Hell: annihilation or eternal punishment



There are different theories among Christian theologians about the period of punishment in hell. Some people believe hell is a kind of purgatory that cleanses people of their sins before they go to heaven. Others align with annihilationism, in which, after a period, the souls in hell perish into nonexistence. The traditionalists believe that those who are in hell experience torment for eternity.


The annihilationists and the traditionalists differ about the immortality of the human soul. Annihilationists do not believe in the immortality of unrighteous humans. So, they believe that the souls of the impenitent sinners will cease to exist in the lake of fire, or that they will be annihilated forever.


Traditionally, Christians believe that all people, whether saved or lost, will exist eternally because the human soul is immortal. The soul is spiritual and thus has the quality of immortality. And so, the souls of the wicked will suffer in hell eternally.

Conditional immortality


There are two different views about the immortality of souls, among those who believe in the cessation of unregenerated souls. The two groups are known as the conditionalists and the annihilationists.


They both believe that hell is not an endless punishment for the wicked. They argue that the unregenerated human soul will eventually cease to exist. Though they are practically the same, they differ about the nature of the immortality of soul.


Conditionalists believe that human beings are mortal since the Fall that happened the Garden of Eden. In the fallen condition, humans are incapable of living forever and doomed to die unless they are regenerated by faith in Jesus Christ.


The doctrine of conditional immortality reconciles the ancient Hebrew view that humans are mortal with the Christian view that the saved will live forever. That means, only those who are saved by faith in Christ will have immortal life. Everyone else, the unsaved, will suffer a second, irreversible death, perishing forever and ceasing to consciously exist.


Practically, conditionalism and annihilationism, believe that the souls of the unrighteous will be destroyed in Gehenna fire and will not suffer eternal torment. The difference between them is that the conditionalists believe that God destroys a mortal soul, while the annihilationists believe that God destroys a soul that was previously immortal. Conditionalism is the passive destruction of a mortal soul, while annihilationism is the active destruction of an immortal soul.


Proponents of conditional immortality believe the lost will indeed be resurrected, but to judgement, not to life. Only those covered by the blood of Christ will be raised immortal, unable to die any more. Immortality and enduring life are conditioned upon salvation. The unsaved will not live forever and will literally die a second time.


None of them question the eternity of the righteous, but they question the eternity of the unrighteous.




Annihilationism is the teaching that those who die apart from Christ will cease to exist when they are cast into the lake of fire. They believe that although the souls of the unregenerated would otherwise have been prolonged, God finally annihilates them in judgement. In other words, unbelievers will not experience eternal conscious punishment in hell, but their souls will be extinguished after a period of "limited conscious punishment". Their body and soul together will be destroyed.


Annihilationists base their arguments on Bible verses where the words "destroy," "perish," or "death" are used to describe the end of the unsaved.


John 3:16 For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. (NKJV)


They find two profound principles in this verse:


1.     Those who do not believe in Jesus Christ will "perish."

2.     Whoever believes in Him shall have "eternal life."


The Greek word translated "perish" in John 3:16 is Apollymi (ap-ol'-loo-mee) which means, to destroy, to put out of the way entirely, abolish, put an end to ruin. The opposite of "perish" in this verse is "eternal life".


The lost will be destroyed.


Peter presents some relation between the "perished" souls during Noah’s flood and the "perdition of ungodly men" who "are reserved for fire"


2 Peter 3:5, 6, 7 (NKJV)

5    For this they willfully forget: that by the word of God the heavens were of old, and the earth standing out of water and in the water, 

6    by which the world that then existed perished, being flooded with water. 

7    But the heavens and the earth which are now preserved by the same word, are reserved for fire until the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men.


The Greek word used for "perished" in verse 6 is "apollymi" (ap-ol'-loo-mee) which means, to destroy entirely. The Greek for "perdition" in verse 7 is "apōleia" (ap-o'-li-a) which is a presumed derivative of "apollymi". The word means, ruin or loss (physical, spiritual, or eternal), or utter destruction.


Jude has also made a comparison with those who were annihilated by fire in Sodom, with those who will be cast into the eternal fire.


