The Doctrine of Hell: Eternal, Annihilation, or Restoration?

Hell 3









Question: What is the biblical teaching about hell? Is it never, forever, of just for a while? Who is it reserved for?

Answer: The doctrine of hell is one of the most difficult ones to fathom. It is so unimaginable and frightening that it has caused many liberal Christians (and even some conservatives) and heretical groups (ex. Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses) to redefine this teaching according to their preference and reason. However, hell is one of the most important doctrines in Scripture because it is directly related to the gospel message. Any tampering, miscommunication, or misunderstanding of this teaching is a serious offense to God’s revealed word, and may even reveal a professing Christian to be a false teacher, if not a false convert.

The debated question concerning the duration of hell is, “Is it never, forever, or just for a while?” Based on the grammatical-historical (literal) method of interpreting Scripture, the most obvious answer is that is it forever. Eternal. The Old Testament, the New Testament, and the greatest theologians in church history attest to this view of hell, not because it is the most emotionally preferred or pleasurable view, but because it is evident in accordance with the perspicuity of Scripture. The Bible speaks clearly and understandably on this issue. Although the eternal nature of such torment is hard to fathom (as is other concepts in the Bible such as the Trinity, God’s unconditional election), it does not make it any less true. We must humbly accept the reality of this truth, and use it as a platform for urgent evangelization of the lost.

Who is hell reserved for? It’s interesting to note that hell was originally created for Satan and the fallen angels (Matt 25:41). Their act of defiance against a holy, infinite God brought about not only their exile from heaven (Ezek 28:17-19), but future punishment in eternal hell, with no hope of redemption or parole. That is what sin – which is an abominably infinite offense against God – deserves. Likewise, this is the punishment that awaits guilty humanity. They, like angels, have been made with an understanding of God’s law (right and wrong) and are held accountable as moral agents for their course of action. Mankind will also spend eternity in hell with the fallen angels. However, mankind is different in that they are made uniquely in God’s image. This is one of the reasons that God decreed in His plan to redeem some from the penalty of their sin, while the rest will die in guilt and be the recipients of God’s justice, which testifies to the glory of His righteous character.Hell 2

The concept of hell is implied in a few places throughout the Old Testament, but given full light in the New Testament due to progressive revelation. The Hebrew word Sheol has often been noted by biblical scholars as referring to hell (a.k.a. the abode of the dead) (Deut 32:22; Ps 88:3; Isa 7:11). However, this is not a definite reference to hell, because Sheol at times refers to merely the physical grave that people go into when they pass away (Job 10:21; Eccl 9:2-3; Ps 89:48). The Old Testament does make two good references that point to the reality of hell, both of which are found in prophetic passages.

The first one is in Isaiah 66:24, which speaks about Jerusalem’s future when Christ sets up His millennial rule on earth. The verse reads, “Then they will go forth and look on the corpses of the men who have transgressed against Me. For their worm will not die and their fire will not be quenched; and they will be an abhorrence to all mankind.” This prophecy clearly explains the nature of God’s future punishment on the guilty – that they will suffer non-stop punishment. “Their fire will not be quenched” is the exact phrase that Jesus used to describe the duration and horrors of postmortem judgment on sinners (Mk 9:48).

The second reference is found in Daniel 12:2, which speaks about the resurrection of all mankind in the last days. The verse reads, “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt.” The word of Daniel prophesies of eternal life for the saints, but eternal damnation for the reprobates. What exactly does “everlasting disgrace and contempt” mean? If Isaiah 66:24 is not enough to qualify this description, many passages in the New Testament do just that.

Jesus Himself was the most prominent preaching concerning the topic of hell. He preached about it more than eternal heaven. He preached about it more than any other topic in His ministry, because it is directly related to why He came to earth, which is to die as the penal substitution for the believing in order that they be saved from their sins, which result in the just punishment of eternal hell.Hell 1

Jesus presents hell graphically as a place of undesirable torment. It is described as fiery (Matt 5:22), where the worm never dies (Mk 9:48), and a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt 8:12). Although some claim that these descriptions are merely figurative, it does not downplay the horrors of hell in anyway. Even if by chance Jesus was using figurative language, and not speaking about the objective sights and experiences of hell, His descriptions make it crystal clear that it is not a place that anybody wants to go. It is a destination to be avoided at all costs, which is shows how costly Christ’s sacrifice was and how important it is to proclaim the gospel to unbelievers.

