The traditional view in the church is that people are immortal and that sinners will suffer in hell for all eternity.
With the gospels excluded, Paul wrote most of the New Testament. Paul uses the phrases “immortality” and “eternal life” about 14 times in his letters, but he taught that God will give immortality and eternal life only to people who persevere in doing good. He never wrote that sinners will suffer in hell for eternity. He does not use the word “hell” even once. In his many writings he consistently warns sinners that they will die. For instance, in the following unambiguous verse he sets life and death as the only two possible outcomes:
“If you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live“ (Rom. 8:13).
This is not the temporary death which faces all people, but that awful and final death which only sinners will suffer. Notice in the following that this death is the result of sin:
unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice … the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death (Rom. 1:29-32)
You are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness (Rom. 6:16)
… the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23)
In his writings death is explicitly and consistently the opposite of eternal life:
According to Romans 6:16-22 the result (v16) or “outcome” (v22) of sin is “death”, but the outcome of being “freed from sin” is “eternal life”.
Then follows the well-known statement that “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 6:23).
Galatians 6:8 contrasts “corruption” with “eternal life”. The one who sows to his own flesh will reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will reap eternal life. Corruption is death.
“Our Saviour Christ Jesus abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2Tim 1:10).
Romans 5:21 says that “sin reigned in death”. This means that sin has the power to condemn people to death. On the other hand, according to that same verse “grace … reign … to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord”. This means that grace, like a king, bestows eternal life.
Since “death” is the opposite of “eternal life”, this death of the sinner is also “eternal”. The death that Paul consistently warns sinners of is an eternal death.
Some statements promise eternal life without mentioning death as the alternative:
According to Romans 2:6-7 God will render eternal life to those who seek immortality by persevering in doing good, but wrath to those who obey unrighteousness.
“We believe in Him for eternal life“ (1Tim 1:16).
“… we are heirs according to the hope of eternal life“ (Titus 3:7).
“Fight the good fight of faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called“ (1Tim 6:12).
God, who cannot lie, promised eternal life long ages ago (Titus 1:2).
Since eternal life is promised to those persevere in doing good (Rom. 2:7), it is implied by such verses that “those who obey unrighteousness” will not live eternally, but will die an eternal death.
In Paul’s writings “eternal life” is received by grace: “The free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:22-23). Grace leads to “eternal life” (Rom. 5:21). On the other hand, death is earned:
People who practice unrighteousness deserve death (Rom. 1:29-32)
The wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:22-23).
Paul therefore promises eternal life as the gift to those that are “in Christ”, “whose names are in the book of life” (Philippians 4:3). But eternal death is the “wages of sin”. Paul never deviates from this. He never refers to “hell” and he never says that the sinner will live eternally.
LAW OF DEATH – LAW OF LIFE
In Romans 7 Paul says that he serves “the law of sin” with his “flesh” (7:25, cf. 23). By this he means what he wrote earlier in that chapter, namely that “I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin” (7:14), because “I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate” (7:15). A few verses later he calls it “the law of sin and of death” (8:2). He added “and of death” also because of what he wrote earlier, namely that sin results in death (7:11, 7:5). All that the law can do is point out sins (7:8-9). The law cannot protect from the death penalty (7:9-11). “The law of sin and of death” is therefore the cause and effect relationship that (firstly) the law ‘causes’ sin (7:5) by defining sin and identifying sin in people, and (secondly) that sin “bear fruit for death” (7:5; 10-11). This “law … of death” can be graphically depicted as follows:
LAW => SIN => DEATH
1 Corinthians 15:56 also explains this sequence by saying that “the law” is the “power of sin” and “sin” is “the sting of death”.
But Paul also describes a “law … of life”. The full name is “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” that “set you free from the law of sin and of death” (8:2). This is the “law” that, if God’s Spirit dwells in you, He will, at His return, “give life to your mortal bodies“ (8:11).
These two “laws”—one resulting in death and the other resulting in life—Is another example of the many contrasts in Paul writings between life as God’s grace in Jesus Christ our Lord, and death as the wages of sin.
1 Corinthians 15
In this chapter Paul responds to “some among you (who) say that there is no resurrection of the dead” (v12; cf. v13, 15-16, 20 and 29). Resurrection of the dead is generally accepted today in Christianity. It is surprising to learn that this was disputed in the early church. It was probably due to the influence of the Sadducees. As we know, the church initially consisted mostly of Jews, many of whom must have been Sadducees:
“On that day some Sadducees (who say there is no resurrection) came to Jesus and questioned Him, asking, “Teacher, Moses said, ‘if a man dies having no children …”. (Matthew 22:23-24).
