“I don’t think a loving God could ever send anyone to hell!”
Ever heard that argument? I can’t tell you how many times I have had to answer that objection, even from professing Christians. If we examine the issue carefully, we see that the real problem they have is not if they believe lost people go to hell, but whether or not they believe the Bible is authoritative. The Bible clearly describes the eternal destiny of the unbeliever as a state of eternal separation from God in a place called hell.
In our last installment we discussed the delightful question of the eternal destiny of the believer. In this article we will look at the other side of the coin: the eternal destiny of the unbeliever. Granted this is one of the most difficult Christian doctrines to address. It has often been denied, even by theologians and church leaders. However, it cannot honestly be ignored if we claim to believe the Bible and Jesus Himself. The Bible and Jesus teach that those who reject the Gospel and do not know Him as Savior and Lord will be separated from God for eternity.
In our first installment we looked at a number of passages that give us clues as to the nature of believer’s eternal life. Now we must do the same with this issue. One primary biblical source for studying these questions is the book of Revelation. In that writing, the Apostle John described the visions he saw of the events of the conclusion of time. Revelation 20:11- 15 is one example of what John envisioned as the fate of humanity:
11 Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat upon it, from whose presence earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them. 12 And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. 13 And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. 14 Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15 And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
From this and other passages, we can assert four ways the Scripture presents the eternal destiny of the unbeliever. As we do, we need to keep in mind a principle of biblical interpretation that we mentioned before. Even as John tried to describe heaven in human language, we must remember he was describing the indescribable when he spoke of the fate of the lost. That being said let’s consider what the Bible says about the eternal destiny of the unbeliever.
1. The eternal destiny of the unbeliever will be an experience of unending death.
Death is hard subject for many people to deal with emotionally. Many would just as soon ignore it as to have to consider its consequences. I recall years ago hearing the late song writer/banjo player/singer John Hartford on TV answering questions from folks in the audience. One lady asked what he thought about what happens after death. He said, matter of factly, that life just ends. He never thought about it much. The irony of it was that not long after that he was diagnosed with Leukemia which he battled for 20 years until his death at age 63. I imagine that must have made him think more about it.
In any case, physical death is real for everyone. For the unbeliever, however, the Bible describes a more intense form of spiritual death. For instance, Paul says, “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6: 23). He means that the consequence of sin is not just physical cessation of life but eternal separation from God’s presence. It ultimately results in what John called the “Second death” (see Revelation 2: 10, 11 and 20: 6, 14). This “second death” refers to eternal separation from God.
As I am writing this, it is April, 2012. One hundred years ago this month, on April 15, 1912, the passenger ship RMS Titanic hit an iceberg in the North Atlantic Ocean and sank to the bottom of the sea. 1,514 people died in the wreck and 710 survived, none of whom are still living. Now fast forward to the year 2112. The chances are nearly certain that by that date, just as is now true of the Titanic survivors, no one reading this article will still be alive. One way or another, we will all die. If we are Christians, it will be a new beginning. If lost, it will be unending death and destruction.
2. The eternal destiny of the unbeliever will be a state of punishment for those who have not repented of sin.
The writer of Hebrews in chapter 10, verses 28-31, contrasted those who rebelled against Moses’ Law with rebels against the Son of God. Clearly he says that those rejecting Christ are more deserving of punishment.
28 Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. 29 How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace? 30 For we know Him who said, “VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY.” And again, “THE LORD WILL JUDGE HIS PEOPLE.” 31 It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
Paul, in Romans 2:5-8 also underscored the righteousness of God’s wrath.
5 But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, 6 who WILL RENDER TO EACH PERSON ACCORDING TO HIS DEEDS: 7 to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life; 8 but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation.
The point is that God is all-loving but he is also holy and just. He must punish sin. I recall a few years ago my wife had to go to court because of a minor traffic incident. She was afraid that she would have to pay a fine, but instead the court’s clerk came out and offered everyone there that day the judge’s “Christmas Special.” All they had to do was accept it.
God is the perfect judge and demands perfect justice. And we are all guilty! However, God has offered all of us his “Good Friday Special,” meaning that He took the punishment upon Himself in Christ on the cross. However, He will not deprive anyone of his or her will to reject His offer. Those who choose to reject or ignore Christ’s pardon will suffer the full extent of punishment for their sin.
