Hell: Annihilation or Eternal Torment?

For many Christians, hell with an eternal torment of burning fire seems to be unacceptable and incompatible with the nature of a merciful God. The rest of Christians believe hell as an eternal place of torment. Whichever side you are, it is important to note that the Bible does support both views but only one view can be true. Here, we will look into different verses from the Bible to understand hell.

The Rich man and Lazarus by James Tissot

The English word hell refers to several words in original language and refers to different meaning. e.g., Sheol, Hades, Geenna and Tartarus.

Sheol or Hades

Acts 2:27 For You will not leave my soul in Hades, Nor will You allow Your Holy One to see corruption. 

Ps 16:10 For You will not leave my soul in Sheol, Nor will You allow Your Holy One to see corruption.

Sheol in the Old Testament is the same as Hades in the New Testament.

Gen 37:35 And all his sons and all his daughters arose to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted, and he said, “For I shall go down into the grave (Sheol) to my son in mourning.” Thus his father wept for him.

Num 16:33 So they and all those with them went down alive into the pit (Sheol); the earth closed over them, and they perished from among the assembly.

However, Sheol in the Old Testament simply refers to grave as we see in the above verses.

Ps 6:5 For in death [there is] no remembrance of You; In the grave (Sheol) who will give You thanks?

Ps 30:3 O LORD, You brought my soul up from the grave (Sheol); You have kept me alive, that I should not go down to the pit.

Eccl 9:10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do [it] with your might; for [there is] no work or device or knowledge or wisdom in the grave (Sheol) where you are going.

Isa 38:18 For Sheol cannot thank You, Death cannot praise You; Those who go down to the pit cannot hope for Your truth.

We see from Psalmist that Sheol is again referring simply to grave where the dead have no work or device or knowledge of wisdom.

Jonah 2:2 And he said: “I cried out to the LORD because of my affliction, And He answered me. “Out of the belly of Sheol I cried, [And] You heard my voice.

Based on Jonah’s words, the belly of the fish is the belly of Sheol. In other words, it is his grave if he dies. Therefore, Sheol or Hades refers to grave.

Dan 12:2 And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, Some to everlasting life, Some to shame [and] everlasting contempt.

The reference in Daniel is extremely clear that there is no suffering in Hades and all will be sleeping in the dust of the earth. While the righteous gets everlasting life, the wicked will get shame and everlasting contempt. The verse does not say anything about everlasting torment.
There is no reference in Old Testament that suggests eternal torment in Hades.

Luke 8:52-53 Now all wept and mourned for her; but He said, “Do not weep; she is not dead, but sleeping. And they ridiculed Him, knowing that she was dead.

John 11:11-14 These things He said, and after that He said to them, “Our friend Lazarus sleeps, but I go that I may wake him up. Then His disciples said, “Lord, if he sleeps he will get well. However, Jesus spoke of his death, but they thought that He was speaking about taking rest in sleep. Then Jesus said to them plainly, “Lazarus is dead.

The same is mentioned by Jesus as well when He referred those who are dead as sleeping.

Tartarus

2Pet 2:4 For if God did not spare the angels who sinned, but cast [them] down to (Tartarus) hell and delivered [them] into chains of darkness, to be reserved for judgment;

Peter refers to a different word used only once which is translated as hell. Just as Hades is a Greek word referring to the land of the dead, Tartarus is the lowest depths of Hades. If we consider the English word hell, it is from an Indo-European root meaning ‘to cover or hide’. We see the actual meaning is now lost and now has a different meaning. This is exactly the case with Greek speaking Jewish population and early Christians.

Ps 88:6 You have laid me in the lowest pit, In darkness, in the depths.

Isa 14:15 Yet you shall be brought down to Sheol, To the lowest depths of the Pit.

Lam 3:55 I called on Your name, O LORD, From the lowest pit.

Just as we use hell to refer to the place of the wicked which has nothing to do with it’s original meaning to cover or hide, Hades in Greek was used to refer Sheol in Hebrew and Tartarus in Greek was used to refer to the lowest parts of Sheol in Hebrew.

Hell or Geenna

Before we explore about annihilation or eternal torment, we need to find what hell is. Hell is the geenna meaning, valley of (the son of) Hinnom.

2Kgs 23:10 And he defiled Topheth, which [is] in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, that no man might make his son or his daughter pass through the fire to Molech.

Hell which has its origin in Hebrew certainly refers to a place of torment using a symbolic reference to the valley of (the son of) Hinnom where the children of Israel made their own children pass through fire.
It is very important to note that there is no verse in the New Testament that suggest that hell is same as Hades/Sheol. When Jesus and apostles want to refer Sheol, the Bible always used Hades and not Geenna. However, when they want to refer burning with unquenchable fire, they referred it as Geenna/hell.
Hence, hell is a used as a symbolic reference for the place of torment where wicked and sinful will end.

