This is an article in the series on Death, Eternal Life, and Eternal Torment.
ABSTRACT: The evidence for eternal torment may sound convincing, but when one delves into the background and context, it becomes evidence for annihilation. For example, the phrase “their worm does not die” is a quote from the Old Testament referring to dead people.
Annihilationism stands in contrast to the traditional belief in eternal torture or torment and suffering in the lake of fire. Annihilationism asserts that God will eventually put the wicked out of existence, leaving only the righteous to live on in immortality.
A separate article discusses the case for annihilationism and has shown that the support for it is strong. Two other articles discuss two passages often used to argue against annihilationism (Rev 14:9-11; 20:10) and show that:
The purpose of the current article is not to prove annihilationism but to discuss other arguments for eternal torment and to show that such arguments are weak.
The Rich Man and Lazarus
Jesus told the story of a rich man who lived joyously in splendor every day and a poor man named Lazarus who lay at his gate, covered with sores (Luke 16:19-20).
Both men died. The poor man was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man “was buried.” “In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom” (Luke 16:22-23).
Despite being “far away,” the rich man was able to plead with Abraham that Lazarus would bring him some water “for I am in agony in this flame.” Abraham then gave two reasons to refuse this request:
Firstly, while the rich man, during his life, had “good things,” Lazarus had “bad things.” But Lazarus is “now … being comforted here,” while the rich man is “in agony.”
Secondly, between the places where Lazarus and the rich man are, “there is a great chasm … so that … none may cross over.” (Luke 16:24-26)
The rich man then begged Abraham to send Lazarus to his five brothers. He said, “if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent” (Luke 16:27-30). But Abraham responded:
“If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets,
they will not be persuaded
even if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31).
Why this does not prove Eternal Torment
This parable is often used to support the doctrine of eternal torment but, for the following reasons, it does not support that doctrine:
1) Parables must not be interpreted literally.
Firstly, the main point of this story is contained in verse 31, namely that only “Moses and the Prophets” are able to lead people to repentance. That is how parables work; Jesus told a parable to convey a single message. In this case, Jesus didn’t want to speak about the afterlife. He wasn’t telling His audience what would happen in the future when they had died. That was just the ‘backdrop’ to what he wanted to say. We should not interpret the details of the parable literally.
This is confirmed by the details of the parable. While they are dead and their bodies have decayed and they are supposed to exist as spirit beings, Lazarus and the rich man still have eyes, fingers, and tongues (Luke 16:23, 24) and there is a physical “chasm” between them. Since these things are not to be taken literally, the agony that the rich man suffers “in this flame” must also not be taken as literal suffering.
Virtually all commentators will acknowledge that this was a popular story told in Jesus’ time which He adapted to His own purposes. See Glenn Peoples for details.
2) This story is about Hades; not about Hell.
Secondly, the rich man is “in hades” (Luke 16:23). This term refers variously to the grave, the state of death, or the intermediate state. In Greek mythology, it refers to the underworld. According to Revelation 20, at the end of the Millennium, after the lost have been put to death (Rev 20:9) and after the great final judgment (Rev 20:11-12), “Hades were thrown into the lake of fire” (Rev 20:14). Hades, therefore, is the temporary holding place where the dead are kept until the final destruction. In other words, this parable says nothing about hell (Gehenna); the place of the ultimate destruction of the lost (Matt 10:28).
Possibly the major argument for eternal torment is the fact that the Bible describes the state of the lost with phrases such as “eternal punishment” and “the eternal fire.” For example, Jesus said:
“Then He will also say to those on His left,
‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire …
These will go away into eternal punishment,
but the righteous into eternal life” (Matt 25:41, 46).
Traditionalists interpret such phrases as referring to eternal torment in hell.
However, Jude uses “Sodom and Gomorrah” as “an example” of “the punishment of eternal fire” (Jude 1:7) of those who “deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” (Jude 1:5). That fire destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah but has gone out long since.
Those events are recorded in Genesis 19:24-28. The LORD rained brimstone and fire upon Sodom and Gomorrah from the LORD out of heaven. The smoke went up like the smoke of a furnace. But, today, the fire is no longer burning. If that is what “eternal fire” did to Sodom and Gomorrah, then we should not assume that the “eternal fire,” which Jesus mentioned, will torment people forever.
