How Long Is Hell?

Does God sentence people to never-ending, teeth-gnashing torment in everlasting fire?

Not people in general. Not people in some video game or fiction book. I’m talking about your son, your daughter, your mother, your father, your college roommate, the best man in your wedding, your aunt, your cousin. The one who’s picture hangs on your wall. Or… YOU.

Let me repeat that question: Does God sentence your son, your daughter, your mother, your father, your best friend, or you yourself to never-ending, teeth-gnashing immortality, screaming in profuse agony and torment, in everlasting fire?

Has that question ever kept you up at night?

Many Christians secretly agonize over this question. But rarely do they admit or talk about it.

Growing up, I was taught “eternal conscious torment” and the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever – the inevitable destiny for all people who did not believe as I did – from earliest memory. I’m not sure human imagination can produce a thought more horrifying.

I got a severe sunburn once. My shoulders were on fire for three days. I couldn’t help but think what if this lasted forever… and what if the pain was a whole lot worse than this?

Once I was on the phone for a paid business consultation with a client who knew I was a Christian. Suddenly the conversation took a sharp turn and he asked me what I thought about hell. He started weeping over the phone because he had long been obsessing about the prospect of actual eternal damnation.

Most conservative Christians say they believe this.

Based on their behavior (as in how much priority they demonstrate by carrying out the great commission) I don’t think they believe it for 12 seconds. Actions speak much louder than words. I don’t listen to what people say… I watch what they do.

Based on what people do, I would say almost nobody believes this.

So anyway… does Christianity actually teach this in the first place?

When I study the Greek words and context, I find the “Eternal Conscious Torment” doctrine unpersuasive, as I shall explain.

Eternal damnation makes the Christian message BAD news not good news. It insists that the majority of the human race is going to languish in unthinkable tidal waves of suffering… for unimaginable length of time… by a God who is, literally, infinitely cruel and infinitely merciless. Infinitely offended, never appeased, a God who is entirely aware of every moment of your agony and is unyielding in His indifference to it.

The Old Testament says little about hell. When I look up every single one of the verses referring to hell in the New Testament, the majority describe it as death and destruction.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

A small minority of those verses imply something more severe than that. For example Matthew 25:46: And these will depart into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life. The word “eternal” here is from the Greek word aion,” from which we get the term “eon.” It means “pertaining to an eon or age, an indeterminate period of time.”

Our strongest sentiments about the severity of hell come from the book of Revelation. Now please consider that Revelation is last on the list of books one should take most literally in the New Testament… for obvious reasons. Let’s consider Revelation 14:11:

And the smoke of their torment will rise for ever and ever. There will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name.

That phrase “rise forever and ever” comes from Isaiah 34 which says:

For the Lord has planned a day of revenge,
a time when he will repay Edom for her hostility toward Zion.

Edom’s streams will be turned into pitch
and her soil into brimstone;
her land will become burning pitch.

Night and day it will burn
its smoke will ascend continually.
Generation after generation it will be a wasteland,
and no one will ever pass through it again.

So looking deeper into the original context, the imagery in Revelation is actually borrowed from the Old Testament’s description of a city destroyed that will never be rebuilt.

Ezekiel 28:18-19 says that even Lucifer himself ceases to exist:

By the multitude of your iniquities, through the sinfulness of your trade,
you desecrated your sanctuaries.
So I drew fire out from within you;
it consumed you,
and I turned you to ashes on the earth
before the eyes of all who saw you.
All who know you among the peoples are shocked at you;
you have become terrified and will be no more.

Consider Genesis 3:22…

Now that the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil, he must not be allowed to stretch out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.

If we take this verse as the starting point of the topic – because it is the first reference to eternal life in all of scripture – it plainly says that people being punished by God are NOT immortal.

I don’t know how to take the above verse seriously and come to any other conclusion. This is literally the first time the scriptures make any reference to immortality.

(Unless you wish to insert “Let us give him the tree of life after he has left the earth, so he can become immortal then and we can torture the man with fire forever and ever and ever… and we will be as indifferent to his pleas for mercy as a stone wall.” This is ostensibly what conservative Christian denominations claims to believe. But I don’t think it makes sense… and in practical action they don’t actually believe it anyway.)

Are we to take God seriously when he said in Isaiah 28:21:

Mercy is God’s right hand that he is most used to; inflicting punishment is called his strange work.

Deuteronomy 7:9-10:

Know therefore that the LORD your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commandments. But those who hate him he will repay to their face by destruction; he will not be slow to repay to their face those who hate him.

When I was in high school, my youth pastor said: “If a bird flew over a mountain once a year and dropped a grain of sand on the top of that mountain, then after the mountain had completely eroded, the suffering of the damned in hell would have barely begun.”

That same pastor had two miscarriages earlier in his life. He soberly divulged that he also believed his two unborn children were suffering in hell today, since they had original sin and had never had a chance to trust Jesus.

My youth pastor’s beliefs about God were utterly sick. Remember: whenever you believe something like that, you bear the crushing weight of it every day of your life. It colors your perception of everything.

It’s no wonder many people feel such elation when they escape such beliefs and become agnostics or atheists. At least they don’t have to stagger under the terrifying weight of such cruelty anymore. An old friend of mine Mark Vuletic, a long-time atheist activist, abandoned the Catholic faith for precisely this reason when he was 16 years old.

But I do not believe God to be so cruel, nor do the scriptures make a case that he is. This is why I find the “Eternal Conscious Torment” (ECT) arguments unconvincing.

