Sortable Messages

Lesson 8 of 12 in a series on Man, Sin, and the Identity of Christ.

 

October 29, 2017

PUNISHMENT FOR SIN: IS HELL REALLY ETERNAL?
Systematic Theology 2
(8 of 12 in a series on Man, Sin, and the Identity of Christ)

The last time we gathered, we looked at sin and its consequences. Some of these consequences were immediate, like shame, guilt, and pain in childbearing. Some came over time, like physical death and the spread of corruption. But it wouldn’t be right for us to stop there because the Bible also notes that there is a serious consequence (a serious punishment) if we continue in our sin and never turn to Christ in faith in this life. That punishment is eternal hell.

Now, when I mention this, I doubt that many of us are thinking, “Man, I love this topic.” I don’t know how many of us get excited about hell. Part of that is understandable, as we consider judgment that should be ours were it not for Christ’s grace toward us, and it is overwhelming. Part of our reluctance to consider the nature of hell may also be that if hell is the only fitting punishment for rebelling against an infinitely glorious God, then just as we could not behold God in his glory and live, so we struggle to behold in its fullness the punishment of hell. It simply makes sense that if we can only go so far in contemplating the infinite holiness of God, so we cannot get our brains to comprehend fully the fitting punishment for rebelling against that God.

To try to set our hearts and minds on hell and its nature for a really long time without turning away to the gospel, the goodness of God, and his righteous character may simply be more than we can bear. However, that is no excuse not to recognize what the Bible teaches about hell or to deny it. Therefore, this morning, I want to make two points about hell this morning. They are: 1) God’s wrath is not some OT idea that passed away with the coming of Christ, and 2) hell is a place of eternal torment. Then, I want to think about some implications of these realities.

God’s wrath isn’t some OT idea that passed away with the coming of Christ

Now, I know that this one feels a bit obvious (I hope) to most of us. Of course, we might think to ourselves, God’s wrath didn’t go away with the coming of Christ. But I mention this for a couple of reasons. One of them is that there is a thought that goes along the lines of saying that the Old Testament presents a wrathful God and the New Testament a loving God. And I want to debunk that. Second, even if we don’t believe the above thought, we may be prone to missing just how strong God’s wrath is presented in the New Testament. After all, probably most of us feel that stories like Joshua and Judges are violent towards God’s enemies and think that’s a struggle to get through as we read the Bible, but I would argue that God’s wrath is actually presented in stronger terms in the New Testament.

Think, for example, of Revelation 14:20, where John writes, “And the winepress was trodden outside the city, and blood flowed from the winepress, as high as a horse’s bridle, for 1,600 stadia.” The image here is gruesome. Whereas one would normally put grapes in a winepress so that you could stand in there, trample the grapes under your feet, so that the juice would flow out of the winepress, the Lord here pictures putting his enemies in this wine press so that they might be trampled underfoot and their blood flow out the side. That, simply put, is no less severe than any Old Testament image of God’s righteous judgment, is it?

And Paul assures us in Romans 2:5 that every moment that passes without repenting and placing one’s faith in Christ, an individual is storing up wrath for himself or herself on the day of wrath. So, this picture of God’s wrath is severe and it is certain for everyone who does not believe.

Second, we also need to see that hell is eternal.

Hell is a place of eternal torment

Our statement of faith reads, concerning last things, “God, in His own time and in His own way, will bring the world to its appropriate end. According to His promise, Jesus Christ will return personally and visibly in glory to the earth; the dead will be raised; and Christ will judge all men in righteousness. The unrighteous will be consigned to Hell, the place of everlasting punishment. The righteous in their resurrected and glorified bodies will receive their reward and will dwell forever in Heaven with the Lord.”

But are we right to say hell is everlasting? Could this be something that is dreamed up by the church? No. It’s clearly the teaching of Scripture, and I know of no other way of showing this than simply looking at the Scripture itself. So, let’s now consider a number of texts:

Matthew 18:8 – “And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire.”

