A gracEmail reader notes that Jesus speaks of “eternal fire” and “eternal punishment” (Matt. 18:8; 25:30) and asks how that squares with my suggestion that the wicked will be totally destroyed in hell, never to be seen again.
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“Eternal” fire is fire which belongs to the Age to Come. It is also eternal in the sense that its effects will be everlasting. Sodom and Gomorrah, which were “reduced to ashes,” illustrate the punishment awaiting evildoers (2 Pet. 2:6; Jude 7). Those cities — which were wiped out thoroughly and forever by fire from heaven (Gen. 19:27-28) — illustrate “the punishment of eternal fire” (Jude 7). God will “destroy both body and soul” in hell (Matt. 10:28). The wicked, once destroyed, will be gone forever.
Jesus also speaks of “eternal punishment” (Matt. 25:46), although he does not tell us here of what that punishment consists. Paul explains it in more detail, however, when he says that Jesus will “punish” the lost with “everlasting destruction” (2 Thes. 1:9). From this destruction there will be no restoration, recovery or return forever.
Normally, when the New Testament uses the adjective “eternal” to describe words involving processes or activities, the result is everlasting, not the process or activity itself. “Eternal salvation” does not suggest an unending process but rather a result that lasts forever (Heb. 5:9). The same is true of “eternal judgment” (Heb. 6:2), “eternal redemption” (Heb. 9:12) and “eternal sin” (Mk. 3:29). In the same way, “eternal punishment” is not “eternally punishing,” and “eternal destruction” is not “eternally destroying.”
The wages of sin is death, and the gift of God is eternal life (Rom. 6:23). This life and this death both concern the Age to Come. Each lasts just as long as the other. The saved will be resurrected immortal and deathless to enjoy life with God forever. The lost will be raised for condemnation — but they are not given immortality or deathlessness. Instead they perish in the Second Death, the Lake of Fire, and are gone forever. For more in-depth studies, see my books Two Views of Hell and The Fire That Consumes.