Can Hell as Eternal Conscious Torment and "Sola Scriptura" co-exist?

The topic of Hell is one of the hottest topics in Christianity, pun intended.
The controversy was vividly seen in 2011 with Rob Bell's book Love Wins, which became the center of the Hell debate, creating a dividing line between much of American Christianity. Many Christians, including myself, fell on the "Rob Bell is a heretic" side,  while others saw it as new insight or an affirmation of what they already believed. I clearly remember entering many Facebook debates strongly arguing the theology I was taught, even though I realized I had never taken the time to actually study it for myself. At that point, I began that study by looking up every verse that was remotely discussed the topic of Hell and then compiled a list.

This article is my attempt to show and walk through all of those verses, to reveal what the Bible teaches on the topic of Hell. I want to invite you to join me in walking through these verses to discover the common themes and study all the verses in their contexts. I will approach this topic with the Bible as our final authority and view the passages literally. My hope is that we can set aside our presuppositions and pursue truth "by scripture alone” in the spirit of “Sola Scriptura."

These scriptures have been divided into four categories, and are to be read prior to each corresponding section since they won’t be fully quoted. The intent of dividing them into sections is to group them thematically, building up to the most debated verses. The last section is included for thoroughness even though they do not add (much) to our study.

Before we continue, let’s define terms and the main doctrinal positions of the topic:

Hell: While the standard short definition for Hell is “a place of God's final retributive punishment,” the purpose of this article is to find the full meaning according to the texts of the Bible.1

Hades: Hades is the name of the Greek mythological god of the underworld, brother to both Zeus and Poseidon. When the Old Testament was translated into Greek (called the Septuagint), this Greek word was used to translate the Hebrew term “Sheol.” Sheol refers “primarily to death and the abode of the dead for both godly and ungodly.”2

Eternal Life: “The divinely bestowed gift of blessedness in God's presence that endures without end. This relates especially to the quality of life in this age, and to both the quality and duration of life in the age to come.” 3

Eternal Conscious Torment: This position, which will be abbreviated as ECT throughout this article, is viewed as the “Traditional” view of Hell. It is vividly described by Jonathan Edwards like this: ”The world will probably be converted into a great lake or liquid globe of fire, in which the wicked shall be overwhelmed, which will always be in tempest, in which they shall be tossed to and fro, having no rest day and night, vast waves and billows of fire continually rolling over their heads, of which they shall forever be full of a quick sense within and without; their heads, their eyes, their tongues, their hands, their feet, their loins and their vitals, shall forever be full of a flowing, melting fire, fierce enough to melt the very rocks and elements; and also, they shall eternally be full of the most quick and lively sense to feel the torments; not for one minute, not for one day, not for one age, not for two ages, not for a hundred ages, nor for ten thousand millions of ages, one after another, but forever and ever, without any end at all, and never to be delivered."4

Annihilationism / Conditionalism:  Dr. Preston Sprinkle, in his article "Biblical Support for Annihilation," defines this position this way, "Rightly understood, the annihilation view of Hell says that there will be irreversible, horrific punishment (read: consequence) for those who don’t believe in Christ. This punishment may last for a period of time, but ultimately it will end. The wicked will pass out of existence; they will not be tormented forever and ever." (FYI, Conditionalism is short for conditional immortality.)

Christian Universalism: Benjamin L. Corey, in "Why Some Christians Are Universalists" explains Christian Universalism as, "Instead of saying everyone is saved (sic) is better understood as the belief that everyone will be saved, eventually– not because all flights lead to Rome but because all will eventually turn to Christ. This view often maintains a belief in Hell, but with the belief that Hell is for the purpose of refining instead of eternal punishment– almost more of a Catholic purgatory than a Southern Baptist Hell. Some do not maintain a concept of Hell but rather see the ‘fire’ as being metaphorical for God’s love which will purify everything (sic) is not the idea the 'All people are saved’ but they will be.” (FYI, in contrast to the other theological perspectives,Christian Universalism especially takes these verse seriously: 2 Pet 3:9; 1 Tim 2:4; 1 Cor 15:22; 1 Jn 2:2; Jn 12:32; Lk 6:6; Mt 18:14; Rom 5:18; 1 Tim 4:10; Eph 1:9-10; Phil 2:10)

PART 1: Eternal Characteristics of Hell - (Read verses for Part 1 here.)
When we view these verses, we see the common themes of “eternal fire,” “eternal punishment,” and “eternal destruction.” While there are characteristics of Hell that are described as eternal, we do not see anything that says people will be in torment forever.

