The Doctrine of Eternal Punishment part 1

The purpose of this essay is to argue against the doctrine of hell and eternal punishment as it is usually present in theologically conservative circles among Christians. I single out theological conservatives in this essay for one major reason: what most theologically liberal Christians believe about the afterlife is hardly worth discussing. It is only those who make serious attempts to believe and maintain the teaching of the Bible that are of any interest to me here. It is only those who are honest about using the word “Christian”, that is, people who are serious about remaining in the apostolic tradition, who are of interest to me here. I am one of those people, serious about being in the apostolic tradition and serious about believing and maintaining the truth of the gospel. I say this in spite of the fact, and also because of the fact, that I am writing this essay to argue against a doctrine that is part of that tradition. It is important to me, if possible, to reassure those who might read this, that I am not intending to attack the gospel or Christianity or the Bible; I only intend to argue that the idea of the eternal conscious punishment of the lost is a doctrine alien to the gospel and has no place among those who are serious about following Christ. I believe I am not alone in taking exception to this doctrine, and that even among respected evangelical leaders there have arisen those who question the doctrine.

For clarity’s sake, I should state clearly the doctrine I wish to argue against: I do not believe that those who are lost will be eternally and consciously punished and tormented, either metaphorically or literally. The arguments against the doctrine are numerous and seem to fall into three main categories: first, despite its long and venerable place in orthodoxy, the doctrine is unscriptural; second, it contradicts the character of God; third, it is bad theology; and fourth, it contradicts the ethical standards taught by the New Testament for believers. My arguments against the doctrine of hell are not necessarily original with me. Many of them are from sources I either never knew or do not remember. Many are standard arguments that in my spiritual youth were point out by my mentors and casually dismissed, but now seem to me to be much weightier than they allowed. Here then are my arguments and my take on some of the traditional arguments.

  1. 1. The Doctrine of Hell is Unscriptural

It is a basic exegetical principle: Scripture interprets Scripture. We who begin with the assumption that Scripture is a revelation from God, who begin with the assumption that the Bible is an internally consistent and coherent revelation, we expect that when a passage is obscure in meaning it will be explained clearly somewhere else in Scripture. Nothing important or authoritative is left to guess work. If God expects His people in all times and places to believe something, He will state it clearly and repeatedly. In particular, He will state the important things repeatedly as a good Teacher, knowing that we are creatures that learn by repetition. And since the Bible is a progressive revelation – a revelation given gradually and in “lessons” over two thousand years – we would expect Him to state the important things very simply and plainly at first and gradually embellish on the important themes with the addition of relevant details. In other words, if something is truly central to our understanding of God and His will, we would expect to find it throughout Scripture and in an increasingly specific and detailed form as we proceed through the centuries from Genesis to Revelation.

In the Old Testament the concept of hell as a place of fire and torment does not make any appearance until near the end, at the time when the northern kingdom was being destroyed by Assyria, and shortly before the southern kingdom was destroyed by Babylon. Before this point, the place of the dead was called Sheol, and it was not at all a place of fire or punishment. Hell as we imagine it played no role whatsoever during the first two-thirds of the Old Testament, strikingly out of keeping for a doctrine that so many consider so fundamental. The only event that was hell-like was the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, but there is no suggestion in the text in Genesis that Sodom was more that a one time event. There is no suggestion anywhere in Scripture that the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah was a universal metaphor. The only other nation the Scripture compared to Sodom was Israel itself shortly before the destruction of the northern kingdom. No where does the Old Testament specify Sodom as the potential fate of any nation outside of Israel, though there are other nations who are as evil and as subject to destruction. Sodom, though the standard bearer of evil in the world, seems to have had a unique punishment.

The concept of the fires of hell is taken up in the New Testament in the gospels and in the book of Revelation and in the letters of Peter and of Jude. Paul does not teach about hell. The chosen apostle to the Gentiles, the one appointed to bring the truth to the peoples of the world, did not find it necessary to even mention the concept of the eternal fires of hell. There is only one oblique reference to the punishment of the lost and that is Romans 9:1-3, “I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience testifies with me in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh.” Is Paul here saying that he could seriously wish to be condemned to hell and suffer an eternity of torment in exchange for the salvation of Israel? Could any human being seriously wish that? Yet the emphasis in the verse makes it clear that he means what he says. The only way to take this passage sensibly is that Paul had a very different idea of what it meant to be accursed and separated from Christ than we do.

