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3. The Witness of Jesus

Did Jesus Teach Eternal Torment? Traditionalists believe that Jesus provides the strongest proof for their belief in the eternal punishment of the wicked. Kenneth Kantzer, one of the most respected evangelical leaders of our time, states: "Those who acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord cannot escape the clear, unambiguous language with which he warns of the awful truth of eternal punishment."22

Australian theologian, Leon Morris, concurs with Kantzer and emphatically states: "Why does anyone believe in hell in these enlightened days? Because Jesus plainly taught its existence. He spoke more often about hell than he did about heaven. We cannot get around this fact. We can understand that there are those who do not like the idea of hell. I do not like it myself. But if we are serious in our understanding of Jesus as the incarnate Son of God, we must reckon with the fact that he said plainly that some people will spend eternity in hell."23

Morris clearly affirms that Jesus taught the existence of hell. In fact, Jesus uses the term gehenna (translated "hell" in our English Bibles) seven of the eight times the term occurs in the New Testament. The only other reference is found in James 3:6. But the issue is not the reality of hell as the place of the final punishment of impenitent sinners. On this point, most Christians agree. Rather, the issue is the nature of hell. Did Jesus teach that hell?gehenna is the place where sinners will suffer eternal torment or permanent destruction? To find an answer to this question, let us examine what Jesus actually said about hell.

What Is Hell?Gehenna? Before looking at Christ’s references to hell?gehenna, we may find it helpful to consider the derivation of the word itself. The Greek word gehenna is a transliteration of the Hebrew "Valley of (the sons of) Hinnon," located south of Jerusalem. In ancient times, it was linked with the practice of sacrificing children to the god Molech (2 Kings 16:3; 21:6; 23:10). This earned it the name "Topheth," a place to be spit on or aborred.26 This valley apparently became a gigantic pyre for burning the 185,000 corpses of Assyrian soldiers whom God slew in the days of Hezekiah (Is 30:31-33; 37:36).

Jeremiah predicted that the place would be called "the valley of Slaughter" because it would be filled with the corpses of the Israelites when God judged them for their sins. "Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when it will no more be called Topheth, or the valley of Hinnom, but the valley of Slaughter: for they will bury in Topheth, because there is no room elsewhere. And the dead bodies of this people will be food for the beasts of the air, and for the beasts of the earth; and none will frighten them away" (Jer 7:32-33).

Josephus informs us that the same valley was heaped with the dead bodies of the Jews following the A. D. 70 siege of Jerusalem.26 We have seen that Isaiah envisions the same scene following the Lord’s slaughter of sinners at the end of the world (Is 66:24). During the intertestamental period, the valley became the place of final punishment, and was called the "accursed valley" (1 Enoch 27:2,3), the "station of vengeance" and "future torment" (2 Bar 59:10, 11), the "furnace of Gehenna" and "pit of torment" (4 Esd 7:36).

Though the imagery of the gehenna is common in the Jewish literature of this period, the description of what happens there is contradictory. Edward Fudge concludes his survey of the literature, saying: "We have seen a few passages in the Pseudepigrapha which specifically anticipate everlasting torment of conscious bodies and/or souls, as well as one such verse in the Apocrypha. Many other passages within the intertestamental literature also picture the wicked being consumed by fire, but it is the consuming, unquenchable fire of the Old Testament which utterly destroys for ever, leaving only smoke as its reminder. It is fair to say that, to those who first heard the Lord, gehenna would convey a sense of total horror and disgust. Beyond that, however, one must speak with extreme caution."27

Jesus and Hell’s Fire. With this note of caution, let us look at the seven references to gehenna?hell fire that we find in the Gospels. In The Sermon on the Mount, Jesus states that whoever says to his brother "‘you fool!’ shall be liable to the hell [gehenna] of fire" (Matt 5:22; KJV). Again, He said that it is better to pluck out the eye or cut off the hand that causes a person to sin than for the "whole body go into hell [gehenna] (Matt 5:29, 30). The same thought is expressed later on: it is better to cut off a foot or a hand or pluck out an eye that causes a person to sin than to "be thrown into eternal fire . . . be thrown into the hell [gehenna] of fire" (Matt 18:8, 9). Here the fire of hell is described as "eternal." The same saying is found in Mark, where Jesus three times says that it is better to cut off the offending organ than "to go to hell [gehenna], to the unquenchable fire . . . to be thrown into hell [gehenna], where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched" (Mark 9:44, 46, 47-48). Elsewhere, Jesus chides the Pharisees for traversing sea and land to make a convert and then making him "twice as much a child of hell [gehenna]" (Matt 23:15). Finally, he warns the Pharisees that they will not "escape being sentenced to hell [gehenna]" (Matt 23:33).