Jude 1:7 as Sodom and Gomorrah, and the cities around them in a similar manner to these, having given themselves over to sexual immorality and gone after strange flesh, are set forth as an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire. (NKJV)


Sodom and Gomorrah serve as "an example" of the "eternal fire" into which the unsaved will be cast after the final judgement. But the people who lived in the cities were all consumed by the fire. They do not live eternally. And the fire that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah has gone out long ago. So, if Sodom and Gomorrah are "an example" of "suffering the vengeance of eternal fire", those who are cast into it will be consumed once and forever, and the fire will extinguish after its purpose.


Revelation 20:14 and 21:8, prophesy about "the second death". This is not the first and temporary death that is destined for all people. Rather, it is the irreversible death that only sinners will suffer after the judgement.


Revelation 20:14 Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. (NKJV)


Revelation 21:8 "But the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death." (NKJV)


There are some verses in the Bible that present a contrast between "death" and "eternal life".


John 5:24 "Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life. (NKJV)


Romans 6:23 For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (NKJV)


The contrast in these passages between "death" and "eternal life" is quite incompatible with the contrast between eternal life in happiness and eternal life in torment that the traditional doctrine presents.


Mark 9:43–44 (NKJV)

43 "If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed, rather than having two hands, to go to hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched--

44 "where 'Their worm does not die, And the fire is not quenched.' (NKJV)


In this warning, Jesus contrasted "life" with "the unquenchable fire," which implies that "the unquenchable fire" is death. Jesus here quoted the key phrase, directly from Isaiah 66:24, which refers to corpses, and not to conscious eternal torment.


Isaiah 66:24 "And they shall go forth and look Upon the corpses of the men Who have transgressed against Me. For their worm does not die, And their fire is not quenched. They shall be an abhorrence to all flesh." (NKJV)


When people attempt to destroy corpses by fire in Gehenna, a portion of the body might remain due to a lack of fuel. And due to dry conditions, corpses sometimes dried up, and the worms died before the corpse was fully consumed. "Their worm will not die, and their fire will not be quenched," which means that these bodies will be completely consumed. There is no suggestion in Isaiah 66 of eternal torment. Rather, it supports annihilation.


"Fire is not quenched" means that the fire will not be quenched until it has fully consumed the object in it. In other words, "fire is not quenched" also implies annihilation.


Jesus also spoke about the final destruction of both the body and the soul together.


Matthew 10:28 "And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. (NKJV)


Evil will not exist anywhere in the universe.


The final judgement determines the final destruction of all evil in the universe. Satan, the false prophet, the beast, and death are annihilated in the Lake of Fire. The lake of fire is the second death. Death is the final destruction. After that, there will be no evil in the vast universe.


Revelation 20:10 The devil, who deceived them, was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone where the beast and the false prophet are. And they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. (NKJV)


Revelation 20:14 Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. (NKJV)


If throwing death into the lake of fire symbolises the annihilation of death, then all things thrown into the lake of fire are annihilated.


Annihilationists argue that the beast and the false prophet in the book of Revelation are figures for systems rather than individuals. If they are personal beings, they could suffer everlasting torment. But since they are impersonal entities, they cannot be tormented forever. So, the permanent destruction of these evil systems is evidently meant in the above verses. Neither of them will exist forever. And Satan, who will also be thrown into the same lake of fire, will meet the same end, which is annihilation. All unsaved souls cast into the lake of fire will also be annihilated forever.


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 Eternal punishment

So far, we have been discussing the view that hell is the annihilation of the unregenerate soul. Now let us move forward to discuss the evidence for everlasting torment.


The traditional Christian view is that hell is eternal punishment or that the souls of the impenitent will be tormented in hell eternally. There will be no end to their torment. The proponents of this view argue that the Bible offers no support for the view of conditional punishment or annihilation. Scripture always clearly speaks of only two alternatives after death, eternity with God in glory or eternity of suffering and separation from God.


Immortality of souls


The Bible teaches clearly that all people, whether saved or lost, will exist eternally because the human soul is immortal. The soul is spiritual and thus has the quality of immortality. In contrast, the body is physical and is subject to death. The soul is not subject to death in the sense that it never ceases to exist. Our souls will live forever, either in the presence of God in heaven or in punishment in hell.


Jesus said in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus that the rich man’s soul was tormented in Hades. His soul was conscious and sensitive to pain. His soul did not cease to exist when he died.


Daniel 12:2–3 (NKJV)

2    And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, Some to everlasting life, Some to shame and everlasting contempt.

