Do the Flames Ever Stop in Hell?
Jon Zens

 

 

Our Lord Jesus made this astounding statement to His inner circle of friends: “Do not fear those who can kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul; but rather fear him who is able to destroy both body and soul in hell” (Matt.10:28). No one can deny that Jesus spoke much about “hell.” But there have been many contradicting opinions and long-term controversies among men as to what “hell” is according to the Bible. I intend here only to deal with several contemporary statements on this subject, and in the course of the discussion to set forth the basic Biblical teaching concerning the final state of those outside of Christ.

ERRORS TO BE AVOIDED

After reading a representative selection of views, I see two fundamental errors which must be avoided in dealing with the subject of “hell.” First, we must grant that some well-meaning preachers at times have said more than is warranted by the words of Scripture, Thus we must be careful to avoid speculation and stay within the bounds of the clear language of the New Testament. Secondly, we must let the texts which relate to this topic say something to us. Those who oppose the idea of an “ever-burning hell” consistently skip over, or casually dismiss texts which clearly teach things contrary to their views. My contention is that if we are honest with the New Testament some very definite and dogmatic statements can be made about hell, and then we must be ready to say no more, except to open our mouths boldly and warn men to flee from the “wrath to come.”

“PUTTING HELL IN ITS PLACE”

The first article I wish to deal with is “Putting Hell In Its Place,” by Edward Fudge (Christianity Today, August 6, 1976, pp. 14-17). Robert Brinsmead, editor of Present Truth magazine, said about this article: “It seems to me he has given such a good Sola Scriptura answer that it would be difficult for me to improve on it.” (Letter to Norbert Ward, December 30, 1976). Fudge makes some valid observations in the article. But it is not so much what is said, but rather what is omitted that is disappointing.

He suggests that the New Testament does not “give any particular descriptions of the torments of hell, as some apocalyptic literature before it did and as many Christian popularizers have since done” (p. 15). But is this really the case? Why does he not deal seriously with Luke 16:19-31? To be sure, this passage is much debated. Some say it is a parable, some say it is actual history, and others suggest it is a mixture of both parable and history. But in any event, we must let this passage say something to us. It is obviously meant to teach several points, some of which can be listed without doing injustice to the text, and without entering into speculation.

  1. In this life the wicked may prosper, and the righteous will suffer (v.25).
  2. In the life to come, the wicked are tormented, and the righteous are comforted (v.25).
  3. Connected with the “torment” are (a) “flame” (v. 24), (b) “great gulf fixed” (v. 26), (c) full consciousness (vv. 23a, 24b). (See John Bunyan’s treatise, “Sighs From Hell, Or The Groans Of A Damned Soul,” in which he soberly expounds this story).

I would stress that the above data is fully consistent with the rest of Scripture which speaks to this subject. This passage does give us some clear information about the “torment” of the wicked.

Fudge also avoids the clear teaching of Scripture by setting up a linguistic smokescreen. He says that the Greek word aionios, usually translated as “eternal” or “everlasting,” would be better rendered “aionic” or “new-age” (p. 15; Robert Brinsmead also adopts this line of thinking in Present Truth, April, 1976, p. 26, footnote 6). So when “aionic” is connected with “destruction,” “damnation,” and “fire,” Fudge says “we can identify with the nouns. But again the adjective ‘aionic’ or ‘new-age’ warns us not to think that our present experiences can really provide a framework for comprehending the quality of each phrase when applied to the post-judgment of the wicked” (p.15). But the New Testament has more to say on this than he has allowed. In Rev. 20:10, the Greek phrase eis tous aionas ton aionon [“for ever and ever”] is used with reference to the “lake of fire and brimstone” where there is “torment day and night.” This intensive phrase does in fact indicate that the quality of the “lake of fire” is unending, eternal, and everlasting. Why? Because the same phrase, eis tous aionas ton aionon [“for ever and ever”], is used in Rev. 22:5 to describe the unending reign of Christ’s servants in the New Heaven and New Earth. Would anyone say that aionic “life” ever ends? Of course not. Why, then, do so many wish to water down the fact that the aionic “torments” of the wicked are also described as unending? The phrase used in both Rev. 20:10 and 22:5 — “for ever and ever” — rules out the idea that the wicked are “annihilated,” that is, that they cease to consciously exist in the “age to come.”

“WHAT IS THE TRUTH ABOUT HELL?”

