Why The Lake of Fire, Tormented Lazarus & Gnashing Teeth Can’t Conjure Up Eternal Torture
No matter where you look, you can’t convincingly defend the idea of eternal torment through Scripture.
Last week, we looked at every single time the Bible mentions “Hell”, and we discovered that, in essence, it doesn’t. While there are 4 words that are sometimes translated as “Hell”, none of them actually mean anything resembling our modern concept of Hell.
BUT… as many of our intelligent readers were quick to point out, showing the word “Hell” is missing from the Bible does not conclusively prove the concept of Hell is not present in the Bible.
So that’s what we’ll be looking at today — the other parts — the Biblical passages that seem to suggest eternal torment without using the word “Hell”. We’ll cover:
- Weeping, Gnashing of Teeth & Outer Darkness
- The Parable of the Sheep & The Goats
- The Parable of Lazarus & The Rich Man (featuring Brad Jersak)
- Revelation & The Lake of Fire
- Paul’s “Everlasting Destruction” In 2 Thessalonians
Plus, we’ll take a look at a key word in John 3:16 that is mistranslated!
Let’s get started by establishing some context.
How Context Will Influence This Discussion
Reading a verse gives you a very narrow context for interpreting its meaning. Reading the full chapter will improve your context, but not as much as reading and meditating on the entire book. And even reading the whole book isn’t enough, as you still don’t understand the context the book was written in, the people it was written for, or the external events, stories, places & ideas it references.
Further complicating things, nearly all the passages we will discuss today are parables or stories that include figurative language and references to external ideas, some of which we know about and some of which we may not.
What’s my point?
In our last article, we made a compelling, black and white case against translations of the word “Hell” meaning a place of eternal torment. Because our focus was so narrow — refuting the interpretation of 13 words — a black & white approach was appropriate.
Today, taking such an approach would be a disservice to you. There is a vastly broader context to every one of the following passages. Trying to conclusively eliminate eternal torment as a POSSIBLE interpretation would be dishonest. Rather, our goal is to demonstrate that eternal torment is not the BEST interpretation given a broader Biblical context.
If you want to confine your theology to a verse-by-verse context, here are 21 verses that explicitly say the wicked will be permanently destroyed. And here are 21 verses that say God will save ALL men.
But if you are interested in taking a broader view of Scripture, that’s what we’ll be attempting to do today.
1. Weeping & Gnashing of Teeth
One of the theme’s that came up frequently in last week’s comments was Jesus’ references to weeping, gnashing of teeth, and outer darkness. We see this on multiple occasions, in Matthew 8, 13, 22, 24, 25 and Luke 13.
I say to you that many will come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven; but the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. — Matthew 8:11–12
It’s intriguing to me that so many think of “weeping and gnashing of teeth” as a reference to physical torture. If you told me your friend was “crying and grinding his teeth” I wouldn’t think, “Well he’s clearly being tortured.” More importantly, if we look in Acts 7, we see another reference to teeth gnashing.
You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him — you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it.”
When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him.
What’s most intriguing to me about this passage is that this particular language is used in reference to the religious elite and their response to the Gospel.
Why is this interesting?
Because virtually every time Jesus mentions “gnashing of teeth”, he is talking to or about the religious elite.
In Matt 8, Jesus sees the faith of the centurion and says many will come to sit at the table with Israel’s revered fathers in the kingdom of heaven, but the “sons of the kingdom” will be cast into darkness, where they will weep and gnash their teeth.
Who are the “sons of the kingdom”? The descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And more specifically, Jesus seems to be focusing on those who would identify themselves as “sons of the kingdom” while rejecting His ministry. We know from John 8 that Pharisees often boasted in their status as children of Abraham while rejecting Jesus’ words.
Luke 13 is even more telling. We see this exact same language being used as Jesus is talking in the presence of the Pharisees.
23 And someone said to Him, “Lord, are there just a few who are being saved?” And He said to them, 24 “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. 25 Once the head of the house gets up and shuts the door, and you begin to stand outside and knock on the door, saying, ‘Lord, open up to us!’ then He will answer and say to you, ‘I do not know where you are from.’ 26 Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in Your presence, and You taught in our streets’; 27 and He will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you are from; depart from Me, all you evildoers.’ 28 In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but yourselves being thrown out. 29 And they will come from east and west and from north and south, and will recline at the table in the kingdom of God. 30 And behold, some are last who will be first and some are first who will be last.”
