Forever is a very long time!
Whether it’s measured in anything remotely analogous to what we call “time” or is some kind of “constant state of being,” the concept of something never ending is beyond the ability of the human mind to conceive – perhaps most especially when talking about the conscious suffering or anguish of Hell.
Not long ago, a friend who believes in a never ending Hell told me why he believes it – God’s “holiness” is His most important attribute. “Because of His holiness,” he said,“God cannot look on sin. He must punish it.” So . . . ?
Punishment for sin is not the issue. We see sin punished all the time in this life. People who sin in various ways experience all kinds of negative consequences to their behavior – just ask a recovering alcoholic, or drug addict, or repentant thief, or anyone who has come to understand the seriousness of sin in this life. They will tell you that the negative consequences or “punishment” that they have experienced is just and often severe.
But, punishment that goes on forever, and never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever ends is a completely different matter. To think that a good God or any other being in a place of heavenly bliss would be content looking on or knowing about other beings who are constantly and consciously suffering unbearable pain and agony that never ends does not in any way spring from a belief in God’s “holiness.” It is more in line with the behavior of an earthly despot who tortures his enemies or subjects because they do not do his bidding.
But, does Scripture teach that Hell is forever?
Forever in Scripture
The word translated “forever,” or “eternal” in the English versions of the Bible in relation to punishment is derived from Hebrew and Greek verbs denoting to hide or to conceal. The actual meaning is a period of time – longer or shorter, past or future – the boundaries of which are concealed, obscure, unseen, or unknown.
It can be a few days, a lifetime, or an age depending on what it is referring to. Itdoesn’t mean never ending. It means that the end is not known.
For example, Jonah's decision to disobey God resulted in his being swallowed by a great fish. In his distress, he cried out to the LORD with a prayer in which he tells how long he expected to be imprisoned:
To the roots of the mountains I sank down; the earth beneath barred me inforever.
Jonah did not know how long his imprisonment would last. In this case, “forever” meant three days, and was followed by release.
The word is also used to describe how long a slave will serve his master in Exodus 21:6.
Then his master shall bring him unto the judges; he shall also bring him to the door, or unto the door post; and his master shall bore his ear through with an aul; and he shall serve him forever.
The length of a slave’s service in this case is unknown since no one could determine the day of his death. At most, the slave would serve his master for his whole life.
In Leviticus 6:18 and many other places, the statutes and offerings of the Lord are to be “forever.”
All the males among the children of Aaron shall eat of it. It shall be a statuteforever in your generations concerning the offerings of the LORD made by fire.
The Levitical system of sacrifices lasted a long time, but eventually came to an end. The first Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BC, and the rebuilt Temple was destroyed by the Roman forces in AD 70. There is no longer a Jewish priesthood. There is no longer a Temple in Jerusalem. There is no longer a system of sacrifices being offered. The purpose for that system was fulfilled, and it came to an end.
The Scriptural term translated “forever” did not mean endless in that case, and could not mean endless. If it did, the Jews would have been perfectly justified in rejecting the Christian religion that proclaimed the annulment of statutes and ordinances in their law which they had been told again and again were to be “eternal” or “forever.” If they could have established that meaning of the word they would have had an unanswerable argument against Christianity.
The passage of Scripture that is most often pointed to as a clear statement that punishment in Hell will never end is Matthew 25:46. In that verse, Jesus Himself, referring to those who will be brought before the Son of Man when He sits on His throne in glory, says of the wicked and the righteous,
Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.
As with the passages we looked at earlier, the English word translated “eternal” gives the false impression that Jesus is talking about things that are “endless.” But, the underlying Greek word does not mean endless. It means the end is not known. The passage should actually be translated,
These shall go away into the punishment of the age to come, and these into the life of the age to come.
No one knows how long the “age” Jesus is speaking about will last. It does have an end, but the end is unknown.
But, it is not only the meaning of the word in the original language that indicates that the punishment Jesus talks about here is not endless. It is also strongly supported by the context of the passage.
This verse occurs at the end of an extended discourse that Jesus gives privately to His disciples in response to their questions about the upcoming destruction of Jerusalem, and the sign of His coming and of the end of the age. That discourse extends without a break from Matthew 24:4 all the way to Matthew 25:46.
Interestingly, the same Greek word that is translated eternal in Matthew 25:46 is also used in the question that prompts the entire discourse. In that question, however, the word is translated by the English word age. Jesus’ disciples ask Him
. . . what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?
The ages referred to in Matthew 25:46 cannot mean endless because the entire discourse begins with the acknowledgement that ages have an end. They do not last forever. The question the disciples ask is
. . . what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age.
Having said what we have just said above, have we proved too much? What about the eternal life of the believer? If we say that punishment in Hell is in some way temporary and not “forever,” does that mean that life in Heaven is also not “forever?”
Actually, no! The Greek New Testament makes it very clear that those who are in Christwill live forever in the glorious presence of God, but it does not do so with the term “forever.”
For example, in response to a question about life after death in Luke 20:35-36, Jesus explains very clearly that the children of the resurrection are God’s children who willnever die. Similarly, in John 10:27-29, Jesus assures His followers with the promise that His sheep will hear His voice and will never perish. They are in His hand and He will care for them. No one can snatch them out of His hand, and no one can snatch them out of the Father’s hand.
In a truly powerful statement in the book of Romans, Paul, after explaining that we are more than conquerors in Christ, boldly proclaims his deep conviction that there is no power in all of creation that can separate us from the love of God in Christ. In I Corinthians 15:42, Paul tells his readers that the resurrection body is imperishable. He explains further in 15:53 that the mortal will be clothed with immortality.
Believers in Christ can be assured that they will live with Him throughout all eternity. But, that assurance does not come from passages that use the word that is generally translated by the English term “forever.”