ETERNAL PUNISHMENT-FACT OR FICTION?
When is the last time you heard a sermon on the eternal punishment of the ungodly? Such a theme does not jell well within a seeker-friendly church setting, nor lend itself toward mega church planting. Many evangelicals consider that it is better to be silent than to offend. In fact, preaching on the wrath of God is considered downright disgusting to many evangelicals who are inoculated with varying doses of the current post-modern thinking and theology. So, the plea is widely accepted that the loving Lord Jesus could never condemn anyone to an everlasting conscious punishment due to sins committed. Has the so-called evangelical of today lost the will to be clear about its beliefs and to articulate the truths of the divinely inspired Scriptures? It is time for the Church to consider seriously the path it has taken and return to orthodoxy.
God Is Not Delighted
Before proceeding further on this grim and terror-invoking theme, let us understand that God - whether we are considering God the Father, God the Son, or God the Holy Spirit - takes no delight in casting even one sinner into hell. In the Old Testament, God spoke to His prophet Ezekiel, "As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that they turn from their ways and live" (Ezek. 33:11). The prophet was commissioned to be God's watchman to warn the disobedient to seek the Lord and be saved from God's righteous judgment.
The Lord Jesus pled with His hearers to take radical action against parts of their own physical bodies (their hands, feet or eyes) should they, through sinning, exclude the hearers from eternal life and the kingdom of God. "It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands... two feet... two eyes and be thrown into hell, where 'their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched'" (Mk. 9:43-48). Jesus' own words in the gospels reflect His understanding that hell is real, awful, eternal and to be avoided at all costs.
The Holy Spirit, through Peter, reminds the churches, "The Lord is not slow in keeping His promises, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance" (2 Pet. 3:9). An explanation for the delay of the culmination of the ages through the second coming of Jesus Christ is found in the character of a merciful God. Although the wickedness of humankind calls for immediate action, God withholds His righteous wrath and delays judgement. God's righteous judgment against sin, demonstrated finally by His wrath in casting the disobedient into conscious, eternal punishment, is sure and certain; yet this does not give Him any delight.
Hell Is No Joke
There is a human tendency to joke about the things which frighten many of us. Hell is one of those 'things.' Whenever we turn 'hell' into a common curse word, we are treating it in an amusingly light way, hoping this will defang or reduce its threatening power over us. Hell-fire preachers are ridiculed as sadists totally out of step with decent human sensitivity. Common cartoons display the red-dressed devil gleefully holding helpless humans over an open pit with his pitchfork. Although some of these impressions originated in the Dark Ages, its propagation these days suggests that hell is merely the imagination of unenlightened men. No matter how we might want to dismiss hell as trivial and inconsequential, we cannot escape its dire reality.
Jesus not only believed in hell, He also taught that hell is an actual destiny of human souls, that must be avoided at all costs. Consider our Lord's descriptions: "eternal fire" (Matt. 18:8), "darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matt. 25:30), "He will . . . assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matt. 24:51), "Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels" (Matt. 25:41), "then they (the ungodly) will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life" (Matt. 25:46), "where 'their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched'" (Mk. 9:48). As recorded in the gospels, our Lord spoke more about the flames of hell than the joy of heaven. Jesus wants us to know that hell is indeed so terrible that no one should choose that as his eternal destiny.
When Jesus gave the account of two men - one an unnamed rich and self-living man, and the other named Lazarus, a poor beggar - He was speaking as the omniscient God of eternity who saw the final destiny of mankind (Lk. 16:19-31). The realities of everlasting bliss and everlasting torment after death are affirmed by the Lord. The account reveals a series of vital truths that assist us in understanding the horrors of hell and eternal punishment. (1) There is immediate consciousness after death; soul sleep is not taught in the Bible. (2) Post-death destinies are irreversible; there is no purgatory or second chance of salvation after death. (3) No one can lose or gain salvation after death. The decisions of this life are final and determinative. (4) The judgments that determine the eternal destinies of either torment or blessing are just. (5) Signs should never be sought as a substitute for the Word of God. The Scriptures are the only adequate basis for faith.
Just An Ancient Refuse Dump?
As the biblical presentations of eternal punishment and hell are so dreadfully awful, it is natural that many should seek to diminish its effect. Some strongly suggest that when Jesus spoke of an unending fire of torment, he was referring to the refuse dump outside Jerusalem. The common Greek word used in the speech of Jesus in the gospels is 'geenna' (transliterated as 'Gehenna') and translated into English as 'hell.' This word is used in Matthew 5:22, 29, 30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Mark 9:43, 45, 47; and Luke 12:5.
Gehenna's name is derived from a valley south of Jerusalem, called the Valley of Ben Hinnon in the Old Testament. The history of this valley is detestable. Here the idolatrous Ammonites sacrificed their sons in fire to their god Molech. Later, King Ahaz of Israel made idols, burnt incense and offered his sons in the same valley to the Baals (2 Chro. 28:1-3). Likewise, King Manasseh of Judah sacrificed his sons there as an offering (2 Chro. 33:6). Is it any wonder that God was angry with his ancient people!
