Is Punishment Eternal? |

Hunt, Dave

There is a growing movement among professing Christians towards universalism: the belief that everyone will finally be saved. One can empathize with those who hold this opinion. Eternity is forever. No matter how just the penalty, endless punishment seems cruelly excessive. The very thought of the Lake of Fire being the eternal abode of any creature, no matter how evil, is humanly repugnant.

Could God who "is love" (1 Jn:4:8) really sentence anyone to eternal punishment? Would He not find a way, somehow, for all eventually to be saved? The Bible must be our guide. But does the Bible in fact teach that those who leave this life without Christ are lost forever?

Jesus warned of hell repeatedly, referring to it fourteen times. Peter refers to it three times, James once, and the four times it is mentioned in Revelation make up the balance of the twenty-two times the word "hell" occurs in the New Testament. Jesus referred to hell as a place of torment in a "fire that never shall be quenched" (Mk 9:43-48). That sounds like eternal punishment—but for whom?

With one exception, there are two Greek words translated as hell in the New Testament: hades and geenna (gehenna). The word hades is rendered "hell" eleven times and is the counterpart of the Hebrew sheol, the only word for hell in the entire Old Testament. Sheol was where the souls and spirits of the dead went upon the death of the body. Since the same word is used for the abode of all the dead, sheol/hades must have accommodated both the lost and the saved. That this was indeed the case, and that their condition and experience were drastically different, is clear from biblical usage of these words in both Old and New Testaments.

For example, David's prophetic declaration, "thou wilt not leave my soul in sheol" (Ps:16:10), was quoted by Peter as referring to the Messiah: "thou wilt not leave my soul in hades" (Acts:2:27-31). Thus, sheol and hades were the same place and must have been occupied by the redeemed since the Messiah was there while His body lay in the grave. That the lost were also there, but in a separate area, is clear from Christ's statement that when the rich man died, "in hades he lift up his eyes, being in torment...." That in his torment he could see Lazarus and Abraham in comfort (Lk 16:19-31) further indicates that the redeemed were also in hades yet distinct from the damned. That part of hades, which Christ referred to as "Abraham's bosom," must have been the "paradise" in which Jesus promised to meet the believing thief on the cross that very day (Lk 23:43).

At His resurrection, Christ emptied "paradise" and took those waiting there to His Father's house of "many mansions" (Jn:14:2). He is presently in heaven at the Father's right hand (Acts:7:55-56; Heb:1:3; 8:1, etc.). The souls and spirits of believers who die today are taken immediately into Christ's presence in heaven rather than to the former "paradise." Paul referred to the state of death as being "absent from the body...present with the Lord" (2 Cor:5:8); he spoke of his own desire to leave this body of flesh and to "be with Christ" (Philippians:1:22-24). Moreover, he declared that at the Rapture, when Christ descends from heaven, He brings the souls and spirits of the dead saints "with him" (1 Thes:4:14). They must therefore have been with Him in heaven awaiting the day when they would be reunited with their resurrected bodies raised incorruptible from the grave.

It is thus clear what Christ meant when He said, "the gates of hades shall not prevail against it [the church]" (Mat:16:18). This statement is often misunderstood to mean that the gates of hades are somehow on the move, attacking the church—which hardly makes sense for gates. However, it does make sense if the redeemed were within those gates when Christ made that statement. The "gates of hades" could not keep Christ from emptying "paradise" and bringing the church to heaven after purchasing her with His own blood (Acts:20:28).

The other word rendered "hell" in the New Testament is geenna. That this refers only to that side of hades where the damned were confined, and still are, is also clear. Jesus referred to "geenna fire" (Mat:5:22) and warned that it would be better to remove a hindering eye or hand and to "enter into" heaven than to have all one's body parts "to be cast into geenna, into the fire that never shall be quenched" (Mat:18:8-9; Mk 9:43-47, etc.). Clearly, only the damned are ever in geenna, which must therefore be that part of hades where the lost are confined.

"Death and geenna" will be "cast into the Lake of Fire. This is the second death" (Rev:20:14). There the "devil...the beast and the false prophet...shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever" (Rev:20:10). There, also, "those who worship the beast and his image" during the reign of Antichrist "shall be tormented with fire and brimstone...and the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever" (Rev:14:9-11). Thus the final fate of the lost who have been geenna's inhabitants awaiting their "resurrection unto damnation" (Jn:5:29) is "the second death"—i.e., eternal separation from God and from true life.

Hades was emptied of the redeemed when Christ, the forerunner (prodromos, like the lead runner in the Olympics - Heb:6:20), ascended into heaven and "led captivity [i.e., captives] captive" (Ps:68:18; Eph:4:8). As the saved are taken to heaven to "ever be with the Lord" (1 Thes:4:17), so the lost will be taken to the Lake of Fire to be separated from God forever.

Surely the Lake of Fire must be what Christ referred to as "everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels" (Mat:25:41)—i.e., it was not intended for humans. It is thus the greatest of tragedies that any humans go there. However, those who become the followers of Satan are forever with him in the Lake of Fire just as the followers of Christ are forever with Him in heaven. Inasmuch as these same words are used, if "eternal" only means "temporary" for the damned, then it would have to mean the same for the redeemed. Thus, if there were an escape from the Lake of Fire, heaven would not be permanent either.

Having established that just as the Bible teaches eternal bliss for the redeemed, so it also teaches eternal punishment for the damned, let us consider the question with which we began: Why must this be so, and how could a God who "is love" (1 Jn:4:8) ever allow it to happen?

