Hell Interrupted—Part 3

Author Tim Barnett Published on 07/01/2019

By Tim Barnett and Greg Koukl

There is no Christian doctrine more distressing than the doctrine of Hell. When I1 meditate for just a few moments on the lonely agony and perpetual, conscious torment of everlasting damnation, a kind of panic begins to seize me. That may be one reason the classical view of Hell has fallen out of favor of late.

The Good News, of course, is only really good because the bad news is very, very bad—on anyone’s estimation. For some, though, the bad news is not quite as bad as we used to think. Respected evangelicals—like theologian John Stackhouse and the late Anglican John Stott, among others—have argued that the Bible doesn’t characterize Hell as a place of eternal conscious torment (the classical view) but rather as a sentence of “destruction” into everlasting non-existence (conditional immortality, a.k.a. annihilationism). The reality of Hell is not in dispute with these writers, of course, but rather the nature of Hell’s sentence.

We do not think this trend is biblically sound. We’re convinced the most natural reading of the full corpus of Scripture on Hell supports the church’s historical position of eternal conscious torment and not nonexistence. We began our defense of the classical view in two prior issues of Solid Ground. 2 Here is a summary of our argument so far.

Our Case

Since the doctrine of the final state of the wicked unfolds progressively in Scripture, we take the standard approach for harmonizing details of issues that span both Testaments: Earlier revelation gives initial pieces of the puzzle; later revelation adds details that modify, qualify, and expand on what came before.

Our task is to take the commonsense meaning intended by individual authors and blend them together in a unified, coherent whole, counting on the most recent revelation to give us the clearest picture. The final word on the final judgment, then, comes properly from the final chapters of the Bible.

Here’s how that progression of revelation has unfolded in our previous two installments. We argued that Old Testament characterizations of God’s justice focus on the physical, temporal, earthly elements of judgment—the tangible actions of God in this world that the Jews could experience directly. The wicked are “cut off” (i.e., physically killed), and the righteous inherit the land, for example.

Things “destroyed,” though, don’t necessarily lose their being. Rather, they lose their well-being. A destroyed home doesn’t vanish. It’s just no longer a suitable shelter. It is laid waste, ruined for its original purpose. Similarly, we cannot conclude that those who are “dead” and “destroyed” are gone forever. Adam and Eve “died” when they ate the forbidden fruit, but they didn’t disappear. Rather, death denoted separation—separation of man from God and, eventually, separation of soul from body. “Destruction” simply is not necessarily synonymous with annihilation—though it’s understandable how some texts, read in isolation from later revelation, could be taken that way.

The New Testament corrects that confusion by providing more precision about the nature of the final state, the non-earthly, other-worldly dimension of eternal death—everlasting separation from God—that the Hebrew prophets simply did not address directly.

Paul, for example, does not say the damned vanish, but that their “destruction” is “away from the presence of the Lord” (2 Thess. 1:9). Jesus says they go to a place of “outer darkness,” where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 8:12)—a “furnace of fire” (Matt. 13:42), an “eternal fire” (Matt. 18:8), an “unquenchable fire” (Mk. 9:43), and a “fiery Hell” (Matt. 5:22), where “their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mk. 9:48). Hell’s fire continues to burn because it continues to torment. A fire that completely consumes—annihilationism—goes out. This fire, Jesus warned, burns forever.

Where does this happen? Jesus tells us. The goats “depart…into the eternal fire…prepared for the devil” to experience “eternal punishment” while the righteous enjoy “eternal life” (Matt. 25:41, 46, note the parallelism). The duration is the same, though the experience is different. John describes this location as the final sentence, a fire that torments “day and night forever and ever” (Rev. 20:10). Jesus and John both agree. This is not a place of non-existence but rather a place of conscious suffering that never ends.

There are no awkward hermeneutical moves here. The classical view fits the plain, common sense of each of the passages in question so far. But there’s more. Since the final word is the last word, to the last word we now go.

Torment without Rest

Without the final book of the Bible, the eternal fate of the wicked might remain uncertain, the door still open to some form of annihilationism. In Revelation, however, the apostle John shuts that door decisively.

Consider this text in Revelation 14. John writes that anyone worshiping “the beast and his image…will drink the wine of the wrath of God…and he will be tormented with fire and brimstone…and the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever; they have no rest day and night…” (Rev. 14:9–11).

Conditionalist John Wenham confesses that this passage “is the most difficult passage that the conditionalist has to deal with…. Certainly, on the face of it, having no rest day or night with smoke of torment going up for ever and ever, sounds like everlasting torment.”3 Indeed, it does. Other conditionalists agree. Clark Pinnock admits, “This text comes closest in my mind to confirming the traditional view.”4 Ralph Bowles concurs: “This text is regarded by both traditionalist and conditionalist interpreters as one of the strongest texts in support of ‘eternal torment.’”5

We concur with these conditionalists entirely, for good reason. The language—especially when coupled with similar passages in Revelation 19 and 20, as we’ll see—seems clear, straightforward, and unambiguous. “The smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever.” “They have no rest day and night.”6 The wicked never rest (14:11), but the righteous rest forever (14:13). The saints suffer physical death (13:15) then enter into unending blessedness; the wicked suffer physical death then enter into unending torment.

