Is Hell Eternal?

While walking by a newspaper stand recently I saw a little magazine with the title of an article on the cover. “HELL: Does the End Have an End?” It caught my attention, and the magazine was free, so I picked up a copy and took it home.

Although I hear the word used almost every day, Hell is not a popular topic these days. In fact, calling someone a hellfire preacher is usually meant as an insult, whereas in days gone by, such preaching was considered necessary. Today, hellfire preaching is not positive and encouraging, and we certainly do not want to scare people into the kingdom of God. That would not be politically correct.

People have been trying to get rid of hell for decades. Many people simply deny its existence because it does not seem just or fair. As one person told me, “It’s not right for God to make people fry forever for the sins they committed on earth for only seventy or eighty years.” (I will deal with that issue later.) Either hell exists or it does not. I believe it does because Christ spoke a great deal about hell.

The next question is, if hell exists, what is it like? Is it hot, or is it cold? Does it last forever, or do people simply burn up when they are cast into it? That view is called annihilationism. It seems to be the most just. Annihilationism was the interpretation that article endorsed. It goes something like this: You are sentenced to hell. You are cast in. You burn up rapidly and cease to exist. No more pain and torment. You received your death sentence. That seems acceptable to those who do not outright deny the existence of hell. The problem is that they only way to arrive at such a doctrine is to twist scripture out of its original context to make it teach that.

One scripture often used by several groups, and the author of the particular article referenced above, to teach that is Ezekiel 18:4, “the soul that sinneth, it shall die” (KJV). The problem is that it is only a small part of that verse, and it is wrenched completely out of the context of the chapter. It has nothing to do with life or existence of the soul after death.

The first problem with all this talk about soul death is a misunderstanding of what death is. Secondly, Ezekiel is using that passage to refute a popular false proverb of that day. The complete context is: “What do you mean when you use this proverb concerning the land of Israel, saying: ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, And the children’s teeth are set on edge’? “As I live,” says the Lord God, “you shall no longer use this proverb in Israel. “Behold, all souls are Mine; The soul of the father As well as the soul of the son is Mine; The soul who sins shall die” (NKJV). Ezekiel then lists several things that individuals will receive punishment for. This passage is to refute the adage and the practice of punishing the children for crimes the father had committed. Each person is responsible for his or her own sin.

This passage does not support any view of heaven or hell. That is not what the original author intended. When we determine what we want a doctrine to teach, then go cherry-picking to find Bible verses to support it, that is called eisegesis or proof-texting. That is a poor hermeneutical or Bible-interpretation principle.

In Ezekiel 18:5-9, he writes about the positive actions a man can take, which if he follows them, he shall live. He is speaking of physical life, not some future state of the soul. Then again the author of the article misinterprets the scripture. The first part of verse 20 states, “The soul who sins shall die” (NKJV). This seems to support the article, except the second part of that verse explains it: “The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.” This teaches nothing about what happens to the soul at the point of death. All it does is to point out people’s individual accountability and responsibility. These passages in Ezekiel 18 do not support the thesis of the article in that magazine.

That passage teaches that each of us is responsible for our own lives. I cannot make decisions for my children or grandchildren. I have done all I could to give my children a biblical understanding of life. I hope and pray that they will pass it on to their children as well.