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Conflicting Bible Texts About Eternal Hell

Perhaps the most difficult textual conflict in Scriptures concerns God’s punishment of the wicked. Millions of Christians assume the wicked will languish with the devil in hell forever. This is the opposite of the reward for the righteous living forever with God in eternal bliss. Of course, an assumption of eternal hell does not require the person to believe in immortal souls (not subject to death), but this detail is not considered important. To be fair, certain Bible verses seem to support the concept of an eternally burning hell. Let us begin this study by considering 1 Peter 3: 18-22 (within all following Bible quotations, underlines, italics, and insertions in parenthesis or brackets mine):

1 Peter 3: 18-22 “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built…”

This text could be interested to mean that after Jesus died on the cross, He preached salvation to the wicked spirits who have been tortured in hell (prison) since Noah’s day. An individual belief about how God punishes wicked people will influence the interpretation of 1 Peter 3. So, with Peter’s words in mind, consider five passages:

Jude 1:7 “In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal (Greek: aionios) fire.”

Revelation 14:11 “And the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and his image, or for anyone who receives the mark of his name.”

Revelation 19: 3 “And again they shouted: ‘Hallelujah! The smoke from her [the great whore] goes up for ever and ever.’”

Revelation 20:10 “And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.

Matthew 18: 8 “if your hand or your foot causes you to sin cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal (aionios) fire.”

For those people who believe that textual conflicts can be resolved by digging deeply into the catacombs of the original Greek language, the confusion only gets worse. Jude and Jesus used the Greek word aionios to describe fire because aionios generally means eternal, everlasting, or forever. Notice how aionios is used in other Bible passages: “As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. ‘Good teacher,’ he asked, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal (aionios) life?’” (Mark 10:17) “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal (aionios) life.” (John 3:16) Jesus said, “But whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal (aionios) life.” (John 4:14)

A man once said to me, “I have proof texts! Jesus said ‘eternal fire’ and ‘eternal life’ and that’s how it is! I’m not budging. Do you understand the problem? If we “cherry pick” the Bible and limit our study on God’s punishment of the wicked to the six passages presented previously, we leave Scripture in a state of internal conflict because there are other Bible verses which have equal authority that contradict these texts. Truth is proven true by the harmony that comes from the sum of its parts. Also, consider these words that Jesus spoke:

John 6:40 “For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”

Luke 14: 13, 14 “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

John 12: 47, 48 “As for the person who hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge him. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save it. There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; that very word which I spoke will condemn him at the last day.”

Luke 20: 35, 36 “But those who are considered worthy of taking part in that age and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection.”

John 5: 28, 29 “Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out – those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned.”

With these five passages in mind, consider this: If Abel was murdered and went to Heaven 6,000 years ago, why does he need to be resurrected “at the last day?” If Cain died and went to Hell 6,000 years ago, why does he need to be resurrected at the end of the 1,000 years?

Some people believe Cain and Abel will be resurrected to receive new bodies. This does not make sense to me because why would Cain need a new body after 6,000 years in Hell? Why would Abel, Enoch, Elijah, Moses, and the 24 elders have to wait for the Second Coming to get a new body? Elijah and Moses already have new bodies. The disciples saw them on the Mount of Transfiguration and John saw the 24 elders with new bodies around the throne! (Luke 9: 30; Revelation 4:4) Advocates for an eternally burning hell cannot offer a biblical reason why Abel and Cain are resurrected. However, when we understand God’s ways and plans, the Bible reveals why separate resurrections are needed for the righteous and the wicked!

