Hell is Not Eternal (Forever Without End): Jonah 2:6
The claim that Hell is eternal is commonly heard in some Christian churches. Certain denominations press the issue of eternal Hellfire more so than others. Baptists and Presbyterians are especially noted for their adamant stance that Hell is eternal, but one hears less of this in Catholic, Lutheran, or Episcopal churches.
Eternal damnation is often cited as a biblically supported doctrine. The New Testament mentions "eternal fire" or separation from God "forever and ever":
"And if your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; it is better for you to enter life crippled or lame, than having two hands or two feet, to be cast into the eternal fire" (Matt. 18:8 ).
"And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life" (Matt. 25:46 ).
"And these will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power," (2 Thess. 1:9 ).
"Just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities around them, since they in the same way as these indulged in gross immorality and went after strange flesh, are exhibited as an example, in undergoing the punishment of eternal fire" (Jude 7 ).
"These men are those who are hidden reefs in your love feasts when they feast with you without fear, caring for themselves; clouds without water, carried along by winds; autumn trees without fruit, doubly dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea, casting up their own shame like foam; wandering stars, for whom the black darkness has been reserved forever," (Jude12-13 ).
"And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever; and they have no rest day and night, those who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name" (Rev 14:11).
"And the devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are also; and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever" (Rev. 20:10 ).
"And His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire" (Matt 3:12).
"And if your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life crippled, than having your two hands, to go into hell, into the unquenchable fire" (Mark 9:43).
In English, these passages are compelling evidence for a biblically-supported doctrine of eternal, without end, damnation. In Greek, the picture is a little different. The Greek word translated as "forever" is aionas and the phrase "forever and ever" is aionas ton aionon. These terms refer to time, but not necessarily to a period without end. Sometimes an era or an age is called an aionas. This era could be the span of a Roman emperor's administration or a span of time whose boundaries are unknown, hence possibly so long that it might be characterized as "forever and ever."
Many Christians who believe in eternal-without-end damnation note that the phrase "eternal life" in the New Testament is often juxtaposed by the phrase "eternal punishment" in an effort to show that punishment, like eternal life, is eternal without end. When we die, we either go to be with Jesus for eternity or we go to Hell for eternity. But this characterization of eternal punishment misses two very important thoughts:
1) God is Eternal and we are eternal, but, unlike God, we had a beginning. So, there are different ways of being "eternal," Eternal without a beginning (if that is the true nature of God) and eternal without end (our nature).
2) The biblical allusions to the Fall of the angels from Heaven (see Genesis 6:1-22; Isaiah 14:12; Ezekiel 28:12-19; Jude 1:6; 2 Peter 2:4; Revelation 12:9) show that life in Heaven, i.e. what Christians call "eternal life," is not necessarily everlasting after all. If Christians of today claim that residency in Heaven requires accepting Jesus as their Lord and Savior and as the Regent of Heaven itself, shouldn't this also hold true for ALL residents of Heaven such as angels, archangels, etc.? It must. Christ didn't suddenly become Lord after His resurrection (John 1:1), for Paul alludes to His presence guiding Moses and the Hebrews in the desert (wilderness) centuries before His incarnation (1 Cor 10:4). The narrative of the fall of the angels suggests that residency in Heaven apparently depends on certain standards, despite God's Love for all. Christians claim that Satan (or Lucifer) was at one time a high ranking angel in Heaven. Was his stay in Heaven everlasting? No. Might this suggest that our "eternity" in Heaven is conditional as well? So, "eternal life" has the potential to be "eternal" without end, but only insofar as the spirit is able to maintain the proper mindset for residency in Heaven.
The point here is that one cannot make an argument that eternal fire and punishment are everlasting in the same way that eternal life is everlasting. As it turns out, "eternal" residency in Heaven can be cut at any time. This is not because God is a monster, but because His spirits have been given the freedom to choose as they will. Sometimes they are misled and choose wrongly. The story of Adam and Eve is meant to convey this point. The spirits in Heaven, as mighty as they may be, are imperfect and prone to error. See Job 4:18 and Job 15:15. We, too, are under the very same stipulations and conditions.
Eternal punishment is a misconception so barbaric that is has driven many human souls away from God. The Greek word aionas does not truly mean everlasting. It may, indeed, indicate a long period of time but, on occasion, it was used in the Greek to indicate as short a time as a man's life. The essence of the word is that it is a time period of indefinite length, not eternal length. In certain places where the Greek word occurred, it was nonsensical to translate it as "eternal" or, in the noun form, "eternity." It was then translated as "world", or as "age", because "eternal" made no sense. This is the case in, "(God) Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son . . . by whom also he made the WORLDS" (Heb 1:2). The word "eternities" would make no sense here. The same problem arises in: "Through faith we understand that the WORLDS were framed by the word of God" (Heb 11:3), where "eternities" would be nonsensical.
Souls are spoken of as being delivered from Hell (see Psa 85:13) or brought up from Hell (1 Sam 2:6). Certain spirits confined in these regions were visited and preached to by Christ after His crucifixion (1 Pet 3:18-19). The obvious intent was to somehow set them free. Otherwise, we must ascribe to Christ the taunting and sadistic act of dangling escape from their misery in front of suffering spirits who could never attain it. Other references to spirits being brought out of Sheol, or the pit, or Satan's dungeons, are found in Job 33:30, Psa 30:3, 86:13, 102:20, and Isa 42:7, 61:1.
