The strongest arguments for everlasting torment are Scriptures with the words forever or everlasting. While many assume these words always mean throughout eternity, several examples in the Bible show they can mean a limited time. In other cases, only the effect is everlasting.
Owlam in the Old Testament
The Hebrew word owlam is usually translated forever or everlasting in the Old Testament. Since humans are mortal, this only means until death. Here are some examples:
"If you buy a Hebrew servant, he shall serve six years; and in the seventh he shall go out free and pay nothing . . . But if the servant plainly says, 'I love my master, my wife and my children; I will not go free,' then his master shall bring him to the judges. He shall bring him to the door, or to the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him forever. Exodus 21:2, 5-6. See also Deuteronomy 15:17
". . . then I will take him, that he may appear before the Lord and remain there forever . . . Therefore I also have lent him to the Lord; as long as he lives he shall be lent to the Lord." 1 Samuel 1:22, 28
Another example is Jonah. While in the belly of the big fish, he said, "The earth with its bars closed behind me forever." (Jonah 2:6) He thought he was going to die inside the fish. While this was forever to him, it was only three days.
Shame and Everlasting Contempt (Daniel 12:2)
Gabriel tells Daniel that some will awaken to shame and everlasting contempt. Traditionalists acknowledge that owlam (everlasting) can be temporary, yet they insist it means throughout eternity when it concerns the fate of nonbelievers after the resurrection. Robert Morey quotes a summary of owlam, in Girdlestone’s Synonyms of the Old Testament (p. 317). This clearly expresses the traditionalist’s position:
"Eternity is endlessness; and this idea is only qualified by the nature of the objects to which it is applied . . . When the word is applied to man’s future destiny after the resurrection, we naturally give it the sense of endlessness without limitation."1
The first part of Girdlestone’s quote is correct; in Daniel 12:2, the duration is qualified by the nature of nonbelievers. The Hebrew word for contempt in Daniel 12:2 also appears as abhorrence in Isaiah 66:24. This expresses how the faithful will look at nonbelievers. Clearly, the unfaithful will sense the contempt of believers for the rest of their existence.
The last part of Girdlestone’s quote, however, rests on the traditionalist’s assumption that nonbelievers will be immortal after the resurrection. This contradicts Scripture.
Aion and Aionios in the New Testament
When the New Testament says forever, it is usually the Greek word aion. This is misleading because aion means an age. We get the word eon from this Greek word. This time on earth is an age, and many passages referring to this time use the word aion. For example, aion is translated age or world in these passages:
"So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come forth, separate the wicked from among the just . . ." Matthew 13:49
"And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God. Romans 12:2
These verses cannot mean throughout eternity, since this world will pass away (Matthew 24:35, Mark 13:31, Luke 21:33, 2 Peter 3:10).
The Greek word aionios is a form of aion and is usually translated eternal or everlasting. This is also misleading because it can be temporary. A literal translation of aionios is age-lasting. Robert Morey even admits that aion and aionios can be of indefinite duration.2 We will now examine New Testament passages about judgment using the word aionios.
Eternal condemnation (Mark 3:29)
Some translations of Mark 3:29 say eternal sin or eternal damnation. In this passage, Jesus talks about sins that will never be forgiven (Mark 3:28). A similar passage is Matthew 12:31-32.
Although believers sin, God forgives them. In fact, God promises to blot our sins out and not remember them anymore (Isaiah 43:25, Hebrews 8:12). This shows that sins of believers are not eternal. An eternal sin is a sin that will never be forgiven.
Mark 3:29 makes a good argument against universalism, since nonbelievers cannot enter heaven with unforgiven sins. Everlasting torment is certainly a possible reading of this verse. It is not the only interpretation though, since extinction also fits.
Jesus twice warns that those who do not follow Him will go into everlasting fire (Matthew 18:8, 25:41). These same Greek words in Matthew's Gospel are also in Jude 7, which says, " . . . as Sodom and Gomorrah, and the cities around them in similar manner to these, having given themselves over to sexual immorality and gone after strange flesh, are set forth as an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire."
That fire is not still burning; only the effect is everlasting. Jude also says they were an example, and they are totally destroyed.
