The Gospel for Christians

1 Peter 3:18-19; 4:5-6 Is Hell really eternal unending punishment?

I don’t plan on answering that question definitively in this post, but I chose it as the post title because it is something that many sincere Christians ask, and I hope that those who are asking it will read this post and be helped along in their search of answers.

I clearly remember a time in my life when eternal conscious torment in hell was a doctrine that I was finding harder and harder to accept.  I believe that many people today are in that place and I hope that by sharing just a little bit here of what God taught me, they may be spared from the grievous error into which I very nearly fell.

First of all, I want to challenge anyone who is questioning the historic orthodox doctrine of eternal conscious torment in hell to ask himself…


“Why am I questioning the reality of eternal punishment?”


If you are honest, I think you would have to admit, as I had to, that the starting point of my thinking was not what God has revealed to us in his inspired Word about his justice, hell and eternal punishment, but rather it was my own philosophical stumbling blocks.  In other words, it is very hard for us to come to grips with eternal punishment, so we go to the Scriptures trying to find a reason why this can’t be true.  Perhaps we were taught about hell in our childhood without ever understanding the biblical basis for the doctrine.  So as adults we begin to question what we were taught because it just doesn’t seem fair that some sinners would be saved and others would be lost.  It doesn’t seem to accord with our concept of love that God would allow a person to suffer an infinite, eternal punishment.

Are you willing to make what God has revealed your starting point, rather than starting with your questions?  Are you willing to study what God has revealed with an open mind?  When we start with our questions, we are putting God on trial and trying to fit his character and being into our human understanding rather than starting with what is greater and infinite and letting it shape our limited, finite understanding.

Try to come with grips with the large portions of Scripture where God’s pure and holy hatred of sin is undiluted.  This is the value of reading the Old Testament prophets.  They break us and show us our wickedness so that we are then in a position to read a chapter like Isaiah 53 and begin to grasp the magnitude of what Jesus did for us when we understand that the wrath in the cup that Jeremiah was told to take to the nations (Jer. 25:15) was drunk for us by God the Son himself (Luke 22:42).  To say that Jesus did not suffer God’s wrath for us is a convenient route to take philosophically, but it is not what God reveals to us in his Word (see my review of The Shack for some of the biblical teaching on God’s just and holy judgment of sin).

God also showed me my pride in questioning his revelation concerning eternal punishment in hell.  Not only was I stubbornly refusing to come to grips with what he was saying to me in his word, I was also claiming that it was unjust for him to condemn me to hell for my sins.

Of course, my concern wasn’t for myself, so I thought.  I was concerned for others who hadn’t yet come to Christ.  What about them?  How could God send them to hell and not me?  Doesn’t that sound noble?  Doesn’t it sound merciful and loving to question how God could condemn poor, lost sinners to eternal punishment.

But what I was missing was the important scriptural doctrine of the unity of the human race.  The problem is not my sin over against your sin.  The problem is our sin.  In Adam, we are all sinners together.  We bear our guilt together as well as individually (Romans 5:12-21).

So when I say, “God, how can you justly punish that poor sinner with eternal punishment”, I am really saying, “God, how can you justly punish me with eternal punishment.” If I am not willing to accept that I deserve eternal punishment then how can I accept what Jesus did for me at the cross?  Do I think that he is saving me because there is something in me that is worth saving?  If so, then I am clinging to my own filthy rags of self-righteousness rather than casting my self wholly on him.  And if I deserve eternal punishment, then so does every other sinner.  That is why I should pray for those who have not believed with humility, recognizing that it is our sin of unbelief and rebellion that needs to be covered with Jesus’ blood.

This is already a huge post, but I want to treat at least one Bible passage that is sometimes appealed to as an argument that hell is not eternal punishment.  Actually, there are many other more important passages to deal with, but this one happened to be the one that motivated me to write this post in the first place, so I’ll just deal with it.

1 Peter 3:18-19

18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, 19 in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 20 because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water.

Many people believe that these verses teach that those who have died without accepting Jesus will eventually be released from hell as they are “brought to their senses” and come to trust in Christ.  Hell, in this way of thinking, is like the “hell” that the prodigal son went through and that brought him to his senses and caused him to come back to Christ (this is only one of several possible interpretations that have been offered). But is Peter really saying here that Jesus, after his resurrection, went and proclaimed the gospel to people from Noah’s day who had died and were in a spiritual prison awaiting judgment day?

1 Peter 4:5-6 seems to refer to the same thing…

5 but they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. 6 For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does.

Is this verse also teaching that the good news of salvation in Jesus is preached to people after they have died?

