In the course of church history, hell has often been depicted as a place where people are tormented forever. That, however, is not in line with the Bible. It is very unfortunate that this has cast a shadow over God's pure character. He’s righteous, but not sadistic.
When the Bible speaks of 'hell', this is a translation of the Greek word 'gehenna'. The gehenna was a literal place outside Jerusalem where garbage and dead animals were burned. The fire did its work there until the waste was completely destroyed. Likewise, those who wilfully and knowingly have turned their backs on God will one day be utterly destroyed.
CS Lewis once said that there are two kinds of people. People who say to God, “Thy will be done. And men to whom God says, Thy will be done” (The Great Divorce, chapter 9). The eternal punishment implies that people have no part in God's wonderful future. The consequence is eternal. This is what the Bible means by 'being lost' (John 3:16) and 'missing the glory of God' (Romans 3:23, also in Psalm 92 : 8 | Isaiah 34 | Malachi 4 : 1-2 |II Peter 2 : 6).
The idea of perpetual torment is inspired by the utterly unbiblical idea of an immortal soul. It suggests that people will live forever in any case, so the only question remains in what way this will be. But the Bible is absolutely clear that only God Himself is eternal.
"(…) He who is the blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, dwelling in an unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see, to whom be honor and everlasting power. Amen. (I Timothy 6:15-16).
In fact, it is the oldest lie of history that man is immortal in himself (Genesis 3). People can be lost; they can cease to exist. The idea of endless torment is definitely not in keeping with God's character. He is certainly righteous, but not a cruel sadist. He is a consuming fire to those who reject Him, but that fire also consumes. There's nothing left. Unfortunately, the Catholic Church has grossly abused the immortality of the soul and the spectre of eternal torment in hell for hundreds of years to instill people in fear of God and fill their pockets by selling indulgences.
The idea that ‘the good destination’ of heaven will be as good as ‘the bad destiny’ of hell will be bad, given its duration, doesn’t fit with Gods character as it is reflected in the Bible. The Creator is just and will punish people who reject Him and break His law. However, the emphasis in the Bible is on His goodness. Again and again it shows punishment is limited in time, while His goodness endures forever. Based on Gods holy character, you therefore can’t compare both the good and bad consequences as if they are equal.
“For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments” (Exodus 20:5-6. See also, Exodus 34:5-7 / Deuteronomy 7:9-10 / Psalm 105:8).
That Gods punishment is eternal does not mean that people endure it forever, but that its consequence is eternal. It is irreversible, forever. The fire can’t be put out by anyone to intervene. It's the second death, and there will never be a third resurrection after that. The unjust will be destroyed.
Jude sets Sodom and Gomorrah as a sign of what will happen to the unjust:
“As Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities around them in a similar manner to these, having given themselves over in sexual immorality and gone after strange flesh, are set forth as an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire” (Jude 7).
You can go to the plains of Israel and see it for yourself. The eternal fire which destroyed the cities no longer burns, of course. But it is eternal in the sense that those people and cities have been destroyed forever. No one was able to quench the fire to stop the destruction. That is the tendency in which the Bible writes about these things. The wicked will perish.
Revelation says of the devil, the beast, and the false prophet that they are cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, and there they are "tormented day and night forever and ever" (Revelation 20:10). Does it mean that they, in contrast to the rest of the condemned people, will last forever and be tormented in all eternity?
The idea that the devil and his team will last forever seems initially supported by this text. At the same time, it raises difficult questions. For instance, how can the eternal future of God, on the renewed heaven and earth, be perfect if there is always a dark force somewhere? How can one say that God will be ‘all in all’ (I Corinthians 15:28) at some point in time?
Its advisable to compare difficult passages in the Bible with main lines. Let’s try to do this in the case.
For example, in Ezekiel 28, a chapter traditionally associated with the devil, it is said:
“(…) Therefore I brought fire from your midst; It devoured you, and I turned you to ashes upon the earth in the sight of all who saw you; (…) You have become a horror, and shall be no more forever” (Ezekiel 28:18-19).
