A Bible Study by Jack Kelley
“And they will go out and look upon the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.” (Isaiah 66:24)
Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. (Daniel 12:2)
Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life. (Matt. 25:41,46)
Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. (Rev. 20:14-15)
For most of mankind’s existence the belief that punishment for unbelievers is eternal was taken for granted. The above verses are the basis for this point of view. It’s become known as the traditional view of hell.
Recently an alternative, called the conditional view, has come on the scene. This view is based primarily on Rev. 20:12 which says the unsaved dead will be judged according to their works. Proponents of the conditional view interpret this verse to mean that while no unbeliever can go to heaven, their punishment in hell will be based on the quality of their lives while on Earth. They contend that those who’ve led meritorious lives on Earth but aren’t believers will receive less severe punishment for a shorter period of time than say a Hitler or Stalin before being destroyed altogether. They claim that this view makes more sense because it shows God to be fair, making the punishment fit the crime so to speak, before mercifully ending their existence altogether.
On the surface it seems to make sense and some people are more comfortable with this view than the traditional one that appears excessively harsh to them and serves no purpose other than making people suffer. But is the conditional view the result of greater enlightenment in our understanding of Scripture or just another in a long line of attempts to re-cast God’s word into a kinder gentler document as it pertains to those who’ve rejected Him?
My Ways Are Not Your Ways
A closer look reveals that the idea of a conditional hell is decidedly biased toward the world view of unbelievers. Conditional hell proponents say, “All they did is not believe that Jesus died for them. Other than that many unbelievers tried to live a good life and helped a fair amount of people along the way. What did they do to deserve eternal punishment?” (Notice the emphasis on good works here?)
What these folks don’t seem to realize is that without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6). No amount of good works and kindness toward others will make up for the deficiency of unbelief. The truth is they will have failed to do the only thing God required of them.
Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?”
Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” (John 6:28-29)
If God is going to judge unbelievers by how they’ve done the work He requires of them, it’ll all be over pretty quickly because without belief in Jesus even the good they might have accomplished is considered evil in God’s sight. How do I know that? Read the Lord’s own words;
Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ (Matt. 7:22-23)
They will claim to have performed miracles in His name, but the Lord will deny ever knowing them, calling them evil doers. So much for the value of a meritorious life apart from faith in Him!
And in John 15:5 He said, “I am the vine and you are the branches. If a man remains in Me and I in him, he will bear much fruit. Apart from Me you can do nothing.”
Unbelievers don’t think rejecting the Lord is a big deal because they don’t realize that their rejection of His sacrifice for their sins has eternal consequences. Because of their unbelief they’re only thinking in terms of a 70-80 year lifespan, not an eternal existence. So let’s take a look at this from the eternal perspective and try to understand how different it is.
First let’s understand that the man who is executed or given life in prison for taking someone’s life is not being taught that murder is wrong. He’s suffering the consequence of his crime by forfeiting the balance of his physical life . It’s an adaptation of the Biblical injunction, a life for a life (Lev. 24:17). On Earth we’re in a physical environment so it’s a physical life for a physical life.
But a person who rejects the pardon God provided for him has in effect murdered his own soul and spirit. Both are eternal, so there has to be an eternal consequence to fit the crime. Our physical bodies are only intended to serve a temporary purpose, and that’s to house the eternal part of us for a little while. Compared to our eternal existence, putting our physical existence to death is a minor infraction. Refusing to accept the Lord’s completed work on the cross as payment in full for our sins is a crime against our eternal life and therefore the only just punishment is eternal punishment.
Is Everyone Destined For Hell?
Recently someone challenged me to prove from the Bible that all mankind is destined for hell. He said by that he meant an actual place where one will spend eternity. This person, like many others, doesn’t realize that hell is not an eternal destination, but only a temporary place of torment while one awaits his or her final judgment. So first let’s see if there’s a place that says everyone is destined for hell.
“Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned” (Romans 5:12).
A surface reading of that verse alone might lead one to conclude that Paul was just talking about the death of the body here. After all it was sin entering the world that caused man’s physical life to change from immortal to mortal.
But if we read on and take the entire passage in context we see Paul wasn’t just talking about physical death. For example, in Romans 5:18 He wrote, “Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people.”
Here we can see he had to be talking about eternal life because the Lord’s one act of righteousness did not prevent the physical bodies of believers from dying.
Therefore, since we’re all sinners we are all condemned. But by accepting the Lord’s death as payment in full for our sins can we escape condemnation and death and receive justification and eternal life instead.
What Does The Bible Say?
The account of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) gives us the Bible’s clearest picture of what happens after we die. In comparing what happened to these men, the differences in their experience become obvious.
When Lazarus died he was carried to a place the Jews called Abraham’s side because Abraham, the father of the faithful, was there to comfort them. But when the rich man died he went to hell (Greek, hades). Abraham and the rich man could see each other and communicate back and forth so we know Abraham’s side and Hades were in the same general location.
