Note: This posting is somewhat lengthier than most of those dealing with cultic groups and false teachings. However, the nature of the subject warrants a more in-depth consideration than normal.
There is a growing trend in some Christian circles to question whether hell is truly eternal, or only temporary. Generally it is asserted that a loving God would not condemn anyone to an eternal punishment. This is a serious enough issue that it needs to be addressed.
The first point that must be made is that we have only one genuine and reliable authority for deciding this issue. This is the Bible, the Word of God.
Second, it is obvious that much of real issue concerns the terms used in the Scriptures for hell and eternal destruction. Much of this study will concern the meaning of these terms and how to properly understand them.
THIS IS NOT A NEW DOCTRINE
Some seem to imply that to believe that God will ultimately bring all souls, including the wicked, into a redeemed state is a new concept. Actually, the church has faced these arguments for many centuries.
One of the first to expound universalist views was the second century theologian Origen. Indeed, Origen’s position is definitive for many universalists today. Origen believed that hell was temporary and purgative. He thought the God’s justice was served by men being in hell temporarily. But then, even the most ungodly would finally learn their lesson and bow in submission to God. For Origen, hell was a place of purification.
Much of the discussion revolves around the Greek terms for eternity. There are three terms in question. These are:
aion = ever, forever, eternal, everlasting, age-long, an age
aionios = everlasting, eternal (or “ages”?)
aidios = everlasting, eternal
The translation of these terms depends upon the context. This is generally accepted by any good Bible scholar and Greek grammarian.
It has sometimes been stated that aidios is the most valid word for eternity, and only refers to eternal life and the nature of God. The terms aion and aionios both literally mean “an age” or “for ages” and do not denote eternity. However, is this true according to Scripture?
THE ROOT OF THE TERMS
The terms aidios, aion and aionios all have the same root. This is aei, which means “ever, always.” If aidios and aionios are supposed to mean two different things, then why do they have the same root? Also, the meaning of aion and aionios is usually determined by context. There are many places where it is obvious that the matter being discussed is not everlasting. Therefore the meaning of “duration” or “an age” is applied. There are other instances where it is obvious that the matter being discussed is not limited by time (see below), and these words are translated “everlasting” or “eternal.” Consider one thing, however; if the root meaning of aion and aionios is aei, meaning “ever, always” wouldn’t it seem that “eternal” is a more natural understanding of these terms. In light of root word behind these two terms, the interpretation of “ages” would seem to less natural, and only determined by the context.
If aidios is taken to truly mean “eternal” and aionios is supposed to only mean “for ages” or for “period of time” then we have a problem. For the term aidios, eternal, is only used for eternal life in one scripture (Romans 2:7). Every other time in the New Testament where eternal life is spoken of, the term is either aion or aionios. Indeed, using Strong’s Concordance, aionios is used to refer to eternal (or everlasting) life no less than 43 times.
[Sources for this section: Strong’s Concordance, Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words, and The Complete Word Study New Testament by Zodhiates.]
AION MEANS “EVERLASTING”
If aion only means for an age, or for a limited time, then we have some real problems. Notice that the word aion is used to refer to the following matters, and these are obviously things that are not to be understood as being only temporary or of limited duration. In each verse, a form of aion is used.
• The Lord’s prayer ends with the exclamation, “… for yours is the kingdom, and the power and glory forever [aion] (Matthew 6:13).
• Speaking of Jesus, Gabriel says that “he will rule over the house of Jacob forever [aionas]” (Luke 1:33).
• In John 14:16 Jesus says that He will send the Holy Spirit, “another Counselor to be with you forever [aiona].”
• Paul speaks of the “Creator, who is forever [aionas] praised” (Romans 1:25).
• In Romans 9:5 we have Paul referring to Jesus as “God over all, forever [aionas] praised.”
• The Word says the God’s “righteousness endures forever [aiona] (2 Cor. 9:9).
• Both Galatians 1:5 and Philippians 4:20 that to God the Father there should be “glory forever and ever [aionas ton aionon].”
• Paul says in 1 Timothy 1:17, “Now to the King… be honor and glory for ever and ever [aionas ton aionon].” (See also 2 Tim. 4:18)
• Paul speaks of the “eternal [aionon] purpose” of God (Ephesians 3:11).
• The Father speaks to the Son in Hebrews 1:8 and says, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever [aionas ton aionon].”
• Hebrews 5:6 states that Jesus is a “priest forever [aiona] after the order of Melchizedek.” (See also Hebrews 6:20, 7:17, 7:21)
• Jesus is declared to be the same “yesterday, today and forever [aionas]” in Hebrews 13:8.
• Peter says that the “word of the Lord stands forever [aionas] (1 Peter 1:25).
• John states that the one who does the will of God “lives forever [aiona]” (1 John 2:17).
• 2 John 2 declares that the truth will be “with us forever [aiona].”
• The term aion is used to give praise and glory to God forever in Hebrews 13:21, Jude 25, Revelation 1:6, 4:10, and 7:12.
• Revelation declares that God Lamb lives “forever and ever” [aionas ton aionon] (Revelation 4:9 and 15:7); and that God shall reign “forever and ever” [aionas ton aionon] (Revelation 11:15).
