What About Hell?

by Phil Enlow

As I write this there is a renewed discussion and controversy about the doctrine of punishment and hell. A prominent minister has written a book promoting ideas consistent with universalism, the teaching that everyone will eventually be reconciled to God. Predictably the book has provoked considerable response defending the traditional doctrine of hell as a place of never-ending torment for the wicked.

While I realize that any doctrinal controversy will result in passionate debate among religious people I am also aware that in their heart of hearts many of God’s people have undoubtedly wondered about this issue. It appears to be a difficult choice between God’s love on the one hand and His justice on the other. Both are clearly attributes of His character yet how do they go together?

How can a God of love condemn even the most wicked among men to a punishment that never ends? And where do those who have never heard fit in? And many other similar questions arise. At the same time scriptural pronouncements of wrath and judgment have a decided air of finality about them.

I sometimes wondered about these things as I grew up but always resolved my questions by simply trusting God. I knew enough about Him to know that He would do what is right and things I was unable to understand would become clear at the proper time. And that, I suspect, is where most believers take their stand. Certainly there is nothing at all wrong with that and God WILL do what is right.

Confronted By a Different Idea

I distinctly remember the Sunday morning many years ago when Bro. Thomas preached about this issue. He had recently been praying and studying the question afresh and had reached a conviction that I had never seriously considered: hell is a very real thing but its purpose is to burn up what is put into it. The second death really is, well, death. And that wasn’t all. There are some, particularly those who have never heard, who will simply perish and not be part of the judgment scene at all. Certainly this is not a new idea but at that time I had just not thought about it.

Well! I found Bro. Thomas’s message interesting but not in itself convincing. Emotionally it was very appealing but for that very reason I was determined to keep the issue “at arm’s length” until the Lord gave me light on the subject. I greatly respect the fact that Bro. Thomas always wanted his hearers to do just that, not to simply believe something because he said so but to seek God and search the scriptures.

And so, for a few weeks that’s what I did. I neither accepted nor rejected what he had said but just “put it on the shelf” and waited. I hope the reader will do the same and not just react. Too many people simply cling to what is familiar never considering that their traditions may be in error. Just because we’ve heard something all our lives doesn’t necessarily make it so. Considering the wide variety of sincere doctrinal opinions in professing Christendom somebody must be mistaken! I would like to simply share the conviction I came to as a result of this process and then leave it between you and the Lord.

Several weeks after the service I mentioned I was in conversation with Bro. Thomas one evening in the church office. In no way was he anxious or striving to convince me but he casually mentioned something I had never thought of and it turned out to be the key to the whole matter.

Bro. Thomas reminded me that after Adam and Eve had sinned they were expelled from the garden. But it was the reason they were expelled that was significant. They were expelled so that they would not eat of the tree of life and live forever! Wait a minute! I had always been taught that everyone lives forever — somewhere. The only question was, “Where?”

A Light Goes On

As I walked the short distance home my mind was racing as scriptures flooded my thoughts. The real issue wasn’t hell but immortality. Think about the controversy I mentioned above. Both positions assume that what so many preachers have said is true, that we all have a “never-dying soul” that “must spend eternity somewhere.” But is that really true? Does the Bible really teach that? Was man created as an immortal being with a life that cannot die?

Many scriptures came to me but two of them stand out. My mind went quickly to 1 Timothy 6:16 where Paul refers to God “who alone is immortal.” Wait a minute! Did Paul make a mistake? Think about it. If God alone is immortal then where does that leave man? How can man have an immortal soul? Then on the heels of that one came 2 Timothy 1:10 which speaks of “our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” Wait a minute — again! Did Paul really mean what he said?

There were many other scriptures but those are more than enough to cause an honest heart to stop and consider. In one sense I truly trust God on this issue and don’t care which way it is because I know He will do what is right, yet if He chooses to give light and understanding which brings rest, praise God!

Put It Together

Put those thoughts together. Only God is immortal. Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden so they wouldn’t eat from the tree of life and live forever. Life and immortality were brought to light through the gospel! Through the gospel we are born of God, born of His immortal life. In becoming God’s children we acquire the immortality that was denied to Adam and Eve. Through Christ we are given the right to the tree of life. Rev. 22:14.

