The truth about Hell

 

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  • A true story told by a London bus driver was reported recently by the BBC. In the interview he said:  “A bloke got on the bus and started screaming and shouting: “We’re going to ‘ell. We’re going to ‘ell.” I told ‘im: “No, we’re not goin’ to ‘ell. We’re goin’ to Ilford.” This is certainly not the way to deal with the subject of Hell but at least the man was not avoiding the issue, unlike many Christians today.
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  • It was also reported that a Norfolk church had put up a notice with the slogan “If you think there is no God, you’d better be right” - with flames underneath the message. Someone reported it to the police who said: “National guidance required us to investigate the circumstances and the matter has been recorded as a hate incident. Having spoken to the pastor of the church, it has been agreed the poster will be taken down.” The person who complained said: “It is my basic understanding that Christianity is inclusive and loving in nature. The message being displayed outside of the church could not be further from the often uttered phrase ‘love thy neighbour’.” [1]
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  • Again, this is not a helpful way of communicating about Hell. But, far from being a hate crime, if Hell is a reality, it is profoundly unloving not to warn people but in more sensitive and compassionate ways. So Pope Francis was exemplary when he addressed the Mafia in March 2014 and said: “This life that you live now won't give you pleasure. It won't give you joy or happiness. Blood-stained money, blood-stained power, you can’t bring it with you to your next life. Repent. There’s still time to not end up in hell, which is what awaits you if you continue on this path.”[2]
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  • On the other hand, around the same time it was reported that the hymn “In Christ alone”, which was sung at the Archbishop of Canterbury's enthronement service has not been included in a new collection of hymns because it contains a line about the satisfaction of God's wrath.[3]
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  • But is Hell a reality? Is there a place of everlasting conscious suffering for those who reject the Gospel?
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  • The “wrath of God”

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  • The idea of the wrath of God is alien to our modern, easy-going, pluralistic age where human rights and individual freedom dominate. So the church often preaches a grandfatherly god who likes to indulge his “grandchildren” (human beings). This god has given us written instructions as to how we should and shouldn’t live. But he doesn’t take any action (in this life or the next) if we don’t follow them. In fact, we Christians often order our lives on a secular pattern, especially influenced by our powerful media.
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  • On a theological level, C H Dodd has written that by the time of the New Testament the “wrath of God” had come to mean, not his anger against sin, but “an impersonal process of cause and effect, the inevitable result of sin.” He continues: “In Paul the wrath of God describes not ‘the attitude of God to man’ but ‘an inevitable process of cause and effect in a moral universe.’ … In the long run we cannot think with full consistency of God in terms of the highest human ideals of personality and yet attribute to Him the irrational passion of anger.”[4] Many people have accepted Dodd’s approach.
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  • Professor F F Bruce disagrees with Dodd: “To a man so convinced as Paul was that the world was created and controlled by a personal God of righteousness and mercy, this retribution could not be an impersonal principle: it was God’s own wrath. If it is felt that the word ‘wrath’ is scarcely suitable to be used in relation to God, it is probably because wrath as we know it in human life so constantly involves sinful, self-regarding passion. Not so with God: His ‘wrath’ is the response of his holiness to wickedness and rebellion.”[5]  Professor H C G Moule comments: “It must, of course, always be remembered that the ‘wrath of God’ is the wrath of a Judge. In its inmost secret it is the very opposite of an arbitrary outburst, being the eternal repulsion of evil by good.”[6]
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  • Put in simple terms, the wrath of God is not bad temper or an emotional or vindictive outburst but rather a settled, holy reaction against sin. It is, of course, ascribing human characteristics to God (anthropomorphic) or, more specifically, attributing human emotions to God (anthropopathic), but so is saying that God is loving.
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  • Martin Luther called God’s wrath his ‘alien work’ and his love as his proper work.’ It is appropriate to say ‘God is love’ but not ‘God is wrath.”
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  • Leon Morris discovered more than twenty words used of God’s wrath 580 times in the Old Testament.[7] Some would dismiss this as outdated Old Testament opinion. But the New Testament is clear about the wrath of God too. In fact, in the first three Gospels, Jesus spoke twice as much about God’s wrath as his love.
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  • The teaching of Jesus

