10. The Place of the Lost in the Perfect Plan of God
Funerals are one of my greatest challenges and opportunities as a preacher. I am particularly aware at these times of the desperate need for the gospel of Jesus Christ. In the face of death, no hope exists apart from the gospel. My great privilege and responsibility is to proclaim the good news that God has provided salvation through His Son, Jesus Christ.
The unbeliever attending a funeral does not fully grasp the danger of eternity beyond death apart from God. But the believer in Jesus Christ does understand the reality of eternity away from God. My difficult task is to provide comfort for the believer whose loved one has died without trusting in Jesus Christ for salvation. The Christian knows that an eternity of torment awaits the unbeliever once he has passed over the threshold of death.
How can the Christian be comforted when an unbelieving loved one dies? Our lesson explores the only comfort of which I know: The fate of the lost is a part of the perfect plan of God. We shall pursue the teaching of Scripture on the part which the unsaved play in the plan of God. If you come to this lesson as a Christian, I hope you will find comfort in the knowledge that the destiny of the unsaved is a part of the perfect plan of God. If you come not as a born again Christian, I pray the truths of this lesson will torment you until you find rest and peace in Jesus Christ, God’s provision for your salvation. In so doing, you will escape the eternal torment of hell.
Our topic is the most important matter you will ever consider--your own eternal destiny and the destiny of those whom you love. May you grasp the truth of God’s Word concerning the place of the unsaved in the perfect plan of God.
Our study must first set forth foundational biblical truths as a starting point. From the teaching of three biblical texts, we will then consider the fate of the lost, endeavoring to understand what God has in store for those who reject Him. Finally, we will turn to the Bible as a whole to find principles and truths which offer comfort for the Christian concerning the lost whom they love and who die apart from Jesus Christ.
The Christian must operate within certain “givens” which provide the basis for our thinking and actions. The following principles are foundational truths to our study:
(1) All men have an eternal future; all men live eternally after death. There will be a day of resurrection when every person will be raised from the dead.
(2) Man’s eternal destiny holds one of two outcomes: eternity in the presence of God (heaven) or eternity removed from God’s presence (hell).
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. And those who have insight will shine brightly like the brightness of the expanse of heaven, and those who lead the many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever (Daniel 12:1-3).
“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life. Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear shall live. For just as the Father has life in Himself, even so He gave to the Son also to have life in Himself; and He gave Him authority to execute judgment, because He is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs shall hear His voice, and shall come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment” (John 5:24-29).
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 20:12-15).
Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter by the gates into the city. Outside are the dogs and the sorcerers and the immoral persons and the murderers and the idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices lying (Revelation 22:14-15).
(3) The difference between heaven and hell is one’s decision to trust in Jesus Christ for salvation.
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).
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me” (John 14:6).
And the witness is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life (1 John 5:11-12).
(4) When judged according to their deeds, all men deserve to spend eternity in hell, while no man is worthy of God’s heaven.
What then? Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin; as it is written, There is none righteous, not even one; There is none who understands, There is none who seeks for God; All have turned aside, together they have become useless; There is none who does good, There is not even one. Their throat is an open grave, With their tongues they keep deceiving, The poison of asps is under their lips; Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness; Their feet are swift to shed blood, Destruction and misery are in their paths, And the path of peace have they not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes. Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, that every mouth may be closed, and all the world may become accountable to God; because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin. But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:9-23).
(5) Those who will spend eternity in heaven are those who have trusted in Jesus Christ; those who will spend eternity in hell are those who rely on themselves.
Being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3:24-26).
And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places, in Christ Jesus, in order that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2:1-10).
(6) Since God is man’s Creator, He has the right to use His creations as He chooses, to save some and to condemn others.
The word which came to Jeremiah from the Lord saying, “Arise and go down to the potter’s house, and there I shall announce My words to you.” Then I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was, making something on the wheel. But the vessel that he was making of clay was spoiled in the hand of the potter; so he remade it into another vessel, as it pleased the potter to make. Then the word of the Lord came to me saying, “Can I not, O house of Israel, deal with you as this potter does?” declares the Lord. “Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in My hand, O house of Israel” (Jeremiah 18:1-6).
So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires. You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?” On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, “Why did you make me like this,” will it? Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use, and another for common use? (Romans 9:18-21).
(7) The fate of all men rests ultimately in the sovereign choice of God. All men deserve to spend eternity in hell. Those who spend eternity in heaven rejoice that God has judged their sins in Christ and that He has chosen them as “vessels of mercy.” Those who spend eternity in hell suffer eternally for their own sin and because God has chosen to glorify Himself by demonstrating His righteousness by the condemnation of sinners. God sovereignly chooses to judge some men for their sins and to spare others. Those He condemns are “vessels of His wrath” and those whom He saves are “vessels of His mercy.”
For He says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I raised you up, to demonstrate My power in you, and that My name might be proclaimed throughout the whole earth.” 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, even us, whom He also called, not from among Jews only, but also from among Gentiles (Romans 9:15-18, 22-24).
All men, by nature, rebel against God. No one seeks for God (Romans 3:11). It is only because God first chose us, then sought us, and called us that any come to salvation and enter into His heaven.115 If it is true that only those who trust in Jesus Christ for salvation go to heaven, it is also true that only those whom God has chosen will ever trust in Him.
God has not only the right to do with men as He pleases, He is in control of the fate and destiny of every person. He is in complete control. What happens to men, heaven or hell, is from His sovereign hand.
The Lord has made everything for its own purpose, Even the wicked for the day of evil (Proverbs 16:4).
(8) God glorifies Himself in both the expression of His judgment and in the expression of His mercy.
And the Lord said to Moses, “I will also do this thing of which you have spoken; for you have found favor in My sight, and I have known you by name.” Then Moses said, “I pray Thee, show me Thy glory!” And He said, “I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the Lord before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion.” . . . And the Lord descended in the cloud and stood there with him as he called upon the name of the Lord. Then the Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations” (Exodus 33:17-19; 34:5-7).
(9) Even though men may believe in hell, hell comes as a great and unexpected shock to those who find themselves there. Some refuse to believe there is a hell. One survey over twenty years ago indicated that 58% Methodists, 60% Episcopalians, 54% Presbyterians, 35% American Baptists, and 22% American Lutherans deny hell is a specific place after death.116
According to a recent Gallup poll, about 78 percent of the public believe in a heaven where people who have led good lives are rewarded. And 60 percent believe in a hell where those have led bad lives are eternally damned. Even many who claim no religious belief expect life to go on after death: 46 percent believe in heaven, 34 percent in hell.117
Obviously hell will be a shock for one who denied its existence and, in hell, realizes that his eternal existence is now the very place he denied.
