My past few posts have discussed hell:

John MacArthur on hell

Hell on low — or no — heat (20th century history)

Christian views on hell: moving back to Origen

J C Ryle on hell (19th century, first Anglican Bishop of Liverpool)

The second one in the series has several quotes from 20th and 21st century pastors and theologians who have downplayed hell and questioned eternal punishment in the life to come.

One of my readers, Brad Grierson, who kindly reblogged the aforementioned post on Origen, commented:

I think Hell often gets downplayed because it is so difficult to imagine. The mind cannot rightly comprehend an eternity of suffering so it comes up with ideas that are more familiar to it such as a temporal prison sentence or that it simply doesn’t exist at all. In a way, this is how heresy springs up: we cannot fully comprehend so we make it something we can comprehend.

That is very true. Oddly, sinful man has no difficulty imagining heaven as being both beautiful and eternal. Yet, when it comes to divine and just punishment, suddenly, many of us consider that unthinkable.

It is impossible to comprehend God. And, because we cannot comprehend His plan and His ways, we cannot comprehend how offensive our sins against Him actually are.

John MacArthur’s Grace To You ministry team posted an excellent three-part series on God and hell in 2011, when Rob Bell‘s Love Wins came out. Excerpts follow, emphases mine.

I hope you will be encouraged to read all three articles in full.

God’s offence at our sin

Tommy Clayton wrote ‘Is God a Monster?’ in which he explains God’s view of sin.

Clayton was not always a Christian. He used to find divine judgment in the Bible unfair, extreme and arbitrary.

The Bible has several examples of people who died because they disobeyed God. Most of these are in the Old Testament, but the New Testament also has one case (not included in the three-year Lectionary, incidentally):

Lot’s wife. God turned her into a pillar of salt as she was leaving Sodom. Her crime? A backward glance (Genesis 19:26) …

  • Nadab and Abihu deviated from the priestly procedures. God consumed them with fire (Leviticus 10:1-2).
  • One man gathered wood on the Sabbath. God commanded Moses to stone him (Numbers 15:35).
  • Achan took a few forbidden items from the spoils of Jericho. God commanded Joshua to stone and then burn Achan along with his entire family (Joshua 7:24-25).
  • Uzzah kept the ark of God from falling into the mud by reaching out his hand and taking hold of it. God immediately struck him dead (2 Samuel 6:6-7).
  • Ananias and Sapphira lied to the apostles. God killed them both in front of the entire church. (Acts 5:1-10).

If we find ourselves asking if God is a monster, Clayton exhorts us to consider our imperfect and sinful lack of comprehension:

Our flesh wants to cry out in protest, “That’s not fair!” But responses like that reveal our failure to grasp the depth of sin. We see only actions—a devoted father gathering firewood to keep his family warm; a zealous Israelite anxious to keep the Ark of God off the ground—but God sees things differently, more clearly, than we do. He sees our sin as insurrection, rebellion against His holiness (Exodus 31:14; Numbers 4:15). What’s more, He sees the hidden motives and intentions at the core of our actions (Matthew 5:28; Hebrews 4:12) …

The Bible describes our sin as “rebellion,” “ungodliness,” “lawlessness,” “wickedness,” and an “abomination” (Leviticus 26:27; Isaiah 32:6; 1 John 3:4; Ezekiel 18:27; Proverbs 15:9). Sinners then, are traitors, refusing to love, thank, serve, and obey the God who gave them life, breath, and every good thing.

Sinners spurn God’s love, despise His sovereignty, mock His justice, and view His commands with contempt. They are thieves and murderers, stealing God’s glory and assaulting His holiness. In fact, as Martin Luther once remarked, if sinners had their way, they would dethrone and murder God, which is exactly what they did at Calvary (Acts 2:23). Viewed through the lens of Scripture, sin appears exceedingly sinful (Romans 7:13).

