John H. Gerstner



I. Modern Views of the Future

EDWYN BEVAN (Christianity, p. 224) says that some modern Roman Catholics, speaking off the record concerning their official doctrine of the endless punishment of the wicked, “teach that the punishment involves real pain, but that it is not forever, others that the punishment is really forever, but that it is not torment as pictured in the old view.” This observation is even truer of the thinking and teaching of many Protestants. In other words, the tendency of modern times has been to take punishment out of eternity or eternity out of punishment.

Quite recently some seem to be trying to take the blessedness out of eternity also. If Hell is being changed into Heaven, Heaven is being brought down to Hell. Thus Paul Tillich (“The Meaning of Joy”) finds joy and pain apparently inseparable. Moreover, for multitudes of thinkers Heaven must be presently, at least, a very miserable place, or state of mind; for God, say some, suffers because of the sins of His creatures. Being an infinite being, He must suffer infinitely and being omniscient He must suffer every moment. If He, who is the glory of Heaven, is infinitely miserable, it is difficult to believe that creatures, whose joy is in Him, could avoid being miserable also.

The traditional churches have not changed their creeds, but there can be little doubt that they have changed their preaching. Walter Lingle, I think it was, once wrote about “The No-Hell Church” where that doctrine had never been mentioned for more than twenty years. John Sutherland Bonnell said that it had been even longer in his Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. How many “No-Hell” churches exist, no one has dared to estimate. Hell is so dreadful that the very thought of it is well-nigh unbearable. At the same time, the conviction is growing that religion without a Hell is not worth much. It seems that the church can neither live with the doctrine nor do without it.

If the orthodox have been strangely silent about what they ostensibly believe, the neo-orthodox have decisively committed themselves to universal salvation. It is an irony of history that a movement which is often called Neo-Calvinism should repudiate the doctrine of particularistic election by which historic Calvinism has been distinguished. In a book recently translated into English (Christ and Adam) Karl Barth’s implicit universalism is clear. Romans 5:1-11, he says,

only speaks of Jesus Christ and those who believe in him. If we read that first part of the chapter by itself, we might quite easily come to the conclusion that for Paul Christ’s manhood is significant only for those who are united to him in faith. We would then have no right to draw any conclusion about the relationship between Christ and man as such, from what Paul says about the ‘religious’ relationship between Christ and Christians. We could not then expect to find in the manhood of Christ the key to the essential nature of man.

But in vv. 12-20 Paul does not limit his context to Christ’s relationship to believers but gives fundamentally the same account of his relationship to all men. The context is widened from church history to world history, from Christ’s relationship to Christians to his relationship to all men. (pp. 87 f.).

It may be useful to contrast the universalism of Neo-orthodoxy with that of the older Liberalism. According to the latter, men do not deserve to be damned and therefore they do not really need to be saved. Or, if men do deserve to be damned, a loving God is morally incapable of damning them. So, after their measure of suffering in this world, with or without some further temporary suffering in the next world, all men are “saved.” Neo-orthodoxy has too strong a note of orthodoxy to entertain such a view. It holds that man is sinful and does deserve the wrath of God. A reconciliation, however, can divert that wrath. Such a reconciliation has been made in Christ, and it has saved or justified all men whom Adam’s sin had damned. Faith is not necessary, according to Barth, to secure justification but only to experience the fruits of it. All men will sooner or later come to faith and thereby realize what they have always possessed but not previously enjoyed.

It has been characteristic of the sects to deny future punishment. Unitarianism emerged in this country basically as a protest against vindictive justice. It is true that this was not always in the foreground of the controversy, but it is probable that it was always in the background. In the debate over depravity and sacrifice and salvation, the great anxiety and offense was traceable not so much to these doctrines as to the fact that they led to vindictive and irremediable punishment. Universalism was explicitly and undoubtedly devoted to an attack on the particularism of New England doctrine. Most of the major present-day sects are opposed to future punishment. Some, like Jehovah’s Witnesses, teach annihilation. The Mormons do not advocate annihilation, but most of their teaching either minimizes future punishment or says that only a handful of persons will undergo it. Christian Science, Theosophy, and other pantheistic groups know of no punishment that is not either ameliorative or illusory.