In reviewing Christ’s allusions to hell?gehenna, we should first note that none of them indicates that hell?gehenna is a place of unending torment. What is eternal or unquenchable is not the punishment, but the fire. We noted earlier that in the Old Testament this fire is eternal or unquenchable in the sense that it totally consumes dead bodies. This conclusion is supported by Christ’s warning that we should not fear human beings who can harm the body, but the One "who can destroy both soul and body in hell [gehenna]" (Matt 10:28). The implication is clear. Hell is the place of final punishment, which results in the total destruction of the whole being, soul and body.

Robert Peterson argues that "Jesus is not speaking here of literal annihilation," because in the parallel passage in Luke 12:5 the verb "destroy" is not used. Instead, it says: "Fear him who, after killing the body, has power to throw you into hell" (Luke 12:5). From this Peterson concludes: "The destruction mentioned in Matthew 10:28, therefore, is equivalent to being thrown into hell,"28 that is, eternal torment. The fundamental problem with his argument is that he assumes first that"being thrown into hell" means everlasting torment. Then he uses his subjective assumption to negate the self-evident meaning of the verb "to destroy?apollumi." Peterson ignores a basic principle of Biblical interpretation which requires unclear texts to be explained on the basis of those which are clear and not viceversa. The fact that Jesus clearly speaks of God destroying both the soul and body in hell shows that hell is the place where sinners are ultimately destroyed and not eternally tormented.

"Eternal Fire." Traditionalists would challenge this conclusion because elsewhere Christ refers to "eternal fire" and "eternal punishment." For example, in Matthew 18:8-9 Jesus repeats what He had said earlier (Matt 5:29-30) about forfeiting a member of the body in order to escape the "eternal fire" of hell?gehenna. An even clearer reference to "eternal fire" is found in the parable of the Sheep and the Goats in which Christ speaks of the separation that takes place at His coming between the saved and the unsaved. He will welcome the faithful into His kingdom , but will reject the wicked, saying: "Depart from me, you cursed, into eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; . . . And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life" (Matt 25:41, 46).29

Traditionalists attribute fundamental importance to the last passage because it brings together the two concepts of "eternal fire" and "eternal punishment." The combination of the two is interpreted to mean that the punishment is eternal because the hellfire that causes it is also eternal. Peterson goes so far as to say that "if Matthew 25:41 and 46 were the only two verses to describe the fate of the wicked, the Bible would clearly teach eternal condemnation, and we would be obligated to believe it and to teach it on the authority of the Son of God."30

Peterson’s interpretation of these two critical texts ignores four major considerations. First, Christ’s concern in this parable is not to define the nature of either eternal life or of eternal death, but simply to affirm that there are two destinies. The nature of each of the destinies is not discussed in this passage.

Second, as John Stott rightly points out, "The fire itself is termed ‘eternal’ and ‘unquenchable,’ but it would be very odd if what is thrown into it proves indestructible. Our expectation would be the opposite: it would be consumed for ever, not tormented for ever. Hence it is the smoke (evidence that the fire has done its work) which ‘rises for ever and ever’ (Rev 14:11; cf. 19:3)."31

Third, the fire is"eternal?aionios," not because of its endless duration, but because of its complete consumption and annihilation of the wicked. This is indicated clearly by the fact that the lake of fire, in which the wicked are thrown, is called explicitly "the second death’ (Rev 20:14; 21:8), because, it causes the final, radical, and irreversible extinction of life.

Eternal as Permanent Destruction. "Eternal" often refers to the permanence of the result rather than the continuation of a process. For example, Jude 7 says that Sodom and Gomorrah underwent "a punishment of eternal [aionios] fire." It is evident that the fire that destroyed the two cities is eternal, not because of its duration but because of its permanent results.

