What the Bible Says About Hell

Life has been busy for the Clark household. I started a new job, my wife is pregnant (It’s a girl!), we just bought our first house, and on top of all of that I am in school.

I bring this up to explain my absence on here, YouTube, and social media. I still haven’t even got my internet set up in the new house. I’m only able to be on here right now because my wife can do some voodoo magic called “hotspot” on her iPad.

Technology is crazy, man.

Anyway, I want to return to my dialogue on the topic of “hell”. My previous post on this subject was well received by most and I am still pursuing this topic in study. I am reading what I am told is the best defense of the “traditional view” — eternal conscious torment — and also reading Rethinking Hell: Readings in Evangelical Conditionalism.

I wanted to share some insights from the latter in this post. I’ve only read the first few chapters, but can tell that it is going to be a good read and I recommend it for anyone wanting to understand why some Bible-exalting evangelical Christians are embracing “conditionalism” over and against the traditional view that non-believers will spend eternity in conscious torment. Whether you end up agreeing with the authors, or not, it will be at the very least insightful.

The Final End of the Wicked – Edward Fudge

The second chapter of the book is an article by Edward Fudge, minister and theologian. The article was published in The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society in 1984.

Fudge begins his article by making a clarifying statement that needs to be made at the outset:

“The question at stake is not, therefore, whether the wicked will suffer ‘eternal punishment.’ It is rather of what that punishment consists.”

It is important to keep in mind that both traditionalists and conditionalists believe that God’s just wrath will be dealt upon the wicked and non-believing. Likewise, both agree that this punishment will be eternal and irrevocable.

The traditionalist believes that God will confine the wicked to a place where they will be consciously tormented for an unending amount of time.

The conditionalist believes that God will annihilate the wicked to the effect that they will cease to exist forever.

The consequence is that both believe there will be an eternal punishment. The two views differ on what precisely that punishment will be. And that is the (only) question here.

Fudge then characterizes the traditional view as resting on (1) that the Old Testament is silent on the matter, and that (2) the doctrine of unending conscious torment developed between the testaments and was the common view by the writing of the New Testament.

His characterization may be a caricature for some that hold to the traditional view, but I will say that in the circles I know personally that hold to the traditional view, this characterization is fair.

One can see how a certain interpretation of a few verses in the New Testament combined with the background knowledge of some Second-Temple texts might lead one to the doctrine of eternal conscious torment. It would seem quite the stretch to squeeze the doctrine of eternal conscious torment out of the Old Testament, on the other hand.

The Old Testament

Fudge agrees that the Old Testament is silent on eternal conscious torment, but states that the Old Testament “overwhelmingly affirms their [the wicked] total destruction.”

In support of this bold claim he cites Psalm 2:9, Malachi 4:3, Psalm 37:20, Psalm 1:4, Psalm 58:8, Isaiah 1:31, Isaiah 33:12, Psalm 68:2, and Psalm 73:20.

The word pictures which describe the fate of the wicked in these verses imply their total destruction. Fudge states that the Traditionalist must negate that the wicked will become like the things these verses describe and must affirm that they will become like something none of these verses, or the Old Testament as a whole, describes: “an everlasting spectacle of indestructible material in an unending fire.”

He is correct that the Old Testament describes the wicked as substances that will be destroyed. This is informative for the obvious: the New Testament writers formed their theology on the backbone of the Old Testament. This is brought up in every discussion about hermeneutics not the least by the more conservative who just so happen to hold to the Traditional view of hell, by and large. The irony is a bit sharp.

A conservative hermeneutic would seek to understand the New Testament writings in light of the Old Testament. If we apply this to the doctrine of hell, one wonders where the idea of eternal conscious torment would have come from. It certainly did not come from the Old Testament. The Old Testament speaks of the fate of the wicked in terms of destruction, not eternal torment.

Fudge then turns to God’s judgment upon the wicked in the historical books taking the earth at the time of Noah’s flood as his first example. The world was wicked and God destroyed it, sparing Noah and his family. This event then becomes a model for the judgment of the wicked at the time of the eschaton (2 Peter 2:5; 3:3-7; Matthew 24:38-39).