All verses in the meaning of this section are clear: where there is fire, things are destroyed - and destroyed forever. This is seen in John 15:5-6, where Jesus uses the analogy of a branch that doesn't produce fruit, where the branches are cut off and burned in the fire. Even when we personify those branches, we see they were destroyed. From Sodom and Gomorrah in Jude 1:7 to the punishment in 2 Thess 1:9 we see destruction, fire, and punishment which does last forever;  however, nothing in these verses says that torment does. Matt 25:46 is often argued as supporting ECT, but the verse says "eternal punishment" not "eternal torment." All verses in this section depict a destruction as a punishment with eternal consequences. We can conclude that while Hell has eternal and everlasting characteristics, none of these verses address the torment aspect all.

Foreshadowing Quiz: Look at Matthew 25:41. Who was the eternal fire prepared for?

PART 2: What is the opposite of eternal life? - (Read verses for Part 2 here)
In these verses we see eternal life contrasted with Hell or its descriptions. As a prime example, quote John 3:16 right now. What is contrasted with eternal life? Is it “eternal conscious torment” or “Hell”? As you see in this most quoted Bible verse, eternal life is contrasted with perishing.

Likewise, the rest of the verses in the section repeatedly contrast eternal life with perishing, destruction, and death. It is abundant life that is contrasted with being killed and destroyed in John 10:10. When Jesus describes Judgment Day, He compares it the city Sodom who was destroyed in Luke 17:26-30, 33, - it was not tortured forever. Finally, in Revelation 17 the empires of the world are described as a “prostitute,” who Christians are sleeping with (18:4), and who a voice from heaven calls us to leave behind our adultery or else we will be burned up with her in fire (Rev 18:4-8). All of these verses in this section show that eternal life is consistently contrasted with perishing, destruction, and death.

Foreshadowing Quiz: What is promised in 2 Peter 3:7-13 that we are waiting for?

PART 3: Main verses on Hell, Hades, Fire, Etc. - (Read verses for Part 3 here)
Now let’s read the remaining seven verses that are most discussed and highly-debated. Remember, for the purpose of this article we are viewing these verses literally.

VERSE 1: John 5:26-29  
In the John 5 passage, Jesus is describing the events that will unfold when the “Son of Man” comes again. The “Son of Man” is a title which refers to the coming Messiah, seen in Daniel 7. John 5 records Jesus telling of His second coming and the resurrection that will take place. He explains how "those who have done good" will rise to new life, while "those who have done evil" will be sent to the "resurrection of judgment.” Instead of the literal translation of "resurrection of judgment" D.A. Carson (in his Pillar commentary on John) recommends the translation "rise to be condemned." Regardless, the meaning is plain. The point of this passage is that all who have died will be resurrected, either to life or to condemnation.

VERSE 2: Luke 16:19-31
How do we read this whole passage which tells of the rich man in torment in Hades? Is this a parable or an actual event? While this answer could change our interpretation and application, it is not necessary for the discussion at hand. Even when we take this passage literally, we read that the rich man was in torment in Hades but the length of torment is not quantified. Do notice the word referenced is not Hell but Hades.  But regardless of which Greek word is used, we can infer that this rich man was judged for his selfishness, and it is this conclusion which is the purpose of this parable since there is nothing that can distinguish how long this anguish will last.

VERSE 3: Matthew 10:28
The ECT view of Hell teaches that after a person's body dies, those who are not saved from judgment will have their soul suffering forever in Hell. Interestingly, in the ECT view, Matthew 10:28 is wholly ignored because here Jesus clearly contradicts the idea of ECT.  As we can see in this verse, we shouldn't fear of our body being killed, but "fear Him who can destroy both soul and body in Hell."  Let us remember this verse as we move forward, knowing that in Hell both body and soul are destroyed.

