Does their worm really die?

Hell isn’t something many of us like to ponder in our spare hours. However, sometimes its horror is hard to get out of our heads. Concern for the dreadful fate of the unsaved, or a simple fear of our own destiny can, at times, be overwhelming. The topic of hell and punishment has arisen with considerable frequency in the last six months. Dr James Packer chose to speak on this in his public lecture at Enfield. At the second Katoomba Youth Convention weekend in January, question time was filled with inquiries about this very issue. Although unmentionable in most secular circles, Christians sense a need to understand this aspect of eschatology.

It has emerged that there are differences among mainstream evangelicals concerning the nature of divine punishment and hell. The traditional belief has always been that punishment is everlasting torment, in exact opposition to the eternal happiness granted to believers. However, a number of well-respected church leaders and theologians have suggested that the biblical data offers an alternative to the traditional belief. The following article serves as an introduction to the arguments involved in this issue, and highlights some of the problems of both positions without coming down on either side. However, some important conclusions are drawn as to the importance of the debate for evangelism and theology.

Endless punishment vs. annihilation

There are two major stances in this debate: endless, conscious punishment and punitive annihilation. We have chosen two contemporary evangelical leaders to represent these stances, although others exist in both camps and there is a degree of difference in belief within each camp.

JI Packer, in his recent Leon Morris lecture in Melbourne, argued passionately for the traditional view. With Dr Morris, he asserted that “the ultimate fate of the wicked is eternal punishment”, according to the overall teaching of Scripture. When the ‘natural reading’ of the biblical evidence is considered, Packer finds no room for anything but relentless, conscious suffering in hell. This will not mar the joyous experience of heaven for believers, because they will marvel at God’s holiness and his righteous judgement.

John Stott has declared (with apprehension) his view that “the ultimate annihilation of the wicked should be accepted as a legitimate, biblically founded alternative to their eternal conscious torment”. By annihilation, Stott means the punitive extinction of the whole person. He argues that the language of hell used by Christ and the apostles suggests perishing and destruction, particularly the recurrent symbol of fire.

Exegetical issues

There is frequent reference to hell and punishment in the Scriptures, but little elucidation of the details of either. Most of the generally accepted depictions of hell are a result of imaginative preaching and a rightful fear of the place. Nevertheless, the Bible does provide some understanding of the nature of punishment.

Hell is described in various language as a place of unquenchable fire (Matt 3:12) where the worm never dies (Mark 9:48), a place of darkness (Judg 13), of destruction (Matt 10:28; 2 Thess 1:9), and of pain and torment (Luke 16:23). A number of mythological names—Sheol, Hades, Gehenna— are regularly employed. The language is emotive and powerful (see, for example, the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31). The picture of hell in Scripture is unambiguous; its horror is beyond question.

The point at which the nature of hell comes under debate concerns the meanings of the words ‘eternal’ and ‘destruction’. The Greek word for ‘everlasting’ or ‘eternal’ is aionios, which is understood not as ‘without end’, but as ‘of the ages’. What will time be like in the next age? The Jews conceived of the next age as endless, which would render trivial the semantic distinction made above. It can be argued, however, that ‘as long a time as you can imagine’ is the implied meaning of the word, which leaves room for ‘eternal punishment’ to be something enduring, but not endless.

The Greek word for ‘destruction’ is appollumi (to destroy) or apoleira (destruction). These are variously understood as ‘to ruin’, ‘to render useless for the designed purpose’ and ‘to cause to perish’. These slight differences contribute to the debate of whether destruction refers to annihilation or debasement.

What issues does this debate affect?

A number of areas of understanding are influenced by one’s view of hell and punishment. We will outline the most important of these areas.

The nature of the new world order

It is difficult to imagine how hell and heaven could exist simultaneously. How could a believer truly enjoy heaven while so many are eternally suffering? If sinners and, ultimately, hell itself were annihilated, the world of Revelation 22 could be a reality: “No longer will there be any curse”. If hell remains forever, there will be a part of the new creation that is unrenewed. Suffering and death will never be totally abolished. But Christ will finally do away with death (1 Cor 15:26), and Revelation 20:14 suggests that hell will be destroyed. If these are true, then one can understand how God will be ‘all in all’ (1 Cor 15:28). In his lecture, Dr Packer called this whole problem “pure speculation”. He suspects that, in heaven, we will be in awe of God’s judgements in a way that we cannot imagine at present (cf. Isa 66:24).

