Is Punishment in Hell Eternal?

January 4, 2011
Pastor Hammond 

Recently, I was asked to comment on a verse in the Gospel of Matthew, where the Bible says, "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" (Matthew 10:28).  The question regarded the phrase, "...able to destroy both soul and body in hell." Some understand that phrase as a reference to so-called annihilationism - or the idea that, in hell,  the LORD will end the conscious existence of the unrepentant rather punish them eternally.  

I approached my response to this question like any other Bible question: (1) I compare scripture with scripture and (2) I look at the meaning of the underlying words.

When we compare Mathew 10:28 with other relevant passages, we see clearly that both hell and punishment in hell are "everlasting."  

  • Matthew 25:46  "And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal"
  •  2 Thessalonians 1:8-9  8 In flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ:  9 Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power;  

Given the clarity of the above verses, we must conclude that annihilationism is inconsistent with scripture.  

Further, when we examine the Greek word that's translated "destroy" (
apollymi)  in Mathew 10:28, we make observations that lend further support to our conclusion.  Apollymi appears at least 91 times in the Greek text that underlies our King James Bible.  In 31 times of those instances, apollymi is translated "lose," "be lost," or "lost." Vine's dictionary notes that the idea of apollymi "is not extinction but ruin, loss, not of being, but of well-being."   This is key to understanding Mathew 10:28, i.e. to "destroy both soul and body in hell" doesn't refer to a literal end of one's conscious existence.  Rather, it refers to a conscious state of loss (of the presence of God and reward in heaven). 

Given all of the above observations, we must conclude that both hell and punishment in hell are eternal. But, praise God that hell will be avoided by everyone who has repented of sin and placed their faith in Jesus Christ (John 3:16, 1 John 5:13).  The reality of both heaven and hell should be strong motivators for believers to share the Gospel message - including a warning of the reality of eternal punishment for those who reject Christ.