Hell and the Gospel

Author Greg Koukl Published on 05/09/2013

Hell is an offensive idea to a lot of people. Eternal punishment seems harsh to both believers and unbelievers. It could even be a stumbling block. Consequently, some pastors are revising what the Bible teaches and what the church has taught since Jesus.

There are a couple of different revisions: annihilationism and universalism. Both get rid of Hell in different ways. The more aberrant one from Biblical teaching is universalism, which holds that everyone eventually will be in Heaven. This view is contrary to Christianity at the most foundational level, yet it’s something some very public Christian pastors are teaching. Universalism encourages people not to do what they need to do in order to be rescued from the wrath of God, which is put their faith in Jesus, because it doesn’t matter. According to universalism, everyone is going to be ushered into the Kingdom regardless of what they believe or what they do.

Let me make an observation as a person who is committed to defending the Gospel—and that’s what an apologist does. I hope that’s what all Christians do. They proclaim it, and in a certain sense, proclaiming it accurately is a defense of it. By ignoring the Gospel, you’re acting as if it’s inconsequential. By not talking about the Gospel, it’s like it doesn’t matter, and that is almost an attack on the message itself. A careful, accurate proclamation of the Gospel is an acknowledgement that it is true, an affirmation of its importance. It’s a bare minimum, but this bare minimum is under attack. It is certainly under attack outside of broader Christian circles, because people think it’s ridiculous to think that one religion is the only true religion.

People don’t mind Christians who love Jesus. You’re welcome to Him and to your truth. They do mind Christians who love Jesus and say the same things about non-Christians that Jesus Himself said: They are lost.

“I have come to seek and to save that which was lost.” (Luke 19:10)

“He who believes in the Son has eternal life. He who does not believe, the wrath of God abides on him.” (John 3:36)

“If you do not believe that I am He, you will die in your sins.” (John 8:24)

“He who believes is not judged, but he who does not believe is judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” (John 3:18)

Every one of those sentences is from the mouth of Jesus Himself. There is no twisting or distorting them when you cite just the verse, because understanding the context only intensifies the meaning that is obvious in the verse itself. So when someone argues there is no final reckoning and there is no Hell, either because of annihilationism (nonbelievers cease to exist when they die) or because eventually all nonbelievers are drawn into Heaven, then they are communicating a message that is diametrically opposed to the Great Commission, the last command that Jesus left the Church.

I know this sounds offensive to a lot of people, but we cannot change what the Bible teaches because it’s offensive. Jesus warned us that there would be wolves that come in and destroy the flock. Paul said in his first letter, “If anyone preaches to you a Gospel other than what I’ve received if anyone brings another message, let him be damned to Hell.” (Galatians 1:8) That’s what the word “anathema” means: “Let him be accursed.”

This is serious business. I have seen this tendency to avoid difficult teachings not only outside the Church, but now increasingly in the Church. People are removing the stumbling block of the cross in the Church and it’s undermining the Gospel.

This is an issue where we can separate the wheat from the chaff. Those who hold to a real Hell, a place where God ultimately accomplishes justice against those who have been in rebellion against Him, where the anger of His holy nature is satisfied, are part of the wheat, and those who do not hold to it are the chaff.

You want criteria to separate the wheat from the chaff, the truth from the foolishness and nonsense? This issue is it. It struck me that using Hell as a dividing line—that is, a way of separating the wheat from the chaff—is almost a pun; that is, a play on words. Early on, before Jesus was introduced, John the Baptist mentions that there will be “one that’s coming after me that came before me, and that will separate the wheat from the chaff.” And that “He would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” Luke 3:16: “John answered and said to them all, ‘As for me, I baptize you with water, but one who’s coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to untie the thong of His sandals, He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.’”

Some people have taken the words “Holy Spirit and fire” like the tongues of fire and the fire of the Spirit that falls down from Heaven as a spiritual baptism. I do think he means spiritual baptism when he says “Holy Spirit,” but he doesn’t mean “spiritual baptism” when he refers to fire. It becomes very clear if you keep reading because he continues a contrast between Holy Spirit and fire.

