We have been examining the claims of critics who deny the biblical teaching of eternal hell. Often, those who deny central Christian doctrines will deny that the major English versions of Scripture are well-translated. They must argue this way because all the conservative English translations show that the duration of punishment and torment in hell for unbelievers is the same as the duration of heaven for believers – namely eternal. So, in this segment, we will look at Tracy’s claims that the original languages deny eternal hell.
Tracy: Strong’s. aiónios: agelong, eternal … Definition: agelong, eternal … Usage: age-long, and therefore: practically eternal, unending; partaking of the character of that which lasts for an age, as contrasted with that which is brief and fleeting.
Lisle: First, even by Tracy’s admission, “eternal” is part of the semantic range of αἰώνιον. However, she has made a critical exegetical fallacy: the fallacy of the unwarranted expansion of an expanded semantic field. Most words have multiple dictionary definitions. The error is in assuming that we are free to choose any of those definitions in understanding the meaning of a sentence. That is, Tracy prefers to take the meaning of the word to be “eternal” when it applies to something positive, such as God or the eternal life of believers, but then she picks a different meaning when it is unpleasant, such as the eternal (same word) punishment of unbelievers. This is an exegetical fallacy because the context of the sentence determines which meaning of the word is in use – not our preferences.
Old-earth creationists and theistic evolutionists make this same error when they argue that the Hebrew word translated “day” in Genesis 1 might mean “a long age” since the same word can mean that in other (usually poetic) contexts. This is the same fallacy because the context of Genesis 1 does not permit the non-literal use of that word.
Second, Strong’s Greek concordance does not include “age-long,” but rather indicates that the primary meaning of this word is eternal. You can check with the online Strong’s definition here. Strong’s G166 “from 165; perpetual (also used of past time, or past and future as well): — eternal, for ever, everlasting, world (began). Usage: I. without beginning and end, that which always has been and always will be. II. without beginning. III. without end, never to cease, everlasting.” The word occurs over 70 times in the Bible. In most places in Scripture when we read about the “eternal life” that God grants believers, this is the word that is used. Indeed, the NASB nearly always translates this word as “eternal.” So, there is no doubt that this Greek adjective means “eternal.”
There is a related Greek word αιων̀̀ (aion) where we get the word “eon.” This is the noun-form of the same Greek root and can mean either “eternal” or a vast “age” depending on context. But there is no doubt that αἰώνιον means “eternal” when referring to the future and is used to describe both the duration of punishment in hell and of life in heaven (Matthew 25:46).
The Hebrew Term Olam
Tracy: olam: long duration, antiquity, futurity.
Original Word: עוֹלָם
Part of Speech: Noun Masculine
Phonetic Spelling: (o-lawm’)
Definition: long duration, antiquity, futurity
Lisle: This is a bit of a red-herring – a distraction from the issue under discussion. The issue is the numerous New Testament verses that explicitly teach that believers have eternal (αἰώνιον) life while unbelievers experience eternal (αἰώνιον) punishment (e.g. Matthew 25:46). And so, the focus should be on the Greek word αἰώνιον, which is not the same as the Hebrew word olam. The two words have a different semantic domain (a different range of meanings), although there is some overlap. The Greek adjective αἰώνιον when used of future time always denotes “eternal” or “forever.” Therefore, hell is indeed eternal and the punishment of unbelievers in hell is eternal according to the Bible (Matthew 25:46; Jude 7). Olam has a greater semantic range and is only used in the Old Testament.
There are fewer specific details about the afterlife in the Old Testament. But there are some and they are fully consistent with the New Testament. The Hebrew word olam (עוֹלָם) denotes a long period of time; it can be of either finite or infinite duration (eternity/forever) depending on context. Strong’s concordance lists a number of definitions of olam including “eternal, everlasting, perpetual, without end.”
