4. A Hell to Shun
No one really wants to talk about hell. The person who finds some kind of satisfaction in exploring its horrors must have a problem. Many do not wish to believe that some will suffer eternal torment. One survey over ten years ago indicated that 58% Methodists, 60% Episcopalians, 54% Presbyterians, 35% American Baptists, 22% American Lutherans deny it is a specific place after death.9 It is not difficult to understand why some choose to believe there is no such thing as eternal torment. After all, such a fact would have dramatic implications!
The cults have generally tended to distort biblical teachings on eternal punishment: Christian Science believes there is no final judgment. The Jehovah’s Witnesses hold that lost men will have a second chance and that those who reject this offer of salvation will be annihilated. Mormonism maintains that all non-Mormons will be sentenced to eternal torment, along with those Mormons who are thus judged worthy of it. Unity refuses to believe in the finality of death, but believes that through mind action we resurrect ourselves from the dead. Modern theology insists that a loving God could never subject anyone to such punishment.10
The doctrine of eternal punishment is one that is essential to the Christian faith. Our Lord taught that the Holy Spirit would convince men of such judgment:
“And He, when He comes, will convict the world concerning sin, and righteousness, and judgment” (John 16:8).
The writer to the Hebrews stated that this doctrine was one of the foundation truths of the faith:
Therefore leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, of instruction about washings, and laying on of hands, and the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment (Hebrews 6:1-2).
To a great extent, our view of eternal punishment reflects our attitude toward the wretchedness of sin. A diminished view of sin cannot fathom the severity of eternal judgment. A biblical view of sin necessitates a judgment beyond the grave. A grasp of the horrors of hell also affects our motivation in evangelism and our desire to live a pure and holy life.
Because there is so much confusion and misunderstanding of what we mean by “hell,” it is important that we study the doctrine of eternal punishment. In the Old Testament the term “hell” is used more broadly than it should be, at least in the King James Version. And in the New Testament, the term “hell” is not broad enough in the light of other biblical terms and imagery.
With these concerns, let us give our careful attention to the doctrine of eternal punishment.
Coming to Terms With Eternal Torment
Let us suppose that this week your doorbell rings and when you answer it, two very neatly dressed young men are there to share their religious views with you. If they just happen to be Jehovah’s Witnesses, one of the first subjects they will raise with you is the doctrine of hell. They will attempt to shake your faith in the Bible as it has been taught to you by showing you that there is no such thing as “hell” in the Bible. This statement, taken from one of their books, is reflective of their view of “hell”:
Many religious organizations teach that the wicked are tormented endlessly in a hellfire. But is this belief taught in God’s Word? You may know the meaning that your own particular church organization gives to “hell” … but have you ever investigated to see the meaning given it in the Scriptures? What is hell according to the Bible? …
Is hell a hot place? Do sheol and hades refer to some place where the wicked suffer after death? It is plain that they do not, for we have already seen that the dead are not conscious and therefore cannot suffer.11
Because there is an element of truth in the midst of their great error (of which this is only one!), and because they use the Bible to prove their point, it is important that we look carefully at the Old Testament use of the word “hell” in the King James Version.
In the Old Testament, the principle word employed for the abode of the dead is Sheol. Unfortunately, of its 65 occurrences in the Old Testament, the King James Version translates Sheol “hell” 31 times, “grave” 31 times, and “pit” 3 times. The result is that Old Testament saints, who had a sure hope of life beyond the grave (cf. Hebrews 11), seemed to fear or experience hell:
The cords of Sheol surrounded me; the snares of death confronted me (2 Samuel 22:6).
If I ascend to heaven, Thou art there; if I make my bed in Sheol, behold, Thou art there (Psalm 139:8).
… and he said, “I called out of my distress to the Lord, And He answered me. I called for help from the depth of Sheol. Thou didst hear my voice” (Jonah 2:2).
On the other hand, Sheol was also the place where the wicked would go:
The wicked will return to Sheol, Even all the nations who forget God (Psalm 9:17).
