How Long is "Forever" in the Bible?
- Appendix 8 -
Have you ever thought that it just doesn’t seem fair that people will have to suffer “forever and ever” – for all eternity – in the Lake of Fire because of their sins during this short, “puff of smoke” life on Earth? But, if you truly believe that the Bible is Yahuah’s ("God's") inspired Word, you probably immediately censor such thoughts because the doctrines of eternal life and "eternal" punishment are obviously taught by Scripture. In reference to existence after the present earth is destroyed, there are 393 uses of the term “forever” and 53 uses of the terms “eternal” and “eternity” in the Bible. But, when we witness to people about the love of Yahuah, they often have trouble reconciling His love with the concept of eternal punishment.
Well, I certainly have no intention of questioning or even doubting Yahuah’s Word if that is truly what it teaches. In fact, I want to qualify the thesis that I present in this essay by stating up-front that I may be mistaken, so please do not stake your eternal destiny on what you read here! My purpose is not to influence anyone's response to the Lord, which should be to love, worship, and serve Him with our whole being, no matter what our understanding is of how He executes His judgment of a sinful world, but simply to demonstrate that our understandings of the Lord and His ways are extremely limited, our interpretations of Scripture may be mistaken, and we should always give Him the benefit of the doubt - trusting Him to work all things out for good in the end on behalf of those who love Him (Romans 8:28), for, "How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!" (Romans 11:33)
And one doctrine regarding which our understanding may be flawed is the doctrine of "eternal" torment. There is some compelling evidence that the Bible does not teach that there is an eternal punishment following this present life on Earth. Now, please don’t turn me off as teaching some sort of heresy because this is not what you have been taught all your life or what you have read for yourself in the Bible. I had exactly the same reaction when I was first exposed to the possibility that the doctrine of eternity in Hell is based on mistranslations of Scripture. But, after much study, thought, and prayer, I am convinced that may be the case.
The evidence is very simple and clear: the Hebrew and Greek terms translated “forever,” “eternity,” and all their forms in the Bible, did NOT mean Timeless Eternity in the Hebrew and Greek language cultures at the times during which the Bible was written. For example, the ancient Greek writer Homer said that the time of one’s life (Greek: aeon or aion) is said to leave him or consume away (Iliad, v. 185; Odyssey, v. 160). An adjectival variation of exactly the same term is used in Matthew 18:8 – “everlasting (Greek: aionios) fire.” But Galatians 1:4 speaks of “this present, evil age (Greek: aion). So, just from these two verses of Scripture, it can be easily seen that, although aion never meant “forever” in the surrounding first century cultures, it is translated to mean both finite periods of time and eternity in the Bible.
Plus, the BCE Hebrews had a very limited concept of Timeless Eternity. Based on Scriptures like Ecclesiastes 12:7 (". . . the spirit will return to [Yahuah] who gave it."), they believed that the disembodied souls of the dead return to Yahuah. But most of their focus was on the present age and the world to come (the Millennium) during which the Messiah would rule from David’s throne in Jerusalem. What we today translate “forever” (Hebrew: 'olam) was to them a long, indefinite (but not without end) period of time, as in the 'olam hazeh - the present world or age - and the 'olam haba – the world or the age to come. In fact, the term ‘olam also refers to the present physical universe, which will not last into Timeless Eternity (cf. Revelation 20:11). So, verses of Scripture like Isaiah 34:10 . . .
[The day of the Lord’s vengeance] shall not be quenched night or day; its smoke shall ascend forever ['olam]. From generation to generation [indicating periods of time] it shall lie waste; No one shall pass through it forever ['olam] and ever [netsach – enduring for a long period of time],
. . . do not indicate eternity. In the B'rit Hadashah, the same thought is repeated:
He who receives the mark of the beast . . . shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment ascends forever and ever [aion]. (Revelation 14:10, 11)
It’s kind of hard to imagine the smoke of those burning in the Lake of Fire ascending to a perfect Heaven, into the presence of the angels and the Lamb, for all eternity, isn’t it?
