Hades, Tartarus and Gehenna

Extract from The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch

“Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen 18:25)

Hades, the abode of the dead, is not a place from which anyone has brought back an eye-witness account, so any knowledge about it has to come from revelation and tradition, sources that, in the main, the modern world has rejected. The suggestion that Hades might be a real place is inevitably counter-cultural. Still, not to allow that there might be other kinds of knowledge than what science makes room for is to board up some illuminating windows.

In the western world, many people do not believe that anything spiritual happens after death: the sense of being alive comes from the electrical activity of the brain’s neurons, which somehow create an illusion of being conscious, and the illusion ceases when the activity ceases. Others – neither atheists nor firm believers – are less sure. Is the end of life really just a return to nothingness? If it is not, what awaits us? Theologians, who ought to know, are divided. Some hold that ‘hell’ (still a common word in discussion) is a place where the damned are or will be in constant torment, a divinely ordained, everlasting Auschwitz, to which, at the resurrection, even many victims of the earthly Auschwitz will find themselves awaking. Others hold that the torment will eventually end, at which point its occupants will either be annihilated or admitted to heaven. Still others find it difficult to believe that there is any such place.

The present discussion is based on what the Bible says on the subject, with some account taken of the traditions of the ancient Greeks and Babylonians. There are therefore copious reference to the biblical texts, and looking them up for oneself should repay the effort. The biblical sources are diverse: some validate elements of oral tradition, some record insights communicated through visions or an invisible voice, or through the Son of God while he lived amongst us, some report, in letter form, insights whose origin is not specified. The period from around 1900 BC to AD 100 was a specific time of revelation in history, in the light of which man was to live until the Son returned.


The places of the dead go by various names. The Old Testament refers mainly to a place called Sheol in Hebrew, or ‘the pit’. Its New Testament equivalent is Hades, the word used when Peter quotes a Greek translation of a psalm referring to Sheol (Acts 2:27). The Hebrew name Abaddon appears twice (Job 26:6, Pro 27:20) and is probably what Peter designates by the Greek word Tartaros, a place deeper than Hades. The New Testament term Gehenna renders the Hebrew place name Ge Hinnom, Valley of (the son of) Hinnom, immediately south of the walls of Jerusalem.

‘Hell’, a word of Germanic origin, owes much of its present meaning to theological commentary. Its connota-tions of demons, fire, damnation and torment may or may not be present in the original texts. Paintings and literary works, from Dante’s Inferno to Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, have also added to the imagery. Commonly translating both Hades and Gehenna, the word is imprecise as well as emotive, and best avoided.

Sheol/ Hades

Sheol is the underworld, the place where the spirit goes when it leaves the body. Everyone goes there, the righteous and the unrighteous. According to Ecclesiastes, man suffers the same fate as the beasts: all have the same spirit, and all return to the dust from which their bodies originated, while their spirit returns to God. The dead are unconscious. ‘The living know they will die, but the dead know nothing. … There is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol.’ (Ecc 9:5, 10) They have no remembrance (Ps 6:5). Cessation of existence, moreover, is the permanent fate of the unrighteous (Ps 37:10, 38). However, the dead can be roused into consciousness on occasions (Isa 14:9) and can be summoned by witchcraft (I Sam 28:15). In due time, some among the dead will suffer torment (Lu 16:19ff). The ‘pangs of Sheol’ in Psalm 116 refer to the throes of dying rather than to what is experienced in death itself.

Rift at Dabbahu
The rift that opened up in 2006 at Dabbahu, northern Ethiopia.

In the book of Numbers we read about how certain men rebelled against Moses and Aaron. In the ensuing confrontation the ground under the rebels split apart and they ‘went down live into Sheol’ (Nu 16:33). Sheol was a region of darkness under the earth.

Hannah, mother of the prophet Samuel, likened her conception after years of barrenness to the resur- rection of the dead (to which there are numerous references in the Old Testament). ‘Yahweh kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up.’ Death is a descent back into the dust (I Sam 2:8, Job 17:16). In other places it is associated with water (e.g. Job 26:5, Ps 88:6).

Hades is not the exclusive abode of the dead. At the end of the millennium Hades gives up the dead under the land, and the sea gives up the dead that are in the sea (Rev 20:13). The sea is here the equivalent of the terrestrial underworld (Jon 2:2f).

