Is Hell Forever?
The Challenge of Annihilationism/Conditional Immortality
by James H. Railey Jr.
The doctrine of hell, once a staple of Pentecostal evangelism and preaching, is not as prominent now either in the pulpit or in personal witnessing. Fearing the charge of trying to frighten the lost into the Kingdom or using the gospel as a means to escape future punishment, the focus has shifted to the God of love. The idea of eternal and everlasting torment for unbelievers is a troubling concept.
It is correct to emphasize the love and compassion of God. These characteristics were clearly on display in the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. However, to dismiss the reality of the wrath and judgment of God on that basis fails to reckon with abundant biblical testimony. Both Testaments are clear in their description of God’s judgment on sin in the present era and in the future — including allowing rebellious humans to reside in hell after death as the consequence of their choosing to reject God’s offer of forgiveness in this life.
We find a challenge to understand the destiny of the wicked in the dialogue between Traditionalism and Conditionalism/Annihilationism. Traditionalism maintains that the wicked pass from this life into hell, a state of punishment that never ends. Some in this camp take the biblical depictions of the fire of hell literally; others see descriptions of fire best understood figuratively. In this understanding hell is certainly terrible, although the exact nature of that terror is beyond our ability to grasp. Both, whether literally or figuratively, understand the punishment of hell as never ending.
Conditionalism/Annihilationism also takes the reality of hell seriously, but it argues that God’s judgment destroys the wicked. The length of the punishment in hell is not the concern; the concern is for the eternal consequences — the complete passing from existence as the punishment for sin. What separates this view from the one that sees physical death as the point of annihilation is this: Conditionalists see a judgment of sinners, an assignment to hell, and then annihilation. There could be a period of time of suffering in hell before complete destruction. For this reason, and to simplify our expression, I will consider this view as Conditionalism because it allows for a conditional resurrection of the wicked dead, ending in destruction.
Before sketching the arguments that separate Traditionalism and Conditionalism, I must note that both believe in hell as punishment for the unbelieving dead. They both believe in the absolute authority of the Bible. Differences arise as they diverge in their interpretation of the biblical texts. Both appeal to important figures in the history of the Church in support for their view, but I will not trace that part of their arguments here.1
Immortality of the soul
Conditionalism argues that the philosophical basis for Traditionalism is the concept of the immortality of the soul; that is, within humans is an immaterial aspect not subject to death, dissolution, or decay. Since, as Conditionalists assert, Traditionalists accept this anthropology, they must also see the everlasting torment of the wicked in hell. Conditionalists charge that the idea of the immortality of the soul is not biblical; rather, it comes from Hellenistic philosophy originating with Plato.
Platonic philosophy understands that the human soul is inherently immortal. Drawing from the philosophical premise that we find reality in forms, not in material expressions of those forms, this philosophy sees the soul as that which is real about human beings. Conditionalists take the Pauline teaching, “Now to the King eternal, immortal … ” and “God, the blessed and only Ruler … who alone is immortal,” and assert that only God is immortal, humans are not. Therefore, God can destroy humans for their rebellious refusal to accept the grace of God (1 Timothy 1:17; 6:15,16).
The focus for Conditionalists is on resurrection — to eternal life for the believer and to destruction for the unbeliever. Whatever immortality the believer may enjoy in the future is the result of the redemption provided in Jesus (Romans 2:7; 1 Corinthians 15:53,54; 2 Timothy 1:10). The resurrection of the wicked dead will result in the righteous Judge judging them and consigning them to destruction. Conditionalists further support their argument by citing Jesus warning His hearers to fear “the one who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). The soul, they conclude, is not immortal so hell means the destruction of the wicked.
Traditionalists generally agree that the philosophical immortality Plato understood as being inherent with humanity does not exist. The biblical revelation that God alone is immortal, however, does not prohibit God from gracing humans with something of himself — a limited aspect of immortality. The more detailed account of the creation of human beings found in Genesis 2 depicts the Creator breathing into Adam, causing him to become a “living being” (Genesis 2:7). Of all of the created beings, the biblical text only assigns the “image of God” to humans and records this intimate detail of human formation.
