The Problem of Eternal Conscious Punishment

Beasts and Superbeasts Feel the Heat

(Presented by Dr. David Richmond at the CIANZ 2013 conference on the 11th May)

The title of this lecture: Beasts and Superbeasts is a play on the name of a 1914 book by Saki, a pseudonym for Howard Henry Munro.  This book of short stories was one of the late Rev. John Stott’s favourite pieces of fiction.  Its relevance will shortly be made clear.

 We start with a proposition commonly heard from critics of the Christian faith.  How could any thinking person believe on the one hand that God is a God of love and the creator of humanity, and on the other that He is fully prepared to consign those of His creatures who aren’t ‘saved’ to eternal torment in the fires of Hell?  Where is the justice in that?  Where is the proportionality between the crime and the punishment?  It seems that human beings have more protection under the law in this world than they can expect in the world to come! 

This question is not confined to non-Christians.  It is echoed from time to time in the Church.  It is in fact the major stumbling block that has spawned the Emergent Church movement.  In that case however, instead of questioning whether there is some alternative explanation to the theory of eternal conscious punishment in Hell, the concept of Hell has been abandoned altogether in favour of Universalism and Syncretism.

There is increasing consensus amongst evangelical theologians that the doctrine of Hell as being a place of eternal torment by unquenchable fire is Biblically unsound.  Ii is not a new idea: Martin Luther had doubts about it.  The late  John Stott did not support it.  It has been observed that in recent years even strongly fundamentalist preachers who still hold the doctrine do not preach much on the subject.

Some responses.

In discussing this question we need to ask two very basic questions.

  1. What are the   presuppositions i.e. the ideas that we hold as ‘givens’ that the discussants bring to the table  and
  2.  Are these presuppositions supported by Scripture?

Is the human soul inherently immortal?

The moral justification for the deeply held orthodox conviction that sinners will be punished by eternal conscious torment in Hell is ultimately to be found in the presupposition that the human soul is inherently immortal.  If the soul or any part of it is immortal, created to be so by God Himself, then it is clearly not possible that it can be destroyed.  It must exist for ever. If on the other hand one’s presupposition is that the soul is not inherently immortal, then its destruction becomes a possibility.  For the remainder of this lecture I will assume that the defence of the case for conditional immortality does not need to be argued here.

Two categories of people

That many people will experience eternal punishment is undisputed by most conservative theological scholars.  Jesus in speaking of His return and the resurrection speaks of two categories of people, the ‘sheep’ and the ‘goats’ at the day of judgement. (Matt 25: 31 – 46)  The ‘sheep’ (representing the ‘righteous’) are sent off to eternal life, the ‘goats’ (representing the unrighteous’) to eternal punishment.  Although the discrimination between the two is apparently on the basis of how they treated their ‘neighbours’ the righteous receive an ‘inheritance’ i.e. their good works are evidence of a life of faith worked out in love; since an inheritance is un-earned.  This is probably the same judgement at the end of time as depicted in Rev.20: 11-15.

The traditional Protestant view

The traditional Protestant view of Hell is that after death there is some kind of triage system in place – effectively a first judgement –  that consigns the righteous (or some disembodied part of them usually referred to as the ‘soul’ or the ‘spirit’) to Heaven, and the unrepentant to Hell. According to this scenario, Hell is burning right now. No-one seems too sure how the selection system works or who is responsible for it, although St. Peter is commonly held to have some such function. (? The millennium story) At the Resurrection, according to this theory, soul / spirit and body are reunited and appear at the Judgement which re- assigns the righteous to Heaven and re-consigns the wicked to Hell.  The concept of an eternal fiery Hell has fired up the imagination of many ‘hell-fire’ preachers over the centuries to describe the most sickening effects of eternal punishment on the victims of it.  There is none of that in the Bible.

The traditional Protestant view

The traditional Protestant view

The Roman Catholic View

In the Roman Catholic view of things, the options are Heaven, Purgatory and Hell.  Those guilty of mortal sin are consigned to Hell.  The very, very few saints who by their lives have earned great merit, go to Heaven.  The remainder of the faithful, venial sinners all, are destined to serve an indeterminate period in Purgatory.  Here there is punishment for sin but also the opportunity to reform as the result of that punishment and eventually make it into Heaven.  Having one’s surviving relatives pay for masses to be said on one’s behalf, helps to speed up the process.  But even with such assistance, no-one can say how long anybody will remain in Hell.  RCs also have the concept of ‘Limbo” which is the place of abode of dead innocent children and righteous people who died prior to the incarnation and the cross.

