There are three major views of final punishment. Eternal conscious suffering and universalism are based upon tenuous, inconsistent interpretations of passages divorced from context, interpreted through unfounded philosophical claims and flimsy extrapolations drawn from irrelevant texts. Annihilationism, on the other hand, or conditional immortality, is based upon relevant texts which actually speak of final punishment, and understands them in their contexts, allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture. Annihilationism contends that all the dead will rise from their graves, and the wicked will be irreversibly executed, leaving behind lifeless remains, never to live again.
A) Matt. 25:46’s “eternal punishment” is the everlasting outcome of being executed. It is by means of verse 41’s “eternal fire,” a phrase Jesus uses in Matt. 18:8, paralleled in Mark 9:47 and Matt. 5:30. In each of these three texts Jesus refers to Gehenna, “the valley of Slaughter” where scavengers consume corpses (Jer. 7:32-33), likened unto a funeral pyre for burning up corpses (Isa. 30:27-33). Jude 7 says Sodom and Gomorrah suffered “the punishment of eternal fire,” the parallel in 2 Peter 2:6 saying they were reduced to ashes.
B) In Mark 9:48 Jesus quotes Isa. 66:24 which describes piles of lifeless, smoldering, rotting corpses. Unquenchable fire irresistibly consumes (Jer. 17:27, Ezek. 20:47). Undying worms consume corpses (Isa. 14:11) and communicate the same thing as scavengers which can’t be driven away (Deut. 28:26, Jer. 7:33): shame and irresistible consumption of corpses.
C) Jesus says the wicked will be burned up—katakaiō meaning “burn down completely”—like chaff (Matt. 3:12, Luke 3:17), including when He interprets the parable of the wheat and the tares beginning in Matt. 13:40, saying that as the chaff is burned up, so will His angels will throw sinners into a furnace of fire. This hearkens to Mal. 4:1-3 where sinners are set ablaze like a furnace, reduced to ashes beneath the feet of the righteous.
D) Paul’s “vengeance” and “flaming fire” of 2 Thess. 1:7-8 come from Isa. 66:15, that chapter ending with a pile of lifeless corpses. Paul’s “eternal destruction” in verse 9 is the everlasting outcome of being destroyed: executed and reduced to lifeless remains.
BODY AND SOUL
A) People can render only bodies lifeless, but Jesus says God will destroy body and soul in Gehenna (Matt. 10:28). With no demonstrable exception, when "destroy" (apollymi) describes what one person does to another in the synoptic gospels, it always means "slay" or "kill." That’s why James says “he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death.”
TORMENTED FOREVER AND EVER
A) Apocalyptic imagery of smoke rising from torment forever symbolizes permanent destruction. In Rev. 14:9-11 John sees imagery of smoke rising forever from the torment of restless beast-worshippers. This hearkens to Isa. 34:10's smoke rising forever from the remains of Edom, like the smoke Abraham saw rising from the remains of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19:27-28). The smoke of the harlot is seen rising forever (Rev. 18:21), and though she is tormented (Rev. 18:7, 10, 15) the city she symbolizes is destroyed (Rev. 18:21) using language describing the end of Tyre (Ezek. 26:21).
B) The imagery of eternal torment in the lake of fire also symbolizes permanent destruction. After being emptied in the resurrection, death and Hades—abstractions unable to be tormented in reality—are thrown into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:14), symbolizing their permanent end (cf. 1 Cor. 15:26). The beast is the fourth beast of Daniel 7, symbolizing the same final kingdom represented by the statue in Daniel 2. In both places what happens to the symbol represents the permanent end to the kingdom’s dominion (Dan. 2:44, 7:26), succeeded in all three visions by the dominion of the reigning saints (Dan. 2:44, 7:27, Rev. 19:20 cf. 20:4). The resurrected wicked are thrown into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:15), as are the devil and false prophet (Rev. 20:10). Consistent application of the imagery demands that all will, in the reality represented by the symbolism, come to a permanent end.
Despite the historical consensus when it comes to final punishment, the Bible is clear: All the dead will rise from their graves: the redeemed will be granted immortality, and the unredeemed will be judged and punished by being irreversibly executed, leaving behind only lifeless remains.
Chris Date is the host the Theopologetics podcast, as well as a contributor to ReThinking Hell. He is also a software engineer by trade and has participated in multiple debates on the topic of hell.
Eternal Conscious Torment
Edward Fudge, "The Fire that Consumes"
My appearance on the "Unbelievable?" radio program with Justin Brierley, defending annihilationism.
The Theopologetics podcast and blog on annihilationism.