We now come to Jonah 2:6:
"I descended to the roots of the mountains. The earth with its bars was around me forever, But You have brought up my life from the pit, O LORD my God."
The Hebrew word translated as "forever" here in this verse is 'olam. It has the meaning of "indefinite futurity." In the Greek translation of the Old Testament (known as the LXX or Septuagint) the Greek word that translates Hebrew 'olam is aionioi, "forever," the very Greek word used in the New Testament for "eternal life" and "eternal fire/punishment." Notice that the Hebrew afterlife, Sheol, is expressed by common Old Testament metaphors in this verse: "roots of the mountains" (indicating the depth to which a soul plunges away from God while going to Sheol), "bars of the earth" (indicating the heavy imprisonment of a soul while in Sheol), and "the pit," a common synonym for Sheol in the Old Testament. Jonah laments that he has descended to this place, the lower spiritual dimensions of Creation we know as "Hell." He further laments that his stay there will be 'olam, "FOREVER." But notice in the very next line: You have BROUGHT UP MY LIFE FROM THE PIT. This verse clearly shows that Jonah's stay in the pit was never to be everlasting. "Forever" here then does not mean "everlasting." The utility of such a verse as Jonah 2:6 is the light that it gives on other passages in the New Testament that speak of "eternal fire" and "eternal punishment" and "unquenchable fire." We can surmise that from Jonah 2:6 a stay in Sheol is not everlasting. Thus, the New Testament equivalent, Hades, is not a place of everlasting punishment.
Why "fire"? The symbol of fire as an agent of purification or destruction is widely used in the Scriptures. God's words are like a burning fire (Jer 20:9, 23:29), yet they are not for injury but for healing. God is spoken of as a consuming fire (Deut 4:24, Heb 12:29), and His anger and wrath are pictured as fire (Deut 32:22, Psa 89:46, Jer 15:14, Ezek 22:31, 38:19). We shall all be baptized in a symbolic fire (Matt 3:11), and symbolic fire was to melt Jerusalem (Jer 9:7, Ezek 22:18-22). Israel was a fire which would destroy Esau (Obad 18). Wickedness burns like a flame (Isa 9:18) and the lips of evil men are like a burning fire (Prov 16:27), while an uncontrolled tongue is a fire which "defileth the whole body . . . and it is set on fire of hell" (Jas 3:6). No literal fire, however, issues from the tongue or lips.
When the Hebrews were in slavery in Egypt, they labored "in the very fire" (Habb 2:13), and were in a "furnace of iron" (Deut 4:20). When David mourned that the pains of Hell had gotten hold of him (Psa 116:3), he was sad and troubled, but not on fire. At the moment the King of Tyre was in power, he had already been consumed by fire and reduced entirely to ashes (Ezek 28:11-19).
Jesus points out that everyone will be salted with fire (Mark 9:49), and then quite remarkably adds, "Salt (fire) is good" (Mark 9:50). In Jesus' day, salt was used as an agent of ritual purification. Sacrifices were sprinkled with salt before being presented to God on the altar. In a similar way, the purpose of the fire of suffering is to purify the thoughts of the spirits enduring it. The fire of bitter experience is a tool for teaching souls. "Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tested you in the furnace of affliction" (Isa 48:10). God proves us as silver is tested for purity by melting it (Psa 66:10). We are in fact now in His symbolic refining pot for silver and His furnace for gold, wherein God assays the desires of our hearts (Prov 17:3). Our faith in Him is "more precious than gold" and it is "tried by fire" (1 Pet 1:7). We see then that fire is a symbol and not a literal reality.
The doctrine of eternal Hell has long been used as a bludgeon to subdue Christians and to threaten non-Christians. Its claim to authenticity rests far more on centuries of tradition than on the Scriptures. Even at that, it was not universally accepted in the formative centuries of Christianity. We note only the example of Augustine of Hippo (c. 400 AD), who argues in "The Eight Questions of Dulcitus" against those who believed Hell was eternal with the words, "They wish, in fact, to maintain that punishment endures as eternal as reward. But, in answer to them the judgment of the Gospel is prescribed which reads: 'Thou shalt not go out from thence till thou repay the last farthing' (see Matt 5:26). In the end, therefore, when the debt has been paid, one can go forth." When the spirits in Hell have paid their debt, they may then "go forth" and begin their return to the Father. Jonah alluded to this return centuries before Christ's Resurrection that finally made it possible for all of the fallen spirits to begin this journey beyond the outer boundaries of Hell, the earth dimension.
Why was the Hebrew afterlife a shadowy netherworld and not a heavenly paradise as that experienced by Adam and Eve? The answer to this question is tied to verses in the New Testament that speak of Christ's descent into Hades or to the spirits in prison. Luke 16:26 clearly expresses a "chasm" between those in Paradise (Abraham's bosom, a reference to the higher spiritual dimensions) and Hades (a reference to the lower spiritual dimensions). That chasm could not be crossed from Hades into Heaven until Christ's Redemption had been completed. It was for this very reason that He "went to the spirits in prison" (1 Pet 3:18-19) in order to proclaim to them the time had come for their liberation. They were now allowed to begin their way heavenward via incarnation on earth, and as many incarnations as was necessary. And so it continues to this day.