This teaching is based almost entirely on an article by Dr. David Reagan, of Lamb and Lion Ministries. The original article is entitled, The Nature of Hell: An Eternal Punishment or Eternal Torment? I very much respect David and his teaching.

The Bible presents Hell, like Heaven, as a real place. The Word of the Lord says that God created this terrible place to serve as the ultimate destiny of the Devil and his angels (Matthew 25:41). The Bible also teaches that Hell will be the destiny of all people who reject the grace and mercy God has provided through Messiah Yeshua, and who chose instead to reject God and continue to follow Satan in his rebellion (Matthew 25:46). Hell is described in the Scriptures as a place of darkness and sadness (Matthew 22:13), a place of fire (Matthew 5:22), a place of torment (Revelation 14:10), a place of destruction (Matthew 7:13), and a place of disgrace and everlasting contempt (Daniel 12:2).

Its Distinction from Sheol/Hades

Hell is not the same as Hades, which is also known as Sheol. Sheol is a temporary state that takes place after death and before the Day of Judgment. Hades is not to be confused with either Heaven or Hell, which are the final states of the righteous and the wicked.

The Son of God made it clear that there were two sections within Sheol, one for the righteous and the other for the wicked. Before Messiah died on the cross, upon their death, the righteous (those who share the faith of father Abraham) went to Abraham’s Bosom, and were gathered into his presence. At their death, the wicked went to another area – a place of regret, remorse and torment (see Luke 16:19 31). There was a chasm – a wide gulf, fixed between the two parts of Sheol, so that there was no crossing over, so that the righteous and the wicked were permanently separated.

Before Messiah came to Earth, all people – the righteous and the wicked, went to Sheol when they died. But, Sheol was radically changed at the time of the Cross. After His death on the Cross, Yeshua descended into Hades and declared to the spirits there His triumph over Satan, sin and death through the shedding of His blood for the sins of mankind (1 Peter 3:18 19; 4:6). The Bible also indicates that after His resurrection, when He ascended to Heaven, Yeshua took the souls of those in Paradise with Him, transferring the spirits of the righteous dead from Hades to Heaven (Ephesians 4:8 9 and 2 Corinthians 12:1 4). The spirits of the righteous dead are thereafter seen as being in Heaven before the throne of God (Revelation 6:9 and 7:9). Since the time of the Cross, the spirits of dead saints no longer go to Hades. They are taken, instead, directly to Heaven, into the presence of God. For those of us who believe, to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.

The souls of the unrighteous dead will remain in Hades until the end of the millennial reign of King Yeshua. At that time they will be resurrected and judged at the Great White Throne judgment (see Revelation 20:11 15). They will be judged and all the unrighteous will be cast into Hell, which is the Second Death, Gehenna, and “the Lake of Fire” (Revelation 20:14).

How long will the unrighteous be tormented in Hell?

The traditional view holds that Hell is a place of eternal, conscious torment. According to this view, a person who winds up in Hell is doomed to a never ending life of excruciating pain and suffering. Another point of view – the Conditional view – the one I hold – takes the position that immortality is conditional, depending upon one’s acceptance of Messiah. I believe the Bible teaches the unrighteous will be resurrected, judged, punished in Hell for a period of time proportional to their sins, and then most will suffer destruction of both body and soul in Hell. The really evil like the Antichrist and False Prophet, and perhaps others like the Hitlers and Stalins of this world, will suffer forever (see Revelation 20:10).

Before we look at both views in more detail, I would like to remind us all of a sobering truth: Hell is a reality, and it is a dreadful destiny. Hell exists because God can’t be mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap (Galatians 6:7). The Holy One is going to deal with sin, and He will deal with sin in one of two ways – either with grace or with wrath. John 3:36 says, “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.” Whatever we conclude from the Scriptures about the duration of Hell, we must remember that Hell is to be avoided at all costs. Whether the wicked suffer there eternally or are destroyed after enduring God’s terrible punishment, Hell is a real and an unimaginably terrifying place, and you don’t want to wind up there!

We must also remember that our beliefs about the duration of Hell are not matters of cardinal doctrine, like the doctrines of the Trinity, or the deity of the Messiah, or salvation by grace alone and by faith alone, or clinging to the Scriptures alone. This is an issue of eschatology – the study of the Last Things, and we should be gracious to each other in these matters. There is some room for disagreement. Sincere, godly believers may study the same Scripture passages about Hell and come to different conclusions about the issue of its duration. Our varied viewpoints, arrived at through earnest and godly study, should not be allowed to cause division or rancor in the Body of Messiah.

