This is an article in the series on Death, Eternal Life, and Eternal Torment.
In the traditional view, all people have immortal souls and
the unrepentant will suffer torment in hell forever. In contrast, this article shows that the unrepentant will not suffer eternally but die an eternal death. In other words, people do not have immortal souls and do not have eternal life inherently. This is justified as follows:
THE APOSTLE PAUL
Paul taught as follows:
(1) Only God’s people will receive eternal life (e.g., Rom 2:5-8).
God promises to give eternal life ONLY when Jesus returns and ONLY to those who persevere in doing good (Rom 2:7). This means that people are not currently or inherently immortal. It also means that the unrepentant will not become immortal, which implies that they will die.
(2) Paul never wrote that sinners will suffer in hell for eternity.
He does NOT use the word “hell” even once. Rather:
(3) Paul consistently warns the unrepentant that they will die.
For example, “if you are living according to the flesh, you must die” (Rom 8:13) or “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23).
(4) Paul contrasted this death with eternal life (e.g., Rom 6:23).
In other words, the death that these people will die is not the temporary death that faces all people, but an eternal death; that awful and irreversible death which only the unrepentant will suffer, which Revelation refers to as “the second death.”
Jesus warned about “the fiery hell” – “the unquenchable fire,” “where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.” This is often understood to mean that the wicked will be tormented eternally. What people often do not realize is that Jesus quoted these words from Isaiah 66:24, which explicitly refers to “the corpses of the men.” In other words, it is a symbol of death; not of eternal life in torment.
To explain: In ancient times people sometimes destroyed corpses by fire, but when wood was in short supply, the body might not be fully consumed. And due to the hot, dry conditions, the corpse sometimes dried up and the worms died before the corpse was fully consumed.
In contrast, Jesus said that the “worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” because God will destroy the body and soul in hell (Matt 10:28). These beings will be completely annihilated.
In Revelation, “if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Rev 20:15) “where the beast and the false prophet are also; and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (Rev 20:10, 15) “and the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever” (Rev 14:9-11).
This article shows that this is symbolic language:
- Revelation is a book of symbols.
- The beast is not a person that can be tormented.
- They will be tormented in the presence of the Lamb (Rev 14:10). Literally interpreted, this means that Jesus Christ will remain forever in hell.
- Babylon’s smoke will also go “up forever and ever,” but she is not a person.
- The lake of fire is twice explained as “the second death.”
– END OF SUMMARY –
THE APOSTLE PAUL
Immortality and eternal life, according to Romans 2:5-8, is not something that people already have but is something which God, on “the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God” (Rom 2:5), “will render to those who by perseverance in doing good” (Rom 2:7)
The following are further indications that people do not yet have immortality, and that only believers will receive eternal life:
“We believe in Him FOR eternal life“ (1 Tim 1:16).
“We are heirs according to the HOPE of eternal life“ (Titus 3:7).
“Take hold of the eternal life
to which you were CALLED“ (1Tim 6:12).
“God … PROMISED eternal life long ages ago” (Titus 1:2).
Since eternal life is promised only to those who persevere in doing good (Rom 2:7), such verses imply that “those who obey unrighteousness” (Rom 2:8) will NOT live eternally. In other words:
SINNERS WILL DIE.
Paul never wrote that sinners will suffer in hell for eternity. He never uses the word “hell” but always warns sinners that they will die. For example:
“Unrighteousness, wickedness, greed …
those who practice such things
are WORTHY OF DEATH” (Rom 1:29-32).
“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).
“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).
When traditionalists read such verses, their minds automatically switch “death” into “eternal torment.” However, in Paul’s writings, the OPPOSITE of the death, which sinners will die, is explicitly and always eternal life:
“As SIN REIGNED IN death,
even so GRACE WOULD REIGN … to eternal life” (Rom 5:21).
“You are slaves … either of SIN RESULTING IN death, …
But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God …
THE OUTCOME, eternal life.” (Rom 6:16, 21-22)
“The wages of sin is death,
but the free gift of God is eternal life” (Rom 6:23).
“Our Saviour Christ Jesus abolished death
and brought life and immortality to light” (2 Tim 1:10).
(“Life and immortality” mean the same as “eternal life.”)
“The one who sows to his own flesh
will from the flesh reap corruption,
but the one who sows to the Spirit
will from the Spirit reap eternal life” (Gal 6:8).
(The Greek word translated as “corruption” in this verse is phthora. Strong’s concordance defines this word as “destruction, corruption.” )
Paul, therefore, taught that:
- People do not yet have immortality.
- Only believers will receive eternal life, namely when Christ returns.
- Sinners will die.
Since Paul also taught that the opposite of the “death” which sinners will die is “eternal life,” this is not the temporary death that faces all people. It is, rather, eternal death; that awful and irreversible death which only the unrepentant will suffer, to which Revelation refers as “the second death” (Rev 20:14).
It should, therefore, be abundantly clear that Paul taught that the unrepentant will die an eternal death. But traditionalists claim that Jesus taught the eternal torment of sinners.
Christ often mentioned “hell” (Matt 5:22, 29, 30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Mark 9:43-48; Luke 12:5). He warned of “the fiery hell” (Matt 5:22; 18:9); “the unquenchable fire” (Mark 9:43), “where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:44, 46, 48).
