The doctrine of eternal punishment is one that is widely known, or at least the broad outline of the doctrine is widely known. That is, if you were to ask the average person what “Hell” is, they would be able to reply that it was the purported place of punishment in the afterlife. And this is correct, as far as it goes. The problem is that this doesn’t go very far in describing something that goes on forever.
The Simple Fact of It:
Despite the best attempts of our new gangs of exegetical ameliorators—men who walk around the perimeters of the doctrine of damnation with Greek word study spritzer bottles, trying to cool it off a bit—the teaching of Scripture on the final and ultimate wrath of God remains what it has always been—plain, obvious, and undeniable.
“Wherefore if thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off, and cast them from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire” (Matt. 18:8).
“And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire” (Rev. 20:15).
“Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat” (Matt. 7:13).
“What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction” (Rom. 9:22).
“He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him” (John 3:36).
And there are many other passages in Scripture to the same effect, and all of them as gray as cold steel.
If God had wanted the church to come to a conclusion that some very pleasant destiny awaits us all, and that a quiet annihilation was to be the fate of the very worst, then surely He sought to inculcate this doctrine among us in a strange, roundabout, and counterproductive way. If you don’t want people thinking that their destiny could include being eaten by worms everlastingly, then why warn them about the place where the worm does not die (Mark 9:44)? If you don’t want them thinking in terms of eternal fire, then why did you bring the eternal fire up (Matt. 25:41)? If you didn’t want people thinking of Hell as a place where you might be carried, bound hand and foot, then why use illustrations involving those who were found hand and foot (Matt. 22:13)?
So we begin with the plain fact of Hell. Hell is an expression of the final and complete outpouring of God’s wrath on human unbelief and rebellion. Since the fall of man, the condition of being under that wrath is humanity’s baseline condition. If a man does not believe, then the wrath of God remains on him (John 3:36). Before we come to faith, we are by nature objects of wrath, just as the others (Eph. 2:3). We do not need to achieve damnation; we are damned already. We may, by the grace of Christ, escape damnation, but this is a very different thing, as we will see shortly.
The word inexcusable occurs twice in the New Testament, both places in the early part of Romans. When we say that something is inexcusable, we mean that it is really bad—awful. The Greek word for it is anapologetos, and the apostle Paul uses it twice—once in Romans 1 and then again in Romans 2.
In the first instance, he says that those who live lives of moral defiance, in the light of what every man knows about God and His character from the creation, and whether they admit it or not, are men who are “without excuse” (Rom. 1:20). In the second instance, Paul argues that men are without excuse because they judge other men according to a standard they refuse to live by themselves (Rom. 2:1).
So the two things that are inexcusable according to Paul are, first, refusal to live by what God declares through natural revelation in creation, and second, insistence upon applying that same standard to other people. “Natural revelation can’t tell me what to do, and this same natural revelation is most certainly binding on you.”
This iniquitous approach to moral standards—binding for thee, but not for me—is sufficient to secure a righteous and holy damnation for every mother’s son of us.
Suppose God had an invisible digital recorder that hangs around every person’s neck. This is one high-tech digital recorder in that it only records moral condemnations of other people, whenever we happen to make them. “I can’t believe he promised . . .” “That was a gross violation of trust . . .” “That slut . . .”
Suppose further that God takes these recordings, and from each one He derives a moral code to live by, and this code is made up entirely of the demands we made upon other people. And then, as the Day of Judgment arrives, He determines to judge each one of us by that code. Will any of us fare any better if it were to be done this way? Not a bit of it. All of us, every one of us, would be damned to Hell on the simple basis of what we said everyone else ought to be doing. In short, we would all be condemned to Hell on the basis of our inexcusable behavior—applying to absolutely everyone else what we refused to live by ourselves.
This is our condition. This is what we are like. This is the problem. All of us are damned in principle, and the question is whether any can be rescued from it. It is not as though we are in some in-between spot, deciding whether to go in the saved or the damned direction. We are objects of wrath now.
The Kind of People Who Go There:
When the New Testament talks about delivering the people who are headed down to the dust of death, it does not deal in things like baptism, or singing in the choir, or the legacy of a godly family, or getting them to homeschool, or baking whole grain breads, or eating healthy, or engaging with culture. It talks about the cross of Jesus Christ, and by this I do not mean the cross of Jesus Christ used as though you were warding off vampires.
