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What is Eternal Conscious Torment? Part 1

Hello! Welcome to the Hell Project, a channel that will discuss all things regarding hell. Many people steer clear of this topic, but I have found that in studying hell I have come to understand far more about who Jesus is, why he is good news and why the hope that Christians have can weather all storms in life. As this is early days for this channel, I am aiming to clarify terms and I hope, explain views in as fairly and accurately as possible. People are passionate about this topic, on all sides of the faith debate and so I do want to handle this fairly sensitively. As I move on to respond to other videos and books, these first videos that I will refer to as I explain my position. In this video I am aiming to explain the view of hell that is held by the majority of Christians commonly referred to as Eternal Conscious Torment, ECT for short.

Eternal Conscious Torment or ECT is the belief that those who have not given their life to Jesus are resurrected to judgement, made immortal and then endure and experience punishment in hell eternally.

ECT is held by the majority of Christians so many would argue that it is the traditional view of hell. Here it will be referred to the traditionalist view or the view of eternal torment as well as ECT.

There are a few sub-versions of ECT and the punishment that will be experienced in hell. You might hear talk of literal fires and torment and torture by God’s hand as famously taught by Jonathan Edwards[1] and if you google it, you’ll probably find it on[2] as well. Others seem to soften the view and talk about separation and self-torment and this is particularly seen in CS Lewis’ Great Divorce but also in popular teachers like Tim Keller and Joshua Ryan Butler. It will be difficult to cover all versions of ECT but I will do my best to present it as thoroughly as possible in two parts.

My main focus on this channel is what the Bible says on the topic. I think there are plenty of philosophical views and other religious and secular views on hell, but I am a Christian and I believe the Bible to be the word of God. This might raise a lot of questions for you and I’d recommend you check out the blogs aimed at asking questions about the bible and its trustworthiness on sites like Ravi Zacharias Ministries, Capturing Christianity, What do you meme, William Lane Craig and others. That said, I think there is an aspect of defending the Christian faith with regard to hell, and that is in part what this channel will be for.

Having said all that, I will give some time to discuss the more philosophical, or non-scriptural, arguments that defend this view but they will be in a second video.

The strongest support for eternal conscious torment comes from 6 passages in the New Testament and 2 in the Old.

The vast majority of those who hold a traditional view will look at all verses of the bible with these first two in mind. The only two verses that state something that sounds like an everlasting torment come from the last book of the bible.

Revelation 14:11 and 20:10 are both quite vivid images.

Revelation 14:9-11

9A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: ‘If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives its mark on their forehead or on their hand, 10they, too, will drink the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. They will be tormented with burning sulphur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. 11And the smoke of their torment will rise for ever and ever. There will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name.’

Revelation 20:9-10

9They marched across the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of God’s people, the city he loves. But fire came down from heaven and devoured them. 10And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulphur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.

These are very strong terms and many authors that I’ve encountered that defend the traditional view of hell leave the verses to explain themselves. For the sake of brevity, there are many who spend time explaining these two passages in more detail but they still come to the fact that these clearly show that punishment for those linked to the devil and his angels will be tormented forever. We’ll look at those who expand on these verse in future videos. Each of these passages might well have a section of videos for them alone.

For now, we need to see who are associated with the devil and his angels. To do that, we need to look at the gospels and Jesus’ words in Matthew 25.

Despite what many say, Jesus did NOT speak more about hell than he did heaven but he did have some fairly strong words to say about those who did not believe in Him and for those who made God inaccessible to others through actions, poor teaching and over reliance on rules and ritual. Matthew chapter 25 is Jesus talking about the kingdom of heaven. He says the kingdom of heaving will arrive suddenly and without warning and it will be like a man who kicks out a disobedient and lazy servant from his household. In the last section of the chapter Jesus talks about judgement when he comes back and he separates the righteous from the unrighteous.

Matthew 25:41-46:

‘Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was ill and in prison and you did not look after me.” ‘They also will answer, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or ill or in prison, and did not help you?" ‘He will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” ‘Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.’