In the New Testament, Jesus spoke about heaven and hell to those who believed in both destinies. The words of our Lord indicate there will be many surprised people in hell. Though men may believe in hell, those who find themselves there were not expecting it:
“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness’” (Matthew 7:21-23).
The story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) considered later in this lesson caught our Lord’s audience off guard. They did not expect to hear that a rich man would spend eternity in hell while a poor beggar would enjoy the eternal bliss of heaven. Self-righteousness is not only sin, it is highly offensive to God. Self-righteousness is also deceptive. Those who find themselves most shocked to be in hell will be the self-righteous who thought themselves worthy of heaven.
The Fate of the
Lost in the Scriptures
Many texts in the Bible speak of the fate of those who reject God. A few incidents are of monumental importance because they set a precedent for the future and are later referred to as examples of the expression of God’s wrath toward sin and sinners.118 While our overview does not allow opportunity for detailed study of each text, we will try to determine their major implications.
The Flood: Genesis 6-8
Now it came about, when men began to multiply on the face of the land, and daughters were born to them, that the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful; and they took wives for themselves, whomever they chose. Then the Lord said, “My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, because he also is flesh; nevertheless his days shall be one hundred and twenty years.” . . . Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart. And the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, from man to animals to creeping things and to birds of the sky; for I am sorry that I have made them.” But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord. . . Now the earth was corrupt in the sight of God, and the earth was filled with violence. And God looked on the earth, and behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth. Then God said to Noah, “The end of all flesh has come before Me; for the earth is filled with violence because of them; and behold, I am about to destroy them with the earth. “Make for yourself an ark of gopher wood; you shall make the ark with rooms, and shall cover it inside and out with pitch” (Genesis 6:1-3, 5-8, 11-14).
Only a few chapters from the beginning of recorded history, and three chapters from the account of the fall of man in the Garden of Eden, we find the world in such a state that divine judgment is required. Sin had begun to run rampant. The “sons of God” were marrying the “daughters of men,” resulting in a race of giants known as the Nephilim (Genesis 6:4).
The condition of the world came as no surprise to God. It was all a part of His eternal plan. But the consequences of man’s sin did grieve the heart of God. The whole earth had become corrupt due to man’s sin. The whole earth would have to be judged. God purposed to destroy the earth with a global flood. Only Noah found favor in God’s sight. God therefore provided for the deliverance of Noah and his family.
An ark was the means of their deliverance; the construction of the ark took 120 years. During this time Noah served as a preacher of righteousness, proclaiming by every stroke of his hammer the day of divine judgment approaching this generation. The time spent building the ark was no mere delay; it was a manifestation of divine grace. God gave men 120 years of warning and 120 years to repent. Judgment waited so that men might repent.
For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, in order that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison, who once were disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water (1 Peter 3:18-20).
Men rejected God’s grace and the warning of Noah’s unusual preaching. While the delay in judgment could have resulted in men’s deliverance, the rejection of grace brought upon Noah’s generation even greater condemnation:
By faith Noah, being warned by God about things not yet seen, in reverence prepared an ark for the salvation of his household, by which he condemned the world, and became an heir of the righteousness which is according to faith (Hebrews 11:7).
Preaching which can result in salvation also brings about greater condemnation when rejected.
Several truths become apparent in the account of Noah’s preaching and the flood:
(1) The ark, which became God’s instrument of condemnation for the world, became God’s instrument for salvation for Noah and his family.
(2) God preserved Noah and those on the ark through the flood rather than delivering them from the flood. Though this distinction may seem trivial, it is not. The salvation of Noah and his family is a prototype of the salvation God later provides in Christ. Peter makes this point in the third chapter of his first epistle (1 Peter 3:18-22). By faith we are “in Christ,” and it is in Him that we are judged and justified. Our sins have been paid for, in Him. In Him we have the righteousness of God. As Noah and his family survived the flood in the ark, so every Christian survives the judgment of God in Christ. As the floods beat upon the ark, the wrath of God was showered down upon the Lord Jesus. We who are Christians will be delivered from the coming wrath of God, but we must never forget that we have already been delivered through His wrath. Those who have suffered for sin in Christ need not suffer again.
(3) Noah and his family faithfully preached of sin, judgment, and deliverance, but the world, about to suffer divine wrath, went on about their business refusing to face up to their sin or God’s wrath.
For the coming of the Son of Man will be just like the days of Noah. For as in those days which were before the flood they were eating and drinking, they were marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and they did not understand until the flood came and took them all away; so shall the coming of the Son of Man be (Matthew 24:37-39).
It will be business as usual for the world until the very moment God’s wrath suddenly and unexpectedly comes upon them.
The Judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah
Now the Lord appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, while he was sitting at the tent door in the heat of the day. And when he lifted up his eyes and looked, behold, three men were standing opposite him; and when he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them, and bowed himself to the earth, and said, “My lord, if now I have found favor in your sight, please do not pass your servant by. Please let a little water be brought and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree; and I will bring a piece of bread, that you may refresh yourselves; after that you may go on, since you have visited your servant.” And they said, “So do, as you have said.” So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Quickly, prepare three measures of fine flour, knead it, and make bread cakes.” Abraham also ran to the herd, and took a tender and choice calf, and gave it to the servant; and he hurried to prepare it. And he took curds and milk and the calf which he had prepared, and placed it before them; and he was standing by them under the tree as they ate. Then they said to him, “Where is Sarah your wife?” And he said, “Behold, in the tent.” And he said, “I will surely return to you at this time next year; and behold, Sarah your wife shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent door, which was behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; Sarah was past childbearing. And Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have become old, shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?” And the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, when I am so old?’ “Is anything too difficult for the Lord? At the appointed time I will return to you, at this time next year, and Sarah shall have a son.” Sarah denied it however, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. And He said, “No, but you did laugh.”
Then the men rose up from there, and looked down toward Sodom; and Abraham was walking with them to send them off. And the Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, since Abraham will surely become a great and mighty nation, and in him all the nations of the earth will be blessed? “For I have chosen him, in order that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; in order that the Lord may bring upon Abraham what He has spoken about him.” And the Lord said, “The outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah is indeed great, and their sin is exceedingly grave. “I will go down now, and see if they have done entirely according to its outcry, which has come to Me; and if not, I will know.”