This confusion about God’s punishment of the wicked can be resolved, but the solution requires some knowledge of the following four Bible topics: The creation of man, the state of man in death, the judgment of man, and the doctrine of restitution. These topics perfectly fit into a wonderful judicial system because God is generous, reasonable, fair, loving, and changeless. Please consider a few summary statements on these four topics:

The creation of man and the state of man in death: “The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” (Genesis 2:7) After Adam sinned, God said: “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”

(Genesis 3:19) Solomon wrote, “For the living know they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even the memory of them is forgotten… And the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit [breath of life] returns to God who gave it.” (Ecclesiastes 9: 5, 6; 12: 7)

David was astonished at the power of death: “What man can live and not see death, or save himself from the power of the grave?” (Psalm 89: 48) David knew that dead people are not in Heaven: “It is not the dead who praise the Lord, those who go down to silence: it is we [the living] who extol the Lord, both now and forevermore…” (Psalm 115: 17, 18) God told Ezekiel, “For every living soul belongs to me, the father as well as the son – both alike belong to me. The soul who sins is the one who will die.” (Ezekiel 18:4) Paul summarizes the human condition: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God [and all must die because]…For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 3: 23; 6: 23)

The Bible teaches that man is made of dust. He has no intelligence before birth and he has no intelligence after he dies. When a person dies, his body returns to dust, the gift of life (the spirit) returns to God, and his soul (his intelligence and personality) no longer exists. However, when God resurrects each dead person, He will faithfully reconstruct that person from His perfect record of each person. (Ecclesiastes 12: 14; 1 Corinthians 13: 12; 15: 42, 49)

The judgment of man: The Bible teaches that God has appointed a time, near the end of the world, when He will judge mankind. “For he [the Father] has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man [Jesus] he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:31)

Jesus is the judge: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things while in the body, whether good or bad.” (2 Corinthians 5:10) Every word and deed will be reviewed. “For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.” (Ecclesiastes 12:14) Prior to the Second Coming, the eternal destiny of every person will be determined. (Revelation 14:19) At the Second Coming, the wicked dead will not be disturbed, but the wicked who are alive will be killed. (Revelation 19: 20, 21) The righteous dead will be resurrected and together with the righteous living they will be caught up to meet the Lord in the air. (1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18) The saints will ascend to the Holy City and reign with Christ in Heaven for 1,000 years. (John 14: 1-3; Revelation 20:4)

The doctrine of restitution: During the 1,000 years the saints will be given authority with Jesus to review the record of each wicked person and determines the amount of suffering which each wicked person must endure. (1 Corinthians 6: 2, 3) God’s justice requires that predators must suffer according to the amount of suffering they causes, e.g., an eye for an eye, tooth for tooth, bruise for bruise, etc. (Exodus 21; 2 Thessalonians 1:6; Romans 12: 19; Revelation 2: 23)

At the end of the 1,000 years, the Holy City will descend from Heaven with the saints inside. (Revelation 21:2) All of the wicked will be resurrected. Revelation 20: 12-15) Jesus will then explain to each wicked person why He could not save them and He will also reveal the judgment decreed by the saints, e.g., the amount of suffering required for restitution. This declaration will enrage the wicked. The devil will lead the wicked to attack the Holy City and fire will fall from Heaven and Hell will begin. (Revelation 20: 7-10) Hell will linger for each person according to the length of time determined by the saints. When justice has been served, the fires of Hell will go out. (Malachi 4: 1-3) Then a new Heaven and Earth will be created. (Revelation 21:1)

Given what the Bible teaches on these four topics and my desire to harmonize everything said in the Bible about God’s judicial system, I understand the following passages to mean:

Jude 1: 7 “In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who [will] suffer the punishment of eternal [the age of unquenchable] fire.”

Revelation 14: 11 the smoke of their torment rises [for as long as they burn] for ever and ever.” There is no rest day of night for those who worship the beast and his image, or for anyone who receives the mark of his name.”

Revelation 19: 3 “And again they shouted: ‘Hallelujah! The smoke from her [the great whore] goes up [for as long as she burns] for ever and ever.’”

Revelation 20: 10 “And the devil, who deceives them was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night [for as long as needed] for ever and ever.”

Matthew 18: 8 “If your hand or your foot causes you to sin cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal [the age of unquenchable] fire.”

To be continued.

Larry Wilson

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