Olam (עוֹלָם) is used over 400 times in the Old Testament. A quick examination of these instances shows that its main meaning in Scripture is “everlasting, eternal, permanent, or forever.” In other words, it is used far more often to indicate an infinite period of time than merely a long finite period. For example, it is the word used in Isaiah 40:8, “The grass withers, the flower fades, But the word of our God stands forever.” Note that its meaning here must be “forever” in this passage because the word of God is contrasted against those things which are not forever – namely, grass and flowers which wither and fade. Likewise, olam is used in Psalm 9:7, which states “But the Lord abides forever.”
On the other hand, olam on some occasions refers to a long but finite period of time. Genesis 6:4 uses olam to refer to “men of old.” Obviously, these men were not infinitely old, and so the duration of the age is finite in this instance. In a similar fashion, Joshua 24:2 uses a form of olam to refer to “ancient times.”
So, how are we to know what the author intended to convey when he uses the term olam? We do not use our preferences or preconceptions of what God would or should do. Rather, we use context to correctly exegete the passage. Context is king. And there are textual clues that can aid our efforts.
For example, when being used to indicate a finite but long age, olam is usually prefixed with a mem (the Hebrew equivalent of the letter “M”) acting as the abbreviated form of the preposition “from.” The previous references (Genesis 6:4 and Joshua 24:2) both use this form of the word. The meaning of the word then becomes “of old” or “from ancient times.” Other instances are 1 Samuel 27:8, Isaiah 42:14, 46:9, 57:11, 63:16, 19, 64:3; Jeremiah 2:20, 5:15; Ezekiel 26:20; Psalm 25:6, 119:52. The NASB correctly translates these as indicating a long finite period of time in the past.
Conversely, when olam lacks the mem prefix, it is almost always translated as “everlasting, eternal, forever,” or some equivalent. One example is the everlasting (עוֹלָ֔ם) covenant God made to never again flood the entire globe with water in Genesis 9:16. When Abraham refers to the Lord as the everlasting God in Genesis 21:33, he uses the word olam (עוֹלָ֔ם).
In many cases, to emphasize that eternity is in view (as opposed to a long but finite period of time), olam is prefixed with a lamed (the Hebrew equivalent of the letter “L”) which generally has the meaning of “to” or “for.” This form is used in Genesis 3:22 where God bans access to the tree of life so that man may not live “forever.” Obviously, God is not forbidding Adam from living “for a long time” because Adam did live for a long time: 930 years! But he didn’t live forever. Psalm 81:15 teaches that the punishment of the wicked will be forever using this same form of the word (לְעוֹלָֽם). Thus, we see that the Old Testament teaching of the eternal fate of the wicked matches the New Testament teaching (e.g. Matthew 25:46, Jude 7). There are 179 instances of לְעֹלָֽם in the Scriptures and context makes clear that “forever” is the main meaning of this form of the word.
Additionally, the biblical text sometimes adds a word either before or after olam to emphasize that eternity is in view. When the word “ad” (often meaning “while” or “until”) is placed before olam (עַד־עוֹלָֽם) it is always translated as “forever” or an equivalent word in the NASB. For example, Christ’s reign in Isaiah 9:6 is described as “forevermore” using עַד־עוֹלָ֔ם. In Jeremiah 17:4, God’s anger against His enemies is also described as “forever” using the exact same phrase (עַד־עוֹלָ֔ם).
Alternatively, a similar word (עֶֽד) can be added after olam, to emphasize an eternal duration. This word (עֶֽד) by itself means “forever” and so its addition to olam reinforces the fact that eternity is in view. The compound phrase (עוֹלָ֥ם וָעֶֽד) is used 15 times in the Old Testament and is always translated into English as “forever and ever” in the NASB (e.g. Psalm 10:16, 45:7, 48:15). In some instances, a lamed is also prefixed to olam in addition to the עֶֽד. This doubly confirms that eternity is in view. Such a construction is used in Exodus 15:18 which states, “The Lord shall reign forever and ever.” It is also used in Micah 4:5 to refer to believers who will walk in the name of the Lord our God forever and ever. And in Psalm 9:5 the same construction refers to the eternal fate of unbelievers: God blots out their name “forever and ever.” This again shows that those who die in unbelief are never reconciled to God.
