The Final Fate of the Wicked

Section I.—Introduction.—Some Bible Facts

By Reverend George Lindley Young, Newburyport, MASS


Naturally the human heart does not like to dwell on distressing topics, on subjects the mere contemplation of which is painful. Nevertheless, with the thoughtful there are some things of a painful nature that cannot be entirely dispelled from the mind. Thus as believing Christians we are obliged to recognize that there are many who persistently reject all offers of mercy through Jesus Christ. What is to be their fate? The thought of their future, perhaps a very distressful future, cannot well be ignored, and it is this painful subject that we discuss in this lengthy article. And, be it noted, our discussion is confined to their final fate. Their condition in the death state, whatever that may be, is passed by as not germane to our present thesis. So our full attention is turned to the matter of ultimate destiny as settled at the last judgment.

We may here lay down a few propositions. These, we think, will be generally accepted by those who believe the Bible. They appear somewhat necessary as preliminary to our main treatment.

(1) It is certain from the Bible that not all men are to be saved. Some will be lost, cast out, bidden to depart from Christ (Mat. 7:13, 21–23; 25:10, 30, 41; Lu. 13:24–27).

(2) Such are to be punished, meet the due reward of their deeds and of their rejection of light and salvation (Ps. 21:8, 9; Prov. 11:21; Rom. 2:5–9).

(3) The punishment administered will be accompanied by actual suffering, pain in mind or body, or in both (Mat. 5:29, 30; 13:42; Lu. 13:28; Rom. 2:8, 9).

(4) This punishment will be just and will somehow be proportioned to the guilt and desert of each culprit. Should we not mention this again, let the reader remember that to this position we firmly adhere (Ps. 62:12; Prov. 24:12; Jer. 17:10; 32:19; Rom. 2:6; Lu. 12:47, 48). But the question arises, What is the character of this punishment? In Bible parlance, “What shall be the end of them that obey not the gospel of God?” (1 Pet. 4:17). If they are to suffer, shall their suffering go on unremittingly forever? Shall it never cease throughout eternity? Must it in excruciating awfulness continue unceasingly through ages that never end? Or shall there come a termination to their woe? a time when there shall be a real “end”? when the agonized sinner shall be released from suffering by being released from his painful state to one of bliss, or by being released from life, a life that in its agony is an intolerable burden? Shall he die, and so, as a living being, be no more? If the first is the case, we well may sorrow as those who have no hope. If the last is true, then, terrible as it is, there is some relief to our anguished thought. For then, even though we see no hope of their repentance and final recovery, yet we do see an end to their misery.

Various Teachings

So tremendous are the issues pending that different teachings have been advanced. Among them we may enumerate: —

(1) The first or Adamic death is the final end. Comparatively few advocates.

(2) The view of the earlier Universalists that at death all, sinners included, go direct to glory.

(3) The view of later Universalists that, after some sort of purifying or purgatorial process, all are ultimately saved.

(4) The decidedly varying views of those who advocate a further period of probation, during which period some, or many, will repent and be saved, while the incorrigible must suffer forever.

(5) Views similar to the last, except that the finally impenitent will be ultimately destroyed and cease to be.

(6) The view once largely prevalent in Christendom that all found impenitent at death must live and suffer forever amid the awful pains of hell. With many the suffering was conceived as of the most terrific and excruciating physical type imaginable; with others it is conceived as largely mental suffering; with others a combination of the two. In every case, however, it is endless suffering.

(7) The view that it is the saved alone who are to live forever; that the unsaved, instead of living forever, either in bliss or woe, shall finally be destroyed, lose all life, and so as personal beings become extinct.

Usually, however, the matter has refined itself down to one of three views, so presenting what has been called a “theological trilemma.” These views are: that of final universal salvation; that of eternal torment; that of ultimate extinction. It is our intent to pass by the first of these three, as having no possible ground in Scripture, and confine our attention to the other two.

As to the doctrine of endless misery, that certainly has had many advocates in the past. Evidently, however, in the last half century the proportion of its adherents has decreased. Yet none need think of it as a view that is extinct. For it is still being preached, to some extent at least, while its arguments still find expression in books, religous periodicals and learned journals. The view that it advances, however, is terrible to contemplate, no matter how one may approach it. Should one, e. g., approach it from the human side, as it were, the very thought crushes our hearts that innumerable members of our own race, oft including our own relatives and friends, are destined to continue in life forever when that life means nothing for them but such misery as our minds cannot grasp; when their lives are of no conceivable benefit to anybody, either to themselves or to the universe; when, indeed, they seem to exist for the mere purpose of suffering agonies untold. Should we, on the other hand, attempt to approach the question from the divine side, it seems almost to put the all-holy God in an unenviable light, it seeming to disagree with the revelations of his wisdom, grace and infinite goodness and kindness as contained in his Word.

