Hell Interrupted—Part 1

Author Tim Barnett Published on 09/01/2017

By Tim Barnett and Greg Koukl

You may not have noticed, but Hell is not as popular as it used to be. Simply put, the doctrine of Hell has fallen on hard times.

Jehovah’s Witnesses have long denied Hell, at least the everlasting punishment part at the heart of the classical view, along with Seventh Day Adventists, each teaching that, in the final judgment, the unrepentant wicked will be snuffed from existence—annihilated.

Currently, however, it’s not just those on the theological fringes who are rejecting the idea of Hell as eternal conscious torment, but also respected evangelicals like theologian John Stackhouse and the late Anglican, John Stott, venerable rector emeritus of All Souls Church in London.

In recent years, opposition to the doctrine of endless punishment by those who are rethinking Hell has gained enough popular momentum that “conditional immortality”—also known as “annihilationism”1—has begun to make significant inroads into mainstream Christianity.2 This trend must be answered, for two reasons.

First, in our view the Gospel itself is undermined to some degree when Hell gets the short shrift. Though some consider extinction of self-consciousness a weighty sentence for earthly wrongs, it pales in comparison to never-ending conscious torment. The good news is only as good as the bad news is bad, and in Scripture eternal happiness and everlasting joy are balanced against the alternative—eternal misery and everlasting anguish. Indeed, Jesus put the calculus precisely this way, as you will soon see.

Second, and more importantly, Paul makes it clear that shepherds in the church must be “holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching,” and also must be able “to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict” (Titus 1:9). There is little question in our own minds which view has been “in accordance with the teaching” historically when it comes to the question of Hell. Here’s why.

The “Catholic” Faith

Over 130 years ago, W. G. T. Shedd opened his classic work on Hell, The Doctrine of Endless Punishment, with these words: “The common opinion of the ancient church was that the future punishment of the impenitent wicked is endless. This was the catholic faith [i.e., the faith of the entire church]; as much so as belief in the Trinity.”3 Indeed, Shedd points out, there was more unanimity in the ancient church on Hell’s eternal torment than there was on Trinitarianism.

Further, the conviction of the early Christians flowed seamlessly from the OT rabbinic tradition of the time, with the schools of Shammai and Hillel both holding to the doctrine of eternal punishment, as did the Jewish synagogue in general throughout the entire first century.4 Later, the medieval church as well as the church of the Reformation—both Lutherans and Calvinists—were of one mind on the doctrine.5

It is possible for traditional teachings to be in error, of course. However, when Paul says that elders must hold fast to the faithful teaching, and when the writer of Hebrews calls the doctrine of “eternal judgment” an “elementary teaching,” part of the very “foundation” of instruction about Christ (Heb. 6:1–2), and when the vast chorus of the church faithful understood that Hell was a place of everlasting conscious suffering, then any departure from that “catholic faith” must be justified by a clear and unambiguous appeal to Scripture.

Making our case for the classical view, though, carries with it a liability. In one sense we find it a bit awkward to be the champions of perpetual punishment, everlasting suffering, and endless torment. We want you to know, then—just for the record—that we find no joy in this. It’s hard to think of a doctrine more painful to consider, more frightening to contemplate, or more bizarre to imagine than the classical conception of Hell. It is, in John MacArthur’s words, an “appalling truth.”

However, what we like or don’t like is hardly the point. “Emotionally, I find the concept [of eternal suffering] intolerable,” John Stott confided, “and do not understand how people can live with it without cauterizing their feelings or cracking under the strain. But our emotions are a fluctuating, unreliable guide to truth and must not be exalted to the place of supreme authority in determining it.”6

Quite right. Taking counsel from our feelings on a revolting topic like everlasting torment is perilous, since we inevitably stumble into the error of sacrificing God’s justice on the altar of His love. But that will never do since both God’s love and His justice are grounded, so to speak, in the same thing: His goodness. Goodness informs both God’s mercy (through love) and God’s punishment (through justice) and neither can be sacrificed without sacrificing God’s noble character.

Thankfully, these are not in conflict in the Christian Story since both find their perfect harmony in the cross where God is both just and justifier of those who have faith in Jesus (Rom. 3:26). On Calvary God simultaneously expresses both His holiness and His compassion.

In the end, we side with C. S. Lewis who wrote, “There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power. But it has the full support of Scripture and, specially, of our Lord’s own words; it has always been held by Christendom.”7 Stott adds, “As a committed evangelical, my question must be—and is—not what does my heart tell me, but what does God’s Word say?”8

We agree. Our only legitimate course of action regarding the nature of Hell is to answer the question, “What does God’s Word say?” So to Scripture we shall turn.