• Jesus declares, “I am alive forevermore [aionas]” (Rev. 1:18).
• God is called the “King eternal [aionas]” (1 Timothy 1:17).
When aion is used to refer to hell, then according to the universalists it supposed to mean “an age” or a limited time period. But it is the same terminology as is used for the above. Notice these verses:
• Jude speaks of the ungodly “for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever [aiona]” (Jude 13).
• Peter also refers to the wicked “for whom blackest darkness is kept forever [aiona] (2 Peter 2:17).
• Revelation 14:10-11 declares that the people who receive the mark of the Beast “will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment rises forever and ever [aionas ton aionon].
• Revelation 20:10 is emphatic that the Devil, the Beast and the False Prophet “will be tormented day and night forever and ever” [aionas ton aionon].
There is nothing in these context that would lead us to interpret aion as anything other than eternal and everlasting. The same phrasing and grammar is used to speak of the tormented condition of the damned as is used to speak of Christ’s eternal life, His unchanging nature, the glory of God, the praise that is God’s due, Christ’s priesthood, the Word of God and the truth of God. If hell is not eternal, can we count on life, truth, Christ’s power and glory also be eternal? If the language does not mean eternal and everlasting in one case, how can it in another?
[Sources for this section: Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance, The Interlinear Greek-English New Testament by Jay P. Green, and The Zondervan Parallel New Testament in Greek and English.]
AIONIOS MEANS “ETERNAL”
Aionios is derived from aion. Although there are times when aion may mean “an age,” aionios is consistently used to mean “eternal” or “everlasting.”
Note these uses of aionios in the New Testament:
• As noted above, aionios is used 43 times in the New Testament to refer to eternal life. Just a few of these references are John 3:16, John 10:28, 1 Timothy 6:12, Titus 1:2 and 1 John 5:11.
• Luke 16:9 says that we will be “welcomed into eternal [aionious] dwellings.”
• 2 Timothy 2:10 says that we have salvation “in Christ Jesus, with eternal [aioniou] glory.”
• Hebrews 5:9 states that Jesus is the “source of eternal [aioniou] salvation for all who obey him.”
• Heb. 9:12 declares that Jesus has “obtained eternal [aionian] redemption” for us.
• Heb. 9:14 speaks of the Holy Spirit as “the eternal [aioniou] Spirit.”
• Heb. 9:15 says that believers will receive “an eternal [aioniou] inheritance.”
• In 1 Peter 5:10 we are called “to his eternal [aionion] glory in Christ.”
• Hebrews 13:20 speaks of “the blood of the eternal [aioniou] covenant.”
• 2 Peter 1:11 says that we will “receive a rich welcome into the eternal [aionion] kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”
• 1 John 5:20 declares the deity of Jesus by calling him “the true God and eternal [aionios] life.”
• Romans 16:26 calls the Lord “the eternal [aioniou] God.”
Is the Holy Spirit eternal? Or does He only exist for an age? What about the blood covenant, our inheritance in Christ, our salvation and redemption, our dwelling with God? Are these eternal, or temporary? Is not Christ eternally God? And is the Lord really God just for a season, a long duration only? Obviously in each of these passages aionios means eternal and everlasting!
This same word is repeatedly used to refer to the eternal state of damnation of the wicked.
• 2 Thessalonians 1:9 declares that those who do not obey the gospel “will be punished with everlasting [aionion] destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power.”
• Hebrews 6:2 says that one of the foundational doctrines of the Church is that of “eternal [aioniou] judgment.”
• Jude 7 speaks of those who will “suffer the punishment of eternal [aioniou] fire.”
No one was more emphatic in teaching about the eternal nature of hell than our Lord Jesus himself. Listen to His words:
• He spoke of being “thrown into eternal [aioniou] fire” (Matthew 18:8).
• In Matthew 25:41 he states that he will say, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal [aionion] fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”
• Mark 3:29 says that those who blaspheme against the Holy Spirit will be subject to “eternal [aioniou] judgment.”
[Sources for this section: Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance, The Interlinear Greek-English New Testament by Jay P. Green, The Complete Word Study New Testament by Zodhiates and The Zondervan Parallel New Testament in Greek and English.]
THE CONTRAST BETWEEN THE ETERNAL AND THE TEMPORAL
That aionios is to be understood as referring to eternal things is clear from 2 Corinthians 4:18. Here there is a contrast between what is temporary [proskaira] and what is not temporary, i.e., what lasts forever without ending. And the word used here for what is not temporary, that which is eternal and does not end, is indeed aionios!
[Sources for this section: Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance and The Zondervan Parallel New Testament in Greek and English.]
AIDIOS IS USED TO REFER TO JUDGMENT
It should be noted that in Jude 6 the term aidios is used to refer to “eternal chains for judgment.” This is referring to angels who will be condemned. Thus, it is evident that the judgment of these beings is truly eternal in nature. Again, aidios means “perpetual, without ending.”
