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Thomas Boston (1676-1732) spent most of his life in the Scottish Borders in ministry.
His parents were Covenanters, meaning that they bound themselves in various covenants to ensure Presbyterianism was the only Christianity practised in Scotland. In the 16th century, these men and women resisted the return of Roman Catholicism and, in the 17th century, the religious reform from the Anglicans in England.
Boston earned a degree in Arts from Edinburgh University and, for a short time, was a schoolmaster. He spent one term at theological college before being assigned to active ministry, which he began in 1697.
He spent much of his spare time educating himself and was well known for his knowledge of Hebrew. Jonathan Edwards considered Boston:
a truly great divine.
He also wrote several books and shorter works about Christianity and human nature. In 1704, having read a controversial book called The Marrow of Modern Divinity, he became a Marrowman, which meant that he emphasised the doctrine of grace and the free offer of the Gospel. The book is a collection of dialogues from Reformation divines on the nature of Christ’s atonement and was a middle way of Christian practice, intended to guide believers from antinomianism (disregard for the Law) without embracing legalism.
The legalistic Calvinist hierarchy of the day disapproved of this perspective, yet it proved very popular among Scottish congregations. Indeed, the Marrowmen were effective, heartfelt preachers. Boston himself revived the church in Ettrick, where he ministered for 25 years. When he arrived in 1707, the number of members was around 60. By the time he retired, there were 777.
Boston not only preached in church, he had an active ministry at home, where he regularly held classes for his congregation.
Despite family deaths which touched him to the core, his wife Catherine was his loving companion and source of emotional support.
Boston’s written works had a profound effect not only on his congregation, but many poor, hard-working Scots.
One of his essays is entitled, simply, ‘Hell’. It describes the certainty, the nature and the eternity of it.
Excerpts and summaries follow, emphases mine (except for the first line, the titles and subtitles).
He introduces his essay with:
Then He shall say unto those on the left hand, “Depart from me, you cursed ones, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels!” Matthew 25:41
and reminds us in the Introduction that:
The last thing which our Lord did, before He left the earth, was, ‘He lifted up his hands, and blessed his disciples’ (Luke, 24:50,51). But the last thing He will do, before He leaves the throne, is to curse and condemn His enemies; as we learn from the text which contains the dreadful sentence wherein the everlasting misery of the wicked is declared.
He then summarises the body of the essay before examining the doctrine of hell.
DOCTRINE– THE WICKED SHALL BE SHUT UP UNDER THE CURSE OF GOD, IN EVERLASTING MISERY, WITH THE DEVILS IN HELL!
In this section, Boston discusses the ‘curse’ of the ‘damned’, their misery, their society and their eternity.
I. THE “CURSE” UNDER WHICH THE DAMMED SHALL BE SHUT UP IN HELL–
By nature all men are under the curse. But it is removed from the elect by virtue of their union with Christ. It abides on the rest of sinful mankind, and by it they are devoted to destruction, and separated to evil …
As in heaven grace comes to its perfection, so in hell sin arrives at its highest pitch; and as sin is thus advancing upon the man, he is the nearer and likelier to hell.
There are three things that have a fearful aspect here–
1. When everything that might do good to men’s souls, is blasted to them; so that their blessings are cursed– sermons, prayers, admonitions, and reproofs, which are powerful towards others, are quite ineffectual to them.
2. When men go on in sinning still, in the face of plain rebukes from the Lord, in ordinances and providences. God meets them with rods in the way of their sin, as it were striking them back; yet they rush forward. What can be more like hell, where the Lord is always smiting and the damned always sinning against Him?
3. When everything in one’s lot is turned into fuel for one’s lusts. Thus, adversity and prosperity, poverty and wealth, the lack of ordinances and the enjoyment of them, do all but nourish the corruptions of many. Their vicious stomachs corrupt whatever they receive, and all does but increase noxious humors.
But the full harvest follows, in that misery which they shall forever lie under in hell; that wrath which, by virtue of the curse, shall come upon them to the uttermost– which is the curse fully executed. This black cloud opens upon them, and the terrible thunderbolt strikes them, by that dreadful voice from the throne, ‘Depart from me, you cursed’, which will give the whole wicked world a dismal view of what is in the bosom of the curse …
II. THE MISERY OF THE DAMNED, under that curse–
It is a misery which the tongues of men and angels cannot sufficiently express. God always acts like Himself– as no favors can be compared to His, so also His wrath and terrors are without a parallel.
As the saints in heaven are advanced to the highest pitch of happiness, so the damned in hell arrive at the height of misery.
Two things here I shall soberly inquire into– the punishment of ‘loss’, and the punishment of ‘sense’, in hell. But since these also are such things as eye has not seen, nor ear heard, we must, as geographers do, leave a large void for the unknown land, which that day will discover.
A. THE PUNISHMENT OF ‘LOSS’ WHICH THE DAMNED SHALL UNDERGO IS SEPARATION FROM THE LORD. ‘Depart from me, you cursed.’ This will be a stone upon their grave’s mouth, as ‘the talent of lead’ (Zech 5:7,8), that will hold them down forever …
They cannot indeed be locally separated from God, they cannot be in a place where He is not; since He is, and will be present everywhere– ‘If I make my bed in hell,’ says the psalmist, ‘behold you are there’ (Psalm 139:8). But they shall be miserable beyond expression, in a ‘relative’ separation from God. Though He will be present in the very center of their souls, (if I may so express it), while they are wrapped up in fiery flames, in utter darkness– it shall only be to feed them with the vinegar of His wrath, and to punish them with the emanations of His revenging justice.
1. This separation will be AN INVOLUNTARY SEPARATION. ‘Now’ they depart from Him. They will not come to Him, though they are called and entreated to come.
But ‘then’ they shall be driven away from Him, when they would gladly abide with Him …
2. IT WILL BE A TOTAL AND UTTER SEPARATION. Though the wicked are, in this life, separated from God, yet there is a kind of interchange between them– He gives them many good gifts, and they give Him, at least, some good words; so that the peace is not altogether hopeless.
But ‘then’ there shall be a total separation, the damned being cast into utter darkness, where there will not be the least gleam of light or favor from the Lord; which will put an end to all their fair words to Him.
3. IT WILL BE A FINAL SEPARATION. They will part with Him, never more to meet, being shut up under everlasting horror and despair. The match between Jesus Christ and unbelievers, which has so often been carried forward, and put back again, shall then be broken up forever; and never shall one message of favor or goodwill go between the parties anymore.
This punishment of loss, in a total and final separation from God, is a misery beyond what mortals can conceive, and which the dreadful experience of the damned can only sufficiently unfold …
Wherefore, a total separation from God, wherein all comfortable communication between God and a rational creature is absolutely blocked up, must of necessity bring along with it a total eclipse of all light of comfort and ease whatever. If there is but one window, or open place, in a house, and that be totally shut up, it is evident there can be nothing but darkness in that house …
All joy goes, and unmixed sorrow settles in them. All quiet and rest separate from them and they are filled with horror and rage. Hope flies away, and despair seizes them. Common operations of the Spirit, which now restrain them, are withdrawn forever, and sin comes to its utmost height. Thus we have a dismal view of the horrible spectacle of sin and misery, which a creature proves when totally separated from God and left to itself; and we may see this separation from God to be the very hell of hell.
Being separated from God, they are deprived of all good. The good things which they set their hearts upon in this world are beyond their reach there. The covetous man cannot enjoy his wealth there; nor the ambitious man his honors; nor the sensual man his pleasures– no, not a drop of water to cool his tongue (Luke 16:24,25).
No food or drink there to strengthen the faint; no sleep to refresh the weary– and no music, or pleasant company, to comfort and cheer up the sorrowful. And as for those holy things they despised in the world, they shall never more hear of them, nor see them.
No offer of Christ there, no pardon, no peace; no wells of salvation in the pit of destruction. In one word, they shall be deprived of whatever might comfort them, being totally and finally separated from God, the fountain of all goodness and comfort.
(3) Man naturally desires to be happy, being conscious to himself that be is not self-sufficient. He forever has a desire of something outside of himself, to make him happy; and the soul being, by its natural make and constitution, capable of enjoying God, and nothing else being commensurable to its desires, it can never have true and solid rest until it rests in the enjoyment of God. This desire of happiness the rational creature can never lay aside, no, not even in hell …
So the doors of earth and heaven both are shut against them at once. This will create them unspeakable anguish, while they shall live under an eternal gnawing hunger after happiness, which they certainly know shall never be in the least measure satisfied, all doors being closed on them.