Traditionalists disagree. They claim it serves as a sample of an endless fire. While the example is temporary, traditionalists insist the fire of judgment will never go out.
Their interpretation could stand if we ignore 2 Peter 2:6. This parallel passage says, " . . . and turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah into ashes, condemning them to destruction, making them an example to those who would live ungodly." This example says all that remains is ashes.
Conditionalists believe the unfaithful will suffer temporarily, then cease to exist. Warnings about Sodom and Gomorrah plainly show this. First they serve as an example by suffering in fire (Jude 7). The fact that they were reduced to ashes and the fire went out also serves as an example (2 Peter 2:6). This is undeniable support for conditionalism.
While some traditionalists respond to Jude 7, they are at a loss to explain 2 Peter 2:6. Most do not respond at all. John Blanchard (Whatever Happened to Hell?, 1995), for example, references Jude 7 three times as the punishment of eternal fire (p. 140, 149, 243). He never addresses the fact that the fire is not still burning.
Blanchard only references 2 Peter 2:6 in the last paragraph of his section, Was Peter a Universalist? This same paragraph also contains his only reference to 2 Peter 2:12, which warns that the unjust will utterly perish like brute beasts. Blanchard concludes, "If that is the language of a universalist, words are meaningless." (p. 196) Words are also meaningless if that is the language of a traditionalist.
Robert Morey (Death and the Afterlife, 1984), like Blanchard, only mentions 2 Peter 2:6 in his chapter about Universalism (p. 254). Regarding Jude 7, Morey says they serve as a warning of everlasting fire (p. 140-141). If that is the case, what kind of warning is turning them into ashes?
Robert Peterson also says Jude 7 is a warning of everlasting fire in Hell on Trial (1994, p.83-85). He never addresses 2 Peter 2:6 in this book. In a dialogue with Edward Fudge (Two Views of Hell, 2000), he says, "it is better to take Peter's words as more generally predicting the downfall of the wicked than to understand them as foretelling their precise fate - reduction to ashes." (p. 156) Fudge responds, "If Peter could hear the conversation, he would probably scratch his head and wonder how he could have possibly written more plainly." (p. 200)
Some traditionalists consider Matthew 25:46 their strongest argument. Everlasting punishment is a completed act. Jesus does not say eternally punishing; He says everlasting punishment. Everlasting torment is certainly one possible interpretation, though not the only interpretation.
When someone misses out on the joy of heaven, this is punishment. Since the joy of heaven is everlasting, then missing out on it is everlasting punishment, whether they are conscious or not. Taking everlasting life from someone is everlasting punishment. We will say much more about Matthew 25:46 later in this chapter.
Paul’s Warning of Everlasting Destruction
. . . in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9
Everlasting destruction, like everlasting punishment, is a completed act. While the effect is everlasting, it is not an everlasting act. If the destruction were an endless process, Paul would say eternally destroying, not everlasting destruction.
The expression, "from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power" could be interpreted two different ways. One meaning is that the destruction comes from the Lord; God is the source of this destructive power.
Another interpretation of this passage is that they are away from the Lord. Traditionalists prefer the second meaning, since it implies continued consciousness. Even this does not prove their case. Without God's power they cannot live, since God's power sustains everything (Colossians 1:17, Hebrews 1:3). Away from His power, nonbelievers cannot continue. Since God is everywhere, nonexistence is implied.
Is Everlasting Redundant?
A common response from traditionalists is that the word everlasting is redundant. If destruction and punishment mean extinction, then everlasting is unnecessary in phrases like ‘everlasting destruction’ and ‘everlasting punishment.’
Destruction and punishment are not always everlasting. God destroyed the world at the time of Noah. This punishment was temporary destruction, since He will later resurrect them. The duration of this punishment was from the day of the flood until the second resurrection, which is temporary. Since they will be raised from the dead, we cannot call their destruction ‘everlasting punishment.’
When nonbelievers rise to face judgment, their punishment will be destruction and they will never rise again. This makes their punishment everlasting, which distinguishes final judgment from temporary destruction. Just as the everlasting fire that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah (Jude 7) ended when it accomplished its mission, everlasting punishment will end when it accomplishes its mission. It is only endless in effect.