I realize that people who are committed to their traditions have answers for those scriptures but suddenly those answers didn’t seem very convincing in the light of divine illumination. Was there really a difference between eternal life and eternal existence? What kind of life would Adam and Eve have possessed had they partaken of the tree of life in their sinful condition? Wouldn’t that have resulted in an eternal existence in a sinful condition? Isn’t that what is typically taught concerning the wicked anyway? Yet it was the tree of LIFE they were kept from, not the tree of never-ending existence! When you think about it there is no way to maintain the doctrine of never-ending punishment without that kind of “hair-splitting” between life and conscious existence. Yet only God is immortal! Only He has by nature the kind of life that never ceases. That is the life He shares with us in salvation!

Over the next few years my understanding and conviction grew until, more than 20 years ago now, I wrote a series of articles that became the book, “Immortality.” There are undoubtedly things in the book I might express differently today and perhaps minor points I might not be quite so dogmatic about but my basic convictions have only deepened in the following years and I have a great rest concerning questions about hell and judgment.

A Call To “Bereans”

Are you a good “Berean” (Acts 17:11)? Here’s a good question to search out: where does the Bible teach that God created man with a never-dying soul?

The simple answer is that it doesn’t. Yet if that is such a basic truth why didn’t God make it clear in His Word — and not just once but in many places? Somewhere along the line the doctrine of the immortality of the soul — which I believe is of heathen origin — crept into the church and became accepted. Wasn’t it the serpent who said to Eve, “You will not surely die”? Gen. 3:4.

Gen. 2:7 informs us that “the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” The Hebrew word translated as “being” is nephesh. Search out that word. Often translated “soul,” it simply means “a breathing creature” and is applied to created life. (See Strong’s concordance.) If you look at the ways it is used you will see nephesh used of the animals as well as Adam (Gen. 1:20, 21, 24, 30, for example). God gave Adam and Eve created life just as He did to all the other animals. That life had no power in itself to last forever. That’s why God expelled them from the garden.

Reading Without the “Glasses”

I have been amazed as I have read the scriptures over the years how differently they read once I took off the “glasses” of belief in the immortality of the soul. God really meant it when He said to Adam, “you will surely die.” Gen. 2:17. Literally that can be translated, “dying you will die.” Death is a process that set in the moment Adam and Eve sinned but it is a process that has an end. It is not a perpetual state.

Here are just a few of the scriptures that I believe paint a clear picture of the final destiny of the wicked. I respectfully challenge you to try reading them without the “immortal soul” glasses.

Ezekiel 18:20 says, “The soul who sins is the one who will die.” In the context the Lord was addressing the belief that children died for the sins of their fathers but in the process he speaks of the death of the soul, the same nephesh that resulted when He breathed upon Adam. The serpent said they wouldn’t die; God said they would; which one should we believe?

In Matt. 10:28 said to his disciples, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” When men “kill the body” does that result in some sort of perpetual conscious state called “death”? Of course not! The parallel is clear.

Here’s another one to read without the “glasses.” In Mark 8:34-38 Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?” We have expressions like “losing your life” and “forfeiting your soul.” How does that somehow become an ongoing state?

God gave men created life, desiring that they might partake of His immortal life and become His children. Those who choose to continue in sin forfeit the life God gave them. What else does losing your life mean?

To those coming to John for baptism he said, “The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” Luke 3:9. Trees are not thrown in the fire to torment them but to burn them up. Compare this with Matt. 7:19 where Jesus said, “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” In this context Jesus was referring to religious people who found themselves rejected as evildoers at the judgment.

In verse 17 he speaks of Christ’s coming ministry in these words: “His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” Without the “glasses” that is a pretty clear picture! As we read in Hebrews 12:29, “Our God is a consuming fire.”

Sodom and Gomorrah

2 Peter 2:6 is interesting. There we find that God “condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly.” Well, what happened to those cities? What was left of the ungodly when God’s judgment was finished?

Jude 7 is a parallel scripture. There we read, “Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire.” If they are an example and what they suffered was “eternal fire” shouldn’t we be able to go to those places today and see them still suffering in the fire? The point isn’t the duration of the fire but its result. There was finality to their judgment. Their last opportunity to escape had come and gone. They were consumed in the flames.


Some confusion results in the word that is translated “eternal.” In English the word “eternal” means “never-ending” but it doesn’t necessarily mean that in the Greek. The adjective “eternal” comes from the noun aion, whose root meaning is “age.” For example in Matt. 12:32 Jesus speaks of the unpardonable sin in these words: “it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come.” The word “world” is aion. It wouldn’t make any sense to say, “neither in this eternity, neither in the eternity to come.” It makes perfect sense if it means “age.”