(4) The damned shall know that some are perfectly happy, in the enjoyment of that God from whom they themselves are separated; and this will aggravate the sense of their loss– that they can never have any share with those happy ones …
It is the opinion of some, that every person in heaven or hell shall hear and see all that passes in either state. Whatever is to be said for this, we have ground from the Word to conclude that the damned shall have a very accurate knowledge of the happiness of the saints in heaven; for what else can be meant of the rich man in hell seeing Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom? …
It would be a mighty torment to a hungry man, to see others liberally feasting, while he is so chained up as not to have one crumb to stop his gnawing appetite …
(5) They will remember that time was when they might have been made partakers of the blessed company of saints, in their enjoyment of God– and this will aggravate their sense of the loss. All will remember that there was once a possibility of it; that they were once in the world, in some corners of which the way of salvation was laid open to men’s view– and may wish they had gone round the world, until they had found it out.
Despisers of the Gospel will remember, with bitterness, that Jesus Christ, with all His benefits, was offered to them– that they were exhorted, entreated, and pressed to accept, but would not; and that they were warned of the misery they now feel, and exhorted to flee from the wrath to come, but they would not hearken.
The Gospel offer slighted will make a hot hell, and the loss of an offered heaven, will be a sinking weight on the spirits of unbelievers in the pit …
Others will remember that they thought themselves sure of heaven, but, being blinded with pride and self-conceit, they were above ordinances, and beyond instruction, and would not examine their state– which was their ruin. But then they will in vain wish that they had reputed themselves the worst of the congregation, and curse the fond conceit they had of themselves, and that others had of them too …
(6) They will see the loss to be irrecoverable– that they must eternally lie under it, never, never to be repaired.
Might the damned, after millions of ages in hell, regain what they have lost, it would be some ground of hope; but the prize is gone, and never can be recovered …
B. THE DAMNED SHALL BE PUNISHED IN HELL WITH THE PUNISHMENT OF ‘SENSE’ AS THEY MUST DEPART FROM GOD INTO EVERLASTING FIRE.
I am not disposed to dispute what kind of fire it is into which they shall depart, to be tormented forever, whether a material fire or not. Experience will more than satisfy the curiosity of those who are disposed rather to dispute about it, than to seek how to escape it.
Neither will I meddle with the question, Where is it? It is enough that the worm that never dies, and the fire that is never quenched, will be found somewhere by impenitent sinners.
1. But, first, I shall prove that, whatever kind of fire it is– it is more vehement and terrible than any fire we on earth are acquainted with …
(a) As in heaven, grace being brought to its perfection, profit and pleasure also arrive at their height there. So sin, being come to its height in hell, the punishment of evil also arrives at its perfection there …
(b) Why are the things of another world represented to us in an earthly dress, in the Word, but because the weakness of our capacities in such matters, which the Lord is pleased to condescend unto, requires it. It being always supposed, that the things of the other world are in their kind more perfect than those by which they are represented.
When heaven is represented to us under the notion of a city, with gates of pearl and the street of gold, we do not expect to find gold and pearls there, which are so mightily prized on earth, but something more excellent than the finest and most precious things in this world.
When therefore, we hear of hell-fire, it is necessary we understand by it something more vehement, piercing, and tormenting, than any fire ever seen by our eyes.
And here it is worth considering, that the torments of hell are held forth under several other notions than that of fire alone. And the reason of it is plain– namely, that hereby what of horror is lacking in one notion of hell, is supplied by another …
Therefore, we hear also of ‘the second death’, for the damned in hell shall be ever dying …
(c) Our fire cannot affect a spirit, but by way of sympathy with the body to which it is united. But hell-fire will not only pierce into the bodies, but also go directly into the souls of the damned, for it is ‘prepared for the devil and his angels,’ those wicked spirits, whom no fire on earth can hurt …
(d) The preparation of this fire proves the inexpressible vehemency and dreadfulness of it. The text calls it, ‘prepared’ yes, ‘the prepared fire,’ by way of eminence.
As the three children were not cast into ordinary fire [Daniel 3], but a fire prepared for a particular purpose which therefore was exceeding hot, the furnace being heated seven times more than ordinary, so the damned shall find in hell a prepared fire, the like to which was never prepared by human are …
2. As to the second point proposed, namely, the properties of the fiery torments in hell–
(a) They will be universal torments, every part of the creature being tormented in that flame. When one is cast into a fiery furnace, the fire makes its way into the very heart, and leaves no member untouched.
What part, then, can have ease, when the damned ‘swim’ in a lake of fire, burning with brimstone? There will their bodies be tormented and scorched forever …
Hence, no pleasant affection shall ever spring up in their hearts any more; their love of comfort, joy, and delight, in any object whatever, shall be plucked up by the root. They will be filled with hatred, fury, and rage against God, themselves, and their fellow-creatures, whether happy in heaven, or miserable in hell, as they themselves are.
They will be sunk in sorrow, racked with anxiety, filled with horror, galled to the heart with fretting, and continually darted with despair– which will make them weep, gnash their teeth, and blaspheme forever …
Conscience will be a worm to gnaw and prey upon them; remorse for their sins shall seize them and torment them forever, and they shall not be able to shake it off, as once they did; for ‘in hell their worm does not die.’ (Mark 9:44,46) …
(b) The torments in hell are manifold. Imagine the case that a man were, at one and the same time, under the violence of the gout, stone, and whatever diseases and pains have ever met together in one body– the torment of such a one would be but light in comparison to the torments of the dammed …
(c) They will be most intense and vehement torments, causing ‘weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth’ (Matt 13:42, 22:13). They are represented to us under the notion of pangs in childbirth, which are very sharp and acute …
It is true, there will be degrees of torments in hell– ‘It shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for Chorazin and Bethsaida’ (Matt 11:21,22). But the least load of wrath there will be insupportable; for how can the heart of the creature endure, or his hands be strong, when God Himself is a consuming fire to him?
When the tares are bound in bundles for the fire, there will be “bundles” of covetous persons, of drunkards, profane sweaters, unclean persons, formal hypocrites, unbelievers, and despisers of the Gospel, and the like.
The several “bundles” being cast into hell-fire, some will burn more vehemently than others, according as their sins have been more heinous than those of others– a fiercer flame shall seize the bundle of the profane, than the bundle of unsanctified moralists.
(e) They will be unpitied. The punishments inflicted on the greatest malefactors on earth draw forth some compassion from the spectators. But the damned shall have none to pity them.
God will not pity them, but laugh at their calamity (Prov 1:26). The blessed company in heaven shall rejoice in the execution of God’s righteous judgment, and sing while their smoke rises up forever and ever (Rev 19:3), ‘And again they said, Hallelujah! And her smoke rose up forever and ever.’
No compassion can be expected from the devil and his angels, who delight in the ruin of the children of men, and are and will be forever void of pity. Neither will one person pity another there, where every one is weeping and gnashing his teeth, under his own insupportable anguish and pain.
There, natural affection will be extinguished– parents will not love their children, nor children their parents; the mother will not pity the daughter in these flames, nor will the daughter pity the mother; the son will show no regard to his father there, nor the servant to his master, where every one will be groaning under his own torment.
(f) To complete their misery, their torments shall be eternal! ‘And the smoke of their torments ascends up forever and ever.’ Ah! what a frightful case is this– to be tormented in the whole body and soul, and that not with one kind of torment, but many; all of these most acute, and all this without any intermission, and without pity from any!
What heart can conceive those things without horror? Nevertheless, if this most miserable case were at length to have an end, that would afford some comfort.
But the torments of the damned will have no end!
The final sections discuss being with the company of devils and the everlasting nature of hell.
Boston concluded with an exhortation to unbelievers to receive Christ ‘as He is offered in the Gospel’ and prayed that the Lord would be ‘effectual’ in accomplishing this.
This concludes a series on hell, available on my Christianity/Apologetics page under ‘Hell’. Previous posts include:
Hell on low — or no — heat (20th century history)
J C Ryle on hell (19th century, first Anglican Bishop of Liverpool)
Archibald G Brown (1844-1922) was a famous English pastor who devoted his ministry and life to the poor in London’s East End.
(Photo credit: ELT Baptist Church)
Brown was the son of a wealthy investment banker and was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps. However, his future wife Anne Bigg invited him to a service at Charles Haddon Spurgeon’s Metropolitan Tabernacle in London. The Metropolitan Tabernacle still exists today.
Although the Metropolitan Tabernacle was a Calvinistic Baptist congregation, the night Brown attended an Anglican lay preacher Stevenson Arthur Blackwood led the service. He asked an unbelieving, somewhat wayward Brown if he was a Christian. When Brown replied in the negative, Blackwood said, ‘How sad’.
Brown was 16 at the time. Afterwards, he went to reflect on Blackwood’s words and his own sinful state. Not only was he converted that day, privately, to Christianity, he went on to train for the ministry under Spurgeon at his Pastor’s College. Brown stood out for Spurgeon. Not only was he the youngest seminarian but the most dedicated to the ministry. Hence the title ‘Spurgeon’s Successor’.
