Hell: Eternal, Temporary, or Never?

The doctrine of hell is one of the most indispensable aspects of the gospel. Yet, it has never been a popular topic to discuss, even in the church.

BY STEVE CHA

It is so unimaginable and frightening that it has caused many people to redefine its meaning, sometimes going so far as to deny its existence altogether. Everyone from atheists to liberal Protestants and cult groups (ex. Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses) have tried to explain hell away.

The debated question concerning the duration of hell is, “Is it never, forever, or just for a while?”

Based on the combined words of Scripture, the most obvious, and historic, answer is that it is forever. The Old Testament, the New Testament, and the earliest theologians in church history attest to this view of hell, not because it is the most emotionally preferable, but because it is clearly spelled out in the Bible.

Although the eternal nature of such torment is hard to fathom – much like the Trinity, God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility, the incarnation – it does not make the doctrine any less true. We must humbly accept the reality of this truth, and use it as a platform for urgent evangelization of the lost, especially in a post-modern culture where many do not believe in supernatural realities.

It is interesting to note that hell was originally created for Satan and the fallen angels (Matthew 25:41). Their act of defiance against a holy God brought about not only their exile from heaven (Ezekiel 28:17-29), but an expectation of eternal punishment, with no hope of redemption or parole. This is what sin against an infinitely holy God deserves. Likewise, this is the same punishment that is due to humans who act in similar fashion. They, like angels, have been made with an understanding of God’s Law (right and wrong) and are held accountable as moral agents for their course of action. However, humanity is different in that they are made in God’s image. This is one of the reasons that God decreed in His plan to redeem some from the penalty of sin, while the rest will die being the recipient of God’s full justice, which is an eternal testimony to His righteous character.

Hell is implied in a few places throughout the Old Testament, but given full light in the New Testament as a product of progressive revelation, much like the Trinity, the rapture of the church, and the meaning of marriage. The Hebrew word Sheol has often been noted by biblical scholars as referring to hell (a.k.a. the abode of the dead) (Deuteronomy 32:22; Psalm 88:3; Isaiah 7:11). However, this is not a definite reference to hell, because Sheol at times refers to the physical grave that people go into when they die (Job 10:21; Ecclesiastes 9:2-3; Psalm 89:48). The Old Testament does make two good references that point to the existence of hell, both of which are found in prophetic books.

The first one is in Isaiah 66:24, which speaks about Jerusalem’s future when Christ returns to set up His reign in that city. The verse reads, “Then they will go forth and look on the corpses of the men who have transgressed against Me. For their worm will not die and their fire will not be quenched; and they will be an abhorrence to all mankind.” This prophecy clearly prophesies about God’s future punishment of the guilty – a non-stop suffering that is similar to what Jesus described in verses like Mark 9:48.

The second reference is found in Daniel 12:2, which speaks about the final resurrection of all mankind in the last days. It reads, “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the group will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt.” The word of Daniel prophesies of eternal life for the saints, but eternal damnation for the reprobates. What exactly does “everlasting disgrace and contempt” mean? If Isaiah 66:24 is not enough to qualify this description, many passages in the New Testament do just that.

Jesus Himself was the foremost preacher concerning the topic of hell. He talked about it more than heaven. Jesus presents hell as a place of postmortem, conscious torment. It is described as fiery (Matthew 5:22), where the worm never dies (Mark 9:48), and a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 8:12). Although some claim that these descriptions are only figurative, it does not downplay the horrors of hell in anyway. Even if Jesus was using symbolism, His description makes it obvious that it is not a place that anybody wants to be. It is a horrible place to be in. It is a destination to be avoided at all costs, which shows how costly Christ’s sacrifice was and how important it is that we respond to the gospel.

Finally, Jesus presents hell as eternal (Matthew 3:12; 25:41; 2 Thessalonians 1:9). Some Christians try to argue otherwise. Annihilationists believe that sinners suffer temporarily in hell before going out of conscious existence. Universalists believe that the guilty will ultimately be restored to eternal fellowship with God, with hell serving as a type of temporary purgatory, or refining process, to get sinners to come to an afterlife repentance. However, the case for these views are without much biblical support. These two camps point to the word ‘Gehena’ (hell) and theorize that it only speaks about the burning trash dump in the Valley of Hinnom, which symbolizes the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 along with the apostate Jewish system that Jesus condemned.

It is true that Gehena points to the valley southwest of Jerusalem, which burned refuse from Jerusalem day and night continually. But why exactly does Jesus use this location in His warnings? It is sensible that Jesus used this imagery as an analogy for what the afterlife hell will be like for unbelievers – an unending fire that the refuse of humanity will face if they die in the filth of their sins. Otherwise, what real significance does this reference have for Christians today?

The last and most potent argument for everlasting punishment is found in Revelation 20:11-15. This prophetic passages speaks about the coming Great White Throne Judgment. It is the final judgment for all mankind. The guilty stand before God and are sentenced to the lake of fire, where the smoke of the inhabitant’s torment goes up forever and ever (Revelation 20:10). This event is God’s ultimate solution for dealing with sin. Death and Hades are cast away forever while the sons of righteousness dwell with God in His holy habitat of the new earth forever (Revelation 22).

The eternality of hell is a reality that must be defended. It is as clear of a gospel belief as is the issue of depravity, penal substitution, and the resurrection. Distorting the teaching of hell does a major disservice to the sacrifice of Christ, the high cost of the gospel, and what is really at stake in the life of the unbeliever. It gives sinners a false sense of complacency in this lifetime, as well as a low regard for the seriousness of their sin before a Holy God and His Holy Law.

That is why in a day and age that regards eternal hell as a fright tactic or a Medieval myth, we are called to contend the faith (Jude 3) and to warn sinners of the final wrath to come before it is too late.

Steve Cha is the teaching pastor of Grace City LA.

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