The subject of the final punishment of reprobates is fraught with inexpressible sadness. Some who are moved no doubt by a generous impulse, have sought to eliminate it altogether by holding to a belief of the ultimate salvation of all rational creatures (Universalism). Others have attempted to relax the torments of the damned by limiting their duration or by urging the view that reprobates vanish into nonexistence (conditionalism or annihilationism). Still others feel that the whole topic is in bad taste and that it is wise to pass it under silence altogether.

Yet on this theme the Bible speaks very plainly, and what the Bible says the evangelical believer unhesitatingly accepts and proclaims.

The Nature Of Hell

On this topic the Scriptures use various forms of language, destined no doubt to convey a cumulative impression.

1. Separation from God. “Depart from me” (Matt. 7:23; 25:41), “these shall go away” (Matt. 25:46), and cast him out (Matt. 8:12; 22:13; 25:30; Luke 13:28), “outer darkness” (Matt. 8:12; 22:13; 25:30), “without are the dogs” etc. (Rev. 22:15), far “from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his power” (2 Thess. 1:9)—all these phrases describe separation from God. In the same way in which life can be described as the knowledge, presence and fellowship of God (John 17:3), death and hell can be summed up as separation from him by whom we were created, for whose service we were made, and outside of whom there is nothing for man but utter futility and hopeless frustration.

2. Destruction and death (2 Thess. 1:9; Matt. 10:28; Rev. 20:14). This form of language does not so much imply in Scripture cessation of existence as complete deprivation of some element essential to normal existence. Physical death does not mean that body or soul vanishes away, but rather that an abnormal sepation takes place which severs their natural relationship until God’s appointed time. Spiritual death, or “the second death” (Rev. 20:14; 21:8), does not mean that the soul or personality lapses into non-being, but rather that it is ultimately and finally deprived of that presence of God and fellowship with him which is the chief end of man and the essential condition of worthwhile existence. To be bereft of it is to perish (John 3:16), to be reduced to utter insignificance, to sink into abysmal futility. Even everyday language can illustrate this: an automobile is adjudged a total wreck not only when its constituent parts are melted or vanished, but also when they have been so damaged and distorted that the car has become completely unserviceable. Some such conception is perhaps latent in the word Gehenna (Matt. 5:22; 10:28; 18:9; 23:33; Mark 9:43, 45, 47), the refuse heap of Jerusalem, where rubbish was burned.

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3. Fire. Fire is most beneficial to man when kept under control and at a safe distance; otherwise it may develop as a terrible scourge. As a recent writer puts it:

Its touch is so sharp as to afford, in itself, a shield against its own destructive effects. At the moment of assault, it is as though a whole series of alarm bells jangled furiously in every part of our nervous system, even before the mind has fully grasped what is taking place. It is pain that can neither be ignored nor forgotten, like many of the lesser things that trouble us, because of its imperious and urgent claim upon the attention. And it is in such suffering as this that the lost must live, and forever (Walter Jewell, The Fact of Hell, p. 13).

In scriptural language, no other descriptive terms have been used as commonly as fire: “the devouring fire … everlasting burnings” (Isa. 33:14), fire unquenchable (Isa. 66:24; Mark 9:43–48; Luke 3:17), “everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41), “the lake of fire” (Rev. 19:20; 20:10, 14, 15; 21:8), “he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone” (Rev. 14:10). The story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31), although descriptive of the intermediate state between death and the final resurrection, is also significant here (cf. v. 24, see also Matt. 5:22; 13:42, 50; 18:8, 9; 2 Thess. 1:8; Jude 7, 23). From the frequency of this form of language, many have concluded that fire of a physical kind burns the resurrected body of the reprobates. While this is not strictly impossible, it appears unlikely to us for the following reasons: a. the idea of a physical fire is in conflict with some other scriptural expressions descriptive of hell (outer darkness, etc.); b. it seems ill-suited to resurrected bodies insofar as we may know them; c. the imagery of fire in a vivid form is used with reference to the rich man, who was presumably disembodied (Luke 16:19–31); d. fire is prepared for the devil and his angels (Matt. 25:41; Rev. 20:10, etc.) who are probably incorporeal beings. The spiritual fire, however, which consumes and sears the soul is probably more terrifying and excruciating than physical burning.

4. Darkness. “Outer darkness” (Matt. 8:12; 24:13; 25:30), “everlasting chains under darkness” (Jude 6), “the blackness of darkness forever” (Jude 13). Since God is light and the source of every light, it is not surprising that separation from him implies the night of the soul.

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5. The bottomless pit. This expression, found only in Revelation (9:1, 2, 11), may also refer to hell. It indicates a condition where all footing has been lost and where the soul sinks endlessly away from God.

6. The worm that dies not (Isa. 66:24; Matt. 24:46, 48). This may well refer to the gnawing pains of self-inflicted misery eating away at the vitals of the soul.

7. Anguish, torment (Rom. 2:9; Luke 16:23–28; Rev. 14:10, 11; 20:10). These emphasize the conscious suffering of the damned. So does the word punishment (kolasis) used by Jesus (Matt. 25:46) as well as the passages where our Lord speaks of weeping, wailing, or gnashing of teeth (Matt. 8:12; 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30; Luke 13:28).

8. A final form of biblical language may be noted in those verses which speak of the damned as being under the wrath of God (Jer. 17:4; John 3:36; Rom. 2:5, 8; 9:22; Heb. 10:27; Rev. 14:10), or subject to everlasting contempt (Dan. 12:2). Those who are in this condition are lost (Mark 8:26; Luke 9:25) and damned (John 5:29; 2 Peter 3:7).