Hebrews also uses aionios for acts that are only eternal in effect. Two examples are eternal salvation (Hebrews 5:9) and eternal redemption (Hebrews 9:12), which refer to Christ's sacrifice on the cross. These verses do not say Jesus is still hanging on the cross.
Another example is eternal judgment (Hebrews 6:2). The day of judgment will have eternal consequences. Judgment day, however, does not continue throughout eternity.
Same Words and Phrases for Believers and Nonbelievers
When speaking about final destinies, the same phrases used to describe the fate of believers are sometimes used to describe the fate of nonbelievers. Traditionalists commonly say that if we cannot be certain of eternal existence in hell, then we cannot be certain of eternal existence in heaven.
Their favorite example is Matthew 25:46, where Jesus mentions both everlasting punishment for nonbelievers and eternal life for believers. The Greek word aionios is used for both. Since eternal life means eternal consciousness, many insist everlasting punishment also means everlasting consciousness.
Matthew 25:31-46, which traditionalists reference so frequently, shows differences between the two groups. One difference is that believers are called sheep that go to the right, while nonbelievers are called goats that go to the left (v. 32-33). Another difference is that believers inherit the kingdom (v.34) while nonbelievers are cast out (v. 41).
In spite of the obvious differences, traditionalists tie everything together because one word (aionios) is used for both groups. This is the best example of their fundamental error of ignoring the different natures of believers and nonbelievers after the resurrection. We can be certain believers will be alive throughout eternity because they will be immortal. We also know that nonbelievers will never be immortal, so we cannot insist they will be conscious throughout eternity.
Jesus contrasts the eternal destinies of the righteous and the unrighteous. While the righteous and unrighteous are both changed, these processes do not continue throughout eternity. According to 1 Corinthians 15:51-55, believers are changed from mortal to immortal "in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye." (Verse 52) Changing mortals into immortal beings and destroying the unfaithful are both temporary acts with everlasting results.
Matthew 25:46 is not the Only Verse in the Bible
Edward Fudge (The Fire that Consumes) goes through the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, and examines the major passages about final judgment. His objective approach gives proper attention to the evidence. He discusses all the important passages without giving undue emphasis to any. He shows how the Bible states over and over that the wicked will pass away, and passages against this view are vague and scarce.
Proponents of other views cannot use this method because it exposes their weaknesses. Since few Scriptures support everlasting torment, traditionalists continually overstate these rare passages.
My biggest surprise when I began researching this subject was that the phrase ‘everlasting punishment’ only appears once in the entire Bible (Matthew 25:46). Considering the enormous emphasis scholars give this phrase, I was certain I would find it numerous times.
John Blanchard (Whatever Happened to Hell?, 1995) mentions a form of this phrase (‘everlasting punishment’, ‘eternal punishment’, or ‘endless punishment’) on pages 44, 138, 149, 152, 164, 168, 176, 195, 207, 210, 211, 214, 219, 220, 224, 225 (four times), 226, 231, 232, 246, and 270. Robert Morey (Death and the Afterlife, 1984) references Matthew 25:46 alone, or as part of the larger passage, on 13 different pages. Robert Peterson (Hell on Trial, 1995) also references Matthew 25:46 on 16 different pages.
This is not a balanced approach, since it is not the only verse in the Bible. Repeated emphasis on Matthew 25:46 is redundant when presenting the case for everlasting torment. It is absurd when responding to the case for conditionalism. Yet Peterson does this.
In the recent book, Two Views of Hell (2000), Peterson dialogues with Edward Fudge. Each presents their case, while the other responds. On pages 83-113, Peterson is supposed to respond to Fudge’s case. Instead, he spends more time responding to Fudge’s response to his belief. The focus remains on his favorite proof-texts, like Matthew 25:46. How is this a response to conditionalism? Amazingly, Peterson accuses Fudge of selective and prejudicial use of the evidence (p. 99)!