Brown’s first ministry was in Bromley, Kent. However, outside of serving at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, his other pastorates were in London’s East End. He became pastor of the Stepney Green Tabernacle in 1864, which was not well attended. However, by 1867, it was standing room only.
In 1872, he had a new tabernacle built — the East London Tabernacle, which you can see in the photo above. The new church could seat 2,500, although another 500 stood to hear Brown’s powerful preaching. Inside, the tabernacle was massive; you can see more photos of it on the ELT Baptist Church site. Unfortunately, Germans bombed the building in 1944. It took ten years before a new replacement church opened, seating one-fifth of the number of people. The church has since left Baptist alliances and is now affiliated with the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches and through it to Affinity (formerly the British Evangelical Council).
Sadly, Brown was widowed four times. However, two of his wives left him several children. Annie bore six and Brown’s third wife Edith bore him four.
In later years, Edith’s poor health required him to consider relinquishing the pastorate at the East London Tabernacle and leave the capital altogether. Before he could do so, Edith died. Mourning her loss, he felt he could not continue leading his congregation without her and embarked on an international preaching tour combining travel. He returned to London in 1897 and married his fourth wife Hannah.
His subsequent ministries included a pastorate at a Baptist church in south London and a co-pastorate with Spurgeon’s son at the Metropolitan Tabernacle in 1907. In 1908, Brown became the sole pastor, a role he continued until 1910, when his own health began to fail. He toured and ministered in South Africa and Tasmania. In March 1922, Hannah died. Brown died nine days later on April 2, 1922.
During his lifetime, Brown and his assistant pastors had an intimate knowledge of the East End and its residents. Many were poor, burning their own banisters to stay warm. Others were prostitutes and thieves. Brown opened an orphanage for girls, started a soup kitchen and founded a summer holiday home in Herne Bay, Kent, to provide relief for the people of the East End.
Brown took a dim view of the modern views and erroneous theology creeping into the Church. He agreed with Spurgeon on the errors of fellow Baptist clergy denying that the Bible was divinely inspired. He deeply disapproved of the new social gospel, calling it an invention ‘by the devil’. He also opposed musical instruments in worship and using secular activities as a means of evangelisation. Not surprisingly, many people who thought they knew better ridiculed and criticised him.
In February 1878, after returning from his travels and newly married to Hannah, Archibald G Brown preached a sermon on hell to young men. The sermon is called ‘The Spiritual Doctrine of Hell’. He gave the address at the East London Tabernacle.
On his trip to Naples in 1877, Brown was struck by the looming Mount Vesuvius on the horizon and went to visit a recently rediscovered Pompeii, much of which was still buried. In August 79 AD, the town experienced a series of earthquakes over several days before Vesuvius erupted.
Wikipedia has a geological account of what happened. However, if anything approached hell on earth, the two days following the earthquakes had to be it. This summarises what happened in Herculaneum and Pompeii (emphases mine):
On the first day of the eruption a fall of white pumice containing clastic fragments of up to 3 centimetres (1.2 in) fell for several hours. It heated the roof tiles to 120–140 °C (248–284 °F). This period would have been the last opportunity to escape. Subsequently a second column deposited a grey pumice with clastics up to 10 cm (3.9 in), temperature unsampled, but presumed to be higher, for 18 hours. These two falls were the Plinian phase. The collapse of the edges of these clouds generated the first dilute PDCs, which must have been devastating to Herculaneum, but did not enter Pompeii.
Early in the morning of the second day the grey cloud began to collapse to a greater degree. Two major surges struck and destroyed Pompeii. Herculaneum and all its population no longer existed. The emplacement temperature range of the first surge was 180–220 °C (356–428 °F), minimum temperatures; of the second, 220–260 °C (428–500 °F). The depositional temperature of the first was 140–300 °C (284–572 °F). Upstream and downstream of the flow it was 300–360 °C (572–680 °F).
The variable temperature of the first surge was due to interaction with the buildings. Any population remaining in structural refuges could not have escaped, as the city was surrounded by gases of incinerating temperatures. The lowest temperatures were in rooms under collapsed roofs. These were as low as 100 °C (212 °F), the boiling point of water. The authors suggest that elements of the bottom of the flow were decoupled from the main flow by topographic irregularities and were made cooler by the introduction of ambient turbulent air. In the second surge the irregularities were gone and the city was as hot as the surrounding environment.
During the last surge, which was very dilute, one meter more of deposits fell over the region.
Now onto Brown’s sermon on hell, which I highly recommend reading in full. Excerpts and summaries follow. Photos are courtesy of Wikipedia.
Brown began by denouncing modern theology, a warning to his audience that they should turn away from error:
Any casual reader of so-called Christian literature must know the distinctive feature of this nineteenth century. There has arisen in the midst of the church an anti-Christ which is known by the name of ‘modern thought’, at whose altars tens of thousands are bowing the knee, and offering their devotion. There is a horrid malaria abroad — a malaria breeding doubt and skepticism, and giving birth to wholesale practical infidelity. Surely the gospel of the present day might be rendered — ‘He who doubts shall be saved, and he who believes shall be counted a fool.’
The eternal covenant of God is torn up with a glib remark and a smile of contempt by some boy-censor. The threatenings of God are having all the thunder taken out of them; and now let any one venture to say that he believes in such doctrines as the sovereign grace of God, an atoning sacrifice, and a doom of unspeakable horror awaiting the man who dies unconverted — and if he is not derided, he will at least be looked upon with contemptuous pity.
Now, the fiercest onslaught has been made upon the doctrine of God’s severity against sin, and the reason why I have selected this topic this evening is that, somehow or another the evil is finding its way into all the homes of our church members …
There is also an immense amount of jargon about the ‘universal fatherhood’ of God. We are told that God is so good, so kind, so indulgent, that he cannot possibly visit a sinner’s sin with the dire doom that Scripture language declares.
He went on to discuss the letters (epistles) of Peter which mention the flood (Noah) and fate of Sodom and Gomorrah.
I. Now let us to our first point, namely, that our text shows that GOD’S SEVERITY ON SIN IS A SOLEMN FACT.
He mentions the verse where Peter reminds his converts that God expelled the bad angels from heaven and sent them to hell. There is no reason why He would not do the same to us:
Young men, can you not see that every argument which can be employed against the ultimate punishment of men, applies with equal force against the punishment of the sinful angels? Am I told, as we are repeatedly, that there is such a nobility about man, such a natural grandeur, that it is almost impossible to imagine that God can ever consign so glorious and intellectual a being to perdition!
Regarding the flood, from which Noah and his family were spared:
Come, Mr Modern Thinker — you who are so shocked at the idea of God ever pouring out his wrath on any — how do you account for this? Does this look like ‘universal fatherhood’? Does this look like an indulgent father who knows nothing of righteous indignation against sin? It has been computed that the population of the world at that time was as great as now, owing to the longevity of the race, and yet the waters rose until the few — the eight — who rode in that ark were the sole remnant of a world that God had made.
Come, open your ears and hear the shrieks of the drowning; hear the cries of the strong swimmer in his last agony, and account for it, if you can, on any other ground than that God is a hater of sin — that when the accursed thing reaches a climax, he pours his wrath upon it — ay, though doing so destroys a world he fashioned.
He also spoke about God’s slaying of the first-born in Egypt:
I suppose that in Egypt there were more people than there are in London tonight, and yet in every house the first born was found dead, and from end to end of Egypt’s land a great wail of grief went up. Does that look like ‘universal fatherhood’?
He also discussed the parting of the Red Sea for the Israelites, followed by the swallowing up of Pharaoh and his armies:
their salvation meant the destruction of all the chivalry of Egypt.
He mentioned that some modern thinkers would downplay these examples as all coming from the Old Testament, therefore, ancient history. Furthermore, any vivid portrayals of hell come from mediaeval monks, long dead.
‘Medieval’ is it, to speak about weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth? These words came not from the lips of any mortal man. They fell from the same lips that said, ‘Come unto me, all you that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’ Neither Paul, nor Peter, nor any of the apostles, ever uttered such words as leaped from the lips of the Man of Sorrows. Christ’s descriptions of Hell are the most fearful that we have! It is the lips of infinite love that speak of being cut asunder, and about burning with the fire that is never quenched!
II. Now, then, let us look at the next point. THIS PARTICULAR ACT OF SEVERITY MENTIONED IN OUR TEXT, IS TO BE AN EXAMPLE FOR ALL AGES.
it seemed almost impossible to believe that Vesuvius could do any harm. I was almost inclined to think of Vesuvius as modern thinkers dream of God — that surely all the old fire has burned out. Still, there was some smoke rising which showed me that, though at that time no burning lava was pouring out upon its iron-bound flanks, yet it could do it again.
