Hell, No. 3
November 16, 2003

We have the past two Sunday evenings been considering the doctrine of hell as a doctrine under attack, as, indeed, it has always been. I have sought both to confirm that the judgment of the lost in the world to come is, in fact, the Bible’s clear teaching and to remove from that doctrine the odium that results from the widespread caricature of the Bible’s doctrine of hell. The Bible’s teaching is reasonable. It sets forth the prospect of a punishment of strict justice. However unwelcome the prospect of this punishment, it cannot be denied that intimations of it are everywhere to be seen in the world around us. The fact is, everywhere we look there are permanent prices to be paid for the sins of a day or a week or a year. What is more, it is very doubtful that we can maintain any real hope of heaven if we do not maintain the reality of hell. The two destinies are part and parcel of the Bible’s doctrine of the outcome of human life, of the significance of the redemption of Jesus Christ, and of its insistence on the seriousness of human life.

As I have already said and could indicate at far greater length, the doctrine of eternal punishment is under attack not only from the world, where we would expect this biblical teaching to get a chilly reception but within the church herself. Forms of universalism (the idea that eventually everyone will be saved) and annihilationism (the idea that the wicked will be simply extinguished to exist no more, whether immediately at the judgment or following some period of punishment). Prominent evangelicals such as John Stott have gone into print favoring annihilationism as a substitute for the doctrine of eternal punishment.

To which Dr. J.I. Packer, one of the finest Christian writers of our day but also, you need to know, a first class theological mind, one of the best Christian theologians of the twentieth century, responded in this homely way. Now you have to be a cricket fan fully to understand Dr. Packer’s illustration. But, remember, in test matches, the great matches between the national teams of cricket playing countries – England, Australia, India, Pakistan, West Indies – there are only two innings played. Those two innings can take five days to play and often the game ends in a draw because the game has not been completed by the end of the last day. Often teams that are far behind, therefore, play defensively. The batsman doesn’t have to run and so he simply holds his bat in front of the wicket and gently knocks the pitched ball away and stands there, taking no risk of making an out, and he will do that all day to bring time to an end before the last out is made. In each inning all eleven of your players bat. If the game ends before the final out, it is a draw, no matter that one team might be hundreds of runs ahead. Remember, there are eleven men on a team, not nine as in baseball, and eleven outs must be made to end an inning, not three.

So, in talking about evangelicals embracing universalism and annihilationism, Packer recalls a famous cricket match in 1981.

“Half-way through the afternoon of Monday, July 20, 1981, in Leeds, Yorkshire, England was in trouble. It was the fourth day of the third of six five-day test matches against Australia. The first had been lost, the second drawn, and this, the third, now seemed doomed. The seventh player in England’s second inning had just been dismissed with the score…still 92 runs behind Australia’s first inning total of 401, and only three more Englishmen remained to bat, while Australia had an entire second inning still to come. In cricket the batsmen…operate in pairs, and as the new man walked to the wicket, his partner, Ian Botham, who had so far scored 23, went to meet him. The following dialogue then took place, in the idiom that you might call sportsman’s swagger. Botham: ‘You don’t fancy hanging around on this wicket for a day and a half do you? New batsman: ‘No way.’ Botham: ‘Right; come on, let’s give it some humpty.’ Which they did, hitting the ball all over the field to such good effect that incredibly, England’s score rose to 356…before the last man was out. Australia was then dismissed for less than the 129 runs needed to win, and an apparently inevitable defeat had been turned into a famous victory, vividly illustrating the truth that attack is the best form of defense.” [Cited in Peterson, Hell on Trial, 14-15]

Dr. Packer then went on to apply his illustration. He used the illustration, he said, to prepare his readers for his going over to the attack as the best defense of the doctrine that was being threatened from within the evangelical world. “Truths that are vital are threatened, and to reaffirm them effectively,” Packer said, “I will have to hit out – not only at non-evangelicals, but at some of my evangelical brothers too.” Then he goes on.

“No evangelical, I think, need hesitate to admit that in his heart of hearts he would like universalism to be true. Who can take pleasure in the thought of people being eternally lost? If you want to see folk damned, there is something wrong with you! Universalism is thus a comfortable doctrine in a way that alternatives are not. But wishful thinking, based on a craving for comfort and a reluctance to believe that some of God’s truth might be tragic, is no sure index of reality.”

