Meaning of "forever": Categorical or qualified?
When God promises that a blessing or judgment will last “forever,” what does forever mean?
Consider the position of annihilationists—those who believe that hell is the final event when sin and sinners will be permanently eradicated from the earth—as opposed to those who believe that hell is a place of everlasting, never ending, fiery torment of the wicked.1 Seventh-day Adventists and other annihiliationists find some of their most challenging passages of scripture in the book of Revelation: “And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever [eis ai nas ai n n]; and they have no rest day and night, those who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name.” “And a second time they said, ‘Hallelujah! HER [the great harlot’s] SMOKE RISES UP FOREVER AND EVER [eis tous ai nas t n ai n n].’ ” “And the devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are also; and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever [eis tous ai nas t n ai n n]” (14:11; 19:3; 20:10, NASB; emphasis added).
The phrase forever and ever in these passages could be literally translated as, “into ages of ages,” which means from one age to the next. Taken at face value, these passages do not speak of a limited duration for the torment of the wicked.
Yet Adventists, among others, point out that these passages in Revelation must be interpreted in the context of other Scriptures that use the phrase forever.2 For example, the “brimstone” in Revelation 20:10 alludes to God’s fire of judgment that came “out of heaven” and is similar to the judgment that came on Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19:24). Jude described this inferno as “eternal fire” (Jude 7, NASB); however, evidence shows that the “eternal fire” that fell on Sodom and Gomorrah does not burn today. Comparing the judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah to the judgment on the wicked spoken of in Revelation—“ fire came down from heaven and devoured them” (Rev. 20:9, NASB; emphasis added; cf. Gen. 19:24–28)—the eternal aspect of God’s fire of judgment could refer to its consequences, not its duration.
Similarly the phrase forever and ever in Revelation 14:11, 19:3, and 20:10 should be interpreted within other Scriptural context. Isaiah, for example, wrote of the judgment on Edom: “Her land shall become burning pitch. Night and day it shall not be quenched; its smoke shall go up forever. From generation to generation it shall lie waste; no one shall pass through it forever and ever ” (Isa. 34:9, 10, NRSV; emphasis added).
This passage, in which God predicts that Edom will be burned by fire forever, has four verbal parallels to Revelation 14:11, 19:3, and 20:10 as well as the thematic parallel of judgment. The fact that Isaiah 34:9, 10 is the only passage in the Bible with this many parallels to the Revelation passages indicates that the author of Revelation would have us interpret “forever and ever,” when referring to the torment of the wicked, in the context of God’s judgment on Edom.
Of course, we know that when Revelation was written, smoke was not going up from the former territory of Edom. “Forever” in the case of Edom cannot, therefore, mean “without end” but points to irrevocable destruction.
“Forever”: Qualified or categorical?
This leads to the conclusion that both the Old Testament and Revelation use the word forever in a qualified sense, meaning that the destructive fire will last as long as it takes to accomplish its purpose of total destruction. The fi res of judgment on Sodom and Edom were not put out; they burned until they accomplished their purpose of total destruction. Similarly the fire in Revelation can be understood as burning until all sinners are destroyed (Mal. 4:1–3).
We find this qualified sense of “forever” in the Old Testament not only in God’s pronouncement of judgment on the wicked but also in God’s promises of blessing to the righteous. For example, God promised David, “I will establish his [Solomon’s] throne forever. . . . I will confirm him in my house and in my kingdom forever, and his throne shall be established forever ” (1 Chron. 17:12, 14, NRSV; emphasis added).
God promised David that his dynasty would rule over Israel forever, yet it came to an end after about 500 years. Five centuries is a very long time, but David’s dynasty expired when his descendants ceased to accomplish their purpose (2 Chron. 36:11–21). Therefore, God’s promises of a “forever” blessing to David carried with it a qualifying condition.
