Is Hell Forever? Evangelicals and Eternal Retribution

Reprinted with permission from Voice, Sept./Oct, 2001. By Dr. James R. Mook.

Will the destiny of the unsaved be eternal conscious torment or annihilation (total cessation of existence)? The eternal conscious punishment of the lost has always been a fundamental doctrine of Christian orthodoxy. Tertullian, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Edwards, Pieper, Berkhof, Shedd, Chafer, Erickson, and other theologians affirmed the doctrine of eternal conscious punishment as a biblical essential-explicitly defining divine eternal “punishment” against “annihilation.” (Robert A. Peterson, Hell on Trial: The Case for Eternal Punishment, Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Co., 1995, pp. 97-137.)

But in recent years some prominent professing evangelicals have advocated conditional annihilationism (which includes the concept of postmortem evangelizing of those who die without having heard the gospel).

Examples: Philip E. Hughes, Clark H. Pinnock, John R. W. Stott, and John W. Wenham.

Biblical support of the fundamental doctrine

The doctrine of eternal conscious punishment asserts that after physical death on earth, the soul of the unsaved person immediately enters a state and place of continual conscious torment. The condemned state will culminate in bodily resurrection, final judgment, and then unending torment in the “lake of fire.” Following are major passages supporting this doctrine.

Dan 12:1-2 contrasts “everlasting life” with “everlasting contempt” (NKJV). If “life” will be unending conscious blessing, “contempt” must also be unending conscious disgrace.

Matt 25:46 contrasts the condemnation of the wicked, “everlasting punishment,” with the blessing of the righteous, “eternal life.” So if eternal life will be consciously experienced without end, “everlasting punishment” will also be consciously experienced without end.

And since verse 41 designates “everlasting fire” as the means of the “everlasting punishment,” then the punishment will indeed be agonizing.

The unimaginable pain is depicted by the “wailing and gnashing of teeth of the wicked in the furnace of fire” (13:42, 50), to which they will be sent in judgment by Christ at His Second Advent (13:41-42, 49-50). (Note that the Lord Jesus spoke much about hell and eternal conscious punishment examples: Matt 5:21-22, 27-30; 8:1112; 10:28; 13:30, 40-43, 49-50;18:6-9; 23:15, 33; 24:51; 25:30, 41, 46; Mark 9:42-48; Luke 16:19-31.)

In Mark 9:42-48, Jesus uses Is. 66:24 (three times in the Majority Text) to give a picture of people in hell: “Their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.” The picture is of unending consumption by worms and fire-a consumption that never ends. 2 Thess 1:9 says that unbelievers will be “punished with everlasting destruction,” indicating a process of destruction that never ends.

Revelation 14:9-11 depicts unbelievers as ultimately objects of the unmitigated “wrath of God” by being “tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.” That this conscious torment will never end is shown by verse 11: “the smoke of their torment ascends forever and ever; and they have no rest day or night.” This passage depicts people being tormented without end by burning without end. Revelation 20:10-15 sustains this interpretation by using identical terms in v. 10 to describe “the devil,” “the beast and the false prophet” in “the lake of fire and brimstone” being “tormented day and night forever and ever.” And this unending torment in “the lake of fire” will then be experienced by the unrighteous in “the second death” (20:14-15).

Answering annihilationism’s arguments

Professing evangelical theologians who contend for annihilationism use arguments that are not biblically sound.

1) God in His love would never be cruel and vindictive, so He would never punish His enemies endlessly. (Clark Pinnock, “The Conditional View,” Four Views on Hell, ed. William Crockett; Zondervan, 1992, p. 140).

2) The doctrine of eternal conscious punishment in a torture chamber is emotionally repugnant and intolerable. (Pinnock, “Fire, Then Nothing,” Christianity Today, 20 March 1987, pp. 40-41; John R. W. Stott, “Judgement and Hell,” Evangelical Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue, IVP, 1988, pp. 314-15.)

