April 23, 2014 Broadcast

Degrees of Punishment

A Message by R.C. Sproul

Some Christians believe that everyone who goes to hell receives the same punishment, but to others, this seems unfair. Should a hardened criminal receive the same punishment as a kind atheist? In this message, Dr. Sproul addresses the possibility that there are varying degrees of punishment in hell.

From the series: Hell

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  1. article

    Faces of Death

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    Degrees of Punishment

  3. article

    Hell on Trial

Faces of Death

Joseph Pipa Jr.

DEATH IS THE GREAT OBSCENITY OF our age. Men and women will air their sex lives and other intimate details on television talk shows, but they will not talk about death. A shroud of silence lies over the subject because we are afraid of it. As Paul Helm writes, “The modern Western attitude to dying and death is all too obvious. It is to avoid it, to avoid mentioning it, and where mention of it is unavoidable, to use euphemisms and circumlocutions.”

The Bible, on the other hand, speaks openly and often about death. According to the Bible, we fear death because it is unnatural. God made man in His image and gave him an immortal soul. Man wants to live forever, but death abruptly terminates his conscious physical existence. Psalm 6 laments, “For in death there is no remembrance of You; in the grave who will give You thanks?” Moreover, the Bible teaches that death leads to an unnatural separation of body and soul. The writer of Ecclesiastes describes what happens at death: “Then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it” (12:7). We fear death, also, because it speaks to our consciences of judgment. The writer to the Hebrews says, “it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment” (9:27).

Above all else, the Bible teaches that death is God’s punishment for sin. Paul says in Romans 5:12: “through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned. …” When God created Adam, He entered into a covenant with him. In this covenant, God tested Adam’s love and obedience by forbidding him to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. He threatened Adam with death if he disobeyed, saying, “in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:17). But Adam and Eve would not heed God; they rebelled and ate the fruit. At that moment they died, and all who descend from them by ordinary generation suffer that penalty as well.

But what is death? The Bible uses the term in various ways. The Westminster Shorter Catechism defines death in Question 19: “What is the misery of that estate whereinto man fell? All mankind by their fall lost communion with God, are under His wrath and curse, and so made liable to all miseries in this life, to death itself, and to the pains of hell for ever.” In this summary of the miseries of sin, we find three types of death that are mentioned in Scripture: spiritual death, physical death, and judicial death.

In the first place, Adam died spiritually, and all those who descend from him by ordinary generation suffer the same death. This is the death the Shorter Catechism refers to as “lost communion with God.” Moses illustrates this alienation from God in Genesis 3:8–10, as our progenitors hide themselves from God. Paul comments on the reality of this loss in Ephesians 2:1 by reminding us that we were born dead in trespasses and sins, and were “at that time … without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12).

Spiritual death explains the corruption of man’s nature and the loss of his perfect knowledge, righteousness, and holiness. We are born in the bondage and corruption of sin. As a result, we are the living dead. Paul describes us as those who “once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind” (Eph. 2:3a). Because of this corruption, we are spiritually blind, unable to understand savingly the Gospel (1 Cor. 2:14; John 3:3); filled with hate toward God (Rom. 8:6–7); and unwilling and unable to respond to God in faith and repentance (Rom. 8:8; John 5:40). The terrible reality of spiritual death is summarized in the Shorter Catechism: “Wherein consists the sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell? The sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell consists in the guilt of Adam’s first sin, the want of original righteousness, and the corruption of his whole nature, which is commonly called Original Sin; together with all actual transgressions which proceed from it” (Question 18).

Separation from God also leads to internal disequilibrium and alienation from others. God made us for communion with Him. Without that relationship, we internally self-destruct. The fact of spiritual death is the key to understanding the great psychological and emotional upheavals that plague so many people. This separation further alienates people from one another. Notice that Adam not only sought to hide from God, but also blamed Eve for his problem: “ ‘The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I ate’ ” (Gen. 3:12). Because of sin, the two whom God made to be one flesh are now alienated.

Furthermore, James tells us that social strife springs from our sinful natures and desires. “Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members? You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war” (4:1–2a).

