Hellfire—Is It Part of Divine Justice?

Have you ever seen someone tortured? We hope not. Deliberate torture is sickening and abhorrent. What, though, of torture inflicted by God? Can you imagine such a thing? Yet, this is exactly what is implied by the teaching of hellfire, an official doctrine in many religions.

Imagine, for a moment, the following horrific scene: A person is being roasted on a hot iron plate. In his agony he screams for mercy, but nobody listens. The torture goes on and on, hour after hour, day after day—without pause!

Whatever crime the victim may have committed, would not your heart go out to him? What of the one who ordered the torture? Could he be a loving person? In no way! Love is merciful and shows pity. A loving father may punish his children, but he would never torture them!

Nevertheless, many religions teach that God tortures sinners in an eternal hellfire. This, it is claimed, is divine justice. If that is true, who created that terrible place of eternal torment? And who is responsible for the excruciating agonies inflicted there? The answers would seem obvious. If such a place really exists, then God would have to be the creator of it, and he would be responsible for what happens there.

Can you accept that? The Bible* says: “God is love.” (1 John 4:8) Would a God of love inflict torture that even humans with any measure of decency find revolting? Surely not!

An Unreasonable Teaching

Still, many believe that the wicked will go to a fiery hell and be tormented forever. Is this teaching logical? The human life span is limited to 70 or 80 years. Even if someone perpetrated extreme wickedness for his whole lifetime, would everlasting torment be a just punishment? No. It would be grossly unjust to torment a man forever for the limited number of sins that he can commit in a lifetime.

Who knows the truth about what happens after we die? Only God can reveal this information, and he has done so in his written Word, the Bible, referred to above. Here is what the Bible says: “As the [beast] dies, so the [man] dies; and they all have but one spirit . . . All are going to one place. They have all come to be from the dust, and they are all returning to the dust.” (Ecclesiastes 3:19, 20) There is no mention here of a fiery hell. Humans return to dust—to nonexistence—when they die.

In order to be tormented, an individual has to be conscious. Are the dead conscious? No. “The living are conscious that they will die; but as for the dead, they are conscious of nothing at all, neither do they anymore have wages, because the remembrance of them has been forgotten.” (Ecclesiastes 9:5) It is impossible for the dead, “conscious of nothing at all,” to experience the agonies of hellfire.

A Harmful Doctrine

Some maintain that the teaching of hellfire is useful, true or not. Why? They say it serves as a deterrent to wrongdoing. Is that true? Well, is the crime rate in regions where people believe in hellfire lower than in other places? Hardly! In fact, the doctrine of hellfire is very harmful. Will a person who believes that God torments people view torture as something abhorrent? Why should he? Those believing in a cruel god often become cruel like their god.

In whatever way a reasonable person may look at the matter, he cannot accept the existence of a hell of torment. Logic rebels against it. Human nature is repelled by it. More important, God’s Word does not say that such a place exists. When a person dies, “he goes back to his ground; in that day his thoughts do perish.”—Psalm 146:4.

What Punishment for Sin?

Does that mean that we are not punished for our sins? No, that is not the case. Our holy God punishes sinners, but he does not torture them. And when sinners repent, he forgives them. What is the punishment for sin? The Bible gives a forthright answer: “The wages sin pays is death.” (Romans 6:23) Life is a gift from God. When we sin we no longer deserve that gift, and we die.

You may ask: ‘How is that just? Why, everyone dies!’ That is true because we are all sinners. In effect, no one deserves life. “Through one man sin entered into the world and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men because they had all sinned.”—Romans 5:12.

At this point you may be thinking: ‘If we all sin and so we all die, why should we try to be virtuous? It seems that the wicked man is treated exactly the same as the man who tries to serve God.’ But that is not the case. Although we are all sinners, God forgives those who sincerely repent and try to change their ways. He rewards our efforts to ‘make our minds over’ and to do good. (Romans 12:2) These truths are the basis of a marvelous hope.

A Reward for the Good

We cease to exist when we die. But that does not mean that everything is finished. The faithful man Job knew that he would go to the grave (Sheol) when he died. But listen to his prayer to God: “O that in Sheol you would conceal me, that you would keep me secret until your anger turns back, that you would set a time limit for me and remember me! If an able-bodied man dies can he live again? . . . You will call, and I myself shall answer you.”—Job 14:13-15.

Job believed that if he was faithful until death, he would be remembered by God and resurrected. This was the belief of all of God’s servants in ancient times. Jesus himself confirmed this hope when he said: “The hour is coming in which all those in the memorial tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who did good things to a resurrection of life, those who practiced vile things to a resurrection of judgment.”—John 5:28, 29.

When will the resurrection begin? According to the Bible, very soon. Bible prophecy indicates that in 1914 this world entered into its “last days.” (2 Timothy 3:1) In what many call ‘the end of the world,’ God will very shortly remove wickedness and establish a new world under heavenly rulership.—Matthew, chapter 24; Mark, chapter 13; Luke, chapter 21; Revelation 16:14.

The result will be a paradise covering the whole earth and inhabited by those who have sincerely tried to serve God. Wicked people will not burn in hellfire, but they will have no place in the coming Paradise. At Psalm 37:10, 11, we read: “The wicked one will be no more; and you will certainly give attention to his place, and he will not be. But the meek ones themselves will possess the earth, and they will indeed find their exquisite delight in the abundance of peace.”

Is all of this just a dream? No, it is God’s promise. In the Bible we read: “I heard a loud voice from the throne say: ‘Look! The tent of God is with mankind, and he will reside with them, and they will be his peoples. And God himself will be with them. And he will wipe out every tear from their eyes, and death will be no more, neither will mourning nor outcry nor pain be anymore. The former things have passed away.’”—Revelation 21:3, 4.

Do you believe these words? You should. God’s word always comes true. (Isaiah 55:11) We urge you to learn more about God’s purposes for mankind. Jehovah’s Witnesses will be delighted to help you. If you would like their help, we invite you to write to one of the addresses below.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Bible quotations are from the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures.

[Footnotes]

In the world of Islam, the Bible consists of the books known as the Torah, the Psalms, and the Gospel. At least 64 verses of the Koran say that these books are the Word of God and emphasize the need to read them and to carry out their commands. Some people assert that the Torah, the Psalms, and the Gospel have been distorted. Those claiming this are saying that God is unable to preserve his own Word.