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Question:

"Will sinners burn in hell forever or will they be totally annihilated in the lake of fire?"

Answer:

After studying the various views concerning this issue, it seems to me that the greatest weight of evidence supports the view that sinners will spend eternity in conscious torment in the Lake of Fire. I might wish that this were not the case, but God's ways are higher than my ways! Prayerfully read and reflect on what Scripture says in the following passages and see if it leads you to the same conclusion.

In this article I am using the word "hell" as being equivalent to the Lake of Fire (Revelation 19:20, 20:10, 14-15, 21:8). For a more complete discussion of the Lake of Fire and the meaning of the word "hell," please see my article called Did Jesus Go to Hell after He Died?.

First I will present five arguments that are sometimes used to show that sinners will not burn in hell forever, and I'll explain why I personally don't find them very convincing.


Five Arguments for Total Annihilation in Hell


Total Annihilation Argument #1:
Many people believe that sinners will be annihilated in hell because they can't imagine how a merciful, loving God could torment the vast majority of humanity for all eternity. After all, is that really justice?

My Response:
I struggle with these issues a little bit as well, but Scripture tells us very clearly that God's ways are higher than our ways and His thoughts are higher than our thoughts (Isaiah 55:9). God is perfect and His decisions are perfect. I don't like the thought of people being tormented eternally in the Lake of Fire, but I believe that God is righteous, merciful, and just, and I am willing to let Him execute justice in any way He sees fit. I can understand and empathize with the question of "Is this really justice?," but this argument does not prove that sinners will be totally annihilated in hell. God's view of justice is not necessarily the same as our human view of justice!


Total Annihilation Argument #2:
Sometimes people will point out that eternal conscious torment seems to contradict the phrase, "the second death," which is used four times in Scripture to refer to the Lake of Fire (hell):
"He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death." (Revelation 2:11)

"Blessed and holy are those who have part in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years." (Revelation 20:6)

"Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death." (Revelation 20:14)

"But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars-- their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death." (Revelation 21:8)
The argument here is that death is the end of life. Physical death is the end of physical life, so the phrase "the second death" probably refers to the end of spiritual life.

My Response:
The problem I see with this argument is that the phrase, "the second death," does not automatically imply that a person's body, soul, and spirit are annihilated forever. This is just an assumption that some people have made, and the problem with this assumption is that death does not equal annihilation. For example, at physical death our bodies die and eventually decay, but they are not annihilated forever. The molecules that made up our bodies continue to exist, and in fact our bodies will be re-formed when we are resurrected at the Rapture (see 1 Corinthians 15:51-53).

It is true that physical death is the end of physical life (at least until Christians receive their resurrected, glorified bodies), and in a sense it is also true that the second death will be the end of spiritual life for sinners. This is because it is only in Jesus that we have life (see John 1:4 and 14:6, for example). Sinners will be shut out from the glorious presence of the Lord forever (2 Thessalonians 1:9), and in this sense they will have no life since they do not have Jesus. However, this does not mean that they will be annihilated.

The "first" death (physical death) does not include annihilation, so we have no evidence to support the assumption that the "second" death refers to annihilation.


Total Annihilation Argument #3:
Another argument that people use is that hell is described as a place of destruction, which seems to imply total annihilation rather than eternal conscious torment:
"Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction [apoleia], and many enter through it." (Matthew 7:13)

"Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy [apollumi] both soul and body in hell." (Matthew 10:28)

"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish [apollumi] but have eternal life." (John 3:16)

"They will be punished with everlasting destruction [olethros] and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power" (2 Thessalonians 1:9)
Since hell is described as a place of destruction, doesn't this imply that sinners will be totally annihilated?

My Response:
We should be careful not to make hasty assumptions about English words such as "destruction" until we examine how the Greek words are used elsewhere in Scripture, so let's take a close look at apoleia, apollumi, and olethros in the New Testament.

