Is There an Eternal Conscious Hell?

What Are the Possibilities?
As Christians, we sometimes take the notion of Hell for granted. After all, we’ve grown up with the idea of a place of punishment after death for those who have offended God. In fact, our entire culture has some notion of this concept and has widely distorted the belief to fit the popular trends of the day. But as we think about the idea of Hell, we can really only come to a couple of options. Hell either exists, or it doesn’t! Those are the two possibilities, right? Well within these two possibilities, there are still a number of additional potential realities, so let’s begin by looking with some objectivity at all the possible scenarios:

1. Hell DOESN’T Exist
This position denies the existence of a transcendent soul and a transcendent sense of justice.

a. BUT: We have good philosophical reason to believe that we all have souls and that these souls live beyond (and are ultimately unlimited by) our material bodies and finite material existence (more on that HERE).

b. AND: We all have an innate sense that justice cannot be perfectly realized in this world, and therefore must be realized in some way (and in some ‘place’ or state of being) that is not limited to the present physical realm (more on that HERE).

c. THEREFORE: We have good reason to believe that we will live beyond the grave and that justice will ultimately be served.

2. Hell DOES Exist
If we affirm the existence of a place of judgment that we call “Hell”, we still have several options as to the NATURE of that place. Here are some ideas that have been held over the course of history:

Views of Hell NOT Derived from the Scripture:

1. Hell is a place of TEMPORARY SEPARATION, correction and repentance from which all souls will eventually be rescued after they repent. Torment and anguish may be a part of the ‘correction’ process, but eventually all souls are (or at least have the possibility of being) reunited with God.

A. This view creates a foundation for doctrines such as the Catholic doctrine of “Purgatory”, or the Mormon doctrine of “Spirit Prison”. This view is also held by “Universalists” who believe that all souls are ultimately reunited with God (“saved”).

a. BUT: This position regarding the nature of Hell has no scriptural support and must deny clear Biblical teaching related to the nature of Hell

b. AND: From a philosophical position, to hold that EVERYONE will ultimately go to Heaven is to create a Heaven that is ‘compulsory’. In other words, a “Heaven” that cannot be freely chosen, therefore denying the existence of free will altogether. In addition, a ‘universal’ Heaven would deny the reality that some people are simply NOT suited for such a place. We all recognize that some people are of a certain evil nature or hold certain evil desires. Justice would demand that Heaven would not affirm and accept evil in any form.

c. THEREFORE, this notion of Hell as a place of TEMPORARY SEPARATION, is not tenable.

2. Hell is a place of ETERNAL SEPARATION from God in which the ONLY penalty is this separation. There is no torment or anguish beyond the fact that the soul is NOT in the presence of God.

A. This view is very popular in our culture (including the contemporary “Christian culture”. As relativism creeps into the fabric of our society, many of us have difficulty taking a stand or judging ANY behavior or desire. In this kind of culture, it is easy to minimize the consequences of behavior and choice and create a version of Hell that offers similarly minimal punishments.

a. BUT: This minimalist position regarding the nature of Hell has no scriptural support and must deny clear Biblical teaching related to the nature of Hell

b. AND: From a philosophical position, this view of Hell downplays the severity of our sin. While some of us may not think we are guilty of ‘terrible’ or ‘vile’ sins, we WOULD argue that some people ARE guilty of sin that demands a harsher penalty than separation from God. After all, for many people who want to DENY God’s existence, separation from the God they deny is actually no penalty at all!

c. THEREFORE, this notion of Hell as a simple place of ETERNAL SEPARATION from God is unsatisfying and untenable.

Views of Hell Reportedly Derived from the Scripture:

1. Hell is a place of UNCONSCIOUS ETERNAL PUNISHMENT. Souls are immediately destroyed, and while the consequence is eternal and final, they are no longer consciously aware of their existence, torment or anguish.

A. This position is held by the Jehovah’s Witnesses and by people in the “annihilationist” camp. There are even some evangelicals who take this position (Clark Pinnock and John Stott, for example)

a. This position can only be held if selective verses from the scripture are isolated to the exclusion of others.

2. Hell is a place of CONSCIOUS ETERNAL PUNISHMENT. Souls are in continual conscious torment. They are aware of their existence and anguish.