Similar examples can be found in Jewish intertestamental literature. Earlier we noted that in the Manual of Discipline of the Dead Sea Scrolls, God hurls "extermination" upon the wicked by means of "eternal fire" (1QS 2. 4-8). The "Angels of destruction" cause "unending dread and shame without end, and of the disgrace of destruction by the fire of the region of darkness . . . till they are destroyed with none of them surviving or escaping" (1 QS 4. 11-14). Here, the shameful and destructive fire is "unending . . . without end," yet it will last only "till they are destroyed." To our modern critical minds, such a statement is contradictory, but not to people of Biblical times. To interpret a text correctly, it is vital to establish how it was understood by its original readers.

The examples cited suffice to show that the fire of the final punishment is "eternal" not because it lasts forever, but because, as in the case of Sodom and Gomorra, it causes the complete and permanent destruction of the wicked, a condition which lasts forever. In his commentary on The Gospel according to St. Matthew, R. V. G. Tasker expresses the same view: "There is no indication as to how long that punishment will last. The metaphor of ‘eternal fire’ wrongly rendered everlasting fire [KJV] in verse 41 is meant, we may reasonably presume, to indicate final destruction."32

Fourth, Jesus was offering a choice between destruction and life when He said: "Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only few find it" (Matt 7:13-14).33 Here Jesus contrasts the comfortable way which leads to destruction in hell with the narrow way of trials and persecutions which leads to eternal life in the kingdom of heaven. The contrast between destruction and life suggests that the "eternal fire" causes the eternal destruction of the lost, not their eternal torment.

"Eternal Punishment." Christ’s solemn declaration: "They will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life" (Matt 25:46) is generally regarded as the clearest proof of the conscious suffering the lost will endure for all eternity. Is this the only legitimate interpretation of the text? John Stott rightly answers: "No, that is to read into the text what is not necessarily there. What Jesus said is that both the life and the punishment would be eternal, but he did not in that passage define the nature of either. Because he elsewhere spoke of eternal life as a conscious enjoyment of God (John 17:3), it does not follow that eternal punishment must be a conscious experience of pain at the hand of God. On the contrary, although declaring both to be eternal, Jesus is contrasting the two destinies: the more unlike they are, the better."34

Traditionalists read "eternal punishment" as "eternal punishing," but this is not the meaning of the phrase. As Basil Atkinson keenly observes, "When the adjective aionios meaning ‘everlasting’ is used in Greek with nouns of action it has reference to the result of the action, not the process. Thus the phrase ‘everlasting punishment’ is comparable to ‘everlasting redemption’ and ‘everlasting salvation,’ both Scriptural phrases. No one supposes that we are being redeemed or being saved forever. We were redeemed and saved once for all by Christ with eternal results. In the same way the lost will not be passing through a process of punishment for ever but will be punished once and for all with eternal results. On the other hand the noun ‘life’ is not a noun of action, but a noun expressing a state. Thus the life itself is eternal."35

A fitting example to support this conclusion is found in 2 Thessalonians 1:9, where Paul, speaking of those who reject the Gospel, says: "They shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might."36 It is evident that the destruction of the wicked cannot be eternal in its duration, because it is difficult to imagine an eternal, inconclusive process of destruction. Destruction presupposes annihilation. The destruction of the wicked is eternal?aionios, not because the process of destruction continues forever, but because the results are permanent. In the same way, the "eternal punishment" of Matthew 25:46 is eternal because its results are permanent. It is a punishment that results in their eternal destruction or annihilation.

The Meaning of "Eternal." Some reason that "if the word ‘eternal’ means without end when applied to the future blessedness of believers, it must follow, unless clear evidence is given to the contrary, that this word also means without end when used to describe the future punishment of the lost."37 Harry Buis states this argument even more forcefully: "If aionion describes life which is endless, so must aionios describe endless punishment. Here the doctrine of heaven and the doctrine of hell stand or fall together."38

Such reasoning fails to recognize that what determines the meaning of "eternal" is the object being qualified. If the object is the life granted by God to believers (John 3:16), then the word "eternal" obviously means "unending, everlasting," because the Scripture tells us that the "mortal nature" of believers will be made "immortal" by Christ at His Coming (1 Cor 15:53).