I don’t believe it is, and here is why…

In the context of these verses, Peter is talking about suffering as believers when we take a stand for Jesus and proclaim his gospel (3:13-17).  Immediately before the verses in question, he says, (v. 17) “For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.” Verse 17 is crucial to understand.  If it is better to suffer for doing good, than for doing evil, then there is a suffering for evil that is possible to fall into.  Is Peter here only referring to suffering in this world?  We shall see…

To continue his argument, in v. 18, Peter reminds his readers that Jesus suffered for their sin on the cross so that they would not have to suffer God’s judgment “for doing evil” (end of v. 17).  Jumping ahead to v. 21, Peter reminds them that through their water baptism, which was an outward demonstration of their faith in what Jesus did for them in his death and resurrection, they were saved from having to suffer “for doing evil” (remember v. 17 again).

Now let’s look at the verses in between v. 18 and v. 21.  Here Peter uses the example of the sinners who were judged in Noah’s day to draw a contrast between those who do not have to suffer for doing evil (because they were united with Christ through faith demonstrated in water baptism), and those who do have to suffer for doing evil (because they did not believe).  Those who survived the flood of water represent those who are saved through the water of baptism.  But the water that saved some was also judgment for others who did not believe.

The sinners of Noah’s day had opportunity to repent of their sins and find salvation in Noah’s ark.  But how did they have this opportunity?  Most people assume that the Genesis account says that Noah, during the entire time he was building the ark, was also warning people of the coming flood, but if you look again in Genesis, it never says that Noah preached.  The only references to Noah preaching are in the New Testament.  One is in 2 Peter 2:5, where Noah is called a “herald of righteousness.” The other is right here in 1 Peter 3.  Notice that it says that God was “patiently waiting” in the days of Noah.  Waiting for what?  Peter himself answers that question in his second book (2 Peter 3:5-9).  He says that just as God patiently waited for people to repent in Noah’s day, he is also patiently waiting for them to repent now, before he again comes to bring judgement on the earth.

So what does all of this have to do with Jesus preaching to the spirits in prison?  The answer is that Peter is referring to the fact that Jesus, in the Spirit, was patiently preaching through Noah, in Noah’s day, to the people that were in danger of coming under the judgment of the flood.

Let’s say that my brother gives me a Macbook Pro for my 30th birthday because I am moving to Indonesia to live.  Ten years later, it can be said of my brother, “yeah, he gave a Macbook Pro to his brother in Indonesia.”  It doesn’t mean that I was in Indonesia when he gave it to me, but that in contrast to the brother that lives in Ecuador, it was the brother who now lives in Indonesia that got the new laptop.

So we should understand Peter’s words in v. 19 this way: “…in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits who are (now) in prison.” The spirits of those people who were warned by Jesus, who in the Spirit used Noah as an instrument to warn them, are now in prison.  They are facing eternal judgment because they did not respond in faith to what the Spirit of Jesus was revealing to them by offering them an ark of salvation to get into before the judgment of the flood fell.

Summarizing, these verses in 1 Peter 3 do not teach that people can have the good news preached to them after they die and before the judgment, rather they teach that Jesus suffered for evil, and that if we will put our faith in him, we will not have to suffer for our evil deeds, even though we may have to suffer for doing good.

As Peter continues on talking about Christian suffering, we come to the second reference that seems to imply that the gospel will be preached to people after they die…

1 Peter 4:5-6

5 but they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. 6 For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does.

Chapter 4 begins with this reasoning:  If Jesus suffered the death penalty for the evil deeds that we were guilty of, then we no longer have to live enslaved to evil human passions.  He doesn’t state it explicitly, but I think his implicit reason for this is that we are united with Christ in his death so that we, with Christ, died to our sins.

He goes on to say that those who are not in Christ do live enslaved to evil human passions, and that they will have to, “give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead” (v. 5).  In other words, even though those who are not believers think it is pointless, even ridiculous that we do not join them in doing “what feels right,” they will eventually discover that they are going to have to account for their actions.

Then Peter says, This is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead…” Here again, just as he did in chapter 3, Peter is not talking about preaching that occurs after the person has died, but rather preaching that brought people to repentance before they died (see my previous illustration of the Macbook Pro).  These people who “are (now) dead,” had the gospel preached to them SO THAT (this is why…) they would be able to stand in the coming judgment.

Even though these believers seemed to come under the judgment of physical death (this is the meaning of, “… though judged in the flesh the way people are” )  they will live spiritually eternally because Jesus suffered their penalty in their place (“…they might live in the spirit the way God does.”)

So again, the teaching here is not that there will be opportunity for people to be saved after death, but rather that there is a judgment that is coming and for those who have sought refuge in Christ, there is hope that the suffering we experience now is not the portent of eternal judgment.

