On the Eternal Punishment Scripture Speaks Of

There have always been some in church history who affirmed universalism, the view that all of humanity will ultimately be saved. Origen believed even the devil would finally be reconciled. More recently, David Bentley Hart has offered an apology for universalism in his recent book That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation. Hart’s book is polemical, for which I fault him not in the least. The topic is such that it is impossible to speak about it except in a polemical context. However, Hart sets forth his hermeneutical convictions boldly:

“I am not very tolerant of what is sometimes called “biblicism”— that is, the “oracular” understanding of scriptural inspiration, which sees the Bible as the record of words directly uttered by the lips of God through an otherwise dispensable human intermediary, and which entails the belief that the testimony of the Bible on doctrinal and theological matters must be wholly internally consistent—and I certainly have no patience whatsoever for twentieth-century biblical fundamentalism and its manifest imbecilities.”[1]

He caveats the starkness of this somewhat in saying “I gladly concede that, at the very least, a certain presumptive authority has to be granted to whatever kind a language the Bible uses most preponderantly. This, though, is not nearly as simple a matter as one might imagine.”[2] This is Hart’s nod to some biblical authority, but an authority that is not nearly as clear as many have thought.

In his closing remarks, Hart notes that to embrace eternal punishment would have been dishonesty on his part. But I wonder if this claim rings hollow. In his presentation of evidence, Hart says this on the idea: “When we go looking for it in the actual pages of the text, it proves remarkably elusive. The whole idea is, for instance, entirely absent from the Pauline corpus, as even the thinnest shadow of a hint.”[3] This is surprising in light of what Paul says in 2nd Thessalonians 1:8-9. “When the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction.”

Hart’s book contains no references to the Thessalonian epistles, so I suppose he doesn’t consider them (or at least 2nd Thessalonians) to be part of the genuine letters of Paul, which is convenient for his argument. Whether Hart’s arguments are persuasive is another matter, but the point is that he is not making primarily a biblical case, he’s making a case based on “rationality” and the offensiveness of the doctrine.

Jesus didn’t speak of Hell, he spoke of Gehenna

Some focus on the words Scripture uses for punishment as a way to suggest that what the Bible is talking about is not what we think of as hell.  What most of our English Bibles render as “hell” may have several Greek words underlying it. These include “Hades,” “Gehenna,” and (less frequently) “Tartarus.” Gehenna occurs twelve times in the New Testament, ten of these in the synoptic gospels. Three times it is in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus warns about the “Gehenna of fire.” A couple of examples:

“whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” Matt 5:22

“For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.” Matt 5:29. The following verse repeats this warning verbatim.

Mark’s citations are parallel to these. Luke has but a single reference, (12:5) which is a parallel to what we read in Matt 10:28: “Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” In all of these places, Gehenna is a destination, a place of judgment. Some have tried to dismiss this as a geographical reference to the Hinnom Valley, and that this is really what Jesus has in mind. This explanation falls short on several points, as noted here. Jesus often took things from daily life to illustrate his points, so could he be making a geographical reference to this valley? Possibly. But those pressing this as the meaning are making a different claim. They say that the reference to the Hinnom Valley exhausts the meaning of Gehenna, that this is all Jesus was referring to, and that he had no eternal aspect in mind at all, because, as one interlocutor said, “nothing burns forever.” The instances where Jesus speaks of eternal fire are explained as “hyperbolic rhetoric.” The view that Gehenna is somehow metaphorical doesn’t work because there’s no answer to what it is standing in for, what is it a metaphor for?

No matter what it’s called, it won’t last forever.

The position that says Gehenna is only a reference to the Hinnom Valley has as an accompanying belief that it is temporary. Any suffering those who reject the Lord Jesus may endure will not last forever. This belief is usually based on an inference that a God who is love could not inflict this on any creature. As many have noted, Jesus spoke about hell quite often, and so if we consider his statements, there isn’t a basis for a belief in temporary suffering for the rejecters of Christ. Several passages speak about a place of punishment, but do not include a temporal element. That is, we can’t determine from it whether it is eternal or not. One such example is Matt 13:41-42: “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace.” Yet there are several other places where the temporal element is indeed present. Matt 18:9 is one.
“And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire.” Parallel passages in the other synoptic gospels conform to this. Mark 9:44 speaks of “the unquenchable fire.”