He says, in the next verse (v.17): “And His winnowing fork is in His hand.” Now, what’s a winnowing fork? That’s a fork in which you toss the grain up in the air, and then the wind on the threshing floor blows the chaff away, and it separates the wheat from the chaff. The wheat is the germ, the food, and the chaff is the hull, which you don’t need. That’s just junk, garbage. You burn it. John is using an agricultural picture here that everyone understands. The One who will come and baptize with Holy Spirit and with fire, His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He’s thoroughly clearing the threshing floor. He’s taken all the stuff that’s brought in, and He’s going to thresh it. “He will gather the wheat into His barn, and He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (v.18)

Jesus is going to separate the wheat from the chaff, and the wheat are those who are baptized with the Holy Spirit, and the chaff are those who are baptized with fire. There’s a contrast between salvation and damnation in this passage.

Some might say, Well, He’s burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire. See, He’s burning it up. He’s destroying them. That’s annihilationism. This can’t be the case because the fire is “unquenchable.” It keeps burning and burning and burning. Jesus said, “Where the worm does not die, and the fire does not go out” (Mark 9:47–49), that is, the judgment of the fire—that’s the instrument of judgment,—continues on. If annihilationism were true, then the fire would burn until things burned up, and then it would be over. The worm would eat until the things that it was eating were gone, and then it would be dead. But the worm doesn’t die, and the fire doesn’t go out, because that which is the subject of the worm in the fire’s work is always there. Plus, we know from Revelation 20, that the devil is thrown into Hell, a place of conscious torment, to be tormented forever, and then those who are without Christ are thrown there too.

I think this metaphor of separating the wheat from the chaff is a good one because it helps us to separate the real Christians from the phonies, the truth from the error. In this period of time, when the Gospel and the Great Commission are under attack heavily from the outside, there are a lot of people on the inside who are starting to bend, they’re giving in, and they’re letting go of something foundational and essential, that is the existence of the place where God does eternal justice: Hell.

In fact, Hell is an evidence for God’s existence. We all have a hunger for justice in this life that is not satisfied. If it is not satisfied here; it must be satisfied somewhere else. This is the argument from desire that C.S. Lewis and others have pointed out. I think it’s compelling, but it only works if there is a place where justice is ultimately done, and God has assigned Hell for that purpose. If there is no Hell, then justice finally is not served.

Anybody who teaches that Hell doesn’t satisfy God’s justice is teaching contrary to the Scripture, and contrary to Jesus. They’re giving people, especially in the case of those who are universalists, false hope: Don’t worry about it. Everybody gets in. Their message gives false comfort and keeps sinners from receiving the forgiveness of sins they desperately need. It undermines the Gospel because if everyone will be reconciled to God no matter what their decision about Jesus is, then there’s little reason to appeal to people to put their trust in Him for rescue. They don’t need it.

Even annihilationism gives false hope, because if you are annihilated, you lose nothing. You are not around to recognize the loss that you might have had as gain. You disappear. And when you disappear, there is no loss for you. You are no more. You have no ontological status. You have no feelings, you have no thoughts, no yearnings, no sense of loss. You are not.

The doctrine of Hell is a way of separating the wheat from the chaff. Go back to Luke 3 and see where John the Baptist makes it clear that Jesus is going to separate the wheat from the chaff, clear the threshing floor, and baptize those who put their trust in Him with His Spirit, and baptize those who don’t with the fire of judgment in a place called Hell. That is, right now, one of the significant dividing lines in Christianity between those who are holding firm to the Bible’s teachings and those who are giving way to change the message to something less offensive but false.

In the end, it’s not faithful to the Bible and it’s not a loving act to avoid offending people, but to let them die in their sins. Loving people and being faithful to God means telling the truth as the Bible teaches it.