(March 2000 – Volume 6, Issue 3)
My how things change. The Pope recently came out with a series of proclamations about the afterlife. First he took the puffy clouds out of heaven. Then he removed the brimstone from hell. Now he has cleaned up purgatory!
The Pope has declared that none of these places are really physical addresses to which souls are dispatched. Rather, heaven is a “spiritual union with God.” Hell is just “the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God.”
Officially the Catholic Church has never and can never change its doctrines, so it is not surprising to find the Catholic theologians lining up behind the Pope and declaring that the church has always believed these things. But the average Catholic would certainly be mystified to hear that this is not a change, and medieval Church theologians would be absolutely dumbfounded. In truth the afterlife has changed for Catholics in 1999. The same is true for many Protestants.
By contrast, when Jonathan Edwards preached the most famous sermon in American history, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” he used graphic and moving images of the endless punishment of the wicked in hell. How could hell have changed so much over the years? David Wells was on the mark when he stated:
The awkward fact is that the church, for nineteen hundred years, has believed in the uniqueness of Christ, the truth of His Word, and the necessity of God’s judgment of the impenitent; and we have to ask why, in the late twentieth century, some or all of these beliefs now seem to have become so unbelievable. Is it that new exegetical discoveries now cast doubt upon what the church has always believed? Are there new archeological finds? Is it that the church has simply misread the Bible and done so consistently over so long a period of time? No, these truths today have become awkward and disconcerting to hold not because of new light from the Bible but because of new darkness from the culture.
In our previous papers we attempted to address two subjects: “What is hell like?” and “why do people go there?” In this paper we would like to do three things: Take an overview of the scriptural teachings on hell, drawing from that a description of eternal punishment, then return to the subject of why people go to hell and how they can avoid it.
An Overview of Scripture
At this point we will march through the Word of God to discover what is taught about hell throughout the Bible.
The Old Testament
The Old Testament does not develop the doctrine of hell. Instead, it yields “valuable clues to God’s disposition toward the wicked. First, it confronts us with a biblical picture of God that seems out-of-step with our contemporary world — God is not only loving and kind, but also holy and just. . . . God punishes sinners! How strange this sounds to modern ears! Yet, regardless of how strange it sounds, it is God’s truth.”
Two passages do lay the groundwork however for the future development of this doctrine in the New Testament: Daniel 12:1,2 Now at that time Michael, the great prince who stands guard over the sons of your people, will arise, And there will be a time of distress such as never occurred since there was a nation until that time; and at that time your people, everyone who is found written in the book, will be rescued. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt.
Isaiah 66:22-24 For just as the new heavens and the new earth which I make will endure before Me, declares the Lord, so your offspring and your name will endure. And it shall be from new moon to new moon and from Sabbath to Sabbath, all mankind will come to bow down before me, says the Lord. Then they shall go forth and look on the corpses of the men who have transgressed against Me. For their worm shall not die, and their fire shall not be quenched; and they shall be an abhorrence to all mankind.
Here we find that a final judgment is coming for the unsaved and that judgment will be severe. “What is the purpose of the final judgment? The instinctive answer to that question goes something like this: To reward good, punish evil, and ensure that everyone gets what they deserve. But this sees the final judgment as being primarily concerned with man’s welfare, with God as a celestial loss-adjuster, or a magistrate in claims court. This shows how self-centered people have become, even to the point of thinking that God exists merely to service their needs, make sure they get their rights and tidy up all the loose ends at the end of their earthly lives. This is not the case. God, not man, is at the center of the universe, and we shall never have a clear view of anything until we acknowledge that fact. What, then, is the primary purpose of the Day of Judgment? It is to display to the entire universe the glory of God’s character” (Isaiah 45:23-24).
To a world, and even a Christian community, with itchy ears, clambering for a God of unconditional love Who exists to soothe their every pain, it is surely discomforting to learn that “there are more references in Scripture to the anger, fury and wrath of God than there are to His love and tenderness.” This is not to say that God is not love, it is to say that a balance is needed in the thoughts of most of us today. God, by His nature, must deal with sin. When it comes to the Lord there are only two options: He will be your Savior or your Judge. Remember when people used to wear the little buttons that said, “Smile! God loves you?” We like buttons like that. But what if we wore buttons that expressed the rest of the story, “Frown! You’re under judgment?” You would be called negative, a fanatic. But you would be right. Unless you have experienced the forgiving grace of God you are under judgment.
