Many people have tried to get around the Bible’s teaching of eternal punishment. I don’t know of anyone who likes the doctrine, but God in His infinite understanding and perfect justice has determined the proper punishment for the lost. In His word, He has revealed unending punishment as the destination of the wicked who choose not to avail themselves of His salvation. My personal dislike for a concept must give way to an honest reading of the Scriptures and deference to the all-knowing God.
One of the ways in which the Bible’s teaching about eternal hell is denied is by advocating annihilation. For years various religious groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses have argued that “destroy” in Matthew 10:28 means extinction: “And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” Some teachers in the Lord’s church have even resorted to this softening of the Lord’s words, which changes the idea from conscious, unending punishment to a brief obliteration in which suffering ends rapidly. However, the Greek word apollumi rendered “destroy” in Matthew 10:28 does not neatly equal the concept of annihilate; rather, it often carries the idea of ruin, not annihilation. In Matthew 10:6, a form of the word is translated “lost” in Jesus’ instruction to go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. In Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:11, it is translated “lost.” In the next verse, (verse 12), He equates it with going astray. Again, it is translated “lost” in Luke 15:24, “For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.” Lost in that passage gives the idea of separation. The woman who had ten pieces of silver, if she would “lose” (from apollumi) one coin, was separated from that piece of silver for a time (Luke 15:8). In Luke 15:9, she rejoiced when she found the piece that she had “lost” (from apollumi).
Eternal separation from God is the idea expressed in Jesus’ teaching on hell. To be finally lost is to be separated from God forever. The wicked will be punished with “everlasting destruction” (2 Thess. 1:9), in the sense that they will be told “depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41). This is the everlasting punishment of the wicked (Matthew 25:46), not a momentary pain that snuffs one out of existence. In Mark 9:41, Jesus speaks of him who shall not “lose” (from apollumi) his reward. Jesus then goes on to describe how unlike the worms and fire in the valley of Hinnom (2 Kings 23:10), Gehenna hell is a place where the worm does not die and the fire is not quenched (Mark 9:43-48), a quotation from Isaiah 66:24. This final note in the book of Isaiah ends similarly to the book of Malachi in that two options, two eternal destinies, are placed before the audience.
One who is lost is brought to eternal ruin. Paul used the word apollumi in his instructions regarding the weaker brother, saying, “Destroy not him with thy meat, for whom Christ died” (Romans 14:15). Obviously eating certain meats or foods would not put a weaker brother out of existence, but it could ruin his faith, sear his conscience, and cause him to be lost.
Hell lasts just as long as heaven: both are eternal (Matthew 25:46). Jesus warned us many times of the severity of hell. What makes the salvation He offers so great is that it saves us from such horrible suffering. Rather than trying to save man’s psyche from the fear of hell, let us teach man to fear God and be saved from hell: “But I will forewarn you whom ye shall fear: Fear him, which after he hath killed hath power to cast into hell; yea, I say unto you, Fear him” (Luke 12:5).