The Greek word apoleia, which is translated as "destruction" in Matthew 7:13 above, is also used in Revelation 17:8 and 17:11:
"The beast, which you saw, once was, now is not, and will come up out of the Abyss and go to his destruction [apoleia]." (Revelation 17:8)

"The beast who once was, and now is not, is an eighth king. He belongs to the seven and is going to his destruction [apoleia]." (Revelation 17:11)
Jesus says in Matthew 7:13 (above) that sinners will go to "destruction" (apoleia), and Revelation says that the "beast" (the Antichrist) will go to his "destruction" (apoleia) as well. In Revelation 20:10 the apostle John tells us exactly what the "destruction" of the beast actually means:
"And the devil, who deceived 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 ever and ever." (Revelation 20:10)
[Note: I'll say something about "for ever and ever" later. It means "eternally" in this context, even though some people argue otherwise.]

The "destruction" (apoleia) of the beast is specifically described as eternal conscious torment in the Lake of Fire (Revelation 20:10, above). Therefore, it is likely that when sinners receive "destruction" (apoleia) it will also mean eternal conscious torment in the Lake of Fire.

The Greek word apollumi is translated as "destroy" in Matthew 10:28 (above) and as "perish" in John 3:16 (above), and this same Greek word is translated as "lost" in the following parables:
"Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses [apollumi] one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost [apollumi] sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, 'Rejoice with me; I have found my lost [apollumi] sheep.' I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent." (Luke 15:4-7)

"Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses [apollumi] one. Does she not light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, 'Rejoice with me; I have found my lost [apollumi] coin.'" (Luke 15:8-9)

"[The Prodigal Son] For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost [apollumi] and is found.' So they began to celebrate. ... this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost [apollumi] and is found.'" (Luke 15:24,32)
Notice in the above passages that Jesus specifically says that sinners are apollumi ("lost"), which is the same Greek word translated as "destroy" in Matthew 10:28 and as "perish" in John 3:16. In the passages above, the lost sheep was apollumi yet it continued to exist, and Jesus used this as an analogy for sinners. The lost coin was apollumi yet it continued to exist, and Jesus used this as an analogy for sinners. The prodigal son was apollumi yet he continued to exist, and Jesus used this as an analogy for sinners. Many scholars therefore conclude that sinners will be apollumi ("destroyed" or "lost") in the Lake of Fire, yet they will continue to exist. For example, The Complete Word Study Dictionary of the New Testament (Spiros Zodhiates, p.246) says that the Greek words apoleia and apollumi "must never be construed as meaning extinction. One dies physically when his spirit and his body separate. Neither the body becomes extinct, nor the spirit." Therefore, the evidence indicates that the Lake of Fire is a place of "lostness," not total annihilation.

Finally, the Greek word olethros is translated as "destruction" in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 (below), and this same Greek word is translated as "destroyed" in 1 Corinthians 5:5:
"They will be punished with everlasting destruction [olethros] and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power" (2 Thessalonians 1:9)

"hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature [literally, "the flesh"] may be destroyed [olethros] and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord." (1 Corinthians 5:5)
1 Corinthians 5:5 (above) shows us that a person's "flesh" (his sinful flesh nature) can be "destroyed" (olethros), while his spirit still has a conscious existence. Therefore, "destruction" (olethros) in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 does not automatically imply total annihilation. In fact, 2 Thessalonians 1:9 (above) specifically describes "everlasting destruction" as being eternally "shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power." This agrees with the view that sinners will spend eternity in the Lake of Fire, banished from the glorious presence of the Lord.

As we gain a better understanding of these three Greek words for "destruction," the fact that hell is a place of "destruction" actually strengthens the view that sinners will be tormented in hell forever.


