The Nature Of Hell: Eternal Torment Or The Second Death?

This teaching is taken in large part from an article written 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 respect Dr. Reagan very much.

The Bible teaches us that Hell, like Heaven, is a real place. God created Hell for the punishment of the devil and the other fallen angels who joined his rebellion (Matthew 25:41). They will be joined in Hell by human beings who joined their rebellion (Matthew 25:46).

Hell is also called the Second Death, Gehenna and the Lake of Fire.

Hell is described 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).

There will be no parties in Hell. No one is going to be having a good time hanging out with their friends and enjoying the sins they enjoyed on Earth.

Hell Is Not The Same As Sheol

Hell is not the same as Sheol, which is also known as Hades. Sheol is a temporary holding place that exists before the day of Judgment. Sheol is different from Heaven or Hell, which are the final places of the righteous and the wicked. Eventually, Sheol will be destroyed by being thrown into the Lake of Fire.

The Nature Of Sheol

Before Messiah came to Earth, righteous and the wicked went to Sheol when they died. For the righteous, Sheol was characterized by inactivity and dreamy reflection. It’s described as a place of thick darkness, forgetfulness, silence and rest. For the wicked, it’s described as a place of regret, remorse and torment.

The Son of God made it clear that Sheol has two parts – one for the righteous and the other for the wicked (see Luke 16). Before Messiah’s death and resurrection, when the righteous died, they went to the part of Sheol where Abraham was. When the wicked died, they went to the other part of Sheol. There was a chasm separating the two parts so that the righteous and the wicked were separated.

Before Messiah came to Earth, everyone went to Sheol when they died. However, that changed with Messiah’s death and resurrection. After His death, Yeshua descended to Sheol and preached to the spirits there – no doubt proclaiming His triumph over Satan, sin and death through His death on the cross (1 Peter 3:18-19).

After His resurrection, when He ascended to Heaven, Yeshua took the souls of the righteous with Him (Ephesians 4:8-9 and 2 Corinthians 12:1-4). The souls the righteous are now in Heaven before the throne of God (Revelation 6:9 and 7:9). Since Yeshua’s death and resurrection, the souls of the righteous don’t go to Sheol. They go into the presence of God. To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.

The souls of the unrighteous will remain in Sheol until the end of the thousand year reign of King Yeshua on Earth. At that time they will be resurrected and judged at the Great White Throne judgment (Revelation 20:11-15). After their judgment, they will be sent to Hell.

Eternal Torment Or The Second Death?

The majority of Christians believe Hell is a place of eternal torment. A person in Hell will suffer a never ending life of excruciating pain and torment. I believe that the Bible teaches that the unrighteous will be punished in Hell for a period of time proportionate to their sins. After that, most will experience the destruction of both body and soul in Hell – the total destruction of the person. They will experience the Second Death. However, the really evil like the fallen angels, the antichrist and the false prophet will suffer forever.

Before we consider both positions in more detail, we should understand that if we conclude that the wicked suffer eternally or are destroyed after a time, Hell is real and terrible and is to be avoided at all costs. We should also understand that our beliefs about the nature of Hell are not essential beliefs that must be believed, like the doctrines of the Trinity, the deity of the Messiah, or salvation by grace through faith alone. No one who believes what I believe about Hell is a heretic. Different beliefs about secondary issues like eternal torment or the end of life should not divide us.

The Second Death Position

Matthew 10:28: Do not fear those who kill the body but can’t kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Destruction of body and soul in Hell means the total destruction of the person. No more body. No more soul. No more person. No more life.

Matthew 7:13-14 Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.

Heaven is a place of life. Hell is the opposite. It’s a place of destruction. Destruction doesn’t mean that something continues to exist and function. It means the opposite. When a building is destroyed, it doesn’t continue to exist and function as a building. When a bridge is destroyed, it doesn’t continue to exist and function as a bridge. When a human being is destroyed, it doesn’t continue to exist and function as a human being. It ceases to exist and function.

2 Thessalonians 1:8-9: Those who do not know God and those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Yeshua will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction. Destruction means that something ceases to exist and function. When a human being experiences eternal destruction, he stops existing and functioning eternally. He will not exist and function forever.

