Is hell eternal? Let me split the answer into two parts: Is the place called hell eternal? Is the punishment of hell eternal? Regarding hell as a place, the answer is yes and no. The “hell” Jesus describes in Luke 16 where the rich man went is not eternal. The “hell” Jesus describes in Matt. 10:28 where God destroys both body and soul is eternal. Let me explain.
The English word “hell” is used in the New Testament to translate three different words: “gehenna” (occurs 12x), “hades” (occurs 10x), and “tartarus” (2 Peter 2:4). Hades is described in Luke 16:23ff as a place of
- torment/agony in flames
- memory and remorse
- perception of Paradise
- separation from God and the righteous
According to Rev. 20:11-15, after the wicked are resurrected from Hades and given immortal bodies (John 5:28-29), Death, Hades, and those not found in the book of life are cast into the lake of fire. This is the same lake of fire into which the beast, the false prophet, and Satan are thrown and in which they will be tormented day and night forever and ever (Rev. 20:10). That means the “hell” of Luke 16 is not eternal but is the temporary holding place for the wicked until they are resurrected, judged, and cast into the lake of fire.
Gehenna is described as a furnace of unquenchable, eternal fire where there is weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth (Matt. 13:41-42; 18:8; Mark 9:43-48). Jesus said that God created eternal fire (Gehenna) for the devil and his angels (Matt. 25:41). He also said that Gehenna is where God is able to destroy both body and soul (Matt. 10:28). Since those in Hades do not have a body, Gehenna appears to refer to the final place of punishment for the wicked.
The lake of fire is where the beast, the false prophet, the devil, death, Hades, and all those whose names are not written in the book of life are thrown (Rev. 19:20, 20:10, 14-15). It is described as (1) a place of eternal torment in fire and brimstone, and (2) the second death. My understanding is that Gehenna and the lake of fire refer to the same place, which is the eternal abode of the wicked.
Regarding, “Is the punishment of hell eternal,” Scripture answers, “Yes.” Matt. 25:46 is the clearest statement of Christ’s teaching on the eternality of hell’s punishment: “These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” In this passage, there are two groups of people being judged: the righteous and the wicked. The judgment for both is “eternal.”
If eternal life is never-ending, one should also conclude that eternal punishment is never-ending. Rev. 14:10-12 records the fate of those who worship the beast and receive his mark in language that indicates eternal, conscious punishment: they are tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and the Lamb, the smoke of their torment ascends forever and ever, and they have no rest day and night.
The question that surfaces most frequently when discussing eternal punishment in Hell is “Why is the punishment for a finite sinful act never-ending?” The Bible does not answer this question directly. However, the best answers I’ve found include the following elements:
- God is just; therefore, whatever penalty he prescribes for sin must be just.
- Sin is an offense against an infinite Being; therefore, it is not entirely finite in nature.
- We cannot determine the extent of sin’s effects, so we do not know that sin’s effects are finite. Eternal punishment suggests that they are eternal.
- Although Hell’s punishment is never-ending, all sinners do not receive the same level of punishment. In Luke 12:47-48 Jesus says those who knowingly do wrong will receive many stripes, but those who unknowingly do wrong will receive few stripes.
My study for this column has again impressed on me the horrors of eternal, conscious punishment in hell. No wonder Jesus told his disciples to do whatever it takes to avoid going to hell (Mark 9:43-48). Brothers and sisters, let us fear God, depart from evil, and flee to Christ!
Originally published in the Ministry Library of God’s Bible School & College.