Matthew 18: 7-9
Mat 18:7 “Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes!
Mat 18:8 And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire.
Mat 18:9 And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell(Gehenna) of fire.
The traditionalist, with the preconceived notion that all human souls are immortal and indestructible from conception, will naturally assume that since the lost are cast into a fire, they must therefore exist in that fire for all eternity. If the Bible anywhere taught that we are immortal without salvation, then I would have to agree(and I wouldn’t be writing a book about hell). But this is not taught, and just the opposite is very clearly taught, and I’ve devoted two whole chapters to this issue alone in the book because this is critical to understanding all of the “fire” passages, so that we don’t make the historical mistake of somehow thinking that the lost will be able to endure the consuming wrath of God and survive because they’ve been endowed with an “asbestos body”, as many preachers claim. If we just look at the plain language of the passage, and don’t read anything into it, we’ll see that the Lord doesn’t say anything about eternal conscious suffering, but only that it would be better to enter into life, even maimed(and of course even here He was speaking figuratively, and likely not suggesting people sever and gouge out body parts), than to be cast into the fire, which he indicated in other scriptures would fully destroy(apollumi) both the body and the soul – death – so again we have the contrast of life and death. I’ve often heard traditionalist preachers, like Robert Jeffress, maintain that simply losing one’s life at final judgment isn’t a harsh enough penalty for rejecting salvation. I don’t think Jeffress realizes how hard he just smacked God in the face with that statement. God’s wisdom is so far above ours, and His knowledge of what’s in store in eternity obviously is as well, since we haven’t seen it yet. Missing out on eternal life with God, and instead being destroyed out of existence, is the absolutely highest and harshest punishment that could be meted out, without crossing over the line to cruel and unusual (and unnecessary) punishment, which is what tradition accuses God of.
And let’s look at the word translated as “hell” in this passage. It’s “Gehenna”, and as we’ve looked at in other places, it’s a reference to the Valley of Hinnom, where a couple things have happened. One, God’s people had gone astray in the past and were sacrificing their children to the false god Molech there, by fire. Not good. And that’s the first picture of death and destruction by fire that is associated with that valley. But from every source I’ve ever seen (except one), it is claimed that in Jesus’ day, that valley was used as a place to burn refuse(what little they created in a pre-industrial society), waste matter, and dead bodies, of animals, and I suppose possibly humans as well, maybe those who society didn’t believe worthy of burial?? And it’s said that the fires were kept burning constantly. The traditionalist gravitates to that “burning constantly” part and tries to make a correlation there to the eternality of suffering that they believe await the lost. But what I’ve noticed in life is that everything I’ve ever thrown in a fire eventually burned up. Fire is a picture of destruction, and only the saved survive it (like Daniel’s three friends in the fiery furnace).
I’ve looked up pictures of that valley to see what it looks like now, and it’s a lush beautiful place. Even that, to me, is a picture of how one day evil will be gone, altogether…not just removed out of God’s presence. Now don’t get me wrong….That valley may open up again one day. There is biblical evidence that this could even be the portal to the lake of fire. I’m not saying I necessarily believe this. I don’t know what the lake of fire is…Is it like a fiery black hole? Or does the earth open up and become a lake of fire at the end of the 1000 year reign of Christ. We are in fact getting a whole new heavens and earth at that point, so we’re not going to need this place anymore. Well, I simply don’t know what the Lake of Fire is, or what it takes to destroy a human or angelic soul. That’s God’s business. But I do like the picture that the Valley of Hinnom (Gehenna-Hell) offers right now, in that what was once a place of death and fire, is now a beautiful green valley. I think it’s a picture of one day after every tear has been wiped away and we are in the fullness of God’s joy constantly.
This passage is one of the most relied upon by traditionalists as evidence of a conscious afterlife of torment for the lost, and it very well may be evidence of a time of consciousness after physical death. However, most preachers and bible teachers that I hear comment on this passage go on to use it as evidence of the eternal state of consciousness that they teach the unsaved will endure. I’ve studied this section of Scripture extensively, and while I have a lot of thoughts and opinions on it, I’ve come to only a couple of absolute conclusions about it. And one thing I am absolutely sure of is that this passage is not a picture of an eternal conscious state of damnation of those who reject salvation. In the full book that I’m writing on this topic, I went through this passage forwards and backwards, looking at every different aspect of it, giving multiple evidences as to why this isn’t intended to be an accurate literal picture of the eternal state of the lost, and I also shared the various positions that people take on the passage. For this blog version, I’m downsizing it considerably.