This doctrine of eternal suffering is not to be thought of in a merely academic fashion, as a theological tenet to be studied, accepted and then relegated to some obscure recess of the subconscious mind. It has been taught, still is taught, with fervor, as being indeed the sure fate of all members of our race who fail of salvation. Even as an idea it is fearful to contemplate. And should it be true, it becomes fearful beyond conception. To suffer excruciating pain for but a short time is a dread experience. But to think of such suffering (and perhaps worse) as never to come to an end, to go on unremittingly, without a moment’s respite forever—this staggers thought, is horrible beyond imagination. Yet it is just this that has been soberly, conscientiously taught. Though God is revealed as kind, gracious and loving (Ps. 103:8–14; 145:8, 9; Mat. 5:45; Lu. 9:35, 36), a Being benign beyond our best thoughts concerning Him, whose “mercy endureth forever” (Ps. 136), yet it is seriously, even calmly considered that this Benign Being, who notes even the sparrow’s fall (Mat. 10:29), and who could end the misery of man by ending his life, yet refuses to do this merciful and kindly thing. Instead, he maintains in life forever (for all life is of God, Isa. 42:5; Acts 17:25; I Tim. 6:13) those who are beyond moral repair, beyond recovery to holiness and happiness. These are kept in life when to live is torture, to remain alive is nought but ceaseless, grinding, unremitting pain—such pain, we might almost say, as would eventually put any being out of existence unless miraculously sustained in life. We are asked, not as an academic exercise, but as an eternal verity, to accept this doctrine, to believe seriously that it is this fate which awaits untold millions of our kind.

It is thought by many that this is the Biblical view, the view set forth in the pages of Holy Writ. As honest believers in the Bible, therefore, it is considered that one must hold this view, even though it does seem to disagree so radically with what that same Book declares concerning the love-nature and perfect justice of the Divine Being. The view is sustained, actually or supposedly, by various passages of Scripture, passages that will come up for later examination.

It is no use to fight against facts. So we ask, Is this the true doctrine? If it is, we must accept it. But—is it true?

Dissentient Voices

And here we note that there have been thousands of earnest Christians who have not acceded to the once popular and prevalent idea that eternal punishment is necessarily eternal torment. And these dissentient ones dissent from what they conceive to be a misinterpretation of Bible teaching, a misinterpretation dependent on ideas unknowingly borrowed from extra-biblical sources and unconsciously or unintentionally read into Bible phraseology. These have laid their own foundations deep in the Word of God and not in pagan philosophy. And such have conceived the teaching of God’s Word to be that life everlasting, endlessness of vital being, is not a natural possession of sinful man. God “hath immortality” (1 Tim. 6:16), but not so man. God has “life in himself” (Jn. 5:26), but man has not. In order to live forever, life eternal must be divinely imparted to him. He must “put on” at some future time that which now he does not possess, viz., immortality (1 Cor. 15:51–54). Man must therefore “seek for” immortality or incorruption (Rom. 2:7); must “lay hold on” that eternal life which is “the life indeed” (1 Tim. 6:12, 19, R. V.).

So Christ came as Life-giver, to give to dying men the actual gift of life, life everlasting, that they might “live” or “abide” forever (Jn. 3:16, 36; 6:33, 51; 10:10, 28; 20:31; 1 Jn. 2:17). By coming in saving touch with Him, men are made free from sin here and in the end have everlasting life (Rom. 6:22). On the other hand, those who fail to come into vitalizing contact with him are to lose life, even eternal life (Lu. 9:24; Jn. 12:25). Such are to die, perish, be destroyed, cease to be (Ps. 37:10).

Derisively, sometimes, the holders of this biblical view have been termed annihilationists. But when the ranks of these believers in conditionalism can boast such names as those of W. E. Gladstone, Archbishop Whately, Canon Constable; Profs. H. Olshausen, R. Rothe, H. Schultz, C. M. Butler, G. Stokes, C. F. Hudson; Drs. Wm. Leask, J. S. Heard, E. White, R. W. Dale, E. Beecher, G. D. Boardman (C. M. Sheldon, I think), C. H. Parkhurst, S. P. Cadman, etc., something more than derision becomes necessary. Indeed, when the ninth edition of Ency. Brit, was published, it was said: “The view that immortality is not inherent in fallen human nature, but is the gift of God in Christ, has had many supporters, and in this part of their system the advocates of annihilation justly claim the authority of many great names” (vii. 538).

And now, “to the law and to the testimony; if they speak not according to this Word, it is because there is no light in them” (Isa. 8:20).

Punished With Fire

Frequently it is represented in the Bible that the wicked are to be punished with fire. Thus the Judge comes “in flaming fire, rendering vengeance” (2 Thes. 1:7, 8). In Mat. 5:22 and 18:9, “hell fire” is literally “the Gehenna of fire.” So the “fiery indignation” of Heb. 10:27 is “indignation (or fierceness) of fire.” Though the word fire is Biblically employed “literally and metaphorically and eschatologically” (Souter), yet it hardly seems that, when used so frequently, it can all the time be used metaphorically in its eschatological connections.

