What is the Fate of the Wicked?
(Part 4 of 5)
by Paul Hazelden


FotW Index

Contents

6.   The Weak Evidence for Eternal Torment
  6a.   The sheep and the goats
  6b.   If your eye causes you to sin
  6c.   Causing to sin
  6d.   Fire and darkness
  6e.   Lazarus
  6f.   Shame and contempt
7.   The Strong Evidence for Eternal Torment
  7a.   The lake of burning sulphur
  7b.   Smoke of torment
  7c.   Eternal smoke
  7d.   Day and night
  7e.   No rest
  7f.   For ever
  7g.   Reliable exegesis
  7h.   Nobody yet
  7i.   Summary

6.   The Weak Evidence for Eternal Torment

We have seen so far that the vast majority of the Biblical text supports the idea that the unrighteous will perish. What about the texts which are used to support the idea that they will not be destroyed, but instead will suffer eternal torments?

Let us take a work of systematic theology that argues for the eternal torment of the lost, and examine every one of the texts presented to support this view. If anyone wishes to supply any other passages, I will be glad to add them to this list.

For reasons which, I hope, will become obvious, I have divided the list into two parts: the weak evidence, and the strong evidence.

The weak evidence comes in these passages.

The strong evidence comes in just two passages.

This list comes from Know the Truth (1). To be fair, Milne does note that "conditional immortality is viewed by some as a viable biblical understanding of the future state of the impenitent" (which suggests to me that he does not fully grasp the concept); he also admits that the terms commonly used in the Bible, "such as 'destruction', 'ruin' and 'perishing' can imply some eventual termination of life" (as if you can perish or be destroyed without having your life terminated!) - but he clearly prefers the traditional position, even if it is uncomfortable.

We have already looked at the 2 Thessalonians passage in the section on The Day of the Lord. Here are the others. And, remember, this is the best evidence in the Bible that the wicked will suffer eternal conscious torment.

6a.   The sheep and the goats

Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.' (2)
"Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life." (3)

The first thing to note is that this is a parable - the parable of the sheep and the goats. A parable is a story with a message. It is not an allegory: you cannot take every detail in the story as significant.

The point of the story is that one group of people enjoy a good destiny based on the way they lived, the other group a bad destiny based on how they lived. However, if we assume that the details are significant, what are we actually told?

The goats are to depart into eternal fire, which is eternal punishment. Remember - fire means destruction, not pain. Punishment can involve pain, but there are many forms of punishment which do not.

So there is nothing in this parable to suggest that the wicked suffer eternal conscious torment. Instead, it fits very well with the 2 Thessalonians passage we looked at - being consigned to the fire as an eternal punishment corresponds perfectly to the doctrine of everlasting destruction: destruction which can never be reversed, a final punishment which can never be changed.

If the punishment is destruction, why is the fire described as being 'eternal'? The answer is given in the passage. The fire is eternal because it is not designed for people. The fire was prepared for the devil and his angels.

There is a serious case which can be made for the Bible teaching eternal conscious torment. But it is not the eternal conscious torment of human beings: it is the eternal conscious torment of the devil and his angels. We will come back to this when we look at Revelation.

6b.   If your eye causes you to sin

"And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell." (4)

Jesus is repeating a point He made in the Sermon on the Mount (5). This time, He is answering the question, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?"

There is not a lot here about eternal conscious torment. Unless you have already decided, against all the evidence, that 'the fire of Hell' must mean eternal conscious torment, you would naturally read this as describing two possible fates: you can either enter life (and thus, presumably, live), or you can be thrown into the fire of Hell (and thus, presumably, die).

6c.   Causing to sin

The parallel passage in Mark says much the same as the Matthew passage we have just looked at.

If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where 'the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched.’ Everyone will be salted with fire. (6)

The fire never goes out - this could be a reference to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; it could mean you should not hope to get lucky - don't gamble on the possibility that someone will have let the fire go out on the day you arrive down there; but it is probably just recognising that there is a fairly constant supply of food for the worms and fuel for the fire.