It is often assumed that Jesus, with these words, taught that the wicked will be tormented in hell for all eternity, but this is not what He said:
Firstly, He said that the worm and the fire are immortal. He did not say that people are immortal.
Secondly, these are symbols. In ancient times, when people attempt to destroy corpses by fire, wood may be in short supply and the fire goes out before the body is consumed. And due to the dry conditions, corpses sometimes dry up and the worms die before the corpse was fully consumed. 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 (Matt 10:28).
Thirdly, Jesus, like Paul, also contrasted eternal life with death:
“He who … believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life,
and does not come into judgment,
but has passed out of death into life” (John 5:24).
In John 5:28-29, Jesus said that all people who ever lived will be resurrected. Some will be resurrected to “life,” which is the eternal life of verse 24. But the others will be resurrected to “judgment,” which is the “death” of verse 24. Since life here is eternal, death here is also eternal.
Fourthly, Jesus said that God “is able to destroy BOTH BODY AND SOUL in hell” (Matt 10:28). In other words, God is able to annihilate human beings. This means that souls are not immortal. Some counter that God is “able” to annihilate body and soul but that does not mean that He will not do it. But why would Jesus say this unless God would also do this?
Fifthly, and perhaps most important, Jesus quoted “their worm will not die And their fire will not be quenched” from Isaiah 66:24, which explicitly refers to “the corpses of the men.” In other words, it is a symbol of death; not of eternal life in torment.
Arguably, the strongest evidence for eternal torment comes from the book of Revelation. It says that any person who “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” (Rev 14:9-11).
This “fire and brimstone” refers to the “lake of fire and brimstone” (Rev 19:20) where “the devil … the beast and the false prophet … will (also) be tormented day and night FOREVER AND EVER” (Rev 20:10) and into which these people are thrown (Rev 20:15). How do we reconcile this with Paul’s consistent view that sinners will die, and with Christ’s statement that God will destroy body and soul in hell?
Our response is that Revelation is a book of symbols and that the following shows that the eternal torment in Revelation is symbolic:
(1) SMOKE RISES FOREVER.
What is eternal in Revelation 14:9-11 is the smoke of their torment; not their torment. Babylon’s smoke will also go “up forever and ever” (Rev 17:18; 19:3), but she is not a literal person that can be tormented. Babylon is a symbol of the anti-God religious system that has ruled over the kings of the world of all ages.
Furthermore, the “ten horns … will burn her up with fire” (Rev 17:16), which means that Babylon will be fully and completely destroyed.
The ever-rising smoke is, therefore, a symbol. It means that God and the saved will never forget the awful destruction of people who they loved. People will remember it for as long as they live, and they will live “forever and ever.”
(2) BEAST TORMENTED FOREVER
As a further example of the figurative nature of this eternal torment, the beast will also be “tormented day and night forever and ever” in “the lake of fire and brimstone” (Rev 20:10), but the beast is not a literal person. One of the articles on this website identifies the beast as the mainstream church of Christianity. The beast, therefore, cannot literally be tormented forever in an eternal hell. This must be understood as symbolic language.
(3) THE SECOND DEATH
The lake of fire is twice called “the second death” (Rev 20:14; 21:8). This means that this death is different from the first death. All people are resurrected from death (Rev 20:5; John 5:28-29). Therefore, all people live twice. But the worshipers of the beast also die twice (Rev 19:21; 20:9). After the judgment of the dead (Rev 20:11, 12), their death becomes final and irreversible when Hades is thrown into the lake of fire (Rev 20:14-15).
This is confirmed by the fact that, in Revelation, once a being is cast into the lake of fire, he is never again seen doing anything. For example, the beast and the false prophet “were thrown alive into the lake of fire” when Christ returns (Rev 19:11). Thereafter they never again do anything in Revelation. One thousand years later, the devil and the people with the mark of the beast are cast into the lake of fire (Rev 20:10-11; 20:15) and are never again seen.
(4) THE PRESENCE OF THE LAMB
Revelation 14:10 says that the worshipers of the beast “will be tormented … in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.” Literally interpreted, this means that the Lamb and His angels will remain in hell forever, which is ridiculous. God gave Christ “authority to execute judgment” (John 5:27), and this is what He will do.
The pain of hell is not that God torment people as retribution for their sins. God does not work that way. Everything that God does, He does from love (1 John 4:7; 1:5). But He promised a universe with perfect peace and joy. Therefore, eventually, God must annihilate evil and the consequences of evil. In the process, He has to do certain things that will cause pain. To understand a bit about these larger issues, I recommend Why Satan thought he could win and The Seven Seals of Revelation.
The idea of immortal punishment results from the concept of the immortal soul. That man has an immortal soul came from the Greek philosophical view in the world in which Christianity arose. Although it is foreign to Judaism and Christianity, it soon became accepted in the church and is today defended in the Church as orthodox. However, it is actually the first lie recorded in the Bible, when the serpent said to Eve, “You surely will not die” (Gen 3:4).
The concept of an immortal soul is rebellion against God. The promise of the Bible is a resurrection from death, which depends on God’s miraculous power, but the concept of the immortal soul says that we do not need God.
For further discussion, see the other articles in this series.