San Jose Mercury News Article, January 18, 1996.
Church Panel Says hell is where souls vanish, not suffer
LONDON (AP)---A Church of England commission has rejected the idea of hell as a place of fire, pitchforks and screams of unending agony, describing it instead as annihilation for all who reject the love of God.
"Whether there be any who do so choose, only God knows," said a report by the church's Doctrine Commission, titled "The Mystery of Salvation."
Rejecting the medieval vision of the under world, the report said: "Christians have professed appalling theologies which made God into a sadistic monster and left searing psychological scars on many."
The report, released last week, said belief in everlasting punishment had steadily faded.
"There are many reasons for this change, but amongst them have been the moral protest from both within and without the Christian faith against a religion of fear, and a growing sense that the picture of a God who consigned millions to eternal torment was far removed from the revelation of God's love in Christ," the report said.
"Hell is not eternal torment, but it is the final and irrevocable choosing of that which is opposed to God so completely and so absolutely that the only end is total non-being."
That is much like the definition of hell in the catechism of the U.S. Episcopal Church: "eternal death in our rejection of God."
Both churches are part of the Anglican Communion but go their own ways on doctrine.
The catechism of the Roman Catholic Church says that "the chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God," but it also holds that the damned "suffer the punishments of hell, 'eternal fire.'"
The Very Rev. Tom Wright, dean of Lichfield Cathedral and a member of the Doctrine Commission, said its definition of hell was not new. "Indeed, it was a kind of mediating position, as you might expect in classic Anglican style," he said in an interview. "Because on the one hand, these days there are lots of people within Anglicanism who would want to be some kind of universalist and say, well, anyway, God is going to save everybody," he said.
"On the other there is a strong conservative (group)---probably just a minority---who would say it is eternal torment, punishment and fire and all that stuff."
A Gallup Poll last March found that 24 percent of Britons believe in hell---as many as believed in reincarnation. About half believed in heaven and 60 percent believed in God. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points.
The above article makes no mention of the numerous Biblical
passages one must take into consideration in deciding what happens
after death to those who do not believe. The issue of annihilation
of the lost after death is not a new issue in theology. It has
been a minority position among Christians since the First Century.
However, is truth arrived at by consensus? No, not by any means,
"Let God be true though every man be false," writes
the Apostle Paul (Romans 3:4).
This paper attempts a general discussion of some of the factors involved in gaining a biblical understanding of the state of existence which exists after physical death. One thing immediately clear from the Bible is that the death of the body does not immediately end one's existence or one's consciousness. Neither does the Bible support the concept of reincarnation or a second chance for salvation after death occurs,
"...And just as it is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him." (Hebrews 9:27-28).
The Bible speaks of two levels of death, physical death, i.e., the death of the body and "the second death," which is associated with permanent banishment from the presence of God in what we normally think of as hell. Encouraging his disciples when he sent them out on a trial mission Jesus said,
"And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father's will. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. So every one who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven; but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven." (Matthew 10:28-33)
The "second death" is mentioned four times in the book of the Revelation:
To better understand the state of being of those who are lost
I find it helpful to look first at how death came into the world,
how death effects all men, what God has done to solve the problem
of death, how God Himself suffers and identifies with man, and
related issues. At the end of this essay I've added an essay from
a standard evangelical theological encyclopedia for the sake of
|Most Christians would agree with C. S. Lewis when he says [of the doctrine of the Final Judgment], "There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power". But we cannot do so, for two reasons: first, because it enjoys the full support of Christ's own teaching; and second, because it makes a good deal of sense. If the gospel is extended to us for our acceptance, it must be possible also to reject and refuse it. The alternative would be for God to compel an affirmative response. It would be nice to be able to say that all will be saved, but the question arises, Does everyone want to be saved? What would love for God be like if it were coerced? There is a hell because God respects our freedom and takes our decisions seriously -- more seriously, perhaps, than we would sometimes wish. God wants to see hell completely empty; but if it is not, He cannot be blamed. The door is locked only on the inside. It is not Christians but the unrepentant who "want" it [to be locked]. ---Clark H. Pinnock, Reason Enough |
Genesis describes man as an original creation of God, making
use of the rare Hebrew word bara which is only used in
the Old Testament of God of God's creative work. The body of man
was formed from the dust into the earth, but God breathed spirit,
"the breath of life," into Adam's inert form causing
him to spring into being as a living (nephesh) being: body,
soul and spirit. As such man was designed to live simultaneously
in two worlds---to inhabit the material and the spiritual realms
of creation. See:
The Uniqueness of Creation Week: (Genesis 1),
Adam's Account of Creation and the Fall: (Genesis 2-3),
God has made man very much like himself---and God is a Spirit. We live in, inhabit, dwell in a physical body, but the real true self, the real you, the real me, is invisible.
Bible Teacher Chuck Missler of Koinonia House uses the following analogy, which I will attempt to paraphrase:
A standard computer diskette weighs approximately 0.8 of an ounce when you buy it at the store. It is capable of holding more than a megabyte of information---detailed instructions containing a wealth of useful information.
My question is, "How much does the diskette weigh after you have filled it with information?" Exactly correct, it still weighs 0.8 of an ounce! My point is, you and I are mostly software! The software is eternal. One of these days very soon we (Christians) are scheduled for an upgrade."
If most of who we are is "software" or spirit, then
it is by no means clear that spiritual entities can be removed
from existence once having been created, whereas mere bodies can
Moreover, the spiritual world runs on a completely different time frame from our usual concepts of time in the physical world. See Time and Eternity
A key to understanding the "afterlife" is to recognize that death in the Bible is not a term describing extinction of consciousness or cessation of existence. Death is basically separation from God. This is because God is not only the source of life He is life itself. All of God's living creations: plants, animals, man derive their life directly or indirectly from God. Biological life owes its sustaining energy to spiritual energy, to spiritual life from God. This is why there is such great mystery between a living cell and a dead one, between a living person and a corpse.
"the body without the spirit is dead...",
says James the brother of Jesus. (James 2:26)
The fall of the angels, the fall and ruin of creation and of man is the subject of other essays and will not be repeated here. See:
The Ruin of Creation,
The Relationship between Sin and Death in Genesis, by James Stambaugh,
Accidents and Disasters: Does God Care?,
What is the Human Condition?
"But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 'For God has put all things in subjection under his feet.' But when it says, 'All things are put in subjection under him,' it is plain that he is excepted who put all things under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things under him, that God may be everything to every one." (1 Corinthians 15:20-28)
The Bible is full of evidence that both the spiritual dimension
and human society are today influenced by an active and pernicious
evil agency. The old creation has been ruined because of active
evil perpetrated by fallen angels. Both the heavens and the material
universe have become flawed and corrupted. Some of the laws of
physics we now take for granted were evidently different in the
past. Evil in the heavens means that malevolent spiritual beings,
having great influence in the universe have access to the throne
of God and to territories beyond the earth as well. Satan does
not rule in hell, as popular cartoons usually suggest. As the
prince of the power of the air he has access to heaven. As the
god of this age he rules over the fallen social order of the nations.
Satan rules in the activities of men; however, only with permission from God. The Evil One and the fallen angels are not in charge of hell, contrary to popular thought. He is completely in subjection to God and can not go beyond boundaries established by God. Satan's pervasive influence on active evil influencing human affairs is temporary and coming to an end. In fact, the doom and fate of the Evil One has already been sealed in eternity. The victory of Jesus on the cross was a cosmic, all-encompassing one:
[God] has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities---all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent. For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. And you, who once were estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him...(Colossians 1:13-22)
We who live constrained in time can rest assured that a bright,
new world lies ahead for all who follow Jesus as Lord. A just
and holy God cannot tolerate the present world situation forever,
but must, and will, intervene and change the status quo. One such
direct intervention has already occurred, at the time of the Flood
of Noah. God's next moves will be more grand, terrible, and awesome
indeed. He reigns over the entire universe always, but He does
not yet rule on the earth. The day of Christ's rule on earth is
Man is fallen, human evil is a reality. It is amazing how everyone
seems intent on denying what should be perfectly obvious. Every
one of us suffers from the effects of sin in his or her own person.
Our very mortality, the fact that we begin to die as soon as we
are born, attests to the fall of our forefather Adam, "Sin
came into the world through one man and death through sin, and
so death spread to all men because all men sinned--" (Romans
5:12). Even those of us who know Jesus Christ as Lord and who
experience his renewing life in us (Rom. 8:11) live in physical
bodies, bodies that are not yet redeemed. Non-Christians are described
in the Bible as "dead in trespasses and sins," so in
one sense they cannot be expected to live moral and godly lives
by nature. The power to live a moral life comes from God as a
gift, as does inherent rightness which is imputed to us when we
Becoming a Christian does not eliminate sin, rather, conversion to Christ is the time the real battle begins. Christians find themselves subjected to temptations and inclinations towards evil through three mechanisms. The Bible calls them "the flesh, the world, and the devil." However, neither the body, nor matter, nor things in the material world are, in and of themselves, evil.
