Hell—Eternal Torture or Common Grave?
HAVE you been told that the early Church Fathers, medieval theologians, and Reformers argued that the torments experienced in hell are everlasting? If so, it may surprise you to know that some highly regarded Bible scholars are now challenging that view. In Britain, one of them, John R. W. Stott, writes that “Scripture points in the direction of annihilation, and that ‘eternal conscious torment’ is a tradition which has to yield to the supreme authority of Scripture.”—Essentials—A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue.
What led him to conclude that everlasting torment is not based on the Bible?
The Language Lesson
His first argument involves language. He explains that when the Bible refers to the final state of damnation (“Gehenna”; see box, page 8), it often uses the vocabulary of “destruction,” the Greek “verb apollumi (to destroy) and the noun apòleia (destruction).” Do these words refer to torment? Stott points out that when the verb is active and transitive, “apollumi” means “kill.” (Matthew 2:13; 12:14; 21:41) Thus, at Matthew 10:28, where the King James Version mentions God’s destroying “both soul and body in hell,” the inherent idea is destroying in death, not in eternal suffering. At Matthew 7:13, 14, Jesus contrasts the “narrow . . . road leading off into life” with the “broad . . . road leading off into destruction.” Comments Stott: “It would seem strange, therefore, if people who are said to suffer destruction are in fact not destroyed.” With good reason he reaches the conclusion: “If to kill is to deprive the body of life, hell would seem to be the deprivation of both physical and spiritual life, that is, an extinction of being.”—Essentials, pages 315-16.
Interpreting Infernal Images
Still, many religious people will agree with Southern Baptist Convention president Morris H. Chapman, who said: “I preach a literal hell.” He added: “The Bible calls it a ‘lake of fire,’ and I don’t think that definition can be improved upon.”
Granted, the imagery of fire used in the Bible could evoke a mental picture of torment. However, the book Essentials notes: “It is doubtless because we have all had experience of the acute pain of being burned, that fire is associated in our minds with ‘conscious torment’. But the main function of fire is not to cause pain, but to secure destruction, as all the world’s incinerators bear witness.” (Page 316) Keeping that significant distinction in mind will help you to avoid reading something into the Scriptures that is actually not there. Some examples:
Regarding those cast into Gehenna, Jesus said that “their maggot does not die and the fire is not put out.” (Mark 9:47, 48) Influenced by the words in the apocryphal book of Judith (“He will send fire and worms in their flesh and they shall weep with pain for evermore.”—Judith 16:17, The Jerusalem Bible), some Bible commentaries contend that Jesus’ words imply eternal torment. Yet, the apocryphal book of Judith, not being inspired by God, is hardly a criterion for determining the meaning of Mark’s writings. Isaiah 66:24, the scripture that Jesus evidently alluded to, says that the fire and the maggot are destroying the dead bodies (“the carcasses,” says Isaiah) of God’s enemies. There is no hint of everlasting conscious torment in either Isaiah’s words or those of Jesus. The imagery of fire symbolizes complete destruction.
Revelation 14:9-11 speaks of some who are “tormented with fire and sulphur . . . And the smoke of their torment ascends forever and ever.”* Does this prove eternal conscious torment in hellfire? Actually, all this passage says is that the wicked are tormented, not that they are tormented forever. The text states that it is the smoke—the evidence that the fire has done its work of destruction—that continues forever, not the fiery torment.
Revelation 20:10-15 says that in “the lake of fire and sulphur, . . . they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.” At first reading, this might sound like proof of eternal conscious torment by fire, but it definitely is not. Why? Among other reasons, “the wild beast and the false prophet” and “death and Hades” will end up in what is here called “the lake of fire.” As you may easily conclude, the beast, the false prophet, death, and Hades are not literal persons; therefore, they cannot experience conscious torment. Instead, writes G. B. Caird in A Commentary on the Revelation of St. John the Divine, “the lake of fire” means “extinction and total oblivion.” This realization should be easily reached, for the Bible itself states about this lake of fire: “This means the second death, the lake of fire.”—Revelation 20:14.