Clayton makes an excellent point about humanity’s anger with God when they should be angry with themselves over repeatedly offending Him:

I find it ironic that those who protest the idea of eternal, conscious torment deride the doctrine with words like, “cruel,” “morally revolting,” “monstrous,” and “repugnant.” Why don’t they employ the same terms of outrage to describe sin? Simple: they fail to see as God sees. God finds our sin “cruel,” “morally revolting,” “monstrous,” and “repugnant,” and He’s absolutely right. If we can’t see our sin as God sees it, it stands to reason that we don’t see the just judgment of hell like He sees it either. We’re just going to have to trust Him.

He concludes:

We’ve all assaulted God (Romans 3:23), and we all deserve hell. Reject Christ, and hell is exactly what you’ll get. God will rise up in judgment and cast all unbelievers into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:14), and all creation will praise His justice. To accuse God of injustice for sentencing sinners to hell is the height of arrogance and audacity.

Yes, God’s judgment is unbearable, but it is never unjust (Genesis 4:13). And that is why “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31).

This reminds me of an atheist who said to me several years ago, ‘Hell doesn’t apply to me, because I don’t believe. Hell is your thing, not mine.’

Hmm. We’ll see. One must pray for such people that divine grace imbues their hearts and minds.

Annihilation or temporary punishment

In contemplating the eternity of hell for any length of time, one can understand how the Catholic Church devised their unbiblical doctrine of purgatory and all the short little prayers that one could say which are said to reduce the time therein.

Among Evangelical Protestants, the notions of annihilation and temporary punishment are not uncommon. In ‘Is Hell Really Endless?’ Travis Allen takes proponents of both errors to task for misinterpreting — either accidentally or deliberately — the word ‘eternal’ in Scripture.

One view of hell that seems to be making a strong resurgence today among evangelicals is Annihilationism. There are slight variations, but it essentially teaches God will eventually snuff every unbeliever out of existence. Some Annihilationists make room for divine wrath, but they don’t allow it to extend beyond the lake of fire. In other words, they won’t allow God the full force of His judgment, which is eternal, conscious torment. For them, the lake of fire is what completely consumes and finally destroys sinners. Whether they see death as the end, or whether they see hell’s torments as limited in duration, the result is the same—a denial of the endlessness of hell.

For no good exegetical reason, some Annihilationists have understood the word “eternal” to refer, not to a duration of time, but to the quality of God’s judgment. It’s eternal in quality, even though it has an end. Other Annihilationists say “eternal” refers to the effect of divine judgment. That is to say, God’s judgment results in death—as in extinction, annihilation—which is a state of non-being that lasts eternally.

If you’re having a hard time bending your mind around that, you’re not alone. It’s hard to conceive of a sinner experiencing an eternal quality of judgment without it lasting forever. Matthew 25:46 clearly teaches that the duration of punishment and life are alike, both eternal.

Allen cites John MacArthur’s explanation of the word ‘eternal’:

Punishment in hell is defined by the word aionios, which is the word eternal or everlasting. There are people who would like to redefine that word aionios and say, “Well, it doesn’t really mean forever.” But if you do that with hell, you’ve just done it with heaven, because the same word is used to describe both. If there is not an everlasting hell, then there is not an everlasting heaven. And I’ll go one beyond that. The same word is used to describe God. And so if there is not an everlasting hell, then there is not an everlasting heaven, nor is there an everlasting God. It is clear that God is eternal; and, therefore, that heaven is eternal, and so is hell. (John MacArthur, “A Testimony of One Surprised to Be in Hell, Part 2”)

Allen also quotes St Augustine of Hippo who wrote:

To say that life eternal shall be endless, [but that] punishment eternal shall come to an end is the height of absurdity.

We understand our temporal laws easily. Being found guilty of breaking the law sometimes carries with it a custodial sentence which has an end. However, a sentence to hell from God has no end:

the nature of the infraction is measured against the nature of God who is holy and eternal. Likewise, God, who is perfect in righteousness, determines the justice an infraction demands. According to His Word, the punishment for an offense against a holy God is everlasting torment in hell.

