Understanding the “eternal fire” of hell

Photo by Max Kukurudziak on Unsplash

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

As an evangelical pastor, there have been times I’ve had to explain, or even defend, hell. More precisely, I was explaining what I understood to be the biblical teaching of eternal conscious torment in hell. I didn’t do this because I loved the idea of endless punishment or because I was a “hellfire-and-brimstone preacher.” I did it because I felt I had to in order to be biblically faithful. On these occasions, I always fell back on what I saw as the two solid foundations of belief in an endless hell:

  1. the unequivocal wording of Scripture.
  2. the historical consensus of the church.

As we saw in the last post, it’s not really appropriate to speak of a consensus regarding the nature of hell in the first 500 years of the life of the church. While, over time, universal salvation became a distinctly minority view, there continued to be Christian leaders and pastors who held this view throughout the history of the church. We didn’t have time to explore later Christian universalists such as the 17th century Puritan universalist Peter Sterry, men who were associated with George Whitefield who came to embrace universalism such as James Relly and John Murray, 18th century Baptist universalist Elhanan Winchester, or universalist authors such as Hannah Whitall Smith and George MacDonald.1 Again, these are just a sampling, but it seems clear the second point above is, at the very best, inconclusive.

But the wording of Scripture does seem to be unequivocal and inescapable. When addressing this issue, I always relied on the three passages I felt speak most clearly about the nature of hell. I would begin with Matthew 25:41-46, which uses the phrases “eternal fire” and “eternal punishment” (contrasted with “eternal life”):

Then he will also say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels! . . .” Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.

I would go from this passage to 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9 (CSB):

They will pay the penalty of eternal destruction from the Lord’s presence and from his glorious strength . . .

And finally I would turn to the description in Revelation 14:9-11:

A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives its mark on their forehead or on their hand, they, too, will drink the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. They will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment will rise forever and ever. There will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name.”

It was hard to see how these passages could be even more clear. So when I first began hearing about an evangelical Christian form of universalism, I was curious how they would deal with such verses. When I heard the suggestion that the words “eternal” or “forever and ever” in these passages don’t actually mean eternal or forever and ever, I was immediately suspicious. That can be a way of skirting around the clear meaning of a text: Oh, what this really means is . . . My initial thought was that the people who believed this weren’t able to deal with these passages, so they were grasping at straws to explain them away.

But there were two things that didn’t let me dismiss this claim so easily. The first was my awareness that tradition does sometimes influence the choices of scholars translating the Bible. For instance, in Ephesians 4:11 there’s no reason why the word poimenas (the plural form of poimen) is translated “pastors” except for tradition. Variations of this word are found 18 times in the New Testament; 17 of those times the word is translated “shepherd(s).” It’s only this one verse where the word “pastors” is used. The word ekklesia wasn’t a religious word at all in the first century, but a common one connoting an assembly or association of people, yet it’s usually translated “church.” Again, this is due to tradition. There are many other examples we could list. So it wouldn’t be unprecedented for tradition to influence the translation of certain words in these hell passages.

Along with this realization, I began to run across (without looking for them) comments by trusted, solidly conservative, evangelical scholars admitting that the Greek word for “eternal” or “forever” in these passages doesn’t actually mean eternal or forever. For instance, no less an authority than Greg Beale, in his monumental commentary on the book of Revelation, has this to say:

Strictly speaking, even the expression “they will be tormented forever and ever” is figurative: eis tous aionas ton aionon literally can be rendered “unto the ages of the ages”; at the least, the phrase figuratively connotes a very long time. The context here and in the whole Apocalypse must determine whether this is a limited time or an unending period . . . 2

New Testament scholar F.F. Bruce consistently understood the word aionios in Scripture, usually translated “eternal,” to mean, not eternal, but “of the age (aion) to come.” 3 Our church is part of a conservative evangelical denomination, the Evangelical Free Church of America. In the official theological exposition of our Statement of Faith, commenting on Matthew 25:41, 46, our theological leaders wrote: “It is true that the word translated ‘eternal’ here (aiōnios) means ‘pertaining to the age to come.’” 4 Both Beale and our denominational leaders go on to argue why the word should be understood as eternal in these contexts, and we’ll consider that argument later in this post. But you can understand why I was surprised to find theologically conservative stalwarts treating this seemingly unequivocal wording as . . . well . . . equivocal. And these were certainly not exceptions. It’s hard to find any reputable scholar arguing that the word in these passages unambiguously means “eternal.” Disturbingly, though, many then interpret the passage as if the meaning of “eternal” is certain. I needed to know more about the meaning of this word.