Separating Theological Twins
In spite of these arguments, many believers insist that “destruction” does not mean what the word says but means eternal torment. Why? Their thinking is influenced by hellfire’s religious twin—the doctrine of the immortality of the human soul. And since their church may have mothered these twins for centuries, they may feel that texts that speak of destruction actually mean eternal torture. After all, the immortal human soul cannot go out of existence—or so it is reasoned by many.
But note the point made by Anglican clergyman Philip E. Hughes: “To contend that only the human soul is innately immortal is to maintain a position which is nowhere approved in the teaching of Scripture, for in the biblical purview human nature is always seen as integrally compounded of both the spiritual and the bodily. . . . God’s warning at the beginning, regarding the forbidden tree, ‘In the day that you eat of it you shall die,’ was addressed to man as a corporeal-spiritual creature—should he eat of it, it was as such that he would die. There is no suggestion that a part of him was undying and therefore that his dying would be in part only.”—The True Image—The Origin and Destiny of Man in Christ.
Similarly, theologian Clark Pinnock remarks: “This concept [that the human soul is immortal] has influenced theology for a long, long time but it is not biblical. The Bible does not teach the natural immortality of the soul.” Ezekiel 18:4, 20 and Matthew 10:28 confirm this. Moreover, Jesus himself spoke of his dead friend Lazarus as having “gone to rest,” or sleep. Jesus said that he was “to awaken him from sleep.” (John 11:11-14) So the human being, or human soul, Lazarus had died, but even after some time passed, he could be resurrected, brought back to life again. The facts prove that. Jesus resurrected Lazarus from the dead.—John 11:17-44.
How do these points affect the doctrine of eternal torment? Back in the 17th century, essayist William Temple noted: “There are [scriptures] which speak of being cast into undying fire. But if we do not approach these with the presupposition that what is thus cast in is indestructible, we shall get the impression, not that it will burn for ever, but that it will be destroyed.” That correct analysis still holds true, for it is what the Bible actually teaches.
Undeniably, you have compelling reasons to question the idea of eternal conscious torment in hell. Or perhaps you want to go beyond mere questioning and follow the advice of theology professor Pinnock, who said: “The entire set of beliefs surrounding hell, including unending torture, . . . should be dumped in the name of credible doctrine.” Yes, morality, justice, and—most important—God’s Word, the Bible, tell you to do just that.
If you do, you will see that the true nature of hell is credible indeed. You can find helpful information on this topic in the book You Can Live Forever in Paradise on Earth.* Please ask for it when you meet Jehovah’s Witnesses. Read the chapters “What Happens at Death?” “What Kind of Place Is Hell?” and “Resurrection—For Whom, and Where?” You will find out that the true nature of hell is not only credible but promising as well.
In this Bible passage, “tormented with fire” primarily refers to a spiritual, yet finite, torment. For further details, see Revelation—Its Grand Climax At Hand! published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc.
Published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc.
[Box on page 8]
DEFINING THE TERMS
In this article the terms “hell” and “hellfire” as used by theologians in Christendom refer to the Greek word geʹen·na, which appears 12 times in the “New Testament.” (Matthew 5:22, 29, 30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Luke 12:5; James 3:6) Though various Bible translations render this Greek word “hell,” other translations transliterate it “Gehenna.” It corresponds to “the second death, the lake of fire,” a symbol of everlasting destruction found in the last book of the Bible.—Revelation 20:14.
Regarding two other words sometimes translated “hell,” A Dictionary of the Bible (1914), edited by William Smith, notes: “Hell . . . is the word generally and unfortunately used by our translators to render the Hebrew Sheol. It would perhaps have been better to retain the Hebrew word Sheol, or else render it always by ‘the grave’ or ‘the pit’. . . . In the N[ew] T[estament], the word Hades, like Sheol, sometimes means merely ‘the grave’ . . . It is in this sense that the creeds say of our Lord ‘He went down into hell,’ meaning the state of the dead in general.”
Unlike Gehenna, which symbolizes final destruction, Sheol and Hades refer to death in the common grave of mankind, with the prospect of being raised to life again.—Revelation 20:13.
[Picture on page 9]
Jesus awakened Lazarus from the sleep of death