3    Those who are wise shall shine Like the brightness of the firmament, And those who turn many to righteousness Like the stars forever and ever.


Revelations 20:12 And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and books were opened. And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books. (NKJV)


These passages promise a resurrection of both the just and the unjust. When we die, our bodies return to "dust" (Genesis 3:19). From that dust, the body will return to either "everlasting life" or "everlasting contempt." We must assume the soul will be reunited with the body at that time, otherwise, the bodies would be soulless and therefore inhuman.


So, the soul never loses its immortality. Regeneration by the Holy Spirit is but the beginning of the redemptive process, by which the soul receives heavenly eternal life.


The eternal life and immortality are not the same. The moment one trusts Jesus Christ for salvation, he receives everlasting life. Eternal life comes from God as a gift to regenerated souls.


John 3:36 "He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him." (NKJV)


The glorious work of redemption effects as soon as a person is born again. But it is incorrect to say that, by regeneration, the soul becomes immortal. Because the soul never loses its immortality.


So, the soul either lives in heavenly bliss or in the lake of fire for ever and ever.


Eternal sin


The core of the concept of eternal punishment is that all human sins are committed against One who is infinite in perfection. So human sins remain eternal, and the punishment is also eternal.  


The Bible says that all humans "have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23) and that "the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23). Psalm 51:4 says that all our sins are ultimately against God. Since God is an infinite and eternal Being, sin and its punishment are also eternal. So hell is infinite and eternal.


A philosophical argument against the eternal torment view is that the punishment does not match the crime, and hence it is an injustice. God is a righteous God who will not do anything unfair. The base of the argument is that the sin a human being commits is finite. The punishment should match the crime, and hence it cannot be infinite or eternal.


This argument presents what we expect from God. We have decided prior to the judgement what should be considered justice and injustice. But unfortunately, God is not a being defined by humans. He is not what humans expect Him to be. He is eternal and existed as the same Being before humans were created. It is God who defines justice and injustice.


In fact, human sin is not finite because it is committed against an infinite being. All sins are crimes against an infinite God who is infinitely worthy of obedience, infinite in glory, and infinite in purity. No dignity is higher, and no transgression viler.


In Mark 3 and Matthew 12, Jesus spoke about an eternal sin that "will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come". This is not a finite sin.


Mark 3:29 "but he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is subject to eternal condemnation" -- (NKJV)


Matthew 12:32 "Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come. (NKJV)


The meaning of these verses is that all sins are eternal, but some will be forgiven, and the sin against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. The unforgiven sin will meet "eternal condemnation"


Parallel life


The life that the righteous enjoy will be parallel to the punishment that the wicked will suffer. Just as heaven will offer eternal joy for the believer, the lake of fire will offer eternal torment for unbelievers. Hell lasts as long as heaven. Daniel presented this parallel experience with the phrases "everlasting life" and "everlasting contempt".


Daniel 12:2 And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, Some to everlasting life, Some to shame and everlasting contempt. (NKJV)


This idea is carried through into the New Testament by Jesus in Matthew 25. Here Jesus taught about the parallel fates of the righteous and the unrighteous.


Matthew 25:41, 46 (NKJV)

41 "Then He will also say to those on the left hand, 'Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels:

46 "And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."


Thrice in the passage above, Jesus used the Greek word aiōnios (ahee-o'-nee-os) to describe the eternal nature of fire and punishment in hell. (41 and 46). The same word is used once to describe the eternal bliss of His followers (46). The Greek word "aiōnios" means, without end, never to cease, or everlasting. The word also means, without beginning or end, that which always has been and always will be. It means life came from God, and so it is not affected by the limitation of time.

Jesus' teaching is very clear. He said that someone who rejects the gospel and continues in sin will suffer eternal punishment after his earthly life.

 In the story of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus made it clear that the afterlife offers only two options: heavenly glory and hellish torments, both of which are eternal. The rich man has no hope of getting out of Hades, and Lazarus will never lose the blessings of heaven.


On another occasion, Jesus spoke about hell as an unquenchable fire. Jesus quoted from Isaiah to drive home the horrifying unendingness of hell. He said that in hell "'Their worm does not die, And the fire is not quenched". He was quoting the last verse from the book of Isaiah.