There are two phrases in this passage that are used to point to eternal torment in a place called hell. Eternal fire and eternal punishment.

Eternal fire is linked to hell due to Jesus saying it is prepared for the devil and his angels. The word eternal here is used to show that the fire will never go out, and this is backed up in another verse that we’ll look at shortly. Those who hold to a view of separation rather than direct torment highlight the word ‘depart’ to show that the unrighteous are separated from God.

Eternal punishment is linked to hell because, well, its obvious isn’t it? It is being compared with eternal life and so if life with God for the righteous is ongoing eternally, punishment must also be ongoing eternally. This is a traditional conclusion but it isn’t necessarily clear what that punishment is from this specific passage. To understand what punishment is, you need to look at the previous verses discussed in Revelation and as Jesus says the unrighteous are associated with the devil and his angels, they must also be tormented forever and ever.

Before moving on, it is important to note that Jesus isn’t the first to teach there will be a judgement. This comes from the Old Testament, most notably in Daniel 12:2:

2Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.

"Sleeping in the dust” is another phrase for those who are dead, a reference to Genesis that humanity is made from the dirt. We will look at this verse again in other videos, for now, this just shows Jesus was using phrases that were pretty well known by those who were listening to him.

There are a few other verses to help understand what punishment or as Daniel writes, ‘everlasting contempt’ is from the traditional perspective. We’ll look at 4 of them.

Mark 9 and Isaiah 66:24

If you read through Matthew 25 you’ll see similarities to the language of Mark 9:45-48 with regards to torment.

And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where‘ “the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched.” Everyone will be salted with fire.

Hell is serious. It is better to enter it maimed from this life than to face the fire that is ongoing forever and the worms that never die. These verses are treated seriously by all Christians. I have often seen many preaching about this and tearing up and getting emotional – this is understandable. No one wants anyone to experience the traditional understanding of this punishment. The wording is used to emphasise that if a worm never dies and a fire is not quenched shows that not only is the torment terrifying, it is also ongoing, forever.

Mark 9:48 is linked directly to an Old Testament passage, Isaiah 66:24 which is a prophecy of God’s ultimate victory over evil. In the last verse of the chapter we read:

‘And they (the righteous) will go out and look on the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me (God); the worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.’

Though Isaiah talks about dead bodies, through using Matthew 25:46, Revelation 14:11 and 20:10 as seen previously it is understood that Jesus and John brought more clarity to what hell will look like. The dead must experience the worms and fire.

Luke 16:23-24

The majority of commentaries and bible scholars seem to agree that the story of the rich man and Lazarus is a parable. Some preachers and teachers do contest this but we’ll get into the depths of that in another video. Many will highlight one specific section to show that hell isn’t going to be destruction or refining but painful.

In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, “Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.”

The rich man is in torment and in agony in this fire. The image of punishment being continual fire, worms and ongoing torment seems to be conclusive but there is one final verse to emphasise the separation view of ECT that is popularised by CS Lewis, Tim Keller and most recently Joshua Ryan Butler in his book ‘The Skeletons in God’s Closet’.

2 Thessalonians 1:8-9

I’m using this passage to highlight that Paul also wrote about judgement a few times but the most commonly used verse by those defending the traditional view is in his second letter to the Thessalonians.

He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.

Paul uses ‘everlasting destruction’ and though this seems to be a phrase thought sounds like something being ended or ‘destroyed’, he follows up with a phrase ‘shut out from the presence of the Lord’. At least that is what the NIV translation states. Many translations will not include ‘shut out’ and so this verse will also require a video on its own. You might be getting the idea that this is a big project…

So eternal destruction is eternal punishment is continual fire, ongoing eating by maggots and torment and agony.

Following on from these passages, it is not really surprising that many are left asking why? Why would a loving God require so much agony and torment – forever? And that, is where the philosophical responses come in. I’ll cover these in part 2.

Do you hold to ECT? Are these the scriptures you would use to defend your view? Let me know in the comments.

[1] (Edwards, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. , 1741)

[2] (GotQuestions.Org)

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