Chapter 8: ~ “Fear only God, who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” {Matthew 10:28}

Maybe you can tell that this chapter is actually a continuation of the last one. And if our last chapter opened a can of worms, I’m afraid this one is going to open an even bigger can of worms. But as with our last chapter, if you’ll just give me a couple of pages I’m convinced that many of you will see that my argument is no less Biblical than was my argument for the last chapter.

So what is this second can of worms? It’s that there’s no such thing, nor will there ever be such a thing, as an eternally burning hell filled with eternally burning sinners.

First, and what is without question the central pillar of my case: only God is immortal.

“…God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal.”  {1 Timothy 6:15, 16 NIV}

“He who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords; who alone possesses immortality.”  {1 Timothy 6:15, 16 NASB}

I should probably make something clear before I go on: When the Bible says that only God is immortal, it’s not saying that Jesus isn’t immortal. It’s talking about God as opposed to man, or God as opposed to all created beings. I believe the Bible clearly teaches that Jesus is also God: “To his Son he says, “Your throne, O God…”  {Hebrews 1:8 NLT}

Now, because this is such a hugely misunderstood subject, I think it’s important that I share with you the definitions of immortal and immortality.

IMMORTAL: “Having life or being that shall never end.”
IMMORTALITY: “The quality of never ceasing to live or exist.”

As our passage says, only God possesses the characteristics of having life that never ends and never ceasing to exist, which of course means that man doesn’t possess those characteristics and therefore has a life that does end and at some point comes to the place where he no longer exists; neither of which would be true with an eternally burning hell filled with eternally burning sinners.

Next, although it’s true that only God possesses immortality, thankfully the subject doesn’t end there:

“My sheep hear my voice… And I give unto them eternal life.”  {John 10:27, 28 KJV}

“Thou hast given him power over all flesh, that he should give eternal life to as many as thou hast given him.”  {John 17:2 KJV}

Clearly, “eternal life” is something Jesus “gives” to His people; or to put it in the words of Paul, “The gift of God is eternal life.” (Romans 6:23 KJV) Now, if eternal life is a “gift,” which God and Jesus “give” to their people, then unquestionably it must be something they didn’t already possess, which of course harmonizes with our 1 Timothy passage. But what’s equally clear, though horribly sad, is that not everyone is given that “gift” of eternal life, which of course means that the lives of those who aren’t given the gift of eternal life will come to an end and they’ll cease to exist.

In further confirmation of this I’d like to share with you three verses. All three portray two different groups of people—the saved and the lost. As you read these three verses I would ask you to take note of the three different words that the three passages use to describe the destiny of those who are lost; and clearly, their destiny is placed in direct contrast with the destiny of those who receive “everlasting life” and “eternal life.”

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”  {John 3:16 KJV}

“The wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life.”  {Romans 6:23 KJV}

“There is one lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy.”  {James 4:12 KJV}

Again, because this is so important, and so misunderstood, I want to compare the definitions of the words that Jesus and James used to describe the destiny of those who are lost—“perish” & “destroy”—with the definitions we looked at earlier of the words immortal & immortality. And I would ask you to take note of the almost perfect contrast between the two sets of words. (As for the word Paul used, “death”: everyone knows that death is the exact opposite of life.)

IMMORTAL: “Having life or being that never ends.”
IMMORTALITY: “The quality of never ceasing to live or exist.”
PERISH: “To die; to lose life in any manner; to come to nothing.”
DESTROY: “In general, to put an end to; to cause to cease.”

As I said before, and this is a truth that bears repeating—and it’s something that’s too great and too wonderful for the human mind to hardly begin to grasp: truly the top two definitions accurately describe the destiny of God’s children. And at the same time, just as truly, and just as Biblically, the bottom two definitions accurately describe the destiny of those who are lost; and they don’t in any way support the idea of an eternally suffering existence.

Because our James passage used the same word as our title passage—“destroy”—I want to stop for a minute and take a closer look at our title passage. Jesus there says:

“Fear only God, who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”  {Matthew 10:28 KJV}

The common understanding of what happens to those who are lost is that the body and the soul have two different final endings, with the body at some point ceasing to exist, while the soul continues to exist in an eternally burning hell. But Christ’s words in that passage don’t in any way support that understanding. He clearly paints the picture that “both soul and body” (of those who are lost) will have the same final ending: “destroyed in hell.” So what happens to the one happens to the other. And as we saw, the definition of destroy is “to put an end to” or “to cause to cease.”

