There is currently a growing debate on the part of some writers and teachers regarding the right of God to judge sin and wickedness with eternal punishment in hell. Hell seems unloving and unjust to some.
There are several closely related but distinct doctrinal issues involved in this discussion:
- universal salvation
From a personal perspective, I take no joy from the thought of God judging people’s sin. In fact, I am one of those sinners He has judged. He has judged me and found me guilty, and if it were not for the redeeming, forgiving love of Christ made known to me on the cross, I would have no hope of salvation or forgiveness.
Thank goodness that our sins are at the same time judged, and in the same great act of mercy, Jesus takes the punishment He declares all of us deserves. The cross of Christ is both judgment for sin and an offer of forgiveness. I acknowledge the rightness of the judgment and accept the offer of forgiveness. In doing so, I refuse to redefine sin to what suits me or is easy for me.
I believe we should be very careful about backing away from God’s clear pronouncement of what sin is in the Bible. As selfish, broken people we are in no position to define what is right or wrong. Our track record in the human race does not give us the right to make such judgments.
It is the act of humble penitence that separates us as people, then, not the presence of sin. We are all sinners. All God asks of us is that we acknowledge that we have sinned against Him, that what He declares to be sin we indeed acknowledge as wicked and wrong, and we agree that we deserve punishment for our sin and unbelief.
At stake in this discussion, is our view of God’s nature and character. Does God have a right to declare what sin is, and to punish that sin in whatever way He deems right or good? It seems to me that amongst many “emergent” evangelicals there is a growing sentimentality about how we define love, and a willingness to back away from how the Bible defines punishment for that sin.
I believe God has the right to say what sin is and what punishment it deserves. But far more importantly, it is not about what I believe, but what the Bible teaches. There is no gray area. The Bible is very clear. There is sin, and God judges the sinner, and if the sinner does not come to God in sincere repentance, that person faces stern and horrible judgment. The Bible is emphatic: God is the creator, we are the creatures; He sees all, we see through a glass darkly; He judges us, we cannot judge Him.
There is no conflict between the truth of God and the Love of God. To punish sin is a manifestation of the love of God. True love means God will be loyal to His righteous and holy nature. He will not compromise His righteousness by ignoring the sin of the impenitent.
This topic deserves a much more in depth consideration, but for now I would like to present some of the New Testament passages on 'judgment' in an attempt to lay a foundation for considering other related topics.
Romans chapters 1-3 is the most developed passage in the New Testament on the final judgment all human beings will face at the end of time. The “question behind the question” about the existence of hell and the eternal fate of the impenitent has to do with God’s judgment of sinners. Paul clearly teaches there is a judgment that we will all face:
- there will be a day of judgment – Rom. 2:5 – God will judge all men according to their works
- there are those who are storing up “wrath for themselves” – Romans 2:5 and 2:16; See also Romans 13:2, 3:6, 1 Corinthians 13:2, 11:32, 4:5, 2 Thessalonians 2:12, 2 Timothy 4:1
- on the day of judgment, the righteous will receive eternal life, and the wicked will receive wrath and fury – Rom. 2:6-10
- people will be judged by the light they have and what they have done with it – Rom. 2:1ff
- all people have the light of nature shining in their conscience by which they should recognize the existence of God and worship him alone – Rom. 1:18ff
- the Jews will be judged by the moral law of God - the 10 commandments - Rom. 2:12 - and those who do not have the law will be judged by the law of God written on their hearts – their conscience – Rom. 2:14-16
- Those who believe in Christ will assist God in the judgment of the world, even to the point of judging angels – 1 Cor. 6:2-3
- Paul states that no one can survive the day of judgment based on good works they have done; people will be judged by what they know of God’s revelation in creation and the laws of God He has written on their hearts, not what they don’t know
- Jews have failed to live up to the law and that is the basis of their judgment – Gal. 3:10-12
- The final basis of God's judgment will be the gospel, how people respond to it – Romans 2:16, 2 Thess. 1:8
- Salvation means acquittal from the guilt of sin by the favorable decision of the judge of all humankind, God. This decision to forgive people of their sins has been rendered for believers through the death of Christ – Romans 3:21-26, 10:9-10
- Because of God’s merciful justification of those who call upon the name of the Lord Jesus, they shall be saved from wrath on the day of judgment – Romans 10:9-10
- In Romans 1, Paul spells out the basis of judgment of the gentiles and lost people, including those who have never heard the gospel:
o All people have the knowledge of God written on their hearts
o All people have suppressed the law and knowledge of God He has given to them
o All people have gone beyond suppressing the knowledge of God, but have exchanged it and perverted it into lies