There’s a Greek word used in the New Testament (and in first century literature) that consistently connotes the meaning of “eternal.” That word is aidios. This word isn’t used in any of our hell passages above or anywhere the Scriptures are referring to the judgment of humanity. The word in question for us is aionios (and grammatical variations). The core of this word is the word aion, which is where we get our word eon. The essential meaning of the word in the first century was similar, typically translated “age.” Here are some familiar passages that use the word aion:

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age . . .

Galatians 1:4

. . . when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.

Ephesians 1:20-21

. . . in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.

Ephesians 2:7

The word aionios is the adjective form of aion. As the evangelical scholars above acknowledge, the basic meaning of the adjective aionios is “of the age” or “pertaining to the age.” It can also be used descriptively to connote “age-long.” We see the word aionios translated this way in passages such as Romans 16:25:

Now to him who is able to establish you in accordance with my gospel, the message I proclaim about Jesus Christ, in keeping with the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past . . .

The mystery wasn’t hidden for “eternities” past, but for long ages past. We also see the word translated similarly in 2 Timothy 1:9, which says: “This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time.” The ESV and NRSV both translate this as “before the ages began.”

Most evangelical scholars acknowledge that this word doesn’t mean eternal, but means “pertaining to the age” or “age-long.” Many, though, hedge this by saying this word doesn’t necessarily mean eternal or it may be translated differently. As part of her exhaustive study of early Christian leaders and their views of universal salvation, Ilaria Ramelli needed to determine precisely what this word meant to the people at that time. So she and David Konstan completed the most extensive and detailed study of this word to date. They published this research in a separate book, in which they conclude:

What emerges from the present analysis is that, apart from the Platonic philosophical vocabulary, which is specific to few authors, aionios does not mean “eternal”; it acquires this meaning only when it refers to God, and only because the notion of eternity was included in the conception of God: for the rest, it has a wide range of meanings and its possible renderings are multiple, but it does not mean “eternal.” In particular, when it is associated with life or punishment, in the Bible and in Christian authors who keep themselves close to Bible usage, it denotes their belonging to the world to come [emphasis in original]. 5

I’m not aware of any major challenges to this incredibly comprehensive research. Ramelli and Konstan do show that the word aionios can acquire the meaning of eternal when, for instance, it’s used to describe God. This is much the same as we see when teachers use words such as “lasting” or “enduring” to refer to something that’s eternal. If I were to say: “Do you want to invest your life in what is temporary or what is lasting?” the word “lasting” here doesn’t mean eternal but, in the context of a specific sentence, it can be used to convey the meaning of eternal. We don’t take this meaning from the word itself, but from what it’s describing. So, when used for God, we can understand aionios as conveying the meaning of eternal in that specific context even if that’s not part of the definition of the word. But Ramelli and Konstan make clear that aionios does not mean “eternal.”

So explaining that the word aionios, used in the hell passages in Scripture, doesn’t actually mean eternal but instead means “pertaining to the age to come” isn’t some fringe view, but in harmony with the most current and most complete research into the meaning of the word. It also reflects what Greek-speaking Christians were specifically clarifying to their Latin-speaking brethren in the early church.6 This understanding is confirmed by current research, by ancient observation and by the reticence of non-universalist scholars to insist on eternal conscious torment in the hell passages based strictly on the meaning of this word. 

Drawing from all of this, it seems clear we should understand passages such as Matthew 25 to be referring to the life of the age to come and the fire or punishment of the age to come. This fits the meaning of the word as we’ve confirmed, and it fits the context. This means it would be inappropriate to use these passages to teach eternal conscious torment. But some might say (and I’ve said): “Wait a minute. Matthew 25 is speaking of both the punishment of the lost and the life we receive as believers in Christ. If the life is eternal, then the punishment must be as well. And if the punishment isn’t eternal, then neither is the life.”