To further try to convince you I’d like to approach this subject from a different direction. First, the Bible tells us:

“The fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.”  {Revelation 21:8 KJV}

Before I get to my main point I can’t help but point out something else in that passage: Notice that the ultimate and final punishment, “the lake which burns with fire,” is called, “the second death.” Death and suffering cannot and do not co-exist. When death comes suffering ends. And on the flip side, for there to be suffering there must be life; and if there’s everlasting suffering then there must be everlasting life, which directly contradicts not only what that passage says, but everything we’ve looked at.

Now, one of the groups of offenders mentioned in that Revelation passage is “murderers.” And while there are many people, myself included, who believe in the death penalty for certain hideous crimes, one of which is premeditated murder, I imagine that not very many of us would suggest that those premeditated murderers should be tortured forever and ever. But… regardless of how high that number may be, and regardless of what argument they might make for their case, the question doesn’t end there, for murderers aren’t the only offenders mentioned in that Revelation passage. The list also includes “all liars.” Now I don’t really know for sure, but I tend to believe that if I were to suggest that someone should be burned forever and ever and ever as a punishment for lying that there’s hardly a sane human being upon the face of the earth that would think I was being just and loving! Think about it a minute: What would you think of someone who suggested your son or daughter should be burned forever and ever for lying? Do you think it would be either just or loving?

“Shall mortal man be more just than God?”  {Job 4:17 KJV}
“God is love.”  {1 John 4:8 & 16 KJV}

I can’t help but point out: In that Job passage man is said to be mortal–once again, the exact opposite of immortal.

(Real quick: Many great Christian leaders of past ages realized and taught that belief in an immortal soul comes from paganism. Luther, Tyndale, and Wesley to name a few.)

Point #2, and something that to me is even more compelling than that last point—as sad as it is, it’s a Biblical truth that Jesus Himself clearly taught: many of those who make it to heaven are going to have loved ones that aren’t going to be there. That in itself is a horribly sad thought—and I know a large percentage of you know exactly what I’m talking about. But now imagine living through all eternity knowing that your child, who you loved so much, or your mother, who you loved so much and who loved you so much, was suffering forever and ever and ever in an endless burning hell. I tell you the truth, that belief has driven more than a few people to the insane asylum. But as bad as that is, it gets even worse, because the great majority of those who hold the belief of eternal torment base their belief partly on the parable of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16:19-31. (For those of you who aren’t familiar with the story, it’s a parable about two men who die, with one going to “hell” and the other going to “Abraham’s bosom;” and in the parable the two men are carrying on a conversation.) If this parable is a correct representation of what happens to those who die, then that means we would not only know that our loved ones are burning forever and ever, but we would actually be watching it. Try giving that a few minutes thought. Do you really believe that would be paradise? Do you really believe that would be heavenly? As Paul was so fond of saying, “God forbid!” Here’s a true picture of what heaven is going to be like:

“Those who have been ransomed by the LORD will return to Zion, singing songs of everlasting joy. Sorrow and mourning will disappear.”  {Isaiah 35:10 NLT}

And let me just say: If you hold to the belief of an eternally burning hell filled with eternally burning sinners, while rejecting the idea that the saints in heaven will be aware of it, then what purpose would it be serving to have this countless number of lost human beings suffering forever and ever with nobody even knowing about it. That thought seems more like a dark, satanic, secret dungeon than a universe filled with “everlasting joy.”

I’ll just say two more things on this: First, if it weren’t for the common misunderstanding on this subject I’m convinced that 99% of normal, decent human beings would find the idea of millions of lost human beings suffering forever and ever in an endless burning hell totally irreconcilable with an infinitely loving and just God. And going along with that, the Bible tell us, “We all, with unveiled faces, are looking as in a mirror at the glory of the Lord and are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” (2 Corinthians 3:18 HCSB, ESV) It’s part of the plan of salvation that the more we behold God (and Jesus) the more we become like Him. If the God we behold is kind, and loving, and merciful, and compassionate, and forgiving, and on and on and on—we ourselves will become like that (through the working of the Holy Spirit). And those truly are heavenly attributes. On the other hand, and I pray you’ll really think about this: If that principle holds true, that we become like what we behold, what do you think we’ll tend to become like if we behold a God that tortures people forever and ever and ever for such things as lying, or stealing or being greedy or being a drunkard (1 Corinthians 6:9, 10), or for any of the other reasons the Bible gives as to why people will be excluded from heaven? I just can’t see how holding that conception of God will make us more compassionate, or more merciful, or more loving. It seems to me that it would tend to make us just the opposite.