Let’s first look at the flame that the rich man says he is tormented in. When I used to teach 1st and 2nd grade Sunday School, I remember one time that the children’s takehome pages had a picture of the rich man from this passage engulfed in flames, up to his elbows. Yeah, those papers went in the trash that day. A person in that situation, literally on fire, would probably do a number of things differently than what we read of this man doing, in Scripture. He probably would have asked for buckets of water to be cast on him, not a drop of water…and not for his tongue. But something else that I noticed and spent a lot of time on in the full version of this was that he says he is tormented by “this flame” – singular. While some versions of the bible may say “this fire” or “these flames”, that’s not how the original Greek reads, and while I’m not crazy about the old English of the KJV, it is probably the most overall accurate translation, and it’s clear that this is a singular flame this man says he is being tormented by. So I looked around Scripture (electronically searching with e-Sword), and sure enough, there were other Greek words that would have been used if “this fire” (meaning multiple flames, as fire normally exists) is what was intended. I also looked at every place in Scripture where this Greek word phlox (Strong’s coded word G5395) was used, which is the word used here in this passage that is correctly translated as a singular “flame” in the KJV- and I found something really interesting. This word is used in only 7 verses in the New Testament (always in the singular) first here in Luke 16, and then in all six of the other passages, it is a direct reference to God Himself or an angel. Here are those other six references:
The next one is in Acts 7:30, but it’s a reference back to the Old Testament where it says an angel of the Lord appeared as a flame of fire to Moses in a bush. The third time is in 2 Thessalonians 1:7-8 where it is Jesus Christ Himself at His second coming. The fourth is in Hebrews 1:7 where we read that God makes his angels and ministers as “a flame of fire”. And remember how the Holy Spirit descended at Pentecost? It was as single flames over the heads of the believers. This single flame represents God himself, or at least his unveiled reality, and this is what is tormenting this man, not a literal fire, or we’d have seen other words used to describe it, and likely different requests from a man on fire. The tongue causes a lot of trouble. I know mine has. And this is part of this man’s problem. He is asking for one drop of water for his tongue (as if that could help a man on fire), and he’s a man who has probably used his own tongue to speak ill of Lazarus numerous times, as he was laid at his gate. It’s his way of saying, “I was wrong, and Lazarus is more righteous than I.” But the point of it all is that it’s too late to right the wrongs after physical death. Another contrast could be made between his wicked tongue (which James says can set a whole forest ablaze), and the singular tongue of fire of truth that is tormenting him (mentally tormenting him….not physically).
The fifth, sixth, and seventh times we see this singular flame in Scripture is in Revelation 1:14, Revelation 2:18 and Revelation 19:12, and in all three it is the description of the pure eyes of Christ. Not much commentary needed there. Again, it’s about the fact that after this life, all truth will become evident, and everything will become very real, and there will be no excuses, no second chances. It’s a powerful lesson, that the mainstream church has somehow, against all biblical reason, twisted into a teaching that God is going to torment those who rejected salvation for all eternity.
There’s a lot more I could get into with this passage. And if I ever finish the book I’m writing on this, it will be included in that, but the one point I really want to address in this blog version is that even if this were a 100% literal picture of what happens in Hades immediately after death, it would still add no weight to the argument that the lost will suffer throughout eternity. Scripture maintains that one day, even Death and Hades (where this scene is taking places) will be cast into the Lake of Fire, which is called the “second death”. This Luke 16 passage is at best a picture of what happens immediately after physical death, which is not the same thing as when those in Hades are one day raised to be judged at the “great white throne”, which will end with them being cast into the Lake of Fire, and the end of their very existence, from everything I’ve read in Scripture. But again, I think we may be seeing what would be said, if anything could be said. I’m not in charge, and certainly God will do what God will do, but it also seems unlikely that Abraham is going to be the go-between who is communicating for those who end up on one side of the chasm or the other. In fact, think about this – The only people who would have called him Father Abraham would be Jews, or Christians. Christians have Abraham as our father in the sense that he’s the father of the faith. And Jews have him as their father in terms of genealogy. So where does that leave the unsaved Gentile who is reading this passage? They don’t even see themselves represented here. I think Christians need to step back from Luke 16, and come at it with some fresh thoughts that actually make sense. I don’t mean to come across ugly, but time is getting short, and it’s time to get to know God better, and we’ll do that if we throw off some of these lies about Him.