Though it is a common Biblical representation that the wicked are to be punished with fire, yet many refined minds, even those to whom the doctrine of endless torment seems not repugnant, are stirred to revolt at the thought that real fire should be employed as an instrument of punishment. So they reject it as being literal, and many are the exegetical attempts to be rid of it as such. The more usual method appears to be to assume its non-literality as a fact and then let the ipse dixit of the expositor take the place of exposition. At times, however, the attempts are of a more serious character. Yet it is seldom indeed that we come across an attempt of this kind followed out thoroughly and systematically. Pastor Russell could perform the exegetical feat of getting rid of the literality of fire in the passage soon to be quoted. But such feat of exegetical legerdemaine is beyond us. If the water is intended as real, the fire is equally so intended. And note, it is this fire in which the unsaved are to meet destruction. The passage referred to is 2 Pet. 3:5–7:—

“But this they wilfully forget, that there were heavens from of old, and an earth compacted out of water and amidst water, by the word of God; by which means the world that then was, being overflowed with water, perished: but the heavens that now are, and the earth, by the same word have been stored up for fire (or, stored with fire), being reserved against the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men.”

Let us here admit that, in some passages containing imagery or metaphors, the word fire is but a part of the imagery. Yet many passages remain where this treatment will hardly do exegetical justice to the terms employed. For though we need not the literality of the fire to help out our side of the argument, yet we deem that a scientific handling of many of the passages can get out of them nothing but real fire. Still we do not here insist upon the literal nature of the fire. It is the Biblically-stated results of the action of said fire that is the real crux of the matter. Is that fire, whether considered metaphorical or literal, of a preservative or of a destructive quality? Does its action tend to conserve what is subjected to its action, or is its action of a wasting, consuming and destructive nature?

Eternal Or Unquenchable Fire

We have next to note that, not only does the Bible speak of fire as an instrument of punishment, but at times that fire is spoken of as eternal or unquenchable. Because of this, some leap to the conclusion that, as the fire is eternal, so what is cast therein must likewise be eternal; as the fire is unquenchable, so the life and torment of the wicked are equally unquenchable. Let us, however, examine the data—if not exhaustively, yet with sufficient fullness as to discover, if possible, what the real teaching is.

“And if thy hand or thy foot causeth thee to stumble, cut it off and cast it from thee; it is good for thee to enter into life maimed or halt, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into the eternal fire” (Mat. 18:8).

“Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into the eternal fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mat. 25:41).

“And if thy hand cause thee to stumble, cut it off; it is good for thee to enter into life maimed, rather than having thy two hands to go into Gehenna, into the unquenchable fire. And if thy foot cause thee to stumble, cut it off; it is good for thee to enter into life halt, rather than having thy two feet to be cast into Gehenna. And if thine eye cause thee to stumble, cast it out; it is good for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into Gehenna; where their worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched” (Mk. 9:43–48. This corrected reading is from the R. V.).

Here, then, are these Bible terms. What do they teach?

Now, we are not children quibbling over invented trifles. We are men looking for the facts. Doubtless, therefore, it will be conceded by both sides that, in whatsoever way the final judgment fire is spoken of, the reference is ever to the same fire. That is, the eternal fire, the unquenchable fire, or the fire mentioned without these qualifying terms, are not so many different fires. The fire is ever one and the same. If, then, it can be shown from the Bible that this fire does not consume and destroy its victims, but that instead said victims are possessed of an indestructible nature; have a quenchless, persistent, imperishable life under all conditions; are so constituted as to be deathless in the very essence of their being despite what forces may play upon them, and so are perfectly and eternally immune against any and all destructive or disintegrating forces,—it will thereby be shown that the endless living existence and ceaseless suffering of the lost is a Bible doctrine. On the other hand, if from Biblical data there is a failure to show this, but it shall be shown instead that the flames or forces of judgment are dissipa-tive, consumptive or exterminating in their effect, we shall naturally be led to the conclusion that the once prevalent view of eternal misery is a mistake—if not worse.

We even repeat, for the sake of emphasis and argument, that if this inflictive fire, eternal and unquenchable, preys upon an eternal being possessed of an unquenchable life, or should somehow so mysteriously operate upon its living fuel as to maintain it in living existence (see later), that will naturally settle the question. If, contrariwise, it should be Biblically revealed that the fire does not prey upon a necessarily eternal being, nor possess the property of rendering its fuel indestructible, but rather plays upon that which is capable of being dissipated and eradicated, this latter would seem to settle the matter. Should this fire destroy and not preserve, should it burn up and not merely burn so as to inflict pain, should it consume instead of torturing without consuming, it would appear as though the eternal and quenchless nature of the fire is not a guarantee of the eternal and quenchless nature of its victims.

