The biblical doctrine of hell has been part of the arsenal of skeptics for years. Along with the problem, as they see it, of reconciling an all powerful, all loving God with the reality of human suffering on this earth (and with the reality of animal suffering as well), skeptics have also used the biblical doctrine of hell as a justification for their rejection of the Bible as the word of God and of the existence of the God who is alleged to have written it. In Thomas B. Warren’s debates with Antony Flew, Wallace Matson, and Joe Barnhart, each of Warren’s opponents used the concept of hell against God’s existence and/or the ethic of Jesus Christ. In Flew’s fourth affirmative on Tuesday night, Flew said, “Suppose now, considering those alleged arrangement, someone says, as I would say, that it would be absolutely wrong to keep any conscious being, man or animal, in such torment forever; and, furthermore that it would be to the last degree monstrously unjust for a Creator Himself to punish His own creatures in that way” (Warren-Flew Debate, p. 69). In Matson’s second affirmative on Monday night, he referred to the New Testament teaching on hell (Warren-Matson Debate, p. 38). And while Warren defended God’s infinite love and justice, Matson denied that God’s love could be harmonized with God’s allowing a person to suffer punishment for even one moment in hell (p. 48). Matson inconsistently admitted that it would be right for mere humans to punish Hitler and wrong for God to do so (p. 76-77). And in his first rejoinder on Monday night of the debate, Matson in referring to Warren, said, “He did say that he loves his children and he has punished them. With a blowtorch in the face, Dr. Warren?” And if so, for one second, for one minute, for ten minutes, for an hour?” (p. 88).
In the Warren-Barnhart discussion, Joe Barnhart, in his first negative speech, said, “It is one thing to say that the vast majority of the human race of adults will be tortured and tormented endlessly because they did not subscribe to Tom’s (Thomas B. Warren, MD) ideological tenets. It is another thing to say more concretely that Tom’s grandfather or his brother is currently screaming in hell, and that Tom’s only word of comfort is, ‘Grandad (sic), you have what is coming to you. So take your torture and know that it is fully just’” (Warren- Barnhart Debate, p. 15).
Please note that both the Warren-Flew debate and the Warren-Matson debate were on the existence of God. The Warren-Barnhart debate was about ethics, and particularly it was a discussion of the ethical system proposed by Jesus Christ and that proposed by Jeremy Bentham as to which system was superior. Warren, of course, advocated the life prescribed by Jesus; Barnhart stood with Bentham. Barnhart’s position was completely exposed.
It is interesting that in each encounter, Warren’s opponents attempted to show that the concept of hell cannot cohere with God’s love and power (Flew and Matson) or with an ethical system that employs it (Barnhart). To Warren’s adversaries, any doctrine that entailed the concept of hell had to be false. Warren showed that any doctrine that denied hell had to be incomplete and was ascribing mere finite justice to God. Warren, of course, in my judgment did a masterful job in his effort to defend what the Bible claims about hell. Philosophically, he showed the justice of hell and the implications of denying the reality of hell. Furthermore, he pointed out the inconsistencies of philosophers who want to admit suffering as an objective concept and yet deny God who is necessary as a concept in making suffering objective in the first place. His defense of hell as an essential part of divine justice in the Matson affair was, in my judgment, extraordinary.
But, many people will never read those discussions, and I would think that many brethren have at times been bothered by what they read in scripture about hell as they reflect on the destiny of departed loved ones. During my lifetime, some preachers have even “opted” for a doctrine of a finite hell in their desire to find justice, but such effort is futile. I would suggest to all of them that they get the Warren-Matson Debate and devour it. This should help them immensely in becoming familiar with the intellectual concepts involved in the notion and necessity of divine punishment and with the eternality of it.
Let me just here present a few thoughts that I hope will be helpful to Bible believers, and perhaps even some skeptics, in trying to harmonize divine justice with our intellect and emotion as we experience suffering on earth and think about eternal suffering in hell. The doctrine of hell, it seems, can trigger human emotion somewhat like in our country the issue of abortion does. People can get awfully defensive or accusative very easily and very early. Let me mention and briefly elaborate on twelve fundamental facts that I hope will help us in putting the Bible’s doctrine of eternal punishment in perspective, thus seeing the doctrine of hell without intellectual and/or emotional distortion.