The flesh might better be translated "the self-life." The seat of the flesh lies in the as-yet-unredeemed physical body of man, but it is Satan who energizes and empowers the lusts of the flesh we all experience. The enemy seeks to draw us away from dependence upon the indwelling Lord Jesus, this produces self-centeredness, which is how the flesh operates. The flesh and the world are Satan's main instruments in this process. The flesh, according to the Bible, has both "good" and "bad" aspects. The flesh always springs to life when a Christian tries to live his life by self-effort---rather than by dependence upon his indwelling Lord. Christians are free to "walk after the flesh" but admonished instead to "put to death the deeds of the body" and to "sow by the Spirit" since there are inevitable consequences for evil or for good depending on all our daily choices.
The "world," as the New Testament uses the term, is not the world of nature, but culture, custom, tradition, and human society as dominated by Satan. The Greek word cosmos, translated "world" means "ornament, decoration, arrangement." Cosmos gives us our English word "cosmetics." Hence worldliness is a concern for external appearances more than inner content and quality. The world system is outwardly religious, scientific, cultured and elegant. Inwardly it seethes with national and commercial rivalries. The influence of the "world" on a follower of Christ shows up in the following ways: a conformity to cultural norms or traditions and stifles individuality, the use of force, greed, ambition and warfare to accomplish objectives, the use of financial reward, position, power or social status as a important aspect of identity. The world cares nothing for the worth of the individual or his uniqueness, promotes myths and illusions which appeal to human vanity and pride, diverts attention from spiritual values by appeals to pursue pleasure, pride (vainglory), or to power, is permissive in regard to sexual, moral and ethical values to encourage self-indulgence, makes an appeal to immediate pleasure rather than long-term goals, ignores eternal values and invisible realities, offers false philosophies and value systems to support its goals. The root problem behind worldly values is pride. The world exalts man, his abilities and his supposed "progress"---e.g. through the myth of social evolution, glosses over and hides suffering, death, poverty the depravity of man, and accountability to God, seeks to unify mankind under an atheistic humanistic or pantheistic banner, and emphasizes pluralism while denying Biblical absolutes. Worldly philosophy teaches human progress and advancement through better education or social welfare.
The third enemy of man is Satan. The Devil is "the god of this world" or "age." He does not preside over hell, but over the earth, that is, over society. He has access to heaven. As a "liar and a murderer from the beginning," Satan seeks to twist, warp, cripple and destroy man, and to further ruin God's creation. His basic appeal is to persuade men to be their own gods, to be self-sufficient, to attempt mastery of their own fates and destinies. Satan is not equal to god, and must obtain permission from God for all that he does. He is clever, deceitful, treacherous, and man's deadly enemy. (C. S. Lewis, Screwtape Letters is an excellent fictional story of conversations between the devils---revealing much about the stratagems of Satan and his devices).
The good news of the Bible is that God has already solved the problem of evil in both dimensions, that is, "in heaven" and "on earth". This is why the theme of victory, triumph, and hope pervades the New Testament. "...I would have you wise as to what is good and guileless as to what is evil; then the God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet." writes Paul (Romans 16: 19-20) To the Corinthians he says, "For he (Jesus) must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 'For God has put all things under his feet.'" (1 Corinthians 15:25-27)
For further details on the flesh and the world and the devil see, Entering God's Rest
The solution to the cosmic problem could not, cannot, and did
not come from human skills, ingenuity, or meritorious efforts.
It is the Creator Himself who made plans from the beginning of
time for the solution of man's terrible plight. In due season,
"...when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son,
born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under
the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons." God
executed those plans according to His own timing and pre-planning.
What God did was to enter the human race in the Person of the
Son, as a perfect, sinless man. Jesus "who, though he was
in the form (morphe) of God, did not count equality with
God a thing to be grasped, but emptied (ekenosen) himself,
taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.
And being found (schemati) in human form (homoiomati)
he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death
on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed
on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of
Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under
the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father." (Philippians 2:6-11) Jesus
became a substitute for each one of us, a sin-bearer, a reconciler.
He is also called "the Author (archegos) and Finisher
of our Faith" (Heb. 12:2). By a voluntary act the Son of
God chose to become a man, to be an obedient servant, and to do
everything in dependence upon the Father who indwellt Him.
This passage in Philippians is of great importance to our understanding the nature of God and the radical solution to sin God made in the incarnation of Christ. The early church wrestled over the issue of whether Christ had one nature or two (the problem of the "hypostatic union"), however nearly all Christians today agree that this passage states that Jesus Christ is both fully God and fully man. From His own words and life as seen in the Gospels, we can see that Jesus lived His entire life on earth by faith in total dependence upon the Father who dwelt in Him, and that He did not, while He was on earth, exercise His sovereign power as God the Son. This right and privilege (that of acting as Sovereign God), in addition to His exalted and splendorous place beside the Father, were temporarily and voluntarily set aside. The Son of God became a man and die as a substitute for the sins of the world. Having now accomplished the work of the cross and having been raised from the dead, Jesus now sits at the "Right hand of the Majesty on High." He has actually gained a more exalted position in the universe than He held before, if such a thing is possible for us to imagine. A.W. Tozer wrote:
"The teaching of the New Testament is that now, at this very moment, there is a Man in heaven appearing in the presence of God for us. He is as certainly a man as was Adam or Moses or Paul; he is a man glorified, but his glorification did not de-humanize him. Today he is a real man, of the race of mankind, bearing our lineaments and dimensions, a visible and audible man, whom any other man would recognize instantly as one of us. But more than this, he is the heir of all things, Lord of all lords, head of the church, firstborn of the new creation. He is the way to God, the life of the believer, the hope of Israel, and the high priest of every true worshiper. He holds the keys of death and hell, and stands as advocate and surety for everyone who believes on him in truth. Salvation comes not by accepting the finished work, or deciding for Christ; it comes by believing on the Lord Jesus Christ, the whole, living, victorious Lord who, as God and man, fought our fight and won it, accepted our debt as his own and paid it, took our sins and died under them, and rose again to set us free. This is the true Christ; nothing less will do."
Arthur Custance (Ref. 1) makes a case that original sin may
very well be transmitted biologically from generation to generation
through the male sperm, rather than through the female ovum. Custance
took care to defend his premises thoroughly. His careful scholarship
and his regular Doorway Papers earned him a respected place in
Christian circles before his death a few years ago. The virgin
birth, Custance believed, allowed Jesus to be born of Mary free
from all sin so as to become a "lamb without spot or blemish,"
"tempted in every way, just as we are, yet without sin."
Scripture also speaks of Jesus as "The Lamb slain before
the foundation of the world." If original sin is transmitted
genetically by the male sperm and not by the female ovum, then
Mary, though she herself was a forgiven sinner and a mortal daughter
of Adam and Eve, could give birth to a sinless son through the
overshadowing of the Holy Spirit without ordinary fertilization
by her husband's seed.
The incarnation, the life, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus the Son of God is an awesome intrusion into our limited space-time domain. These events which we see as merely historic in our time frame constitute an eternal event, a transaction (known in theology as "the eternal covenant") between the Father and the Son, which really takes place in eternity, outside of time. The prophet Isaiah records amazing "conversations" outside of time between God the Father and His servant the Messiah, (Isaiah was written about 700 years before Jesus was born) For example Isaiah 49 says:
Listen to me, O coastlands, and hearken, you peoples from afar. The LORD called me (Messiah) from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name. He made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me away. And he said to me, 'You are my servant, Israel, (here the Messiah is spoken of as the true Israel) in whom I will be glorified.' But I (Messiah) said, 'I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my right is with the LORD, and my recompense with my God.' And now the LORD says, who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him, for I am honored in the eyes of the LORD, and my God has become my strength---he says: 'It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.' Thus says the LORD, the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One, to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, the servant of rulers: 'Kings shall see and arise; princes, and they shall prostrate themselves; because of the LORD, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.'" (1-7)
Arthur Custance's argument about the mechanism by which sin
may be genetically transmitted is a very reasonable one and helps
us to understand why the blood line of the promise through legitimate
heirs from Eve down through Mary is uninterrupted, while only
the Kingly promise is preserved from Abraham to Joseph. The conception
of Jesus in the womb of Mary by the Holy Spirit interrupted the
chain of genetic links beginning with the fall, allowing a descendant
of Adam to be born into the world free from original sin. The
perfect obedience of Jesus during His life on earth also was necessary
to assure that He reached the cross as a fully qualified sin-offering.
Scripture emphasizes the humanity of the Messiah as fully as it
does His Deity. The Old Testament is replete with references to
the Messiah as the "root out of dry ground," "the
seed of David," "the suffering servant of the LORD,"
and so on.
In Scripture, when God has something important to say, it is
sometimes repeated. Usually one repetition is sufficient to tell
us to pay attention, as when Jesus would begin a statement with
the words "Truly, Truly I say to you..." (In the original
language the word "truly" is actually the word Amen.