Fudge then turns to the example of God’s judgment upon Sodom which was also total destruction. Likewise, this became another model for God’s judgement upon the wicked at the time of the eschaton (Gen 19:24-29; Deut 29:23; Isa 1:9; 13:19-22; Jer 49:18; 50:40; Lam 4:6; Amos 4:11; Zeph 2:9; Luke 17:28-33; 2 Pet 2:6; Jude 7, 23).

Fudge continues his survey with the Prophets noting that they likewise describe the destruction of the wicked as total (Zeph 1:14-18; Isa 66:16-24; Ezek 39:9-22; Dan 12:2; Mal 4:3).

“The wicked become, in short, as though they had never been (Obad 16).”

Intertestamental

Fudge agrees that the doctrine of eternal conscious torment “developed during the time between the Testaments, but modern research totally destroys [the] presupposition that unending conscious torment was ‘the’ Jewish view held by the earliest readers and writers of the NT Scriptures.”

Fudge seeks to show that while eternal conscious torment can be found in Second Temple writings, it is not the only game in town, and in fact not the majority view.

He states that the books of Tobit, Sirach, Baruch, 1 and 2 Maccabees and the Wisdom of Solomon all agree with the Old Testament on the final destruction of the wicked. These are intertestamental books that do not put forward the traditional view.

His next line is one of paramount significance. “The first appearance of conscious unending torment in anything resembling biblical literature comes in the apocryphal book of Judith (16:17).”

If Fudge is correct, the significance could hardly be overstated. The dominant view of Hell today, eternal conscious torment, first appears in an apocryphal book during the intertestamental period. How in the world could that be?

The book of Judith uses Isaiah 66:24 to draw out its doctrine of eternal conscious torment. But Fudge notes the stark contrast between Isaiah’s picture and Judith’s.

“The prophet has unburied corpses; Judith has consciously tortured people. Isaiah’s fire and worm destroy; Judith’s simply torment. In Isaiah the fire and worms are external agents consuming their dead victims; in Judith they are internal agonies perpetually torturing from within. In Isaiah (and all the OT) the victims are destroyed; in Judith they ‘feel their pain forever.'”

Fudge also notes that the Sibylline Oracles, Psalms of Solomon, 4 Esdras, and the Qumran literature all affirm the total destruction of the wicked.

He grants that some scholars interpret 2 Enoch and 4 Maccabees as affirming eternal conscious torment, but that not all scholars do.

To recap: the Old Testament overwhelming affirms the total destruction of the wicked, never once affirming eternal conscious torment. The first attestation to eternal conscious torment is in an apocryphal work during the intertestamental period and represents a minority view at that time.

From this survey, it becomes impossible to say that the dominant view at the writing of the New Testament was eternal conscious torment. If anything, we can say the exact opposite.

Remember why this is important. The doctrine of eternal conscious torment rests, according to Fudge, on the assumption that (1) the Old Testament is silent and (2) that eternal conscious torment was the major view at the time of the writing of the New Testament.

Fudge has shown that the Old Testament describes the wicked as being totally destroyed and that the intertestamental period largely agrees. The foundation for eternal conscious torment then becomes unfounded, resting on sinking sand.

The New Testament

Next, Fudge launches into an examination of the language used in the New Testament to describe the fate of the wicked, or non-believers.

Unquenchable Fire

When the New Testament speaks of the “unquenchable fire” (Mark 9:43, 48), traditionalists assume this is a defense of eternal conscious torment. “See, the fire won’t be quenched.”

Fudge responds in the affirmative, but notes that this language of “unquenchable fire” comes directly from the Old Testament in which fire totally destroys the substance it is burning.

It is unquenchable because nothing will stop it, nothing will prevent it from burning and completely consuming that which it burns. All you really have to do is consider anything that you have ever seen burn. What happens to it? Does it become ash, or does it burn in agony forever? Obviously it becomes ash and is destroyed.

