What is Sin?
The crux of the issue, I believe, comes down to our view of God as it relates to his holiness. The Sunday School answer for sin has always been that it is a direct attack on the holiness of God. Francis Schaeffer, as he studied our post-modern culture, said that “I have come to the conclusion that none of us in our generation feels as guilty about sin as we should or as our forefathers did” (Media emphasis added). If we do not grasp the heinous enemy that sin is to God, we can never fathom to understand how man could be thrown into hell. In fact John Calvin linked the two together, “God preordained, for his own glory and the display of His attributes of mercy and justice, a part of the human race, without any merit of their own, to eternal salvation, and another part, in just punishment of their sin, to eternal damnation” (Media emphasis added). Or as John Bunyan put it so eloquently, saying “One leak will sink a ship: and one sin will destroy a sinner” (Media).
It is important to see now what God directly thinks of sin, and the measure with which he hates sin will indicate what type of punishment man must receive for it. In Revelation 19:1-2 we are given a glimpse of heaven and at the chorus of praise given to God: “Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for his judgments are true and just; for he has judged the great prostitute who corrupted the earth with her immorality, and has avenged on her the blood of his servants” (emphasis added). Not only is God justified in his condemnation of Satan (the great prostitute), he is praised for it. In light of this we can see that God will actively pour vengeance on Satan and a quick search of the ESV Bible will show forty and more uses of the word and it is always attributed to God, and a right that he has. Isaiah 34:8 is a good example of the purpose of it, “For the Lord has a day of vengeance, a year of recompense for the cause of Zion.” God has clearly reserved judgment on the wicked and on those who oppose him, so his right to judge sin and evil is his.
Another point of contention is that of God’s holiness. If sin is a direct attack on his perfect holiness, is there anything that can turn the judgment aside? Some will argue that God’s love and mercy overpower his desire to be holy, and that he will can compassion in the place of vengeance. But it is clear that God’s defining attribute is holiness and not love, as some would argue. The only word repeated three times in continuation is the word holy and this happens multiple times in Scriptures as Isaiah 6:3 and Revelation 4:8 will attest. The fact that God has shown mercy and love to mankind has always fit his quality of holiness, without exception. But his holiness must be fulfilled and it will be fulfilled in the future—sin will not be left on the back-burner forever. God has held back his ability to judge mankind for the sake of our salvation through Jesus Christ, but God cannot live with sin or see it, for he abhors it and all that remain in it must be eternally punished.
Eternal Conscious Punishment
That brings us into the very fire, if I may, of the issue. Will man be eternally, consciously punished for his sin? Is the idea even biblical? If so it is positively not humanist! Yet it will become clear that even though we dislike the doctrine, it is not only Biblical, but paramount to Scripture’s teaching on Salvation.
II Thessalonians 1:7-9 may be the clearest text on the issue because it prophecies “when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (emphasis added). Those that reject Christ will be judged at his return in the future, and the judgment on them is clear.
Jesus Christ himself went to great lengths to define and explain hell, because most theologians will admit that the Old Testament’s understanding of hell was very underdeveloped. The same can be said of the Trinity, Salvation, and other doctrines. Matthew 24 in fact is given in its entirety to distinguishing those that will be accepted into heaven and those that will be cast out, all taught by Jesus in the form of parables. In the parable on the ten virgins he says that “afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you’” (v. 11-12). Of the poor tenant he says: “And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (v. 30 emphasis added). After these two verses Jesus gives what is perhaps the clearest contrast in the Bible between the fate of the saved and unsaved, as he pronounces that “’Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels […] these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (v. 41, 46 emphasis added). The parallel in verse 46 is important here because since we all agree that heaven is an eternal state, it logically implies that hell is also an eternal state.
Jonathan Edwards went to great extent to defend the eternal conscious punishment of the unrepentant sinners, simply because the Gospel he preached relied so heavily on this doctrine. Interestingly he prophesied that sinful mankind would seek to “be turned to nothing and forever cease to be that they may escape the wrath of God” (Gerstner 75). Because the wrath of God truly is to be feared! If the traditionalists view on hell is Biblical and true than it is without question the most awful truth ever and the consequences are enormous. Just as Paul speaks of in Romans 2:8-9, “but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil.”A vivid portrayal comes from John’s vision in Revelation 14:9-11 “[the wicked] also will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name” (emphasis added). Truly these are hideous images of things to come!
Now, John Stott will make the comment that the “smoke” implies that they are being burnt up and completely consumed. But the rest of the verse gives this argument no foundation, for it will clearly be everlasting and without end. The premise is valid though: smoke implies burning and something being consumed by the fire. There can be no other explanation than to imply that those that reject God’s mercy will burn constantly and eternally, and the person must be constantly rejuvenated in some way in order to be burned yet not consumed. The idea is not strange or foreign, for the burning bush is a perfect example of a break of natural laws by Divine will. The tree burned and put out smoke, no doubt, yet it continued green throughout the process.