Response. These are arguments from human emotion—which should never be the measure of truth. Also, if one has difficulty reconciling eternal punishment with divine love, it is just as difficult to reconcile divine love with any punishment. (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 1150) Furthermore, it is presumptuous for finite, fallen creatures to claim to know the full extent of divine love or how it harmonizes with divine justice. Finally, in heaven our perspective and emotions will be different as we see things from the divine perspective.

Indeed, the saints in heaven (who are morally perfected) are depicted as crying out for avenging judgment of the wicked and praising God for executing this vengeance (see Rev 6:10; 19:1-3).

3) Only God is immortal. God grants immortality only to believers. The doctrine of the immortality of the soul is from Greek philosophy. (Edward Fudge, The Fire that Consumes, Houston: Providential, 1982, pp. 51ff.) Annihilationists believe that Tertullian and Augustine were especially responsible for corrupting Christian theology with the Platonic concept of the immortality of the soul. (Pinnock, “The Destruction of the Finally Impenitent,” Criswell Theological Review, 4/2, 1990, pp. 246-47.)

Response. Passages asserting that conscious existence continues after death for both the righteous (2 Cor 5:6-8; Phil 1:23) and the unrighteous (Luke 16:19-31) support the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. In this respect, it must be noted that annihilationists assume that human “immortality” means a blessed life, whereas in mainstream Christian theology it means existence.

Second, while Tertullian and Augustine have some affinity with aspects of Platonic thought on the immortality of the soul, they base their doctrine on Scripture. And their concept of immortality was not that of Plato, which included the preexistence of the soul and the belief that the immortality of the soul is inherent. Rather, orthodox Christian theologians have always held that the soul was created and given immortality by God.

(Evangelicals should beware of being associated with Edward Fudge concerning immortality, since he believes that the soul is not a separate aspect of man, and, at death, the whole person becomes nonexistent until the resurrection. Only at the resurrection will God give immortality to believers. The unrighteous will be raised only to be annihilated.)

4) Eternal conscious torment is incompatible with sin that occurs in time, so eternal conscious torment violates the justice of God. Stott contends that there is a “serious disproportion between sins consciously committed in time and torment consciously experienced throughout eternity.” (Judgement and Hell, pp. 318-319.)

Response. Annihilationist concepts of God’s justice and the gravity of sin are not biblical but rather based on assumptions of human reason. Peterson observes that throughout the Bible there are divine judgments that, from a human perspective, seem out of proportion to the offenses: Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt for only a glance (Gen 19:26); Nadab and Abihu killed only for improper worship (Num 3:4); a man stoned for gathering sticks on the Sabbath (Num 15:32-36); Uzzah killed for trying to keep the ark of God from falling (2 Sam 6:6-7); Ananias and Sapphira killed for lying (Acts 5:1-10); etc. And then there was the punishment— physical and spiritual death and eternal condemnation—that God brought on the whole human race for one man’s sin. But each of these contexts reveals the reason for such harsh punishment: the offenses were committed against God.

So for each sin, because it is against God, man deserves eternal punishment. Peterson notes, “The Bible views sin as an attack on God’s character and therefore deserving of great punishment.” (“A Traditionalist Response to John Stott’s Arguments for Annihilationism,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 37, December 1994, 561-64) So we must base our concept of God’s justice and just punishment of man not on human standards of justice, but on God’s character as revealed in the Bible. Since God is eternally holy, any sin deserves an eternal punishment, not a punishment restricted to a period of time. As Aquinas said, “the magnitude of the punishment matches the magnitude of the sin…. Now a sin that is against God is infinite; the higher the person against whom it is committed, the graver the sin … and God is of infinite greatness. Therefore an infinite punishment is deserved for a sin committed against him.” (Summa Theologiae, Ia2ae.87,4, quoted by Peterson, 563.)

5) “Eternal punishment” is satisfied by annihilation, because it is something that is never undone. (Stott, “Judgement and Hell,” p.317)

Response. In Matt 25:41, 46, eternal life is contrasted with eternal punishment. Verse 41 asserts that the unrighteous will share the same punishment as “the devil and his angels.” And Rev 20:10 says that the devil will be “tormented day and night forever and ever” in the lake of fire. Annihilation does not satisfy the biblical concept of eternal punishment.

