Is hell a place of never-ending punishment? (Part 2)

Most verses that talk about hell in the Old Testament call it Sheol, or the grave, or the pit.  It seems to me that it’s just talking about a place that holds the dead.  There are a couple of verses, however, that sound like the New Testament hell.  Daniel 12:2 says that some will rise to everlasting life, and others to everlasting contempt; Isaiah 66:24 says that the worms that eat the bodies of those who rebelled against God won’t die, and fire that burns them won’t be quenched.  Some verses in the New Testament seem to say that the punishment for sin is death or annihilation, and some verses talk about God’s wrath not lasting forever, but others talk about eternal punishment.  Eternity is a long time!  I can’t imagine God creating people, already knowing some wouldn’t listen to him, just to be sent to hell forever.  It’s too disturbing for me to imagine. What’s your take on this?

In my first post in response to this question, I confirmed that the term Sheol in the Old Testament refers to the place that holds the dead.  Let me now address the passages you cite from Isaiah and Daniel.

By way of background, people who believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God hold different opinions about what happens after this life to those who accept or reject God’s gracious offer of reconciliation through Jesus.  Some believe that all are raised to everlasting life, and that those who have accepted God’s offer will live forever in his presence while those who have rejected it will live forever away from his presence.  Others believe instead in what’s sometimes called “conditional immortality.”  You only live forever if you accept God; if you don’t, your punishment is annihilation: you cease to exist.

As you can imagine, those who hold these different positions read the same Scriptures very differently.  For example, those who believe in conditional immortality hold that the phrase “eternal destruction” (as in the opening of 2 Thessalonians, “They will be punished with eternal destruction”) describes not a destruction that goes on for eternity, but which stands for eternity–that is, “permanent destruction,” not “everlasting destruction.”  But I’ll look more at the New Testament next time.  In this post I want to look at Isaiah and Daniel.

The passage you cited from Isaiah constitutes the very last words of that book.  God says, “They will go out and look at the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; the worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.”  Someone who believed in conditional immortality would observe that this is only describing what happens to the dead bodies of those who rejected God.  Their bodies are not buried, but disgracefully cast into a place of perpetual flame and decomposition.  (More next time about what such a place might be.)  But those who believe in unconditional immortality–that both those who accept God and those who reject God live forever, either in or out of his presence–would argue that this image must be depicting the ongoing state of souls or spirits, because bodies would be consumed in a relatively short time and so there would be no need for a fire that was never quenched or worms that never died.

The two groups of interpreters would hold similarly diverging views about the passage in Daniel.  It, too, comes towards the very end of that book:  “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.”

starsBelievers in unconditional immortality would point out that this passage describes the resurrection of two groups of people who will experience two different everlasting fates.  Believers in conditional immortality would counter that only the ongoing life of the first group is then described; we hear nothing more about those whose fate is “everlasting contempt,” so that what lives on may be their disgrace rather than their souls or spirits.

Careful readers of the Bible must consider its entire portrayal of what happens after this life and come to one conclusion or another.  The Bible arguably does not go into enough detail for us to be absolutely certain.  So each person must be convinced in their own mind, and they may bring in other considerations to reach a final conclusion, such as your belief about what the character of God would suggest about how he would treat people after their death.

Clearly immortality can’t be conditional and unconditional at the same time; it has to be one or the other.  But we may not be able to say for certain, from our own limited perspective, exactly which it is.  We need to acknowledge the different possibilities that the Bible holds open to us and not be too dogmatic about one or the other.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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