I present here arguments for and against this difficult and disputed question.
Traditionalists argue that the Gk words for ‘eternal’ (‘aion‘ and ‘ainios‘) often carry a clear idea of duration, Heb 13:8; Rev 4:10; 10:6; 11:15; 14:11; 20:10. Cp Mk 3:29 w Mt 12:32. They frequently note the parallelism between ‘eternal life’ and ‘eternal punishment’ in Mt 25:46.
The word ‘eternal’ is used over 60 times to refer to the blessings of the future state. In all these, traditionalists argue, there is a clear indication of endless duration. They are led to conclude that both eternal bliss and eternal misery are as endless as God’s own eternity, cf Mt 25:46.
Henri Blocher thinks that both Scripture and tradition affirm the doctrine of everlasting punishment:
‘The language of Scripture, with its stereotyped metaphors, and in the role it plays, seems to insist on the durational, permanent character of the state of torment, and to exclude any later change, anything beyond the outcome of the last judgement. One can sense a paradox in the concept of permanence in destruction which the Bible itself expresses when it speaks of “second death”, “undying worm”, and tradition sharpens, e.g. in the words of Saint Gregory the Great: “a deathless death, and endless end, a ceaseless cessation, since the death lives, the end always begins, and cessation knows not how to cease.”‘
Jonathan Edwards considered it right to refer to the torments of hell while urging sinners to repent and receive new life in Christ. And these torments, he was persuaded, would be endless:
‘It would be dreadful to suffer this fierceness and wrath of Almighty God one moment; but you must suffer it to all eternity. There will be no end to this exquisite horrible misery. When you look forward, you shall see a long forever, a boundless duration before you . . . and you will absolutely despair of ever having any deliverance, any end, any mitigation, any rest at all. You will know certainly that you must wear out long ages, millions of millions of ages, in wrestling and conflicting with this almighty merciless vengeance; and then when you have so done, when so many ages have actually been spent by you in this manner, you will know that all is but a point to what remains. So that your punishment will indeed be infinite.’
(Cited by Hughes, in Christopher M. Date, Gregory G. Stump, Joshua W. Anderson. Rethinking Hell: Readings in Evangelical Conditionalism (pp. 192-193). Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.)
A.B. Davidson was a (relatively) liberal scholar in the 19th century. Even though he rejected the doctrine of everlasting punishment, he thought that it was taught in the New Testament:
‘If a specific sense be attached to words, never-ending misery is enunciated in the Bible. On the presumption that one doctrine is taught, it is the eternity of hell-torments. Bad exegesis may attempt to banish it from the New Testament Scriptures, but it is still there, and expositors who wish to get rid of it, as Canon Farrar does, injure the cause they have in view by misrepresentation.’ (Quoted by Shedd).
Reviewing the New Testament texts that speak of final punishment of the wicked, J.I. Packer writes:
‘Some hold that these texts imply the annihilation of those rejected – one searing moment in the fire, and then oblivion. But it seems clear that in reality the ‘second death’ is no more a cessation of being than is the first. For
(i) the word rendered ‘destruction’ in 2 Thess. 1:9 (olethros) means, not annihilation, but ruin (cf. its use in 1 Thess. 5:3).
(ii) The insistence in these texts that the fire, punishment and destruction are eternal (aionios, literally ‘age-long’), and that the worm in Gehenna is undying, would be pointless and inappropriate if all that is envisaged is momentary extinction; just as it would be pointless and inappropriate to dwell on ‘unending’ pain resulting from an immediately fatal bullet wound. Either these words indicate the endlessness of torment, or they are superfluous and misleading.
(iii) To the argument that aionios means only ‘relating to the age to come’, without any implications of endless duration, it seems sufficient to say that if in Matthew 25:46 ‘eternal’ life means endless bliss (and surely it does), then the ‘eternal’ punishment mentioned there must be endless too.
(iv) We are told that in the ‘lake of fire’ (the ‘eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels’, Matt. 25:41) the devil will be ‘tormented day and night for ever and ever’ (Rev. 20:10). That any man sent to join him will endure a similar eternity of retribution is clear from the parallel language of Revelation 14:10f.: ‘he (the beast-worshipper) shall be tormented with fire and brimstone … the smoke of their torment goes up for ever and ever; and they have no rest, day or night.’
