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The Eternal Punishment of the Lost

This chapter is an endeavour to write a statement of the most solemn doctrine in all the Bible. When I first attempted to preach on this subject some years ago, invariably I found myself asking God for tenderness in presenting it. Today I must confess that there still lingers an averseness on my part to declare that there is no hope that any measure of divine grace or mercy ever will be extended to one person after death, but that there is rather a fearful anticipation of retribution in the lake of fire. This averseness to assert the divine claims about Hell is not the result of waning convictions or of doubts concerning the reality and literalness of the everlasting misery of the unsaved. Contrariwise, the growing convictions and God-given confirmations of the endless agony of the wicked dead cause me to tremble at the horrible thought of damned souls in flames of torment forever.

Hell–An Unpopular Subject

I am aware of the fact that this subject is an unpopular one. Since those memorable days when Jonathan Edwards preached that potent and moving sermon on “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” the doctrine of the eternal retribution of the lost has gradually gone into obscurity. A daily newspaper printed the following on May 29, 1944. “A Navy chaplain said today some naval officers forbade chaplains to tell their men they were in danger of Hell. The chaplain, Frederick Volbeda, of Washington, a veteran of Pearl Harbour, said his own commanding officer once heard him preach repentance and actual punishment and swore he would ‘have no hell-fire preaching on this ship.’” Chaplain Volbeda made his report at the 84th annual General Assembly of the Southern Presbyterian Church.

When Irvin S. Cobb, the internationally famous humourist and writer, died in March 1944, he referred to Heaven as “a powerfully dull place, populated to a considerable and uncomfortable degree by prigs, time servers and unpleasantly aggressive individuals,” and then he added that “Hell may have a worse climate but undoubtedly the company is sprightlier.” Of course, Cobb did not believe in Hell, for he insisted that those in charge of his burial “avoid reading the so-called Christian burial service, which, in view of the language employed in it, I regard as one of the most cruel and paganish things inherited by our forebears from our remote pagan ancestry. Instead, let the 23rd Psalm be read. This has no threat of eternal hell-fire.”

Irvin Cobb was doubtless a success as a humourist, but no amount of jocose treatment of Hell can deliver him from the anguish and agony of his soul today. The best this wit and humourist could say about our Lord Jesus Christ was that He was “the greatest gentleman that ever lived.” To all such flattery and humanism our Lord only answers: “Ye must be born again.” On this vital and eternal issue Cobb declared himself. If he died denying every fundamental doctrine of the Christian faith, how solemn will be his day of accounting for casting such aspersions. God brands all who reject and ridicule His Word as “raging waves of the sea foaming out their own shame, . . . to whom is reserved the blackness of darkness forever” (Jude 13). Someday the tables will be turned, and “He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh” (Psalm 2:4).

Our hearts go out in sympathy and pity for Cobb and the millions like him who died unbelievers and passed consciously into an endless eternity and the hell-fire they scoffed and denied.

Mr. Cobb requested that at his funeral the Twenty-Third Psalm be read because it contains “no threat of eternal hell-fire.” We do not propose a debate on the theological content of this best loved Psalm of David, but we can say without fear of contradiction that Cobb’s knowledge of the Bible was the result of a prejudiced investigation, to say the least. The Author of the Shepherd-Psalm is also the Author of all that the world knows about the future life, and eschatology of the Holy Scriptures is not silent on the doctrine of the eternal retribution of the unbelieving and wicked dead in a place of torment.

False Theories

Many conflicting theories have been formed regarding this subject. Of course, those mentioned under the above heading are human theories that have not the support of the Word of God. Here we can do little more than make a passing reference to these man-made ideas These are Conditional Immortality, Universalism and The Restoration Theory.