- God in His mercy has provided a way of escape for both Jews and Gentiles, and that is salvation through the redeeming love and work of Christ – Romans 3:21-28
- Because of justification by faith in Christ’s death on the cross, we who believe will be saved on the day of judgment – Romans 5:9, 2 Corinthians 5:10
- Because of the reality of the terrible day of judgment and because of the love and mercy of God, we are to appeal to people to turn to Jesus and be saved by faith in His death on the cross - 2 Cor. 5:11-12
THE FINAL STATE OF THOSE WHO HAVE NOT COME TO CHRIST
The Bible teaches the following:
- The impenitent “shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His might”. 2 Thessalonians 1:9, 1 Thessalonians 5:3
- The rebellious and impenitent store up for themselves the judgment of God on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment shall be revealed. Romans 2:5, 8, 5:9, 6:23, 1 Thess. 1:10, 5:9
- Paul describes the fate of the impenitent and unsaved as “perishing” (apollumiin the Greek). This “perishing” death is both present - 1 Cor. 1:18, 2 Cor. 2:15, 4:3 - and a future state of eternal doom - Romans 2:2, 2 Thess. 2:10
- This final state of judgment is also called destruction (apoleia in the Greek) – Phil. 3:19, Romans 9:22
- Paul also calls this state of judgment, “death”. “Death” is the penalty of sin - Romans 5:12, 6:16, 23 - This term means death to the body - Romans 8:38, 1 Cor. 3:22 - but death includes much more. Death is the opposite of eternal life - Romans 6:23, 7:10, 8:6, 2Cor. 2:16 - This death is a present spiritual fact - Romans 7:16, Ephesians 2:1 - and a future fate - Romans 1:32, 6:16, 21, 23, 7:5-
- The central idea of this death is exclusion from the presence of God in his consummated, glorious kingdom -2 Thess. 1:9 - and the subsequent loss of the blessings of life that come from the enjoyment of God’s presence by the redeemed
- Paul says this final doom is a fearful condemnation that is the just desert of sin and unbelief. Though Paul doesn’t describe what this doom involves in any detail, Jesus likens it to eternal fire and darkness - Matt. 18:8, 25:41, 8:12, 22:13, 25:30 - The great and terrible reality of this punishment of death is not the formof this destruction, but it’s eternal significance. Here is the heart of this punishment called death: eternal separation from the presence of God in His Kingdom.
- God has done all things possible to bring people to Himself. If they reject His will, His love, His son’s death on the cross, they must face His judgment. In the end God can accept no opposition to His rule and reign. No man or woman can defy His will and abide in His presence. There is no Scripture anywhere in the Bible that even hints at the possibility of salvation from the punishment after death.
- Paul presents the awful reality of eternity not being a quantity of time, but a quality of existence. God’s will is to glorify Himself, that He might be “all in all” or, more descriptively, “everything to every one” (1 Cor. 15:28), for all of time.
THE DOCTRINE OF THE CONSUMMATION OF ALL THINGS
- The doctrine of “consummation” means that when Christ returns His kingdom will be fully established and the entire creation will be made subject to his rule. Christ will enjoy preeminence – Col. 1:16-20 Phil 2:1-9, 1 Cor. 15:25, Romans 8:19-23 - those who have turned to Christ in this life will enjoy Christ and His redeemed creation in the next life.
- In the final consummation by Christ, the physical world will be freed from the presence and decaying effect of sin and the curse of evil. Isaiah 11 and 65 present a picture of the world in the future under the rule of the Christ.
- Some people have seen the final consummation of all things in Christ as a sort of a universal “homecoming” for the unredeemed, a universal salvation of all created beings, both human and angelic. If the verses in Colossians mentioned above are taken out of context of the totality of Pauline teaching, this interpretation can be made to stand. However, the universal acknowledgment of Christ’s Lordship is not synonymous to universal salvation. To be made to bow before the Lord of the universe is not the same to bow willingly before Him as Lord and Savior. To quote George Eldon Ladd, “There is a stern element in Paul’s eschatology that cannot be avoided. There remain recalcitrant wills that must be subdued and which will bow before Christ’s rule, even though unwillingly” (Page 568, A Theology of the New Testament, Eerdmans, 1974, Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA).
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While meditating on these weighty topics and writing these few words, I have experienced no small amount of agony. It is with tears and great burden of heart that I consider the separation of the lost from the joyous presence of Christ for eternity. I realize there is a difference of understanding by others in the Body of Christ to the interpretation of Scripture I have presented here. I do not criticize those who differ from my views, or judge them. But I do appeal to them to realize the terrible consequences if they are wrong. The belief that all people will ultimately be saved and that the punishment of hell is only symbolical or short lived provides a convenient excuse for those who look for reasons not to share the good news. For others, it lightens the load of the burden we carry who believe in a "holy obligation" to make Christ known to the ends of the earth.