The second article appeared in a Seventh-Day Adventist magazine, Liberty. It is entitled, “What Is The Truth About Hell?” (Sept./Oct., 1977, pp. 19-25). Only a few crucial points must be dealt with to show the inadequacy of this presentation. The article, put out by a national religious telecast called “Faith For Today,” is guilty of gross caricature. It seeks to arouse the reader’s emotions by saying, “Will the wicked burn forever? Will children stamp and cry in pain, as their parents lean over the railing of heaven to savor the sight and sound?” (p.19). The first question must be answered with a “Yes.” The second question does not deserve an answer, except to say that such a portrait exhibits an adherence to crass human sentimentality, and not to the statements of Scripture concerning the holiness of God, the destructiveness of sin, and the helplessness of sinful men.

Will the wicked burn forever? Yes. Our Saviour quoted Isaiah 66:24, and in the context said, “it is better for you to enter into the Kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell [gehenna]: where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched (Mark 9:47-48). Our Lord’s words are clear. But the human heart by nature rises up in opposition to the idea of unending torment for those who “obey not the gospel” (See W.G.T. Shedd, “Hellphobia,” Banner of Truth, May, 1974, pp. 31-32). I can only surmise that “Faith For Today” is selective in its use of Scripture when they assert, “the Scriptures do not teach that sinners burn forever, but rather that the results of the fires of hell are everlasting. Sinners receive everlasting punishment, not everlasting punishing (p.20). Such verbal gymnastics hardly do justice to the clear Word of God which states: “they [those who are lost] will be punished with everlasting destruction” (2 Thess. 1:9). The rich man was in conscious torment caused by the ongoing flame, and he intensely desired that his brothers would not “come into this place of torment” (Luke 16:28). Whoever was “not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire”(Rev. 20:15), a place which burns eis tous aionas ton aionon — “for ever and ever.”

ADVENTIST THEOLOGIAN OPPOSES “EVER-BURNING HELL”

After this article, Liberty prints three letters from readers who take issue with the idea that sinners do not burn forever. Then Adventist theologian, Dr. Don F. Neufeld, replies to these letters. Dr. Neufeld states, “the fact that the Bible describes the reward of the righteous as being life without end is no reason for assuming that the life of the wicked is going to be similarly extended, even though the same word is used to describe both” (p. 23). He then posits that aionios means “age-lasting,” and when applied to “mortal man, it describes a relatively short period of time — the lifetime of that person” (p. 23). Dr. Neufeld conveniently overlooks the obvious fact that the New Testament elsewhere specifically describes the “torments” of the wicked as coextensive with the “bliss” of the elect (Rev. 20:10; 21:8; 22:5). His adherence to the Adventist teaching of the mortality and annihilation of the wicked controls his interpretation of Scripture.

This becomes clear in his narrow definition of “death.” “What happens,” he says, “in that inferno of fire brings about the second death, not eternal torment” (p. 24). But he wrongly supposes that “death” is equal to “termination of existence.” The Bible, however, is much broader in its handling of “death” than this. In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve “died” on the day they ate of the forbidden tree. But they still lived physically. Men are “dead,” says Paul, in trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1), yet they are still alive. Paul also says that a widow who lives wrongly is “dead while she lives” (1 Tim. 5:6). Furthermore, the Scripture defines the form that the “second death” will take, and there is no indication that the “accursed ones” (Matt. 25:41) ever cease to exist in that place where “their worm dies not and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48). Also, it should be kept in mind that in the “second death” even death and hell are assigned to the “lake of fire” (Rev. 20:14).

Again, Dr. Neufeld is selective in relating relevant data in his handling of Rev. 20:10. He says, “it refers to the devil only . . . in this verse only the fate of the devil is described” (p. 24). But he fails to point out that in Matthew 25:41 the unrighteous will find their lot to be that place “prepared for the devil and his angels.” The place assigned to the devil is also the abode of the devil’s children.

With reference to Luke 16: 19-31, one can sense that Dr. Neufeld is not facing the text candidly. He says:

One must not push parables too far . . . It is a well-established rule that it is dangerous to found a doctrine on a parable; one should found doctrines only on the literal, objective statements of the Bible . . . To drive a lesson home, Jesus told a story based on His hearers’ concepts. But He did not thereby endorse these concepts (pp. 24-25).

Many of our Lord’s words were couched in parables. He expected His parables to illumine, not cloud the disciples’ understanding. Dr. Neufeld raises some negative difficulties he sees in the story, but he never seeks to positively expound what Jesus meant to communicate in this account. Why should Jesus need to adopt false contemporary Jewish concepts “to drive a lesson home”? And we must ask Dr. Neufeld, What exactly was the “lesson” Christ was pressing on His hearers? Is Christ’s reference to “flame” and “torment” just verbal filler, or is it designed to communicate a sobering reality?