So, what do all those passages of Scripture that refer to “eternal” torment or punishment refer? The correct understanding of the Greek word for “torment (basanismos)” may provide a clue. Strong’s Concordance, definition 929, states that basanismos refers to “a testing by the touchstone, which is a black, siliceous stone used to test the purity of gold or silver . . .” In other words, Hell or the Lake of Fire may be a place where the “lost” are refined or their impurities are burned away for a long, indefinite period of time, but not for all eternity.
And this understanding seems to concur with Scripture as a whole, which tells us that, in the end, ALL of Yahuah’s creation will be restored to Him, pure and undefiled. (e.g., Colossians 1:19:
For it pleased the Father that in Him [Yahushua] all the fullness should dwell, and by Him [Yahushua] to reconcile all things to Himself [Yahuah the Father], by Him [Yahushua], whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of his cross.)
After all, isn’t it disturbing to think that the Lord Yahushua ("Jesus") the Messiah, through whom “all things were made” (John 1:3), and who gave his life as a ransom for all mankind (1 Timothy 2:6), would, along with the holy angels, watch people created by Him being tortured forever in fire?
Then why, if none of the Hebrew and Greek terms that are translated as some form of “forever” or “eternity” in the Bible were used in that way in the surrounding cultures at the time the Bible was written, were they translated that way in the Bible? The answer is unclear, but I will take a stab at it. Bear in mind that there is no concept of an eternal place of torment in the Tanakh. The Tanakh term for the (temporary) abode of the unsaved dead (Sheol) has no eternal connotations. The B'rit Hadashah term equivalent to Sheol is the Greek term Hades. The concept of a fiery hell (Greek: geenna or gehenna), was not developed until the Jewish Rabbis came up with it during the first or second century CE, as the following quote from The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology says:
At the end of the 1st century [CE] or the beginning of the 2nd, the doctrine of a fiery purgatory arose among the Rabbis. All those in whose cases merit and guilt are equally balanced go to gehenna. There they are purified and, if they do penance, inherit paradise. Alongside this we find the concept of an eschatological Gehinnom judgment, limited in time, after the last judgment. (p. 208, vol. 2).
So apparently, at the time Yahushua was on Earth the Jewish concept of geenna or gehenna (Hell) was that it was a place of purification for a limited period of time after the judgment. And apparently, the early “Christian” (Catholic) Church got its concept of Purgatory from the first or second-century Jews! The concept of eternal torment must have been added by theologians later, no earlier than the earliest translations of the B'rit Hadashah from Greek manuscripts into other languages, beginning with Latin, starting at about the end of the second century CE. Many Bible scholars who wrote during the first five or six centuries CE. defined the terms aion and aionos as finite periods of time. For example, the earliest lexicographer, Hesychius (circa CE 400-600), defined aion as: "The life of man, the time of life." And in the sixteenth century the scholar Phavorinus noticed that, rather than using earlier definitions of the term aion, the famous (Catholic) council of 544 CE added the concept of eternity “as it seems to the theologian” (rather than according to its actual etymologically derived meaning). So, as noted above, in our present translations of the Bible, the terms aion and aionos have come to denote various periods of time, from brief to extended to eternal.
Perhaps the main passage of Scripture used to support the doctrine of eternal torment is Mark 9:43-48:
If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed, rather than having two hands, to go to hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched – where ‘Their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched’ [a quote from Isaiah 66:24]. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame, rather than having two feet, to be cast into hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched – where ‘Their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’ And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of [Yahuah] with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire – where ‘Their worm does not die, And the fire is not quenched.’
To correctly interpret these verses, we must (1) remember that BCE Israel had no concept of eternal punishment and (2) understand Hebrew thought and figures of speech. So, the phrase, "(where) their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched"; from Isaiah cannot refer to eternity. The graphic figure of speech, “Their worm [maggot] does not die,” refers to the fact that in Hell, the decaying of the bodies in torment will be a continual process, never ending until the process of purification – eating away the corruption – is complete. Likewise, “the fire is not quenched” means that it will be a continual process, never ending until Yahuah’s created beings are restored to Him perfectly purified.
