Hell

GAZING INTO THE ABYSS: Every Single New Testament Reference to Hell, and Why Eternal Torment is Not Real

By Peter Zelinski

This post is an offshoot of my book, You Did Not Choose Me, But I Chose You.

That book examines basic questions about the experience of Christian belief. For those of us who believe in Jesus Christ as savior and Lord, where did that belief come from? And what are we to do with our lives of belief within this world? My answers depart from views that many Christians hold, and they reveal that many of the burdens with which believers saddle themselves are unnecessary.

In arguing for the shedding of one of those burdens, I advance a point that, as I say in the book, I expect to be controversial. It is this: We Christians routinely carry and advance a picture of “hell” that is false, that is not supported by scripture. Specifically, it is not true that unbelievers are doomed to endless suffering there. Hell is real—Jesus referred to it—but crucially, eternal torment is not real. In no way does our God recreate human individuals into undying objects of endless suffering after their deaths.

Instead, as Jesus stated, hell is the place where both body and soul are destroyed (Matthew 10:28). That is, the body is destroyed, and the soul—the very seat of one’s selfhood—is destroyed as well. Paul, whose letters never mention hell, resonates with this idea in a statement from 2 Thessalonians 1:9, which I quote in full below. Though Paul doesn’t give us much on the subject, he also makes clear: Destruction is eternal. That is very different from suffering being eternal, to the point that one precludes the other. Destruction is destruction. It brings torment to an end along with everything else.

Hell is real, as I say. Hell is a place and a passage of sadness. But at the end of that passage, the God of mercy allows those not proceeding into eternal life to lose their selfhood, to lose all experience, and to die. God allows them to rest in peace.

There is much we do not understand about hell. The Bible says little about it. Much of the New Testament takes the form of letters attributed to Paul, and in all of his letters, he never saw a reason to mention hell directly. Jesus, as quoted in gospels that were written later than Paul’s letters, does mention hell. However, in these cases, his audience (or the gospels’ audiences) consisted of people who already shared a sense of what this term meant. As a result, Jesus in the gospels never explains hell. He never defines the term. He employs the term in the context of making other points. What we know or think we know about hell relies on collateral evidence gleaned from these statements. And while the idea of hell as a place of eternal conscious suffering can be accommodated by some of these references, that idea strains to breaking against other scriptural references that are even more clear.

More importantly, that idea contradicts what we know of God’s character. We know God to be loving and just. Our understanding of God is small, but we do understand what love is and what justice is. Some assert that God sentencing people to eternal conscious torment is loving and just simply in ways we do not comprehend. But that assertion is false; the idea is untenable. The assertion is false because it repudiates the very understanding that God himself has given us the capacity to possess. We know that infinity is the state that surpasses any finite quantity. It is thus mathematically impossible for a being to do anything within the context of a finite world that could justify infinite consequences. Consequences extending to infinity would be unjust and unloving, and therefore are incompatible with the character of God. Thus do reason and scripture together both tell us that something else is going on.

As I describe in my book, the God of love sets everyone free. Some are set free into eternal life. Others are allowed to reach a final end to life, no longer existing thereafter. Hell is part of this ending somehow. Sadness and suffering are part of it. Scripture even suggests that hell touches all of us (Mark 9:49). But no human being is subject to torment that is eternal, and no human being is sent to exist in hell forever. This widespread view must be refuted as unbiblical.

My recent book is about life in this world far more than it is about the afterlife. Addressing every argument that might be made related to eternal torment was beyond the book’s scope. But as I say, I expect the idea I am advancing about hell to be controversial. What follows, then, is my attempt to address every single New Testament verse mentioning or alluding to hell, with the aim of learning what can be known about the topic, while showing that eternal conscious torment of human beings is an idea that not one of these verses declares.

Here are those verses with my comments:

Matthew 5:22
But I tell you, everyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. And whoever says to his brother, “Fool!” will be subject to the Sanhedrin. But whoever says, “You moron!” will be subject to hellfire.

Comment
If the word “hellfire” in the passage above refers to eternal torment, then this passage makes no sense. Is eternal torment only the consequence of saying “you moron,” but not the consequence of saying “fool” to a brother?

However, if “hellfire” refers to the consuming abyss of loss that awaits everyone not given eternal life—that is, the loss of the mortal body and the loss of our very selfhood in this world—then this passage speaks right to the heart of every one of us who indulges anger.