The New Testament Epistles
The Epistles of Paul
The great apostle, who handed down to the church the fine points of so many essential doctrines such as grace, the church, election, etc., does not develop the doctrine of hell in detail. What he has to say is consistent with the rest of Scripture, but for the most part his contribution is that hell is conscious and eternal punishment.
In Paul’s writings there are three primary passages that teach three principle truths:
Romans 2:4-11 — God’s Wrath Against Sinners
Paul teaches, as he always does, that “works never save, but they become an index.” Those who evidence by their lives that they have never repented of sin nor have they received God’s saving grace, they are doing nothing less than storing up God’s wrath against themselves.
C. S. Lewis, while unorthodox in his view on hell, as well as several other important doctrines, nevertheless was on the money when he said, “I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside.”
Romans 9:22-23 — God’s Mercy Upon Believers
The end for the unbeliever is destruction. This word, apoleia, does not mean annihilation, but refers to ruin and to a continuous state. The unbeliever faces eternal wreck and ruin. This ruin is pictured on the backdrop of God’s mercy. The damned will forever view their destruction in relationship to the mercy of God that they spurned. Hell will be a place of eternal regret.
For the believer the destruction of the lost will forever highlight the mercy of God toward them. There will be no taking for granted the kindness of God in heaven. We will forever bask in the glory of what God has done for us, and what our eternity could have been.
II Thessalonians 1:5-10 — God’s Justice
This is considered by many to be the most important passage on the subject written by Paul. He uses a different word for destruction (olethros) (verse 9) this time, a word that means “corruption,” to “wipe out” or “to reduce to ruin.” Paul couples destruction with “eternal,” indicating that this life of ruin and corruption never ends. The unbeliever does not cease to exist; rather, he lives in perpetual loss forever.
The apostle adds one additional feature to this judgment; it will be characterized by being “away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power.” The glory of God’s loving presence will be absent from hell.
Grouping the teachings of Paul we find that the unsaved face eternal destruction, away from the loving presence of God forever. Paul does not, however, describe hell or give any details of what life is like in hell.
The Revelation Given to John
There are two passages in the Revelation that begin to focus our understanding of hell:
In the specific context the fate of the unrighteous from the Tribulation is in view, but most believe their end is representation of that of the unsaved of all ages.
If this is so, what do we learn? That the unsaved will be punished forever. There will never be rest, never be freedom from suffering, never be parole, never be release. It is eternal punishment. Their punishment will be depicted as with fire and brimstone. Whether John is being literal or not has long been a subject of debate. Excellent people have lined up on both sides. Some believe that this is symbolic of a fearful and final reality that no person could describe.
Certainly there is some truth to this. Hell may very well be a place of fire, but it is much more. Just as no mortal can comprehend life in heaven, so no mortal can comprehend life in hell. At any rate it is a fearsome thing to contemplate eternity in hell.
One must not infer from the fact that someone thinks that many of the descriptions of hell are metaphorical and not literal the conclusion that hell itself is not literal. Hell is real; the real question is how far the descriptions of it are to be taken literally (The Gagging of God, by Daniel Carson, p. 524).
As one theologian has said, “It is unwise for Christians to claim any knowledge of either the furniture of heaven or the temperature of hell.”
We also find that punishment of the wicked takes place in the presence of the holy angels and the Lord Himself. But Paul stated in II Thessalonians 2:9 that Hell will be a place where people are separated from the presence of God. What’s up?
First, we have to recognize that God, being omnipresent, has to also be in hell. It would be impossible for Him to not be there. So there is a sense in which God is with the damned in hell and a sense in which He is not.
We tend to think of separation in terms of distance; the Bible speaks of it in terms of relationship. In hell, the sinner will not be separated form God in the sense that he will not see Him or know of His existence; instead he will live forever in His awesome presence. It is perfectly legitimate to think about sinners in hell being separated from God, but it might be more helpful if we thought in terms of alienation. . . . There will be no atheists in hell.
Revelation 20:10,14-15 (see also 21:8 and 22:15).