(God’s Words, formatting added)
Leon Morris summarises:
‘Against the strong body of NT teaching that there is a continuing punishment of sin we cannot cite one saying that speaks plainly of an end to the punishment of the finally impenitent…If Jesus wished to teach something other than eternal retribution, it is curious that he has not left one saying that plainly says so. In the NT there is no indication that the punishment of sin ever ceases.’ (Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd ed., art. ‘Eternal Punishment’)
‘The passages in which this doctrine of everlasting punishment for both body and soul is taught are so numerous that one actually stands aghast that in spite of all this there are people today who affirm that they accept Scripture and who, nevertheless, reject the idea of never-ending torment.’ (The Bible on the Life Hereafter. See also his more extended comment on Mk 9:48)
John MacArthur accuses those who think otherwise of dishonest manipulation of the biblical text. He asserts that the doctrine of everlasting punishment is a truth
‘too often made murky by critics and so-called scholars who find ways to manipulate the text rather than letting the Bible speak plainly for itself . . . [Opponents are] currently poisoning evangelicalism with unbelief . . . [and are engaged in a] frightening corruption of divinely-revealed truth.’ (Quoted in Fudge, Edward William. The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment, Third Edition (p. 376). Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.)
From Origen onwards, there has been a notion within the church that hell, although real, will be of limited duration.
It has been argued that the Gk words for ‘eternal’ do not necessarily mean ‘everlasting’. The word ‘aion‘ originally meant ‘an age’, and the adjective ‘ainios‘, translated ‘eternal’, means ‘belonging to the age’. Thus ‘eternal’ has a qualitative, rather (or as well as) than a quantitative meaning.
According to John Wenham, there are in the New Testament some 264 references to the fate of the lost.
Ten (4%) call it Gehenna, which uses the imagery of the rubbish dump in the Valley of Hinnom, just outside Jerusalem. The garbage is destroyed by fire and maggots. See Mt 5:22,29,30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:33; Mk 9:43,45,47; Lk 12:5.
Twenty-six (10%) other passages also refer to fire. Of course, fire is strongly suggestive of destruction. See Matt 3:7,12; 7: 19; 13:40, 42, 50; 18:8f; 25:41. Mark 9:43, 48f.; Luke 3:7, 17; 1 Cor. 3:13; 2 Thess 1: 7; Heb 6: 8; 10: 27; 12:29; 2 Pet 3:7, 10; Jude 7, 23; Rev 20:14f.; 21:8.
Fifty-nine (22%) speak of ‘destruction, perdition, loss, or ruin. The word apollumi refers to such ruin, destruction, and loss, as in Jn 3:16. Matt 7:13, 27; 10:6, 28, 39; 15:13; 16:25f; 21:41, 44; 22:7; Mark 8: 35f; 12:9; Luke 6:49; 9:25; 13:3, 7; 17:29, 33; 19:10, 27; 20: 18; John 3:16, 36; 6:39; 12:25; Acts 2:25, 31; 13:41; Rom 2:12; 9:22, 29; 14:15; 1 Cor 1:18; 10:10; 15:18; 2 Cor 2:15; 4:3; Phil 1:28; 3: 19. 1 Thess 5:3; 2 Thess 1: 9; 2:8, 10; 1 Tim 6:9. Heb 10:39; Jas 4:12; 2 Pet 2:1, 3, 12; 3:7, 9, 16; 1 John 2:17; Jude 5, 10f.
Twenty passages (8%) speak of separation from God (Mt 7:21; 8:11,23; 10:32; 22:13; 25:30,41,46; Mk 8:38; 10:15; Lk 12:9; 13:27f; 14:21,34; 16:26; 17:34; Jn 15:6; Eph 5:5; 2 Thess 1:9; Rev 22:15). ‘This concept of banishment from God’, writes Wenham, ‘is a terrifying one. It does not mean escaping from God, since God is everywhere in his creation…It means, surely, being utterly cut off from the source and sustainer of life. It is another way of describing destruction.’
Twenty-five cases (10%) speak of final death (sometimes called ‘the second death’). See Lk 20:36; Jn 8:51; 11:26; Rom 1:32; 4:17; 5:12; 6:13; 11:15; 1 Cor 15:22,54; 2 Cor 2:15; 5:4; 7:10; Eph 2:5; 2 Tim 1:10; Heb 5:7; James 5:20; 1 Jn 3:14; 5:16; Jude 12; Rev 2:7,10; 20:6,14; 21:8. If believers can look forward to resurrection life in Christ, the fate of unbelievers will be the cessation of life (rather than a continuation of a life of misery).
