A very significant text is Matthew 25.41, 46:
“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.”
This is a key verse for those who believe in an eternal torment for the unrighteous.
Firstly, we read that hell is “an eternal fire”—we may admit that hell itself is eternal, but not necessarily that those thrown into it will be eternally tormented. Again, an “eternal punishment” is one which endures forever. Remember the message of Isaiah concerning the Edomites—this will be an “eternal punishment”: no survivors will remain. In this way “all evildoers… will be forever destroyed” (Ps 92.7).
The fate of the wicked is contrasted with that of the righteous—which is “eternal life” or immortality. If the righteous receive eternal life as a reward, the wicked do not receive eternal life, they receive eternal death—an eternal punishment not of torment but of extinction.
The word “punishment” here is derived from a Greek word meaning “to prune” trees. If one imagines humanity as a tree with good and bad branches, the judgement is one in which the bad branches will be pruned and cut off from the source of life, so that they die. Jesus said:
“I am the vine, 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. If anyone does not remain in Me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.” (John 15.5-6)
Again, the image of fire is one of destruction. Having been removed from its life-source, the branch “withers” and becomes dead wood. In a similar way, God—the One who is immortal—is our source of life. Those who are removed from Him wither and perish. They are thrown into the fire, not as “immortal souls” in endless torment, but as dead wood which is consumed and is no more.
Again, we must ask what the point of the parable of the sheep and the goats is. Those who receive this “eternal punishment” are those who have not visited the sick and imprisoned, fed the hungry, given clothing to the naked and shown hospitality to the stranger. It would be incomprehensible if God were to punish those who have not alleviated suffering by causing infinitely more suffering Himself. God would be condemning flawed humans for doing something that He Himself does! Indeed, God’s actions would be worse than those He is condemning, since the damned are merely those who passively did not help those who suffered, whereas God would be actively causing endless suffering.
However, we should understand this judgement to be one in which they depart “into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mt 25.41), a fire which consumes and destroys that which is thrown into it.
There are actually two words used in the Gospels which are translated as “hell.” The first, Hades, is the equivalent of the Hebrew word “Sheol.” This refers not to “hell” as such—to a place of eternal torment—but to the abode of the dead. Often, in the Old Testament, this is simply translated as “the grave.”
The other word is “Gehenna.” This was an actual place outside Jerusalem. Gehenna was the name of the city dump of Jerusalem. It was a ravine south of the city—rubbish, animal carcasses and the corpses of criminals were thrown into this refuse pit. This tip was constantly burning. Jesus used this image of Gehenna to refer to the fate of the unrepentant. However, a criminal thrown into Gehenna was already dead—he was not tormented by the fire which burned day and night. The image, therefore, is one of extinction and destruction, not of enduring torture. There are half a dozen references to this valley in the Gospel of Matthew.
Jesus says that a person who calls another person “fool” will be “in danger of the fire of Gehenna” (Mt 5.22). Is Jesus saying that those who call others “fools” will be eternally tortured in an after-life in the centre of the earth? Or is He using the metaphor, familiar to His audience, of destruction?
Jesus said that it is better to enter heaven with one eye than be thrown into “Gehenna” with two, where “the worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9.48). This is also taken as evidence for an eternal torment. However, unquenchable fire and undying worms do not necessarily demand an eternal torment. Jesus is quoting Isaiah 66.24:
And they will go and look at 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.
These “worms,” or maggots, feed on corpses—on dead bodies—not on the living. Those upon whom the maggots feed are not being tormented, but have ceased to be.