Effects Of Judgment Fire

Turning first to the only passages in the Bible where the term “unquenchable fire” appears to make any definite statement of the effect of such fire on its victims, we discover this: (1) In said passages the phraseology is borrowed from harvest scenes and the wicked are referred to metaphorically. (2) In this metaphor, the wicked are compared to something of a singularly combustible and transient nature. (3) The effect of the unquenchable fire on this combustible material, instead of being preservative, is most decidedly destructive. Thus, speaking of Christ, it is said: —

“Whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly cleanse his (threshing) floor, and will gather the wheat into his garner; but the chaff he will burn with fire unquenchable” (Lu. 3:17).

Chaff, certainly, is a very perishable material. The effect of fire upon it is to devour or consume it completely. If, then, the wicked are as perishable as chaff submitted to the agency of fire, we would not be surprised had we found, not the simple verb burn, but its stronger form, burn up. And in the Greek and in the R. V., this is what we do find. The verb is κατακαίω, not simply :burn up and not simply καίω; burn. If, then, common fire at harvest time burns up or consumes the chaff that is subjected to its action, so at God’s final harvest day the unquenchable fire burns up or consumes the wicked. Thus eternal fire does not make eternal (nor signify the eternity of) what is cast into it. Unquenchable fire does not make unquenchable (nor signify the unquenchableness of) the life and being of those on whom it preys. Nor is there any accompanying hint to indicate their possession of an indestructible, imperishable or non-consumable nature— either in body or soul—a fact that will come out many times as we proceed. Meanwhile we enforce the above by citing the other passage referred to: “He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Mat. 3:12). Truly, the fire that “goeth before him” is not preservative in its effect. Instead, it “burneth up his enemies round about” (Ps. 97:3).

We can conceive of some things being burned, yet not being burned up or consumed. Thus the burning bush is said to have “burned with fire” though it was “not consumed” (Ex. 3:2). Now, should the Bible anywhere affirm such to be the result of the last day fire upon the wicked, such affirmation would long since have been widely exploited. But when the Bible makes the opposite statement, that the wicked are to be burned up,—well, it has been convenient to forget that fact or else to pass it by unnoticed. Yet, as a fact, it is just this that the Bible affirms, to burn up.

We call attention next to the parable of the Wheat and Tares, Mat. 13. As to the tares, the householder said: “Bind them in bundles to burn them” (ver. 30). Here again, however, the verb used is not simply burn. It is the intensified form (katakaio), answering to our burn up or consume by burning. This, of course, is what in actual practice occurred to chaff (Lu. 3:17), stubble (Mai. 4:1), dry branches (Jn. 15:6), animal fat on the altar (Ps. 37:20), etc. And, in Bible teaching, the wicked are never compared to unburnable, non-combustible, imperishable things. They ever are compared to what is combustible, burnable, perishable—in itself a very significant fact. As these perishable things can be burned up and so put out of identical or individual existence by the action of fire, thus complete also is the destruction, the burning up, of the wicked. So our Saviour, when he came to his exposition of this parable, after referring to the burning up of the tares, carries out the signification thus: “As therefore the tares are gathered and burned up in the fire, so shall it be at the end of this world” (ver. 40). For here again the verb is the intensified form, burn up. This terrible fate is, to be sure, accompanied by intense suffering (40–42). Yet eventually the suffering ceases in the death of the sufferer, when he is “burned up” and so put out of individual existence.

This same terrible but divine truth had already been strongly put in the O. T. Thus we read: —

“For behold, the day cometh that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble; and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the Lord of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch” (Mai. 4:1).

We do not say that it could not be put stronger, nor more plainly. Yet we hardly see how it could be. There it is, in all the plainness, pointedness and positiveness of emphatic assertion. And there is not so much as an intimation of continued life and being. The terms, figurative and non-figurative, point to the complete extirpation of the wicked in all that constitutes their personality. No hint is given that anything, some eternal but unmentioned part of them, is left out. As completely as what constitutes a vegetable specimen what it is consumed by fire so whatever constitutes the wicked what they are (no matter what such may be) is totally consumed and destroyed. No intimation is given that the victims of that dread conflagration remain alive, intact and unconsumed. The work of that fire is to destroy, and that totally and finally; to burn up as completely as when dry plantal material is burnt up root and branch.

But the Bible carries out this idea even farther. For instance, we usually deem anything, when it has been reduced to ashes, as totally destroyed for what it was. It is then gone, beyond repair and recover. Thus a house, a boat, a stick of wood, a basket of waste paper, a heap of chaff, etc., when such are burnt to ashes, we consider them irrecoverably gone, completely destroyed as the things which once they were. Their scattered particles may still exist somewhere in a dissipated state, yet the things themselves are gone. Now, it is just this way that the Bible looks at the wicked in the state to which the penal fire will reduce them. Instead of their being left in their integrity as personal beings, left in sentient and excruciating existence, they are as personal beings actually and utterly destroyed. Indeed, we may here forestall a philosophical objection that is likely to arise, and say that, Biblically, the wicked, not as to their bodies alone, but as to themselves, are so totally “burnt up” by the consuming fire that preys upon them that “they” are said to be ashes.

