by Earl L. Henn (1934-1997)
For centuries, many ministers have been preaching "hellfire and brimstone" sermons and promoting a religion of fear by teaching that the unsaved face an eternity of torture. The common teaching is that incorrigibly wicked people will be tormented forever in some fiery, macabre manner in a terrifying place called hell. This horrible fate usually conjures up in people's minds visions of an ever-burning hellfire where sinners are continually roasted on spits, and a devil with horns and a tail runs around sticking his captives with a pitchfork.
But does this make sense? Would a loving God devise a plan of salvation that consigned millions or perhaps billions of people to suffer indescribable torture forever? What does the Bible say about the fate of the wicked? Is there such a thing as hellfire? What happens to unrepentant sinners at death, and what kind of judgment does God pronounce upon them when they are judged? In this lesson we will see from the pages of the Bible exactly what God states regarding the fate of those who are incorrigibly wicked.
Comment: God says that the "wages" of sin—that is, what you "earn" for transgressing God's law—is death. He does not say that the unrepentant sinner will live eternally in some sort of torment but that he will die.
Comment: The Bible shows that the dead know nothing, and even their very thoughts perish when they die. In other words, all mental and physical processes cease when an individual dies. Solomon's definition of death concurs with Webster's Dictionary: "a permanent cessation of all vital functions: the end of life."
Comment: Both the righteous and the wicked—even the animals!—go to the same place at death. All physical creatures are composed of dust and return to dust again. These scriptures make it abundantly clear that no one goes to either heaven or hell at death, and further, no one who is dead has the capacity to feel joy or pain.
Comment: Jesus refers to the time of the resurrection when all men will be judged. At the resurrection, both the righteous and the wicked will be brought back to life to receive their reward or punishment.
5. What did Jesus say would be the punishment of unrepentant sinners? Mark 9:43.
Comment: Here Jesus plainly states that the unrighteous will be punished by being put into "hell," which He describes as a fire that will not be quenched. In this scripture, the word "hell" is translated from the Greek Gehenna. This word means "Valley of Hinnom," a valley on the south side of Jerusalem where refuse was continually burned. Jesus used this area as a type of the place where the wicked will receive their final punishment.
6. When Jesus said that the fire of hell would "never be quenched," did He mean that the fire would burn forever? Jeremiah 17:27.
Comment: About 2600 years ago, God said that He would kindle a fire in Jerusalem's gates which would devour the palaces, "and it shall not be quenched"! From this example in Jeremiah, we see that an unquenchable fire is not a fire that burns forever. If that were so, Jerusalem would still be burning! When Jesus said that the fire would not be quenched, He meant that it would burn until everything flammable was consumed, and then it would go out. This is what happened in the Valley of Hinnom, which Jesus used as a type of the fire into which the wicked will be thrown. Once the residents of Jerusalem stopped throwing their garbage into that valley, the fire burned out.
7. Will hellfire cause the death of the wicked? Revelation 21:8.
Comment: The Bible describes the "hellfire" into which the wicked will be cast as a lake of burning fire and brimstone. Some have pictured this Lake of Fire to be like an active volcano spewing out molten rock. Into such a fiery liquid the incorrigible will be thrown. After having died once and been resurrected to judgment (Hebrews 9:27), they will die the "second death" by being burned up in the Lake of Fire.
8. Will the wicked be completely burned up by this Lake of Fire? Malachi 4:1.
Comment: The ultimate fate of the wicked will be total annihilation. Body, mind and spirit will be utterly destroyed. They will cease to exist.
9. What will the righteous do after the wicked have been burned up? Malachi 4:3.
Comment: To our modern sensibilities this presents a somewhat gruesome picture, but God says that the righteous will walk on the wicked. Just as if they were cremated, the only thing left of the wicked will be ashes; they will have been completely destroyed forever. From this time forward, only righteous people will be left alive, and they will live for eternity (John 10:28)!