Hell Breaks Loose, Part I: A Criticism of Eternal Torment

If someone rejects the eternal torment view of hell, accusations are quickly mounted against them. It is said that they “want to make God nicer,” that they “can’t handle that hard truth,” that they are “false teachers or heretics,” and the list goes on. However, perhaps the most common of all is that they “ignore the Bible.” I think this is patently false, as I will demonstrate here in this post. For me, this is not a question of whether or not I believe eternal torment to unjust, emotionally repugnant, or morally untenable. Rather, I very seriously do not think this concept can be found in the Bible at all in the first place. I believe there are only five main passages that proponents of eternal torment refer to, and I will expound on each of them in this blog.

The first and (in my opinion) most popular passage that is believed to teach eternal torment is Jesus’ parable of the Final Judgment in Matthew 25:31-46. It is frequently pointed out that “eternal life” and “eternal punishment” in verse 46 are set up by Jesus in a way that seem to be parallel. With the defense for eternal torment being “If you say the punishment isn’t eternal, then the life can’t be eternal either!” However, as always, we must note that the Bible was not written in English, but in ancient Greek. Likewise, it is important for us to note that any translation from Greek to English requires an interpretative decision - it is not merely a matter of using Google translate and running with it.

The adjective translated as “eternal” used by Jesus is aionios in Greek, which is a form of the word aionion, and this most commonly meant “an age or a span of time.” In Jewish literature, it was generally used in reference to the future Messianic age, not just any arbitrary age. Thus, I would posit that a better translation of aionios is “of the age to come.” With this considered, we would better read these as “the life of the age to come” and “the punishment of the age to come.” How long is this punishment or life? That question is not answered here. All that is being indicated by Jesus in this parable is that there will be a future punishment and future life. Not to overlook the fact that Jesus uses the phase “eternal fire” in this passage as well, how should this be understood as “the fire of the age to come?” This same phrase also appears in Jude 1:7, in reference to Sodom and Gomorrah. How long did the fire at Sodom and Gomorrah last? One day. The punishment, life, and fire listed here do not include anything about duration, it is simply stating that they will take place in the future. In a nutshell, I do not think this passage teaches that eternal torment. I also do not think it teaches annihilation, nor does it teach universalism. It is strictly saying that there will be a future judgement, and nothing beyond that.

Next, there are two passages in the book of Revelation that are often used to strike fear into the hearts of people, and the first is Revelation 14:11, which reads “the smoke of their torment will rise for ever and ever. There will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name.” Before we make judgements about how this is best read, we must first understand the kind of literature that it is. The book of Revelation is apocalyptic, and in the ancient world apocalyptic literature was written to criticize the corrupt and oppressive powers that ruled at the time, and also to create hope and inspire perseverance for those who were not compliant with these powers so that they might maintain faithful resistance against them. Another important detail about the apocalyptic genre is that it is by definition symbolic, and was never meant to be read literally. Indeed, if one tries to read the book of Revelation literally, it is at best slightly amusing and at worst akin to a horror film. When people insist that there is a literal lake of fire, one must ask, do you also believe in a literal giant prostitute riding a beast described in Revelation 17? Do you believe that a beast will literally be thrown into a literal bottomless pit as described in Revelation 9? (Where is the bottomless pit?) Do you also believe that God will literally dump a massive wine-cup of fury on people? (I’m not sure what that would even look like) I could keep going, but I’m sure you get the point. Revelation does not make sense if it is read literally, as the genre demands that it be read symbolically.

With all this considered, “the smoke of their torment will rise for ever and ever” is best understood as hyperbolic imagery, and this was commonplace in Jewish apocalyptic literature. We can find this in the Old Testament as well. One quick example is the apocalyptic description of the judgment of Edom in the book of Isaiah, which reads “This judgment on Edom will never end; the smoke of its burning will rise forever.” (Isaiah 34:10) I’ve never been to Edom, but I am willing to bet that the smoke of its destruction is not still rising. The reason it was written this way was to indicate the severity of the judgement, not the duration. Similarly, with Revelation, in its criticism of the Roman Empire, this passage is best understood as how the Roman Empire would fall in judgment for its oppressive rule (which it eventually did).

