Is Hell Eternal Conscious Torment?
The doctrine of hell is a serious, sobering, and terrifying doctrine. For some, the thought of hell as eternal conscious torment is too difficult to accept. They would rather believe that hell is temporary. People who die outside of Christ will suffer punishment for a period of time, but eventually, God will cast them into the lake of fire and they will cease to exist. This view is known as annihilationism. But is it biblical?
We cannot allow our emotions to drive our theology. Scripture is our final authority. We must submit to the Bible’s teachings on difficult doctrines trusting that God is God and not us. He is good, righteous, and holy and he always does what is right.
Annihilationism is not biblical. The Bible does not teach that those in hell will one day cease to exist. Instead, hell is the place of eternal conscious torment under the wrath of God forever.
As with any question of biblical interpretation, the clear passages of Scripture must inform the less clear passages, not vice versa. A few key passages deserve consideration.
A few important passages
First, Matthew 25:46 (ESV) — And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Jesus refers here to the final judgment on two different groups of people. One group goes into “eternal punishment.” The other group (“the righteous”) goes into “eternal life.” Eternal punishment and eternal life are parallel to each other in this passage. This creates a problem for the annihilationist view. They have to say that “eternal life” includes an ongoing conscious experience for the righteous, but “eternal punishment” is not an ongoing conscious experience for the wicked. According to the annihilationist, those condemned do not experience punishment eternally like the righteous experience life eternally. But why this difference between the two parallel uses of “eternal”? Why not allow the clear meaning of “eternal life” to inform the meaning of “eternal punishment”?
Second Revelation 14:9–11 (ESV) — And another angel, a third, followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. 11 And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.”
I am not aware of all the ways annihilationists deal with this passage. But verse 11 is clear enough. The smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever. People do not experience torment if they do not exist. Their torment continues because they continue in a state of eternal consciousness. John even adds, “They have no rest, day or night.” Day and night are markers of time and succession. Only conscious beings can experience no rest for a succession of moments. Do these successions of moments eventually end? No, because John says the smoke of their torment rises forever and ever. Smoke ceases to rise when there is nothing left to burn. The annihilationist might appeal to the symbolic nature of apocalyptic literature, but even if the language of “forever and ever,” and “day or night” are symbolic, are we to believe that they symbolize “temporary” and “momentary”? It is hard to imagine that John meant anything other than eternal conscious torment in this passage.
Third, Revelation 20:10 states, “and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (ESV). The annihilationist might argue that the devil, the beast, and the false prophet will experience eternal conscious torment, but sinful humans will not. The problem with this line of argumentation is that Revelation 20:15 and 21:8 both refer to the lake of fire as the place of punishment for human beings. In light of Revelation 14:11, the duration of their torment is day and night forever and ever.
Is eternal conscious torment a just punishment?
Annihilationists do not think eternal conscious torment is a punishment that fits the crime. It seems excessive in their view. But there at least two answers to their dilemma. First, sin is against an infinite and holy God. His greatness, value, and worth are what make crimes committed against his name so heinous. Eternal conscious torment is a fitting punishment for sin committed against a great and infinitely glorious God.
Second, we have reason to believe that those in hell will continue in their rebellion against God for all eternity. Fallen humanity is dead in sin (Eph 2:1), enemies of God (Rom 5:10), worshippers of self (Rom 1:25), and desire to be God (Gen 3:5). If it were not for God’s common grace, fallen humanity would plummet deeper into the depths of their depravity and rebellion against God (cf. Rom 1:24, 26, 28). The only reason anyone loves God is that God first loved them (1 Jn 4:9). Only a supernatural work of sovereign grace makes a person treasure Christ.
There is no reason to believe that people in hell will suddenly see the error of their ways and desire to be in heaven with God. They will still be totally depraved. Surely, they will want to escape hell’s punishment, but their sinful nature will remain. Without the restraining effects of God’s common grace, there will be little evidence left of the image of God in them. Thus, eternal conscious torment will be the punishment for eternal conscious rebellion.
Much more needs to be said on this subject. Perhaps another blog post for another day. Hell is a terrifying reality and it is clearly taught in the Bible. We must submit to the Bible on this subject and thank God for the glory of our great salvation. He saved us from wrath through Christ. He has delivered us from hell now and forever.