Eternal torment for unbelievers when they die

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By Spencer D Gear

The doctrine of annihilation or conditional immortality is gaining an increasing number of followers in evangelical circles. Some of the Christian forums on the www include people who are promoting these doctrines.[1]

Some are saying that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23), so that is what will happen at the end of life for unbelievers – death. There will be permanent death through annihilation of conditional immortality, with no torture in hell.[2]

God told Adam in Gen. 2:17, “In the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (ESV). But he did not physically die on that very day, but physical death came 930 years later. H. C. Leupold in his commentary on Genesis explains that “in the day” is taken literally, but not in the sense, “at the time”. The Hebrew meaning of “shall surely die” as an absolute infinitive has the thought that “the instantaneous occurrence of the penalty threatened” did happen.

Leupold asks,

“Why was this penalty not carried out as threatened?” The answer is that it was carried out “if the Biblical concept of dying is kept in mind, as it unfolds itself ever more clearly from age to age”. Since dying means separation from God, “that separation occurred the very moment when man by his disobedience broke the bond of love. If physical death ultimately closes the experience, that is not the most serious aspect of the whole affair. The more serious is the inner spiritual separation”. As Oehler accurately stated it, “For a fact, after the commission of sin man at once stepped upon the road of death”. Leupold observes “how definitely the account teaches that the first man was gifted with freedom of the will”.[3]

What do we say to those who say that “eternal punishment” (Matt. 25:46) does not mean eternal torment? In the NT, we are told what that “punishment” means. In Luke 16:23, the rich man was in Hades after death and was “being in torment”. This is clearly in focus for the unbelievers in Rev. 14:10, when John’s vision of the fate of the ungodly is that they “will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb” (ESV). And please note that this torment is by the Lamb, the Son of God. God will be the one who is tormenting the ungodly.

What about the language of “destruction” in the NT?[4]

If we took some isolated Scriptures, it may be possible to take these passages to mean annihilation. I’m thinking of the word, “destroy”, in Matt. 10:28, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell [Greek: Gehenna]” (ESV). Even with passages such as Matt. 7:13-14 where the broad road leads to destruction and John 3:16, “Whoever believes in him shall not perish” could be pressed to try to get the meaning of annihilation. Even if we took the following passages alone without consideration of other passages, there is a possibility that extermination/extinction of the wicked could be an interpretation: John 10:28; 17:12; Romans 2:12; 9:22; Philippians 1:28; 3:19; 1 Thessalonians 5:3; Hebrews 10:39; James 4:12 and 2 Peter 3:7, 9. However, there’s a big barrier to this kind of interpretation….

There are verses that are impossible to square with destruction meaning annihilation. Second Thessalonians 1:9 is one of those barriers. It reads, “They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (ESV). Who are “they”? They are “those who do not know God” and “do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2 Thess. 1:8). This is referring to unbelievers. The words from 2 Thess. 1:9, “eternal destruction”, could hardly mean “eternal  annihilation”. This verse creates the added problem against annihilation that the ungodly will be “away from the presence of the Lord”, which indicates that their existence is continuing but they will be shut out from being in God’s presence. If one were to speak of being “destroyed” from the presence of the Lord, it would imply non-existence. Scot McKnight put it this way:

“Paul has in mind an irreversible verdict of eternal nonfellowship with God. A person exists but remains excluded from God’s good presence”.[5]

In Revelation 17:8, 11, “destruction” is prophesied of “the beast”, but in Revelation 19 the Beast and False Prophet “were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur” (19:20). We know that they are still alive when this is happening because they are there 1,000 years later (Rev. 20:7,10). It cannot mean what Fudge says it means, “The lake of fire stands for utter, absolute, irreversible annihilation”.[6]

Other emphases of the condition of the damned after death

Even if one were to show that certain passages teach annihilation, we would need to show that other passages that speak of hell (Sheol, Hades & Gehenna) can be interpreted consistently with the extinction of the wicked. This cannot be done. As Robert Peterson points out,

The Bible uses five main pictures to speak of hell: darkness and separation, fire, “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” punishment, and death and destruction. Only the last fits with annihilationism, and not every passage in that category fits.[7]

Jesus’ language is of those who are “thrown into eternal fire” (Matt 18:8). Paul’s was of being “punished with everlasting destruction” (2 Thess. 1:9). Jude warned of “the punishment of eternal fire” (Jude 7) and of those “for whom the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved forever” (Jude 13). Of the sinful, condemned humanity, John’s vision was that “the smoke from her goes up forever and ever” (Rev. 19:3).
As far back as 1744, Matthew Horbery wrote, “It is hard to say how any doctrine can be taught so plainly than the eternity of future punishment…. how could he have done it in plainer words or in a more emphatical manner”.[8]

In rejecting Gehenna as instantaneous annihilation and affirming that it means everlasting torment, commentator William Hendriksen stated,

The passages in which the doctrine of everlasting punishment for both body and soul is taught are so numerous that one actually stands aghast that in spite of all this there are people today who affirm that they accept Scripture and who, nevertheless, reject the idea of never-ending torment.[9]

I join with Hendriksen in my being aghast (my language would be flabbergasted) at Christians who refuse to confirm never ending torment for the ungodly in Gehenna.

