Hell: Idle Threat or Eternal Torment?
Pastor Rick Rogers
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Have you ever heard, or have even asked the question yourself, "How could a loving God ever send anybody to an eternal hell for any reason, no matter how bad they have been? I simply cannot see God doing that." Sometimes, we have a problem accepting the doctrine of hell. The horrors of its reality trouble us, and presents a stark contrast with our understanding of Who and what God is. Because of the intellectual problems, we may have a problem accepting its reality.
Historically, those who believed and preached the Word of God taught that those who die in their sins apart from trusting Jesus Christ as Savior would suffer eternal punishment in hell. It seemed clear enough Biblically, it fit into a sound theological framework, and the gospel went forth from burdened, hard preaching pastors concerning sin, righteousness and eternal judgment.
Currently, however, there seems to be a change of opinion in many evangelical circles. Hell is questioned, argued, doubted and often, denied. Though this has been a view in liberalism and the cults for quite some time, the shift is relatively new in evangelical circles.
A few brief examples are certainly in order. Billy Graham stated, "The only thing I could say for sure is that hell means separation from God. We are separated from his (sic) light, from his (sic) fellowship. That is going to hell. When it comes to a literal fire, I don't preach it because I'm not sure about it. When the Scripture uses fire concerning hell, that is possibly an illustration of how terrible it's going to be - not fire but something worse, a thirst for God that cannot be quenched." ("A Christian in Winter," Time, Nov. 15, 1993, p. 74). Kenneth Kantzer, former editor of Christianity Today, said "The Bible makes it clear that hell is real and it's bad ... but when Jesus spoke of flames ... these are most likely figurative warnings." ("Revisiting the abyss," U. S. News and World Report, March 25, 1991, p. 63). Clark H. Pinnock, professor of Theology at McMaster Divinity College, asked in the Criswell Theological Review "How can Christianity possibly project a deity of such cruelty and vindictiveness as to inflict everlasting torture upon his creatures, however sinful they may have been? ... A God who would do such a thing is more nearly like Satan than like God." (Ibid., p. 63). Thus, evangelical leaders such as Billy Graham, Kenneth Kantzer, Clark Pinnock, in addition to other well known evangelicals such as John R. W. Stott, Philip Hughes and F. F. Bruce have at least questioned the reality of a literal hell as a place of fire and eternal torment.
This report will discuss three serious problems which arise about God and His Word if the doctrine of hell, including its literal flames and eternal torment, is denied. When a Biblical view of this magnitude is challenged, the impact it has on other doctrinal views are tremendous.
1. A Denial of Hell is a Reflection on God
Man by his fallen nature is a radically independent being, and the "spirit of the age" is for him to attempt to explain everything - even the things he does not understand. Man has a difficult time understanding the doctrine of eternal punishment, but instead of accepting it as Biblical truth, he rejects it because it does not match the image of God that he has formulated. In reality, man's rationale is placed on a higher level of authority than God's Word.
Observe first of all that a denial of hell is certainly a reflection on God's holiness. We need to understand that eternal punishment is grounded on Who and what God is! Note the following examples concerning the attributes of God.
God is holy, and He cannot tolerate sin, Isa. 6:3; Hab. 1:13; Rev. 4:8. Lev. 19:2 states, "Speak unto all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say unto them, Ye shall be holy: for I the LORD your God am holy." This is an important attribute by which He is known! As a holy God, He can and does demand holiness from His volitional creatures, shown by His commands throughout Scripture. The entire sacrificial system of the Old Testament and the Cross of Calvary in the New Testament are to allow an individual the unmerited favor to stand in righteousness before Him.
When mankind fails, God is absolutely just when He demands punishment for sins. In Jn. 5:30, Jesus teaches "I can of mine own self do nothing: as I hear, I judge: and my judgment is just; because I seek not mine own will, but the will of the Father which hath sent me." God's judgment is always just, and the just punishment for sin is death. Death is primarily separation, and must be defined in three different realms.
First, there is physical death, in which the material (body) is separated from the immaterial (soul / spirit), cf. Gen. 3:19. This is what most people commonly think about when death is mentioned.