Tracy: When olam and aion is applied to God, it does mean that. When it is applied to things, which by the fact that they are created, it does not mean “forever without end.”
Lisle: This is a severe hermeneutical fallacy sometimes known as linguistic relativism. It is the error of asserting that words can mean different things when applied to different people. Such a claim would make communication impossible because we could never know if the speaker/writer is using the words in the same way as the hearer/reader. For example, if words mean different things when applied to God, then how do we know that God is good? The Scriptures teach that God is good, but if words mean different things when applied to God then maybe “good,” when applied to God, actually means “hungry.” Indeed, if words mean different things to God, then when God says, “You shall not murder” it might really mean “put broccoli in your ears!” Communication is predicated on the fact that words mean the same thing regardless of who speaks them or to whom they are applied.
Tracy: Only God can be said to be “everlasting” “eternal”.
Lisle: That’s not what the Bible states. The same word used to describe the eternal (αἰωνίου) God in Romans 16:26, is applied to other things that are not God. For example, the Bible describes as eternal (using the same Greek word) the life believers experience with God (Matthew 19:29; John 5:24), the fire of hell (Matthew 25:42), the punishment of unbelievers (Matthew 25:46), the dwellings of believers (Luke 16:9), the weight of glory (2 Corinthians 4:17), things which are not seen (2 Corinthians 4:18), our heavenly building (2 Corinthians 5:1), the destruction of unbelievers (2 Thessalonians 1:9), God’s dominion (1 Timothy 6:16), the judgment of unbelievers (Hebrews 6:2), the redemption of believers (Hebrews 9:12), the inheritance of believers (Hebrews 9:15), God’s covenant (Hebrews 13:20), God’s glory (1 Peter 5:10), Christ’s kingdom (2 Peter 1:11), and the Gospel (Revelation 14:6). All these are eternal according to Scripture.
There is a difference in the source of that eternality. God is eternal by His nature. He is beyond time since He created time (Genesis 1:1, 2 Peter 3:8). All things besides God that are eternal are so because God upholds them eternally (Hebrews 1:3). Those of us who will enjoy eternal life with God will do so because He has given us eternal life (John 10:28).
Tracy: He is the only one without beginning and without end (or change).
Lisle: The Bible does teach that only God has no beginning because He is the Creator of all things. But many things God created will have no end, as we listed above. Notice that Tracy adds “or change,” but this is a tacit admission that she knows that some things besides God will continue to exist forever. “Change” is not an end. Furthermore, does the Bible teach that all eternal things besides God will be changed? In what way will the godly angels be “changed?” The Bible says nothing about this. There is no hint that the Devil or fallen angels will be changed as they suffer forever in the Lake of Fire. Believers will be made like the Son at death in terms of our character (1 John 3:2), but we will then live forever in the presence of God. Unbelievers will not have their character changed, but will experience an eternal death in the Lake of Fire. Scripture does not agree with Tracy’s assertions.
Tracy: Everything else is His creation and has a beginning and an end or change.
Lisle: Scriptural support? Does the eternal gospel change or end (Revelation 14:6)? It better not in light of Galatians 1:8-9. Does the eternal inheritance of believers change or end (Hebrews 9:15)? Does our eternal salvation or eternal redemption change or end (Hebrews 5:9, 9:12)?
Tracy: A word study of both Olam and Aion would demonstrate that neither word means “time without end,” except as they refer to the Uncreated Creator.
Lisle: We have already seen that this is false. Our word study of the olam showed that its main meaning is actually “eternal,” or “forever,” especially when used in various Hebrew constructions. Daniel 12:2 uses the very same word olam to describe both the everlasting life that believers will enjoy and the everlasting contempt experienced by the wicked. Hence, just like the New Testament, the Old Testament teaches that the afterlife of the wicked is of the same duration as the afterlife of the righteous – eternal. Furthermore, we have seen that the Greek word αἰώνιον really does mean “eternal” and is used both of the life experienced by believers and the punishment experienced by unbelievers (Matthew 25:46). And again, the view that words can mean different things for God is linguistic relativism – an absurd view that would make communication impossible.