“Jesus himself is strong on the horrific consequences of rejecting him… Granted that Jesus’ references to weeping and gnashing of teeth, outer darkness, worm and fire, gehenna, and the great gulf fixed, are imagery, the imagery clearly stands for a terrible retribution.” [Peterson, 15-16]

After reviewing the biblical evidence, Dr. Packer concluded that the new interest in annihilationism and universalism reflected “not superior spiritual sensitivity, but secular sentimentalism.” [Evangelical Affirmations, 126]

As Harry Blamires puts it:

“Certainly we find it difficult to picture jackbooted figures with swastikas on their armbands, their faces equipped with moustaches and pince-nez, screaming and writhing as they are prodded by devils. Yet it might be healthier to picture them like that, rather than to consign them to a state of untormented non-being. Indeed, it is something of an outrage to deal with them that way. Can we allow for the possibility that when Himmler’s teeth closed on the phial hidden in his mouth and he dropped dead to the ground that that was the end of Heinrich Himmler? The end of thinking, knowing, feeling, and the beginning of what amounts to an blessed eternal sleep? Can we possibly imagine that the arm of divine justice could reach no further than to grant this damaged and evil personality eternal rest at the age of forty-five?”

I had thought that I would spend another Sunday evening dealing with the alternative of annihilationism, now favored by some evangelicals as a kinder, gentler alternative to eternal punishment, but I don’t want to weary you and, frankly, the argument for annihilationism (that the lost are simply extinguished rather than punished) is so plainly an effort to get round what the Bible actually says that I don’t really see the need. There is a reason why unbelievers reading the Bible universally come away from it believing that it teaches eternal punishment. For that is what its words mean. There is a reason why the Christian church has taught eternal punishment with virtual unanimity through the ages. And it isn’t because Christians are damaged people, embittered, happy only when they can contemplate another’s pain. It is because the Bible teaches eternal punishment and Jesus Christ taught it. And no one can read the Gospels with an honest heart and not admit that no one ever had a deeper compassion for others, no one ever gave himself so unstintingly for the welfare of others, no one ever grieved so sincerely for the foolishness and self-destructiveness of others as Jesus Christ. Yet, in all seriousness and with all integrity, he warned us again and again of the impending judgments of hell that must befall the unbelieving and the impenitent. It is time to face this prospect squarely.

Maybe another time we’ll consider the feeble efforts of some to get round this tragic truth. Tonight and next Lord’s Day evening, I want to press home what the Bible does say about the future of the lost, what its image-laden description should be taken to mean. I want to raise in your hearts and minds a sense of horror at the prospect and, so, a determination to be sure that you do not suffer that fate yourself nor those for whom you have or will have some spiritual responsibility.

It may be necessary, I have thought it necessary, to point out that the Bible’s doctrine of hell is considerably more sophisticated and enlightened than most people think or care to find out. But, at the last, we have it on the Lord’s own authority that severe judgments await the unbelieving in the world to come. He thought it necessary to remind us of that fact again and again in language that was obviously designed to raise a shudder. It is time for us to face that squarely.

Now, so far in addressing the fact that the Bible describes hell with figures of speech and not literal descriptions I have wanted to overturn the caricature of the doctrine of hell as some kind of searing frying pan into which the young and old, the pagan and the Christian heretic, the mass-murderer and his victims are alike thrown, there to be burned with searing fire but never consumed. Now, I want us to consider why the Lord used such horrible imagery to depict the punishment of hell.

It is true, of course, that the images used were taken from the time and place in which the Bible was written. If it had been written in our day, it wouldn’t have been the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah that was used to depict future punishment but perhaps the devastation of the first or second world war, or the death camps of Nazi Germany, or, even 9-11. In the day before electric lights, darkness was deeper and a more pressing reality than it is for us and “outer darkness” was an image full of power in a way it is not for us. Probably in those days and until comparatively recently, when an open flame was necessary for light, for warmth, and for cooking, people were burned with fire more than they were injured in any other way. No wonder fire was chosen as an image of painful punishment. Today most of us have little or only minor experience of the pain of being burned. Other images would have been chosen that would have brought home to us the weight and the severity and the pain and grief of divine wrath in the world to come.

In fact, these images are an invitation to you to think of what hurts you most, what has caused you the deepest distress and pain, what you fear the most, and then to imagine hell as a place where that is the norm.

