Like many Christians, I grew up in churches that believed and taught that most people would spend the rest of eternity burning in flames. A place of eternal consciousness where every moment was occupied with unimaginable tortures; some said that there were demons in hell who were skinning humans alive or forcing sulfur down peoples throats and prodding them with hot irons. Still others said that the people were engulfed in flames and trapped inside deep dark pits; in all the various scenarios the wounds would heal and the suffering would never cease. Some churches believed that Satan and the demons had no authority in hell and that they would be burning along with the rest of fallen humanity with God and His angels substituted in to fulfill the role of tormentors. Ultimately though the story was the same, heaven was the promise and hell was the sales pitch strategy for those wishing to avoid such a fate. Church was the contractual obligation to be fulfilled and the sinners’ prayer was the signature on the dotted line.
While there can be no doubt that there are very bad and eternal consequences for rejecting the life that Christ offers us. As a Bible believing Christian I no longer find anything in the opening paragraph that holds true when I look for it in scripture. So if you are tormented by the idea of loved ones suffering an eternal scenario like the one mentioned above, if you have come to reject or loathe a god capable of such atrocities or if you are simply willing to let the idea of eternal torment in hell be examined and put to the test then read on as below I offer ten reasons as to why I no longer hold to this view.
1 - The underwhelming support for it found in scripture.
While the imagery that I opened with is common in other writings such as the Quran, there is little support for it to be found within the pages of the Bible. Most of the verses we think of when we think about hell actually contain no mention of duration of punishment at all. Whether it is the rich young ruler, the weeping and gnashing of teeth verses or the place where worms feast on the corpses of God’s enemies, any ideas of eternal consciousness that we hold to we have imputed on to the texts ourselves.
When it comes down to it, there are only three verses in the entire Bible that could imply eternal conscious torment (hereafter referred to as ECT) which are Matthew 25:46, Revelation 14:11 and Revelation 20:10. It’s important to note here that these three verses when taken in isolation appear to contradict the vast majority of other verses in the Bible (see point 4) and so it is wise to consider the language more carefully. The two verses in Revelation for example are likely drawing from the imagery found in other places of the Bible such as Ezekiel 38-39 and Isaiah 34. In Isaiah 34:9-10 for instance, we see that the destruction of the Edomites is described with the imagery of sulfur and fires that would not be quenched and where the smoke ascends forever. Obviously the language here is meant to convey the severity and finality of the destruction rather than to be taken literally. We see something similar in Jude 7 as well which says that Sodom and Gomorrah suffered the vengeance of eternal fire. Sodom, Gomorrah and Edom are clearly not still literally ablaze so we should concede at the very least that the language of Revelation might just have been intended to be taken likewise. As for Matthew 25:46, the eternal punishment mentioned in that verse is contrasted with eternal life. Surely then it makes more sense to understand eternal punishment as something contrary to eternal life? Something perhaps along the lines of the irrevocable loss of life, being dead forever or as eternal destruction (2 Thessalonians 1:9).
If I am wrong though and those three scriptures do support eternal conscious punishment, one has to wonder why God would have remained silent about it throughout the Old Testament and the rest of earth’s history? Why is something so prevalent in the modern church reduced to so few mentions in the last portion of the Bible? It does not make sense.
2 – Hijacked terminology
If ECT in hell is true, then the language used to describe the fate of those who reject God in scripture becomes confusing. The Bible speaks of those who will perish (John 3:16) but ECT says that they will never perish. The Bible speaks of those who will be destroyed (Matthew 10:28) or suffer everlasting destruction (Matthew 7:13-14, 2 Thessalonians 1:9), ECT says that they will never be destroyed for they are indestructible. The Bible says that those who did not follow Christ will be burned up or consumed (Matthew 3:12, Hebrews 10:27), that they will be ash (Malachi 4:1 – 3), they will waste away (Psalm 112:10), they will be no more (Ezekiel 26:19 – 21), they will melt like wax before a fire (Psalm 68:2), they will fade away (Psalm 37:1-2), they will disappear (Isaiah 1:31), they will wither (John 12:25) and that they will not live forever (Genesis 3:3). To play with the literal meanings of any of these phrases is to deny them completely, either you will disappear or you won’t, you will perish or you won’t, you will live forever or you won’t etc. I find there to be a deep irony in the fact that in order to defend ECT, one needs to take Revelation (a book full of wild imagery) literally and the rest of the Bible to be speaking figuratively.
3 - Death
Scripture speaks of a second death (Jude 8, Revelation 21:8), the standard answer to this is similar to the previous point. For those who teach the mainline view of hell death no longer means a loss of life but rather a separation from the omnipresent God. But if death refers not to dying but to simply being separated from God, then what does it mean when the Bible also says that one day there will be no more death (Revelation 21:4)? Or what happens when the last enemy (death) to be destroyed is conquered (1 Corinthians 15:26)? Will those spending eternity consciously being tormented in hell no longer be separated from God? What happens when separation is destroyed? By that definition death sounds more like Universalism to me than it does our modern, traditional view.