Matthew 25:46 – And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life." [Note here as well that “eternal punishment” is paralleled with “eternal life” so that if one wanted to dispute the everlasting nature of one he would have to do the same with the other.]

Matthew 25:41 - "Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.’”

2 Thes. 1:9 – “They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.”

Hebrews 6:1-2 – “Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.”

In addition to these texts, there are also many texts which include figurative expressions that makes clear that the punishment for sin is eternal.

Matthew 3:12 – “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.

Mark 9:43 – “And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.

Mark 9:43-48 – “And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, 'where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.'”

Rev. 14:9-11 – “And another angel, a third, followed them, saying with a loud voice, "If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink the wine of God's wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name."

Rev. 19:3 – “Once more they cried out, "Hallelujah! The smoke from her goes up forever and ever."

Rev. 20:9-10 – “And they marched up over the broad plain of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city, but fire came down from heaven and consumed them, and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.”

Therefore, it would seem that there would be no argument that there is an eternal punishment in a place called hell that is fitting for those who stand fast in their sin and scorn the Lord Jesus Christ. Not only are there outright statements that the punishment is eternal, but even the figurative expressions show the eternal nature of the punishment. However, there is indeed a challenge to eternal hell in our day, with many claiming that punishment is not eternal in nature.

Annihilationism?

One claim I want to take up this morning is a view called “Annihilationism.” This is the view that those outside of Christ are merely destroyed (annihilated) after this life and brought to non-existence (just like before they were born). Therefore, let’s look at the arguments for this view and try to answer them.

There are mainly two arguments used by those proposing an annihilationist view of punishment for sin. The first is that the Bible claims that the punishment for those in their sins at the judgment is not eternal suffering but eternal destruction. Thus, they would argue, if you take a bail of hay, for example, and burn it up completely, it is destroyed. And, it is not coming back. Therefore, how long will its destruction last? Well, since it’s not coming back, it’s an eternal punishment. That is the destruction is eternal in that it is never reversed. This is how some interpret texts concerning eternal destruction.

Second, they would argue that eternal punishment in a fiery hell is simply not consistent with the love and justice of God. They would point out that no one likes to dwell on eternal hell, and we are evil. How much less could a God who is good create such a place and consign those against him to eternal punishment?

Answers for the Annihilationist Arguments

First, to argue that “destruction” means to annihilate should first be answered that the text could indeed mean this. Sometimes to destroy could indeed mean to annihilate, causing something to cease to exist. But it doesn’t always mean that, does it? Consider, for example, 1 Corinthians 5:5, where Paul says to hand the individual over to Satan for the destruction of his flesh. In that verse, Paul envisions not the individual’s flesh ceasing to exist but being tormented so that he might turn in repentance.

Moreover, remember that text speak of eternal torment, something that cannot be experienced eternally if we’re destroyed:

Rev. 14:9-11 – “And another angel, a third, followed them, saying with a loud voice, "If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink the wine of God's wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name."

Rev. 20:9-10 – “And they marched up over the broad plain of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city, but fire came down from heaven and consumed them, and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.”

Also, if the punishment for those outside of Christ were simply to be destroyed or made non-existent, then it makes no sense for Jesus to warn that it would be better for someone not to have been born. For example, in Matthew 26:24, Jesus says, “The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.” But if annihilationism is true, then why would it have been better not to have been born? I mean, we all live our lives knowing we’re going to die, and if we thought that non-existence followed our lives, I don’t think it would be commonly agreed that it’s better not to ever be born.

Again, in Matthew 9:43-48, Jesus says, “And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, 'where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.'” Again, if hell is simply being destroyed so that we no longer exist, why is it better to live perhaps ninety years of life with one eye or one foot that to be destroyed? Annihiliationism just doesn’t square with these verses.