Let death come deceitfully upon them; Let them go down alive to Sheol, For evil is in their dwelling, in their midst (Psalm 55:15).
The translation “hell” seems inaccurate and unfortunate in most, if not all, of the Old Testament passages where the word Sheol is encountered. Sheol seems to refer primarily to the abode of the dead, righteous or wicked, leaving the matter of their bliss or torment largely unspoken in most instances. Occasions of imminent danger are sometimes described as though death were certain, and thus they were facing Sheol (e.g. 2 Samuel 22:6).
This does not mean, as the Jehovah’s Witnesses maintain, that the Old Testament did not speak of judgment after death. It simply was not described by the term Sheol.
Your dead will live; Their corpses will rise. You who lie in the dust, awake and shout for joy, For your dew is as the dew of the dawn, And the earth will give birth to the departed spirits (Isaiah 26:19).
“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” (Daniel 12:2).
We must conclude, then, that in the Old Testament the term “hell” was a poor choice of words with which to render the Hebrew term Sheol. Sheol spoke of the abode of the dead with only a vague reference to the pain or pleasure experienced in this existence. There was a hope of life after death, but this was greatly clarified after the coming of our Lord.
The New Testament term most often used to render the Hebrew word Sheol was the Greek word, Hades. As is seen by its usage in the New Testament, Hades has the same general reference to the abode of the dead, whether righteous or wicked.
. . . he looked ahead and spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that He was neither abandoned to Hades, nor did His flesh suffer decay (Acts 2:31).
“And in Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away, and Lazarus in his bosom” (Luke 16:23).
And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds (Revelation 20:13).
Generally, then, Hades, like Sheol, refers to the abode of the dead, whether righteous or wicked.12
No one spoke more clearly of heaven and hell, of eternal bliss and eternal torment, than our Lord. In Luke 16:19-31, He spoke of Hades, and thus of Sheol (its Hebrew synonym):
“Now there was a certain rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, gaily living in splendor every day. And a certain poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores, and longing to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man’s table; besides, even the dogs were coming and licking his sores. Now it came about that the poor man died and he was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. And in Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away, and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried out and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue; for I am in agony in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, in order that those who wish to come over from here to you may not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us.’ And he said, ‘Then I beg you, Father, that you send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers— that he may warn them, lest they also come to this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ But he said, ‘No, Father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead’” (Luke 16:19-31).
Prior to death, conditions were completely reversed from those after death. The rich man had all the pleasures his wealth could afford; Lazarus, in contrast, had a meager and miserable existence. It would appear that the rich man did little to ease the pain and misery of this beggar Lazarus.
We may be troubled by the contrast between the rich and the poor here. Why are we not told that Lazarus was a true believer in God, while the rich man was an infidel? The context of Luke 16 helps to answer our question. The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, were scoffing at Jesus as He taught (16:14). In the context of this chapter, they were unbelievers. Their unbelief was demonstrated by their love of money but lack of concern for the poor (cf. Matthew 23:14, 16ff.). In telling this parable, Jesus clearly alluded to them, in contrast to those true believers in Jesus, whom the Pharisees disdained (cf. Luke 18:9).
At death, Lazarus was carried away by the angels to the bosom of Abraham, where he was in conscious bliss (16:22, 25). The rich man, however, was in constant agony and torment (vss. 24-25). Both were in a conscious state, and not a “soul sleep” or a state of annihilation or non-existence. Each seemed to be aware of the condition of the other. The rich man sought to ease his misery by petitioning for an act of mercy from Lazarus (verse 24).
Verse 25 explains one of the reasons why there must be some form of reward and punishment after death:
“But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony.’”
Justice demanded that there be some form of reward and punishment after death, for the rich man had lived in ease and luxury, seemingly untouched by the misery of Lazarus. To everyone who looks about this world and is deeply distressed by the cruelty and injustice of men, the Bible teaches that surely there is a day of reckoning. There is coming a time when wrongs will be righted.
Such was the case with Lazarus and the rich man. Heaven and hell are the answer to the cries of men and women through the ages for justice.