One hundred and eight cases (41%) refer to condemnation or some similar form of adverse judgement. In none of these references is there any indication of endless misery or pain. Matt 12:36, 41; 18:18; 23:35f.; Mark 3:29; 12:40; 16:16; Luke 3:9; 11:31, 50; 12:10, 20; 20:35f.; 20:47; 21:19; John 3:17; 5:28; 8:21, 24; 12:48; Acts 2:40; 4:12; 8: 22; 10:42; 13:26, 38f., 47; 15:1, 11; 16:17, 30; 24:25; 26:18; Rom 1:16, 18; 2: 3, 5, 16; 3:6; 4:7; 5: 9; 8:24; 9:27; 10:9f.; 11:26, 32; 14:10; 1 Cor 1:21; 3: 13; 9:22; 10:33; 11:32; 15:2, 17; 16:22; 2 Cor 6:2; Eph 5: 6; Phil 4: 3; Col 3: 6, 25; 1 Thess 1:10; 2:16; 4:6; 5:9; 2 Thess 1:8; 2:10; 1 Tim 2:4; 4:10; 2 Tim 1:9, 18; 2:10; 4:1, 14, 16; Tit 2: 11, 13; 3: 5; Heb 2:10; 5:9; 6:1; 9:27f; 10:27; Jas 1:21; 2:13; 5:12; 1 Pet 1:5, 9; 4:5f., 17; 2 Pet 2:9. 1 John 2:28; 4:17; Jude 15, 21; Rev 3:5; 6:10, 17; 7:10; 11:18; 22:12.
Fifteen texts (6%) refer to anguish of some kind. Matt 12:36, 41; 18:18; 23:35f.; Mark 3:29; 12:40; 16:16; Luke 3:9; 11:31, 50; 12:10, 20; 20:35f.; 20: 47; 21:19; John 3:17; 5:28; 8:21, 24; 12:48; Acts 2:40; 4:12; 8:22; 10:42; 13:26, 38f., 47; 15:1, 11; 16:17, 30; 24:25; 26:18; Rom 1:16, 18; 2: 3, 5, 16; 3: 6; 4:7; 5:9; 8:24; 9:27; 10:9f.; 11:26, 32;14:10; 1 Cor 1: 21; 3:13; 9:22; 10:33; 11:32; 15:2, 17; 16:22; 2 Cor 6: 2; Eph 5:6; Phil 4:3; Col 3:6, 25; 1 Thess 1:10; 2:16; 4:6; 5:9; 2 Thess 1:8; 2:10; 1 Tim 2:4; 4:10; 2 Tim 1:9, 18; 2:10; 4:1, 14, 16; Tit 2:11, 13; 3: 5; Heb 2:10; 5: 9; 6:1; 9:27f; 10:27; Jas 1:21; 2:13; 5:12; 1 Pet 1: 5, 9; 4: 5f., 17; 2 Pet 2: 9. 1 John 2:28; 4:17; Jude 15, 21; Rev 3:5; 6:10, 17; 7:10; 11:18; 22:12.
That leaves just one verse (less than half of one percent) refers to those who have no rest, day or night, the smoke of whose torment goes up for ever and ever. Rev 14:11.
‘It is a terrible catalogue, giving most solemn warning, but in all but one of the references there is not a word about unending torment and very many of them in their natural sense clearly refer to destruction.’
‘The Case for Conditional Immortality’ in N.M. de S. Cameron (ed.) Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell, 170-174.
In response to such reasoning, Nicole asserts:
‘Cessation of existence, it is urged, is implied in various scriptural terms applied to the destiny of the wicked, such as death (Rom. 6:23; James 5:20; Rev. 20:14), destruction (Matt. 7:13; 10:28; 2 Thess. 1:9), and perishing (John 3:16). But these expressions do not so much imply annihilation as complete deprivation of some element essential to normal existence.’ (EDT, 2nd ed., art. ‘Annihilationism’)
Fudge notes that:-
‘Scripture frequently uses aiōn, aiōnios and their Hebrew counterparts (olam in various forms) of things that have come to an end. The sprinkling of blood at the Passover was an “everlasting” ordinance (Exod 12:24). So were the Aaronic priesthood (Exod 29:9; 40:15; Lev 3:17), Caleb’s inheritance (Josh 14:9), Solomon’s temple (1 Kgs 8:12–13), the period of a slave’s life (Deut 15:17), Gehazi’s leprosy (2 Kgs 5:27)—and practically every other ordinance, rite, or institution of the Old Testament system. These things did not last “forever” in the sense of “time extended without limitation.” They did last beyond the vision of those who first heard them called “everlasting,” and no time limit was then set at all.’