Paul counters this false teaching by pointing out that “Christ has been raised” (v13-17, 12, 20):
“For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at His coming” (v22, 23).
The false teachers defended their stance by asking “with what kind of body do they come?” (v35). This is basically the same tactics as used by the Sadducees that questioned Christ in the quote above, effectively saying that it is not possible, therefore it will not happen. Like us today, they found it difficult to imagine a world where people do not become sick and do not die. The inability to trust God’s promises of this future world is really a lack of faith. It is really great arrogance to limit what God can do to what we can understand.
In response Paul points to God’s immense creative powers as reflected in the different types of bodies of people, animals, birds and fish (v38, 39). The miracle of creation should teach us that we cannot limit what God can do to what we can understand. We can learn a lesson from the manna which the Israelites received in the wilderness. Like mother’s milk for babies, the manna was perfect food. It contained all the required nutrients, with none of the poisonous substances that we have in our food today. However, the Israelites became used to the manna that appeared every day on the desert floor. They were, after a while, unable to see the miracle. In the same way today people look at the miracles of nature, and they see nothing miraculous, because they became used to it. We need to open our eyes, realise the impossibility of the miracles in the world around us, and trust God to be able to do much more than what we can imagine:
“things which eye has not seen and ear has not heard, and which have not entered the heart of man, all that God has prepared for those who love him.” (1Co 2:9)
In this chapter Paul explains the resurrection of the dead. In contrast to the general belief in the church today, which is that all people have immortal souls, Paul’s explanation in a number of ways supports the main premise of this article, which is that, in Paul’s writing, sinners will die an eternal death:
Firstly; as from verse 35 Paul answers the questions he was confronted with, namely “How are the dead raised? And with what kind of body do they come?” He answers that the “natural body” (v44) is “perishable” (v42, 53), dishonoured, weak (v43) and “mortal” (v53, 54). Paul does not describe some part of us as “perishable” and “mortal”. Our entire being is “perishable” and “mortal”. No distinction is made between body, soul and spirit. He continues to say that what is raised, in glory and in power (v43), is “a spiritual” (v44), “imperishable” (v42, 52, 53) and immortal (v53, 54) “body” (v44), for the “perishable” “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (v50). By being made imperishable and immortal, they inherit “eternal life”. People are therefore perishable. It is only those that are Christ’s that will be resurrected with imperishable bodies. Sinners are therefore not able to live for eternity.
Granted, this chapter only deals with resurrection of God’s people. “The rest of the dead” will also “come to life”, 1000 years after the resurrection of those who are Christ’s (Rev. 20:4-5). Jesus similarly said that “all who are in the tombs” will hear His voice, and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment“ (John 5:28-29). Therefore a possible counter-argument is that sinners will also be raised with imperishable and immortal bodies.
However, the Bible never teaches that. To the contrary, Paul consistently declares that sinners will die. And Revelation 20, after it predicts that sinners will be raised to a second life (20:4-5), also describes a second death:
“Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire” (Rev 20:14).
Jesus also, after His statement that all will be resurrected, said that “those who did the good deeds” (John 5:29) will receive “life” (v29, 40) or “eternal life” (v39). The implication is that “those who committed the evil deeds” will not receive “eternal life”.
Secondly, verses 22 to 28 describe the “coming” of Christ (v23), when “in Christ all will be made alive” (v22), as well as the events after the coming of Christ. The purpose and end result of these events is that “God may be all in all” (v28). This does not leave space for a hell where creatures curse God.
Thirdly, since some of the Christians did not believe that people have immortal souls, this would have been a good time for Paul to teach this. But instead he argues that God’s people will be resurrected with immortal bodies (v42).
Notice that even in this chapter–with its heavy theology—Paul finds time for his irritating habit of warning us against sin:
“Do not be deceived: Bad company corrupts good morals. Become sober-minded as you ought, and stop sinning; for some have no knowledge of God. I speak this to your shame” (v33, 34).
We like the wonderful theology of the Bible and complex arguments, but Paul’s frequent warnings against sin is irritating because it speak to us not only intellectually, but require us to correct our desires and behaviour. But this is the sign of a true teacher. This is what really matters. Most theologians will describe the main theme of the letter to the Romans as salvation through faith, but it is proposed here that this letter is mainly a warning against sin.
THE LAST ENEMY
The phrase ‘final events’ is used in this section for the coming of Christ and the events that follow there-after. Note the sequence of the final events in 1 Corinthians 15:
First “in Christ all will be made alive … at His coming” (1 Cor. 15:22-23).