And so we find, if we attend to Scripture as a unit, that the doctrine of hell does not appear until late in the process of revelation, and is omitted entirely from the great summaries of the Christian faith recorded by the last great apostle. Whatever the Scripture teaches about hell, the doctrine is on the edge of the revelation. It is not central to the gospel and it is not central to the message of the Bible as a whole. I am not saying that we can ignore those passages, particularly what Jesus has said about Gehenna, but that we must interpret them in the light of what are the true central themes of the revelation. It has been argued that since the revelation is progressive (and I agree that it is) then it is not surprising that the doctrine of hell is not fully revealed until the end. The revelation was progressing and when the time was right the idea of hell was finally opened up to God’s people.

The problems with that argument are two. First, Paul is a counter-example. Paul was virtually the last, the culmination, of God’s revelation to us and he has little or nothing to say on the subject. If the revelation of God in the Scripture is a progressive revelation, then surely the crowning point of that progress is the book of Romans; but the pinnacle, the summary of the truth of God in Christ, does not see fit to mention hell.  Second, when we say that the Scripture is a progressive revelation we do not mean that it is like a mathematics textbook which introduces new and more advanced material as one gets prepared for it; rather, it is a person introducing Himself. He is all there from the very beginning, but some themes are not emphasized until later when their context has been revealed. What is central and important concerning God is shown throughout Scripture, from the beginning to the end; it may be only hinted at initially and gradually come into focus, but it is always there when you look back in hindsight. That we are saved by grace through faith, for example, though it is not stated baldly until the book of Romans, can be seen in embryo in the curses of the Fall in Genesis 3 and increasingly vividly in Noah, Abram, and so on. Similarly, the doctrine of the Trinity is never spelled out in so many words, and yet it had become unavoidable and undeniable by the New Testament and in hindsight tangibly and discernibly present even from the first chapters of Genesis.  Not so the doctrine of hell. There is no hint of it, no embryonic form, no suggestion that there is an eternal torment of flame waiting for all who are left out of the stream of revelation given to Abraham and his descendants. It is we who have made hell a central theme of the gospel, not the Scripture.

I would now like to look at two passages from the gospels that talk about eternal punishment to see how inevitable their interpretation really is. There are other passages than these, but it would be wearisome and unnecessary to consider them all. I think it will be sufficient if I can show that two of the primary passages used to argue for the existence of hell can be seen in a different light. Let me be clear, though, that I am not trying to argue that there is no judgment, that there is no consequence for sin; and I am not trying to argue that the consequences of rejecting Christ are mild or painless. I am only trying to argue that the eternal conscious torment of the lost is not biblical. What punishments God may inflicts on the lost we can save until the end of this essay.

So let’s consider Matthew 18:8, “If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; it is better for you to enter life crippled or lame, than to have two hands or two feet and be cast into the eternal fire.” To begin, let’s focus on what is meant by the phrase “into the eternal fire”, the phrase that on its face appears to be exactly a description of the hell we have been taught to believe in.

In the Greek, the phrase in question is eiV to pur to ’aionion. Dr. Robert Morey perhaps presents the traditional interpretation in most detail in his book Death and the Afterlife, which the interested reader should consult as a balance to my essay. In regard to the meaning of “fire” it is common to understand it in a metaphorical sense, emphasizing that for a word to be used metaphorically does not mean that it has no meaning. Dr. Morey says, “Hell is described by many different figures of speech, each emphasizing a different aspect of ultimate alienation from God. None are to be taken in a literal sense.  But all are to be viewed as weak and feeble attempts to mentally picture something so horrible that the most awful situations here on earth cannot adequately describe it.” Jonathan Edwards, whom I rather admire, has the most graphic descriptions of this metaphorical fire in his famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”. The point for the moment is that the most orthodox take the concept of the “fires of hell” as a metaphor for something even more horrible.

The meaning of “eternal” is somewhat more complicated due to the fairly wide range of meanings that it can have. On pages 130-133 of his book, Dr. Morey lists nine possible meanings for to ’aionion which I will list here as being more detailed than in the standard lectionaries; I italicize the phrases which are translations of to ’aionion:

1. it may be used to speak of God’s absolute eternity – see I Timothy 1:17 which reads, “Now to the King eternal, immortal, …”;

2. it may be used to encompass all of time since creation  – see John 9:32 which reads, “Since the beginning of time it has never been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind”;

3. it may describe a long, indefinite but limited period of time – see John 8:35 which reads, “The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son does remain forever”;