The word for 'Hell' is 'Gehenna', which comes from the Valley of Hinnom to the South-West of Jerusalem (ge'hinnom in Hebrew) where the rubbish was dumped and burned. The fire never went out because there was always rubbish being burned.

Mark is quoting from Isaiah 66, a passage which is not entirely clear. It seems to be describing a massive procession in which all the redeemed people go and look at the dead bodies of those who rebelled against the Lord. Talking about these dead bodies, Isaiah ends with the following description (partly quoted by Mark).

And they will go out and look upon the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind. (7)

The description is of dead bodies rotting and burning, not live souls writhing in agony. The worms and the fire serve to emphasise the horror of their fate, the deadness of these dead bodies, as opposed to the vitality of the survivors. It emphasises that these people are well and truly dead, and nothing is going to change that. There is not a single hint of the dead people suffering in any way.

The final part is a bit obscure, but it is probably a reference to the idea Paul refers to in 1 Corinthians 3:13, where "fire will test the quality of each man's work". It certainly does not contain any suggestion of eternal suffering.

6d.   Fire and darkness

And the angels that did not keep their own position but left their proper dwelling have been kept by him in eternal chains in the nether gloom until the judgement of the great day; just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise acted immorally and indulged in unnatural lust, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire. (8)

The punishment of Sodom and Gomorrah is eternal, in the sense that it will never be changed or undone, but it is not not eternal in the sense that the fire has now stopped because the occupants are all dead. Their punishment is complete. Being killed by fire probably hurt - I am not trying to suggest that God's punishment does not involve any pain - but it does not hurt for all eternity.

Talking about the same people, Jude goes on to say that these men are:

"wild waves upon the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars for whom the nether gloom of darkness has been reserved for ever." (9)

I am not entirely sure what the 'nether gloom of darkness' means exactly - but it is not exactly convincing proof of the reality of eternal torment.

And, for those who think that these details are all intended to be taken literally - how do you combine eternal fire with eternal darkness? A special kind of dark fire, perhaps? In that case, maybe it is a special sort of dark fire that does not hurt as it burns?

From this passage, yet again it is clear that the New Testament writers never intended us to take 'fire' literally. It is symbolic, and it means 'destruction', not 'torment'.

6e.   Lazarus

The most obvious passage which is not referenced by Bruce Milne is the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (10). The reason, of course, is that no respectable teacher suggests that you can derive doctrine from the incidental details in a parable.

Jesus is taking a popular story of His day, and twisting the message. The details in the story are the details His hearers are familiar with. In telling this story, He is not offering us teaching about the afterlife, just as, if I tell you a story which begins "An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman walk into a pub..." I am not offering you a sociological analysis of what it means to be English.

If you want to take this one parable as an accurate piece of on-the-spot reporting, you must also conclude that Paradise and Hell are close enough to hold a conversation across the gap, and there will be no judgement at the throne of God.

If you want to take this one parable as an accurate piece of on-the-spot reporting, you also need to note that it is clearly a description of a single incident in the after-life. It does not say or suggest that the torment is eternal. In fact, since the stated basis of the torment is the unfairness of their earthly experience (certainly not an eternal state!), the most obvious implication is that the different treatment after life will also be limited in time.

And, if you want to take this one parable as an accurate piece of on-the-spot reporting, you need to ask yourself this question. If Jesus wanted to teach us that people will suffer torment in Hell, why did He hide this vital news in the detail of a parable, and why did He not explain it explicitly to His disciples, as He did for so many other of the other parables they struggled to understand correctly?

The message of the parable is found in the final verse: "'If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'" Everything else is building up to and supporting that one simple message. Milne knows this, as does every other respectable Biblical teacher.

6f.   Shame and contempt

Another passage which is sometimes used comes at the end of Daniel.

Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. (11)

The first thing to note is that this comes firmly within the apocalyptic section in Daniel. This is a form of literature which people were very familiar with when it was written, but seems very strange to us today. You have to interpret what is said very carefully. according to the well established rules, in much the same way as you have to interpret the meaning of a political cartoon in a newspaper: they both use symbols and images to communicate a message, and neither expects to be taken literally.