He toured Herculaneum and Pompeii, which reminded him of what divine punishment and hell must be like:
You must remember that it was not covered with burning lava, as is popularly supposed — that would have destroyed the city. There flowed a torrent of boiling mud which cooled and caked, and then over that there went the burning lava; and this again became like iron, so that there was the city sealed up airtightly, and, for 1,700 years, the world forgot that there was such a place as Pompeii. But we not only saw streets covered with the marks of chariot wheels, and houses with their frescoes. There were other sights sadder far. There were the relics of the past. There I saw the marble table, still standing in the garden as it was left that afternoon; and there was a bottle with the oil still in it; and there was the half eaten loaf of bread.
Yes — but what is that lying there? It is the body of a woman with her face in her hand, seeking to avoid the cinders that were falling. And you can stand there and look upon her, still lying as she cast herself down centuries back. I walked in and out those empty houses in this city of the dead, and I thought of the text, ‘turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah into ashes, he condemned them with an overthrow’. Sudden was the destruction …
The miser was caught as he was counting his hoard; the harlot was arrested in her house of shame; the prisoner was suffocated in his cell, and the sentry as he stood at the gateway.
A darkness that might be felt swathed the city. The earth rumbled; then the sea became tortured; and giant waves rolled up upon the trembling shore; and over all there were the lurid flashes from the crater of Vesuvius, while masses of blazing rock went hissing through the air, and the shrieks of the terrified people rose until death triumphed and stilled the clamor!
At that point he sensed Vesuvius speaking to him:
And the mountain muttered these words — ‘I can do it again! I can do it again!’
In his tour of Pompeii, he saw the wrath of God coming again on Judgement Day:
My brethren and sisters, go back and see what God has done. When God smites Judah it is that Israel should take warning, and he who hurled the angels from Heaven to Hell, and drowned the world, and destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, has power still to smite. Oh, do not rouse my God to anger. Will you count his longsuffering to be slackness? and because he still lengthens out the time of grace will you presume on it? ‘Escape for your life.’
I have finished, and, as an old preacher once said, ‘Now may God begin.’ I feel that, though we have tried to preach to you earnestly, our language has been but cold and faint. Young men, I do not suppose I shall ever see you all again. It is impossible. But as surely as you are sitting in those pews there is a day coming in which you will find every word we have uttered to be true. There is a day coming in which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the earth shall melt with fervent heat, and the trumpet of the archangel shall wax louder and louder! And if you die rejecting Christ you will find yourself, in spite of all that modern thinkers say, doomed to eternal perdition. Fly, then, to Christ, I beseech you. Trust him and he will save you this evening. Rest on his atoning sacrifice, and all sin shall be forgiven you. Go now, and presume no more on God’s patience. Flee from the wrath to come! May God add his blessing, for Christ’s sake. Amen.
I can add little more other than to second this sermon wholeheartedly.
Modern clergy from Brown’s time to the present are hoodwinking us into thinking God will welcome everyone into the heavenly kingdom.
Believe Jesus’s words rather than theirs. There is a second death in hell and it will last forever.
Tomorrow’s post gives a graphic representation of hell by 17th century preacher Thomas Boston.
My past few posts have discussed hell:
Hell on low — or no — heat (20th century history)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
J C Ryle (1816-1900) was undoubtedly one of the greatest Anglicans who ever lived.
Educated at Eton and Christ Church, Oxford, his parents expected him to enter politics. However, Ryle felt called to the priesthood and was ordained in 1842.
He was very much an evangelical preacher, firmly opposed to the Ritualism in the Church as characterised by the Anglo-Catholic Oxford Movement of the time. Although he had firm religious convictions which he expressed in no uncertain terms, in private, he was known for his kindness and warmth. He also preached to the working class, bringing many to the knowledge and love of Christ Jesus.
One of Benjamin Disraeli’s last acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Ryle to the post of Bishop of Liverpool, a brand new diocese. There, Ryle presided over the construction of 40 new churches, raised clergy salaries and instituted pension funds for them. He was also responsible for the building of the Anglican cathedral in Liverpool.
Ryle retired only three months before he died at age 83 in 1900. Today, he appears to have more of a following in the United States among orthodox Protestants than he does here in England. He published several works on the four Gospels as well as on the Christian life.
(Incidentally, Ryle’s second son, Herbert Edward Ryle, served as Bishop of Exeter, then Bishop of Winchester before being appointed Dean of Westminster in 1911.)
If only the Church of England had many more clergy like Ryle today. He wrote:
My chief desire in all my writings, is to exalt the Lord Jesus Christ and make Him beautiful and glorious in the eyes of men; and to promote the increase of repentance, faith, and holiness upon earth.
Every professing Christian is the soldier of Christ. He is bound by his baptism to fight Christ’s battle against sin, the world, and the devil. The man that does not do this, breaks his vow: he is a spiritual defaulter; he does not fulfil the engagement made for him. The man that does not do this, is practically renouncing his Christianity. The very fact that he belongs to a Church, attends a Christian place of worship, and calls himself a Christian, is a public declaration that he desires to be reckoned a soldier of Jesus Christ.
Ryle’s written works include commentaries on the gospels. What follows is an excerpt from Ryle’s Expository Thoughts on Matthew. It is from his commentary on Matthew 26:14-25. Emphases mine below.
This is the relevant reading (ESV):
Judas to Betray Jesus
14 Then one of the twelve, whose name was Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests 15 and said, “What will you give me if I deliver him over to you?” And they paid him thirty pieces of silver. 16 And from that moment he sought an opportunity to betray him.
The Passover with the Disciples
17 Now on the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Where will you have us prepare for you to eat the Passover?” 18 He said, “Go into the city to a certain man and say to him, ‘The Teacher says, My time is at hand. I will keep the Passover at your house with my disciples.’” 19 And the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the Passover.
20 When it was evening, he reclined at table with the twelve.[b] 21 And as they were eating, he said, “Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” 22 And they were very sorrowful and began to say to him one after another, “Is it I, Lord?” 23 He answered, “He who has dipped his hand in the dish with me will betray me. 24 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.” 25 Judas, who would betray him, answered, “Is it I, Rabbi?” He said to him, “You have said so.”
The first part of Ryle’s commentary discusses Judas then concludes with the following. Note how Ryle relies on Scripture to make his point about the importance of avoiding everlasting hell:
We ought frequently to call to mind the solemn words, “What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” “We brought nothing into this world and it is certain we can carry nothing out.” Our daily prayer should be, “Remove far from me vanity and lies: give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with food convenient for me.” ( Proverbs 30:8). Our constant aim should be to be rich in grace. “They that will be rich” in worldly possessions often find at last that they have made the worst of bargains ( 1 Timothy 6:9 ). Like Esau, they have bartered an eternal portion for a little temporary gratification; like Judas Iscariot, they have sold themselves to everlasting perdition.
Let us learn in the last place from these verses the hopeless condition of all who die unconverted. The words of our Lord on this subject are peculiarly solemn: he says of Judas, “It had been good for that man if he had not been born”. This saying admits of only one interpretation. It teaches plainly that it is better never to live at all than to live without faith and die without grace. To die in this state is to be ruined forevermore: it is a fall from which there is no rising, a loss which is utterly irretrievable. There is no change in hell: the gulf between hell and heaven is one that no man can pass. This saying could never have been used if there was any truth in the doctrine of universal salvation. If it really was true that all would sooner or later reach heaven, and hell sooner or later be emptied of inhabitants, it never could be said that it would have been “good for a man not to have been born.” Hell itself would lose its terrors if it had an end: hell itself would be endurable if after millions of ages there were a hope of freedom and of heaven. But universal salvation will find no foothold in Scripture: the teaching of the Word of God is plain and express on the subject. There is a worm that never dies, and a fire that is not quenched ( Mark 9:44) Except a man be born again,” he will wish one day he had never been born at all. “Better,” says Burkett, “have no being, than not have a being in Christ.”
Let us grasp this truth firmly, and not let it go. There are always persons who deny the reality and eternity of hell. We live in a day when a morbid charity induces many to exaggerate God’s mercy at the expense of his justice, and when false teachers are daring to talk of a “love of God lower even than hell.” Let us resist such teaching with a holy jealousy, and abide by the doctrine of Holy Scripture: let us not be ashamed to walk in the old paths, and to believe that there is an eternal God, and an eternal heaven and an eternal hell. Once [we] depart from this belief, and we admit the thin end of the wedge of skepticism, and may at last deny any doctrine of the Gospel. We may rest assured that there is no firm standing ground between a belief in the eternity of hell, and downright infidelity.
We do need to guard against adopting unorthodox beliefs, those which go contrary to Scripture. As Ryle says, once we begin discarding one fundamental tenet of Christianity, we are unlikely to stop there. We depart on the road to questioning more and more of the Bible and discarding more doctrine. Where does one end up then? In a sorry spiritual state wherein we question whether we are saved.
