"But I notice that Our Lord, while stressing the terror of hell with unsparing severity usually emphasises the idea not of duration but of finality. Consignment to the destroying fire is usually treated as the end of the story-not as the beginning of a new story. That the lost soul is eternally fixed in its diabolical attitude we cannot doubt: but whether this eternal fixity implies endless duration-or duration at all-we cannot say."
An intent study of scripture verses pertaining to hell reveals an interesting pattern with regard to the issue of finality. There seems to exist an inversely proportional relationship between finality and references to conscious torment. That's a fancy way of saying that there's no mention of torment in verses that stress finality. Conversely, in verses that mention torment, the finality is in question. It is the contention here that those verses that speak of conscious torment do not refer to hell, whereas those that speak of hell do not mention conscious torment. This assertion begs an obvious question: Then how do we know which verses refer to hell and which ones don't? A good place to start is Revelations 20:11-14: "And I saw a great white throne, and him that sat on it...and I saw the dead standing before God...and they were judged every man according to their works...and whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire."
This verse parallels Matthew 25:31-46, where we also see Christ on His throne casting the wicked into the lake of fire. This is preceded by a decree to "Depart from me!" These verses give us the images that constitute the final judgment: Christ on His throne, a decree to depart, and the lake of fire. Does this mean that every reference to judgment that is missing one or more of these elements cannot be referring to final judgment. In and of itself, no. But the evidence does seem to indicate that this is indeed the case.
Let's take a look at the images and words presented in the Bible verses about "hell". By doing so we will discern an interesting pattern.
Matt. 3:12 Lake of fire
Matt. 5:29 Hell
Matt. 7:22 Decree of banishment
Matt. 8:11-12 Outer darkness, Weeping
Matt. 10:28 Hell
Matt. 13:13 Lake of fire
Matt. 13:38-42 Furnace of fire, Weeping
Matt. 18:8 Hell
Matt. 18:34 Weeping/Torment
Matt. 22:13 Outer darkness, Weeping/Torment
Matt. 24:50-51 Weeping
Matt. 25:30 Outer darkness, Weeping/Torment
Matt. 25:31-46 Throne, Decree of banishment, Lake of fire
Luke 12:47-48 Being beaten
Luke 12:59 Imprisonment
Luke 13:25-28 Decree of banishment/Weeping
Luke 19:27 Slaying
Mark 9:13 Hell
2 Peter 3:10 Lake of fire
Rev. 14:10 Torment
Rev. 20:14 Lake of fire
Rev 22:15 None of the above
The final tally is as follows: 12 verses that make reference to hell, the lake of fire, incineration, Christ on the throne, or a decree of banishment. None of those verses contain responses of conscious torment. Eight passages record torment (nine if you count imprisonment as torment). None of them mention any of the images noted. In other words, certain images never intersect with certain other images. The images of Rev. 20:12-14 never intersect with weeping and torment. Despite a total of 22 references to hell and weeping and/or torment, the two never intersect.
It should be noted that Luke 13:25 does contain a decree of banishment and weeping. Verse 27 records the decree; verse 28 records the weeping. Notice, however, that the verse does not say "then there shall be weeping." It just says there's weeping. The weeping of verse 28 probably precedes the decree of verse 27, just as in Matthew 25, where the dialogue with Christ precedes the decree to depart.
This is even more striking considering the fact that every time Matthew mentions outer darkness or the furnace of fire, he follows it up with the phrase "weeping and gnashing of the teeth" (Matt. 8:12, 13:42, 22:13, 25:30). This is the standard epilogue to verses containing these images. And yet when he mentions hell or the lake of fire (Matt. 5:29, 10:28, 18:8, 25:31-46), he does not add the standard epilogue. And this despite the fact that the passages themselves cry out for the epilogue to be added. Just look and judge for yourself.
Verses mentioning Outer darkness and Furnace of fire
Matt. 8-12 But the children of the kingdom shall be cast into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Matt. 22:13 Therefore said the king to his servants, Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Matt. 25:30 And cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Matt. 13:42 And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Verses mentioning Hell and the Lake of fire
Matt 5:30 And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.
Matt. 10:28 And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both body and soul in hell.
Matt. 25:41 Then shall he say unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels.
Matt. 18:19 Wherefore if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hellfire.
Notice how the second set of verses end with hell and fire, just begging for the same epilogue as the first set. And yet no epilogue is given. Mark does give an epilogue after a verse that's similar to Matt. 18:9, but it's a very different epilogue. Mark 9:43 reads: "And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter life maimed, then having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched." A series of like verses follow, one about the foot, one about the eye. Each verse is followed by the phrase "Where the worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched." There is no mention of weeping and gnashing of teeth. The phrase that replaces it shifts the attention from man, who no longer exists, to the fire, which is all that's left. It's a picture not of torment, but of silent, unending desolation.