Late in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is teaching on the final judgment and says, “Then he will say to those on his left, Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. Matt 25:41

These passages tell us of an expectation of future judgement for those who reject the Lord Jesus, and they include no expectation of a temporary judgement. Indeed, in the Matthew 25 passage, Jesus has also set forth the hope of eternal life for the righteous. It is the same word, so one can ask, if the fire is not eternal, does this mean the life is not eternal?

We should consider one other aspect of this, and that is, as one whom I follow on Twitter said, “As developed in Scripture, hell is a holding place for lost souls prior to the resurrection, after which hell itself and those bound to it are cast into a lake of fire.” This is a point worth considering, for it moves us out of the gospels and into Revelation. John speaks of the lake of fire as the second death, and the destination of not only the devil and his angels, but also for all those who reject the gospel offer. Two books are opened, and whatever one thinks of the books, it is clear that they reference either the saved or the lost. Death and Hades give up their dead, thus calling hell a holding place accords with this. But if hell is emptied, it is not any kind of release. It includes a destination that has no meaningful difference. Earlier in Rev 20, we read of the beast and the false prophet who “will be tormented day and night forever and ever.” If their punishment in the lake of fire is unending, is there a basis in the text to consider others in the lake of fire to experience temporary punishment?

Of all that is taught in Scripture, the doctrine of eternal punishment is perhaps the most sobering, the one that is hardest to fathom. Indeed, I could paraphrase Paul in his lament over Israel and say “I wish progressive Christians were right about this.” That is, I would rather believe the punishment Scripture speaks of is not eternal—but I cannot. If words have meaning, and if we are not to twist the text of many passages, then one must affirm that the New Testament warns of judgment that is eternal. It may be a hard teaching, but the alternative is exceedingly difficult to square with Scripture. I don’t rub my hands together gleefully over this doctrine, but neither can I dismiss it as incorrect or not demonstrable from Scripture.

Rob Bell exemplifies what some attempt to do with the idea of hell. In his book Love Wins, Bell talks about a trip he made to Kigali, Rwanda in 2002. He witnessed horrendous suffering from the civil war there and saw the evidence of the conflict in the many non-combatants who were maimed.

“My guide explained that during the genocide one of the ways to most degrade or humiliate your enemy was to remove and arm or a leg of his young child with a machete so that years later he would have to live with the reminder of what you did to him.

Do I believe in a literal hell?

Of course.

Those aren’t metaphorical missing arms and legs.”[4]

As awful as such war crimes are, this is not at all the same as what the Bible speaks about when it speaks of eternal judgment, or the lake of fire, and Bell knows this very well.

The question this raises for me is, to what end? Why speak of eternal punishment in such a way that you wink and say, “it’s not really eternal.” I know some say it maligns God’s love to speak of eternal punishment, but this is to again ignore revelation as the basis for what we know of God. This is finally what David Bentley Hart comes to as a compelling reason for rejecting eternal punishment—that he finds it morally repugnant. This is an emotional argument, not a scriptural one, however. I could agree with him, if I held to his view of the unreliability of God’s revelation in Scripture. But as John Blanchard notes, “although God is love is the truth, it is not the only truth.”[5] Preaching the gospel includes the truth about both heaven and hell, and we do no favor to anyone by denying this truth.







[1] David Bentley Hart, That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2019), 92.

[2] Hart, 93.

[3] Hart, Loc. Cit.

[4] Rob Bell, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, (New York, HarperOne, 2011), 70-71.

[5] John Blanchard, Whatever Happened to Hell? (Wheaton, Crossway, 1995), 170.

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