4. it may describe past ages or past generations – see Colossians 1:26 which reads, “that is, the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations…”;

5. it may refer to the present evil age or the present world system – see Romans 12:2 which reads, “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…”;

6. it may describe the present order of things which is to be ended when Christ returns – see Matthew 13:49 which reads, “So it will be at the end of the age…”;

7. it may be used to contrast the final order with the present temporal order – see Luke 18:30 which reads, “who will not receive many times as much at this time and in the age to come, eternal life.”;

8. it may describe actions which begin in the present age and continue into the next age without interruption – see II Peter 3:18 which reads “…To him be the glory, both now and to the day of eternity.  Amen”;

9. it may describe the final order of things after the resurrection – see Mark 10:30 which reads, “but that he will receive a hundred times as much now in the present age, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and farms, along with persecutions; and in the age to come, eternal life”.

Clearly there is some overlapping of these shades of meaning and they are not meant to be hard and fast compartments. The important thing to notice is that the Greek word we translate “eternal” does not always mean “without end”. The question, of course, is which shade of meaning should be attributed to to ’aionion in the particular passage, Matthew 18:8. Here Dr. Morey does what seems to me to be a strange thing. He insists that while the fire is clearly metaphorical nevertheless the most literal meaning for to ’aionion is the only acceptable choice. If I understood him correctly, he gives two reasons for this insistence.

In part he argues for this interpretation based on the rabbinic teaching current at the time of Jesus that pictured hell in the most literal terms and as being never ending; since Jesus was using rabbinic terminology He must therefore have meant it to be taken as they used it, for otherwise He would have corrected their definitions. Dr. Morey chooses not to deal with the fact that the rabbinic teaching also included concepts very similar to the Catholic concept of purgatory though he does not show any inclination to change his views on that issue.

On the contrary, Jesus generally showed little sense of obligation to make changes in definition clear; His answers to the Pharisees are frequently oblique, using words in ways unfamiliar to them, without warning and without explanation. For example, when He asserted that He would rebuild the temple in three days no one understood what He was talking about and He never did pause to explain that His definitions were different. His method was to say what He said and leave it to people to catch up as best they could, or even leave it until they remembered His words after the resurrection and gained a whole new understanding of them. That Jesus used Rabbinic phrases does not seem to me to show at all that He used them with the Rabbinic meaning. In fact though, I think He did hint as to the correct definition of “eternal” just as He hinted at the correct meaning of “temple”, though it is easy to miss the passage where He did it; I will consider it later.

This is only part of Dr. Morey’s argument, however. He refers to the great Dr. Robertson for a further argument, that to adopt a metaphorical meaning for “eternal” fire would require us to adopt a similar metaphorical meaning for “eternal” life. If we give up the concept of unending torment in hell do we not simultaneously give up the concept of unending bliss in heaven? It is a good question, but it is one that Dr. Morey’s purpose makes him unable to answer correctly, I think. Dr. Morey is primarily concerned in his book to disprove the doctrine of annihilationism, that in the end the unsaved will simply cease to exist; and I believe his purpose hindered him from seeing other possibilities.

Though the annihilationist position seems to me to be more true to God’s character, and thus more nearly true, than the traditional belief in hell, nonetheless I have come to agree with Dr. Morey that annihilationism is defective, for reasons that I will consider shortly. However in focusing on annihilationism I believe Dr. Morey has missed some points that he might otherwise have noticed had he been on the look out for them. The first point is that there may be – I believe there is – a tenth meaning for the word to ’aionion which is the one that ought to be used to interpret Matthew 18:8; and it is the one we should use to think of both eternal life and eternal punishment.

I believe Jesus gave a definition for “eternal life” in John 17:3, “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” The question of continued existence, of everlasting existence, is not the point of eternal life. Eternal life does not refer to a quantity of life but to a quality of life. In the resurrection of the saved, we are not brought into a continuation of the sort of life which we now enjoy, albeit without the pain and temptation. Rather, we expect, we hope, to be resurrected to a whole new order of existence, a kind of life which we cannot even imagine or speak of at the present. It is that quality of life that is eternal life. Eternal life, which is so glorious, is one that is derived from knowing God. On page 97 of his book Dr. Morey makes a similar point but does not follow it through.