The second passage in Revelation 20:10-15, which includes the famous lines about the lake of fire, can be read in a similar light. When “Death and Hades” are thrown into the lake of fire, if this is attempted to be read literally, I can only picture a Grim Reaper and Hades from Disney’s Hercules being thrown into a burning sea. Instead, the lake of fire is God’s impending judgment on the Roman Empire, and those “who bore the mark of the beast” or “were not found in the book of life” are those who accommodated themselves to the way of the Roman Empire rather than the way of Jesus, and faced (or will face) the same destruction as the Empire.

The next passage, 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10, is viewed as being in support of eternal torment. Specifically verse 9, which reads “These will suffer the penalty of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.” First, we should ask the obvious question: “How can something be destroyed eternally?” If a building is destroyed, it collapses once and that is all. If a vehicle is incinerated, this act cannot be repeated. If a dead body is cremated, this destruction only lasts for a finite period of time. Also, as we examined earlier, “eternal” comes from the Greek word aionios, which can best be translated as “the age to come.” We should also examine the Greek word for “destruction,” which is olethros. This in a more rigid sense would mean “ruin” or “death,” which only happen once. Most importantly, Paul is not writing this passage (or letter) to give us a systematic theology on hell, he is writing to this church explaining that they will be received from the persecution they were experiencing.

Lastly, we need to look at Mark 9:42-50. It is said that “hell” is an “unquenchable fire.” It is also said of those who go there that “their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.” Since this passage is the only one we have looked at the uses the word “hell” explicitly, it is now worth expanding on what this means. The Greek word for “hell” is Gehenna, and for Jews, this was not a place at the center of the earth. Gehenna is a literal, physical valley on the southwest side of Jerusalem. You can still go there today. Gehenna is mentioned a few times in the Old Testament, as it is The Valley of Hinnom, which, when transliterated into Greek, is Gehennom. Gehenna was believed to be cursed as it was where apostates would go to offer children as sacrifices, as well as make other sacrifices to foreign gods (see 2 Kings 23:10). Now that we have a basic understanding of Gehenna (which we will examine in greater detail in a later post), we will return to this passage.

Where does Jesus get this imagery of “unquenchable fire” and immortal worms from? It is from Isaiah 66:24, which uses the same phrase referring to slain enemies and apostate Israelites: “the worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched.” So why did Jesus feel the need to draw from this passage? Isaiah was written (at least in part) before the Israelites were exiled in Babylon back in 587 BCE. This passage warns of the judgment that violent Empires face, as well as those who are complicit with the way of the Empire. Jesus used this in a time when tensions were high between the Jews and the Roman Empire - and he used this phrase as a warning in hopes that judgment would not need to emerge once more for God’s people. Unfortunately, we know that this came to pass in 66 CE when there was a violent uprising against the Roman Empire, and then Rome came and completely destroyed Jerusalem in 70 CE. In this passage, I do not believe Jesus is speaking about something that happens after we die, he is talking about something that happens in history when we fight violence with violence. We materialize hell on earth, we give birth to destruction, and we reinforce the spirit of Empire.

One final note about this passage is that the Greek word used by Jesus here for “quenched” is sbyennymi, which is generally used as a metaphor meaning “to suppress or stifle.” Jesus seems to not be saying that the fire will literally never go out, and will keep burning for every literal twenty-four hour day into an endless future, but instead Jesus seems to be saying that this fire will not be extinguished until it has done what it it is supposed to do, namely, burn up whatever has been set on fire. All in all, this passage does appear to speak of eternal torment either.

We have looked at the most popular passages in the Bible that seem to teach the notion that hell is conscious, eternal torment. With these things considered, I do not think they do. It seems reasonable to me that, although the concept of eternal torment is wildly popular within western Christianity, it is absent from the teachings of Jesus as well as the letters of St. Paul and Revelation. I think the idea of eternal torment likely emerged before or during the time of Tertullian of Carthage wrote most of his work, approximately around year 200 CE.

So, now, if hell is not eternal torment, what is hell? Well, you will have to tune in next week for that.