  1. Conditional Immortality.This theory is built on the error that all who do not receive everlasting life will die as the animals and be annihilated or wiped out of existence. It contends that immortality is conditional upon receiving the gift of everlasting life. If anyone dies not having the gift of everlasting life he shall not be punished with everlasting torment. He shall be annihilated.
  2. Universalism.The universalistic theory holds the idea of universal redemption. For example, a certain number of Scripture references are used to prove that Christ died for all men alike. Therefore, all men alike shall be saved in the end. Universalism uses such texts as Paul’s when he said: “We preach, warning every man, and teaching every man in all wisdom; that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus” (Colossians 1:28). Certainly, the Apostle could not have meant that he expected every man that ever came into the world to be made perfect in Christ. The words “every man” could refer only to those to whom Paul addressed his Epistle; namely, “To the saints and faithful brethren in Christ” (1:2). This theory does not deny that all men are lost by sin, but it contends that all men will finally be saved and enter into everlasting life. Universalism falls when it overlooks the Biblical fact that salvation and everlasting life are applied to no one apart from his personal acceptance of it as a divinely bestowed gift to “whosoever will.”
  3. The Restoration Theory.This view, called by some Restitutionism, appeals to the universalist in that it does not deny that all men are lost, but that sometime, somewhere, all creation (including Satan and the fallen angels) will be restored or reconciled to God. Being contrary to reason and common sense, the average person labels this view as preposterous. But let us look at two texts that are used to form the basis of the false view of Restitutionism. The words of our Lord are quoted: “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto Me” (John 12:32). We must exercise care that these words of Christ do not lead us to believe the heretical teaching of Restitutionism. Our Saviour never meant that all men finally shall be saved by His crucifixion. Dr. A. C. Gaebelein in his commentary on “The Gospel of John” says: “The analogy of other texts shows plainly that the only reasonable sense is that Christ’s crucifixion would have a ‘drawing’ influence on men of all nations, Gentiles as well as Jews.” But it is quite possible also that this verse has a future application. In the preceding verse (31) which was given in connection with verse thirty-two, Jesus spoke of the future when “the prince of this world shall be cast out.” Of a truth, in that day “all men” will be drawn unto Him. 

Another favourite text used by the Restitutionists is one of Peter’s statements given in his second sermon after Pentecost. The Apostle said:

Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord; And he shall send Jesus Christ, which before was preached unto you: Whom the heaven must receive until the times of restitution of all things, which God hath spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets since the world began (Acts 3:19-21).

Again, the teachers of this false doctrine have seized upon a phrase and have deliberately torn it from its context to make it fit their scheme of thought. The phrase “restitution of all things” cannot be interpreted correctly if applied to any other than the house of Israel. Remember, it is to Israel that Peter is addressing his message. His introductory statement was: “Ye men of Israel” (vs. 12). It is the restitution of all things for Israel when Christ comes to restore the nation to which the apostle is referring. Furthermore, it is to be the “restitution of all things, which God hath spoken by the mouth of all His holy prophets.” Immediately we are limited in defining Peter’s statement, for we must confine it to the restitution (or restoration) of which the prophets spoke. Frequently the prophets wrote of the restoration of Israel to the land of Palestine, but nowhere in the prophetic writings have we ever come across so much as an inference that the wicked dead ever will be saved. 

Restitutionism depends largely upon that mighty statement uttered by the Apostle Paul in Philippians 2:10, 11, “That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” This passage means that all creation, whether animate or inanimate, in heaven, on earth, or under the earth, will confess (or publicly declare) and thereby agree to the testimony that God the Father has given of His Son. There is not the slightest indication that all men who acknowledge the authority of Christ must be saved or that they will be saved. While our Lord was here on earth the demons frequently acknowledge His authority (see Mark 1:24, 34; 3:11, 12), and we know that everlasting fire is prepared for the Devil and his angels (Matthew 25:41).

Arguing Against Hell from the Love of God

We hear it said often that God is too tender, kind, and forgiving to allow men to suffer in Hell. Pleading the love and pity of God, men insist that He would not allow His creatures to perish. There are many beautiful and sentimental sayings about the love of God that are quoted to support the view that He would not allow one soul to suffer torment in eternity. But we dare never lose sight of the fact that one’s escape from Hell is not dependent upon the love of God but upon the repentance and faith of each individual person. God is love, to be certain, but man also has a free will. Men are not doomed and damned to Hell by God, but they go there because they have wilfully rejected God’s only way of escape from sin’s penalty, saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. God was love in the Old Testament times, and yet the children of Israel were punished for their sins. God is love now, but He does not open the doors of penal institutions to deliver those who are being punished for their crimes. It is but the fair treatment of society to protect it against the persistent wrong doings of the criminal, and certainly Heaven would not be safe nor desirable if there were no protection against sin and crime. It would seem to the writer that God owes it to the faithful believers that the wicked be separated from them in Heaven. It would be an insult to the justice and honour of God were He to allow the unrighteous and unholy rejectors of Jesus Christ to share eternally the abode and “the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him” (1 Corinthians 2:9).

The natural and inevitable consequence of sin is punishment. Proper punishment of a child does not derogate from the love of the parent. Sin condemns just as sure as fire burns, and God is justified in putting into effect the immortal law that “whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap” (Galatians 6:8).