John 3:16, probably the best-known verse of the Bible, is a promise about experiencing eternal life by having faith in the Son of God. However, it also expresses the truth about the end of life of those who don’t believe. For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life. Perish means end of life and dissolution – not continued existence. Perishable meat and fruit stop being meat and fruit. They don’t exist as meat and fruit. People who perish will experience death and dissolution. They won’t continue to exist as people.

Hebrews 10:26-27: If we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. I have a wood-burning stove. I use it a lot during the winter. The wood I put in the stove is burned by fire and turns to ash. The wood is completely gone. No more wood. A fire that consumes God’s adversaries means they will be completely burned up. Gone. No more adversaries.

Hell is called the Second Death (Revelation 2:11; 20:6,14; 21:8). How can Hell be the Second Death if it’s a kind of eternal life, a life of eternal torment? No, the Second Death is not another kind of eternal life. It’s the complete end of life for most who are sent to Hell.

The Eternal Torment Position

Matthew 25:46: Then these the wicked will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life. The word “eternal” is used of both the wicked and the righteous. Therefore punishment must be eternal in the same way that life is eternal.

My response: Eternal punishment can mean punishment that’s characteristic not of this age, but characteristic of the age to come; punishment that’s characteristic not of time but of eternity. And eternal punishment can mean punishment that has eternal consequences. There’s a difference between eternal punishment and eternal punishing. It’s one thing to experience a punishment that is eternal in its consequences – eternal punishment. It’s another thing to experience punishing that lasts forever – eternal punishing.

Hebrews 6:2 teaches us about the reality of eternal judgment. Eternal judgment is not a judgment that continues eternally. God is not judging and judging and judging forever. No, eternal judgment is a one time judgment that has eternal consequences. Just as there is a difference between eternal judgment and eternal judging, there is a difference between eternal punishment and eternal punishing.

Hebrews 9:12 teaches us about eternal redemption. This does not mean that the Son of God will forever be involved in the act of redemption. His once and for all redemption was accomplished by His death and resurrection. Eternal redemption means that the consequences of Messiah’s redemption are eternal. Just as there is a difference between eternal redemption and eternal redeeming, there is a difference between eternal punishment and eternal punishing.

If God punishes people in Hell so that the consequences are eternal, so that they die the Second Death, so that both body and soul are destroyed, so that they no longer exist for eternity, does that qualify as eternal punishment? I believe it does. People don’t need to experiencing eternal punishing, eternal torment, to experience eternal punishment.

Mark 9:43-48: If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It’s better to enter eternal life with only one hand than to go into the unquenchable fires of hell with two hands. If your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It’s better to enter eternal life with only one foot than to be thrown into hell with two feet. And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out. It’s better to enter the Kingdom of God with only one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, “where the maggots never die and the fire never goes out.” Eternal torment in Hell is true because the maggots never die and the unquenchable fires of Hell never go out.

My response: There will be no escape from Hell. No one who is sent there will return from there and cause any more trouble because they will be completely destroyed. That’s what Yeshua meant when He said that the wicked will be thrown into Hell where the maggots never die and the unquenchable fire never goes out.

To reinforce His teaching, Yeshua quoted Isaiah 66. All humanity will come to worship me from week to week and from month to month. And as they go out, they will see the dead bodies of those who have rebelled against me. For the worms that devour them will never die, and the fire that burns them will never go out. All who pass by will view them with utter horror.

After He returns and defeats all who oppose Him, King Messiah will rule from Jerusalem during the Millennial Kingdom. He will be worshiped by everyone on Earth. His enemies, who were alive when He returned, will not cause any more problems during those thousand years. They will completely destroyed and shamed. Maggots can die and not finish consuming the corpses they started eating. Maggots that never die completely consume the bodies of the dead. The maggots are assisted by an unquenchable fire. Fire may be quenched before it has entirely consumed what it’s burning. Fire that never goes out means fire that completely consumes what it’s burning. Maggots eating corpses that haven’t been buried, and fire burning bodies that haven’t been buried, describe shame and complete destruction – not eternal torment.

Revelation 14:9-11: If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur 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 or night. Since the smoke of those who give their allegiance to the antichrist goes up forever, they will be tormented forever.