The conclusion I have reached – based on an uncomplicated reading of Genesis 3:22 is that immortality is only granted to people who have eternal life. God does not continue to turn a deaf ear and a blind eye to the shrieks, the cries, the pleas for mercy, for a time that lasts so long that 100 million billion years is not even the beginning.

If Christians really believed in eternal damnation, they would sterilize themselves. So as to eradicate any possible risk of any of their precious children suffering an infinite amount of pain in a never-ending existence. The act of conceiving a child would be the most extreme version of Russian Roulette you can fathom. Rather than the exhilarating celebration of life that a birth normally is.

If my youth pastor really believed this, he wouldn’t have had more children after the first miscarriage. Either he would have gotten a vasectomy… or he would need to admit that he didn’t really love his daughters.

As I said before, I think scarcely anyone actually believes this, based on what real Christians physically do. They only say they believe it… and refuse to hire pastors who won’t sign the eternal hellfire doctrinal statement. Verbal assent to this belief is reinforced with peer pressure and threats to take away your health insurance.

You should pick up a fascinating set of books called “Faith of the Early Fathers” by Jurgens. It’s a catalogue of writings of the church fathers from 80AD to 1000AD. It is extremely illuminating on almost any subject you can think of.

If you read Volumes 1 2 & 3 you can see what I call “hell inflation.” You can look it up by topic and start to see, as hundreds of years go by, the descriptions of hell grow more lurid and terrifying. You see across time how they elaborate and embellish the descriptions. By the middle ages you find depictions of people being tossed from fire to ice and back.

This is why I believe the common English New Testament depiction of judgment has been significantly distorted by Bible translators and church tradition.

For example, in Acts 17 and John 15 Paul and Jesus talk about people who are ignorant not being guilty for their ignorance:

Acts 17:29-30 And since this is true, we shouldn’t think of God as an idol designed by craftsmen from gold or silver or stone. God overlooked people’s ignorance about these things in earlier times, but now he commands everyone everywhere to repent of their sins and turn to him.

John 15:22 They would not be guilty if I had not come and spoken to them. But now they have no excuse for their sin.

(More about people who have not learned about God here.)

In 200AD, a church father named Origen espoused an idea called “apokatostasis” which was the idea that God’s judgment is not retribution but correction.

Augustine then came along 200 years later and articulated a very strong doctrine of original sin, and a view of humans as being unable to free themselves from sin and addiction. Augustine’s views got the upper hand and have prevailed ever since.

Origen was declared a heretic, but I think Origen is right. Eternal damnation is man’s most debauched and violent fantasies, a million times worse than Auschwitz, projected onto God.

Do I believe in hell? Yes I do. To put a finer point on it, I believe everyone answers for the life we’ve lived. Everyone from casual shoplifters to Chairman Mao.

Not only that, I believe that this notion of men and women accountable to a perfect divine judge lies at the very foundations of civilization itself. Based on the unmitigated disaster that every atheist society in history has eventually produced, I believe the only way you get a humane civilization is when a significant percentage of people believe they will answer someday to a divine judge.

Humans have an outrageous tendency to stick their hand in the cookie jar when they believe no one is watching. But God is always watching. Every injustice will be addressed.

We have good empirical reasons to believe in an afterlife, as well as a judgment. There is a considerable body of literature concerning Near Death Experiences (NDEs), for example a review published by the Missouri State Medical Association, “The Science of Near Death Experiences” (2018) reporting that 15%-18% of people revived from cardiac arrest after being clinically dead report NDEs, citing a book of the same title by an MD and several scientific studies.

I personally know (at least) four people who have had NDEs who described them to me in vivid detail. Both described to me the tunnel of light and feeling of utter transcendence. Most people do not wear these stories on their sleeves. But if you ask around, you will find people in your own circles who have had such experiences.

The book and movie “Heaven is For Real” relate an extremely detailed account of Todd Burpo, a four year boy in western Nebraska who had an NDE and later correctly identified relatives in family photographs who had died before he was even born, because he had met them in heaven.

What is much less talked about is the fact that not all NDEs are positive happy tunnels of light. Some are terrifying. The book “To Hell and Back” recounts the professional work of cardiologist Maurice Rawlings, who had repeated experiences of restarting the hearts of patients. They would come back in a severe panic, begging him to “get me out of here.” To say this book is disconcerting is an understatement.

Rawlings made careful distinctions between those who later forgot about the negative NDE and those who made permanent changes in their life because of it.

It is no easy task to dismiss the many stern warnings in the New Testament. God is not to be trifled with. It seems like most people go to one extreme or the other but scripture paints a balanced picture. God is merciful, yet: It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of an angry God. Hebrews 10:31. A single minute in hell may well seem like an eternity.

Every minute in hell is a minute too long. So I believe the judgments of those people who refuse God’s forgiveness are fair and just and right. Not infinitely cruel. Infinite revenge is not justice.

This is why it’s difficult to make a strong case for eternal suffering in hell, once you study all of the verses in context.

If Eternal Conscious Torment is true, God is not love… God is hate.

One Response to “How Long Is Hell?”

  1. Bob Cecchini says:

    I’m curious to know if the NDE literature shows any correlation between believers seeing the tunnel of light and non-believers seeing terrifying sights. I would certainly expect believers to see the tunnel, but it would be quite revealing if a significant percentage of non believers saw it also.
    Thank you for considering my question.

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