As, in their overthrow, the cities Sodom and Gomorrah were turned to ashes (2 Pet. 2:6), as the burnt offering was consumed to ashes by the altar fire (Lev. 6:9, 10), so by the fire of judgment are the wicked to become ashes. For the verse following the one last cited pronounces a blessing upon the righteous; and it is then declared: “And ye shall tread down the wicked; for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet in the day that I shall do this, saith the Lord of hosts” (Mal. 4:3).

If by any the idea here set forth may be considered crude, or crudely put, that lies not at our door. Yet after declaring that the wicked shall be burned up and left neither root nor branch, there comes this statement of their being ashes. A fate so described is terrible to contemplate. Yet how merciful it is when compared to keeping them alive in misery. It is horrible to think of painted savages as they dance gleefully about the stake where an agonized victim is burning, and whom they keep alive to suffer as long as possible. Yet at their worst, they cannot keep their victim alive beyond a certain point of endurance. But GOD can. And some think that he will. But his Word says No! For the action upon them of the destructive forces employed in final judgment mercifully results in their dissolution. They are to be “burned up,” become “ashes.” Even among the Jews, who had accepted from the Greeks their philosophical concept of the soul’s independent immortality, the school of Hillel held concerning some that “they are tormented in Gehenna for twelve months, after which their bodies and souls are burnt up and scattered as dust under the feet of the righteous” (Edersheim, Life of Jesus, ii. 792). The wording of this idea is doubtless drawn from Mal. 4:1–3.

The Gehenna Of Fire

The advocates of eternal torment are singularly inconsistent when they come to consider Gehenna. They are obliged, historically and topographically, to call attention to Ge-Hinnom, the valley of Hinnom, to its use as a place of heathen worship, to its defilement by Josiah, to its after use as a place of discard, a sort of dumping ground for the refuse and offal of Jerusalem. They refer to the dead bodies of animals and criminals there, on which worms feed; also to the fires kept burning to consume the accumulated wastage. And everything that they show (by the devouring worm and consuming fire) is a process of destruction, a getting rid of things offensive and worthless. To carry out the lesson, they would have to tell us that the future Gehenna, so typified, would likewise be a place of consumption, destruction. But let us see.

F. B. Meyer, a contributor to the book, Is There a Hell?, after referring to Josiah’s defilement of the valley, then says: “From that time it became the common cesspool and scrap-heap of the city, where offal was cast and the bodies of animals and criminals were allowed to rot. As there was no river to carry off the drainage of the city, recourse was had to fires, which were left burning day and night to destroy the waste materials,” etc.

Certainly, “to destroy the waste materials,” not to conserve them nor torment them. When later, therefore, Meyer says that when Jesus “threatened the Scribes and Pharisees with the judgment of Gehenna, he predicted the peril of being cast among the waste products of the universe, and of suffering so intense that only the keen edge of fire could portray it” (p. 24f), he was anything but logical or Biblical. To be this he should have said: “He predicted the peril of being cast among the waste products of the universe and of destruction so complete that only fire could portray it.” “Waste products” are not subjected to the action of fire to make them “suffer” but to “destroy” them.

So another writer: “We know that fires were always kept burning there to consume the rubbish. Gehenna was to the city of Jerusalem what the rockpile incinerator is to some army camps” (Buswell, Bibliotheca Sacra, October, 1925, p. 455).

Exactly! “to consume the rubbish.” And is an army camp “incinerator” for the purpose of preserving things? and making them suffer? or for the purpose of burning them up and so getting rid of them?

At any rate, that is what the Bible declares will occur to “the waste products of the universe.” The effect of Gehenna fire is to “destroy,” “consume,” “burn up.” And, no matter what theory we hold, we will be obliged to acquiesce.

The Historian Eusebius

But let us get back to the term unquenchable fire. Having noted the destructive, consuming agency of that fire, we might ask: If, as some think, an unquenchable fire is one that does not burn up or consume, but is instead one that inflicts unremitting torture on its victims, how is it that Eusebius used the term as he did? He used it historically, not to describe an ever-burning fire that inflicts ever-continuing torment, but as a fire so fierce and devouring that it consumed its victims. Thus quoting Dionysius concerning those who suffered martyrdom at Alexandria, he said that Julian and Cronion “were scourged and finally consumed in an immense fire. . . . After these, Epimachus and Alexander . . . were also destroyed in an immense fire” (Eccl. Hist., Bk. vi., ch. 41). My copy is Cruse’s translation, with notes selected from the edition of Valesius. A note informs us that the expression twice translated “immense fire” is πυρὶ ὐσβέστῳ, exactly the same as that in Mat. 3:12; Lu. 3:17, and translated unquenchable fire. Yet this fire is stated to have “consumed” and “destroyed” its victims. In like manner we have seen that the unquenchable fire of Gehenna is to consume, destroy, burn up, its victims. And this Bible fact is unanswerable as against that false and un-Biblical view that demands the endless, unconsumed being of the lost amid fires (or forces) that do not consume but merely torture.

