The Doctrine of of an Eternal Hell
by | Posted March 22nd at 2:06am
The decisions made by people in this life will affect their destiny for all eternity, and it is right that our hearts feel and our mouths echo the sentiment of the appeal of God through Ezekiel, “Turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?” (Ezek. 33:11). In fact, Peter indicates that the delay of the Lord’s return is due to the fact that God “is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). 1
It is appropriate to discuss the doctrine of hell in connection with the doctrine of final judgment. Note well: This is an astounding power Christ — the King of Kings, and Lord of Lords — Christ, has the power to to resurrect everyone and he will — moreover he has the power to save you from hell — and He can if you believe in him by faith. He is both Saviour and Judge who will sit on resurrection to judge everyone raised in the second resurrection of the ungodly: Daniel 7:13–14 (ESV): The Son of Man Is Given Dominion: “I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.
We may define hell as follows: Hell is a place of eternal conscious punishment for the wicked. Scripture teaches in several passages that there is such a place. At the end of the parable of the talents, the master says, “Cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth” (Matt. 25:30). This is one among several indications that there will be consciousness of punishment after the final judgment. Similarly, at the judgment the king will say to some, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41), and Jesus says that those thus condemned “will go away into eternal punishment but the righteous into eternal life” (Matt. 25:46). In this text, the parallel between “eternal life” and “eternal punishment” indicates that both states will be without end. Jesus refers to hell as “the unquenchable fire” (Mark 9:43), and says that hell is a place “where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48). The story of the rich man and Lazarus also indicates a horrible consciousness of punishment:
The rich man also died and was buried; and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes, and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus in his bosom, and he called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy upon me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish in this flame.” (Luke 16:22–24) He then begs Abraham to send Lazarus to his father’s house, “for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment” (Luke 16:28).
When we turn to Revelation, the descriptions of this eternal punishment are also very explicit: If anyone worships the beast and its image, and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also shall drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of his anger, and he shall be tormented with fire and sulphur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever; and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image and whoever receives the mark of its name. (Rev. 14:9–11) This passage very clearly affirms the idea of eternal conscious punishment of unbelievers.
With respect to the judgment on the wicked city of Babylon, a large multitude in heaven cries, “Hallelujah! The smoke from her goes up for ever and ever” (Rev. 19:3). After the final rebellion of Satan is crushed, we read, “The devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulphur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night for ever and ever” (Rev. 20:10). This passage is also significant in connection with Matthew 25:41, in which unbelievers are sent “into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” These verses should make us realize the immensity of the evil that is found in sin and rebellion against God, and the magnitude of the holiness and the justice of God that calls forth this kind of punishment.
The idea that there will be eternal conscious punishment of unbelievers has been denied recently even by some evangelical theologians. It has previously been denied by the Seventh Day Adventist Church who believe the doctrine of Annihilation; and by various individuals throughout church history. Those who deny eternal conscious punishment often advocate “annihilationism,” a teaching that, after the wicked have suffered the penalty of God’s wrath for a time, God will “annihilate” them so that they no longer exist. Many who believe in annihilationism also hold to the reality of final judgment and punishment for sin, but they argue that after sinners have suffered for a certain period of time, bearing the wrath of God against their sin, they will finally cease to exist (favouring the view that God is a compassionate Judge).The punishment will therefore be “conscious” but it will not be “eternal.” Arguments advanced in favor of annihilationism are:
(1) the biblical references to the destruction of the wicked, which, some say, implies that they will no longer exist after they are destroyed (Phil. 3:19; 1 Thess. 5:3; 2 Thess. 1:9; 2 Peter 3:7);
(2) the apparent inconsistency of eternal conscious punishment with the love of God;
(3) the apparent injustice involved in the disproportion between sins committed in time and punishment that is eternal; and
(4) the fact that the continuing presence of evil creatures in God’s universe will eternally mar the perfection of a universe that God created to reflect his glory. In response, it must be said that the passages which speak of destruction (such as Phil. 3:19; 1 Thess. 5:3; 2 Thess. 1:9; and 2 Peter 3:7) do not necessarily imply the cessation of existence, for in these passages the terms used for “destruction” do not necessarily imply a ceasing to exist or some kind of annihilation, but can simply be ways of referring to the harmful and destructive effects of final judgment on unbelievers.
With respect to the argument from the love of God, the same difficulty in reconciling God’s love with eternal punishment would seem to be present in reconciling God’s love with the idea of divine punishment at all, and, conversely, if (as Scripture abundantly testifies) it is consistent for God to punish the wicked for a certain length of time after the last judgment, then there seems to be no necessary reason why it would be inconsistent of God to inflict the same punishment for an unending period of time. This kind of reasoning may lead some people to adopt another kind of annihilationism, one in which there is no conscious suffering at all, not even for a brief time, and the only punishment is that unbelievers cease to exist after they die. But, in response, it may be wondered whether this kind of immediate annihilation can really be called a punishment, since there would be no consciousness of conscious anguish or physical pain. In fact, the guarantee that there would be a cessation of existence would seem to many people, especially those who are suffering and in difficulty in this life, to be in some ways a desirable alternative. And if there was no punishment of unbelievers at all, even people like Hitler and Stalin would have nothing coming to them, and there would be no ultimate justice in the universe. Then people would have great incentive to be as wicked as possible in this life.