Notional doubters or sceptics who claim they ‘want to believe’ but somehow cannot, would do well to study the New Testament. If they cannot bring themselves to do that, they should pray for the divine grace to enable them to do so:
I believe; help my unbelief! (Mark 9:24)
More on hell next week.
This follows on from Monday’s post about hell. Please note that there is an adult image and disturbing content in this entry.
In the 1970s my secondary school religion teachers taught that Origen was a heretic and that the Church declared him as well as his teachings anathema. In short, they said that Origen started out as a devout Christian then went off-piste.
My mother told me the same thing years before.
Today, Origen seems to be all the rage. The modern Church has rehabilitated his reputation, and clergy are encouraging us to adopt his beliefs.
Two of Origen’s beliefs concern hell and universalism. Origen held that hell was temporary, akin to a very long-term purgatory, and wrote that there will come a point in eternity when God will accept the population of hell — including Satan — to heaven.
Is that what the Bible says?
As far as Origen was concerned, the Bible is entirely allegorical — down to the last word. In his mind, the simple-minded could take it literally or look at it in terms of genre (like me), but if one truly had faith in Christ, one would be able to interpret the words differently.
Origen also believed in the pre-existence of souls, which is a form of reincarnation.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica‘s entry on Origen states (emphases mine):
The chief accusations against Origen’s teaching are the following: making the Son inferior to the Father and thus being a precursor of Arianism, a 4th-century heresy that denied that the Father and the Son were of the same substance; spiritualizing away the resurrection of the body; denying hell, a morally enervating universalism; speculating about preexistent souls and world cycles; and dissolving redemptive history into timeless myth by using allegorical interpretation. None of these charges is altogether groundless. At the same time there is much reason to justify Jerome’s first judgment that Origen was the greatest teacher of the early church after the Apostles.
That last sentence demonstrates why heretics were and are so dangerous. Every one of them mixes truth with error.
The Church did not declare Origen to be anathema until 300 years after his death. Origen died in 254 and the Second Ecumenical Council of Constantinople condemned his teachings in 553.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica explains why:
In the 6th century the “New Laura” (monastic community) in Palestine became a centre for an Origenist movement among the monastic intelligentsia, hospitable to speculations about such matters as preexistent souls and universal salvation. The resultant controversy led Justinian I to issue a long edict denouncing Origen (543); the condemnation was extended also to Didymus and Evagrius by the fifth ecumenical council at Constantinople (553). Nevertheless, Origen’s influence persisted, such as in the writings of the Byzantine monk Maximus the Confessor (c. 550–662) and the Irish theologian John Scotus Erigena (c. 810–877), and, since Renaissance times, controversy has continued concerning his orthodoxy, Western writers being generally more favourable than Eastern Orthodox.
This CCEL page has the full statement of the 15 anathemas against Origen — his person as well as his teachings.
Today, we read that Origen was not declared anathema in 553. This notion comes from Norman Tanner whose Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils was published in 1990. An Eastern Orthodox blog, Eclectic Orthodoxy, has more on Tanner’s explanation, a clear plea for universalism.
The general gist is that Justinian I did not like opposition and that Origen was not the only early theologian who had such ideas. Two others, St Clement of Alexandria and St Gregory of Nyssa, were also universalists.
Yet, they are saints. Origen was declared a heretic.
It seems that, as my teachers and our religious studies books said, Origen went too far. Dr Ken Matto has an interesting list of Origen’s beliefs, some of which are held by the Catholic Church, sects and modern churches in other denominations. What follow are the really unorthodox ones. Although many claim Origen fought against Gnosticism, Matto purports that he was indeed a Gnostic:
Gnosticism was and is a belief that all matter is evil and that freedom comes through knowledge. The word Gnostic comes from the Greek word “gnosis” which means “knowledge.”
Matto lists the beliefs of Gnostics, referring to Jay Green’s The Gnostics, the New Versions, and the Deity of Christ. There are eight, which you can read in full.
Those that stood out for me are that the Gnostic thinks he is Spirit while lesser beings are but flesh and blood; he has a knowledge which surpasses Christianity; he allegorises Scripture; he believes that Christ’s earthly body was an illusion and that He will always be inferior to Gnostic gods, the Demiurge and the Artificer.
Matto states Origen’s 14 beliefs. What follows are the most unusual — and wrong:
1/ He believed the Holy Spirit was a feminine force
7/ He believed in the transmigration of the soul and the reincarnation of the soul
8/ He doubted the temptations of Jesus in Scripture and claimed they could have never happened.
9/ The Scriptures were not literal. He was the father of allegory.
11/ Based upon Matthew 19, a true man of God should be castrated, which he did to himself.
13/ Christ enters no man until they mentally grasp the understanding of the consummation of the ages. (It was Frederick Dennison Maurice in the 19th century who defined eternal life as coming to a knowledge of God. This is the essence of Gnosticism.)
14/ He taught there would be no physical resurrection of the believers.
Gosh. I know Anglican and Episcopal clergy who believe some of these things. Not No. 11, however, I hasten to add. The painting of Origen below — courtesy of Bad News About Christianity — comes from Roman de la Rose [‘Romance of the Rose’], France 15th century, Bodleian Library, MS. Douce 195, fol. 122v.
Odd, isn’t it, that Origen — he of scriptural allegory — took Matthew 19:10-12 literally?
10 The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” 11 But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. 12 For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.”
Natto follows with a useful Scriptural rebuttal of Origen’s teachings, concluding that Gnosticism fits in nicely with New Age teachings.
The New World Encyclopedia draws an empathetic conclusion about Origen:
In centuries much later, however, his work has been revisited by more sympathetic eyes, and his thought has been recognized as formative for the development of Christian theology. The historian Philip Schaff (1819-1893) sums up Origen’s contribution to Christianity, by saying that in spite of his condemnation he “did more than all his enemies combined to advance the cause of sacred learning, to refute and convert heathens and heretics, and to make the church respected in the eyes of the world.” Origen’s hope for universal salvation and his tolerant attitude towards those who have different opinions would be more acceptable today when Celsus’ criticism of Christianity may tend to be more seriously reflected upon and ecumenism is more common-sensically practiced. It may be that as early as in the third century before church dogma was officially formulated he already had an insight into today’s situation.
Or maybe we are just leading ourselves down the garden path.
St Paul warned against false beliefs that tickle our itching ears (2 Timothy 4:3). How can something that sounds so good be so wrong? Paul warned:
For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions,
On this point, the Wikipedia entry for Origen states:
Origen is regarded by the Catholic Church as a Church Father, but not a saint.
Really? So, everything I learned about him in Catholic school has been conveniently overturned?
It would appear so. Catholic Encyclopedia has what can only be described as a puff piece on Origen. The entry explains away any criticism the Church had of him since the 6th century. It’s a long article and, like most Catholic Encyclopedia entries, is written in their typically arcane style, which is so unnecessary. I do wonder whether they want Catholics to read it or continue in blissful ignorance. But I digress.
In a nutshell, Catholic Encyclopedia tells us that through the centuries people have misunderstood or misinterpreted Origen’s teachings. The entry even casts doubt over whether Origen was actually anathematised! They base their reasoning on Pope Vigilius’s absence from the Second Ecumenical Council of Constantinople in 553, the fact that the subsequent popes through to the early 7th century never mentioned Origen and, finally, the Origenism that was condemned was not the one Origen himself came up with but a derivation of it.
Am I convinced by that? Certainly not.
Origen came into this post at length because Bad News About Christianity mentioned the man in the article ‘Invented, Amended & Discarded Doctrines’ — one of which is hell:
According to recent theories Hell is not a place at all. It is, as the heretic Origen suggested, a condition of being distant from God. Alternatively, if it does exist it is probably empty! This solution attempts to reconcile the traditional doctrine of the reality of Hell with the requirement for a modern, caring, God. It is a classic example of the way in which teachings change when doctrine starts to become unteachable because of widespread disbelief. The Church cannot bring itself to agree explicitly with the atheist Lucretius (c.96-55 BC) and admit that “There is no murky pit of Hell awaiting anyone”*, but that is really what churchmen have come around to after 2,000 years.
Well said, even if they are unbelievers.
Their entry on hell is worthwhile reading. It quotes the relevant part of the Second Council of Constantinople statement:
Whosoever says or thinks that the punishment of demons and of the wicked will not be eternal, that it will have an end …. let him be anathema.
The article goes on to say that this firmly established the Church’s belief in hell until relatively recently:
For centuries children and peasants were terrorised by the promise of eternal damnation. Theologians assured them that they would be crushed in giant wine presses, torn to pieces by wild animals, fed with the gall of dragons, burned for eternity, tortured by demons, and so on.