A. This position has been the ORTHODOX Christian view over the centuries.

a. The position relies on several key passages of Scripture and the teaching of the early church fathers. But is it necessarily true, especially when some believers make a case for annihilationism from the Bible as well?

So, Is Hell a Conscious or Unconscious Place of Punishment?
Two possible notions of Hell have been advanced by those who claim to make a case from the Bible. These two ideas about Hell are mutually exclusive, so one of them must be false. Which idea is true and which is not? I believe that the traditional orthodox view of Hell is the correct view, and we’ll spend the rest of this article making the case. We’ll begin by employing an important principle of Biblical “hermeneutics” (the approach one takes to reading the scriptures). We’ll start with the clearest passages that describe Hell and then move toward the more ambiguous passages. It’s never wise to base ANY doctrine on a passage of scripture that is not crystal clear. We begin with the most straightforward passages and use these to interpret the rest.

We’ll examine BOTH cases for the nature of Hell, and we’ll try our best to be fair to BOTH positions. Let’s begin with the case for annihilationism:

Is Hell A Place of UNCONSCIOUS Eternal Punishment?
People who hold this view of Hell (“Annihilationists”) will tell you that they hold it for both philosophical and Biblical reasons. Let’s examine both here:

The Philosophical Reasoning
Many people embrace this view of Hell not because it is supported strongly from the Scripture, but because it satisfies an emotional desire to create a God who meets several pre-existing “human” requirements. Many of us prefer to think of God’s LOVING characteristics to the exclusion of God’s HOLY and JUST nature. Many of us don’t want to think that God would actually punish us at all, or that this punishment would exceed what we would like (or see as just from a human perspective). The philosophical argument goes something like this:

A good God would not punish TEMPORAL human crimes with ETERNAL ongoing conscious punishment. The degree of the punishment would exceed the degree of the crime. The most merciful thing that God could do would be to simply destroy the sinner for his crime, rather than torture the sinner forever.

This argument seems quite persuasive to many people, but even from a simple philosophical perspective, it ignores several key considerations. Many of these are examined HERE, but for purposes of this article, it would be a mistake to say that the Bible argues for a Hell in which there is ongoing, active TORTURE at the hands of God. We DO know that Hell is described as a place of ongoing TORMENT and ANGUISH as a state of being, but this does NOT mean it is a place of active TORTURE. The claim of orthodox Christianity is simply that Hell is a place where the sinner will be CONSCIOUSLY aware of his or her punishment.

The Biblical Reasoning
People who believe that Hell is a place where sinners are completely destroyed (annihilated) will sometimes try to make their case from the Scriptures. They will typically use verses like this to argue that there is NO consciousness after death:

Psalms 146:4
His spirit departs, he returns to the earth; In that very day his thoughts perish.

But to point to these passages, seems to ignore the truth of DUALISM that the Bible affirms. It is true that when our BODIES die, our BRAINS will die with them. Our brains will no longer produce THOUGHTS (after all, this a function of the physical, material brain). But this says nothing about the ongoing existence of our immaterial souls. Just because our material bodies and brains will perish, this does NOT mean that our souls will also perish. The Bible is clear about the continuing existence of our souls after death (read more about that HERE).

In addition to this, people who believe that Hell is a place where sinners are destroyed completely will also sometimes point to verses such as these to argue that souls “sleep” or perish completely after death:

Acts 13:36
“For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep, and was laid among his fathers, and underwent decay…”

There are many passages in the Bible where dead people are described as having “fallen asleep”. People, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who believe that the soul somehow sleeps, must once again deny the truth about DUALISM in order to make this claim. They have to assume that whatever happens to the body, must necessarily also happen to the soul. But Biblical descriptions of those who have “fallen asleep” are merely describing the appearance of the BODY to those who remain in the PHYSICAL WORLD. These passages make NO claim about the state of the immaterial reality of the SOUL. Yes, the body appears to sleep, but that says nothing about the continuing state of the soul. Look at the passage in Acts 13 once again. Do we believe that the SOUL is decaying based on the passage? Of course not. The BODY is decaying. The BODY appears to have fallen asleep. These kinds of passages make no case for the state of the soul after death.