We learn from this parable that the reward or punishment faced after death is determined by our decision before death. One’s choice cannot be reversed after death:
‘And besides all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, in order that those who wish to come over from here to you may not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us’ (Luke 16:26).
There is no second chance given to those who have been sentenced to eternal torment. The decisions made in life find their eternal consequences fully carried out after death.
Perhaps the greatest agony experienced by one in eternal torment is the fear that those whom they love will follow them. I have heard people say, foolishly, that they will follow their loved ones to hell, if that is where they have gone. I have heard others glibly remark that they prefer hell because they will like the company better. With all the urgency I can communicate, let me warn you: no one who is in Hades wants the company of those still living, for they do not wish any to share their misery.
I try never to forget this text when I am preaching a funeral of an unbeliever. Whether the one who has died was saved or lost, I can say with complete sincerity that the message they would want me to preach is one of warning concerning the judgment which lies ahead. How it must grieve the lost who have died to know that a liberal preacher is speaking at their funeral service. Rather than urging men and women to repent and be saved, they lull them into a false security by making death appear to be less ugly and fearful than it is. Those who misuse the Bible read texts which speak of heaven as though it is the hope of all men, saved or lost. They speak of the love of God, but they avoid sin, righteousness, and judgment, the very truths which the Spirit of God uses to convince and convert the lost (John 16:8ff.).
Perhaps the most awe-inspiring thought of all is that the lost are not sentenced to eternal torment because of insufficient evidence, but due to willful unbelief.
But he said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead’ (Luke 16:31)
It is willful unbelief, not ignorance, which condemns men for eternity.
From this parable we learn that while Sheol or Hades is the abode of the dead, it can be either a place of blessing and peace (as with Lazarus) or a place of torment (as with the rich man). That is why the Old Testament could use the term generally, both for the righteous and the wicked. But there is a vastly different fate awaiting the two.13 How we live in this life and the choices we make now have eternal consequences.
Something very significant occurred in Sheol when our Lord was raised from the dead. As I understand it, when our Lord was raised from the grave (Sheol or Hades), He took all those Old Testament saints to be with Him in heaven. This note contained in the gospel of Matthew is one evidence of this “change of address” of the Old Testament saints:
And behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom, and the earth shook; and the rocks were split, and the tombs were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the tombs after His resurrection they entered the holy city and appeared to many (Matthew 27:51-53).
I believe that these resurrected saints were the “first fruits” of the resurrection of our Lord, proof and assurance of our Lord’s resurrection and ours. They were, I believe, going about Jerusalem for those forty days until our Lord ascended into heaven, at which time they joined Him. We know from Paul’s writings that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8, cf. also Philippians 1:23). Those righteous who are raised before the millennium in Revelation 20 are the martyrs of the Great Tribulation (cf. Revelation 20:4). Those who are later raised at the end of the millennium are the wicked, who are cast into the lake of fire (cf. 20:5, 12-15).
Drawing these facts together, we learn that Sheol or Hades no longer contains the righteous dead, but only those who are sentenced to eternal judgment. The suffering of Sheol, while severe, is only temporary, until the wicked dead are resurrected to spend eternity apart from God (cf. Revelation 20:14).
Our Lord spoke of eternal judgment in many other ways. One of the most common terms He employed to speak of hell was the Jewish figure portrayed by the term Gehenna. This term is never found in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament scriptures. In fact, it is only found twelve times in the New Testament, eleven of which are found in Matthew, Mark, or Luke. The only other occurrence (James 3:6) does not come from the lips of our Lord, or emphasize the eternal damnation of the lost. Gehenna refers to the “valley of Hinnom,” which was located to the south of Jerusalem, the valley of the sons of Hinnom (cf. Joshua 15:8; Jeremiah 32:35). This was the place where Ahaz offered human sacrifices to Moloch (2 Chronicles 28:3). Jeremiah prophesied that it would be the place of God’s judgment (Jeremiah 7:32; 19:6ff.). Jewish apocalyptic writers during the intertestamental period began to speak of Gehenna as the place of the final judgment of God. When our Lord spoke to Jewish audiences, they readily understood that this term referred to the torment of the wicked.