Referencing Matthew 25:46 ad nauseam is a subconscious acknowledgment that few Scriptures can support everlasting torment. Conditionalists do not need to reference the same verse over and over again, since hundreds of passages support this view. All Scripture is inspired by God (2 Timothy 3:16), not just Matthew 25:46.
Traditionalists should not call their belief everlasting punishment; it is everlasting torment. While everlasting torment is one possible interpretation of everlasting punishment, it is not the only one. Conditionalists also believe in everlasting punishment.
An objective conditionalist must admit that ‘everlasting punishment’ sounds more like everlasting torment than utter extinction. We only point out that this one inconclusive phrase does not deserve such tremendous emphasis. We acknowledge it is one good argument for everlasting torment. Since it is only one inconclusive verse, we need a more balanced emphasis.
An objective traditionalist, on the other hand, must admit the phrase is not conclusive. Even Jonathan Edwards, best known for his horrifying sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, acknowledged this. In Two Views of Hell, Fudge points out that Jonathan Edwards concedes irreversible extinction would properly be called everlasting punishment.3
Fudge is certainly aware that Jonathan Edwards was a staunch proponent of everlasting torment. Fudge simply points out that Edwards admitted the phrase ‘everlasting punishment’ is not conclusive. Although Fudge's point is obvious, Peterson missed it.
Peterson responds harshly, yet evades the point. He wastes a page and a half documenting the fact that Edwards believed in everlasting torment (p. 89-90), even though Fudge never denies this. This avoidance should not go unnoticed. Why would Peterson respond this way? Consider the implications:
1. Matthew 25:46 is one of their strongest arguments.
2. The phrase ‘everlasting punishment’ only appears once in the entire Bible.
3. Even Jonathan Edwards acknowledged the phrase is not conclusive.
This is devastating to their case. No wonder Peterson evades the point.
Summary of Aionios
Bible writers frequently use the word aionios to assure believers that they have eternal life. The Gospels, for example, have 20 references where Jesus promises eternal life to the faithful using the word aionios.
Proponents of everlasting torment are quick to point out that Jesus spoke more about hell than heaven. If the torment in hell lasts as long as the joy of heaven, we would expect at least 20 references in Jesus' warnings using aionios.
In all Jesus' warnings about hell, aionios appears only four times. Two are warnings about everlasting fire (Matthew 18:8, 25:41), one warning is everlasting punishment (Matthew 25:46) and another is everlasting condemnation (Mark 3:29).
Paul also uses aionios nine times to assure believers of eternal life. Although he makes numerous warnings to the unfaithful, he only uses aionios once in his warning about everlasting destruction (2 Thessalonians 1:9).
This lopsided use of aionios should not be ignored. Warnings to nonbelievers using aionios are rare and inconclusive. In every case, utter extinction is a valid interpretation. Warnings using aionios are nothing more than good arguments against universalism.
The Only Challenge is Revelation
When asked for the best arguments for everlasting torment, three passages stand out. Matthew 25:46 is one, while the other two are in Revelation. Matthew 25:46 is the weakest of the three. Revelation 14:9-11 and 20:10 present better challenges to conditionalism. Without these two passages, it is doubtful many Bible scholars would support everlasting torment. We need to examine them and see if they are conclusive.
Day and Night
Revelation 14:11 and 20:10 both use the phrase "day and night," and many insist this means throughout eternity. While this does suggest the torment continues as long as they exist, it cannot prove torment is everlasting. There are several examples where "day and night" or "night and day" were temporary (Acts 9:24; 1 Thessalonians 2:9, 3:10; Revelation 12:10).
Forever and Ever
While other warnings use a form of the word aion once, Revelation 14:9-11 and 20:10 use it twice. Most Bibles translate this as "forever and ever." While traditionalists admit that one use of aion can be limited, they insist that the two combined in this way must be endless. Is this the case?
This same expression appears in the Old Testament with a temporary meaning. The Hebrew word owlam is similar to aion in the New Testament. Jeremiah uses owlam twice in the phrase "forever and ever" while talking about the land God gave their fathers (Jeremiah 7:7, 25:5).
These verses in Jeremiah could not mean throughout eternity. When the Israelites turned away from God, He allowed their enemies to take them away from the land as a punishment. Even if they had remained faithful, they would not have lived in the land throughout eternity, since the earth will pass away.