Spiritual death is the root cause of the second consequence of the fall, physical death. Satan had told Adam and Eve, “ ‘You will not surely die’ ” upon eating the fruit. Was he right? Mercifully, God did not strike Adam and Eve dead immediately. But they began to die. The process of bodily decay began at the moment of their rebellion. God declares to Adam, “ ‘In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you shall return.’ ”

God bears eloquent testimony to the reality of death in Genesis 5. Here Moses records the awful reality of physical death with the monotonous repetition “and he died” (Gen. 5:5, 8, 11, 14, 17, 20, 27, 31). The psalmist solemnly testifies to the reality of physical death in Psalm 49:12 “… man, though in honor, does not remain; he is like the beasts that perish.”

Physical death further manifests itself in what the Shorter Catechism calls “the miseries of this life.” God pronounces other physical maladies on people and the remainder of the creation (Gen. 3:16–19). These miseries include: the physical pain of child-bearing; the cursed frustration of work; and the corruption of the physical world. God declared to Adam, “ ‘Cursed is the ground for your sake’ ” (Gen. 3:17). Paul comments on this in Romans 8:20: “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope.” Earthquakes, floods, tornadoes, and the violent death of animals are all examples of the physical curse on the creation.

The third type of death is judicial. As guilty sinners (we are guilty of Adam’s first sin and all our own sins, Rom. 5:12), we are liable to the punishment of sin. Our guilt places us under the wrath and curse of God. Raul expresses our guiltiness by calling us “children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3). The apostle John says that all those who do not believe in Christ are condemned (John 3:18) and that “ ‘the wrath of God abides on him’ ” (3:36). Paul indicts us all when he says, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Our guilt exposes us to the temporal judgments of God in this life. Throughout Scripture and subsequent history, God has manifested His judgment against sinners. Consider the destruction of the world in the days of Noah; the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; the destruction of the inhabitants of Canaan; and the announcements of temporal judgment on the nations by many of the prophets.

Of course, the ultimate act of judicial death is that which God calls the “second death” in Revelation 20: “Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away. … And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and books were opened. And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books. The sea gave up the dead who were in it, and Death and Hades delivered up the dead who were in them. And they were judged, each one according to his works. Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire” (20:11–15).

These verses describe the final judgment and the reality of hell. Hell is the place in which God eternally punishes all those whom He has not redeemed. The Bible uses many different terms to describe the horror of eternal damnation: “lake of fire burning with brimstone” (Rev. 19:20); “vengeance of eternal fire” (Jude 7); “the blackness of darkness forever” (Jude 13); “torments” (Luke 16:23); “everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord” (2 Thess. 1:9); and a place of “outer darkness” and “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 22:13). The impact of God’s righteous judgment is compounded as we realize that these images may be mere illustrations for a much worse reality.

Thus, we see the Bible’s honest and comprehensive description of death. All is not revealed, but not as much is hidden as our agnostic culture would have us think. Let us rejoice that Christ faced all the horrors of death on our behalf.

Degrees of Punishment

Some of those who object to the doctrine of hell hold that it denies God’s love and goodness. Some suggest that if the Lord is really loving and good, then He would not subject anyone to eternal punishment. Assumptions that the Creator loves all people equally and that nothing exceeds His love for human beings lay behind this protest. 

However, these definitions of love are not biblical. First, Isaiah tells us the Lord is jealous for His own glory. “My glory I will not give to another,” says Yahweh (48:11). His creation and salvation of His people are not primarily for our good, but for His glory (43:1–7). Note how God’s wrath and righteousness are inextricably linked to His glory (Ps. 97:6; Rev. 14:6–7). The Lord upholds His love when He punishes unrepentant sinners in hell because His righteous judgment, and therefore His glory, which He loves, is displayed therein.