As many have observed, Gehenna is not to be thought of in terms of a raging fire so much as a garbage dump, where all the refuse of the city was taken to be burned, including the bodies of criminals and derelicts. It is a place of waste and corruption. It is a great tragedy, which the lost must endure. There, forever, the lost will contemplate their rejection of God and their eternal destiny apart from God. Gehenna draws our attention not so much to the physical pains of the flames, but to the mental anguish of the waste involved when man rejects and resists God.14
Besides employing the terms Hades and Gehenna, our Lord spoke of eternal damnation by the use of various imagery. Let me briefly mention some of these. In Matthew, those religious persons who professed faith without possessing it were cast from the presence of our Lord (7:23). Apostates, in the next chapter of Matthew (8:12), were cast into “outer darkness,” where there would be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (cf. also 22:13, 25:30). In Matthew 10:28, God is said to be the One Who “is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” In chapter 13 of Matthew’s gospel, another reference to eternal punishment is found:
“So it will be at the end of the age; the angels shall come forth, and take out the wicked from among the righteous, and will cast them into the furnace of fire; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 13:49-50).
In chapter 18 of Matthew, our Lord stated that the punishment of one who caused a “little one” to stumble would be worse than placing a millstone around his neck and drowning him (18:6). In Mark, “hell” is described as an “unquenchable fire “ (9:42,43).
Jesus was not the only one to speak of eternal punishment for the wicked. While they rarely employed the terms Hades or Gehenna, the writers of the New Testament spoke frequently on the subject of eternal judgment. Listed below are passages of which I am presently aware:15
Acts 2—Here, while not explicitly stated, the force of the phenomenon of Pentecost was shown by Peter to be a partial fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel in chapter 2. The “day of the Lord” was a day of judgment, but whoever called upon the name of the Lord would be saved (Joel 2:31-32). Peter’s audience understood that he was warning them of the wrath of God because they had put to death God’s Messiah. On them, God’s wrath would come. No wonder they cried out, “Brethren, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37; cf. also 24:15).
Romans 2:5-10—But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who will render to every man according to his deeds: to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life; but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation. There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek, but glory and honor and peace to every man who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.
Romans 6:23—For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
2 Corinthians 5:10-11—For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad. Therefore knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men, but we are made manifest to God; and I hope that we are made manifest also in your consciences.
I realize that the immediate context refers to the fact that all true believers will have to give account to God, but I also think that the “fear of the Lord” may include the realization that the unsaved must endure the wrath of God, a strong incentive to evangelism.
Galatians 6:7-8—Do not be deceived, God is not mocked, for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh shall from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit shall from the Spirit reap eternal life.
The principle underscored here is that judgment involves the reaping of what we have sown. Sin has consequences!
Philippians 1:28— … in no way alarmed by your opponents—which is a sign of destruction for them, but of salvation for you, and that too, from God.
Philippians 3:19-21— … whose end is destruction, whose god is their appetite, and whose glory is in their shame, who set their minds on earthly things. For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself.
1 Thessalonians 5:3, 9—While they are saying, “Peace and safety!” then destruction will come upon them suddenly like birth pangs upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape. … For God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.
2 Thessalonians 1:6-10—For after all it is only just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to give relief to you who are afflicted and to us as well when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. And these will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power, when He comes to be glorified in His saints on that day, and to be marveled at among all who have believed—for our testimony to you was believed.
Two significant points here are that sinners must suffer the consequences for the evil they have perpetrated upon the saints (verse 6), and that “hell” is separation from God, eternally (verse 9).
Hebrews 6:1-2—We have already quoted this verse earlier, evidencing the fact that eternal judgment is one of the “fundamentals of the faith.”
Hebrews 10:27, 29, 39— … but a certain terrifying expectation of judgment, and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries. … How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace? … But we are not of those who shrink back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the preserving of the soul.