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  • Jesus teaches more about Hell than all the other NT writers. Here are the relevant passages:
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  • Speaking of wrong attitudes towards a brother or sister, Jesus warns: “Anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell” (Matt 5:22).
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  • He also says: “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell” (Matt 5:29-30, cf. 18:9).
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  • “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt 10:28)
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  • He gives a very strong warning to hypocritical Pharisees: ‘You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? (Matt 23:33).
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  • Jesus also tells the story of the rich man and Lazarus in which he said: “In Hades, where [the rich man] was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, “Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.”  ‘But Abraham replied, “Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.” ‘He answered, “Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment” (Luke 16:23-28). There is, of course, symbolism in this passage but it is very unlikely that Jesus would have told such a story which is based upon the terrible concept of conscious agony in Hell, had he not believed in the reality of Hell.
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  • The same comment can be made about Jesus’ parable of the weeds (“the people of the evil one”): ‘As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt 13:40-42).
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  • Then there is the account of the sheep and the goats. He says to the “goats” (unrighteous) “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was ill and in prison and you did not look after me.” ‘They also will answer, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or ill or in prison, and did not help you?” ‘He will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” ‘Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (Matt 25:41-46).
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  • In summary Jesus taught that:
  • ·         People with wrong attitudes towards a brother/sister are in danger of Hell.
  • ·         People who persist in sin are in danger of Hell.
  • ·         Hypocritical religious leaders who harm their followers are in danger of Hell.
  • ·         Hell for the unrighteous is conscious agony.
  • ·         The wicked will finish up in the “blazing furnace” of Hell.
  • ·         The unrighteous will go away to eternal punishment.
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  • It is very difficult indeed to believe that Jesus would have taught all that if Hell is unreal and there is no conscious punishment.
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  • The teaching of the rest of the New Testament

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  • The wrath of God is a theme recurring throughout the rest of the New Testament.
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  • Paul says “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness” (Rom 1:18). “There will be wrath and anger” for self-seekers who reject the truth and follow evil (Rom 2:8). The disobedient are “objects of wrath – prepared for destruction” (Rom 9:22).
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  • The stubborn and impenitent are storing up wrath against themselves for “the day of God’s wrath” (Rom 2:5). So are immoral, impure or greedy people (Eph 5:6 cf 2:3; Col 3:5-6).
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  • Paul also writes that believers are not to take revenge but to “leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord” Rom 12:19).
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  • When Jesus returns “He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thess 1:8-9).
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  • The writer to the Hebrews warns that “If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God” (Heb 10:26-27).
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  • Jude says that the ungodly face “the punishment of eternal fire” and “blackest darkness has been reserved for ever” Jude 7, 13).
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  • On the other hand, Paul speaks of Jesus saving believers from God’s coming wrath (Rom 5:9; 1 Thess 1:10), rescuing us from the wrath which the law brings (Rom 4:15).
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  • Before we examine the question as to whether or not Hell is everlasting conscious punishment, we need to examine two views often raised.
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  • What about “Universalism” – the idea that everyone will be saved in the end?

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  • Some people believe that everyone will be saved and get into heaven in the end. This is called universalism (universal salvation). They point to the passages such as the following as teaching this:
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  • “Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people” (Rom 5:18). “For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all” (Rom 11:32). Universalists take the phrases “justification and life for all people” and “have mercy on them all” as teaching that all ultimately will be saved. Out of context this can seem to be the case. But elsewhere Paul clearly contradicts such an interpretation.
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  • In Romans 2:6-16 Paul writes that “God ‘will repay each person according to what they have done.’ To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honour and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; but glory, honour and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For God does not show favouritism. All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law” (Rom 6:6-12).
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  • He also writes that when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels “He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marvelled at among all those who have believed.” (2 Thess 1:7-10).
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  • It seems clear, therefore, that Rom 5:18 means that justification and life is available for all people (but, of course, some do not accept it). Similarly, Rom 11:32 teaches God wants to have mercy on all, but some will not accept the gospel.
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  • There are other similar passages. Paul writes: “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Cor 15:22). However it is clear in the next verse that he is referring to those who already belong to Christ, those who are in Christ, namely believers as Eph 1:3-14 makes clear. Leon Morris comments: “All in the two halves of this verse probably has different meanings. In the first half it refers to the whole of mankind, for all are in Adam. But in the second it is more limited, applying only to those in Christ. The verse gives no countenance to universalism. In Adam all that are to die, die; in Christ all that are to live, live.”[8] Prof F W Grosheide comments: “All: not all without qualification, but all those who are connected with either Adam or Christ.”[9] H L Goudge writes: “This text is sometimes quoted as proving the final salvation of all men. The usage of the word translated ‘made alive’ shews that resurrection to glory is meant, and not the general resurrection of all alike … No doubt resurrection in Christ might be as universal as death in Adam, for God ‘willeth that all men should be saved.’ If this is not so, that is due to man’s failure to correspond to the grace of God.”[10]
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  • In the same chapter Paul says: “Jesus “must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet … so that God may be all in all” (1 Cor 15:25, 28) but that is only referring to his sovereignty over all. It does not say that all will be saved. In 1 Cor 6:9-10 Paul makes it quite clear that the persistently ungodly will not inherit the kingdom of God.
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  • Paul also speaks of God seeking “to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ” (Eph 1:10). However, this does not include ‘things under the earth’ (Satan and the ungodly dead) as he does in Philippians 2:10.
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  • Then he writes: “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (Col 1:19-20). However again Paul does not include “things under the earth.” Also in the next verses Paul stresses that the hope of eternal salvation is  “if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel” (Col 1:23). Continuing in faith is essential.
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  • Paul writes to Timothy that God “wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:3-4) but that does not mean that all will do so. He goes on to say “we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Saviour of all people, and especially of those who believe” (1 Tim 4:10). Universalists say this shows unbelievers are eventually saved. However, in the context of Paul’s teaching on the subject, it seems clear that this means that God has done all that is necessary to be the Saviour of every single human being. He is their Saviour, but they must respond in faith and many don’t. He is the Saviour of those who believe in the full sense because they receive and experience the salvation he offers.
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  • Critics of universalism say that it undermines the importance of faith, the seriousness of sin, the significance of divine judgment and the urgency of evangelism.
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  • There is, however, another view we need to note.
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  • Will there be a second chance to turn to Christ after death?