But for those who have not sought refuge in Christ, the suffering of believers is a sign to them that if they do not repent, they will be judged.  This is why Peter closes chapter 4 with these words:

“15 But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. 16 Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. 17 For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? 18 And…

“If the righteous is scarcely saved,

what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?”

To conclude my post, I want to lovingly and humbly plead with anyone who may be contemplating the possibility that God will not judge sinners eternally with an infinite punishment.  Seek God in his word.  Spend more time there than alone with your human doubts.  Don’t be content to latch on to a few scriptures that may seem to teach what you want to hear, but ask God to show himself to you, in all of his infinite justice and love that was displayed at the cross of Jesus.  It is my prayerful confidence that he will.


6 Responses to 1 Peter 3:18-19; 4:5-6 Is Hell really eternal unending punishment?

  1. Rick says:

    Sorry, but the problem with the idea that God intends to torture billions of people without end, is a lot more than just some philosophical stumbling block or latching on to a few scriptures. Hell is a direct contradiction of every notion of morality, fairness and goodness, as well as the original, core message of Jesus.

    It is actually those who would have us believe God is some sort of Cosmic Nazi who are truly latching onto a few passages in order to set aside everything else in the gospels representing Jesus’ view of God and what he desires of us.

    I’ve actually written an entire book on this topic–“Hell? No! Why You Can Be Certain There’s No Such Place As Hell.” If interested, you can get a free ecopy of my book at my website: http://www.thereis nohell.com, but if I may, let me share one of the many points I make in it to explain why.

    If one is willing to look, there’s substantial evidence contained in the gospels to show that Jesus opposed the idea of Hell. For example, in Luke 9:51-56, is a story about his great disappointment with his disciples when they actually suggested imploring God to rain FIRE on a village just because they had rejected him. His response: You don’t know what spirit is inspiring this kind of talk! Presumably, it was NOT the Holy Spirit. He went on, trying to explain how he had come to save, heal and relieve suffering, not be the CAUSE of it.

    So it only stands to reason that this same Jesus, who was appalled at the very idea of burning a few people, for a few horrific minutes until they were dead, could never, ever burn BILLIONS of people for an ETERNITY!

    True, there are a few statements that made their way into the gospels which place Hell on Jesus’ lips, but these adulterations came along many decades after his death, most likely due to the Church filling up with Greeks who imported their belief in Hades with them when they converted.

    • Bryan Jay says:

      Rick,

      It appears to me that we have a fundamental difference of opinion on the nature of Scripture that would make it very hard for us to have a dialogue about what the Bible and Jesus actually teach about hell. I think you need to have that issue cleared up before you will be able to submit yourself to what Jesus actually taught.

      Your comment that these “adulterations” found their way into the gospels and onto Jesus’ lips is refuted by many, many knowledgeable scholars who believe otherwise. Those scholars who agree with you have in essence set their own opinions as their ultimate source of authority. Although they claim to be using objective methods of source criticism, it really boils down to a lot of subjective “guessing” about what should actually be in the Bible and what shouldn’t.

      Are you willing to consider the possibility that God in his sovereignty has preserved for us a reliable witness to the true Jesus? The Bible is far and away the most attested piece of ancient literature with literally thousands of manuscripts dating back to within a few decades of the originals. By leaving us with his inspired Word, our Creator has preserved himself as the ultimate source of authority for our lives. Without a belief in a flawless Bible, we are left adrift in a sea of subjectivity, unable to really know anything with certainty.

      If that issue can be cleared up for you, the next thing I would say to you is that the issue of the justice and morality of hell is not as simple as you have painted it. Without the Bible’s clear testimony and the enlightening work of the Holy Spirit, we human beings have no idea of the extent of our sin against God. Only as God graciously reveals that to us are we prepared to see the incredible love and grace that led Jesus to take upon himself at the cross the punishment that we deserve.

      I will pray for you, Rick, that God will do this work in your life. I do believe in hell, and I believe that Jesus saved me from it and can save you from it as well.

      Thanks for writing and for the cordial tone with which you responded to me even though you feel very strongly about your difference of opinion.

    • Bryan Jay says:

      Rick,

      Here are some thoughts on Luke 9 and on the supposed contradictions between Jesus’ words in the gospels.

      1) On what basis are you choosing certain words of Jesus as genuine and certain ones as later additions? Are you truly choosing on the basis of scholarly studies? Or are you choosing based on your presuppositions of what you want Jesus to be? Why not take Jesus’ words about the coming judgement and eternal destruction in hell as the “real words of Jesus” and throw out the others? I’m not trying to be sarcastic here, but I am asking you a sincere question! How did you come to your conclusions?