Our Questions Answered

To certain questions earlier asked relative to the effect of Gehenna fire on the wicked, we thus far find the Bible to give a clear-cut answer. That answer, found many times, is virtually this (as we shall proceed further to show):The judgment fire, the fire of Gehenna, devours, consumes, destroys, burns up. It does not conserve, preserve or keep intact. Instead, its action is unequivocally stated to be of so wasting, devouring, consuming or destroying a character that it effectually and totally destroys that upon which it preys. Let us note some other words actually used and the ideas actually stated.


“Thy hand will find out all thine enemies;
Thy right hand will find out those that hate thee.
Thou wilt make them as a fiery furnace in the time of thine anger;

Jehovah will swallow them up in his wrath,
And the fire shall devour them” (Ps. 21:8, 9).
“Our God cometh, and doth not keep silence;
A fire devoureth before him” (Ps. 50:3).

This word devour (or its correlatives or synonyms) is often used relative to the action of fire. It does not, in ordinary language, denote any preservational process or tendency on the part of fire, but the exact opposite. Instead of maintaining the form, integrity and individuality of the thing devoured, it is expressive of a wasting or disintegrating process that disintegrates the object and destroys it as regards those individual qualities or properties which made it what it was. Thus when fire devours a dry branch, that branch is so acted upon by the fire’s combustive potency that it becomes disintegrated, part of it being thrown off as smoke and part of it sinking down into a shapeless residue of ashes. Thus the form, integrity and being of the branch as a branch are done away.

So as regards the wicked as persons, the fire of Gehenna does not so operate as to hold them intact in the integrity of individual being. Its action operates to their actual death, destruction, disintegration. Thus we are informed of “a fierceness of fire which shall devour the adversaries” (Heb. 10:27).

Concerning Nadab and Abihu, in actual historic fact, it is said: “There went out fire from the Lord and devoured them, and they died before the Lord” (Lev. 10:2). This devouring fire resulted in their death. So when the lost are finally devoured at our Lord’s judgment coming, it will result in their death, in that penal death that will be the total and everlasting extinction of their life and being. Thus shall the lamp of the wicked “be put out in obscure darkness” (Prov. 13:9; 20:20).

Consume.—That was a strange, an awesome, a miraculous sight that met Moses’ gaze when “the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed” (Ex. 3:2). This, to the awed spectator, was something new and mysterious in connection with the action of fire. The nature of fire is to consume anything of a combustible nature that it acts upon. Only by some preventive or preservative act would fire under such circumstances fail to consume. And as to the action of judgment fire on the lost, there is no such preventing or preserving intervention. Rather, it is expressly affirmed that the fire does consume. For “the wicked shall perish, and the enemies of the Lord shall be as the fat of lambs; they shall consume; in smoke shall they consume away” (Ps. 37:20).

Could complete and effectual consumption be stated more clearly? This consuming fire will leave the wicked alive at the judgment no more than on that historic occasion thus recorded: “And Elijah answered and said to the captain of fifty, If I be a man of God, then let fire come down from heaven and consume thee and thy fifty. And there came down fire from heaven and consumed him and his fifty” (2 Kin. 1:10). So effectually did this take away their present life, that another captain later besought Elijah: “0 man of God, let my life, and the life of these fifty thy servants, be precious in thy sight. Behold, there came fire down from heaven and burnt up the two captains of the former fifties with their fifties; therefore let my life now be precious in thy sight” (ver. 13, 14).

When, at that notable trial on Mt. Carmel, it is said that “the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt sacrifice, etc., and licked up the water that was in the trench” (1 Kin. 18:38), no one believes that these words are intended to convey the idea that the sacrifices, etc., remained unconsumed. So when the Bible declares that the final fire will consume the wicked, why have we read so often (as we have) that said fire will not consume the wicked but will leave them unconsumed?

To which shall we adhere, to the Bible or to its opposite?

In this connection we may state that we have repeatedly noticed, have even noted recently, such a passage as Heb. 12:29 used to sustain the doctrine of the endless life and misery of the lost. This is surely a strange handling of language. For in order for a victim to be preserved alive and tormented in fire (whether real or metaphorical), said fire must be of a non-consuming instead of a consuming nature. To meet this difficulty, certain earlier thinkers devised a special kind of fire. This mysterious type of fire possessed the strange property of repairing what it wasted, of replenishing what it consumed—if, indeed, it consumed at all. Constable, e. g., in his Duration and Nature of Future Punishment, comments on that “strange philosophical opinion as to the nature and qualities of a kind of fire which by some was called ‘secret’ and by some ‘divine.’ . . . We have thus the idea, represented as a common one, of a fire which perpetually burned and perpetually reproduced what it fed on, and this fire was supposed by the Christian fathers in general to be identical in this property with the fire of hell.” He noted Tertullian’s conception of this fire which “does not consume what it scorches, but while it burns it repairs,” and of “the fire eternal” and “the endless judgment which still supplies punishment with fuel” (p. 250, 296).

