Sunday, May 18, 2008

What the Bible Teaches about the Destiny of the Wicked

The destiny of the wicked in eternity is commonly referred to as Hell. The English word “hell” is used in the New Testament to translate three different Greek words: gehenna γεέννα (Matt. 5:22, 29-30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Mk. 9:43, 45, 47; Lk. 12:5; Jas. 3:6), hades ᾅδης (Matt. 11:23; 16:18; Lk. 10:15; 16:23; Acts 2:27, 31; Rev. 1:18; 6:8; 20:13-14), and Tartarus ταρταρόω (2 Peter 2:4). Other terms denoting the place where the wicked are punished include “the furnace of fire” (Matt. 13:42, 50), “eternal fire” (Matt. 18:8; 25:41; Jude 1:7), “the lake of fire” (Rev. 19:20; 20:10, 14, 15), “the outer darkness” (Matt. 8:12; 22:13; 25:30), and “the blackness of darkness” or “utter darkness” (Jude 1:13).

Hades is described in Luke 16:23ff as a place of (1) self-awareness, (2) torment/agony in flames, (3) memory and remorse, (4) perception of Paradise, and (5) separation from God and the righteous by a great chasm. It is the temporary holding place for the wicked dead until the Great White Throne Judgment. Hades is then cast into the Lake of Fire (Rev. 20:11-15).

Gehenna is described as a furnace of unquenchable, eternal fire where there is weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth (Matt. 13:41-42; 18:8; Mark 9:43-48). Jesus said eternal fire (Gehenna) was created for the punishment of the devil and his angels (Matt. 25:41). It is where God is able to destroy both the body and soul (Matt. 10:28)

The lake of fire is where the beast, the false prophet, the devil, death, Hades, and all those whose names are not written in the book of life are thrown (Rev. 19:20, 20:10, 14-15). It is described as (1) a place of eternal torment in fire and brimstone, and (2) the second death. Those who worship the beast and receive his mark are tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and the Lamb, the smoke of their torment ascends forever and ever, and they have no rest day and night (Rev. 14:10-12). Although not explicitly called the lake of fire, the description of this place matches the lake of fire identically. Because of their similar descriptions, Gehenna and the lake of fire apparently refer to the same place.

The abyss. The abyss or bottomless pit (Rev. 9:1-2, 11) is a place demons on earth fear (Luke 8:12). It is where Satan will be bound for 1,000 years (Rev. 20:3). The abyss and the lake of fire are distinct places. The beast comes out of the abyss and goes to the destruction of the lake of fire (Rev. 17:8; 19:20), and Satan is loosed from the bottomless pit and is finally cast into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:7, 10). The abyss does not directly relate to the punishment of wicked humans. It appears to be a place of temporary punishment and imprisonment for wicked angels.

Scripture describes the eternal punishment (Matt. 25:46) of the wicked in terms of death, perishing, destruction, and banishment. Punishment as death/perishing. To understand spiritual death, one must understand the nature of spiritual life. According to Jesus, eternal life is being in right relationship with God (John 17:3). Eternal death, therefore, is not being in right relationship with God. Sinners are dead spiritually now (Eph. 2:1) and will experience the “second death” forever (Rev. 21:8). To “perish” is to “die.” The unsaved are perishing now (2 Cor. 2:15), and unless they repent they will perish eternally (Luk 13:3).

Punishment as destruction. In 2 Thess. 1:9 the wicked are punished with “eternal destruction away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his power.” Matt. 24:48-51 juxtaposes destruction and continued existence. The evil slave is cut in pieces, which would normally terminate conscious existence. However, the diced up slave is “assigned a place with the hypocrites where there is weeping and teeth gnashing.” This destruction encompasses both soul and body (Matt. 10:28), thus requiring the resurrection of the wicked’s body (John 5:28-29; Act 24:15). The phrase “whose worm does not die” may picture the never-ending corruption experienced by the wicked (Mark 9:42ff).

Punishment as banishment. The wicked are told to depart from Christ (Matt. 7:21-23) and are cast (Matt 8:12; 13:42, 50; 25:30; Mk. 9:42-48) into Gehenna/the outer darkness which is “outside” the New Jerusalem (Rev. 22:14). They are shut out of the marriage feast and refused entry (Matt. 25:10).

God and Hell. God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezek. 33:11). It is not his desire that anyone should perish (2 Pet. 3:9; Matt. 18:14). Some have asserted that God sends no one to hell (e.g., C. S. Lewis), but this cannot stand scripturally for it is Jesus as Judge who commands that men depart from him into everlasting fire (Matt. 25:41). From God’s perspective, according to Scripture, sin against Him deserves eternal punishment. This confirms our common sense awareness that the seriousness of a crime is, in part, a function of the importance of the person against whom it is committed. To insist a God of love could not punish eternally is to misunderstand God’s love, deny His revelation, and to imply that you are more merciful/benevolent than God Himself.

The question that surfaces most frequently when discussing eternal punishment in Hell is “Why is the punishment for a finite sinful act never-ending?” The Bible does not answer this question directly. However, the best answers I’ve found include the following elements: (1) God is just; therefore, whatever penalty he prescribes for sin must be just. (2) Sin is an offense against an infinite Being; therefore, it is not entirely finite in nature. (3) We cannot determine the extent of sin’s effects, so we do not know that sin’s effects are finite. Eternal punishment suggests that they are eternal. (4) Although Hell’s punishment is never-ending, all sinners do not receive the same level of punishment. In Luke 12:47-48 Jesus says those who knowingly do wrong will receive many stripes, but those who unknowingly do wrong will receive few stripes (cf. Rom. 2:12).

Our response. Fear God (Matt. 10:28) and do whatever it takes to avoid being cast into hell (Matt. 5:29-30). In eternity, hell is abhorrent to the saints and perhaps serves to remind them of the consequence of rebellion (Isa. 66:24). My study of this topic has again impressed on me
the horrors of eternal, conscious punishment in hell. No wonder Jesus told his disciples to do whatever it takes to avoid going to hell (Mark 9:43-48).

Brothers and sisters, let us fear God, depart from evil, and flee to Christ!