Many years ago I was talking to a young woman, and I asked her about the gospel. Her answers were solid—catechism pure. I asked for gospel and I heard gospel repeated back. But then I asked her where she would go if she dropped dead right then. “Oh, I would go to Heaven,” she said. “Why?” I asked. “Oh, I am a good person. I sing in the choir. I work with 4-H.”
The default mode of the sinful human heart is to trust in self. This self-trust can be decorated in any number of ways, some of them orthodox, but when it comes down to the point the trust is in self. This is even the case when that self is riddled with the kind of corruptions that Scripture tells us is not going to inherit the kingdom.
“Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal. 5:19–21).
“Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9–10).
So what kind of people—baptized-and-in-the-church people—are not going to inherit the kingdom of God? What kind of people clean up on the outside real nice when they go to church, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones? They are Christians of a sort, in that they obviously belong to the visible church, and are equally obviously part of the covenant, but what sort of Christian are they? They are the kind who are going to Hell.
Greedy businessman Christian. Motel porn Christian. Sharp dealer Christian. Foul mouthed Christian. Effeminate Christian. Quarrelsome Christian. Envy-ridden Christian. Nightclub scene Christian. False accuser on the Internet Christian. And also keep in mind that it is possible for someone to be in the Christian scene and thus prevented from doing any of these things in a flamboyant way, doing them anonymously, or secretly, or internally, and yet be the kind of person who keeps all of these sorts of sins as a morsel under his tongue. He thinks of them when he rises up, when he walks along the road, and when he lies down.
“Incline not my heart to any evil thing, to practise wicked works with men that work iniquity: and let me not eat of their dainties” (Ps. 141:4).
The Nature of Symbols:
So a lot of evangelical Christians are hell-bound. This is where a large part of the exegetical energy to find a “way of escape” is coming from. One of those escapes is to learn that much of the final eschatological language of Scripture is “symbolic.” Whew! That was a close one!
Now it is quite true that the final wrath of God is described for us under various figures, some of which seem to us to conflict with each other, or to somehow be in tension. How can a lake of fire be an outer darkness? How can eternal pain be a final destruction?
When we use symbolic language to describe a great thing, we must always keep in mind the fact that the symbol is always less than the reality. What is greater—the nation or the flag that represents that nation? Of course the nation is the represented reality, and is obviously the greater. What is greater—the marriage or the ring on the finger that represents the marriage? Of course the marriage is the represented reality, and is obviously much greater than a small piece of metal.
If the language representing Hell to us in Scripture is literal, then it is a terrible place to be. If the language representing Hell to us is symbolic, that that means the reality is far, far worse than that. If it is symbolic, then that means the images of “excruciating pain forever” are a small attempt to get at something so appalling that the unenlightened mind collapses in horror.
When we understand the language, it is clear Scripture intends for us to recoil in horror. Left out of the reasonable responses would be an interpretation of damnation that is actually pretty close to the Buddhist view of salvation. Annihilation is close enough to Nirvana for government work. No good reading of the text can elicit a response opposite that which was clearly intended by the text.
Beer and All My Friends:
Another response is to try to brazen it out. Unbelievers do this openly, but the unbelieving heart inside the church will attempt some variant of it, at least. Who of us has not heard unbelievers putting off this ultimate question off with a lame joke and an even lamer laugh. “Oh, I don’t mind going to Hell. All my friends will be there.” Or “Why wouldn’t I want to go to Hell? That’s where all the beer is going to be.”
Friendship? In the outer darkness? Unless you can become friends with the eternal echoes of your own petulant voice, there are no friends there. There is no such thing as friendship or companionship at all any more, and all the beer is going to be in Heaven.
We are an insolent and slick generation. When unbelievers talk about the afterlife their great stumper question for us is “how can a just God send people to Hell?” We truly have inverted right and wrong, sweet and bitter, up and down (Is. 5:20). The problem of Hell presents no problem to the justice of God whatsoever, and the reason for this is the fact that Hell is nothing but the justice of God. The problem for God’s justice was presented by the reality of Heaven for sinners, and that very real problem required a crucifixion to solve.