Outer Darkness

Apart from hell, there is also a place mentioned by Christ as Outer Darkness.

Matt 8:11-12 “And I say to you that many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Matt 22:13 “Then the king said to the servants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, take him away, and cast [him] into outer darkness; there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

Matt 25:30 ‘And cast the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

Those who are unworthy for the kingdom of God will be thrust out into outer darkness. This is where some have suggested that hell is about absence of God.

Hell & Outer Darkness

Matt 13:41-42 “The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and those who practice lawlessness, and will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Matt 8:11-12 “And I say to you that many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Outer darkness is used synonymous to furnace of fire.

Eternal Torment

Eternal torment as the name suggests, sinners will experience an eternity of suffering in hell.

Matt 25:41,46 “Then He will also say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels: … And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Hell is a place of everlasting fire which was originally prepared for devil and His angels.

Rev 20:10 The devil, who deceived them, was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone where the beast and the false prophet [are.] And they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.

John gives more details that the everlasting fire mentioned by Jesus is the lake of fire and brimstone where those who rejected Christ will be tormented day and night as an everlasting punishment.

Mark 14:21 “The Son of Man indeed goes just as it is written of Him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been good for that man if he had never been born.”

When Jesus revealed about Judas who betrayed Jesus, He gave an important revelation. The existence of a worse punishment, far worse that is better for him not to be born. In other words, annihilation would have been much better for Judas than the punishment for betraying Him.

Mark 9:47-48 “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, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire– where ‘Their worm does not die, And the fire is not quenched.

Jesus Christ mentions the existence of hell where worms does not die and the fire is not quenched.

Annihilation

While eternal torment is a suffering in hell for eternity, annihilation as the name suggests, all sinners are completely destroyed as if they never existed.

Matt 10:28 “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.

Luke 12:4-5 “And I say to you, My friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear Him who, after He has killed, has power to cast into hell; yes, I say to you, fear Him!

The first evidence for annihilation is from the book of Matthew where God will destroy both soul and body in hell. If the soul is destroyed, then the sinner is annihilated. But Luke on the other hand mentions the same spoken words of Jesus a bit different, which supports eternal torment where sinners are cast into hell after being killed.

Luke 4:33-34 Now in the synagogue there was a man who had a spirit of an unclean demon. And he cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Let [us] alone! What have we to do with You, Jesus of Nazareth? Did You come to destroy us? I know who You are–the Holy One of God!”

Mark 1:24 saying, “Let [us] alone! What have we to do with You, Jesus of Nazareth? Did You come to destroy us? I know who You are–the Holy One of God!”

Jesus Christ is able to destroy the spirit of an unclean demon. If the spirit of an unclean demon is destroyed, then demon is annihilated.

Matt 25:41,46 “Then He will also say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels: … And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

From an annihilation perspective, everlasting fire and everlasting punishment does not necessarily mean everlasting torment. For example, a fire that burns forever to annihilate is a punishment forever.

Rev 20:10 The devil, who deceived them, was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone where the beast and the false prophet [are.] And they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.

The above verse seems to be a torment for day and night until you realize the beast is actually “a kingdom” and not a living creature.

Isa 66:22-24 “For as the new heavens and the new earth Which I will make shall remain before Me,” says the LORD, “So shall your descendants and your name remain. And it shall come to pass [That] from one New Moon to another, And from one Sabbath to another, All flesh shall come to worship before Me,” says the LORD.And they shall go forth and look Upon the corpses of the men Who have transgressed against Me. For their worm does not die, And their fire is not quenched. They shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.” 

Mark 9:47-48 “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, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire– where ‘Their worm does not die, And the fire is not quenched.’

When Christ is referring to the unquenchable fire where worms does not die, He is referring not about everlasting torment, but a punishment of their the corpses of sinners being burnt forever, as prophesied by prophet Isaiah.

Mark 9:47-48 “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, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire– where ‘Their worm does not die, And the fire is not quenched.’

When Christ is referring the entry with two eyes to the place where fire is not quenched and worms do not die, He is also referring to entering kingdom of God with one eye. We know no one will be maimed in the kingdom of God when the wicked is cast into hell. Hence, it is certainly possible Christ is referring only about the entry to hell and not about eternal suffering after entering hell.

Rev 1:18 “I [am] He who lives, and was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore. Amen. And I have the keys of Hades and of Death.

Rev 20:14 Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death.

