The two most prominent trees in the Garden of Eden were the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life. God said to Adam and Eve, "From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die" (Genesis 2:16-17). A loving and generous God gave them everything freely except one thing.
Satan makes his first appearance in chapter three, giving us a picture of his modus operandi of maligning God and twisting His words. "Indeed, has God said, 'You shall not eat from any tree of the garden?'' (Genesis 3:1). Was that what God said? No. Eve didn't fall for that. So Satan tried again: "You surely will not die!" (Genesis 3:4).
And Eve believed that lie, as have many other people. Most Christians will say that everybody lives forever; it's just a question of where. I believed that myself until recently when I studied what the Bible actually says. The Bible states very clearly that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23), not eternal life in torture. God told Adam that if he sinned he would die. Psalm 37:20 says, "But the wicked will perish; and the enemies of the Lord will be like the glory of the pastures, they vanish--like smoke they vanish away." Malachi 4:3 talks about the Day of Judgment when it says, "'You will tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day which I am preparing,' says the Lord of hosts." They will be completely destroyed--dead forever when God ushers in "the new heavens and new earth in which righteousness dwells" (2 Peter 13). No sin or evil can mar His perfect new creation where He will live among His people (Revelation 21:3).
After Adam and Eve sinned, God forced them out of the Garden of Eden so they would not eat from the tree of life and live forever. This was an act of mercy because to live forever in a sinful state would be eternal torment. So God specifically withheld eternal life from fallen humanity, until He could purchase our redemption with His blood. To His redeemed, He will grant access to the tree of life (Revelation 2:7), and they will live forever in a glorified state, crowned with glory and majesty (Psalm 8:5).
The idea of an inherently immortal soul was alien to the ancient Hebrews. They believed that the dead went down to Sheol, or the grave. Psalm 146:3-4 says, "Do not trust in princes, in mortal man, in whom there is no salvation. His spirit departs, he returns to the earth; in that very day his thoughts perish." And Ecclesiastes 9:5 says, "For the living know they will die; but the dead do not know anything."
Did the New Testament change this perception? No. In Acts 2:29, Peter quoted Psalm 16:8-11, and explained that David was talking about Christ. “Brothers, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day.” And Acts 2:34: “For it was not David who ascended into heaven.” David is dead and buried and will rise again at the resurrection. John 3:13 states clearly, "No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man."
The Bible does not teach that disembodied souls live forever in heaven or hell, because a soul is not inherently immortal. The words "immortal" or "immortality" are only used in the context of God and the redeemed on the day of judgment (Romans 2:7, 1 Cor. 15:53-54, 1 Tim. 6:16-17, and 2 Tim. 1:10). The soul that sins will die (Ezekiel 18:20). 1 Timothy 6:16 says that God alone possesses immortality. If He alone possesses immortality, and the redeemed will receive immortality when Jesus comes again, then immortality is not something we all possess. It is a gift of God's Spirit.
Instead, the Bible teaches that Jesus will come in glory with the angels for the Great White Throne Judgment, and the dead will rise from their graves. 1 Thessalonians 4:16 says, "For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first." If they rise, they are in the graves. All the dead will rise and stand before Him. "Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment" (John 5:28-29). Matthew 10:28 says that God is able to destroy both body and soul in hell. If the soul is destroyed, it ceases to exist. "Our God is a consuming fire" (Hebrews 12:29). How does a fire consume? It destroys completely and leaves nothing except ashes, which is consistent with Malachi 4:3.
Where then did this idea come from that souls are immortal and we will all live forever in eternal bliss or eternal torture? Greek mythology taught that the immortal souls of the dead go down to Hades, and when the Hebrew Old Testament was translated to Greek in the Septuagint, the word "Sheol" was translated "Hades." Also, the Greek philosophers like Plato heavily influenced a number of the church fathers. So hell came to mean conscious, unceasing punishment in a lake of fire. When we think of it that way, we read "death," "destruction," "perish, "consume," etc. to mean something other than what those words actually mean. They have become euphemisms for eternal torture.
Now, of course the idea of hell as eternal, conscious torture is the traditional view, and there are a couple of passages that have given me pause because they have convinced many that hell is conscious suffering, in spite of all the parts of the Bible that tell us the wages of sin is death. They are the story of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16:19-30, and the account of Judgment Day in Matthew 25:31-46, where Jesus separates the sheep from the goats on the basis of what they did or didn't do for the least of His brothers.
