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Everlasting Punishment

PUNISHMENT, EVERLASTING (αιώνιος κόλασις).

The Biblical references.

The term aiōnios kólasis (“eternal punishment” in RSV, “everlasting punishment” in KJV) is used once in the Bible (Matt 25:46). Equivalent terms, however, are used in a number of instances. In these instances, RSV always renders aiōnios “eternal,” whereas the KJV sometimes uses “eternal” and sometimes “everlasting.” Matthew 18:8; 25:41; and Jude 7 mention “eternal fire”; 2 Thessalonians 1:9, “eternal destruction”; and Mark 3:29, “eternal sin” (KJV renders “eternal damnation”). Jude 6 speaks of “eternal (aiōnios) chains.” Jude 13 states concerning the wicked, “for whom the nether gloom of darkness has been reserved forever” (Gr. eis aiōna).

In Revelation 14:11, eis aiōnas aiōnon (“to ages of ages”) is rendered “for ever and ever” in describing the fate of those who worship the beast, “and the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever.” The similar phrase eis toùs aiōnas tōn aiōnon (“to the ages of the ages”) describes the duration of the punishment of the great harlot (Rev 19:3), “the smoke from her goes up for ever and ever,” and that of the devil, the beast, and the false prophet (20:10), “and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.” The language of these passages is a reflection of that describing the fate of Edom (Isa 34:9, 10), “and the streams of Edom shall be turned into pitch, and her soil into brimstone; her land shall become burning pitch. Night and day it shall not be quenched; its smoke shall go up for ever (Heb. ’ōlām). From generation to generation it shall lie waste; none shall pass through it for ever and ever.” ’Ōlām is used also to describe the duration of the fate of Edom in Obadiah 10, “and you shall be cut off for ever.” Both KJV and RSV tr. the Heb. ’ōlām as everlasting in Daniel 12:2, which speaks of “everlasting contempt” as the condition of the ungodly who are resurrected, compared to “everlasting life” as the condition of the godly.

The meaning of “eternal.”

The Biblical doctrine is that the ungodly are subject to punishment without end after death. The important question is this—Does aiōnios mean “endless”? Aiōnios comes from aiōn, which means “the age.” Plato, however, used it of the Eternal Being compared to Time. The LXX used it to tr. the Heb. ’ōlām, which contains both the idea of a long time and the metaphysical idea of eternity in the sense of unending. Whether or not aiōnios indicates a long period of time or endlessness therefore must be determined by the context. For example, when the term is used by John to speak of eternal life, the emphasis is on the qualitative rather than the quantitative, although the very nature of the quality of the life being described would presuppose its being unending. A passage where it is clearly used in contrast to that which only lasts for a time is 2 Corinthians 4:18, “Because we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” That the term aiōnios is used in the same passage to describe both the condition of the saved and the lost, is the strongest evidence that the NT intends to teach the endlessness of punishment in hell. In Matthew 25:46, Jesus says of those who have failed to help the needy, “they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” The phrase referred to above, eis toùs aiōnas tōn aiōnon, is used again and again describing the duration of the glory of God and clearly speaks of endlessness. W. R. Inge says, “No sound Greek scholar can pretend that aiōnios means any thing less than eternal” (Inge and others, What is Hell? 6). F. von Huegel says, “If we follow the New Testament, the essence of hell lies assuredly above all in its endlessness” (Inge and others, What is Hell? 7). E. Plumptre, who opposes the doctrine of eternal punishment, yet says of universalism, “It fails to prove that the element of duration is, as has been mentioned, altogether absent from the word” (E. Plumptre, The Spirits in Prison, 14); and P. Dearmer, another opponent dealing with the subject, speaks of NT “passages which, however accurately they are translated, are inconsistent with the teachings of Christ” (P. Dearmer, The Legend of Hell), by which, of course, he means inconsistent with his own preconceived notions of what Christ ought to teach.

There are a number of NT passages that do not use the word aiōnios, but nevertheless confirm the fact that endlessness is involved. For example, the punishment is described in terms of “unquenchable fire” (Mark 9:43; where the parallel in Matt 18:8 speaks of “eternal fire”), and “where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48). He who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit “never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” (3:29). In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, the permanence of the condition of those being punished is described thus: “between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us” (Luke 16:26). The unchangeableness of the condition of punishment is implied also in the many passages that speak of the judgment with its resulting rewards and punishments, which depend on the acts committed in this present life.