Second Peter 2:9 indicates the conscious suffering of the ungodly in the intermediate state: “… the Lord knows how to rescue godly men from trials and to hold the unrighteous for the day of judgment, while continuing their punishment” (NIV 1984). R. C. H. Lenski translates the Greek tenses accurately in his translation, “The Lord knows how to rescue godly ones out of temptation but to keep unrighteous ones for judgment day while being punished“.[10] At death, the unrighteous are being kept where? Elsewhere, the Scriptures indicate that they are in Hades in the intermediate state (e.g. Matt. 11:23; 16:18ff; Luke 10:15; 1 Pet. 3:19; Rev. 20:13ff) . What is happening while they are in that state? Note two Greek words, terein (to keep, present tense, active voice, infinitive). The meaning is “to continue keeping” (present tense indicates continuous action). The second word to note is, kalozomenous (continuing punishment), a present passive participle, indicating continuous action in the present time. Since it is the passive voice, this continuing punishment is being received by these people. Robert Morey explains 2 Peter 2:9 this way:

First, Peter says that the wicked are “kept” unto the day of judgment. This word is the present, active, infinitive form, which means that the wicked are being held captive continuously. If the wicked merely pass into nonexistence at death, there would be nothing left to be “kept” unto the day of judgment. Obviously, Peter is grammatically picturing the wicked as being guarded like prisoners in a jail until the day of final judgment.

Second, Peter says that the wicked are “being tormented.” This word is in the present, passive, participle form and means that the wicked are continuously being tormented as an on-going activity.

If Peter wanted to teach that the wicked receive their full punishment at death by passing into nonexistence, then he would have used the aorist tense. Instead, he uses those Greek tenses which were the only ones available to him in the Greek language to express conscious, continuous torment. The grammar of the text irrefutably establishes that the wicked are in torment while they await their final day of judgment.

When the day of judgment arrives, Hades will be emptied of its inhabitants, and the wicked will stand before God for their final sentence (Rev. 20:13-15). Thus, we conclude that Hades is the temporary intermediate state between death and the resurrection where the wicked are in conscious torment. Hades will be emptied at the resurrection, and then the wicked will be cast into “hell (Gehenna).[11]

I find it to be irrational, based on 2 Peter 2:9 and other NT verses, to want to state that “destruction of the wicked” means instantaneous annihilation, extinction or conditional immortality as there are Scriptures that affirm the torment in the after-life of unbelievers. Second Thessalonians 1:9 makes it clear, speaking of ‘everlasting destruction’, which cannot mean ‘everlasting annihilation’.

It is impossible to make destroy = annihilate in Romans 14:15: “For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died” (ESV). To imply that one could annihilate a brother by eating meat is stretching my logic. To make the biblical word, “destruction”, for eternal punishment to be the equivalent of “annihilation” is an unbiblical invention. Even in the English language, if I were to run over my child’s toy with my motor vehicle, I would “destroy” the toy and it would “perish”, but it would not be annihilated.

What does Peter mean by “perish” in 2 Pet 3:9, “The Lord is not slow to fulfil his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing any should perish” (ESV)? “Perish” is the aorist tense infinitive, indicating point action. The Lord does not want people to perish by any instant action.

Based on the above exposition, the eternal torment of unbelievers in Gehenna is the truth of God’s word. “Perish” and “destruction” do not mean annihilation as the Scriptures above demonstrate.

I am aghast, along with William Hendriksen, that Christians refuse to see what the Scriptures so clearly teach – eternal torment for the ungodly. And that’s what I will continue to do in association with my evangelism. I will warn people of the horrors of experiencing the wrath of God in Gehenna (hell) through eternal torment.

Matt. 25:46 does not speak of eternal annihilation, but eternal punishment – torment forever and ever.


Edward Fudge & Robert A. Peterson 2000. Two Views of Hell: A Biblical and Theological Dialogue. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press.

My article, “Are there degrees of punishment in hell?“.

Robert A. Peterson, “The Hermeneutics of Annihilationism“.


[1] As an example, see the Christian Forums’ thread, “If there was no heaven or hell would you… (when my article was last revised on 14 October 2014, this thread was no longer available online). You may find parallel information at, Do you think you deserve eternal torment in hell?

[2] Ibid. One person in this thread stated, “The concept of God torturing anyone for all eternity is not biblical. The bible’s truth has been under fire since the idea of eternally roasting your enemies in hell-fire was dreamed up in the dark ages. Now is the time that we stand up for the bible’s truth and say that God does not torture people”. Later in the thread he acknowledged that his view was that of “conditional immortality” (no longer available online at Christian, 14 October 2014).

[3] The above two paragraphs contain information from H. C. Leupold 1942. Exposition of Genesis. London: Evangelical Press, p. 128-129.

[4] Some of this section is based on Robert A. Peterson 1995. Hell on Trial: The Case for Eternal Punishment. Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing.

[5] In ibid., p. 163.

[6] In ibid., p. 164.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Henry Horbery 1744. An Enquiry into the Scripture-Doctrine concerning the Duration of Future Punishment. London: James Fletcher, pp 61-62. Partly available  as a Google book online HERE (Accessed 31 August 2011).

[9] William Hendriksen 1959. The Bible on the Life Hereafter. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, pp. 197-198.

[10] R. C. H. Lenski 1966. Commentary on the New Testament: The Interpretation of the Epistles of St. Peter, St. John, and St. Jude. Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers, p. 315.

[11] Robert A. Morey 1984. Death and the Afterlife. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers, pp. 86-87.


Copyright © 2012 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 1 July 2016.