When we recognize hell to be the place or passage by which body and soul are destroyed (as Jesus said elsewhere), then consider how profoundly true this statement about anger is seen to be. The statement offers not only a spiritual truth but a clinical one. With the statement above, Jesus says we should not contain our anger only when we fear the consequence from authorities. Rather, we should desist from feeding or expressing anger toward anyone, because nurturing that anger subjects us to the fire that destroys. Anger destroys the body—the stress of it erodes our health. And anger also destroys the soul, because the joy and the best of our experience of self are gone while we are indulging rage. Nurturing anger therefore has exactly the same effect as hell, as that effect is described in Matthew 10:28 (see below).

Matthew 5:29-30
If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to go into hell!

Comment
This passage is about loss and about discarding. Even for those who are saved, sin feeds, invites, and kindles the fire that consumes body and soul. That “fire” is not waiting at the end of our lifespans. It licks at us and hungers for us throughout this life.

Jesus is making a point here. He is not literally advocating we injure ourselves, but instead he is describing how costly sin is and what measures are warranted to avoid it. Jesus is saying: If there are parts of your life that inevitably draw you into sin, then reject those parts of your life and close the door on them, even if the price is high. It is better to do this than for the work you might do in this world and the love you might advance in this world to be compromised because your self and life are being consumed by the peril or consequences you otherwise cannot seem to avoid.

Matthew 8:11-12
I tell you that many will come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Comment
Jesus makes this statement just after witnessing and marveling at the faith of a Roman centurion. Even though Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are Israelites, he says many will come from many other people groups who will be part of the kingdom of heaven God initiated through these patriarchs. Meanwhile, some among the Israelites will not believe, and will find their lives limited to the “outer darkness” of a world ruled by death and sin. Thus, this verse’s inclusion within this analysis is questionable. It is not clear that it refers to hell, and at best it refers to hell only by implication.

We should be careful how we read “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” If we come to the text assuming eternal conscious torment in hell, then we imagine the very individuals mentioned are specifically the ones who are weeping and gnashing through this torment. That is, we assume that weeping and gnashing have been inflicted upon them, or are the response to what has been inflicted. But that picture adds far more to the text than is actually present. The text says simply, “In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth,” as a general statement describing the place.

We know that description to be true. Weeping and gnashing of teeth are characteristic of the outer darkness, the world ruled by death and sin, because unlike the kingdom of heaven, this is a place where frustration and despair (weeping) and hostility and resentment (gnashing of teeth) all are common.

See also the comment on Matthew 25:30.

Matthew 10:28
Don’t fear those who kill the body but are not able to kill the soul; rather, fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.

Comment
This passage rules out eternal torment. The word “destroy” leaves room for a great deal in terms of the means of this destroying and what the experience of destruction is like. But one thing it does not leave room for is remaining alive and conscious forever for the sake of suffering eternally. If I have a body forever that is able to experience pain, and if I have a soul forever that is able to know suffering, then neither is ever destroyed. Whatever hell is—and again, we lack a complete picture—but whatever hell is, infinite torment does not describe the way it functions, and does not offer an accurate portrayal of hell that is true to Jesus’ words.

See also the comment on 2 Thessalonians 1:9.

Matthew 11:23
And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will go down to Hades. For if the miracles that were done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until today.

Comment
There is little to say about this verse, except to point out that “Hades” and “hell” are two different things. This is clearest in Revelation 20:14 (see below), in which Hades is thrown into hell (specifically, into the “lake of fire”).

Drawn from pagan mythologies, Hades is the name for a destination of the dead after death. In the Bible’s Old Testament, Sheol is something similar. We need not understand these terms as literal places, and we need not assume that the ancient people understood them this way. Hades could be taken to mean the state in which the body is in the grave and the soul exists only in the context of other people’s memories. In the verse above, Jesus is saying, essentially, “You won’t be exalted to heaven; you will go the way of all who die.”

(Note that even though Hades and hell are separate in the Bible, Hades and the term “hell” were not always separate. The precursor for our English word “hell” came from “Sheol,” and meant much the same. However, the definition has changed over time. During its progress into contemporary English, the word moved from formerly referring to Sheol or Hades to now referring to the lake of fire or, in the scriptures’ original language, Gahanna. In other words, the root word of our contemporary English word has moved from referring to one biblical metaphysical concept to referring to another.)

Matthew 13:42
They will throw them into the blazing furnace where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Comment
As in Matthew 8:12, here are weeping and gnashing of teeth. In this verse, the location of the weeping and gnashing is different. The earlier verse placed it in the “outer darkness,” while this verse places it in the “blazing furnace.” Similar to that earlier verse, though, here again we are not given to know precisely where the weeping and gnashing are coming from. The devil and his minions will be in this furnace, to remain conscious there (see Revelation 20:10 below), so this might well be their weeping and gnashing. Or, the weeping and gnashing might arise from those who find their lives terminating in hell.