One, hell was originally made for the devil and his angels (Matt. 25:41; cf. 2 Pet. 2:4). However, it is the eternal destiny of men as well who die in their sin (Matt. 25:46; Rev. 20:11-15). Jesus used the reality of hell as a warning to mankind to live according to God’s will or to face divine punishment (Mark 9:42-50). Even God’s own people, according to the New Testament, must be careful to live righteously so as to avoid having to face hell (cf. Heb. 10:30-31; Jude 20-21; Matt. 25:46). But it is also the case that a Christian can become so mature in spiritual development that he no longer relies on hell as motivation to his righteousness (1 John 4:18). He now loves God so much that the fear earlier felt no longer constitutes a part of his motivation to continual righteousness.
Two, the nature of hell is punitive. That is, it is not for correction. It is pure punishment. Too, it is unending punishment. Whatever heaven is in its duration, hell is in its own duration also (Matt. 25:46). If one attempts to rid hell of its everlasting quality, he must also do the same with heaven. This shows the enormous significance of sin which is the violation of God’s will and which inevitably leads to hell if it remains unforgiven (1 John 3:4; Rom. 6:23). Furthermore, hell shows the shame involved anytime anyone enters eternity having rejected the means of deliverance from it. A man who dies in his sin has turned his back on God’s desire and plan for his own salvation which plan had included the death of Jesus Christ. And a Christian who apostatizes from the faith is said to have “trodden under foot the Son of God, and to have counted the blood of the covenant wherewith he was sanctified an unholy thing, and to have done despite unto the Spirit of grace” (Heb. 10:29-30). His final state is even worse than that of the alien sinner who never knew the gospel (2 Pet. 2:20-22). What a man, once having committed sin, does or fails to do with regard to the gospel is a central fact to consider in the analysis of his just punishment.
Three, the language of hell in scripture is, at times, extreme and at other times it is somewhat softened (Mark 9:47-48; Luke 12:47-48). That is, there are times when hell is described in extreme language as productive of much personal pain, and again there are times when the language is reduced to presenting a punishment with less pain. Luke’s reference to some who will receive “few stripes” indicates this use of language. Since God is always eternally and infinitely fair, hell would have to entail this characteristic (Gen. 18:25; Rom. 3:25-26; 11:32). Not everyone deserves the same amount or degree of punishment. In the law of Moses, God made it very clear that He is quite concerned about justice or fairness of treatment. His own nature is the background out of which the very precisely stated laws in Deuteronomy come. Consider Deuteronomy 22:22-29 which even entails the notion of granting the accused the benefit of the doubt (v. 24-25). The New Testament teaches that God is especially concerned with punishing (1) those who walk after the flesh in the lust of defilement, and (2) those who despise dominion (2 Pet. 2:9-10). Some sins are worse than others! Of course, neither heaven nor hell are physical places, and what they offer by way of reward or punishment cannot be physical as the spirits of men who enter these domains are not physical (Luke 16:19-31; 1 Cor. 15:50). But the language that God employs in describing both places is based on our acquaintance with physical pleasure and pain. Thus, we are able to make a comparison between human existence in time and in eternity.
Four, the concept of hell is intended to be a deterrent to wrong living. Both reward and punishment are utilized in the Bible as motivations to righteousness (2 Tim. 4:6-8; Rev. 20:11-15). Some would suggest that men do not need such, but the Author of the Bible knows human nature completely. And observant men know that children at times need incentives and even adults can find great motivation in rewards offered (cf. 1 Cor. 9:24-25). And those bent on violence at times are curbed by the fear of facing punishment or having committed crime, they are incarcerated. Even with the presence of the Bible in the world today, we do not have to search for ungodliness among men. It permeates the societies of men. Indeed, the whole world lies in the evil one (1 John 2:15-17; 5:19). If human society is this way with the Bible within it, what would human society be like without it?