The first death is about our physical death and our soul going to Hades but the second death is about the end of death itself. Christ has the keys to Death and Hades who can redeem anyone He wants. Bible does not say He will redeem everyone neither does it say He will not.

2Pet 3:9 The Lord is not slack concerning [His] promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.

However, the Bible does say, God does not want any to perish but come to repentance.

Matt 24:51 “and will cut him in two and appoint [him] his portion with the hypocrites. There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Weeping and gnashing of teeth is often referred to torments in hell. However, the above Bible reference mentions the same for a person cut into two which supports annihilation.

Quick Recap

  • Sheol or Hades is grave where the dead have no work or device or knowledge or wisdom.
  • There is no reference in Old Testament that suggests eternal torment in Hades.
  • Hell is a symbolic reference to the torment suffered by the children of ancient Israel in the valley of (the son of) Hinnom who made them pass through fire.
  • Hell is synonymous to Outer Darkness.
  • The beast who will be tormented day and night in the lake of fire and brimstone forever and ever, is a nation.
  • There is a worse punishment for the betrayer of Son of Man. It is better he had never been born, which supports the view of a punishment rather than annihilation.
  • Christ gave graphic details of the flames of torment in Hades after death in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.
  • God has the power to destroy soul in hell which supports annihilation. Christ can destroy the Spirit of an unclean demon.
  • Everlasting punishment does not necessarily mean everlasting torment.
  • Christ’s reference to the place of unquenchable fire where worms do not die is to burn the corpse of those who transgressed against God. It is not a reference to eternal torment.
  • Just as there is not maimed person in heaven, entering with one eye is only a reference to enter kingdom of God. The same is true for being cast into unquenchable fire. The verse does not explain if the maimed will be cured in heaven or the wicked will suffer forever.
  • John uses lake of fire and brimstone to describe hell.
  • Death and Hades will be cast into lake of fire which is called second death.
  • The evil servant cut into two and thrown in a place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Being cut into two, it supports annihilation.

Jesus Christ on Hades/Sheol

Let us focus on what Jesus said especially about Hades (or after death) by revisiting some of the verses.

Matt 22:31-32 “But concerning the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God, saying, I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’ ? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.”

When Jesus said, God is not the God of the dead but the living, He is referring with context to resurrection of the dead. He is not necessarily referring to Abraham being alive but sleeping and will one day resurrected from the dead.

Luke 20:34-36 Jesus answered and said to them, “The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage. But those who are counted worthy to attain that age, and the resurrection from the dead, neither marry nor are given in marriage; nor can they die anymore, for they are equal to the angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection.

Further, only those who are worthy will attain the age to come, which suggests, the rest will be annihilated.

Luke 8:52-53 Now all wept and mourned for her; but He said, “Do not weep; she is not dead, but sleeping. And they ridiculed Him, knowing that she was dead

John 11:11-14 These things He said, and after that He said to them, “Our friend Lazarus sleeps, but I go that I may wake him up. Then His disciples said, “Lord, if he sleeps he will get well. However, Jesus spoke of his death, but they thought that He was speaking about taking rest in sleep. Then Jesus said to them plainly, “Lazarus is dead.

Jesus always referred to dead people as sleeping during both occasions with the only exception of parables.

Luke 16:23-24 And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. “Then he cried and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.’

In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus Christ gave a glimpse of torments in Hades. Now here are the important questions:

  • If Sheol/Hades is a place for the dead who have no knowledge or wisdom, how can the rich man in the parable suffer and have a conversation with Abraham?
  • If Abraham was sleeping, just like the Lazarus and the little girl who were also dead, how can Abraham have a conversation with the rich man until the resurrection of the dead?

 

Matt 27:52-53 and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many.

In the book of Matthew, we see the dead were referred as fallen asleep. Hence, Jesus Christ and His disciple Matthew, consider death as falling asleep in Sheol where no knowledge or wisdom exists. Now the question is, what about the parable?

Torment in Hades & Final Annihilation

It seems there is a different thirst unknown or unexpressed which may not be understandable by us, which Jesus seems to warn us repeatedly using parables and other terms using furnace of fire, outer darkness, flames of torment.

Luke 11:24-26 “When an unclean spirit goes out of a man, he goes through dry places, seeking rest; and finding none, he says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when he comes, he finds [it] swept and put in order. Then he goes and takes with [him] seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the last [state] of that man is worse than the first.”

Clearly, the dry places referred here is in the spirit realm and it seems the spirit requires a host/body to have rest. Without this rest, the spirit will be going through dry places and the torments of it is similar to the flames of this world and the rest is compared to cooling the tongue.