6) “Fire” depicts total consumption and therefore annihilation. (Stott, “Judgement and Hell,” p. 316.)

Response. Jesus states that when “fire” is used of eternal punishment, it causes agonizing pain—“wailing and gnashing of teeth” (Matt 13:41-42, 4950). And the Revelation shows that the “lake of fire” is a place of endless “torment” (Rev 20:10). Furthermore, in Luke 16:23-28, the rich man in Hades is “tormented in this flame.” When used of eternal punishment, “fire” signifies intense pain being inflicted but not total consumption. Rev 14:10-11; 20:10 teach that those being tormented with the “fire and brimstone” of eternal punishment will be tormented “day and night forever and ever.” Also note that 1,000 years after being sent to the “lake of fire” (Rev 19:20), the beast and the false prophet will still exist (Rev 20:10).

7) “Death” and “destruction” prove that the punishment is annihilation, not unending conscious torment. Annihilationists assume that death and destruction can mean only annihilation. (Stott, “Judgement and Hell,” p. 316; Pinnock, “The Conditional View,” p. 146.)

Response. The concept of death in Scripture never means nonexistence, but rather separation. Physical death is separation of the soul from the body (Eccl 12:7; James 2:26; John 19:30; Phil 1:23-24; 2 Cor 5:8; 2 Pet 1:14), not cessation of existence. Spiritual death is separation from fellowship with God, not cessation of existence. In Genesis 3:22-24, spiritual death is separation from blessing and fellowship with God. Adam and Eve were not annihilated. According to Eph 2:1, unsaved people are “dead in trespasses and sins,” which is further clarified in verse 12 as being “without Christ.”

Also, studies of the biblical terms used for “destruction” show that ruin, not nonexistence, is the result indicated by these terms. The verb apollumi (“to destroy”) and the noun apoleia (“destruction”) refer to ruin, not to cessation of existence. Examples: (1) the “lost” coin of Luke 15:8-9; (2) the broken old wineskins of Matt 9:17; (3) John 3:16—existence in punishment (perishing) contrasted with existence in blessing (eternal life). (D. A. Carson, The Gagging of God, Zondervan, 1966, pp. 521-522.) Also, note that katastrepho and katastrophe mean destruction in the sense of “overturning, ruin,” not cessation of existence. Examples: overturning tables (Matt 21:12); ruining hearers (2 Tim 2:14); destroying Sodom and Gomorrah by burning to ashes (2 Pet 2:6). And olethros means destruction by changing to another kind of existence (1 Cor 5:5; 1 Thess 5:3; 2 Thess 1:9; 1 Tim 6:9).

Theological conclusion

Annihilationism is false teaching. It is not evangelical doctrine.

  • It exalts God’s love above His other attributes and so distorts the doctrine of God’s love and God’s nature. It is ultimately founded on human emotion and human reason, and so it humanizes God by defining God’s love and justice by human concepts of love and justice.
  • It diminishes God’s justice and the nature of sin. If annihilation is a sufficient payment for sin, then sin is not a violation of God’s eternal holiness. And if annihilation is the punishment of sin, and sin is against an eternally holy God, then the punishment does not fit the crime, because annihilation is not an eternal punishment.
  • It devalues the death of Christ by making His death less than a truly eternal punishment for sin. And it may lead to the belief that Christ was annihilated, since in His death He paid the penalty for sin which, in annihilationism, is cessation of all existence. If so, then the Son of God would either have been temporarily nonexistent, and the Trinity would have had only two members—or the human and divine natures would have been temporarily divided. And if, in response, it is argued that Jesus need have suffered only a token punishment for sin, rather than annihilation, then, again, God’s holiness and justice—and the content and meaning of Christ’s payment—would be diminished.
  • The doctrine of eternal retribution asserts the awful judgment of sin and so is not immediately “comfortable.” But we can and must be confident that it is God’s truth, revealed in Scripture.
  • It magnifies God’s holiness and justice—and love, since His love reaches out to save people from such a terrible punishment. It magnifies God’s salvation through the death and resurrection of His Son. And it is used to effectively persuade people to receive salvation through Christ.
  • Biblically, theologically, and evangelistically, we dare not deny the doctrine of eternal retribution. We must embrace and proclaim it for the glory of God and the salvation of people.