Robert Brinsmead also advocates a line of thought which does not do justice to the Biblical data. He desires to reduce “hell” to what happened at Calvary, when God’s wrath became Christ’s portion.

If there is a basic premise in this essay, it is simply this:

Christ crucified and risen from the dead is the truth of eschatology. We must determine to know nothing of end-time events save those which are mirrored to us in the Christ event (“Introductory Word,” Present Truth, April, 1976, p. 5. Italics his.)

Now there is an important element of truth in this statement. But it is not the whole truth. If God has revealed in the New Testament other facts about end-time events, we must not overlook that information. We have no right to limit our concept of hell to what happened during those hours of darkness on Golgotha. If Christ has said other pertinent words about it, we must look forward to what hell will be, as well as look backward to the revelation of God’s wrath on His Son.

Brinsmead says further:

You don’t think that my Christological explanation on hell is clear enough. I would think that something which God has already put on display in the awful wrath which fell on Christ is clearer than our conjectures into the future. My position is simply this: if you want to “see” how terrible God’s wrath is, look at Calvary. But if you still insist on me interpreting this eschatological, may I refer you to Edward Fudge’s article . . . (Letter to Norbert Ward, December 30, 1976).

The point is not that anyone insists on looking forward, but rather that certain Scriptures in the New Testament — especially the words of our Saviour — do look forward to the day when the wicked will be “cast into the furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 13:50). Such facts are not “conjectures into the future,” but serious realities delineated clearly by our Master.

THE REAL PROBLEM: UNBIBLICAL NOTIONS ABOUT GOD

The Biblical concept of a never-ending lake of fire, of course, is not popular among the masses, and is rejected forthrightly by the cults. Dr. Neufeld sees the idea of an “ever-burning hell” as “at one time widely held by Christians. But it is now a vanishing point of view” (Liberty, p. 13). He rejoices that the number who hold this position are “becoming fewer” (p. 25). I would judge from these observations of Dr. Neufeld that we should rather lament the tragic decline of sound doctrine and holy living. And at the root of the matter, we should see in the widespread rejection of Christ’s teaching concerning hell the fearful fact that most modern denominations, theologians, seminaries and “laity” entertain false, unbiblical notions about God the Creator and man the creature.

The editors of Liberty understand this in part, for they rightly observe, “we believe the question [of hell] is of great importance, for the character of God is at issue. What kind of God is He?” (p. 19). I suggest that when men recoil emotionally at the thought of God tormenting men for their sins (“A God of love could never do such a thing!”), they have failed to take seriously the Biblical teaching in three crucial areas.

1. God is holy. God’s holiness rules out the possibility of sin dwelling in His presence (Ps.1:5a; 5:5; 9:17; 24:3-4; Habakkuk 1:13; 1 John 1:5; Rev. 6:17; 21:27; 22:14-15). No person without an imputed white robe of righteousness can “stand” before the Holy One of Israel. All who come before Him in their own righteousness are uncovered and exposed to the wrath of God. Therefore, the only appropriate words from Christ to those without His righteousness are: “Depart from me, accursed ones, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41). The only consistent way the Holy God can react to filthy, obstinate, unbelieving sinners is with abhorrence and utter repulsion (see Genesis 6:5-7; 18:20-21; 19:13, 15, 24). One cannot entertain the idea that a never-ending hell “will blacken the character of God and destroy belief in His love and justice” (Liberty, p. 19), if the absolute holiness of God is spiritually apprehended.

2. Sin is horrible. God defines “sin” in His Word. Sin is not defined by man-made, Pharisaical codes. Sin is practiced either by commission (doing what is forbidden) or by omission (not doing what is commanded). Sin is like leaven (1 Cor. 5:6-7). It spreads its influence into all our members, and it increases in intensity when unchecked (Rom. 6:13, 16; James 1:13-16). Men who go to hell are not “neutral” beings. Men perish in flames because they persist in the practice of sin (1 John 3:6-10). In order to avoid the place of torment, they must repent in this life (Luke 13:3, 5; 16:28, 30). In light of the seriousness of sin, Christ clearly set before His apostles the only alternatives: (1) you either deal in a radical way with your sin by pursuing the duty of mortification (“cut it off”; see Rom. 8:13); or (2) you will be “cast into hell, where their worm dies not and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:47-48). Sin must be so repulsive to us that we would part with valuable bodily members if they caused us to sin. And the main reason Christ gives here for why sin must be dealt with in such a radical fashion is because if it is not checked, it’s practice in the life will be the occasion for one’s damnation in never-ending fire. Those who have trouble accepting the reality of ever-burning flames must ask themselves if they really take seriously Jesus’ call to mortification. Both are in Mark 9:43-48.

