Those who deny eternal punishment are divided into two classes, differing from each other quite substantially. The one professes to believe that all will ultimately be restored and brought into everlasting happiness; these are known as universalists. The other is of the opinion that all who die out of Christ are annihilated—soul and body thoroughly made an end of—and perish like the beast. These are the annihilationists.
Both of these opinions, (for that is all they are), have gained widespread support in our day. Crucially however, they receive no support from God’s Word, the test for every doctrine, theory and creed. Ought not God to have an opinion on the matter? Should not His own infallible Word be the only place to which we should turn in seeking an answer to this question? Men will listen to human logic, human reason, human wisdom, but they will not submit to the teaching and authority of Holy Scripture. They presume to sit in judgement upon what is and what is not worthy of God to do. They imagine that people may live in sin, in folly, in rebellion against God, and in the neglect of His Christ, and after all go unpunished. They take it upon themselves to decide that it is inconsistent with their idea of God to allow such a thing as eternal punishment. They attribute to the government of God what we should consider a weakness in any human government, namely, an inability to punish evil–doers.
The Word of God is sufficient to meet every error; indeed I need refer to only one verse to demolish both universalism and annihilationism. John 3: 36 reads “He that believes on the Son has life eternal, and he that is not subject to the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides upon him.” It meets the deluded universalist by the sweeping and conclusive statement that the unbeliever “shall not see life.” It entirely sets aside the notion of all being restored and eternally saved. Those who refuse to believe the Son shall die in their sins and never see life.
Yet were this all, the annihilationist might say, Exactly so; that is just what I believe. None but those who believe in the Son shall live eternally. Eternal life is only in the Son, and hence, all who die out of Christ shall perish—their souls and bodies be made an end of. Not so, says the Holy Spirit. It is quite true they shall not see life, but—tremendous fact—”the wrath of God abides upon him.” This, beyond all question, flatly contradicts the spurious theory of annihilationism. If the wrath of God is to abide upon the unbeliever, it is utterly impossible that he can be made an end of. Annihilation and abiding wrath are wholly incompatible. We must either erase the word “abides” from the inspired page, or abandon completely the notion of annihilation. To hold the two is out of the question.
Nor does the verse stand alone, somehow isolated and estranged from the rest of the sacred text. The Word of God most clearly and fully teaches the eternity of punishment. The word which is rendered “everlasting” or “eternal” occurs about seventy times in the NT. We shall give some examples: “to be cast into eternal fire”, (Matt. 18: 8), “that I may have life eternal?”, (Matt. 19: 16), “these shall go away into eternal punishment”, (Matt. 25: 46), and in the same verse, “the righteous into life eternal”, “to eternity has no forgiveness; but lies under the guilt of an everlasting sin”, (Mark 3: 29), “ye may be received into the eternal tabernacles”, (Luke 16: 9), “in the coming age life eternal”, (Luke 18: 30), “every one who believes on him may [not perish, but] have life eternal”, (John 3: 15), “whosoever believes on him may not perish, but have life eternal”, (John 3: 16), “he that hears my word, and believes him that has sent me, has life eternal”, (John 5: 24), “according to commandment of the eternal God”, (Rom. 16: 26), “an eternal weight of glory”, (2 Cor. 4.17), “the things that are seen [are] for a time, but those that are not seen eternal”, (2 Cor. 4: 18), “a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens”, (2 Cor. 5: 1), “who shall pay the penalty [of] everlasting destruction from [the] presence of the Lord”, (2 Thess. 1: 9), “and given [us] eternal consolation”, (2 Thess. 2 16), “the salvation which [is] in Christ Jesus with eternal glory”, (2 Tim. 2: 10), “author of eternal salvation”, (Heb. 5: 9), “having found an eternal redemption”, (Heb. 9: 12). “who by the eternal Spirit offered himself spotless to God”, (Heb. 9: 14), “the promise of the eternal inheritance”, (Heb. 9: 15), “who has called you to his eternal glory”, (1 Pet. 5: 10),. “into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ”, (2 Pet. 1: 11), “He is the true God and eternal life”, (1 John 5: 20), “undergoing the judgment of eternal fire”, (Jude 7).
Now I am aware that the opposers of the doctrine of eternal punishment endeavour to prove that the word “eternal” (or “everlasting”), does not mean eternal in the Greek, and this is one reason why I have quoted such a number of passages in which the Greek word aionios occurs, and in which the Holy Spirit applies it in such a variety of ways. The word which is applied to the judgement of the wicked is also applied to the life which believers possess, to the salvation and redemption in which they rejoice, to the glory to which they look forward, to those mansions in which they hope to dwell and to the inheritance which they expect to enjoy. Furthermore, it is applied to God, and to the Spirit. If, therefore, it is maintained that the word “eternal” does not mean eternal when applied to the punishment of the wicked, what security have we that it means eternal when applied to the life, blessedness and glory of the redeemed? What warrant has any one to single out seven instances from the seventy in which the Greek word aionios is used, and say that in those seven it does not mean eternal, but that in all the rest it does? None whatever! No, if we deny eternal punishment, we must deny an eternal anything, inasmuch as it is the same word which is used in every instance to express the idea of endless continuance.
