It is plainly taught in the scriptures that everlasting life is promised to the righteous and eternal punishment to the wicked. Those who do not choose to accept salvation so dearly purchased must be punished. It is a popular and widespread teaching that the wicked will go to hell and burn forever and ever as long as God Himself exists. Satan uses this terrifying doctrine of hell fire to foster an incorrect idea about God’s character and retributive judgments. His purpose is to represent God as a merciless tyrant who is pleased to have the ungodly live in horrible torment throughout the endless ages of eternity.
Let me quote two well-known Christians who had misconstrued conceptions of hell fire. Charles H. Spurgeon, the famous English preacher, said in one of his sermons: “There is a real fire in hell, as truly as you have a real body—a fire exactly like that which we have on this earth, except this: that it will not consume though it will torture you. You have seen asbestos lying amid red hot coals, but not consumed. So your body will be prepared by God in such a way that it will burn forever without being consumed. With your nerves laid raw by the searing flame, yet never desensitized for all its raging fury, and the acrid smoke of the sulphurous fumes searing your lungs and choking your breath, you will cry out for the mercy of death, but it shall never, never, no never, give you surcease.”
And consider these lines from a hymn by Isaac Watts:
“What bliss will fill the ransomed
When they in glory dwell.
To see the sinner as he rolls
In quenchless flames of hell.”
Thank God that these horrible thoughts are not expressed in the Bible! They are the product of man’s vivid imagination and are inspired, of course, by Satan.
Now that you are acquainted with this disturbing and misleading teaching, let us go to God’s word to familiarise ourselves with the true meaning of hell.
In the Scriptures, we find three meanings for the words translated as “hell.” First of all, the Hebrew word sheol means grave. For proof see Psalm 16:10: “For Thou wilt not leave my soul in hell; neither wilt Thou suffer Thine Holy One to see corruption.” This particular text brings out the fact that Jesus Christ, the Holy One, was laid in the grave (sheol, translated here as “hell”) and that His body did not decay. It would be ridiculous, ill-conceived, and far-fetched to believe that Christ went to a place of burning after His crucifixion.
The idea of fire or punishment is not to be found in this context. Both the righteous and the ungodly go to their graves. “What man is he that liveth, and shall not see death? shall he deliver his soul from the hand of the grave [sheol] ?” Psalms 89:48. “If I wait, the grave [sheol] is mine house: . . .”Job 17:13. “The wicked shall be turned into hell [sheol],…”Psalms 9:17.
The Greek word generally translated as “hell” is hades. Its meaning is the grave, the same as sheol in the Hebrew. “He seeing this before spake of the resurrection of Christ, that His soul was not left in hell, neither his flesh did see corruption.” Acts 2:31. Here Peter definitely spoke of Psalms 16:10 regarding Christ’s resurrection.
The second meaning of the word hell is found in 2 Peter 2:4. “. . . God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to hell, and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved unto judgment.” The original Greek word here is tartarus, not hades. In this text hell represents the darkness that enshrouded Satan and the fallen angels when they were separated from heaven, as well as the darkness that has come to earth. There is no meaning of fire or torment implied in this word.
Place of Burning
Finally, the only word in the New Testament that has any idea of fire is gehenna. This term is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word hinnom, the name of a valley near Jerusalem where the carcasses of animals, malefactors, and the refuse of the city were cast. Here the smoldering fires burned continuously, and what the fire did not consume was destroyed by worms. It was thus a symbol of complete annihilation. Gehenna, the place of burning, is found twelve times in the Bible and is always translated as “hell.”
When will this burning hell take place?
It is all too commonly believed that at death the righteous go immediately to heaven and the wicked to hell, where they are punished. The apostle Peter wrote, “The Lord knoweth how to . . . reserve the unjust unto the day of judgment to be punished.” 2 Peter 2:9. Also Paul concurred with this in Hebrews 9:27: “And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment.” In neither of these texts is there even the slightest intimation of reward or punishment at death; both point to the future.
Those who have died in the faith in Christ will be resurrected and given eternal life only at the His second coming. The final penalty for the unrighteous will be eternal death. “The wages of sin is death,” and “the soul that sinneth, it shall die.” Romans 6:23; Ezekiel 18:4. Over and over again, death is emphasized as the punishment of the wicked. When will it be meted out?
During the thousand years (Revelation 20:4), the wicked will be judged by the righteous to determine their degree of punishment. After the millennium of judgment
(spent by the righteous in heaven), Christ will return to earth and call the wicked from their graves. “But the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished.” Revelation 20:5. Reading on in Revelation 20:7-9: “And when the thousand years are expired, Satan shall be loosed out of his prison, And shall go out to deceive the nations which are in the four quarters of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them together to battle: the number of whom is as the sand of the sea. And they went up on the breadth of the earth, and compassed the camp of the saints about, and the beloved city: and fire came down from God out of heaven, and devoured them.”
Let us keep in mind that the final destruction will take place at the end of the millennium and that there will be no second chance to repent.
The scene of destruction by fire (hell) will be our planet earth. It will not be in some remote cavern below the earth’s crust nor in some faraway place in the universe. The just God will bring fire down from heaven. This stern act will take place literally. The verses quoted above are not figurative, as many would like them to be; they are in harmony with other Scripture verses describing actual events that will occur.