The language of unquenchable fire, when noted in its Old Testament context, actually becomes support for the conditionalist view.

Jesus himself says, “He will clear the threshing floor…burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matt 3:12).

Undying Worms

Mark 9:48 and “the worm that never dies” is another common verse cited by traditionalists in support of the eternal conscious torment view.

But once again, Fudge notes that this language comes directly from Isaiah 66:24: “And they will go out and look upon the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.”

Note that the wicked are now “dead bodies.” Are they being consciously tormented? No, they are dead, or no longer conscious.

The language of “worm that never dies” and “unquenchable fire” not only don’t support the traditionalist view, but actually affirm the conditionalists. The wicked will die and be totally destroyed.

Gnashing of Teeth

In Luke 13:28, Jesus says that evildoers will be thrown into a place where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Notice that he nowhere says how long they will do so.

Fudge points out that the language “gnashing of teeth” is also found in the background of the Old Testament (Job 16:9; Psalms 35:16; 37:12; Lam 2:16). It always refers to someone so angry that they grind their teeth. We see this even in the New Testament with Stephen’s murderers (Acts 7:54).

Evildoers are not grinding their teeth and weeping because they are in eternal pain, but because they are angry and frustrated.

Psalm 112:10 says “The wicked man will see and be vexed, he will gnash his teeth and waste away; the longings of the wicked will come to nothing.” Here we see the language of the “gnashing of teeth” in the same verse of “waste away” and “come to nothing.”

Once again, the traditionalists’ proof verse is flipped on its head.

Smoke that Ascends

Fudge notes that the “smoke” that “rises for ever and ever” in Revelation 14:11 comes from the destruction of Sodom (Genesis 19:28). Because of the wickedness of Sodom, God rained fire down from heaven and totally destroyed the city.

When Abraham saw the smoke rising, it was confirmation that the city had been fully consumed by fire.

This same word picture, notes Fudge, appears again in Isaiah 34:10 with the destruction of Edom. Isaiah says “its smoke will rise forever” speaking of the destruction of Edom. Again, the smoke symbolizes that Edom is destroyed and irreversibly so.

The language of smoke rising forever and ever speaks to the irreversible destruction of whatever the fire has consumed. There is no hint of eternal torment, only utter destruction.

This is what the author of Revelation had in mind when applying this same language to Babylon in Revelation 18-19. Like Sodom and Edom, Babylon will be totally destroyed and the smoke that rises forever is a testimony to God’s judgment upon, and destruction of, her.

No Rest Day or Night

While Revelation 14:9-11 does state that those who worship the beast will “be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb…There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and his image,” we should not undo everything we have already seen because a vague and symbolic passage mentions “tormented” and “no rest day or night” in close proximity.

If you remove your presupposition of eternal conscious torment and read Revelation in its Old Testament context, you will see that the author is using familiar word pictures that we have already discussed to describe total destruction.

The wicked will certainly be tormented, no denying that. But all of the Old Testament language used by the author of Revelation leads us to believe that this torment will end once they are totally destroyed by God. The rising smoke, which was previously discussed, is evidence that the author of Revelation has in mind an end to the wicked’s torment, once they are totally destroyed.

The Lake of Fire

A lake of fire must be the most common view of hell. The influence of Hollywood would have us believe that Hell is a place engulfed in flames where Satan tortures the wicked forever. I know this isn’t what Traditionalists believe about Hell, I’m just noting that even I still bear this image in mind when I hear “lake of fire.”

The Lake of Fire is mentioned in Revelation 19:20; 20:10, 15; and 21:8.

Fudge notes that the “Lake of Fire” is not mentioned anywhere else in the Bible. The closest parallel comes in Daniel 7:9-12 where a “river of fire” comes out from God and the terrible fourth beast is thrown in to be destroyed. Keyword: destroyed. Not tortured forever.

If this is the Old Testament background for Revelation 19, 20, and 21 then destruction is obviously in mind and not eternal torture. If this is not the Old Testament background the author of Revelation had in mind, then there is likely none.