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  • Some point to statements in the first epistle of Peter to seek to prove that it will be an opportunity after death for people to repent and turn to Christ. Peter writes: “After being made alive, [Jesus] went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits –to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built” (1 Peter 3:19-20). Peter goes on to say: “For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to human standards in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit” (1 Peter 4:6). Many think these two passages refer to the same event.

  • Interpretations of Jesus “preaching to the dead” (1 Peter 3:19-20; 4:6)

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  • There are various interpretations of these passages. William Barclay lists six:
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  • 1.      That it refers back to preaching in the actual time of Noah.

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  • However this does not seem to be a natural interpretation of the passage.
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  • 2.      That it refers to the Jewish legend that Enoch went to Hades to preach doom to fallen angels

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  • So Moffatt translates verse 19 as: “It was in the Spirit that Enoch also went and preached.” However this interpretation requires the insertion of the name Enoch which is not in the original manuscripts.
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  • 3.      That Jesus went to Hades but only preached to the spirits of those who were disobedient in Noah’s day – the worst of all sinners, who were given a second chance to repent.

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  • However why was it only that generation who were given a second chance? The rest of the people in the OT did not hear the gospel.
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  • 4.      That Jesus preached doom to fallen angels who seduced human women in Noah’s day (Gen 6:1-8 cf 2 Peter 2:4).

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  • The question is why was it important to proclaim the gospel to this supernatural generation?
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  • 5.      That Jesus preached only to righteous spirits and led them out of Hades.

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  • This makes sense but doesn’t really seem to fit the text of 1 Peter 3:19-20. Is it possible that of 1 Peter 3:19-20 and 1 Peter 4:6 are referring to different events? However they are only a few verses apart.
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  • 6.      That Jesus in his spiritual risen body preached to the dead

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  • Again, it doesn’t really fit the text of 1 Peter 3:19-20.
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  • It does seem clear that Jesus preached the gospel to people who had died but it is not clear that it led to a second chance to repent.
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  • The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “He descended there as Saviour, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there.” He “did not descend into hell to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him. … The descent into hell brings the Gospel message of salvation to complete fulfilment. This is the last phase of Jesus' messianic mission, a phase which is condensed in time but vast in its real significance: the spread of Christ's redemptive work to all men of all times and all places, for all who are saved have been made sharers in the redemption … In his human soul united to his divine person, the dead Christ went down to the realm of the dead. He opened heaven's gates for the just who had gone before him.”[11]
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  • Barclay says the main points are that Jesus descended to Hades (he experienced real death) and his rising from there shows his universal triumph (cf Php 2:10; Rev 5:13; Eph 4:9-10). It showed that there was no corner of the universe where gospel of grace has not come. It shows how those who had never heard the gospel in OT times were dealt with. He concludes: “The doctrine of the descent into Hades conserves the precious truth that no man who ever lived is left without a sight of Christ and without the offer of the salvation of God.”[12]
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  • Prof Charles Bigg concludes: ““All these explanations are needless. The thought which underlies St Peter’s words is that there can be no salvation without repentance, and that there is no fair chance of repentance without the hearing of the gospel. Those who lived before the Advent of our Lord could not hear, and therefore God’s mercy would not condemn them finally until they had listened to this last appeal … Thus St Peter does not here contemplate the case of those who have actually heard the gospel and refused it.”[13]
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  • Maybe Prof C E B Cranfield makes the most helpful comment: ““The best thing is to realize that we encounter here a mystery, which is still a secret from us, and reverently to accept the hint – for a hint is all that is given to us – and thank God that the reach of Christ’s saving activity is not limited by our human desire to get things neat and tidy in pigeon-holes of our own choosing”[14]
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  • Another passage sometimes said to speak of a second chance after death is John 5:28-29 “Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out – those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned.” However this is a misunderstanding. It is simply referring to the Lord ‘commanding’ the resurrection of the dead – both of believers and unbelievers. It says nothing about Jesus preaching the gospel to the dead.
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  • The idea of there being a second chance after death to turn to Christ contradicts Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus. In it Abraham says to the rich man: “between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us” (Luke 16:26).
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  • Some claim that Hebrews 9:27 shows that there is no second chance: “people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment.” I’m not sure this is convincing though. It does not actually say that judgment follows death immediately.
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  • I am not convinced that the doctrine of a second chance is taught in Scripture. It seems to be an argument from silence and to contradict the story of the rich man and Lazarus. True, this is a story but I do not think Jesus would have conveyed such a solemn idea that there was no chance of repentance after death had it not been in fact true. In my view the most likely interpretation of the passages in 1 Peter is that Jesus descended to Hades (deemed to be the place of all the dead in OT times) and announced the gospel to the OT saints – those who were already believers but hadn’t heard the gospel.
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  • We now need to address the important issue of whether Hell is everlasting.
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  • Is Hell everlasting conscious punishment?