Total Annihilation Argument #4:
People who believe that sinners will not spend eternity in hell sometimes argue that eternal punishment (Matthew 25:46) does not necessarily mean eternal punishing, and that eternal judgment (Hebrews 6:2) does not necessarily mean eternal judging:
"Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life." (Matthew 25:46)

"instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment." (Hebrews 6:2)
In other words, the phrase "eternal judgment" might mean judgment that goes on eternally, but it can also mean a judgment with eternal consequences (annihilation). Those who hold the view that it means a judgment with eternal consequences (total annihilation) point out that Jesus secured eternal redemption for us, but it was a once and for all action, He does not continue the act of redemption eternally:
"He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption." (Hebrews 9:12)
My Response:
I agree that the English phrase, "eternal punishment," is ambiguous because it might mean a punishment that goes on eternally (i.e. eternal torment in hell) or it might mean a punishment with eternal consequences (i.e. total annihilation). The same ambiguity applies to the phrase, "eternal judgment." So how are we to know which way to interpret these phrases?

In situations where passages of Scripture are unclear or ambiguous, the rule of interpretation that should be applied is to let Scripture interpret Scripture. In other words, God never contradicts Himself in the Bible, so the way to understand an unclear or ambiguous passage is to interpret it in light of other, clearer, passages. What it boils down to is that if the weight of evidence in the Bible leads to the conclusion that hell is a place of eternal torment, then that is how we should interpret "eternal punishment" and "eternal judgment." If the weight of evidence agrees with the view that sinners are totally annihilated in hell, then that is how we should interpret "eternal punishment" and "eternal judgment." Therefore, the passages above do not contribute any evidence to our study of the consequences of hell.


Total Annihilation Argument #5:
Another argument is that the phrase, "the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever" in Revelation 14:9-11 does not necessarily mean that people are tormented in conscious agony forever:
"A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: "If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark on the forehead or on the hand, he, too, will drink of the wine of God's fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. He will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. 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 14:9-11)
The argument here is that since this passage says that the "smoke" of their torment rises forever, perhaps it is the smoke that is eternal, not the torment. Those who hold this view point out that a similar phrase is used in Isaiah 34:8-10:
"For the LORD has a day of vengeance, a year of retribution, to uphold Zion's cause. Edom's streams will be turned into pitch, her dust into burning sulfur; her land will become blazing pitch! It will not be quenched night and day; its smoke will rise forever. From generation to generation it will lie desolate; no one will ever pass through it again." (Isaiah 34:8-10)
Those who believe that sinners will be annihilated in hell say that if we visit Edom (in Southern Jordan) we will not see literal smoke rising eternally from it. The destruction of Edom had eternal consequences, but it is not burning eternally. This indicates (to some people) that the smoke is meant to be symbolic, and therefore the phrase, "the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever" in Revelation 14:9-11 (above) is probably symbolic as well.

My Response:
Personally, I don't buy the argument that the smoke in Isaiah 34:8-10 is merely symbolic just because we don't see "the smoke of Edom's destruction" rising up today. That passage is prophetic and has not happened yet, as we can easily see by reading chapter 34 of Isaiah in its entirety.

Now, why does Revelation 14:9-11 (above) say that "the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever"? What is the description of smoke meant tell us? Well, one way to look at it is to imagine throwing a log onto a fire. It burns and produces smoke. When the log has completely stopped burning then there is no longer any smoke. If the log could feel pain then we might say that the smoke of its torment rises while it is burning. The only way for the smoke of its torment to rise forever is for the log to actually burn forever. Likewise, the only way for the smoke of a sinner's torment to rise forever is if the sinner burns forever.

Therefore, when Revelation 14:9-11 says that "the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever," the most reasonable explanation is that the sinners themselves are burning forever. In fact, the rest of verse 11 specifically says that "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." This echoes Revelation 20:10 which says that the devil, the beast, and the false prophet will be "tormented day and night for ever and ever." The implication is that throughout all eternity, sinners will have no rest from their torments.


