I want to start to take a look at some of the arguments against the conferred immortality view made by those who hold to a conscious ongoing torment view of hell. We certainly won’t cover every. single. argument. ever. made, but we can cover what I consider to be the major arguments. We begin with the terms “Eternal” or “Everlasting.” And I purposely lump them together, because they are actually the same Greek word, translated differently. We will consider four phrases:
1. Eternal Fire
2. Eternal Judgment
3. Eternal Destruction
4. Everlasting Contempt
Verses containing these phrases are oftentimes simply quoted with no interpretation as though the phrases themselves make the point. But is this the case? And is this how we ought to approach Biblical interpretation? Let’s see. In this article, we will focus first on the phrase ETERNAL FIRE, and some other instances where the term “fire” is used. It appears three times in the New Testament. The first instance is in Matthew 18.
8 “If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; it is better for you to enter life crippled or lame, than to have two hands or two feet and be cast into the eternal fire.
9 “If your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out and throw it from you. It is better for you to enter life with one eye, than to have two eyes and be cast into the fiery hell. (literally Gehenna)
Here Jesus is disclosing to the audience the reality of being cast into the eternal fire. It is a warning. No indication of eternal fire meaning ongoing conscious torment or pain is evidenced here. In fact, “fiery hell” or “Gehenna” is referenced.
Here is a short summary of this place “Gehenna” from the NET Bible commentary:
It was near the walls of Jerusalem, “by the entry of the gate Harsith” (Jer 19:2); the Valley Gate opened into it (Neh 2:13; 3:13). The boundary between Judah and Benjamin ran along it (Josh 15:8; 18:16). It was the scene of idolatrous practices in the days of Ahaz (2 Ch 28:3) and of Manasseh, who “made his children to pass through the fire in the valley of the son of Hinnom” (2 Ch 33:6), but Josiah in the course of his reforms “defiled Topheth, which is in the valley of the children (margin “son”) of Hinnom, that no man might make his son or his daughter to pass through the fire to Molech” (2 Ki 23:10). It was on account of these evil practices that Jeremiah (7:32; 19:6) announced the change of name. Into this valley dead bodies were probably cast to be consumed by the dogs, as is done in the Wady er-Rababi today, and fires were here kept burning to consume the rubbish of the city. Such associations led to the Ge-Hinnom (New Testament “Gehenna”) becoming the “type of Hell” (Milton, Paradise Lost, i, 405).
Notice what Jeremiah says about this place concerning it’s name change as referenced in the quote above:
32 “Therefore, behold, days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when it will no longer be called Topheth, or the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of the Slaughter; for they will bury in Topheth because there is no other place.
33“The dead bodies of this people will be food for the birds of the sky and for the beasts of the earth; and no one will frighten them away.
And again in Jeremiah19:6-7:
6 therefore, behold, days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when this place will no longer be called Topheth or the valley of Ben-hinnom, but rather the valley of Slaughter.
7 “I will make void the counsel of Judah and Jerusalem in this place, and I will cause them to fall by the sword before their enemies and by the hand of those who seek their life; and I will give over their carcasses as food for the birds of the sky and the beasts of the earth.
We can see that the only real description we have in this verse is a depiction of “the Valley of Slaughter” where dead bodies were thrown only to be eaten up by animals. Still, no indication of conscious ongoing torment. Next, we have the passage of Christ separating the sheep from the goats in Matthew 25. Notice what he says to the goats, or those who don’t believe the gospel.
41 “Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels;
Again, Jesus tells the listeners about this eternal fire and those who will face it. We are only told that such a thing exists. Again, no description is offered here of ongoing conscious torture unless we should simply view the word “eternal” as denoting an ongoing process. But let’s look at Jude 7. Its here where Eternal Fire is defined for us.
just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities around them, since they in the same way as these indulged in gross immorality and went after strange flesh, are exhibited as an example in undergoing the punishment of eternal fire.
Now we are shown what this ETERNAL FIRE is like. We are shown what it does. Want to know? Just look at what happened to Sodom and Gomorrah. This verse says they actually experienced the punishment of ETERNAL FIRE. Jude also says they were an example. This word appears only once, and is translated “a sample”. For instance, this word would have been used in regard to a sample of food or fruits. So, what did happen to Sodom and Gomorrah? Let’s look at Genesis 19.
24 Then the LORD rained on Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the LORD out of heaven,
25 and He overthrew those cities, and all the valley, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground.
26 But his wife, from behind him, looked back, and she became a pillar of salt.
27 Now Abraham arose early in the morning and went to the place where he had stood before the LORD;
28 and he looked down toward Sodom and Gomorrah, and toward all the land of the valley, and he saw, and behold, the smoke of the land ascended like the smoke of a furnace.