When Christ tells Peter that he will build his church and the ‘gates of hell will not prevail against it’, the word is Hades, as it is when Paul quotes Hosea: ‘O death, where is your sting, O Hades, where is your victory?’ Christ, the firstborn from the dead, has ‘the keys of Hades and of death’ because he was without sin and gave up his life as a ransom, defeating the power of death.

Those who die in Christ are said to ‘sleep’ (I Cor 15:6, 18, Eph 5:14, I Thes 4:13), a metaphor for non- consciousness. Their state is no different from that of others who have died, but before God they have a different status: having accepted the Saviour, they have passed from death to life (Jn 5:24, 8:52). They are not resurrected individually and immediately but as one body on ‘the last day’. They will not go through a second death (discussed below) but will receive life in its fullness. The verb ‘die’ is never used.

Abaddon/ Tartarus/ the abyss

Before ascending into heaven, Christ descended into the ‘lower parts of the earth’ (Eph 4:9), visiting there the spirits of those who had perished in the cataclysm (‘flood’ is an inadequate translation). Peter calls this lowermost region Tartarus (II Pet 2:4). In addition to holding the then world’s entire population apart from Noah and his family, the prison also held the angels who had copulated with women (Gen 6:2, Jude 6) and their demigod offspring the Giants.

The forgiveness of sins through the sacrifice of Christ’s crucified body was preached even to the dead. Despite their former failure to repent, they were granted a second chance, albeit many tens of thousands of years later. Judged in the flesh just as he himself was put to death in the flesh (I Pet 3:18), they were granted an opportunity to live with him in the spirit (I Pet 4:6). Death was not necessarily the end. At last it became comprehensible why mankind was not immediately terminated with Adam, and why Eve still allowed to give birth to offspring under the same sentence. The gospel had retrospective effect as well as affecting future generations.

Paul too implies that Christ visited Tartarus, calling the place the abyss (Rom 10:9), the term used in the Apocalypse (abussos literally means ‘bottomless’). Christ descended deeper than Hades, so that, ascending far above the heavens, he might fill all things (Eph 4:10). Some responded to his message, for ‘when he ascended he led captivity captive’; he liberated many from their prison as first-fruits of his victory. They became ‘the firstborn enrolled in heaven’ (Heb 12:23). The festival of first-fruits, which took place on the day after the weekly sabbath following the Passover (Lev 23:9ff), the same day as the resurrection (Matt 28:1), was a celebratory foreshadowing of this harvest (I Cor 15:20). Some were also released from Hades, including a number of Jews (Matt 27:53). The repentant thief on the cross was also promised an immediate place in paradise (Lu 23:43).

Passage to the underworld at Tel Mozan
The passage to the underworld excavated at Tel Mozan, Syria. The bones of dozens of sacrificed animals were found in the pit. Texts show that they were used to purify the supplicant (often the king) before he summoned up the spirits from below.

The abyss is the dwelling place of demons, visualised as connected to the world of the living by a vertical shaft (Rev 9:1). Demons are depicted in the art of many ancient peoples, from Mesopotamia to South America. Their appearance is part human, part animal: for instance, the ‘scorpion men’ of Babylonia had a human head, the talons and hindquarters of a bird and a scorpion tail. In the Bible they are unfettered spirits of the antediluvian world come up from Tartarus. Having formerly had bodies, they seek to take over the minds and bodies of the living. Possession of a pig’s body is preferable to returning to the abyss. In the future they will suffer torment, as they are aware (Matt 8:29). The abyss is not currently the dwelling place of Satan. He is the ‘ruler of this world’ (Jn 12:31), cast down from heaven only as far as the earth’s surface (Rev 12:9). He prowls about like a roaring lion, looking for people to devour.