God has a purpose for this present age. In it we find men ruined by sin through the fall, subject to death. We also find that there is a hope of immortality brought to light through the gospel. If a man simply dies at the end of his earthly life there is still the possibility of resurrection. But there is finality to the death resulting from “aionian” fire. It is the destiny of the wicked with respect to the purpose of the age. There is no remedy, no resurrection from that death. Men either partake of God’s life through the gospel or they perish.


Much of the time the word “hell,” particularly in the King James Version, is translated from a word meaning “the grave” or “the world of the dead.” The Hebrew word is sheol and the Greek word is hades. In fact in Rev. 20:14 we find that “death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire.” What an interesting thought: even death dies!

The word Jesus often used is different. It is Gehenna. That’s the word he used of the body and soul being destroyed. Some (including me!) have claimed that Gehenna was the city dump for Jerusalem. That may be but it seems the historical support for that idea is skimpy at best. What is undeniable however is the connection between Gehenna and Topheth or the Valley of Ben Hinnom. See 2 Chron. 28:3, 2 Chron. 33:6, Jer. 7:31-32, Jer. 32:35, for example.

That terrible valley was a place of heathen sacrifice in the Old Testament. The Israelites were warned repeatedly not to take up the practices of the heathen nations around them but still they did. In several places in the prophets we find words of denunciation and judgment against those who engaged in them. Essentially the Valley of Ben Hinnom was a place of human sacrifice, particularly of children. Can you imagine Israelites throwing children into a raging fire as sacrifices to a heathen god? Well, some of them did.

The imagery is clear. Gehenna conjured up horrible images of fiery death. Yet how much worse is God’s Gehenna where the wicked will be thrown. Jesus used such expressions as “their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.” Surely Jesus is not teaching that there are immortal worms! Rather he is conveying the thoroughness and certainty of destruction. Worms and fire are agents of destruction. There is no escape from the forces of destruction in God’s Gehenna. They will do their job.

The Smoke of Their Torment

If there is one scripture that more than any other contributes to the belief in a never-ending lake of fire it is Rev.14:9-12. “If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark on the forehead or on the hand, he, too, will drink of the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. He will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and his image, or for anyone who receives the mark of his name.”

If you already believe in eternal torment it’s easy to see it here. Even allowing for the fact that Revelation is written in very figurative language it is unmistakable that a terrible judgment is described here. There is torment connected with that judgment. But is the language, especially in a book so full of symbolic language, meant to be taken as literally as so many do?

Consider the prophecy in Isaiah 34:9-10, “Edom’s streams will be turned into pitch, her dust into burning sulfur; her land will become blazing pitch! It will not be quenched night and day; its smoke will rise forever.” Sounds familiar! This is typical of “apocalyptic” language. It is a very colorful way of expressing prophetic truth, particularly concerning judgment. Think about it! If this prophecy is to be taken literally then there ought to be yet another place in the Middle East where an unquenchable fire burns and where smoke rises continually.

OR we can understand in these expressions the utter thoroughness and finality of the judgment. The end result in both cases is “smoke,” smoke that rises “forever.” Smoke is all that is left of that which has been burned in the fire. As Psalm 37:20 says, “But the wicked will perish: The Lord’s enemies will be like the beauty of the fields, they will vanish — vanish like smoke.”

The Rich Man and Lazarus

Another scripture that will no doubt occur to many is the parable of the rich man and Lazarus recorded in Luke 16:19-31. There Jesus told the Pharisees a story about a rich man and a beggar named Lazarus whose fortunes were reversed after they died. The rich man wound up in torment and the beggar went to “Abraham’s bosom.” The very reasonable question is, did Jesus mean for us to understand this as a literal picture of the current state of the dead?

For me it makes no sense as a literal picture. Are we really to understand that the righteous and wicked are able to converse and see one another, either now or after the judgment? Wouldn’t it be terrible for a saint of God living in eternal bliss to be able to look across a chasm and see their earthly relatives screaming in hopeless pain! Was Jesus really trying to say that rich people go to hell and beggars to heaven since nothing is said about either sin or righteousness? Or that they are somehow in a bodily state such that the rich man wanted his tongue cooled? The picture painted doesn’t fit into the rest of the scriptures – if it is understood to be literal.

