By Babu G. Ranganathan
The Bible does teach eternal punishment, but that eternal punishment ultimately is not eternal suffering.
Few in society realize just how much ancient Greek philosophy influenced early Christian thought on hell.
The ancient Greeks believed and taught that the human soul is immortal and indestructible. When early Christianity adopted this belief then it became only logical to believe that those who go to hell must suffer eternal torment.
The Bible, however, teaches that man by nature is completely mortal and that immortality is a gift of God to be realized only on Resurrection Day for those who have put their faith and trust in God's Son Jesus Christ for salvation because Christ's death on the Cross fully paid for our sins and His resurrection from the grave is the guarantee of future immortality for all who believe in Him.
Although the wicked in hell, for a period, will suffer consciously for their individual sins, the ultimate penalty for sin itself will be the eternal death of soul and body and the eternal loss to immortality. That is what the Bible means by eternal punishment. Interestingly, even Adam and Eve were not created as immortal from the beginning. That is why there was placed the Tree of Life in the midst of the Garden of Eden.
In Genesis 2:17 God told Adam not to eat the fruit of a certain tree (the tree of the knowledge of good and evil) and God also told Adam that if he did eat of it he would die on that day. Specifically, God said to Adam, "For in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die." But the Biblical record shows that Adam did not physically die on the very day he disobeyed God and ate of the forbidden fruit. Because Adam did not physically die on the very day that he disobeyed God many Christians think that God was referring to spiritual death and not physical death.
However, in the original Hebrew, in which the Old Testament was written, the grammatical tense of the word "die" in Genesis 2:17 is in the imperfect mood. The imperfect mood denotes a process. Thus, what God was actually saying to Adam is that he would start dying on the day he ate the forbidden fruit. The literal translation from the Hebrew of what God said to Adam is: "Dying you will die." God was not, therefore, referring to spiritual death but to physical death. The fact that God later prevented Adam and Eve from having access to the tree of life (Genesis 3:22-24) so that they would not live eternally proves that God was referring to physical death and not spiritual death.
The penalty for sin, then, is the death of both soul and body so that man will not live forever in sin. Not only is God not cruel in His eternal justice, but a holy God will not allow His moral creatures to exist eternally in sin. God will not immortalize sin and evil by making the wicked in hell immortal! All of this contradicts the traditional doctrine and teaching, taught in most churches, about the wicked having an immortal soul and body in hell.
What about "eternal fire," "unquenchable fire," "weeping and gnashing of teeth forever and ever," the account by Jesus about the Rich Man and Lazarus, and other similar passages in the Bible that seem to teach eternal torment? The key, in many cases, is in understanding the context in which these and other similar phrases are used in various parts of Scripture.
For example, figures of speech such as "unquenchable fire" are used in the Bible to mean that the process of destruction is unstoppable or irreversible. We see an example of this in the Old Testament book of Ezekiel 20:47-48 where God says that when His judgment comes on the land even every green tree will burn and that the fire "will not be quenched." Obviously, those trees are not still burning. It is important to understand just why God uses such terms in Scripture as "unquenchable fire."
In the Bible, there were some judgments of God in which His wrath was quenched or stopped such as in the case when Moses interceded and pleaded before God for the rebellious Israelites in the desert. When Moses did this God stopped or quenched His wrath against the rebellious Israelites. Thus, when God says, in Scripture, that the wicked in the end will be destroyed with unquenchable fire what He simply means is that nothing can intervene to prevent Him from carrying out His wrath fully through to its completion. Over and over in the Scriptures God is described in judgment as being a consuming fire. God's wrath in judgment is not an end in itself but a means to an end.
The word "forever" is another example. In Scripture the word "forever" does not always mean endless or eternal duration. For example, in Exodus 21:6 (KJV Version) we read that certain people were to be servants "forever." Obviously this cannot mean eternity. The word "forever" or "everlasting," in the original Hebrew and Greek languages of Scripture, simply means the entire length or duration of something. If that something is immortal then the word "forever" must mean eternity. But, if that something is mortal or temporary in nature then, obviously, the word "forever" cannot mean eternity.
When the Bible talks about eternal judgment or eternal damnation it is in reference to the result and not the process! It is not the punishing that is eternal but rather the punishment. Just as eternal redemption in the Bible does not mean that the process of redeeming is eternal but rather its result (no one would be saved if the process of redeeming were eternal) so too the eternal judgment of the wicked refers to the result of their judgment being eternal and not the process.