Second, there is spiritual death, which is illustrated by Paul through the use of a contrast in Eph. 2:1. By nature, man is spiritually dead in trespasses and sins, separated from God's fellowship, and he will remain so unless he is regenerated at salvation. Man cannot relate to God apart from salvation because he is spiritually dead. He cannot obey, know or love God anymore than a corpse could obey, know or love the surviving family members. There simply is no life.
Third, there is the second death, also called eternal death, consummated at the Lake of Fire, cf. Rev. 20:11-15. The second death is an eternal separation from God in a literal place with literal fire. Romans 6:23 says that death is the wage of sin! It may be appropriate to note here that God is truth, and He cannot lie, Heb. 6:18, and His Word is settled in Heaven forever, Psalm 119:89.
If one would deny a literal hell, he must conclude that death is not the penalty for sin, that man by nature is not spiritually dead, and that there is no eternal punishment for those who die in their sins. He must thus declare that God does tolerate sin, that He does not demand justice for sins, that there is no consequence for disobedience, and, most serious, that God is lying! I am not saying that those who deny a literal, eternal hell would accept these views, but it would be would seen to be the logical conclusion.
Observe secondly that the denial of hell is a reflection on His sovereignty. The sovereignty of God, as defined by the Puritan Confession of Faith stated, "God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatever comes to pass." Charles Ryrie states it simply "God is a Supreme Ruler" (Ryrie Study Bible, KJV, p. 1963). This is clearly stated in Scripture. His sovereignty is explained in 1 Chron. 29:11-12, "Thine, O LORD, is the greatness, and the power, and the glory, and the victory, and the majesty: for all that is in the heaven and in the earth is thine; thine is the kingdom, O LORD, and thou art exalted as head above all. Both riches and honour come of thee, and thou reignest over all; and in thine hand is power and might; and in thine hand it is to make great, and to give strength unto all." Perhaps Romans 9:18-23 explains the sovereignty of God and the doctrine of Hell the most clearly: "Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth. Thou wilt say then unto me, Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will? Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed to say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honor, and another unto dishonor? What if God, willing to show his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction: And that he might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he hath afore prepared unto glory " It is clear that some are fitted to dishonor and destruction!
When mankind does not understand how God could allow somebody to be consigned to eternal punishment, no matter what the reason, they are basically stating that God cannot be God! Because they don't understand it, God would not or could not do it.
2. A Denial of Hell is a Renouncement of the Cross
First of all, a denial of hell it detracts from Jesus' sufferings. As the cross of Jesus Christ is observed, several important Theological truths become evident. The cross provides justification, redemption, propitiation and remission of sins possible for those who believe, cf. Rom. 3:24-26. Ask yourself, "Why did Jesus go to Calvary?"
When Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden, they knew that they would die, for God had warned them in Gen. 2:17, "But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die." In Gen. 3, Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, and they experienced death! They died spiritually immediately, for they recognized their sinful condition, and desired to hide from God. They began to die physically, though it would take a process of time, " ... for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return," 3:19. Apart from the sacrifice provided by the LORD, they would have remained separated from Him forever! Rom. 6:23 tells us, "For the wages of sin is death ..." Man, because of his sin, deserves complete death in each realm (physical, spiritual and eternal).
Jesus Christ came as a sacrifice for mankind, Mark 10:45, John 1:29. In Heb. 2:9, the writer informs us that Jesus "tasted death for every man." He experienced the death everybody deserves!
In what ways did He taste death? He certainly died physically. First Cor. 15:3 states that " Christ died for our sins according to the scripture " Though there are many who deny His literal death, it can be easily shown. For example, the Roman centurion and soldiers declared Him dead (Mark 15:44-45; John 19:33-34), the women came to anoint a dead body (Mark 16:1), blood and water flowed from His side (John 19:34), and His disciples believed that He was actually dead; therefore, His resurrection surprised them (Mt. 28:17; Luke 24:37-53; John 20:3-9). Thus, He experienced physical death the way that all men will (except for those raptured), Heb. 9:27.
