What would you do if you were on a jury hearing a case like the one that follows? A group of children, out for a walk in the country, fail to see a “No Trespassing” sign and walk through the garden of an eccentric recluse, picking and trampling on some of the flowers. Breathing vengeance, the owner catches the children and takes them into a secret building, where he sets up cameras to record the punishment he is about to mete out to them.
The children are put through every form of torture conceivable. Their screams fill the building and beyond. Days stretch into weeks before a search party, out looking for the children, breaks into the building and rescues them.
Let us assume that this human demon is protected from the community’s outrage long enough to be brought to trial and that the footage he had taken is shown to the jury and spectators.
If you were on a jury trying the case, what would be your verdict? I’m sure it would be “Guilty!” To be sure, the children broke the law when they trespassed on the man’s property. They deserved a punishment. But should they be returned to the torture chamber so that the films of their suffering can be shown to every child in the land, that all may know the punishment to be meted out to those who trespass?
Would you want to make an example of this just and loving man who had devised such a brilliant plan for teaching children to be obedient? Would you suggest placing a statue of him in the town square and holding him up as an example for all people to follow in their treatment of trespassers? I hardly think so!
A Diabolical God
Though no human jury would return such a verdict, some Christians charge God with being a million times more cruel than this fictional human monster—more diabolical than the devil himself. They proclaim that God will torture sinners for a thousand million years and more. These people describe sinners writhing, screaming, and crying out to Heaven for mercy, but every cry is thrown back by a God who meets each plea with, “Burn on! Burn on!”
Fortunately, when we put together all of the biblical evidence, a different picture emerges—a picture of a merciful God who does indeed punish sin, but who does so with mercy. For example, Romans 6:23 says that “the wages of sin is death,” not eternal torment in hellfire. Ezekiel said, “ ‘The soul who sins is the one who will die’ ” (Ezekiel 18:4). And Nahum said that God’s enemies, “tangled like thornbushes / and staggering like drunks, / will be burned up like dry stubble in a field” (Nahum 1:10, NLT).
Christ Himself said that both soul and body will be destroyed in hell (see Matthew 10:28). The Greek word translated destroy in this text is rendered “to destroy utterly” by Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott in their Greek-English lexicon.
The apostle Peter declared that the wicked will “utterly perish,” (2 Peter 2:12, NKJV). The psalmist said, “The wicked will perish: / TheLord’s enemies will be like the beauty of the fields, / they will vanish—vanish like smoke” (Psalm 37:20).
In Malachi 4:1, we read that the wicked “ ‘will be stubble, and that day that is coming will set them on fire,’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘Not a root or a branch will be left to them.’ ” Obadiah declared that after the wicked have been destroyed, they will “ ‘be as if they had never been’ ” (Obadiah 16). The psalmist adds his testimony: “A little while, and the wicked will be no more; / though you look for them, they will not be found” (Psalm 37:10).
In Revelation 20:5, 9, we learn that the wicked, after their resurrection to stand in judgment before God, will be devoured on this earth by fire from heaven. Ezekiel tells us that even Lucifer will be brought “ ‘ “to ashes on the ground” ’ ” (Ezekiel 28:18). The prophet adds, “ ‘ “You have come to a horrible end / and will be no more” ’ ” (verse 19). Malachi, in referring to the destruction of the wicked says, “ ‘Then you will trample down the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I do these things,’ says the Lord Almighty” (Malachi 4:3).
With the fires of destruction completely out, God will create “a new heaven and a new earth” (2 Peter 3:13). He will also “ ‘wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away’ ” (Revelation 21:4).
But what of the “ ‘unquenchable fire’ ” John the Baptist declared God would use in “ ‘burning up the chaff’ ” (Matthew 3:12)? This text is easily understood. Unquenchable bombs are used in war, bombs which cannot be extinguished or put out by immersion. An unquenchable fire is one that cannot be put out until it has consumed what it is burning. It then goes out by itself when there is nothing left to burn.
Even the “everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41, KJV) will give a careful student of the Scriptures no cause to question God’s justice in the destruction of the wicked. “Everlasting” is from the Greek word aionios or aion, a word for which there is no true English equivalent. The root means “space or period of time,” “lifetime or life,” “age,” or “era.” It is similar to our word ever. We can say the “ever-living God” and mean that God will live on through eternity. But when we speak of an ever-green tree, we all know that the tree will not be green after it dies or is consumed by fire. The ever in both cases is limited by the length of the era of the thing described. The everlasting fire lasts as long as the wicked do. When John the revelator speaks of “the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth” (Revelation 14:6, KJV), he does not mean that the gospel will continue to be preached in the new earth, where there will be no sinners.
Origin of Eternal Punishment
So, if the Scriptures do not picture God as a merciless demon who punishes human beings without respite through all eternity, where did this doctrine come from?
It was the generally accepted belief of all ancient pagans. Zoroaster taught that hell was unending. The ancient Greeks and the old Germans taught the same, as did the Druids. It is the teaching of the Koran. The devil worshipers of the Near East, the Yazidis, teach that some will be condemned to suffer forever in hellfire. And Mithraists, who got their religion from Babylon by way of Persia, taught of eternal hellfire. Mithraism, with its everlasting torment of the wicked, became an official religion of Rome around the time of Christ and remained so for 200 years.
In his book, The Mysteries of Mithra, Franz Cumont points out that in the struggle between Mithraism and Christianity, it is difficult to tell which won, for the church adopted many of the rites, teachings, practices, and holy days of Mithraism. “The conceptions which Mithraism had diffused throughout the empire during a period of three centuries,” he says, “were not destined to perish with it. Some of them, . . . such as the ideas concerning hell, . . . were accepted even by its adversaries. . . . Certain of its sacred practices continued to exist also in the ritual of Christian festivals and in popular usage.”
Cumont goes on to say that “Mithraism . . . was formed in the Orient from a mixture of the ancient Babylonian mythology with Persian dualism and . . . afterward absorbed Hellenic elements. . . . Mystics . . . were enraptured with the new conciliatory faith which suffered Zoroaster and Christ to be simultaneously worshipped. Thus renewed, the Mithraic doctrines were destined to withstand for centuries all persecutions, and rising again in a new form in the Middle Ages to shake once more the ancient Roman world.”
The doctrine of eternal hellfire did not originate with Christianity. It arose in that system of demon worship that has ever sought to discredit God and misrepresent His justice and love toward humanity. The very heart of demon worship is fear, and its worship is directed toward the placation of an angry, merciless god who ever seeks to destroy humankind. Certainly no doctrine ever arose in demon worship more capable of inspiring fear than the doctrine of eternal torment.
Two Views of God
Thus, we have before us two teachings about God and His attitude toward sinful human beings. One, based on the Bible, declares that God is just, loving, and merciful. He metes out the death penalty only to those who, by their rebellion and lawlessness, would jeopardize the happiness of others if they were permitted to live.
The other teaching, which had its origin in demon worship, declares that God is a merciless tyrant who will torture sinners throughout all eternity; a God who, as billions of years roll by, meets every plea from sinners for mercy and justice with a diabolical sneer, “Burn on!”
Check your religion. Choose which doctrine you will accept.