Destruction is not punishment

If you were to ask a group of people whether they would prefer to be annihilated or eternally punished, almost everyone would opt for the former—unless, perhaps, it was just about to happen! Exponents of the traditional view claim that annihilation is a ‘soft option’—that it is not a just punishment for sin against the Holy God. It is true that some people are ‘attracted’ to annihilation position because it seems to make hell more bearable. Such a perception is shallow. It indicates a failure to see the terrible agony of exclusion from God’s kingdom, an agony which is subjective during punishment and then an objective reality upon annihilation. 2 Thessalonians 1:9 speaks of the unbeliever being “punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord”. Permanent destruction and banishment from God himself is surely no less terrible than eternal punishment. Late last century, WGT Shedd summarized the traditional view, claiming that “the essence of punishment is suffering and suffering is consciousness”. But what of the value of life itself? If God-given existence is inherently worthy, then to be deprived of this is the worst of conditions.

The question that most disturbs both camps concerns God’s justice. Is it needlessly cruel of God to relentlessly punish a sinner? Would God actually conquer evil if he allowed suffering to continue for eternity? On the other hand, can anything but eternal punishment bring retribution to the eternal God? Shedd points out that for God to be just, his punishment will continue as long as there is reason for it. Those in hell still oppose God, gnashing their teeth, so their punishment continues. CS Lewis has expressed this well: “… the doors of hell are locked on the inside”. No-one is in hell who has not chosen, by his or her decisions during life, to be there. The nature of God’s justice is a central question to this debate, and one that requires further understanding.

Biblical language

One problem with being dogmatic about hell and punishment has to do with the nature of the biblical data. The purpose of descriptions of hell in the Scripture is to warn people not to go there! The language is terrifying, chosen to shock people out of their complacency and drive them back to God. As with proverbs and parables, it is difficult to draw doctrine from such language.

The so-called ‘balance’ between eternal punishment and eternal life is a good example. JI Packer claims it is natural to think of eternal punishment and eternal life as diametrically opposite. This is true as far as rhetoric goes, and is a handy preacher’s tool. However, it may not suffice for establishing doctrine. Eternal life and eternal punishment are qualitatively different. Punishment is the deserved fate of the sinner, whereas life, even eternal life, is a gift from God (Rom 6:23). Furthermore, it is destruction that is exactly opposed to life, and it is destruction that, by the nature of the word, is more often viewed in the Scriptures as eternal (cf. Gal 6:8). We tend to understand concepts such as these dialectically: we know pain by what is pleasure and death by what is life. This manner of thinking may not extend to the next age (cf. Rev 21:4).

Conditional immortality

A notion that is closely related to the annihilation position is that humans are naturally mortal, but receive immortality when regenerated by the Holy Spirit. There is some suggestive scriptural evidence behind this claim: only God is immortal (1 Tim 6:16; Rom 1:23); eternal life is a gift only for the believer (Gal 6:8; John 10:28; Rom 2:7; 1 Cor 15:54; 2 Tim 1:10; 2 Pet 1:4). PE Hughes, a respected Anglican theologian, claims that man was created potentially immortal and potentially mortal, just as he was potentially sinful and potentially sinless. Man’s immortality left him when he left Eden. It follows, then, that the unregenerate man suffers the same fate as the sinful world: destruction.

Shedd argued against such a view, but was forced into a type of ‘body-soul dualism’ where the soul pre-exists before joining the body at birth. Calvin, too, struck difficulties in arguing that the soul is immortal from Matthew 10:28, when the passage clearly states that the soul can be destroyed in hell. AF Johnson, in Elwell’s Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, uses John 5:28-29 to claim that the resurrection of the unsaved would not make sense unless they were immortal—that is, able to be raised. JI Packer is vehement that a conditionalist leaves behind the dignity of eternal man, praise for God’s judgements and the glory of divine justice.

Some conclusions

There is some ambiguity in the biblical information concerning hell and judgement. Further work is required in understanding Christ’s admonitions about hell and in uniting the passages on this topic scattered throughout the Scripture.

However, it can be clearly stated that hell involves the terrific condemnation of the unbeliever in one way or another. Consequently, our obligation to preach the gospel to unbelievers remains, regardless of our stance on this issue. There should be no temptation towards universalism for the annihilationist, for there is no less punishment in permanent exclusion from God’s kingdom than in everlasting torment. People desperately need the gospel to escape God’s righteous judgement of them.

Let us pray that the sick, grieved feeling we experience when writing and reading an article on the topic of hell and judgement will be channelled into a real desire to “snatch others from the fire and save them”, however long that dreadful fire might burn.


JI Packer, ‘The Problem Of Eternal Punishment’, The Leon Morris lecture, 1990. Available from Evangelical Alliance, Victoria.

D Edwards and J Stott, Essentials, Hodder & Stoughton, 1988.

PE Hughes, The True Image, IVP, 1989 pp. 398-407.

‘Hell’, New Bible Dictionary.

‘Conditional Immortality’ and ‘Eternal Punishment’ in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, edited by W Elwell, W, Baker, 1984.

WGT Shedd, The Doctrine of Endless Punishment, James Nisbet & Co, 1886.

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