But in addition to the physical death, Jesus seems to have experienced spiritual death as well. In Mt. 27:46, Matthew writes "And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, la ma sabach-tha ni? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" It would seem that the Father, Who is "of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity," Hab. 1:13, was in effect separating from the Son as the sins of the entire world were placed on Him. Though this was not a separation of Persons (there is only One God) there was a judicial separation between the Father and the Son. Walvoord states, "Christ was being judicially forsaken because He was bearing the sin of the world." (Walvoord, Jesus Christ Our Lord,
p. 118). Thus, when Jesus "tasted death for every man," He experienced it completely. If He would have remained separated from the Father, He would have experienced eternal separation! However, that could not happen as the Father accepted the sacrifice of His Son, cf. Heb. 5:7-8. But if one states that there is no eternal separation for those who die in their sins, he is renouncing the complete sacrifice for sin that Jesus Christ offered.
A denial of Hell also discounts His sacrifice, as it would mean that Jesus was not required to "taste death for every man" because man's spiritual death would not consummate in eternal death. What would be the benefits to mankind which were made available through His sacrifice?
Did He deliver us from physical death? Ultimately, yes. Though as Christians we may pass through the veil of death, we know that it is not permanent. At the Rapture, we will be resurrected, and raised incorruptible and immortal, cf. 1 Cor. 15. Death is not permanent, but temporary. The seal of this is the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 1 Cor. 15:55-57, Rom. 1:4.
Did He deliver us from spiritual death? Yes He did! When we trust in Jesus Christ for salvation, we are regenerated, or born again. At birth, by nature and our imputed sin, we are spiritually dead, Eph. 2:1. At salvation, we receive spiritual life, whereby we are no longer separated from God spiritually. We are spiritually alive and thus can know, love and obey God, which are things we could not do before salvation. We receive spiritual life, which will consummate in eternal life, which is fellowship with God and being in His presence forever, Rev. 21-22.
The purpose of the gospel is centered on the removal of guilt and punishment for our sins. The very term "salvation" comes from the word soteri, which means "deliverance." What are we ultimately delivered from if it is not eternal condemnation? In John 5:28-29 we see Jesus' teaching about the "resurrection of damnation." The word "damnation" does not mean annihilation, but judgment. If that judgment is not eternal, the value of Jesus' sacrifice is discounted!
Some people have asked, "How can the few hours of Jesus' agony at Calvary be compared to eternal punishment in hell?" This question has merit and deserves consideration.
Time is of little importance in the spiritual realm. God is eternal, and everything is one eternal now! In His sight, there is simply the unfolding of His plan for the ages. Thus could Moses say "... from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God," Ps. 90:2. It is not the time frame that counts with God, but the fact that His wrath was propitiated.
More important, the value of the sacrifice is of much greater significance than time. The Lord Jesus Christ is the only One Who could qualify as the sacrifice. He, as the "only begotten son," John 3:16, and the One in Whom "... dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily," Col. 2:9, has infinite value which would far surpass any other person or amount of time. First Peter 1:18-19 states, "Forasmuch as ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things as silver and gold, from your vain conversation received by tradition from your fathers; But with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot."
To summarize, the quality of Jesus Christ surpasses quantity in any other realm. The very King of Creation is the Redeemer of all who call upon Him for salvation!
3. A Denial of Hell is a Refutation of God's Word
The King James Version of the Scriptures uses the word "hell" for three different Greek words. These need to be clarified.
First is the word tartaros. This word is translated hell only in 2 Peter 2:4, but it is actually a verb. The individuals referred to in this passage are not those who have rejected Jesus Christ as Savior, but are angels who had sinned and are now reserved for judgment. (Many believe these angels are the "sons of God" cohabiting with women in Gen. 6). Tartaros is not the hell we commonly think of in relation to unregenerate men.
The second word is Hades. This word is used ten times in the New Testament by Matthew (11:23; 16:18), Luke (10:15; 16:23; Acts 2:27, 31) and John (Rev. 1:18; 6:8; 20:13-14). The clearest information we have about Hades is found in Luke 16:19-31. Please read this passage before you continue.
I believe that Luke 16 is an actual, historical account of the two individuals listed, not a story or parable. In this commentary, the Lord Jesus describes the condition of the unsaved rich man in Hades. We find that he was in torment, 16:23; he could recognize Abraham and Lazarus, 23; he could talk and listen to them, 24; his pain was intense from the flame, 24; there was an impassable gulf fixed between them, 26; he remembered his father and brothers, and wanted them to come to salvation so they would not be required to join him, 27-28.