Dr. James Mook is Professor of Systematic Theology at Capital Bible Seminary in Lanham, MD. He is a graduate of Washington Bible College (BA) and Dallas Theological Seminary (ThM, ThD) and served as pastor of Trinity Bible Church from 1986-1990. He is a Contributor to Coming to Grips with Genesis: Biblical Authority and the Age of the Earth, Master Books, 2008.

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There are 10 Comments

Ed Vasicek's picture

Mook makes a good case. Like many SI participants with lost family members, I wish he were wrong!

"The Midrash Detective"

Aaron Blumer's picture


I find the whole subject disturbing... in more ways than one. It's a rare case where I feel a pretty strong desire to believe what I'm convinced is incorrect doctrine. I understand the appeal of annihilationism!

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Bruce B's picture

I found the article to be well written, biblically sound and correct, although as others have said, troubling. I appreciated the observation at the end of the article that the threat or warning of a real hell as described in Scripture can be an excellent evangelistic tool. I remember a man at my church who, when he was baptized, was asked what prompted him to believe in Christ Jesus and become saved. He replied that that the pastor had spoken of the dreaded torment of hell and, in the man's words, he said, "It scared the hell out of me!"

Let me throw out a couple of other questions or thoughts to ponder:

First, what about the issue of degrees of punishment for unbelievers? Logically and in fairness, should a purveyor of mass genocide (like Hitler or Stalin) face a greater eternal punishment than, let's say, a factory worker who supported his family, was a good neighbor, paid his taxes and gave to the United Way? Does justice demand a stricter punishment for the (humanly speaking) extremely wicked? Is there any "semi-tolerable" existence in hell [i.e. any cooler spot ]?

Second, in response to the proponents of the annihilationism view (#1 above) stating that a loving God would never send anyone to a place of eternal punishment consider this: Could it be thought of as more loving to send one to hell, an actual place in which a person will remain in real existence, rather than than to annihilate him completely out of existence? In other words, doesn't annihilationism contradict the eternality aspect of the image of God in man of Genesis 1:27, reducing a man to no more than an insect to be stomped upon and removed from existence?

Aaron Blumer's picture


First, what about the issue of degrees of punishment for unbelievers? Logically and in fairness, should a purveyor of mass genocide (like Hitler or Stalin) face a greater eternal punishment than, let's say, a factory worker who supported his family, was a good neighbor, paid his taxes and gave to the United Way? Does justice demand a stricter punishment for the (humanly speaking) extremely wicked? Is there any "semi-tolerable" existence in hell [i.e. any cooler spot ]?

In a rush at the moment, but I believe there is some support for this idea. Just don't have the references handy. Jesus spoke of it being more tolerable for Sodom and described the Pharisees making a convert twice the child of hell that they themselves were. There are stronger passages.

"Cooler spot" maybe but "semi tolerable" I think not.

Second, in response to the proponents of the annihilationism view (#1 above) stating that a loving God would never send anyone to a place of eternal punishment consider this: Could it be thought of as more loving to send one to hell, an actual place in which a person will remain in real existence, rather than than to annihilate him completely out of existence? In other words, doesn't annihilationism contradict the eternality aspect of the image of God in man of Genesis 1:27, reducing a man to no more than an insect to be stomped upon and removed from existence? [/quote]

I've often thought "more loving of what?" The problem w/the annihilationist argument is that it supposes God ought to love sinners supremely, but as long as there is anything better to love more, there would be some defect in God if He did not love the best thing most. Turns out that righteousness itself ought to be and is loved more and His own glory is loved supremely. Leaving sin unsuitably punished is a failure to properly love righteousness and glory. (It's only in Christ that He is able to be both just and justifier)

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Carol K's picture

Back in ]THIS thread I addressed conservative universalists, and now I see there is the title, "Christian Universalists" who hold to a second chance in hell or an annihilation position.