Sheep and Goats

There is a simple reason for the near unified voice of the church for over 1500 years regarding the unending torment of Hell. Those believers were convinced it was Jesus’ own view. Christ the appointed Judge made clear the price that would be paid when His gavel fell. “He took it upon Himself to sound the note of warning,” Shedd points out. “He, the Judge of the quick and the dead, assumed the responsibility of teaching the doctrine of Endless Retribution.”9

Note, for example, Jesus’ depiction of the final judgment at the end of the age found in Matt. 25:

But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before Him and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; and He will put the sheep on His right and the goats on the left. (31–32)

The sheep, blessed of the Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for them (34). The goats, however, face a terrible sentence:

Then He will also say to those on His left, “Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels.” (41)

Jesus concludes His parable with a simple summary of the judgment: “These will go away into eternal punishment,” He says, “but the righteous into eternal life” (46).

What are we to make of this crucial pronouncement? At first glance the meaning seems unambiguous. The sheep experience blessedness forever and the goats experience punishment forever. The parallelism is clear-cut. The duration of the conscious experience for the first group—everlasting joy—is the same as the duration of the conscious experience for the second—everlasting torment. That is the plain sense of the passage, the ordinary meaning of the words, and the natural reading of the text.

Conditionalists, though, claim otherwise. Most recognize that eternal life and eternal punishment are both never-ending, after a fashion. They take the phrase “eternal life” in its ordinary sense—an ongoing, conscious, everlasting experience of life—but they take the term “eternal punishment” to be eternal only in its consequence—that the goats’ non-existence continues forever. “After all,” conditionalist Preston Sprinkle writes, “when Hebrews 9:12 refers to our ‘eternal redemption,’ it most probably doesn’t refer to a never-ending act of redeeming, but to the never-ending redemption that results from God’s saving work.”10

Though some might be tempted by Sprinkle’s point, it falters for a number of reasons. First, Sprinkle is only half right about Hebrews. Agreed, the passage does not refer to a never-ending act of redemption. It refers, rather, to a never-ending state of redemption (“having obtained for us an eternal redemption”), which state is subjective by nature (unlike annihilation). Keep in mind that being “redeemed,” like being “saved,” is not only an event, but an ongoing conscious experience.

Second, notice further that the “eternal redemption” of verse 12 secures for us the “eternal inheritance” of verse 15. The two go together, the eternal conscious experience of redemption making possible the eternal conscious enjoyment of the inheritance.

Finally, a simple appeal to common sense. No one would say that executed criminals are being punished for eternity just because they are dead forever.

No, Hebrews 9:12 does not invalidate the plain sense of Jesus’ teaching. Simply put, the conditionalist interpretation of Matt. 25:46 is not a natural reading, but a strained one, especially since the phrases “eternal punishment” and “eternal life” in are in unmistakable, deliberate parallel. The duration is the same for both groups. Only the quality of the conscious experience changes.

Following the Flow

Here is the key question: What meaning did Jesus intend to convey in this passage? When we follow the flow of His reasoning starting earlier in chapter 24, His meaning is unmistakable. For two full chapters—97 verses—Jesus delivers a stern warning of final judgment using a series of vivid depictions that make a clear contrast between the fate of the righteous and the fate of the wicked.

In Matt. 24:45–51, the faithful and sensible slave is put in charge of all his master’s possessions, while the evil slave is scourged and banished to a place of “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” In the parable of the ten virgins, the prudent are welcomed into the joy of the wedding feast while the imprudent are completely shut out (Matt. 25:10). In the parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14–30), two faithful servants are invited to “enter into the joy of your master” (21, 23), while the wicked slave is thrown into “outer darkness” where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (30). Finally, at the last judgment the righteous inherit the kingdom and eternal life, while the wicked are cast out (“Depart from Me”), into a place of “eternal fire” (41) where they “go away into eternal punishment” (46)11

The classical understanding that these passages teach conscious, never-ending torment follows smoothly from both the immediate wording of each passage as well as from the general flow of thought of the larger context. The righteous are rewarded, inherit the kingdom, enter into the feast and into the joy of eternal life. The wicked are shut out from the feast, banished to a place of outer darkness where they enter into eternal punishment, weeping and grinding their teeth in the agony of eternal fire.12 There is no mystery here; there is no ambiguity. Jesus’ meaning is unmistakable.

To sharpen the point, 24 verses into chapter 26 Jesus makes a dark appraisal of the fate of His betrayer: “It would have been good for that man if he had not been born” (Matt. 26:24). How does Jesus’ comment square with annihilationism?

If Judas had not been born, then he would not exist. If he were annihilated in judgment, then he would not exist. The last condition would be the same as the first. How could the first be “good,” then, by comparison? No, nonexistence can only be good compared to the everlasting torment of eternal judgment that Jesus had been warning of, time and again, in the previous two chapters. That is the flow of thought. That is the natural reading. 13

The Lake of Fire

Jesus is also not ambiguous about the final abode of the damned. He says they will be banished “into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41). What fire is that, exactly? We find the answer in Revelation 20 where John completes the account of the great white throne judgment at the end of history that Jesus introduced us to in Matt. 25.