In Revelation itself, the beast and the false prophet are first to be thrown in the lake of fire.

Depending on how you interpret “the beast” and “the false prophet,” Fudge says, this will either disconfirm eternal conscious torment, or you might still try to squeeze the doctrine out of these verses.

In verse 14 “death and Hades” are thrown into the lake as well. Isaiah (Isa 25:7-8) and Paul (1 Cor 15:26) agree that death will be destroyed once and for all.

Fudge makes this remark: “Death and Hades are certainly abstractions, not persons, and the lake of fire here means their annihilation. Death will be no more–forever.”

Death and Hades being thrown into the lake of fire does not mean that Death and Hades will be consciously tormented forever, obviously. It means they will cease to be. Unless we are to apply a strange double-hermeneutic (?) here, the same meaning should be applied to any persons (v.15) being thrown into the lake of fire. Whatever is thrown into the lake of fire is utterly destroyed and ceases to exist. There is no hint of eternal torment.

In fact, those thrown into the lake of fire are directly contrasted with those whose names are written in “the book of life.” The opposite of life is obviously death (not torture) which the author of Revelation makes explicitly clear: “The lake of fire is the second death.”

Paul’s Letters

Very briefly, Fudge adds that Paul’s teaching on the matter is clear that the final fate of the wicked is death and destruction (Rom 6:21, 23; 2:12; Gal 6:8; 1 Cor 3:17; 2 Thess 1:9; Phil 1:28; 3:19).

Conclusion

Based on Fudge’s thorough survey of the Biblical literature, one can easily see that the biblical evidence in favor of a doctrine of eternal conscious torment is severely lacking. There are but a few word pictures one can point to in the New Testament in an attempt to hang on to such a doctrine, but as Fudge has shown, these word pictures rightly understood in light of their Old Testament background actually show the exact opposite to be true.

The wicked will be punished by their just Creator, yes. Their punishment will have an everlasting effect, yes. However, they will not be tortured for an unending amount of time. The wicked, sin, evil, pain, and even death will all be defeated and utterly destroyed by our righteous God. Once and for all, for all eternity to come.

Get the book here: Rethinking Hell: Readings in Evangelical Conditionalism

Published by Haden Clark

Haden lives in North Texas with his wife and two dogs. He holds degrees in theology and philosophy.

4 thoughts on “What the Bible Says About Hell

  1. It’s good to hear from you after a while. I do follow this blog; sometimes I read but I do not like or comment. Well, this certainly is an interesting topic. The topic of hell is not understood thoroughly, even in the church.

    Well, the Bible does state that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). But it also states in John 5:29 that the just will resurrect to eternal life and the wicked to eternal damnation. I do believe that if the righteous will rise to eternal life, then it is only fair that the wicked rise to eternal/ everlasting punishment.

    I have seen the contrast in the Old Testament which you have clearly explained. But I feel like the Bible really means eternal punishment when it talks about the second death. I stand to be corrected.

    Like

  2. The Old testament does refer to “hell” as men currently call it. Men does not see “hell” in the old testament because it has another name.
    “DO NOT MAKE IMAGES FOR YOURELF”, do not imagine what hell is or is not, LET THE LORD SHOW! The punishment of the wicked is NOT what men imagine, specially those who charge money for the little understanding they have received for free (“…but even the little that they have will be taken way”) and because in their hearts there is greed and thirst not of True but money and comfort that money can buy, not knowing that, Is it possible for a camel to go through the eye of a needle?. “The ways of the Lord are NOT THE WAYS OF MEN” So any man that claims to know what hell is or is not, does not know it because he is making IMAGES FOR HIMSELF.
    It is time for the King of Kings and He is at the Door, TRUE Justice is Here, Now and they who have sold theirs souls for a cheap price will soon be put to shame and they will have a taste of TRUE HELL AND I KNOW THEY ARE ALREADY IN SHEOL!! AMEN!

    Like

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