We are given no indication in Scripture that your former friends and loved ones will be looking on as you are condemned, bound, and dragged off. But if they are, you can be assured that they will have no troubles with the just sentence of God that has been pronounced over you. Their faces will be pitiless, and that will be as it should be. There is one place in the entire New Testament where the saints of God cry out, “Hallelujah,” and that is when they are watching the smoke of Babylon’s destruction ascend into the sky forever and ever (Rev. 19:3). Perhaps this is why we are told to have pity on those who are perishing now. A time is coming when pity is the last thing a righteous soul would ever want to extend.
And when you are bound and carried off, you will not be delivered in the midst of the fiery furnace the way Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were. And the angels who carry you there will not be consumed themselves, the way Nebuchadnezzar’s men were. And God’s anger with you will never cool down, the way Nebuchadnezzar’s did.
In salvation, there will be no more tears—every tear will be wiped away (Rev. 21:4). In Hell, there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt. 8:12). In Hell, it is right that there be weeping and gnashing of teeth. It requires no apology from Heaven, or from the company of the redeemed. It is not that we believe in the doctrine of eternal damnation, but are suitably sheepish about it. A heartfelt apology is owed, but from the damned, which they absolutely refuse to do, which is why they are damned.
What You Are Becoming:
Everyone in the world is in the process of becoming someone. Salvation is the process of being increasingly conformed to the image of the Lord Jesus Christ—becoming an actual someone, becoming a real human being. Damnation is the final descent into an inchoate, disintegrated agonistic whine—having insisted through long years that the self be simultaneously left alone and also promoted to the level of importance it deserves. That self finally receives the fruition of that demand, and achieves its ultimate deserved value, which is zero. They received what they demanded, and it included leanness to the soul (Ps. 106:15).
Getting Evangelicals Saved:
So all of us are in process. We are either in the process of coming together or in the process of falling apart.
Throughout the month of November, we have been addressing a host of problems that confront us in this generation. The problems are enormous, and the biblical standards applied to them is obvious. We have these problems despite having a population of millions of professing evangelical Christians, for many of whom the biblical responses are not obvious. How is this even possible?
Scholars disagree. Not everyone holds to your view of that passage. The original Greek word says otherwise. The Old Testament allowed for slavery. It is self-evident that same-sex attracted persons in our churches need to be provided a safe space from Leviticus, and from those who still believe Leviticus. Kinder, gentler. Every sermon needs to be rubbed down beforehand with as many emollients as it can absorb, using no fewer than two tubes. Every pronouncement on social issues from evangelical thought leaders requires three tubes.
Scripture speaks of those who hold to the form of godliness, but who deny the power of it (2 Tim. 3:5). That is who we are, in a nutshell. Our problem is that we need to get evangelicals saved. The born-againers need to be born again.
The church is impotent because it is trying to walk two paths at the same time. The path outlined by Scripture, the way that is the Lord Jesus Himself, is one road. The other is where the carnal, natural, sinful, unregenerate heart always wants to go, which is off the path, and down to the orgy porgy. The only thing capable of addressing this discrepancy is the new birth—a massive reformation and revival. No man can serve two masters, Jesus said. He did not say “no man can serve two masters, except for evangelicals who are engaging with culture.”
So the reason evangelicals almost never talk about Hell anymore is because so many of them are going there. Stands to reason, when you think about it.
Because we are supposedly “conservative,” this means we are formally committed to the ethical standards of Scripture, which the natural man naturally hates, and is naturally bewildered by. These standards of Scripture include plain doctrines which we are required to live by, and to defend with a passionate love. When we are unconverted, and our ranks are filling up with natural men, and we are on a pilgrimage to the darkness where none of these standards are loved at all, in any way, it should not be surprising when we get off message, and get the whole thing muddled.
Why are we so blind? Why are we groping along when the Scriptures are so plain, so clear? Why are so many leading Bible teachers yelling at us from the ditch?
But instead of spending any more time lamenting how many Israelites are suffering from snake bite here in our homemade wilderness, perhaps it is time to raise up the bronze serpent (John 3:14). Preach Him. Declare Him. Look to Him.
I Was Told There Would be Free Books:
Today’s free book is a primer on child-rearing, Why Children Matter. Some of the basic scriptural outlines are sketched and explained.
Everyone, thanks for your participation in all of this November business, and thank you especially for taking full advantage of all the download opportunities. We think the world of you all.