It’s fascinating that Jesus’ figurative warnings, in a similar manner to his mentions of Gehenna, are NOT made towards the criminals or other types we would typically think of as sinners.
His response when asked about sinners is, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick; I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
His response to the adulteress is, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”
But to the Pharisees, the religious elite, He tells them they cannot escape Gehenna and offers parable after parable warning of weeping and gnashing of teeth. And what’s more, they knew definitely that Jesus was talking to them.
When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard His parables, they understood that He was speaking about them. When they sought to seize Him, they feared the people, because they considered Him to be a prophet.
In Matthew 24:51, Jesus makes a special reference to this place of weeping being occupied by the hypocrites, a word He also used to describe the Pharisees.
He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
This is where we get back to the context I mentioned earlier. Yes, you could look at any one of these parables and apply it unilaterally to all people, but that’s not the context in which these stories were given. When we step back and take a broader view, we don’t see threats of eternal torment to the unbeliever, we see a warning to the religious hypocrites.
We see Jesus telling those who consider themselves the “first”, the “sons of the kingdom”, the descendants of the patriarchs, that their end will not be as they expect.
2. The Sheep & The Goats - No “Eternity”
Now let’s zero in on a specific one of these parables — one that is often viewed as a picture of the final judgment. The parable of the sheep and the goats.
In the last few verses of the parable, it says:
“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
This is where the rubber really meets the road. The phrase is right there: “eternal punishment”.
And this is where we discover, yet again, that some of our core perceptions of the Bible are the result of outdated Greek translations.
The word punishment used here is iskolasis, which can also be translated as “correction”. It speaks to the idea of corrective punishment.
The word eternal used here is aiōnios, and like Gehenna, it has been completely mistranslated throughout the New Testament. As NT Greek teacher Richard Liantonio explains, aiōnios actually refers to to the length of an Age. In Greek, an Age could refer to a generation, lifetime, or a longer, finite length of time. It’s where we get our word “eon”. It also correlates with the Hebrew word Yom, which denotes anything from a 24-hour period to an epoch season.
What this means is that any time we see the term “eternal life” in the New Testament, it should actually be translated as “life of the Age”.
Think about that for a second. That’s a pretty big deal.
Among other important things, it means that this phrase “eternal punishment” could more accurately be viewed as “correction for the length of the Age”
This paints a VERY different picture than the one we are used to, but when we dig a bit deeper, we find it to be far more congruent with scripture than our old paradigm.
There is a profound difference between restorative punishment and retributive punishment. In the Western world, we operate based on retributive justice. You committed a felony? You are punished by going to jail. You murdered someone? You are put to death or sent to jail for life. These punishments are not distributed with a positive outcome in mind. They are not intended to rehabilitate or restore. They are society’s retribution upon the wrong-doer, intended solely to punish and perhaps discourage others from wrongdoing for fear of punishment.
Since non-restorative punishment is our idea of justice, it’s no surprise we project it onto God.
But this is NOT the God we see in the Bible. God’s heart is ALWAYS to restore. We see this time and time and time again throughout His dealings with Israel.
Even if we take a traditionalist view of Israel’s calamities as the active hand of God punishing His people, we still see a God longing to bring His people back to Himself. We see Jesus lamenting that Jerusalem so often denied His protection.
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.
The God of Israel always punished to restore, and that’s what we see in an accurate translation of Matthew 25:46 — not “eternal punishment” but “correction for the length of an age”.
3. The Parable of Lazarus & The Rich Man
The parable of Lazarus in Luke 16 offers us the only true visual of afterlife torment found in Scripture. For a dive into this parable, we turn to theologian Brad Jersak, who has graciously allowed us to share his analysis with you.
Throughout the ‘hell debates’ of recent years, the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31) has repeatedly begged our attention, especially in Q&A times following the documentary, Hellbound? The dialogue has urged me towards a sharper focus on the layered functions of the parable than I offered in my contemplative read in Her Gates Will Never Be Shut. Herein, I will introduce an outline that I hope invites fuller treatment.
First, we ought to dismiss the false functions of the parable as assigned by traditional (but sloppy) literalism. Readers often imagine that Jesus’ intent is to describe the nature of divine judgment and the state of the damned — or ‘hell’ (lit. hades), defined as an inescapable place of fiery judgment. The symbolic nature of parables is frequently negated and the passage treated as a revelation of the afterlife.
