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No eternal fire—but yes eternal life? How?

No eternal fire—but yes eternal life? How?

The Bible speaks of “everlasting punishment” for the wicked (Matthew 25:46), of “everlasting fire” in which they will burn (verse 41), and of their being “tormented day and night forever and ever” (Revelation 20:10). Doesn’t this indicate that the soul is immortal?

The words translated “everlasting” and “forever” do not necessarily mean never-ending.

These New Testament terms come from the Greek noun aion, or from the adjective aionios, which is derived from this noun. When we examine Bible passages containing aion, we discover at once how impossible it would be to attempt to make this Greek root always mean endless time. We read in Matthew 13:39 KJV and elsewhere of “the end of the world [aion].” How could there be an end to something if it were endless? (Aion is sometimes translated “ages”—the “world” being viewed in its aspect of time, such as in Colossians 1:26.) We read that Christ has been exalted above “every name that is named, not only in this world [aion], but also in that which is to come” (Ephesians 1:21 KJV). And 2 Timothy 4:10 tells us of “this present world [aion].” We see that an aion can have an end, for this present aion is to be followed by another and a different one. The Bible speaks of what “God ordained before the world [aion]” (1 Corinthians 2:7).

Of Christ we read, “You are a priest forever [aion]” (Hebrews 5:6). Here, “forever” (aion) clearly means this present age, for theologians agree that Christ’s work as a priest comes to an end when sin has been blotted out. (The work of a priest is to deal with sin. See Hebrews 2:17 and 5:1.)

Paul, writing to Philemon regarding the return of his servant Onesimus, said, “That you might receive [American Revised Version: have] him forever [aionios] … both in the flesh and in the Lord” (Philemon 1:15, 16).

H. C. G. Moule, in that scholarly commentary, The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges, remarks on this text: “The adjective tends to mark duration as long as the nature of the subject allows. And by usage it has a close connection with things spiritual. ‘Forever’ here thus imports both natural and spiritual permanence of restoration; ‘forever’ on earth, and then hereafter; a final return to Philemon’s home, with a prospect of heaven in Philemon’s company.”

We need not question whether Moule has correctly measured Paul’s words. We inquire simply: How could Philemon have Onesimus “forever” on earth, and then “hereafter,” unless the earthly “forever” had an end to it?

We read of “Sodom and Gomorrah, and the cities around them … suffering the vengeance of eternal [aionios] fire” (Jude 1:7). Are those cities, set ablaze long ago as a divine judgment, still burning? No; their ruins are quite submerged by the Dead Sea. The Bible itself specifically states that God turned “the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah into ashes” (2 Peter 2:6). Now the fate of these cities is declared to be a warning to all wicked people of their impending fate. Therefore, if the aionios fire of that long ago judgment turned into ashes those it destroyed, and then died down of itself, we may properly conclude that the aionios fire of the last day will do likewise.

When we turn to the Old Testament, we discover that “everlasting” and “forever” sometimes signify a very limited time. We shall quote texts in which these two terms are translated from the Hebrew word olam, because olam is the equivalent of the Greek aion.

The Passover was to be kept “forever [olam]” (Exodus 12:24). But it ended with the cross. (See Hebrews 9:24–26.) Aaron and his sons were to offer incense “forever [olam]” (1 Chronicles 23:13) and to have an “everlasting [olam] priesthood” (Exodus 40:15). But this priesthood, with its offerings of incense, ended at the Cross. (See Hebrews 7:11–14.) A servant who desired to stay with his master, was to serve him “forever [olam].” (See Exodus 21:1–6.) How could a servant serve a master for endless time? Will there be masters and servants in the world to come? Jonah, describing his watery experience, said, “The earth with its bars closed behind me forever [olam]” (Jonah 2:6). Yet this “forever” was only “three days and three nights” long. (See Jonah 1:17). Because his servant Gehazi practiced deceit, Elisha declared to him, “The leprosy of Naaman shall cling to you and your descendants forever [olam]" (2 Kings 5:27). Should we conclude, therefore, that Gehazi’s family would never end, and that thus leprosy would be perpetuated for all time to come?

Thus, by the acid test of actual usage, we discover that in a number of cases, aion, aionios, and olam point to a very limited time.