The great challenge in reading apocalyptic literature lies in interpreting the images correctly: sometimes it seems reasonably clear, but at other times there is no agreement on the meaning and all we have is one person convinced of one interpretation and someone else convinced of another.

My personal rule of thumb is: if it is not clear, I probably don't need to worry too much about it. If God needs me to understand a passage, He is quite capable of making it clear, and has a wide variety of tools at His disposal to achieve that end. I study to understand the Bible in order to apply what I understand.

Other people phrase things a bit differently, but it generally comes down to much the same point: Biblical interpretation works from the passages which are clear, and interprets the passages which are less clear in the light of those which are more clear.

All of which is to say that we don't usually base doctrine on what we find in apocalyptic literature: it can illuminate our understanding of Biblical truth, but it should not be used as the starting point. This becomes quite relevant which we come to look at the passages in Revelation.

That said, this section of Daniel seems reasonably straightforward. It is, rarely for the Old Testament, entirely consistent with New Testament teaching on the end days: there will be a resurrection; some of those resurrected will enjoy everlasting life, while others suffer shame and everlasting contempt.

There is, I admit, nothing here about destruction; but, equally well, there is nothing about about eternal torment. People can look back at your memory with contempt long after you have died. The contempt can be everlasting, even if you are not.

7.   The Strong Evidence for Eternal Torment

7a.   The lake of burning sulphur

And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulphur, where the beast and the false prophet has been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever. (12)

Let's admit it up front: this passage talks about eternal torment. In fact, it is the only passage in the entire Bible which talks about eternal torment. But notice who is being tormented: it is the devil, the beast and the false prophet.

Jesus may have told us that the fire was "prepared for the devil and his angels" (13), but this passage suggests that in fact most of the angels will escape this fate - if you interpret the passage literally, that is.

And yet again, there is no suggestion here that ordinary wicked human beings will be tormented for ever. Possibly the beast and the false prophet are human - the point is not clear - but, even if this is so, they are the only two humans to suffer eternal torment.

And we should also remember that several passages in the Old Testament (14) suggest that the devil's suffering will also come to an end. And, possibly, the 'no more crying or pain' in Revelation (15) might even apply to Satan. In fact, most of the argument in the 'No More Tears' section (16) could also apply to Satan. The 'day and night' argument below would certainly apply. So maybe, even for him, 'for ever' means 'until it is finished'.

Finally, in passing, I would like to note how easy it is for John to tell us about eternal torment. "They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever." It is not complicated or difficult. Please bear this in mind when we look at the following passage.

7b.   Smoke of torment

A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: "If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark on the forehead or on the hand, he, too, will drink of the wine of God's fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. He will be tormented with burning sulphur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and his image, or for anyone who receives the mark of his name." (17)

I should say at the outset that this is the ONLY passage in the entire Bible that seems to teach us about humans suffering eternal torment. If you want to believe in it, and if you want a Biblical foundation for that belief, this passage is all you have.

And even this passage does not talk about eternal torment.

It does clearly talk about torment. "He will be tormented with burning sulphur" seems clear enough. As I have noted before, the eternal fate of the wicked may be destruction, but this does not mean that no suffering is involved.

But even this passage does not explicitly say that the torment is eternal. It talks about: (a) drinking the wine of God's fury; (b) being tormented with burning sulphur; (c) the smoke of the torment rising for ever; and (d) lack of rest day or night.

7c.   Eternal smoke

The language here is quite fascinating. It would have been very easy for John to say something like, "He will be tormented for ever with burning sulphur," but even here he avoids any reference to eternal torment. The only 'for ever' is the smoke going up - the consequence of the torment can be seen for ever.

The natural way of reading this passage is that these people will be tormented. The torment will produce smoke. The torment will cease, but the smoke produced will continue to rise for ever. Eternal smoke does not mean eternal torment, whatever people who are desperate to 'prove' their beliefs may claim.

If you are still not sure about this point, then a quick look at Revelation chapters 18 and 19 might help. In Revelation 18:1-8, we read about the fall of Babylon the Great. It will probably not be a surprise to discover that she will be 'consumed by fire' (18).