"Amen, amen, I say to you...). Scripture repeats something
three times in a row to make very certain we understand, for example,
the central importance of the holiness of God among all His other
attributes. Only a few times does Scripture repeat something three
times for emphasis. When it comes to the life of Jesus---His temptations,
betrayal, trial, death and resurrection---four, not three, Gospels
were written. Surely this strategy by the Holy Spirit is intended
to help us see the great importance of God becoming a man, to
see that "...in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself,
not counting their trespasses against them..." (2 Corinthians
The subject of the cross of Christ is all-too-frequently neglected or even crowded out of Christianity by other less "offensive" aspects of theology and Bible study. Not only is the subject of the Cross all about the death of Jesus on our behalf, but also it points to the fact that we, too, must be put to death, in Christ, on that same cross, to gain eternal life. Our crucifixion with Christ shows us that there is nothing in the old creation, in the first Adam, that can be saved apart from death. Paul writes, "I have been crucified with Christ; nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me, and the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if justification came by the law, then Christ died to no avail." (Galatians 2:20-21).
A.W. Tozer writes,
The cross is the symbol of death. It stands for the abrupt, violent end of the human being. The man in Roman times who took up his cross and started down the road had already said good-bye to his friends. He was not coming back. He was not going out to have his life redirected. He was going out to have it ended. The cross made no compromise, modified nothing, spared nothing. It slew all of the man completely and for good. It did not try to keep on good terms with its victim. it struck swift and hard and when it had finished its work the man was no more. That evangelism which draws friendly parallels between the ways of God and the ways of man is false to the Bible and cruel to the soul of the hearers. The faith of Christ does not parallel the world. It intersects it. In coming to Christ we do not bring our life up on to a higher plane. We leave it at a cross. The grain of wheat must fall into the ground and die. That is the beginning of the gospel.
While writing to encourage the Christians in the early church at Colossae, the Apostle Paul reveals to them some of the mighty once-for-all-time accomplishments of Jesus on the cross:
"As therefore you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so live in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving. See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits (stoicheia) of the universe, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fulness of deity dwells bodily (permanently), and you have come to fulness of life in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ; and you were buried with him in (the) baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, having canceled the (legal) bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside (blotted out), nailing it to the cross. He disarmed (stripped of power and authority) the principalities and powers (in the heavenly places) and made a public example (spectacle) of them, (bodily) triumphing over them in him." (Colossians 2: 6-15)
The above passage reveals that not only did Jesus take upon
Himself the sins of the world when He died for us on the cross,
but He also met fully the onslaught of demons, fallen angels,
and all the power of evil forces in the heavens as well, disarming
all of them completely. His victory over man's greatest enemy,
death, is boldly stated in the letter to the Hebrews: "Since
therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise
partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy
him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver
all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage."
(Hebrews 2:14,15) In speaking to the Apostle John from the heavens,
Jesus sent these words to mankind: "Fear not, I am the first
and the last, and the living one; I died, and behold I am alive
for evermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades." (Revelation
Jesus, on the cross, also won back any and all claims Satan had on man, or the earth, or as an authority of any kind in the heavens. If, for example, Satan claimed to hold the title deed of the earth (having gained it because of Adam's fall) that deed now belongs to Jesus as one of the results of His work on the cross. (This is known as the "ransom" work of Christ on the cross). Satan's destruction, too, was accomplished on the cross, outside of time, for which we await now only the final outworkings in history. This unseen and invisible victory over cosmic evil on the cross is yet another reason why Jesus alone is qualified to receive from the Father all honor and power and glory:
"And I (John) saw in the right hand of him who was seated on the throne a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals; and I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, 'Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?' And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, and I wept much that no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. Then one of the (twenty-four) elders said to me, 'Weep not; lo, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered (overcome), so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.' And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders, I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth; and he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne." (Revelation 5:1-7)
Two aspects of the death of Christ show something of the mystery
of His death and the suffering He took onto Himself for our sake.
(My ideas in the regard also come from the studies of Arthur Custance
(Ref. 1). The death of Jesus on the cross took but six hours as
measured in dynamical time. Jesus was, for the first three hours
on the cross, our Great High Priest. From noon till 3 P.M., during
which time a strange and terrible darkness came over the earth,
the Priest became the Sacrifice. This event is diagrammed in Figure
11 as if it were being viewed by an observer in Jerusalem on that
day. I have included in this sketch the seven last words Jesus
spoke from the cross for reference purposes.
When we reflect upon the nature of time and eternity we realize that what was (for us) three hours' suffering by Jesus in total estrangement from the Father---was for Jesus an event in eternity which never ends. The work of Jesus on the cross as far as we are concerned. Jesus is not now hanging on a cross. He is in charge of the universe as a resurrected man living in glory, as A.W. Tozer has eloquently described. But in another sense, a part of the eternal God suffers forever because of human sin.
See also, Jesus' Death: Six Hours of Eternity on the Cross and Did Jesus Descend into Hell?
There is more to what happened when Christ met Death, while
He was on the cross, and how He defeated evil forever. So far
our discussion has centered on whether or not Christ descended
into hell, following his death at 3 P.M. on Good Friday and before
His resurrection about dawn on Easter Sunday morning. The statement
of Jesus, " Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me
in Paradise." (Luke 23:43) means to me that when He died,
Jesus left our time frame and entered eternity; likewise, the
spirit of his companion on an adjacent cross, the dying, redeemed
thief also left time and entered eternity when he died on Good
The next event in eternity for the spirit of Jesus was His return to reenter His body in the tomb. By means of the mighty power of the Holy Spirit, He then experienced the complete transformation of His body and His resurrection "out from among the dead." In the time frame of earth, these events are separated by perhaps 40 hours, but in eternity they are an immediate sequence of events, one following another. The dying thief was not raised from the dead at the same earth time as Jesus was raised from the dead. However, in his own (the thief's) consciousness, he stepped out of time to join the general resurrection of all the righteous dead which coincides in history with the Second Coming of Christ.
In this sense, neither heaven nor hell are yet populated---all believers reach heaven at the same "time." The dying thief, Stephen the first martyr, the Apostle John, and all the rest of us will arrive in heaven at precisely the same "instant," experiencing neither soul sleep nor loss of consciousness nor time delay, whether the interval between our death and the Second Coming is a hundred years or one hour. The thief on the cross, in his own consciousness, will experience arriving in Paradise the very same day he died, as Jesus promised he would.
In His sinless and perfect human body---prepared especially as a perfect blood sacrifice for the sins of the world---Jesus suffered terribly in body, soul, and spirit during the long night of His trial. That suffering began with the agony in the garden of Gethsemane and in all the humiliating events of His trial and cruel torture prior to His morning journey to Golgotha. The worst was yet to come. Death by crucifixion is an especially painful and terrible death. It was common in Roman times for crucified men in good health to hang dying on a cross sometimes for days, yet Scripture records that Jesus died within six hours' clock time. Even if He only suffered normal human pain in this ordeal it would have been incredibly severe.
All this pain, however, was but the prelude to His real suffering, which involved being cut off from the Father's love and presence and consigned to carry our sins out of the universe, to hell as it were, like the scapegoat sacrifice of Israel of which he, Christ, is the antitype.
The Scripture records three statements by Jesus during the first three hours on the cross when He served as the true Great High Priest before the Father and four further statements during the time of darkness from noon to 3 P. M. when the High Priest became the Sin-Offering. It was during the latter three hours, evidently, that the sins of all mankind were laid upon Jesus and the Father turned His face away from His beloved Son. "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." (2 Corinthians 5:21)
When contemplating what really took place on the cross in the divine transaction between God the Father and God the Son, we must not think of the sufferings of Christ, terrible as they were (beyond our comprehension), as if they were constrained to a "mere" (endurable) three hours of absolute time. Human beings are basically spirits, and spirits are connected to the eternal dimension. Jesus was not like us in another sense: He had known no sin and suffered the additional revulsion and destruction of being changed from a perfect man into a loathsome, repulsive creature God could not look upon. He became sin by absorbing evil into his own person:
My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?
Why art thou so far from helping me,
from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but thou dost not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.
Yet thou art holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In thee our fathers trusted;
they trusted, and thou didst deliver them.
To thee they cried, and were saved;
in thee they trusted, and were not disappointed.
But I am a worm, and no man;
scorned by men, and despised by the people.
All who see me mock at me,
they make mouths at me, they wag their heads;
"He committed his cause to the LORD; let him deliver him,
let him rescue him, for he delights in him!"
Yet thou art he who took me from my mother's womb;
thou didst keep me safe upon my mother's breasts.
Upon thee was I cast from my birth,
and since my mother bore me thou hast been my God.
Be not far from me, for trouble is near and there is none to help.
Many bulls encompass me, strong bulls of Bashan surround me;
they open wide their mouths at me,
like a ravening and roaring lion.
I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax, it is melted within my breast;
my strength is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue cleaves to my jaws;
thou dost lay me in the dust of the earth.
Yea, dogs are round about me;
a company of evildoers encircle me;
they have pierced my hands and feet---
I can count all my bones--they stare and gloat over me;
they divide my garments among them,
and for my raiment they cast lots.