Then the men turned away from there and went toward Sodom, while Abraham was still standing before the Lord. And Abraham came near and said, “Wilt Thou indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? “Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; wilt Thou indeed sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous who are in it? “Far be it from Thee to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous and the wicked are treated alike. Far be it from Thee! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” So the Lord said, “If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare the whole place on their account.” And Abraham answered and said, “Now behold, I have ventured to speak to the Lord, although I am but dust and ashes. “Suppose the fifty righteous are lacking five, wilt Thou destroy the whole city because of five?” And He said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” And he spoke to Him yet again and said, “Suppose forty are found there?” And He said, “I will not do it on account of the forty.” Then he said, “Oh may the Lord not be angry, and I shall speak; suppose thirty are found there?” And He said, “I will not do it if I find thirty there.” And he said, “Now behold, I have ventured to speak to the Lord; suppose twenty are found there?” And He said, “I will not destroy it on account of the twenty.” Then he said, “Oh may the Lord not be angry, and I shall speak only this once; suppose ten are found there?” And He said, “I will not destroy it on account of the ten.” And as soon as He had finished speaking to Abraham the Lord departed; and Abraham returned to his place. Now the two angels came to Sodom in the evening as Lot was sitting in the gate of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he rose to meet them and bowed down with his face to the ground. And he said, “Now behold, my lords, please turn aside into your servant’s house, and spend the night, and wash your feet; then you may rise early and go on your way.” They said however, “No, but we shall spend the night in the square.” Yet he urged them strongly, so they turned aside to him and entered his house; and he prepared a feast for them, and baked unleavened bread, and they ate. Before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, surrounded the house, both young and old, all the people from every quarter; and they called to Lot and said to him, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us that we may have relations with them.” But Lot went out to them at the doorway, and shut the door behind him, and said, “Please, my brothers, do not act wickedly. Now behold, I have two daughters who have not had relations with man; please let me bring them out to you, and do to them whatever you like; only do nothing to these men, inasmuch as they have come under the shelter of my roof.” But they said, “Stand aside.” Furthermore, they said, “This one came in as an alien, and already he is acting like a judge; now we will treat you worse than them.” So they pressed hard against Lot and came near to break the door. But the men reached out their hands and brought Lot into the house with them, and shut the door. And they struck the men who were at the doorway of the house with blindness, both small and great, so that they wearied themselves trying to find the doorway. Then the men said to Lot, “Whom else have you here? A son-in-law, and your sons, and your daughters, and whomever you have in the city, bring them out of the place; for we are about to destroy this place, because their outcry has become so great before the Lord that the Lord has sent us to destroy it. “ And Lot went out and spoke to his sons-in-law, who were to marry his daughters, and said, “Up, get out of this place, for the Lord will destroy the city.” But he appeared to his sons-in-law to be jesting. And when morning dawned, the angels urged Lot, saying, “Up, take your wife and your two daughters, who are here, lest you be swept away in the punishment of the city.” But he hesitated. So the men seized his hand and the hand of his wife and the hands of his two daughters, for the compassion of the Lord was upon him; and they brought him out, and put him outside the city. And it came about when they had brought them outside, that one said, “Escape for your life! Do not look behind you, and do not stay anywhere in the valley; escape to the mountains, lest you be swept away.” But Lot said to them, “Oh no, my lords! Now behold, your servant has found favor in your sight, and you have magnified your lovingkindness, which you have shown me by saving my life; but I cannot escape to the mountains, lest the disaster overtake me and I die; now behold, this town is near enough to flee to, and it is small. Please, let me escape there (is it not small?) that my life may be saved. “ And he said to him, “Behold, I grant you this request also, not to overthrow the town of which you have spoken. Hurry, escape there, for I cannot do anything until you arrive there.” Therefore the name of the town was called Zoar. The sun had risen over the earth when Lot came to Zoar (Genesis 18:1--19:23).
The judgment of Noah’s day came after over a century of warning while the ark was being built. From a casual reading of Genesis 18 and 19, it might appear that the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah came with no warning at all. This is inconsistent with the facts supplied by the inspired Scriptures. Much had been graciously revealed by God to Sodom and Gomorrah.
First, Sodom was the place where Lot and his family lived. While we may not think so, the Bible says Lot was a righteous man who agonized over the sins of this city:
And if He rescued righteous 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 (2 Peter 2:7-9).
In addition to the testimony of Peter, we have the words of the people of the city of Sodom:
Furthermore, they said, “This one came in as an alien, and already he is acting like a judge; now we will treat you worse than them.” So they pressed hard against Lot and came near to break the door (Genesis 19:9).
It seems this was not the first time the people of Sodom had heard Lot’s protests. They intended to make it his last.
But there is more, much more, that God had graciously revealed to the people of Sodom and Gomorrah found in the fourteenth chapter of Genesis. Having always read this chapter with Lot in mind rather than the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, I now understand the events of this chapter as God’s gracious dealings with the people of Sodom and Gomorrah.
In Genesis 13, Lot seemed to choose the better land. This relocated him in the city of Sodom (13:12), while Abram continued to live a nomadic life some distance away. In time, Lot found himself caught up in a power struggle between the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah (along with some other nearby kings) against an alliance of more distant kings who had dominated them for twelve years (14:1-4). Five kings, including Beta, king of Sodom and Birsha king of Gomorrah, joined to throw off the yoke of their foreign masters. Chedorlaomer, king of Elam, along with his allies, attacked Sodom and the surrounding rebel kingdoms and defeated them, taking the people and the goods of those cities as their booty (14:11).119
While not a large scale military operation, Abraham was intent on rescuing his nephew, Lot. He mustered 318 men to go after these kings and secure Lot’s release (14:14). Abraham defeated these kings and returned with the people and goods they had taken, including his nephew Lot. His greeting by the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah in the “Kings Valley” (14:17) must have been something like the reception of General Norman Schwarzkopf as he returned from the Persian Gulf. How easy it would have been for Abram to take credit for great military strategy and might.
The meeting between the grateful king of Sodom and Abram and his men did not go as expected. The king of Sodom did not get so much as a word of praise out of his mouth before another “king” came on the scene and spoke. This “king” was Melchizedek, the mysterious “king of Salem” (14:18-20). Melchizedek blessed Abram with these words:
“Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth; And blessed be God Most High, Who has delivered your enemies into your hand” (Genesis 14:19-20).
When the king of Sodom offered Abram the spoils of war, he was attempting to bless Abram for the return of his people. Abram’s response to the king of Sodom reflects the impact of Melchizedek’s words spoken a moment before:
And Abram said to the king of Sodom, “I have sworn to the Lord God Most High, possessor of heaven and earth, that I will not take a thread or a sandal thong or anything that is yours, lest you should say, ‘I have made Abram rich.’ I will take nothing except what the young men have eaten, and the share of the men who went with me, Aner, Eshcol, and Mamre; let them take their share” (Genesis 14:22-24).