From this portion of Scripture, it’s clear that the ETERNAL FIRE completely destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. There is no indication that it had done anything else. If Jude tells us that this is a “sample” of what will happen to the wicked, we are thereby Scripturally forced to conclude that this fire will destroy the wicked. Nowhere from these texts can we conclude that the wicked will endure ongoing conscious torment. Granted, there may have been some who burned longer than others, and no doubt there was pain involved. But the fire leveled them. It’s not as though they experienced the final punishment already. At the judgment, God wouldn’t say, “Oh, Sodom and Gomorrah, you can skip this step because you already been there, done that.” Nope. They experienced a “sample” of what it will be like.
Another term that appears in the Scriptures is “Unquenchable Fire.” The assumption here is that it describes a fire that will always burn, and can never be put out. Is this what the Scriptures intend to convey? No. This is not what it means elsewhere in the Scriptures. Rather, it is always used to depict a fire that can not be resisted, or put out prematurely. In other words, it will do what it needs to do and no one will stop it. When we look at other instances of its usage, this becomes clear. Consider Jeremiah’s words:
27 “But if you do not listen to Me to keep the sabbath day holy by not carrying a load and coming in through the gates of Jerusalem on the sabbath day, then I will kindle a fire in its gates and it will devour the palaces of Jerusalem and not be quenched.”‘”
And now consider Ezekiel’s words:
45 Now the word of the LORD came to me, saying,
46 “Son of man, set your face toward Teman, and speak out against the south and prophesy against the forest land of the Negev,
47 and say to the forest of the Negev, ‘Hear the word of the LORD: thus says the Lord GOD, “Behold, I am about to kindle a fire in you, and it will consume every green tree in you, as well as every dry tree; the blazing flame will not be quenched and the whole surface from south to north will be burned by it.
48 “All flesh will see that I, the LORD, have kindled it; it shall not be quenched.”‘”
In both instances, God is not threatening the individuals with fire that can never go out is he? In fact, this is not how we would use the term in our day. I did a Google search and found one source speaking of Mexico’s “unquenchable fires”, speaking of fires that were breaking out. Are we to assume from the verses above that God threatened the people in Jeremiah’s day with a fire that could never go out on the gates and palaces of Jerusalem? Or was He threatening the same upon the forest of the land of the Negev? Or did the article I Googled intend to convey Mexican fires that will burn forever and ever? No. Of course not. If I can summarize, God is saying, “This fire will burst forth, it will do what fires do, and then be withdrawn. No matter what you try to do to resist it, you will fail.” So, lastly, let’s then ask ourselves, “What does fire do in regard to God’s enemies?”
Notice how God is described in the following verses:
“For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.
for our God is a consuming fire.
He is described as a “consuming fire.” Elsewhere in Scripture we read that God’s fire will “consume the adversaries.” This gives us an indication as to why it is elsewhere referred to as an eternal fire, being that it’s source is God Himself.
26 For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins,
27 but a terrifying expectation of judgment and THE FURY OF A FIRE WHICH WILL CONSUME THE ADVERSARIES.
We see from this verse that God’s fire will “consume” his enemies. This language is similar to Isaiah’s words in Isaiah 26:11:
O LORD, your hand is lifted up, but they do not see it. Let them see your zeal for your people, and be ashamed. Let the fire for your adversaries consume them.
What does this consuming fire do? In other words, when fire is said to “consume” something in the Bible, what does it mean?
Then the angel of the LORD put out the end of the staff that was in his hand and touched the meat and the unleavened bread; and fire sprang up from the rock and consumed the meat and the unleavened bread. Then the angel of the LORD vanished from his sight.
Complete darkness is held in reserve for his treasures, And unfanned fire will devour him; It will consume the survivor in his tent.
“Thus I have poured out My indignation on them; I have consumed them with the fire of My wrath; their way I have brought upon their heads,” declares the Lord GOD.
To further make the case, let’s notice what Scripture says about the burning bush that Moses saw:
The angel of the LORD appeared to him in a blazing fire from the midst of a bush; and he looked, and behold, the bush was burning with fire, yet the bush was not consumed.
It is clear when we compare the verses above that when fire is said to “consume,” it means to destroy or burn down. The bush was not consumed, yet if we were to find a good image of what the end of the wicked might look like according to those who believe in ongoing conscious pain, the burning bush would be a good indication. It was on fire, but not destroyed by it. In this passage, we are told it wasn’t consumed. Yet, we are told that God will, in fact, consume His adversaries.