Five, the basic shared condition of all men in hell will be separation. It is a separation from God forever. John would call it “the second death” (Rev. 20:6). The Greek word for “death” here is “thanatos.” According to Vine, it signifies (1) the separation of man’s soul from his body, and (2) the separation of man from God (Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, p. 276). Of course, when speaking of man’s separation from God, the scriptures describe the condition while the man is on earth as spiritual death or as a death in sin (John 8:24; Eph. 2:5). When a sinner becomes a Christian, he becomes dead to sin (Rom. 6:2, 11). A sinner who remains in his sin faces eternal death or the second death (Rom. 6:23; Matt. 25:46). So, just as a human body separated from its spirit is physically dead (Jas. 2:26), when a man is separated by sin from his God, he is spiritually dead. When that man is punished by God in hell, he is being separated from God forever. This is eternal death. And that is what all lost men face. And there is no remedy or relief from it once a person leaves this earth (Heb. 9:27). Thus, there is the necessity of obedience to the gospel of Christ. The gospel frees man from sin and prevents any entry into hell! All men should love God for making life possible and for making such fantastic delivery from sin available (cf. John 3:16; 1 John 4:19). Heaven is what earth is all about (Heb. 2:9-10; Eph. 3:10-11)! This is so because of God’s love and will. However, hell is what earth tends toward in the lives of those who die on it without God.
Six, the fact is that if a man enters hell he does so by his own choice. Given human free will, each man decides his own eternal destiny. Neither God nor the devil can make this determination for him. Each man decides his own destiny. No man will ever on earth unravel the complexities involved in human free will. But the fact is, each of us is free and thus the personal agent of his own thoughts and deeds. The doctrine of hell is involved in the doctrine of human responsibility and accountability. The New Testament warns all of us that we will give account of our lives on this earth. The doctrine of hell is intended to help man live on this earth before God and with his fellow man in a responsible way. He is under obligation to love God and his neighbor (Matt. 22:37-40). Whether he obeys his obligation or not, he will face God in judgment (2 Cor. 5:10; Rev. 20:11-15). If a man leaves this earth in his sin, he judges himself unworthy of eternal life (cf. Acts 13:46).
Seven, the Bible plainly teaches that God wants all men to be saved (Heb. 2:9-10; 2 Pet. 3:9; 1 Tim. 2:4). God has always had in mind the eternal purpose of saving man from the sin which God knew he would commit (Eph. 3:10-11). God does not want man to enter hell! If a man enters hell that implies that the man left this earth in his sin which God wanted removed. Remember, God so loved the world that he sent Jesus to die for all of mankind (John 3:16; Heb. 2:9-10). God finds no joy in the physical death of the wicked (Ezek. 18:23, 32). The death of the righteous, however, is “precious” to God (Psalm 116:15). The Bible is marvelous in its own description of the divine plan of salvation that God had in mind before the creation of the universe (Eph. 1:3-10). The plan of salvation is wonderful in its development throughout history down to the coming of Jesus and the establishment of His church. Romans 11 is a most excellent summation of how God used both Jews and Gentiles to make sure that the gospel of Christ eventually would go to all men throughout the world as God took men from Patriarchy (Moral Law-ism) and Judaism to amenability to the gospel. Indeed in about thirty years from around 33 A.D. to about 63 A.D. the gospel was preached in the whole creation (Col. 1:6, 23; Mark 16:19-20). God knew that when He created man that man would have to have help. It evidently was always God’s desire to bring many sons to glory (Heb. 2.10). When a man physically dies in his sin, his spiritual death having been self-inflicted, now means that his “second death” destiny has been self-determined.
Eight, men who leave this world in their sin today do so having rejected all of God’s help available to them for their salvation. They have refused all divine aid available to rescue them from their evil ways. In other articles I have discussed this vital point, but I repeat that the system of divine delivery is sufficient to the salvation of each person. God is not helpless to deliver from sin. God sent His Son for all of us (John 3:16). God made each one of us by personal constitution such that we could and should search for saving truth (Acts 17:27). Paul told that truth to heathen idolaters in Athens. We are made to look for God! And God will help us find Him (Luke 11:5-13). While the church is responsible to uphold the truth (1 Tim. 3:15), God is still and always has been responsible to make sure that every person on the earth who desires the truth will find the truth. That is not up to the church. That is between that soul and his Maker!