Concerning conscious suffering immediately after death: People who believe as I do, that immortality is a gift only given to those who exercise faith in the One True Living God, are often called “conditionalists”, because we believe immortality, the opportunity to go on living forever, is “conditional”, based upon placing your faith in Christ and enduring to the end. But that doesn’t mean we believe that unbelievers just go POOF and disappear when they physically die. Now, some conditionalist Christians do in fact mistakenly believe that. But please don’t mix that up with anything I’m trying to get across. And also, I try not to identify with that label of conditionalist at all, because most of them believe in total soul sleep for the lost, from the time of physical death, to the time of the white throne judgment, and I disagree slightly with that. Many conditionalists also believe in soul sleep for even the saved, from the time of their physical death until when they are raised to life, and I’m not totally on board with that either. It’s a complicated issue. And I’m not dogmatic about many of the issues regarding this intermediate state because I’ve seen biblical evidence for soul sleep, as well as for consciousness. That being the case, would it be entirely impossible for both to happen? Maybe it’s not either/or, but both …so maybe a saved person dies, and Jesus is there waiting for them to welcome them home (like how Stephen saw heaven open and Jesus standing there while he was about to be stoned to death), but there’s really not a job to do yet, with the next thing on the schedule being the rapture/redemption, then the marriage supper of the lamb, and then our return with Him to reign on earth for a millenium. (Jesus said that He’s going to prepare a place for us, but He didn’t say that as we die off, we join the construction team…maybe we do, but you can’t support it with Scripture) So maybe after that initial welcome, we’re put in a state of sleep until the redemption?? Just a thought. I obviously haven’t been there to see this. But there is evidence for both sleep and also awareness after death in Scripture, prior to resurrection, so it seems like at least a decent possibility. Another thing that complicates it a little is that for saved believers, something different likely happens now, than before Christ’ death and resurrection. When Christ died, the veil in the temple was torn. I believe this literally happened, but it’s also likely symbolic that now there is access to heaven that wasn’t there before that. That’s why Paul, in the New Testament spoke of dying and going to be with Christ, but David and Job, from the Old Testament, both spoke/wrote of going to hell (Sheol), instead of going to be with the Lord. They didn’t write or speak as if they believed they would be conscious there, but it did sound as if they knew they’d be redeemed from it one day. (and even though it’s in the New Testament, when Jesus is telling this story of Lazarus and the rich man, He hasn’t died or resurrected yet, so Old Testament rules still apply, in terms of all people going to Hades/Sheol, but the lost are potentially in torment, while the saved are either in bliss, at rest, or asleep (or have a moment of bliss, followed by restful sleep…we simply don’t know) I don’t think Scripture is extremely clear on this intermediate state between physical death and being raised to life (for those who are saved) or to final judgment(for the lost), so I’m not making a statement of faith or fact here…just my gut feeling, but just as I believe that the thief on the cross was going to be with Christ in paradise “on that same day” as Jesus told him he would, I believe it’s likely the lost are going to have a conscious revelation on the same day they die (somewhat like the rich man in this story did), and it will be the result of that “glass dimly” sort of vision we have now being melted away by the reality of the undeniable flame of Truth, the One that tormented the man. But just as I wonder if the saved will remain aware for that entire time, or after an initial welcome, will they be put into a sleep/rest (oh, and isn’t that in Scripture, that we “enter His rest”? I should look that up, but I’ll let someone else take that one) ….so just as I think that’s a possibility, I think it’s also possible that the lost, after the initial realization of what they’ve forfeited, they may also be mercifully put to sleep until they are resurrected to the Lake of Fire judgment at the end of the millennial reign of Christ. God is merciful. He wants the lost to know how they’ve offended the Holy Spirit in their rejection of His drawing them, but does that require hundreds or thousands of years of conscious torment (depending on when one died) to remain aware and awake on what is essentially “death row”? Even death row inmates get to sleep part of the time. God is God. His rules. His way. He can require their consciousness for that entire time if He desires to, and perhaps that’s exactly how the process works. My sense is that He does not allow lengthy punishment that has no redeeming value, but even if He does, hundreds, or even a couple thousand years of mental torment, is less than a drop in the bucket of timelessness, and as stiff a penalty as it may be, if in fact that’s how it works, it’s still a vapor of time compared to eternity. In fact, no amount of finite time, even 10,000 years, can be reasonable compared to eternity, because here’s the thing with eternity…For instance, a person who never found and grabbed hold of grace is in hell, in torment, floating around the lake of fire(as many traditionalists teach), and they do that for a billions years…Ok, well that was just day one, essentially. Time to begin a second billion years on “day two”, and there’s going to be no end to those days…. I really don’t think we understand the level of suffering we’re accusing God of allowing when we teach that He is going to allow the eternal conscious suffering of potentially billions of human souls throughout all eternity. Fortunately, while Scripture isn’t crystal clear about the intermediate state of judgment, it is very clear that immortality, and going on living forever, which are made possible only by avoiding the “second death” – that these are all things that are for the saved only. The lost will not suffer into and throughout eternity. That’s a huge relief to me, on so many levels, but primarily because of what it says about God’s merciful nature and character. He’s a harsh judge, but not a maniac whose thirst for His enemies’ demise is unquenchable. His judgment will be satisfied when those who rejected Him are destroyed and returned to the state of their non-existence where they began before He graciously gave them life, to begin with. And that brings up one last point to ponder, for the blog version of this passage: Because traditionalists can’t find direct statements of eternal conscious suffering in Scripture, yet they desire so badly to hang onto this “tradition of men” (Paul and Jesus both warned against those) they’ve created several arguments from so-called reason. Here’s one of them. “God is an infinite being. Therefore judgment against those who reject Him must go on for infinite time”. Not in the bible at all. And what I hear in between the lines when someone puts that forward is “God’s judgment will never be fully completed, and His purposes in final judgment, not really final, since the process goes on into eternity.” Does that sound like God? Isn’t he a finisher? He’s just gonna annex insubordination and evil, and not eradicate it? Here’s the scriptural truth: The lost will perish (Just check John 3:16). And nothing perishes forever. Anything perishing ultimately comes to nothing. And that’s where those who reject Christ will end up. It’s tough, but it’s merciful. God Bless.