Now the question before us is simply, “How long will the suffering in Hell go on?” Historic Christianity has answered that question with “forever” until recent times when attempts have been made to teach that the wicked will not suffer eternal torment, but will be annihilated. Forms of Annihilationism have existed from the post-Reformation period. Basically, the wicked will not suffer conscious torment for all eternity as historic Christianity has taught, but they will cease to exist either after death or after the Final Judgment. Does Scripture support such an idea? Does Scripture teach that the suffering of the unrighteous will be momentary and not everlasting? We must look at passages that speak about the duration of the torments of Hell. The following is an attempt to show that the Bible teaches the unending punishment of the wicked. I do not intend it to be a refutation of Annihilationism, but more a positive case for the unending nature of hell-torments.
Matthew 25:41, 46
Matthew 25:46 is a clear passage that is often brought up against Annihilationism or any doctrine which denies the unending punishment of the unrighteous in Hell. The passage reads:
And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.
In this passage, we see the fate of the wicked and the fate of the righteous. Both are said to be eternal, but their conditions are totally opposite. One is said to be of life, the other of punishment. Those who disagree with the traditional doctrine of Hell often make the argument that the word “eternal” does not mean “without end” in every place, and with that we agree. But I believe that it is hard to maintain in this place that the nature of the punishment is not unending. The duration of both the condition of the righteous as well as the wicked is described with the same word—eternal. Notice that the passage does not merely describe eternity, but it describes the conditions of the sheep and the goats in eternity. One group goes “into eternal punishment,” the other “into eternal life.” We know that Christians will not be annihilated, but will forever live with God, therefore, since the condition of the righteous is that of unending life, it is unjustified to believe that the punishment of the wicked is not unending, just like the duration of eternal life. The natural implication of the language is that the duration is the same for both the righteous as well as the wicked, although the condition is radically different. Albert Barnes quotes John Owen saying:
The original word - αἰώνιον aionion - is employed in the New Testament 66 times. Of these, in 51 instances it is used of the happiness of the righteous; in two, of God’s existence; in six, of the church and the Messiah’s kingdom; and in the remaining seven, of the future punishment of the wicked. If in these seven instances we attach to the word the idea of limited duration, consistency requires that the same idea of limited duration should be given it in the 51 cases of its application to the future glory of the righteous, and the two instances of its application to God’s existe...