As Cardinal Newman pointed out, belief in Hell was central to Christian theology, it was “the critical doctrine — you can’t get rid of it — it is the very characteristic of Christianity”. The existence of God was held to prove the reality of eternal hellfire, so denial of eternal hellfire amounted to denial of God. The reality of Hell was simply not open to question.
The article mentions a Catholic priest, the Rev John Furniss, who wrote booklets about the faith for children. They cost one penny per volume and were well known in the late 19th and early 20th century. One of Furniss’s books was called The Sight of Hell, which is reproduced in full on the Bad News About Christianity site.
Those of us who are simple-minded when it comes to belief in a literal hell will appreciate Furniss’s work, several chapters of which begins with a Bible verse or have a variation on a Bible story. He wrote that the inspiration came from revelations that St Frances of Rome (1384-1440) said she received.
This is a brilliant book, but if you shared it with your children, you’d probably get arrested for child abuse. Here is an excerpt from ‘The Red Hot Floor’, about an adolescent of ill repute who ends up in hell:
Look into this room. What a dreadful place it is! The roof is red hot; the floor is like a thick sheet of red hot iron. See, on the middle of that red hot floor stands a girl. She looks about sixteen years old. Her feet are bare, she has neither shoes nor stockings on her feet; her bare feet stand on the red hot burning floor. The door of this room has never been opened before since she first set her foot on the red hot floor. Now she sees that the door is opening. She rushes forward. She has gone down on her knees on the red hot floor. Listen, she speaks! She says; “I have been standing with my feet on this red hot floor for years. Day and night my only standing place has been this red hot floor. Sleep never came on me for a moment, that I might forget this horrible burning floor. Look,” she says, “at my burnt and bleeding feet. Let me go off this burning floor for one moment, only for one single, short moment. Oh, that in the endless eternity of years, I might forget the pain only for one single,short moment.” The devil answers her question: “Do you ask,” he says, “for a moment, for one moment to forget your pain. No, not for one single moment during the never-ending eternity of years shall you ever leave this red hot floor!” “Is it so?” the girl asks with a sigh, that seems to break her heart; “then, at least, let somebody go to my little brothers and sisters, who are alive, and tell them not to do the bad things which I did, so they will never have to come and stand on the red hot floor.” The devil answers her again: “Your little brothers and sisters have the priests to tell them these things. If they will not listen to the priests, neither would they listen even if somebody should go to them from the dead.”
There we have a variation of the Dives (‘the rich man’) and Lazarus story that Jesus related (Luke 16:19-31).
Back to the article. The atheist author(s) rightly point out that Catholics and Protestants alike feared God’s wrath and the unspeakable horrors of hell for centuries. These days, less so, if at all:
Now belief in Hell seems to be no longer necessary. Certainly the Church of England does not require it. The Privy Council decided many years ago that belief in it is optional*. Theologians have now started to redefine Hell. In fact, according to the Church of England’s Doctrine Commission, traditional teachings of hellfire and eternal torment are “appalling theologies which made God into a sadistic monster and left searing scars on many”*.
On the contrary, it is better to live in fear and trembling — and repent — now than have eternal regrets in the everlasting fiery pit later.
In closing, Bad News About Christianity has an article about Origen, which tells us what Catholic Encyclopedia does not:
Like some of his contemporaries he voluntarily castrated himself to remove a sinful source of temptation. He insisted on observing Jesus” instructions, such as the ones about not carrying an extra coat and not wearing shoes (Matthew 10:10). During his lifetime he was deposed from the priesthood and deprived of his teaching post by the Bishop of Alexandria. He was also condemned by the Bishop of Rome and by a synod of Egyptian bishops. St Jerome held that he had deliberately tried to mislead the orthodox into heresy. Views attributed to him were condemned by further bishops, emperors and councils. To clear up any remnant of doubt, Origen’s teachings were condemned by the Second Ecumenical Council of Constantinople in 553.
Now that sounds like my religious studies textbook (minus the first sentence)!
More on hell to follow.
A few bold and righteous pastors such as John MacArthur do so now and then, but hell is considered anathema to most clergy.
Following on from my post summarising MacArthur’s explanation of hell, today’s entry looks at the widespread 20th century decline of the doctrine of hell.
Quotations below come from Way of Life‘s ‘Taking the Fire out of Hell’. Emphases mine below.
Although by the end of the 20th century, hell became a dirty word and unthinkable concept, the decline began in the 19th century. The widely-quoted Baptist preacher from London, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, had this to say in 1865:
There is a deepseated unbelief among Christians just now, about the eternity of future punishment. It is not outspoken in many cases, but it is whispered; and it frequently assumes the shape of a spirit of benevolent desire that the doctrine may be disproved. I fear that at the bottom of all this there is a rebellion against the dread sovereignty of God. There is a suspicion that sin is not, after all, so bad a thing as we have dreamed. There is an apology, or a lurking wish to apologize for sinners, who are looked upon rather as objects of pity than as objects of indignation, and really deserving the condign punishment which they have wilfully brought upon themselves. I am afraid it is the old nature in us putting on the specious garb of charity, which thus leads us to discredit a fact which is as certain as the happiness of believers.
The nature of hell shifted from the biblical fire and brimstone to various beliefs: annihilation, symbolism, a void or no hell at all.
What follows is a potted history of quotes from clergy, theologians and evangelists of the 20th century.
George Buttrick, who was the President of the Federal Council of Churches (precursor to the World Council of Churches) wrote in 1935:
A God who punishes men with fire and brimstone through all Eternity would hardly be Godlike. He would be almost satanic in cruelty an childlike in imagination — like a nasty little boy pulling off the wings of a fly. The Christian faith is that God and hereafter is like Christ.
In 1951, Gerald Kennedy of the Methodist Church USA said in NAE magazine:
Speaking of eternal punishment of an everlasting state of agony for the wicked, I can say that I am sure that God is at least as good and merciful as men. I certainly would not banish any man to a place of punishment forever because of his faults or his state of mind when he left this life. I am sure God is not less fair or merciful than I.
The following year, theologian Nels F S Ferré wrote in Theology Today magazine:
According to the very meaning of sovereign love, however, God both can and will have all to be saved. The Bible, in its largest and deepest logic, also affirms that with God all things are possible and that He would have all to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. Among the numberless unthinking people an immature and unworthy eschatology espousing eternal hell is unfortunately still prevalent, vitiating Christian ethics at its very heart.
In 1961, Martin Luther King Jr told Ebony magazine:
I do not believe in hell as a place of a literal burning fire.
Fuller Theological Seminary revised their position on hell in 1971:
Fuller Theological Seminary’s new doctrinal statement departs from its original position on eternal punishment for believers, simply saying that the wicked shall be separated from God’s presence.
In 1977, President Jimmy Carter’s sister Ruth Carter Stapleton, a Southern Baptist evangelist, said in Christianity Today (caps in the original):
The Bible DOES NOT teach that we experience hell after we die, we experience it before we die.
In 1983, Billy Graham said that hellfire is figurative, not literal:
I think that hell essentially is separation from God forever. And that is the worst hell that I can think of. But I think people have a hard time believing God is going to allow people to burn in literal fire forever. I think the fire that is mentioned in the Bible is a burning thirst for God that can never be quenched.
Jesus used three words to describe hell. … The third word that He used is ‘fire.’ Jesus used this symbol over and over. This could be literal fire, as many believe. Or it could be symbolic. God does have fires that do not burn. And also there is the figurative use of fire in the Bible. … I’ve often thought that this fire could possibly be a burning thirst for God that is never quenched. What a terrible fire that would be never to find satisfaction, joy, or fulfillment!
In 1986, the Houston Chronicle quoted Lutheran religious scholar and professor Martin Marty as saying:
The passing of hell from modern consciousness is one of the major if still largely undocumented modern trends. … most theologians today maintain hell is not just damnation, but a positive punishment, beyond which everything else on this profoundly mysterious question is only speculation. If faith has survived the decline of hell, then it may be the result of an accent on the love of God for God’s own sake. If so, the new situation is an asset.
In 1987, Neal Punt, a British pastor in the Reformed Church, wrote in his Unconditional Good News: Toward an Understanding of Biblical Universalism that clergy should not warn sinners about the dangers of eternal damnation.
That same year, a survey of the American Baptist Convention revealed:
that only 59.8% agreed that “Hell is just punishment for sinners.” 17.1% disagreed and 23.1% were “not sure.”
The August 1, 1989 edition of Calvary Contender reported that the Anglican John R W Stott
revealed that he was a proponent of conditional immortality, or annihilationism, a view that denies eternal punishment in hell for the unsaved.
The Criswell Theological Review featured theologian Clark Pinnock who had this to say in 1990:
Let me say at the outset that I consider the concept of hell as endless torment in body and mind an outrageous doctrine. … How can Christians possibly project a deity of such cruelty and vindictiveness whose ways include inflicting everlasting torture upon his creatures, however sinful they may have been? Surely, a God who would do such a thing is more nearly like Satan than like God.