Again, hell is something real. With this article, I am making the point only that eternal human suffering in hell is not real. Human beings do experience hell, but the passage that this term or this idea refers to comes to an end, and it ends in total oblivion. Indeed, Jesus notably used the analogy here of a furnace. A furnace is not a place where material burns on and on unendingly, but instead, a furnace is specifically a place where that which is at the end of its time or usefulness is sent to be consumed completely.

Matthew 13:50
...and throw them into the blazing furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Comment
See comment on Matthew 13:42.

Matthew 16:18
And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the forces of Hades will not overpower it.

Comment
The clarity of what this verse is promising rings out once the distinction between Hades and hell is applied to it—see my comment on Matthew 11:23.

In this verse, it is not hell that is cast as the opponent to the church, but Hades, or the loss into the grave.

Certainly it is true that the loss of people into the grave will not overpower the church, because the church consists of people who will be resurrected into the world to come.

Matthew 18:9
And if your eye causes your downfall, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye, rather than to have two eyes and be thrown into hellfire!

Comment
See comment on Matthew 5:29-30.

Matthew 22:13
Then the king told the attendants, “Tie him up hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Comment
See comment on Matthew 8:12.

Matthew 23:15
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to make one proselyte, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as fit for hell as you are!

Comment
This verse offers little additional detail about hell compared to other verses examined here. In mentioning hell here, Jesus highlights the difference between evangelism and proselytizing, a difference I also explore in my book. Evangelism consists of bringing the gospel or bringing more of the gospel to those whom God is awakening into eternal life, while proselytizing—persuading those who have not been given belief to declare their belief anyway—offers no awakening and no access to life.

Matthew 23:33
“Snakes! Brood of vipers! How can you escape being condemned to hell?”

Comment
Jesus speaks harshly to the proselytizers who claim to be able to declare what God approves, but who in fact lead people away from walking with God. The futility of the self-proclaimed authority of these men is highlighted in the question Jesus asks in the verse. That is, how can they escape being condemned to hell? Answer: They cannot. God provides the escape, and their way is not of God.

Matthew 25:30
And throw this good-for-nothing slave into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Comment
See my comment on Matthew 8:12. The “outer darkness” is not hell, but instead the state of a life in bondage to the world of sin and death. Through their choices, even believers can find themselves in this outer darkness. The context of this verse is the Parable of the Talents, a story told by Jesus that offers insight into how we are to live our lives as believers in this world. In the parable, those given a special treasure are expected to put that treasure to use in order to increase it. The one who withholds the treasure he has been given out of fear, and does nothing with it, is the one who is cast into the outer darkness. The message: The way of joy and light in this world is to use the gifts of the Kingdom to advance the Kingdom. Sitting on one’s gifts (one’s opportunities as well as one’s “talents”), perhaps because of the expectation of embarrassment or failure, is ultimately the way of misery and a victory for the shadow of death.

See my comment on Matthew 8:12 as well for a discussion of “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Matthew 25:41
Then he will also say to those on the left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels!”

Comment
This verse offers a significant clue about the nature of hell and God’s purpose in creating it. Hell was not made for human beings. Human beings do not belong there. They have become subject to hell through sin, but ultimately human beings are destroyed there (Matthew 10:28). Hell was made for the devil and his angels.

Matthew 25:46
And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.

Comment
We must read this verse for what it says. It is the “punishment” that is eternal; nothing here speaks of eternal conscious suffering. For those not given eternal life, says this verse, there does come a point when death is absolutely final.

Indeed, we have to choose to read eternal conscious torment into this verse, and the choice is a defiant one. Taken alone, this verse does not leave room for that insertion. Because the verse is specifically making a contrast with eternal life, the contrasting idea that is implied is eternal death.

Mark 9:43-49
And if your hand causes your downfall, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and go to hell—the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes your downfall, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes your downfall, gouge it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where “their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.” For everyone will be salted with fire.

Comment
For discussion of this idea of cutting off body members to avoid hell, see my comment on Matthew 5:29-30. Here are additional comments about material particular to this passage:

1. Note how fire is described as “unquenchable.” Inherent to this description is the suggestion that this fire consumes. That is, the fire consumes and consumes, but all it consumes never quenches it. If hell is a place where people remain alive, where they remain unconsumed so that they can suffer and suffer, then this word would not be used. We would not describe a person’s thirst as being “unquenchable” if that person only took water into his mouth but never drank it.