Mark 9:48 "where 'Their worm does not die, And the fire is not quenched.' (NKJV)


Isaiah 66:24 "And they shall go forth and look Upon the corpses of the men Who have transgressed against Me. For their worm does not die, And their fire is not quenched. They shall be an abhorrence to all flesh." (NKJV)


The image here is of a destructive worm eating its way through a body, while never actually totally consuming it. The body is simply perpetually gnawed on in gruesome eternal torment.


Destroy and eternal.


Those who support annihilation often argue that some passages in the New Testament describe hell as a place of destruction. Scripture often employs terms such as "destroy" (Matthew 10:28), "perish" (John 3:16), and "second death" (Revelation 20:14) to describe the destiny of those souls in hell.


Advocates of eternal punishment counter the argument by saying that destruction does not mean cessation. The word means that hell is a place of torment, chaos, and breakdown.


In Ezekiel 18:4, we read that “The soul who sins shall die”.


Ezekiel 18:4"Behold, all souls are Mine; The soul of the father As well as the soul of the son is Mine; The soul who sins shall die. (NKJV).


But neither here nor elsewhere in Scripture does a reference to the soul dying mean a state of non-existence, or even one of unconsciousness.


Apostle Paul described hell as "everlasting destruction".


2 Thessalonians 1:9 These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power, (NKJV)


Passages such as Revelation 14:11, Matthew 13:50 speak about hell as a place where "they have no rest day or night" and that "There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth." This is not a picture of complete cessation.


The book of Revelation has many passages that describe hell as an eternal lake of fire.


Revelation 20:15 And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire. (NKJV)


Those whose names were "not found in the book of life" are those who did not believe in Jesus Christ. Their destiny is the lake of fire.


Verse 10 of the same chapter describes the lake of fire as a place where the devil and the false prophet are "tormented day and night forever and ever." The unregenerated sinners will also be cast into the same lake of fire.


Revelation 20:10 The devil, who deceived them, was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone where the beast and the false prophet are. And they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. (NKJV)


Revelation 14 describes another feature of hell that there "the smoke of their torment ascends forever and ever".


Revelation 14:9–11 (NKJV)

9    Then a third angel followed them, saying with a loud voice, "If anyone worships the beast and his image, and receives his mark on his forehead or on his hand,

10 "he himself shall also drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out full strength into the cup of His indignation. He shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. 

11 "And the smoke of their torment ascends forever and ever; and they have no rest day or night, who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name." 


The Greek phrase used for "forever and ever" in Revelation 20:10 and 14:11 is "eis aion aion" (ice ahee-ohn' ahee-ohn’). The phrase means, to an age, to an unbroken age, or to a perpetuity of time. The same phrase is used in Revelation 20:10 to speak about the destiny of the devil and the false prophet.


The same Greek phrase is also used to prophesy the destiny of righteous souls.


Revelation 22:5 There shall be no night there: They need no lamp nor light of the sun, for the Lord God gives them light. And they shall reign forever and ever. (NKJV)


The destiny of the righteous is eternal life in heavenly glory. The same word is used to speak about the afterlife of the righteous and the unrighteous. So, it is a justifiable conclusion that the afterlife of the righteous as well as the unrighteous will be eternal.


Wherever the book of Revelation describes the flames of hell, it does not signify consumption but that the lost "shall be tormented with fire and brimstone" (Revelation 14:10).


The Bible neither says anywhere that the unrighteous will be annihilated nor that, in the end, all people will be gathered into the love of God and be saved. The Bible story ends with a picture of righteous people rejoicing in heavenly bliss and the wicked suffering endless torment.


So, we may conclude our arguments like this:


There will be a final judgement for all unbelievers. The great white throne judgement is appointed for those who reject Christ. All unbelievers will be resurrected to face the final judgement. This is the second resurrection.


Death and Hades are temporary judgements after death. This is where the rich man in the parable went after his earthly life. After the final judgement, death and Hades will be thrown into the lake of fire. It will be replaced by the eternal judgement of the lake of fire.


The lake of fire is the second death. When Scripture refers to death, it means separation. The first death is when your spirit is separated from your body. The second death is when your spirit is separated from God for all eternity.


The lake of fire is the eternal judgement. No salvation is offered in the lake of fire. There is no possibility of returning from it.



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