We have been fighting a very difficult battle for the past year on this very subject. It has been excruciatingly painful and difficult. It has cost us severely.

My question is, when we have people holding to these positions, can we truly see them as brothers and sisters in Christ? If they read their Word and come out on the side of annihilation or universalism and any other form of it, is this not seen as 'another gospel' 'another Jesus' 1 Corn 11:4 and therefore not true believers? And, in that same passage of 1 Corn 11, we are warned against false spirits coming with those false gospels. The lies and deception we have seen come with those who hang onto these beliefs can be described as 'not of God'! They can be sweet, dear, kind and loving people, BUT they are holding onto ungodly beliefs, they are false. These are not 'doctrinally off' positions, they are false positions.

From my observation in this past year, this subject is gaining ground in many churches. Are we prepared to deal with this issue? From what we have observed, locally, pastors are not.

So...back to my question, can we truly see them as brothers and sisters in Christ and if not, then how do we deal with them and all the deception that comes with these false gospels?


Sean Fericks's picture

Recently, I have started looking into this subject. My pastor is providing me with some Greek and Hebrew concordance information, as well as some etymological studies on the Greek words for eternal, everlasting, etc. I lean toward the eternal conscious torment position, but will allow myself the right to critically examine that position in the light of Scripture (to which we must be fully committed).

That said, let me play the Devil's advocate. The arguments I make pretty much have to deal with etymology and hermeneutics.

1. The word, "hell", should not have been used in the English translations. We have taken one Hebrew word, and three Greek words, and decided that they all mean the same thing in the KJV. Therefore, when I read the Bible as a youth, I lumped all the teachings of Gehenna, Sheol, Hades, and Tartarus into the same concept. I even heard preachers proclaim that Jesus suffered the pains of hell between his death and resurrection (based on Acts 2:31). The use of the word, "hell", lends itself to doctrinal confusion. Translations need to differentiate between the different Greek words, and should probably use "Sheol", or "pit", or "grave" for the Hebrew references. This would be more honest to the uneducated reader (like myself), and would help avoid doctrinal confusion.

2. The O.T. does not discuss the concept of eternal conscious torment. If it does, please enlighten me. It discusses an "eternal contempt" in Daniel, but that is about it. If eternal conscious torture were the punishment for unbelievers, wouldn't some of the prophets warn of it? During the first three-thousand years of human history, nobody received a warning of eternal conscious torment.

3. Act is the book that we are told to use as a pattern for church practice. If it is to be a pattern, then I do not believe that we should emphasize "hell" in our preaching. Those nightmare-inducing sermons by the evangelists at camp do not follow the pattern of Acts. Unless I have missed something, in the book of Acts, the only uses of the word "hell" are in Chapter 2, and referring to Christ not being left in "hell". Nowhere in Acts did I find that preachers warn unbelievers of eternal torment. Perhaps I have missed a passage, so please feel free to correct me.

4. Romans is, in my opinion, the most concise and systematic description of the Christian faith as a whole, and yet it does not mention "hell" or threaten eternal torment. Nor does Galatians, Paul's great defense of Salvation by faith alone. In fact, none of the epistles, save James 3:6 (where the tongue is said to be set on fire of "hell" [Gehenna ]), and II Peter 2:4 (where the evil angels are cast into "hell" [Tartarus ] to await their judgment), warn of "hell".

5. Many of Christ's uses of the word "hell" are really references to Gehenna, a real location in Israel where real fires smoldered, real worms continually dined on decaying flesh, and perhaps were many Jewish leaders were disposed of during the Roman destruction of AD 70, during which, Josephus claims 1,100,000 Jews were slaughtered. (Matthew 23)

6. Several of Christ's uses of the word "hell" are quotes from the Septuagint which substitutes
"Hades" for the Hebrew "Sheol". These should be taken to mean what the O.T. authors meant them to mean.