Unfortunately, in my lifetime, most preachers have attempted to put that responsibility of rescue on the church, but one cannot rightly place it there. The church can certainly cooperate with God in upholding and circulating truth, and we should do that in compliance with our obligation to love our brethren and to love all men. But the basic responsibility of rescue (as with the right of divine condemnation) has always been God’s. God made man so that he would look for his Maker (Acts 17:27). And all men have God’s promise that He will as a loving Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him (Luke 11:13). And that Spirit is given to one who finds the truth and who obeys it (Acts 2:38; Gal. 3:2). The program is God’s. God wants to be found! The church is composed of those who have found God and His truth (1 Tim. 2:4), and the church certainly is to live in and support that truth (John 8:32; 1 John 1:7; 1 Tim. 3:15).
The church should do what we can in supporting the gospel especially in areas where it seems to be currently welcomed. But God opens and closes the doors to gospel reception (Rev. 3:7). Consider that the brotherhood combined, if it lost all of its love for the gospel, could not possibly prevent one alien sinner with an honest and good heart from being saved by God! God saved people before the Lord’s church was even here (Matt. 8:11). Now that she is here, she certainly should love the saved and the lost and love the truth by which any man can be saved (1 Thess. 4:9-10; Rom. 12:9-10; 13:8-10; 2 Thess. 2:10-12). The priority of her efforts, however, puts her regard for her brethren above those who are not (Gal. 6:10). In my lifetime, most brethren seem to place the priority on the lost rather than on the saved. This wrong idea did not come from scripture! We misunderstood scripture regarding evangelism and applied our misunderstanding of it to ourselves as an obligation which is impossible to obey. The mistake we have made is that the “great commission” given to the apostles and only to the apostles, is now somehow an obligation perpetually bound on the church. But as I have shown, this is not even possible. (If you have not read it, please read “The Great Commission Has Been Fulfilled” at biblicalnotes.com). Divine salvation, as with divine condemnation, is fundamentally a responsibility of God Himself who will always do right by man whom He loves (Gen. 18:25). Surely, no Christian for a moment thinks that his own death will lessen the opportunity for a lost man to become a saved one by the grace of God. In the year that king Uzziah died, God remained on His lofty throne (Isaiah 6:1). With the passing of any man or many men, God remains on His throne and in complete control of affairs on earth. He still knows how to get a lost man who loves truth and desires salvation into contact with that truth! And Christians, to be like God, desire the salvation of all men.
Nine, the separation from God forever will be more tolerable for some than for others. Consider Romans 9:1-5. I have puzzled over this passage for years. For most of my life I took the passage to be hyperbolic. That is, I took Paul’s expression of potential sacrifice to be figurative. Read the passage very carefully. Paul desires the salvation of his fellow Jews. His desire is great. He bemoans their fate in hell because of their rejection of the gospel (as a nation). Consider Romans 10:1-2. He says that if his own damnation could be a guaranty of their salvation, he could bring himself to wish that he were anathema. In other words, if he could possibly trade his salvation for damnation in order to the Jews’ salvation, he could bring himself to make the trade. He doesn’t say he wished that, but we cannot escape the point that he claimed that if the situation which could not be actually could be, that by that actualization, he could bring himself to the point of wishing or willing his own loss for the salvation of his kinfolk!
I no longer consider his remarks as hyperbolic. Why? Notice that before Paul makes the extreme point regarding this proposed conceptual sacrifice that he introduces it by emphasizing what he is about to say by affirming the following: (1) I say the truth, (2) I say the truth in Christ, (3) I lie not, (4) my conscience is bearing witness with me, and (5) my conscience is bearing witness with me in the Holy Spirit. These four supports stand behind the truthfulness of what he is about to say, and what he is about to say is that he has great sorrow and unceasing pain in his heart for his kinfolk and that he could bring himself to wish himself anathema for their sake. I no longer think that he is presenting hyperbole. He would not have given the five points to support exaggeration for the sake of emphasis, which is what hyperbole is. Of course, a Christian who loves the souls of men as much as Paul could not possibly be involved in any such trade as Paul, in concept, is willing to entertain. But in saying what he does with regard to it, Paul gives us insight into a great truth regarding eternal punishment. While faithful Christians cannot be lost as long as they are faithful Christians, if they could be lost in that condition, their love of their fellow man would lessen their misery in hell! Otherwise, Paul could not possibly say that he could, in the given situation proposed, wish himself anathema. Hell is more tolerable for those who on earth loved their neighbor even though they didn’t love God and His truth (cf. John 15:13).