When Jesus Christ died and rose again, He took the godly out of Hades, the place of Abraham's bosom, and ushered them into the Father's presence, cf. Eph. 4:7-10. In Rom. 8:34, Jesus is said to be at the Father's right hand; 2 Cor. 5:8 teaches that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord; Phil. 1:23 says that departure from this life is to be with Christ which is far better. Thus, the saints up to Jesus ascension are in His presence. However, Hades still remains for the ungodly!
It is important to realize that Hades is not the final abode for the unregenerate dead. Like tartaros, it is a temporary place of consignment until the Day of Judgment at the Great White Throne.
The third word is Geenna. This word is used twelve times in the New Testament by Matthew (5:22, 29, 30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33), Mark (9:43, 45, 47), Luke (12:5) and James (3:6).
A description of Geenna is revealing. Six of the references listed refer to fire, and eleven of the twelve are the recorded words of Jesus Christ! But where did the meaning of Geenna originate?
There is a valley located southeast of Jerusalem called the Valley of Hinnom, cf. Josh. 15:18, 18:16; 2 Kings 23:10; 2 Chron. 28:3; 33:6; Jer. 7:31-32; 19:1-6; 32:35. As you read these references, especially in Jeremiah, you learn that the Valley of Hinnom was the place where the apostate nation Israel sacrificed their children to the pagan god Molech, by burning them in the arms of the idol.
After these abominations had ceased, the Jews used the valley to dispose of dead criminals and animals, as well as their rubbish. To consume the valley's contents, a fire burned continuously, which became known as the "Geenna of Fire." To be in the Geenna of Fire would be excruciating, and the torments of it unimaginable. The refuse would attract worms, much as a garbage dump would today. The Lord Jesus explains this in Mark 9:42-50, "... Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched." Thus, the Lord Jesus used this well known cultural truth to teach about this horrible place of eternal torment. Geenna also fits the description of the Lake of Fire mentioned in Rev. 20:15, which is the final abode for the unbelieving dead.
Geenna is the place that would be ultimately denied as we discuss a literal, eternal torment for the unsaved. But as we have seen, it describes a literal place.
The Bible also teaches that there will be literal people going there! Rev. 20:13 speaks of "every man" being judged "according to their works." This judgment is not to determine if they are saved, but to establish their degree of punishment in Geenna. The residents there are further described in Rev. 21:8 and 22:15.
There is also a literal eternity. The punishment is described in Dan. 12:2 as "everlasting contempt," as "everlasting fire" in Matt. 25:41, as "everlasting punishment" in Matt. 25:46
as the "resurrection of damnation" in John 5:29 and as "the second death" in Rev. 20:14.
It is important to notice that there is absolutely nothing in any of the passages listed or the terms used which would indicate that hell is imaginary, temporary or figurative. It is the exact opposite. Some declare that the phrase "second death" means that the unsaved will at some point in time be annihilated, but the terms used above indicate that it is eternal. In addition, it can be demonstrated that it is eternal. In Rev. 19:20, we find the beast and false prophet are the first residents to be cast into the Lake of Fire. In Rev. 20:10, after a period of one thousand years, the devil is also cast into the lake of Fire "where the beast and false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night forever and ever." If these terms cannot be taken literally at face value, can we accept these terms as they relate to eternal life, or our eternal fellowship in heaven?
There are other issues that relate to this denial of hell, such as the immortality of man, the
effects of the Gospel, the inspiration and credibility of Scripture, ... We must choose whether we will accept the claims of modern evangelical opinion or the clear teachings of the Word of God.
There is a means to escape the eternal condemnation that all men deserve. You can believe that Jesus Christ, as the Son of God, died on the cross for your sins, that He rose again, and now offers His sacrifice to you as a gift which needs to be received by faith. If you have not trusted Jesus Christ as Savior, you can pray the following prayer. "Heavenly Father, I realize that I am a sinner, and cannot save myself. I believe that Jesus Christ, Your Son, died on the cross for my sins, and that He rose again. I would like to have my sins forgiven through Him, and want Him to be my Savior. I commit this to you now in Jesus' Name, amen."
If you truly meant what you have just prayed, you can rejoice that you are a child of God, and will not have to face eternal condemnation. That is God's promise to you! Jesus said "Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life," John 5:24.
"But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers,
and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their
part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second
death," Rev. 21:8. The Lake of Fire is literal, it is real, and it is