“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” 1
Why would a loving God who loves by nature send anyone to Hell? If everyone will not be saved, then Christ died in vain and there was no victory at the Cross. Surely it is a failure if an all-powerful God cannot save all. God is a gracious and merciful God, therefore, He will save everybody. It would be unjust if God condemned some to eternal damnation. How could we saints in Heaven celebrate if someone we knew and loved was being tortured forever and ever? I cannot serve a God like that.
These objections have become a norm in today’s culture where contemporary thinking has tainted Orthodoxy, challenging God’s authority with man’s opinions. Truth can be difficult to swallow, even by committed followers of Christ. When confronted with the doctrine of eternal damnation, C.S. Lewis said, “There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power.” 2 Likewise John Frame states, “If I were free to invent my own religion, I can assure you that the eternal punishment would not be a part of it” 3 Eternal damnation causes even the devoted to shutter. However, shuttering and remaining faithful to the truth is one thing; modifying the truth so as to cause us less trembling is another.
In this paper I will briefly discuss certain philosophies that have influenced modern evangelical thought to a place of softness and skewing concerning the biblical view of eternal damnation, which I will describe at length in a hope to show its supremacy.
Why have Contemporary evangelicals debated over the possibility of eternal damnation? Why does modern liberal theology usually consider the eternal destruction of the wicked “a figurative designation of a purely subjective condition.” 4 I will attempt to answer this by first pointing back to the Garden of Eden where the problem of the figurative and subjective first emerged, when the serpent met Eve and asked, ” Did God actually say?” Contemporary thought now struggles with the same temptation, “Did God really say?”
This temptation is historically recorded in the philosophy and theology of some of mankind’s great thinkers; men such as Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard, and Bultmann. whose teachings have cast much of contemporary evangelical thought, molding the way we look at Scripture today.
Immanuel Kant emphasized man’s ability to choose and reason, therefore the standard of interpretation rested solely in man’s reason. With reason as man’s source he rationalized religion as a moral exercise seated in the will of man, salvation resting within natural man, making Christ unnecessary for salvation. Differing from Kant, Friedrich Schleiermacher, a proponent of romantic theological thought, defined true religion as a “sense and taste for the Infinite,” which was to be found in man’s inmost soul, in “feeling.” 5 He believed that “theological or doctrinal formulae were secondary to the essential nature of religion as immediate feeling for the redemptive work of God.” 6 Considered the father of liberal theology, Schleiermacher continued the drift away from Orthodoxy. In His book Speeches, Schleiermacher attempted to recast religion through the eyes of culture giving preeminence to culture rather than Scripture. This alteration severed Christianity from Orthodoxy, where Christ is the center, to the individual becoming the focal point. “Schleiermacher’s ascription of religion to the realm of feeling marked the start of modern Protestantism’s habitual emphasis on the knowledge of God as inward and experiential.” 7 With this move from Orthodoxy to inward feeling (experiential emphasis) it is understandable why now, years later, we are debating something that for Jesus was a literal reality.
In Kierkegaard and Bultmann we continue to see the influence of the “Did God really say?” temptation. Kierkegaard fused the dialectic and the experiential where life itself shaped his thoughts and man was a free moral agent. Bultmann, influenced by Kierkegaard’s existentialism, constructed a gospel (kerygma) relevant to the culture of his day. His gospel deconstructed the myth out of the Bible (demythologization). Whereas (he would say) Orthodoxy held to a primitive worldview of a spatial heaven, hell and earth, Bultmann believed in the now, in present being and time. Christ once again was no longer needed, only the event of the Cross in one’s life presently. As these philosophers/theologians helped in forming modern thought it is easier to understand why contemporary evangelicals continue to debate both the possibility and nature of eternal punishment. The debate is reminiscent to the debate in the Garden “Did God actually say” to answer the question best is to go to the source, the scriptures, God’s revelation to mankind. To look at any other source is to deny the supremacy of God. “To deny God’s interpretation is not merely to adopt an alternative but equally valid interpretation; it is to reject the facts as they truly are; it is to reject reality. There is no such thing as “brute fact” by which fallen man can seek to validate his interpretation over against God’s. 8
According to Orthodox Christianity, eternal damnation is the judgment of God upon mankind as a result of his disobedience. In Genesis chapter two, God created Adam in His image and gave him one condition for his life in the garden in the presence of God:
“Then the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die (Gen. 2:16).”
