THE FINAL FATE OF THE WICKED IN THE OLD TESTAMENT

The Bible teaches that Jesus came to give eternal life to those who would seek Him (Rom. 2:8-11). Humans are created beings and are not inherently immortal (Gen. 1:26-27; 1 Tim. 6:15-16; etc.) Only God can give eternal life (Rom. 6:23; Jn. 10:28; Rom. 2:7). By default, those who do not follow God will forfeit the gift of eternal life and will be destroyed in hell (Acts 13:46; Mt. 25:56; Mt. 7:13; Jn. 3:16; Phil. 3:19; etc.). This destruction is not temporal, but forever. (2 Thess. 1:7-9). Once the wicked are thrown into hell, they will die the second death and will perish forever (Jn. 3:16; Rev. 20:15; 21:8). As Jesus said,

“…fear the one who can destroy both body and soul in hell…” (Mt. 10:28).

In this article, we will focus on what the Bible has to say about the final fate of the wicked in the Old Testament.  According to Leroy Froom, the Old Testament uses around 50 different Hebrew verbs to describe the fate of the wicked and they all are in reference to everlasting destruction, not everlasting conscious torment (Froom, The Conditionalist Faith of Our Fathers. 1:106). This is really emphasized in the poetic books where the wicked are described with phrases such as as:

  • “passing away”
  • “being cut off from the land of the living”
  • “being no more”
  • “being burned up”
  • See: Psa. 11:1-7; 34:8-22; 34:1-40; 58; 69:22-28; 73:23-28; etc.).

No passage in the Old Testament is ever seen describing the final fate of the wicked as eternal conscious torment, it is always death and destruction.

Temporal Fate vs. Eternal Fate

Sometimes these passages are attempted to be explained away by arguing that they are only in regards to destruction in this life and have nothing to do with the final fate of the wicked. For example, Robert A. Peterson says that these passages only…

speak of God visiting the wicked with premature death” (Two Views on Hell, p.91).

However, Peterson’s response doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. While it is true that at times God would judge and destroy the wicked prematurely, the wicked often times prospered.

“For I was envious of the boastful, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.” Psa. 73:3

There is a vanity which occurs on earth, that there are just men to whom it happens according to the work of the wicked; again, there are wicked men to whom it happens according to the work of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity. Eccl. 8:14

Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why are those happy who deal so treacherously? Jer. 12:1

This was a very real struggle with Job. Job 21:7 says,

Why do the wicked live and become old and become mighty in power?”

The Bible teaches that, in this life, sentences for the wicked are usually not carried out swiftly (Eccl. 8:11). Therefore, it is fair to say that, at least in part, the plurality of passages that speak of the wicked being destroyed could not be limited to just this life since in this life the wicked are not always “destroyed” or “punished” as the passages indicate.

The wicked do not live forever.

Of course, even if someone wanted to dismiss every single passage in the Old Testament that speaks of the wicked being destroyed as just being in this life, then they would still have to face the reality that the wicked are never described as living forever in the Old Testament, much less living forever while being consciously tormented.

The Old Testament is not only silent regarding eternal conscious torment, but it also speaks of the wicked being destroyed. Only the righteous are seen as living forever (Prov. 12:28; Job 19:26; Psa. 73:23-28; Isa. 26:19 ). Just as the life of the righteous spoken of in the Old Testament would imply the eternal fate of the righteous, so would the death and destruction of the wicked in the Old Testament imply the eternal fate of the wicked.

When God speaks of destroying something, He means exactly that: He will destroy it. This can be seen in Old Testament examples such as the flood (Gen. 6-9), Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19:24-29), the rebellious Jews (Isa. 1:27-31; 5:24,25; Zeph. 1:14-18; etc.), Edom (Obadiah 15-21), Nineveh (Nah. 1:2-15) and the plethora of other instances. Never does destruction mean everlasting conscious torment. It means destruction. Furthermore, never does death mean life, much less eternal life.

Isaiah 66:24: The worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.

One of the more familiar passages used in the Old Testament to describe the fate of the wicked is Isaiah 66:24. The context is speaking of how God will execute judgment on His enemies with a fiery sword (v.15-16). The wicked will be destroyed/consumed altogether (v.17). While the wicked are destroyed, the righteous will continue (v.22). This is the setting for the crucial verse under examination. The verse itself says:

They shall go forth and look upon the corpses of the men who have transgressed against Me. For their worm does not die, and their fire is not quenched. They shall be an abhorrence to all flesh” (Isa. 66:24).

Notice, the righteous are looking at the unconscious corpses of the wicked that have been destroyed, they are not looking at living bodies being tormented. The wicked under consideration are already dead, not conscious.

The idea of the worm not dying is in connection with the consummation and destruction of dead bodies (Isa. 14:11; Job 17:14-17; etc.). In the same way, the unquenchable fire is a figure of speech used in other passages to describe a fire that can’t be stopped until it has completely consumed and devoured its target (Ezek. 20:47, 48; Amos 5:5, 6; etc.).

Daniel 12:2-3: Everlasting Contempt

And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, Some to everlasting life,
some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine Like the brightness of the firmament, And those who turn many to righteousness. Like the stars forever and ever.”

Here, the Bible speaks of the righteous having everlasting life compared to the wicked’s everlasting contempt. Everlasting life is in contrast to the other alternative, which is everlasting contempt.

First, one should note that both fates are eternal.

Second, only one group has eternal life: the righteous.

Third, the contempt here in context is not the experience of the wicked, it is the experience of the righteous toward the wicked. This understanding is based upon the limited usage of the Hebrew word translated “contempt.”

This word only appears one other time in the Old Testament. The only other time it appears is in Isaiah 66:24 where it is translated “loathsome” and describes dead corpses. It is with contempt that the righteous view the lifeless bodies of the wicked in Isaiah 66:24. Thus, the contempt and shame towards the wicked in Daniel 12:2-3 will be everlasting.

The life of the wicked will not be everlasting, for the wicked will perish (Psa. 73:27), the contempt and shame of the wicked will be everlasting. Daniel 12:2-3 depicts how the unrighteous will be raised, but only raised to be judged and destroyed forever (Acts 24:15; Jn. 5:28, 29; Rev. 20:11-15). This passage again emphasizes that only the righteous will have eternal life.

In summary, the righteous will live forever and the wicked will be condemned to hell to be destroyed and will be no more.

– Kevin Pendergrass

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