The Roman Catholic View

The Roman Catholic View

The rich man and Lazarus

The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is perhaps the most-cited piece of evidence supporting the concept of eternal conscious punishment. (Luke16: 19 – 31.)  And unless one looks at it closely one might indeed get the impression that Jesus is here teaching something about the nature of Hell.  If you accept that that is what Jesus is doing, as so many do, then this is what you will learn about Hell.

  • One’s financial and social status is a powerful determinant of one’s eligibility for Heaven or Hell.  Rich man to Hell, poor man to Heaven.  (Jesus doesn’t say that, morally speaking, Lazarus was any better than the rich man or that Lazarus was a believer and the rich man wasn’t.)
  • Those in Hell are able to see and communicate with those in Paradise.  The latter are aware of the distress of the former – for ever, and ever.  This seems to be at odds with Rev. 21:4. (…there will be no more crying or pain…)
  • Those in Hell are not particularly keen to leave it, although they are uncomfortable enough to wish that others might not join them there.  (The rich man did not plead with Abraham to exercise his influence to have him released from Hell and he certainly didn’t confess to any wrongdoing during life – including treating Lazarus badly – or repent in the hope of escaping).
  • A finger dipped in cold water and placed on the tongue of an inhabitant of Hell is able to significantly reduce the discomfort.  (That doesn’t sound like an antidote to a lake of burning sulphur.)
  • Hell is a place of eternal conscious torment.  Need I say anything more?

The point of the parable is none of the above.  It is surely to emphasize the fact that in the case of people who have hardened their hearts to the teachings of Scripture, even the fact of Jesus’ death and resurrection is not likely to turn them from rebellion to repentance and belief in God’s way of salvation.  (v.31.  He (Abraham)  said to him: “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.) We know that that is absolutely true of the religious leaders of Jesus’ time and it is still true today.

 Beasts and Super-beasts.

Graphic images of Hell in the book of Revelation are also commonly appealed to as a description of the eternal torment in hell of the ungodly by those who interpret the book of Revelation literally.  The two major references are: 14: 9 – 18 and 20: 7 – 15.  We will return to these verses later because, as we shall discover, 14 : 11 is the only verse in the whole Bible from which a case for eternal conscious punishment in a fiery Hell could be credibly argued.

From chapter 11, the book of Revelation depicts a strange melange of interacting humans, humanoids, non-humans and celestial beings. The humans are a woman who is pregnant and gives birth (chapter 12) a prostitute (ch. 17) and, a false prophet (ch. 16). The humanoids are two ‘men’ designated ‘witnesses’ Ch. 11).  I call them humanoids because they have characteristics of men, olive trees and lampstands.  Could they be robots? Then there are 9 major non-human players fronting up for evil in rebellion against God.  They are, in order of appearance:

  • an enormous red Dragon with 7 heads, 10 horns and 7 crowns (12:3).  This dragon and his angels make war against Michael and his angels, are defeated, and he is tossed out of heaven to the earth.
  • the first Beast –out of the sea – in appearance a leopard with bear’s feet and a lion’s mouth. It has 7 heads, 10 horns and 10 crowns covered with blasphemous names (12:13, 13:1 ff)
  • the second Beast -out of the earth with two horns like a lamb but speaking like a dragon and performing great miracles (13:11), forcing people to worship the first beast and make a statue of it.  (This beast I believe is Satan’s alternate for the Lamb of God.)
  • the statue of the first beast that comes alive by the power of the second beast and forces people to worship itself on pain of death. (13:15)
  • a false Prophet (16:13) –who is, it turns out, an alternative manifestation of the second beast. Clues to this include his ‘number’ – 666, the ‘number of man’, that once he appears on the scene the second beast is sighted no more, and that in 19: 20 it is he who is credited with having performed the miraculous signs on behalf of the beast and deluded those who had received the mark of the beast and worshipped its image, all actions previously attributed to the second beast. (13: 11 – 17).
  • three evil spirits like Frogs (16:13) spewed up by the Dragon, a false Prophet and one of the first two Beasts.  They are responsible for gathering the kings of the earth and their armies to Armageddon, for the second-last battle between the forces of evil and the forces of Almighty God. (16: 13 – 16  and 19: 19 – 21)).
  • a scarlet Beast with 7 heads and ten horns covered with blasphemous names. (17: 3, 7, 8, 11) No crowns mentioned.  It isn’t totally clear if this is another beast or the first Beast in drag, or Satan, the scarlet dragon.  The evidence favouring Satan is that this scarlet Beast seems to be visible and invisible periodically (“once was, now is not and will come”), apparently having done time in the “Abyss” – which is the schedule we learn later that awaits Satan.  Whatever; its ultimate fate is said to be “destruction.” (17:11). This scarlet Beast and his mates plot to make war against the Lamb. (17:14)

We learn that there is a large allegorical component to these beasts.  For example, the dragon’s heads represent hills and kings, as do the crowns.(17: 9-14) It seems that what is being pictured here are coalitions of kingdoms and nations infused with Satanic evil and united in one thing: rebellion against Almighty God and the Lamb.

