Question: Some theologians say that unrepentant sinners will “perish in the lake of fire.” What does this mean?
Answer: The word “perish” is capable of more than one interpretation, and we do not take a dogmatic position as to which interpretation is correct.
The Bible says that the unrepentant will perish in the lake of fire. John 3:16, for example, presents “perish” and “eternal life” as opposites. Theologians who believe that the wicked will be eternally conscious are aware that the Bible uses the word “perish.” They have a different understanding of “perish” than annihilationists do.
The Bible does not define “perish.” Some verses support the concept of complete destruction, or annihilation; other verses support the concept of eternal conscious suffering. Interpreters of both persuasions agree, however, following the biblical use of the term, that the unrepentant will perish in the lake of fire.
We cannot assume that “perish” means that consciousness will cease. The Bible speaks of unbelievers as being dead (Ephesians 2:1; John 5:24), yet they are certainly conscious! Since the Bible uses the word “dead” in such a metaphorical way, it may also use the word “perish” in a metaphorical way, especially when it is talking about the age to come, an afterlife, of which we have no experience.
In the Bible, life and death may have greater meanings than the physical meanings we commonly associate with those terms. When a person dies, the body stops working and begins to decompose, but what happens spiritually? Can consciousness continue, and if so, in what way? We cannot make assumptions about the afterlife based on physical meanings of “death” or “perish.”
Whether consciousness continues after death, and how long the wicked are conscious, must be determined not by assuming word meanings, but by verses that give more description. And the verses can be interpreted in more than one way. That is why we do not have a dogmatic position on this topic.