For the second week in a row, my son and I were the only ones who showed up for his soccer team’s practice. Frustrated, I told him, “Please tell your coach that we keep coming for practice, but no one is ever here.”
My son rolled his eyes and said, “He’ll just tell me the same thing he did before.”
“That practice is now on Wednesdays, not Tuesdays.”
There is nothing that makes us feel like we are in the right place at the wrong time any more than the Bible’s teaching on hell. Many of us can think it is out-of-date, no longer worthy of belief. To affirm it might place us in the right place with some Christians of days gone by, but it sure makes us seem like we are stuck in the 20th century at best or stuck in ugly dogma centuries ago at worst.
And keeping in mind that this week begins Advent, surely hell would not be a suitable topic for this time of year when we celebrate the first coming of Christ. What is more, what impact could it possibly have for us as we look forward to the second coming of Christ!
Yet, what we will discover in this post focused on our next passage in Revelation (20:7-15), is that there are good answers for these objections many of us have toward hell.
Where we must begin is by looking at the passage.
1. A LOOK AT REVELATION 20:7-15.
John writes in these nine verses the following:
And when the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison 8 and will come out to deceive the nations that are at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them for battle; their number is like the sand of the sea. 9 And they marched up over the broad plain of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city, but fire came down from heaven and consumed them, 10 and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.
11 Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. 12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. 13 And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. 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.
What we see here is that at the end of this age, when Jesus Christ returns, all believers and unbelievers will be resurrected, their eternal destiny and judgment pronounced, and unbelievers, along with Satan and his demons, will be cast out of God’s favorable presence into their permanent place of judgment, what we often call hell.
Revelation will go on in chapters 21-22 to look in detail at the eternal dwelling of those who are in Christ (the new heaven and new earth). However, here in this passage we find a shorter focus upon the eternal conscious punishment of those outside of Christ.
Here is how the 28th question and answer of The New City Catechism summarizes the biblical teaching on hell: “What happens after death to those not united to Christ by faith? Answer: At the day of judgment they will receive the fearful but just sentence of condemnation pronounced against them. They will be cast out from the favorable presence of God, into hell, to be justly and grievously punished, forever.”
It seems clear enough that Revelation 20:7-15 teaches the reality of hell and that it includes eternal conscious punishment. Yet, truth be told, for many of us, this biblical teaching causes us great problems—so much so that we have either ceased to believe in it or we at least have ceased to teach it.
Some would argue hell teaches a form of unjust “torture” and this for the majority of mankind. It is not only those who heard and rejected Christ who go to hell, but, as some would term them, the “noble pagan,” the person who never heard the gospel and has never received and rested upon Christ alone for salvation, even though they may have lived a relatively moral life. So, many ask, “How can anything like the traditional doctrine of hell be consistent with an all-powerful and all-loving God?” Or to word it in another way, “If God is both omnipotent and omnibenevolent, hell wouldn’t exist.”
Let me now offer a six-part response to these objections to hell. Please contact me or enter into discussion on this blog post, if you still have questions after reading this.
2. THE SIX-PART RESPONSE TO HELL’S OPPOSITION.
To begin, God is always and, at one and the same time, both all-powerful and all-loving (or all-good). In other words, God is not sometimes all-powerful and full of his attributes that may tend to bring with them more of what we might first see as severe outcomes (his holiness, wrath, justice, etc.) and sometimes all-loving and full of his attributes that may tend to bring with them more of what we might first see as kind outcomes (his love, mercy, grace, etc.). Nor is God always one without the other. Multiple times in Scripture God reveals that he has ordained the events of history he has, in the way he has, to reveal his various attributes that he always possesses (see Exodus 34:6-7; Deut. 6:4; Rom. 3:26; 9:22-23). In fact, in regard to God judging those who reject him and acting in mercy toward those who trust in him, Paul writes (Rom. 11:22): “Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God's kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness.”
I would take all this to mean that hell does not cancel out God’s love, goodness, and mercy at the same time it displays his justice, holiness, and wrath against sin. This also suggests there is something(s) good seen in the existence of hell and eternal conscious punishment of the unbelieving at the hands of God.
This prepares us for the rest of our six-part response.