The nature of the punishment.

It is generally accepted that the descriptions of fire and darkness are symbolic—symbolic of a terrible reality! The Bible does not specifically describe the nature of the punishment, which can be inferred only from the total Biblical picture. Since the punishment is the result of sin, it must bear certain similarities to the consequences of sin that take place already in this life. If eternal death is the opposite of eternal life, it must contain elements that contrast with those the Bible includes in its picture of eternal life. The essence of life is life lived in loving relationship to God; therefore eternal punishment includes the absence of this great blessing. Life apart from God is existence filled with guilt, hollowness, despair, meaninglessness, and hopelessness. The agony of eternal punishment apparently involves both body and soul because Scripture says both are ultimately cast into hell. Apparently this would involve inner anguish as well as detrimental effects upon the body. It may involve the torment of being cut off from fellowship with one’s fellow man, and also the results of living within a society of men from which the grace of God has been completely withdrawn. It must be admitted that the above is somewhat speculative, although based on Biblical inferences, since the Bible is silent when it comes to specific information as to the nature of the punishment, being satisfied simply to emphasize the horror of its reality (see Hell).

The alternative views.

There are basically two alternative views to eternal punishment. One view is that either after no punishment following death or after a limited period of punishment, the lost cease to exist. This view is called annihilation. The other view is that, following death either after a period of punishment or with no punishment, all will eventually be saved. This is called universalism.

Annihilation (also called Conditional Immortality).

This is the official position of the Seventh Day Adventists, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and some individual Bible students. They claim that the words “destruction” and “death,” which sometimes are used in the Bible to describe eternal punishment, are to be understood as involving the complete cessation of existence. Arguments against this position are as follows:

(2) The Bible describes destruction as punishment, but if it means annihilation, in many cases it would actually be a happy relief from punishment and therefore no punishment at all.

(3) Life as described in the Bible is not simply existence, it is existence in fellowship with God. The death that the Bible describes as the alternative to life need not mean the cessation of existence, but rather continued existence cut off from the fellowship of God.

(4) The practical effect of this doctrine undermines morality. In making light of the results of moral choices, it therefore makes light of the moral choices themselves.


Arguments that are put forth by those who believe that ultimately all will be saved are as follows:

(1) There are Scripture passages, such as Acts 3:21, which reads in the KJV, “whom the heaven must receive until the times of restitution of all things.” This v., however, does not intend to teach universalism, for just two vv. later one reads “every soul which will not hear that prophet, shall be destroyed from among the people.” The RSV more accurately trs. Acts 3:21, “whom heaven must receive until the time for establishing all that God spoke,” which removes the universalistic element completely. Various vv. do refer to “all” men, for example, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (John 12:32), “as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph 1:10). The term “all” is used in other than an absolute sense in Scripture: for example, when the wise men came to Jerusalem, Herod “was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him” (Matt 2:3). Obviously every individual did not hear about the problem, let alone be deeply concerned about it. Again, when John the Baptist preached, “then went out to him Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan, and they were baptized by him” (Matt 3:5, 6). This surely did not mean that every inhabitant of these areas came to John, and certainly every individual was not baptized.

(2) God would be unjust to punish men for all eternity for sins they committed within a span of a few years. This argument fails to recognize the seriousness and the true nature of sin. Sin is rebellion against God Almighty, a horrible action that deserves the most drastic punishment. Furthermore, the nature of sin is such that it produces abiding consequences. God is just, for sin produces the very results that the sin deserves—results that are abiding except for the intervening grace of God.

(3) A loving God would not punish His creatures for ever. Those who advance this argument say: “A good man would not punish his enemies forever; surely a good God will not do this either.” But God is not man; He is loving, but He must also be just. He is the gracious Creator, but He is also the just Judge. The fact is that sin does produce horrible consequences in this life, and the loving God does not prevent this. What is the basis for assurance that He will prevent these consequences hereafter?

(4) A sovereign God will not be defeated. Some recent theologians who take sin and judgment much more seriously than did the older liberals still tend toward universalism on the basis of the sovereignty of God. Who is man to say how God should exercise His sovereignty? The same Bible that reveals God as sovereign also reveals punishment as eternal.