Now, trying to keep this as short and as simple as possible: let me just quickly show you that when the Bible says “forever,” such as: “…you have kindled my anger, and it will burn forever” (Jeremiah 17:4 NIV), it doesn’t always mean forever as we typically think of forever.

I have to say: it just dawned on me that that verse is a super example of what I’m about to try to prove. We’re told in it that something is going to “burn forever.” And what is it that’s said to be going to burn forever? God’s anger. Surely you can’t believe that ten thousand years, or ten million years, after sin and sinners have been blotted out, and “everlasting joy” fills the universe, God’s anger will still continue to burn and burn forever and ever. I have to say, I think that’s an absolutely hideous thought; and hopefully one that causes you to begin to see that when the Bible says forever it doesn’t always mean forever in the way that we typically think of it.

Let me share with you a couple more examples of how when the Bible says forever it doesn’t necessarily mean forever and ever.

“Now the LORD gave the following instructions to Moses… on the tenth day of this month each family must choose a lamb for a sacrifice… Then each family in the community must slaughter its lamb… Remember, these instructions are permanent and must be observed by you and your descendants forever.”  {Exodus 12:1, 3, 6, 24 NLT}

In that passage we’re told that God’s people and their descendants were to sacrifice lambs “forever.” Surely no Christian believes that God wants His people to still be sacrificing lambs today!

Just in case you’re not sure, let me share with you just two passages on that:

“The Messiah will be killed… he will put an end to the sacrifices.”  {Daniel 9:26, 27 KJV, NLT}

“The sacrifices under the old system were repeated again and again, year after year… But our High Priest offered himself to God as one sacrifice for sins, good for all time.”  {Hebrews 10:1, 12 NLT}

Clearly, and I don’t think many people would argue with this: Christ “put an end to sacrifices,” when He “offered himself as one sacrifice for sins, good for all time.” And as the passage also tells us, “the sacrifices under the old system were…” They “were” because they no longer are. And that’s why Paul calls it “the old system.”

Clearly, that “old system” of sacrificing lambs was a symbolic object lesson that God had given to His Old Testament people to teach them that greatest of all lessons about Jesus, “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” (John1:29) And just as clearly, when God told His people that they were to offer those sacrifices forever, He didn’t mean forever and ever. He only meant that they were to continue to offer those sacrifices until the one great sacrifice that they pre-figured was offered. Or to put it in the terms of one of those above passages: He only meant that they were to continue to offer sacrifices as long as that “old system” was still in effect.

Now for our second example:

“Here are some other instructions you must present to Israel: If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve only six years. Set him free in the seventh year… But if the servant shall plainly declare, ‘I love my master… I would rather not go free,’ then…the servant will belong to his master forever.”  {Exodus 21:1-6 NLT, KJV}

This one makes me think of the graffiti that one sees in various places: “Al-N-Tammy forever.” Now everyone realizes that those words were never intended to convey the idea that Al and Tammy would be together forever and ever, but simply that Al and Tammy intended never to break up—for as long as their lives should last; likewise with the servant and master relationship in the passage up above. It goes without saying that both the servant and his master would be dead and gone in a few short years. Obviously the word forever in that passage was never intended to convey the idea of forever and ever, but simply for the rest of the servant’s life.

I’ll give you one more “example” and then leave you to consider all that I’ve shared:

“Remember the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah and the other towns around them. They acted as did the angels who did not obey God. Their towns were full of sexual sin and men having sexual relations with men. They suffer the punishment of eternal fire, as an example for all to see.”  {Jude 7 NCV}

Just in case someone might try to convince you that Sodom and Gomorrah are still burning: Do you remember our definition of destroy: “to put an end to; to cause to cease.”

“The LORD destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.”  {Genesis 13:10 KJV}