The argument that eternal punishment is unfair (because there is a disproportion between temporary sin and eternal punishment) wrongly assumes that we know the extent of the evil done when sinners rebel against God. David Kingdon observes that “sin against the Creator is heinous to a degree utterly beyond our sin-warped imaginations’ [ability] to conceive of … Who would have the temerity to suggest to God what the punishment … should be?” He also responds to this objection by suggesting that unbelievers in hell may go on sinning and receiving punishment for their sin, but never repenting, and notes that Revelation 22:11 points in this direction: “Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy.” At this point, moreover, an argument based on God’s justice may be brought against annihilationism.
Does the short time of punishment envisaged by the annihilationists actually pay for all of the unbeliever’s sin and satisfy God’s justice? If it does not, then God’s justice has not been satisfied and the unbeliever should not be annihilated. The quandary is that, if it does, then the unbeliever perhaps should be allowed to go to heaven, and he or she should not be annihilated. In either case, annihilationism is not necessary or right. This theological quandary shares a similarity to the historic doctrine of purgatory and concomitant indulgences taught by the Roman Catholics.
Regarding the fourth argument, while evil that remains unpunished does detract from God’s glory in the universe, we also must realize that when God punishes evil and triumphs over it, the glory of his justice, righteousness, and power to triumph over all opposition will be seen (see Rom. 9:17, 22–24). The depth of the riches of God’s mercy will also then be revealed, for all redeemed sinners will recognize that they too deserve such punishment from God and have avoided it only by God’s grace through Jesus Christ (cf. Rom. 9:23–24). Yet after all this has been said, we have to admit that the ultimate resolution of the depths of this question lies far beyond our ability to understand, and remains hidden in the counsels of God.
Were it not for the scriptural passages cited above which so clearly affirm eternal conscious punishment, annihilationism might seem to us to be an attractive option. Though annihilationism can be countered by theological arguments, it is ultimately the clarity and forcefulness of the passages themselves that convince us that annihilationism is incorrect and that Scripture does indeed teach the eternal conscious punishment of the wicked. What are we to think of this doctrine? It is hard—and it should be hard—for us to think of this doctrine today. If our hearts are never moved with deep sorrow when we contemplate this doctrine, then there is a serious deficiency in our spiritual and emotional sensibilities. When Paul thinks of the lostness of his kinsmen the Jews, he says, “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart” (Rom. 9:2). This is consistent with what God tells us of his own sorrow at the death of the wicked: “As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?” (Ezek. 33:11). And Jesus’ agony is evident as he cries out, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! Behold, your house is forsaken and desolate” (Matt. 23:37–38; cf. Luke 19:41–42).
The reason it is hard for us to think of the doctrine of hell is because God has put in our hearts a portion of his own love for people created in his image, even his love for sinners who rebel against him. As long as we are in this life, and as long as we see and think about others who need to hear the gospel and trust in Christ for salvation, it should cause us great distress and agony of spirit to think about eternal punishment. Yet we must also realize that whatever God in his wisdom has ordained and taught in Scripture is right. Therefore we must be careful that we do not hate this doctrine or rebel against it, but rather we should seek, insofar as we are able, to come to the point where we acknowledge that eternal punishment is good and right, because in God there is no unrighteousness at all. It may help us to realize that if God were not to execute eternal punishment, then, apparently, his justice would not be satisfied and his glory would not be furthered in the way he deems wise. And it will perhaps also help us to realize that from the perspective of the world to come there is a much greater recognition of the necessity and rightness of eternal punishment. Martyred believers in heaven are heard by John to cry out, “O sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell upon the earth?” (Rev. 6:10). Moreover, at the final destruction of Babylon, the loud voice of a great multitude in heaven cries out with praise to God for the rightness of his judgment as they finally see the heinous nature of evil for what it really is: Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for his judgments are true and just; he has judged the great harlot who corrupted the earth with her fornication, and he has avenged on her the blood of his servants … Hallelujah! The smoke from her goes up forever and ever.” (Rev. 19:1–3) As soon as this happened, “the 24 elders and the four living creatures fell down and worshiped God who is seated on the throne, saying, “Amen. Hallelujah!” ’ (Rev. 19:4).
We cannot say that this great multitude of the redeemed and the living creatures in heaven have wrong moral judgment when they praise God for executing justice on evil, for they are all free from sin and their moral judgments are pleasing to God. In this present age, however, we should only approach such a celebration of the justice of God in the punishment of evil when we meditate on the eternal punishment given to Satan and his demons. When we think of them we do not instinctively love them, though they too were created by God. But now they are fully devoted to evil and beyond the potential of redemption. So we cannot long for their salvation as we long for the redemption of all humanity. We must believe that eternal punishment is true and just, yet we should also long that even those people who most severely persecute the church should come to faith in Christ and thus escape eternal condemnation. 2
1 Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House, 2004), 1148.
2 Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House, 2004), 1148–1153.
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Article posted by Glen R. Jackman, founder of GraceProclaimed.org
Glen has optimized his eldership role to teach the full scope of the New Covenant of Jesus Christ without
You can read his testimony.