By David Lipscomb
Brother Lipscomb: We would like an article from you on the fate of the wicked after death. We have some brethren here who take the position that the wicked are annihilated, destroyed at once, and that there is no eternal punishment. It seems to be a very wholesome doctrine and very full of comfort to some. We think the scriptures on the subject plain enough, but perhaps you will be able to turn on the light a little stronger than some of the rest of us (T.M. Sowell, Corsicana, Texas).
I have never been able to see why any good man desires to convince people that wickedness would not meet a terrible punishment. This effort to convince them that the only penalty for sin is to pass into non-existence and forgetfulness encourages and satisfies people to remain in wickedness. Is not that the meaning, the purpose, and the effect of it? Why object to the idea of eternal punishment? Is not the answer: It gives an idea of terrible punishment of sin and of cruelty of God toward impenitent sinners? To whom does it give such an idea, and who is it that draws back from the idea of that punishment? Is it not the wicked? Yet it does not seem terrible enough to deter them from wickedness. But God intended the punishment he inflicted on sin to deter the wicked from sin. John the Baptist warned them to flee from the wrath to come. Paul says: “Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we persuade men.” Everywhere God represents himself as a God of terror to the wicked. The future punishment of the wicked, so far as time is concerned, is described by exactly the same words that describe the duration of the happiness of the righteous: “These shall go away into eternal punishment: but the righteous into eternal life” (Matt. 25:46,RV). Revelation 14:11, RV, says of those who worship the beast: “The smoke of their torment goeth up forever and ever.” Take these two expressions, and suppose God had intended to teach eternal suffering; what words could he have used to teach it if these do not? God used the words that, in their common and natural meaning, convey the idea of eternal suffering. He could easily have used words that mean annihilation. Why did he use those which mean eternal suffering or punishment if he intended to convey the idea of ceasing to exist at death? These persons who now insist that he means ceasing to exist at death never use the terms God used, except to try to explain them away and break their force. Then the wicked are raised from the dead. Why raise them from the dead to annihilate them? They were to be punished with a punishment much sorer than death without mercy (Heb. 2:2,3). There is a life after death, a punishment worse than death; and when does that punishment after death end? It exists “forever and ever,” it is eternal. No language has terms indicating a longer existence than this in happiness or in woe.
It is said the wicked shall be destroyed. But destruction does not mean annihilation; it means the relations the person holds to other things will be broken and the associations and connections that have hitherto brought good will bring evil. A nation is destroyed by being broken up in its relations and disorganized. It is doubtful if the idea of annihilation of anything or being is found in the Bible. Paul describes the punishment that shall be inflicted upon those that obey not the gospel: “Who shall suffer punishment, even eternal destruction from the face of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thess. 1:9,RV). This plainly says the destruction shall be from the presence of God, and this destruction shall be an eternal one. It shall never be restored. In the presence of God are blessing and joy and all good; away from that presence are sorrow and woe and all evil. This is to be eternal. These scriptures are so clear that it seems to me none willing to receive the truth can doubt them. In making the punishment for sin light, we make the sin itself a light and indifferent matter. To make sin against God a light matter is to derogate from the honor, majesty, holiness, and power of God; it derogates from the importance of the mission and death of Christ. Is it likely Christ would have left heaven, with its glories, and have come to earth to suffer and die to save men from a state of unconsciousness? All effort to minimize or lighten the punishment of sin destroys the enormity of the sinfulness of sin; lessens the majesty, dignity, and holiness of God; lessens the magnitude and the grace of Christ and the importance of his death. It derogates from man and makes him only a brute; it destroys the difference between virtue and vice, sin and holiness, in men. The Bible affords no ground for such a position and leads to no much conclusions. If men would study to avoid sin instead of trying to excuse it, it would be much better for men (Gospel Advocate, [June 27, 1901], p . 409.
Guardian of Truth XXXV: 19, p. 597
October 3, 1991