“Then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to the God and Father, when He has abolished all rule and all authority and power” (v24). “The end” therefore refers to events that will follow in time after Christ’s return. According to Revelation “the end” is 1000 years after Christ’s return, when “the devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are also” (Rev. 20:10).
“The last enemy that will be abolished is death” (1 Cor. 15:26).
Notice the word “abolish” in verses 24 and 26. It means to eliminate. The final events eliminate God’s enemies.
Death is therefore God’s enemy. Death never was God’s will. He did not want it. Death is the consequence of rebellion against Him. When He has “abolished all rule and all authority and power” (v24) that set themselves against Him and His laws, and sin is thereby eradicated, death will also be eradicated.
We also find in the book of Revelation a reference to the abolishment of death, and it is also mentioned after all other enemies are abolished. Consider the sequence of the final events in Revelation:
Before Christ’s coming, “the kings of the whole world” are gathered together “for the war of the great day of God, the Almighty” (16:14, 16). “The great day of God”, also called “for the great day of their wrath” (6:17), is an alternative for the phrase ‘final events’.
When Christ returns (19:11), with the armies of heaven (19:14), a number of things happen. Firstly, the beast and the false prophet are thrown alive into the lake of fire (19:8). Secondly, the assembled (gathered) kings and their armies (19:19) are killed (19:21, 19). Note that they are not thrown into the lake of fire with the beast and the false prophet. Thirdly, “the devil (is) … bound … for a thousand years” (20:2). Note that the devil is also not thrown in the lake of fire. Fourthly, those that are Christ’s “came to life” (20:4).
All of God’s people are now alive and all of the Beast’s people are now dead. Then follows the thousand years during which judgment will be given to those that are Christ’s (20:4) and they will reign with Christ for a thousand years (20:4). It is elsewhere proposed that this is a time for those that are rescued from this present evil age (Gal 1:4) to study history of the rebellion against God, and to understand its causes and consequences, in order to understand God’s judgments. They will have a thousand years to prepare for the traumatic events at the end of the thousand years.
When the thousand years are completed, a further series of important events follow. The people that “worshiped the beast” come to life (20:4-5). “Satan (is) released from his prison” (20:7) to “deceive the nations” (20:8), “to gather them together for the war” (20:8) against “the saints” (20:9). It almost seems as if the war before the thousand years is continued (19:19). “The nations” surround the saints (20:9), but “fire came down from heaven and devoured them” (20:9), and “the devil … (is) thrown into the lake of fire” (20:10). The devil is now also in the lake of fire, but the worshipers of the beast not yet. They have now been killed for a second time, and are dead, but not yet in the lake of fire.
Then follows the judgment of the dead (20:12, 13). John “saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne” (20:12), but because they are described as “the dead”, “standing before the throne” should be read symbolically. They are not brought to life again for a third life.
After the judgment of the dead, and as a consequence of it “death and Hades (are) thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire” (20:14). “Hades” is where the dead are. This confirms that the dead are not resurrected to a third life. They are dead and remain dead when they are thrown in the lake of fire.
Now all of God’s enemies are in the lake of fire. The beast and the false prophet were thrown in the lake of fire at the return of Christ, the devil after the war at the end of the thousand years, and the worshipers of the beast after the judgment of the dead. Next the “new heaven”, the “new earth” and the “new Jerusalem” are introduced (21:1-2), where “there will no longer be any death” (21:4).
Note that in Revelation 19 and 20, when something is thrown into the lake of fire, it never again takes part in the war against the Lamb (17:14):
At Christ’ coming, the beast and the false prophet are thrown in the lake of fire, and do not take part in the war at the end of the 1000 years.
Then, at the end of the thousand years, Satan is thrown in the lake of fire, never to be seen again.
The worshipers of the beast are only thrown in the lake of fire after the judgment of the dead, but there-after not mentioned again.
It is proposed that when something is thrown in the lake of fire, it is permanently eliminated. Therefore, when Revelation says that “death” is thrown into the lake of fire, it means that death is permanently eliminated. This agrees with 1 Corinthians 15:26, which states that death will be “abolished” right at the end of the final events. After sinners have suffered that awful final and eternal second death—never to live again—death will exist no longer:
there will no longer be any death (Rev. 21:4)
Man was created to live eternally, but was warned “in the day that you eat from it you will surely die” (Genesis 2:17). Whatever that means, the consequence of that first sin will be removed. Death itself will exist no more. Man will no longer live under the threat and fear of death:
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
“God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).
“The Lord Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for our sins so that He might rescue us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father” (Gal 1:3, 4).