1. For example, gnashing of teeth, which the Lord uses on a number of occasions to describe the punishment of hell, has long been thought to refer to “the fruitless dwelling upon wasted opportunities” [H. Berkhof, Christian Faith, 531], the terrible burden of self-reproach which will torture the minds of people in hell. “If only I had…” but the opportunity is gone forever. This is Judas’ remorse without the relief of suicide. Dante is at his best describing the vivid memory with which the wicked will afflict themselves in hell; how they will be their own tormentors. As he once puts it: “There is no greater grief than to remember days of joy when misery is at hand.”

The saddest things of tongue or pen,
To know the things that might have been.

2. The worm that never dies may perhaps be taken as an image of a conscience that gives no peace: which continues to press home one’s stupidity, one’s veniality, one’s culpability and guilt. And without true and living repentance, there can be no release from this constant accusation.
3. “Outer darkness,” which is another of the Lord Jesus’ images, is in contrast to the light and glory which in their wonderful intensity are the characteristics of heaven. Men who choose darkness rather than light – which is a way of describing unbelief especially in the Gospels – now finds that darkness deepening and consuming them. All the radiance of life is removed because the light that existed even in unbelieving life in the world was due to the presence of God in the world. When his presence is removed and when people descend to their true selves, it is darkness and only darkness.

But darkness may also convey that terrible loneliness that the unbelieving have made for themselves when, rejecting the fellowship of God, they have chosen to make their way with only those who live, as they do, for themselves and, in hell, will do so to a perfect degree.

Remember, when the Lord says in Matt. 25:41, “Depart from me you cursed…” he certainly does not mean that God will not continue to be present in the place of judgment. God is, in his very nature, omnipresent. The separation is rather from the fellowship of God, from the cheering influences of his presence. God will be present to the damned, but his presence will be a terror, a reproach, a burden to them. There will be God, eternally righteous, and there they will be now covered in their sins and absolutely exposed in their guilt. No hypocrisy possible here, no putting on of airs. The moral stench will be unbearable, because it will have been uncovered and all that lessened it here in this world removed. And what is true of God’s presence will also be true of the presence of other people.

In C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce (18-22), the distance between the houses in hell is very great. People are constantly moving farther and farther away from one another. For them, as Sartre famously put it, “hell is other people.” [Cited in Plantinga, Not the Way Its Supposed to Be, 194-195]

4. Other images, such as “fire” and “weeping” are general descriptions of sorrow and pain. According to Lewis, again, who is perhaps the one modern evangelical writer besides the Dutch theologian, Klaas Schilder, who has really contributed to the formation of the Christian doctrine of eternal punishment, the NT uses three images to portray hell: punishment [think of Jesus’ few blows and many blows], destruction [think of fire], and privation, exclusion, or banishment [think of outer darkness]. But, what is plain is that these are simply different ways to speak about the same destiny; it is all those things together, at one and the same time.

Fire and Brimstone may not be terribly meaningful to people nowadays – though folk who witnessed the destruction caused by Mount St. Helens in 1980 or in New York and Washington on 9/11 should appreciate the image – but we are the last people in all the world who should have difficulty appreciating how a place becomes such a place of terrible punishment as hell. When we have focussed so much attention on the inner life, when we know so much of the torment with which those live who are depressed or socially alienated, or who are bitter about the past, or lonely, so lonely that they feel their isolation as a heavy burden. Hopelessness about the future, frustration and anger over one’s own failures and the failures of others, fear of the unknown, self-reproach for the squandering of opportunities: these are the quintessential experiences of modern life. We know what it is like to be miserable, to be overwhelmed by it, defeated by it, consumed by one’s own disappointment.

One Jewish rabbi was quoted in a Newsweek article some years ago as saying, “Jews have been through the Holocaust. There’s just no need to talk about hell.” He meant that the Jews have had so much of hell in this world that it is doubtful that there could be any more in the next. That seems an astonishing non sequitur to me. That the holocaust could and did happen in this world (and has happened to one degree or another many times over through the ages) would seem to make it more, not less likely that there should be a hell in the next world. But, in any case, we have our own images of hell that will suffice to do for us and for our time what the images of biblical times did for that day. The holocaust is but one of them. It is the modern gehenna, a concentration camp with its pain, its shivering cold, its filth, its terror, its dismal and overpowering hopelessness, and its death.

