If a couple Jehovah’s Witnesses knocked on your door to tell you about their church, there is one doctrine that they probably won’t talk about right away. Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists are the two most well known groups in America that believe in soul sleep. The doctrine of soul sleep teaches that when a person dies, the soul, just like the body, loses all awareness and sensation. At death the soul of the person does not cease to exist, nor does it enter into heaven or hell, but it becomes unconscious of anything until the day of resurrection.
This doctrine finds support in the Bible’s use of the word “sleep” to describe death. When Jesus’ friend Lazarus died, He told His disciples that Lazarus was asleep. In 1 Thessalonians 4 Paul refers to those who have died when he says, “But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep.” Proponents of soul sleep believe the figure of sleep applies to the deceased’s body and soul.
Other support is found in passages like Psalm 146:4, “His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish.” and Psalm 6:5, “For in death there is no remembrance of thee: in the grave who shall give thee thanks?” Since man is more just body, since the dead do not think, and since the dead do not praise God, then the soul the soul must go into an unconscious or unaware state after death.
While this may seem to be reasonable and compelling evidence, the Bible makes several clear statements death which make the doctrine of soul sleep impossible. When Jesus taught about the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16 He plainly taught that when a person dies he immediately enters into his conscious reward. There is no delay between death and awareness. If the soul has no awareness, then the rich man could not wake up in hell. He would be aware of nothing until the resurrection. If the rich man awoke at the resurrection, Abraham was a liar when he said that the man’s brothers could read the Old Testament and thus be saved from hell. What Jesus describes is immediate, conscious awareness of the afterlife.
The book of Revelation tells of martyrs at the throne of God pleading for the punishment of their tormentors. They are clearly conscious, clearly communicating with God and clearly in heaven between their death and the resurrection. Why would they be asking God how long until He would judge their persecutors if they had been resurrected and were at the judgment the same time as their murderers?
The Bible uses sleep as a figurative term to describe the apparent condition of the dead. Sleep is not intended to describe the condition or awareness of the soul. The poetic passages of Psalms and Ecclesiastes that refer to the silence of the dead are speaking of the inability of the deceased to do any thing upon this earth. Soul sleep is not a Biblical doctrine, but a false teaching which denies the clear truths of the Bible about death, judgment and the afterlife.
In an article entitled “Ten Questions about Hell from an Atheist” author Herb Silverman writes, “Our earthly binary divisions are usually quite arbitrary. People may vote when they are 18 and buy alcohol when they are 21, but they are not permitted to do so the day before. We recognize such rules for what they are — distinctions without a real difference. Not so when it comes to the cutoff between an eternity of bliss and an eternity of torture.” He wonders, “How much more deserving is the worst person in heaven than the best person in hell?”
Only one person in heaven deserves to be there. That one is Jesus who is fully God and fully human. Aside from Jesus the best person in heaven is not in the least degree more worthy to be in heaven than the worst person in hell. The difference between heaven and hell is not worth, merit, deserving or goodness. No one goes to heaven because they deserve it. Those who enter heaven do so because they have been saved from what they deserve.
Salvation is never an issue of what the person deserves. “For by grace are ye saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, not of works, lest any man should boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9) “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us.” (Titus 3:5) Heaven is not about getting what you deserve. Heaven is about the mercy of God which does not give you what you deserve and the grace of God which gives you what you do not deserve.
Every person deserves eternal judgment in hell. “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned:” (Romans 5:12) “But he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” (John 3:18) “But the fearful, and unbelieving . . . shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.” (Revelation 21:8) Because all have sinned, all deserve eternal punishment.
What everyone deserves has been placed on Jesus. What no one deserves is given to those who trust Him for forgiveness. “For He hath made Him to be sin for us, who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him.” (2 Corinthians 5:21) “For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God.” (1 Peter 3:18) The punishment of sin that everyone deserves has been suffered by Jesus. Those who turn to Him for salvation are forgiven and given eternal life.