3. The eternal destiny of the unbeliever will be a place of outer darkness.
I have a two year old granddaughter. At night my son and daughter-in-law always leave the door to her bedroom open and have a night-light burning in her room. Why? Because she is, like most small children, afraid of the dark. To them it represents the unknown and danger. Even adults do not like total darkness.
Perhaps that’s why Jesus described the domain of the unsaved as “Outer Darkness.” Consider what he says in Matthew 25:30, at the finish of the parable of the unfaithful servant. “And throw this good-for-nothing slave into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
He used the same imagery in Matthew 22:13, “Then the king said to the servants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”
The Apostle Peter also used that description in 2 Peter 2:17 for the fate of the wicked. “These are springs without water and mists driven by a storm, for whom the black darkness has been reserved.”
Likewise, Jude 13 speaks of the wicked as …”wild waves of the sea, casting up their own shame like foam; wandering stars, for whom the black darkness has been reserved forever.”
Just think for a moment of being deep inside a cave completely beyond the reach all light. That’s one way eternity will be for the unsaved. It will be inhabited by those wailing in ultimate dread like a child in the dark cut off from the ultimate source of light: God. It will be a state of absolute loneliness. Despite what some people like to think, there will be no wild parties in hell. They will be lost, alone, and in eternal night.
4. The eternal destiny of the unbeliever is described in terms of unquenchable fire.
When most people think of hell they see it as sort if a boiling pit or oven. Much of that imagery is a result of medieval art and writings like Dante’s Inferno.
When I was a teen football player, we had preseason practice in August. Florida in August is a place of extreme heat and unbearable humidity. But we went out twice a day in full pads. I remember in the midst of the misery thinking a few times that I must have died and gone to hell.
But is thIs place of eternal burning the Bible’s picture of what hell will be? Let’s take a look at what it says.
In Luke 16:19-31, Jesus told the story of Lazarus and the Rich man. Lazarus was a poor but righteous man who died and went to Abraham’s Bosom (heaven). The rich man who had shown goodness in his life was sent to Hades. From there the rich man called out, “Father Abraham! Have mercy 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 flame!”
Jesus has Abraham reply to him sadly, “Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, so that those who wish to come over from here to you will not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us.”
Other key passages that use this same imagery are below.
∙ Matthew 18: 8, 9; “If your hand or your foot causes your downfall, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or lame, than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes your downfall, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye, rather than to have two eyes and be thrown into hellfire!”
∙ Mark 9:46-48 (parallel) describes as “ where their worm does not die, and the fire s not quenched.”
∙ Jude 23 – Talks of need to show love to “save others” by “snatching [them] from the fire.
∙ Hebrews 10:27- “but a terrifying expectation of judgment, and the fury of a fire.”
∙ Revelation 20:14-15- “This is the second death, the lake of fire. And anyone not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.”
∙ Revelation 21:8,9- “But the cowards, unbelievers, vile, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars—their share will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”
Our answer must be, “Yes! That burning imagery is indeed one way the Bible describes hell.” Now, we must remember our interpretative principle. These images of hell, like John’s visions of heaven, are descriptions of the indescribable. We must look at the Bible’s total picture. In some ways they almost seem to contradict (i.e. darkness vs. fire). Nonetheless, we must keep in mind that they all describe the horrible reality of eternal separation from God. As the late Bible scholar Dr. Ray Summers stated:
“A person having difficulty in such apparently opposite terms as the ‘blackness of darkness’ and the ‘devouring flame’ can take little comfort in avoiding the literal if he understands that reality is always worse than representation. If hell is the kind of place that is represented in the New Testament, how terrible is the reality of that fate.” (Ray Summers: The Life Beyond. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1959. p.196)
In conclusion, according to the Bible, the tragic reality is that those who are without Christ have no hope when they die. They will, indeed, spend eternity separated from God in a place of suffering called hell. For that reason, we, as Christians, must aggressively seek to share the Gospel with the lost. There is no other hope. As Hebrews 9:27 warns, “And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment.” As Jesus Himself said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.”
© 2012 Tal Davis