The December 15, 1991 edition of Calvary Contender reported the Reformed Anglican J I Packer‘s perspective:
Christianity Today senior editor J. I. Packer says he does not believe that ‘the essence of hell is grotesque bodily discomfort.’ That idea, he conceives, ‘misses the deeper point of the lurid wordpictures drawn by Dante and Jesus, and the New Testament writers.’ He says: ‘The essence of hell is surely an inner misery of helpless remorse, with recognition that in assigning one to an eternity of self absorbed unwillingness to receive and respond to divine goodness, the unwillingness that in life one was always cultivating God is being totally just and had done what is entirely right. Selfhated and Godhated will feed each other in Hell forever’.
In 1993, a controversy about hell arose at the Grand Rapids Baptist College and Seminary, which is affiliated with the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (GARBC). One professor, Michael van Horn, had to resign because of his views on heaven and hell. He denied a literal heaven and a literal hell. On the latter, he told 22 Michigan pastors there was no ‘literal fire’ in hell. D A Waite’s ‘Four Reasons for Defending the King James Bible’, published in Bible for Today that year, wrote that the GARBC’s Council of Eighteen:
refused to state in their resolution on hell that there was ‘literal fire’ there. Dr. Clay Nuttall was present as a witness. In his written report, he mentioned that when a man suggested ‘literal fire’ be inserted in the GARBC resolution on hell, a Council of Eighteen member said they couldn’t do that because many of the Pastors and people of the GARBC fellowship do not believe there is ‘literal fire’ in hell. Now, if that isn’t the first step in the direction of absolute and total apostasy in the GARBC, I don’t know what is!
That same year, the retired Anglican Bishop of Durham David Jenkins was quoted as saying:
I am clear that there can be no hell for eternity; our God could not be so cruel. However, I think for some people who have wasted every opportunity for redemption, there may be extinction.
Interestingly, the Church of England moved to a position of annihilation — and nothingness — in 1996. The National & International Religion Report explained:
The Church of England has redefined hell. Rather than a place of eternal suffering, hell is a state of nothingness, the church said. The church said it was concerned that people were terrified into becoming believers and consequently suffered ‘searing psychological scars.’ … Nevertheless, everyone still faces a day of judgment, according to the Anglican document The Mystery of Salvation. Those who fail the test are annihilated. Hell is described as the final ‘choosing of that which is opposed to God so completely and so absolutely that the only end is nonbeing’.
In 1997, Bill Phipps, the then-Moderator of the United Church of Canada told the Ottawa Citizen:
I have no idea if there is a hell. I don’t think Jesus was that concerned about hell. He was concerned about life here on earth … Is heaven a place? I have no idea.
More to come this week.
Yesterday’s post started with Matthew 13:50, in which our Lord spoke of the ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’ that takes place in hell.
In 1982, John MacArthur delivered a sermon on Matthew 13:47-52:
The Parable of the Net
47 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind. 48 When it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into containers but threw away the bad. 49 So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50 and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
New and Old Treasures
51 “Have you understood all these things?” They said to him, “Yes.” 52 And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”
MacArthur’s sermon is called ‘The Furnace of Fire’. In it, he explains the nature of hell.
As I said yesterday, our modern notion of hell has been watered down greatly since the 19th century. Most Christians believe it will be a place of mental torment where the damned long for God forever.
But could there be other sensory elements to hell, ones which mankind would prefer to overlook or to explain away because they are too horrifying to contemplate? MacArthur thinks so.
He says that Jesus talked about how horrible hell would be. The Gospels have many references about eternal condemnation. These can be found in Matthew 5, Matthew 8, Matthew 23 through 25, Mark 9, Luke 6, Luke 12 and Luke 16.
Jesus said more about fire than mental torment, although permanent insanity could well be the end result of going to hell. Yet, many theologians and clergy choose to gloss over this fact. It would be better if they were to say that hell is like Dante’s Inferno and advise us to read it. However, they would probably say that Jesus was using allegory in talking about hellfire. I doubt many believe in hell as Jesus described it.
Degrees of torment
Like Dante, MacArthur believes there will be degrees of punishment in hell (emphases mine):
You have in hell a place of relieved torment of body and soul in varying degrees … In other words, for some people, hell will be worse than others. For all who are there, it will be horrible. It will be ultimate suffering.
There will be no relief for that, but there will be even more severe degrees of suffering for some. It says in Hebrews 10, “Of how much more severe punishment shall they be thought worthy who have trodden underfoot the Son of God and counted the blood of the covenant an unholy thing.” People who have stepped on Jesus Christ, who have rejected his cross, will know a greater hell than those who have not.
There will be degrees, just as there will be degrees of reward in heaven. We saw that, also, I think, in Matthew chapter 11, when it said, “It will be more tolerable for Sodom than for you.” In other words, it’s only relative. It isn’t going to be tolerable for anyone, but it will appear to be more tolerable for them than for you because of what you have experienced.
You had Jesus Christ in your city, they didn’t. You rejected Him with more light; therefore, hell will be more severe for you. And then you have, of course, that incredible parable in Luke 12 where the Lord says, “To the servant who knew and didn’t do right, many stripes. To the servant who didn’t know and didn’t do right, a few stripes.” So hell will be unrelieved torment of body in soul in varying degrees. And John Gerstner says, “Hell will have such severe degrees that a sinner, were he able, would give the whole world if his sins could be one less.”
MacArthur reminds us that the Bible speaks of darkness when referring to hell:
the Bible defines it as darkness, outer darkness. That is deep-pit darkness, darkness that’s way out from the light, impenetrable darkness, darkness that closes in. And it is darkness without the hope of light forever. Have you ever been in the darkness and longed for the daylight?
Have you ever been in the darkness and longed for someone to turn a light on? To be in that encroaching, encompassing, moving kind of darkness and know that for all the eons of eternity, you will never see light is how our Lord describes hell. Unrelieved darkness forever, with no hope of the light, no hope of the dawn.
Yes, there is fire:
And the Bible also says it is a fire. Now, it is not a fire that we would know as fire, to burn something in this world. But fire is God’s way of describing it because it is a tortuous, unrelieved kind of fire, more terrible than any fire that we would ever know. But fire describes the torment of the damned; blackness describes the torment of the damned, no light, no light ever, ever. No relief from the suffering, the agony and the pain, forever. And there’s only two times in all of Scripture that we have any insight into how people respond to hell.
Torment of the body
MacArthur mentions Jesus’s cautionary story about the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). Dives did nothing to help poor, sickly Lazarus who ate the scraps from his table. When Lazarus died, he went to heaven. When Dives died, he went to hell. There Dives suffered from everlasting thirst:
24 And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’
Abraham refused. The rich man then asked him to send someone who had died to his brothers, so they might be warned of the torment to come. Abraham replied that the rich man’s brothers had Moses and the prophets to warn them. Ultimately:
31 He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’”
Torment of the soul
it is a place of unrelieved torment for both body and soul, for both body and soul. Soul being the inner part.
The new body built for hell
MacArthur explains that the human body as God created for life on earth would not be able to resist hellfire.
So, when the Last Judgement takes place, just as those going to heaven will have a new glorified body, those going to hell will have a new body fit for eternal damnation:
When a person dies now, their soul descends into that torment. In the future, there will be a resurrection of the bodies of the damned. They will be given a transcendent body that will then go into a lake of fire. It will be a body not like the body we have now. It will be a very different one. They will be resurrected just like we will, as Christians.
We will be resurrected because this body could never live eternally in heaven, right? We have to have a transcendent body, a glorified body, a different body, and so do the damned. And they will be raised, John 5, they will be raised in new bodies for the single purpose of being punished forever in those bodies.
That’s what the Bible says, tormented forever. They have to have a body to fit that eternal torment. And that’s why Jesus in Matthew 10:28 said, “Fear not them that can destroy the body, but fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” You see, hell is soul and body.
Some people think it’s just bad memories. No, it isn’t just bad memories. It isn’t just the inner thinking processes; it is that body as well. Transcendent, eternal bodies, greater than anything we have on this earth, are going to be given to the damned so that they can suffer in those bodies forever. And that’s the only reason that they’ll have those bodies.
With the present body, man couldn’t endure hell … the body that we have now would be consumed in a moment. So as God fits the redeemed with new bodies for heaven, He fits the damned with new bodies for hell.
The worm and fire forever
We know that the ‘worm dieth not’ and that the fire never goes out. This describes the Jewish Gehenna. Was Jesus addressing His people allegorically or literally?
Now what did He mean by that? When a body goes into the grave, into decay, worms descend into that body. And they begin to consume that body, and the worms will die when the food is gone. So once the body is consumed, the worms die. But in hell, the worms never die because the body, though it is continually being consumed, is never consumed. So the worm never dies.