On the other hand, if the object being qualified is the "punishment" or "destruction" of the lost, then "eternal" can only mean "permanent, total, final," because nowhere does the Scripture teach that the wicked will be resurrected immortal to be able to suffer forever. Eternal punishment requires either the natural possession of an immortal nature or the divine bestowal of an immortal nature at the time the punishment is inflicted. Nowhere does the Scripture teach that either of these conditions exists.

The punishment of the wicked is eternal both in quality and quantity. It is "eternal" in quality because it belongs to the Age to Come. It is "eternal" in quantity because its results will never end. Like "eternal judgment" (Heb 6:2), "eternal redemption" (Heb 9:12), and "eternal salvation" (Heb 5:9)?all of which are eternal in the results of actions once completed?so "eternal punishment" is eternal in its results: the complete and irreversible destruction of the wicked.

It is important to note that the Greek word aionios, translated "eternal" or "everlasting," literally means "lasting for an age." Ancient Greek papyri contain numerous examples of Roman emperors being described as aionios. What is meant is that they held their office for life. Unfortunately, the English words "eternal" or "everlasting" do not accurately render the meaning of aionios, which literally means "age-lasting." In other words, while the Greek aionios expresses perpetuity within limits, the English "eternal" or "everlasting" denotes unlimited duration.

The Meaning of "Punishment." Note should also be taken of the word "punishment" used to translate the Greek word kolasis. A glance at Moulton and Milligan’s Vocabulary of the Greek Testament shows that the word was used at that time with the meaning of "pruning" or "cutting down" of dead wood. If this is its meaning here, it reflects the frequent Old Testament phrase "shall be cut off from his people" (Gen 17:14; Ex 30:33, 38; Lev 7:20, 21, 25, 27; Num 9:13). This would mean that the "eternal punishment" of the wicked consists in their being permanently cut off from mankind.

As a final observation, it is important to remember that the only way the punishment of the wicked could be inflicted eternally is if God resurrected them with immortal life so that they would be indestructible. But according to the Scripture, only God possesses immortality in Himself (1 Tim 1:17; 6:16). He gives immortality as the gift of the Gospel (2 Tim 1:10). In the best known text of the Bible, we are told that those who do not "believe in him" will "perish [apoletai]," instead of receiving "eternal life" (John 3:16). The ultimate fate of the lost is destruction by eternal fire and not punishment by eternal torment. The notion of the eternal torment of the wicked can only be defended by accepting the Greek view of the immortality and indestructibility of the soul, a concept which we have found to be foreign to Scripture.

"Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth." Four times in the Gospel of Matthew we are told that on the day of judgment "there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matt 8:12; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30; KJV). Believers in literal, eternal hell fire generally assume that the "weeping and gnashing of teeth" describes the conscious agony experienced by the lost for all eternity. A look at the context of each text suggests, however, that the "weeping and grinding of teeth" occurs in the context of the separation or expulsion that occurs at the final judgment.

Both phrases derive most likely from the weeping and gnashing of teeth associated with the Day of the Lord in the Old Testament. For example, Zephaniah describes the Day of the Lord in the following words: "The day of the Lord is near, it is near, and hasteth greatly, even the voice of the day of the Lord: the mighty man shall cry there bitterly" (Zeph 1:14; KJV).39 In a similar fashion, the Psalmist says: "The wicked shall see it, and be grieved; he shall gnash with his teeth, and melt away; the desire of the wicked shall perish" (Ps 112:10).40 Here the Psalmist clearly indicates that the gnashing of teeth is the outcome of the judgment of the wicked which ultimately results in their extinction.

Edward Fudge perceptively observes that "the expression ‘weeping and grinding of teeth’ seems to indicate two separate activities. The first reflects the terror of the doomed as they begin to truly realize that God has thrown them out as worthless and as they anticipate the execution of His sentence. The second seems to express the bitter rage and acrimony they feel toward God, who sentenced them, and toward the redeemed, who will forever be blessed."41

[Part 4 - The Witness of Paul]