When the kings of the earth who committed adultery with her and shared her luxury see the smoke of her burning, they will weep and mourn over her. (19)

The point of the smoke is that people will see it, and understand what has happened. The point is made again in verses 17-18.

And every shipmaster and every passenger and sailor, and as many as make their living by the sea, stood at a distance, and were crying out as they saw the smoke of her burning, saying, "What city is like the great city?" (20)

The response in Heaven is a great multitude shouting praise to God (21).

And again they shouted: "Hallelujah! The smoke from her goes up for ever and ever." (22)

The point should be clear enough: smoke is going up for ever, but there is no suggestion that the burning goes on for ever. The smoke tells people what has happened: it goes up for ever because they need to remember.

7d.   Day and night

And this only leaves the final phrase. There is just one small phrase in the entire Bible on which you can attempt to build a doctrine of eternal torment.

John tells us, "There is no rest day or night" for these people. Now, God is quite capable of being clear when there is something He wants us to know, understand and believe, and whatever this means, it is not a clear statement of the doctrine of eternal torment.

You can interpret 'no rest day or night' as referring to eternal torment. But that is your interpretation: the doctrine is not in the text.

People claim that this statement (that some people will be tormented day and night) proves the reality of eternal torment because the Bible fails to say that this day and night torment will come to and end, but this rather stretches the principles of sound Biblical interpretation. The argument being used is very simple: "I am going to believe that the torment is eternal, because the Bible does not explicitly say that it is not."

If you start down the road of believing things on the basis that the Bible does not explicitly deny them, I can only say that we part company here. I would rather worry about believing the things that the Bible does explicitly teach.

What John seems to be saying is that the torment continues day and night, which is why there is no rest. But 'day and night' is not forever. Even if this is the right interpretation, it does not establish the doctrine of eternal torment: it only says that the torment, while it is taking place, continues without a break.

If a person is tormented day and night, we would normally expect this to go on for days or weeks. There is no reason (no reason in the Bible, that is!) to suppose that 'day and night' is actually intended to convey the idea of eternity.

Moreover, in the context of the book of Revelation, the phrase 'day and night' is almost proof that the lack of rest is not eternal: by the time we reach chapters 21 and 22 (23), there is no more night.

7e.   No rest

But even if we put all these considerations to one side, it is still a very odd choice of words. If you want to convey the idea of continual torment, it is very easy to say something like, "He will be tormented day and night with burning sulphur" - but John avoids saying it clearly.

Instead, the words John uses suggest a very low level of suffering. Having 'no rest' makes it sound more like they are worrying about something. It certainly does not suggest that they are suffering unspeakable torment.

The phrase 'no rest' suggests that the discomfort is mental rather than physical. I could keep you awake for a long time by continually inflicting pain, but would you describe this process as being given 'no rest'? I think not.

On the other hand, if you have done something dreadful, if you have let down and hurt someone you loved or someone who deserved a much better response from you, then remorse, guilt and regret may give you no rest. And this makes perfect sense in the context of the passage: these people have chosen to worship the beast, and now they know the full extent of their folly.

If it is the regret which produces no rest day or night, then the most natural way to read the "tormented with burning sulphur" bit is as a symbolic representation of the internal torment these people inflict on themselves.

I know this suggestion is a bit radical. I have been accused sometimes of 'distorting the Bible' by suggesting that a reference to burning sulphur in the book of Revelation might best be interpreted symbolically. But if you read the book very carefully, you might find a few other places where John slips in references to other things which might be intended to be interpreted symbolically.

So the reading of this passage which makes the most sense in context is that these people are tormented - they torment themselves for their own folly.

In any case, the passage does not say that they will be eternally drinking the wine of God's fury, that they will be eternally tormented, or that they will have no rest for ever.

So the only passage in the entire Bible which can possibly be taken as the basis for a belief in the eternal torment of unbelieving people still does not teach - still does not even mention - eternal torment.

7f.   For ever

We have already noted that terms like 'eternal' and 'everlasting' are generally used in the Bible to refer to purpose, not duration. That is still the case here.

We have already noted that a few chapters later, the smoke from Babylon ('the great prostitute') is described as going up 'for ever and ever' (24) without any hint of eternal torment.