Briefly, interpreting the story of Dives (Lat. ‘rich man’ in the Vulgate) and Lazarus as descriptive of ‘hell’ ignores the difference between hades and paradise vis-à-vis heaven and hell, both biblically and theologically, even by literalist standards. The text says the rich man is in hades, borrowed from Greek language and mythology to correspond with the Hebrew Sheol — the place of the dead or the grave prior to the final Day of Judgment. This is confirmed by the rich man’s desire to send a warning to his brothers before it is too late. Thus, whatever the rich man is suffering, it is a precursor to the Day of the Lord and distinct from the infernalist’s typical everlasting ‘lake of fire.’
Moreover, aspects of the story make a crass literalism awkward: how does the rich man communicate with Abraham across the chasm? Does everyone there have a direct line to the patriarch? Does someone being incinerated in a furnace care about thirst? Are these literal flames? And since hades precedes the resurrection of the body, do we have literal tongues with which to feel thirst? Is this also the literal Abraham? Do the millions in his care take turns snuggling with him? Or is his bosom big enough to contain us all at once? How big he must be! And so on into implausibility.
Taking the parable seriously means we mustn’t take it so literally. Rather than text-mining for the architecture of the underworld, we ought to be digging for the intended message of Jesus. He is using the afterlife to illuminate some truth about this life. If we read carefully, we begin to see hints of the rich strata of meaning that beckon us deeper beneath the surface. I will propose three such layers here.
4. Revelation & The Lake of Fire
There are a total of five verses that mention “the Lake of Fire” In scripture. All of these scriptures are found in later half of the book of Revelation in chapters 19, 20 and 21.
Revelation is a unique book. It’s the only Apocalyptic book included in the New Testament canon. It was written at least several decades after Christ’s crucifixion and is much different than any other book found in the new testament.
Apocalypticism is a type of genre that is very much symbolic and cryptic in nature. Symbols are usually culturally developed and must be interpreted using that culture’s perspective or lens. We must look at other examples of writing that mention these symbols and see if we can find patterns and similarities in their contexts and meanings.
In other words, the book of Revelation CANNOT be read literally.
In fact, reading Revelation literally is pretty much the only way to be 100% confident you are interpreting it WRONG.
When Apocalyptic language is used in the Bible, it very often correlates with mythologies that would have been prevalent when the book was written.
One prominent example of this is the mythology of Tiamat. In many near eastern mythologies surrounding the Mesopotamian Area, including those of the Sumerians, Assyrians, and Babylonians, Tiamat was known as the primordial goddess of the ocean, who mates with Abzu (the god of fresh water) to produce younger gods and subsequently, the cosmos. In the Babylonian creation myth, she is depicted as a sea serpent or dragon, who is defeated by Marduk. Many sources identify her with images of a sea serpent or dragon.
Why am I telling you this? Because we see places all over the Bible that allude to Tiamat. Remember the imagery in Genesis 1?
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters…
… And God said, “Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water.” So God made the vault and separated the water under the vault from the water above it. And it was so. God called the vault “sky.” And there was evening, and there was morning — the second day.
This depiction — the void and the water, the separation of the waters in the forming of creation — this imagery is remarkably similar to what we find in the story of Tiamat. And it doesn’t stop here. The depiction of Tiamat as a sea dragon might as well be the Hebrew Leviathan, referenced in Job 3:8, Amos 9:3, Psalm 74:13–23, Psalm 104:26, and Isaiah 27:1.
But most importantly, and the reason we are talking about it now, the story of Tiamat’s fight with Marduk is strikingly similar to the account of God’s battle with “the dragon” in Revelation. Furthermore, according to Hermann Gunkel‘s Religio-historical Study of Genesis 1 and Revelation 12, “it was common for Near Eastern religions to include a Chaoskampf: a cosmic battle between a sea monster representing the forces of chaos and a creator god or culture hero who imposes order by force.”
In other words, history suggests the central battle of Revelation is not a foretelling of some final showdown between God and devil, but rather, a symbolic story based heavily on local creation mythology.
That’s not something you typically hear about on Sunday morning.
But what about the lake of fire?
