Recently I was contacted by a university student writing a paper for a Philosophy 102 course. The topic is the interconnectedness of time and suffering (fascinating!). Finding that I created a course called The Beginning and End of Suffering, she asked for my perspective. I’m sharing these ideas here as a series. I welcome your feedback and questions.
I would be an atheist if I believed something that most Christians believe: that God would cause or allow people to suffer forever in hell. If I believed that were true, I wouldn’t have anything to do with God. I can sympathize with many atheists who have been told this.
This is an issue that I care deeply about because it speaks to God’s character, so I’ve studied the Bible to know what it truly teaches about the matter. I began this discussion in part two of this series, and I pick up on it here.
Eternal torment requires eternal living
God had told Adam and Eve that they would die if they rebelled (“in the day that you eat from it you will surely die”, Genesis 2:16-17). The devil told Eve, “You surely will not die!” (Genesis 3:4); he told them that they instead would graduate to a higher state of living (Genesis 3:5). Many other texts in the Bible say that the consequence of sin is eternal death (most notably John 3:16 and Romans 6:23). Eternal torment requires eternal living, but only the saved will receive eternal life. The consequence of sin (the second death) is eternal, but it’s nothingness (Ecclesiastes 9:5, etc.), not suffering.
The devil passed the notion of the eternal soul on to humans when he talked to Eve. Pagans picked it up, Plato popularized it, and Augustine brought it into church doctrine in the fourth and fifth centuries. It’s a pervasive idea today that, when we die, we don’t really die; we go on living in some form or another.
What’s the difference between the spirit and the soul?
Part of the misunderstanding arises from confusion about the terms spirit and soul. People often use them interchangeably, but the Bible teaches that they are distinct. When God created Adam, He formed a body out of dust and then breathed His spirit into it. When body and spirit were combined, a soul (living being) was created. When a person dies, the reverse happens: the spirit (breath of life) leaves the body. When Jesus died, He “yielded up His spirit” (Matthew 27:50). (See also Genesis 3:19 and Ecclesiastes 12:7.)
When the Bible uses the term soul, the context shows that it’s referring to a living, breathing person. Body + Spirit = Soul (living person).
It can be argued that the spirit is eternal, because it’s the life force, the breath of God. When a person dies, the spirit returns to God (Ecclesiastes 12:7). Perhaps that’s where some of the deception and/or confusion comes in. But the spirit isn’t the person; the person (the soul) is the spirit plus the body. The body has senses and consciousness, so without the body, the spirit has no awareness, no sensation, no experience. By itself, the spirit can’t suffer.
The doctrine of eternal suffering relies on the doctrine of the eternal soul — a doctrine initiated by the devil and propagated by paganism, a doctrine that is slander against God.
If hell isn’t eternal torment, what is it?
The Bible compares the final destruction of the lost to the Genesis flood and Sodom and Gomorrah. When God needed to destroy evil by the root so that suffering wouldn’t spread even further, He got rid of it: “the flood came and destroyed them all”, “it rained fire and brimstone from heaven and destroyed them all” (Luke 17:26-30). These two events put an end to people in utter rebellion against God; they ceased to be. God doesn’t inflict suffering; He puts people out of their misery. He’s merciful, not vindictive.
My interpretation of all the Bible passages on hell is that it isn’t a place; it’s an event that the Bible calls the “second death”, in which the lost (including the devil and the other fallen angels) are completely destroyed by fire from heaven, just like Sodom and Gomorrah. God doesn’t want to punish; He wants to protect all that is good from what is evil, so He puts an end to evil. That is the end of suffering.
Note: If you want to see what the referenced Bible texts say, you can look them up on BibleGateway. To understand what the Bible teaches about any topic, we must look at all of the passages on that topic. Every puzzle piece must be in place to see the whole picture. In this series, I’m providing scripture samples for brevity. To learn more, please ask me by commenting below or contacting me privately, and/or do your own study with the help of BibleGateway or a Bible concordance such as Blue Letter Bible.