Risen from the Dust
When informed Christians speak of an eternal hell, they are referring to the future Lake of Fire, not the current domain of Hades. There remains, however, a great deal of debate and confusion as to the nature of this final hell. Will the Lake of Fire, aka Gehenna, be a place of never ending torment and suffering for its inhabitants, or will those souls who are cast into it be annihilated, ceasing to exist?
The two sides of this debate, annihilationism and eternal torment, are firmly entrenched, holding to the belief that their view is scriptural and the other view is not. Eternal torment is the more traditional church view, often touted as being the only viable option given a plain straightforward reading of the bible. Proponents argue that a multitude of verses leave little doubt that people will suffer in hell forever, and that those who deny this are appealing to people's sympathies over the Word of God. However, a closer analysis of these passages reveals that this interpretation lacks scriptural substance, and gets its credibility more from church tradition than anywhere else. In order to resolve this issue in a convincing way one must address it head on; neither giving heed to people's sympathies or making appeal to ingrained tradition, both of which place man's rationale and opinion above revelation from God.
First, we should recognize that there are numerous passages in both the Old and New Testaments that describe the wicked as dying or perishing, and the righteous as having eternal life. On the surface, these verses might seem like proof that the depraved will ultimately be annihilated in the Lake of Fire. In reality, however, they are almost irrelevant to this discussion, because they do not mean dying or perishing in an absolute sense.
Take for example, "Behold, all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sinneth, it shall die" (Ezekiel 18.4 KJV bible). When properly understood, this verse is not talking about annihilation, but rather individuals perishing in their sins, and descending into a state of death when they die. We know, however, that these souls not only continue to exist in Hades, but will eventually partake in the second resurrection. Many of these dead ones will receive eternal life, when they are raised up in the second resurrection (Matthew 25.31-46).
In contrast, the righteous are described as having eternal life because they dwell in a state of life, even after they die in the flesh, "Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die..." (John 11.25-26 KJV bible). Though they die in the flesh, those who have been freed from death through Christ never die spiritually.
So we cannot resolve this conflict between eternal torment and annihilationism by focusing on descriptions of the immediate afterlife for believers and nonbelievers. Rather, we need to focus on verses that specifically address the Lake of Fire on Judgment Day, and what its effect will be on those who are cast into it.
After the millennium is over will come the White Throne Judgment, as described in the book of Revelation, "And I saw a great white throne, and him that sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away; and there was found no place for them. And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell [Hades] delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works...And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire" (Revelation 20.11-13,15 KJV bible). In the White Throne Judgment, the dead will receive according to their works, and those who serve the evil one will be cast into the Lake of Fire.
However, before the dead are judged they will first be resurrected up from the dominion of Hades (Revelation 20.13), and into spiritual bodies. After this will come the final judgment, which for the great multitudes of humanity will be the dividing line between eternal salvation and eternal damnation. Everyone will receive according to their works, and according to the mercy or the cruelty they have shown for others (Matthew 25). The righteous ones found written in the book of life will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, but the wicked ones left out of the book will be gathered up and cast into the Lake of Fire. One must recognize that the Lake of Fire is a supernatural fire, and its effect will be upon spiritual, not flesh bodies.
Jesus looks forward in time to Judgment Day, and the Lake of Fire, when he describes Gehenna in Matthew 10.28, "And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul [psuche] and body in hell [Gehenna]" (Matthew 10.28 KJV bible). In this verse, Jesus warns that one should never be intimidated by the threats of men, because at most they only have power to harm the flesh. Rather, one should fear the Lord, who has the power to destroy both mind and body in Gehenna (aka the Lake of Fire). Therefore, the Lake of Fire is far worse than either the death of the flesh or the captivity of Sheol, because it has eternal implications. The second part of this verse is not referring to a person's flesh body, but rather the spiritual bodies that the dead will be resurrected into on Judgment Day. So as to the ultimate fate of the wicked, this verse tells us that the Lake of Fire will be an unquenchable supernatural fire, with the power to destroy both the spiritual body, and the thought process within it.
