The “Forever and Ever” Passages. We have shown that the Bible does not promise or even imply that the lost will have another chance for salvation after death. We have also observed that the Greek words translated “perish” or “destroy” in relation to hell can either denote eternal conscious ruin or eventual extinction of being. So it’s important for us to consider the Greek terms that are usually translated “everlasting,” “eternal,” or “forever and ever” in the Bible. In relation to hell, do they really denote endlessness? And do they indicate that the lost will endure conscious punishment throughout all eternity?
In view is the Greek word aion (usually rendered “forever” or “eternal”) and the Greek expression tous aionas ton aionon (normally rendered “forever and ever”). In and by themselves, they do not necessarily denote eternity. When Jewish scholars translated the Old Testament from Hebrew to Greek, they used the term aion to denote the “everlasting hills” of Genesis 49:26 and to depict the servant who voluntarily had his ear pierced to indicate that he wished to remain with his marter “forever” (Deuteronomy 15:17). Paul counseled Philemon to receive Onesimus back as his slave “forever” (Philemon 15). In all of these cases, the word aion relates to this world only, not to eternity. But the same term was also used to depict God as the eternal One, “from everlasting to everlasting” (Psalm 41:13; 90:2; 106:48). It is obvious that the context must determine when this term denotes a span of time and when it denotes absolute endlessness.
Kittel’s Theological Testament tells us that when aion is used in any of its forms in relation to this world, it denotes the “time or duration of the world.” But when used of God or the world entered at death, it denotes “timeless eternity.” The Greek mind basically thought in terms of two ages, the present age that will end and the future age that is timeless. The New Testament writers “borrowed” this usage. Whenever they used the word aion in relation to God, spiritual realities, or life after death, they had absolute timelessness or never-ending eternity in mind (see Volume 1, pp. 197-209).
The words aion and aionion are used several times in relation to the fate of those who die in unbelief or rebellion. Jesus declared that after His judgment of the nations the lost will “go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matthew 25:46). Of the people who will worship the Antichrist and his image, we read, “And the smoke of their torment ascends forever and ever; and they have no rest day or night” (Revelation 14:11). In addition, the beast, the false prophet, and Satan will be cast into the lake of fire, where “they will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (Revelation 20:10).
The Greek word translated “tormented” in these last two verses is basanizo which, according to the lexicons, denotes physical or mental distess, torture, or harassment. Only conscious beings can suffer this way. Therefore, we must conclude that eternal conscious suffering is denoted in these passages.
In summary, the future of those who die as unbelievers or rebels is not pleasant to contemplate. When Jesus talked about hell, He spoke of “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:12), of “the fire that shall never be quenched” (Mark 9:43, 45), and of a place “where their worm does not die” (Mark 9:44, 46, 48). Even if many verses are inconclusive regarding the eternal conscious suffering of the lost, Revelation 14:11 and 20:10 indicate that at the very least, some of the lost will suffer conscious torment for all eternity.
We must be careful that we do not go beyond the Scriptures and portray hell as a place where all the lost will scream in pain forever and ever. This picture gives a wrong impression of God. He is not only perfectly holy and just, but He will be absolutely fair in punishment. Jesus pointed out that on the day of judgment the inhabitants of ancient Sodom would be treated with more mercy that the people in Judea who had deliberately rejected Him and His apostles (Matthew 10:15). He also spoke of the servant who would be punished lightly because he had little knowledge of God’s will (Luke 12:48).
C.S. Lewis, in his book The Great Divorce, pictures the lost as having to live with themselves and one another unchanged from what they were on earth. He portrays them as moving slowly and inexorably farther and farther from reality through eternity. He admitted that his work was not a theological treatise and didn’t want it to be interpreted as such. But he wanted to make us realize that even if there were no extreme physical pain, hell would be a terrible place. It is a fact that actions from habits and habits develop character. Unless a person has been born again through faith in Christ, he will go into eternity with a nature that has been fixed in this life. He dies a sinner and will be a sinner forever, but he will be unable to carry out his evil thoughts or inclinations. He will be in torment, but his nature will be so twisted by his evil desires that he will perfer the misery of hell to the kind of activities that occupy the saints in heaven.
It is perhaps wise for us to avoid excessive speculation about the suffering of hell. We can’t understand the concept of eternity. And we don’t know just what the bodies of the unredeemed in hell will be like. It is designed to motivate believers to do all they can to reach people with the gospel. It is designed to show us how terrible sin is in the sight of an awesomely holy God. Therefore, although we cannot visualize either the timelessness of eternity or the exact nature of hell’s suffering, we can be moved to godly fear and proper action. And we can ultimately trust God to do what is right by friends and relatives who for one reason or another refuse the gospel. With Abraham of old we can ask the rhetorical question, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25), and leave the matter to Him.