The  Celestial beings are the Lamb of God, a variety of angels and God Almighty.

Eventually, the first and second Beasts (the false prophet) make war on God’s army, presumably at Armageddon, are defeated, captured and thrown into the lake of fire (19:20) which is said in 20:14 to be “the second death.”  (However, note that the humans who fought with them against God were ‘killed’, and not thrown into the lake of fire- 19:21, this being their first death.)

But what of Satan?

It turns out (12:9  and 20: 2) that the Dragon and Satan are one and the same.  He’s lurking around because he is captured after this battle and consigned to the ‘pit’ (the Abyss – apparently not Hell) for 1000 years (20: 1-3).

Having served his time incarcerated in the Abyss, he is freed on probation but his hatred of God still seething, he tears off to wreak more mayhem (20:7 -9), treacherously pulling together an army “in number like the sand of the sea.”  He surrounds God’s army but his human army and supporters are consumed with fire from heaven (20:9) and he is captured again and carted off to join his old mates, the beast and the false prophet in the lake of burning sulphur where they are said to be tormented “day and night for ever and ever”.  (19:7 -21).

The last act is the Judgement of the living and dead.

According to Rev. 20: 15 and 21:8, the lake of burning sulphur awaits sinners and anyone whose name does not appear in the Book of Life.  This fate is said to be the “Second Death.”  Specifically, they are not said to be tormented for ever and ever.

This scenario leaves more questions than answers.  What happens to the other ratbags: the statue that came alive, the frog-like evil spirits who were said to be spirits of demons working miracles, and the second scarlet beast remains a mystery.  Why weren’t they dealt to?  They just fade from the scene.

In the end, the only beings who are specifically said to suffer eternal torment in the lake of flaming sulphur are Satan aka the dragon, the first beast and the second beast, aka the false prophet. But how could a non-material demonic being like Satan or for that matter, the beasts, be tormented for ever by physical, material fire?  Even more startling; the last entities to be ditched into the lake of fire are Death and Hell themselves! (20:14). Death is not a material combustible substance and for that matter Paul speaks of death being the last enemy to be destroyed. (1 Cor. 15:26)  So death doesn’t suffer eternal torment in the fire!  As for Hell: how could Hell be thrown into Hell?

Surely the point of these nightmarish events is to signal the end of this whole sorry scene, the end of the second death and the end of Hell. In my opinion, whether one takes the Revelation story literally or figuratively (e.g. the harlot is often identified with Rome) it is all too allegorical to safely build a solid doctrine of eternal conscious torment in Hell around.  Especially in the light of all the other teaching in Scripture that fails to support the concept.

What of Revelation 14:9-12 ?

But what about that scenario in chapter 14 that we skipped over?  Surely it is quite specific in its support for an eternal conscious punishment for the ungodly? Let’s look at it more closely.

First, it is a warning. The tense is mostly future. And we know that God is merciful and does not always carry out His threats. The fate of the city of Nineveh after Jonah’s preaching tour is an example. “In 40 days the city will be destroyed”.  But it wasn’t. However, it could be argued in that case that it was because the people repented.  A closer example would be the case of Sodom and Gomorrah, where God was willing to compromise and not destroy the city even if only 10 good people could be found in it (Genesis 18). An even closer example is from Numbers 14 where the Lord threatened to wipe out the Israelite nation when they rebelled at the borders of the Promised Land, but was deterred by Moses’ pleading on the rebellious peoples’ behalves.

Second, there is metaphorical language here. One speaks of the beast worshippers “drinking the wine of God’s fury from the cup of wrath”. One would think that such wine would be highly poisonous. Another speaks of “torment with burning sulphur in the presence of the holy angels and the Lamb.” Death by immolation.  The end should be rapid for these rebels since it seems unlikely that the angels and our Lord would stand around for eternity watching the show.  The term “torment” does not carry inherent in it the notion of eternity.