3. Man is helpless. Those who deny eternal flames act as if God would be doing something unjust if He consigned sinners to a place of endless torment. Behind this emotion is the false idea expressed in varying degrees, that man inherently deserves something better from God, or that God is somehow obligated to the creature. For instance, they tell us:

    Of course, God will force no one to accept His solution to hell.

    We can reject it. Each of us may determine his own destiny . . .

    Each man determines his own destiny. God will force no one to live in heaven (Liberty, p. 21).

This simplistic view of man’s “free-will” fails to reckon with the fact that the Bible portrays God as the Potter and man as the clay on the wheel (Rom. 9:20-21). The clay, in the case of fallen men, does not have a “neutral” will that can go either to good or bad. Rather, men in the realm of the flesh are at “enmity against God,” “cannot please God,” and are “not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be” (Rom. 8:7-8). Among those who are outside of Christ, there is “none righteous . . . none that understands . . . none that are seeking after God . . . none who are doing good” (Rom. 3:10-12). If God let you in your sinful state “determine your own destiny” you would by nature choose the broad way that leads to destruction (Matt. 7:13). But, thankfully, God has purposed to take the initiative in salvation. God in the New Covenant takes away the stony heart and gives a heart of flesh. He writes the law on our hearts. He sends forth the Spirit of regeneration to helpless sinners. From beginning to end, “salvation is of the Lord” (Jonah 2:9).

Therefore, given our wretched condition “in Adam,” God would be perfectly just in sending every one of us to endless flames, if that was the end He chose for the wicked. We are condemned in Adam legally; we are condemned by our personal sins. We deserve nothing but absolute justice: you and I stand guilty before the Judge of all the earth. But God has remembered mercy in the midst of wrath. And that mercy, Paul says, is displayed upon sinners according to His good pleasure, not according to anything man does first (Rom. 9:11-16). He has chosen to save a multitude which no man can number, from every tribe, kindred and tongue (Rev. 5:9; 7:9). If those who deny eternal flames took seriously the status of men as condemned, and the infinite guilt of men who will stand one day before the thrice-holy God, then their informed emotions would shrink from saying, “God would never do such an awful thing.”

WILL IT BE FLAMES OR FLEEING?

The reality of “hell” is a most sobering thought for the human mind. But the real issue you must face now is this: are you going to flee the “City of Destruction” as Christian did in Pilgrim’s Progress, and set your face as a flint for the narrow road which leads to life, even if your family and friends think you are crazy? The only God-appointed means for poor sinners to find deliverance from future wrath is for them to “look” to Jesus, the author and finisher of salvation. He was lifted up on a Roman cross and thereby “made a curse for us . . . in order that the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith” (Gal. 3:13-14).

Dr. Neufeld boldly asserts “that men with philosophical bents invented the idea of an ever-burning hell” (Liberty, p. 25). How could he substantiate such a biased judgment, and claim to be acquainted with church history? The men who have articulated such a doctrine since the Reformation have not been ivory-tower philosophers, but for the most part godly pastors seeking to be faithful to the Word and honest with the souls in their care. But the issue is neither what men think God can or cannot do, nor what actions on God’s part men sentimentally judge to be just and “fair.” The question is: What do the Scriptures teach? May we cultivate a Berean spirit and examine the Scriptures daily to see what things are true (Acts 17:11).

SOURCES FOR FURTHER STUDY

  1. Buis, Harry. The Doctrine of Eternal Punishment. Presbyterian and Reformed Pub. Co., Box 185, Nutley, N.J. 07110.
  2. Martin, Albert N. “Our Lord’s Teaching On Hell.” (Series of 10 cassette tapes). Catalogue number, TEF-1 through TEF-10. Trinity Pulpit, Box 277, Essex Fells, N.J., 07021.
  3. Pink, Arthur W. Eternal Punishment. Evangelical Press, P.O. Box 5, Welwyn, Herts., AL6 9NV, England.

This article appeared in the Free Grace Broadcaster, March-April 1978, Issue 64


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