But then what exactly is meant here by the word destroy, which can be interpreted in many different ways? In what sense are they destroyed? The Greek word that is translated as destroy, apollumi, doesn't mean literal annihilation. Rather, it is generally used to describe a state of ruin, spoilage, or destruction. So this verse actually doesn't fully support annihilationism, because apollumi suggests that the wicked won't be totally consumed and brought to nothing. However, this verse doesn't support eternal torment either, because it implies that upon entering the Lake of Fire some kind of lasting damage or ruin to both mind and body will take place. So from this verse alone we can't determine the nature of this ruined state, as it applies to the individuals cast into Gehenna.
Jesus provides us with further clues about Gehenna or the Lake of Fire, that will lead us to a better understanding of its effect upon those cast into it, "And if thy foot offend thee [causes you to stumble], cut it off: it is better for thee to enter halt into life, than having two feet to be cast into hell [Gehenna], into the fire that never shall be quenched: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched" (Mark 9.45-46 KJV bible). Again, Jesus warns that it's better to enter into spiritual life on earth being maimed, then in the future to be cast into the Lake of Fire, where the worm never dies and the fire is not quenched. In a very literal sense, one should do whatever is necessary to resist evil desires and impulses, because the Lake of Fire is so much worse than anything conceivable on Earth. Worms cannot survive in a natural fire, but Gehenna is a spiritual place of everlasting flames and putrefaction.
Jesus chooses his words here carefully, because in the Old Testament, Isaiah foresees this future place of damnation, and uses the same words to describe it, "And it shall come to pass, that from one new moon to another, and from one sabbath to another, shall all flesh come to worship before me, saith the LORD. And they shall go forth, and look upon the carcases of the men that have transgressed against me: for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched; and they shall be an abhorring unto all flesh" (Isaiah 66.23-24 KJV bible). Isaiah describes that all flesh (representative of all humanity) shall go forth and look upon the wicked in Gehenna, a place of eternal fire and damnation.
This passage parallels the New Testament description of Gehenna as a place of unquenchable fire, where the worm never dies. However, notice how it makes no mention of the people cast into it as perpetually suffering, or even being alive. Rather they are described as dead bodies or carcasses, that are eaten by worms and burned with fire. So the use of the word carcasses here (Hebrew: peger), indicates that the people in Gehenna will not be continually tormented. Instead they will be dead, in the sense of having no spark of life or thought process within them. Their minds will be annihilated by the Lake of Fire, but their spiritual bodies will continue to exist in a ruined and dishonored state.
This is why Revelation describes the Lake of Fire as being a second death, because it will bring about the death of the person within, "But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death" (Revelation 21.8 KJV bible). The wicked will experience a second death in Gehenna, becoming spiritual corpses that lack any thoughts or emotions.
Thus, we can finally understand the true nature of eternal hell. The Lake of Fire will be a cesspool of inanimate spiritual carcasses, serving as a monument to the Lord's indignation towards corruption and evil. Rather than a place of eternal torment, it will be a smoldering and putrid cemetery, bestowed by God with eternal shame and disgrace. The Lake of Fire will be the final abode of the wicked, where their lifeless remains are spiritually eaten by worms, and burned with fire forever.
This annihilation scenario is also supported by Jude 13, in which God informs us about the punishment in store for false shepherds, "Raging waves of the sea, foaming out their own shame; wandering stars, to whom is reserved the blackness of darkness for ever" (Jude 13 KJV bible). Also, 2nd Peter 2.17, "These are wells without water, clouds that are carried with a tempest; to whom the mist of darkness is reserved for ever" (2nd Peter 2.17 KJV bible). We know that these verses are not talking about the descent into Sheol, which is the immediate afterlife for most of mankind. Instead, they are referring to eternal damnation because they say everlasting blackness of darkness is reserved for them. This description of eternal blackness and darkness suggests that the wicked will become unconscious, and that rather that dwelling in a state of eternal torment, their minds will altogether cease to exist.