Third, the scenario must be symbolic.  At a physical level, burning sulphur has a faint blue flame and virtually no visible fumes are emitted. There has to be something else burning in there to cause smoke. This may sound a bit grisly, but in the case of humans, both smoke and the production of tormenting pain could only occur if human flesh was actually being burned.  If this burning was taking place at or above the boiling point of sulphur at ~400◦C, the process would be virtually instantaneous.  Once everything has been burned, the smoke disappears.  There would actually have to be a miracle for the smoke of their burning to ascend for ever and ever, unless what is really meant is that the puff of smoke that marks the end of the ungodly dissipates into the eternity of space.  The precedent of smoke ‘going up’ for ever from a fire that does not burn forever is found in the OT story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. (Gen.18: 27, 28) referred to in Jude 7 as being an ‘eternal fire’ (but it is clearly not still burning).  Another reference is Isaiah 34: 7-15 which describes the destruction of Edom by an eternal fire of sulphur that ‘will not be quenched day or night ‘ and whose smoke ‘rises for ever’.  However, the rest of chapter 34 depicts animal and bird life returning to Edom, which could only happen if the fires had died out. The concept of fire that will not be quenched and smoke that rises for ever are indicative of the severity of the fire rather than its longevity. There are several examples of this use of the term in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Fourth, linguistically speaking, the Greek word translated ‘for ever’ does not actually mean eternity as we understand it, but ‘for an age’, the duration of the age not specified.

Finally, v. 11b asserts that there is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast. Orthodox theology uniformly attributes this restlessness to their eternal torment. But there are other more cogent possibilities.  It could refer to the uncertainty of life in the satanic state set up by Satan and the beasts.  It could refer to slave labour conditions.  But you have to read these things in context, and the next verse (12)  throws into contrast the state of the wicked and the state of the saints who “obey God’s command and remain faithful to Jesus.”  They are called to “patient endurance”.  They can exercise patient endurance in the face of persecution because they have a sure hope in the eventual victory of Almighty God over Satan even in the face of death (v. 13-14).  The wicked have no such hope. That is why they will be restless. There will be no-where to turn for them!

Other arguments supportive of the Conditionalist View

Other arguments supportive of the Conditionalist view that Hell is not a place of eternal conscious torment but a place where punishment for sin is rapid and complete include:

  • None of the uses of the Hebrew word ‘Sheol’ often translated as ‘Hell’ and sometimes as ‘the grave’ or ‘pit’ are unequivocally used in the OT to mean a place of eternal punishment.  The word means a place of unconsciousness, inactivity or sleep.  Isa. 66:24 is sometimes quoted as being a clear description of eternal torment in hell: “….all mankind will come and bow down before me” says the Lord.  “and they will ….look upon the 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.” but the bodies there described are clearly dead ones.
  • The figure of ‘unquenchable fire’ as in Ezek. 20: 47, 48 and Matt. 3:12 is used to denote a fire powerful enough to destroy anything consigned to it, and unable to be snuffed out (‘quenched’) until it has destroyed whatever fuels it. It does not mean that the fire continues for ever.
  • Jesus’ teaching on Hell is that it is a place of punishment, but none of His seven references to ‘gehenna’ / hell (the Valley of Hinom) ( Matt. 5: 22, 29,30; 18: 8,9; 23:15; 23:33; Mark 9:43-48) state that it is a place of eternal fiery torment.  He spoke of “unquenchable fire” (Matt 18:8, Mk. 9:43, 48) but not of eternal fiery punishment.  Indeed, he warned people to be afraid of the One who has the power to destroy both body and soul in Hell. (Matt.10:28).  Theologians have inferred that it is a place of eternal conscious torment because of Jesus’ referral in one instance to “their worm dying not” quoting Isa. 66:24 (Mk. 9:48).  We have already shown that that reference is about dead bodies being eaten by worms.  It is a very big jump to equate ‘worms’ with ‘human beings’, or human physical life, whatever Jesus meant to convey by this reference.
  • Paul writes of the “everlasting destruction” not the ‘everlasting destroying’ of those who reject the gospel of Christ.  (2 Thess.1:9)  Their destruction is complete and permanent.  See also John 3:16 – those who don’t believe in God ‘perish’.  It is reading too much into the text to equate the “trouble and distress”’ that Paul teaches will be the fate of those facing God’s anger on the day of judgement with eternal conscious torment. (Ro. 2:5-9)

So what are the other options?

The Metaphorical view. 

(J.P. Moreland, possibly C.S. Lewis, Billy Graham, W. Crocket, Keller) Hell consists of eternal separation from God in some part of the universe. Sort of quarantined off.  Hell exists but the eternal punishment is not physical but mental: it is the knowledge that they are permanently shut off from God.  No hope.  Keller sees hell’s inhabitants as continuing their self-chosen rejection of God into infinity.  On the positive side, this view correctly interprets the pictures of Hell in the Bible as metaphorical (fire / darkness/ lake/ immortal maggots/sulphur/ gnashing of teeth etc.)  On the negative side, this theory only replaces one type of terror (physical) with another (psychological).  Which is worse?