Before I begin to analyze these passages, I would like make one general observation. In both of these passages, the lost souls were not terrible people by any stretch of the imagination. The "goats" may even have been professing Christians, because they called Jesus "Lord." (It's not much of a stretch to conclude that since Matthew 7:21 says that only those who do the will of God will enter the kingdom of heaven.) The text doesn't tell us one way or the other. The only thing we know about the rich man and the "goats" is that they lacked love. In other words, they failed to do God's will to love their neighbor as themselves (Matthew 22:37-40, Galatians 5:14, James 2:8). The rich man didn't kick Lazarus when he walked past him. He just ignored him. Likewise, we don't get a laundry list of the sins of the "goats"--all we know is that they didn't seem to care about those who suffer.
So if we want to ignore everything in the Bible that say that the wages of sin is death in order to focus exclusively on these two passages, we have to face the fact that lovelessness will put us squarely in the goat camp. If we don't feel tremendous relief at the idea that nobody will be eternally tortured, we should examine our hearts and ask ourselves whether our relationship to a God of love is what it should be.
This reminds me of the story of Solomon and the two women who fought over a baby because one the women's babies died. When Solomon suggested that they cut the baby in two and give one part to each of them, one woman readily agreed and the other one asked Solomon to give the first woman the baby instead of killing him. Solomon immediately knew that the baby belonged to the last woman because of her love for him.
Likewise, our love for other people (or its absence) should tell us if we really belong to Christ. If the idea of the vast majority of people suffering excruciating pain forever and ever with no relief doesn't trouble us deeply, we either don't really believe it, we don't want to think about it, or we know nothing of love. If it's the latter, Matthew 25 and Luke 16 give us no assurance that they are not describing us.
However, I think these two passages are consistent with the rest of the Bible, and do not teach unrelenting conscious torture for the lost. In Matthew 25:46, Jesus says, "These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life." The same word for "eternal" is used in both instances, so the argument goes that if the righteous will live forever, the others will also be alive and punished forever. However, the word for "eternity" is "aion," which according to Strong’s Concordance means 1) for ever, an unbroken age, perpetuity of time, eternity 2) the worlds, universe 3) period of time, age. So it doesn't definitively mean forever and ever. In fact, the word "aion" is used in Hebrews 11:3: "By faith we understand that the worlds ("aion") were prepared by the word of God." And the Bible clearly states that this universe is not forever.
A form of the word "aion" is also used in Jude 1:7 when it says that Sodom and Gomorrah were an "example in undergoing the punishment of eternal fire." But Sodom and Gomorrah were completely annihilated. The inhabitants of these cities are not still being tortured in an unrelenting fire. If, as Jude said, these cities were an example for us, and the traditional view is correct, then we would expect to read about screaming ghosts in the fire after they died. But all we know is that the "smoke of the land ascended like the smoke of a furnace," and that "God destroyed the cities of the valley" (Genesis 19:28, 29). This is how the Bible illustrates what it means by destruction by eternal fire.
As for Luke 16:19-30, it is important to remember that since Jesus always taught in parables, this is also a parable. And that means that we have to think about what it means rather than taking everything at face value. All the parables contain symbolism. If we read this in the context of the rest of the Bible, we know that this does not represent something that has already happened. Why? Because nobody except the Son of Man has gone to heaven (John 3:13). This means that Lazarus is not a real person who went to heaven. But some say that "Abraham's bosom" is a pre-heaven for the redeemed, a place where they stay in a disembodied state until the resurrection. However, Hebrews 11:8, 13 tells us that Abraham was a great man of faith who has not yet received the promise. He is still awaiting its fulfillment, like all those who are symbolically in the bosom of Abraham, the man of great faith. Like David (Acts 2:34) and Daniel (Daniel 12:13), he is dead and buried--or rather "asleep" and awaiting the resurrection. Most likely this is a picture of Judgment Day, and the rich man would not be quite so loquacious in the real lake of fire, because, like all the examples in the Old Testament of death by divine fire, it would be sudden and complete (for example, Leviticus 10:2 and Numbers 16:35). There is no example of slow torture anywhere.
Speaking of Abraham, he said, "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?" (Genesis 18:25). Most of us fallen creatures would not torture an animal for even a few seconds. Would the God of love, who is the source of the moral law written on our hearts, torture billions of people throughout all of eternity, just for failing to receive His gracious gift of eternal life? Job 4:17 says, "Shall mortal man be more just than God? Shall a man be more pure than his maker?" The obvious answer is no.
This is the conclusion I have reached after studying for myself what the Bible has to say on the subject. But my objective is always to get you to think and never to indoctrinate. Although the word of God is infallible, I am not, and I invite you to study this subject for yourself. I welcome your thoughts, and any correction, in the comments.