Often the NT specifically states that hell is punishment. In whatever its miseries consist, they amount to God’s imposition of punishment on those who deserve it. In Matt. 25:46 the wicked are said to go away to eternal punishment. In Romans 2 Paul says that there will be wrath and anger for those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. In 2 Thess. 1 which we read last week, Paul says that “they will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord…”

Now, what all of this means, of course, however mysterious the place and the condition of hell may remain in many ways, is that it is a terrible place and an appalling condition and that no man would ever seek it but would rather avoid it at all costs. When you hear someone speak as if he knows he is going to hell, when someone in a movie rather glibly says, “See you in hell,” we are to realize that such people are playing with the idea, not taking it seriously. If anyone really saw hell and knew what it was and what life was like there, he would drop everything else to search for a way to escape such a place and such an existence. No one has ever, no one will ever enter hell as that fool, W.E. Henley, imagined:

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Not so. That is Henley whistling in the dark. Remember, even the demons – who know a great deal more about hell than you or I, begged Jesus not to throw them into the Abyss, which apparently is a kind of proto-hell, a place of punishment but not yet the Lake of Fire. [Luke 8:30-31] The demons begged, and so did the rich man in the Lord’s parable. He pled for relief.

Oscar Wilde once quipped, “Sometimes you can tell someone that he is going to hell in such a way that he wants to get there as quickly as possible.” But it is not so in the Bible. There is a seriousness, a horror, and a revulsion at the prospect of hell that sweeps away any silly bravado or sentimentality. Hell is where no one will ever, even for a moment, want to be.

But, sin has made man a fool. He hears and sees all about him intimations of the divine judgment; he sees everywhere that there exists in this world a punishment so severe as to cripple soul and body. But he suppresses all of that. The world helps him and the Devil also to think of other things. He lives superficially, somehow sure that it will all turn out alright for him though he has no particular reason for his hope.

And, if he is made to worry about judgment, he is content to worry about the consequences of sin in this world, in this life. When MacBeth weighs the pros and cons of murdering Duncan he can thrust from his mind the fear of judgment in the world to come by worrying instead, as he says, “that we have judgment here,” that the crimes men commit in this world are very apt to recoil on those who committed them. And as murder follows murder he is shaken at night by terrible dreams, so shaken that he begins to envy the peace of death.” [Blamires, Knowing the Truth about Heaven and Hell, 40-41]

Ah, but there is no peace in death, not for the wicked. The shame, the loss, the pain, the punishments of this world are but the beginning of birth-pains for those who do not obey the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I want to address the young people now. You boys and girls and younger men and women; you who are beginning to think about life and about your own life, about the world in which you live.

Do you remember what Jesus said? “If your right eye, or your right arm offends you – that is, causes you to sin – gauge it out or cut it off, for it is better to go into heaven maimed than to go whole into heaven.” Have you ever stopped and pondered that gruesome image the Lord used. To gauge out your own right eye; to cut off your own right arm! The Lord knew of what he was speaking. No man ever lived who felt the nearness and the reality of hell as did Jesus of Nazareth. And he told you to spare no effort, to brook no interference in making sure that you did not go there!

I have heard of occasions when human beings have actually done that. I remember reading about a man in the mid-19th century in the Canadian wilderness, who cut off his own foot with a knife because it had become frostbit and then gangrenous. And it was only some years ago, since I came to Tacoma, that a man in Oregon cut off his own leg with a saw because a tree had fallen on him and he couldn’t get out from under it. It had crushed his leg. Can you imagine that? Can you imagine sawing away at your own arm or leg. Why would anyone do that except that the alternative was worse still. That is how seriously I want you to take what the Bible says about the punishment of those who do not follow Jesus Christ, the worst punishment of all, of course, reserved for those who know the truth about God and Christ, and were taught it in church, and claimed to believe it, but did not live it out.

This is not morbid, this is not a depressing way to think about life. It is simply the truth. And the fact that hardly anyone in the world can bear to believe that there is not such a judgment for the wicked is some demonstration of how much the reality of hell is woven into the very fabric of human life. It is true, but it is also glorious. You do not have to go to hell. You should not. You have been commanded to go to heaven instead.

Christ suffered hell for you precisely so that you would not suffer it yourself. This is the greatest thing about you and about your lives, that God and Christ loved you so. If it had taken seven more crosses for Christ to save you from hell, he would have given himself to crucifixion that many times more, for you! You cannot, I forbid you to squander this great gift. I command you in Christ’s name to remember the reality of divine wrath in the world to come, that there is a place and a condition called hell. It is what gives life in this world such great meaning and importance, it is what keeps us from despairing at all the evil and injustice in the world – for everything will be put right at the end. And, remembering hell, and thinking about it, and taking pains to stay as far away from it at every moment as you possibly can, will also keep you near to the Lord Jesus, following hard after him, who alone can take you safely past hell to heaven.