VERSE 4: Revelation 14:9-11
As we saw in part 1, Hell is often described as eternal fire, and where there is fire there is smoke. Likewise, in Revelation 14:11 a vivid description of this is given stating that the smoke goes up forever and ever. Advocates of ECT believe that the phrase "of their torment" implies that they will be tormented forever in ECT.  While it is clear that "their torment" is the source of the smoke, the exact connection and correlation between torment and smoke is debated. While this passage does state that they will have not have any rest from this torment, there is no explicit mention of how long the duration of their torment will last, only that while they are in torment there is no rest. Even with an ongoing torment, this passage will be further clarified as we look at the “second death” in the next passage.

VERSE 5: Revelation 20:11-15
When we read this Revelation passage we have to ask, what is this "second death"? We can see how this connects with Matthew 10:28 and how God can destroy both our body and soul, but what else can we connect with this passage? We know that people who live physically live will die physically. We know from John 5:26-29 that everyone who has died will be raised either to eternal life or condemnation. And we know just like the first death, after judgment the "unsaved" will have a second death in the lake of fire. G.K. Beale states in his NIGTC Revelation commentary 5 that "in Jewish writings, the concept of 'second death'" referred to the "exclusion from the resurrection." This connects directly with 1 Corinthians 15:55-56 and Isaiah 25:8 which both declare that death has been swallowed up in victory. This event seen in Revelation is the very fulfillment of the prophecy stated in Isaiah 25:8 and Hosea 13:14 - death has now died! Death and Hades are thrown into the lake of fire which is the second death. For those who want to view the second death as meaning ECT, not only does it hijack the meaning of death, but it also destroys the prophecies we have discussed. This brings us to ask, will anyone suffer eternal conscious torment?

VERSE 6: Revelation 20:10
I broke up Revelation 20:10-15 because verse 10 is the most quoted verse to support ECT. This is the only verse which explicitly mentions torment lasting “day and night forever and ever.” Since this verse precedes Rev 20:11-15 and the second death, it is debated whether this torment is truly an eternal one.  However, continuing with our literal reading we see that only "the Devil," "the Beast and the “False Prophet" are being tormented forever in the “lake of fire,” since all else have been destroyed. There is absolutely no mention or implication that anyone else will suffer forever other than those who were specifically named. This answers our Quiz question from part 1: It is the Devil, the Beast and the False prophet who continue to suffer, and it was for them that the fire was prepared for, as we see in Matthew 25:41.

VERSE 7: Mark 9:42-48
We have arrived at our last scripture, which interestingly has three references. To see what I mean, look up verses Mark 9:44, 46 and 48. You will only find verse 48 in most English translations unless you are reading from the KJV or NASB. This discrepancy is because verses 44 and 46 are not in most ancient manuscripts. Verse 48 does exist in all manuscripts and says the same thing. The question is, what does "where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched" actually mean? First, note this verse is describing the worms, not the people, shown by the word “their.” Second, this is an exact quotation from Isaiah 66:24. Third, Isaiah records that the worms are on the specific people who have died.  Fourth, the context of Isaiah 66:18-24 is describing Judgment Day, with a clear picture of past destruction, “They shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm will not die...” This is a terrible picture of those who have perished because they rebelled against God. While they were already dead, their worms are specifically described as not dying. Whether we take this verse literally or symbolically, the image is clearly an ugly and permanent destruction, and again there is no support for ECT.  

So now we should ask if Hell is a real physical place. The answer is yes, and you can go to Hell and come back. You will need three days to do it; not unlike Jesus according to some Christians (sorry for the theological joke). But really, you will need a full day of airfare going to and then to coming back. A plane ticket will cost a little over $1,000 and Hell is only an hour from the Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. So plug 31°46′6.262″N35°13′49.58″E into your GPS and go to Hell, it's right outside of the city of Jerusalem.

