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“Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like Us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might stretch out his hand, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever.” Genesis 3:22
This verse may not be often quoted or referred to, but I believe that what it says may be in opposition to a common doctrine that the church has taught for hundreds of years: That hell is a place of eternal punishment. This is a sensitive topic to be sure, but please know that I am honestly striving for the truth in the scriptures.
In this verse we see that God would not allow Adam to live forever once he had eaten of the tree of knowledge of good and evil; Adam could not have both. Quite simply, Genesis 3:22 teaches that eating of the tree of life enables us to live forever, and conversely, it teaches that if we are unable to eat from the tree of life, we do not live forever.
The tree of life does not appear in the scriptures again until the city of God, the New Jerusalem, descends from heaven in the book of Revelation. In Revelation 22:14-15, there is a specific distinction between those who have the right to eat of this tree (those inside the city) and those that do not (those outside the city, described as sorcerers, immoral persons, murderers, etc.)
By this understanding, if a person does not have access to heaven (the city of New Jerusalem), then that person does not have access to the tree of life, and therefore cannot eat of it. If they cannot eat of it, they cannot live forever. If they cannot live forever, then how can they, when thrown into the lake of fire, (hell) be tormented eternally?
I suppose the short answer by most would be to tell me that our human body of flesh does not live forever, but that our soul does, and that I am confusing the matter. However, in Matthew 10:28 Jesus said “Do not fear those who can kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.”
Also in Revelation 20, after the great white throne judgment, when those whose names were not found written in the Lamb’s book of life are thrown into the lake of fire, scripture tells us“this is the second death, the lake of fire.” (Rev. 20:14). So if we are appointed to die once on earth (Hebrews 9:27), and there is a ‘second death’ awaiting in the spiritual realm for those who don’t believe in Christ as Messiah (whose names are not written in the book of life), is the lake of fire our final, spiritual death? It sounds entirely plausible to me but is obviously a controversial subject.
Hell is not mentioned in the Hebrew scriptures (Old Testament), but is mostly spoken of by Jesus in the gospels. The greek word actually used is “Gehenna”, which Jesus used as a picture of hell, or future punishment. Blue Letter Bible defines Gehenna like this:
“This was originally the valley of Hinnom, south of Jerusalem, where the filth and dead animals of the city were cast out and burned; a fit symbol of the wicked and their future destruction.”
The word Gehenna is mentioned about twelve times in the New Testament, eleven of those by Jesus. In these passages there is no mention as to the duration of those in hell – only that they would be cast into hell. The single biggest obstacle to a the concept of a non-eternal hell is a passage in which Jesus makes reference to “eternal punishment” in Matthew 25:46 This verse does not specifically mention hell – only punishment – however “eternal fire” is mentioned a few verses earlier in 25:41. There is no doubt that in hell, the fire itself is eternal –there are several verses in scripture that describe it as a persistent fire – the question is whether or not humans (body, soul or spirit) can survive the fire of hell to be eternally tormented, or if we just perish completely in the flames.
The doctrine of hell as eternal punishment has been a long-standing teaching of the church at large, yet it seems that this is really only gleaned from the combination of Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:41 and 25:46, which arguably may not be the actual meaning of those verses.
Interestingly, most well-balanced churches typically teach that core doctrines should not come from a single verse or passage, but rather be from a conglomeration of all related verses on a subject, as well as keeping with their context. Teachings based upon single verses can lead to extremism, and have been the basis for the teachings of cult-like organizations.
So where does that leave us? Is hell eternal punishment, or eternal (final) destruction?
On a more uplifting note, another possible interpretation of the tree of life that is more allegorical, but I also think may have truth to it, is that Jesus on the cross is the representation of the ‘tree of life’ between the garden of Eden and the New Jerusalem, with his body hanging on the cross being the ‘fruit of the tree of life’. Another reason Jesus told His followers they had to eat his body (symbolically speaking) perhaps?