Is belief in eternal punishment an archaic remnant of an outdated theology or is it both a doctrine of Scripture and a consequence of the character of God? The two excellent articles which follow deal with this question.
Recently, the Watchtower magazine published an article applauding major Protestant denominations for finally agreeing with them that there is no eternal punishment. Some major Evangelicals have recently said that they too deny this truth which was preached by Christ and His apostles, believed by Christians through the centuries and proclaimed clearly in the days of the reformation.
Belief in eternal punishment draws a sharp distinction between those who believe all the Bible from those who reject whatever does not appeal to their own reason. We intend to show that the Bible teaches eternal punishment; to reject it is to deny the words of Christ and of Scripture. Fertile minds of unbelief have devised many theories to deny it, but they all come under two headings, (1) Universalism (2) Annihilation or conditional immortality.
1. The Test of Truth
A subject may be believed or disbelieved depending on factors which actually have no bearing on its truth or falsehood. If I say that the test of truth is the measure in which I feel comfortable in believing it, I am not really using logic, but subjective emotions. There is so very much in our tragic world about which we are most uncomfortable, so much that does “not seem right,” and yet, we dare not reject reality because it pains us. Cancer, heart disease, child abuse, drug addiction, Aids, rape, hunger and murder have never produced a comfortable thought in our minds, yet they exist. Eternal punishment is not grasped by feeble sense and can never be comfortably believed. We must always make a difference between what is against reason and what is beyond it. Hell is as real as Heaven, because the Lord Jesus taught its reality as clearly as He taught that Heaven was the place from which He came to earth (John 3:13; 16:26).
2. The Warnings Prove God’s Tender Mercy
One of the greatest proofs of the love and mercy of God is His faithful warnings of coming judgment. There is a voice that comes down the corridor of time, warning of those who will “be cast into everlasting fire” (Matt 18:8) and giving testimony to a place where “the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48). It is the voice of the tender Savior who asked the Pharisees and scribes, “How can ye escape the damnation of hell (geenna)?” (Matt 23:33), and then wept over them (v.37). His warnings are not only “true and faithful” (Rev 3:14), but are tender and timely, for we all are travelers to eternity, and we dare not trifle with it. Obscure teaching on this subject, or half-hearted warnings are not kindness, but cruelty. It is the same kind of cruelty that would allow a child to drink deadly poison when it was in my power to stop it, or see a blind man stepping off a precipice to his death when I could have warned him. What if those who soften this teaching are wrong? The consequences are eternal loss, an irreversible mistake, a shock from which no victim will recover.
It is a great error to suppose that if a thing is true, I must be able to fully comprehend it, for our minds are not the court of final appeal. There are many things in the physical universe beyond the range of our personal experience, and therefore beyond our full comprehension. In the spiritual realm, the holy character of God transcends our highest thought, nor do we comprehend the infinite sufferings of our Savior upon the cross. We will never find in ourselves an untroubled acceptance of the horrors of eternal punishment, but its reality is not based on our feelings, but on the words of the One who was “declared to be the Son of God … by the resurrection from the dead” (Rom 1:4). We acknowledge His authority as our Lord; He said, “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away” (Matt 24:35), and we believe Him.
3. God is Good
Many times Christians have heard an unbeliever ask, “How can a God who is good send people to hell?” or “Would a good man put any of his children into a place of eternal fire?” Human goodness and “the goodness of God” are scarcely comparable. Even God’s goodness is holy and just, but the best of human goodness is “as filthy rags” (Isa 64:6). However, it is not “the goodness of God” that puts anyone in hell, and most certainly God will never put any of His children in eternal fire. Those who perish forever have rejected “the good news” of the gospel. The “goodness” of God was fully displayed in the giving of His Son and in the infinite sufferings of Golgotha’s darkness. Even at the cross, it can be said, “Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God” (Rom 11:22). For those who crucified Him the Savior prayed, “Father forgive them…” (Luke 23:34). Surely this was “the goodness of God”, but upon the holy Sufferer fell unmitigated judgment. For those who reject God’s goodness and His mercy which flow through one channel – the cross, there can only remain “His severity.”
4. The Meaning of Everlasting
In the Greek NT, “for ever and ever” is a translation of five words that literally mean “unto the ages of the ages”. Some have claimed that this is a finite length of time, therefore the fire is not eternal. If a student of Greek wished to translate “for ever and ever” into Greek, he would have to use the same words that are used in the NT, because the language has no other choices. But, there is a far stronger argument against making “for ever and ever” a limited period. This exact phrase is used 21 times in the NT. Eighteen times it refers to God’s eternal throne, His everlasting praise and His “glory for ever and ever.” Three times the same phrase is used to describe eternal punishment. It must mean the same thing in the second case as it does in the first unless there is contextual evidence for believing otherwise, and there is not. The third major point in this debate hat the Lord Jesus said on at least’s three occasions that “the fire never shall be quenched” and we know of no way to circumvent “never”.
Two other words in the NT are translated “eternal” (aionios) and “everlasting” (aidios). W.E. Vine quotes Cremer, “While aioniosnegatives the end either of a space of time or of unmeasured time, and is used chiefly where something future is spoken of; aidios excludes interruption and lays stress upon permanence and unchangeableness”. Aionios is used in such verses as “shall inherit eternal life” (Matt 19:29) and “Depart from Me ye cursed into everlasting fire” (Matt 25:41). In Romans 1:20, aidios is used of God’s “eternal power”. It is impossible to make a difference in the meaning of these words whether they refer to the Eternal God or the eternally lost.
In Jude 7, aionios is used of “eternal fire”, but this verse does not say, “They suffered,” but they are “suffering the vengeance of eternal fire.” In Revelation 20:10, two men that have been in “the lake of fire” are still there after 1000 years.
The doctrine of universalism, that all men will eventually be saved, has a great appeal. It takes various forms. Some believe that after a period of purgation, what the blood of Christ could not accomplish will be done by the purging fire. Purification by fire is Paganism. The Scripture appealed to as proof is, “By which (the Spirit) also He (Christ) went and preached unto the spirits in prison” (1 Pet 3:19). This preaching was not in hell, but was “when the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing.” It was by the Spirit of Christ that Noah preached (Gen 6:3). We must never interpret a difficult verse in contradiction of plain verses. When the door is shut the Lord will say, “Depart from Me ye cursed into everlasting fire” (Matt 25:41).
This theory has several forms. Some believe that in the day of judgment the wicked will be annihilated, and others believe that after a period of conscious punishment, they will be annihilated. The Scriptures appealed to are those which speak of the wicked being “destroyed” and “perishing”, and both qeber and sheol in the OT, as well as hades in the NT are said to be only the grave, which is impossible in the light of the Lord’s teaching in Luke 16:19-31. If Luke 16 is a parable, what is its meaning? The words “destroy” and “perish” are found about 92 times in NT and 80 of these times it is the translation of apolummi (to utterly destroy). We must ask, “Does apolummi mean the end of being or the end of well-being?” The Lord Jesus used it of the end of well-being in Luke 5:37; 15:46; 15:24. In His teaching, it is synonymous with the eternal, conscious suffering of the lost.
There is no repentance after death, so those upon whom God’s wrath will fall will blame God forever for their pains (Rev 16:11).
To all of this, the humble believer responds, “The Savior who suffered for my sins on the cross and in triumph arose from the dead is my Lord. He said that the fire never shall be quenched and I believe Him.”