By F.J. Harris
And these shall go away into everlasting punishment… Matthew 25:46
The doctrine of eternal punishment, referred to in the above verse, and in many other parts of scripture, is a solemn and awesome truth. It should never be thought of or spoken about lightly, or discussed in a theoretical or academic manner. It is dreadful to contemplate and can only begin to be understood in the light of God’s great love, revealed in the sending of His Son to save all who trust in Him from this awful penalty of sin. It is a truth which tells us something of God’s holy hatred of sin and determination to punish it; it is a truth which reveals the glory of that saving work which our Lord Jesus Christ freely undertook; it is a truth which demands that the gospel, the only remedy for sin, be preached in all the world; and it is a truth which should surely cause all true Christians to praise God with all their hearts for their own salvation, and to pray earnestly for the salvation of others.
Few worldly people today give any thought to what lies beyond the grave, other than some vague hope that if there is life after death it will be in a better world. Most unbelievers follow the humanistic philosophy that death is the end, that there is nothing more. Of those who do have some definite belief in life after death, only a few believe in a Day of Judgment or a Hell which consists of eternal conscious punishment. Yet this has not always been the case. There was a time when people were very much influenced by the church’s consistent preaching of this truth, and there was general awareness of it, and consequently a fear of God.
But as the church began to deviate from the truth, this message was denied, diluted or simply not preached, and so it gradually dropped out of most people’s thinking. Today we have arrived at an almost unbelievable situation – not only is the doctrine of eternal punishment denied by liberal theologians (from whom we expect no less for they deny almost every biblical truth) – but tragically by an increasing number of those who describe themselves as evangelical, bible-believing Christians. What are we to make of this? As always it is a case of, “To the law and to the testimony; if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them” (Isaiah 8:20).
The Lord Jesus Christ clearly taught that the great purpose of His coming into the world was “to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10). The Greek word translated “lost” is the same as that translated “perish” in John 3:16 – which all evangelicals love to quote. Its root meaning is not the end of existence but “waste” or “ruin.” For example in John 3:16 “perish” is contrasted with “everlasting life.” Everlasting life is not simply endless existence but life forever enjoyed under the blessing and favour of God. Not to have eternal life is to perish, which means to live forever under God’s displeasure and wrath. Thus we read of “Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come” (1 Thessalonians 1:10).
It is hardly necessary to say that this is a truth which has been denied, hated, despised and opposed, but we need to remember that it is the Son of God Himself with Whom all opponents of this doctrine are in conflict, for He spoke of the eternal punishment of the lost more than anyone else. On a number of occasions He spoke of “gehenna” (translated “hell”) which was the valley outside Jerusalem where rubbish was continually burning. He spoke of “their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:44,46,48). He spoke of “outer darkness” and of “weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:12; 22:13; 25:30). He spoke of “everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41). He spoke of ‘everlasting punishment.’ Clearly, then, to deny this doctrine is flatly to contradict the Son of God Himself.
Preachers would not speak of this subject but for the fact that they serve that God Who has said, “Whatsoever I command thee, thou shalt speak” (Jeremiah 1:7). It is far easier to speak about the blessedness of the saved than the suffering of the lost – but both must be proclaimed if we are to preach all God’s truth as He has made it known. Failure to do so undermines many vital biblical truths.
1) The character of God is undermined.
He has revealed Himself as a God of holiness, justice and truth and declared that He will “by no means clear the guilty” (Exodus 34:7). God is not a man that He should lie; He must keep His word. If unbelieving men and women simply pass out of existence at the end of their earthly lives, then where is the truth and justice of God?
2) The saving love of God cannot be properly understood if it is not seen against the background of the dreadful state from which Christ came to save sinners.
If the biblical teaching about hell is denied we can have no adequate appreciation of the glory of the gospel. It is only in the light of “the wrath to come” (Matthew 3:7) that we understand the significance of the question, “What must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30). Only thus do we realise our indebtedness to our dear Redeemer Who came to seek and to save the lost.
3) It denies the authority of the word of God.
For however much men may try to explain away the doctrine of eternal punishment, it is impossible to evade the clear teaching of numerous scriptures concerning the final Judgment, following which there will be a division between the saved and the lost, the former being received into God’s eternal kingdom and the latter going into everlasting punishment (Matthew 25:46). Between these two states, as Jesus Himself taught, there is a great gulf fixed (Luke 16:26).
4) It robs Christ’s command to preach the gospel to every creature of one of its highest motives.
Hudson Taylor said, “I would never have thought of going to China had I not believed that the Chinese were perishing and needed Christ.” The same convictions were shared by William Carey, Adoniram Judson, David Livingstone, David Brainerd, John Paton and many others. They were utterly convinced of the awful danger of the heathen and felt a compulsion laid upon them to take the gospel to lost and dying people.
5) It utterly fails to understand the cross.
Did our Lord come into the world to save sinners? From what did He come to save them? Did He offer Himself upon the cross as a sacrifice for sin? For what purpose? It was not only to fit men for heaven, but to save them from hell that our blessed Saviour suffered the painful and shameful death of the cross.
6) It undermines the law of God and encourages wanton living.
If there is no judgment day, no thought of retribution, then, as in Isaiah’s day, the ungodly might as well say, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (Isaiah 22:13).
7) To deny the doctrine of eternal punishment is to encourage and vindicate false teachers.
God warned the people of Jeremiah’s day saying, “Hearken not unto the words of the prophets that prophesy unto you: they make you vain: they speak a vision of their own heart and not out of the mouth of the Lord. They say still unto them that despise me, The Lord hath said, ye shall have peace … no evil shall come upon you” (Jeremiah 23:16f). Today, with one voice, the cults deny the doctrine of eternal punishment. Never let it be said that they were right.
It is no kindness to unbelievers never to mention this doctrine. It is a false love which fails to warn. Solemn though the truth is, it must be declared out of faithfulness to the God of truth who has clearly revealed it in His infallible word.
If we believe it, and hold this truth aright, it will – it must – have some impact upon our praying, and our concern for those without Christ. May God help us all to respond aright to His holy word of truth.