At first this sounds very logical and convincing. But let’s consider this a bit more carefully. This verse is referring to both punishment and life, and it uses the same word to describe both. So whatever this word is saying about one it’s also saying about the other. It doesn’t mean that everything that’s true of one is also true of the other; it just means that whatever aionios means about punishment it also means about life. If aionios meant that the punishment is torment, then it would also be saying the life is torment; if aionios meant the punishment is eternal, it would also be saying the life is eternal. The question is what does the word mean. Since—as virtually everyone seems to be acknowledging—the word aionios in this verse means “of the age to come,” then this verse isn’t addressing the duration of either the punishment or the life at all. It’s not saying anything about how long either last; it’s saying something else entirely about both. This means that to insist that the punishment mentioned must be eternal because the life is eternal is simply erroneous, in the same way that to insist that the life mentioned must be torment because the punishment is torment would be erroneous. This verse is no more addressing the duration of either the punishment or life than it is their temperature

It’s completely understandable that non-scholars would make the kind of challenge we just considered. (By the way, we have many other passages that tell us the life to come is, in fact, never-ending. We don’t need this passage to establish this truth.) What’s alarming is to see respected scholars make the same kind of argument when they should recognize what poor reasoning this is and how specious is the argument. The word aionios doesn’t mean eternal (as most seem to agree). So it’s completely improper to import this meaning of “eternal” into this verse when it’s not what the Scripture is saying in this verse about either punishment or life. We want to humbly hear what the Word is saying to us.

What about the Revelation 14 passage? As Beale pointed out above, this would literally be rendered unto or into “the ages of ages.” This kind of phrase should be familiar to us from similar ones such as “the Holy of holies,” “King of kings and Lord of lords,” etc. This was a familiar Hebrew way of indicating the ultimate example of something, not the duration of anything. (Remember, aionios doesn’t mean eternal, so repeating it in this phrase doesn’t somehow make it mean eternal or forever.) [I’m curious why the ESV includes a footnote for “forever and ever” in 1 Timothy 1:17 noting “Greek to the ages of ages” but not for this verse.] We also need to be careful in basing too much on the description of this verse because it is, as Beale also reminded us, highly figurative.

So what does all this mean? It means the passages in Scripture that are referring to “eternal” fire, punishment, etc., are actually speaking of the fire of the age to come or the punishment of the age to come. This is what the word means, and I don’t find anyone really contesting that. It also means these verses aren’t telling us anything about the duration or final outcome of hell. Does this disprove the idea of eternal conscious torment? No, it doesn’t. Having a more clear understanding of these passages doesn’t necessarily mean the eternal conscious torment view of hell is wrong. But it does weaken the biblical case for this view considerably. What we’ve understood to be the unequivocal wording of Scripture is, at the very best, highly debatable, and, much more likely, it’s decidedly incorrect. This makes better sense of the number of Greek-speaking scholars and leaders in the early church who held views of hell other than eternal conscious torment (see the previous post). It’s difficult to understand how they could have done so if aionios meant “eternal.” So does this leave any biblical reasons for believing in an eternal hell? We’ll consider some other passages used to support this view in the next post.

  1. Robin A. Parry with Ilaria E. Ramelli, A Larger Hope?: Universal Salvation from the Reformation to the Nineteenth Century (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2019).
  2. G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1999), Revelation 14:11.
  3. F. F. Bruce, The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1983), 89; “Age” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1988), 1:67.
  4. Evangelical Free Church of America, Evangelical Convictions: A Theological Exposition of the Statement of Faith of the Evangelical Free Church of America (Minneapolis, MN: Free Church Publications, 2011), 250. Greg Strand, “Eternal Conscious Punishment,” Strands of Thought, August 11, 2015, accessed October 15, 2021.
  5. Ilaria E. Ramelli and David Konstan, Terms for Eternity: Aiônios and Aïdios in Classical and Christian Texts (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2013), 238.
  6. Ilaria E. Ramelli, A Larger Hope?: Universal Salvation from Christian Beginnings to Julian of Norwich (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2019), 105.

[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.]