THE PROBLEM OF MATTHEW 25:46
Matthew 25:46 is one of the clearest verses that damnation is eternal. Notice the words of this verse:
“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
The phrase “eternal punishment” in Greek is kolasin aionion. The phrase “eternal life” is zoen aionion. The adjective used in both cases is exactly the same. Can the same adjective mean one thing when tied to punishment and another when modifying life? No, of course not. As Greek scholar A. T. Robinson said, “To admit that the two phrases are not parallel is at once to treat them with unequal seriousness.” The parallel that Jesus is drawing is obvious. Is the punishment only temporary? Then the life must be temporary also. But if the life that Jesus gives is truly eternal, then the punishment of the wicked must be truly eternal also! And we know that this latter is true.
[Source for this section: Christian Theology by Millard J. Erickson, p.1239.]
OTHER LANGUAGE THAT SPEAKS OF THE ETERNALITY OF HELL
• God says that His anger will “burn forever” (Jeremiah 17:4).
• Isaiah 66:24 speaks of “unquenchable fire.”
• Jesus also speaks of the “fire that will not be quenched” in Mark 9:43-48.
• John the Baptist spoke of the “chaff,” i.e., those who are rejected by God, as being burned up with “unquenchable fire” (Matt. 3:12, Luke 3:17).
• Jesus spoke of those that would be resurrected to judgment (John 5:28-29).
• The sovereign God even bears with those who are “the objects of wrath—prepared for destruction” (Romans 9:22). Destruction refers to ruin or loss.
A SIMPLE VERSE
John 3:36 is a simple verse that is easily overlooked in this discussion. Yet, it carries much weight. Hear the words of the Apostle John:
“Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.”
First of all, notice the contrast again between eternal life and not having life.
Second, it is plainly stated that the one who rejects Christ “will not see life.” What could be more plain?
Third, it is evident that the one who rejects Christ continues in a state of judgment, for “God’s wrath remains on him.” The word “remains” (Gk meno) also is translated “to stay, endure, continue, abide, tarry, stand or be present.” It is evident that God’s judgment will not depart from those who rebel against His Son.
THE OLD TESTAMENT
The Hebrew term that is translated “everlasting” or “eternal” is olam. Olam literally means “to the vanishing point,” i.e., to go to where time disappears.
Olam is used to speak of the Eternal God in a number of places, for example Gen. 21:33, Psalm 90:2, Isaiah 40:28 and Habakkuk 1:12.
Olam is also used to refer to eternal judgment and punishment, as in:
• Isaiah 33:14 – “everlasting burning”
• Daniel 12:2 – “shame and everlasting contempt” [Notice that we have the same situation here in Daniel 12:2 as in Matthew 25:46. The same word for everlasting, olam, is used for both life and contempt.]
GOD’S PICTURE OF ETERNITY
Those who believe that some time in the distant future there will be a restoration and redemption of all the wicked and ungodly are speaking from outside the Word of God. However, the Bible ends with an unveiling of what eternity will be like. God does not give a comprehensive picture, but the picture He does give is sufficient and accurate. So, what does God say about the future and eternal state of the wicked?
In Revelation 22:15 we find the immoral and the ungodly “outside” the City of God. The simple word “outside” is very important. The wicked are not seen as having anything to do with the righteous in eternity. There is no fellowship, no communion. They are outside the blessings of God’s people. In Revelation 21:6-8 the Lord Jesus speaks as the Eternal God, the Alpha and the Omega. He pronounces the blessing of His presence and fellowship on His children. But he says of the immoral and wicked “their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.” The Lake of Fire is their place, not the City of God. And this state is called the second death. It is well to remember that death in Scripture means separation.
Finally, in Revelation 22:11 tells us that the choices we make here affect eternity. The wicked will remain wicked, as the righteous will remain righteous.
WHAT ABOUT THE LOVE OF GOD?
One frequent argument used in favor of universal salvation is that to believe in an eternal hell is inconsistent with the concept of a loving and compassionate God. But is this true? The Scriptures teach plainly that God desires for all men to be saved. However, in His love, He will not force this salvation on anyone. Free will is just as much a gift of His love as is salvation and eternal life. It would be deny His love to insist that men must be saved despite their own wills and desires.
We must also remember that God, in His great love, provided the means for all men to be saved. The avenue to salvation and blessedness is there. But men must choose. Giving mankind true choice is simply part of the loving manner in which the Father deals with His highest creation. We saw this displayed in the Garden, when God allowed Adam genuine choice in his obedience to the Lord’s commands. So with salvation now. For although the saving grace of God is universally available to all who will accept it, but it is not universally applied to all, regardless of their own choice.
There is a great body of Scriptural evidence that plainly teaches that the justice and wrath of God is poured out upon sinners. Indeed, if we were to count verses, there are many more that teach this concept than any might be misconstrued to imply that all will be saved.
And the fact that this final state of the wicked is everlasting and eternal is evident. The same language that is repeatedly and consistently used to refer to the nature of God, of Christ, of salvation and of our life in God is also repeatedly used to refer to the eternal nature of hell.
We will conclude with two quotes from C. S. Lewis on the matter of hell. The first is from The Great Divorce. The second is from The Problem of Pain.
“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there would be no hell.”
“I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that that doors of hell are locked on the inside.”