James 4:12—There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and to destroy; but who are you who judge your neighbor? God is both Lawgiver and Judge. He is the One Who has the power to justify or to condemn, to preserve or to destroy.
2 Peter 2:4-9, 12, 17—For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to pits of darkness, reserved for judgment; and did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a preacher of righteousness, with seven others, when He brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly; and if He condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to destruction by reducing them to ashes, having made them an example to those who would live ungodly thereafter; and if He rescued Lot, oppressed by the sensual conduct of unprincipled men (for by what he saw and heard that righteous man, while living among them, felt his righteous soul tormented day after day with their lawless deeds), then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from temptation, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment for the day of judgment, … But these, like unreasoning animals, born as creatures of instinct to be captured and killed, reviling where they have no knowledge, will in the destruction of those creatures also be destroyed, … These are springs without water, and mists driven by a storm, for whom the black darkness has been reserved.
Revelation 14:9-11—And another angel, a third one, followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and his image, and receives a mark on his forehead or upon his hand, he also will drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is mixed in full strength in the cup of His anger; and he will be tormented with fire and brimstone 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 and night, those who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name.”
Revelation 20:12-15—And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. And death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
Revelation 21:8—“But for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.”
Attempting to draw all of the biblical data together, we can say that one’s eternal torment is forever sealed at the time of death. Unbelievers immediately enter into the temporary torment of Sheol or Hades, from which they will eventually be cast into the lake of fire. They are in constant and conscious agony, which endures for eternity. They will have no second chance to change their status. There will probably be physical pain, but surely there will be the mental anguish of knowing they are forever separated from the living and loving God, Whom they have rejected.
Objections to the Doctrine of Eternal Punishment
Since hell is not a popular subject, we are not surprised to find men resisting it and questioning how it could possibly be so. It is therefore necessary to consider some of the major and most frequent objections to the doctrine of eternal damnation.
(1) Hell is unduely harsh. Many are horrified when, in the Old Testament, God ordered the Israelites to annihilate the Canaanites, who inhabited the land they were to possess (e.g. Deuteronomy 20:17-18). How could a good and loving God ever order such a slaughter? The same kind of reaction is experienced whenever Christians begin to speak of hell in biblical terms of eternal, irreversible torment. To use a well-known constitutional phrase, such a fate is “cruel and unusual.” But is it?
The first thing that must be pointed out is that such a reaction reflects in the critic a failure to see sin in its true light. When we say that the punishment does not fit the crime, and if we think the punishment is too harsh, we have revealed that we do not take the crime seriously enough. The Canaanites, for example, were so wicked and immoral that their sexual practices could not be described in this message without causing some to stumble (cf. Ephesians 5:12). It was therefore necessary to destroy every living creature, for even the beasts were a part of their immorality (cf. Leviticus 20, especially verses 15-16).
Stop and think about it for a moment. Suppose that the doctor found you had cancer in your foot and told you that in order to save your life, he would have to amputate. Now I know that a foot is a very wonderful thing, but do you think the doctors and the hospital are unduly harsh in insisting that it be cut off? Certainly not if it means that your life can be spared. The spiritual cancer of sin, prevalent in men, must be dealt with severely because it is deadly. We must learn to see sin as God views it, and then we will not think hell too cruel.
Secondly, we do not properly understand God if we perceive Him as George Burns, for example, in the movie, “Oh God.” God is not a “good old boy.” He is not some kind of heavenly softie, Who is so full of love that He cannot bring Himself to deal with men in judgment. He is love, but He is also a God of justice and wrath when confronted with sin.16 If your God does not hate sin and deal with it, your god is not the God of the Bible (cf. Nahum 1:2-8; Romans 1:18; 2:5; 5:9; 12:19; 1 Thessalonians 1:10; 2:16; 5:9; Revelation 6:16ff.; 16:19, etc.).