Finally, the argument that eternal hell is inconsistent with the love and justice of God simply cannot stand up when we gather from the Bible who God is. Yes, he is a God who abounds in mercy and steadfast love. The greatest sinner can know mercy, forgiveness, and grace if he or she will simply repent and believe. That’s the God of the Bible. But, the God of the Bible is also the God who flooded the world, destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, and on and on. So, to suggest that eternal punishment is out of step with who God is probably reveals that we haven’t taken in a full picture of who our God is as presented in the Bible.

So, what do we do with this teaching? Let me name a few things.

Application

1. The reality of eternal hell should lead us to remind others of the call to repent and believe in Christ.

There are so many things that can distract us from what is most important. There are so many good causes that we could be a part of. But if we, as a church, simply became a humanitarian mission, then we’d be failing to love our neighbors as ourselves. As Jesus asked, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?”

Also, this should push us not to lose sight of this topic when discussing life with our unbelieving neighbors, friends, and family. When discussing the tower in Siloam that fell and killed eighteen people, Jesus said to the unbelieving crowd to whom he was speaking, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:5).

So, I think eternal hell reminds us of the need to call others to repent and believe. At the end of the day man’s only hope is to hear the gospel, repent, and believe.

2. The reality of eternal hell should lead us to fight sin.

We can easily fall into a place where we think lightly of our sin, can’t we? Whether it’s being surrounded by a culture who walks in these things or simply a hardness in our hearts that comes from practicing sin ourselves, we can get to a point where we simply think of sin not as a bad thing that needs to be fought against in our lives. But the reality of eternal hell reminds us in a loud and clear way that sin is no laughing matter.

How does this work practically? Well, for the most part, we pursue holiness without the idea of fear of hell weighing on us. I think that should be standard for the believer. I don’t wake up on most days and think, “Man, I don’t want to go to hell, and therefore I’m not going to pursue adultery.” Rather, I wake up, delight in the Lord and the truths of the gospel, and then run from sin toward living in a way that honors my Father. That’s how I want to live each day. And I think that should be somewhat typical. When should a believer, then, think of hell and allow it to be a motivation toward holiness?

I think the answer is that we think of hell when we find ourselves eager to pursue sin. The reason why I say that is because of what the author of Hebrews says in Hebrews 4:1, “Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it.”

Do you see the exhortation to fear? Now, fear isn’t a constant in the believer’s life. But when we turn toward sin fear should enter our hearts. John Piper has used the illustration of a boy who goes into his back yard to play with a ball, having been told by his mom not to wander into the street. As the boy plays with the ball in the back yard, fear of the street should not be entering into his mind. He should be able to rejoice and enjoy the fun of this activity. But if the ball is knocked toward the street, and he begins to run in that direction, then fear of the street should seize his heart and cause him to stop in his tracks. So it is with the believer. For most of our lives fear of hell shouldn’t enter into our hearts. But if we begin to run toward sin, allow the fear of eternal hell to cause you to stop in your tracks and turn around.

3. Finally, don’t let the doctrine of eternal hell lead you to falsely think that you’re more loving, gracious, and compassionate than God.

This is simply a warning I want to give because I think we can be prone to doing this very thing. Some of us can be tempted to think that because we don’t want anyone to go to hell, and God is going to cast people into hell, therefore, we may well be more loving and compassionate than God. Now, I don’t think we actually say that, but that’s what the sum of our thoughts demand when we think that God is wrong to send people to hell or struggle to believe he’s good in doing so.

Interestingly we get a glimpse of people who have died and are with the Lord in Revelation 6:9-10, and here’s what we read, “When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with the loud voice, ‘O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?’”

Now, what that tells me is that if we could see as clearly as the Lord sees this world, then our struggle wouldn’t be with why God casts people into hell but why he is so patient before doing so. And the answer is that he is simply more merciful, compassion, loving, kind, gracious, etc. than we are. Jesus himself self that we are evil and our Father is good. Let’s believe him. And let’s worship our great, holy, and gracious God.