A common thread we tend to see in this genre of writing is an ever present dualism that lies at the core of every story. Good and evil are personified and we see that evil is punished after its defeat.
In Daniel 7:11, we read,
Then I continued to watch because of the boastful words the horn was speaking. I kept looking until the beast was slain and its body destroyed and thrown into the blazing fire.
And similar, in Revelation 20:10,
And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.
Just as the beasts in Daniel were highly figurative, symbolically represented various nations, so too is the lake of burning sulfur figurative. Why would we cherry pick this one piece of the Apocalyptic story as literal when we known undoubtedly that everything else in the story is figurative?
Since Revelation is an extreme display of symbolism, the lake of fire could represent multiple concepts.
In Revelation 20:14, we see Death and Hades thrown into the lake of fire. This could very well mean that the lake of fire represents God’s eternal triumph over evil, sin, and death.
We know that both judgement and destruction are often represented in the Bible as some sort of fire of flame. We know that a “lake of fire” plays heavily into the Near Eastern concept of bodies of water representing disorder or Chaos. Jesus calming the sea in the Gospel which was much bigger than just a supernatural miracle. Only Yahweh could bring order out of Chaos, and we see Christ being very intentional in that display. People who heard that story circulating would have understood the deeper meaning.
These symbols could be pointing to God as the proverbial hero who will ultimately prevail.
In an alternative view, it should be noted that the word for “torment” in Revelation 14:10 is the Greek “basanizo” which has a primary meaning of testing with a touchstone. This suggests that the lake of fire might not be for torment or destruction, but rather, for “testing”. The language used here creates an analogy to the testing metal with a touchstone in order to make sure it is pure.
This idea seems to fit with 1 Corinthians 3:13–15,
… each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work. If any man’s work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.
At the end of the day, it’s difficult to make absolute conclusions about symbolic stories, which is why every Christian you’ve ever met has a different view of eschatology.
But what we don’t see here is the conclusive idea that people will be tortured for eternity.
5. “Everlasting Destruction” In 2 Thessalonians
As our final stop on today’s journey, we’ll look at 2 Thessalonians 1:5–9,
This is a plain indication of God’s righteous judgment so that you will be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which indeed you are suffering. For after all it is only just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to give relief to you who are afflicted and to us as well when the Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power,
This is a fascinating verse, because at face value, it pretty much throws a monkey wrench in every possible view of the afterlife.
If you believe in the mainstream concept of Hell, the word “destruction” is not helping you out. If you believe in Christian Universalism, the word “destruction” is not helping you out. If you believe in the annihilation of the wicked, or are simply reading this verse as a rational human being, the combination of “eternal” and “destruction” simply doesn’t make sense.
As we previously discussed, the Greek word aiōnios, doesn’t mean “eternal”, it signifies the duration of the Age. But even still, we are left confused. “Destruction for an age” doesn’t make sense in this context. Any way you look at it, either Paul is talking about something that escapes our understanding or this phrase is mistranslated.
According to Dr. Peter Bluer, this dilemma is solved by a more in depth look at this word for “destruction” — ολεθρος or olethros. In Dr. Bluer’s 38 page exposition of this phrase, he demonstrates that olethros is most accurately translated here as the state of being lost.
“These will pay the penalty in the age (or eon) of loss from the face of the Lord and the glory of His strength.”
Or alternatively, “These will suffer the age of loss from the presence of the Lord and the glory of His strength.”
Not only does this make perfect sense, but it fits perfectly with similar wording throughout the New Testament, as Dr. Bluer covers in his exposition. Most notably, we find in these verses that the same word αποληαι is used in both John 3:16…
For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish (αποληαι), but have eternal life.
… and in the story of the Prodigal Son’s return in Luke 15:32,
But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost (αποληαι) and has been found.
This same word αποληαι is translated as both “perish” and “lost”. Since “perish” cannot be used correctly in Luke 15:32, it would make sense that John 3:16 might be more accurately read as,
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not be lost, but have the Age of life.”
And we know how God responds to those who are lost.
Thanks for joining us in this important discussion. If you missed the first part of our 3-part series on Hell, click here to catch up.
Next week, we’ll finish off this series by examining the very non-Biblical places our modern view of Hell actually comes from. We’ll also be examining the afterlife views of Church fathers throughout history and dismantling the frankly ridiculous idea that early Church fathers universally believed in eternal torment.