Five Arguments in Favor of Eternal Conscious Torment in Hell

Eternal Torment Argument #1:
The Bible specifically describes people being tormented in the Lake of Fire for ever and ever:
"And the devil, who deceived 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 ever and ever." (Revelation 20:10)

"A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: "If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark on the forehead or on the hand, he, too, will drink of the wine of God's fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. He will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. 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 14:9-11)
These two passages describe the "beast" (the Antichrist), the "false prophet," and all those who receive the "mark of the beast" being tormented day and night for ever and ever in the lake of burning sulfur. Therefore, the Bible specifically describes sinners being tormented for eternity in hell, which provides Scriptural precedent for the view that all sinners will suffer eternal conscious agony in the Lake of Fire.

For example, in Revelation 14:9-11 and Revelation 20:10 (above), the apostle John shows us that the Lake of Fire is the place where certain sinners will be tormented forever, and then just five verses later he tells us that all sinners will be cast into that same Lake of Fire:
"If anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire." (Revelation 20:15)
Since the Lake of Fire is the place where the beast, the false prophet, etc., will be tormented forever, and since all sinners will be thrown into the same lake of burning sulfur, the most natural and reasonable conclusion is that all sinners will suffer conscious agony in hell for all eternity.


Eternal Torment Argument #2:
Several Old Testament passages describe the eternal fire of hell in a way which clearly demonstrates the Jewish view that hell is a place of everlasting burning, not a place of annihilation:
"The mighty man will become tinder and his work a spark; both will burn together, with no one to quench the fire." (Isaiah 1:31)

"The sinners in Zion are terrified; trembling grips the godless: "Who of us can dwell with the consuming fire? Who of us can dwell with everlasting burning?"" (Isaiah 33:14)

"And they will go out and look upon the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind." (Isaiah 66:24)
The first two passages above describe sinners burning in unquenchable fire. The imagery here is of eternal torment in fire, not total annihilation. The third passage says that a sinner's "worm" will not die, nor will his fire be quenched. This passage is quoted by Jesus in the New Testament:
"If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. ... And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where 'their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.'" (Mark 9:43-48)
The Bible Knowledge Commentary (Walvoord and Zuck, Dallas Theological Seminary, p.147) explains this passage by saying that the Greek word geena ("Gehenna," often translated into English as "hell") refers to a site near Jerusalem that "became Jerusalem's refuse dump where fires burned continually to consume regular deposits of worm-infested garbage. In Jewish thought the imagery of fire and worms vividly portrayed the place of future eternal punishment for the wicked. ... The worm (internal torment) and the unquenchable fire (external torment) ... vividly portray the unending, conscious punishment that awaits all who refuse God's salvation. The essence of hell is unending torment and eternal exclusion from His presence." The reason the worm does not die and the fire does not go out is because sinners are never annihilated. They continue to exist forever, and therefore the worm has "food" to eat forever and the fire has fuel to consume forever.


Eternal Torment Argument #3:
Jesus described hell as a fiery furnace where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, but He also described it as a place of darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth:
"They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." (Matthew 13:42)

"This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." (Matthew 13:49-50)

"But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." (Matthew 8:12)

"Then the king told the attendants, 'Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'" (Matthew 22:13)

"And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'" (Matthew 25:30)
Jude tells us that this "blackest darkness" has been reserved for sinners forever:
"They are wild waves of the sea, foaming up their shame; wandering stars, for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever." (Jude 1:13)
Since this blackest darkness has been "reserved forever," it emphasizes the eternal nature of the punishment which sinners will receive.


Eternal Torment Argument #4:
In the following passage, Jesus makes a direct comparison between the eternal nature of life (for Christians) and the eternal nature of punishment (for sinners):
"Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal (aionios) fire prepared for the devil and his angels. ... Then they will go away to eternal (aionios) punishment, but the righteous to eternal (aionios) life." (Matthew 25:41,46)
Notice that in each case, the word "eternal" is translated from the same Greek word aionios. The fire is "eternal" (aionios), the punishment is "eternal" (aionios), and the life is "eternal" (aionios). The implication is that a Christian's life will go on forever, the fires of hell will go on forever, and a sinner's punishment will go on forever.


