First, 2 Peter 2:9 tells us that the wicked will not be punished until the day of judgment; “The Lord knoweth how to deliver the godly out of temptations, and to reserve the unjust unto the day of judgment to be punished.” The Bible tells us, in both John 12:48 and Matthew 13:40-42, that the Judgment Day has not already happened… it will be “in the last day” and “in the end of this world“. This means that, according the the words of Jesus Christ Himself, no one is being punished in Hell right now.
If no one is burning in Hell now, where are the wicked who have already died? Job 21:30,32 tell us: “That the wicked is reserved to the day of destruction? they shall be brought forth to the day of wrath. (32) Yet shall he be brought to the grave, and shall remain in the tomb.” The Bible says that the wicked are in their graves and will remain there until the day of destruction, or Final Judgment, which will occur, according to Jesus Christ, at the end of this world.
How can the wicked by still in their graves? Jesus Himself says, in John 5:28,29: “Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation.” According to Jesus, who is God, not just the wicked are still in their graves, but all who have died (with a few exceptions) are still in their graves, too. At the end of the world, the righteous will be resurrected until life (this is the gift of eternal life mentioned in John 3:16) but the wicked will be resurrected to receive their punishment. We know this because the Bible says: “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 6:23) Simply put, the righteous receive life and the wicked receive death.
What is this death that the wicked will receive? Revelation 21:8 tells us: “…shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.” So the death which is a punishment for sin is “the second death”. The first death is the physical ending of our mortal lives… even the wicked will be resurrected by God from this death (remember John 5:28,29), but there will be no resurrection from the second death… it is final. Many churches today teach that our souls never die, that when we experience the first death, our eternal souls either go to heaven or hell. The Bible says something very different: “Behold, all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sinneth, it shall die.” (Ezekiel 18:4) God says that all souls that sin will die… that means that souls cannot be eternal! Immortality comes only from accepting the gift of God (1 Corinthians 15:52-57; 2 Timothy 1:8-10).
So the wicked will experience the second death as a punishment for their sins, but what, exactly, is this second death punishment? Revelation 20 tells us that after first resurrection, the resurrection of the righteous, there will be a period of 1000 years. After this millenium is over, the second resurrection, the resurrection of the wicked, will occur. Satan will stir up the wicked against God one last time. Verse 9 says: “And they went up on the breadth of the earth, and compassed the camp of the saints about, and the beloved city: and fire came down from God out of heaven, and devoured them.” This is the hell-fire spoken of in the Bible. “Fire from God out of heaven” which will “devour” the wicked! Now, the Greek word translated as “devoured” is katesthio which means: “to consume by eating, to eat up, devour; by fire, to devour i.e. to utterly consume, destroy”. Even the English equivalent, “devour”, means to destroy or consume. After all, if you “devour” a candy bar or a bowl of ice cream, when you are finished, there will be nothing left. So when the Bible says that the fire from God will “devour” the wicked, that means that there will be nothing left of the wicked… they are literally wiped out of existance. The second death is non-existance, the most literal sense of separation from God.
But what about this fire from God? After all, like you brought up, Revelation 20:10 says that they “…shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever.” Forever and ever implies in English that it will be a very long period of time, possibly eternal. This does not seem to mesh with what the Bible has previously said about the second death and our souls not being eternal. To understand the meaning of “for ever and ever”, we must allow the Bible to interpret itself.
Side note: the Hebrew word translated as “hell” 31 times in the King James Version is sheol which means “the grave” and is also translated as “grave” 31 times. In the New Testament, the Greek word often translated as “hell” is hades, which can mean “grave” as well. The word used to mean hell fire, or the future fire that will be punishment for the wicked, is actually geenna in reference to Gehenna… a valley called Hinnom, south of Jerusalem, where the trash, dead animals, and filth were dumped and burned. Notice that this place is not still on fire today.
2 Peter 3:10 tells us more about the fire from God, or “hell fire”. “But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up.” The fire from God, which will devour the wicked, will be so large that it will encompass the entire earth and so hot that everything that remains on the earth… plants, dirt, the wicked …will “melt” and be “burned up”. Malachi 4:1 agrees: “For, behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the LORD of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch.” The wicked will be completely burned up as if they were stubble or tinder, but how long will they burn in this fire from God? Will it be an eternal torment that will never end?
