In the Old Testament it was believed that everyone who died went to the same afterlife—a spiritual destination under the earth called Sheol. It didn’t matter if you were good or bad or followed God or followed a false god. If you were human, then Sheol was ahead of you. It wasn’t a place of torture like Hell is thought to be, but it also wasn’t considered a great place since rebellious spiritual beings like Satan and the shades of the dead Rephaim giants lived there (Is 14:9).
Today, most think that the idea of Sheol was done away with by the time of the New Testament, but believe it or not, it’s still found there—it just took on the more culturally appropriate Greek name, Hades. If you’ve ever asked about this place in the Bible you’ve probably been told that Hades is just another word for Hell, but that’s not the case. Hades is pictured as a place in the spiritual realm where the dead go (Rev 6:8), just like Sheol. It is not pictured as much as a fiery place of punishment and torture like Hell is described in the Bible.
Though Hades does have a significant difference from Sheol in that God’s people were no longer expected to be found there after they died. Rather, the New Testament imagines dead Christians as having gone to live in a spiritual state in Heaven (Lk 23:43; Rev 6:9) while they await their return to earth when the resurrection comes. Hades, on the other hand, is pictured as housing those who don’t follow Jesus while they wait for the Day of Judgment (or the Day of the Lord) to arrive.
All of this leads us to an important question: If Hades and Sheol aren’t Hell, then what exactly is Hell? Because traditionally we’ve been taught that when we die we immediately go directly to Heaven or Hell and stay there for eternity. But is it possible that Hell is different than that?
Many hope so. I mean, let’s be honest: Most of us struggle with the idea that God wants to torture people in Hell for the next few trillion years. But I wonder if that’s a struggle we should hold onto, because it’s a question of morality for most of us, isn’t it? We wonder how a loving, self-sacrificial, patient, compassionate, forgiving, good Father could torment sinners of varying degrees for all eternity.
Now before we dig into the Bible to see what it has to say, let me say this: If God truly wants people to be tormented for all eternity, I’m willing to be okay with that, because I know that His ways are higher than mine and that (as unjust as eternal torment sounds to me) God cannot commit injustice. All of His decisions are just, right and wise—always.
But that being said, when I read about Hell in the Bible, I feel that the image we’ve painted of it today is not quite Biblically accurate; for I don’t feel like it is expressed as never-ending torment. To me it seems very plausible that Hell is ultimately supposed to do away with a person’s existence.
But how can that be? we ask. The human soul is immortal! Actually, contrary to popular belief and teaching, the Bible doesn’t say this. The belief of the eternal soul came around after the Bible was written.
Instead, what the Bible does teach, is that immortality is conditional and based upon our allegiance to God. This premise is no different from the world set up in the Garden of Eden. You’ll recall that in God’s presence there were two different kinds of trees we could eat from: The tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life. We chose the tree of knowledge of good and evil which turned us over to death, just as God told us it would (Gen 2:17). After eating from that tree, we had to leave behind the garden of Eden and the tree of life that could only be found in in God’s presence. Therefore, from the very beginning, any possibility of immortality was dependent upon being in God’s presence. Death has always been present in the world and when we sinned against God, we were turned over to it without the cure the tree of life had to offer.
Immortality is not owed us and it’s not inherent within us. Immortality is a gift called resurrection. And resurrection is dependent upon us having a relationship with Jesus. Have we allowed ourselves to be cleaned by Him and made ready to live eternally? Or is there no place in the new world for us because we’ve denied Him and therefore cannot live on perfectly in the coming perfection?
It seems to me that the Bible portrays Hell not as eternal torment, but as an eternal ending. Those who are sentenced there will eventually cease to be as the lake of fire devours them. And that’s not a conclusion I ever expected to reach in my theology! I actually blame the Bible for getting me there.
More specifically I blame Matthew. I once spent an entire year preaching through the gospel of Matthew and he constantly made me preach about Hell! It was so uncomfortable, but every time I flipped a page, there was Jesus once again talking about a fire called Hell that people could avoid by repenting and following Him. And so every other week I felt like I had to dig deeper into this unpleasant theme of Hell in order to stay faithful to preaching my series on the Gospel of Matthew.
But being forced to preach on Hell made me realize that the Hell I had been taught didn’t entirely match the Hell Jesus was preaching. For example, Matthew 10:28 says, “do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
I mean, that’s pretty straightforward, right? If Hell destroys both your soul and body, then what’s left exactly? Nothing. You no longer exist in a physical state and you no longer exist in a spiritual state. Your time on earth is done and your time in Sheol/Hades is done. You no longer exist. The lake of fire (Rev 20:14) that is Hell has consumed you completely.
