Unleashing God's Truth, One Verse at a Time

No one likes to think about hell. No one takes pleasure in considering the wrath that awaits unrepentant sinners. And no one enjoys ruminating on why “it is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31).

But being repulsed by hell is no reason to reject the doctrine altogether, as many professing believers do today. Rather than accept and adhere to what Scripture clearly teaches about the horrors of God’s wrath, many in the church mischaracterize His love, asserting that a loving God couldn’t consign people to eternal punishment.

That’s essentially the view espoused by the late Clark Pinnock.

How can Christians possibly project a deity of such cruelty and vindictiveness whose ways include inflicting everlasting torture upon His creatures, however sinful they may have been? Surely a God who would do such a thing is more nearly like Satan than like God, at least by any ordinary moral standards. . . . Surely the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is no fiend; torturing people without end is not what our God does. Does the one who told us to love our enemies intend to wreak vengeance on His own enemies for all eternity? . . .

Everlasting torment is intolerable from a moral point of view because it makes God into a bloodthirsty monster who maintains an everlasting Auschwitz for victims whom He does not even allow to die. [1] Clark Pinnock, “The Destruction of the Finally Impenitent,” Criswell Theological Review 4 (1990) 246-247, 253.

His argument has proven to be persuasive within the church, as more and more Christians reject the idea that God will pour out His righteous wrath eternally. Five years ago, the GTY Blog published a thorough critique of Rob Bell’s bestseller, Love Wins, which made a similar case against a literal, eternal hell. It was no surprise that Bell’s view ran contrary to Scripture—he already had a proven track record of heretical views and unbelief.

What was surprising is that several readers of our blog held similar views that repudiated God’s wrath. Here’s just a few of the responses we saw:

So if you’re a professing believer who finds the doctrine of God’s judgment too onerous, how do you explain what happens to unrepentant sinners? Most who deny the eternal torment of hell settle for some familiar options: purgatory, universalism, or annihilationism.

Not many evangelicals would openly claim to believe in purgatory, even if their eschatology bears a striking resemblance to Catholic dogma. Eschewing the Catholic emphasis on works righteousness, a growing number in the church believe that God’s grace extends to sinners beyond the grave, rescuing them from the due penalty of their sin in the afterlife. C.S. Lewis’s book The Great Divorce plays out this theory in narrative form, as unrepentant sinners are coaxed into heaven by the saints.

But that view has no biblical basis—it’s driven by sentiment, not Scripture. Moreover, it strips the teeth from God’s judgment (Hebrews 9:27), and any urgency from the call to repentance (Matthew 3:2).

Another common erroneous alternative to hell is universalism—the idea that everyone will eventually wind up in heaven. The theory is that God’s love for mankind is so overwhelming that He can’t bear to surrender anyone to the due penalty of his or her sin. If He’s already gone to such great lengths to rescue sinners (John 3:16), why wouldn’t He finish the job? In this view, hell is often disregarded as a literal location, and seen instead as a state of being that describes the frustration and futility of sin.

But that denies what Christ Himself said about hell: that it is a realm of “outer darkness” filled with “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:12, 22:13). It’s a “furnace” (Matthew 13:42, 50) of unquenchable fires (Mark 9:48-49). It’s the endless torment (Luke 16:23-24) of spiritual and bodily destruction (Matthew 8:12).

Likewise, Scripture is clear that God takes sin seriously, and that we must, too. “The way of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord, but He loves one who pursues righteousness” (Proverbs 15:9). The prophet Isaiah declared, “Woe to the wicked! It will go badly with him, for what he deserves will be done to him” (Isaiah 3:11). Paul echoed that warning in his letter to the Romans: “But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God” (Romans 2:5).

The heart of universalism is unbelief regarding the gospel. It’s a rejection of Christ as the only way of salvation (John 14:6), and a deadly downplaying of the severity of sin. A universalist sees no need to plead with others over the gospel, since his view negates the sinfulness of sin, the exclusivity of Christ, and the finality of the grave. Universalism is a repudiation of the gospel and salvation that makes God a weak-willed liar.

Finally, in addition to the rising popularity of purgatory and universalism, many Christians today are adopting the idea of annihilationism as an alternative to hell. Annihilationism is exactly what it sounds like—it’s the belief that, instead of the eternal torment of hell, unrepentant sinners simply cease to exist; that the punishment for their sin is the annihilation of their eternal souls. Some may even acknowledge that the impenitent face a measure of God’s wrath; but once it has been poured out, they affirm that soul is destroyed for good. This view is the corollary to purgatory—the end of one leads to life, and the end of the other leads to non-existence.

Like universalists, annihilationists reject the clear teaching of Scripture when it comes to the terrifying realities of hell—including clear statements from Christ about the eternality of hell. In Matthew 25:46, Jesus describes the scope God’s judgment: “These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

In his sermon “A Testimony of One Surprised to Be in Hell, Part 2,” John MacArthur explains why it’s so critical to believe in Scripture’s testimony to an eternal hell.

Punishment in hell is defined by the word aionios, which is the word eternal or everlasting. There are people who would like to redefine that word aionios and say, “Well, it doesn’t really mean forever.” But if you do that with hell, you’ve just done it with heaven, because the same word is used to describe both. If there is not an everlasting hell, then there is not an everlasting heaven. And I’ll go one beyond that. The same word is used to describe God. And so if there is not an everlasting hell, then there is not an everlasting heaven, nor is there an everlasting God. It is clear that God is eternal; and, therefore, that heaven is eternal, and so is hell.

Let’s be clear: any attempt to avoid or overturn the truth about hell is a direct assault on Scripture and the gospel. Those who champion such demonic lies are stripping the teeth from God’s judgment, subverting Scripture’s urgent calls for repentance, denying Christ’s own testimony to the reality of hell, underselling the severity of sin, promoting heinous unbelief, and questioning the very character and nature of God Himself.

Believers who profess allegiance to the truth cannot abide these forms of eternal compromise. As we stand together for the gospel, we must also stand together against these heretical corruptions of vital gospel truth.

Available online at: https://www.gty.org/library/Blog/B160321
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