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  • This is the traditional view and is held by many conservative Christians today. It was held by many leading Christians in history: Tertullian, Chrysostom, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, Whitefield and Wesley. Scholars such as Jim Packer and Donald Carson teach it today.
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  • Jesus speaks of judgment in terms of “eternal fire” (Matt 18:8) which is “prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt 25:41). He clearly parallels eternal punishment and eternal life: “Then they [unbelievers] will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life” (Matt 25:46).
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  • Paul predicts that “those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus … will be punished with everlasting destruction” (2 Thess 1:9). The writer to the Hebrews speaks of “eternal judgment” (6:2).
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  • Jude writes of “those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire” (Jude 7). He adds that “blackest darkness has been reserved for ever” for the ungodly (Jude 13).
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  • John writes about those who worship the Beast (Antichrist) “the smoke of their torment will rise for ever and ever. There will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name” (Rev 14:11). He also says of “Babylon” “the great prostitute” i.e. the godless world system that “The smoke from her goes up for ever and ever” (Rev 19:3). John goes on to predict that “Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire” together with the devil, “beast and false prophet,” death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. (Rev 20:10-15). Although the passage only specifies that the devil, “beast and false prophet” “will be tormented day and night for ever and ever”, the implication seems to be that those whose name is not in the book of life will suffer the same fate.
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  • Whereas we can take the fire and lake as symbolical, it seems that the NT predicts Hell as eternal conscious physical and mental torment. It is understandable that to many this seems a clear conclusion.
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  • However there are a significant number of scholars, including evangelical scholars, who believe that, whereas Hell is real and is the destination of those who reject the gospel, it is not everlasting.
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  • Is Hell temporary conscious punishment?

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  • Those who believe Hell is temporary include prominent evangelical scholars like John Stott, John Wenham, Tom Wright, Anthony Thistleton and Philip Hughes. Michael Green refers to the “savage doctrine” of eternal suffering.[15] The Evangelical Alliance’s Commission on Unity and Truth among Evangelicals (ACUTE) published a report on “The Nature of Hell” in 2000 which accepts that evangelicals are divided in their opinion. Most accept that Hell is eternal but a large minority believe it isn’t, so it isn’t a fringe opinion. The report pleads for unity in diversity and mutual respect. It is well worth reading.[16]
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  • You could be forgiven for thinking that those saying that Hell is temporary are simply ignoring the plain teaching of Scripture quoted in the previous section. But why do these evangelical scholars, who respect the authority of Scripture as God’s Word, think otherwise? The fact is that the issue and the interpretation of Scripture is not quite as straightforward as it may seem. We need to examine the arguments.
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  • In passing, we should note that some people think that unbelievers are simply annihilated at death – they pass out of existence. However annihilationism, as it is called, seems obviously contrary to Scripture. Jesus speaks of the rich man being in conscious torment in Hades (Luke 16:19-31). This is not a literal story but I cannot believe Jesus would have made such a clear statement about the consciousness of departed unbelievers if it were not true in principle.
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  • Then passages we looked at in the previous section clearly teach the reality of Hell as conscious suffering. The query as to whether Hell is eternal does not undermine that truth. The New Testament clearly teaches that Hell as conscious punishment is a reality. So we turn to the issue of whether Hell is everlasting.
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  • Problems with the idea of Hell as everlasting conscious punishment

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  • Hell is a terrible subject. How can anyone think about it without deep sadness that some people will experience it and a renewed sense of urgency that we need to do all we can to prevent people doing so? For some people, Hell is so terrible that they simply cannot believe it is consistent with the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who is love and exhorts us to love our enemies. I sympathise with the feeling of horror about Hell but we cannot ignore the teaching of Scripture – and of Jesus himself – simply because of our emotions. However, there are various problems with the idea of Hell being eternal.
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  • 1.    Biblical language