Tartarus is so named after the god, or angel, who keeps charge of this deepest region (likewise Abaddon is a place in Job 26:6 but a person in Rev 9:11). According to the Greeks, the supreme god in the beginning was Ouranos (or Uranus), a name that simply meant ‘Heaven’. He was married to Gaia (‘Earth’), at a time when there was no divorce between the domains: the God of heaven lived on earth. However, as in the traditions of other peoples, men became wicked and rebellious. Many of Ouranos’s sons, called Titans, were closely involved in their rebellion. Eventually a Titan named Kronos emasculated Ouranos with a knife and reigned on earth in his place. But he could not rest. Haunted by Gaia’s prophecy that one of his sons would overthrow him, Kronos swallowed his own sons as soon as they were born, including Poseidon and Hades, and imprisoned them in his stomach. It was to no avail. Unbeknown to Kronos, there was another son, Zeus, and when he reached manhood Zeus forced his father to vomit up his children. War broke out between the Titans headed by Kronos and the younger gods headed by Zeus. Great boulders crashed down from the heights of heaven and crushed the Titans. Sea and earth resounded with the clamour, the firmament groaned, torrential rain flooded the earth. Some men tried to escape to the hilltops but were overwhelmed by the waters. Only one couple, righteous and God-fearing, survived, floating in a wooden ark or chest, and eventually they came to land on Mount Parnassus. The defeated Titans were chained up in Tartarus, Poseidon was allotted the dominion of the ocean, and Hades (another god) was allotted the dominion of the underworld.

The parallels between the two traditions, Greek and Hebrew, are striking. Since the Greeks and Israelites were too remote from each other for borrowing to be plausible, and culturally too disparate, it must be that both traditions had the same root. Ouranos was the God of heaven, Kronos was one of his sons. In the Hebrew tradition the son assumed the form of a legged serpent (a dragon or lizard) and rebelled against his father. In consequence, his offspring (Gen 3:15; Jn 8:44, Eph 2:2) were destined to be at enmity with the primeval woman’s offspring, though eventually one of her descendants was to bruise his head. In the Greek tradition the dragon, called Typhon, was the result of Gaia mating with Tartarus. Zeus, whose name also meant “Heaven”, seemed to be the same deity as Ouranos, but he was a new ruler of the world, a son of Kronos rather than of Ouranos, one who falsely presented himself as having defeated the dragon long before the present age. The Titans – ‘the former gods’ in Hesiod’s phrase – were brothers of Kronos, fellow sons of Ouranos. In order to have intercourse with women, they also had abandoned their proper places in heaven, and the Cyclopes were the giants born of their union (cf Gen 6).

Hebrew Sumerian Greek
Elohim (God) Anu/Ellil Ouranos
Sons of Elohim (angels) Anunnaki (first gods) Titans
Pre-Flood men Pre-Flood men Pre-Flood men
Nephilim (giants) Cyclopes
Serpent Tiamat Kronos
Seed of the Serpent Qingu Typhon
Seed of Eve Marduk Zeus
Sons of Elohim Igigi (later gods) Olympians
Angels imprisoned in the abyss Anunnaki imprisoned in the underworld (Kur) Titans imprisoned in Tartarus
Post-Flood men Post-Flood men Post-Flood men

There are also striking parallels with the traditions of the Sumerians and their successors the Babylonians and Assyrians (see table). In their view of the cosmos, heaven and earth each had three levels. The highest level of the earth was the land of the living, the middle level the world of the dead, and the lowest level the place where deities known as the Anunnaki were held. Before the cataclysmic battle with the dragon (Tiamat), the Anunnaki resided in heaven; now they resided in the equivalent of Tartarus. The Sumerian ziggurats were edifices that simulated the different tiers of heaven and earth, with a stairway above ground leading up to the city of God and a shaft at the foot of the ziggurat giving access to the city of the dead. In later designs all six levels of the cosmos were incorporated into the tower, plus a seventh for Marduk, the Zeus-like saviour and king of kings.

The stairway of the ziggurat also had two subsidiary stairways leading at right angles to the main one, so that, seen from above, the stairways formed a cross. Jacob saw something like a ziggurat in a dream when he journeyed to Mesopotamia to find a wife. A stairway (not ‘ladder’) led from earth to heaven, and on it angels of God ascended and descended, just as gods were believed to do in the polytheistic system. When Jesus said that his hearers would see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on himself, he was saying that his death on the cross would open up the way to heaven (Jn 1:51). It was an event of cosmic significance. Through him God effected the reconciliation of earth and heaven, so that all things might be united in him (Col 1:19f, Eph 1:10).

Left: ziggurat at Ur, following the typical 3rd millennium design. Right: reconstruction of Nebuchadrezzar’s ziggurat at Babylon, from the 1st millennium BC. The uppermost level was always occupied by the god who owned the city, Suen in the case of Ur, Marduk in the case of Babylon.
Geological history

These understandings may seem unreal from a vantage point which limits the cosmos to what is physical and measurable. We see only what our minds are willing to see, and the Sumerians, the Hebrews, the Babylonians and the Greeks saw things very differently. They believed that the world of gods and demons was as real as the visible, if not more so, and they lived accordingly, sacrificing to them, invoking them, living in fear of them. In many parts of Asia, Africa and South America this outlook still prevails.