Much can be learned about Abram and some about Melchizedek here, but let us not overlook what the king of Sodom learned. He was defeated by Chedorlaomer, and his city was sacked. His people and his goods were taken off, giving he and his people much to think about as they were being carried off. Would they survive? Would they ever return to Sodom again?
As they were being taken away, did Lot share with these people about the God of Abram? Did he speak to these people about sin, righteousness and judgment? Did he suggest to them that their defeat may have been from the hand of a righteous God? And what of the words they had heard from Melchizedek and from Abram in the King’s Valley? It seems the events described in Genesis 14 were not only for the benefit of Abram and Lot, but for the people of Sodom as well. They knew much more about the God of Abram than we might have thought.
Several truths are apparent from the description of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah as described in our text.
(1) Sodom was a wicked city, a city whose time for judgment had come. Neither Abraham nor Lot interceded for the wicked people of Sodom. The description of the conduct of those living in Sodom reveals that they were worthy of judgment. While God waited several hundred years to judge the sins of the Amorites (Genesis 15:16), the time for the judgment of Sodom was now--their sins were ripe.
(2) Sodom evidenced no repentance and no faith in God, in spite of the presence of Lot and their deliverance at the hand of Abram. Nowhere in the sacred text is there any acknowledgment of sin from any citizen of Sodom. The men of Sodom turned down Lot’s offer of his virgin daughters, intent on nothing less than the rape of Lot and his guests. Their anger toward Lot overflows in this last incident which took place at Lot’s house.
(3) Abraham’s appeal to God was not for a delay in judgment or for mercy for this city, but for God to distinguish between the righteous and the wicked. Abraham did not appeal to God for a delay in His judgment. He did not protest God’s assessment of the sins of this city or its need for divine judgment. His appeal was for justice, and justice required that the righteous be distinguished from the wicked:
And Abraham came near and said, “Wilt Thou indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; wilt Thou indeed sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from Thee to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous and the wicked are treated alike. Far be it from Thee! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” (Genesis 18:23-25).
Abraham’s appeal was for God to spare the city for the sake of the righteous. He knew God’s justice demanded that He deal with the righteous differently than with the wicked. He knew also that the wicked are blessed by a delay in judgment, not only to give them time to repent but also to protect and preserve the righteous.
(4) Though a righteous man, Lot had been adversely affected by the sin of the city in which he chose to dwell. It would be error to fail to point out the weakness of Lot. His wife did not survive, because she disobeyed God by turning back to look on the destruction of the city. His daughters would seek to preserve Lot’s seed by getting him drunk and by getting themselves pregnant by their father. Lot was removed from the city forcibly. He did not really wish to leave (19:15-22). While he refused to take part in its sin, he was too attached to the city.
(5) In contrast to the deliverance of Noah through the wrath of God, Lot and his daughters are delivered from the wrath of God. Noah was preserved through the flood by being inside the ark. Lot was delivered from God’s wrath by being plucked from the city. If Noah’s deliverance foreshadows our salvation in Christ, Lot’s deliverance is a prototype of the deliverance of the saints from the coming wrath of God.
For they themselves report about us what kind of a reception we had with you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, that is Jesus, who delivers us from the wrath to come . . . . For God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, that whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with Him (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10; 5:9-10).
(6) Up to the final moments before judgment came, the righteousness of Abraham and Lot is contrasted with the sins of the people of Sodom. In response to the revelation of Sodom’s coming judgment, Abraham spent his time in intercession. Lot devoted himself to sparing two strangers from the wickedness of Sodom. But the men of Sodom spent their last moments attempting to practice the very wickedness for which they would be judged. Take note of the persistence of the wicked men of Sodom as Moses described it:
So they pressed hard against Lot and came near to break the door. But the men reached out their hands and brought Lot into the house with them, and shut the door. And they struck the men who were at the doorway of the house with blindness, both small and great, so that they wearied themselves trying to find the doorway (Genesis 19:9b-11).
Imagine this scene. The men of Sodom were pressing hard against Lot, intending to rape him and his two guests. The angels reached out, pulled Lot inside, and shut the door. They then struck the men of the city with blindness. Would you not think this blindness would have gotten their attention? Would the men of Sodom not have stumbled toward their homes, pondering what had happened to them? But they did no such thing. They “wearied themselves trying to find the doorway.” They intended to carry through with their sin even when divinely blinded.
How persistent are sinners in their pursuit of sin, death, and eternal hell. Jonathan Edwards wrote: “As men gather sticks in this world for their own fire they continue to do so even when they are actually engulfed in the flames!”120
Lessons to be Learned
The inspired writers of the Old and New Testament turn to the events of the flood121 and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah122 to instruct the saints of a later day. As we leave these two instances of Old Testament judgment, let us focus on two lessons God intended us to learn from them.
(1) Divine judgment will come quickly and unexpectedly upon the wicked.
“And just as it happened in the days of Noah, so it shall be also in the days of the Son of Man: they were eating, they were drinking, they were marrying, they were being given in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. It was the same as happened in the days of Lot: they were eating, they were drinking, they were buying, they were selling, they were planting, they were building; but on the day that Lot went out from Sodom it rained fire and brimstone from heaven and destroyed them all. It will be just the same on the day that the Son of Man is revealed” (Luke 17:26-30).
(2) The unrighteous people of Sodom were less blinded by their self-indulgent sins than the people of Israel with their sin of self-righteousness. The people of Sodom were sinners. But the sin of the Jews in Jesus’ days was even worse. They saw and heard the Lord Jesus, and yet they rejected Him as their Messiah demanding more and more miracles as proof of His identity:
“And you, Capernaum, will not be exalted to heaven, will you? You shall descend to Hades; for if the miracles had occurred in Sodom which occurred in you, it would have remained to this day. Nevertheless I say to you that it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for you” (Matthew 11:23-24).
While the people of Israel were more respectable than those in Sodom, they were not more spiritual. With their greater knowledge came greater condemnation for rejecting God’s warning of coming judgment and deliverance through Jesus Christ.
(3) God is faithful to judge sinners and rescue the righteous from judgment.
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 righteous 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, then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from temptation, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment for the day of judgment (2 Peter 2:4-9).
The Rich Man and Lazarus
“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).
Whether this story of the rich man and Lazarus is a parable or the story of two historical men does not matter. Jesus meant for us to learn from it. Jesus told the story in the presence of the Pharisees, who loved money (Luke 16:14) and who measured one’s spirituality by external indicators like wealth (16:15). They assumed wealth was proof of piety and poverty or sickness was proof of sin. Thus, they cut many corners to obtain wealth, even if it included depriving widows of their homes (see Matthew 23:14).
