Eternally burning hellfire? Sinners, their immortal souls suffering and being burned and tortured in agony for all eternity in never-ending torment? We recoil at the injustice and refuse to acquiesce to a "just" God who would invoke such injustice.
But God is just. Hell is not forever. God is loving, and He is just, and His punishments are measured and proportional. Hell is terminal, and there are many reasons to reject the teaching of eternally burning hellfire:
- The Greek word "aionios" translated as "everlasting" in passages referring to punishment and hell, such as Matthew 25:46, should instead be translated giving the sense of "lasting the entirety of a defined period of time".
- The period can be short like the time it takes to shave each morning, or it can be a longer period such as the time of one's childhood, or the time during which one is married.
- The idea of an immortal soul requiring everlasting punishment is an error that crept into the church from pagan Greek philosophy going back to Plato and Socrates.
- Luke 12:47-48 presents a clear teaching of Jesus' about "many lashes" and "few lashes" -- the punishment to be more severe or less severe, measured in proportion to the crime.
- Historical writings show the early church fathers believed in measured punishment followed by eternal death. The New Testament writers believed the same.
- The pagan-driven doctrine of everlasting hell brings dishonor and slander to the Lord Jesus, driving away those whom we seek to reach and see saved.
- Scripture teaches a measured, lasting punishment for a defined period of time. We should teach the same, receiving the Word "with all readiness" just as described in Acts 17:11.
Read Paul G. Humber's book to examine each of these reasons in well-researched detail. If you've ever been troubled in your heart over the eternal torment of sinners, then Humber's book is a salve of truth to sooth your soul. His is hands-down one of the best theological books that I've read in 30 years. His research and attention to detail are impeccable. Like Jesus with the disciples on the road to Emmaus, Humber opens the Word and expounds truth.
Notes and Links
Tertullian was one of the early proponents of the false teaching of the immortal soul, and quite likely was the critical point of failure by which the false teaching entered the church. Read the paragarph that is Chapter 3 of his treatise On the Resurrection of the Flesh. There you will find Tertullian relying on the authority of Plato rather than on God's Word for the doctrine of the immortal soul that in turn leads to the need for eternal punishment.
Early Christian martyr Ignatious of Antioch (born around 35 AD and martyred sometime during AD 98-117 during the reign of Trajan), in Chapter 10 of his Epistle to the Magnesians, says: "For were He to reward us according to our works, we should cease to be." He does not speak of torment forever and ever, but of cessation of our existence.
Irenaeus (who wrote from 175-185 AD), in Book II of Against Heresies, Chapter XXXIV, Paragraph 3, states: "But he who shall reject it, and prove himself ungrateful to his Maker, inasmuch as he has been created, and has not recognised Him who bestowed [the gift upon him], deprives himself of [the privilege of] continuance for ever and ever." Once again, the clear sense of the message is not one of everlasting torture, but of a ceasing to exist.