This complete destruction is also found in a parable in Matthew 13:40: “Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the end of the age.” Not only does Jesus seem to be telling us in this passage that Hell comes about later and is not currently present right now, but He also envisions Hell as the fire a farmer throws his weeds into.
We don’t expect these weeds to burn for all eternity, right? No. We expect them to be gone in an appropriate amount of time and not exist anymore. What is an appropriate amount of time for a soul to burn? To that I don’t know. Perhaps it is a very, very long time. But the parable seems to set us up to believe that it’s not forever.
Though some would argue that the fire truly does go on forever since Matthew 3:12 talks about more useless vegetation being burned up in an “unquenchable fire.” But I still don’t think this means eternal, because we see unquenchable fires all the time in life, don’t we? We’ve seen forest fires that refuse to go out. We’ve seen houses burn down until there’s nothing left as the firetrucks try to keep up with the flame. This is unquenchable fire. It can’t be stopped and eventually it will have its way and burn everything down until it’s all gone. That’s the kind of unquenchable fire I think Hell is being likened to. No one should think that if they bring enough water to the lake of fire that they’ll be able to escape. It will devour everything it’s intended to devour until it’s no more.
In a similar manner, Mark 9:48 adds that worms don’t die in Hell, which leads many to believe that there will be torturous worms eating people up while they suffer alive in Hell. But this picture is the same as the unquenchable fire. In the same way that you can’t put the fire out, you also can’t stop the worms from eating the corpses. They will eat until there is no more. Both analogies are trying to state the eternal finality of the second death of Hell. They’re not trying to communicate some kind of never-ending torture.
Throughout the New Testament, Jesus constantly refers to Hell as a coming fire. What causes so many to believe that this fire is never-ending is the fact that Jesus often calls it an “eternal fire.” Eternal means forever and ever right? Yes, sometimes. But aiōnios, this Greek word for eternal, also seems to be used in reference to the “age to come.” In other words, aiōnios can be about a time to come and not necessarily a length of time.
You can kind of get a feel for that in Jude 7 where Sodom and Gomorrah is said to have undergone “a punishment of eternal fire.” Tell me, is Sodom and Gomorrah still burning today? No. But their sentence was eternal—it was final. They underwent a fire that completely wiped out their city until they were no more. Jude says that this is what Hell will be like on the great day of judgment: Like the fire of Sodom and Gomorrah.
In the end, the main reason many still contend for a view of never-ending suffering is because of the book of Revelation. For Revelation 14:11 says that “the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night.”
What do we do with a passage like this? Well if there’s one thing we know about John, the author of Revelation, it’s that he loves to allude to other Bible passages constantly. And in this passage, he’s actually trying to repaint the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah as the final judgment of Hell; For in Genesis 19 the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah had fire and sulfur (verse 24) and rising smoke (verse 28), just like John’s lake of fire had. But what about the lake of fire continuing day and night? Well, this is a reference to a prophecy in Isaiah 34:10 about an unquenchable fire in the land of Edom that goes on day and night. But Isaiah also uses key words that connect Edom back to Sodom and Gomorrah—so both John and Isaiah have Sodom and Gomorrah in mind when they talk about never-ending judgment. This is because throughout the Bible, stories of ultimate judgment like that of Sodom and Gomorrah and the great flood are are seen by the Biblical authors as a foreshadowing of what the judgment of Hell will be like on the Day of the Lord.
Now if you’re like me, you’re a bit blown away by how sturdy this idea of conditional immortality is. I mean, I grew up being taught every single week in church that if you didn’t follow God, He would torture you for all eternity. In fact, this was the evangelistic message of most churches: “Accept Jesus or unimaginable things will happen to you forever and ever.” And you can use the Bible to go that route if you want, but I’ve always had this fear that this view didn’t match the character of God. But at the same time, I refused to believe any other view of Hell because I figured that other views just didn’t want to accept what the Bible actually said. I don’t like writing off pieces of the Bible that make me uncomfortable. I prefer to sit with those passages until I understand them better or until I’m obedient.
But in this case, sitting with these passages pushed me to see something different than I once did. Again, it was the Bible that changed my mind. I wasn’t trying to study Hell, Hell just kept popping up in my reading until I felt like maybe my traditional understanding didn’t match what the Bible was saying. And to some extent, it’s kind of odd I missed it, because it has been staring me in the face my whole life: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16, emphasis mine). The most popular verse in the whole Bible argues that if we don’t go to Heaven with Jesus for eternal life, we perish. It seems to me that we can have eternal life or eternal death.