Do other passages teach eternal conscious torment?

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

This is the fifth post in a series on the nature of hell. The series begins here.

As I wrote in my last post, whenever I had cause to explain or defend the idea of eternal conscious torment, I always relied on two foundational claims:

  1. that the unequivocal wording of Scripture teaches the eternal conscious torment of the lost.
  2. that this belief has been consistently held by the vast majority of the church throughout our history.

As we’ve seen in the last two posts, both of these claims are weak, if not outrightly incorrect. We don’t have any evidence of an overwhelming consensus regarding the nature of hell in the first 600 years of church history. (And a claim that the eternal conscious torment view was predominant in the early church is particularly suspect.) Significant, soundly orthodox Christian leaders have held other views of hell throughout the history of the church. In the last post, we took a closer look at the Greek word aionios and found that it does not mean “eternal,” but “pertaining to the age” or—in the context of the hell passages—“of the age to come.” So the hell passages that speak of “eternal fire” or “eternal punishment” are more accurately referring to the fire of the age to come or the punishment of the age to come (and the life of the age to come). It’s obvious that this strongly diminishes the biblical case for eternal conscious torment. But are there any other passages that might explicitly teach this view? Let’s look at some Scriptures:

Luke 16:19-31 Lazarus and the rich man

In discussions of hell, someone will almost always bring up this familiar story. So let’s take some time to think about it. First of all, we should note that the story Jesus tells has to do with Hades or “the grave.” This isn’t talking about the fate of the lost after the resurrection and judgment, so this actually tells us nothing about hell. But let’s consider it anyway.

Many would accept this story as either describing something that literally happened or at least a faithful explanation of the nature of the afterlife. But a great many Bible scholars would caution us about being too quick in how we interpret this story. Why? Because they understand the historical context. The story that Jesus tells is noticeably similar to a folk story that was common in the Jewish culture at that time, but with some striking differences. The way the story was commonly told, the rich man was invariably the hero. The Jewish people of that time typically associated wealth with the blessing and favor of God. So this was a moral tale intended to contrast the responsible, godly rich man with the lazy, sinful beggar. Jesus tells this familiar story but he turns it on its head. It’s Lazarus, the poor beggar, who enjoys the blessing of paradise after he dies, and it’s the rich man who experiences the anguish of judgment! This would have been a shocking reversal to the people hearing Jesus’ story—especially to the Pharisees.

Some would understand all of this, but yet insist that Jesus is still describing something that actually occurred. Why? Because he gives us the name of Lazarus. We don’t see any other place where Jesus includes someone’s name in a parable, so, the thinking goes, this must not be a parable. But, while it’s true that Jesus does name Lazarus, and this is unusual, this interpretation also misses the actual significance of Jesus giving us this name. What was the rich man’s name? Jesus never tells us. Think about that. This rich man would have occupied a place of prominence in his community and in the life of the Jewish people. But in this story the man dies nameless, just some generic rich guy, with no identity or legacy. But the person they would have thought of as a nameless, faceless, generic poor beggar—he is given a name, an identity. The contrast is dramatic and would have added to the shocking impact to those hearing the story.

But—others might say—surely Jesus wouldn’t tell a story that doesn’t correspond to reality, even if it was intended to be a parable. Yet Jesus often included elements of parables that, though understandable, differed somewhat from actual reality. (Sowers wouldn’t have scattered their seed everywhere indiscriminately; no one would actually begin plowing and then not look where they were going, etc.) And it’s quite common for teachers to utilize folk tales that aren’t literally true as illustrations, as long as the people they’re teaching know they’re folk tales. Imagine a pastor in a church beginning a story with: “So, these three people die, and they each go to Saint Peter at the pearly gates . . .” Would anyone listening to this assume that this evangelical pastor is affirming the theological truth that when we die we’re each interviewed at the pearly gates by Saint Peter?! Of course not. They would understand the pastor was using a familiar scenario as an illustration to make a point. And Jesus was doing much the same thing.