We should also not assume that the “eternal punishment,” which Jesus mentioned in Matthew 25, suggests eternal torment. Torment is one kind of punishment, but it is hardly the only thing that could be called punishment. The Bible never expressly refers to “eternal torment” or “eternal suffering.” Another possible form of punishment is destruction. Paul wrote that “those who do not know God … will pay the penalty of eternal destruction” (2 Thess 1:8-9). This is similar to “eternal punishment,” but it’s more specific in that it actually specifies what type of punishment is in view, namely destruction.
2 Thessalonians 1:8-9
Let us consider these verses in more detail:
when the Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven
with His mighty angels in flaming fire,
8 dealing out retribution to those who do not know God …
9 These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction,
away from the presence of the Lord
and from the glory of His power,
10 when He comes to be glorified in His saints on that day,
Destruction cannot be an eternal process.
Traditionalists argue that, since destruction cannot be an “eternal” process, the destruction cannot be literal. But this is a weak argument. If “eternal” describes the consequence of the action of destruction, then that destruction is literally “eternal destruction.” If the person has been destructed (annihilated), he no longer exists. If the person ever came back into existence, then it would not be annihilation; the consequence wouldn’t be eternal.
And shut out from the presence of the Lord
Traditionalists also attempt to show that the destruction is not literal by noting that “those who do not know God … will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord.” This quote is from the NASB. Other translations are more sympathetic toward the traditional view. The NIV, for example, reads, “and shut out from the presence of the Lord” (Biblehub).
Traditionalists then interpret this verse as saying that “eternal destruction” and “shut out from the presence of the Lord” are two different things that the lost suffers. Then “shut out from the presence of the Lord” implies their continued existence, which means that such people have not been destroyed in the literal sense.
However, the NIV perhaps reflects the view of the translators, for the Greek of this verse does not contain words that can be translated as “and shut out.” The only preposition found here is apo, which is translated as “from.” Young’s Literal Translations, for example, simply reads; “destruction age-during — from the face of the Lord” (Biblehub).
This verse, therefore, does not say that they shall suffer eternal destruction AND ALSO be shut out from the presence of the Lord, as the NIV misleadingly suggests. Rather, they will be removed from the presence of the Lord BY being destroyed with everlasting destruction. It is exclusion by means of destruction, which is how the verse reads in the AV, the NASB, the ESV, and others, following the Greek much more literally than the NIV at this point.
Traditionalists also use Daniel 12:2 to justify their view that the lost will be tormented eternally. That verse reads as follows:
“Many of those who sleep
in the dust of the ground will awake,
these to everlasting life,
but the others to disgrace
and everlasting contempt” (NASB).
The terms “everlasting” and “eternal” are translated from identical Greek and Hebrew words.
Traditionalists argue that, for the lost to experience “disgrace and everlasting contempt,” requires that they will always exist and be aware of their condition; parallel to the “everlasting life” of the righteous.
However, Isaiah 66 shows that the person’s shame and contempt will continue to exist after the person has been annihilated because it is those who will receive “everlasting life” that will think of the lost with contempt. In Isaiah 66:
First, “the LORD will come in fire … to render His anger with fury … and those slain by the LORD shall be many” (Isa 66:15-16). This may be compared to Revelation 19:21, which says that the lost will be put to death when Christ returns.
Next, Isaiah 66 mentions “the new heavens and the new earth” (Isa 66:22), which is also mentioned in Revelation (Rev 21:1). This shows that what Isaiah is going to describe in the next verses are the conditions in eternity; similar to Daniel 12:2.
Then, in “the new heavens and the new earth,” THE SAVED:
“will … 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” (Isa 66:24).
What has happened to the lost? Simple: They are dead. The word “abhorrence” is the same word translated as “contempt” in Daniel 12:2; dara’ōn. Isaiah shows that it is the SAVED who will think of the lost with “disgrace and everlasting contempt” (Dan 12:2).
Please let me add immediately that this is symbolic language. Both God and God’s people will be extremely sad over the lost. It will not be contempt for the lost, but horror when they think of what sin has done to the people they loved.
Their Worm does not Die,
and the Fire is not Quenched.
“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]”
(Mark 9:43-44; cf. Matt 18:8-9).
