There are many good reasons to reject the commonly accepted Christian teaching known as Infernalism (the soteriological position that those who die without first becoming Christians will suffer forever in a conscious state in a place called the lake of fire), and over the years I’ve written about a number of them on this site, but one very good reason to reject it (at least for those who read Scripture literally) is what the Bible teaches about immortality.
Most people assume that salvation is about avoiding everlasting torment in the lake of fire after we die, and going to a place called “heaven” after we die instead. That’s not what salvation is about at all, however, or even close to what Scripture teaches (while missing out on the lake of fire is a benefit some people gain from a certain type of salvation, it’s not what salvation from an absolute perspective actually refers to in Scripture).
As I’ve discussed previously, Scripture teaches that salvation comes in different types and stages throughout our existence (simply put, the word “salvation” doesn’t always mean the same thing in every passage of Scripture, and while not everyone experiences every type or stage of salvation, all humans do experience both the first and the final stages of it), and the final stage of salvation — eschatological salvation — is the physical experience of the salvation that already exists because of what Christ accomplished, also known as our vivification.
“Vivification” (or “to be vivified”) simply means “to be made immortal” (or “to be brought beyond the reach of death”), which happens for those of us in the body of Christ at the time we ascend into heaven, after we’ve been physically resurrected into still very physical human bodies in this same physical universe we currently reside in (presuming we’ve died before the Snatching Away occurs, of course; those people in the body of Christ who haven’t died when this occurs will simply be vivified and caught up to heaven without dying).
Contrary to popular opinion, those of us in the body of Christ don’t go to heaven after we die (at least not prior to being resurrected and vivified), because heaven is not a place the dead can go (not in a conscious state, anyway; technically, yes, dead bodies can go there, but they don’t remain there very long, and they don’t know they’re there). Instead, Scripture makes it clear that heaven exists here in the same physical universe and three dimensions that the earth exists in.
Now, yes, it is true that those of us who get the special salvation on top of the ontological salvation that Christ won for all of us through His death for our sins and His subsequent entombment and resurrection will indeed go live in heaven, but that won’t happen until after the dead in Christ have been resurrected into physical, living, human bodies that are now immortal, and after the rest of the members of the body of Christ who are still living at that time have been vivified as well. It isn’t said that we shall “always be together with the Lord” until the Snatching Away occurs (if we actually went to heaven right after we died, it would be said that we shall “always be together with the Lord” from the point of our death instead).
In fact, part of the reason Paul wrote chapter 15 of 1 Corinthians was to explain that resurrection isn’t simply a figurative reference to some “spiritual,” ethereal existence for ghosts, but rather that Christ was — and those of us who die will be — physically resurrected as human beings in living human bodies here in this same physical universe you’re currently reading this post in, and he goes on to explain that “this mortal must put on immortality” at some point, meaning our physical human bodies will also eventually be vivified (although each in their own order or class). This is referring to our physical human bodies (some of which have never died, and some belonging to those who have been resurrected from the dead) being transformed into glorified bodies so that they can never die again, at which point one can say they’ve finally experienced salvation physically (or eschatologically), and not just ontologically and/or noologically.
Simply put, when it comes to humans, immortality is connected entirely with salvation, and is always considered to be a blessing, and never a curse (and is ultimately connected to Christ’s abolishment of death). When a human has been made immortal, they have reached the final stage of their salvation. And this fact is a very definitive proof that nobody can suffer forever in the lake of fire.
But how can I say that? Doesn’t Scripture teach that dead non-Christians will be cast into the lake of fire to suffer forever and ever? Well, no, it actually doesn’t say anything of the sort. First of all, no humans are cast into the lake of fire until after they’ve been physically resurrected for the Great White Throne Judgement (“the rest of the dead do not live until the thousand years should be finished,” as John wrote, at which point they’ll be resurrected so they can be judged). This isn’t a judgement of ghosts in some ethereal afterlife realm; it takes place in our physical universe, and it’s regular, mortal, human beings who have been resurrected to be judged. Why do I say they’re mortal? Well, we know they aren’t resurrected to immortality because immortality is a result of experiencing the final stage of salvation, and if they’ve reached that point they definitely aren’t going to be harmed by the lake of fire. Which means that anyone who is cast into the lake of fire after this judgement has not been made immortal yet. And what happens to regular, mortal, human beings who are set on fire? They simply burn up and die (this is why the lake of fire is referred to as the second death, by the way, because it’s where certain mortal humans will die a second time). And there’s nothing in the text to indicate that God will keep resurrecting them over and over again each time they die (which would mean the lake of fire isn’t just the second death, but also the third and four and fifth deaths, and so-on-and-so-forth), so there’s no basis for the idea that anyone will suffer forever in the lake of fire. At most, if one wants to argue that the lake of fire is the final word on the matter for non-Christians, all they can argue is for Annihilationism, but what you’ve just read should make it obvious that Infernalism is an untenable doctrine. (Although those of us in the body of Christ are aware of the fact that Paul saw farther into the future than John did, and foresaw a time when even those in the lake of fire would be resurrected again — this time to immortality — but that’s a whole other discussion.)
Of course, there’s also nothing in the text to indicate that any human will be conscious in the lake of fire anyway. Only the wild beast, the false prophet, and the adversary are said to be conscious in the lake of fire, and they can be conscious because they’re celestial beings who are not mortal like we humans are prior to our vivification (the beast and false prophet in this verse would have to refer to beings who possess mortal humans who will die at the time Jesus returns to the earth). Yes, there are a number of passages in other parts of Scripture which seem to indicate that people might suffer some sort of conscious punishment in the future, but these passages must be interpreted in light of the above facts that you’ve just read, which means that they have to be referring to forms of judgement other than what most Christians have commonly assumed they’re talking about (I explain in the first couple chapters of my free eBook what they’re referring to, if you are curious).
I know all that was probably new for many people reading this, so let’s break it down in a point-by-point recap:
- Human immortality is connected with salvation (only those humans who are finally experiencing salvation physically are made immortal).
- Those who are resurrected for the Great White Throne Judgement haven’t been saved (relatively speaking), so they are raised as regular, mortal humans.
- Regular, mortal humans who are set on fire burn up and die.
- Hence, nobody can suffer in the lake of fire any longer than it takes to burn up and die.