7. Other of Christ's uses of the word "hell" are the Greek word, "Hades", which came from Greek myth. Christ appears to use elements of Greek myth for parabolic illustrative purposes in Luke 16. I have also read, but cannot confirm, that the Gemara Baylonicum has a much earlier rendering of this parable from which Christ took the parable and used it for its teaching value. (I would be very grateful if somebody can help me confirm or debunk this idea.)

Again, please don't label me a heretic yet. Right now, I am trying to do a thorough research of the topic. I have made the above arguments in the hope that others may help me by either explaining or debunking my assertions. Thanks in advance for the constructive discussion. Thanks to Dr. Mook for dealing with a growing controversy.

Bruce B's picture


I am unsure of your biblical references. Did you mean 1 Corinthians 11? That passage deals with propriety in worship and the Lord's Supper, not with false teachers or believers of certain false teachings. Were you possibly meaning to use Galatians 1:6-9 as a Bible reference? I believe that Ed Vasicek gave an excellent reasonable response in #4 of your original discussion, "Are Conservative Universalists Christians?" In it he warned of being too quick to label churchgoers, even teachers or writers, as unbelievers although he did agree with you that one may have to separate from fellowship at times with such individuals.

It takes Christian maturity and wisdom to evaluate a pastor or writer to see if he is really of God. Basically, are his core teachings of the Gospel consistently in line with the Word of God? Does he preach a Gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone? (see: Eph. 2:8-9; John 3:16; Acts 16:30-31; Titus 3:5) Paul, in Galatians 1:6-9, warns us that if anyone preaches a false unbiblical gospel, such as a "gospel" of works for salvation, then that person is to be treated as an unbeliever and, by implication, that person should be shunned. However, if the issues involved are more of a peripheral nature, such as the exact nature of heaven and hell, then we may be able to allow more latitude of thought. I would advise always to be very cautious as whom one might label an unbeliever or an heretic.

Carol K's picture

Mr. Baur,

Please forgive me. I was typing too hastily, it should have read 2 Corn 11 and in particular vs. 1-4.

Let me be very clear, I am not talking about people who are new to their faith, or someone who is well seasons and is now questioning this position as Mr. Fericks is doing, but I am talking about people who have come to a decision on this position and sharing it as truth. Someone new to their faith needs the grace to be able to wrestle through this subject, preferably with someone who has the maturity to guide them through this process. I am not quick to call a person a heretic or unbeliever, in fact, I usually will give the grace that if a person calls them self a believer, to treat them as such until their own words or actions show differently.

When people who have studied this subject land on the side of hell not existing, second chance in hell or annihilation, essentially, they are taking the redeeming blood of Jesus Christ to where it has no authority, would you agree? That would place this teaching as unbiblical, another gospel or another Jesus. If there is agreement on this, would that then make the people holding to these positions and teaching these positions as unbelievers? We believe that is the case. We have seen 'the spirit' that comes with this teaching and we are suffering the consequences of standing for truth in such a case.

My concern is we may be giving too much grace to people wrestling through these positions and in doing so, we miss the fact they could always be in that wrestling position when they have had good solid teaching and refuse to land on the side of truth, rather stay in a state of 'confusion' or holding to the position of annihilation or second chance in hell. That brings this back to a false gospel and the spirit that comes with it. I believe it puts us in a position of receiving the spirit that comes with that false teaching.....putting our salvation into question.

Since we began this journey nearly a year ago, we have been astounded at how deep this teaching is going and how pastors themselves are holding to this teaching, but doing so 'in the closet'. I do not think this is a harmless teaching, not when we know a spirit can go with it that is not of God, based on 2 Corn. 11.

If I am off track, I truly welcome more interaction on this.



Chip Van Emmerik's picture

Bruce, how can eternal destiny be considered peripheral to the gospel? Isn't it the outcome, the conclusion if you will, of the story?

Why is it that my voice always seems to be loudest when I am saying the dumbest things?

Bruce B's picture

Chip, thanks for weighing in. Of course you are correct in stating that eternal destiny is the essential core meaning or outcome of the gospel. In no way did I mean to say that this was peripheral doctrine. My comments re. peripherals had more to do with the earlier discussion about the exact nature of degrees of reward in heaven or punishment in hades/hell.

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