Second, and flowing out of the first truth, we must see that hell is in existence because of God’s justice. We see that clearly in Revelation 20:7-15 and the fact that God as judge—a just judge who operates in conformity with all his other attributes—condemns to hell those who remain rebellious against and apart from Christ. The Bible is clear that God as judge of the earth does what is right, that is, he judges people in a manner that fits who they are, what they have done, and in a way they deserve (Gen. 8:25; Dt. 32:4).
So, in our first two answers we see that hell is both good and just and, at the same time, does not cancel out God’s love, mercy, and grace.
The third response offered flows out of the second: We see that God does not send people to hell who have not chosen their own road in life and, at least, chosen to ignore the knowledge of himself he has given in creation.
Consider what Paul writes in Romans 1:18-23:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
Paul clarifies here that God reveals in creation he exists and something of what he is like to all people. Because of this, no one can ever stand in front of him in judgment and say, “God, I never had a chance and so you are unjust!” Since Paul says later in Romans that a person must hear the gospel to be saved (Rom. 10:13-17), I take Paul to mean in 1:18-23 that if a person responded in faith to the revelation God has given, God would make sure they heard the gospel so they could be saved.
Part of the implication of this is that people truly choose their path and thus their end. This is why Paul goes on in Romans 1 do say three times, “God gave them up…” (verses 24, 26, 28). Paul seems to be saying that God has affirmed, “Ok, fine, if you want to go down that road, then go ahead, I will allow you. But you will face the consequences.”
Fourth, though Scripture teaches God is absolutely sovereign (1 Chronicles 29:10-19) and so works all things after the counsel of his will (Eph. 1:11-12), nevertheless, he is not the author of sin, nor did he force man against his will to sin (James 1:13-14; 1 John 1:5). It is not as if God made men robots, that they lack the ability to make real choices, and yet he has decided merely to cast them into hell, even though they may have truly wanted to know and follow God.
Fifth, we must see that God’s justice and wrath against sin are compatible with his love, mercy, and grace. These first five reasons are all making the case that hell is consistent with God’s character and deserved by humans who ignore and/or reject him. To prove this point, think about a situation in which a man kidnaps, rapes, and kills five different women over the course of two months. If God created a world in which the sins of this man would not have to be paid and accounted for—either through him facing his own just desserts or through him trusting in Jesus Christ who paid the penalty for the sins of sinners, what would this say about the lives of those five women? It would say they are not very valuable!
What is more, it is not just the rapist, murder, or even the Hitler-like figures of the world who must face judgment or else it calls into question the goodness of God and his world. It is also all of us, for rebellion against God runs through every one of our hearts. Were God to ignore that, what would it say about his value, his worth? It would certainly belittle him!
This fifth response leads to the sixth and final response. Some of us may say at this point, “Ok, Tom, we can agree with you to some extent. However, when you realize that most people live and sin against God only 60, 70, or 80 years, 100 at most, eternal conscious punishment seems very overblown to say the least.” However, we must see that eternal conscious punishment is not too harsh for those who ignored and/or refused to worship the infinite eternal God. We know this for at least the three following reasons:
· In other cases, do we conclude that the amount of time it took to commit the crime(s) should determine the length of punishment? No, of course not. Take the example of our rapist and murderer above. If a judge sentenced him only to two months in prison, we all would cry that this is an injustice. It would belittle those five lives and would not be an equitable and just punishment for the crimes.
· The Bible makes it clear that justice is served in crimes when the punishment fits the crime (e.g. Lev. 24:17-22). We must see that continuous sin and rebellion against the infinitely holy, good, loving, merciful, gracious, and glorious God must face an equitable punishment—one that is eternal. Otherwise, it belittles the true worth of God. In fact, the eternal conscious punishment of hell heightens and emphasizes how glorious and worthy God is!
· We must also realize that sinners whose hearts have never been changed and perfected will continue to sin against God for all eternity and thus continue to accrue the need for more and greater judgment against them.
As Proverbs 16:4 reminds us (my amplified translation): “The LORD has done all that he does, even his responses of judgment, in ways that fit the sins done, and this includes the wicked facing their day of trouble.” Hell is just and right.
Yet, how does this subject fit with Advent? In this way. It reminds us that God sent his son into the world the first time (the first Advent) so that through his life, atoning death, and resurrection in the place of sinners, we would not have to face eternal conscious punishment when he returns again (the Second Advent). This should lead us to even greater love toward God and appreciation for the birth of Jesus!
May this deepen our love for and worship of our Savior this Christmas!
Joyfully Delighting In Our Savior With You,