L. Townsend, Lost Forever (1875); J. Hanson, Aion-Aionios (1880); E. Pusey, What is of Faith as to Everlasting Punishment (1880); J. Reimensnyder, Doom Eternal (1880); W. Shedd, The Doctrine of Endless Punishment (1886); C. Mann, Five Discourses on Future Punishment (1888); H. Buis, The Doctrine of Eternal Punishment (1957).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)



1. Survival after Death

2. Retribution for Sin

3. Conscious Suffering in Future


1. Old Testament and Jewish Conceptions

2. New Testament Teaching

(1) "Eternal"

(2) Equivalent Expressions

(3) The Last Judgment

3. Teaching of Analogy


1. Universal Salvation

2. Annihilation

3. Second Probation


1. Mystery of the Future

2. Nature of Punishment

3. Range of Divine Mercy

4. Gradation of Punishment

5. God "All in All"


I. Preliminary Assumptions.

(For "everlasting," where used in the King James Version as the rendering of aionios, the Revised Version (British and American) substitutes "eternal.") It is assumed in this article that Scripture teaches the survival of the soul after death, the reality of retribution and of judgment to come, and a shorter or longer period of suffering for sin in the case of the unredeemed in the world beyond. Only a few words need be said, therefore, in preliminary remark on these assumptions.

1. Survival after Death:

Whatever view may be taken of the development of the doctrine of immortality in the Old Testament (see Eschatology of the Old Testament), it will scarcely be doubted that it is throughout assumed in the New Testament that the souls of men, good and bad, survive death (see Immortality). Two passages only need be referred to in proof: one, Christ’s saying in Mt 10:28: "Be not afraid of them that kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul; but rather fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell" (Gehenna); the other, the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Lu 16:19-31: Lazarus is carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; the rich man lifts up his eyes in Hades, being in torments. The whole doctrine of the future judgment in the New Testament presupposes survival after death.

2. Retribution for Sin:

See Retribution.

3. Conscious Suffering in Future:

The conscious endurance of punishment for sin in the future state is already implied in the preceding. The parable of the Rich Man speaks of it as following immediately on death in Hades; all the descriptions of the judgment imply pain and anguish as the result of condemnation (compare Ro 2:5,12). This does not settle the nature or duration of the punishment; but it excludes the idea that physical death is the extinction of being, or that annihilation follows immediately upon death or judgment.

These things being assumed, the questions that remain are: Is the period of suffering for sin eternal, or is it terminable? May it be cut short by repentance or by annihilation? Is there any final solution of the discord it implies in the universe? It is maintained here that the punishment of sin, in the case of the finally impenitent, is everlasting.

II. Scriptural Support.

The doctrine that the punishment of sin is everlasting is sustained by many plain testimonies of Scripture.

1. Old Testament and Jewish Conceptions:

The doctrine of future punishment is not prominent in the Old Testament, where rewards and punishments are chiefly connected with the present life. In a few passages (Ps 49:14,15; 73:18,19; compare Isa 24:21,22; 66:24), Dr. Charles thinks that "Sheol appears as the place of punishment of the wicked" (Eschatology, 73-76, 156). If so, there is no suggestion of escape from it. In Da 12:2, some that sleep in the dust are represented as awaking to "shame and everlasting contempt" (the word for "everlasting" is the usual one, `olam). In the Jewish literature of the century before Christ, "Sheol is regarded," says Dr. Charles, "as the place of final eternal punishment, that is, it has become hell" (op. cit., 236).

See Eschatology of the Old Testament. 2. New Testament Teaching:

In the New Testament, the strongest language is used by Jesus and the apostolic writers on the certainty and severity of the punishment of sin in the future state, and always in a manner which suggests that the doom is final.

(1) "Eternal."

The reply made by Maurice (Theological Essays, 442 ff) that aionios in such passages denotes quality, not duration, cannot be sustained. Whatever else the term includes, it connotes duration. More pertinent is the criticism of other writers (e.g. Cox, Salvator Mundi, 96 ff; Farrar, Eternal Hope, Pref., xxxiv, pp. 78 ff, 197 ff; compare his Mercy and Judgment, passim) that aionios does not necessarily mean "eternal" (according to Cox it does not mean this at all), but is strictly "age-long," is therefore compatible with, if it does not directly suggest, a terminable period. Cox allows that the term is "saturated through and through with the element of time" (p. 100,), but he denies its equivalence with "everlasting." The sense, no doubt, is to be determined by the context, but it can hardly be questioned that "the eons of the eons" and similar phrases are the practical New Testament equivalents for eternity, and that aionios in its application to God and to life ("eternal life") includes the idea of unending duration (compare Joh 10:28,29 for express assertion of this). When, therefore, the term is applied in the same context to punishment and to life (Mt 25:46), and no hint is given anywhere of limitation, the only reasonable exegesis is to take the word in its full sense of "eternal."