Nonetheless, belief in the existence of Hades and Tartarus is not however incompatible with what science has discovered about the world. The cataclysm of which the traditions bear witness has its geological counterpart in the event which destroyed the earth at the end of the geological era called the Hadean. Whether the earth was populated then is beyond the reach of science, but we do know that it was eventually pulverised by asteroids (‘boulders from the heights of heaven’), flooded by water and buried by erupting magma. The original world was subducted and became an underworld. In its place new continents formed. The fossils in the sediments eroded from the new continents record the progressive recolonisation of the planet by bacteria, algae, plankton, flora and fauna.

The earth before the cataclysm had three tiers: the land on top, beneath that a vast ocean called the deep, and beneath that, an initially undifferentiated interior whose temperature increased with depth. The subterranean deep – the ‘abyss’ in the Greek version – was the source of the rivers and springs; it kept the ground moist.

Over time, the energy released by thermonuclear fusion caused the interior to heat up and differentiate chemically into mantle and core, until the waters burst through the land (Gen 7:11). The world was thrown into chaos. Those who died and were buried in the ground before the cataclysm joined those who perished during it, as they entered an abyss now largely emptied of water and filled with magma. The Greeks called the reconstituted region Tartarus; modern geologists call it the aesthenosphere, the uppermost mantle beneath the present crust. It is truly bottomless – there is no sharp boundary between it and the mantle lower down. Meanwhile new land formed volcanically on top of the old. So the earth after the cataclysm also had three tiers: the crust, the mantle, and the iron core. Tartarus lay underneath the crust, Hades within it.

Obviously, although Tartarus and Hades have a physical location, they do not, as places of the dead, have a physical form. The angels and demons in Tartarus, the dead in Hades, are invisible. The same is true of heaven, which as the dwelling place of God has no physical form. But it is still appropriate to say that heaven is above, Hades and Tartarus below (Eph 2:20).

Pauline references to ‘the heavenlies’ (ouranios, the adjective used as a noun and often translated with the implied noun added, e.g. ‘heavenly places’) refer to heaven’s different levels. Paul who was once taken up through the heavenlies, implies that there are three, the highest being ‘paradise’, where God himself dwells (II Cor 12:2f). Only after Christ’s victory was the Devil expelled from the garden (Lu 10:18, Rev 12:7-9). To repeat: there is more to the world than what is visible. The struggle in which his followers engage is not with mere blood and flesh, but with princedoms, authorities, the world-powers of the darkness of this age, and these spiritual forces of evil are in the heavenlies (Eph 6:11f). Not all, but some of the sons of God (or ‘angels’) have always wanted power over human beings, even after some of them were thrown into Tartarus. Hence it was in Sumer (geographically, southern Iraq) that men first set up structures of government over their fellow men, and Sumer was where the polytheistic religions of the Near East originated; Babel, later named Babylon, being its capital city. Babel was the location of the first ziggurat. Wherever there are structures of power and authority, in the church as well as outside, there the spirits will focus their activity.


The Valley of the son of Hinnom runs outside the capital city of the Messiah. Who Hinnom was, or who his son was, is unknown, for the name predates Israel’s conquest of Canaan and is introduced without explanation (Jos 15:8). The name designated the valley immediately south of Mount Zion. In the 8th century Ahaz, king of Judah, outdid his predecessors by making offerings there to the god Molech and even burning his sons as offerings. Molech, a fire-god whose name meant “King”, was ruler of the demonic underworld, the equivalent of Abaddon. Two generations later Manasseh repeated the abomination. After the Babylonian Exile the valley became a place where garbage was burnt, along with the corpses of animals and criminals, if they were not simply left to rot. There were always fires burning somewhere in the valley. It was also a place of execution. Very probably it was where Jesus was crucified.