And in Genesis 3, when the enmity between the woman and the serpent begins, the serpent's head is foretold to be crushed, which points to a definite end:
“And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel (Genesis 3:15).
Furthermore, note that the beast out of the sea is said to be tormented day and night as well (Revelation 20:10). However, Daniel speaks of that very same power – which we identified to be the Vatican system – in terms of total destruction:
“(…) but the court shall be seated, and they shall take away his dominion, to consume and destroy it forever” (7:26).
Paul confirms this:
“(...) and the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord will consume with the breath of His mouth and destroy with the brightness of His coming” (II Thessalonians 2:8).
In the prophet Isaiah we encounter a passage very similar to the judgment of the devil as described in Revelation. Also here a fire is mentioned that burns day and night (in connection with the judgment on Edom):
For it is the day of the LORD's vengeance, The year of recompense for the cause of Zion. Its streams shall be turned into pitch, and its dust into brimstone; Its land shall become burning pitch. It shall not be quenched night or day; Its smoke shall ascend forever. From generation to generation it shall lie waste; No one shall pass through it forever and ever. But the pelican and the porcupine shall possess it, also the owl and the raven shall dwell in it. And He shall stretch out over it the line of confusion and the stones of emptiness" Isaiah 34:8-11).
From the sequel it becomes clear that the place would be inhabited, despite the statement that the fire is not extinguished day and night and that the smoke will rise forever. The idea is that the fire will burn day and night, unquenchable, irreversible until the judgment is fully executed and its consequence will be eternal.
Based on this general tendency in the Bible, we may conclude that the judgment of the devil and his sinister followers will take time, but will eventually lead to the eternal consequence of total destruction. It will last day and night, and will not be reversable for all eternity. It is a final judgment.
This is the great day when Jesus returns and sets his foot on the Mount of Olives, as the prophet Zacharias foresaw (chapter 14). On this day clear water will flow from the heavenly Jerusalem. Not from the historical Jerusalem as we know it today, but from the Jerusalem built by God Himself and coming down from heaven.
“It shall come to pass in that day that there will be no light; The lights will diminish. It shall be one day which is known to the Lord – neither day nor night. But at evening time it shall happen that it will be light. And in that day it shall be that living waters shall flow from Jerusalem, half of them toward the eastern sea and half of them toward the western sea; in both summer and winter it shall occur. And the Lord shall be King over all the earth. In that day it shall be – “the LORD is one”, and His name one” (Zechariah 14:6-9).
This ‘Jerusalem-with-flowing-water-theme’ is taken up further in the vision of Revelation. Here the common thread of all covenant history comes to its climax:
“Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people” (Revelation 21:2-3).
“And he showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the middle of its street, and on either side of the river, was the tree of life, which bore twelve fruits, each tree yielding its fruit every month (Revelation 22:1-2).
History comes to its ultimate climax. The events on the first earth are a foreshadowing to this future. The small country of Canaan represented the earth, the city of Jerusalem pointed forward to the heavenly version and the tabernacle and temple symbolized God who will always dwell among His covenant people. There will be justice on earth from now on and an everlasting kingdom of peace which will never be disturbed or uprooted again.
Throughout world history, God has shown Himself to be absolutely trustworthy, by paying the price for the covenant of love. No lie about the Creator’s intentions can impeach His intentions ever again. Jerusalem, the city of peace built by God Himself, shines on all sides. The water refreshes. The tears have wiped from the eyes. Life in its full extent is a reality. We will be like a child for whom the passing of time goes unnoticed during the play. There will be an everlasting friendship between God and His people. You can only dream about such a perfect eternal future. But the best part is that this dream will come true for those who entrusted their lives to Him, who love Him with all their heart, mind and strength and their fellowmen like themselves.
It’s the eternal, unbreakable covenant of love.