I find it interesting to observe that the two major objections which men have to the existence of God answer each other. Their first objection is: How can there be a God when there is so much evil? The second is: How can there be a good God Who would condemn men and women to an eternal hell? In the very simplest of explanations, we must say that there is a good God Who has allowed evil and Who has chosen to deal with that evil by eternal damnation. How, may I ask, can God be good and not deal decisively and justly with evil?
Finally, may I remind you that the good news of the Gospel is that all of the torments of eternal suffering have been borne by the Lord Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary. He bore all of the wrath of God so that we might not experience it:
Surely our griefs He Himself bore, And our sorrows He carried; Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, Smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him. … As a result of the anguish of His soul, He will see it and be satisfied; By His knowledge the Righteous One, My Servant, will justify the many, As He will bear their iniquities (Isaiah 53:4-6, 11. Cf. also 2 Corinthians 5:21; 1 Peter 1:22-25; Hebrews 9:27-28).
Do you really suppose that God would have poured out any greater wrath upon His Son than was absolutely necessary? Whatever men will experience in hell, Jesus Christ has already suffered on Calvary. This means that while hell is severe, it is no more severe than is required. And more than this, since Christ has already suffered eternal torment so that we need not bear the penalty of sin, hell is only required for those who refuse the salvation already achieved by Christ.
(2) Hell is unfair. Some of those who challenge the goodness of God because of a literal hell would be willing to admit that all men, to some degree, are sinners. But they would hasten to add that we are not all equally sinful. And that, I believe, is true. Hell, however, is not a state of misery in which all men suffer equally. If this were true, hell would certainly seem unfair. Should the heathen in Africa be judged with the same intensity, who have never heard the name of Christ or the message of the gospel? The Scriptures tell us this will not be:
“The men of Nineveh shall stand up with this generation at the judgment, and shall condemn it because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here” (Matthew 12:41).
“And that slave who knew his master's will and did not get ready or act in accord with his will, shall receive many lashes, but the one who did not know it, and committed deeds worthy of a flogging, will receive but few. And from everyone who has been given much shall much be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more” (Luke 12:47-48).
Should a man like Adolph Hitler, who was responsible for the murder of millions of Jews, suffer the same torment as an unbelieving German, who sought to spare the Jews from persecution and death? The scripture tells us,
. . . who devour widows’ houses, and for appearance’s sake offer long prayers; these will receive greater condemnation (Mark 12:40).
And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds (Revelation 20:13; cf. also Romans 1-3; 2 Thessalonians 1:6; Revelation 16:5-6).
Hell is just condemnation because there are degrees of torment meted out in accordance with the revelation received and the actions of each individual. In one sense, we might liken hell to an amusement park. Everyone who enters must pay the price of admission. From that point on, the rides can be enjoyed to the extent that one is willing to pay for them. In hell, the “price of admission” is the rejection of Christ and remaining in our sins. The amount of torment suffered, however, is dependent upon the knowledge rejected and the sins which those individuals have committed.
Some would hasten to complain that hell isn’t fair because it cannot be avoided. If we believe that God is sovereign in the process of salvation, then God has chosen those who will be saved, and the rest, being totally depraved, will go to hell.
God is sovereign in the process of salvation. All whom He chooses will be saved, while those He rejects will be forever condemned:
The Lord has made everything for its own purpose, Even the wicked for the day of evil (Proverbs 16:4).
So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires. … What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? And He did so in order that He might make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory (Romans 9:18, 22-23).
We must not deny that God must first choose to save, and then by His sovereign process draw the lost to Himself. Apart from this, no one is saved. Yet we must hasten to say that this is not the entire story. Man is a sinner deserving of God’s wrath (Romans 3:10-18). Those who are condemned have received some revelation concerning God, which they have willfully rejected (cf. Romans 1-3). The Bible clearly teaches that man suffers God’s wrath because he deserves it:
And I heard the angel of the waters saying, “Righteous art Thou, who art and who wast, O Holy One, because Thou didst judge these things; for they poured out the blood of saints and prophets, and Thou hast given them blood to drink. They deserve it” (Revelation 16:5-6).