2. “Their worm does not die” is a reference to Isaiah 66:24: “As they leave, they will see the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me; for their worm will never die, their fire will never go out, and they will be a horror to all mankind.” Thus, the line is not a reference to an existence of eternal suffering in hell. In the Isaiah verse, the bodies are dead. It is the worm that lives on. That is, it is the foreign agent that infected human beings and drove them to rebel against God that lives on. See Revelation 20:10, discussed below.

3. The final sentence of this passage is powerful. Is hell simply a separate place—a place where the devil is imprisoned, a place where souls are destroyed? In some sense hell is also an experience, and one that touches everybody.

Luke 10:15
And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? No, you will go down to Hades!

Comment
Capernaum claims to be exalted, but in fact will go the way of death. See the comment on Matthew 11:23 for the meaning of “Hades” relative to hell.

Luke 12:5
But I will show you the One to fear: Fear him who has authority to throw people into hell after death. Yes, I say to you, this is the One to fear!

Comment
I include this verse in the interest of being comprehensive—I promised to include every New Testament reference to hell. However, there is nothing to say about the verse in the context of this discussion. The verse mentions hell without making a claim one way or another as to what happens there.

Luke 16:23
And being in torment in Hades, he looked up and saw Abraham a long way off, with Lazarus at his side.

Comment
This verse is part of a parable, a story told by Jesus to symbolically convey a spiritual truth. As such, it is not clear how literally we are supposed to understand the elements of the story as an accurate depiction of what has happened or what can occur. But if we assume the events of the parable are literal, what would they tell us about hell?

Answer: Nothing directly about hell, because the man in this parable is in Hades, the place of the dead. (See comment on Matthew 11:23.) However, the parable suggests the dead are aware and do suffer to some extent before the soul finds its end in hell. That possibility would not be inconsistent with anything we have said.

The assumption of literalness strikes me as a risky one to make. There is no sense in any of Jesus’ parables that he is recalling literal events in order to tell these stories. Jesus’ aim in this parable is not to explain the afterlife, but to make a different point; Hades is a set piece in his story. Thus, I do not know how helpful this verse is in the aim we are pursuing.

Acts 2:27-31
...because you will not leave me in Hades or allow your Holy One to see decay.... Seeing this in advance, he spoke concerning the resurrection of the Messiah: “He was not left in Hades and his flesh did not experience decay.”

Comment
This verse says nothing about hell, because hell and Hades are different (see comment on Matthew 11:23). Instead, this verse accurately describes what we know about the Messiah. He was not left in the grave, but he was raised bodily from the dead.

James 3:6
And the tongue is a fire. The tongue, a world of unrighteousness, is placed among the parts of our bodies. It pollutes the whole body, sets the course of life on fire, and is set on fire by hell.

Comment
Hell is not simply a place or an after-earthly destination, but instead a force and an experience that influences us in this world. Here, in this verse, we see that influence. Our evil words are hellish. The tongue that is destructive in this way is “set on fire by hell.” See my comments on Matthew 5:29-30 and Mark 9:43-49.

2 Thessalonians 1:9
These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction from the Lord’s presence and from his glorious strength....

Comment
We have life because the Lord wills us to have life. If he withdraws this will—withdraws this presence and strength—then we die, fully and completely, as though we have never been. What Jesus referred to as hell might in fact be the sorrow of experiencing the Lord’s presence being withdrawn before body and soul are entirely lost.

Note what happens after that withdrawal, according to the verse above. Not “eternal torment,” not this at all. Instead, “eternal destruction”—it is the destruction that is eternal. The soul that is destroyed is never to be undestroyed. This verse, like Matthew 10:28, rules out the possibility of an unending life being given over to eternal conscious suffering. Such a life would be reduced in quality to be sure, but a reduction in quality of life is not what this verse promises. This verse speaks of destruction.

2 Peter 2:4
For if God didn’t spare the angels who sinned but threw them down into Tartarus and delivered them to be kept in chains of darkness until judgment....

Comment
The Bible’s only mention of Tartarus mentions it solely in the context of fallen angels. Tartarus, like Hades, is a place of the dead drawn out of earlier mythologies. (See my comment on Matthew 11:23.) Because this verse says nothing about hell and nothing about the fate of human beings, the verse actually is not even relevant for inclusion here.