Jesus told this story about the rich man and Lazarus to shake His listeners. He wanted them to understand that heaven and hell were not a continuation of earthly ease or suffering, but often the reversal of circumstances. He told of the rich man who lived his earthly life in ease and luxury now spending eternity in agony and suffering. But Lazarus, who suffered throughout his earthly life, now would spend eternity in Abraham’s bosom, enjoying the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant. The lesson is clear: one’s spiritual condition and thus one’s eternal destiny, cannot be determined from the “blessings or adversities” of one’s earthly life.
Each man’s eternal destiny became evident after their deaths. No doubt the rich man had a glorious send off as he was buried in style. The body of Lazarus might even have been cast into the rubbish heap without a proper burial. But after he died, Lazarus was escorted by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man died and was buried.
Neither man’s fate was decided by his earthly circumstances. In Jesus’ story, we are not told what got these men to their eternal destiny. The rich man’s wealth did not condemn him but neither did it get him into heaven. The poverty and pain of Lazarus did not prove him a sinner nor make him more pious than the rich man. Material possessions, contrary to popular thought, were not the cause of eternal bliss or suffering. It was something else. We know that the deciding factor is man’s response to the One telling the story, Jesus Christ.
It is crucial to note that the fate of each man was decided before death, and it was irreversible after death. There was no opportunity for the rich man to repent once he was in hell and no evidence that he did repent in hell. He was filled with regret but not with repentance. The rich man’s agony in hell could not be reduced.
The agony of hell was great. The rich man could see Lazarus at a distance and was fully aware of his bliss in contrast to his own agony. He knew he could no longer live in ease and that he could never cross the chasm from one side to the other. His doom was sealed. Even worse, he knew others in his family would join him in his torment. But he was no longer in control of his world as he had once appeared to be.
Even in hell, the rich man failed to understand the depth of man’s depravity and the blindness of his sin. He asked that someone be sent to warn his brothers. He was told they had Moses and the Prophets--and that was all they needed. Even if one were to rise from the dead, as Jesus would do, this miracle in and of itself would not convince or convert anyone.
Heaven and hell are the outworking of divine justice. Lazarus’ sufferings were forever put out of mind by eternal bliss. The rich man had already experienced his bliss. The sufferings of the saint in this life will be compensated for in eternity. Likewise, those who choose the present pleasures of sin will have an eternity of suffering. Heaven and hell must not be considered in terms of continuity, but in terms of contrast. Suffering is the road to glory, and self-serving pleasure is the path to destruction.
The Ultimate Judgment: The Cross of Calvary
And they came to a place named Gethsemane; and He said to His disciples, “Sit here until I have prayed.” And He took with Him Peter and James and John, and began to be very distressed and troubled. And He said to them, “My soul is deeply grieved to the point of death; remain here and keep watch.” And He went a little beyond them, and fell to the ground, and began to pray that if it were possible, the hour might pass Him by. And He was saying, “Abba! Father! All things are possible for Thee; remove this cup from Me; yet not what I will, but what Thou wilt” (Mark 14:32-36).
And they brought Him to the place Golgotha, which is translated, Place of a Skull. And they tried to give Him wine mixed with myrrh; but He did not take it. And they crucified Him, and divided up His garments among themselves, casting lots for them, to decide what each should take. And it was the third hour when they crucified Him . . . . And when the sixth hour had come, darkness fell over the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” which is translated, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” And when some of the bystanders heard it, they began saying, “Behold, He is calling for Elijah.” And someone ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a reed, and gave Him a drink, saying, “Let us see whether Elijah will come to take Him down.” And Jesus uttered a loud cry, and breathed His last. And the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who was standing right in front of Him, saw the way He breathed His last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:22-25, 33-39)
The greatest judgment of all time took place on a hill outside the city of Jerusalem. It was the hell which our Lord Jesus endured in the sinner’s place, as God’s provision for man’s salvation. The salvation which God provided for man was not a setting aside of divine wrath, but the satisfaction of divine wrath, as it was poured out on the sinless Son of God. In this way, men may be delivered through the wrath of God, in Christ. In this way also, God may show mercy to men in a way that does not violate His justice:
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation123 in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3:23-26).
Mortal men simply cannot grasp the infinite measure of God’s eternal wrath; yet the intensity of Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane reflects His understanding of God’s wrath. Judgment comes to sinners suddenly and unexpectedly; our Lord willingly came to His own judgment knowing what it required of Him. No wonder our Lord was in such agony in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Our Lord drank the cup of divine wrath to the full, grasping in His omniscience all that the cross involved. In His grace, He refused the “wine mixed with myrrh,” (Mark 15:22) because it would have served as a kind of tranquilizer. Jesus’ calling was to suffer the full measure of God’s wrath so that those who trust in Him need never fear the eternal wrath of God which will someday be poured out upon sinners.
The essence of hell is eternal separation from the presence of God. Our Lord’s words uttered from the cross sum up this separation, the very words of Psalm 22:1:
“My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” (Mark 15:34).
Hell is man’s eternal separation from God (see 2 Thessalonians 1:9-10). Jesus bore the agony of that separation on the cross. Nowhere in the Bible is the agony of hell more evident than on the cross of Calvary. Jesus suffered hell in our place so that we might enjoy the blessings of God in heaven.
Comfort for Christians
For the Christian, there should be no surprises in the three accounts of divine judgment we have reviewed. If we have trusted in Jesus Christ, we will never experience the agony of hell; rather, we are assured of the eternal joys of heaven.
But what of those whom we know and love who have not placed their trust in Jesus Christ? How can the Christian find comfort concerning the fate of the lost? Consider these truths which should be a source of comfort.
(1) God’s perfect plan includes both the wicked and the righteous. Heaven and hell, as well as the individual destinies of each and every person, are a part of God’s eternal plan.
The Lord has made everything for its [or, His] own purpose, Even the wicked for the day of evil (Proverbs 16:4).
For He says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I raised you up, to demonstrate My power in you, and that My name might be proclaimed throughout the whole earth.” So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires. You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?” On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, “Why did you make me like this,” will it? Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use, and another for common use? 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, even us, whom He also called, not from among Jews only, but also from among Gentiles (Romans 9:15-24).
And all who dwell on the earth will worship him, everyone whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who has been slain. If anyone has an ear, let him hear. If anyone is destined for captivity, to captivity he goes; if anyone kills with the sword, with the sword he must be killed. Here is the perseverance and the faith of the saints (Revelation 13:8-10).
(2) The eternal destiny of all men ultimately lies within the sovereign will of God and not in the will of men.
But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God (John 1:13-14).
So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy (Romans 9:16).
