The Penalty for Unrepentant Sinners

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What does the Bible teach will happen to those who refuse to repent and turn to God?

Do sinners go to hell? God told Adam that if he disobeyed he would come under a penalty of death —not eternal life in another state or place.Yet many people through the ages have believed that the penalty for unrepentant sinners is to suffer forever in the fires of hell.

The 18th-century Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards struck fear into the hearts of many who heard his sermons in which he raged against sin and threatened sinners with an eternity spent in an ever-burning hellfire: "The pit is prepared. The fire is made ready. The furnace is now hot, ready to receive them. The flames do now rage and glow. The glittering sword is whet, and held over them, and the pit has opened her mouth under them . . . O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in."

Many religious people now reject this view of hell. Polls show that comparatively few believe that God will send sinners to a place of eternal fiery torment as punishment for their sins.

Some still believe in hell, but, when questioned about its nature, they fall back on concepts such as "separation from God" or "an anguished state of existence." Most who believe in this updated version of hell envision unrepentant sinners spending eternity there, though apparently few people believe they will go there themselves. One poll reported that only 4 percent of Americans thought they would go to hell.

In reality, the Bible does not teach the existence of any kind of eternally continuing torment in hell as the penalty for sin. (For a full explanation and proof from the Scriptures, request the free booklet Heaven and Hell: What Does the Bible Really Teach? )

The belief that sinners will be conscious in death and confined to hell for eternity is an outgrowth of another erroneous belief—that men possess an immortal soul. Belief in the immortality of the soul was imported into Christianity from Greek thought and is often attributed to the influence of Plato. "Plato . . . believed . . . that the soul was a fallen divinity, out of its element, imprisoned in the body" (Karen Armstrong, A History of God , 1993, p. 35).

In essence, if people believe that man has an immortal soul, they believe that man already possesses eternal life. The concept of hell as a place of eternal torment developed as an explanation of where supposedly immortal souls of evil people will spend eternity.

The Bible does not teach that human beings have immortal souls. In Genesis:2:7 we find that, when God created Adam, he became a "living soul" (King James Version). In Genesis:9:12 the same two Hebrew words are translated "living creature" and refer not to human beings, but to every sort of animal distinct from man.

According to the Bible, the soul is what the person is ; it is not something he has . Ezekiel 18 tells us plainly that "the soul who sins shall die " (verses 4, 20)—not that the soul will live forever in some other place or state of consciousness.

The New Testament confirms the Old Testament teaching (see Matthew:10:28). In a familiar passage, Paul explains that "the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans:6:23). He clearly contrasts the two. Those who please God receive salvation—eternal life. Unrepentant sinners, in contrast, do not live forever while enduring torment in hell; instead their fate is annihilation —eternal, permanent death from which there will be no resurrection. GN

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