In chapter three of Genesis, Adam’s wife, lured into a conversation with the serpent and duped by his cunning, was deceived in three ways: questioning God’s character, distorting God’s word, and denying God’s sovereignty. Guilty of adding to God’s Word (“or touch it”), Eve was deceived and disobeyed God’s command. Adam not far behind takes part in the same action. This action is biblically defined as sin, and sin is defined as to “miss the goal or path of right and duty, incur guilt, incur penalty, forfeit…to bear loss, miss the mark, bring into guilt or condemnation or punishment…to miss oneself, lose oneself, wander from the way.” 9
The sin of man led to the consequence where man “surely died” and fell into a depraved nature. His carnal mind was at enmity with God, effecting the mind, will, and emotions; the mind is darkened, the will alienated and emotions disordered. 10 With this new fallen nature man used his darkened mind to question God’s character, his will to distort God’s Word, and his disordered emotions to deny God’s sovereignty. “According to Scripture every sin is essentially anomia (unrighteousness), and merits eternal punishment.” 11 This single unrighteous act alienated him from a holy and righteous God and was grounds enough to damn him and his offspring forever.
After the first disobedient act birthed original sin, God continued to reveal the contrast between holiness and sinfulness by setting forth His holy, righteous standard in the
commandments found in Exodus 20:1-17. He said, in effect, that a righteous person loves Him and only Him, tells the truth, respects his parents, is faithful to his wife, respects the lives and properties of others, and is content with what he has. God told mankind, “You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy (Lev. 11:45).”
These holy standards given by the Creator to his created ones render all mankind guilty and deserving of eternal damnation as Romans 3:23 states, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”. Louis Berkoff notes clearly, “the penalty of sin does not proceed from the love and mercy of the Lawgiver, but from His justice. 12 It is justice that demands righteous judgment, “for the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 6:23)”. His holy standard must be upheld, so justice must be served, but there is still place for mercy.
His love and mercy radiate through His divine intervention through His son. Through passive and active obedience to the Father, Jesus fulfilled God’s covenant from both perspectives of God and man. Man is unable to satisfy anything that can only be satisfied by God himself. Jesus, by his active obedience, fulfilled the Law perfectly, and through his passive obedience fulfilled the penal consequences of disobedience on behalf of man. Therefore, someone who does not believe in Christ does not have that atoning, satisfying work that only God can accomplish. Therefore, disbelief renders someone guilty. As John Frame states,
Those who do not believe in Christ will be judged according to their works (Rom. 2:5; Rev. 20 :12-13). Note how thorough the judgment is: every work, indeed every thought, will receive God’s judgment (Eccl. 12:14; Matt. 12:36). All secrets will be made known (Luke 12:2-3) and God will judge them (Rom. 2:16). Of course, nobody’s work, words, or thoughts are perfectly acceptable to God. So God’s judgment on those outside of Christ is invariably negative, and the punishment is death, in this case eternal death, eternal punishment, eternal separation from God. 13
Apart from union with Jesus, who substitionally atones for our sin, there is nothing left for us but a fearful expectation of God’s wrath in the form of a literal, eternal hell.
Hell is the eternal bringing to nothing of corruption and ungodliness. Hell expresses the intent of a holy God to destroy sin completely and forever. Hell says not merely a temporal no but an eternal no to sin. The rejection of evil by the holy God is like a fire that burns on, a worm that dies not. 14
God’s strict judgment on sin reveals that no corrupt thing can live in His presence. Yet through the all-sufficient sacrifice of His Son God says an eternal ‘yes’ to those united with Him, those in Christ reckoned righteous by faith in Him. Eternal damnation, then, is God’s expression against all things opposed to Him.