If we’re supposed to understand this story as giving an accurate depiction of the afterlife, then we have more problems than the torment it describes. Let’s look at a couple of other details in the passage:

  • According to the story, heaven or paradise is characterized primarily by association with Abraham, and Abraham is somehow the key figure of authority there. Ask yourself this question: Does this emphasis of Abraham as the key figure best fit a biblical understanding of heaven or paradise, or does it fit much better with a first century Jewish folk understanding of heaven or paradise?
  • In this story, what determines who ends up on which side of the chasm? Jesus hasn’t died yet or been resurrected. So it has nothing to do with that. In fact, nothing is said about faith at all. Is this story teaching us that poor beggars all go to “heaven” and rich people all go to “hell”? Someone might respond: no, it has to do with the way they treated others. Okay, so that means their works determine whether they go to heaven or hell? Lazarus was saved because of his own righteousness?

No, if we try to understand this story as a literal depiction of hell for the purpose of preserving belief in eternal conscious torment, we end up with some very problematic theological baggage. It makes much more sense that Jesus was using a common folk story of the time to challenge the moral and spiritual assumptions of the people, just as a great many Bible scholars tell us. Regardless, as we observed above, this story is about Hades, not hell, so it doesn’t tell us anything directly about the fate of the lost after judgment.

Mark 9:43-48 “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched”

In a passage where Jesus is speaking of Gehenna [for more background regarding Gehenna, see my previous post], Jesus quotes this reference from Isaiah. Strangely—even though there’s no other place in Scripture where “worm” is a metaphor for one’s soul or spirit—some would assume this worm is speaking of the immortal soul of the lost. This is even less plausible when we take the time to look at the verse Jesus is quoting from Isaiah 66:24, where the passage is poetically describing the fate of those who would be judged, and what happens to their physical bodies. This passage in Isaiah is describing the decay and consumption of physical, mortal corpses, not spirits or souls. This is even more clear when we read this verse in Mark from a more current translation. For instance, the NLT renders this phrase: “where the maggots never die and the fire never goes out.” When we look at this in context—especially going back to the section in Isaiah that Jesus is quoting—it’s difficult to read into this anyone’s immortal soul. It actually strengthens the interpretation that Jesus is following the same understanding of Gehenna we see consistently in the Old Testament, and using this to warn of the coming judgment of Jerusalem in AD 70 (see this post). For a Jewish person to not be buried after death, but to have their corpse subjected to such a shameful end, would have been horrific.

But what of this unquenchable fire? The NASB translation of this in Isaiah 66:24 gives the sense of the Hebrew here: “And their fire will not be extinguished.” Let’s make sure we’re thinking about this according to the original context (to which Jesus was referring). Isaiah is speaking of the destruction of literal corpses that will horrify those who see what happens to these rebellious people. So are these corpses still being eaten by maggots somewhere today? Is this fire still consuming their bodies? No, it’s not. So, what is this saying? Simply that this is the judgment of God, and no one else can extinguish the fire of God’s judgment. It will burn until it accomplishes God’s will. It is “unquenchable,” not meaning that it will never go out, but that no one else can quench it. (If Captain Kirk begins an “unstoppable” auto-destruct sequence, that doesn’t mean it will go on forever, just that no one else can stop it!)

Daniel 12:2 “shame and everlasting disgrace”

Many of those whose bodies lie dead and buried will rise up, some to everlasting life and some to shame and everlasting disgrace.

This is a significant passage because it’s the only place in the Old Testament where we see an unambiguous reference to resurrection, bodies that were lying dead and buried being raised up. But it’s also often brought into the discussion of the nature of hell because of the mention of “everlasting disgrace” or contempt. That’s not quite a description of eternal conscious torment, but it is a distinction between “everlasting life” and “everlasting disgrace.” What are we to make of this?

I was interested to see that the Hebrew word translated “everlasting” here is the word olam. This caught my attention because I was already very familiar with this word. Long before I was doing serious study regarding the nature of hell, I wrote a blog post on Christians and the Old Covenant law. In the ensuing comment thread, the issue of the Sabbath became a point of contention. Some would quote a verse such as Exodus 31:16 (ESV):

Therefore the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout their generations, as a covenant forever.

You can see why some people would cite this verse. It clearly seems to be saying the observation of the Sabbath is a covenant that lasts forever. But I had to explain that the word olam—in a way that’s similar but not identical to the Greek word aionios—can be used to convey the meaning of “forever” but it’s primary meaning is closer to “lasting” or “perpetual.” This can be confirmed by referring to a Hebrew dictionary such as the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, or one could just compare translations. For instance, the NIV translates Exodus 31:16 this way:

The Israelites are to observe the Sabbath, celebrating it for the generations to come as a lasting covenant.