What, then, was Jesus saying? Consider first who Jesus was addressing. It was the Pharisees who sneered at the idea that they couldn’t serve both God and money. In their minds they were sons of Abraham, favored of God, righteous in their own eyes, yet focused on living the “good life” here. In addition they despised the very people to whom Jesus reached out. Look at Luke 15:1-2.

The story Jesus told illustrates very well the warning he gave in Luke 13:28-30 where he said, “There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out. People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last.” Tax collectors, sinners — Gentiles even!

Jesus’ parable involved death and thus gave him the opportunity to point out the depth of their spiritual blindness, namely, that they wouldn’t believe even if one rose from the dead to warn them.

The New Creation

Men’s destinies are determined in this earthly life. Judgment is real. Weeping, wailing, gnashing of teeth, and torment are part of the picture.

The question is, will any of this continue into the new heavens and the new earth? In Rev. 21:4 we read, “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” It’s hard to fit eternal torment into that picture. I know that verse 8 refers again to the lake of fire but verses 6-8 jump back to John’s day and once again look forward. He is not talking about some screaming in pain while others live in bliss. When the age ends the judgment will separate the righteous and the wicked forever, the one to a new heavens and a new earth and the other to a fiery painful end. Matt. 13:49-50.

Will Everyone Be At The Judgment?

What about the judgment scene of Rev. 20? Will everyone ever born be there? I don’t believe they will. There is a difference between men when it comes to judgment. There is even a difference in the consequence of sin. Rom. 2:2 says of the wicked, “Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth.” All sin, but not all sin against the same amount of light.

Rom. 2:12 is significant. “All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law.” Everyone in that verse is a sinner yet there are two different destinies described. One has only the witness of creation and the testimony of his conscience; the other has the revealed law of God. The consequence for the first kind is to “perish.” The consequence for the second is to be “judged by the law.”

Did you catch the difference? This is one of the scriptures Bro. Thomas used in that message so long ago. I didn’t “get it” that day but it became clear when the Lord showed me the significance of the immortality issue. If man is not by nature immortal then it is possible for someone who lives in heathen ignorance to simply perish. There is no basis for judgment, certainly not like there is for someone who hardens their heart against revealed truth like the law or the gospel. The Psalmist even refers to some men as being like the beasts that perish. Psalm 49:12, 20.

This is consistent with Rom. 5:13-14 where we read, “for before the law was given, sin was in the world. But sin is not taken into account when there is no law. Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who was a pattern of the one to come.”

What is Paul saying? Adam sinned by rebelling against a specific command of God. Many others prior to the law of Moses sinned but not like Adam did. Paul even says, “sin is not taken into account when there is no law.” That means they are not charged with sin like someone under the law. It is a legal difference. It is one thing to commit a crime. It is another to be charged and then tried in a court of law concerning that crime. God certainly would not be just to bring sinners out of heathen darkness and charge them with breaking a law they know nothing about. Yet death still reigns over them. For them it is the consequence of sinning against what they do know.

Don’t ask me precisely who will be at the judgment and who will not. I simply know that God is just and will judge men based on the light they have. I believe there is good reason to believe that there will be many people who will have simply lived and perished. We live in a world under the dominion of sin and death. There is but one way of escape from that dominion. It is through the gospel that life and immortality have been brought to light.

Peter speaks of apostates in 2 Peter 2:21, “It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them.” Think about it. How could it have been better if judgment is the same for everyone?

An Invitation to Examine

At best this is a quick overview of a complex subject. It is dealt with in much greater detail in the book, “Immortality.” Are you a good Berean? I invite you to examine all this for yourself. Pray about it. Let the Lord know you are depending on Him to reveal his truth to you. Even if you find points to differ with consider the truth as a whole.

My testimony is that God respects honest inquiry. I didn’t know and more importantly had no particular prejudice in the matter. Whatever was true was true. It didn’t matter to me how it all came out and so I simply committed the question to the Lord. If He was pleased to reveal truth about it, fine. If not, then that was fine too. I would simply continue to trust Him. God will honor you if you approach questions with an honest heart, committed only to Him and to His Word as He reveals it.

Have we perhaps allowed the devil to saddle much of the church with a doctrinal dilemma: God’s love or His justice? Why not a scriptural balance of both? What a glorious hope God has given us in the gospel! Apart from it sin reigns and death is a certainty. But in the gospel we find the certain hope of eternal life in a brand new creation!

Return to Library of Articles