The Traditional Viewpoint

Few people who hold to the traditional viewpoint are happy about the doctrine of the eternal torment of the wicked, but they accept it anyway because they believe it to be Biblical. In this they are to be commended. Most point to scriptures such as Matthew 25:46 for support: “Then these

[the wicked] will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Since the word “eternal” is used of both the wicked and the righteous, they conclude that the punishment must be eternal in the same way that life is eternal. Many traditionalists also cite Revelation 20:10 – a verse specifically about the Devil, the Antichrist and the False Prophet – to prove that a God of love can indeed sentence at least some of His creatures to eternal torment: “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.” If it is possible for God to treat one set of His creatures in this way, why shouldn’t He do the same thing with another set? But, there are reasons why the Just Judge may inflict various levels and degrees of punishments, including various durations of time for these punishments, according to the nature of their crimes, and their level of culpability.

Another passage figures in the traditional argument. Revelation 14:9 11 describes those who worship the beast – the antichrist – and his image, and receive his mark. They will be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever; and they have no rest day and night. The wicked are contrasted to the righteous, who will enjoy rest eternally (Revelation 14:13). To traditionalists, both the “rest” of believers and the “unrest” of unbelievers seem to imply a conscious, eternal state for both.

Other Traditionalist Arguments

In other parts of the Bible, several passages which describe Hell use the word “destroy” or “destruction” to describe what happens to the unrighteous. Traditionalists claim that these passages are not about literal destruction or obliteration, but rather of the ruination of human life out of God’s presence forever. In this way they are able to conceive of a “destruction” which lasts forever.

A more philosophical traditional argument concerns mankind’s creation in the image of God. Some traditionalists believe that the torments of Hell must be eternal, since humanity was made in the image of God and that image cannot be “uncreated.” They believe that immortality was bestowed on mankind when God created us in His image, and that we have immortal souls.

Another traditionalist argument teaches that Hell must be eternal because of the nature of sin itself. All sin is an offense against God, goes this argument, and since God is infinite, all sin is infinitely detestable, and needs too be infinitely punished. As you can see, these arguments seem both Biblical and substantial. And yet they are not without problems. Allow me to explain why I believe the conditionalist viewpoint is a better solution to what the Word of God actually teaches about these things.

Another traditionalist argument is that the threat of eternal conscious torment is worse than the threat of eventual destruction after being punished for a time, and therefore is a better deterrent. It may be. But, suffering torment in keeping with one’s crimes, followed by eternal death, is not without its terrors. It certainly is a deterrent to me! In addition, this kind of threat does not reflect well on the character of God. If civilized nations don’t threaten or use torture, and are against cruel and unusual punishment, why would we attribute this kind of barbarism to God?

The Conditionalist Viewpoint

The doctrine of the duration of Hell has been so strongly held throughout the history of Christianity that few have dared to challenge it. Adding to the reluctance has been the fact that most modern challenges have come from the cults. Thus, a person who dares to question the traditional viewpoint runs the risk of being labeled a cultist. But, disagreement about matters of eschatology, and particularly this question about the nature of Hell, does not make one a cultist.

For almost all of my life as a child of God, from almost the very beginning, almost 30 years ago, I have doubted that the traditional viewpoint of conscious, eternal punishment was right. I have long suspected that the Conditionalist viewpoint was a better way of understanding what the Bible teaches about this, and that suspicion has grown into a firmer conviction over time.

Traditionalist Difficulties

My first difficulty with the traditional view is that it seems to impugn the character of God. The question arises: “How could a good God of grace, mercy, love and justice eternally torment the majority of humanity?” That does not seem to me to be either good, loving or just. Is eternal suffering just? Thousands, millions, billions, trillions of years of torment for 20, 30, 40, 70 years of misdeeds here on Earth? Mustn’t the punishment fit the crime? Is it just that a foolish 13 year old, who grows up in a nominally Christian home, but who never becomes serious about God, and is killed in a car accident, should be tormented for billions of years? And, that is just the beginning of his sufferings! This offends my sense of justice, which admittedly, may be flawed. Nevertheless, this doesn’t seem just to me, and I ask, like father Abraham did, must not the Judge of all the Earth do justly?