Fully convinced of the love of our God and Father, the people that have been rescued from the present evil age will live without any fear of death. They will understand why it was absolutely necessary to permanently eliminate the worshipers of the beast, some of whom they loved and admired deeply. The thousand years of “judgment” (20:4) has given them an understanding and full confidence in God’s decisions.
HOW CHRIST EXPLAINED HELL
Paul does not mention “hell”, but Christ did (Mat. 5:22, 29, 30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Mark 9:43-48; Luke 12:5). He called it “the fiery hell” (Mat. 5:22; 18:9), even “the unquenchable fire” (Mark 9:43), “where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:44, 46, 48), that destroys “both soul and body” (Mat. 10:28).
It is often assumed that people will remain in hell forever because the “worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched”, but it is the worm that is immortal, not man. The immortal worm and endless fire is simply an expression that indicates that the entire being will be destroyed; that nothing will remain. In ancient times corpses were often destroyed by fire, but where wood was scarce, there always was the risk that a portion of the body will remain. And due to the dry conditions the corpse often dried up and the worms died before the worms could consume it. Therefore the expression the “worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” simply means that nothing will remain; “both soul and body” will be consumed (Mat. 10:28).
Paul did not use the word hell, but he did describe it. In addition to death, he wrote that wrath, indignation, tribulation and distress await those who “do not obey the truth” (Rom. 2:5, 8, 9).
LAKE OF FIRE
The book of Revelation does not use the word “hell” either, but it does say that the person that “worships the beast and his image” “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; they have no rest day and night” (14:9-11). This “fire and brimstone” refers to the “lake of fire and brimstone” (20:10), where “the devil … the beast and the false prophet … will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (20:10). How is this reconciled with Paul’s consistent view that sinners will die, and with Christ’s statement that body and soul will be destroyed in hell?
Firstly, Revelation is a book of symbols, and we should be careful not to read symbols as literal. For instance, “the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever” is a symbol, because the smoke of the great city (17:18) Babylon also “rises up forever and ever” (19:3), but the “ten horns … will burn her up with fire” (17:16). She will be destroyed. The ever rising smoke is simply a symbol that these events would always be remembered.
Secondly, the beast will be tormented forever and ever (20:10), but the beast is not a literal beast or a literal person. It is a symbolic representation of worldly anti-God powers over thousands of years. (Compare 13:2 with Daniel 7). The beast therefore cannot literally be tormented forever and ever. Its torment must also be a symbol.
Thirdly, as argued above, everything that is thrown in lake of fire is permanently eliminated. The lake of fire is twice explained as “the second death” (20:14; 21:8). The intention must be to indicate that this death is different from the first death. All people are resurrected from death. Therefore all people live twice. But the worshipers of the beast also die twice (19:21; 20:9). After the judgment of the dead their second death becomes permanent through the judgment of the dead (20:12). Only then are they permanently eliminated by being thrown in the lake of fire (20:14).
Fourthly, it says in 14:10 that the worshipers of the beast “will be tormented … in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb”. Will the Lamb and His angels remain in hell forever? Hardly! This is “the great day of their wrath” (6:17), which will presumably not be limited to one day, but it will end. God gave Christ “authority to execute judgment” (John 5:27). “The end” will only come “when He has abolished all rule and all authority and power” (1Co 15:24).
The main purpose of this article is to show that Paul never wrote of eternal punishment for sinners. He consistently warns that sinners will die. This death:
- Is earned. It is the wages of sin.
- Is irreversible and permanent. It is not the temporary death through which all must go. It is an eternal death.
- Is only for sinners.
Paul taught that people are perishable and mortal. He often refers to “immortality” and “eternal life”, but wrote that that would only be received at the coming of Christ, and only by people who persevere in doing good, whose names are in the book of life.
Paul is the main writer of the New Testament, if the gospels are excluded. Therefore, where did this idea come from that people have immortal souls? This concept is common to all religions, and has very early on infiltrated the church. People justify this view with certain Bible texts. This article shortly discusses some of the texts used by such teachers, namely a few statements made by Christ and a few texts from the book of Revelation.
Christ referred to the unquenchable fire where their worm does not die, but it was shown that is an idiom to express the fact that nothing will remain of such people. The worm will not die until everything has been consumed.
The book of Revelation talks about torment “day and night forever and ever”, but Revelation is a book of symbols, and it was shown that this eternal torment is a symbol and means that their torment will always be remembered.
Much, much more can be said about the topic of eternal life and death, but for every verse that can be used to support an eternal hell, there are ten verses that support the principle that sinners will die.