describing a particular age) or "relating to an age/ ages." If we combine this definition with the context of the 45 passages we find it in, we can be fairly confident that the word does tend to favor the words "eternal" or "everlasting." One must admit though, there is a marginal measure of ambiguity in asserting that aiōnion definitely means everlasting, I see a slight possibility that it could mean "age-long" or "a measure of undetermined time." (3. Strong’s Concordance 166)
Punishment- Derived from the Greek word "kolasis" which is used twice in the Greek Manuscripts of the New Testament. Kolasis is cognate to the latin word colaphus which means "a buffeting, a blow." Kolasis is thought to be derived from kolazo which means "to lop, prune, as trees, wings," this brings to mind the imagery of Matthew 13:30 where the weeds are gathered up from all of the Earth and burned. Kolasis is thought to properly mean (according to HELPS Word-studies), punishment that fits/ matches the one punished." (4. Strong’s Concordance 2851) Based on this definition, one could make a fairly persuasive argument regarding the justice of God revealed in Romans 2:6- "He will render to each one according to his works." This argument would state that if each person will receive a different measure of punishment according to their sinful deeds, then how could every one of them be punished unendingly? I have seen conditionalists make a good case by arguing that "eternal punishment" refers to the outcome of a finite process of punishing rendered in the lake of fire according to each person's deeds.
So, in essence this debate typically takes place between advocates of Eternal Conscious Torment (the traditional view of hell) and Evangelical Conditionalists (the annihilationist view of hell). The traditionalists would argue that punishment really means an infinite recurring level of torment, while the conditionalist would argue that punishment means a finite penalty which results in an eternal outcome. In this regard I remain undecided as to which view is ultimately correct. It seems to me that you would almost have to change the word "punishment" to "punishing" in order to accomplish the traditionalist interpretation, but then you would have to explain how phrases like "forever and ever" in other parts of the Bible that speak about hell means a “period or age” of time in order to accomplish the conditionalist interpretation. Nevertheless, the debate rages on.
In this paper we discussed a brief history of the different views of hell in the church. The scripture is clear that hell will be a tormenting, excruciating, and terrifying place of punishment for the wicked, but there seems to be at a consistent evangelical debate over the centuries regarding the duration of hell to the point where I feel it wise not to carry a heavy dogma regarding the issue. I would rather stress the perfect justice of God and how horrible it will be for those who reject Christ however long the duration may be. We also discuss the meaning of eternal punishment from a word meaning and exegetical perspective. This paper was intended to approach the topic of hell, justice and eternal punishment, from a balanced Biblical perspective, and I pray you were bless while reading it’s content!
Written by: Kyle Bailey, M.Th.
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