Not only will hell be eternal the punishment will be conscious and truly awful, as can be seen in the last verses. Christ again in Matthew 9:43 and 48 explains hell’s reality on the basis of the terribleness of sin, “if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire […] ‘where [the condemned’s] worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’” We must let Scripture speak for itself. Like with any piece of Scripture the tendency is to fit the truths in it into our worldview—to twist them until the fit. This is wrong, and the simple and even intense reading of Scripture will show that annihilationism is not a Scriptural concept. The question is not if the Bible speaks of hell, it is why it speaks of hell.
Damage to the Gospel
It seems like the doctrine of hell seriously damages our presentation of the Gospel to the outside world, if we are being honest. Yet in this accusation of hell we forget the basic premise of the Gospel as Paul speaks of in I Corinthians 1:18, “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” It is not our goal as Christians to make the Gospel “easier to swallow;” it is our goal to preach the Gospel at all costs and to all people. God will do the saving. Hell does make it seem as if God lacked in love and mercy, but our calling is not to change the facts but to preach the Word.
“Fire and brimstone” preachers are not likeable anymore, and in most Evangelical circles the idea is not at all acceptable. We will preach on heaven and on love, but not on hell—no matter how Biblical it is. Yet who is the best evangelist and preacher in American history (as far as results go)? Jonathan Edwards, the man seared by many as having too much interest in talking about hell and not on preaching the Gospel. This is an error—the foundation of the Gospel is the reality of the cross based on the fact of the terribleness of hell. If anyone understood hell, it was Edwards, and it is because of this that he spoke so passionately, imploring souls to be saved. Luther, Calvin, Graham and ultimately Jesus also used hell in order to present the Gospel. Edwards preached of hell in order to show the greatness and necessity of Salvation because he knew this: “Most wicked men that have heard about hell have these internal uneasiness […] the most bold, and daring of sinners, are the most fearful and timorous upon a death-bed” (Gerstner 84). Man already has an innate sense of God and of coming judgment as Solomon will tell (Ecclesiastes 12:14) and it is our duty to confirm this thought, not placate it. Edwards preached on hell so that men would be uneasy on their death-bed and turn to God in repentance before it was too late.
The Gospel was wrapped up in a deep understanding of hell for Edwards. When he laid out his arguments against annihilationism, this one stood out as most powerful: “if [judgment] was done [upon Christ by God] what will happen to the [wicked]? Finally, how could Christ have had to die for us when no punishment threatened?” (Gerstner 76). Or as Paul writes, “[God] did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all” (Romans 8:32a) and Isaiah prophecies, “Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt…” (Isaiah 53:10a emphasis added). Jesus Christ bore on his body the complete wrath of God in order to offer us salvation. The greater the wrath, the greater the forgiveness, it must be implied. The greatness of God’s wrath was subject to his holiness, and since his holiness is perfect, his wrath was infinite—the suffering of Christ came therefore at the greatest possible cost to himself. Edwards argued that this made the Gospel more beautiful and more glorious.
And again we must go back to the same issue—God’s holiness in light of our sin. How terrible is our sin? A single bite of an apple by Eve cut off mankind from God for all eternity (barring the promise of the Messiah), and man has since seen that we do not know what we have until it is gone. Being in a close relationship with God should be the greatest desire of any man who has tasted God and come to love him. If sin did not exist, God could come and be with us and forever walk and teach and live with us—this was Eden, Paradise lost. Yet through Jesus Christ we look forward to Paradise regained, as John Milton famously penned. Truly our sin is crushing and devastating to God, he has withstood it for a time, but the time will come when God will judge the all men and rid his presence of sin by eternally bringing judgment upon it. Today, if a man is evil he is not judged according to it, and if a man is good he is not blessed according to it (necessarily). It can almost be said that the righteous suffer more than the wicked. But the day will come and it is drawing near when we all shall give an account to God based on our deeds. Yet without the substitution of Jesus Christ in our place, all men will always be guilty before the Judge.
Yet the time has not yet come, and we must remember what the Judge has said in Ezekiel 33:11, “As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways” (emphasis added). With this in mind, not only is the doctrine of hell Biblical, it is real and its reality is shadowing over the heads of all mankind. Let those who are saved learn of the horrors of hell and warn them to turn aside from evil and seek God. And let them who are not saved hear and tremble at the words of Abraham that he spoke to the rich man in hell when he asked for a second chance: “between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.”
Dixon, Larry. The Other Side of the Good News. Ross-shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, Ltd., 2003.
Gerstner, John B. Jonathan Edwards on Heaven and Hell. Morgan, PA: Sola Deo Gloria Publications, 1980.
Herrick, Greg. Bible.org. 2 November 2009 seriespage/eschatology-end-times>.
Media, Brainy. Brainy Quote. 2009. 8 November 2009 <http://www.brainyquote.com/>.
Pinnock, Clark H. “The Destruction of the Finally Impenitent.” Criswell Theological Review (1990): 243-259.