We come now to an element of our Lord’s teaching that many would like to ignore. Unfortunately for them, the Lord taught the doctrine of eternal punishment in many settings and in many ways, and it is impossible to ignore this doctrine of His without ignoring Him. And this is precisely what our modern reinterpreters are actually doing.
“For whosoever shall give you a cup of water to drink in my name, because ye belong to Christ, verily I say unto you, he shall not lose his reward . . .” (Mark 9:41-50).
Recall the setting. Jesus has come down from the mountain and found His disciples unable to cast out a hateful demon. The demon had attempted to destroy the child multiple times in fire and water. Later in the section, Jesus warns that those who stumble little ones, those who do not receive little ones, will themselves be destroyed in fire and water. Insignificant actions in this life are not (v. 41). To stumble a child is a sin with fearful consequences (v. 42).
We must not forget the nature of symbols. Some seek to evade the force of the Lord’s teaching by pointing out that the language is symbolic, and that it is not meant to be taken literally. This is actually obvious to pretty much everyone. Of course this is symbolic language. But how do symbols work? What is their purpose? If the language of Christ is to be taken “literally,” then hell is a place of horror. The outer darkness, the worm that never dies, and the fire that is never quenched, are all to be avoided at all costs. But if the language is symbolic, we must always remember that a symbol is always less than the reality. A flag is less than the nation, a ring is less than the marriage, and if the lake of fire is not literal, then the “real” hell is far, far worse, beyond our capacity to imagine. Words fail us, and we must resort to grim metaphors.
Some who retain the name of evangelical have begun to deny the reality of eternal punishment. They vary among themselves; some insist that there is a second chance after death, and others teach a doctrine of annihilation for the wicked. But all such explanations do not deal with the warning aspect of Christ’s words. The word for hell here is gehenna, which comes from the valley of Hinnom (Ge Hinnom), just outside Jerusalem. During the reigns of Ahaz and Manasseh, children were sacrificed in this valley (2 Kings 16:3; 21:6). This should make us think of the context of Christ’s warning again — He has been warning against the grotesquery of stumbling children. Josiah had desecrated that valley (2 Kings 23:10), but the place was forever linked with the foul deeds that had been perpetrated there. It was turned into a garbage dump, where the worm never died, and fires were constantly burning, and flies congregating.
The language of Christ is taken from Isaiah 66:24. That passage predicts the abhorrence that will be felt by the godly as they look at the unbelievers outside the New Jerusalem, those who rejected Christ. This prophecy provides us with the language of eternal punishment. As we compare Rev. 20:10 and Matt. 25:41, the point cannot be missed. Rather than face the horrors of hell, a man should be willing to cut off his hand, his foot, or gouge out an eye (vv. 43, 45, 47). But these warnings make no sense if hell is what some maintain. What does it matter to me if the worm never dies, if I do? What does it matter to me if the fire never goes out, if I can “go out”?
We come to the sacrifice taking us in two directions. Everyone, Jesus says, will be salted with fire, and every sacrifice is salted with salt (v. 49). This is clearly a reference to a requirement of the law, a requirement that the salt of the covenant be remembered (Lev. 2:13). In the sacrificial system, the smoke from the altar ascended before God as a sweet-smelling savor (Gen. 8:20; Ex. 29:18). The ashes from the sacrifice were taken outside the camp. We live before God as living sacrifices (Rom. 12:1-2). With the salt of the covenant applied to us, we are the smoke from the altar of Christ’s sacrifice (2 Cor. 2:15), and it is a sweet savor to God. At the same time, our remaining corruptions are consumed, and the ashes are (thankfully) hauled away.
So have salt in yourselves. Salt is a good thing, but it must keep its saltiness. If it does not, then what could we use to make it salty again (v. 50)? Jesus then concludes the discourse by saying that the disciples must have salt in themselves, and that if they do, they will be at peace among themselves (v. 50). What is this salt? Clearly, in context, the salt is humility — in context, the kind of humility that loves children, humility that receives them, humility that does not strive for carnal preeminence. And this is why our speech should always be gracious, seasoned with salt (Col. 4:6).