Greek scholars confirm this. Liddell and Scott’s Greek Lexicon, a standard work, gives the following principal meanings of aion:

“1. A space or period of time, especially a lifetime, life. … Also one’s time of life, age: the age of man. … 2. A long space of time, eternity. … 3. A space of time clearly defined and marked out, an era, age … this present life, this world.”

Alexander Cruden, in his concordance, which for many years was the one great concordance in the English language, remarked under the word “eternal”: “The words eternal, everlasting, forever, are sometimes taken for a long time, and are not always to be understood strictly.”

The learned Archbishop Trench, in his authoritative work, Synonyms of the New Testament, remarks concerning the primary sense of aion: “In its primary, it signifies time, short or long, in its unbroken duration; oftentimes in classical Greek the duration of human life” (208, 209).

In recent years, many first-century Greek writings have been discovered. These writings, called papyri, enable us to know just how the Greek was written and just what meanings belonged to words at the very time when the New Testament authors wrote them. The Greek scholars J. H. Moulton and George Milligan, in their monumental work entitled, The Vocabulary of The Greek Testament, cite various instances in the papyri where aion is equivalent simply to the “period of life” of a person. Under aionios, they make the following statement in summing up the evidence as to its usage by the first-century Greek-speaking people of the Roman empire: “In general, the word depicts that of which the horizon is not in view, whether the horizon be at an infinite distance … or whether it lies no farther than the span of Ceasar’s life.”

Having shown from the Bible and from Greek scholars that aion and olam are elastic terms, often meaning a very limited time, our case is even stronger when we note the rule that commentators give for measuring the time involved in aion or olam in any text.

Adam Clark, commenting on Gehazi’s leprosy (2 Kings 5:27), remarked: “The forever implies as long as any of [Gehazi’s] posterity should remain. This is the import of the word le-olam. It takes in the whole extent or duration of the thing to which it is applied. The forever of Gehazi was till his posterity became extinct.” This agrees with the statement found in the quotation given earlier from Moule on Philemon 1:15: “The adjective [aionios] tends to mark duration as long as the nature of the subject allows.”

Therefore, we should first decide whether a subject is so constituted that he can live endlessly before we decide that hellfire will continue endlessly. Now note the statement made in the well-known commentary by J. P. Lange, commenting on Jude 1:7: “The bodies and souls of the wicked will suffer as long as they are capable of suffering, which, since they are immortal, will … be forever.”

The scholarly theologians do not attempt to prove that souls are immortal because the judgment fires burn for an aion. On the contrary, knowing that the time value of aion, aionios, and olam must be determined by the nature of the subject involved, these scholars conclude that the fire will burn endlessly because they believe that the souls of the wicked are immortal.

But the claim that the soul is immortal is the very point under question.

Nowhere does the Bible declare that the soul is immortal. On the contrary, it uses words that clearly convey the thought that in the case of the wicked the nature of the subject demands the conclusion that complete and speedy annihilation will take place. The wicked are described as “chaff,” “stubble,” “wax,” “smoke,” etc. (See Matthew 3:12; Malachi 4:1; Psalm 68:2; 37:20.) We are told explicitly that the fire “shall burn them up” and “will leave them neither root nor branch,” so that “they shall be ashes under the soles” of the feet of the righteous (Malachi 4:1–3).

Now, while we can thus correctly conclude that the “everlasting” torment of the wicked is but a limited period, we can at the same time logically conclude that the “everlasting” reward of the righteous is an unending one, for we are explicitly told that the righteous will “put on immortality” at the advent of Christ. (See 1 Corinthians 15:51–53.) Thus, the nature of the subject being immortal, the “everlasting” is correctly understood as meaning endless.

From Answers to Objections, Francis D. Nichol, 359–363.

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Hell in the Bible

The word “hell” is used 54 times in the Bible. It is translated from several different words with various meanings, as indicated below:
In the Old Testament:
  • 31 times from the Hebrew “Sheol,” which means “the grave”
In the New Testament:
  • 10 times from the Greek “Hades,” which means “the grave”
  • 12 times from the Greek “Gehenna,” which means “a place of burning”
  • 1 time from the Greek “Tartarus,” which means “a place of darkness”


What is Purgatory?

A tradition held by the Catholic Church that teaches people who are not good enough to be worthy of heaven, but not bad enough to deserve hell, suffer in an intermediary state until their sins are purged.

But is it in the Bible? Click here to learn more.

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