In the Old Testament these two destinations were known by the single name of Sheol, the “abode of the dead.” Upon dying, everyone went there. It’s where Jonah’s spirit went while his body languished in the belly of the whale (Jonah 2:2,6).
From the New Testament we learn that Sheol contained two compartments, separated by a wide chasm, impossible to cross (Luke 16:26). One side was a place of comfort where believers went to await Heaven’s opening after the cross. That’s where Lazarus was. In Greek it was called Paradise, a name that evoked memories of the Garden of Eden.
The other side was a place of torment reserved for unbelievers, and that’s where the rich man was.
After His resurrection, Jesus took the spirits of the believing dead from Paradise with Him to Heaven (Ephes. 4:8). Those who are in hell will remain there in torment until their final judgment at the end of the Millennium, which is still over 1,000 years in the future to us. At that time, Rev. 20:14 tells us, death and Hades will give up the dead who are in them and each person will be judged according to what has been recorded in the books kept in Heaven. Everyone whose name cannot be found in the book of life will be thrown into the Lake of fire, which is the Second death. The Lake of Fire is the final destiny of all unbelievers. Now, let’s see how long they’ll remain there.
At the time of the 2nd coming, the Lord will conduct a judgment of all humans still alive on earth (Matt. 25:31-46). People from all over the world will be brought to the Lord for His determination of their spiritual condition. Those He judges to be believers will be welcomed into the Millennial Kingdom (Matt. 25:34) where they will help repopulate the earth. Those who are not will will be taken away to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels (Matt 25:41). Rev. 19:20 and Rev. 20:10 tell us this is a fiery lake of burning sulfur, while Rev. 20:14 simply calls it the lake of fire. They all refer to the same place, the final destiny of all unbelievers.
It’s a mistake to just read Rev. 20:10 and conclude that only the devil, the anti-Christ and the false prophet will be tormented forever. It’s a mistake to just read Matt. 25:46 and conclude that only unbelieving tribulation survivors will be punished forever. And it’s a mistake to just read Daniel 12:2 and conclude that only unbelievers from Old Testament times will suffer shame and everlasting contempt (abhorrence). All unbelievers from all ages will go to the same place, the place of eternal punishment, and all will suffer eternally.
And That’s Not All
But there’s an even more powerful legal argument for eternal punishment that for centuries was modeled in human existence as well. Until the mid 19th Century it was common practice in many parts of the world to incarcerate a person for failure to pay his or her debts. Jail time was not an alternative method of repayment, it was the consequence they suffered for their inability to pay their debts. No matter how long they were locked up they still owed as much of their debt as they did on their first day behind bars. They could only be freed by repaying the money they owed. Jesus referred to this practice in His parable of the unmerciful servant (Matt. 18:23-35).
It’s the same with our sins. Punishment is not an alternative method unbelievers can use to pay the penalty for their sins, it’s the consequence they’ll suffer for their inability to pay the penalty. No matter how long people suffer in eternity, they will still owe the same penalty as they did on day one. The only acceptable payment for sin is the blood of an innocent person, and nothing else will suffice. Hebrews 9:22 explains that without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. Therefore no one can “work off” his or her penalty through suffering.
This is the fatal flaw in the Catholic concept of purgatory. It calls for a person who dies with certain unconfessed sins to “work off” the penalty for those sins through their suffering and the intercessory prayers of living relatives in order to qualify for entry into heaven. But there’s only one way for humans to qualify for entry into heaven and that’s by accepting the blood of Jesus as payment for our sins (John 3:3). Once we do that all of our sins are covered (Colossians 2:13-14). But we have to do it before we die (Hebr. 9:27) or else it’s too late.
It’s also the flaw in the conditional view of hell. If the blood of Jesus is the only way to be released from the penalty for our sins, then there’s no release for those who reject it. No matter how numerous or noteworthy, the “good works” unbelievers perform during their lifetime can’t be applied to reduce their sentence and neither can the “time served” after they die, so they’ll always owe the same penalty as they did on day one of their incarceration.
The bottom line is the only acceptable payment for our sins is the blood of a sinless man, and the only sinless man is Jesus. He died for all the sins of mankind (John 1:29) but only those who choose to accept His death as payment for their sins can be forgiven (John 3:16). Refusing to accept it leaves everyone else unable to pay and requires that they be incarcerated. Since they’re eternal beings and have committed crimes against eternity, and since they’ll never be able to pay, they’ll have to remain incarcerated forever.
It is my fervent prayer that if you’re reading this and you have not accepted the Lord’s death as payment in full for your sins, you will not let another day go by without doing so. None of us is privileged to know the number of our days. Each new one could be our last. Please don’t tarry.