Aerial view of Jerusalem
Aerial view of Jerusalem in the early 20th century.
Apart from one instance when James warned about the power of the tongue to do evil (Jas 3:6), the only person in the New Testament who spoke of Gehenna was Jesus himself. In relation to Hades he said little; enough was already known. But about the Valley of Hinnom he revealed things that the Old Testament prophets saw only dimly, concerning what this wasteland of refuse and death would become in the future. It would be a furnace into which the body would be thrown after the final judgement and in which the soul would be destroyed (Matt 5:22-30, 10:28). The sentence would be irrevocable: the maggots that destroyed the body in the grave would not die; the fire that destroyed the soul in Gehenna would not be quenched (Mk 9:44). He himself would be the one who pronounced sentence (Lu 12:5).

Various events were to precede his return to earth: famines and earthquakes, persecution, false prophets, the preaching of the gospel throughout the world, the darkening of the sun and moon, asteroids falling, the gathering up of the elect (Matt 24:3-31). After these things, he would return to Jerusalem in glory, and gather before his throne all the world’s inhabitants that had survived the wrath of God (Isa 4:3, 13:12, 24:21-23, Matt 25:31-46, I Pet 4:5). Those who had worked to relieve suffering would be granted everlasting life; those who had not, who had cared only for themselves, would be condemned to ‘the everlasting fire prepared for the Devil and his angels’ – both the angels imprisoned in Tartarus and the angels in heaven that had accepted sacrifices when men invoked them in polytheistic religions after the cataclysm. He was alluding to the same place, Gehenna, and since it was to Jerusalem that he would return, Gehenna must be the actual valley south of Jerusalem, blazing, like the coal fields of Jharia, with natural fire. John the Baptist said of him, ‘His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’ The picture is one of destruction rather than torture, where what is worthless will be consumed (Heb 6:8, Phil 3:19). Similar imagery is employed in the parable about the vinedresser (Jn 15:6).

The Apocalypse also refers to Gehenna, but uses the term ‘lake of fire’. Again, it is a natural phenomenon, involving ‘sulphur’ (Rev 21:8). Sulphur chiefly issues from volcanoes. Smoke rises up from the abyss below as from a great furnace (Rev 9:2), evoking both the smoke that went up from the valley around Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19:28) and the smoke billowing up from Mount Sinai (Ex 19:18). Both places were associated with volcanic activity. Gehenna is also the furnace in Jesus’s parable about the final harvest, when his angels will gather all objects of offence and anyone who has practised immorality and throw them into the fire (Matt 13:42).

The lake does not exist at the present time. It will be kindled (Isa 30:33, II Pet 3:7), as will the earth beneath, to the very depths of Sheol (Deut 32:22). The foundations of the mountains will be set on fire. On that day, Christ – ‘whose fire is in Zion, and his furnace in Jerusalem’ (Isa 31:9) – will stand on the Mount of Olives, as the hill is split in two from east to west (Zech 14:4). The fissure will destroy the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock that currently occupy the site of the old temple. The existing hill and valleys will be levelled, and Mount Zion, on which David built his city (distinct from the hill now called Mount Zion), will rise above them as the highest of the mountains (Isa 2:2, 40:4). Here the king of all the earth will set his throne and his temple, with Gehenna bounding it on the south. He will dwell in the midst of Jerusalem (Zech 8:3). Year after year all humanity will come to worship him on this mountain (Ps 102:16-22, Isa 2:3, Zech 14:16, Isa 66:23).

And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.

When he warned about the horrific finality of Gehenna he was alluding to these concluding words of Isaiah. Some corpses would be in full view of those who were spared, the flames a continual reminder of what would befall those who did not bow the knee.

Torment, but not forever
The Apocalypse warns:

If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulphur in the presence of the Lamb. The smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshippers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.

What the beast is, and what its image is, will be apparent soon enough. The Lamb is Jesus Christ, the fire and sulphur the flaming valley of Hinnom outside Jerusalem. The new Jerusalem, being the resurrected saints of the old-covenant Israel and the new-covenant Church, comes down as a bride adorned for her husband – for the dwelling place of God is a people rather than a building. Outside, in the darkness, ‘where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth,’ are ‘the sorcerers and the fornicators and the murderers and the idolaters, and everyone that loves and does what is false’ (Matt 8:12, Rev 22:15). Again, this place of outer darkness is the lake of fire (Matt 13:42), the furnace that will be kindled ‘at the revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven with angels of his power, in flaming fire, dealing retribution to those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel’ (II Thes 1:7f, Mal 4:1). Into it are thrown all workers of evil, including the beast and the false prophet, worshippers of the beast, and the Devil. Many of those who are not raised from the dead at the last trumpet will likewise experience the fire (Lu 16:24). Hades thus becomes part of Gehenna.