The NET and NRSV read “perpetual covenant,” and the NASB and CSB render it “permanent covenant.”

This isn’t an isolated example. There are many references in the Old Testament law that were traditionally rendered “This shall be a statute forever,” that more current translations now more accurately clarify as a “perpetual law” or “permanent law.” We can see why the traditional rendering doesn’t make sense in passages such as Exodus 21:5-6 where a slave can decide he doesn’t want to be freed from his master but he “shall be his slave forever” (ESV). Will this slave actually be a slave to his master forever? Of course not. That’s why most current translations render this more accurately that this slave will serve his master “for life.” Another example is Genesis 49:26 where it speaks—depending on the translation—of either “the eternal hills” (are any hills eternal?), or of the “age-old” or “ancient” hills. This is also why we need to be careful with such passages as Isaiah 34:10 that says the smoke of Edom “shall go up forever” (ESV). Can we see the smoke of Edom still going up? No, we can’t. And translations such as the NET translate this word more accurately as the smoke “will ascend continually.”

The very most that could be said of this passage is that the context of the verse has to determine whether olam means eternal in that context. This would mean we can’t just assume a meaning of “eternal” or “everlasting” in Daniel 12:2—when the word most often means something else—and then use the passage to somehow prove that hell is eternal. That would be circular reasoning, assuming our understanding in the text to use the text to prove our understanding! It seems much more accurate to understand this verse as speaking of lasting or continual disgrace without specifying any final outcome.

Hebrews 9:27 “destined to die once and after that comes judgment”

When we’ve had group studies and discussions about the differing views of hell, someone will always bring up passages that explicitly mention hell or judgment—as if this disproves all other views and settles the issue. But we can’t forget that all of the views that evangelicals hold regarding the nature of hell include the judgment of God and a very real hell. Showing references to hell or judgment in Scripture doesn’t do anything to disprove any of the other views. (Just as showing that personal faith in Jesus Christ is necessary for salvation doesn’t do anything to disprove the view of universal salvation, because evangelical universalists also insist that we must all be saved through faith in Christ.)

Some will use Hebrews 9:27 to argue that there’s no possible opportunity to be saved after death. Let’s look carefully at what the text actually says (and what it doesn’t say):

And just as each person is destined to die once and after that comes judgment . . . 

Hopefully you can see the problem. This verse says that we’ll all die once. So this could be a good verse to counter something like reincarnation. And it also tells us that after death will come judgment. So far, so good. We all agree on this. But what happens after judgment? Is there any chance of repentance and restoration? The text doesn’t say. It doesn’t address at all what happens after judgment. So if we try to use this passage to argue what happens—or can’t happen—after judgment, we’re reading this into the text. (This is what Bible scholars call “eisegesis,” reading our meaning into the text of Scripture rather than drawing it out from the text of Scripture, which is “exegesis.”) We’re so locked into the idea there’s no chance of salvation after death, that we’re shocked when we realize the Scriptures never clearly tell us this at all. To use this passage to teach one particular view of hell would be like saying that after conception comes the birth of the child—and this somehow confirms my views about parenting!

After looking at each of these Scripture passages, we have to conclude that none of them clearly teach the eternal conscious torment of the lost. So, is there anywhere the Bible explicitly and unambiguously articulates the idea of eternal conscious torment? I can’t find anyplace. Does this mean that hell is not eternal? Not necessarily. We still need to look at the broader theological arguments. But it does mean that my previous understanding that eternal conscious torment is an inescapable teaching from the clear and unequivocal wording of Scripture is simply not true. The case supporting eternal conscious torment from the explicit texts of Scripture is decidedly lacking. But is there actually a biblical case to be made that no one will be eternally lost, but that all will be reconciled to God and restored? We’ll begin looking at this next.

[The views I express in this series of posts are my own. The church I serve, The Orchard, doesn’t have an official position regarding the nature of hell but allows the freedom of differing views. Our church association, the Evangelical Free Church of America, includes the explicit belief in eternal conscious punishment as part of the Statement of Faith.]