But the judgment fire of the Bible does not belong to this imaginary “does not consume” variety. The Bible fire “consumes.” Such fact could not be stated more clearly. The reason why the earlier expositors of the doctrine of endless suffering emphasized the device of a fire that “does not consume” is obvious. They held a theory contrary to the Bible. That theory they purposed to maintain. Result—this fictional fire that “does not consume.”

But neither this earlier device nor any later device can avail to do away with the idea as Biblically set forth. For God, in His judgment action on the wicked, is not a conserving but “a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29); not a fire that repairs, but one that wastes and consumes. If words may be allowed to possess any distinctive meaning, then it seems absolutely sure that the retention of the sinner’s being in agony is not taught in the expression “consuming fire” even when used of God. The very opposite would appear to be the idea intended.

Words Not Connected With Fire

The word consume is likewise used in the Bible to designate the destiny of the wicked when said word is not associated with the word fire. In such cases the word, if we may judge from the analogy of Scripture, has the general meaning of slay, put to death, take the life of. Thus in this present mortal state, men might be consumed by the sword, by famine, pestilence, beasts, etc. (Gen. 19:17; Ex. 33:5; Deut. 28:21; Jer. 14:12, 15; Zeph. 1:3).

As to man’s final fate we read: —

“Let sinners be consumed out of the earth” (Ps. 104:35).

“They that forsake the Lord shall be consumed” (Isa. 1:28).

Of the Wicked One it is said, “whom the Lord shall consume with the spirit of his mouth, and shall destroy with the brightness of his coming” (or R. V., “shall slay with the breath of his mouth, and bring to nought by the manifestation of his coming,” 2 Thes. 2:8).

As in the passages which, during the historical period, refer to consuming or taking one’s life; so, as regards the final consuming, the meaning can be no less than that of the ultimate taking of life. As here when consumed by famine, pestilence, beasts, etc., they literally lose all life as connected with this present state; so, when consumed at last by whatever agencies may act upon them then, they lose life so completely as to pass from the state of living existence.

Perish.—Those who believe in Christ shall not perish, but shall have eternal life (Jn. 3:16). To his sheep Christ gives eternal life, and “they shall never perish” (10:28). But “the wicked shall perish” (Ps. 37:20). “For lo, thine enemies, O Lord . . . shall perish” (92:9). So the Bible speaks of “them that perish,” or “them that are perishing” (1 Cor. 1:18; 2 Cor. 2:15). Even the heathen who have sinned without law are to perish (Rom. 2:12).

As Biblically used of man’s present state, to perish is frequently seen to signify the loss of life or the infliction of death.1 So in our common, everyday usage, in newspapers and elsewhere, perish signifies the loss of life. Even in scientific, philosophical and theological discussion, it is often used to express the idea of going out of existence (see later). And when it comes to the language of retribution, we never have seen any real reason advanced why perish does not have a like signification, the loss of life or of living existence.

Says Dr. S. G. Smith: “Every form of being is either fitted to a suitable environment, or it perishes.” So fish; so bird; and “man is no exception to this law of life” (Retribution, p. 30f).

True indeed! And unless man, as a moral being, becomes fitted to his one suitable and perfect environment, he is to perish. We might say that this is so in the very nature of the case. And we assuredly say that it is so in Divine Revelation. Perish is a word used by the Son of God himself. Those who by faith and holy obedience fit into the environment of heaven shall not perish (Jn. 3:15, 16; 10:28). But he who does not acquiesce in the divine demands by repentance and faith shall perish (Lu. 13:3, 5). Perish is exactly the word that is Biblically employed; and as in scientific speech that word signifies (as above cited) the literal loss of life and being on part of the living organism, so in the inspired Word of God does it have like meaning.

Perhaps no verse in the Bible is better known than Jn. 3:16, comprising, as it does, the love of God, the sending of God’s Son, and the alternatives of eternal life or perishing. But if the doctrine of ceaseless life in the pains of hell is the true doctrine of punishment, then to perish must mean to live and suffer forever. It must mean this just as much as though it were clearly stated that way. As, however, in the numerous passages where perish occurs it is never so stated, the idea that perish means to live and suffer eternally must come from somewhere else in the Bible—if so be, indeed, that this is the Bible doctrine. Yet there is no passage where the word perish occurs where there is any hint that those who perish are to live forever and suffer forever.

This in itself would not, of course, prove that perish does not have the above meaning. That meaning, however, has to be found elsewhere. Yet so far from that meaning being findable in the Bible, it is quite a different meaning that there is findable. That other meaning is that perish is the practical equivalent of dying, losing life and so coming to an end of living existence.

(a) It stands directly opposed to eternal life.

(b) When historically or ordinarily employed it often means to die.

(c) When Biblically employed, the same fate as die, death, be consumed, destroyed, burnt up and cease to be.

(d) Only some highly wrought, fanciful or tropical interpretation can make it mean an eternity of misery.