Finally, Jesus presents hell as eternal (Matt 3:12; 25:41; 2 Thess 1:9). Some Christians try to argue otherwise. Annihilationists believe that sinners suffer temporary in hell before going out of conscious existence, while restorationists believe that the guilty will ultimately be restored to eternal fellowship with God, with hell serving as a type of temporary purgatory. However, the case for these two views are weak and without much clear biblical support in contrast to the more lucid statement by both Jesus and the apostles concerning the eternal nature of the unbeliever’s afterlife. Even looking at the nature of Gehena in Matthew 5:22 (which unorthodox Christians have used to debunk the literalness of eternal hell) is actually a solid case for the eternity of hell. Gehena (the Valley of Hinnom) was a valley southwest of Jerusalem. It was a valley used to burn refuse from Jerusalem, in which the fire burned day and night continually. Jewish apocalyptic literature even deemed this valley as the entrance to hell, later hell itself (4 Ezra 7:36). Jesus used this imagery as the perfect metaphor for hell – the eternal fiery judgment that unbelievers, or the refuse of humanity, will face if they die in their sins.

The last, and most potent, argument for everlasting punishment is found in Revelation 20:11-15. This prophetic passage speaks about the coming Great White Throne Judgment, when all who die in their sins will be judged by the ultimate Judge of the Universe and cast into the lake of fire forever, where the smoke of the inhabitant’s torment goes up forever and ever (Rev 20:10). This event is God’s ultimate solution for dealing with sin once and for all. It is cast away forever while the sons of righteousness dwell with God in His holy habitat of the new earth forever (Rev 22).

The eternality of hell is the most biblically supported view, which I hold to. I don’t believe in the eternity of hell because I enjoy the thought of people suffering for all eternity. If I truly had it my way, I would much rather go with the annihilationist view of hell. But I cannot do this as a Christian because God’s word does not teach such a thing. The perspicuity of Scripture (Ps 119:130; 2 Tim 3:16-17) makes the message of salvation and Christian living obvious to every person on earth (so they are without excuse), although that doesn’t mean that every doctrine is easy for me to grasp or digest. Nevertheless, I must trust in it with utmost humility, with the faith such results will bring the most glory to God and testify of His eternal attributes.

It is important to get this doctrine right. Distorting the teaching of hell does a major disservice to the sacrifice of Christ, the high cost of the gospel, and what is really at stake in the life and soul of an unbeliever. It gives sinners a false sense of complacency concerning their eternal fate, as well as a low regard for the seriousness of their sin and the majesty of God’s righteous law. At many times, the eternality of hell versus the temporary or non-existent nature of hell could really make the difference in man’s decision to come to faith in Christ, if not come to the right gospel.

Recommended Resource: Hell Under Fire by Christopher W. Morgan

  • jamesbaker11

    If Jesus was a penal substitution then why is he not burning in hell forever? If he paid the full penalty for all of sin, isn’t that what is called for under your exegesis?

  • Todd Pollock

    I don’t think the “concept of hell” is implied in the OT. I think it is explicitly referenced in many verses. Even Psalm 1 makes it clear and aligns perfectly with John 3:16. The contrast throughout the bible is eternal life vs. perishing. And just to make sure we don’t think one can return from perishing, the Holy Spirit clarifies elsewhere that this destruction does, in fact, last for eternity.

    Thanks for addressing this issue, Steve. I would suggest that many conservative Christians don’t become convinced of Conditional Immortality due to eternal punishment being so frightening. We come to the view because we fear God and choose to take the bible at its word rather than line up to traditional views.