Such an interpretation becomes problematic for Christians who interpret “forever” in a categorical sense. The reason can be understood easily. The phrase forever and ever occurs 12 times in the book of Revelation, nine of which refer to the duration of the reign of God or His people. Naturally, both eternal life and God’s reign are “forever” in a categorical sense. Thus if “forever” describes the blessing of the righteous in a categorical sense, shouldn’t the same be the case in describing the punishment of the wicked?
It would appear, therefore, that annihilationists have arbitrarily interpreted “forever” in the context of judgment in the qualified sense while understanding the same word when used with reference to the blessing of eternal life in the categorical sense. A more consistent interpreter would suggest that if the duration of hellfire has a limitation then the “HOLY and SURE blessings OF DAVID” (Acts 13:34, NASB) that are promised to the righteous could be equally temporary. So if the sacred history of God’s promises of “forever” shows that, although they initially appear categorical, they are usually qualified, How can one know if a promise of “forever” refers to a blessing or judgment that never ends or to one that will last only until the accomplishment of its purpose?
Decay: The result of a qualified “forever”
In his Antioch sermon (Acts 13:13–43), Paul recounted Israel’s salvation history, beginning with the Exodus and ending with Jesus, whom he proclaimed as the promised descendant of David. Then, like any good preacher, Paul drove the point home with a powerful conclusion.
“ ‘And we preach to you the good news of the promise made to the fathers, that God has fulfilled this promise to our children in that He raised up Jesus, as it is also written in the second Psalm, “ THOU ART MY SON; TODAY I HAVE BEGOTTEN THEE.” As for the fact that He raised Him up from the dead, no more to return to decay [diaphthora], He has spoken in this way: “I WILL GIVE YOU THE HOLY AND SURE BLESSINGS OF DAVID.” Therefore He also says in another Psalm, “YOU WILT NOT ALLOW THY HOLY ONE TO UNDERGO DECAY [diaphthora].” For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep, and was laid among his fathers and underwent decay [diaphthora]; but He whom God raised did not undergo decay [diaphthora]’ ” (Acts 13:32–37, NASB; emphasis added).
Paul was addressing a Jewish audience that was well aware of God’s “forever” promise to David (1 Chron. 17:12, 14). Was that promise categorical or qualifi ed? Would the Messiah, the one who was to restore David’s throne, come or had God completely rejected His people due to their disobedience? In answering that question Paul gave the principle of how to understand “forever” in God’s promises.
Paul began with the qualified nature of God’s promise to David in Psalm 16:10. God promised David that he would not “undergo decay,” which is not a promise that he would never die, for David only lived long enough to accomplish his purpose and then passed away. Paul’s description of David’s death as a sleep rules out the notion that David could consciously survive the decay of his body. Similarly, after his death, David’s dynasty decayed to the point where it no longer accomplished its purpose and also ceased to exist.
Even so, this qualified promise of God’s “forever” blessing through David was still open to future fulfillment in the categorical sense.3 But decay, the irrevocable tendency towards death that characterizes all life on this planet, stood in the way of any categorical fulfillment, because that which is mortal “forever” only exists in a qualified sense. Therefore, Paul concluded, the only way God’s blessing can never end is through Someone who is not subject to decay—Someone who can mediate between the qualified promise of the past and the hope of categorical fulfillment in the future.
That Someone is Jesus. His life, death, and resurrection enabled categorical fulfillment of “forever” promises for all who trust Him. The same reasoning about Christ’s resurrection fulfilling the promise that David would not undergo decay, and placed in the mouths of the two apostles of the early church (Acts 2:25–31; 13:32–37), clearly indicates this is a core teaching of the book of Acts. The resurrection of Christ is central to New Testament proclamations because with Christ forever never ends. He is the only way to categorically affirm “forever” life.
Incorruption: The result of a categorical “forever”
The resurrection of Jesus leads to the principle of incorruption that shows us whether a “forever” promise of God is qualified or categorical. Jesus took our corruptible body, died for our sins, and was raised with an incorruptible body without undergoing decay. Consequently He has the ability to give everyone who comes to Him forgiveness of sin and never ending, categorically “forever” life, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus will complete this restoration at the resurrection by giving all who believe in Him an incorruptible body as well. Paul explained, “This perishable [phthartos] must put on the imperishable [aphtharsia], and this mortal must put on immortality” (1 Cor. 15:53, NASB). Those who will experience the lake of fire never receive this promise.