Besides this, man goes to eternal torment because he has chosen to do so. Hell is not only God giving men what they deserve; He is giving them what they want:
But they are not arbitrary inflictions; they represent, rather, a conscious growing into the state in which one has chosen to be. The unbeliever has preferred to be by himself, without God, defying God, having God against him, and he shall have his preference. Nobody stands under the wrath of God save those who have chosen to do so.17
When we say that hell is unfair, we mean that it is unjust. In effect, we are saying that God is not just in sending anyone to hell. But let us remember that justice is the very reason all should be condemned forever, apart from God. Whenever we make a plea based upon justice, we must be aware that it is justice which condemns us. Only grace saves men. If it is God’s justice that explains the reason for a hell, it is God’s unsearchable grace that provides a heaven for sinners such as you and I.
We must conclude that the doctrine of eternal damnation is one that is widely taught in the Bible, not so much by the term Sheol as by many other terms and images. Jesus spoke of it more than any other. The apostles, too, warned men of its certainty. Anyone who believes the Bible to be a word from God must take the doctrine of eternal punishment seriously. Let me suggest several levels of application which this doctrine necessitates.
First, if you have never come to a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ, the Bible urges you to do so without delay:
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world; but that the world should be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (John 3:16-18).
And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once, and after this comes judgment (Hebrews 9:27).
Eternal judgment, as we have said, is not necessary because Jesus Christ has already experienced the wrath of God on behalf of sinners. If you trust in Him as your substitute, Who bore your sins and Who offers you His righteousness, you will be saved from the wrath to come. But if you reject His work on your behalf, you will be condemned on the basis of your works (Revelation 20:13).
Christians should learn to think of hell in the broader terms of eternal judgment, especially in the light of the inaccurate use of “hell” in the Old Testament (that is, in the King James Version). Hell is not just the Sheol of the Old Testament, nor the Hades of the New, it is Gehenna, the lake of fire, and a great number of other images. Eternal torment was taught most clearly by our Lord Himself, Who endured the torment of eternal separation from God for us. Hell is described by a wide variety of highly figurative images, and while it is a very literal and painful state of existence, it should be expected to be an existence beyond our present ability to comprehend, just as heaven must be.18
For the Christian, the doctrine of eternal judgment should be an incentive for worship and praise. The greatness of our salvation is measured by the greatness of the judgment from which we have been delivered by our Lord. Whenever we contemplate that from which we were saved, it should inspire us to worship our Great Redeemer, Who bore the sorrows of hell for us that we might have life and hope in Him.
The doctrine of eternal damnation should cause those who are saved to take sin more seriously. Like unbelievers, Christians are inclined to minimize sin. Our Lord died for sin. Hell was intended for sin. Our Lord urged His disciples to take sin seriously:
“And if your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life crippled, than having your two hands, to go into hell, into the unquenchable fire, (where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.) And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame, than having your two feet, to be cast into hell, (where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.) And if your eye causes you to stumble, cast it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes, to be cast into hell, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:43-48).
Our Lord was instructing us that sin leads to judgment, and that whatever steps are necessary to avoid it should be taken, no matter how painful or sacrificial.
Sin in the believer’s life is no less offensive to God. In one sense, it is a greater offense, for the Christian has the power of the Holy Spirit to overcome it (Romans 8:1-4). If the Christian persists in sin, he reflects an attitude of flippancy toward sin, and worse than this, he lightly esteems the death of Christ for those sins. Christ’s work on the cross is not valued rightly when the Christian is not grieved by the sin in his life. While the sins of the Christian are forgiven, past, present, and future, God must still deal with His children in discipline for willful rebellion:
It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Hebrews 10:31).
Future judgment is intended to be an incentive for purity in the lives of the saints:
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat and the earth and its works will be burned up. Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, on account of which the heavens will be destroyed by burning, and the elements will melt with intense heat! (2 Peter 3:10-12).