Ultimately:

In an uncomfortably poignant and penetrating way, the doctrine of eternal hell confronts our loyalty, reveals our true authority, and demands that we set aside what seems reasonable to us and trust in the righteous judgment of a holy God. When we embrace the hard doctrines of the Bible, it becomes one of the most significant evidences of true, God-given faith.

He concludes:

I hope the doctrine of eternal torment sobers you. May it fill you with praise to God for saving you from eternal punishment, for giving you eternal life instead. May it humble you when you realize you’re not getting what you deserve. And may it ignite in you a passion to proclaim the gospel to those poor souls who are unaware of the terror that awaits them outside the mercy of God.

Again, I cannot help but think of the atheist I spoke to several years ago.

Let’s not downplay hell

Tommy Clayton wrote the last article in the series, ‘The Severity of Hell’.

He began with a quotation from the famous 19th century Baptist preacher from London, Charles Haddon Spurgeon:

Shun all views of future punishment that would make it appear less terrible.

The rot was already setting in back then.

Clayton warns:

Modern views of hell won’t survive the test of biblical fidelity. They’ll allow the sinner to feel more comfortable and complacent by defanging God, making Him appear less severe.

He cites the Evangelical professor and theologian Wayne Grudem who associates an unscriptural belief about hell with a lack of belief in the validity of Scripture and, in the end, shaky faith:

The doctrine of eternal conscious punishment . . . tends to be one of the first doctrines given up by people who are moving away from a commitment to the Bible as absolutely truthful  [. . .]. Among liberal theologians who do not accept the absolute truthfulness of the Bible, there is probably no one today who believes in the doctrine of eternal conscious punishment. (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology)

Jesus never presented hell lightly, nor did anyone in the Bible. Clayton reminds us:

Whenever Jesus described hell, He was never flippant or dismissive. He used vivid, terrifying terms to describe the final destination of sinners, shocking and scaring His audiences with frighteningly graphic metaphors. Hell is a place so bad that you should be willing to cut off sensitive, irreplaceable parts of your body to avoid it (Matthew 5:29-30); even martyrdom would be worth avoiding the torment of hell (Matthew 10:28). He always presented hell as a horrific place of intolerable suffering.

His descriptions are consistent with other biblical writers. Daniel referred to hell as a place of shame and everlasting contempt (Daniel 12:2). Paul called it a place of endless destruction and punishment (2 Thessalonians 1:5-10). Jude called hell a place of eternal fire and darkness (Jude 7). The Apostle John described hell as a place where sinners suffer everlasting torment, with no rest day or night (Revelation 14:9-11).

Taken together, all those descriptions of hell communicate pain, fear, loss, anger, separation, and hopelessness. It’s utter agony, eternal torment.

John Calvin explained:

By such expressions, the Holy Spirit certainly intended to confound all our senses with dread.

Some agnostics and unbelievers say they would rather be in hell so they can be with a close relative or best friend who predeceased them. However, that is a flawed, human way of viewing eternal punishment.

God does not allow any succour in hell. Those thinking they will be near their loved ones there will actually be very far away from them — forever.

Clayton cites John MacArthur:

This is a reminder to all sinners that while hell is the full fury of God’s personal punishment presence, He will never be there to comfort. He will never be there to show sympathy. He will never bring relief. [. . .] it is both the punishment of God and the absence of comfort. [. . .] That’s hell—punishment without relief (“The King Crucified: Consummation at Calvary”)

And the Puritan Thomas Vincent:

Not only will the unbeliever be in hell, but hell will be in him too.

The people ending up in hell will only be concerned with their own remorse and continuous torment, not with anyone else’s. Hell implies the absence of all things godly, which include love and compassion.

Please ensure that you understand the full import of hell. No one preaches on it anymore, so it requires independent study.

I’ve only heard one fire and brimstone sermon and that was by an elderly Catholic priest, a weekend guest in our parish, in 1972. He wore pre-Vatican II vestments, preached for 20 minutes and said most of the things that Grace To You elders have said above.

To say that hell is the absence of God alone makes eternal punishment appear metaphysical. It sells God’s justice and sovereignty short.

Posts later this week will give us a more human appreciation of the horrors of hell.

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