There are also a number of additional passages that ‘annihilationists” will try to use to make their case, but let’s look at some of these as we examine the case for the eternal CONSCIOUS torment of those who have been assigned to Hell…

Is Hell A Place of CONSCIOUS Eternal Punishment?
Orthodox Christianity has always maintained that Hell is a place where those who have rejected God will be left unforgiven in a state of eternal CONSCIOUS torment. They will not be destroyed, but instead, will be left in a conscious state to experience the torment and anguish of their punishment forever. Like the “annihilationists”, orthodox Christians also base their beliefs on both philosophical and Biblical grounds:

The Philosophical Reasoning
There are good philosophical reasons to believe that Hell will be a place of eternal conscious torment. We simply need to think about the nature of the God and the Biblical claim that we, as humans are designed in the “image” of this God. If this is true, then a good philosophical argument can be made that our existence after death will be unending:

As humans created in the “image’ of God, we have been created as everlasting beings. Our transcendent nature as “souls” is a characteristic of humanity that separates us from other animals who were NOT created in the image of God (more on that HERE). If we are truly ‘living souls” then our existence after death CANNOT be terminated in a Hell in which consciousness is eliminated.

The Bible makes the claim that humans (in the image of God) are living souls that exist beyond the grave. If this is true, then both Heaven and Hell will be places where souls live forever. In addition to this philosophical argument, we can also argue that the nature of God as an eternal CONSCIOUS being DEMANDS both eternal conscious reward AND eternal conscious punishment:

Justice is determined NOT by the law breaker, but by the law giver. Justice and punishment take shape based on the nature of the SOURCE OF THE LAW, not the nature of the SOURCE OF THE OFFENSE. Since God is the source of justice and the Law, it is HIS nature that is reflected in the nature of the punishment. Since God is ETERNAL and CONSCIOUS, all rewards and punishments must also be ETERNAL and CONSCIOUS.

This means that temporal crimes will have eternal consequences in Hell. While that may seem unfair, it is no less “fair” than what God does for those of us who have accepted His free gift of forgiveness. While sinners who reject God temporally are punished eternally, saints who accept God and serve him temporally are offered eternal reward. Those of us who love God don’t argue much that we shouldn’t have eternal reward, but we are quick to flinch when we think about the possibility that those who reject God will have eternal torment as their punishment! If we are willing to accept the possibility of an eternal reward that does not seem equivalent to our temporal ‘goodness’, we need also to be ready to accept the truth of eternal punishment that seems to exceed our temporal ‘badness’!

The Biblical Reasoning
But in addition to these philosophical reasons, orthodox Christians who hold to the idea that Hell will be a place of eternal conscious torment also make their case from the Bible. Let’s take a look at their Biblical reasoning and the challenges that are sometimes made by ‘annihilationists”:

A Torment That Lasts ‘Forever and Ever’
There are several passages of Scripture that clearly teach that Hell is a place where torment lasts ‘forever and ever’. Take a look at this passage in the Book of Revelation:

Revelation 14:9-11
And another angel, a third one, followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and his image, and receives a mark on his forehead or upon his hand, he also will drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is mixed in full strength in the cup of His anger; and he will be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. “And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever; and they have no rest day and night, those who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name.”

This seems clear enough. Hell is a place where those who have rejected God will (1) be tormented with fire and brimstone, and (2) the smoke of their torment will go up ‘forever and ever’. It sure sounds like this torment will be lasting forever. If those who were being tormented were annihilated altogether, the torment would END. But this is NOT what the Bible teaches. Here is another clear passage:

Revelation 20:10
And the devil who deceived them 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.

Once again we see that the wicked are tormented (1) “day and night” (continually) and (2) “forever and ever” (without end). Continual torment REQUIRES continual consciousness, so any expression such as this (when related to the idea of ‘torment’) simply must indicate eternal consciousness as well. Annihilationists will argue that the expression ‘forever and forever’ does not actually indicate or reflect a period of time, but instead, describes a level of intensity or degree of ‘completeness’. But this is NOT reflected in the terms that are actually used here.

The expression ‘forever and ever’ is actually translated from the Greek words, “aionas ton aionon” (or “ages of the ages”), and is repeatedly used in the Scripture to indicate a period of eternity. Perhaps the best way to interpret the expression is simply to see how the very same Biblical writer (John) uses it elsewhere in the very same Biblical Book (Revelation):

Revelation 5:13
And every created thing which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all things in them, I heard saying, “To Him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, be blessing and honor and glory and dominion forever and ever.”

