Also speaking of a consuming fire on Edom, Isaiah says:
The streams of Edom will come filled with burning pitch, and the ground will be covered with fire. This judgement on Edom will never end; the smoke of its burning will rise forever. The land will lie deserted from generation to generation. No one will live there any more. (Is 34.9-10)
These verses use language similar to what we are used to thinking about hell and present the image of eternal fire. Yet the Edomites will not burn forever and forever. The Edomites will not live in eternal torment—they have all been destroyed (no one lives there any more). God says:
My sword… will fall on Edom, the nation I have completely destroyed… He will make a mighty slaughter in Edom. The strongest will die—veterans and young men, too. (Isaiah 34.4, 6-7)
Malachi 4.1 also uses the image of the fire of God’s judgement:
“Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evil-doer will be stubble, and that day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the Lord Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left.”
Once again, the point is not that the evil-doers are tortured or afflicted by fire, but that they are consumed by fire. That which is thrown into this fire is burned up so that “not a root or a branch” is left. Similarly, hell may be an eternal fire, but it is a consuming fire. Those thrown into it will be “completely destroyed,” they will all “perish,” “not a root or a branch will be left,” they will “disappear from history as though they had never existed,” “there will be no survivors” and “no one will live there any more.”
Sodom and Gomorrah were two cities annihilated by God with “fire and brimstone” (Gen 19.24). According to Jude those who were destroyed “serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire” (Jude 7). Yet the inhabitants of the cities were not eternally tormented, and the fire is not still burning. Rather they were overthrown in a moment (Lam 4.6) and turned to ashes (2 Pet 2.6). The picture of Sodom and Gomorrah is one of lifeless waste: “nothing planted, nothing sprouting, no vegetation growing in it” (Dt 29.23). Again, the point is that God annihilates the wicked.
Revelation uses similar imagery to describe the destruction of “Babylon”:
“The smoke from her goes up forever and ever.” (Rev 19.3)
However we understand this “Babylon,” as a literal city (Rome) or a symbolic image of false religion, the image of this eternal fire is one of complete destruction.
This tells us how God deals with evil and injustice: it is to completely destroy it. God destroyed the Edomites because they were guilty of social injustice, and wiped them out as a nation, until not a single person survived. As a way of describing that judgement, God speaks of “burning pitch” and “ground covered with fire” and says that His judgement “will never end” and that “the smoke of its burning will rise forever.” This means that the judgement is final and that the extinction of the Edomites is eternal.
If we compare this to descriptions of hell, we may suggest not that souls will live in eternal torment, but that the wicked will be extinguished, and that this punishment—the punishment of extinction—will be eternal.
The Psalmist says that the wicked will be destroyed:
The wicked will perish…
they will vanish—vanish like smoke! (Ps 37.20)
God “destroys the wicked” (Ps 9.5), “all evildoers… will be forever destroyed” (Ps 92.7). However “forever destroyed” is something different from “forever punished.” The Bible declares that the wicked will be destroyed and that this will be an enduring and eternal fate. Paul says that the wicked “will be punished with everlasting destruction (2 Thess 1.9). This does not mean that they will endure everlasting torment—but rather that they will be destroyed and that they will be eternally non-existent. To return to the prophecy against Edom, this “judgement on Edom will never end; the smoke of its burning will rise forever,” yet the point is that the Edomites will be eternally non-existent: “No one will live there any more.”
I find it difficult to believe that the Edomites destroyed over two thousand years ago are still being punished in hell. They received their punishment—they were destroyed—and, having been destroyed, no longer exist.