The distinction between those in heaven and hell is not an arbitrary division. The difference between those who make it and those who don’t is not based upon a barely understandable determination that one is slightly better than another. All are guilty. Everyone has been condemned. The difference between heaven and hell is the response of the sinful person to Jesus. Those who believe Jesus is God and Savior, who trust Him and only Him for forgiveness of sin, will have eternal life. Those who do not will not. “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life.” (John 3:36)
“In heaven we’ll all be sociopaths.” This provocative article title refers to the awareness of those in heaven of the suffering of those in hell. The Bible says that those who enter into eternal life will have eternal joy, free from all sorrow, pain and tears. The Bible also indicates that the people in heaven will be aware of the suffering of the people in hell. At the very least the people in heaven will know that billions of people are in hell. How can the people in heaven have this knowledge and still be happy?
None can deny the sufferings of hell are terrible. No one should delight in them. God does not delight in them. (Ezekiel 33:11; Lamentations 3:33; 2 Peter 3:9) No one in heaven will enjoy the pain of the wicked. The joys of heaven are not malicious or sociopathic. However, God will be praised because of His justice and holiness. Those who hated God and rejected His Son will suffer the punishment prepared for the rebellious angels who rebelled. (Matthew 25:41)
Those in heaven will not weep over the suffering in hell because in heaven we will understand all things perfectly. On earth all men view the judgment of the lost through sinful eyes. None can fully comprehend hell’s justice or God’s holiness. In heaven, the full justice and appropriateness of hell will be understood.
The assurance of the Bible is that God will wipe away all tears from the eyes of the redeeemed. (Revelation 20:3-4) God will come down to earth in all His glory. He will establish His throne in the New Jerusalem. He will be the glory of the earth. The sun will not be needed. There will be no night and no darkness because the glory of God will illuminate all things. The curse of sin will be completely removed. All in the new earth will bring their praise directly to the throne of God. The glory of God will be so great that it will forever enamor those who stand in His presence. Hell is horrible, but God’s glory is so great it will outshine the terrors of eternal suffering.
Instead of denying the goodness of God because of the bliss of heaven consider your own goodness. How grieved are you right now because of the suffering of those in hell? Do you weep because of their agony? Do you work to tell the gospel to the unsaved so they can be delivered from the punishment of their sin?
This does not mean that none should rejoice in this life. All should give thanks to God for His good gifts. You can delight in births, sunsets, snow, Spring and all the other blessings of God knowing. Though millions are suffering in hell we can, and should, rejoice now in the good gifts of God. The seriousness of hell should stir everyone to live with due regard to the eternal realities awaiting everyone.
Life is full of trouble. Disease, poverty, malnutrition, natural disasters, oppressive government, wicked men, slavery and war bring severe suffering on humanity. The world is undeniably filled with searing pain. Some people see the misery endured during life and conclude that hell is experienced in this lifetime. Hell does not await after death. By their choices people create their own living hell. Wicked people bring hell to others.
The troubles of this life are terrible. Some people experience anguish that cuts deep into the soul. The book of Job says, “Man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward.” (Job 5:7) The Word of God never denies nor minimizes the suffering experienced in life. The Bible also never teaches that hell is experienced during this life.
The Bible consistently describes hell as the place of suffering and judgment after this life. Jesus teaches extensively on hell. All of his teachings on hell point to it as a place of future judgment. He gives stern warning to men to fear God who is able to destroy body and soul in hell. He warns His hearers to do whatever is necessary to avoid going into hell. He never suggests that men will suffer hell in this life.
Luke 16 speaks most clearly to this question. In that passage Jesus tells the history of a rich man and a beggar named Lazarus. “The rich man died and was buried; and in his hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments.” (Luke 16:27-28) The rich man lived his life and when his life was over he went to hell. How much more plain can it be? Jesus always described hell as the place of judgment waiting for men after death.
As bad as things are now hell will be much, much worse. The trouble of this world should warn us. For those under the judgment of God this life is as good as it gets. After this life is over the only thing awaiting is judgment, darkness, torment, and suffering beyond description. Jesus describes hell as a place “Where the worm dieth not and the flame is not quenched.”
If there is no hell, there is no logical or Biblical reason why there should be a heaven. The Bible presents a consistent testimony regarding the fate of men after death. The unsaved will suffer eternally in hell. The saved will rejoice eternally in heaven. If this life is all the suffering men will face, the Bible is a fraud. If hell does not exist Jesus wasted his life and died to no purpose.
