I will never forget first time I heard the doctrine of eternal punishment in hell explained to me. I was a sophomore in college, I was converted on a Wednesday evening and the evening after I was invited to attend the Campus Outreach on campus weekly meeting. I went, and loved it. It was the first time I worshiped with other believers, and the first time I had heard preaching as a Christian. When the time came for the campus minister to preach he walked to the lectern and his first words were as follows, “If you truly understand the nature of hell, you’ll become the greatest evangelist in the world.” Those words hit me like a ton of bricks. They’ve permanently left an impression on me, and has by and large shaped my understanding of what it means to be a Christian in a lost and fallen world.
Hell throughout History
In the early Church the doctrine of an eternal hell was embraced and taught. One document, The Shepherd of Hermas account we read, “…the age to come is summer to the righteous, but winter to the sinners. For just as in summer the fruit of each one of the trees appears, and so it is known what kind they are…the heathen and the sinners…will be found to be withered and fruitless in that world, and will be burned as firewood, and will be obvious because their conduct in their life was evil.” So too the early Church father Cyprian states, “The damned will burn forever in hell. Devouring flames will be their eternal portion. Their torments will never decrease or end. Their lamentations will be vain and entreaties ineffective. Their repentance comes too late. They will have to believe in an eternal punishment, as they refused to believe in the eternal life.” Augustine also, in his work City of God says, “The more enjoyment man found in God, the greater was his wickedness in abandoning Him; and he who destroyed in himself a good that might have been eternal, became worthy of eternal evil.”
This belief continued onto the Middle Ages and the Reformation. Thomas Aquinas believed eternal punishment must be infinite in time because wicked finite man cannot endure an infinite punishment in one moment. It was during this period we find the great works depicting the wicked suffering an eternal punishment in Dante’s Divine Comedy, and John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Martin Luther spoke of hell as a fiery oven where the wicked will experience constant judgment and constant pain. Calvin spoke of the punishment inflicted as the fury of God’s might bearing down on those in hell. These thoughts and those similar to them continued to be taught by the Church until the dawn of the nineteenth century and the rise of humanistic modernism in western Europe which came over to America in the twentieth century.
One theologian goes as far to say, “Since 1800 this situation has entirely changed, and no traditional Christian doctrine has been so widely abandoned as that of eternal punishment.” Theologians such as Friedrich Schleiermacher, William Clarke, A.T. Robinson, Karl Barth, and others began teaching that such an eternal judgment is intolerable to the mind and heart of man and that Scripture doesn’t teach it or is just wrong about this. After this a minority view called Annihilationism, which has always been present in corners of the Church, came back into some kind of influence through the largely orthodox theologian John Stott, and some more modern writers such as Edward Fudge. Annihilationism teaches that God’s judgment is sure and wrathful but is not eternal or conscious. Rather, in the judgment God annihilates the wicked for their rejection of the gospel and they cease to be. In this sense the judgment is temporally eternal because from that point on the wicked no longer exist.
This brings us to our present moment in history.
Much of our current time reflects the liberal position believing the Bible to be wrong about hell. The recent survey Ligonier ministries completed shows that only 41% of self identified evangelicals believe hell is a real place. More than half of those who participated in this survey that identified as Christians, believe hell isn’t a real place. This is telling and saddening for sure. Rather than going with the tide of our time, we ought to stand in agreement with the Church of history. Not because we love Church history, though we do, we stand with them because we believe the position of an eternal conscious punishment in hell is an entirely biblical one.
Hell throughout Scripture
A prominent place to see these things is Matthew 25:31-46. In this passage we see in v31-40 the Son of Man will separate the sheep from the goats. On the one hand, the sheep will go into the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world (v34). Why? Because the sheep lived a life characterized by gospel grace before God and man (v35-40). On the other hand the goats will go into hell (v41, v46) for not living a life characterized with gospel grace before God and man. Let’s explore the destination of the goats further.
In Matthew 25:41, 46 Jesus speaking of the goats says, “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘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 go into eternal life.”
First see here that Jesus speaks of hell as if it’s departing from the presence of God. “Depart from me…into eternal fire…” This is why so many have spoken of hell as separation from God. But is that really case? I don’t believe so. I don’t believe hell is separation from God because God is omnipresent, which means there is nowhere God is not. So yes, even in hell, we see the full presence of God. What then is the separation being spoken of here? There is a true separation being spoken of here in v41, but it is not a full separation. I believe it to be a separation from God’s gracious presence, or a separation from His eternal gospel favor. How does this view impact our definition of hell? It makes it not the place of separation from God, but the place where the wicked, apart from the righteousness of Christ come into the full presence of God, who is a consuming fire in His holiness. So in hell the wicked are consumed forever by the direct presence of God’s infinite holiness. In this sense we must recognize that hell is the place where the wicked will be forever and tremendously intimate with the wrath and fury of God.
Second, we see here that hell is permanent. v41 speaks of fire that is ‘eternal.’ v46 speaks of punishment that is also eternal. This passage shows that the reward or the punishment coming to all men will be eternal. This means hell is not a temporary place, it is forever. Similarly 2 Thessalonians 1:9 says those in Hell will experience “eternal” destruction and Mark 9:48 says hell is a place where, “The worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.” The punishment of hell is eternal and forever, and once you’re there you cannot leave.
Third, this passage shows hell is a place of punishment. v46 says the eternal activity going on in hell is ‘punishment.’ Why punishment? Because the goats rejected the gospel, rejected Christ, and rejected His cross. This means the sins of the goats were not atoned for on the cross, and that hell is the place where they will receive the punishment for their sins. A gospel contrast is evident here. Sin is always punished. Sin is either punished on the cross of Christ by Christ, or hell by yourself.
Let me leave you with this. “The dreadfulness of hell deepens our grateful praise for the salvation we have in Jesus Christ. Hell is what we deserve. And hell is what He experienced on the cross in our place. Believing the truth about hell…motivates us to persuade people to be reconciled to God. By God’s grace those of us who are trusting Christ have been rescued from this horrible destiny. How can we love people and refuse to speak plainly to them about the realities of eternal damnation and God’s gracious provision of salvation? Clearer visions of hell will give us greater love for both God and people” (Tom Ascol).