My response: The wicked will be tormented and have no rest day and night, however it is “the smoke of their torment” that goes up forever. Other passages that are similar to this reveal that smoke that goes up forever means punishment that has eternal consequences, not a punishment that continues eternally.

Isaiah 34:10 describes the smoke of Edom’s destruction that will “go up forever.” The nation of Edom was destroyed. It no longer exists. There is no smoke going up from Edom today. Smoke that goes up forever means Edom’s destruction gives unending testimony about the way the Lord judges a sinful nation.

Jude 7 informs us that Sodom and Gomorrah experienced “the punishment of eternal fire.” Those cities no longer exist and are not on fire today. They experienced a fiery destruction that had eternal consequences. Sodom and Gororrah’s punishment teaches us about the eternal consequences for sin, not eternal punishing.

Revelation 20:10: The devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. Satan, the antichrist and false prophet will be tormented forever. Therefore so will everyone else who is sent to Hell.

My response: God will punish the fallen angels and the most evil people with eternal torment, but that doesn’t mean that He will do the same for all people because the Lord is a just judge and there are degrees of punishment. The punishment must fit the crime. Messiah told His disciples that it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Sodom and Gomorrah, which represent extreme wickedness, than for the Chosen People who heard the truth about Yeshua and rejected it because we were given more knowledge, and to whom much is given, much is required – and judgment is more severe. The greater the sinner the greater the punishment, and when they have suffered enough, most will die the Second Death.

Another argument for eternal torment: Human beings are made in the image of God and, and since God is eternal, the soul is eternal. People must suffer forever in Hell because we have an immortal soul, a soul that can’t die, a soul that must live forever.

My response: The soul is not immortal. We have to do something, get something outside of ourselves to live forever. Adam and Eve had to eat the fruit of the Tree of Life to live forever. Now, after the death and resurrection of the Son of God, we have to believe the Good News about Yeshua to live forever. In 2 Timothy 1:10, Paul stated that Messiah has abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel.

In 1 Corinthians 15:53, Paul stated that Yeshua-followers become immortal at the time of the resurrection. For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality. Human beings are mortal and perishable until they believe the Good News about Yeshua and are resurrected.

There’s no need to believe that people will suffer eternally in Hell if the soul is not immortal – and it isn’t. In 1 Timothy 6:15-16 Paul made it clear that God alone possesses immortality – not us.

Another argument for eternal torment: Hell must be eternal because of the nature of God. God is eternal. Sin is an offense against God and since God is eternal, sin needs to be punished for eternity.

My response: God is eternal but the punishment of the sin of mortal creatures doesn’t need to be eternal – and it isn’t because God’s nature is righteous and just. Is it right if a 13 year old who was a decent kid but was not interested in God and was killed in a car accident, is tormented for eternity? Shouldn’t the punishment fit the crime? Must not the Judge of all the Earth do justly?

Another argument for eternal torment: The threat of eternal torment is worse than the threat of the complete end of life after being punished for a time, and therefore is a better deterrent.

My response: The threat of eternal torment is worse than being punished for a time and ceasing to exist. However, being punished in proportion to one’s sins, followed by the destruction of body and soul in Hell is a sufficient deterrent.

Another argument against eternal torment: Eternal torment contradicts what the Word of God teaches about punishment. The Lord destroyed the wicked people who lived before the flood, but it happened suddenly. He destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah with fire, but happened quickly. He ordered the Canaanites to be killed, but they were to be killed quickly. There were no long jail sentences in the Law of Moses. Torture wasn’t allowed. Punishment consisted of restitution, swift corporal punishment or death – and not a cruel or unusual death. Even animals were to be killed as quickly and painlessly as possible. The teaching of eternal torment insults the nature of God. It’s not consistent with the God who is good, loving and merciful. It makes God cruel and sadistic.

What’s the nature of Hell? Eternal torment or the Second Death? I believe that the Second Death is right. You may conclude that eternal torment is right – as most do. But whatever we conclude, we should agree that Hell is real, and a terrifying place that should be avoided at all costs. And we should do everything we can to prevent ourselves and others from being sent there.

End your part in the great rebellion against God. Become loyal to the Father and the Son. Take radical action to avoid sin. Tell others the good news about salvation and eternal life through Yeshua.