Finally, the doctrine of eternal judgment should motivate the Christian to take evangelism seriously. If men and women are going to spend eternity in torment, apart from the living God, it is imperative that we warn them of the danger they are in. As the apostle Paul put it, “Knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men, …” (2 Corinthians 5:11).19 And when we share the good news of the gospel, let us not omit the fundamental fact of eternal judgment, for it is to this that the Spirit of God will bear witness, convincing the lost of the imminent danger of unbelief:
“And He, when He comes, will convict the world concerning sin, because they do not believe in Me; and concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you no longer behold Me; and concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world has been judged” (John 16:8-11).
12 “If this interpretation of sheol is correct, its usage does not give us a picture of the state of the dead in gloom, darkness, chaos, or silence, unremembered; unable to praise God, knowing nothing. Such a view verges on unscriptural soul sleep. Rather, this view gives us a picture of a typical Palestinian tomb, dark, dusty, with mingled bones and where ‘this poor lisping stammering tongue lies silent in the grave.’ All the souls of men do not go to one place. But all people go to the grave.” R. Laird Harris, “Sheol,” Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980), II p. 893.
“In this illustration the rich man stood for the class of religious leaders who rejected and later killed Jesus. Lazarus pictured the common people who accepted God’s Son. The Bible shows that death can be used as a symbol, representing a great change in one’s life or course of action. (Compare Romans 6:2, 11-13; 7:4-6.) A death, or change from former conditions, happened when Jesus fed the Lazarus class spiritually, and they thus came into the favor of the greater Abraham, Jehovah God. At the same time, the false religious leaders ‘died’ with respect to having God’s favor. Being cast off, they suffered torments when Christ’s followers after Pentecost forcefully exposed their evil works (Acts 7:51-57). So this illustration does not teach that some dead persons are tormented in a literal fiery hell.” The Truth That Leads to Eternal Life, p. 43.
“So when Jesus said that persons would be thrown into Gehenna for their bad deeds, what did he mean? Not that they would be tormented forever. Jesus used that valley (Gehenna) of fire and brimstone as a proper symbol of everlasting destruction. That is what his first-century listeners understood it to mean. The ‘lake of fire’ mentioned in Revelation has a similar meaning, not conscious torment, but ‘second death,’ everlasting death and destruction. It is evident that this ‘lake’ is a symbol, because death and hell (hades) are thrown into it. Such things cannot literally be burned, but they can be done away with, or destroyed.--Revelation 20:14; 21:8.” Ibid., p. 44.
15 Cf. H. Buis, “Hell,” The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975, 1976), III, p. 116, and Edward Fudge, “Putting Hell In Its Place,” Christianity Today, August 6, 1976, pp. 16-17.
18 “‘Hell’ is one New Testament picture portraying the fate of the unsaved. But, as we have seen, it is not the only one; it is not even the primary one. Nor is it the definitive one. God’s Word is rich in illustrations and terminology describing the divine punishment of the Age to Come. All serve a useful purpose. The very variety of expression adds to our limited conception. Let us be warned—and stop where God has stopped. To do otherwise, is, according to Revelation 22:18, to risk the very punishment we seek to understand.” Edward Fudge, “Putting Hell In Its Place,” p. 17.
This article by Fudge is excellent in drawing our attention to the fact that heaven and hell are a part of an age that is yet future, and as such, beyond our present ability to comprehend, except in part. I highly recommend this article to you.
Packer also comments, “We need, therefore, to remember that the key to interpreting the many biblical passages, often highly figurative, which picture the divine King and Judge as active against men in wrath and vengeance, is to realize that what God is hereby doing is no more than to ratify and confirm judgments which those whom He ‘visits’ have already passed on themselves by the course they have chosen to follow. This appears in the story of God’s first act of wrath towards man, in Genesis 3, where we learn that Adam had already chosen to hide from God, and keep clear of His presence, before ever God drove him from the garden; and the same principle applies throughout the Bible.” Packer, Knowing God, p. 139.
19 I realize that Paul may be talking about the fear which he has of standing before God at the Bema seat of Christ, giving account of his stewardship, but I think the element of eternal torment for the lost may also be involved.