Although the traditional churches have tended to be silent about endless punishment while Neo-orthodoxy has gone universalistic and the sects annihilationist, there appears to be a movement back to a reaffirmation of faith in this doctrine in our time. Carl F. H. Henry’s statement that Jonathan Edwards’ God is “angry still” is being recognized by many as true. Marcellus Kik finds the subject important enough to write a book on Voices from Heaven and Hell, as has Henry Buis in Doctrine of Eternal Punishment. Meanwhile Billy Graham and many others preach the doctrine around the world.

Perhaps Dr. Bonnell’s Heaven and Hell is more symptomatic of our time and more indicative of the general trend. While repudiating what he feels are the excessive statements of Thomas Aquinas and Jonathan Edwards, there is a genuine appreciation by Bonnell of what he considers the neglected truth in this doctrine. While his book does not, in our judgment, do full justice to certain grim but undeniable realities, it is indicative of a far more candid evaluation of biblical eschatology than the naive optimism of a decadent Liberalism

So much for the present lay of the theological ground. In this chapter we will restrict ourselves to a brief discussion of one point; namely, the fixity of the gulf between the two future worlds. There is an impassable gulf between these two worlds. If so, this is the death of any hopes of universal salvation.

II. Biblical Teaching About the Future

Our thoughts turn immediately to Christ’s parable of Dives and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) in which this impassability of this gulf is stressed by Jesus. Describing Dives, the rich man, in Hell, and Lazarus, the poor beggar, in Heaven, Christ tells us that Dives is so miserable that he asks Lazarus (whom he sees in “Abraham’s bosom,” another word for Heaven) to wet the tip of his tongue. But this is impossible because, as Abraham explains in the words of the parable, “between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence.”

We recognize that we have here a parable. That is to say, this manifestly is not an exact description of the other worlds as they were at the time of telling the parable. For example, the parable has Dives in apparent physical misery, judging from the fact that he desires to have the tip of his tongue moistened. However, the Scripture indicates that bodies are not resurrected before the return of Christ. Rather, the bodies of the dead remain in the grave and nothing presumably happens to them except decay until they are later raised from the dead. Whatever the answer to that point may be we may be certain that there is this impassable gulf between the two future worlds. Jesus may be describing these future worlds by way of anticipation; that is, He may be describing the condition of those who are in these worlds in a future time when the final state of them has been established. Or, He may simply be expressing in more easily understandable terms of bodily suffering the misery which persons presently in Hell feel in their souls. But we are citing this passage to show that the Bible teaches the impassability of this separating gulf between the two future worlds. And this the parable very clearly — and indeed emphatically — does, even though it may leave us somewhat uncertain about some details. Regardless of whether this scene is taken to be utterly metaphorical, whether it is taken to be an anticipation of the future and final state of the two worlds; or whether it is a description in bodily terms of the present spiritual anguish of those in the evil world to come, the one point with which we are concerned remains the same in all instances; namely, that there is a wall of separation between these two worlds and it is impossible to go from one world to the other even temporarily.

Again, consider the passage in Revelation 22:11: “He that is unjust, let him be unjust still: and he which is filthy, let him be filthy still: and he that is righteous, let him be righteous still: and he that is holy, let him be holy still.” Here the statement is made that the filthy shall be filthy still. This tells us plainly that there is to be no change in the evil world which is to come. We know that in this present world while there is life there is hope. So long as a man lives and the gospel is extended to him he may believe and be saved. Now is the day of salvation. But in very dismal contrast to that, the future world affords no such opportunity. There is no such possibility of a person entering into life which is everlasting. Just the opposite — if a man departs this world in sin, he shall remain in sin forever without hope of change.

Consider Hebrews 9:27: “It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment.” We admit that this passage would allow a probation after this judgment. That is, the words themselves do not rule out such a possibility. However, they certainly do not assert such a thing and they do not imply such a thing. Furthermore, we find in Scripture elsewhere no support for the notion. So we are constrained to believe that the bluntness and the apparent solemnity and finality of this stark statement, “It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment,” means to rule out later probation. That is the common sense handling of this verse, and, in the absence of any information which would modify such a common sense interpretation, it seems that we are shut up to such a construction.