Second, the concept of eternal torment goes contrary to Biblical examples of how God punishes the wicked. God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah with fire – but it took place suddenly and quickly. He destroyed Noah’s evil world with water – but the Flood came suddenly and quickly. The Lord ordered the Canaanites to be killed, but they were to be killed swiftly. In the Law of Moses there was no provision for long jail sentences, where a person suffers in jail for years and years. Torture certainly was not allowed. Punishments for violation of the Law consisted either of swift corporal punishment, restitution or death. Even animals were to be spared suffering. They were to be killed as quickly and painlessly as possible. The concept of eternal torment goes against what we know of how God deals with the punishment of the wicked. The concept of eternal torment seems to make the God of justice into a bit of a sadist.

A third problem with the traditional view is that it seems to contradict a phrase that is used to describe Hell. That term is “the Second Death” (see Revelation 2:11; 20:6,14; 21:8). How can Hell be a “Second Death” if it consists of a kind of eternal life, an eternal existence of conscious torment? Is the Second Death just another kind of life? Or, is the Second Death a cessation of spiritual life, like the first death is a cessation of physical life? Isn’t death a cessation of life?

A fourth problem with the traditional view is that it seems to ignore an important Biblical teaching about Hell, that Hell is a place of destruction. Yeshua Himself spoke of Hell as a place of “destruction.” “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it” (Matthew 7:13). Further, in Matthew 10:28 Yeshua says: “Do not fear those who kill the body, but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in Hell.” Destruction of both body and soul means to me, the total destruction of the entire person. Likewise, in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 Rabbi Paul says that those who do not obey the message of salvation “will pay the penalty of eternal destruction.”

I don’t think the word “destroy” or “destruction” should be interpreted to mean a kind of irreparable loss, or something that continues to exist forever. It seems much more likely that “destroy” should be taken to mean exactly that. When a building is destroyed, it doesn’t function as a building. When a bridge is destroyed, it ceases to function as a bridge. When a human life, including both body and soul, is destroyed, it ceases to function.

The writer of the letter to the Hebrews says that the unrighteous will experience a terrifying judgment that will result in their destruction by fire. They will be burned up and consumed by fire (Hebrews 10:27). Even one of the most comforting verses in the Bible speaks of the final destruction of the unrighteous: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Humanity is perishing, like a rotten, spoiled piece of meat or fruit. Does a perishable fruit continue to exist forever in that perishable state? No. We will suffer the same ultimate condition as those perishable items. We will ultimately be destroyed.

Fifth, there is a difference between eternal punishment and eternal punishing. It is one thing to experience a punishment that is eternal in its consequences; it is another thing to experience eternal punishing. The Bible also speaks of eternal judgment (Hebrews 6:2). Is that a judgment that continues eternally, or is it a judgment with eternal consequences? Likewise, the Bible speaks of eternal redemption (Hebrews 9:12). But this does not mean that the Son of God will be involved in the act of redemption eternally. The act of redemption took place at the Cross, once and for all. It was an eternal redemption because the result of the redemption has eternal consequences. There is a difference between eternal redemption and eternal redeeming. There is a difference between eternal punishment and eternal punishing.

I noted earlier that the traditional view often cites Revelation 14:9 11 to demonstrate that the suffering of the wicked will be eternal. It tells us that those who take the mark of the beast during the Tribulation will be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and the Messiah who sacrificed Himself for us and that the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever. Notice that this passage does not speak of eternal torment. Rather, it speaks of “the smoke of their torment” ascending forever. The Bible is its own best interpreter, and when you look up statements similar to this you will find that they are not literal, but non-literal, or symbolic of a punishment that has eternal consequences, not a punishment that continues eternally. For example, consider Isaiah 34:10 which speaks of the destruction of Edom. It says the smoke of Edom’s destruction will “go up forever.” I haven’t been to Edom (the southern portion of modern day Jordan in the area around Petra). I haven’t seen its destruction. But I know that there is no smoke still ascending from there to Heaven. The reference to eternal smoke is not literal. Therefore it is non-literal, or symbolic, teaching us that Edom’s destruction will give eternal testimony to how God deals with a sinful society. The same is true of Jude 7 when it says that Sodom and Gomorrah experienced “the punishment of eternal fire.” I have been to the area at the southern tip of the Dead Sea where these twin cities used to exist, and I know that they are not on fire right now, and there is no smoke going up to Heaven. They simply suffered a fiery destruction that had eternal consequences. Eternal punishment, or eternal punishing? Eternal consequences for sin, or eternal torment?