This location is called "Gehenna" which is the transliteration of the Greek Word that we translate as Hell. This is a compound word literally meaning "Valley of the Sons of Hinnom." While it humorous to talk about “going to Hell” on a plane, this location is was never funny, as you can read here: 2 Kings 23:10; 2 Chron 28:1-4, 33:1-7; Jer 7:30-34; Eze 16:15-22, 23:36-39. This place was a vivid example of destruction, death, human sacrifice, and literal fires. While it is often repeated, the idea that Gehenna was a garbage dump, this was a theory started by Jewish scholar Kimchi, around A.D. 1200.

Jesus used this physical location to sharply contrast what eternal life was like. Jesus could point to a physical place as an example of what "Hell on Earth” looks like. Though we can point to Gehenna on a map and call it Hell, this does not downplay the severity of the image Jesus was referencing. This physical and historical place would have made clear to all that this is what evil, judgment, and death look like when we are separated from life supplied by God. Once we allow the entire image of Gehenna to come into focus, we can better understand the passage that uses this word.

Now that we have reviewed all of these verses, you may have some questions. So in the spirit of the Apostle Paul, who rhetorically asked over 80 questions in his letter to the Romans, I will likewise ask and answer some questions you may be thinking.

QUESTION 1) Didn't you research Hell to twist it to what you wanted the Bible to say?
By no means! When I started looking up all these verses years ago, I had no agenda. I grew up going to Church hearing about eternal conscious torment and never knew there was another option. While I knew of Unitarian Universalists, I never considered them to be "real” Christians. So when I tackled this topic, I simply wanted to compile every verse so I could then study them. I was completely expecting full support of what I had been taught, yet, I was actually shocked by the verses I read. After I had studied these passages, I then looked up what theologians had to say. Only then did I realize I was not alone in my conclusions and found the technical names for the doctrinal positions I had found.

QUESTION 2) Aren't you just trying to make Hell more “palatable”?
By no means! With no ulterior motive, I wanted to study what the Bible actually said and then draw conclusions based on "Sola Scriptura." Questioning the duration of torment or suffering that is found in the Bible does not alter the reality of these verses. While theologians can debate if these passages should be viewed as literal or symbolic, it does not change the severity they describe. No matter if this suffering is taken as physical, spiritual, and/or mental, it is not “palatable.” The Bible clearly shows that the consequences of sin are drastic (Rom 6:23), thus there is no need to superimpose an ECT view into the text. Now that we understand that ECT cannot be supported biblically, we can again emphasize, like Jesus, the greatness of the “gift” of eternal life.

QUESTION 3) Doesn't the Bible say that everyone will live forever, but the question is where?
By no means! Even though I have heard this countless times, there is no biblical support for this claim.  Those who believe in ECT have created the idea that Hell is a mirror opposite of Heaven. With Scripture as the final authority, this idea simply cannot be supported.  The lack of natural immortality is confirmed by 1 Timothy 6:15-16, when we read that God “alone has immortality.”  The definition of the Greek word for “has” is to hold, possess, own, and wear. Since God alone holds, possesses, owns, and wears immortality, we have the ability, through Him to receive "the gift" of eternal life (Rom 6:23, 5:15-16; Eph 2:8). In Romans 2:7 Paul summarizes this perfectly, "to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life." Immortality is God's alone, but we are able to receive immortality in eternal life when we believe Jesus is Lord and follow Him as such.

QUESTION 4) Doesn't this downplay the revenge that evil people deserve?
By no means! God is a righteous judge, and while I will not pretend that I know justice better than God, we have to ask, does this sound like Jesus? He loved us while we were still enemies (Rom 5:6-11) and we are to do the same (1 John 4:7-12, 3:16; John 15:12-15). It is quite depressing to read Church Fathers like Thomas Aquinas who said, “Wherefore in order that the happiness of the saints may be more delightful to them and that they may render more copious thanks to God for it, they are allowed to see perfectly the sufferings of the damned.”6; This sentiment reflects a shallow and twisted view of eternity. While it is natural to have revengeful feelings, for those who follow Jesus we are called to love our enemies. If we think our presence in the New Heaven and New Earth will be enhanced by the knowledge of people suffering forever and ever and ever, we have missed the model of Jesus who said in Luke 23:34, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. ”

(The New Heaven and New Earth is the final creation of God depicted in Isaiah 66 and Revelation 21-22, where the earth is remade and God again dwells with His people in perfected creation. It is this hope that we see in 2 Peter 3, which is our foreshadowing question from section 2.)