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  • Eternal
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  • The Greek word for “eternal” (aionion) is an adjective derived from the word for “age” (aion). It basically means “of the age” or “age-long.” So it relates to the age to come and refers to the new quality of life in the age to come. The adjective aionion is used more than seventy times in the NT but only seven times of the punishment of sinners.
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  • Aionion can be used not meaning ‘everlasting’. Paul uses it to mean “long ages past” in Romans 16:25. The meaning has to be determined from the context. Dr Dick France, commenting on Matthew 25:41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels’” writes:
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  • “Here, as in 18:8, the fire is eternal, a word which may convey either the sense of ‘going on for ever’ or that of ‘belonging to the age to come’. If it is the former, the reference might be either to a fire which never goes out because it is constantly fed by new fuel, even though the fuel does not last for ever, or to an unending experience of burning for the cursed. It is clear therefore that the terminology of this verse and of verse 46 does not by itself settle the issue between those who believe that hell consists of endless conscious torment and those who see it as annihilation.”[17]
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  • Prof  R V G Tasker comments on Matthew 25:41, 46: “aionios is  a qualitative rather than a quantitative word. Eternal Life is the life that is characteristic of the age (aion) to come, which is in every way superior to the present, evil age. Similarly ‘eternal punishment’ in this context indicates that lack of charity and of loving-kindness, though it may escape punishment in the present age, must and will be punished in the age to come. There is, however, no indication as to how long that punishment will last. The metaphor of ‘eternal fire’ wrongly rendered everlasting fire in verse 41 is meant, we may reasonably presume, to indicate final destruction. It would certainly be difficult to exaggerate the harmful effect of this unfortunate mistranslation, particularly when fire is understood in a literal rather than metaphorical sense.”[18]
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  • Some scholars say that eternal punishment could be destruction which lasts for ever. So it is eternal in its effect not in the consciousness of the person so condemned. They would see a more literal translation of the passage as “the punishment of the age to come” compared with “the life of the age to come.” They say that aionion is an adjective of quality (a new order of being) rather than quantity (endless time).
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  • Prof Marvin Vincent writes of aionios: “Neither the noun nor the adjective, in themselves, carry the sense of endless or everlasting. … Aionios means enduring through or pertaining to a period of time. Both the noun and the adjective are applied to limited periods. Thus the phrase eis ton aiona, habitually rendered forever, is often used of duration which is limited in the very nature of the case ….. Thus, while aionios carries the idea of time, though not of endlessness, there belongs to it also, more or less, a sense of quality. Its character is ethical rather than mathematical. The deepest significance of the life beyond time lies, not in endlessness, but in the moral quality of the aeon into which the life passes. It is comparatively unimportant whether or not the rich fool, when his soul was required of him (Luke 12:20), entered upon a state that was endless.” (I hardly think it is unimportant whether or not the rich fool entered upon a state that was endless!).
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  • He also quotes Bishop Westcott: “In considering these phrases it is necessary to premise that in spiritual things we must guard against all conclusions which rest upon the notions of succession and duration. 'Eternal life' is that which St. Paul speaks of as 'e outos Zoe the life which is life indeed, and 'e zoe tou theou, the life of God. It is not an endless duration of being in time, but being of which time is not a measure. We have indeed no powers to grasp the idea except through forms and images of sense. These must be used, but we must not transfer them as realities to another order.”[19] Other scholars agree:
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  • Dr. F.W. Farrar wrote: “That the adjective is applied to some things which are “endless” does not, of course, for one moment prove that the word itself meant ‘endless;’ and to introduce this rendering into many passages would be utterly impossible and absurd.”[20]  He also wrote: “Even if aion always meant ‘eternity,’ which is not the case in classic or Hellenistic Greek–aionios could still mean only ‘belonging to eternity’ and not ‘lasting through it.’”[21]
  •  
  • The Pulpit Commentary says, “It is possible that ‘aionian’ may denote merely indefinite duration without the connotation of never ending.”[22]
  •  
  • The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible says, “The O.T. and the N.T. are not acquainted with conception of eternity as timelessness … The O.T. has not developed a special term for eternity  … The use of the word aion in the N.T. is determined very much by the O.T. and the LXX.  Aion means long, distant, uninterrupted time.”[23] 
  •  
  • All these comments can, of course, be applied to the use of aionion elsewhere in the passages traditionalists use to support the idea of everlasting conscious torment, i.e. 2 Thess 1:9; Heb 6:2 Jude 7, 14. However we must now look at the passages using the term “for ever and for ever.”
  •  
  • For ever and ever
  •  
  • David Pawson writes that the term “for ever and ever” certainly means everlasting. It occurs 24 times in the NT. 21 references are to God being glorified and the eternal kingdom. Three refer to punishment: the smoke of the torment of those who worship the beast rises for ever and ever, the smoke of the destruction of Babylon/the great prostitute (the godless world system) goes up for ever and ever and the devil, the beast and the false prophet are tormented for ever and ever (Rev 14:11; 19:3; 20:10). Only the first one seems relevant, referring to many ungodly people. The third only refers to the devil, the antichrist and the false prophet. The second one refers to the destruction of the godless world system. But this would hardly seem to go on for ever, despite the term “for ever and ever”.