(2) Equivalent Expressions.

(3) The Last Judgment.

The New Testament doctrine of the last judgment leads to the same conclusion. Two things seem plainly taught about this judgment: the first, that it proceeds on the matter of the present life--"the things done in the body" (Mt 25:31-46; 2Co 5:10; Re 20:12); and the second, that it is decisive in its issues. Not a single suggestion is given of a reversal of its decisions in any future age. Such silence is inexplicable if the Scriptures meant to teach what the opponents of this doctrine so confidently maintain.

3. Teaching of Analogy:

In corroboration of this Scriptural view analogy might be pleaded. How constantly even in this life is the law illustrated of the tendency of character to fixity! The present is the season of grace (2Co 6:2), yet what powers of resistance to God and goodness are seen to lie in human nature, and how effectually, often, does it harden itself under the influences that seem most fitted to break down its rebellion! What likelihood is there that eternity will alter this tendency, or make conversion more easy? Eternity can hardly be thought of as more really a scene of grace than time is for those to whom the gospel has already come. Its characteristic mark is said to be "judgment" (Heb 9:27). Like the photographer’s bath, may its effect not be to develop and fix existing character, rather than to change it? If so, the state in which judgment finds the soul may be presumed to be one that will remain.

III. Difficulties and Objections--Rival Hypotheses.

What, it will now be asked, of the tremendous difficulties which inhere in this doctrine, with their undeniable effect in alienating many generous minds from it and from Christianity? The lurid rhetorical picturings of the sufferings of the lost, too frequent in the teaching of the past, may be discounted; it is not necessary to go beyond the inexpressibly solemn words of Christ Himself and His apostles. But even with this limitation, does it not seem as if, by this doctrine, a reflection was cast on the righteousness and mercy of God in creating such multitudes of the human race, as, on any showing, are outside the pale of Christ’s salvation--the countless generations of the heathen, with the masses even in Christian lands who have not received or do not obey the light--only to doom them to endless misery? Before attempting a positive answer, it is proper that a glance be taken at the rival theories put forth in alleviation of the difficulty.

1. Universal Salvation:

2. Annihilation:

The view favored by another class is that of the annihilation of the finally impenitent. The type of doctrine called "conditional immortality" includes other elements which need not here be discussed (see Immortality). The annihilation theory takes different forms. So far as the annihilation is supposed to take place at death, it is contradicted by the Scriptures which support the soul’s survival after death; so far as it is believed to take place after a longer or shorter period of conscious suffering (which is White’s theory), it involves its advocates in difficulties with their own interpretations of "death," "destruction," "perishing," seeing that in Scripture this doom is uniformly represented as overtaking the ungodly at the day of judgment, and not at some indefinite period thereafter. The theory conflicts also with the idea of gradation of punishment, for which room has to be sought in the period of conscious suffering, and rests really on an unduly narrowed conception of the meaning of the Scriptural terms "life" and "death." Life is not bare existence, nor is "death" necessarily extinction of being. Assaid earlier, the language of many parts of Scripture implies the continued existence of the subjects of the divine wrath.

3. Second Probation:

It is significant that on the side alike of the advocates of restoration and of those of annihilation (e.g. E. White), refuge from the difficulties is frequently sought in the hypothesis of an extended probation and work of evangelization beyond death. This theory labors under the drawback that, in marked contrast with Scripture, it throws immensely the larger part of the work of salvation into the future state of being. It is, besides, apart from the dubious and limited support given to it by the passage on Christ’s preaching to "the spirits in prison" (1Pe 3:19,20); destitute of Scriptural support. It has already been pointed out that the final judgment is uniformly represented as proceeding on the matter of this life. The theory is considered elsewhere.

See Eschatology of the New Testament, sec. X.