This truth posits great potential for communication with the Creator and for eternal abode with Him — or away from Him. Biblical anthropology includes the tragic reality of the Fall that disrupted the realization of this potential, but also rejoices in the redemptive plan of God for fallen humans. Receiving redemption returns to humans the joyous anticipation of eternally abiding in His presence. Rejecting redemption consigns humans to the fearful dread of eternally abiding away from His presence. Traditionalists do not base their view of eternal hell on Hellenistic philosophy but on the biblical revelation of the Creator God endowing creation with some limited aspect of immortality.
Death, destruction, second death
Conditionalism understands the overwhelming teaching of the Bible to be that the wicked will face death — understood as destruction. Paul taught clearly that the “wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). The apostle James challenged believers that, “Whoever turns a sinner away from his error will save him from death” (James 5:20). Jesus, in contrasting the two ways by which people can live their lives by using the analogy of the narrow and wide ways/gates, asserted that “wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:13,14). In the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus, Jesus taught: “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). According to Conditionalists, the future for the unrepentant person is not unending torment, but a complete ending.
John anticipated a future “second death” (Revelation 20:14; 21:8). As John’s vision moved toward the revelation of the New Jerusalem, the new heaven and the new earth, he saw a terrible moment when “death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire,” and a “fiery lake of burning sulfur,” that he described as the “second death.” Conditionalists interpret this future event to be when God consigns to final destruction those whose names are not in the Book of Life. The most severe punishment imaginable — the total cessation of existence — befalls those who have not accepted Jesus as their Savior.
Traditionalists note that biblical writers give most of the death and destruction passages as dire warnings to the wicked concerning the shortness of this plane of living and are not descriptive of their ultimate destiny. The death and destruction they warned about is not annihilation; rather, it is reference to the end of physical life, the point when the material body returns to the dust and that immaterial aspect of humankind passes to another realm of existence (Ecclesiastes 12:5–7).
The images of the second death in Revelation 20:14 and 21:8 do predict the future eternal destiny of the wicked. In that destiny, Traditionalists assert, the unrepentant are, along with the ultimate enemies of God, cast into the lake of fire. At that point, the plan of God for this earth will have run its course, God will consign the wicked to eternal abode away from His presence in the “fiery lake of burning sulfur,” and He will reveal His perfect and wonderful future for the redeemed.
Unquenchable fire, gnashing of teeth, worm will not die, the smoke ascends
Among the horrific descriptors of hell in the Bible is that it is a place of unquenchable fire, where the worm will not die, and dominated by the weeping and gnashing of teeth (Isaiah 66:24; Matthew 3:12; Mark 9:43–48; Luke 3:17). Conditionalists base their understanding of these images on their linkage in the Isaiah passage to the Valley of Hinnom, where people burned the refuse from Jerusalem along with the bodies of those who transgressed against the Lord. To say that no one quenches the fire means that no one hindered the fire in fully consuming the refuse and the bodies of the rebels. To say that the worm did not die means that nothing stops the worms that work in the process of decomposition and fully destroying their targets. Thus, Conditionalists argue that these images portray the complete dissolution and destruction of the wicked. The wicked dead gnashing their teeth bespeaks continual rebellion against God until the very time of their destruction.
Another of the horrific images of hell biblical writers use is that of smoke ascending for ever and ever. John told us that those who worship the beast and his image “will be tormented with burning sulfur. … And the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever” (Revelation 14:11). He also predicted that as the Lord defeats His enemies in the last days the multitude in heaven will shout, “ ‘Hallelujah! The smoke from her goes up for ever and ever’ ” (Revelation 19:3). Conditionalists’ interpretation of this imagery sees the ascending smoke as testimony to complete annihilation of the wicked. They see a pattern in the total destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah by God’s fiery judgment, the completion of which was evident to Abraham as he observed the “dense smoke rising from the land, like smoke from a furnace” (Genesis 19:28). So, the burning does not continue indefinitely; the smoke testifies to total destruction.
