Mainstream Christian theology teaches that hell is eternal conscious torment. I contend that the Bible doesn’t teach that. A few passages in the Bible do seem to refer to eternal conscious torment. One of them is the story about the rich man and Lazarus.
Jesus told this story, and it’s recorded in Luke 16:19-31. A beggar named Lazarus and a rich man died. The beggar “was carried by the angels to Abraham’s presence.” The rich man was in torment in Hades. He saw Abraham and Lazarus from afar, and he begged for Abraham to “send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool [his] tongue.” Abraham told the rich man that he got all of his good stuff during his lifetime. Besides, people can’t go from paradise to Hades.
As was the case with other parables, this is a story that Jesus told to make a point. It’s important to understand, from the context, what point He was making. The context is not the afterlife and eternal destiny; it’s how we treat people and live our lives. Also, because it’s presented as a parable and not typical biblical narrative, it’s likely a metaphor rather than a literal happening. Still, let’s put each point to the test:
- Do the saved go to be with Abraham? The Bible says this nowhere. It says something else.
- Are people conscious after they die? The Bible says this nowhere, unless it’s in the context of resurrected people.
- Can people in hell see people in heaven? The Bible says this nowhere.
- Can people in hell talk with people in heaven? The Bible says this nowhere.
- If you were suffering in hell and had the chance to ask something of heaven, what would you ask for? Common sense tells us that we would ask to be rescued — certainly more than a drop of water.
- Would God send a dead person to talk to the living? The Bible says this nowhere, nor does it make sense. (Some might think this happened with Samuel and Saul after Samuel’s death, but that interpretation isn’t consistent within the story or with the Bible as a whole.)
- Is hell a place where people are hanging out? The Bible says this nowhere.
The afterlife elements of this story are so inconsistent with the rest of the Bible, it seems pretty clear that it was simply a fable Jesus used to make a point about how we should treat people and live our lives. It certainly doesn’t seem that He was explaining heaven and hell, because it’s a complete disconnect from the rest of the Bible’s teaching on death and the final destiny of the lost.