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June 27, 2010
What did John say of Jesus?“His winnowing fork is in His hand to thoroughly clear His threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into His barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Luke 3:17). See the word “unquenchable”? That is literally “asbestos.” What a picture! Not even asbestos can protect the chaff from the fire of the Lord! Of course, John is using this picture to get us to see a vital spiritual lesson. It is a lesson of punishment meted out by the Lord who has all authority to do so upon those who transgress His will. Unfortunately, most people never see this picture — mainly because they don’t want to see it. Do we ever want to see a picture of punishment when we are guilty?
Objections to Everlasting Punishment
The objectors to God’s punishment come from several directions. Very often we hear phrases like, “God is a God of love — He would never subject anyone to torment!” These are the universalists — that is, they hold that God will universally save without condition. They think this is scriptural? They think this is logical? How “UN-loving” would a god be who showed such a partiality? such unjustness? such a lack of holiness? What does Paul say of God’s justice? “… He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26). Again, as he writes to those in Thessalonica, “This is a plain indication of God’s righteous judgment so that you will be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which indeed you are suffering. For after all it is only just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you” (2Thessalonians 1:5-6).
There are those who are annihilationists, believing that at death, there is simply a cessation of existence. In other words, there can be no punishment because there will be no one in existence to punish! Jesus and the Spirit certainly do not have this thought of cessation in mind when referring to death: “You fool! That which you sow does not come to life unless it dies” (1Corinthians 15:36). “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). The prophet Isaiah asks a telling question, “Who among us can live with the consuming fire? Who among us can live with continual burning?” (Isaiah 33:14). Astounding! There will be living with continual burning! The idea of death resulting in extinction is absurd and unscriptural.
We also find those who are rehabilitationists or remedialists. To these, punishment is not everlasting, but temporary. It is designed to “punish” the guilty into understanding and practicing righteousness. This is the same liberal ideology that has come to hold such sway in our society — the belief that our penal system is not for penalties for crimes, but for rehabilitation. This doesn’t square with God’s portrayal of everlasting punishment. “Indeed, I lift up My hand to heaven, And say, as I live forever, If I sharpen My flashing sword, And My hand takes hold on justice, I will render vengeance on My adversaries, And I will repay those who hate Me” (Deuteronomy 32:40-41). Too, think for a moment what this ill-conceived and illogical concept does to the blood of Christ — If we can be “punished” into righteousness, what was the blood of Christ for? Why was it even shed?
The Reality of Everlasting Punishment
“Hell” is the most often thought of word used to describe everlasting punishment. Actually, our english word “hell” doesn’t literally (only figuratively) have anything to do with punishment. This word, much like the hebrew word “sheol” found throughout the Old Testament and the greek word “hades” found in the New Testament, simply means something like “unseen” or “realm of the unseen.” (“Hell” is actually from an Indo-European root meaning “to cover or hide.”) However, these words can and sometimes do carry the idea that in this realm of the unseen (dead) there is found torment. “Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom” (Luke 16:22-23). Be aware that Scripture speaks of everlasting punishment, a second death in the “lake of fire,” that will encompass hades as well: “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. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:13-14).
A greek word, “tartarus,” is used at least once in Scripture to specifically indicate a place of punishment (2Peter 2:4). This word was often used by greek poets and writers to mean “the pit of the damned” as in Hesiod’s Theogony. By far, the most colorful and intense word used to describe everlasting damnation is a word derived from hebrew and in use by the time of the gospels, “gehenna.”
“Gehenna,” is on the most basic level a geographic location; it is a valley to the west and south of Jerusalem. How did it come to mean the place of everlasting punishment? On the southern brow, overlooking the valley at its eastern extremity Solomon erected high places for Molech (1Kings 11:7), a so-called god of fire, whose horrid rites were revived from time to time in the same vicinity by later idolatrous kings. Ahaz and Manasseh made their children “pass through the fire” in this valley (2Kings 16:3; 2Chronicles 28:3; 33:6). To put an end to these abominations the place was polluted by King Josiah, who renders it ceremonially unclean by spreading over it human bones and other corruptions (2Kings 23:10,13,14; 2Chronicles 34:4,5). This valley afterwards became the common receptacle for all the refuse of the city. Here the dead bodies of animals and of criminals, and all kinds of filth, were cast and consumed by fire kept always burning. So, in process of time, it became the image of the place of everlasting destruction. In this sense it is used by Jesus (Matthew 5:22,29,30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15,33; Mark 9:43,45,47; Luke 12:5).
The reality of it is that the “lake of fire” is not a geographic location, but is where every bad thing imaginable is to be found. The worst physical locations in the world today may have some redeeming quality if not some hope of redemption, but in the “lake of fire” there is no good to be found. Think of anything and everything that is “scary,” evil, horrid, wicked, immoral — it will be found there. Those who are cursed, false teachers, those who place ungodly things on a pedestal, those who don’t obey the gospel, the ones whose names are not found in the book of life — even the devil himself, will be cast in to the lake of fire “to be tormented day and night forever” (Revelation 20:10).
Another horrible thing about everlasting punishment is the absence of hope. Once time on earth is over, there is no turning back for those in torment. There is nothing for which to hope. There is not even hope for there to be an end to the torment. A small parallel to this idea is found in the punishment of Israel in their wilderness wanderings. We often think of the wandering as punishment. How much worse the knowledge that they had no hope — no way to ever enter the promised rest. All they had was the separation from that for which they had longed. Their punishment in a physical sense was everlasting — they never entered the land. Their punishment certainly was not remedial, either.
The most execrable aspect of everlasting punishment is that no matter how hard we look, we won’t see God. We will be forever cast away from His presence. Cain’s punishment was just the genesis of this reality: “Cain said to the LORD, ‘My punishment is too great to bear! Behold, You have driven me this day from the face of the ground; and from Your face I will be hidden’ … Then Cain went out from the presence of the LORD” (Genesis 4:13-16). What words more abysmal could be spoken than those we find in Matthew 25:41? “Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels.”
The “outer darkness,” the place of “weeping and gnashing of teeth” doesn’t have to be our destination. Our reward doesn’t have to be everlasting punishment. We don’t have to end up in a position where an asbestos suit can’t even keep us from the fire. Our reward can be eternal life if we are found to be in Christ. Choose.
—S. Scott Richardson Sr.