Will Hell Be Eternal?
The idea of a literal, eternal hell is not something that modern people regard with respect. In fact, the very notion that hell could exist is usually regarded with derision and scorn. And those who believe it is real are often regarded as religious zealots who accept superstitious nonsense.
Jesus’ View on Hell
But I believe hell is real. I’m convinced it is real because Jesus believed hell was real and I trust Jesus more than anyone else. Jesus divided humanity into two groups and he declared that one group would face “eternal life” while the other would face “eternal punishment” (Matt 25:46). Jesus repeatedly warned people of hell’s reality and he told them that they needed to do everything they could to avoid going there. In Luke 16: 19-31 Jesus gave an account about a poor man named Lazarus and an unnamed rich man. After both men died, Lazarus was in a place of “comfort” but the rich man was in “agony.” The rich man longed for even a “drop of water” to cool his tongue.
In other parts of the Gospels, Jesus reiterated how horrible this place of suffering would be. He warned people that it would be better to cut off one of their hands or feet rather than to be thrown into hell (Mark 9:43-48). He also said that it would be a place of eternal fire (Matt 18:8), where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt 8:12). Jesus’ descriptions are very graphic and his warnings are severe.
Justice of Eternal Hell
So why are so many people, including professed followers of Jesus, so scornful of hell? Much of it has to do with the apparent injustice of the idea. For how can anyone do anything to deserve such serious punishment for all of eternity? Surely a million years, or even a trillion years, would pay for any and every sin? How can God be loving and yet subject people to such cruelty? An eternity in hell just seems so horrific; it makes God seem like a moral monster.
I understand this objection and am sympathetic to it. I certainly don’t like the idea of hell and I wish no one would go there. But what I like and wish for does not determine reality. Not only that but an eternal hell is actually justified when we take into account all of the relevant moral factors. I explain this in another article you can read here. The moral justification for an eternal hell is important, but there is another issue that is also worth examining. That is, even though hell should be eternal, does it have to be that way? Are there any other possibilities?
Annihilationism is Wrong
Some Christians believe hell will not be eternal. In fact, they don’t think anyone will go to hell because all the damned will actually have their souls annihilated. In other words, those condemned to hell will simply cease to exist. But this view, known as annihilationism, has certain Bible verses which stand against it. For example, in Matthew 25:46 Jesus says that those who lived in disobedience “will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (NIV) There is a parallel here between what the righteous and the unrighteous experience in eternity. So it’s unwarranted to conclude that one group will experience eternal conscious bliss while the other group will no longer even exist. Furthermore, the text says that the wicked will experience “eternal punishment,” but how can they be punished if they do not even exist?
Another relevant passage is found in Revelation 20:10 where it says, “And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.” To be sure, this verse is not about the fate of the majority of ordinary human beings; it’s about what will happen to the devil, the “false prophet,” and the “beast.” (The false prophet and beast are described in other parts of the book of Revelation.) However, this passage clearly shows that at least some finite beings (e.g. the devil) will suffer for all of eternity. Furthermore, other passages in scripture draw a connection between the fate of wicked humans and the fate of the devil in this “lake” of great suffering (Matt 25:41, Rev. 14:11, 19:20, 20:15). Given these connections, it’s safe to infer that the Bible teaches the eternal punishment of both the devil and ordinary human beings.
Another Possibility - Mercy
So although the Bible does not support annihilationism, there is still another factor to consider. There is the possibility that when the final judgment occurs, all those who will inherit eternal life may decide to intercede on behalf of the damned (i.e. those destined for eternal hell) and plead for God’s mercy on them. Of course, there is nothing in scripture that says God will be merciful. But there is also nothing in scripture that says God will not be merciful. There are also several passages in the Bible which show that God is merciful when people ask him for mercy.
One good example of this is found in Exodus 32. This passage occurs after the Israelites have left Egypt and arrived at Mt. Sinai. They have been given God’s laws telling them not to worship idols, and the elders of Israel have agreed to follow those laws. But not long after this covenant is established, the Israelites disobey God and worship a golden calf. When God sees their disobedience, he declares that he will destroy the people and create a new nation through Moses. In the NIV translation it records him speaking to Moses and saying, “Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation” (verse 10).
Notice that God did not allow for any exception to what he proclaimed was about to happen. There is no record of God telling Moses that he would be willing to show mercy if asked. God simply tells Moses to “leave [him] alone” and declares the future - that he will destroy the Israelites. So what does Moses do in response? Ironically, he does not follow God’s instructions; he does not “leave [God] alone.” Instead he decides to intercede on behalf of the condemned people and plead for mercy. Then, instead of rebuking Moses for his disobedience, God actually answers his prayer. The Bible records that, “the Lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.”
This passage of scripture is quite intriguing because other parts of the Bible declare that God is “not human, that he should lie… [or] change his mind.” (Num 23:19). And it is clear from reading the Bible as a whole that God does not change his mind whenever it involves blessing us and being gracious to us. His promises to us are secure. Yet God is willing to change his mind when it comes to punishment. He is willing to change his mind when it is a matter of mercy.
Another example of this is found in the book of Jonah. Through the prophet Jonah, God tells the people of Nineveh that he will destroy them in 40 days. But then the people repent and God changes his mind; he does not bring about the punishment that he said he would bring about. A third example is found in Isaiah 38 when God tells King Hezekiah that he will soon die of an illness. But when Hezekiah prays for mercy, God changes his mind and allows him to live longer. Of course, all of God’s “changing his mind” is from a human perspective; from God’s perspective there is no real change of mind. God knows exactly when we will ask him for mercy and how he will respond. However, we do not know when this will happen; we only find out about it after the fact. So from our perspective, God changes his mind.
Given the precedents found in scripture, it seems entirely possible that something similar could happen at the final judgment. Of course, there is no indication in scripture that this will actually happen. As noted at the beginning, Jesus said that hell is real and that those who do not believe in him will end up there. Revelation 20:15 says that, “Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.” But despite what these passages say, it’s still possible that God could change his mind. He could change his mind at the final judgment just as he changed his mind at Mt. Sinai and in other parts of the Bible.
Given this, no one can know for certain what will happen. But given the prior precedents, it seems entirely possible that God might display mercy. It’s possible that the righteous will intercede on behalf of the damned and that God would change his mind. Exactly how God displays his mercy is unclear. He might annihilate the damned after some time in hell. Perhaps the damned will suffer in hell for a million years, or a trillion years, and then they will be annihilated. Or perhaps they will be instantly annihilated immediately after judgment. Or perhaps there will be no mercy whatsoever and the damned will suffer for all eternity, just as the Bible says. God does not have to show mercy and maybe the nature of the final judgment might not allow for it. No one can say for certain because only God knows when and how he will act. But the mere possibility of this is something that we can hope for.
Hell is not a popular idea. It is often ignored, or simply treated with derision and scorn. But it is something that Jesus took very seriously. He warned people against the horror of hell and invited them to escape hell by following him. Although some people think the Bible supports annihilationism, there are biblical passages that count against it. However, it is still possible that God might show mercy on the day of judgment. We cannot know that this will happen, but we can hope that it might.