Sixth, the Scriptures talk about degrees of punishment. Yeshua denounced the cities in which most of His miracles were done, because they did not repent. Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles had occurred in Tyre and Sidon which occurred in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. Nevertheless I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the Day of Judgment than for you. These Jewish cities that believed in one God and had His Word will be worse off in the Judgment than Tyre and Sidon – two cities full of gross paganism and wickedness. And you, Capernaum, will not be exalted to Heaven, will you? You will descend to Hades; for if the miracles had occurred in Sodom which occurred in you, it would have remained to this day. Nevertheless I say to you that it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the Day of Judgment, than for you. There are degrees of judgment, and degrees of punishment. How do we understand this? Are their places in Hell that are hotter than others? Levels of Hell? Or, are the degrees of punishment meted out by the length of the sentence, based on the crimes of the individual, and his level of knowledge and responsibility?

Seventh, many traditionalists believe that the soul is immortal, and if the human soul is immortal, it must suffer forever. But is the human soul immortal? Can it die? In the beginning man was banished from the Garden of Eden, and forbidden to eat from the Tree of Life, so that he would not live forever, so that he would not be immortal. Mankind is headed toward death – the first death, followed by the Second Death. He is not filled with life. He is not, by nature, immortal. In 1 Timothy 6:15 16 Paul says that God alone possesses immortality – not us. And 1 Corinthians 15:53 the great Rabbi teaches that the redeemed will not become immortal until the time of their resurrection. “For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality.” In other words, immortality is a gift of God which He gives in His grace to the redeemed at the time of their resurrection. In 2 Timothy 1:10, Paul states that because of the appearing of our Savior, Messiah Yeshua, He has abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel. It is Yeshua who brings immortality to those who receive the message of salvation that He alone offers. There is no need to believe that most human beings will suffer eternally in Hell if the soul is not intrinsically immortal. And it isn’t. I do not believe that the Bible teaches the immortality of the human soul.

Can History Decide the Question?

We can see that both the traditional and the conditional positions on Hell can muster good, Biblical support for their point of view. Can history help us decide which is right? Unfortunately, it can’t, for both viewpoints can be found in very early writings, from both Jewish and Christian sources. The idea of a Hell where the impenitent were eternally tormented can be traced to a time before Yeshua came. Early Jewish sources, like the intertestamental Book of Enoch, as well as the Fourth Book of the Sibylline Oracles, both speak of the eternal suffering of the wicked. Cyprian, a Christian from the Third Century, wrote that “the damned will burn forever in Hell.” Augustine, who lived around the year 400 A.D., was the one responsible for systematizing and popularizing the traditional viewpoint.

The Conditionalist view was taught by Rabbi Hillel, who lived around the same time as Yeshua. He taught that one class of sinner would be punished “to ages of ages” – even though he maintained that most of the damned would be destroyed – a position pretty much the same as mine. The concept is also affirmed in the Didache, a late First or early Second Century Messianic Jewish writing. That book speaks of “two ways” – the way of life and the way of death. It says the unrighteous will perish. In his Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, Justyn Martyr (114 165 A.D.), an early Christian leader, states that the soul is mortal, that the souls of the unrighteous will suffer only as long as God wills, and that finally their souls will pass out of existence.

The Reality of Hell

Which viewpoint is right? I believe that the conditionalist understanding on the nature and duration of Hell is superior. You may decide that the evidence points in the other direction – as most do. But whatever you conclude, based on our study of Scripture, we can agree that Hell is real, and a terrifying, horrendous place that should be avoided at all costs. You certainly do not want yourself, your friends or your family to go there. There will be no parties in Hell, as many believe who believe in Hell. No one is going to be having a good time hanging out with their friends, and enjoying the sins that they enjoyed on Earth. And you should do all you can to make sure it is not your final home, or their final doom. The truth is that you can choose eternal life by receiving the Lord Yeshua as your Lord and Savior. Or, you can choose eternal destruction by refusing to accept God’s gift of love and grace. You can continue being part of the demonic rebellion against the King of the universe. I urge you to choose life by accepting the only Savior, Messiah Yeshua.