The Universalist view. 

First suggested by Origen in the 3rd. century.  Hell is a temporary condition of graded punishments that eventually lead to repentance and salvation.  In the end, all are saved: there is no need for eternal torment.  It is unthinkable that a loving God would allow millions of people to suffer for eternity for sins committed over a finite lifetime. Essentially, Universalists extend the R.C. doctrine of Purgatory to include the souls of all people, not just the faithful. Its exponents point to passages of Scripture that seem to offer hope of universal salvation (1. Tim. 2:4, 4:10, Col. 1:20, Romans 11:32, Eph. 1:10, 1Cor. 15:22.)  In response, the passages quoted indicate the scope of God’s salvation: it is universal, in the sense that anyone can be saved, but they do not affirm that everyone will be saved.  God respects the decision of those who reject His offer.  So the concept of remedial punishment after death is not a Biblical one, rather, the destiny of each person is fixed at death. (see Heb. 9:27, 10: 26,27; John 3;16.)

Annihilation view. 

Hell is real, but after the Judgement, sinners suffer not the punishment of eternal torment, but eternal destruction.  This view is based on the following arguments:

  1.  Biblical verses that teach that death is the punishment for sin (e.g. Ezek. 18: 4-20; Ro. 6:23;) and that at the final day of judgement, the wicked will suffer eternal destruction (2 Thess. 1:9)
  2. The final destruction of the wicked is graphically described by OT writers e.g. Psalm 1:3- 6; 2:9-12; 11: 17; 34: 8 – 22, 58: 6 – 10; 69: 22 – 28; Isa 1.28; Zeph 1; 14 – 15; Mal. 4:1.
  3. Jesus spoke often of the destruction of the wicked. (Matt. 15;13; 24:51; 25: 41; Luke 13: 3; 20:16) etc.
  4. Paul used the same kind of language. (Phil. 3:19; Gal. 6:8; 1 Thess 5:23; Ro. 2:6 and 12. etc.)
  5. Peter uses similar language (2 Peter 2:1; 2:5,6; 2 Peter 2:6.)
  6. It does away with the anomaly that although Scripture teaches that there will be no more mourning or crying or pain for the former things have passed away, (Rev.21:4) there would in fact be countless millions of people suffering eternal pain and torment if the traditional teaching on hell is correct.


The conditionalist view

The conditionalist view

In conclusion

We affirm the doctrine of eternal punishment in Hell.  But we do not hold that the punishment is one of eternal conscious torment.  I believe, we have to accept that the critics are right, and indeed, join them.  But in doing so, we must not back-pedal on the righteousness and judgement of God, concepts to which modern people do not relate well. They want a God of love.  But the Biblical picture of God is that he is both a God of compassion and a God of purity, holiness and righteousness.  On the one hand He “takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked” (Ezek 33:11) and on the other, He is to be worshipped with reverence and awe because He “is a consuming fire.” (Heb.12:28-29).  The doctrine of God’s final judgement is necessary to under-gird human love and peacemaking.  Without ultimate accountability, humans are free to live any way they want, including taking vengeance into their own hands. (Keller p.76) and Ro.12:19.

While it is fascinating to explore this deep and complex doctrine of Holy Scripture, we must always remember that it is not just an interesting intellectual exercise.  Hell is real and many of our friends and family are going to end up there unless they acknowledge the Lordship of God and of His Christ. It would be wrong to end this study only with an intellectual sense of satisfaction that we are ‘right’ and others ‘wrong’.  It ought rather to be a reminder that we are the Lord’s ambassadors who have the responsibility to pray for and witness to those in our circle who whether they realise it or not are in danger of missing out on God’s gift of salvation.


Doctor David Richmond

Dr. David Richmond is a retired physician with a variety of interests.  He was inaugural Chair of the Auckland Hospital Research Ethics Committee, a founding member of the HRC National Ethics committee, inaugural director of Continuing Education for the R.A.C.P. in N.Z. and inaugural Masonic Professor of Geriatric Medicine in the University of Auckland.  On retiring from that position he was appointed Assistant Dean (Academic) and awarded a personal Chair in Medicine and Medical Education in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences. He has held local and national positions in the Baptist Churches of Aotearoa New Zealand and served a term as Dean of the Auckland Consortium of Theological Education and Hon. Dean of Theology in the University of Auckland. He recently retired from driving the Rainforest Express.




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