Even so, there is a counter from conditionalists. The language of this passage is similar to the language found in Isaiah 34:9–10 where the prophet predicts the doom of Edom, a people God had “devoted to destruction” (v. 5):

Its streams will be turned into pitch, and its loose earth into brimstone, and its land will become burning pitch. It will not be quenched night or day; its smoke will go up forever.

The smoke of Edom’s judgment, conditionalists point out, is reminiscent of Sodom’s smoke ascending “like the smoke of a furnace” (Gen. 19:28). In both cases, the human inhabitants were destroyed, as predicted. If John is citing the same kind of imagery used in those judgments (e.g., smoke rising, night and day, going up forever), isn’t it fair to conclude that Revelation 14 has the same kind of consequences as those judgments described in the Old Testament?

That’s the rejoinder, at least, and the answer to the question is no, the consequences are not the same because the descriptions, taken as a whole, are not the same. The superficial similarities distract conditionalists from differences that are critical to our question.

To begin with, we dealt with this passage at length in “Hell Interrupted, Part 1.” We clarified there that, biblically speaking, neither “dead” nor “destroyed” necessarily means loss of existence, but rather, it usually means ruin—in these cases, the physical ruin of the people and their habitation.

We also pointed out that the earthly destruction of Edom—or Sodom, for that matter—tells us nothing of the eternal state of the wicked who are judged there since that isn’t the intent of the passage. True, smoke is a signal of their physical destruction in both cases, but there’s nothing in either Isaiah 34 or Genesis 19 that tells us anything about the ultimate fate of the wicked. Those authors do not give us that information about those past judgments, but John does about the future judgment.

This brings us to the most compelling reason we know those earlier judgments are significantly different from what John describes in Revelation: John tells us so.

Curiously, Revelation 14 never says that those who worship the beast or receive his mark are destroyed or even dead. It never uses that language because their physical, temporal condition is not John’s point. Rather, John focuses on the eternal consequences of the wicked’s rebellion toward God: They “drink of the wine of the wrath of God…and the smoke of their tormentgoes up forever and ever” (v. 10–11).

Conditionalists presume the smoke that goes up merely signals completed destruction since in the other passages the cities and their inhabitants are burned and gone and the land smokes continually as a memorial of their fate.

Not so in Revelation 14. Never-ending smoke here memorializes something different—not completed destruction, but ongoing, never-ending, conscious anguish of the wicked, who have no rest or relief from their suffering day or night. It is the smoke of their torment, not the smoke of their demise. Even the casual reader knows that “torment” is not a synonym for “annihilation.” Indeed, going out of existence ends torment. If death is the end of existence, then the anguish ends, too—as euthanasia advocates quickly point out.

Further, the phrase “forever and ever” (v. 11) is used ten times in the book of Revelation and always denotes a never-ending duration of time. In Revelation 22:5, for example, John uses the same expression to describe the unending reign of the saints. 7

Wenham also suggests, with Stott, that maybe what is described here is “the moment of judgment, not the eternal state.” “Final judgment,” he writes, “is an experience of unceasing and inescapable pain, and as at Sodom all that is left is the smoke of their torment going up forever. It is a reminder to all eternity of the marvelous justice and mercy of God.”8

This parry is completely unconvincing, however. Think about it. Wenham seems to be saying that final judgment is an experience of “unceasing and inescapable pain”—until their pain ceases and they escape it through annihilation.

There is a good reason John is so clear in this passage. It is a stern, solemn warning to Christians, and he does not want to be misunderstood. Deny the beast and suffer physical death now (13:15), but live gloriously forever. Worship the beast or take his mark and live a little longer in this life, but be tormented forever and ever in the next.

John is perfectly clear; there is too much at stake for him to be imprecise in this passage. He is not simply repeating Isaiah. In Revelation 14, he is warning of the plain and unmistakable fate of the damned. The price these wicked persons pay for worshiping the beast is conscious anguish that will never end. Once again, there are no tricky maneuvers here. The classical view fits the plain, common sense of this passage, as the conditionalists we previously noted above readily admit.

Double Death

One of the strengths of our conclusion about Revelation 14 is how well it dovetails with the last judgment of all mankind depicted just a few chapters later. Indeed, the doom awaiting those who worship the beast is the very same sentence that befalls all the wicked of the world at the end of the age.

In that final narrative describing the final fate of the damned at the final judgment before a great white throne, John details an unfolding drama that includes two distinct kinds of death—a first death and a second death:

And the beast was seized, and with him the false prophet…; these two were thrown alive into the lake of fire which burns with brimstone. And the rest were killed with the sword…and all the birds were filled with their flesh. (Rev. 19:20–21)

And [the deceived nations] came up on the broad plain of the earth…and fire came down from heaven and devoured them. And the devil…was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are also; and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. (Rev. 20:9–10)

And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds…. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. (Rev. 20:13–15)

We would like you to consider what appears to be the natural and obvious understanding of what takes place in these scenes.