  •  
  • Prof G R Beasley-Murray comments: “For the understanding of apocalyptic imagery it is noteworthy that the phrase for ever and ever (literally ‘the ages of the ages’) … requires qualifying in the light of John’s description of the new creation in 21:1ff., for Babylon’s ruins will have no place in that setting. The meaning of the phrase clearly is determined by the nature of its context.”[24]
  •  
  • Prof R H Charles writes on for ever and ever: “This expression is equivalent to 1000 years. For, since the advent of the Millennial Kingdom is already at hand, and since the earth is to be destroyed at its close, it follows that even the smoking ruins of Rome will cease to exist at that date. Contrast this meaning with that which it bears in xxii. 5, where it denotes eternity.”[25]
  •  
  • In the case of Revelation 19:3 “for ever and ever” clearly means destroyed for ever, not being destroyed for ever. This meaning would relate to the eventual annihilation of the ungodly in Hell, i.e. they are destroyed for ever rather than are experiencing destruction (torment) for ever. So it seems the meaning of the term “for ever and ever” is not so certain.
  •  
  • Destruction
  •  
  • The NT frequently refers to the final state of the ungodly as destruction. Does this mean that ultimately the ungodly are annihilated?
  •  
  • Jesus said the “broad road” leads to destruction (Matt 7:13). He speaks of God “who can destroy both soul and body in hell” Matt 10:28).
  •  
  • Paul refers to the ungodly as objects of God’s wrath “prepared for destruction” (Rom 9:22) “their destiny is destruction” (Php 3:19). He says those who persistently oppose the saints will be destroyed (Php 1:28). One of the favourite texts of those who believe Hell is eternal conscious torment is 2 Thess 1:9 but here Paul talks about everlasting destruction: “They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.”
  •  
  • James refers to God as judge “who is able to save and destroy” (James 4:12). Peter refers to the day of judgment as “the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly” (2 Peter 3:7). John predicts that the Beast will “go to its destruction” (Rev 17:8).
  •  
  • John Stott comments: “It would seem strange … if people who are said to suffer destruction are in fact not destroyed; and … it is difficult to imagine a perpetually inconclusive process of perishing.”[26]
  •  
  • However, as we noted in the section about the Destruction of the Earth, destruction does not always mean total annihilation. Peter speaks of the world being “destroyed” by the flood (2 Peter 3:6), but that was not total destruction. So it is not conclusive to argue that the NT references to the ungodly being “destroyed” means they will ultimately be annihilated, although that meaning is not excluded.
  •  
  • Fire
  • Obviously fire destroys what it burns – does this metaphor also mean the ungodly are ultimately annihilated? This seems to be the obvious meaning. David Pawson writes: “while fire usually ‘burns to ashes’, there are biblical examples of it behaving quite differently. Moses was surprised that the bush was not ‘consumed’, … Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were not even singed in a white hot furnace …. It would be perfectly possible for God to limit the ‘physical’ effect of fire to intense heat and discomfort…”[27] I have to say that I don’t find David’s argument here convincing, it sounds like special pleading. The idea of fire speaks of annihilation.
  •  
  • Traditionalists quote Rev 1410-11 about the followers of the Antichrist: “They will be tormented with burning sulphur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment will rise for ever and ever. There will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name.” They say this clearly shows everlasting conscious punishment. Others respond that the smoke is a lasting sign of the total destruction of the ungodly. They also say that having “no rest day or night” only refers to the temporary duration of the punishment, before the destruction is complete.
  •  
  • Immortality
  •  
  • Are human beings essentially immortal, i.e. do they exist for ever, whether ultimately in heaven or Hell? Or is immortality a gift given to believers? This latter view is called Conditional Immortality. If it is true then we must  allow for the ungodly surviving death and experiencing judgment and Hell, even if only for a short time.
  •  
  • Paul teaches that God alone is immortal (1 Tim 6:15-16). But Jesus “has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Tim 1:10). Believers persist in doing good and so “seek … immortality” (Rom 2:7). In his teaching on the resurrection of the body Paul speaks of the mortal clothing itself with immortality (1 Cor 15:53-54).
  •  
  • Although 1 Cor 15 is speaking about the immortality of the resurrection body the other passages seem to have a wider reference. Does the NT teach conditional immortality in the sense that the ungodly ultimately pass out of existence? These passages don’t exclude that interpretation but it is not conclusive.
  •  
  • The second death
  •  
  • John writes: “Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death” (Rev 20:14). Some scholars, including evangelicals see this as a reference to annihilation. Others point out that a few verses earlier “the lake of burning sulphur” was where the devil, the beast and the false prophet “will be tormented day and night for ever and ever” (Rev 20:7).
  •  
  • Some point out that Rev 21:1-4 says that “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain” and that this implies annihilation of the ungodly. However others point out that John goes on to say that the ungodly “will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulphur. This is the second death” (Rev 21:8). They claim that this means there is some continuing place for the ungodly even after the creation of the new heaven and new earth. However, it seems more likely that this is a ‘flashback’ to the events of the previous chapter.