Interestingly, though, the passage from which this verse is drawn in 2 Peter does go on to talk about the fates of human beings. Drawing on the examples of Noah and Lot, it describes how some human beings are saved while others around them are destroyed. There is no mention of anyone being kept alive to endlessly suffer.

Jude 1:7 
In the same way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities around them committed sexual immorality and practiced perversions, just as angels did, and serve as an example by undergoing the punishment of eternal fire.

Comment
This verse says only that the fire is eternal. It does not say people are kept alive eternally within it. Sodom and Gomorrah were completely destroyed by the fire, according to 2 Peter 2:6.

See also the comment on Mark 9:43-49.

Revelation 1:18
I was dead, but look—I am alive forever and ever, and I hold the keys of death and Hades.

Comment
I am including this verse so as to be comprehensive. But there is no need, because the verse does not speak of hell. Hades and hell are different; see comment on Matthew 11:23. This verse is simply a rather spot-on depiction of Jesus.

Revelation 6:8
And I looked, and there was a pale green horse. The horseman on it was named Death, and Hades was following after him. Authority was given to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill by the sword, by famine, by plague, and by the wild animals of the earth.

Comment
As I did with Revelation 1:18, I am including this verse to be comprehensive, though there is no need since Hades and hell are different.

The position of Hades in the symbolism here is interesting. Hades, as I described in the comment on Matthew 11:23, is the place of the grave, the place of the dead. It follows right after death. That perfectly matches the picture here: Death is the horseman, and Hades followed after him.

Revelation 19:20
But the beast was taken prisoner, and along with him the false prophet, who had performed the signs in his presence. He deceived those who accepted the mark of the beast and those who worshiped his image with these signs. Both of them were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur.

Comment
This verse takes care to specify that the demonic minions of the devil were thrown “alive” into the lake of fire. That is, they were not the dead, like human beings who come to their total and final destruction in this lake. Does that mean the demonic minions are (unlike humans) kept alive in this lake, in hell?

The answer is yes. Revelation 20:10 makes this point explicitly.

Revelation 20:10
The devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet are, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.

Comment
According to Matthew 25:41, hell was made for the devil and his minions. As I have argued in comments on verses above, human beings are destroyed in hell—irreversibly destroyed in body and soul. They come to their end; they do not suffer on and on. And yet, there is eternal torment in hell, because this is what the devil and his supernatural agents suffer. For some reason we are not given to understand, God does keep these beings alive in a place of suffering, and that is where they will be in the age to come.

Revelation 20:13
Then the sea gave up its dead, and Death and Hades gave up their dead; all were judged according to their works.

Comment
Hades and hell are not the same; see comment under Matthew 11:23. As this verse makes clear, Hades does not have the last word. There is something coming after Hades, a judgment related to the works of the one who had previously lived. Exploring that judgment is beyond the scope of this article. Instead, we simply note that hell, unlike Hades, cannot give up its dead in this way, because hell is where body and soul are destroyed (Matthew 10:28).

Revelation 20:14
Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.

Comment
For all the Bible’s mentions of Hades, this is the verse that makes most explicit that Hades and hell are different. Other New Testament references to hell as fire leave us safe in assuming that hell is the lake of fire in this verse. Hades therefore cannot be hell, because Hades is thrown into that lake.

In other words, there will come a day when death and the grave will no longer rule the world, will no longer be part of the world at all. Death itself will be put to death and Hades along with it.

Revelation 21:8
But the cowards, unbelievers, vile, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars—their share will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.

Comment
I end on this verse only because I have been proceeding through the New Testament in order. The verse does not actually tell us much about the nature of hell. “Second death” implies that what happens in “the lake that burns with fire and sulfur” is total and final destruction, which is what we have been arguing throughout the comments above.

Note also this: The verse arguably expands upon one of the comments I made in my discussion of Mark 9:43-49, to the effect that hell touches everyone. Read how the list above includes not only unbelievers, but also the cowards, vile, murderers, and so on. “Unbelievers” are listed separately from, and in addition to, these people. If these people—these idolators and so on—are not unbelievers, then what are they? They are believers.

In other words, it would seem from this verse that hell is not only the fate of unbelieving people at the end of their lives. It is also the downfall of believing people during their lives, believers who succumb to murder, immorality, and so on. Hell is both of these things—see James 3:6 and my comment on it above.

That is, hell can scorch the lives and possibilities even of those who are ultimately destined to rise again and live in the world to come. Hell is the place where body and soul are destroyed, but hell is also the means by which joy is destroyed here and now. Believers who know God and are being remade by him can still make choices within this world that serve to advance hell rather than advancing God’s kingdom.