      2) Taking the passage in Luke 9 that you mentioned as an example, there IS one verse in that passage that is absent from all of the oldest manuscripts. It is verse 56; the very verse you appeal to as the core of your argument from this passage (“You do not know what kind of spirit you are of; for the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.” ). For that reason, verse 56 is marked in almost all modern Bible translations as being very likely not in the original. There are a few other places like in Mark 16 and John 8 where there is overwhelming evidence that they were not in the original manuscripts, but even if one took out all these additions, the message of the New Testament and of Jesus would not be affected at all.

      On the contrary those passages that are considered “additions” by the Jesus Seminar and other source critics are ruled out NOT on the basis of manuscript evidence (textual criticism), but on the basis of “source criticism” which is a highly subjective endeavor as I pointed out before that puts the authority of the critic over the huge number of ancient manuscripts.

      If you want to use text criticism as an argument (as you have done thus far), you just lost the very words of Jesus that you claimed were the “authentic Jesus”

      Now why leave verses like this in the translations if they are most likely not in the original? The answer is that they are “most likely” not in the original. Perhaps they were, so we will print the translation with a footnote so the reader is well aware. And interestingly, even if they were in the original, it would not change the basic message of the Bible because the same things are affirmed elsewhere, which brings me to my third point.

      3) What you so easily dismiss as contradictions in Jesus’ words do not appear at all to be contradictions to me. Even though I could very easily dismiss your entire argument based on what I wrote in (2) above, I don’t feel that I have to because Jesus said something very similar to Luke 9:56 in John 12

      46 “I have come as Light into the world, so that everyone who believes in Me will not remain in darkness. 47 “If anyone hears My sayings and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world. 48 “He who rejects Me and does not receive My sayings, has one who judges him; the word I spoke is what will judge him at the last day.

      Jesus, just like in Luke 9 says that he did not come to judge the world, but to save the world, and yet in the very next verse he says that the one who rejects him will be judged by Jesus’ word at the last day. Is this a contradiction that is explained by denying the authenticity of either v. 47 or v. 48?

      No, rather it simply shows that Jesus came into the world and lived and died and rose again, not to bring condemnation, but to bring salvation. Compare this with John 3:17-21 ….better yet, let’s start with the well-known and loved declaration of God’s love in verse 16.

      “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. 17 “For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. 18 “He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. 19 “This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. 20 “For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. 21 “But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.”

      Notice that here as well, Jesus (or John, it isn’t clear who is talking) states that God’s purpose in sending Jesus was to save the world.

      But both here in John 3 as well as in John 12, there is a very real judgement that is coming. As John 3:16 says, there is a possibility of perishing in that judgement. There is also another biblical text that states this very, very clearly, but I just cannot put my hands on it right now.

      So Jesus’ coming was to offer himself as our substitute, to save us from the wrath of God that we deserve for our sins. But he will come a second time and he will come in judgment… not with the crazed ragings of a madman, but with the pure and holy wrath that is righteous and that is described so very clearly throughout the entire Bible.

      I pray that you will reconsider your opinions regarding Jesus. He is so much more loving than you realize, for his love is expressed not in his callous disregard of the holiness of his Father, but in his willingness to offer himself to the Father as our substitute… to take upon himself the hell that we deserve.

      Jesus came to offer you salvation, Rick, and I plead with you to hear his call to repent and believe the gospel. If you believe in the Jesus of the Bible, Rick, you will not be judged, but if you do not believe, you have been judged already, because you have not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.

      In Christ’s love for you,

      Bryan

  2. Dave Joyce says:

    Bryan, I like how you boiled it down to a personal matter when you said, “So when I say, ‘God, how can you justly punish that poor sinner with eternal punishment’, I am really saying, ‘God, how can you justly punish me with eternal punishment.’ If I am not willing to accept that I deserve eternal punishment then how can I accept what Jesus did for me at the cross? Do I think that he is saving me because there is something in me that is worth saving? If so, then I am clinging to my own filthy rags of self-righteousness rather than casting my self wholly on him”

    That is spot on and gets down to the root problem – our sin and pride.

    Rick, I took a look at your website and read the FAQ, your bio, and your thoughts on Hell. There’s one glaring concern I have though, and that’s that you don’t consider the cross of Christ. I believe you need to ask yourself, would God be just and right in sending *you* to Hell for all of eternity? How you answer that question will reveal your heart and how you approach the cross and your salvation.

    I agree with you that there are Christians who would preach hell and damnation as a scare tactic. Like you said, “Love God, or else”. And this is wrong. Love God because he first loved you and sent his Son to die the death you deserved. There is no greater love than this.

    I would be very careful to not have a conversation about Hell that excludes a conversation about Christ’s self sacrifice on the cross.

  3. John says:

    I feel like I just went to school. Good comments Mr. Jay and Dave.

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