The "why," of course, is explained in part because, although the body of man is temporal and subject to deterioration and destruction, the soul and spirit of man exist forever. Of man's creation we read that God "breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul" (Gen:2:7). The Hebrew for "soul" throughout the entire Old Testament is nephesh, and for "spirit" is rooakh (ruach). In the Greek of the New Testament "soul" is translated from psuche and "spirit" from pneuma. These words have a variety of possible related meanings, but the biblical meaning is clear from the way they are used.

Man is body, soul and spirit, not just body and soul/spirit: "I pray God that your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus" (1 Thes:5:23); "piercing even to the dividing asunder of the soul and spirit" (Heb:4:12). Lacking space to distinguish between the soul and the spirit, we must be content with understanding that these together constitute the thinking person as distinct from the inhabited body.

The old materialism with its view that nothing exists but matter is no longer tenable even for secular science. Thoughts and intelligence are demonstrably not physical. The body has only been the means whereby the thinking, nonmaterial person living within has been able to function in the physical universe. When the body dies there is no reason either in logic, science or the Bible to suggest that the soul and spirit cease to exist. The fact that, as a thinking and experiencing being composed of soul and spirit, man is nonmaterial requires an eternal destiny from which there is no escape.

That we are eternally accountable to the God who created us and as sinners are separated from God in His perfect holiness is rational, biblical and clear to every person's conscience. Separation from the only source of life brings both physical and spiritual death. Man's only hope is God's love and grace; there is nothing he could himself do to heal this breach between himself and his Creator.

The question then becomes why God, who revealed Himself to Moses (on the very mount where He gave the Law) as "...merciful and gracious,...forgiving iniquity and transgressions and sin" (Ex 34:6-7), doesn't just forgive the whole human race and give everyone a fresh start? That question is especially puzzling in view of the numerous statements in Scripture that God sent His Son "that the world through him might be saved" (Jn:3:17), that He desires "all men to be saved" (1 Tim:2:4) and is "not willing that any should perish..." (2 Pt 3:9).

If God is so loving why doesn't He universally forgive everyone? Love is only part of God's character. He is also infinitely and perfectly just. How can God forgive someone who admits no guilt? How can He forgive those who insist that there is nothing for which He needs to forgive them? And would it not be the utmost folly to do so? If in His mercy and grace God simply passed over human rebellion, would that not be condoning evil and even encouraging it? Would that not in itself undermine God's control of His universe?

God's laws are essential to governing the physical universe. The moral beings who have the power to act destructively must also be governed by laws, or chaos would reign. If He would go back on His moral laws, who could have any confidence in anything else that God has said or would say?

Christ asked His disciples to pray, "Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven" (Mat:6:10). Surely that fact indicates that all is not as God desires it to be on this earth. Men are in rebellion against Him. Forgiveness can only be in accord with God's justice.

In fact, God has provided and offers pardon and new life to everyone—but it can only be on a righteous basis. God's love cannot nullify His justice, as we have often reminded our readers and as everyone knows in his conscience. God's justice demands a penalty for sin. Only through Christ's payment of the full penalty on the cross has forgiveness been made possible. Pointing forward to this fact, John the Baptist declared of Christ to his own followers: "Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world" (Jn 1:). Yes, "he is the propitiation [atoning sacrifice]...for the sins of the whole world" (1 Jn:2:2). The problem is that multitudes are not willing to accept God's pardon on a just basis but want Him to forgive them unjustly.

Moral laws are even more important and impervious to compromise than physical laws. Every miracle such as the Red Sea opening, Christ walking on water or turning water into wine, the sun standing still for Joshua, etc. flies in the face of the laws of physics and chemistry. However, to override the laws that govern physical events does not affect God's moral character. But God himself cannot override His moral laws because it would be contrary to His very character and Being.

Jesus says, "The Word that I have spoken shall judge him in that day" (Jn:12:48). God has spoken and cannot go back on His Word. The problem with rebellious man is that he is not willing to let God be God but insists that the Creator should abdicate control of His creation, renounce His moral character and laws and allow man to take over the universe and govern it his way.

But surely love accepts man as he is, does it not? That is the false and destructive humanistic idea of "love" promoted by the secular world. Those who insist that love should "accept" them as they are know nothing either of love or of common sense. A mother's love causes her to care for her child from the moment it is born. It makes no more sense to imagine that a mother's love would be content with a child's remaining in ignorance because it didn't want to learn, or with the child's love for nothing but junk food as it grows up, than that her love would "accept" her child's desire to destroy itself with drugs, prostitution or criminality.

Yet God is expected to "accept" rebellious man just as he is? "Love" that leaves the loved one in a condition of less than the best is not true love. On the contrary, real love desires the best and corrects those who are destroying themselves. Even of those whom He has redeemed and who have believed on Him, Jesus says, "As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten" (Rev:3:19).

The words "acceptance" and "tolerance" are abused and have become the mantra of those who want to be left alone to destroy themselves. Such is the desire of multitudes; they want God to leave them alone so they can do their own thing. In the end, that is exactly what God reluctantly does. After pleading with them and trying to persuade them to accept His forgiveness (which can only be given on a righteous basis through Christ's payment of the penalty for their sins), He gives them their desire and leaves them alone—for eternity!

That God did not give in to man, go back on His Word, or change His standards of righteousness and justice, but stood by His Word, will eternally be to His glory. Therefore, God will be glorified even in those in hell. That is a horrible thought but one to which we are driven both by Scripture and reason. TBC