Q: Does hell burn forever?

In the spiritually infused film The Green Mile, accused murderer John Coffey has the God-given gift of healing. However, there on Death Row, a sadistic guard named Percy Wetmore purposely sabotages an electric-chair execution simply so that he can watch a criminal die a slow, agonizing death. The footage is virtually unwatchable, and viewers get a clear sense that this guard is a twisted, evil being who could never be loved or trusted. By the way, speaking of eternally burning hell, the death by flames runs for exactly three minutes.

What does this prove or demonstrate about God’s nature and the duration of hell? Absolutely nothing! We can’t get Bible doctrines from films . . . or from what we think is “fair.”

Hell is one of THE “hot” topics that Christians debate! The Bible admittedly describes the reality of punishment and hellfire, of a time when those who reject God’s love and His kingdom will be lost.  A number of Bible passages (including from the mouth of Jesus Himself) warn about hell’s destructive and eternal nature. He forcefully urges Christians in Mark 9: If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where “their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.” His parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 has the Master sending selfish, greedy people to their final reward, the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. Revelation 14:11, in describing the last-day rebels who oppose God: The smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever.

However, other passages seem to hint that it is the effects of punishment that are everlasting, not the actual punishing. Various passages in both Testaments appear to paint a scenario of total destruction or annihilation.  In the book of Jude, hell is portrayed using admittedly mixed (and perhaps conflicting) metaphors: both as “eternal fire” and also as “darkness, bound with everlasting chains.” Revelation 9 talks about torment which goes on forever and also about flames which “devour” the lost. The Bible often says that the wages of sin is death, not eternal life or existence in hell.

Let’s return to the “green mile” story for a moment. Some Christians reject the concept of an everlasting place of torment because it seems inconsistent with the loving nature of God, a punishment out of proportion to the crime of a finite life of sin, and because it also seems to perpetuate the existence of sin forever. Evangelical leader John Stott has abandoned the teaching of an eternally burning hell, with this observation: “Emotionally, I find the concept intolerable and do not understand how people can live with it without either cauterizing their feelings or cracking under the strain.”

However, it’s unwise for God’s people to self-determine that something is fair based on our own perceptions; whatever God decides to do about the tragic reality of sin will certainly be fair and the most loving option possible.
The weight of Scripture, we feel, falls on the side of annihilation; however, there is much biblical evidence on both sides of this painful discussion, and God’s people do well to approach this Bible study with humble hearts, love for our fellow believers, and a passion for the lost.