  • 2.    Divine justice

  •  
  • The doctrine of Hell (and of Heaven) is important with respect to divine justice. So often in this life the innocent and godly suffer unjustly and the wicked thrive. Believing in Heaven and Hell puts this in perspective. Life after death corrects injustices and belief in it helps to cope with the injustices of this life.
  •  
  • However the idea of an everlasting, conscious torment in Hell raises serious questions of justice. It’s not just that ungodly vary considerably in how they have sinned. The big question is: how can everlasting conscious torment be deserved by any human being however ungodly?
  •  
  • People have attempted to answer this in various ways. Some say it’s not the nature of the sinful lifestyle that matters so much as the fact that it is against God and that to sin against the everlasting, infinite God warrants an everlasting punishment. The greatest sin is to reject Christ. Far be it from me not to take sin seriously. We all deserve Hell. But I do not find these explanations convincing. Others respond to this explanation by pointing out that Jesus’ death was a finite event but had eternal effects – saving believers for all eternity. If the punishment Jesus bore for all sin was limited by time why do the ungodly have to suffer eternally for their sin?
  •  
  • I believe firmly in Hell as conscious torment. But how can God, who is love, who is merciful and compassionate, who teaches us to forgive our enemies possibly condemn anyone to everlasting, conscious torment (unless that person continued to rebel for all eternity)? That seems to me to be a very strong argument to believe in eventual annihilation of the ungodly.

  • 3.    Divine victory

  •  
  • Another serious question is that if the devil and his angels, plus the ungodly exist for ever, does this not mean that God’s victory is incomplete?
  •  
  • God’s aim is to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ” (Eph 1:10). Christ is the one who “fills everything in every way” (Eph 1:22-23). There is “one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph 4:6). Christ ascended “higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe” (Eph 4:10). How is this consistent with the everlasting existence of the devil, his angels and millions of ungodly people endlessly suffering torment in Hell? Surely eventual annihilation would be a greater victory.

  • 4.    The perfect joy of Heaven

  •  
  • A third serious question is, if believers are aware that the ungodly suffer for ever in Hell, how could heaven be a place of complete joy where God “will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more … mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away”? (Rev 21:4).
  •  
  • Some have tried to answer this question by saying that God could blot out awareness of the suffering of people, including loved ones, in Hell. Others have said that the saints will rejoice in God and his justice, including in the reality of an everlasting Hell. I do not find these arguments convincing.
  •  
  • What is the “fire” of Hell?

  •  
  • Some believe it is literal but it seems clear to me that it is symbolic. We don’t have the details in Scripture but I see Hell as a God-forsaken place (effectively chosen by those who reject God) which means it is “burning” with intense dread, total self-loathing, utter loneliness, complete hopelessness, bitter regret, endless frustration, simmering rage, unceasing hatred and impenetrable darkness. It is too horrible to think about. It should cause us to re-double our prayers and witness to those who have not yet received eternal life through faith in Christ.
  •  
  • Are there degrees of suffering in Hell?

  •  
  • Justice surely requires that very evil people (the Adolph Hitlers of this world) will be punished more severely than those who are far less evil. The NT seems to say that there are degrees of punishment in Hell. Jesus said to the villages of Chorazin and Bethsaida who had refused to repent “it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you” (Matt 11:22) and even for the wicked city of Sodom than for Capernaum” (Matt 11:24). In the parable of the servants waiting for their master to return Jesus says: “The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (Luke 12:47-48). 
  •  
  • The writer to the Hebrews says “If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think someone deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified them, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace?” (Heb 10:26-29). James writes: “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1).
  •  
  • It is possible that people will experience different lengths of time of God-forsakenness (before their annihilation) according to how sinful they have been. But this is speculation.
  •  
  • What happens to those who have never heard the gospel?

  •  
  • It is one thing to believe in Hell as conscious torment for the ungodly who die. It is quite another to think that we know who has gone to Hell. I personally have known someone who committed his life to Christ in what could have been the final seconds of his life.
  •  
  • In Romans 1 and 2 Paul seems to be saying that judgment will be according to the spiritual light a person has received. He writes: “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse” (Rom 1:18-20).
  •  
  • He adds: “All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law … (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.) This will take place on the day when God judges people’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares” (Rom 2:12-16).
  •  
  • It would appear that if people have genuinely not heard the gospel in a way which “got through” to them, they will be judged according to how they have responded to the spiritual insight they have received. God will not judge people for unavoidable ignorance (although there is the issue of culpable ignorance, when a person deliberately chooses not to find out about the gospel). Those who, through no fault of their own, do not understand the gospel (including the mentally disabled or educationally handicapped as well as those too young to understand) are in the same category of being judged according to how they have responded to the spiritual insight they have received. We should remember that the OT saints did not know the NT gospel but those who obeyed what they did understand will be saved as Hebrews 11 makes clear.
  •  
  • There is only one way of salvation, through faith in Jesus, but God alone knows the hearts of individual human beings and he judges with mercy and compassion. People who don’t know the gospel but who in God’s sight obey the spiritual light they have received will be saved. But it is only through Jesus – his death and resurrection - that they will be saved.
  •  
  • Conclusion on the duration of Hell