During the time of reforms under godly King Josiah of Judah, all the pagan practices were stopped and the places of detestable pagan worship were destroyed in and around Jerusalem. This included the worship to Molech in the Valley of Ben Hinnon (2 Kgs. 23:4-20). Later, wicked King Jehoiakim revived the detestable practice of sacrificing children in this valley. Jeremiah prophesied that this Valley of Ben Hinnon will become the Valley of Slaughter (Jer. 7:32), indicating the massacre of many during Nebuchadnezzar's invasion of Jerusalem.
After the Babylonian Captivity, when many Jews returned and resettled in Jerusalem, this valley became known as Gehenna. Among the rabbis it was recognised as a symbol of divine prophetic judgment against evil doers. Instead of being a shrine of worship, this valley was turned into the city dump where refuse, the carcasses of dead animals and the bodies of hideous criminals were thrown and burned. It is uncertain, but possible, that Gehenna was being used for burning refuse at Jesus' time. His hearers were well aware of the rabbinical symbolic teaching regarding this place. Possibly, Gehenna and its frightening descriptions, as spoken by Jesus, was a symbol. Keeping in mind that the function of a symbol is to point beyond itself to a higher or more intense state of actuality than the symbol itself, that makes hell the most horrific experience anyone could possibly undergo. God wants no one to spend eternity in hell.
Just as the one who came from heaven (the Lord Jesus) is the only person who can adequately describe what heaven is like, so only the Lord Jesus, the divine Creator, can describe in detail what hell is like. Hell is not a refuse dump. Yet, by means of that refuse dump, Jesus is enunciating the torment and never-ending punishment of God's wrath upon the wicked.
Since the wrath of God against the wicked is so awful, it is only natural that many Christian writers and preachers have tried to eliminate it altogether, or in some way or the other, to lessen its effect so that it is not what the words of Scripture describe it to be. For instance, it is argued, Jesus must have been confining His remarks only to His own generation who rejected Him - it does not touch any others. Or, hell is real and the fire is real and the wicked will be cast into hell, BUT the fire burns up the ungodly so that they will be put out of existence. This is the popular conditional or annihilationistic view. Also, it is argued by some, that the gospel writers superimposed pagan Greek ideas of punishment upon Jesus, making Him appear heartless and vindictive. The Greek word 'hades' (used in Luke 10:15 and Luke16:23) is of Greek mythological origin. While Hades was the proper name of the god of the underworld, the Greek word 'hades' as used among Jewish scholars, long before the time of Jesus, meant the abode of punishment for the wicked.
Readers must keep in mind that the issue at stake is not whether hell is, or is not, as Jesus described it. The issue is the inerrancy of the Scriptures. If hell in Scripture can somehow become air conditioned so that its sting is removed, the same can be done with sin, judgment, forgiveness and all other foundational Christian truths. The Church cannot afford itself the luxury of picking and choosing which biblical teachings it wants to preserve and emphasise, and which to cast aside. The biblical teaching on hell is part and parcel of the Christian message. It cannot be discarded without causing the rest of the message to unravel.
Insight Into Eternal Death
Several of the above references quote Jesus as describing God's wrath upon unbelievers and disobedient as 'eternal fire' (Matt. 18:8), 'eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels' (Matt. 25:41) and 'eternal punishment' (Matt. 25:46). In the latter text, the ungodly go into eternal punishment while the righteous enter into eternal life. Jesus used the same word 'eternal' (Greek - aionios) to describe salvation and condemnation. If believers will be in heaven with God forever, the lost will be in hell with the devil forever. The same One who taught eternal life taught eternal punishment. Since the same word for 'eternal' is used to describe each, it is inconsistent to accept one without the other. Honest advocates of biblical truth must either acknowledge the endless conscious wretchedness of hell or renounce the endless delights of heaven.
Looking ahead to the glorious coming again of the Lord Jesus, the Apostle Paul emphasises part of God's action. "He (God) will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the Gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power" (2 Thess. 1:8-9). How terrible it will be for the ungodly! The eternal nature of eternal punishment can be summed up as: (1) eternal separation from God and from all the goodness of His person; (2) eternal association with the devil and his agents; (3) eternal isolation where there will be no fellowship or encouragement; (4) eternal misery from which there is no relief.
While separation from God may not seem to be a threat to impenitent sinners who have enjoyed rebelling against God, they must reckon with the fact that the fullness of God's wrath will be their portion. They cannot run from God, but they will meet Him - not as a loving and merciful Saviour, but as the righteous and holy judge.
Preaching On Hell
Hell-fire preachers who only stress the wrath of God and hell are religious monomaniacs. This is their only theme. This kind of preaching is unacceptable as it lacks biblical balance. While stating this, we must not assume that 'balanced preaching' on hell is so qualified and hedged about that nothing is clearly presented. Instead, 'balanced preaching' takes the whole of Scripture into account, emphasising the character of God. The greatness of God is more than His love and mercy. While God is full of glory, wisdom, sovereignty, goodness, grace, mercy and love, He also is full of wrath. Wickedness is an offence against the holiness of God and merits eternal banishment from His goodness.
Jesus spoke to warn men and women so that they might flee to Him from the wrath to come. A truly biblical preacher, likewise, is careful to declare the whole counsel of God so that all may be aware that rejection of God's grace in Jesus Christ warrants eternal separation, but believing in the Lord Jesus merits eternal life.