But is it really true that when a word is used twice in the same passage we must give it the same meaning each time? For example, in Revelations 14:11 the smoke of their torment goes up “forever and ever” and in Revelations 15:7 it is “God, who lives forever and ever”. If we interpret 14:11 otherwise than “unending”, do we have to interpret 15:7 other than “unending”? If we lose the unending span of torment, do we also lose the unending span of God’s life? Not at all. Words can change their meaning even when used twice in the same sentence, as anyone who has told a pun can attest. And if we require that the Bible not engage in such shifts of meaning then what about Romans 5:19, “For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.” In the first occurrence, “the many” is clearly the entirety of the human race; if the second occurrence must be taken with the same meaning, then the Scripture does teach that all will be saved.  As much as I would agree with this understanding of Romans, the most conservative scholars freely allow “the many” to change in meaning within the same sentence. Why not in a longer passage from Revelation? The truth is that the meaning of a word can change in ordinary speech even within a single sentence, and that giving up unending torment does not give up the unending life of God

Furthermore I think we can see a hint of this understanding of eternal life as a difference in quality of life even from the Garden of Eden. For in the garden that God planted, and in which He placed Adam and Eve as immortal people, untainted by sin and untouched by the expectation of death, He planted the Tree of Life. What was the Tree of Life to people who were not under the power of death? They already had eternal life, eternal in the sense of unending; clearly then, there was some other quality of life that was to be added to unending days, a quality which God intended to share with us from the beginning. After the Fall, when death had entered the world, when they were in need of something like a Tree of Life, their access to the Tree was cut off. This does not prove my contention, of course, but it does show that my interpretation is possible and merits further study. Further, it seems to me that the understanding of eternal life I am advocating here has the advantage of being “in embryo” in Scripture from the beginning, unlike the doctrine of hell.

The analogy I would suggest is this: compare the life of a person in the present world and the life of a dog. A human lives on a “higher dimension” than a dog does. This may sound like New Age terminology but what I mean by it is much more mundane. A dog lacks, or seems to lack, certain abilities that go into making our lives as rich as they are. A dog appears to have no sense of aesthetics, to be unable to perceive the beauty of a flower or of a symphony or even of a fellow dog. A dog appears to have no ability to reflect on experience and derive wisdom or meaning from it. A dog has no ability to abstract or to imagine what is not present to his senses. A dog has no sense of humor. A dog cannot perceive two-dimensional images and so cannot create art. A dog appears to have no ability to create even in imitation of the world around it; whether a dog could ever learn to build anything even if it had opposable thumbs is doubtful. A dog has no ability to hear music for what it is, to distinguish the beauty and order in music that distinguishes it from noise. And yet a dog is fully alive. It is just that the life of a dog is immeasurably poorer than the life of a human.

Though some of my assertions may be arguable, the point is to compare the level of existence readily available to a human versus the level of existence readily available to a dog. I would argue that the nature of eternal life is a higher order of existence as far above our present lives as ours are above a dog’s, and that this is what the term “eternal” was intended to convey. We are destined to eternal life meaning that we are destined to a kind of existence in which we will be given the abilities to know God more fully than is presently conceivable. It would be no more possible to show us what eternal life will be like than it would be possible to explain to a dog the beauty of a symphony. Further the Greek language makes just such a distinction between different levels or kinds of life by having two distinct words for life. The word ό βιος means biological life, the sort of life experienced by animals and by men on a physical level; the word ή ζωη means the spiritual life, a life which can know God. It is not unnatural at all to posit that Jesus was indicating by “eternal life” a type of life with intimacy and knowledge of God beyond our most mystical experiences.

The other side of the coin to eternal life is eternal death; those who do not enter into the joy of their Master are cast into the fire of Gehenna. If eternal life means what I think it means, then by analogy the lost experience a loss of faculty, a loss of humanity, a lessening of their abilities to experience and know God. I believe that the fire of Gehenna may be the burning away of all that is ruined in that person, of all that was contaminated by the Fall and remains unhealed. And it seems to me that this interpretation makes good sense in Matthew 18:8 (and other similar passages): it is better to go through life externally crippled than to lose permanently some of those faculties which go into making us human. Plucking out your eyes, temporarily losing the ability to see in this life, is nothing to be compared to the permanent loss of what is unclean in your spirit, the ability to see some of the things of God in your soul.