Traditionalists understand the description of fire that cannot be quenched and worms that do not die as referring to an ongoing and never-ending punishment of the wicked. The predictions of the ministry of Jesus as the Baptizer in the Holy Spirit and fire (Matthew 3:11,12; Luke 3:16,17) point toward a judgment in which Jesus burns the “chaff” in the fire that cannot be stopped. The warnings that Jesus uttered contrast entrance into the Kingdom with being thrown into hell, “where the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:47,48). The reward of entering the Kingdom contains the element of continuous duration; the horrors of hell will also have that same reality.
The images recorded by John of the punishment of those who worship the beast (Revelation 14:11; 19:3) contain the description of the ongoing ascent of smoke. Whether we understand it as literal, it does denote that which is continuous. Traditionalism concludes that the horrific images of unquenchable fire, the worm not dying, and smoke arising lead to the sad truth that the punishment of the wicked in hell is of unending duration. Adding to the horror of this is the truth that the continuing gnashing of teeth might illustrate that the wicked, though enduring punishment, continue in their rebellion.
The meaning of eternal, everlasting
Biblical writers describe the torments of hell as being eternal, or everlasting. In Matthew 25:41, Jesus assigned those who “are cursed into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels,” noting that “they will go away to eternal punishment” (Matthew 25:46; see also Jude 7). Paul teaches that those who neither know God nor obey Jesus’ gospel “will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord” (2 Thessalonians 1:9). In listing basic doctrines that readers already know and he does not need to reteach, the writer of Hebrews includes the concept of “eternal judgment” (Hebrews 6:2). Conditionalists interpret these passages to mean that the concept refers to the effect, not the duration of the punishment. That is, the fire, punishment, and judgment result in the destruction of the wicked so God completely removes them from existence. Annihilation is irreversible, so Conditionalists believe its effect to be eternal.
We know that the biblical words translated eternal and everlasting have some variation of meaning. But Traditionalists argue that in the passages in which biblical writers use them connected with punishment, destruction, judgment, and the like, they convey the concept of duration. Thus, they conclude that hell and the punishment of the wicked is of everlasting duration.
Perhaps the most powerful illustration of this position is the juxtaposition of eternal as a descriptor both of punishment and life (Matthew 25:46). Contrasting the destinies of the “sheep” and the “goats,” Jesus affirms that the former will “go away to eternal life,” but the latter will “go away to eternal punishment.” It is difficult to see one destiny — eternal life — carry the connotation of unending reward in the presence of God and not see that the other destiny — eternal punishment — connotes an unending result, punishment.
The moral problem
Conditionalists struggle with a moral problem in regard to understanding hell. Human sinfulness and refusal to accept the grace of God occurs within a time-bound realm. Eternity, however, by its very definition, has no time boundaries. Conditionalists ask about the justice in consigning humans to unending torment for sins committed during a limited time span. Is not there something unjust about assigning infinite punishment for finite rebellion? Therefore, Conditionalists conclude that annihilation is a far more moral answer to the ultimate sin of humankind.
If God allows the sin that afflicts human existence to continue without end, even while He is punishing it in hell, Conditionalists argue that God never truly conquers it and reigns supreme. The beautiful Christ hymn in Philippians joyfully anticipates a future in which “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10,11). Conditionalists argue that the only way God can accomplish a complete victory is for Him to fully annihilate sin and the wicked. In that way God can truly be all in all and His new heaven and earth can be without the taint, or even the reminder, of sin.
Traditionalists respond to the moral dilemma by noting that God is not the causation of either the initial Fall of humans or the resultant eternal punishment. Rather, He has provided every opportunity for humans to escape hell. Arriving in the place of unending punishment is the result of the ongoing choice of humans to resist the grace of God. Hell is the result of the horrible choice of the fallen creature.