Some have made the argument that because man was created in the image of God then all humans must possess an immortal soul. However, being created in the image of God doesn't necessarily mean that we must possess every attribute or even possible attribute that God possess. For example, God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent - but we are not. The Bible is clear that immortality is an attribute that will be given only on Resurrection Day for those who have put their trust in Christ for salvation.
We must base our views of hell and the after life on what the Bible teaches, not on tradition or mere human philosophies and opinions. We must not impose our philosophy of what God ought to be upon Holy Scripture! Not many people realize the fact that in the New Testament there are different Greek words for the word "hell." But unfortunately the English Bible translates these different words for hell as one word, and this has been a cause of much confusion for those who wish to study the subject. The New Testament Greek words for hell are "hades" and "gehenna" and they both have different meanings. Hades means the unseen world of the dead. It has nothing to do with punishment or reward. It is equivalent to the Hebrew word "sheol" in the Old Testament in its meaning. Gehenna, on the other hand, is the abode of punishment for the wicked.
The story of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16 has often been used by many Christians, especially preachers, as a depiction of the punishment that the wicked will suffer in hell. But this is not the case. In the first place when Jesus refers to the Rich Man being in torment in the flame of hell the Greek word for "hell" in the passage is not "gehenna" (the place of final and eternal punishment), but rather it is the Greek word "hades" (which in Scripture is the temporary abode of the dead).
The story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, like the other series of parables before it, was used of the Lord to illustrate or depict the end of the rule of the pharisees and to depict the end of the Jewish Era and dispensation (as represented by the Rich Man being in torment) and it was also used of the Lord to depict or illustrate the elevation of Gentile Christendom (as represented by Lazarus). Actually, Lazarus represented the poor Jews of Jesus' time who were ignored by the self-righteous religious leaders of Israel and he also represented the gentiles who, although rejected by the Jewish leaders, would nevertheless be accepted into the bosom of Abraham through their new found faith in Jesus Christ as the Messiah. The religious leaders of Israel had lived only for themselves and ignored the spiritual needs of the spiritually sick and starving people around them.
The concept that hades was a place divided into two compartments, one of suffering for the wicked and the other of bliss for the rigtheous, was a Jewish belief that had developed during the intertestamental period, the period of time in between when the Old and New Testaments were written. Thus, this particular view of hades was not canonical, that is it was not something that God Himself had revealed to the Jews through Scripture. There is no evidence in Scripture that hades is a place where the wicked suffer while awaiting their final and permanent judgment in gehenna. Such a concept of hades developed as a result of ancient Greek influences on Jewish thinking about the nature of the soul.
In the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, Jesus was simply borrowing this popular Jewish folklore of hades to use as an illustration to make a point to the pharisees and religious leaders of His day, but He was not necessarily endorsing the folklore as being doctrinally valid or correct. There are various passages in the Old Testament, such as in Psalms, that tell us that there is no consciousness in sheol (the Hebrew equivalent of hades in the Old Testament).
Some argue that the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus is not a parable because Jesus did not formally introduce it as a parable. But, Jesus did not always formally introduce His stories as parables, and there are various examples of that in the Gospels. Now, it is true that in His parables Jesus used things that actually existed to fill in for illustrations and figures, but in the particular case of the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus the Lord used a popular existing Jewish myth about hades for the purposes of constructing a story. Jesus simply used the pharisees' own superstitous belief about hades against them!
Why didn't Jesus rebuke the pharisees' belief about hades as wrong? Jesus didn't go around always rebuking every wrong doctrine. For example, in Jesus' time it was a common Jewish belief (from the influence of Greek philosophy) that souls could commit individual sins before birth. That is why we read in John 9:1-3 that Jesus' disciples believed a certain man was born blind because he may have committed some great sin before his physical conception in the womb. Jesus never told His disciples that such a belief is doctrinally wrong but instead healed the blind man.
I encourage all to read my larger article "The Bible Vs. The Traditional View of Hell" at my website www.religionscience.com for more comprehensive and in-depth coverage of this issue.
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The above opinion piece is written by Mr. Babu G. Ranganathan (Email: firstname.lastname@example.org), religion and science writer who was recognized in the 24th edition of Marquis Who's Who in The East. He holds a B.A. with concentrations in theology and biology. His articles can be reached at www.religionscience.com
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