Eternal Torment Argument #5:
Hell (the Lake of Fire) is never described as being temporary. Instead, the eternal nature of hell is constantly stressed throughout Scripture:
"The mighty man will become tinder and his work a spark; both will burn together, with no one to quench the fire." (Isaiah 1:31)

"The sinners in Zion are terrified; trembling grips the godless: "Who of us can dwell with the consuming fire? Who of us can dwell with everlasting burning?"" (Isaiah 33:14)

"And they will go out and look upon the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind." (Isaiah 66:24)

"His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire." (Matthew 3:12)

"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 fire." (Matthew 18:8)

"Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels." (Matthew 25:41)

"Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life." (Matthew 25:46)

"If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. ... And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where "'their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.'" (Mark 9:43-48)

"His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire." (Luke 3:17)

"They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power" (2 Thessalonians 1:9)

"instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment." (Hebrews 6:2)

"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 fire." (Jude 1:7)

"They are wild waves of the sea, foaming up their shame; wandering stars, for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever." (Jude 1:13)

"He will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. 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 14:10-11)

"And the devil, who deceived 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 ever and ever." (Revelation 20:10)
The eternal nature of hell is constantly stressed throughout the Bible. Why is hell eternal? Why will the fires of hell burn forever? The purpose of hell is for the punishment of sinners, so if the fires of hell never go out then it must mean that the punishment of sinners will never end. If sinners were all annihilated in hell then at some point the fire would no longer have any "fuel" and would no longer be needed, so it would go out. However, hell is never described as being temporary. There is not a single passage of Scripture that specifically describes any sinners being totally annihilated, but there are passages which specifically describe sinners suffering agony forever, as we saw earlier.


Conclusion

For all of the above reasons I can only conclude that hell is a place of eternal, fiery, conscious agony where sinners will be shut out from the presence of God forever. I would much prefer to believe that sinners will receive a temporary punishment in hell (perhaps based on the extent and magnitude of their sins) before being put out of their misery by being annihilated. However, I can't find any justification at all in Scripture for that view, and therefore I must discard it. I believe that God is infinitely and perfectly fair, and therefore whatever punishment sinners receive will be perfectly fair and we will have no cause to accuse God of being unfair in any way.

There is, however, another view which is sometimes called "Ultimate Reconciliation" or "Universal Salvation" or simply "Universalism." The basic idea is that sinners will not spend eternity in hell, nor will they be annihilated. Instead, every person who ever lived will ultimately receive salvation, even if they have to spend a period of time suffering in hell. Those who hold this view argue that the Greek words which are translated as "eternal" and "for ever and ever" do not actually mean eternal, and therefore no sinners will spend eternity in hell. Many of the flaws in this and other Universal Salvation arguments are well addressed at the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry Offsite Link website, so I won't repeat the arguments here. It would be nice if Universalism were true, but I believe that this doctrine is flawed. The greatest weight of evidence that I see in Scripture supports the view that sinners will be tormented in hell for ever and ever, because God looks at sin with a deeper revulsion and hatred than we can ever imagine. Let the horror of the ultimate fate of sinners spur us on in our evangelism!


I hope this has been helpful, and may the Lord abundantly bless you as you study His Word!
 
 
 
  Modification History  
 
 

  • 04/09/2005 - Changed the wording concerning 1 Corinthians 5:5. Originally I had said that a "person" is destroyed in 1 Corinthians 5:5, but it is more accurate to say that a person's "sinful flesh nature" is destroyed in that verse.
  • 02/17/2003 - Added a link to my article called "Did Jesus Go to Hell after He Died?"
  • 12/10/2002 - Added a link to a website which discusses the problems with the "Universal Salvation" view.