On whom would you rather have your destiny depend--yourself or God? In whose hand would you rather place the destiny of a loved one? With a righteous, holy, and compassionate God or with sinful men? By whom would you rather have justice meted out? By men or by God? God and God alone does all things well:124
The Lord is righteous in all His ways, And kind in all His deeds. The Lord is near to all who call upon Him, To all who call upon Him in truth. He will fulfill the desire of those who fear Him; He will also hear their cry and will save them. The Lord keeps all who love Him; But all the wicked, He will destroy (Psalm 145:17-20).
(3) God neither delights nor takes pleasure in the destruction of the wicked; His desire is for men to be saved. The judgment of God is His “unusual work,”125 because it is His desire that men be saved. Only reluctantly and after man’s persistent rebellion does God’s judgment come upon sinners. As Peter has written, the delay in divine judgment is due to the patience of God and His desire for men to be saved.
The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9).
“For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies,” declares the Lord God. “Therefore, repent and live” (Ezekiel 18:32).126
First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, in order that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony borne at the proper time. And for this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying) as a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth (1 Timothy 2:1-7).
(4) God employs the unrighteous in His plan in such a way that they fulfill His purposes, even by their disobedience.
For the wrath of man shall praise Thee; With a remnant of wrath Thou shalt gird Thyself (Psalm 76:10).127
(5) God is glorified not only in the salvation of sinners but also in the condemnation of sinners. Both hell and heaven are to the glory of God.
And the Lord descended in the cloud and stood there with him as he called upon the name of the Lord. Then the Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations” (Exodus 34:5-7).
Enter the rock and hide in the dust From the terror of the Lord and from the splendor of His majesty. The proud look of man will be abased, And the loftiness of man will be humbled, And the Lord alone will be exalted in that day (Isaiah 2:10-11).
Therefore My people go into exile for their lack of knowledge; And their honorable men are famished, And their multitude is parched with thirst. Therefore Sheol has enlarged its throat and opened its mouth without measure; And Jerusalem’s splendor, her multitude, her din of revelry, and the jubilant within her, descend into it. So the common man will be humbled, and the man of importance abased, The eyes of the proud also will be abased. But the Lord of hosts will be exalted in judgment, And the holy God will show Himself holy in righteousness (Isaiah 5:13-16).
(6) Heaven and hell are necessary for the outworking of justice; they are the means by which the injustices of life are eternally set right. Men and women reap in eternity what they have sown in life:
“Because I called, and you refused; I stretched out my hand, and no one paid attention; And you neglected all my counsel, And did not want my reproof; I will even laugh at your calamity; I will mock when your dread comes, When your dread comes like a storm, And your calamity comes on like a whirlwind, When distress and anguish come on you. Then they will call on me, but I will not answer; They will seek me diligently, but they shall not find me, Because they hated knowledge, And did not choose the fear of the Lord. They would not accept my counsel, They spurned all my reproof. So they shall eat of the fruit of their own way, And be satiated with their own devices. For the waywardness of the naive shall kill them, And the complacency of fools shall destroy them. But he who listens to me shall live securely, And shall be at ease from the dread of evil” (Proverbs 1:24-33).
The integrity of the upright will guide them, But the falseness of the treacherous will destroy them. Riches do not profit in the day of wrath, But righteousness delivers from death. The righteousness of the blameless will smooth his way, But the wicked will fall by his own wickedness. The righteousness of the upright will deliver them, But the treacherous will be caught by their own greed (Proverbs 11:3-6).
“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” (Luke 16:25).
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 (Galatians 6:7-8).
(7) Divine judgment takes into account all the facts, including those which men cannot know.
And He said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of men, but God knows your hearts; for that which is highly esteemed among men is detestable in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15).128
(8) Divine judgment condemns men on the basis of what they have done with what God has revealed to them.
And He was saying to them, “Take care what you listen to. By your standard of measure it shall be measured to you; and more shall be given you besides. For whoever has, to him shall more be given; and whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him” (Mark 4:24-25).
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God, or give thanks; but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures. Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, that their bodies might be dishonored among them (Romans 1:18-24).
For all who have sinned without the Law will also perish without the Law; and all who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law (Romans 2:12).
(9) Divine judgment metes out punishment which is precisely appropriate to the sin committed.
“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).
And while all the people were listening, He said to the disciples, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love respectful greetings in the market places, and chief seats in the synagogues, and places of honor at banquets, who devour widows’ houses, and for appearance’s sake offer long prayers; these will receive greater condemnation” (Luke 20:45-47).
(10) Divine judgment is pronounced and executed by Him who poured out His wrath on the Lord Jesus and on those who reject salvation in Him. Those who suffer eternally in hell are those who reject Christ, who suffered “hell” in their place. Those who suffer condemnation are those who reject the divine offer of grace in Christ. They have also neglected the grace of God in delayed judgment.
(11) No mention is made in Scripture of the righteous in heaven agonizing over the fate of the lost in hell; mention is made of those in hell who agonize over the coming judgment of their loved ones who are lost (Luke 16:27-28).
(12) We should have a legitimate concern for the fate of the lost which motivates us to warn men of the wrath of God to come. Our responsibility is fulfilled when we have sounded this warning.
“And now, behold, I know that all of you, among whom I went about preaching the kingdom, will see my face no more. Therefore I testify to you this day, that I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God” (Acts 20:25-27).
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 . . . . Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were entreating through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God (2 Corinthians 5:11, 20).
(13) God’s judgment means that we neither have the means to judge men now nor the need to do so. We can forgive men, leaving judgment and revenge to God who judges perfectly.
Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. “But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:17-21).
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? (James 4:12).
(14) In Christ, the mystery of suffering and glory has been revealed and ultimately resolved. In heaven, when we see Him as He is and are conformed to Him, we will understand life from God’s point of view. We shall thus praise Him eternally for all His deeds, including the judgment of the wicked, even those whom we love. This is the reason men on earth have petitioned God in prayer to judge the wicked. It is also the reason the saints in heaven will eternally praise God for the judgment of the wicked.
Your hand will find out all your enemies; Your right hand will find out those who hate you. You will make them as a fiery oven in the time of your anger; The Lord will swallow them up in His wrath, And fire will devour them. Their offspring Thou wilt destroy from the earth, And their descendants from among the sons of men. Though they intended evil against Thee, And devised a plot, They will not succeed. For Thou wilt make them turn their back; Thou wilt aim with Thy bowstrings at their faces. Be Thou exalted, O Lord, in Thy strength; We will sing and praise Thy power (Psalm 21:8-13).