But thou, O LORD, be not far off! O thou my help, hasten to my aid!
Deliver my soul from the sword, my life from the power of the dog!
Save me from the mouth of the lion,
my afflicted soul from the horns of the wild oxen!
I will tell of thy name to my brethren;
in the midst of the congregation I will praise thee:
You who fear the LORD, praise him!
all you sons of Jacob, glorify him,
and stand in awe of him, all you sons of Israel!
For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted;
and he has not hid his face from him,
but has heard, when he cried to him.
From thee comes my praise in the great congregation;
my vows I will pay before those who fear him.
The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied;
those who seek him shall praise the LORD!
May your hearts live for ever!
All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD;
and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.
For dominion belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations.
Yea, to him shall all the proud of the earth bow down;
before him shall bow all who do down to the dust,
and he who cannot keep himself alive.
Posterity shall serve him;
men shall tell of the LORD to the coming generation,
and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,
that he has wrought it.
Paul wrote many years later of the "fellowship of Christ's
sufferings" and of "making up in his own body what is
lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of his body,
that is the church." He spoke of "always bearing about
in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus might
be revealed in us..." He said these things long after Jesus
had risen from the dead and ascended into heaven where He now
rules, His work on the cross having been completed and finished.
(See also Ref 2.)
Jesus is spoken of in the book of Revelation as the "Lamb slain before the foundation of the world." and Peter writes, "You know that your were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. He was destined before the foundation of the world but was made manifest at the end of the times for your sake." (1 Peter 1:18-20)
Without in any way diminishing the work of Christ on the cross as finished, completed, and accomplished in space-time and in history, it is possible to say that a part of God suffers eternally for man's sins. From Scripture we learn that a holy God must ultimately be just. He must remove evil from His presence. Those who have permanently rebelled against His gracious mercy do not cease to exist but remain eternally conscious in a place of everlasting, endless punishment. Since God is omnipresent, He, too, is to be found in hell, sustaining its fires and experiencing its pains. Bible scholar Ray C. Stedman once remarked, "Ultimately, God removes evil from the universe by absorbing it into Himself." The so-called "penal view of the atonement" specifies that a Just God must punish sin and that if Christ suffered our punishment as a substitute He had to bear the full weight of the eternal separation from God that Divine Justice demands and we deserve. In his commentary on the Book of Revelation, Stedman wrote,
"All through the Bible we see God's love is manifest to men and women everywhere in urging them to escape this judgment. God in love pleads with people, 'Do not go on to this end!' But ultimately he must judge those who refuse his offer of grace. He says, in effect, 'I love you and I can provide all you need. Therefore love me, and you will find the fulfillment your heart is looking for.' But many men and women say, 'No, I do not want that. I will take your gifts, I will take all the good things you provide, but I do not want you! Let me run my own life. Let me serve my own ends. Let me have my own kingdom.' To such, God ultimately says, 'All right, have it your way!' God has three choices: first, he can let rebellion go on forever and never judge it. In that case the terrible things that are happening on earth, all these distressing injustices, the cruelty, the anger, the hate, the malice, the sorrow, the hurt, the pain, the death that now prevails, must go on forever. God does not want that, and neither does man. Second, God can force men to obey him and control them as robots. But he will never do that because that means they cannot truly love him. Love cannot be forced. Therefore, third, the only choice God really has is that he must withdraw ultimately from those who refuse his love. He must let them have their own way forever. That results in the terrible torment of godlessness. If God is necessary to us, then to take him out of our lives is to plunge us into the most terrible sense of loneliness and abandonment that mankind can know. We have all experienced it to some small degree when we get what we want and then discover we do not want what we got! For that sense of bored emptiness to go on forever, is unspeakable torment."
Jesus spoke about hell, giving us this account in the form of a parable:
"There was a rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, full of sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man's table; moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham's bosom.
The rich man also died and was buried; and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes, and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus in his bosom. And he called out, 'Father Abraham, have mercy upon me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish in this flame.' But Abraham said, 'Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.'
And he said, 'Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father's house, for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.' But Abraham said, 'They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.' And he said, 'No, father Abraham; but if some one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.' He said to him, 'If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead'." (Luke 16:19-31)
Commentary, by Ray C. Stedman
A similar motif is recorded in the closing verses of Isaiah:
"For as the new heavens and the new earth which I will make
shall remain before me, says the LORD;
so shall your descendants and your name remain.
From new moon to new moon, and from sabbath to sabbath,
all flesh shall come to worship me, says the LORD.
"And they shall go forth and look upon the dead bodies of the men that have rebelled against me;
for their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched,
and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh." (Isaiah 66:22-24)
"These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power" (II Thessalonians 1:9)
The Greek word translated here as "eternal" is aioonion (NT:166), which is defined by Thayer's Greek Lexicon as:
1. without beginning or end, that which always has been and always will be (Rom 16:26 , Heb 9:14).
2. without beginning (Matt 25:41,46; II Thes 1:9; Rom 16:25).
3. without end, never to cease, everlasting (2 Cor 4:18).
Also, since the same word (NT:166) is used to describe our life and salvation in Christ then we must conclude that if the punishment is not eternal then neither is our life and salvation.
The Septuagint often uses this word to describe something as "eternal" where it translates the Hebrew word olam (H:5769). (thanks to Rick Young, February 28, 2002).
"...The problem is not simply that of a God who consigns some of His creatures to final ruin. That would be the problem if we were Mahometans. Christianity, true, as always, to the complexity of the real, presents us with something knottier and more ambiguous--a God so full of mercy that He becomes man and dies by torture to avert that final ruin from His creatures, and who yet, where that heroic remedy fails, seems unwilling, or even unable, to arrest the ruin by an act of mere power. I said glibly a moment ago that I would pay "any price" to remove this doctrine. I lied. I could not pay one-thousandth part of the price that God has already paid to remove the fact. And here is the real problem: so much mercy, yet still there is Hell.
I am not going to try to prove the doctrine tolerable. Let us make no mistake; it is not tolerable. But I think the doctrine can be shown to be moral by a critique of the objections ordinarily made, or felt, against it.
First, there is an objection, in many minds, to the idea of retributive punishment as such. This has been partly dealt with in a previous chapter. It was there maintained that all punishment became unjust if the ideas of ill-desert and retribution were removed from it; and a core of righteousness was discovered within the vindictive passion itself, in the demand that the evil man must not be left perfectly satisfied with his own evil, that it must be made to appear to him what it rightly appears to others--evil. I said that Pain plants the flag of truth within a rebel fortress. We were then discussing pain which might still lead to repentance. How if it does not--if no further conquest than the planting of the flag ever takes place? Let us try to be honest with ourselves. Picture to yourself a man who has risen to wealth or power by a continued course of treachery and cruelty, by exploiting for purely selfish ends the noble motions of his victims, laughing the while at their simplicity; who, having thus attained success, uses it for the gratification of lust and hatred and finally parts with the last rag of honour among thieves by betraying his own accomplices and jeering at their last moments of bewildered disillusionment. Suppose further, that he does all this, not (as we like to imagine) tormented by remorse or even misgiving, but eating like a schoolboy and sleeping like a healthy infant--a jolly, ruddy-checked man, without a care in the world, unshakably confident to the very end that he alone has found the answer to the riddle of life, that God and man are fools whom he has got the better of, that his way of life is utterly successful, satisfactory, unassailable. We must be careful at this point. The least indulgence of the passion for revenge is very deadly sin. Christian charity counsels us to make every effort for the conversion of such a man: to prefer his conversion, at the peril of our own lives, perhaps of our own souls, to his punishment; to prefer it infinitely. But that is not the question. Supposing be will not be converted, what destiny in the eternal world can you regard as proper for him? Can you really desire that such a man, remaining what he is (and he must be able to do that if he has free will) should be confirmed forever in his present happiness should continue, for all eternity, to be perfectly convinced that the laugh is on his side? And if you cannot regard this as tolerable, is it only your wickedness--only spite--that prevents you from doing so? Or do you find that conflict between justice and Mercy, which has sometimes seemed to you such an outmoded piece of theology, now actually at work in your own mind, and feeling very much as if it came to you from above, not from below? You are moved, not by a desire for the wretched creature's pain as such, but by a truly ethical demand that, soon or late, the right should be asserted, the flag planted in this horribly rebellious soul, even if no fuller and better conquest is to follow. In a sense, it is better for the creature itself, even if it never becomes good, that it should know itself a failure, a mistake. Even mercy can hardly wish to such a man his eternal, contented continuance in such ghastly illusion. Thomas Aquinas said of suffering, as Aristotle had said of shame, that it was a thing not good in itself, but a thing which might have a certain goodness in particular circumstances. That is to say, if evil is present, pain at recognition of the evil, being a kind of knowledge, is relatively good; for the alternative is that the soul should be ignorant of the evil, or ignorant that the evil is contrary to its nature, "either of which," says the philosopher, "is manifestly bad." (Summa Theol., 1, 11ae,Q. xxxix, Art. 1.) And I think, though we tremble, we agree.
