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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Understanding Hell, Part 3

(If you haven’t read the first two posts in this series, you can find them here and here.)
So far we have spent a little time establishing the biblical case for a literal, physical, eternal hell.  Now I’d like to briefly deal with the first of several common objections to this doctrine.
Objection #1:  “The Greek word for ‘eternal’ is aionios, which can describe an ‘age’ or ‘segment of time.  Isn’t it possible that when the Bible speaks of the eternal nature of hell it means that hell will last for an age, that is, not for eternity, but for a finite period of time?”
It is true that aionios can refer to a limited period of time.  It can also refer to the age to come or to the world.  So how do we know which sense is being used in any given instance?  The context is always the determining factor.  And in the case of texts dealing with the subject of hell, there are at least three reasons why it is best to take aionios as referring to a literal eternity.
First of all, the New Testament shows that eternal punishment is parallel with eternal life. In Matthew 25:46 aionios is used of both heaven and hell.  There, speaking of the judgment of the nations, Jesus says, “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."  One of the cardinal rules of biblical interpretation is that you don’t assign different meanings to multiple uses of the same word in the same passage.  So if we want to say that hell is temporary, we have to say also that eternal life is temporary.  Moses Stuart, considered to be North America’s first Bible scholar, expressed it another way when he wrote, “we must either admit the endless misery of hell or give up the endless happiness of heaven” (Moses Stuart, Exegetical Essays on Several Words Relating to Future Punishment, p62). 
Second, other passages point to the eternality of hell without using the word aionios.  In Matthew 3:12, John the Baptist refers to the judgment as “unquenchable fire.”  That is, fire that cannot be put out.  In Mark 9:48, Jesus describes hell as the place “where the worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.”  See also Mark 9:43 and Luke 3:17.  Sounds eternal to me.  So even if it is granted that aionios can mean something less than a literal eternity, these other references still stand as indicating an eternal punishment for the wicked.
Third, there is a usage of aionios that always refers to a literal eternity.  Wherever we find aionas ton aionon, which is translated “forever and ever,” we can know that a real eternity is in view.  It literally means “the age of the ages,” and is used to describe the duration of God’s glory (Gal 1:5; Eph 3:21; Phil 4:20; 1 Tim 1:17; 2 Tim 4:18; Heb 13:21; Rev 5:13, 7:12), the duration of God’s throne (Heb 1:8), the duration of God’s dominion (1 Pet 4:11, 5:11; Rev 1:6, 11:15), the duration of God’s existence (Rev 4:9, 10; 10:6; 15:7), and the duration of the saint’s reign with Christ (Rev 22:5).  This usage is also found in Rev 20:10 where it describes the fate of those cast into the lake of fire: they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.  
So yes, aionios can mean a limited period of time, but for the reasons stated above we cannot conclude that such a meaning pertains to hell.  The most natural reading of the relevant New Testament texts point to a hell that endures forever.

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