Ten, the separation from God forever must be eternal. But why couldn’t God simply “snuff out” the spirits of wicked men who leave earth unprepared to meet their God? The answer is that God cannot simply “snuff out” or annihilate the spirits of men. And this is true because the spirit of every man is of the essence of Holy Spirit. In a context where God through Malachi is rebuking His people for the way that they have treated marriage, Malachi points out that if the ideal marriage state had entailed more than one woman for a man, God could have given Adam more than Eve. How was that possible? He had the “residue of the spirit” (Mal. 2:15). Moses had told us that God had made man in His image (Gen. 1:26-27). And the Hebrews writer years later referred to God as “the Father of spirits” (Heb. 12:9). Men are in essence kin to God by our spirit which derives from Holy Spirit (cf. 1 Thess. 5:23). We are not related to God because of our dust (Gen. 2:7). None of us can know exactly “how” God can produce kinfolk to Himself, but the fact is, per plain Bible teaching, He has done it. And somehow by using Holy Spirit in our construction, He made us in His image without making us divine. We could not become God (since we are created beings) but we could share with God His essence. Somehow the distribution of Spirit essence via human conception weakens that essence by its connection to flesh (cf. Matt. 26:41). This is why God cannot be tempted, but Jesus in the flesh could (Jas. 1:13; Matt. 4:1-11). So, man cannot be God. In fact, we are not even given the status of angels (Heb. 2:7). And while man’s body and soul can be terminated, a man’s spirit cannot because it is of the same essence as God Himself! God is eternal “in both ways” from everlasting to everlasting (Psalm 90:2); man has a “one ended eternity.” That is, while man certainly had a beginning, he can know no end, unlike creatures whose nature is below that of the human level. Man’s body (dust) can and does come to an end. His spirit does not. And since man can know no end, then final divine punishment given him can know no end either if remaining apart from God is punishment, and it is. Man’s eternal punishment must exist as long as he does, and since he cannot cease from existence, hell cannot end.
Eleven, God’s nature doesn’t change (Mal. 3:6; Jas. 1:17). Among other things, He is love (1 John 4:8). But we are instructed to accept His love and once having entered into the grace that that love brings, to remain in that grace or what, we will call, the expression of God’s love. Notice the warnings given in scripture regarding a disciple’s remaining in the love of God. Consider John 15:9-10. Jesus encouraged His apostles to abide in His love just as Jesus had abided in the Father’s love. And He stated that remaining in God’s love was attached to keeping God’s commandments. Jude wrote to brethren, “keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life” (Jude 21). But now, given the fact that God doesn’t change His nature, what does it mean for a man to keep himself in God’s love? The answer lies in distinguishing between motive and methodology.
Paul exhorted the Corinthian church, “Let all that ye do be done in love” (1 Cor. 16:14). Earlier, however, he had asked the brethren with regard to a future visit that he himself hoped to make to them, “What will ye? Shall I come unto you with a rod, or in love and a spirit of gentleness?” (1 Cor. 4:21). The context shows us that Paul had been rebuking the brethren regarding many things. So much was wrong with the church in Corinth! And due to the sad and unfortunate situation, Paul was having to be quite frank. And he wanted the brethren to correct their errors and get things back in order lest when he come to them again personally, he would have to rebuke them further. He did not want this. But he shows that it is up to them. If they do not change their ways, he will bring a rod. If they do make the necessary changes, he will be able to face them in love and in a spirit of gentleness.