QUESTION 5) But isn't scaring the Hell out of people good evangelism?
By no means! If we are taking evangelism tips from the Middles Ages and the Crusades, we are not following Jesus or His example. Great crowds traveled with Jesus to hear His wonderful teaching; not because they were scared into it, but because they were amazed by His words (Matt 7:28, 22:33; Luke 19:48). While it is easy for ministries to focus on numbers, how do we see discipleship in the Bible? Jesus focused primarily on making 12 disciples (including the one who betrayed him). Jesus never seemed interested in mass conversion, but instead, He taught and modeled the way of love that leads to life. It is this example that we are to live, which brought (and brings) the Kingdom of God to earth. Though the truth of Gospel is simple, it is difficult to follow.  Yet, it is worth everything, since its result is life, that is both abundant and eternal. This is the message we see again and again. Jesus’ focus was on how to live, not how to escape Hell.

QUESTION 6) Isn't it safer to just trust my pastor who teaches eternal conscious torment than to study it myself?
By no means! Whenever we think that pastors are better able to “know” the Bible, we miss the greatness of the Gospel and practice a consumeristic and lazy form of discipleship. We must never forget that the same spirit that raised Jesus from the dead lives in us (Rom 8:11). We need to always remember even Elijah was a man "with a nature like ours" (James 5:17). I am certainly not saying we can't learn from apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers because we certainly can and should. But we must remember those roles are designed to equip us to do the work of the ministry (Eph 4:11), not the other way around. Just because someone who you respect believes something, doesn't mean it is true. We all have the ability to study the Bible ourselves and show ourselves approved in how we handle the word of truth (2 Tim 2:15). If we remain passive, the book of Hebrews makes clear what can happen:  

"About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil." - Hebrews 5:11-14

QUESTION 7) Aren’t you just focusing on the nice things Jesus said, and thus downplaying concepts like Hell?
By no means! I enjoy studying the tough and controversial topics that the Bible brings up and I have no interest in watering down the message of Jesus one single drop. Ironically, the groups who insult others with “not taking the Bible serious enough” are often the ones guilty of this claim because they elevate tradition. When we take an honest look at the teachings of Jesus, we find something interesting. We never see Jesus coming down hard on the sinners, prostitutes, and tax collectors. We never see Him judging the "sinners" under the guise of "speaking the truth," but we continually see Him loving them. Yet when see Jesus interacting with the religious leaders, who thought they were righteous, He did come down hard on them. Jesus showed how hypocritical they were in not doing what they preached. We can be sure Jesus would (and is) doing the same today. Rather than us trying to scare the Hell out people, we need to be showing the world the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6) in how we love. Let us remember that "speaking the truth in love" was specifically and only discussed in the confines of the Christian community (Ephesians 4). So let us live like Jesus, modeling Him who continued to bring the Kingdom of God with every action. Let us build a community where people want to become part of the Kingdom of God, not merely saying a magical prayer (out of fear) to escape Hell. I hope we can forever destroy our false notions of Hell as ECT and instead preach and live the Good News of the Kingdom of God.

All biblical quotations are from the ESV translation: The English Standard Version Bible. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
4. West, William. (2011). A Resurrection to Immortality: The Resurrection, Our Only Hope of Life After Death. Bloomington, IN. WestBow Press. (556)
5. Beale, G.K. (1999). The book of Revelation: a commentary on the Greek Text. New International Greek Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI. Eerdmans Publishing. (Page 1036).

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  1. Indeed. And what's more, some of us would argue that hell isn't even in the Bible; i.e., it's neither Jewish nor Christian. See: "To Hell with Hell - Wolsey":

    Roger Wolsey, author, "Kissing Fish: christianity for people who don't like christianity"

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