*Updated December 5, 2012 for clarity and style.
The everlasting conscious torment of the wicked has long been viewed as a staple of Christian orthodoxy. However, a view called annihilationism or conditional immortality (that everlasting life is granted by Jesus to the saved alone) has support in the early church and in respected evangelical scholars. From Justin Martyr to John Stott, Roger Forster, F.F. Bruce, N.T. Wright, and Edward Fudge, thoughtful Christians have understood or at least given weight to the idea that the Bible teaches the final destruction of the wicked. Of course, this means nothing if the position can’t be supported by Scripture, the gospel message, and plain reason.
Plain reason might tell us that evil that never dies is inconsistent with a good God who controls the universe. It may also suggest that a merciful, loving God cannot keep the damned in eternal, conscious tormnet. However, God is just and whatever He does is by necessity just, regardless of our ability to understand it. If that means eternal fire, then may it be so. Thus, the most important criteria for Christians on this issue is: What does the Bible say?
What Is “Eternal?”
It doesn’t take you too much time in a reading of the New Testament to come across striking Scriptures like these: “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matt 25:46, ESV)
If eternal can be used of both God’s punishment for sin and for the life we have in Christ, and we know that eternal life truly is eternal, how can conditionalists distinguish between these uses of “eternal” in such a way that one means living forever and the other means being destroyed?
Jude provides us with a possible answer: “Sodom and Gomorrah… serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire” (Jude 1:7, ESV). Here, Jude uses “eternal fire” to refer to what the people of Sodom and Gommorah suffered. It is clear that Sodom and Gomorrah are not still burning, so Jude must mean something else by “eternal” than literally burning forever. It is exegetically acceptable, and also contextually quite warranted, to understand the consequences of the fire as “eternal.” Peter also uses Sodom and Gomorrah as an example for what happens in hell, but with quite different language:
“by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly” (2 Peter 2:6, ESV).
It becomes clearer now to see how Jude means that those who will end up in hell will suffer “eternal” fire–-the effects are eternal, irrevocable, unchangeable. As Peter says, they are “condemned… to extinction.”
This use of “eternal” can be seen elsewhere in Scripture, for instance in Hebrews 9:12, where it is stated that Jesus “once for all… [secured] an eternal redemption” for us (ESV). It is not that this redemption achieved “once for all” will actually be achieved over and over again into the future (which would be a contradiction in terms), but that it was obtained once and with lasting consequences (see also Isaiah 45:16 and Mark 3:29).
The Fire That Cannot Be Quenched
Isaiah 66:24 gives us additional language that is often used to support the traditional view of eternal conscious torment:
“And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh” (ESV).
Putting aside the language in this passage which implies destruction, such as “dead bodies,” it’s worth noting that Isaiah also described the fire which destroyed Edom as unquenchable:
“Night and day it shall not be quenched; its smoke shall go up forever. From generation to generation it shall lie waste; none shall pass through it forever and ever” (Isaiah 34:10, ESV).
It is obvious that Edom’s fire has not burnt forever, and that Isaiah only means that the punishment is permanent. He explains this simple fact using exaggerated, apocalyptic language. Why then, are we so quick to say that Isaiah means something entirely different when he’s understood to be referring to hell? Especially when Isaiah 66:24 refers to the bodies of the damned as “corpses,” “dead bodies,” or “carcasses?”
Ezekiel 20:47-48 offers us another parallel, this time referring to Negev:
“Thus says the Lord God, Behold, I will kindle a fire in you, and it shall devour every green tree in you and every dry tree. The blazing flame shall not be quenched, and all faces from south to north shall be scorched by it. All flesh shall see that I the Lord have kindled it; it shall not be quenched.”
Ezekiel’s meaning is clear–the fire cannot be stopped by anyone. It cannot be quenched. However, this fire will also utterly consume everything it touches. When it is said that a fire cannot be quenched, the claim being made isn’t that it lasts forever, but that it can’t be put out by human means–it will burn until it’s finished (see also Jeremiah 17:27).
What Does the Bible Tell Us About the Lake of Fire?
Revelation 20:14 tells us that, after the evil one and sinners, “death and hades [are] cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death.” If the purpose of the lake of fire is to torture forever, what is the point of saying metaphorically that death is thrown into it– why torment death forever? But if the purpose of the lake of fire is truly to destroy, then death is destroyed once evil has been also. This means that there is no death for those in Christ after the lake of fire burns up, though those outside of Christ have been destroyed.
Peter tells us more about the lake of fire’s destructive nature:
“But the heavens and the earth, which are now, by the same word are kept in store, reserved unto fire against the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men… The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up. [Seeing] then [that] all these things shall be dissolved, what manner [of persons] ought ye to be in [all] holy conversation and godliness” (2 Peter 3:7, 9-11).
This fire that Peter speaks of is the same fire that punishes sinners. In verse 9 he tells us that those who suffer it “perish,” and after that he tells us that the universe will melt away along with its evil works and will be BURNED UP and DISSOLVED. This is the purpose of the lake of fire.
“Behold, the LORD will empty the earth and make it desolate, and he will twist its surface and scatter its inhabitants. The earth lies defiled under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed the laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant. Therefore a curse devours the earth, and its inhabitants suffer for their guilt; therefore the inhabitants of the earth are scorched, and few men are left” (Isaiah 24:1, 5-6).
It seems to me that the best way to understand eternal death compared to eternal life is to look at John 3:16, in which Jesus says, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (NKJV). The word perish here is the Greek “apollumi.” The immediate meaning of the word is “to destroy fully.”
Similarly, we read in Matthew 10:28:
“And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him [God] who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” If God will not destroy the soul, why would Jesus make this threat? It seems clear that Jesus is telling you to fear the one who can do this because He in fact will destroy those who are thrown into hell, both body and soul.
For further reading, I recommend Edward Fudge’s exhaustive study The Fire That Consumes. If you’re pressed on time, his book with hell traditionalist Robert Peterson, Two Views of Hell is much shorter and offers a dialogue between conditionalism and traditionalism.