Pour out Thy wrath upon the nations which do not know Thee, And upon the kingdoms which do not call upon Thy name. For they have devoured Jacob, And laid waste his habitation. Do not remember the iniquities of our forefathers against us; Let Thy compassion come quickly to meet us; For we are brought very low. Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of Thy name; And deliver us, and forgive our sins, for Thy name’s sake. Why should the nations say, “Where is their God?” Let there be known among the nations in our sight, Vengeance for the blood of Thy servants, which has been shed. Let the groaning of the prisoner come before Thee; According to the greatness of Thy power preserve those who are doomed to die. And return to our neighbors sevenfold into their bosom The reproach with which they have reproached Thee, O Lord. So we Thy people and the sheep of Thy pasture Will give thanks to Thee forever; To all generations we will tell of Thy praise (Psalm 79:6-13).
But the Lord has been my stronghold, And my God the rock of my refuge. And He has brought back their wickedness upon them, And will destroy them in their evil; The Lord our God will destroy them (Psalm 94:22-23).
And the third angel poured out his bowl into the rivers and the springs of waters; and they became blood. 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. “ And I heard the altar saying, “Yes, O Lord God, the Almighty, true and righteous are Thy judgments” (Revelation 16:4-7).
“And they threw dust on their heads and were crying out, weeping and mourning, saying, ‘Woe, woe, the great city, in which all who had ships at sea became rich by her wealth, for in one hour she has been laid waste!’ “Rejoice over her, O heaven, and you saints and apostles and prophets, because God has pronounced judgment for you against her” (Revelation 18:19-20).
It has been said that a preacher’s job is to make the comfortable uncomfortable and to comfort the uncomfortable. No topic can better accomplish this than the part of the unbeliever in the perfect plan of God. You, my friend, may feel confident that you will never experience the agony of hell--and be totally shocked to find yourself there for all eternity.
There is a way which seems right to a man, But its end is the way of death (Proverbs 16:25).
The only “way” which is right and which delivers one from eternal torment is the Lord Jesus Christ:
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me (John 14:6).
My task is not to convince you that what we have been studying is the truth. This is the work of the Spirit of God. I urge you to listen to Him, to believe God’s Word, and to trust in God’s Son for your salvation. Jesus said:
“But I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper [Holy Spirit] shall not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you. And He, when He comes, will convict the world concerning sin, and righteousness, and judgment; 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 16:7-11).
For Further Study and Meditation
(1) What is the fate of the lost?
Those who do not trust in Jesus Christ for salvation are eternally lost, apart from God’s gracious intervention which turns them from their unbelief and rebellion to trusting and obeying God (see Ephesians 2:1-10). There is a present manifestation of divine wrath upon sinners which turns them over to their sin (see Romans 1:24-32). This, in the eyes of some, may look like a blessing, for there is a certain pleasure in sin (see Hebrews 11:25). When our Lord returns for the second time, He will judge sinners, and the time of their eternal torment will begin (Romans 2:1-11). This judgment, which will come quickly and unexpectedly, is irreversible (1 Thessalonians 5:3; 2 Thessalonians 2:8-12).
In hell, men will suffer eternal torment. They will be aware of the blessings of the saved and all too aware of their own torment. They will agonize about loved ones who are lost. They will receive precisely the punishment they deserve, and they will not be able to change their condition or reduce their agony (see Luke 16:19-31). There will be no repentance in hell--only regret.
(2) How do people in general respond to the biblical teaching about a literal hell? How do the cults and false religions deal with hell? What is it that people dislike about hell?
Generally, unbelievers deny the existence of a literal hell. They are inclined to not want to think about it, saying something like, “I cannot think that a loving God would ever send anyone to hell.” Those unbelievers who do believe in a literal hell are self-deceived, thinking they will avoid it and that their enemies will not. Thus, many of the Jews of Jesus’ day thought hell was for the Gentiles and heaven was for the Jews. Jesus rocked them with His teaching in texts like Matthew 8:10-12 and Luke 4:22-28.
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. Unitarians refuse to believe in the finality of death, believing that through mind action we resurrect ourselves from the dead. Modern theology insists that a loving God could never subject anyone to such punishment. [See “The Spirit of Truth and the Spirit of Error” (Chicago: Moody Press, 1963), a pamphlet compiled by Keith L. Brooks].
People do not like the painful thought of hell, the reminder of their own sins, of God’s holiness, of divine wrath, and the consequences of sin. They want to live their life their way and to answer to no one for the way they live. They want to be free from God, His standards, and His judgment. What they do not realize is that in serving themselves and indulging in the flesh, they are slaves of the flesh, of sin, and of Satan (see Romans 6:12-23; Ephesians 2:1-3; 2 Timothy 2:26).
(3) What is hell like?
Hell is a place of eternal punishment for those who have not trusted in Jesus Christ for salvation. It is a place of agony, of “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 24:51; Luke 16:23-24). Hell is a place of eternal fire (Revelation 21:8), prepared for the devil and his angels (Matthew 25:41). Hell is within sight of heaven so that those suffering are aware of the blessings of those who accepted the offer of salvation in Christ (Luke 16:23; Revelation 22:14-15). Those who have died without Christ are raised from the dead to dwell eternally in the lake of fire (Revelation 20:11-15). Hell is a place where men are kept from the presence of God (2 Thessalonians 1:9).
(4) How important is the doctrine of eternal punishment (hell)?
According to the Scriptures, the doctrine of eternal judgment is one of the fundamental doctrines of the faith (Hebrews 6:1-2). The Holy Spirit convicts men of sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:8).
(5) According to the gospel, how has God provided an escape from the torment of hell? If hell is such a terrible fate, why do so many reject the gospel?
In God’s holiness and justice, He must punish sinners. In His grace, God sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to bear the penalty of sin for those who would receive Him. Jesus endured the agony of hell so that men need not experience it themselves. In this way, God is just and merciful in providing salvation for men. He is merciful in forgiving men for their sins; He is just in bearing the penalty in His Son.
Hell is a terrible fate. Most people deny sin, especially their own personal sin. They also deny the consequence of their sin--eternal judgment. When confronted by the truth of the gospel, men reject Christ’s provision for their sins because they do not think they need grace, and they certainly do not want it. Most people think they are good enough to avoid hell and gain heaven on the basis of their own merit. The gospel is incompatible with human pride. Only sinners need grace.
(6) Are there degrees of punishment in hell?
Yes, the Scriptures teach that there are degrees of punishment in hell. Justice requires not only that God distinguish between the righteous and the wicked (see Genesis 18:23-25), but that those whose sin is greater receive the greater punishment. The Bible therefore teaches that just as there are degrees of reward in heaven, there are degrees of punishment in hell (see Luke 12:47-48; 20:45-47).
(7) What is the basis for the condemnation of the lost or the eternal blessing of the saved?