  • Joel Kessler

    Isaiah 66:24 – I’m sorry, but these verses must be read in historical context. Isaiah and Jeremiah were preaching about the horrors to come through their idol practice. The Babylonians are coming! Isaiah wrote before Jeremiah, Jeremiah’s word describe the horrors of what Isaiah was prophecying in 66:24….”The valley of Slaughter!” (Jer. 7:31,32). Isaiah says, “Then they shall go forth and look on the CORPSES of the men who have transgressed against Me. For their worm shall not die, and their fire shall not be quenched; and they shall be an abhorrence to all mankind.” Jeremiah talks about this valley of slaughter as being the “valley of Ben-hinnon,” which is the Hebrew, or the “valley of Gehenna,” where NO ONE can scare away the birds and beasts from feeding on their bodies. Jesus didn’t talk about Hell more than anyone. He talked about the Greek-spoken valley of Gehenna which is the valley of Ben-hinnon in Hebrew. Jeremiah prophesys in 7:31-33, “And they have built the high places of Topheth, which in the valley of the son of Hinnom to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire which I did not command, and it did not come into My mind. Therefore, behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when it will no more 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 And 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 fighten them away.” The Topheth this passage is talking about is actually quite the abomination. A Topheth is translated as “the roasting place.” A “toph” was used as a drum to muffle the sounds of children crying as they were sacrificed through FIRE! This valley of practice became a cursed place after the Babylonian captivity was over. The Hinnom valley became a source for their condemnation and defeat. And guess what? Jesus came into the prophetic tradition of Jeremiah, because they had similar prophecies to warn the Jews from. Except Jesus made one change in the wording. Jesus’ Gehenna passages can be described as follows, “The Romans are coming!!!”

  • Joel Kessler

    Daniel 12:2 – Owlam is the Hebrew word for everlasting. I would think perpetual would be a better fit because perpetual speaks about a cycle that is hard to break, but God…..God send Jesus in the world to save life from condemnation. Agreed? Well what about after death or what some people call “post-mortem salvation?” 1 Peter 3:18 starts off by saying, “For Christ died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, in order that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; in which He went and made proclamation to the spirits NOW in prison, who were once disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark” So lets get this straight…The “disobedient” “in the days of Noah” are “spirits now in prison” and God “went and made proclamation to the spirits” “in order that” although condemned “in the flesh” they might be “made alive in the spirit.” Peter continues in 4:5, “but they shall give account to Him who is ready to judge the living and the dead, for the gospel has for this purpose been preached even to those who are dead, that though they are judged IN THE FLESH as men, they may live IN THE SPIRIT according to the will of God.” Perpetual the afterlife may be in its destruction for those who choose it, the gospel isn’t found in the Daniel 12:2 passage. The true purpose of Christ is the gospel, and apparently, according to 1 Peter 3 and 4, his purpose is to save some in the afterlife. Judgment doesn’t get the final word. Mercy does!! (James 2:13)

  • Joel Kessler

    Revelations 20:10 – Oh the enigma of Revelations 20:10! It comes right before the good news of the New Jerusalem, as fits the common drama of the gospel of the God’s love. Revelation 21 begins and it talks about a new heaven and a new earth, where they is no longer any sea. There is no invisible God, for God shall dwell with them and wipe every tear from they eyes personally. Here comes the enigma. In Rev. 21:25, this new city is said to “never leave it’s gates close.” “kings of the earth shall bring their glory into it.” Now we know there ultimately is only ONE unforgivable sin talked about by Jesus, and that is “rejecting the Holy Spirit.” What if after their first judgment after death, their second judgment into the lake, they decided to receive the Holy Spirit and not reject Him? Are the gates truly never closed? Here are some clues about that enigmatic future with the God of this universe: “Love never ends” 1 Cor 13:8; “He doesn’t keep His anger forever b/c He delights in unchanged love!” Mic 7:18; “The Lord’s compassion never ceases…The Lord will not reject forever. If He causes grief, then He will have compassion according to His lovingkindness.” Lam. 3:22,31-32; LUKE 23:34, “FATHER FORGIVE THEM FOR THEY KNOW NOT WHAT THEY DO!” Sorry, but God’s grace is the scary thing, not Hell(?). That’s why the book of Acts records no gospel messages by the Disciples of Jesus ever using Hell/Gehenna/Tartarus/Hades to get people to convert to Jesus. Only his resurrecting love!