IV. Nature, Conditions and Issues.

1. Mystery of the Future:

While dogmatisms like the above, which seem opposed to Scripture, are to be avoided, it is equally necessary to guard against dogmatisms of an opposite kind, as if eternity must not, in the nature of the case, have its undisclosed mysteries of which we here in time can frame no conception. The difficulties connected with the ultimate destinies of mankind are truly enormous, and no serious thinker will minimize them. Scripture does not warrant it in negative, any more than in positive, dogmatisms; with its uniformly practical aim, it does not seek to satisfy an idle curiosity (compare Lu 13:23,24). Its language is bold, popular, figurative, intense; the essential idea is to be held fast, but what is said cannot be taken as a directory to all that is to transpire in the ages upon ages of an unending duration. God’s methods of dealing with sin in the eternities may prove to be as much above our present thoughts as His dealings now are with men in grace. In His hands we must be content to leave it, only using such light as His immediate revelation yields.

2. Nature of Punishment:

As respects the nature of the punishment of sin, it cannot be doubted that in its essence it is spiritual. Everything can be adopted here which is said by Maurice and others--"The eternal punishment is the punishment of being without the knowledge of God, who is love, and of Jesus Christ who has manifested it; even as eternal life is declared to be the having the knowledge of God and of Jesus Christ" (Theological Essays, 450). The supreme penalty of sin is unquestionably the loss of God’s life and love--the being sinful. Environment, indeed, may be expected to correspond with character, but the hell is one the sinner essentially makes for himself, and, like the kingdom of God, is within. The fire, the worm, the stripes, that figure its severity, are not physical. Even should the poena sensus (were that conceivable) be utterly removed, the poena damni would eternally remain.

3. Range of Divine Mercy:

It is a sound principle that, in His dealing with sin in the world to come, God’s mercy will reach as far as ever it can reach. This follows from the whole Scriptural revelation of the character of God. What may be included in it, it is impossible for anyone to say. It should be noticed that those of whom it is said that they shall not see life, but the wrath of God abideth on them, are those who "obey not" the truth (Joh 3:36)--who actively and consciously disregard and oppose it. But all do not belong to this class. It may be assumed that none will be lost who can in consistency with holiness and love be saved. The most germinal goodness, which is the implantation of His own Spirit, God will acknowledge and develop. The problem of undeveloped character may receive a solution we do not wot of with the entrance into the eternal light--not in change of character, but rather, as said before, in the revelation of character’s inmost bent. In this sense, the entrance into eternity may be to many the revelation of a love and grace which had not been understood or appreciated as it should have been on earth, but with which it is in essential kinship. There are at least many shades and degrees of character, and God may be entrusted to take the most just, yet most merciful, account of all.

4. Gradation of Punishment:

5. God "All in All":

There remain those passages already alluded to which do seem to speak, not, indeed, of conversion or admission into the light and fellowship of Christ’s kingdom, but still of a final subjugation of the powers of evil, to the extent, at least, of a cessation of active opposition to God’s will, of some form of ultimate unification and acknowledgment of Christ as Lord. Such passages are Eph 1:10; Php 2:9-11; above all, 1Co 15:24-28. God, in this final vision, has become "all in all." Here, again, dogmatism is entirely out of place, but it is permissible to believe that these texts foreshadow such a final persuasion of God’s righteousness in His judgment and of the futility of further rebellion as shall bring about an outward pacification and restoration of order in the universe disturbed by sin, though it can never repair that eternal loss accruing from exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and glory.


Against: Maurice, Theological Essays, "Eternal Life and Eternal Death"; S. Cox, Salvator Mundi; F. W. Farrar, Eternal Hope; Mercy and Judgment; A. Jukes, The Second Death and the Restitution of All Things; E. White, Life in Christ; H. Constable, Duration and Nature of Future Punishment. For: Pusey, What Is of Faith as to Everlasting Punishment, H. N. Oxenham, Catholic Eschatology; C. Clemance, Future Punishment; Edersheim, Life and Times of Jesus, the Messiah, Appendix, xix, "On Eternal Punishment, according to the Rabbis and the New Testament "; The Future Life, A Defence of the Orthodox View, by the Most Eminent American Scholars; S. D. F. Salmond, The Christian Doctrine of Immortality, Book VI; Orr, Christian View of God, lecture ix; Luthardt, Saving Truths (English translations), lecture x. See also the various works on Dogmatic and Biblical Theology.

See also

  • Eschatology