The judgement takes place at the beginning of the thousand years of Christ’s reign, and a thousand years is the period for which the wicked suffer pain. It is the time when justice is administered both on the earth and under the earth. At the end of this period, the Devil will be released. He will deceive the nations one last time and gather them for battle against Jerusalem. He will be defeated, and thrown into the lake a second time, not now for isolation and torment but for destruction (Rev 20:10; the last part of this verse, in the future tense, looks forward from the writer’s present time to the situation in 20:2). Then the lake itself will be no more, for the present heaven and earth will have passed away (Rev 21:1, marking the end of the paragraph).

The words translated ‘forever and ever’ are eis tous aionas ton aionon, literally ‘to the ages of the ages’. The phrase is slightly ambiguous. Does it mean ‘forever and ever’, or for a duration as long as there are ages, which are necessarily circumscribed periods? Or perhaps it is an example of Hebraic hyperbole, to drive home the gravity of the warning (as in Matt 5:29, 19:24)? God is outside time and space; the ages are part of the creation (Heb 1:2, 11:3), and the old creation will not last forever. Nonetheless, God lives as if he were also in time and space, ‘forever and ever,’ and those who drink from the fountain of life and eat of the bread of life will also live forever, eis ton aiona, heirs of the new creation (Jn 4:14, 6:51, 8:51). In Ephesians Paul speaks about the mystery of the gospel that was hidden since the beginning, literally ‘from the ages’ (3:9) – the preposition ‘from’ (apo) being the opposite of ‘to’ (eis), looking back rather than forward. The revelation of the mystery was ‘according to the purpose of the ages’ which he conceived in Christ (Eph 3:11); fore-ordained from the beginning. The present time is ‘the end’ (I Cor 10:11) or ‘consummation’ of the ages (Heb 9:26).

In the gospels the word aion always occurs in the singular. Commonly the reference is to ‘this age’, contrasting with the age to come. ‘World’ is a misleading translation. The ‘end of the age’ is not the end of the world but of the age of the gospel, prior to Christ’s return (Matt 12:32, 13:22, 39, 24:3). In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul also distinguishes between this age and the one to come.

The law of Moses provided for a slave in certain circumstances to be bound to his master ‘forever’, not meaning to all eternity but until one of them dies (Ex 21:6). Psalm 49 says that the graves of the dead are their homes ‘forever’, ‘to all generations,’ notwithstanding the fact that there would be a resurrection. In Jeremiah Yahweh says that ‘a fire is kindled that shall burn forever’, referring to the day when the Babylonians would destroy Jerusalem’s palaces and Temple (15:14, 17:27, 52:13). Habakkuk speaks of the ‘everlasting mountains’ at the same time as prophesying that they will be scattered and levelled, foreseeing a time when Yahweh will shake the nations and every mountain be made low (Isa 40:4, Hab 3:6, Zech 14:10, Heb 12:26, Rev 16:18). Jude speaks of the angels being kept in ‘eternal’ chains, apparently ‘for ever’ (v 13). But it is forever ‘until [eis] the judgement of the great day’. Nor was the fire that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah ‘eternal’, as aionios is usually translated (v 7) – go to the land of Jordan and you won’t see any fire where the cities were (around Feifa and Safi). As an example of what awaits the ungodly, they were turned to ashes (II Pet 2:6). It was the effects of the fire that were perpetual: the cities were never rebuilt, and never will be. Thus, when the smoke from the burning of Babylon the Great goes up forever and ever (Rev 19:3), the sense is that it too will not be rebuilt. The penalty will be everlasting.

In short, everything depends on context. When the context is the everlasting life that comes from God, the meaning is ‘for all eternity’, and we know this because of the assurance that whoever accepts his salvation will never die. Where the context is torment in the lake of fire, the meaning is not necessarily ‘for all eternity’. The wicked servant is given over to the torturers ‘until he should pay all his debt’ (Matt 18:34). Other scriptures categorically state that the penalty of sin is death – ultimately complete destruction – so the conclusion must be that the period is limited.