"The demand that God should forgive such a man while he remains what he is, is based on a confusion between condoning and forgiving. To condone an evil is simply to ignore it, to treat it as if it were good. But forgiveness needs to be accepted as well as offered if it is to be complete: and a man who admits no guilt can accept no forgiveness.
"I have begun with the conception of Hell as a positive retributive punishment inflicted by God because that is the form in which the doctrine is most repellent, and I wished to tackle the strongest objection. But, of course, though Our Lord often speaks of Hell as a sentence inflicted by a tribunal, He also says elsewhere that the judgment consists in the very fact that men prefer darkness to light, and that not He, but His word, "judges men." (John 3:19; 11:48) We are therefore at liberty--since the two conceptions, in the long run, mean the same thing--to think of this bad man's perdition not as a sentence imposed on him but as the mere fact of being what he is. The characteristic of lost souls is "their rejection of everything that is not simply themselves. (See von Hügel, Essays and Addresses, 1st series, What do we mean by Heaven and Hell?) Our imaginary egoist has tried to turn everything he meets into a province or appendage of the self. The taste for the other, that is, the very capacity for enjoying good, is quenched in him except in so far as his body still draws him into some rudimentary contact with an outer world. Death removes this last contact. He has his wish--to live wholly in the self and to make the best of what he finds there. And what he finds there is Hell.
"Another objection turns on the apparent disproportion between eternal damnation and transitory sin. And if we think of eternity as a mere prolongation of time, it is disproportionate. But many would reject this idea of eternity. If we think of time as a line--which is a good image, because the parts of time are successive and no two of them can co-exist; i.e., there is no width in time, only length--we probably ought to think of eternity as a plane or even a solid. Thus the whole reality of a human being would be represented by a solid figure. That solid would be mainly the work of God, acting through grace and nature, but human free will would have contributed the base-line which we call earthly life: and if you draw your base-line askew, the whole solid will be in the wrong place. The fact that life is short, or, in the symbol, that we contribute only one little line to the whole complex figure, might be regarded as a Divine mercy. For if even the drawing of that little line, left to our free will, is sometimes so badly done as to spoil the whole, how much worse a mess might we have made of the figure if more had been entrusted to us? A simpler form of the same objection consists in saying that death ought not to be final, that there ought to be a second chance. [The conception of a "second chance" must not be confused either with that of Purgatory (for souls already saved) or of Limbo (for souls already lost]. I believe that if a million chances were likely to do good, they would be given. But a master often knows, when boys and parents do not, that it is really useless to send a boy in for a certain examination again. Finality must come sometime, and it does not require a very robust faith to believe that omniscience knows when.
"A third objection turns on the frightful intensity of the pains of Hell as suggested by medieval art and, indeed, by certain passages in Scripture. Von Hügel here warns us not to confuse the doctrine itself with the imagery by which it may be conveyed. Our Lord speaks of Hell under three symbols: first, that of punishment ("everlasting punishment," Matt. 25:46); second, that of destruction ("fear Him who is able to destroy both body and soul in bell," Matt. 10:28); and thirdly, that of privation, exclusion, or banishment into "the darkness outside," as in the parables of the man without a wedding garment or of the wise and foolish virgins. The prevalent image of fire is significant because it combines the ideas of torment and destruction. Now it is quite certain that all these expressions are intended to suggest something unspeakably horrible, and any interpretation which does not face that fact is, I am afraid, out of court from the beginning. But it is not necessary to concentrate on the images of torture to the exclusion of those suggesting destruction and privation. What can that be whereof all three images are equally proper symbols? Destruction, we should naturally assume, means the unmaking, or cessation, of the destroyed. And people often talk as if the "annihilation" of a soul were intrinsically possible. In all our experience, however, the destruction of one thing means the emergence of something else. Bum a log, and you have gases, heat and ash. To have been a log means now being those three things. If soul can be destroyed, must there not be a state of having been a human soul? And is not that, perhaps, the state which is equally well described as torment, destruction, and privation? You will remember that in the parable, the saved go to a place prepared for them, while the damned go to a place never made for men at all. (Matt. 25:34, 41) To enter heaven is to become more human than you ever succeeded in being in earth; to enter bell, is to be banished from humanity. What is cast (or casts itself) into hell is not a man: it is "remains." To be a complete man means to have the passions obedient to the will and the will offered' to God: to have been a man--to be an ex-man or "damned ghost"--would presumably mean to consist of a will utterly, centered in its self and passions utterly uncontrolled by the will. It is, of course, impossible to imagine what the consciousness of such a creature--already a loose congeries of mutually antagonistic sins rather than a sinner--would be like. There may be a truth in the saying that "hell is hell, not from its own point of view', but from the heavenly point of view." I do not think this belies the severity of Our Lord's words. It is only to the damned that their fate could ever seem less than unendurable. And it must be admitted that as, in these last chapters, we think of eternity, the categories of pain and pleasure, which have engaged us so long, begin to recede as vaster good and evil looms in sight. Neither pain nor pleasure as such has the last word. Even if it were possible that the experience (if it can be called experience) of the lost contained no pain and much pleasure, still, that black pleasure would be such as to send any soul, not already damned, flying to its prayers in nightmare terror: even if there were pains in heaven, all who understand would desire them.
"A fourth objection is that no charitable man could himself be blessed in heaven while he knew that even one human soul was still in bell; and if so, are we more merciful than God? At the back of this objection lies a mental picture of heaven and hell co-existing in unilinear time as the histories of England and America co-exist: so that at each moment the blessed could say "The miseries of hell are now going on." But I notice that Our Lord, While stressing the terror of bell with unsparing severity, usually emphasizes the idea, not of duration but of finality. Consignment to the destroying fire is usually treated as the end of the story-not as the beginning of a new story. That the lost soul is eternally fixed in its diabolical attitude we cannot doubt: but whether this eternal fixity implies endless duration--or duration at all--we cannot say. Dr. Edwyn Bevan has some interesting speculations on this point. (Symbolism and Belief, p. 101) We know much more about heaven than hell, for heaven is the home of humanity and therefore contains all that is implied in a glorified human life: but bell was not made for men. It is in no sense parallel to heaven: it is "the darkness outside," the outer rim where being fades away into nonentity.
"Finally, it is objected that the ultimate loss of a single
soul means the defeat of omnipotence. And so it does. In creating
beings with free will, omnipotence from the outset submits to
the possibility of such defeat. What you call defeat, I call miracle:
for to make things which are not ' Itself, and thus to become,
in a sense, capable of being resisted by its own handiwork, is
the most astonishing and unimaginable of all the feats we attribute
to the Deity. I willingly believe that the damned are, in one
sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are
locked on the inside. I do not mean that the ghosts
may not wish to come out of hell, in the vague fashion wherein
an envious man "wishes" to be happy: but they certainly
do not will even the first preliminary stages of that self-abandonment
through which alone the soul can reach any good. They enjoy forever
the horrible freedom they have demanded, and are therefore self-enslaved
just as the blessed, forever submitting to obedience, become through
all eternity more and more free. In the long run the answer to
all those who object to the doctrine of hell is itself a question:
"What are you asking God to do?" To wipe out their past
sins and, at all costs, to give them a fresh start, smoothing
every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But He has
done so, on Calvary. To forgive them? They will not be forgiven.
To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that is what He does--C.S.
Lewis, The Problem of Pain. Chapter 8.
Speaking of the return of Christ as one grand event, Paul wrote this to the Thessalonians:
"We are bound to give thanks to God for you, brethren, as is fitting, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing. Therefore we ourselves boast of you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions which you are enduring. This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be made worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering---since indeed God deems it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant rest with us to you who are afflicted, when the Lord Jesus is revealed (apokalupsis) from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance upon those who do not know God and upon those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at in all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed. To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his call, and may fulfill every good resolve and work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ." (2 Thessalonians 1:3-12)
If death for the follower of Jesus Christ means leaving time
and entering eternity, then a similar kind of happening transpires
when physical death comes to those who have rejected all of Christ's
rights and claims to rule their lives. Since the issue of sin
has been dealt with once for all by Jesus, it is only our proud
unwillingness to be forgiven that ultimately stands between us
and our full reconciliation with our Creator! Physical death for
those who are not God's children means that spirit, soul and body
exit our space-time dimension and "time travel" to the
end of the age when the Day of Judgment is held. This event (in
eternity) will also intersect human history, like the Second Coming,
at some future date on our calendars. But it is no more than a
split second away in the consciousness of a person who dies in
unbelief! The passage quoted above describes the terrible last
glimpse the lost have of Jesus before they are separated from
The book of the Revelation records what is known as the judgment of the great white throne, which follows immediately:
"Then I (John) saw a great white throne and him who sat upon it; from his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, by what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead in them, and all were judged by what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire; and if any one's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire." (Revelation 20:11-15)
Most Bible commentators teach, first, that all those judged
at the Great White Throne are non-believers, and second, that
there are degrees of punishment in hell---because of the reference
to books (angelic records) being opened and the dead being judged
according to what they have done. All those present at this judgment
will find that their names have not been written in the book of
life. See also, The Second Coming of Christ
in Power, The Appearing and the Coming
of Christ, and The Judgment of the Great
In reading all these passages it is easy to concentrate on
what appears to be "unjust" punishment (from our self-righteous
human viewpoint), or at least tragic human suffering. We would
like to think it could somehow have been avoided! Most of us shrink
from thinking too seriously about these passages knowing that
but for the grace of God we would have, and should have, been
sent to this terrible fate also. However, a little reflection
on the nature of God, for God is love, makes it clear that maintaining
hell must be a terrible torment and pain to a God who is self-giving
love. He is the Holy One who "takes no pleasure in the death
of the wicked", and who "is not willing that any should
perish." God must be willing, therefore, to pay the price
of His own eternal pain, suffering, and hell so that the few who
are righteous, (by faith), might enjoy eternal bliss. Such is
another aspect of the mystery of the suffering of Christ on the
cross. Most of us are accustomed to thinking that we suffer more
than God, and that He surely cannot fully identify with our minor
pains and afflictions.