The troubles of the world should remind us that we all long for something better. We know this world is broken. Right now the creation groans in agony. Suffering reminds us that things are not as they ought to be. God promises a day of redemption and judgment. Sorrow should lift our eyes upward to God who will one day remove all sin and all suffering. Distress should drive us to the feet of the One who punishes all evil and who saves all who seek His mercy.
Modern folklore presents Satan as the ruler of the underworld. He stands on a high cliff bathed in the red light of infernal flames and oversees the torments of the damned. He sends his demons out into the world to accomplish his abominable purposes. He is the lord of the underworld. Or is he? What does the Bible say is the current role of Satan?
Satan does not rule hell. Hell is not a kingdom. Hell is a prison. Satan is not the warden of the underworld, like a Christian version of the Greek god Hades. Nor is Satan the top dog in hell, like a gang leader running a prison from the inside. Satan’s relationship to hell is that of a convict out on bail waiting for sentencing.
Satan is not yet in hell. At this time he is free and roams the earth. “Your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.” (1 Peter 5:8).
Satan does not rule in hell, but he does have great authority. Satan is the chief of the fallen angels. Jesus speaks of “The devil and his angels”. Revelation 12 speaks of Satan being cast out of heaven “and his angels were cast out with him.” Satan is represented as the greatest of the rebellious angels. The Bible hints at a hierarchy of leadership among fallen angels (Ephesians 6:10; Colossians 1:16), but it is silent on how Satan exercises his supremacy over the other fallen angels.
Satan is also called “the prince of the power of the air”. (Ephesians 2:2) Satan has a significant power over the affairs of men. Satan’s rule is not limited to Satanists or those who have sold their soul to the devil. All the unsaved are described as under the kingdom of darkness with Satan as the spirit actively at work in them. Because of mankind’s sin, Satan exercises holds great authority and influence in this earth.
Despite his great power Satan is not the ultimate ruler of the affairs of earth. God remains sovereign over all things- including Satan. The devil does no more than he is allowed to do. Though Satan is a rebel bent on opposing God he is, in fact, accomplishing God’s purposes. Satan is the enemy of God who is still subject to God.
Satan is not God’s equal or opposite. Satan is the first of sinners, the chief of rebels and the father of lies. He is a vicious, powerful creature, but creature he remains. How can the creature become as great as the Creator? Satan is greatly inferior to God and must yield to the commands of God.
Though Satan is not in hell he will one day be cast into the lake of fire. “And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever.” (Revelation 20:10) The Lake of Fire is not his domain of rule but his place of punishment. Satan’s end will be an eternity of suffering the unending wrath of God.
Dante’s Inferno describes hell as nine circles that descend ever lower into more terrible torments. In Inferno offenders are punished with judgments the author saw as suitable for their their crimes. The condemned are imagined as bearing a punishment consistent with the wrongs they have done. Does the Bible teach degrees of punishment in hell? Do the worst sinners suffer the worst fates?
The Bible does not describe the structure of the Lake of Fire. We don’t know it is a series of circles, a celestial version of a concrete and barb wire penitentiary, a lake of flaming lava, or some other unimagined design. If there is a difference in punishment the Bible does not say how it is different. The Bible teaches that all in hell will suffer eternal torment. Everyone in hell will endure intense physical, emotional and spiritual agony.
At least two passages in the New Testament hint at differing levels of eternal punishment.
In Matthew 11 Jesus rebuked two cities for their rejection of Him. “Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the day of judgment, than for you. And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt be brought down to hell: for if the mighty works, which have been done in thee, had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I say unto you, That it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for thee.”
The city of Sodom is infamous for its destruction by fire and brimstone. Tyre and Sidon fell under the wrath of God for their idolatry and pride. Yet these cities that were destroyed by God’s wrath will find the day of judgment easier than the cities which saw Jesus and rejected Him.
In Hebrews 10 those who reject salvation are compared with those who committed capital crimes under the Old Testament law. “He that despised Moses’ law died without mercy under two or three witnesses: Of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace?”
The punishment of a murderer will not be as severe as that of one who knew and rejected the truths of salvation. Taking a human life is horrific but far more despicable is scorning God the Son and insulting the Holy Spirit. Which brings out a crucial point.
Any difference in punishment in hell will not be measured by the typical human understanding of the worst sins or by the popular cultural understanding of the worst sins. God is the righteous judge who will execute condemnation based upon His holy standard. Consequently, those who saw Jesus and rejected Him will suffer more than those who were incorrigible homosexuals.