The basis for man’s eternal condemnation is his works (see Revelation 20:12-13). The basis for man’s eternal salvation is the work of Christ (Romans 5:12-21; Ephesians 1 and 2; Colossians 1; Titus 3:4-7; Revelation 5:9-14). Those who are saved are sinners who have received God’s gracious provision for their sins in Christ. Those who are lost are those who have rejected this provision and thus must suffer for their own sins (see John 3:16-18).
The Bible does speak of good works when referring to the Christian (see, for example, John 5:29). The “good works” of the righteous are the result of salvation and not the means of it. We are saved “unto good works” (Ephesians 2:10), not “by good works” (Titus 3:5).
(8) How can a loving God send anyone to hell?
The eternal damnation of man is not only a part of God’s plan, it is a fate which God sovereignly imposes on men. This fate is the consequence of man’s sin and of God’s holiness. God is glorified by the salvation of men and by the punishment of the unrighteous. Men are not forcibly sent to hell, against their will. They resist God’s will, and they press hard toward hell. Men desire hell (they don’t want God in their life), and they deserve it. When God sends men to hell, He gives them what they want, what they have earned, and what they deserve. He does so because they have rejected Jesus, whom God sent to suffer the agony of hell in their place.
(9) How can we explain the delay in the judgment of sinners?
God’s future and final judgment of sinners has been delayed for a long time. This has given many the opportunity to repent and be saved (see Romans 2:4; 9:22-23; 2 Peter 3:9). Unbelievers misinterpret God’s delay in judging men, supposing that judgment is not coming at all (2 Peter 3:3-10).
(10) How do you explain that men will perish eternally who have never heard a clear presentation of the gospel?
Men are not saved apart from faith in God’s promise concerning salvation in His Son. The Old Testament saint looked forward to it (see Romans 4); the New Testament saint looks back to the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. While men need to hear the gospel to be saved (Romans 10:9-15), they do not need to hear the gospel to be condemned. Men are condemned on the basis of their rejection of the revelation they have received concerning God (Romans 1:18-32). There is a sense in which God is gracious to those who die apart from the hearing of the gospel. Since they have received less revelation, their judgment will not be as severe as those who have heard the gospel and rejected it (see Matthew 12:38-42; Luke 12:47-48).
(11) In what way should the Christian’s knowledge of hell and eternal torment affect his life?
Knowing that hell is a fate we all deserve, the Christian should be grateful to God for the gift of salvation and the deliverance from hell God has provided in Christ. Furthermore, knowing the fate that awaits unbelievers, we should be motivated to share the gospel with the lost. Knowing how seriously God takes sin, we should endeavor to live lives which are holy and pleasing to God. We should also be looking for the coming of His heavenly kingdom where righteousness will dwell forever (see 2 Peter 3:11-13).
(12) How do unbelievers and their eternal punishment in hell fit into God’s eternal plan?
God’s eternal plan is designed to bring glory to Himself. God is glorified in judging sinners and in saving sinners. God, as the Creator, has the right to deal with men as He sees fit. God has therefore chosen to save some, as “vessels of mercy,” and to condemn others, as “vessels of wrath” (Romans 9:19-23). He has chosen to use the unbelief and sinful rebellion of some to achieve His purposes, to His glory, and the faith and obedience of others to achieve His purposes, to His glory. The eternal punishment of sinners reveals the holiness of God and His hatred of sin. Men’s rejection of God’s provision for their salvation in Christ shows the immensity of man’s sin and the degree to which he deserves eternal torment.
(13) What comfort can one find in the death of a loved one who died as an unbeliever?
God’s perfect plan includes both the wicked and the righteous. The eternal destiny of all men ultimately lies within the sovereign will of God and not in the will of men. Hell is the measure of man’s sinfulness and of God’s holiness. God does not delight or take pleasure in the destruction of the wicked; His desire is for men to be saved. God employs the unrighteous in His plan in such a way that they fulfill His purposes, even by their disobedience. God is glorified in the condemnation of sinners. Hell is necessary for the outworking of justice; it is the means by which the wrongs of life are eternally set right. Divine judgment is just, taking into account all the facts, including those which men cannot know. Divine judgment condemns men on the basis of what they have done with what God has revealed to them. Divine judgment metes out punishment which is precisely appropriate to the sin committed. Divine judgment is pronounced and executed by Him who poured out His wrath on the Lord Jesus and on those who have rejected salvation in Him. In Christ, the mystery of suffering and glory has been revealed, and ultimately resolved. In heaven, when we see Him as He is and are conformed to Him, we will understand life from God’s point of view, and thus we shall praise Him eternally for all His deeds, including the judgment of the wicked, even those whom we love.
Genesis 6-9; 14, 18 & 19
Exodus 5-15; 33:17--34:7
Deuteronomy 8:18-20; 28:63
Psalm 21:7-13; 34:19-22; 59; 73:18-20; 94:22-23; 145:20;
Proverbs 1:24-26, 32; 11:3; 16:4
Isaiah 2:10-11, 17; 5:16; 28:21; 30:31-32
Ezekiel 5:13; 18:23-32; 22:14
Matthew 5:22,29,30; 7:23; 8:12; 10:28; 13:30, 47-50; 18:4-10; 22:13; 25:15,33
Mark 9:42-43; Luke 10:24; 12:47-48; 13:28ff.; 16:19-31; 20:45-47
John 3:1-21; 5:19-29
Romans 1-4 (2:8-9; 3:19), 6:23; 9-10; 12:19
1 Corinthians 1:18-31; 2:1-16
Galatians 6:7-8; Ephesians 2:1-3; 5:3-6
Philippians 1:28; 3:19-21; Colossians 3:5-7
1 Thessalonians 2:14-16; 5:3, 9; 2 Thessalonians 1:3-10
Hebrews 6:1-2; 10:27, 29, 39; James 4:12
2 Peter 2:1-9, 12, 17; 3:3-13; Jude
Revelation 6:15-16; 13:8; 14:9-11; 16:4-7; 17:8; 18:20; 19:15; 20:1-15; 21:8
118 It has become popular to say, “God loves the sinner, but He hates the sin.” I do not find this statement made or supported by Scripture. God pours out His wrath on sinners. He “loved Jacob” and He also “hated Esau” (Romans 9:13).
119 It seems from the words of Genesis 14:10 that one or both of the kings from Sodom and Gomorrah were killed in battle. This would mean that the kings who later met Abraham (14:17-24) were their replacements.
122 Isaiah 1:9-10; 3:9; 13:19; Jeremiah 23:14; 49:18; 50:40; Lamentations 4:6; Ezekiel 16:44, 48, 49, 53, 55, 56; Amos 4:11; Zephaniah 2:9; Matthew 10:15; 11:23-24; Luke 10:12; 17:29; Revelation 9:29; 2 Peter 2:6; Jude 1:7; Revelation 11:8.