When all these terms are taken together, in spite of their remarkable sobriety, their cumulative effect is more pungent than the luxurious imagination of a literary genius like Dante. In fact, both the variety and the restraint in expression suggest that there is a depth of sadness in the misery of the lost which our minds are unable to plumb in this life. In the presence of this biblical restraint, it is unfortunate that many unwarranted and unworthy conceptions are commonly received. For instance, that the reprobates will be actively tormented by demons in hell, and that there are even pictures which represent the devil and his cohorts armed with huge pitchforks and finding great delight in plunging men and women into boiling cauldrons find no support whatever in Scripture. These are ideas due probably to the unfortunate influence of Moslem thought or uninspired Jewish speculation.

The testimony of Scripture is very plain that the terrors of hell are endless. This appears from the fact that frequently the adjective everlasting (ordinarily aionios in Greek) is used: “everlasting chains” (Jude 6), “everlasting contempt” (Dan. 12:2), everlasting destruction (1 Thess. 1:9), everlasting fire or burnings (Isa. 33:14; Matt. 18:8; 25:41; Jude 7), “everlasting punishment” (Matt. 25:46). Furthermore, the expression for ever, or even for ever and ever, is repeatedly found (Jer. 17:4; Rev. 14:11; 19:3; 20:10). Now it has been suggested that the word aionios means “of the ages” and does not imply eternity. But this interpretation appears very precarious, for the Bible mentions only two ages—the present age, limited by individual death or by the coming of Jesus Christ, and the age to come, for which it never assigns any limit. In fact, among some 66 occurrences of aionios in the New Testament, some 51 cases apply to the eternal felicity of the redeemed, where it is conceded by all that no limitation of time applies. It is very unlikely that the same term, when used of the lost, should be understood to admit of such limitation, especially since both are sometimes found together in the same immediate context (Matt. 25:46).

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Further evidence along the same line may be derived from the expressions, fire unquenchable (Isa. 66:24; Matt. 3:12; Luke 3:17) or “that never shall be quenched” (Mark 9:43, 45), the worm that dieth not (Isa. 66:24; Mark 9:44, 46, 48), “the wrath of God abideth on him” (John 3:36).

In the presence of such evidence, it is not surprising to find that the overwhelming majority in Christendom has understood the Bible to teach the doctrine of endless conscious punishment.

Alternative Views

There has been, however, almost in all ages since Origen a fringe of Christians advocating universal salvation. But apart from the evidence thus far adduced in the present article, they face immense difficulties with the passages relating to the unpardonable sin (Matt. 12:32; Heb. 6:4–6; 1 John 5:16, 17), with the “impassable gulf” mentioned in Luke 16:26, with the statement of Jesus “Whither I go, ye cannot come” (John 8:21), with his remark about Judas—“It had been good for that man if he had not been born” (Matt. 26:24), not to speak of the constant note of Scripture that this life’s decisions have everlasting and irrevocable consequences. In spite of its good intentions, Universalism cuts the heart of the urgency of the Gospel and of the missionary task of the Church.

Conditional immortality or annihilationism may be viewed as less dangerous, although here also considerable exegetical difficulties arise, as the summary review of the biblical data given above may well indicate.

But, it is urged, the doctrine of endless conscious punishment is in conflict with God’s justice, love and wisdom:

1. With his justice, because it would not be equitable to punish a finite fault with an infinite penalty. To such an objection we reply with Anselm of Canterbury, “You have not yet considered the true gravity of sin.” While sin is committed by finite beings in the course of a life limited in time, it is an offense against the infinite God. It is a part of the terror of hell that there will be no repentance there, but a continued obdurate rebellion against God, endlessly worthy of his wrath.

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2. With his love, because a God of love could never permit any of his creatures to remain in a state of endless suffering. But the love of God expresses itself supremely towards the elect, not towards the reprobates, who have rejected his laws and his love. Furthermore, we cannot forget that it is those who have transmitted to us the most impressive revelation of God’s love who also speak most about hell. The New Testament has much more to say about it than the Old, John in the book of Revelation says much more than the other New Testament writers, and our Lord Jesus Christ speaks of it by far the most of all!

3. With his wisdom, for it would be unwise of God to allow a dark comer to subsist eternally in his universe. Here, confessedly, we deal with a difficult problem, and it is only a slight alleviation to note that hell may well be a comparatively insignificant place in the total orb of God’s eternal order. It is difficult for us to perceive rationally the wisdom of God in permitting sin at all. But if we have such a problem with the origin of sin, why should we expect to have a ready answer in regard to its destiny?

Somehow the practice has been rather common, even among evangelicals, to speak lightly and in jest concerning the sufferings of hell. On the part of those who do not believe the biblical doctrine, this may perhaps be excused, although it is surely not in good taste. But those who do believe in hell should certainly refrain at all times from joking about the misery of the lost, a subject which cannot be humorous in the slightest degree to Christians with a heart, and which should bring tears to our eyes rather than smiles to our faces.

Admittedly, the doctrine of hell is the darkest subject on the pages of Scripture, but it provides the necessary background to an understanding of the true gravity of sin, of the magnitude of the human soul, of the depth of Christ’s redeeming work, of the power of divine grace which plucks man out of the abyss like firebrands, of the urgency of the Gospel call, and of the supreme importance of the ministry of preaching and of missions. It is an integral and vital element of our Christian faith.

Roger Nicole holds the M.A. degree from the Sorbonne (Paris), Th.D. from Gordon Divinity School, and is a candidate for the Ph.D. at Harvard Divinity School. He is Professor of Theology at Gordon Divinity School in New England, and former President of Evangelical Theological Society.

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