(g) In extra-Biblical discussion, it is used very commonly to state the concept of the ultimate and complete dissolution even of the soul. To this we give some attention.

The ordinary meaning of perish is so decidedly, when of a living being, that of losing life, or living existence, that numberless times do the advocates of human imperishability employ this very word when they desire to mention the opposite idea, that of total dissolution or utter extinction of being. Modern examples could be adduced without end. But passing these by, let us go immediately to the fountainhead, so to speak. And first, from Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations.

“In our knowledge of the soul . . . we cannot but be satisfied that it has nothing but what is simple, unmixed, uncompounded and single; and if this is admitted, then it cannot be separated, nor divided, nor dispersed, nor parted, and therefore it cannot perish; for to perish implies a parting asunder, a division, a disunion of those parts which, while it subsisted, were held together by some band,” etc.

“Others think that there is no such departure (of the soul from the body), but that soul and body perish together, and that the soul is extinguished with the body.”

“But now they have made a very fine acquisition in learning that when the day of their death arrives they will perish entirely” (Bk. I, xxix, ix, xxi).

As to the significance here of the word perish there can be no mistake. And why, in its penal employment in the Bible, it does not have a similar signification has never been satisfactorily explained. Moreover, practically the only reason why it is ever argued to have there some different meaning (as that of endless life in misery) appears to be an a priori supposition of human imperish-ableness. We might put it thus: —

An imperishable being cannot perish.

But the Bible says “the wicked shall perish.”

Therefore the Bible is not true. Either this, or else the Bible word perish must be given some other meaning. This last is what is usually done.

Might we not put the real case as follows?—

That which can perish is not imperishable.

The Bible says the wicked can perish.

Therefore the wicked are not imperishable.

But we turn to Plato: —

“Cebes . . . argued that it is uncertain to every one whether, when the soul has worn out many bodies, and that repeatedly, it does not, on leaving the last body, itself also perish, so that this very thing is death, the destruction of the soul” (Phaedo, sec. 91). Again: “If that which is immortal is imperishable, it is impossible for the soul to perish, when death approaches” (sec. 126).

This shows us Plato’s use of the word perish. As regards the last excerpt we might leave out the “if” and say that, so far as Divine revelation is concerned, that nowhere states that man, either in body or soul, is immortal and so imperishable. Instead, the Bible reveals man as wholly perishable. If perish with Paul means what it did with Plato, or if with Christ what it did with Cicero, then there is no possible evasion. To perish simply cannot be made to mean to live forever in misery. It signifies the obliteration of living existence, just as, in so many ways, the Bible says. From this conclusion there seems no logical escape.

Destroy; destruction.—The wicked “shall be destroyed for ever” (Ps. 92:7); “shall suddenly be destroyed, and that without remedy” (Prov. 29:1); “sudden destruction cometh upon them” (1 Thes. 5:3); “whose end is destruction” (Phil. 3:19); “shall suffer punishment, even eternal destruction,” etc. (2 Thes. 2:9).

Destroy is another word Biblically used to show the utter end of the wicked. Yet we are seriously informed that such word does not signify the “annihilation” of the wicked, but only “the utter ruin and loss of the soul”; that it denotes “such a perversion of its faculties, such a ruin of its purity and peace, as renders the spirit incapable of fulfilling its proper end” (King; Mead),— definitions that are made to order to suit a theory. The reasoning that compasses such an end might be put something like this.

The Bible threatens destruction to man, both body and soul.

But (so we have decreed) the soul is indestructible, cannot be destroyed.

Destruction, therefore, cannot mean destruction, but only some unhappy state of the soul.

It is one thing for a man to have his health destroyed, his character destroyed, his fortune destroyed, his peace destroyed, his happiness destroyed; but it is quite a different thing to have himself destroyed. Yet, according to Bible phraseology, it is this last that awaits the impenitent. Ethically he is already destroyed, according to definitions furnished by our opponents. He is so bent and twisted and deformed and corrupted by sin that it “renders (his) spirit incapable of fulfilling its proper end.” We might say that his peace also is already destroyed. “There is no peace, saith my God, to the wicked” (Isa. 57:21). The destruction that awaits him is penal. And it is the destruction of himself as a personal being. This the Bible states unambiguously. “Thou wilt destroy them that speak lies” (Ps. 5:6). “As for transgressors, they shall be destroyed together” (37:38). “All the wicked will he destroy” (145:20). It is “them that know not God and them that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus, who shall suffer punishment, even eternal destruction from the face of the Lord” (2 Thes. 1:8, 9). Thus it is the sinner himself, not something belonging to him, that is to suffer final and complete destruction at the judgment day, a destruction that puts him out of living existence.

(Final Fate of the Wicked, Sec. II.)


1) Ex. 19:21; Lev. 26:38; Num. 17:12; Deut. 4:26; 28:20–22; Mk. 4:38; Lu. 11:51; 13:33; 15:17; Acts 5:37; Heb. 11:31.