The condition of being alive, after all, is that of a body animated by spirit (Gen 2:7, I Cor 15:45), and the spirit is taken away when one dies. The logical opposite of eternal life is permanent extinction, not eternal life in another place (conceived of, somehow, as a state of being destroyed but never attaining destruction). Death occurs when body and spirit are severed, the one returning to the dust from which it came, the other returning to God (Ecc 12:7, Lu 23:46). That is what the word means. Some commentators draw a distinction between ‘physical death’ and ‘spiritual death’, as if the body could live apart from the spirit, but the Bible knows nothing of such a distinction. Pain may be suffered for a time, but ultimately there is only one kind of death: the loss of life.

According to some world-views, man’s soul is immortal. According to Darwinism, there is no such thing as soul or spirit: consciousness is an illusion of atoms. Again, the Bible knows nothing of either doctrine (II Tim 1:10). In the beginning, God formed man’s body from the dust of the ground. After God breathed into his nostrils he became a living soul. Like every animal, he had a dual nature, physical and spiritual, but what gave him life was the breath that came from God. Similarly with every new generation: when an infant grows in the womb, it is God who forms the body and endows it with life (Ps 139, Ecc 11:5). But life is only temporarily given. Although the first man was given the opportunity to become immortal, the serpent deceived Eve, and Adam followed. He internalised evil so that he knew what it was from within, his spirit became corrupt, and therefore he had to die. That was the logic of the penalty: once corrupted, the spirit could not be restored to a state of purity and guiltlessness. He needed a new, holy spirit. So, at the end of his life, the spirit was taken away and Adam returned to the dust (Gen 3:19). Terrible though the penalty was, it was not vengeful. Had everlasting torment been the consequence, it would have been a penalty that no substitutionary atonement could satisfy, ‘for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world’ (Heb 9:26). The gospel would have had no logic, and the justice of God would be a travesty of justice. But there is no mention of everlasting torment, either here or anywhere else in the Old Testament. Even scriptures that ask why the wicked prosper do not suggest that this is how the balance of justice is righted.

The Apocalypse refers to two deaths, in the sense that there is an interval between the first and the second, not that they are different in nature. The paradox is that although ‘the wages of sin is death’ and therefore all must die, because all have sinned, nonetheless death is not necessarily the end. Adam did not immediately die. Nor do we. The judgement that now matters is not the judgement that God pronounced in the garden – on the flesh – but the judgement that follows death (Heb 9:27), relating to what we do in the years allotted to us, in this present state of reprieve. Death does not have to be the final sentence. 

That is the point of the gospel. The judgement is brought forward into the here and now, so that the punishment for sin – torture and eventual extinction – can be anticipated, before it is too late. The penalty has been paid, so that anyone who repents and accepts Christ’s atonement will not be hurt by the second death (Rev 2:11).

This is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light.

John 3:19-21
For those who reject the offer of eternal life, the second death will merely be a confirmation of the first, confirmation of the penalty of Adam. The dead will be raised from Hades and judged according to their works. No one should imagine that he will be acquitted. “Though I say to the righteous that he shall surely live, yet if he trust in his righteousness and does injustice, none of his righteous deeds shall be remembered, but in the injustice he has done he shall die.” (Ezek 33:13, Rom 2:4). The soul that sins will die (Ezek 18:4); it will forfeit the life that it had on loan.

Thus there are also two resurrections. The first – not counting the resurrection of the first-fruits – will be when the seventh trumpet sounds and the dead in Christ are raised, shortly before the beginning of the thousand years (Matt 24:31, 40, I Cor 15:22, 42ff, I Thes 4:16f, Rev 11:15, 14:16, 20:4). They are taken up to heaven until civilisation has drained the cup of the wine of the fury of the wrath of God. Then they will return with Christ to Jerusalem, to reign with him in the cities of the world as kings and priests (Isa 35:10, Dan 7:18, Zech 14:5, I Cor 6:2, Col 3:4, Jude 14). The second resurrection will be when the rest of the dead are revived, at the end of the thousand years (Rev 20:5). Those who have done good will come out to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgement (Jn 5:29).

Afterwards there will be a new heaven and earth, in which righteousness dwells (II Pet 3:13) and only righteousness. It will not be a dualistic universe, with good and evil each having their own territory, reconciliation forever uncompleted. The first heaven and the first earth will pass away. Having quashed every rule and every authority and power, Christ will deliver the kingdom to God the Father. ‘For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.’ (I Cor 15:25) The last enemy to be quashed is death. And when all things are subjected to him, the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all. The creation will have been gloriously reclaimed.