In other words, the Lord was saying the unrelieved torment of body goes on and on.
it says, also, the fire is not quenched. Now a fire always goes out when the fuel is gone. But the fuel will never be gone. Though the burning goes on, the fuel is never consumed. And so you have unrelieved torment of body and soul.
Do enough of us think about hell or is it something we can explain away?
Is it more than the great existentialist void many of us have been taught to believe?
For all the time we spend rationalising hell, maybe it is time we gave Jesus’s warnings more thought. We — inherently sinful men and women — are telling each other that hell is a state of mind. Our Lord described it differently.
If contemplating the hell He described is a horrifying thought, He meant us to clearly understand it’s not a place we want to spend eternity. Repent, pray for faith and for continual grace.
The three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.
Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.
My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.
Woe to Unrepentant Cities
20 Then he began to denounce the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent. 21 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. 23 And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. 24 But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.”
The parallel passage for today’s verses can be found in Luke 10:13-15, about which I wrote in 2014. That means that neither reading is part of the three-year Lectionary.
That’s a pity, because the lesson Jesus is impressing upon us is that if we do not heed the Gospel message once we hear it, we are condemned for eternity.
Verse 20 begins with the word ‘then’. If you read my post on Matthew 11:16-19, you will recall that Jesus criticised those who rejected both John the Baptist and Him. Today’s reading records His words of rebuke to those who were rejecting His ministry. The people from these cities have seen His miracles and heard His teachings yet refuse to repent.
Our Lord names the cities (verse 21). My post on Luke 10:13-15 gives more detail on the cities, however, today neither Chorazin nor Bethsaida exist. Coincidence? Or divine judgment?
Chorazin was a village near Capernaum, where Jesus lived. The residents knew Him and the Apostles. Yet, they did not accept Him as Lord and Saviour. Bethsaida was a small town northwest of Capernaum. Bethsaida’s residents also actively chose not to accept Him.
The expression ‘woe to you’ means ‘may you be cursed’. Our Lord emphasised His condemnation of those towns by saying that even the cities of Tyre and Sidon — known to be evil, pagan places — would have repented had He gone there. Not only that, they would have donned sackcloth and ashes in the process.
Sidon and Tyre were powerful trading centres. Sidon was a Phoenecian port city, mentioned in Genesis 10. Egyptians sent their wheat to Sidon, where it was then shipped out to other countries along the Mediterranean. Tyre was a fortified city nearby, mentioned in Judges 19. It was known for providing the famous cedars of Lebanon for Solomon’s temple. Regardless of their commercial power, however, Jesus’s audience would have known the bad moral and spiritual reputation both cities had.
However, no matter how sinful Tyre and Sidon were, Jesus said that their fate at judgment would be nothing compared with that of Chorazin and Bethsaida (verse 22). Matthew Henry’s commentary explains (emphases mine):
Though the damnation of all that perish will be intolerable, yet the damnation of those who had the fullest and clearest discoveries made them of the power and grace of Christ, and yet repented not, will be of all others the most intolerable. The gospel light and sound open the faculties, and enlarge the capacities of all that see and hear it, either to receive the riches of divine grace, or (if that grace be slighted) to take in the more plentiful effusions of divine wrath. If self-reproach be the torture of hell, it must needs be hell indeed to those who had such a fair opportunity of getting to heaven. Son, remember that.
That is why these passages from Matthew and Luke should be in the three-year Lectionary!
Jesus went on to condemn Capernaum, where He based His ministry. He said the town would be brought to Hades (verse 23). He said that if He had performed mighty works in Sodom, the people there would surely have repented and the city would not have been destroyed. That is a very strong condemnation, and the Jews would have understood it as such. They knew Sodom was an abominable city that deserved — and received — divine wrath for its sinfulness.
Yet, the residents of Capernaum who had the blessings, grace, miracles and mercy of Jesus among them will be punished more severely for having rejected them (verse 24).
Sodom will have many things to answer for, but not the sin of neglecting Christ, as Capernaum will. If the gospel prove a savour of death, a killing savour, it is doubly so it is of death unto death, so great a death (2 Corinthians 2:16) Christ had said the same of all other places that receive not his ministers nor bid his gospel welcome (Matthew 10:15) It shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for that city.
For us, this means:
We that have now the written word in our hands, the gospel preached, and the gospel ordinances administered to us, and live under the dispensation of the Spirit, have advantages not inferior to those of Chorazin, and Bethsaida, and Capernaum, and the account in the great day will be accordingly.
If we reject Christ, having heard the Gospel message, we are just as condemned as those cities.
Incidentally, Capernaum was later destroyed. For centuries, it was impossible to know where the city stood, the destruction was so complete.
However, divine judgement did not fall on the city alone. A condemnation had been passed on all the inhabitants who ignored our Lord in their self-righteousness. They did not have the morality issues that the people from Sodom did. Yet, their condemnation is the greater because they refused to accept Jesus as the Messiah.
John MacArthur has two observations which help us to interpret this passage more fully.
The first is on the use of Hades in verse 23:
… that word is a word that basically is a neutral word, sometimes refers to waiting place, sometimes just refers to sort of darkness, or the place of death, or the grave. But it is used sometimes with more specificity, or more exactness. And, I believe, Matthew uses it here in the sense of torment, in the place where Satan and his demons and the condemned will dwell. He uses it in the sense of hell. That is Matthew’s pattern. He uses Hades one other time and that’s in chapter 16 verse 18 and he talks about the gates of hell. And I think he means in both of these cases, consistent, the place of torment. Matthew also commonly in referring to this same place uses the term Gehenna, which was a word that meant a burning fire; actually it was the term for the dump in Jerusalem which never went out, the fire burned continually. And he uses that twice in chapter 5 and once in chapter 10.
Also, it’s interesting to note that in Luke 16:23 it talks about the rich man being in Hades and being in torment. So, Hades can be a word that reflects torment. And in consistent with Matthew’s approach, that’s what I think he is saying. You are going to a place of torment. And the torment of Capernaum will exceed the torment of Sodom.
Since the 17th century, if not before, some scholars and intellectuals, especially those favouring universalism, have presented us with the neutral connotation of Hades. Yet, it is worth keeping MacArthur’s explanation in mind: that, in some contexts, Hades may well refer to a place far worse — one of torment.
The other point MacArthur made was on sackcloth and ashes:
Sackcloth was the coarse … camel hair, like John the Baptist wore, that turned black. It was a symbol of mourning. And when you wanted to mourn or show humility, you put on sackcloth and then in an oriental custom, threw ashes all over yourself. Or else, you could have a big bed of ashes and just dive in and wallow in it. That was another way you expressed your sorrow. That is not necessarily a biblical custom that was an oriental one. But Job did it, in Job 42:6, he repented in dust and ashes. And so did Daniel in 9, when he prayed that great prayer to God on behalf of his people in captivity, he put ashes on himself.
In closing, we need to exercise caution when we see lax interpretations of Scripture. The explaining away of torment — i.e. the meaning of Hades — is one of these. Some of my readers will find this warning unsophisticated. So be it. What does Jesus say in Matthew 11:25-26?
25 At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; 26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.
The chapter concludes with one of the best known and best loved Bible verses:
28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
May we contemplate this in the week ahead.
Next time: Matthew 12:1-8
Ladies and gentlemen — I have truly been visited from Hell.
On October 6, 2011, I received a blog hit from …
Hell, Norway, that is.
This is what the Highway to Hell looks like (courtesy of Wikipedia):
Well, there you have it … That’s not me getting out of (or into) the car, by the way!
My thanks to the person who was good enough to tap into Churchmouse Campanologist on October 6, 2011 at 21:48 BST (British Summer Time). I appreciate your visit and hope that you stop by again soon! Rest assured, I do not know what link you visited! Your secrets are safe, even from me!
Many of us in other countries might be bemused by such a name for a community. However, Wikipedia tells us that the name comes from the Old Norse word hellir, which means ‘overhang’ or ‘cliff cave’; in modern Norwegian parlance, hell means ‘luck’.
Hell is a small settlement of 1,418 people in the county of Nord-Trøndelag. Hell has a filling station, a grocery store and a home for elderly people. Train service also serves Hell.
Hell has become a bit of a tourist attraction for a local landmark, also visible on the Wikipedia page, sporting a sign which says: ‘Hell — Gods-expedition‘. Hmm. Another puzzler, until we discover that this is an archaic spelling for … cargo-handling. Today, this expression is godsekspedisjon — still close to the original.
To whomever visited, I thank you and am not making fun in the slightest. I’m intrigued. However, this does illustrate why we have language and cultural barriers!
I look forward to another visit from Hell. May I also extend a hearty welcome to the rest of your town (probably too small), village (only if it has a church) or hamlet (settlement without a church).