In Scripture, those who follow Jesus receive the promise of eternal life. Paul articulated the principle of incoruption again when he wrote, “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption [phthora], but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life” (Gal. 6:7, 8, NASB). Likewise, in John’s vision of heaven only the saved were permitted access to the tree of life (Rev. 22:14; cf. Gen 3:22–24).
Jesus also juxtaposed the “eternal life” of the righteous with the “eternal punishment” of the wicked (Matt. 25:46, NASB; cf. Dan. 12:2). In Matthew, as in the rest of Scripture, Jesus gives the promise of eternal life to the righteous, not the wicked. This rules out the notion that the punishment of the wicked (Matt. 25:41; cf. Jude 7) consists of eternal conscious torment, as that would require the wicked to have never ending life. To understand this more coherently, Paul defines the punishment of the wicked as consisting of “eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power” (2 Thess. 1:9, NASB; cf. Rev. 20:9).
Therefore the punishment of the wicked can be understood as a never ending state brought about by a fire that destroys completely (Mal. 4:1–3). This promise through Paul of “eternal destruction” reiterates the qualified Old Testament promise that “though the wicked sprout like grass and all evildoers flourish, they are doomed to destruction forever ” (Ps. 92:7, NRSV; emphasis added). Because the promise that the wicked will cease to exist forever is given as a blessing to the righteous (Ps. 92:10, 11; 2 Thess. 1:7, 8) and in the context of the reign of God (Ps. 92:8, 9; Matt. 25:31, 32) this promise is also open to categorical fulfillment.
Without Jesus, “forever” only lasts until the accomplishment of its purpose, but with Jesus forever never ends. On this earth everything has a beginning and an ending, and those who decide to live without Jesus in their decaying bodies will come to a final end. For them God’s promises of “forever” judgment exist only in the qualified sense.
But for those who choose to be united with Jesus in His resurrection (Rom. 6:4, 5), He has an incorruptible reward. The decaying nature of life on this planet causes God’s “forever” promises of blessing to be cut short. But because of Christ’s death and resurrection, God’s people may look beyond the qualified fulfillment of the present to the categorical forever of the future. So even though those whom God saves also die on this earth when their purpose is accomplished, because they have died in Christ, their death becomes only a time of sleep—a rest period during a life that never ends (John 11:25, 26).
This understanding of “forever” in God’s promises grounds Christians in the hope of resurrection and immortality while at the same time relieving them of questions concerning the compatibility of God’s love and justice with the unending torment of those who do not accept the gift of Christ. By teaching their people the difference between God’s categorical and qualified promises, preachers and teachers can give scripturally based comfort to both those who have lost loved ones in Christ and to those whose loved ones passed away without accepting Him. A categorical and qualified understanding of forever also inspires Christ’s disciples to share this good news with those who do not yet know Jesus, as well as with those who have rejected Him due to what they understood to be the Christian doctrine of hell, so that all may have the opportunity to choose Jesus and receive eternal life.
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1 For the current debate between these two positions in the evangelical community, see Edward William Fudge and Robert A. Peterson, Two Views of Hell (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000). Fudge, who wrote The Fire That Consumes (Carlisle, UK: Paternoster, 1994), defends the annihilationist view. Peterson responds (Hell on Trial [ Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1995]) with a spirited rebuttal, defending the notion that hell is a never ending fire.
2 In The Deep Things of God (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 2004), Jon Paulien estimates that the book of Revelation “contains about 2,000 references of one kind or another to the Old Testament” (136).
3 “The particular character of the Old Testament promises can be seen in the fact that the promises were not liquidated by the history
of Israel—neither by disappointment nor by fulfillment—but that on the contrary Israel’s experience of history gave them a constantly new and wider interpretation.” Jürgen Moltman, Theology of Hope, trans. James W. Leitch (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993).