What this passage adds to our understanding of hell is the company we will keep. It is often said by the unsaved that they want to go to hell because all their friends will be there. George Bernard Shaw once remarked that all the interesting people will be in hell.
Maybe so, but in the crowd will also be the devil, his demons (Matthew 25:41), the antichrist, the false prophet, and all the damned of all the ages, including the biggest scums that have ever lived (Revelation 21:8 and 22:15). This whole crew will be thrown into the lake of fire. In other words, “the intermediate state gives way to the final one. As death means the separation of the soul from the body, so the second death denotes the ultimate separation of the ungodly from their Creator’s love.”
Hebrews 6:1-3 — Speaks of eternal judgment.
Jude 7 — Speaks of eternal punishment. Hell will be a place of intense loneliness. Sinners will not be playing poker with their drinking buddies, they will be alone.
Jesus, the loving and compassionate Savior, spoke far more about hell than He did heaven. He also spoke more about hell than any other person in Scripture. Today He would undoubtedly be considered a negative preacher and shunned by most — much as He was when He walked the earth.
Most of what we understand about hell comes from the lips of Jesus. What does Jesus have to say about hell:
- Hell is real (Matthew 5:21-22,27-30; 23:33).
- Hell is ruled by God (Matthew 10:28; 25:41,46).
- Hell involves rejection (Matthew 7:23; 8:11-12; 25:30).
- Hell involves pain (Matthew 8:11-12; 13:30,40-43,49-50; 18:6-9; 24:51; 25:30). That pain comes in the form of darkness, weeping, gnashing of teeth, and a furnace of fire.
- Hell is eternal (Mark 9:42-48). There is renewed interest today in annihilationism within evangelical circles, based partly on the fact that the word for “eternal” or “everlasting” (aionion) does not always mean unending (e.g. Matthew 28:20).
In an evaluation. . . a distinction between the noun aion and the adjective aionios is significant. The noun sometimes may refer to limited time. . . . The New Testament usage of the adjective, on the other hand, is quite consistent in referring to endless or unlimited time. . . . In its seventy-four occurrences in the New Testament, it always has the connotation of something that is unending or without time limitations.
(For an excellent discussion of the word “everlasting” as used in Scripture see the Doctrine of Endless Punishment, by W. G. T. Shedd, pages 79-89.)
A Picture of Hell (Luke 16:19-31)
A Description of eternal punishment:
Pulling together everything that Scripture has to say about hell, here is what we find. Hell is described as a place of:
- Darkness and separation (Matthew 8:12 and Jude 13).
- Weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 8:12; 13:50; 22:13; 24:51).
- Furnace of fire (Matthew 13:50); eternal fire (Matthew 25:41); lake of fire (Revelation 19:20; 21:8); unquenchable fire (Luke 3:17).
- Eternal punishment, no rest day or night (Revelation 14:10-11).
- Death and destruction (II Thessalonians 1:9).
Over the gate of hell in Dante’s Inferno is the sign, “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.” Dante had it right; hell is a place of eternal hopelessness, remorse and regret.
Jonathan Edwards wrote, “In hell people will be tortured in their minds as well as their bodies. This includes their memories and consciences as well as in their raging, unsatisfied lusts, from which place of death God’s saving grace is gone forever, never for a moment to return.” Again, “It is remembering the folly committed in this world that heightens the suffering for it in the next.”
Scripture also clearly teaches that there are different degrees of punishment in hell (Luke 12:42-48). Edwards was right when he said that the sinner spends all his time here gathering fuel for his own fire there. What kind of person will be given the greatest punishment in hell? A Hitler, a John Wayne Gacy, a moral pervert? I am sure they will not be treated lightly, but Matthew 11:21-24 indicates that the rejection of Christ by those who should have known better will be the most punishable crime in hell. “The saddest road to hell is that which runs under the pulpit, past the Bible and through the midst of warnings and invitations.”
We now know more about hell than most of us ever wanted to know. For the unbeliever the application is that hell is real, it is serious and it is awful. God has made provisions for you to avoid hell by taking His gift of eternal life.
For the believer the logical application is that we must urgently warn those around us of the fact of hell. Hell should be a motivation for us to spread the Good News.