4 - Scriptures overwhelming evidence towards conditional immortality
Contrary to the doctrine of ECT, I find an abundance of support for the idea that people are not inherently immortal and that only those who are in Christ will receive the gift of eternal life. There are literally hundreds of verses supporting this, rather than add them here I have made a list of supporting scriptures which I am always adding to that you can look at and study by clicking over here. Simply put, though, I find the verses in the link to overwhelmingly, convincingly and consistently support the idea that whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life (John 3:36).
5 – Excessive Punishment
Even in the Old Testament where God sometimes seems to be more angry and willing to dish out punishment, we see a limit on what is to be meted out. Consider Deuteronomy 25:1-3 where it speaks of a guilty man found deserving of a beating, a condemned man was permitted to be beaten with the number of stripes in proportion to his offense and never beyond the number forty. If the punishment is to fit the crime then how does a life of 20, 40, 60 or even 80 years yield an infinite number of stripes? Some have said that to sin against an eternal God is deserving of infinite punishment but does that not assume that the two words mean exactly the same thing? And if justice is to be carried out in the form of unending punishment does that not mean that God’s justice is never actually satisfied or realized?
6 – What would be the purpose?
Throughout scripture we see God’s restorative justice in action. That is to say that there is a purpose to His judgments. In extreme cases the wicked are wiped out by natural disasters or enemy groups usually with a remnant remaining behind. In less extreme cases people are rebuked or something bad will happen in order to provoke them toward repentance. The point though is that ECT seems to have no restorative purpose at all. The lost are forever fixed in their state and mercilessly kept alive to endure excruciating pain forever. They would simply continue to curse and be cursed.
7 – Biblical justice
Many people have argued that God must punish sinners eternally because His justice demands it but if we are to define justice as the Bible does, I believe it would look something like Zechariah 7:9 which says:
Thus says the LORD of Hosts: Execute true justice, show mercy and compassion everyone to his brother.”
So the LORD of Hosts says that true justice is to show mercy and compassion. The retributive (and then some) form of justice that ECT entails could not be more contrary to this way of thinking.
8 – Historical reasons
No one can deny that for the last 1500 years the idea of eternal conscious torment has been the dominant view of both the Catholic and the Protestant churches. Importantly though, conditional immortality and even universalism were both well represented before the time of Augustine along with the idea of ECT. Now if I heard a doctrine preached and there was no evidence that early church held to it, I would be especially concerned and suspicious of it. But the ideas that I shared in point 4 are consistent with what was taught and can be found in the writings of men such as Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus and Arnobius. On the contrary, ECT’s history seems to extend beyond the Bible and early churches teachings; seemingly having infiltrated the church through a Hellenistic influence and the philosophy of Plato in particular.
9 – All in all? – Except for the 90 %...
The Bible proclaims a glorious future, it speaks of a new heaven and earth where there is no more death or sorrow and of a time where God will be all in all (1 Corinthians 15:28). I like to think of it as a restored version of the Garden of Eden where everything is “very good indeed” and God can be found walking in the cool of the day enjoying His creation and visa versa. But if wickedness remains and has not ‘passed away’ but continues to exist in those suffering unimaginable torments in hell then God is not all in all, He is only all in some and that is not success. For death, sin and rebellion have not passed away but have merely been confined to an underworld prison.
10 – Jesus
Lastly, I do not see Jesus whom scripture reveals to be the exact image of the Father, that is to say, the truest and clearest revelation we have of who God is and what He is like, as someone who would stone an enemy, much less burn them alive. Jeremiah 32:35 speaks of the Israelites who burned their own children as sacrifices to Molech in the Valley of Hinnom (which is called Gehenna in the New Testament and then translated as hell in English). The verse continues on and says that this was an abomination to God that had “never even entered into His mind”. We know that Jesus commanded us to love our enemies and that He even went so far as to allow Himself to be killed by His own, so the idea that He has had a change of heart and has gone from “forgive them for they know not what they do” to “let’s burn them and keep them alive forever” seems odd.
In conclusion, the more I have studied this over the years the more I have become convinced that hell, whatever it might actually be, is not a place of eternal conscious torment but more of a symbol of the utter hopelessness that awaits those who reject Christ. Yes, there will be a resurrection of the dead and consequences for rejecting the Gospel but it will most likely look very different to what we have previously imagined. The purpose for resurrecting those outside of Christ only to have them suffer a second death is still a mystery to me but there must be a purpose behind it that I am yet to understand. What I do know though is that if He is our life then rejecting Him is to reject eternal life itself.
If you want to explore the idea of conditional immortality further here are some helpful resources containing blogs, podcasts and more.
I have also written a follow up article to this one in response to the questions and criticism that it received on this link