Men may reason as they will about divine benevolence and goodness—about it being inconsistent with the mercy of God to permit such a thing as eternal punishment—as to the strange want of proportion between a few years of sin and an endless eternity of punishment. A single line of Holy Scripture is amply sufficient to sweep away ten thousand such reasonings: “to be cast into the hell of fire, where their worm dies not, and the fire is not quenched”, (Mark 9: 47–48). Solemn statement! Let men beware of trifling with it, or reasoning about it. Let them believe it, and flee from the wrath to come—flee now to the Lord Jesus, who died on Calvary’s cursed tree to deliver us from everlasting burnings.
I attach no weight whatever to the argument drawn from the lack of proportion between a few years of sin and an eternity of woe. This is not the true way to measure the matter. The cross is the only measure by which to reach a true result; and the deniers of eternal punishment offer dishonour to the cross by lowering it into a means of deliverance from a doom which is not eternal in its duration. Did the Lord Jesus shed His precious blood to deliver us from only a temporary Hell? No, sin is so awful, so terrible, that it required an infinite sacrifice, and if that sacrifice were rejected, then an eternal punishment.
What about the idea of it being incompatible with the character of God to allow such a thing as eternal punishment? Many seem to attach great weight to this, and appear to think that eternal misery could never come from the same hand as divine mercy and goodness. However, those who urge this plea seem to forget that there is another side of the question, which must be looked at if a sound conclusion is to be reached. What about divine justice, holiness and truth? Are these things not to be taken into account? Can we base an argument on some of the divine attributes and leave others out? No, we must look at them all. The cross of Christ has harmonised them all. In that cross, God has set forth His perfect love for the sinner; but he has also set forth His perfect hatred of sin. Now if a man deliberately rejects the only way of escape, that perfect remedy, that divine provision, then what is to be done? God cannot let sin into His presence. He is of purer eyes than to behold evil and cannot look on mischief. (See Hab. 1: 13). Will the deniers of eternal punishment tell us what is to be done? How is this question to be settled? They say, by annihilation—that is, by man’s perishing like a beast. This will not do! Let man cast his eye on the page of inspiration and there he sees the tremendous word, ETERNITY! He cannot get rid of it; he cannot shake it off. He is shut up to the solemn fact that he must live forever. When Scripture speaks of eternity then that is what it means. Eternal punishment is eternal punishment. Never can eternal mean temporal, not in Greek, Hebrew or any other language under Heaven.
Well then, what about my sin? This cannot get into God’s presence. God and sin can never be together. This is a fixed principle. God is good, without doubt, and the proof of His goodness is the gift of His Son; but then He is holy, and between holiness and sin there must be an eternal separation. We are thus forced to the solemn conclusion that all who die in their sins, all who die in the rejection of God’s infinite provision for the forgiveness of sins, will have to endure the consequences of those sins in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, (Rev. 21: 8), throughout the countless ages of eternity. “But I say to you, my friends, Fear not those who kill the body and after this have no more that they can do. But I will shew you whom ye shall fear: Fear him who after he has killed has authority to cast into hell; yea, I say to you, Fear him”, (Luke 12: 4–5).
The Ethics of Hell
The doctrine of eternal punishment is rejected by many professing Christians on purely ethical grounds. That sin is to be punished they reluctantly admit, but that it will be punished forever they find completely unacceptable. The sentence (to them) seems out of all proportion to the crime and irreconcilable with the revelation that “God is love” (1 John 4: 8).
It is not that the Bible is not explicit on the subject. Indeed, Christ Himself speaks more than any other on the unending nature of hell–fire. But man is not interested in clarity—only in what he thinks Scripture ought to say. The Word of God is to be seen through the prism of human notions of God, sin and salvation rather than being allowed to speak for itself. “Eternal punishment” (Matt. 25: 46, my emphasis) seems plain enough—until we are haughtily informed that eternal no longer means eternal! Where is the truth in all this? Are we really to place our faith as regards the future on the shifting sands of man’s religious opinions—or on the solid rock of God’s revelation? Which is more worthy of our trust? These are not just philosophical questions: give up the Bible as regards hell and you have no grounds for being certain of heaven either! Christianity stands or falls on the Scriptures being the literal words of God.
Man is a fallen being with an inadequate sense of the gravity of sin in the sight of a holy God. He has no competency to judge what a just sentence as regards sin could be. Why? Because “the heart is deceitful above all things, and incurable” (Jer. 17: 9). Can an offender, an offender whose heart and mind are depraved, be an unprejudiced and balanced judge in his own cause? Not if the fall of man is a reality. Man after the flesh has simply no appreciation whatsoever of the offence of sin to God. But if man is thereby disqualified, what can we say of God? Is He able to arrive at a just sentence for the sinner, or, in the words of Abram, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen. 18: 25) Indeed He will, for “true and righteous” (Rev. 16: 7) are His judgments. Find fault with the idea of hell and you are, in effect, finding fault with God. But what right has the sinner to question the judgments of the holy and righteous God? None.
God’s estimate of sin is far beyond our own. But that estimate is not only seen in the lake of fire that burns forever, but also in what took place at the Cross of Christ. No sacrifice could pay the penalty of sin except the sacrifice that God Himself provided. As the well–known verse says “God so loved the world, that he gave his only–begotten Son, that whosoever believes on him may not perish, but have life eternal” (John 3: 16). God is “not willing that any should perish” (2 Pet. 3: 9––my emphasis). Thus if any find themselves in hell it is not because of the vindictiveness of God—but rather on account of their rejection of the salvation so richly provided.