Young’s Literal Translation more accurately translates these phrases in Revelation as ". . . to the ages of the ages" rather than "forever and ever." Both uses of aion are plural. If we take this literally, John says there will be at least four future ages. This seems to contradict other passages that imply there is only one endless age after judgment.
This idiomatic phrase, in the most symbolic book in the entire Bible, is the only legitimate argument traditionalists have. Can we base our whole doctrine on it?
Revelation 14:9-11 says the smoke of their torment rises forever and ever. A similar expression appears in Revelation 19:3, which says the smoke that burns Babylon rises up forever and ever. John also tells us that Babylon will not be found anymore (Revelation 18:21).
Revelation 14:9-11 also says they will be tormented in the presence of the Lamb and the holy angels. This presents several problems for traditionalism. One problem is that it appears to contradict 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9, which says nonbelievers will be away from the presence of the Lord. How can we reconcile these conflicting warnings?
Conditionalism offers the best solution. First, they will be tormented in the presence of the Lamb for the rest of their existence (Revelation 14:9-11). Eventually, they will be totally destroyed and away from the presence of the Lord (1 Thessalonians 1:8-9) because they will be no more, like so many Scriptures show. This reconciles the apparent contradiction between Thessalonians and Revelation.
Another reason conditionalism makes more sense is because Scripture plainly shows that the faithful will forget about the unfaithful (see Chapter Nine). Believers will also be with the Lord, so it would be hard to forget about nonbelievers if they are being tormented in the presence of the Lamb throughout eternity.
We discussed a similar problem in the previous chapter. Isaiah 66:24 says we will watch as worms and fire devour their bodies. How can the faithful forget about nonbelievers while looking at them with abhorrence (Isaiah 66:24) in the presence of the Lamb and holy angels (Revelation 14:9-11)? Believers cannot forget about them until they are totally destroyed, so Isaiah 66:24 and Revelation 14:9-11 cannot be endless.
As shown in the previous chapter, the best interpretation of Revelation 20 and 21 is extinction. The millennium is one time period (Revelation 20:4-6), and the judgment is another (Revelation 20:11-15). Neither is endless.
Immediately after the judgment, Revelation 21:1-5 says the old things have passed away and everything is new. Since the lake of fire is the second death (Revelation 20:14), and there will be no more death (Revelation 21:4), it will be no more. Only those who cannot die (immortal) will remain.
The beast, the false prophet, and the devil are in the lake of fire in Revelation 20:10. The beast and false prophet are political and religious systems, not people. The devil is the serpent of old (Revelation 20:2), and Ezekiel tells us he will be no more (Ezekiel 28:13-19). Revelation 21:1-5 reiterates this by saying the old things have passed away.
Conclusion Concerning the Fate of Nonbelievers
The only way to truly express eternity is in the negative. For example, Jesus’ kingdom will have no end (Luke 1:33). This plainly tells us that His kingdom is endless. God could have inspired some Bible writer to say there will be no end to torment, yet He did not. Instead, God says the end for the unfaithful is destruction (Philippians 3:19) and death (Romans 6:21). In contrast, the end for believers is eternal life (Romans 6:22).
Another example of expressing eternity in the negative is immortality. This literally means not mortal, or no death. When the Bible uses words like forever, it depends on the subject. If the subject is immortal, this means throughout eternity. Hebrews 13:8, for example, says Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever. Since Jesus is immortal, He is the same throughout eternity.
Another example is 1 Peter 1:25, which says the Word of God endures forever. The Word is God (John 1:1), so the Word endures throughout eternity.
Believers will be immortal (1 Corinthians 15:51-56), then reign forever and ever (Revelation 22:5). In this case, they will reign throughout eternity because they will be immortal.
Forever cannot mean throughout eternity to mortal beings. The Bible plainly shows that only God is immortal today, and only believers will be immortal in the future. We confirmed this in Chapters Four and Eight. In the next chapter, we will respond to further attempts to deny this truth.
1 Robert Morey, Death and the Afterlife, 1984, p. 113.
2ibid p. 130.
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