1Sam 28:13-19 And the king said to her, “Do not be afraid. What did you see?” And the woman said to Saul, “I saw a spirit ascending out of the earth.” So he said to her, “What [is] his form?” And she said, “An old man is coming up, and he [is] covered with a mantle.” And Saul perceived that it [was] Samuel, and he stooped with [his] face to the ground and bowed down. Now Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” And Saul answered, “I am deeply distressed; for the Philistines make war against me, and God has departed from me and does not answer me anymore, neither by prophets nor by dreams. Therefore I have called you, that you may reveal to me what I should do.” Then Samuel said: “So why do you ask me, seeing the LORD has departed from you and has become your enemy? And the LORD has done for Himself as He spoke by me. For the LORD has torn the kingdom out of your hand and given it to your neighbor, David. Because you did not obey the voice of the LORD nor execute His fierce wrath upon Amalek, therefore the LORD has done this thing to you this day. Moreover the LORD will also deliver Israel with you into the hand of the Philistines. And tomorrow you and your sons [will be] with me. The LORD will also deliver the army of Israel into the hand of the Philistines.”

In the above passages, we see the spirit of Samuel is disturbed from his sleep. He also mentions that tomorrow Saul and his sons will be with him (i.e., Sheol). There are two possibilities. Either the devil is impersonating Samuel or it is indeed the spirit of Samuel.

Luke 16:26 ‘And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.’

Just as the great gulf, the spirit of the wicked cannot go near the spirit of the righteous. This gulf is no more because when Christ died, He entered Hades to defeat death itself, for He is life. Now, He has the keys to Hades and victorious over it.

1Pet 3:18-20 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while [the] ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water.

The above is a fulfillment of the below prophecy.

Zech 9:11 “As for you also, Because of the blood of your covenant, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.

Waterless pit, dry land, cooling of the tongue – all points to some kind of torment in spiritual realm for the spirits of sinners in Hades, but the righteous seems to have rest and referred as sleeping until the day of resurrection.
After the resurrection of Christ, the righteous are freed from the prison of Hades and are with Christ, but the wicked are left in Hades until the second resurrection.

Rev 21:8,10 “But the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.” … The devil, who deceived them, was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone where the beast and the false prophet [are.] And they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.

Rev 20:11 Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away. And there was found no place for them.

Rev 20:14-15 Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. … And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire.

All the sinners whose name is not found in the Book of Life will have their part in second death. The devil, beast and the false prophet were cast into the lake of fire and tormented day and night forever and ever. However, the next verse is the Great White Throne Judgment where heaven and earth fled away. In other words, the day/night will cease to exist suggesting that the torment will be until the Great White Throne Judgment and after which all the sinners will be annihilated.

Rev 21:1 Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. Also there was no more sea.

Rev 21:4-5 “And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.” Then He who sat on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” And He said to me, “Write, for these words are true and faithful.”

Isa 66:22-24 “For as the new heavens and the new earth Which I will make shall remain before Me,” says the LORD, “So shall your descendants and your name remain. And it shall come to pass [That] from one New Moon to another, And from one Sabbath to another, All flesh shall come to worship before Me,” says the LORD.And they shall go forth and look Upon the corpses of the men Who have transgressed against Me. For their worm does not die, And their fire is not quenched. They shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.” 

We see this final annihilation when the new heavens and the new earth are created where the righteous shall go forth and look upon the corpse of the men who transgressed against God.

Conclusion

We still have some differences from prophet Daniel, who mentions both righteous and wicked will sleep (Dan 12:2). By comparing what Jesus spoke about death, He may simply be referring to the sleep in flesh in the dust of the earth but the not the spirit or soul as we see in the parable of Jesus (Luke 16:23-24). Jesus knew Hades is a place or torment and He doesn’t want anyone to go.

Luke 8:30-33 Jesus asked him, saying, “What is your name?” And he said, “Legion,” because many demons had entered him. And they begged Him that He would not command them to go out into the abyss. Now a herd of many swine was feeding there on the mountain. So they begged Him that He would permit them to enter them. And He permitted them. Then the demons went out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd ran violently down the steep place into the lake and drowned.

We see here, Christ is merciful even to demons and listened to their plea and did not cast them to the abyss (or Sheol). What is more important to understand is that, even demons doesn’t want to go into abyss.
Hades is a place of torment for the wicked but a rest for the righteous whose death is often referred as sleep. While the torment is not literal flames, several clues from the Bible reveals something similar to waterless, dry, restless wandering in the spirit realm, which is compared to flames of torment and unquenchable thirst. But when Christ was resurrected, the righteous were freed and are with Christ. But the wicked are still in torments until their second resurrection where they will be judged and annihilated in the lake of fire. Why would anyone want to go through this torment? Repent!