Now if there is such a judgment which comes immediately at death and fixes the eternal abodes of those judged, then surely the two groups are eternally separated from each other, at least as far as inter-communication or inter-fellowship or transmigration is concerned. One world may be conscious of another. The heavenly world may be conscious of the hellish world, and that consciousness may contribute to its blessedness in some manner. Likewise the hellish world may be conscious of the heavenly world and that consciousness may contribute to its misery in some manner. But, there is no going back and forth from one world to the other, nor any fellowship between the two groups of inhabitants.

III. Source of Modem Errors

There is more Scripture to the same effect, but we think this is sufficient to indicate the thought of the Bible. Let us say a final word on this subject concerning the probable reason for persons’ thinking that there is a possibility of moving or progressing from one world to the other, namely from the world of Hell to the world of Heaven. As we are acquainted with the history of doctrine, we suspect that it is not any passage in Scripture which gives people such a notion; rather it is the feeling that a future trial is necessary at least for some people. That is, there are some adults who have never heard of the gospel and therefore have never had the possibility of being converted. Some theologians forget that these men who have not heard the gospel had no right to expect that they should hear a gospel; that there was no obligation on God’s part to present it to them. But, wrongly supposing that all persons do have some right to a gospel and noticing that some persons have never actually been given that supposed right, these theologians are constrained to conclude that such a presentation of the gospel, since it has not taken place in this world, must take place in the other world. This opens up the possibility of persons in Hell believing and being saved and thus entering into felicity with the heavenly creatures and fellowship with God.

While we admit that this is, internally, a logically coherent pattern of thought, we say first that it is presumptuous to base a doctrinal affirmation, a dogma, upon something which is merely a very tenuous hypothesis. Second, and far more serious, however internally consistent this notion may be, it is destroyed by a false premise. We have reflected on the fact that some theologians assume that all men are entitled to a hearing of the gospel. This, however, is a gratuitous and erroneous assumption. God has no obligation to sinful men except to condemn. He may or may not, as His wisdom dictates, exercise mercy upon them. But mercy is not something which God must offer anybody. He offered no mercy to the angels when they sinned. And He says with respect to fallen human creatures: “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy” (Rom. 9:18). He strongly insists that mercy is optional with Him and a matter of His sovereign pleasure alone. Therefore, it is extremely presumptuous for any man to assume that he has a right to hear the gospel. Since we live in a land of light and hear the gospel, we should be that much more grateful that we have such an unmerited opportunity. Furthermore, we should do what is in our power to extend this opportunity to other persons. However, neither we nor they may be said to have any right to the good news. Neither we nor they, if we perish in our sins, can justly blame God for not attempting to rescue us from our sins. We are outlaws; we are violators of God’s will; we are spurners of the light of nature and natural revelation which we do have. We are entitled to nothing but Hell. If God leaves us to that to which we are entitled, who will call Him unjust? So, however plausible-sounding this thesis of a future probation may be, a careful examination shows that it must be decisively rejected as erroneous and presumptuous. And if this notion of a future probation is resting upon this erroneous and presumptuous foundation, then that which rests on it, namely the possibility of passing from one world to another, must collapse with its foundation.

But there is another side to this coin. If the finally impenitent cannot ever pass into glory, on the other hand, true believers cannot ever pass out of it. The righteous shall be righteous still. So once again the believers’ eyes are on the Lord returning on clouds of glory. “Even so, come, Lord Jesus!” For when He finally takes His own to Himself they shall know that sin shall never again separate them from Him; for He has separated sin from them. “. . . between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence.” (See also Rev. 21:7.)

Now is the day of salvation. Let us, therefore, in conclusion consider what we must do now, since there is to be no opportunity to change worlds hereafter.


Dr. John H. Gerstner was born in Tampa, Florida, and raised in Pennsylvania. He earned his Ph.D. from Harvard University. Dr. Gerstner pastored several churches before accepting a professorship at Pittsburgh-Xenia Theological Seminary, where he taught church history for over 30 years. He served as a visiting professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and adjunct professor at Knox Theological Seminary in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Dr. Gerstner was also professor-at-large for Ligonier Ministries for many years, and recorded numerous lectures on audio and video for that organization.

Dr. Gerstner was a stalwart champion of the cause of reformed theology and, in particular, the teachings of Jonathan Edwards. This article is taken from his book, Theology for Everyman.

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