It seems that eternal punishment, though terrible for all, will in some way be worse for some. Those who had greater opportunity to believe will receive greater condemnation.
Gehenna is a place of judgment mentioned in the Old Testament. When Jesus’ speaks of hell He several times refers to it as Gehenna. Since Jesus refers to Gehenna in identical terms as those used in Isaiah 66 doesn’t this mean that hell cannot possibly be a place of eternal torment?
The place described in Isaiah 66 is one where Divine judgment falls on wicked humanity at the beginning of the Millennium. When Jesus returns to the earth to establish His millenial kingdom He will do several things. He will imprison Satan in the bottomless pit for 1,000 years (Revelation 20:1-3). He will judge the unbelievers who remain alive on the earth at this time. (Matthew 25:31-46) He will throw the Antichrist and the False Prophet into the Lake of Fire. (Revelation 19:20) He will defeat the armies of the world that have united in warfare against Him (Revelation 19:19-21) at the battle of Armageddon.
Isaiah does not tell the identity of the wicked ones who are slain and cast into the place of judgment. Possibility they are the corpses of the soldiers slain in battle. Possibly they are those who refuse to obey Jesus during the millennium. Whoever they are makes no difference to the point of Isaiah. God promises shameful death to those who rebel against His Messiah.
Since Jesus referenced this place of judgment in His descriptions of hell, doesn’t that mean hell is just a temporary place of physical punishment? Hell cannot possibly be a place of eternal torment if the Bible never describes it as a place of eternal suffering and if the Bible never uses familiar, earthly imagery to describe eternal realities.
The Bible is very clear that the suffering of the wicked is an eternal suffering. Two passages will suffice to show this Biblical truth. Revelation 14:9-11 says, “If any man worship the beast and his image, and receive his mark in his forehead, or in his hand, The same shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out without mixture into the cup of his indignation; and he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels, and in the presence of the Lamb: And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night, who worship the beast and his image, and whosoever receiveth the mark of his name.” In this passage those who receive the mark of the beast, that is all the unsaved during the time of the Great Tribulation, will suffer eternal punishment. The smoke of their torment ascends up forever. Lest anyone imagine this only refers to the smoke that tormented them, the passage goes on to say they have no rest, day nor night. Their torment is a constant, unending torment.
Revelation 20:10 says, “And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever.”
Three persons, two humans and one angel, are cast into the lake of fire. Their torment is eternal, forever and ever. Their suffering is continual, day and night. God has plainly declared in His Word that the judgment of the wicked is one of eternal suffering.
The Bible is prolific in its use of the earthly and familiar to describe the eternal. Jesus uses the manna in the wilderness to describe Himself. He describes believing in Him in terms of eating His flesh and drinking His blood. Does this mean that Jesus will fade in the midday sun like manna did? Is Jesus available six days a week, but not on Saturday? Is cannibalism necessary for conversion? The questions themselves show the absurdity of such an argument. What about the serpent in the wilderness? Is Jesus a bronze snake? Is salvation only for those who have been bitten by poisonous vipers? The tabernacle in the wilderness was a picture of the heavenly tabernacle. Does this mean the heavenly tabernacle was made of badger skins? These are just a few of the many examples of the Bible using physical, temporary things to teach of eternal things. Such things aid our understanding of truth, but must be understood in light of the point being made and in light of the broader context of Scripture.
Jesus’ use of Gehenna does not disprove eternal torment. His picturesque language does not limit the suffering of the wicked. It graphically depicts in understandable terms the unending punishment the unsaved will endure.
Jesus’ use of Gehenna is a primary argument for annihilationism. Adherents to this belief claim the historical and prophetic use of Gehenna as proof that the punishment of the wicked results in their physical and spiritual erasure from existence. Jesus says God will kill the wicked and cast them into hell. The Greek word for hell in Luke 12 is Gehenna.
