Many Christians and non-Christians alike downplay the biblical presentation of God’s wrath for the unregenerate and their final abode in hell—namely, “everlasting punishment.” The Universalists, Inclusivists, and groups such as the Seventh-Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses boldly reject the “biblical doctrine” of hell. While this doctrine can be quite difficult to comprehend and thus, accept, biblical doctrine is not determined by emotion or philosophy, but rather by the exegesis of the text. God’s Word is true regardless if one accepts or rejects it (cf. 2 Tim. 3:16).
The Nature of Hell
- The biblical authors used many terms to describe the final abode of unregenerate, e.g., “hell,” “Hades,” “the lake of fire,” “black darkness,” “eternal punishment,” “eternal flame/fire,” “eternal destruction” (cf. Matt. 18:8; 25:46; 2 Thess. 1:9; Jude 7, 13; etc.).
- Matthew 25:46 reads: “And these will go away into eternal [aiōnion] punishment, but the righteous into eternal [aiōnion] life.” The term “punishment” is from the Greek word, kolasin, which *recognized* lexicographers define (in first cent. Koinē Greek) as “punishment”/”chastisement” (e.g., Thayer, BDAG, et al).
- Revelation 20:10 reads: “And the devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are also; and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.” The word “tormented” is from the Greek word basanizō, which is defined by Thayer as “being vexed with grievous pains.” Basanizō is also used in Luke 16:23 and, as discussed below, Revelation 14:11 and 20:10. In contrast to the doctrine of Annihilationism, logically one must be awake or conscious to actually experience or (as these texts above plainly indicate) receive “punishment” and “torment” (i.e., being “vexed with grievous pains”). Annihilationism teaches that when the wicked die they are totally destroyed ceasing to exist—however, a person that does not exist cannot be punished or feel anything such as torment.
The Duration of Hell: Aiōn, Aiōnios
Eternal fire for the unregenerate is a biblical reality. Jesus said it was. It was for this reason that Jesus died (cf. Rom. 5:8-10). Those who are not imputed with the righteousness of Christ through faith in Him, will be cast out into hell where they will endure eternal punishment: “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matt. 25:46). Here the word “eternal” (aiōnion) is used BOTH to describe the DURATION of life that believers will have and the “punishment” (kolasin) that the unregenerate will undergo—thus, the punishment is endless just as the “eternal life” is endless for believers.
Commenting on this passage (viz. on the phrase, kolasin aiōnion, “eternal punishment”), renowned Greek scholar A. T. Robertson observes, “[aionios] comes as near to the idea of eternal as the Greek can put it in one word.” Those that deny the never-ending duration of God’s wrath (hell) do so primarily on emotional grounds (e.g., distorting the love of God) and a faulty understanding of the Greek terms aiōn (“age”) and aiōnios (“eternal”/“everlasting”). The Greek word aiōnios is from the root word aiōn meaning “age.” The Universalists and others who deny the never-ending duration of hell point out that the term aiōnios does not always mean “eternal,” but can refer to a temporary or finite period of time. However, note the following details:
- CONTEXT determines meaning. Words are defined by their context. It is a great error in hermeneutics to limit words to one meaning when they may have multiple meanings as with the majority of Greeks words—it always depends on the context. It is true that the term aiōnios can be used to indicate a temporary non-eternal state (as in Rom. 16:25). However, just because the root (aiōn) of the term aiōnios means “age” it does not mean that every time the term is used it indicates temporality. For example, Paul uses aiōnios to describe God’s eternal nature: “who alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable light; whom no man has seen or can see. To Him be honor and eternal [aiōnion] dominion! Amen” (1 Tim. 6:16). It would be heresy to translate aiōnion here in a temporal sense making God’s dominion temporary—for His sovereignty is everlasting.
- Lexical Support. The lexical support for aiōnios as denoting the concept of eternal/everlasting life for the believer in passages such as John 3:16; 6:47; 10:28; etc. is unquestionable. Equally, the lexical support for aiōnios as denoting the concept of eternal/everlasting damnation in passages such as Matthew 25:41, 46; 2 Thessalonians 1:9; Revelation 14:11; 21:10; etc. is indisputable. Aside from passages where aiōnios means “eternal” life (as seen above) and denoting God’s eternal nature (e.g., Rom. 16:26), Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words (1985) states: “Aiōnios is also used . . . of the judgment of God, from which there is no appeal, Heb. 6:2, and of the fire, which is one of its instruments, Matt. 18:8; 25:41; Jude 7, and which is elsewhere said to be ‘unquenchable,’ Mark 9:43. The use of aiōnios here shows that the punishment referred to in 2 Thess. 1:9, is not is not temporary, but final. . . .”
