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Eternal Punishment

Category Articles
Date August 31, 2006

There can be no more solemn subject than a lost eternity. Yet, as we are obliged to receive all of God’s revelation, we must believe it. Especially in an age when the word hell is rarely used except as a swear word, we must give the subject due emphasis. Yet one suspects that there is some sense of the reality of eternal punishment behind, for instance, the wish of a victim’s family, as they stand on the steps of a court, that the man just convicted of murder should “rot in hell”. So it is particularly sad when the doctrine of a lost eternity is questioned by men generally counted as Evangelicals, such as Rev John Stott and the late Professor F F Bruce, and not merely by the countless liberal theologians who reject the authority of Scripture.

In a statement on the subject, Dr Stott has written: “Both sides are faced with difficult texts. I am disturbed by the excessive dogmatism of those who claim that only one view is biblical. I plead for a greater humility of judgement. We evangelical people need to give one another liberty in areas in which Scripture is not absolutely plain. F F Bruce wrote to me in 1989 that ‘annihilation is certainly an acceptable interpretation of the relevant New Testament passages’. He added, ‘For myself, I remain agnostic’. My position is similar.” (Timothy Dudley Smith, John Stott A Global Ministry, IVP 2001, p. 354). But in the light of overwhelming Scripture testimony one can only conclude that the difficulties lie less in the interpretation of the relevant passages than in the solemnity of the doctrine.

Apart from particular passages which refer to a lost eternity, we must bear in mind some general principles of Scripture: we are sinners and God is altogether holy. He cannot pass by sin. Habakkuk’s question is still relevant: “Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity: wherefore lookest Thou upon them that deal treacherously, and holdest Thy tongue when the wicked devoureth the man that is more righteous than he?” (1:13). The solution to the prophet’s difficulty is that the punishment is not necessarily inflicted in this life. But Scripture does make it plain that every unrepentant sinner must experience, beyond death, the penal consequences of their iniquities. There is no justification for agnosticism on this point.

Thus W G T Shedd, in his book defending this doctrine, points out: “The fall and eternal ruin of an immortal spirit is the most dreadful event conceivable. That some of God’s rational and self-determined creatures will for ever be in deadly enmity to Him, cannot be thought of without sorrow and awe.” (Doctrine of Endless Punishment, Banner of Truth reprint, 1986, p.v) But we dare not allow the sorrow and the awe to prejudice us against the doctrine. As Shedd points out, “most of the awful imagery in which the sufferings of the lost are described is found in the discourses of our Lord and Saviour. . . . He, the Judge of quick and dead, assumed the responsibility of teaching the doctrine of endless retribution.” (Doctrine of Endless Punishment, Banner of Truth reprint, 1986, p.13) How majestically solemn are the words with which Christ introduced the final section of Matthew 25: “When the Son of man shall come in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then shall He sit upon the throne of His glory: and before Him shall be gathered all nations: and He shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: and He shall set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left”.

From this glorious throne, the glorious Judge will pronounce just sentence in favour of each sheep and against each goat. The sheep will be perfectly holy, with all their transgressions forgiven; so Christ will call them to enjoy eternally the perfect blessedness of the kingdom prepared for them. But the goats will still be sinful and guilty; so they must be sent away with the words: “Depart from Me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels”. We should particularly notice how this passage concludes: “These shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal”. The punishment of the finally ungodly will be as endless as the reward of the righteous, for everlasting and eternal translate the same Greek word.Shedd is clear that there ought to be no difficulty in accepting the Bible’s teaching that the sufferings of hell are eternal: “The mere perusal of Christ’s words when He was upon earth, without note or comment upon them, will convince the unprejudiced that the Redeemer of sinners knew and believed that for impenitent men and devils there is an endless punishment” (Doctrine of Endless Punishment, Banner of Truth reprint, 1986, p.15). Of course Shedd realised that no unconverted reader of the Bible is unprejudiced; he understood the blindness of the natural heart. But the main reason why so many reject the doctrine of a lost eternity is that they wish not to believe it.

A common argument against the existence of hell is that it contradicts the love of God. But with Bible in hand, Dabney shows the fallacy in that approach: “It is .. . . vain to appeal to the paternal benevolence of a father, claiming that God is more tender, and to ask whether any earthly parent is capable of tormenting his own child, however erring, with endless fire. The answer is in such passages as Psalm 50:21: ‘Thou thoughtest that I was altogether such an one as thyself, but I will rebuke thee,’ and by the stubborn fact that this ‘God of Love’ does punish a sinful world, under our eyes, with continual woes, many of them gigantic. How are these dealings to be reconciled with God’s benevolence? By the sufferer’s guilt. Then, if the guilt of any is endless, the benevolence of God may permit them to suffer endlessly.” (Systematic Theology, Banner of Truth reprint, 1985, p.855). And let us be clear that those who endure endless punishment in hell go on sinning endlessly against a holy God.

If we reject the reality of eternal punishment, we are rejecting the authority of the Bible, and of Christ Himself. He repeatedly referred to a lost eternity for a very practical purpose: so that sinners would flee from the wrath to come and escape the eternity of woe which is justly due to them – woe which can only be avoided by faith in Jesus Christ. Salvation is only possible because He, to the eternal glory of the Triune God, suffered in His infinite Person all the awful punishment due to every sinner who will believe.

Let Shedd spell out, as we draw towards a conclusion, some further practical implications of this solemn subject: “The doctrine of eternal perdition . . . is given in charge to the ministry, and to the Church, by the Lord Christ Himself, in His last commission, as a truth to be preached to every creature. If they are false to this trust, His message to the Church of Ephesus is for them: ‘Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent’ (Rev 2:5).”

Shedd goes on, in a strain of powerful reasoning so typical of his writing: “The kindest way therefore for both the preacher and the hearer is to follow the revealed Word of God and teach the plain and exact truth. Eternal perdition is like any other danger. In order to escape danger, one must believe in it. Disbelief of it is sure destruction. To be forewarned is to be forearmed. They who foresee an evil prepare for it and avoid it; but ‘the simple pass on and are punished’. Speaking generally, those who believe that there is a hell, and intelligently fear it, as they are commanded to do by Christ Himself, will escape it; and those who deny that there is a hell, and ridicule it, will fall into it. Hence the minister of Christ must be as plain as Christ, as solemn as Christ, and as tender as Christ, in the announcement of this fearful truth. ‘When He was come near, He beheld the city, and wept over it, saying, If thou hadst known, even thou, at least in this thy day, the things which belong unto thy peace! But now they are hid from thine eyes’ (Luke 19:41,42).” (Doctrine of Endless Punishment, Banner of Truth reprint, 1986, pp. v,vi).

Taken with permission from the Free Presbyterian Magazine August 2006

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