But what about the Greek word aion (αἰῶν)? This is the noun form of the adjective αἰώνιον. Similar to the Hebrew word olam, aion means “age” either of finite or infinite duration. So, it can mean forever, eternity, or age, depending on context. When used in the singular, the NASB always translates this word as “age” or “world.” One example is Matthew 12:32, where Jesus declares that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven, neither in this age nor in the one to come. Since this age is contrasted against the one to come, this age cannot be eternal. And so the usage of aion (αἰῶν) in this context refers to a long, but finite period of time. Likewise, Luke 1:70 states that God spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets “of old” using this same Greek word. This refers to a time long ago – a vast age, but not an eternal one.
Yet, we know from many other Scriptures that the “age to come” is eternal. Mark 10:30 refers to those who sacrifice for Christ now and how they will be rewarded in the “age to come, eternal life.” That is, Mark 10:30 clarifies that the age to come refers to or at least includes eternal life. It must therefore be of infinite duration. Likewise, John 6:51 uses the singular aion to indicate that believers will live forever. So, the singular form of aion means “age” and can refer to either a finite age or the future eternal age depending on context.
The plural form of the word (αἰῶνας) can mean “forever” as it does in Luke 1:33, 55. In Luke 1:33 the angel says of Christ, “and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.” Note that “forever” (αἰῶνας) must actually mean forever in this passage because it emphasizes that “His kingdom will have no end.” Likewise, God is blessed forever in Romans 1:25 using this plural noun. And yet the plural form can also refer to finite ages as is clear from context in passages such as Hebrews 9:26, Ephesians 3:9, and 1 Corinthians 1:11.
So, is there a way of emphasizing that the plural form of aion must mean eternity in contrast to a long but finite period? There is. In Greek, emphasis can be indicated by repeating a word. You may have noticed that Jesus sometimes began a statement by saying “Truly, truly” (e.g., John 3:5, 11, 5:19, 5:24, 6:26). This emphasizes the absolute truth of what He was saying. Likewise, aion can be repeated to indicate not just an age, but the ages of ages – eternity. This phrase (αἰῶνας τῶν αἰώνων) or its equivalent (αἰῶνας αἰώνων) often appears in the New Testament and is translated “forever and ever” (Ephesians 3:21; Philippians 4:20; 1 Timothy 1:17; 2 Timothy 4:18; Hebrews 1:8; 1 Peter 4:11; Revelation 4:9, 10, 5:13, 7:12, 10:6, 11:15, 14:11, 15:7, 19:3, 20:10, 22:5).
This is the phrase used to describe the duration of Christ’s reign in Revelation 11:15. Yes, Christ reigns forever and ever! That’s great news. And it gets even better. Those who are in Christ will reign with Him forever and ever (αἰῶνας τῶν αἰώνων) according to Revelation 22:5. The redeemed will indeed have eternal life. But the bad news for those who deny an eternal hell, is that this exact phrase (αἰῶνας τῶν αἰώνων) is also used to describe the duration of torment for those in the Lake of Fire in Revelation 20:10 – namely “forever and ever.” Revelation 14:11a states, “And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever; they have no rest day and night.”
Can the Major Translations be Trusted?
So, there can be no doubt whatsoever that the duration of the unbeliever’s torment in the Lake of Fire is the same as the believer’s life in Christ. But how do we know that the relevant words really do mean “eternal?” How do we know that the translators correctly translated these words to begin with? The answer, as always, is context. Namely, there are certain passages where the relevant Greek (or Hebrew) words would make no sense unless they indicated “eternal” or “forever.”
For example, 2 Corinthians 4:18 states, “while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.” Here, the Apostle Paul is contrasting those physical things that are temporal (meaning temporary) with those unseen spiritual things which are αἰώνια. Clearly, αἰώνια must mean “eternal, permanent, or forever” in this context because it is being contrasted with temporal/temporary. The passage would make no sense otherwise.