Hell – A Literal Place of Future Punishment

Some people engage themselves in much wishful thinking about Hell. It has been said that the fires of Hell mean the torments of conscience. Others say that Hell is simply the grave. We do not question that the torments of conscience will be included in the eternal punishment of the lost, though Hell will not be the torments of conscience only. But we cannot agree at all with those who teach that Hell is simply the grave. One must be either a deceiver or an illiterate to say that Hell is the grave. When the unsaved rich man died, he went to Hell, and cried: “I am tormented in this flame” (Luke 16:24). Certainly, he was not merely in the grave. He had five brothers whom he desired to be saved lest they also should come to that place of torment. Now if his five brothers would have repented and become saved, their conversion could not have kept them from the grave, for “it is appointed unto men once to die” (Hebrews 9:27). Repentance and conversion will keep one from Hell but never from the grave. The bodies of all men, excepting those believers who are alive when Christ comes, will return to the dust. Hell is not the grave. The body of the rich man was dead, but that man knew that his soul was in a literal place and not merely in a spiritual state.

Notice the use of the word “fire,” which denotes that the fire of Hell is as literal as the place itself. Repeatedly our Lord and the apostles spoke of the fire of Hell.

But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council; but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire (Matthew 5:22).

Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire (Matthew 7:19).

The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 13:41, 42).

Wherefore if thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off, and cast them from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire. And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire (Matthew 18:8, 9).

Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels (Matthew 25:41).

            Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched (Mark 9:44).

And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame (Luke 16:24).

In flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Thessalonians 1:8).

And the angels which kept not their first estate, but left their own habitation, he hath reserved in everlasting chains under darkness unto the judgment of the great day. Even as Sodom and Gomorrah, and the cities about them in like manner, giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire (Jude 6, 7).

The same shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out without mixture into the cup of his indignation; and he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels, and in the presence of the Lamb (Revelation 14:10).

Therefore, shall her plagues come in one day, death, and mourning, and famine; and she shall be utterly burned with fire: for strong is the Lord God who judgeth her (Revelation 18:8).

And the beast was taken, and with him the false prophet that wrought miracles before him, with which he deceived them that had received the mark of the beast, and them that worshipped his image. These both were cast alive into a lake of fire burning with brimstone (Revelation 19:20).

And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever (Revelation 20:10).

And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:14, 15).

But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death (Revelation 21:8).

You may study these statements and believe them, or else you may pass them by. You may believe that the Bible is for today, or else you may laugh at it as a bit of obsolete dogma. But today you are face to face with eternal statements in the Word of God which will survive the heavens and the earth. Your unbelief cannot disprove nor alter them. When the resurrected physical bodies of the unbelievers of every age leave the Judgment of the Great White Throne, they will go into a literal Hell of fire.

And be sure that the body will share with the soul in its suffering. Jesus said: “Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation” (John 5:28, 29). May we ask what part of man is in the grave? We all agree that it is his body. Therefore, we can depend on Christ’s statement that that part of man that is buried in the grave will come forth to be damned eternally.

Will Future Punishment be Endless?

At death the eternal state of each person is immutably fixed. The words “eternal,” “everlasting,” “for ever” and “for ever and ever” express endless duration. The New Testament use of these expressions denotes eternity. It is unreasonable to assume that there is an eternal Heaven but not an eternal Hell. Eternal punishment is as much a truth of God’s Word as is the eternal rewards for the righteous. Jesus said: “And these shall go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into life eternal” (Matthew 25:46). The life of the righteous is everlasting, but so is the punishment of the wicked everlasting. The Bible says that salvation is eternal (Hebrews 5:9), life is eternal (John6:54), redemption is eternal (Hebrews 9:12), and the inheritance of the saints is eternal (Hebrews 9:15). But it says also that the fire of Hell is eternal and everlasting (Matthew 18:8; Jude 7); the chains of Hell are everlasting (Jude 6); the blackness of darkness is for ever (Jude 13), and the torment is for ever and ever (Revelation 20:10). The punishment of the wicked and the life of the righteous are for equal duration, “for ever and ever.”

Where is Hell?

Here we cannot be dogmatic. This question cannot be answered fully. Geographically Hell cannot be located. The old theory that is held by many is that Hell is in the heart of the earth. A brief article appeared in “Moody Monthly” (July 1940) in which the author sought to locate Hell. The following is a brief summary of that article.

It is clear that Hell is not in this earth. The Apostle Peter speaks of the day when the earth is to be dissolved by fire:

The earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up. Seeing then that all these things shall be dissolved…. Nevertheless we, according to His promise look for new heavens and a new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness (2 Peter 3:10-13).

We are not persisting in this view of the geographical location of Hell, for the Bible gives us no positive declarative statement of its situation. Where this outer darkness is, where the endless fire is, where Hell is we do not know, nor must we know. It is sufficient to say that Hell is a prepared place, and experientially it is at the end of every unsaved sinner’s life.

Come sinners, seek His grace 
Whose wrath ye cannot bear; 
Flee to the shelter of His cross, 
And find salvation there.