Question: In a recent book, a well-known prophecy teacher writes, “I have never been able to fully embrace the traditional viewpoint of conscious, eternal punishment. It seems to impugn the character of God….He is a God of righteousness, holiness, and justice, but is eternal suffering justice…? The concept of eternal torment seems to run contrary to biblical examples. God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah…suddenly and quickly…Noah’s evil world…suddenly and quickly….[Thirdly] it seems to contradict a descriptive phrase…to describe Hell…“the second death….” How can Hell be a “second death” if it consists of eternal, conscious torment? [Fourthly] Hell is a place of destruction (Matthew:7:13; 2 Thessalonians:1:9, et al.). Fifth, there is a difference between eternal punishment and eternal punish-ing…a judgment that continues eternally, or…a judgment with eternal consequences…. Revelation:14:9-11 [does not] speak of eternal torment [but] “the smoke of their torment” ascending forever. [But] Isaiah:34:10…says the smoke of Edom’s destruction will “go up forever.” I have been to Edom…seen its destruction. But there was no smoke ascending to heaven. The reference to eternal smoke is obviously symbolic…Edom’s destruction will give eternal testimony to how God deals with a sinful society….I believe the Bible denies the immortality of the soul….In 1 Timothy:6:15,16 Paul says that God alone possesses immortality. First Corinthians 15:53 teaches that THE Redeemed will not become immortal until the time of their resurrection….There is no need to believe in an eternal Hell if the soul is not intrinsically immortal. And it isn’t….Justin Martyr (a.d. 114-165) [says] the souls of the unrighteous will suffer only as long as God wills, and that finally their souls will pass out of existence. [I believe the damned] will be cast into the lake of fire (Hell) where they will suffer a time of torment in proportion to their sins. Then they will experience the “second death” (death of body, soul and spirit).” Please help me to discern.
Answer: The above arguments are seriously flawed. The fact that the sinners in Sodom and Gomorrah and in Noah’s time suffered swift physical destruction does not prove that they have not been suffering spiritual torment ever since, in Hell! Of course, no man, but “God alone has immortality.” But when was immortality ever required for suffering in the Lake of Fire? Without immortality, we have physical life; and even after physical death we continue to exist: “It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment” (Heb:9:27). Judgment can’t be pronounced on those who no longer exist—and judgment pronounced must be meted out in punishment. The author of the book denies that it is eternal but give no Scripture—only faulty reasoning.
If both spiritually dead people and physically dead people are still alive, what does it mean to be “dead”? Spiritual death separates from God; physical death separates from the body and from all those who are still physically alive. The physically dead who believe on Christ and thus were united to God before they died continue to exist in heaven in eternal bliss (“and so shall we ever be with the Lord”- 1 Thes:4:17).
Upon death, those who rejected Christ and the salvation He provided for them go to hell to await their judgment; but even while awaiting the final judgment, they experience horrible torment: “the rich man also died, and was buried; and in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments” (Lk 16:22,23). Obviously, then, the fact that man doesn’t have immortality is not a valid argument against eternal existence in the Lake of Fire. Sin brought death to Adam’s spirit and eventually to his body, and so it has always been with his descendants. But the fact that man is doubly dead—first spiritually, then physically—does not mean that he ever ceases to exist.
Physical “death” no more means cessation of being than does spiritual “death”—nor is there ever any hint anywhere in the Bible of any end either to the bliss of the redeemed or to the torment of the damned. The writer suggests that because today there is no physical smoke ascending from Edom in spite of Isaiah:34:10 saying that “the smoke of Edom’s destruction will ‘go up forever,’” therefore, the statement in Revelation:14:9-11 concerning those who worshiped the beast—that “the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever”—isn’t to be taken literally. But Isaiah was no more speaking of physical smoke arising from ruins on earth than he was of physical torment lasting forever on earth. “Smoke” was symbolic of their spiritual torment in the Lake of Fire, and that “smoke” will indeed ascend for ever and ever.
We are clearly told that “the devil…the beast and the false prophet…shall be tormented…for ever and ever” (Rv 20:10). Where? In the lake of “everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mt 25:41; Rv 20:14,15). It would neither be biblical nor reasonable to believe that although the devil and his angels will be tormented therein “for ever and ever,” their followers, having been placed in this everlasting fire, will be there only for a temporary time. The writer makes the Lake of Fire to be like purgatory for the Catholic: temporary punishment in proportion to one’s sin. But never in the many times that Christrefers to the punishment of the damned (“weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth” – Mt 8:12; 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30; Lk 13:28) does He ever offer the hope that it is only temporary.
That every man “is judged…[and by implication punished] according to their works” (Rv 20:13)refers to the severity of the punishment, not to its duration. That it must be eternal is because God himself is eternal, His righteousness infinite, and His judgments immutable. Death is the punishment for sin, not cessation of being. Eternal death is separation from God and all others to face alone the stark horror of one’s rebellion against one’s Creator and the fact that the forgiveness He offered was rejected.
While admitting that death doesn’t end anyone’s existence, he claims that the existence of the damned after death is only temporary—long enough to punish them “in proportion to their sins.” But this theory is never stated in the Bible. The “wages of sin is death,” which is separation from God just as physical death separates from the body. Those who are spiritually dead enjoy physical life for a time. But after physical death comes judgment—and their “everlasting punishment”(Mt 25:46), as he admits—a “second death” in the Lake of Fire. It could hardly be called “everlasting” if one day it will be as though it had never been, with all sinners having ceased to exist. Punishment for breaking the infinite law of the eternal God must be eternal.