Revelation 4:9
And when the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to Him who sits on the throne, to Him who lives forever and ever…

Now look at these two passages carefully. John is using the expression, “forever and ever” to indicate a period of TIME and NOT a degree of intensity or completion! God deserves honor and glory FOREVER (for all eternity). God has power over everything FOREVER (for all eternity). And finally, God, as an eternal being, lives FOREVER (for all eternity). It’s really quite simple and straightforward.

A Torment That is ‘Unquenchable’
The Bible also describes Hell as a place of fire and torment that cannot be quenched:

Matthew 3:12
“And His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

Now think about this for a minute. Why is the fire itself ‘unquenchable”? Why is there a need for such a fire? If rebellious souls are destroyed completely, then there is no need for a fire that never goes out! After all, the number of available souls to be destroyed is not limitless. After all have been destroyed there is no additional need for a fire. “Annihilationists” will say that this expression is simply a term that once again indicates a degree of intensity or completeness, but this contradicts the plain reading of the expression as illuminated by other passages:

Mark 9:43-44
“And if your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life crippled, than having your two hands, to go into hell, into the unquenchable fire, [where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.]

It is clear that the ‘worm’ of the damned ‘does not die’! Are we to believe that Hell is actually a place where the damned are annihilated, leaving a place of unquenchable fire and worms that don’t die? No, the clearest interpretation of the expression is the orthodox view of Hell in which rebellious souls have an eternal, conscious existence.

A Torment That is ‘Eternal’
Finally, the Bible teaches that Hell is a place where ‘punishment’ is unending:

Matthew 25:45-46
“Then He will answer them, saying, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

This passage is extremely enlightening and extremely important to the general discussion, because it clearly describes the eternal nature of the ‘punishment’ that will occur in Hell. First, it’s important to take a hard look at the Greek word being used for ‘eternal’. It is the Greek word, “aionios” and it is used repeatedly to say “eternal”, “for ever” “everlasting”, or “perpetual”. Notice that this word is used TWICE: once to describe the nature of punishment in Hell and once to describe the nature of our life with God as believing Christians. It is clear that Matthew means ‘forever’ here when using this word!

But now let’s take a look at the word that Matthew uses for ‘punishment’. It is the Greek word, “kolasis” and it refers to a penalty paid as the result of a crime. It is used twice in the Bible as “punishment” and as “torment”. It is used to indicate an ONGOING experience or reality (see 1 John 4:18). Now Matthew could easily have written the verse in one of these ways:

“… And these will go away into eternal death, but the righteous into eternal life.”

“… And these will go away into eternal annihilation, but the righteous into eternal life.”

“… And these will go away into eternal destruction, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Any of these possibilities might support the claims of “annihilationists” that Hell is a place where rebellious souls are destroyed and have no conscious existence. But that is NOT how Matthew wrote the verse! He said that PUNISHMENT (a continued, ongoing experience) was eternal. “Annihilationists” would like to argue that the CONSEQUENCE of the punishment is eternal (as death is ‘forever’), but that is not the clear reading of the text, nor the clear usage of the word. Matthew is telling us that the ongoing experience of punishment is eternal in the same way that the ongoing experience of life with God is also eternal.

The Best and Clearest Reading
While the notion that Hell is a place of eternal conscious torment may be offensive to some of us, it is the clear and plain teaching of the Bible. As we learn more about exactly what the Bible teaches regarding the nature of Hell, we will be better able to overcome objections to the truth of this teaching, even if WE are, ourselves, the source of those objections (more on that HERE).

In the end, it’s important or us to realize that God has given us a way to AVOID Hell altogether by offering His Son on the Cross of Calvary. The doctrine of Hell SHOULD be repulsive to us. Hell SHOULD be horrendous to us. Hell is a terrible, horrifying place that we can avoid entirely if we will simply accept the forgiveness and salvation of a loving God who is offering us Heaven. Perhaps C.S. Lewis said it best:

“In the long run the answer to all those who object to the doctrine of hell is itself a question: ‘What are you asking God to do?’ to wipe out their past sins and, at all costs, to give them a fresh start, smoothing every difficulty and offering ever miraculous help? But He has done so, on Calvary.”

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