Another commonly used passage to uphold the doctrine of hell is the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. This parable, from Luke 16:19-31, is a frequently used portrait of the traditional understanding of hell. I will quote the entire parable here for easier reference:

“Now there was a rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, joyously living in splendor every day. And a poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores, and longing to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man’s table; besides, even the dogs were coming and licking his sores. Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried out and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus so that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue, for I am in agony in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, so that those who wish to come over from here to you will not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us.’ And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, that you send him to my father’s house –  for I have five brothers – in order that he may warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ But he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.’ ”

We are told by the scholars that a parable is a story that has a single central point, that we are not to press it too far, and that we are not to try to invest the details of the story with too much significance. If so, then this parable is clearly not about the nature of hell. The ultimate point is summarized in the very last statement: if someone is not convinced by the Scriptures that had already been revealed then they wouldn’t be convinced by someone rising from the dead; which meant that the coming resurrection would not convince some of the Messiah’s identity because they had already rejected Moses and the Prophets. All very well, but this point is not really emphasized by the rest of the story; it is an added point put into the mouth of one of the actors in the skit. What about the action in the skit itself? Is it primarily about the nature of hell? Not at all. The primary point is the contrast made between Lazarus sitting on Abraham’s lap (which is clearly metaphorical) and the rich man in torment (which we are expected to take as non-metaphorical). But if we are not required to view heaven as a literal sitting on Abraham’s lap it seems illegitimate to require us to view the description of Hades as literal. In fact, the whole nature of a parable is metaphor, and therefore the point cannot be to describe the nature of the rewards or the punishments.

What stands out in the story then? The first thing that strikes me is that the rich man in hell is never actually accused of any sin, per se; he is only guilty of being rich and enjoying it at the cost of the suffering of his fellow. Similarly, Lazarus is not described as having any depth of faith, per se; he is only singled out as a victim of poverty and mercilessness. So this parable portrays the judgment of God as re-establishing a balance between the suffering of the poor and the luxury of the rich; in a word, the parable is about justice. Perhaps we are told to look at the parable as a teaching about hell because we are afraid of what else it might mean? If it is a central priority with God to correct the balance between rich and poor then many American Christians may be in for a thin time in the next life.

In summary, when read with an open and receptive spirit, I do not think the Bible teaches the doctrine of hell that we have been taught. For most of my adult Christian life I accepted the doctrine of hell because it was simply a part of the package deal that I received when I first acknowledged Christ as my Redeemer. It took me thirty years of reading and studying both the Bible and doctrine before I got around to even thinking about the doctrine of hell, because there were so many other things that needed to be thought about. Much to my surprise, when I did finally turn my attention to this doctrine, it seemed to disappear into the quicksand of human interpretations.

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7 Comments on “The Doctrine of Eternal Punishment part 1”

  1. vivian Says:

    Thank you for the clear interpretation. A couple of questions: what other evangelical scholars question the traditional interpretation of hell? Could you clarify what you believe the consequences of choosing not to accept God’s saving grace? (with scriptural basis). How does that compare with the Catholic doctrine of purgatory?

    • Carroll Boswell Says:

      It is John Stott who is the evangelical scholar I was thinking of. He believes in annihilationism, which says that the lost simply cease to exist, if I got that correct. My understanding is that is a small but significant number of evangelical scholars who agree with him, but my mind is blank on any names.
      The other question might be answered adequately in the next two parts of this essay. Thank you so much for your questions. I appreciate thoughtful questions a lot.

      • Vivian Shuri Says:

        Thanks. I admire John Stott a lot, although I haven’t run across that yet. you are right – I did get answers from the next two parts once I learned to navigate the blog, but I would still like your thoughts on pugatory. Do you know the origen of that belief?

  2. Carroll Boswell Says:

    The doctrine of purgatory originated with Pope Gregory in the sixth century, misusing a comment from Augustine which had been based on an inadequate understanding of baptism. Baptism was understood as washing away the sins of the believer, at least the past sins, and so the question was what was to be done to give satisfaction for the sins committed after baptism. It wasn’t uncommon for Christians to wait until they were on their death bed to be baptised so they wouldn’t have time to commit a sin between baptism and death. Augustine was merely speculating that after death there might be some place to which a Christian might go to be purified from such sins before going on into heaven. Gregory loved Augustine, though he did not always comprehend him, and for him any speculation of Augustine was equal to certainty. So Gregory took this idea of a place for purification of sins committed after baptism and ran with it. He was a very influential man, both in his own time and in the Middle Ages, and thus the doctrine became established in the West. This is a summary as best I understand it.

  3. Eric Alagan Says:

    ‘Eternal punishment’ – is one of several ‘control’ mechanisms employed by the church.


    • It can and has been used that way, but it originated earlier than the organized church. I think it was just a tool ready at hand when some people decided they wanted to control others. Not all the tools that have been used for manipulation are necessarily bad in themselves, either.


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