But a loving God who created us for good things surely suffers infinitely more than any human parent when a beloved child refuses the good and chooses the path leading to destruction. Surely it must be grievously painful for a God who is love to be denied the opportunity to give of Himself to the objects of His love. No man can suffer more than Christ has already suffered, nor can mortal man contemplate what is meant by the "longsuffering" of our God (who is outside of time) which will continue, we are assured, at least until the world is changed. "God's kindness is meant to lead us to repentance," Paul writes in Romans, Chapter 2.
The letter to the Hebrews says, "Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire." (Hebrews 12:28,29) The same fires which heal, purify and warm the righteous are the consuming, everlasting burnings of Gehenna, (named after GeHinnom, the valley of Hinnom, a garbage dump outside Jerusalem), where beings who refused to become the human persons they were designed to be must finally endure the "backside" of love, which is hell. They are discarded because they have not been willing to become (by their own life-long choices) what their Designer intended them to be. C.S. Lewis wrote,
"God is going to invade this earth in force. But what's the good of saying you're on his side then, when you see the whole natural universe melting away like a dream and something else, something it never entered your head to conceive comes crashing in. Something so beautiful to us and so terrible to others that none of us will have any choice left. This time it will be God without disguise; something so overwhelming that it will strike either irresistible love, or irresistible horror into every creature. It will be too late then to choose your side. There is no use saying you choose to lie down, when it's become impossible to stand up. That will not be the time for choosing; it will be the time when we discover which side we really have chosen, whether we realize it or not. Now, today, in this moment, is our chance to choose the right side. God is holding back to give us that chance. It will not last forever; we must take it or leave it."
In his commentary on Hebrews in which the passage, "our God is a consuming fire," is the subject of discussion, Ray C. Stedman writes,
The proper attitude of Christians must be one of awe that a Being of such majesty and glory could find a way to dwell eternally with such sin-controlled and sin-injured creatures as us. Since our God is a consuming fire, " we must cry with Isaiah, "Who of us can dwell with the consuming fire? Who of us can dwell with everlasting burning?" (Is 33:14). God's love is just such a fire, it destroys what it cannot purify, but purifies what it cannot destroy. In Jesus we have a relationship that cannot be destroyed (Rom 8:38-39). Our great king is leading us through trials and difficulties in order that we may at last cry with Job, "He knows the way that I take; when he has tried me, I shall come forth as gold" (Job 23:10 KJV). Hebrews IVP Commentary, The Ray C. Stedman Library
In spite of our outward circumstances and the downward spiral of moral, economic, political, and social conditions over the face of the earth, the Good News of the Bible is that evil has already been dethroned and its power over mankind and nature broken. The new creation is as inevitable as springtime's greening and blossoming. The loving heart of God our Father longs for us to accept his mercy, his forgiveness and mercy. He has gone to infinite lengths to make provision for us in the cosmic sacrifice of the Son of His love.
"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. He who believes in him is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God." (John 3:16-21)
The above discussions emphasize the loving, long-suffering,
merciful, gracious character or the God who created everything
that is. Again and again Scripture states that it is not God's
wish or desire "that any should perish." His "kindness
is meant to lead us to repentance," writes Paul.
God's intention for the universe and its inhabitants is that it will operate on love---on love freely given, freely responded to, freely exchanged. Love between Persons requires freedom of the will and freedom from force, manipulation or coercion. It can not be otherwise.
Freedom of choice requires that one live in a universe where it is possible to say "no" to Love. It must be possible to choose one's path, even when that path takes one away from God, from life, and from freedom.
C.S. Lewis suggested in Mere Christianity that in some way it was as if the gates of hell are barred from the inside, as if to say that those in hell could come out if they really wanted to do so.
Dostoevski, in The Brothers Karamazov, tells a fable about a very wicked woman who died. The devils took her to hell and threw her into the lake of fire. Her guardian angel was very puzzled as to how he might do something to help her. So he thought through her whole life to see if he could find at least one good thing that she had done which he might present before God. Finally he went to God and said, "Once a beggar came by when she was weeding her garden, and she pulled an onion out and gave it to him to eat." God said to the angel, "All right, then you go down and get that onion and hold it out to her in the lake of fire. Tell her to take hold of it, and if you can pull her out with that onion she can come to Paradise."
So the angel took the onion, went down to the lake of fire, and held it out to the woman. She grabbed hold and he began to pull. He pulled and pulled and, sure enough, he began to pull her right up out of the lake. She was almost completely free when some other sinners around her, seeing that she was about to escape, grabbed hold of her ankles so as to be pulled out with her. At first the onion held, and they too began to be pulled out. But the woman became very angry and cried, "This is my onion, and you're not going to go out with me!" And as she kicked them loose the onion broke and she fell back in and she is burning there to this day. (Ray C. Stedman)
One may plead with those who are on the wrong path but even
God Himself does not, and indeed can not, force us to choose His
ways and His gifts. He may wait patiently, and give us great lengths
of time to reverse our faulty choices (indeed He does do these
things all the time for us). But finally God must let us go the
way we have wanted to go all along.
If we wish to live, by choice, in a place where there is no love, then that is what we get. Today, criminals and tyrants, child molesters and felons, saints and sinners all breathe God's good air, eat the food He provides, enjoy friends and a myriad of pleasures and joys. This is because God "makes his rain (grace) to fall on the just and on the unjust," in this life.
To be cut off from love in all its form is to live in a place where there is no air to breathe, no friends to talk do, no food for a hungry body, no light for the eyes, no music for the ears, indeed not a single drop of water to quench the unbearable, everlasting, eternal thirst. This is the hell that really exists. It staggers the human imagination even to contemplate such a place. It's little wonder we all (including even the righteous who won't be going there)---shudder to think about this final end that many will experience, outside of time, fully conscious and fully aware---eternal spiritual beings, men and women like us, cut off forever from the Source of life.
"You cannot take all luggage with you on all journeys; on one journey even your right hand and your right eye may be among the things you have to leave behind.
"We are not living in a world where all roads are radii of a circle and where all, if followed long enough, will therefore draw gradually nearer and finally meet at the centre: rather in a world where every road, after a few miles, forks into two, and each of those into two again, and at each fork you must make a decision.
"Even on a biological level life is not like a pool but like a tree. It does not move towards unity but away from it and the creatures grow further apart as they increase in perfection.
"Good, as it ripens, becomes more different not only from evil but from other good. I do not think that all who choose wrong roads perish; but their rescue consists in being put back on the right road.
"A wrong sum can be put right: but only by going back till you find your error and working it afresh from that point, never by simply going on. Evil can be undone, but it cannot 'develop' into good. Time does not heal it. The spell must be unwound, bit by bit, 'with backwards mutters of dissevering power'---or else not.
"It is still 'either-or.' If we insist on keeping Hell (or even earth) we shall not see Heaven: if we accept Heaven we shall not be able to retain even the smallest and most intimate souvenirs of Hell.
"I believe, to be sure, that any man who reaches Heaven will find that what he has abandoned (even in plucking out his right eye) was precisely nothing: that the kernel of what he was really seeking even in his most depraved wishes will be there, beyond expectation, waiting for him in 'the High Countries.'" (C. S. Lewis, Preface to The Great Divorce)
1. Privately published by Doorway Publications, %Evelyn M.
White, 38 Elora Drive, Unit 4, Hamilton, Ontario, L9C 7L6, Canada
2. One of the most wonderful passages on this subject is Isaiah's foreview of the Messiah:
"Behold, my servant shall prosper, he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high. As many were astonished at him---his appearance was so marred beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the sons of men---so shall he startle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which has not been told them they shall see, and that which they have not heard they shall understand.
"Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed.
"All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter; and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth. By oppression and judgments he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people?
"And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth. Yet it was the will of the LORD to bruise him; he has put him to grief; when he makes himself an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand; he shall see the fruit of the travail of his soul and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the Righteous One, My Servant, make many to be accounted righteous; and he shall bear their iniquities.