Similarly, Mark 3:29 states, “but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal [αἰωνίου] sin.” In this case, the type of sin that never has forgiveness is called αἰωνίου, which must mean “eternal” from context. In John 10:28, Jesus states that He will give His people eternal life, such that they will never perish. “Eternal” must be the right word since this goes along with “never perish.”
The Old Testament likewise indicates that some things are eternal. In Deuteronomy 13:16, God instructs the Israelites to destroy a city thoroughly so that “it shall never be rebuilt” but “shall be a ruin forever [עוֹלָ֔ם].” Clearly, the Hebrew word must truly mean “forever” in this verse since this goes along with the city never being rebuilt. Similarly, Psalm 9:6-7 contrasts the fate of God’s enemies in this world which are removed and forgotten with the Lord who abides forever [לְעוֹלָ֣ם]. Again, we see the temporary contrasted with the permanent/eternal. Daniel 7:14 states that Christ’s dominion “is an everlasting [עָלַם] dominion Which will not pass away; And His kingdom is one Which will not be destroyed.” From the synonymous parallelism in this passage, we see that Christ’s kingdom must be truly “everlasting” since it “will not pass away” and “will not be destroyed.”
What About Figurative Language?
There is no doubt that the Bible does indeed indicate that there will be an eternal state in which believers will experience eternal life with God while unbelievers will experience eternal torment in the Lake of Fire. The last resort of those who deny this biblical teaching and yet profess to hold to Scripture would be to claim that all the references to eternal hell are non-literal. Could it be that the Bible is using hyperbole (exaggerating to make a point) in all its claims that hell is eternal?
We expect a degree of non-literal language when reading the Psalms or Proverbs. Therefore, great care must be taken when exegeting non-literal sections of Scripture. But most of the New Testament passages dealing with the eternality of hell are non-poetic; they are straightforward, literal instruction. The are written in the same genre as those New Testament verses promising eternal life to believers. Indeed, many biblical passages directly contrast the eternal life of believers with the eternal punishment/judgment of unbelievers (Matthew 25:46; Daniel 12:2). Therefore, whatever argument a critic can make against the literal eternality of hell would equally argue against the literal eternality of the life of a believer. Thus, if all the references to the eternal punishment of unbelievers in hell were non-literal, then so would all the references to the eternal life of believers be non-literal. We would have no hope of a literal eternal life with God. So, again:
If you deny an eternal hell, you have no hope of eternal life.
The Physical and the Spiritual.
Lastly, it may be that some people are confused about how unbelievers can be eternally tormented if they do not have eternal life. “How can a dead person be tormented?” This confusion may stem from the fact that the Bible uses the terms life and death in two distinct but related ways. They can refer to physical life and death, or spiritual life and death. Physical life is biological; it refers to those humans or animals that have a beating heart. Physical death therefore refers to those whose physical body no longer functions. Spiritual life refers to our immaterial spirit functioning as designed – to love, glorify, and enjoy the Lord. Spiritual death refers to our unregenerated spirit in its sinful and rebellious attitude against God, a spirit that does not function as designed.
Jesus addressed both physical and spiritual life and death. Since the fall of Adam into sin, all humans are born with a dead spirit. A person is saved when Jesus resurrects his or her dead spirit and grants him or her spiritual life which will never end (Ephesians 2:1, 5-6). Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life” (John 5:24). Jesus taught that this spiritual resurrection happens whenever anyone responds positively to His Word; thus, it happens in the present and will continue to happen in the future (John 5:25 – “an hour is coming and now is”). Only believers experience this spiritual resurrection.