The Bible says that this fire, which will burn “for ever and ever”, will actually burn itself out. Isaiah 47:14 tells us: “Behold, they shall be as stubble; the fire shall burn them; they shall not deliver themselves from the power of the flame: there shall not be a coal to warm at, nor fire to sit before it.” There is no escaping this purging fire from God, which is literally purging the world from sin. It will burn until there is nothing left on the earth to burn. When a fire has consumed everything that is burn-able, what does it do? It goes out because it literally burned itself out. When the righteous fire from God has consumed the whole earth, there will be nothing left to burn and it will go out.
When the fire finally goes out, Malachi 4:3 tells us that there will be nothing left. The wicked will be nothing more than ashes. This is contradictory to the popular belief of eternal torment in hell taught by many churches today. The Bible is very clear: the wicked will be burned up until their bodies are nothing but ash. David, in Psalm 37:10,20 says that the wicked will cease to be… they will perish, consumed by the fire of God. They will not be, like many people today believe, tormented in an eternal hell, screaming for mercy for all eternity as they experience various horrendous tortures. No, after God’s fire is finished with them, the wicked will no longer exist. Both their physical bodies and their mortal souls will be utterly destroyed. (Matthew 5:30; Genesis 2:7) Jesus Himself says: “And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28)
So the wicked will be consumed by God’s righteous fire, purging the earth from sin, but how long will the wicked suffer or experiment torment in the flames? In Revelation 22:12, Christ proclaims: “And, behold, I come quickly; and my reward is with me, to give every man according as his work shall be.” But this does not really answer the question as to why words like “everlasting” and “forever” are used when refering to this hell fire. The term “forever” has different meanings. To Samuel in 1 Samuel 1:22,28, the word “forever” meant “as long as he lives”. In Psalm 48:14, the word “forever” means “until death”. So, as we have previously seen through very specific Scriptures, burning “forever” in the fire means that the wicked will burn until they die.
This concept of “forever” is supported by other events in the Bible. Jeremiah 17:27 prophesied that Jerusalem would be destroyed in an unquenchable fire, and this was fulfilled in 2 Chronicles 36:19,21 where Jerusalem was “burnt” with fire. However, Jerusalem is not still burning today. An unquenchable fire cannot be put out, but it goes out when everything is consumed and there is nothing left to burn. Another example is that of Sodom and Gomorrah. Jude 7 says that these two sinful cities were destroyed with “everlasting” or “eternal” fire… but Sodom and Gomorrah are not still burning today, are they? If they were still burning, they would never have been lost. Archeologists believe that they have recently uncovered the ruins of these cities, and the ruins are not still on fire. 2 Peter 2:6 even uses the fire that consumed these cities, leaving nothing but ash, as an example of what will happen to the ungodly. So “everlasting” or “eternal” fire consumes everything before going out, leaving nothing but ash. It is everlasting in that the result is permanent, not that its duration is never-ending. This is the same with the destruction of the wicked by God’s purging hell fire. It is not everlasting in that the wicked are to experience eternal punishing, but that the results of the punishment (the second death, literal separation from God by being destroyed, non-existance) will be everlasting.
Even Satan and his fallen angels will be consumed by this fire from God (Revelation 20:10)… which means that the popular idea that Satan is in charge of tormenting souls in Hell is so unBiblical that it is blasphemous to character of God. Jesus Christ, an equal Member of the Godhead, said: “Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels.” (Matthew 25:41) So the same righteous fire from God which will consume and completely destroy the wicked will also consume and completely destroy Satan and his fallen angels, because this fire is a purging fire… consuming and completely destroying sin. The Bible calls this act of God “his strange act” (Isaiah 28:21) because the destruction of even those who hate Him is contrary to His character; after all, God loved the world so much that He willingly allowed His Son… a Beloved extension of His Own Self …to die a horrible death so that anyone who believes in Him will not experience the permanent consequence of sin, the second death by God’s righteous fire.
Why must God do something that is against His character? He does it to finally purge sin from His creation (Nahum 1:9) and after His strange act, God will create a new heaven and a new earth for the righteous. Isaiah 65:17 says: “For, behold, I create new heavens and a new earth: and the former shall not be remembered, nor come into mind.” Also, 2 Peter 3:13 says: “Nevertheless we, according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness.” And Revelation 21:3-4 shares: “And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.”
What a wonderful promise from the Creator of the universe! The pain and suffering of this world caused by sin will not be remembered in the future; with the annihilation of the wicked, Satan, his fallen angels, and, most importantly, sin, God’s creation will be returned to its original purity.