"Therefore I will divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out his soul to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors." (Isaiah 52:13-53:12)
Uninstructed minds revolt at the doctrine of eternal perdition and the more sympathetic they are by nature the more they revolt; however, the doctrine does not originate with human reason nor is it influenced by human sympathy. The theologian here, as always, is appointed to discover and defend that which God has revealed. That asserted in the Bible is consonant with the higher divine reason. The root difficulty of all human speculation is the fact that man knows the meaning of neither sin nor of holiness, and these two factors are about all that is involved in this discussion. The answer of infinite holiness to sin is perdition and retribution. An insoluble mystery is involved. Upon this, much has already been written. So long as the distinction obtains between that which is infinite and that which is finite, Deuteronomy 29: 29 will apply:
"The secret things belong unto the LORD our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law."
In no way does man reveal his littleness more effectively than
when he exhibits surprise over the fact that there are realities
in the universe which he cannot understand. The permission of
sin in the universe by a sovereign, holy God who hates sin to
an infinite degree, the damage it does to uncounted multitudes
of beings angels and men whom He loves with a Creator's love, and
the fact that sin must demand of God the greatest sacrifice He
could make, all this only tends to enlarge the mystery involved.
The problem if it ever has been such in the mind of God was wholly
solved before the creation of anything, and man would do well
to trust implicitly. It was a rare characteristic in Job that,
though he could not understand God's ways, he did not "charge
God foolishly" (Job 1:22). After having voiced the uttermost
cry of His humanity"My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken
me?" Christ added the words, "But thou art holy"
(Ps. 22:1-3). To know with any measure of completeness the mystery
of evil in the universe of God, one must understand (1) precisely
what evil meant to God in the dateless past before aught was created.
Was evil then, though only a potentiality, a stupendous reality
which required its full manifestation that it might be judged
and dismissed forever? Will the doom of multitudes of men and
angels prove an essential feature in the final solution of the
problem? Likewise, one must know (2) that the present outworking
of this problem is the best solution that infinity can devise
that the present solution is wrought of God and is wholly free
from pernicious incidents or accidents. In the same manner, he
must know (3 ) that the end will justify the means. God will have
done right and be justified and glorified forever. That no finite
being may approach such knowledge is patent indeed. When the creature
knows the evil character of sin as God knows it and the perfection
of holiness which sin outrages, then may he sit in judgment on
the question of whether eternal retribution of men and angels
is consonant with the character of God. It is thus clear that
no creature is in a position to deny the righteousness of eternal
perdition or to remonstrate against the Creator because of what
In attempting to write a comprehensive statement of the most solemn doctrine of the Bible, the term retribution is chosen in place of the more familiar word punishment since the latter implies discipline and amendment, which idea is wholly absent from the body of truth which discloses the final divine dealing with those who are eternally lost. It is recognized that, in its earlier and broader meaning, the term retribute was used for any reward, good or evil. The word is used in this treatment of the doctrine of hell only as reference is made to the eternal perdition of the lost. Just so far as language can serve to express truth the effort is being made to declare what the Scriptures assert, namely, that for those who pass out of this life which life is probationary in character there is no basis for the hope that any divine grace will be extended to them in a future existence. Such a case should not be considered as being without a precedent. Uncounted legions of angels have sinned and for them there is not the slightest intimation to be found in the Bible which extends to them a ray of hope. By divine decree these angels are already consigned to the lake of fire, not under a possible proviso that this doom will be averted if in the meantime they repent; but they are arbitrarily, irrevocably consigned to retribution and that without remedy. Since God has said, without condition, that the fallen angels will be cast into the lake of fire, He would be found untrue should the destiny of the fallen angels be otherwise. Likewise, there is the case of the Gentiles from Adam to Moses who, for the most part, are well described in Romans 1:18-32 as those who willfully rejected God and who, three times in this one context, are said to be abandoned by God to their sinful ways. Their lost estate is described in Ephesians 2 :12, which declares "that at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world." No more decisive terms could be employed than those which describe men as being without Christ, without promise, without God, and without hope. It will be observed that, while the passage had an application to the estate of the Gentiles to whom Paul was writing and at the time they were saved, it is also an exact description of Gentiles in past ages. The Jews stood in virtue of covenants and divine promises, with remedial animal sacrifices available to them. It is clear that during the period from Adam to Moses the human family in some instances retained an approach to God by sacrifices, but in this respect they were, as a whole, unwilling to retain God in their thoughts and this led to the judgment of the flood and the abandoning of them to their own iniquity. This, again, is the record of Romans, chapter 1.
The result of any unprejudiced investigation into God's revealed truth respecting fallen angels and God-rejecting Gentiles of past ages will be a conviction that the marvel of it all is not that sinners are lost, but that they are ever saved; and in this connection it should be observed that the death of Christ for the world does not serve as a partial remedy and the ground of a remote hope that all lost souls will be saved: that death becomes, rather, the basis of a greater condemnation upon those who reject the Savior. Their inherent unrighteousness is augmented by the immeasurable sin of rejecting the remedy infinite love has provided. Nothing but infinite grace made possible through an infinite sacrifice can avail to save the lost; yet human opinion is ever intruding into spheres wherein it knows nothing, insisting that the lost, if lost at all, might be saved in any one of a variety of ways. Strong emphasis is needed on the truth that eternal retribution is not only a doctrine fully asserted in the Bible, but that it draws no corroboration from other sources. It invites no opinion from human reason, and, in all its particulars, is as clearly set forth in the Scriptures as it is possible for language to serve in the expression of ideas. Nothing is gained when men deny that which God has plainly declared. It would be the better part for them to conform their minds and adjust their actions to the revelation God has given them.
As heaven is a place and not a mere state of mind, in like manner those reprobated go to a place. This truth is indicated by the words hades (Matt. 11:23; 16:18; Luke 10:15; 16:23; Rev. 1:18; 20:1314) and gehenna (Matt. 5:22, 29-30; 10:28; James 3:6)a place of "torment" (Luke 16:28). That it is a condition of unspeakable misery is indicated by the figurative terms used to describe its sufferings"everlasting fire" (Matt. 25:41); "where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched" (Mark 9:44); "the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone" (Rev. 21:8); "bottomless pit" (Rev. 9:2); "outer darkness," a place of "weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matt. 8:12); "fire unquenchable" (Luke 3:17); "furnace of fire" (Matt. 13:42); "blackness of darkness" (Jude 1:13), and "the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night" (Rev. 14:11).
In these instances a figure of speech is not a license to modify the thought which the figure expresses; it is rather to be recognized that a figure of speech, in these passages, is a feeble attempt to declare in language that which is beyond the power of words to describe. It is true that a figure of speech is not a complete demonstration of truth (theologia symbolica non est demonstretiva); but the idea of eternal retribution could be conveyed to the human mind in no other way. It is well to observe, also, that nearly every one of these expressions fell from the lips of Christ. He alone has disclosed almost all that is revealed of this place of retribution. It is as though no human author could be depended upon to speak forth all of this terrible truth. The second reaction of the sincere human min dafter acknowledging the indisputable truth that retribution is an actual place of suffering is to entertain the hope that this distress of the lost is not eternal, or ever- lasting. It is natural for the mind to cling to such a hope and a few men have gone to great lengths in their attempts so to expound the Scriptures that the idea of everlasting retribution will be excluded. Inadequate, if not insincere, translations are published which no Greek scholar can countenance, with the one purpose in view of expunging from the Word of God the eternal character of these awful sufferings. The fact that many are untaught will account for the ready reception given to such interpretations of the Scriptures. Only the uninformed will listen to the voice of a man who has no scholarship and ignore the fact that the greatest Greek scholars of all generations who have given to the Church the true translation and interpretation of the original Greek text have not modified the eternal feature of retribution. To be ignorant of the Greek text is not reprehensible, but to disregard the voice of all the worthy translators is reprehensible.
It is reported that in England, on the morning when the Revised Version of the Scriptures was put on sale, a man inquired in a bookshop for "that new Bible that has no hell in it"; but he was disappointed, for the Reviser sand possibly no better scholars could be found had not removed either the idea of retribution or its eternal character from the version they had prepared. The controversy centers over two Greek wordsaion and aionios. No extended word-study can be introduced here. Enough will be said if it is pointed out that these words do in some instances convey the idea of time and its limitations; but in the majority of instances, where duration is involved, they convey the idea of eternity. Aion is used of Christ (note 1 Tim. 1:17; Rev. 1:18). Aionios is likewise used of the Persons of the Godhead (Heb. 9:14), and is the term employed to describe the eternal life which the believer has received (see all the texts on this theme) and the endless blessedness of the redeemed. If the word is restricted with reference to time when referring to the future estate of the lost, it must be so restricted concerning the future estate of the saved. One passage alone---"and these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal"demonstrates the truth that the word aionios means unending condition for one class as much as for the other. This truth that the sufferings are endless is attested by the words of Christ"the fire is not quenched." The estate of the lost is said to be that of resting under the wrath of God which abideth upon them (John 3:36). So it is written of those who worship the beast, "And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever" (Rev. 14:11). It is true that wrath may be turned away in this life by believing upon Christ; but no such promise will be found as something addressed to the lost after they die. Their estate is described as the second death, and from it no relief is ever proffered. Those who build a hope that the way of salvation will be available after death do so without a syllable of authority from the Bible and in direct contradiction of that which God has written.
