By Dan Walters
Anyone who claims to be a Christian but who denies a clear and fundamental doctrine of the Bible such as the divinity of Christ, the verbal inspiration of the Scriptures, or the existence of heaven and hell may be described as a modernist: In recent surveys among denominationalists with modernistic tendencies, it is significant that a greater number of persons always deny the existence of hell than the number who deny the existence of heaven. I have never known of any undenominational Christian who doubted an eternal reward for the saved, but I have known several who have denied eternal punishment for the lost. This seems to indicate that “the wish is father to the thought.” Hell seems unfair to our finite minds, and so we rationalize it away.
The New Testament says as much or more about hell than it says about heaven. One of the best descriptions of hell as a continuing torment is found in the account of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk. 16:19-31). The rich man is pictured as being fully conscious in hell and “being tormented in this flame.” The New Testament does not say that this is a parable, but assuming that it is a parable, why would it teach an untruth? Every other parable of Christ concerns things that could have literally taken place, whether they actually did or not. Christ never made use of Greek mythology or other fictional material of this sort in His teaching.
In Matthew 25:46, Jesus said, “And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.” “Everlasting” and “eternal” are from the same Greek word. If we know how long heaven will last, we then know how long the torment of the wicked will last. Yet no one seems to be interested in finding arguments to limit the reward of the righteous.
Those who deny eternal punishment argue that hell will be annihilation; the wicked will simply be burned up. Yet the Bible teaches that hell was prepared for the Devil and his angels (Matt. 25:41) and that the Devil will “be tormented day and night for ever and ever” (Rev. 20:10). The Devil is an angel, a spirit being, .and there is no evidence that such a being is capable of being burned up. But then it is argued that man, being mortal, will be burned up while the Devil will continue to be tormented. The punishment of wicked humans is described in Romans 2:9 as “tribulation and anguish.” The state of the rich man could be described as “tribulation and anguish,” but annihilation contains neither tribulation nor anguish.
Some count on the statement in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 that the wicked will “be punished with everlasting destruction.” Does this mean that they will cease to exist? Job, while still alive and in the midst of his sufferings, said, “He hath destroyed me on every side, and I am gone” (Job 19:10). Job was destroyed but still conscious and in anguish. The Bible says that death is the punishment for sin, and it is assumed that the second death will be annihilation of the spirit as well as the body. Paul says that the Ephesians, before conversion, were “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1). Neither their spirits nor their bodies had ceased to exist; they were spiritually dead, separated from God. Those in hell will be separated from God for all eternity, yet they will continue to exist, as did the Ephesians.
Is annihilation a punishment sufficient to be called “torment,” “tribulation and anguish,” and “weeping and gnashing of teeth”? Is it a punishment which men fear to the extent that it will motivate them to turn from their wicked ways? There are millions of atheists in the world, and they all expect to be annihilated when they die. Yet they do not seem to fear death more than others. All of the animals are annihilated when they die, yet we do not think of them as deserving a horrible punishment. Hebrews 10:29 says that those who despise Christ shall be given a “sorer punishment” than those who despised Moses’ law. Those who despised Moses’ law were stoned to death; according to those who view man’s soul as mortal, they were annihilated. How will a second annihilation be “sorer” than a first annihilation? In fact, if such were true there would be no purpose in the resurrection. Why resurrect a man who has already been annihilated in order to annihilate him again? It might be supposed that burning to death would be greater punishment than dying a natural death, but it must be remembered that many persons have already burned to death here on earth, some have died slowly of horrible diseases, and some have been tortured to death. Why bother to raise them if they are to be annihilated? Their punishment will be no greater than that of an unfortunate dog who burns to death in a house fire.
We know that God is a God of justice, and that punishment will be in proportion to crime. Jesus said, “that servant, which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes” (Lk. 12:47, 48). Though we are given little information on the subject, this principle seems to indicate that there will be degrees of punishment. Let those whose sense of justice is outraged by the very existence of hell think about the consequence of their own theory: that Hitler, Stalin, and Charles Manson must receive exactly the same punishment as a good moral man who never heard the gospel; all will be annihilated.
One emotional argument says that God can not torture anyone, that such would be out of character. If this is true, then He cannot torture the Devil and his angels. Why would it be so much worse to torture a human than to torture a spirit being of a higher level than man? If God can not torture anyone, how did He bring Himself to cause King Uzziah to be smitten with leprosy and King Herod to be eaten alive by worms? This torture was of a shorter duration, but it was not instantaneous by any means. If God is not capable of torture, then He is not capable of it for any length of time, even for the short time necessary for bodies to burn up in the lake of fire.
Another popular argument says that if hell is eternal torment, then Jesus did not really atone for us upon the cross, since He only died and did not suffer eternal torment. If we take the position that what Jesus did had to be equal in all respects to the punishment man would have had to bear without -Him, then it could be argued that Jesus would have had to die millions of deaths, since he atoned for millions of people. How can one death atone for millions? Also, we know that Jesus was not annihilated, since He promised the thief that he would be with Him in paradise. If Jesus was not annihilated, but men are to be annihilated, then the punishment is not equal. Actually the punishment did not have to be equal, since Christ was not equal to men. He was the Son of God. The value of His blood is not to be compared to the value of a man’s blood.
Other arguments can be made, but none can stand before the plain language of Scripture. The arguments fall into two categories: (1) those which assume that man is wholly mortal, and (2) those which rely on human wisdom and emotion. Instead of wasting time and effort to prove that hell does not exist, why not concentrate on avoiding any kind of punishment and inheriting eternal life? Otherwise, if it turns out that hell does exist, you will go there and regret your mistake throughout eternity.
Truth Magazine XXIV: 38, pp. 618-619
September 25, 1980