The dwelling place of all things opposed to God is Hell. The nature of Hell is communicated to mankind through God’s Word. As we continue to explore the Hell of Scripture we may ask ourselves, “Did God actually say?” If God’s word is true than we should rest in His authority. If He has the authority, then His revelation to mankind carries His authority.
Certain Old Testament references function as precursors to the more vivid New Testament picture of Hell. For example, Isaiah predicts a future for those opposed to God. In 66:24 he states, “And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who 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.” Notice the tie between the dead bodies of men who rebelled against God to undying and unpleasant consequences. Daniel 12:1-2 more clearly elucidates this undying state of man after death along with its dual set of realities:
At that time shall arise Michael, the great prince who has charge of your people. And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.
This OT passage clearly speaks of a double resurrection where mankind faces one of two fates: one pleasant, one unpleasant and both forever. Those who rebel against God have everlasting shame and contempt, undying rot and ongoing burning as the consequence for their unatoned-for-sin.
In the New Testament, God expands upon His revelation to mankind of His intended end for the wicked. Though His prophets foresaw some concerning it, His Son knew more and so had more to tell us about it. “Jesus himself has the most to say about eternal punishment, and he put considerable emphasis on it. It is no small detail in his view of human destiny.” 15 He called it a place of outer darkness, a literal place where there is weeping and teeth gnashing. 16 He also calls it the fiery furnace:
Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father…. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace. 17
Here the Lord confirms the words of Daniel, that there will indeed be a double resurrection and two possible realities for all mankind, but here we see more of His control over these circumstances, sending his angels to separate the righteous from the wicked and placing the wicked in a fiery place where they will weep and groan.
In Luke 16:19-31, when Jesus tells the story of Lazarus and the rich man, he speaks of a chasm fixed between these two after-death realities, one for the righteous and one for the wicked, which cannot be crossed. The man that is in the place reserved for the wicked states, “I am in anguish in this flame.” He also refers to it as “a place of torment.” The Lord tells us this story to help us understand the fiery and tormenting nature of the place reserved for the wicked, and that those who arrive there cannot leave.
Besides being a place of eternal fire, eternal worm, lasting shame, it is a place where the presence of God is completely removed. The Apostle Paul states,
This [the persecutions and afflictions suffered by the Thessalonians] is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering–since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted…when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might….18
The wicked, those who do not obey the gospel, who refuse the good news of Jesus Christ to save them, will be removed from the presence and glory of God.
This destination for those in rebellion against God is also definitely, not possibly, eternal. Matthew 25:46, echoing Daniel 12:2, speaks of two places: one of eternal life and one of eternal punishment. The original Greek text uses the same word to describe the duration of these two places. Therefore, the length of life for the righteous equals the duration of punishment for the wicked. To limit punishment would therefore limit life according to this Scripture. This same contrast is seen in Jude 1:7 versus 1:21 where the same word is applied to eternal fire and eternal life. This same word describes the duration of Jesus’ glory in First Peter 5:10, God’s covenant with man through the blood of Christ in Hebrews 13:20, God’s kingdom in Second Peter 1:11, and even God Himself in First John 5:20. As Louis Berkoff states, “There can be no reasonable doubt as to the fact that the Bible teaches the continued existence of the wicked.” 19 As scholarship tries to make the doctrine of eternal damnation more palatable by attempting to reconcile the emotion of man with the truth of Scripture, it has tried to replace it with Annihilationism. Annihilationism is the belief that the wicked will not suffer an everlasting conscious punishment, but will simply cease. There are no biblical grounds for this at all. The book of Revelation states, “And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name. (14:11), In God’s revelation to man, through His word there is no evidence that suffering and the torment ends. Annihilationism is man’s attempt to reconcile his reason and emotion apart from God’s revealed Word. “Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off.” 20
In sum, God’s Word reveals to us that there is a literal place reserved for the wicked where worm does not die, fire never ends, a place of everlasting shame and contempt, of outer darkness, with weeping and gnashing of teeth, a fiery furnace, a place of torment, anguish in the flames, a place of eternal destruction away from the presence of God.