However, the most misleading error respecting retribution is that which falls back in blind dependence upon the one attribute of God, namely, His love, and ignores the attributes of holiness, righteousness, and justice, and the supreme control these attributes exercise over the love of God. If a term may be coined at this point, those who thus restrict their vision of God's love may be styled Mercyists. Thus the Mercyists may be classified as those of all creeds and no creeds who believe that eternal retribution is impossible since God is love. Such, indeed, do not understand the gospel by which sinners are saved. It is supposed that God is generous and that He forgives sin as an act of clemency or leniency, that He being a Sovereign can forgive whom He will and when He will. This fallacy underlies nearly all opposing thought contrary to the doctrine of eternal retribution. It is assumed that, since God is love, His affection for His creatures will prompt Him to rescue them from suffering. If the Bible declares that He will not rescue those reprobated and that their estate is eternal, then the Bible is rejected and God Himself is classed as One who cannot be defended.
Many are the attempts made by those who understand nothing of the real character of God to save Him from the undesirable reputation He must acquire if He does not in compassion rescue all beings from eternal retribution. Such is the doctrinal confusion which arises when one truth is stressed without regard for other truths which qualify it. God is holiness and righteousness as well as love It is the holiness of His Person and the righteousness of His government which preclude Him from any mere generosity which would make light of sin. In fact, sin is sufficiently sinful to require eternal retribution as the divine penalty for it. There is no field for argument at this point. The Word of God must stand and man must be reminded that of the two issues involved---sin and holiness---he knows nothing about their depth of meaning. Being absolute, divine holiness cannot be varied or altered in the least degree. This truth is the key to the entire problem which the idea of retribution engenders. If God could have forgiven one sin of one person as an act of mere kindness, He would have compromised His own holiness which demands judgment for sin. Having thus compromised Himself with sin, He would need Himself to be saved because of the unrighteous thing He had done. He would, by such supposed kindness, have established a principle by which He could forgive all human sin as an act of divine clemency, and thus the death of Christ is rendered unnecessary. This truth must not be overlooked if the doctrine of eternal retribution is to be understood at all. Let it be restated that, if God could save one soul from one sin by mere generosity, He could save all souls from sin by generosity and the death of Christ thus becomes the greatest possible divine blunder.
It is the fact of unyielding divine holiness which demands either the retribution of the sinner or the death of Christ in his room and stead. God is love, and that love is demonstrated by the gift of the Son that men might be saved; but love and mercy did not circumvent the demands of holiness to save the sinner: they paid its every demand. The conclusion of the matter is that God, because of His holiness, cannot save the lost unless His holy demands are met for the sinner, as they are met in the death of Christ; and to be unsaved, or outside the grace of God as it is in Christ, is to be destined to eternal retribution. God can do no more than to provide a perfect salvation, which is provided at infinite cost. When love will pay such a price that a sinner may be saved and holiness remain untarnished, it ill becomes finite men to tamper with these immutable realities. Those who resent the idea of eternal retribution are, in fact, resenting divine holiness. However, the message of God's grace to sinful men is not merely a proclamation of eternal condemnation; it is rather that the chief of sinners may be saved through the Savior that infinite love has provided.
(From Systematic Theology by Lewis Sperry Chafer, Vol. IV, pp427-433, Dallas Seminary Press, Dallas, TX, 1962 edition.
The Biblical Studies Foundation (Dallas Theological Seminary)
Addendum (July 9, 2002)
Bill Faris believes in hell, that frightful netherworld where the thermostat is always set on high, where sinners toil for eternity in unspeakable torment.
But you would never know it listening to him preach at his south Orange County evangelical church. He never mentions the topic; his flock shows little interest in it.
"It isn't sexy enough anymore," said Faris, pastor of Crown Valley Vineyard Christian Fellowship.
In churches across America, hell is being frozen out as clergy find themselves increasingly hesitant to sermonize on Christianity's outpost for lost souls.
The violence and torture that Dante described in the "Inferno" and that Hieronymus Bosch illustrated on canvas five centuries ago have become cultural fossils in most mainstream Christian denominations, a story line that no longer resonates with churchgoers.
"There has been a shift in religion from focusing on what happens in the next life to asking, 'What is the quality of this life we're leading now?' " said Harvey Cox Jr., an author, religious historian and professor at Harvard Divinity School. "You can go to a whole lot of churches week after week, and you'd be startled even to hear a mention of hell."
DAMNATION LOSES APPEAL
Hell's fall from fashion indicates how key portions of Christian theology have been influenced by a secular society that stresses individualism over authority and the human psyche over moral absolutes. The rise of psychology, the philosophy of existentialism and the consumer culture have all dumped buckets of water on hell.
The tendency to downplay damnation has grown in recent years as nondenominational ministries, with their focus on everyday issues such as child-rearing and career success, have proliferated and loyalty to churches has deteriorated.
"It's just too negative," said Bruce Shelley, a senior professor of church history at the Denver Theological Seminary. "Churches are under enormous pressure to be consumer-oriented. Churches today feel the need to be appealing rather than demanding."
A 1998 poll by Barna Research Group, a Ventura company that studies Christian trends nationwide, found that church shopping has become a way of life: 1 in 7 adults changes churches each year; 1 in 6 regularly rotates among congregations.
Fickleness has helped give rise to "mega-churches" -- evangelical congregations of more than 2,000 people that mix Scripture with social and recreational programs in a casual atmosphere.
Mega-churches routinely pay for market research on what will draw people and keep them coming back.
"Once pop evangelism went into market analysis, hell was just dropped," said Martin Marty, professor emeritus of religion and culture at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
Hell is far from dead. A May 2001 Gallup Poll of adults nationwide found that 71 percent believe in hell.
They just don't want to hear about it.
Even among some "born-again" churches, hell is a rare topic of conversation.
Born-again Christians believe in hell, but they also believe their decision to embrace Christ has earned them a one-way ticket in the other direction.
Traditional denominations also have pushed hell to the margins. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)'s first catechism, drawn up a few years ago by a committee, mentions hell only once.
George Hunsinger, a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary and the catechism's principal author, would have liked the document to address hell more directly and "talk about divine judgment in a responsible way." But the committee rejected the idea without much debate.
"It's a failure of nerve by churches that are not wanting to take on a non-popular stance," Hunsinger said.
In 1999, Pope John Paul II made headlines by saying hell should be seen not as a fiery underworld but as "the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God, the source of all life and joy."
As much as that seemed like a departure from church teachings, the pope's words were not all that new. In the 1960s, the Roman Catholic Church had moved away from the view of hell as a Gothic torture chamber as part of the Second Vatican Council's modernization of church teachings.
"When you take (hell) away as a threat, everything changes," said the University of Chicago's Marty. "Who goes to confession anymore? Time was, a (Catholic) church had 16 booths and people snaked around the block. Today, a church might have one left."
One measure of hell's continued decline can be found in the changed attitude of the Rev. Billy Graham, who came to prominence in the 1940s as a fire-and-brimstone Gospel preacher. His depiction of hell was unequivocal, an unpleasant address for unrepentant sinners.
Even Graham has reconsidered hell -- not whether it exists, but what it is.
"I believe that hell is essentially separation from God. That we are separated from God, so we can have hell in this life and hell in the life to come. . . ." Graham told an interviewer in 1991. "But to describe hell in vivid terms like I might have done 30 or 40 years ago, I'm not at liberty to do that, because whether there is actually fire in hell or not, I do not know."
The origins of hell are tangled up in the Hades of Greek mythology and the ancient Hebrew concept of Sheol -- locales where the dead, both good and bad, resided.
Hell became more hellish when the early Christians infused it with a serious fear factor. Jesus is quoted in the Bible describing hell as the "outer darkness" consumed by an "everlasting fire." The Book of Revelation warned that sinners would be "thrown into the lake of fire."
During the Middle Ages and through the Renaissance, a lurid image of hell was firmly cemented in people's minds. Dante wrote that within the seventh circle of hell runs "the river of blood, within which boiling is/Whoe'er by violence doth injure others." Bosch depicted naked souls being devoured by a birdlike creature, pierced by spears and tormented by half-human demons.
In the centuries to come, scientific discoveries and the European Enlightenment would crack hell's veneer, undercutting all things supernatural and questioning whether a merciful God would be so cruel.
"How can something as wonderful as redemption . . . be based on fear?" said the Rev. Wilfredo Benitez of St. Anselm of Canterbury Episcopal Church in Garden Grove.
As a young preacher, Benitez warned nonbelievers they would burn in Satan's lair. He later dropped the tactic.
"Can we accept a gift at gunpoint? This is total nonsense