The sinful activities of humans, though on the finite scale, are against the infinite God. The sins of limited humans against the absolutely unlimited God take on vast proportions, so eternal punishment in hell corresponds to the degree of the sin.
The eternal punishment of the wicked in hell is the revelation of the sovereignty and supremacy of God. The rebellion against His good creation, the refusal to allow God to be ruler of human existence, and the rejection of the Redeemer are fully resolved in allowing for the fulfillment of that rebellion in eternal hell, completely away from the positive presence of the Almighty.
View of God
Conditionalism sees the unending punishment of the wicked in hell as antithetical to a loving and gracious God. They have no problem with seeing God annihilate the wicked, but they cannot accept that He would have anything to do with unending torment. His love allowed Him to provide for fallen humans a way of escape, a provision that was very costly to Him. Being so intimately acquainted with suffering, He would not, Conditionalists maintain, sanction everlasting torment for humans who do not accept His gracious provision. Annihilate them, yes; torment them unendingly, no.
A loving and gracious God, Traditionalists respond, granted and grants humans the freedom to make choices, but those choices have consequences. He has done, and is doing, everything short of vacating the free will of humans to redeem them and enfold them with His arms of love. Perhaps the most loving way God interacts with humans is to give them space to respond to Him without coercion. The eternal hell unbelievers are headed towards is not the place to which God is sending them; it is the place they are going to because of their choice(s).
When we compare the two views, it is clear that the Traditional view takes the biblical material more literally. It takes more effort to reinterpret the passages to eliminate the references to an unending punishment for the wicked. The description of fire that cannot be put out and the worm that does not die argues forcefully for hell being a period of ongoing punishment. The image of smoke ascending forever is hard to interpret in anyway but descriptive of that which is continuous. The connection of eternal and everlasting to the punishment of hell leads to the conclusion that hell is unending. This is especially true when we remember that biblical writers use the same biblical words translated eternal in relation to punishment to describe God as being eternal (1 Timothy 1:17; Romans 16:26).
The moral dilemma raised by Conditionalism is blunted by the reminder that God grants humans freedom. Desiring that they love Him freely demands that they be able to really make such a choice. Choices always have consequences, and in this case they have ultimate consequences. Humans rebelliously demanding that God allow them to live apart from His direction and intervention will receive an eternal fulfillment of that choice. The great and loving God is presently at work in the world to redeem from ultimate punishment as many as will accept His gracious offer of forgiveness.
The Traditional understanding of hell as of everlasting duration is a message that needs to return to the Pentecostal pulpit and classroom — not as a fear tactic but as a dire warning. There is a hell to shun and a heaven to gain. In a life that gains heaven there will be qualitative and quantitative changes for the better. While we might debate the precise nature of hell — literal fire, literal darkness, or figurative torment — the eternal nature of human destiny is clear.
1. For further information and argumentation on the Traditional view see: John F. Walvoord, “The Literal View,” in Four Views on Hell, ed. William Crockett (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996), 11–28; Robert A. Peterson, “The Case for Traditionalism,” in Two Views of Hell: A Biblical & Theological Dialogue (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 117–81; Robert A. Peterson, Hell on Trial: The Case for Eternal Punishment (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing, 1995); Leon Morris, “Eternal Punishment,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984), 369,370.
For further information and argumentation on the Conditional view see: Clark H. Pinnock, “The Conditional View,” in Four Views on Hell, ed. William Crockett (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996), 135–66; Edward W. Fudge, “The Case for Conditionalism,” in Two Views of Hell: A Biblical & Theological Dialogue (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 19–82; Edward W. Fudge, The Fire That Consumes (Fallbrook, California; Verdict Publications, 1982); John W. Wenham, “Case for Conditional Immortality,” in Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell, ed. Nigel M. de S. Cameron (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992).