Now, since Paul in 1 Corinthians 16:14 by inspiration tells the brethren that all that they do is to be done in love, he cannot himself possibly be meaning in 1 Corinthians 4:21 that he has the right to do some things that are NOT “in love.” So, what can 1 Corinthians 4:21 mean? If he can bring “love and a spirit of gentleness” on the one hand if they repent, does bringing a rod as distinguished from “love and a spirit of gentleness” mean that he won’t bring the rod in love? The answer lies in making the distinction between Paul’s (1) condition of love and his motivation of love with (2) the expression of it. If he is compelled to bring a rod, while his heart remains one of love for them and his motivation in writing is prompted by love, the rod as an expression of that love will not be pleasant! So the key is in understanding condition and motivation as distinguished from the expression of that condition and motivation or intention (cf. Heb. 12:9-11; Prov. 13:24). God remains Himself and part of Him is the infinite trait of love (1 John 4:8). Man is His own creation (Gen. 1:26-27). God loves man (John 3:16). But He tells us that He will punish us eternally for our sins if we refuse to accept His deliverance from them. While His love remains constant as His infinite and eternal condition and motivation, the expression of that love will not in hell be pleasant at all! In Romans 11:22 Paul wrote, “Behold then the goodness and severity of God: toward them that fell, severity; but toward thee, God’s goodness, if thou continue in his goodness: otherwise thou also shalt be cut off.” God’s severity cannot cancel His goodness (as condition and motivation or intention), but it does eliminate the expression of that goodness as goodness (that which would be pleasant to receive). Rather, His personal goodness expresses itself to the lost finally in severity.
Jesus on one occasion was upbraiding some impenitent cities where He had performed miracles. The people had refused to repent. And so in speaking of Chorazin and Bethsaida, He said that if the mighty works that He had performed in them had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, that Tyre and Sidon would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. And then He compared the eternal destiny of Chorazin and Bethsaida with that of Tyre and Sidon. He said, “But I say unto you, it shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for you” (Matt. 11:22). Indeed, greater privilege brings greater responsibility, and failure with regard to greater privilege brings greater condemnation (Luke 12:48). Individual situations are not the same, but all men die either in sin or forgiven of it. And those who die in sin are told by God that they cannot be with Him in eternity. Jesus made this clear (John 5:28-29; Mark 16:15-16). And the apostle John in writing the last book of the New Testament describes the awful and eternal ruin of those whose names are not written in the book of life (Rev. 20:11-15).
Twelve, man is in no position to criticize God for telling us what to Him an unforgiven sinner finally deserves given his rejection of the divine offer of forgiveness. Warren stressed in public debate that man simply is in no position to criticize God! From what vantage point does an atheist present his criticism? He attempts to put himself above God in his critique of God’s character. Granted, man can know by pure reason that if God punishes man for sin, He must be fair in the doing of it. This we willingly and gladly admit. Man knows that God would have to be fair in all things, and he knows this, first of all, by his conscience. It is his conscience which provides man with the insight into the distinction between moral right and moral evil. Without conscience, man cannot distinguish between moral right and moral wrong. But in order for that moral information to be available for intuition (his immediate grasping of this distinction without having to reason about it), his conscience must be a product of God Himself. The intellectual CONCEPT of the distinction between moral right and wrong is not simply floating around in space. It is content. It is information insight. And as a moral conceptual fact, it has to have ultimate source in MIND. Also, remember that man’s own awareness of and the need for, at some level, JUSTICE ITSELF implies that the source of conscience is God HIMSELF. God is the ultimately fair or just PERSONALITY in existence. He cannot be otherwise (cf. Rom. 3:25-26).
The atheist is simply wrong in his conception of what ultimate “justice” would have to be. He wants to claim that if God punished man in hell, God would be unjust in that He would be the committer of moral evil Himself. But unfortunately for the atheist, objective moral evil requires the prior existence of objective moral good, and the existence of objective moral good has to reside in a person, and that Person must be God. In other words, the atheist attempts to ascribe objective moral wrong to such a hell-providing God without realizing that the very existence of objective moral wrong would demand the existence of an ultimate moral being—God! Without good there can be no evil, and without ultimate eternal Good, there can be no proper criticism of anyone for anything at anytime for any alleged moral wrong. God will always remain beyond the scope of righteous criticism. And instead of constantly attempting to justify oneself to oneself because he thinks hell would be unfair, a man should seek to glorify the God who made him and who assures him that He loves him. Indeed the skeptic needs to realize that the goodness of God is intended to lead him to repentance and obedience to the gospel of Christ (cf. Rom. 2:4; Heb. 5:8-9). And that skeptic should also know that if he remains impenitent he is simply treasuring up wrath for himself “in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God” (Rom. 2:5).