Below are brief excerpts taken from one of the most utilized and scholarly lexicons, Walter Bauer’s, A Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament (BDAG), which provides a most comprehensive analysis of aiōnios regarding the “everlasting” duration of both life and damnation (hell): “aiōn formulaically- eternal [Rev.] 14:11; 19:3; 20:10; 22:5. . . . aiōnios “without beginning or end; of God (Gen 21:33; Is 26:4). . . . Very often of God’s judgment [Jer 23:40; Da 12:2; Ps 76:6; Mt 18:8; 25:46; Mk 3:29; 2 Co 6:7; 2 Th 1:9; Jd 7]. . . . pert. to a period of unending duration, without end. . . .” (32-33). Therefore, besides the passages that clearly (from the context) denote a temporary significance (e.g., Rom. 16:25), the lexical support (e.g., Thayer; Louw and Nida; Liddell and Scott; BDAG, et al) for aiōnios as denoting eternal, endless duration is conclusive.
The New Testament Usage of the Aiōnion
Note the following examples of where aiōnios is used to denote the everlasting duration of life with the Lord for the believer:
John 6:47: “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal [aiōnion] life”; 10:28: “and I give eternal [aiōnion] life to them, and they shall never perish. . . .” (see also Acts 13:48; Rom. 2:7; 5:21; 16:26; Gal. 6:8; 1 Tim. 6:16; etc.). Now observe the following examples of where aiōnions is used to denote the everlasting punishment for the unregenerate:
Matthew 18:8: “And if your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; it is better for you to enter life crippled or lame, than having two hands or two feet, to be cast into the eternal [aiōnion] fire”; 25:46: “And these will go away into eternal [aiōnion] punishment, but the righteous into eternal [aiōnion] life”; 2 Thessalonians 1:9: “And these will pay the penalty of eternal [aiōnion] destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power” (see also Matt. 25:41; Mark 3:29; Luke 18:30; Jude 7; Rev. 14:11; 20:10 [as discussed below] where aiōnios represents eternal damnation).
Does the phrase “forever and ever” mean endless?
The phrase “forever and ever” (aiōnas tōn aiōnōn, lit., “ages of the ages”) is used to express God’s eternal significance and the everlasting “torment” for the unregenerate.
1 Timothy 1:17: “Now to the King eternal [aiōnōn], immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever [aiōnas tōn aiōnōn]. Amen.”
Revelation 5:13: “To Him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, be blessing and honor and glory and dominion forever and ever [aiōnas tōn aiōnōn].”
Revelation 14:11: “And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever [aiōnas tōn aiōnōn, lit., “ages of the ages”]; and they have no rest day and night, those who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name.” The double usage of the pluralized aiōnios (“ages”) is used by the author to accentuate the never-ending torment.
Revelation 20:10: “And the devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are also; and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever [eis tous aiōnas tōn aiōnōn].” The Greek phrase eis tous aiōnas tōn aiōnōn (lit., “unto the ages of the ages”) is the strongest way to express unending duration. The fact that the words are plural in number (as with 14:11) and the double use of the article (“the”) further emphasizes the concept of never-ending duration. “The Greek takes its greatest term for time, the eon, pluralizes this, and then multiplies it by its own plural, even using articles [“the”] which make these eons the definite ones.” Also, as with 14:11, the phrase “day and night” is juxtaposed with “forever and ever” stressing the fact that the “torment” is perpetual, never-ending for the objects of God wrath.
To distinctly express the everlasting suffering for the unregenerate, the biblical authors used the phrase “unquenchable fire” (Matt. 3:12; Luke 3:17; and Mark 9:43). The word translated “unquenchable” is from the Greek word asbestos. According to recognized lexicons, the term carries the meaning of “unquenchable, the eternal hell fire to punish the damned” (Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon); “inextinguishable” (BDAG); “pertaining to a fire that cannot be put out” (Louw and Nida); “unquenchable, inextinguishable” (Liddell and Scott).
The evidence for the never-ending nature of hell is undeniable. Admittedly, this doctrine is difficult to discuss. However, the totality (all parts) of biblical truth must be preached. The Gospel is the proclamation of the Son’s cross-work—the very basis of our justification. The Gospel is, indeed, good news, but only because of the bad news: God’s wrath continues to remain on him who denies the Son. Hence, the Son was sent was to save His people from God’s wrath: “having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath of God through Him” (Rom. 5:9; cf. 1 John 2:2). God being perfect and holy does not merely wink at open defiance against His infinite majesty and holiness. It was the cross-work of the Son that provided sinners a way of escape from the divine wrath due for sin. As Berkhof rightly notes: “When we look at the death of Christ it was not first for our salvation, but first for our damnation being born and taking away by Him.”