In conclusion, living in a culture driven by our fallen nature, the culture itself has become the mouthpiece of the serpent beckoning the age-old question, “Did God actually say.” The serpent questioned the authority of God’s Word, deceived Eve, and man followed. Culture beckons with whatever relative truth is in vogue and man follows. The “truths” only draw man farther from the Creator appealing to man’s perceived autonomy. Our mind is darkened, the will alienated and emotions disordered. Man separated, lives in his autonomy without hope apart from intervention. The understanding of our depravity and our nature brings to light the potential of misinterpretation of Scripture through interpretation of independence rather than dependence on the Lord. The catalyst culture infused secular and the visible church with the message of autonomy. This message is an interpretation apart from dependence on God, resting in interpretation through means of reason, emotion, and existentialism for interpretation while those belonging to Christ depend upon His Spirit for interpretation. The debate concerning the destination of the wicked is fought on two fronts within and without the church. Regardless of what front the debate takes place in, the same question is posed, ” Did God actually say?” We have looked at few philosopher/theologians that influenced modern liberal theology. These influences are rooted in our fallen nature which is being sanctified, moving from a place of independence to dependence. As we continue to bring our autonomous presupposition to God’s Word we will continue to have various interpretations. These modern interpretations based on reason, emotional existential interpretations are tainted with objections towards the Maker.
These objections are not mere verbal swordplay but at their core question and therefore cast doubt upon God’s character. Furthermore, the answers by the objectors tend to be a recasting of the Godhead. If the objectors cannot serve a God like that (one they think is loving or not), then they proceed to make a God after their own likeness (one they think is more loving). If Scripture is the revelation of God Himself, it would beg the reader to submit to the author of interpretation rather than interpreting the author. If eternal damnation is not palatable to me, still my liking of a doctrine should not drive my interpretation. It is the Scriptures themselves that should lead the interpretation and consequently bring me to my knees over the grace and kindness of my Savior and Lord. In short, who can say that God is or is not anything or should or should not do anything? Can man judge God? No, God will judge man. That is the point.
1 C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (San Francisco: Harpor, 2001)128.
2 C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 120.
3 John M. Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2013), 1081.
4 Louis Berkoff (2011-11-08), Systematic Theology (Eerdmans Publishing Co., Kindle Locations 20602-20603).
5 Kenneth A. Myers, All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians and Popular Culture. (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1989), Kindle file, 555-557.
6 Keith Clements, ed. Friedrich Schleiermacher: Pioneer of Modern Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), Kindle file, p. 32.
7 Clements, 35.
8 John M. Frame. Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, The (A Theology of Lordship) (Kindle Locations 429-431). Kindle Edition.
9 James Strong, Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2001).
10 Class notes, pgs. 34-35.
11 Louis Berkoff (2011-11-08), Systematic Theology (Eerdmans Publishing Co., Kindle Locations 10055-10056).
12 Berkoff, Systematic Theology (Kindle Locations 10187-10188).
13 Frame, Systematic Theology, 1078.
14 Thomas Oden, Systematic Theology; Vol. 3: Life in the Spirit (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1992), 450, quoted in Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson, eds., Hell Under Fire (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 17.
15 Frame, 1081.
16 Matt. 8:12; 25:30.
17 Matt. 13:40-43a; 49-50a.
18 2 Thess. 1:5-9.
19 Berkhof, (Kindle Locations 20604-20605).
20 Romans 11:22
Berkoff, Louis. Systematic Theology. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Kindle Edition, 2011.
Clements, Keith, ed. Friedrich Schleiermacher: Pioneer of Modern Theology. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, Kindle Edition, 1991.
Frame, John M. Doctrine of the Knowledge of God: A Theology of Lordship. Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, Kindle Edition, 1987.
Frame, John M. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief. Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2013.
Geisler, Norman. Systematic Theology. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2004.
Lewis, C.S. The Problem of Pain. San Francisco: Harpor, 2001.
Myers, Kenneth A. All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians and Popular Culture. Wheaton: Crossway Books, Kindle Edition, 1989.
Oden, Thomas. Systematic Theology; Vol. 3: Life in the Spirit. San Francisco: Harper & Row,1992. Quoted in Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson, eds., Hell Under Fire Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004.
Strong, James. Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2001.