  •  
  • I have tried to explain the pros and cons of the views on this issue.  I have no doubt that Hell is a possibly extended time of conscious punishment. I have carefully considered the biblical passages used by those who believe Hell is everlasting and have noted that that interpretation is not as clear as it might seem. With my high view of Scripture as the Word of God I don’t want to ignore anything it says. However it is crucial to look at passages in not only the immediate context, but also in the context of the whole of Scripture. After all, it is quite possible to prove from the NT passages that slavery is acceptable.
  •  
  • The slavery issue is helpful because we all know it is not acceptable on the basis of general theological and moral principles. Yet it is not condemned by the NT. I see a parallel with the idea that Hell is not everlasting. It is not only the issue of biblical interpretation. I find it extremely difficult to believe that everlasting conscious torment can be deserved by any ungodly human being. It would seem to conflict with the perfect justice of God who is also perfectly loving and merciful. I am not being dogmatic but I am very strongly inclined to the view that Hell is a possibly extended, but not everlasting, conscious punishment. I am aware that this can weaken the strong incentive to turn to God which everlasting punishment is in theory. But that consideration cannot remove the theological problem I have with it. I might add that, in practice, Hell doesn’t prove to be a strong incentive today anyway. Nor was it used as such in NT evangelism.
  •  
  • How should we Christians respond to the truth about Hell?

  •  
  • We should apply ourselves urgently to prayer for and witnessing to those who are not yet believers. The ACUTE “Nature of Hell” report’s recommendations state: “Although the gospel is fundamentally ‘good news’ about the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ, it is appropriate that Christian witness should also include the message of divine judgment and hell.”[28] 
  •  
  • Clearly this has to be done with great care, compassion, balance and sensitivity. It has been pointed out that Jesus made most of his references to Hell in addressing the disciples, rather than the general public. However he did tell the Parable of the Weeds (Matthew 13:24-30) with its picture of the weeds being burnt, to the crowds (although interpreted it only to his disciples).
  •  
  • Peter, in his address to Cornelius and friends, says: “He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10:42).
  •  
  • Paul, preaching to the Athenians said: “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone – an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:29-31).
  •  
  • I think therefore that the ACUTE report has got it right to say that the message of divine judgment and hell should be included alongside an emphasis on the love of God in our evangelism.
  •  


[4] C. H. Dodd, The Epistle of Paul to the Romans, 2nd ed. Collins, London and Glasgow 1959, pp. 47-50.

[5] F F Bruce, The Epistle to the Romans, Tyndale Press, London 1963, p. 83.

[6] H C G Moule, The Epistle of Paul to the Romans, Cambridge University Press 1879, p. 58.

[7] L. Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, 3rd ed. Tyndale Press, London 1965, pp. 149-50.

[8] Leon Morris, The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, Tyndale NT Commentaries, Tyndale Press London 1958, p. 214.

[9] F W Grosheide, Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New London Commentary, Marshall Morgan & Scott, London 1953, p. 363.

[10] H L Goudge, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, Methuen London 1903, p. 146.

[11] The Catechism of the Catholic Church, “The Profession of the Christian Faith”, Chapter Two, Article 5 632-637.

[12] William Barclay, The Letters of Jams and Peter, Daily Study Bible, Saint Andrew Press Edinburgh 1976, p. 242

[13] Charles Bigg, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistles of St Jude and St Peter, International Critical Commentary T&T Clark Edinburgh 1902, p. 162

[14] C E B Cranfield, The First Epistle of Peter, SCM London 1950, p. 86.

[15] Michael Green, Evangelism through the Local Church, Hodder & Stoughton London, 1990, p. 70.

[16] “The Nature of Hell”, ACUTE/Evangelical Alliance (Paternoster Publishing) Carlisle 2000,

[17] R T France, Matthew, Tyndale NT Commentaries, Intervarsity Press Leicester 1985, p. 358.

[18] R V G Tasker, The Gospel according to St Matthew, Tyndale NT Commentaries, Tyndale Press London, 1961, p. 240.

[19] Marvin R Vincent, Word Studies in the NT Note on Olethron Aionion. See http://www.auburn.edu/~allenkc/vincent.html

[20] F W Farrer, The Eternal Hope, p. 198.

[21] F W Farrer, Mercy and Judgment, p. 378. 

[22] Pulpit Commentary vol. 15, p. 485

[23] Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 4, p. 643-645

[24] G R Beasley-Murray, Revelation, the New Century Bible Commentary, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids 1978, p. 272.

[25] R H Charles, The Revelation of St John, International Critical Commentary, T & T Clark Edinburgh 1920 Vol 2, p. 120.

[26] John Stott & David Edwards, Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue, Hodder & Stoughton 1988, p. 316, quoted in “The Nature of Hell (ACUTE) p. 78.

[27] David Pawson, The Road to Hell, Hodder & Stoughton London 1992, p. 37.

[28] “The Nature of Hell”, ACUTE/Evangelical Alliance (Paternoster Publishing) Carlisle 2000, p. 131.



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