Conversely, Jesus taught of a time in the future when everyone will be physically resurrected (John 5:28-29). That is, every physically dead person will be restored to physical life. Jesus clarified that this is a physical resurrection by using the phrase “all who are in the tombs,” in other words the buried physical bodies of the dead will come to life. The righteous are resurrected to experience eternal spiritual life, whereas the unrighteous will experience eternal judgment (John 5:29). Only by understanding the two types of life and death can we understand Christ’s words in John 11:25-26. Here Jesus promises that the one who believes in Him will (1) live even though he dies and (2) will never die. There is no contradiction here because believers will (1) physically die, but will be physically resurrected to live again and (2) will never spiritually die.
1 Corinthians 15:25-26 teaches that Christ will abolish physical death. He does this by resurrecting everyone – undoing physical death (1 Corinthians 15:22; Revelation 20:13). However, those who are not saved – whose names are not found in the Book of Life – will be cast into the Lake of Fire (Revelation 20:15). This is called the second death because it happens after physical death (Revelation 20:14). It is for all those who remain spiritually dead, having refused Christ’s offers of mercy and salvation. Since Christ will have abolished physical death (1 Corinthians 15:26), no one will ever physically die again – neither those in heaven nor those in hell.
Clearly, those who are spiritually dead can experience torment. After all, those who have not received Christ as Savior are currently spiritually dead (Ephesians 2:1). And they can experience lots of things. Spiritual death does not mean lack of consciousness. The Bible clearly teaches that the spiritually dead in the Lake of Fire “will be tormented day and night forever and ever.” This contradicts the notion that such people lack conscious existence. Biblically, lack of eternal life does not mean lack of conscious existence.
Our View of God
Our view of hell says a lot about our view of God. We know from Scripture that sin is not only determined by our actions, but also by whom our actions are against. A person who kills an animal for food has not sinned at all (Genesis 9:3). No punishment is due. Yet, a person who kills another person for food is wicked and deserves the death penalty (Genesis 9:5-6). The same action has a much stricter punishment because it was committed against a being of greater inherent value. A man who murders another man has sinned against someone of equal value to his own life. Such a sinner has earned the death penalty. He has forfeited his own life by taking the life of another person of equal inherent value.
Now imagine sinning against an infinitely Holy God (Revelation 4:8) – the very God who created you. This crime is infinitely heinous because God is of infinite value and is the one who gave us life. The right punishment would therefore have to be infinite. It would take eternity for any finite being to pay an infinite debt. The biblical teaching of hell therefore presupposes that God is infinitely righteous and is just in His judgments. It follows logically that any view of hell that does not involve eternal punishment for the wicked must either hold that (1) God is not infinitely righteous, or that (2) God is unjust. Either position is a very low view of God and contradicts Scripture.
Much more could be said. But the above is sufficient to show that the major English translations do correctly reflect the meaning of the Hebrew and Greek references to eternity. Thus, we can rest assured that the Bible really does teach that all people have eternal conscious existence – either in heaven by God’s grace, or in hell where they reap the results of the sin they have sown. Jesus didn’t save us from nothingness. He saved us from the eternal punishment that we rightly deserve for sinning against the infinitely Holy God.
 Perhaps Tracy is using the New American Standard Greek Lexicon. It includes “agelong” in addition to “eternal.” However, the word is never used in reference to a finite duration of future time in the New Testament.
 The three exceptions are Romans 16:25, Philemon 15, and Titus 1:2. The NASB translates this adjective in Philemon 15 as “forever” – so basically the same as “eternal.” Romans 16:25 and Titus 1:2 both refer to past time: meaning “ages past” or perhaps “from the beginning of the world,” and along with 2 Timothy 1:9 are perhaps the only places where this adjective does not mean “eternal.” However, in these three instances (and only in these three instances), the word takes on a slightly different form: the genitive (2 Timothy 1:9, Titus 1:2), and the dative (Romans 16:25), and refers to past time rather than future time.
 There are five exceptions where the NASB translates מֵעוֹלָם as “from everlasting” or “forever.” They are Psalm 90:2, 93:2, 103:17; Proverbs 8:23; 1 Chronicles 29:10. But even in these passages the word could be plausibly be rendered “from old” or “from the beginning” since time has a beginning (Genesis 1:1).