The most fearful thing for an unbeliever is being cast by God into the lake of fire. As Hebrews 10:31 illustrates, “It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” The human fear of God and judgment is readily noted throughout our Bible, and it’s something that most of us all likely have come about. But what if… Later biblical authors just made it up?
Recently, I’ve been coming across the claim by non-believers that I’ve been talking with that say the concept of eternal torture in the afterlife is nowhere to be found in the Old Testament, and thus, is a New Testament invention as the biblical tradition continuously became more exaggerated with the passing of time. So, I took to studying the Old Testament in some way, and see if this claim stacks up. I’ve come across this claim by many people in many contexts, and so this is certainly one of those online skeptic classicals.
Firstly, before we see what the Old Testament has to say, we need to understand what the New Testament says about the eternity of torture in the afterlife. Although people refer to this as hell, in the entire Bible, this is most certainly not hell. Hell is not a place of eternal torture, biblically speaking, it is the lake of fire that is the place of eternal fire and torture. In fact, towards the end of the New Testament, we are not only specifically told that hell and the lake of fire are two different things, but we are told that hell and death will literally be cast into the lake of fire.
Revelation 20:14: Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.
So, the final place of unrelenting agony is the lake of fire, not hell. So, how does the New Testament actually refer to the place of hell anyways? In reality, the actual English word hell only came into existence in the 8th century AD from Germanic derivation. Thus, it becomes immediately clear that the New Testament never refers to hell in the original Greek language, that term is only found in our modern English translations. In reality, the original Greek uses a single specific term for ‘hell’, that is, hades.
Hades is a place deep within the Earth where the souls of all the wicked dead lay after their death, and stay there until they are cast into the lake of fire by God, where they will be tortured in fire forever. Now that we’ve clarified this, the question becomes if the concept of the lake of fire (an eternal torture and fire) appears in the Old Testament. The deniers say it doesn’t. What does the Old Testament say?
Daniel 12:2: Many who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake, some to eternal life, and some to disgrace and eternal contempt.
In this verse, things become quickly clear. We are told that some people are resting in the “dust of the earth” (sheol), and soon, they will either depart to one of two places, either eternal life or eternal contempt (an eternity after death either way). The places of eternal life and eternal contempt appear to be opposites — eternal life being heaven, and eternal contempt being the lake of fire. It does appear, from this verse, that the concept of an eternal torture awaiting the wicked does appear in the Old Testament. There are more verses to examine, of course, before relenting in our study.
Jeremiah 23:40: I will bring on you everlasting disgrace and humiliation that will never be forgotten.”
Again, we see another explicit reference, by God Himself in this verse, where God will throw someone into some form of eternal unpleasance. These two aforementioned verses do not yet speak of an eternal fire, but there is one last verse to look at before deciding on whether or not the skeptics are right about this.
Isaiah 66:24: “As they leave, they will see the dead bodies of those who have rebelled against me; for their worm will never die, their fire will never go out, and they will be a horror to all mankind.”
The last verse of Isaiah’s book tells us that some people will be in an undying fire after death, a place where their worm will never die (see Jesus speak in Mark 9:48). This verse unambiguously declares the unrighteous will enter into an eternity of fire and doom in the afterlife, consistent with both what we know from Daniel 12:2 and Jeremiah 23:40. Interestingly, another verse (Isaiah 50:11) also says that God says to the wicked “you will lie down in a place of torment.” So, I think it’s clear now that the lake of fire is explicitly mentioned in the Old Testament, hence, not a later invention that comes about through the advent of the New Testament. Thus, the skeptics turned out to be wrong.