And the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone where the beast and the false prophet are also, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.... Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. (Rev. 20:10, 14–15)

All God’s enemies, then, spiritual and human alike—the devil, the prophet, the beast, the great multitude of the dead before the throne—all are destined for the same place, the lake of fire. Here is the key question: What happens to those thrown into the lake of fire? Do they experience unending conscious torment forever (the classical view), or do they forever cease to exist (the conditionalist view)?

Clearly, neither the devil nor the beast nor the false prophet are annihilated. That’s plain enough. Instead, they are “tormented day and night forever and ever.” Is it not equally clear that, in like manner, the wicked who are thrown into that same lake with the devil, the beast, and the prophet experience their same end? Indeed, that’s precisely what John described six chapters earlier. He wrote that those humans who worshipped the beast...

...will be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever; they have no rest, day and night...(Rev. 14:10–11)

This dread sentence meshes perfectly with everything else God’s Word says about the fire of final judgment. John the Baptist warned that Jesus “will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matt. 3:12b). Jesus Himself warned often of the “furnace of fire” (Matt. 13:42), the “eternal fire” (Matt. 18:8), the “unquenchable fire” (Mk. 9:43), and the “fiery Hell” (Matt. 5:22). He likened that fire to Gehenna, where “their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mk. 9:48).

Why does Jesus repeatedly say that Hell’s fire is eternal and never quenched? It’s because the task it was meant to accomplish continues forever. A fire that completely consumes what it burns (annihilationism) no longer blazes. Hell’s furnace of fire is everlasting because the fuel for the fire—the wicked—is never consumed. The fire is never ending because the punishing is never ending. That is Jesus’ point.

Clues from the OT?

Nevertheless, conditionalists push back on this conclusion. For example, some read Jesus and John in light of Old Testament judgment texts like Isaiah 34. Since the imagery of the eternal judgment in Rev. 20 is in some ways similar, for example, to Isaiah’s description of the earthly judgment of Edom, and since Edom was utterly destroyed (annihilated), then the wicked of the great final judgment will share the same fate the argument goes. How do we respond?

Keep two things in mind when you consider this point. First, it’s not unusual for similar imagery to describe judgments that have consequences in different dimensions—temporal and eternal. In Revelation, for example, God lays waste to the nations on earth, then later gathers them together for an eternal judgment at the great white throne. Though both have grave consequences in their own spheres, these are entirely distinct aspects of God’s judgment—one earthly and temporal, the other heavenly and everlasting. Bodies are destroyed and nations laid waste, then souls are sentenced in a final scene of heavenly justice.14 The first both precedes and prefigures the second.15

Second, God’s truth in the bible is revealed progressively, with subsequent writers fleshing out and completing the partial picture revealed earlier. For example, John in Rev. 20 adds to and expands on what Jesus taught about the final judgment in Matt. 25.

There’s little question that Isaiah 34, for example, paints a picture of ultimate judgment making Edom desolate “from generation to generation” where “smoke will go up forever” from a fire that “will not be quenched” (10). Notice two things, though. First, the people along with their domestic animals (the lambs and goats and oxen and bulls) fall. That is clear (5–7). Second, however, only the land burns day and night, not the wicked. They’re dead.

Its streams will be turned into pitch, and its loose earth into brimstone, and its land will become burning pitch. It will not be quenched night or day; its smoke will go up forever; from generation to generation it will be desolate. None will pass through it forever and ever. (9–10)

This “desolate” land, however, remains inhabited by pelicans, hedgehogs, owls, ravens, jackals, ostriches, wolves, hairy goats, snakes, and hawks (11, 13–15). Isaiah’s intent, it seems, is to describe a judgment in which people are slain and the land is laid waste as far as human habitation is concerned. It returns to the abode of wild animals. This doesn’t sound a bit like John’s Hell to us—clearly nothing like the lake of fire in Rev. 20. The reason is that each is looking at different, but complementary, facets of God’s judgment, different dimensions of the same judicial act.

Edom’s civilization is destroyed and its land returns to its wild state. It’s the earthly aspect of judgment—physical destruction—that portends an everlasting punishment (“the smoke goes up forever”) that Jesus and John expand on.

We do not dispute that if Isaiah were read in isolation, annihilationism would be a possible inference from the text, though by no means a necessary one. We also do not dispute that there is a kinship between Isaiah’s depiction of judgment and John’s. Both portray ultimate judgment and both trade on the same imagery. Because of this kinship, though, we must insist that Isaiah not be allowed to have the last word. The final word on the final judgment should come from the final chapter of God’s Word. And here John speaks without ambiguity.

Revelation, in a sense, gives the rest of the story, describing the final disposition of anyone from any land—Edom, Sodom and Gomorrah, or the kings of the earth and their multitudes in Revelation trembling before God’s throne as the final gavel falls. These are not annihilated, but rather deported to outer darkness, away from the presence of the Lord, where there is no rest, only weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth as they are tormented day and night forever.

We have much more to say about the shortcomings of conditionalism. We will do that in part two of “Hell Interrupted” in the November issue of Solid Ground.