“And I say unto you my friends, Be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will forewarn you whom ye shall fear: Fear him, which after he hath killed hath power to cast into hell; yea, I say unto you, Fear him.” (Luke 12:4-5)
What is Gehenna? Gehenna is the Greek name of a valley mentioned in the Old Testament, the Valley of the son of Hinnom. (Jeremiah 7:31) This valley was the scene of horrific idolatry. In the Valley of Hinnom the Israelites burned their children alive as sacrifices to the false god Molech. God promised to judge the Israelites for their idolatry and the book of Jeremiah describes the Valley of Hinnom as the place of the Israelite’s judgment. (Jeremiah 19:1-10) Some believe this valley is also the place of God’s judgment of the wicked described in Isaiah 66:24. Gehenna was a place of horrible wickedness that was turned by God into a place of terrible judgment.
The place of judgment described at the end of Isaiah 66 is a place where the people of God will be able to view the corpses of those who have rebelled against God. The final chapter of Isaiah is the culmination of Isaiah’s prophecies of the coming Messiah, His glorious kingdom, His defeat of the wicked and His redemption of His people. As part of the Messiah’s conquest the dead bodies of the wicked will be cast into this place, presumably the valley of Hinnom, where they will be consumed with fire and devoured by maggots. The dead bodies of the wicked will be a continual reminder to the people of God of the righteous judgment of God.
The warnings of Jesus to beware hell (Gehenna) describe it as a place “where the worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched”. His words are an echo of the words of Isaiah 66. “And they shall go forth, and look upon the carcases of the men that have transgressed against me: for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched; and they shall be an abhorring unto all flesh.” The judgment Jesus describes as taking place in Gehenna is one of perpetual worms and unceasing fire.
Annihilationists believe because Jesus uses Gehenna to describe the place of final judgment then the suffering in hell is not eternal. The next article will address will address the way in which Gehenna shapes our understanding of eternal, conscious torment of souls in hell.
In May National Geographic published an article entitled “The Campaign to Eliminate Hell”. The tagline reads, “A new generation of evangelical scholars are challenging the idea that sinners are doomed to eternal torment—but traditionalists are pushing back.” Annihilationism is the teaching that sometime in the future the condemned will be completely destroyed, body and soul. The historic evangelical doctrine has been that those who die without having received Jesus for salvation will suffer eternal physical and spiritual torment in the lake of fire. Annihilationism teaches that the unsaved will not suffer forever, but at some time will cease from existing. Though some well known evangelical leaders have held to annihilationism, very few evangelical Christians believe the teachings of annihilationism.
The Bible states that those who suffer in hell will do so forever. Jesus describes hell as a place where, “The worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.” Those who have rejected Jesus will, “go away unto everlasting punishment.” (Matthew 25:46) Reading these statements would lead one naturally to believe the suffering of the lost has no end. Annihilationists seek to explain these passages as metaphorical descriptions of the greatness of the suffering of the unsaved or as teachings that the result of God’s judgment will have eternal effects but the punishment itself is not eternal. The biggest problem with reading these passages in this way is the significant similarity between the warnings of eternal suffering and the promises of eternal joy. If the lost in hell will not suffer everlasting torment, then why should anyone believe the saved in heaven will enjoy everlasting bliss? The annihilationists cannot consistently define words like eternal and everlasting. They must define them one way when describing punishment and another when describing salvation.
Some arguments for annihilation are based on a misdefinition of death. Most people view death as the ending of life. Medically speaking life is over, death occurs, when the heart stops and the brain ceases to function. The Bible does not define death according to that modern, medical perspective. The Bible defines death as separation. When Adam and Eve sinned they died. They died on the day of their sin just as God had warned. They suffered the first death in being physically and spiritually separated from God, the Author and Sustainer of life. The end result of the first death- separation from God- was physical death- separation from the physical body. The person dies when the spirit and body are separated. This is why the Bible often speaks of death as “giving up the ghost”. When the spirit and the body are separated the person is physically dead. The eternal punishment for sin is called the second death. The condemned are not dead in the modern sense of ceasing to have existence, they are dead in the Biblical sense of being separated from the presence of God. (2 Thes. 1:9) The unsaved are eternally separated from God and thus they are eternally dead.
Annihilation is emotionally easier to accept than eternal torment. The idea that God would remove His offending creature from existence is easier to accept than the idea that God would punish them forever. Appealing or not, the Biblical doctrine is that the unsaved will suffer God’s wrath, actively and consciously, for all eternity. Annihilationism is not a Biblical doctrine. Historically this doctrine has had very few defenders and discerning Christians today should reject it as contrary to the plain meaning of Scriptures.