But we still don’t have the answer to the question, “Why?,” do we? Why did theologians during the early centuries of the Christian Church add the concept of eternal torment to the Bible? A clue might be that it is an extremely powerful and frightening idea. And most of the early translators of Scripture were Catholic theologians. And the Roman Catholic Church has become the most powerful and wealthiest religious organization on Earth. How? . . . by terrorizing masses of people through the threats of torture, death, Purgatory, and eternal hell-fire into joining the church and continually pumping their money and material possessions into the church through its extensive system of indulgences and gifts. So, the doctrine of eternal torment suits the purposes of church growth and prosperity very well, even if it means the impoverishment of its parishioners. Tragically, the Protestant Reformation did not free its participants from all the Catholic false doctrines, including, apparently, the doctrine of eternal torment. And today, virtually all Christiandom still subscribes to that doctrine. One of the most famous sermons in history was the “hell-fire and brimstone” monologue by the New England preacher Jonathan Edwards entitled, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God!” which caused hundreds, and since then thousands, to come trembling and weeping to the altar begging to be saved. Although there is more emphasis these days, especially in affluent societies, on the worldly "health, wealth, and prosperity" benefits of Christianity (which is equally contrary to Yahuah's Word), there are still many churches who drive people to church, then, once they are there, keep them there, cowering in fear at the thought of what will happen to them if they leave. And the doctrine of eternal torment is a back-up strategy for some churches who allegedly preach the pure love of Yahuah but cannot offer enough worldly perks to keep their members faithful.
Some may object that to eliminate the doctrine of eternal punishment from the Bible will diminish the power of the Gospel, to whom I would reply simply, “You have no idea of the power of the love of Yahuah, Who “. . . is not willing that any should perish, but that all will come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9) and Who “. . . loved the world so much that He gave the life of His only begotten Son, that whoever is willing might be saved” (cf. John 3:16). The fear of the horror of being separated from Yahuah and purified in the Lake of Fire for an indeterminate period of time should be plenty of incentive to turn people to the mercy and love of Yahuah without having to threaten them with the thought of having to spend all eternity in torment. Then, once a person is saved, the love of Yahuah is certainly powerful enough to keep the true, Spirit-filled believer saved (cf. Romans 8:38-39).
And, once we accept the possibility that purging in the Lake of Fire is not for all eternity, many heretofore enigmatic passages of Scripture suddenly come into focus and make perfect sense. For example, 1 Peter 3:18-19 states,
For [the Messiah] also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to [Yahuah], being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison.
In the Bible, “spirits in prison” refers to the fallen angels who are kept imprisoned in a place called “the bottomless pit” or “the abyss.” From time to time, those evil spirits are released from their prison to do the bidding of Satan and/or Yahuah on the earth (cf. Revelation 9:1-3). In fact, Yahushua stated that, at the present time, He holds the keys to Hades and to Death (Revelation 1:18). In other words, Yahushua decides who goes into Death and Hades and who may be released from those states of the soul, as well as from the abyss – the prison of the fallen angels. And the doctrine of purification in the Lake of Fire (rather than eternal torment) might explain why He would, after His crucifixion, go to preach to those spirits. Maybe He told them that He had power over Death, Hades, and the Lake of Fire, and that they would have to spend an indefinite period of time in the Lake of Fire being purged of their sin – their rebellion against God. But, when they are finally purified, the whole Creation, including the fallen angels, will be restored to its original, glorious state.
So, after the Millennium, the total annihilation of heaven and earth, the Final Judgment, the casting of Death, Hades, and all of Yahuah’s unregenerate created beings into the Lake of Fire (cf. Revelation 20:10-15), for a long but not eternal time of purification, His entire Creation will be restored to Him in a True Eternity not described in the Bible, except for a few glimpses in the description of the New Jerusalem, where,
God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away
What a magnificent, glorious plan, and how unsearchable are the ways of the Lord Yahuah Almighty!
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