And, shortly afterwards, we see 'a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away' (25). Are we expected to imagine the smoke from these suffering souls and from Babylon drifting up somewhere in the new heaven or the new earth? I honestly can't imagine that this is what John is describing.

All of which is to say, that in the Bible generally, and even more so in the context of this part of Revelation, I would not rely too much on the words 'for ever' meaning 'time without end'. As in many other passages, the obvious, simple and consistent understanding is that it refers to purpose, not duration.

7g.   Reliable exegesis

Perhaps I don't need to say this, but just in case... It is a well-established principle of exegesis that you do not attempt to establish doctrine on the basis of a single text. Another well-established principle says that you do not use obscure passages to establish doctrine which contradicts other clearer passages.

Both these principles caution us against using the only passage in the Bible which suggests there may be eternal torment as a simple 'proof text' for the doctrine.

It is, moreover, my personal opinion that anyone who tries to establish a doctrine on the sole basis of finding it in a single passage in the book of Revelation needs their heads examined.

Pardon me for being blunt here, but if you believe are the one person in the world who can accurately distinguish between what parts of the book of Revelation should be taken literally and what parts should be understood symbolically... please do not get in touch with me. I have spent enough time talking with such people to last me a lifetime.

7h.   Nobody yet

I have just one final point to close off this section: even if we are supposed to interpret this passage literally, even if it does talk about eternal conscious torment, it is still (as yet) an academic issue. Nobody who has yet died has suffered this fate - not according to the passage being quoted.

This passage does not currently allow you to say anything to anyone about the possibility of them suffering eternal torment.

Remember the context: if you do decide, against all sound theological advice, to base your belief in this one passage, you cannot apply it to anyone until after the angel flying in mid air has proclaimed the gospel to everyone living on the earth, and after Babylon the Great has fallen (26), and even then you can only promise this dreadful fate to people with the mark of the beast on their foreheads or their hands.

7i.   Summary

There are many passages in the Bible, both Old and New Testament, that clearly teach the wicked will perish, die, or be destroyed.

In contrast, there is not a single passage that teaches the wicked will suffer eternal torment. What we have are a number of passages which might refer to eternal torment, if that was what the Bible taught elsewhere, but which clearly do not teach or even suggest the idea of eternal torment themselves.

There is only one passage (27) which might possibly teach that a few specific wicked people will be tormented for ever - but even that passage does not explicitly state this doctrine, and is more likely to be talking about a limited period of intense regret for personal sin.

The only clear reference to eternal torment in the Bible (28) is not about people, but about the devil, and this one passage needs to be balanced against other passages which suggest the torment will not be for ever, and even Satan will one day be turned to ashes and the fire be allowed to go out.

As I said at the outset, it is possible to hold to a belief in eternal torment for the wicked. But in the light of all the Biblical evidence on this subject, is it not much more likely that the wicked will be destroyed?


Footnotes:

Note 1. Bruce Milne, Know the Truth, page 337 (IVP 1982, revised 1998)

Note 2. Matthew 25:41

Note 3. Matthew 25:46

Note 4. Matthew 18:9

Note 5. Matthew 5:29-30

Note 6. Mark 9:43-49

Note 7. Isaiah 66:24

Note 8. Jude 6-7

Note 9. Jude 13

Note 10. Luke 16:19-31

Note 11. Daniel 12:2

Note 12. Revelation 20:10

Note 13. Matthew 25:41

Note 14. Isaiah 47:14 and Ezekiel 28:18-19

Note 15. Revelation 21:4

Note 16. In the section No More Tears

Note 17. Revelation 14:9-11

Note 18. Revelation 18:8

Note 19. Revelation 18:9

Note 20. Revelation 18:17-18

Note 21. Revelation 19:1

Note 22. Revelation 19:3

Note 23. Revelation 21:25; the point is repeated in Revelation 22:5.

Note 24. Revelation 19:3

Note 25. Revelation 21:1

Note 26. Revelation 14:6-9

Note 27. Revelation 14:9-11

Note 28. Revelation 20:10

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