The beast and the false prophet are seized and thrown alive (i.e., conscious) into the lake of fire burning with brimstone (19:20). Then the devil is thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone with the beast and false prophet, and all will be tormented day and night forever and ever (20:10).

As for the humans, some are physically killed, and their flesh is consumed by birds (19:21). Others are physically devoured by fire and killed (20:9). Then all the dead appear again for judgment before the throne, are found wanting, and are thrown into the lake of fire, which John calls the “second death” (20:14–15).

According to John’s full narrative, then, those humans who were dead once whose names were not found in the book of life are judged by their deeds and die a second time.9 They end up in the same place as the false prophet, the beast, and the devil—the lake of fire—and thus experience the same fate—torment day and night forever and ever. Revelation 14 adds they are tormented “with fire and brimstone,” just like the unholy triad, and the smoke of their torment “goes up forever and ever; they have no rest day and night” (14:10–11), just like those three.

There is no annihilation here, nor is there any ambiguity. The prophet, the beast, and the devil exist forever, and the damned exist forever. The prophet, the beast, and the devil are thrown in the lake of fire, and the damned are thrown in the lake of fire. The prophet, the beast, and the devil are tormented with fire and brimstone, and the damned are tormented with fire and brimstone. None have any rest. None have any relief.

How do the conditionalists counter?

Yes, eternal punishment seems to be pictured in this scene, they say, but it’s not what John intends that we conclude from the picture. What then? Conditionalists assert that John intends the second death to be the “death” of annihilation. After all, they point out, death and Hades are thrown into the lake of fire (20:14), suggesting the ultimate extinction of both along with their residents. This assumption, though, is completely unwarranted given John’s narrative. Here’s why.

Death and Hades

The expression “death and Hades” is clearly a metonymy, a substitute phrase of location referring to those who reside there. Just as “the White House” refers to the president and “the Supreme Court” refers to the justices, “death and Hades” refers to the dead temporarily quarantined in the netherworld. Notice, “Death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them” (20:13). The inhabitants, then, are the focus of the judgment, not the place.

Clearly, a mere location can’t die once, much less twice. Instead, John’s point is that death and Hades are emptied—unlocked by Jesus, who has the keys (Rev. 1:18) and who is the judge (Acts 17:31)—and their residents now stand in judgment, fulfilling the prophecy of universal resurrection foretold in Daniel 12:2, with some being raised “to disgrace and everlasting contempt.” A new, permanent location imprisons the wicked now—the lake of fire.

In these passages, John continues his dire warning of Revelation 14. The first (physical) death may be unpleasant, even agonizing, but the second death is unbearable, echoing Jesus’ warning in Matthew 10:28, “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” The “destruction” Jesus refers to cannot be annihilation, though, for two reasons.

First, those who have been “destroyed” still experience torment, according to John—explicit in Revelation 14:10–11 and clearly implicit in 20:14–15. In biblical literature, the word “torment” never refers to cessation of existence. Rather, it always denotes conscious suffering. In fact, the wicked actually “seek death” and “long to die” to escape the “torment” of the wrath of God in Revelation 9:5–6, but that relief is denied them.

Second, it’s clear that the wicked are still around even after the New Jerusalem is established. In fact, John makes two references to them in the last two chapters of Revelation (21:8 and 22:15), where they continue to exist somewhere outside the walls of the celestial city, “away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power,” as Paul predicts in 2 Thessalonians 1:9.

Once again, we find ourselves pointing out the obvious. In the final word at the close of the full corpus of Scripture, after the last gavel falls, John depicts two final realities. There are the “blessed” ones (22:14) who will no longer die or mourn or be in pain (21:4), who freely drink from the spring of the water of life (21:6), and who may enter by the gates into the city and eat from the tree of life (22:14).

The second group, the “accursed ones” (Matt. 25:41)—“the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars...” (Rev. 21:8; 22:15)—continue in their second death with no comfort, get no nourishment from the water of life or the tree of life inside the city since they are “outside” (22:15) and “nothing unclean, and no one who practices abomination and lying, shall ever come into it” (21:27, note the spatial language).

But where outside the walls is this second group? In this passage, Jesus Himself10 gives the answer. They are located in the fiery lake of the second death that burns with brimstone (21:8). In the final vision of eternity, the wicked are not annihilated. Instead, they are finally conquered and quarantined—ruined for their original purpose of friendship with God, banished from His presence, and punished forever.

So we have come full circle. What we learn about Hell at the end of history is the very same thing Jesus described at the end of His ministry:

But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; and He will put the sheep on His right and the goats on the left…. 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…. These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matt. 25:31–33, 41, 46)

The final word—the last word—is completely consistent with everything that comes before it. No awkward hermeneutical moves. No ad hoc speculations. The classical view of eternal conscious punishment for the wicked fits the plain, common sense of all the passages pertaining to Hell.