The next four verses repeat the same principle using different words (Mark 9:45-48). In these verses. Jesus contrasted two possible outcomes, namely “life” and “hell … the unquenchable fire.” Then He added the words in capital letters, which is a direct quote from Isaiah 66:24:
“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.”
Since the “life” that Jesus mentioned is the opposite of “hell … the unquenchable fire,” one might suggest that Jesus implied that “hell … the unquenchable fire” is death. Nevertheless, these verses from Mark 9 are often used to support the doctrine of eternal torment.
Jesus did not teach Eternal Torment.
As stated, Jesus here quoted the key phrase, “THEIR WORM DOES NOT DIE, AND THE FIRE IS NOT QUENCHED” directly from Isaiah 66:24, which, as discussed above, refers to dead bodies, and not to conscious eternal torment. In that passage, God’s enemies have been killed off (Isa 66:15-16). All that remains is a pile of “the corpses of the men who have transgressed against Me.” Then Isaiah wrote of these corpses:
“Their worm will not die
And their fire will not be quenched” (Isa 66:24).
There is no suggestion in Isaiah 66 that these evil persons will suffer eternally. Isaiah’s words imply that their corpses will remain indefinitely as a reminder.
Unfortunately, people that teach the traditional view of eternal torment, often quote these verses from Mark 9 without discussing the context of Isaiah 66. That is misleading. Since Jesus quoted directly from the Old Testament, we must assign to His words the same meaning that they had in the Old Testament.
Of course, their corpses will not literally remain indefinitely. Literal worms cannot literally live eternally in fire. This is symbolic language to stress permanence and irreversibility.
The Greek word which Jesus used in Mark 9, which is translated as “hell,” is Gehenna. (The Hebrew for this word is Geh-Hinnom.) This word is perhaps better left untranslated because it is a proper noun, referring to the rubbish dump outside Jerusalem where fire was always smoldering, consuming rubbish in the flames; the perfect picture of final destruction.
Jesus used Gehenna as a symbol of the final state of those who have rebelled against God. He warns us that we may find ourselves amongst them unless we enter God’s kingdom (Mark 9:47), which He equated with “life” (Mark 9:43, 45).
The Unquenchable Fire
In Mark 9, in addition to the quote from Isaiah 66, Jesus referred to “the unquenchable fire” (Mark 9:43). That is a rephrase of the phrase from Isaiah 66:24: “their fire will not be quenched.” This is interpreted by traditionalists as, “the fire that never goes out.” But that changes the meaning of the verse. In Ezekiel 20:47-48, God used the same phrase when He said:
“I am about to kindle a fire in you,
and it will consume every green tree in you,
as well as every dry tree;
the blazing flame will not be quenched”
This fire that “will not be quenched,” will destroy the forest, and nobody is going to save the forest, because the fire will not be quenched by anyone. An unquenched fire is simply one that is not quenched until it has consumed the object being burnt. It does not mean that the fire will never go out. It will go out when everything is consumed. Nothing is said here about eternal torment: On the contrary, the image is one of annihilation. Therefore, “the unquenchable fire” is correctly understood as death, for Jesus contrasted it with “life” (Mark 9:43).
To a layperson, the evidence for eternal torment may sound convincing, but once one is informed of the meanings of the symbols, then the same evidence becomes evidence against eternal torment and in favor of annihilation. For example, the phrase “their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” may sound convincing until you learn that it is a direct quote from the Old Testament referring to dead people. Then the same phrase becomes evidence of the irreversibility of their destruction. The same applies to concepts such as eternal fire, everlasting contempt, and unquenchable fire.
This article discusses the Biblical support for the doctrine of eternal torment. The two other passages used to argue for eternal torment are Revelation 14:9-11 and Revelation 20:10. Those two articles also show that, once one has a proper understanding of the symbols, such as that the beast is a symbol for the world systems that oppose God and that the ever-rising smoke symbolizes total annihilation, then these passages become support for annihilationism rather than for eternal torment.
Conclusions in this article that are relevant to other discussions:
- The Bible does not teach eternal torment.
- Jesus’ statement that “their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” is a direct quote from Isaiah 66:24, which refers to the corpses of dead people. Therefore, effectively, this statement proves annihilation.
- An unquenched fire is one that is not quenched until it has consumed the object being burnt. It also implies annihilation.
- The rich man, in the parable about Lazarus and the rich man, is in hades, which is the temporary holding place where the dead are kept until the final destruction.