In favour of the idea that the word ‘eternal’ may not include the notion of ‘everlasting’, Fudge notes the repeated references in the NT to the division of time into two ‘ages’ (Matt 12:32; Luke 20:34–35):-
‘Jesus speaks of the cares of this age (Matt 13:22; Mark 4:19), the sons of this age (Luke 16:8) and the end of this age (Matt 13:39–40; 24:3; 28:20). Paul also speaks of this age with its debaters (1 Cor 1:20), wisdom and rulers (1 Cor 2:6, 8; 3:18), course of life (Eph 2:2), world rulers (Eph 6:12 KJV), and the rich (1 Tim 6:17). Over against this age he also contrasts the age to come (Eph 1:21). The present age is under Satan’s dominion (2 Cor 4:4), and Christ gave himself for our sins to rescue us from it (Gal 1:4). The age to come is of another order that may be called “eternal.” To be guilty of an “eternal” sin (Mark 3:29) is to be guilty of one that will not be forgiven even in the age to come (Matt 12:32).’
There is overlap between the two ages. In the gift of ‘eternal life’, the life of the age to come is brought forward into the present age. In fact, ‘eternal life’ and ‘the kingdom of God’ are virtually synonymous, and the idea of ‘eternal’ therefore suggests a quality of being which is peculiar to the nature and being of God.
This is not, or course, to deny the everlastingness of divine bliss (or, indeed, of God himself). But it is to assert that the primary meaning of aiōnios is qualitative, and that everlastingness is not to be inferred in every usage of the word.
Fudge, Edward William. The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment, Third Edition (p. 35-38). Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.
It is also argued that the word ‘destruction’ (apoleia) in texts such as Matt. 2:13; 7:13; 10:28 (cf. the similar word olethros in 1 Thess 5:3; 2 Thess 1:9) implies cessation of existence. Commenting on Mt 10:28, Stott argues, ‘If to kill is to deprive the body of life, hell would seem to be the deprivation of both physical and spiritual life, that is, an extinction of being.’ Indeed, the imagery of ‘fire’ seems to suggest that the primary purpose of hell is serve as an incinerator, rather than as an agent of painful punishment. But the contexts in which the relevant terminology are used tend not to support the contention that ‘destruction’ means ‘ruin’, rather than ‘annihilation’. The imagery used by Jesus in Mk 9:43-48 indicates that hell is a place of continued existence and conscious pain.
It is claimed that divine punishment is alway remedial. But we should distinguish between temporal punishment, which is remedial, and future punishment, which is not.
Other biblical passages teach the the punishment of hell is irreversible, Mk 9:43,48. There is an eternal separation between heaven and hell, Lk 16:26. The was no further chance for Judas, Mt 26:24.
A few texts are used to support the idea that there will be an opportunity for people to repent in the afterlife: 1 Pet 3:19f; 4:6; 1 Cor 15:29. But it is hazardous to build a doctrine on the basis of isolated texts of uncertain meaning.
Scripture asserts time and again the finality of opportunity in this life, Heb 9:27. Those who argue that there will be a chance for repentance in hell fly in the face of all the divine warnings and threats.
Philip Edgecumbe Hughes
It is a mistake to suppose that conditionalists teach that the wicked are annihilated at death. No: they are raised and judged alongside the righteous, and then punished. Their punishment may well vary both in degree and duration, but since immortality is a gracious gift from God and not an inherent characteristic of human beings, there is no reason to think that it will be endless.
According to Hughes:-
‘The survival of the person, or the soul, in the intermediate state between death and resurrection does not necessarily imply its everlasting survival. What God has brought into being he can also destroy.
‘The New Testament foresees “a resurrection of both the just and the unjust” (Acts 24:15; John 5:29), when the latter “will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matt 25:46).
‘This final separation will take place “when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven”; for it is then that those “who do not know God” and “who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” will “suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thess 1:7– 9).
‘This punishment is also described as being “thrown into the eternal fire” (Matt 18:8) or “into hell, where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:44, 47; cf. Matt 3:12), and as causing weeping and gnashing of teeth to those on whom it comes (Matt 13:36ff., 49f.; cf. Mt 8:12; 22: 13; 24: 51; 25:30).’
in Christopher M. Date, Gregory G. Stump, Joshua W. Anderson. Rethinking Hell: Readings in Evangelical Conditionalism (p. 190). Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition (paragraphing added).