How long will the wicked burn?
“And that servant, which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes.” Luke 12:47, 48.
“The wicked receive their recompense in the earth. [Isaiah 34:8; Proverbs 11:31.] They ‘shall be stubble; and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the Lord of hosts.’ [Malachi 4:1.] Some are destroyed as in a moment, while others suffer many days. All are punished ‘according to their deeds.’ The sins of the righteous having been transferred to Satan, he is made to suffer not only for his own rebellion, but for all the sins which he has caused God’s people to commit. His punishment is to be far greater than that of those whom he has deceived. After all have perished who fell by his deceptions, he is still to live and suffer on. In the cleansing flames the wicked are at last destroyed, root and branch,—Satan the root, his followers the branches..” —Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy, p. 673.
In Ezekiel 28:18, 19, God says that Satan will be completely obliterated. “… I will bring thee to ashes upon the earth in the sight of all them that behold thee. . . . Thou shalt be a terror, and never shalt thou be any more.” “For yet a little while, and the wicked shall not be: yea, thou shalt diligently consider his place, and it shall not be.” Psalms 37:10. “And ye shall tread down the wicked; for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet in the day that I shall do this, saith the Lord of hosts.” Malachi 4:3.
Millions of serious-minded Christians ignorantly or wilfully overlook the above texts and consider only those that read that the wicked will burn “for ever,” or “for ever and ever.” They draw the conclusion that the judgment fire will never cease and that the wicked, who are claimed to have immortal souls, will ever be consuming but never quite consumed. The Scriptures nowhere say that man has inherent immortality nor that his conscious existence will never cease.
Let us examine carefully the words “for ever and ever,” found in Revelation 20:10. “And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever.” The wicked will burn for ever—as long as life lasts. To them it will seem that the torment will never end. For example, for someone who is enjoying himself while vacationing, the time passes by quickly, whereas for someone who is having an unpleasant experience or trial, time goes by slowly. So it will be with the wicked. Destruction will seem never to end, yet it will, according to God’s word.
It is only by comparing scripture with scripture that we arrive at the real, accurate meaning of the phrase “for ever.” Analyzing Exodus 21: 2-6, you will find that there “for ever”(verse 6) means only as long as a man lives. When Jonah was swallowed by the great fish, he expressed himself as being shut up forever, yet he was in the belly of the fish only three days (Jonah 2:6; 1:17). The Passover was to be kept “for ever,” yet it ended with Christ’s fulfillment on the cross (Exodus 12: 24; Hebrews 9:24-26). Aaron and his sons were to offer incense “for ever” (1 Chronicles 23:13) and to have an everlasting priesthood (Exodus 40:15), but this priesthood, with its offerings of incense, also ended at the cross.
Jude 7 reads: “Even as Sodom and Gomorrha, and the cities about them in like manner, giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire.” Are these cities still burning today, or were they reduced to ashes long ago? 2 Peter 2:6 gives us the answer. “And turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrha into ashes condemned them with an overthrow, making them an example unto those that after should live ungodly.”
The words “eternal fire” convey a meaning of eternal in effect, not a continuous process. The Bible uses the term “unquenchable fire,” meaning that no one on earth can put it out; it will burn until it has accomplished its purpose.
The concept of never-ending torment is contrary to God’s loving nature; and, besides, such a thing would perpetuate and immortalize sin, suffering, and woe. It would be a stigma in the universe and would seem to indicate that it is impossible for God Himself ever to abolish it.
The purpose of hell fire
The Scriptures teach that the atoning work of Christ our High Priest is to “put away sin” (Hebrews 9:26), first from the individual, and ultimately from the universe. Sin will not be allowed to come into existence again (Nahum 1:9).
“The fire that consumes the wicked purifies the earth. Every trace of the curse is swept away. No eternally burning hell will keep before the ransomed the fearful consequences of sin.” —The Great Controversy, p. 674.
“I then looked and saw the fire which had consumed the wicked, burning up the rubbish and purifying the earth. Again I looked and saw the earth purified. There was not a single sign of the curse. The broken, uneven surface of the earth now looked like a level, extensive plain. God’s entire universe was clean, and the great controversy was forever ended. Wherever we looked, everything upon which the eye rested was beautiful and holy.” Ellen G. White, Early Writings, p. 295.
There must be an end to the fire or else this earth could not be made new (2 Peter 3:7-13; Revelation 21).
The effect of the fire which God will use will be to burn away all the impurities and deadly germs. Thus purified, the earth will be formed into a perfect habitat where the redeemed can live throughout eternity with God.
The promise of God to give us a new earth “wherein dwelleth righteousness” is contingent upon there being an end to the judgment fire.
God never intended that any man should ever suffer in hell. It is “prepared for the devil and his angels.” Matthew 25:41. God desires us to have a home with Him forever. But salvation is given on one condition—belief in the Lord Jesus Christ who died for our sins and obedience to His commandments. Only as we accept and meet this condition will our names be written in the book of life. On the other hand, “whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.” Revelation 20:15.