Moreover, the Father does not love every human being in the same way. Yes, common grace is bestowed on all men indiscriminately, giving them food and other benefits (Acts 17:25). But God’s goodness does not demand that He save everyone. His saving grace is not shown to every man and woman (Rom. 9:15). Now, if good human judges do not let criminals get away with murder, how much more does our holy Lord demand punishment of transgressors? In truth, He would deny His goodness if He did not redress evil. Even the redeemed have their sins condemned; the debt required of them in hell is instead paid by Christ on the cross (Gal. 3:13–14). His people get mercy, those sent to hell face wrath, but God’s love and goodness are never compromised.

There will be degrees of punishment during the day of wrath. One “trivial” sin makes us guilty of the whole law and liable to eternal torment (James 2:10). Yet some acts are worse than others and deserve harsher punishment (Num. 35:9–29). As bad as Sodom was, her sentence will be lighter on Judgment Day than Bethsaida’s because Sodom never saw Jesus (Matt. 11:20–24). The sinner who never hears of Christ will go to hell, yet his pain will be less intense than those who hear the Gospel each Sunday and refuse to repent.

Hell on Trial

John Blanchard

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859–1930), the Scottish physician and author best known for his creation of the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, once wrote, "Hell, I may say . . . has long dropped out of the thoughts of every reasonable man." He would get a lot of support for that statement today, and not only from those outside of the Christian church. The idea that untold billions of human beings, including many who would have seemed decent, law-abiding citizens, will spend eternity exposed to God's unrelenting anger, is simply unacceptable to many people. Even some holding high ecclesiastical office have rejected the idea. John Robinson (1919–1983) the liberal bishop of Woolwich, whose book Honest to God reduced the Creator to "the Ground of Being," said of the idea, "[God] cannot endure that . . . and he will not."

By far the most persistent attack on hell comes in the form of a question: how can a God of love send anyone to hell? The British philosopher and theologian John Hick (1922–2012) argued that hell was "totally incompatible with the idea of God as infinite love." The argument here is perfectly straightforward: sending people to hell is not a loving thing to do, so a God of love could never do it. How do we answer that?

God's love is beyond question, and 1 John 4:8 ("God is love") confirms that love is an integral part of His very essence. Yet to isolate one of His attributes as a way of demolishing hell leaves us with a lopsided caricature of God. In fact, the dominant biblical attribute of God is not His love but His holiness; He is called by His "holy name" more than all other descriptions taken together. He has zero tolerance for sin. He is "of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong" (Hab. 1:13), a fundamental fact utterly ignored by today's permissive society. The question hell's undertakers should be asking is, how can a God of holiness allow anyone into heaven? As "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23) and as "nothing unclean will ever enter [heaven]" (Rev. 21:27), they face a difficult task.

There is a sense in which God sends nobody to hell, but that people send themselves there. God has revealed "his eternal power and divine nature . . . ever since the creation of the world" and all who reject this revelation are "without excuse" (Rom. 1:20). There is no law forbidding people to acknowledge God's existence, power, holiness, love, and goodness, or to live in ways that "honor him as God" (v. 21). People have an option—and countless millions opt out of giving God His rightful place, not realizing that in doing so they are "storing up wrath" for the day "when God's righteous judgement will be revealed" (2:5). J.I. Packer pinpoints this tragic truth: "Nobody stands under the wrath of God save those who have chosen to do so. The essence of God's action in wrath is to give men what they choose, in all its implications; nothing more, and equally nothing less." C.S. Lewis adds the chilling comment, "I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside."

Others reject the biblical picture of hell by saying that though God hates sin, He loves the sinner, and so could never condemn anyone to eternal punishment. But is this the case? I have traced thirty-three places in Scripture where God's hatred is expressed. In twelve He is said to hate sinners' actions (including the practice of false religion) but in the other twenty-one instances He is said to hate the sinner. One example covers all the others: we are told that "[God's] soul hates the wicked" (Ps. 11:5).

Although God shows His love by pouring out His common grace on all people—"He makes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust" (Matt. 5:45)—we dare not confuse this with the saving grace that enables sinners to see their desperate danger and to turn to God in repentance and faith. Those who see God's love as eliminating hell are ignoring God's justice and the fundamental fact that He "will by no means clear the guilty" (Ex. 34:7). As Packer says, "It is not possible to argue that a God who is love cannot also be a God who condemns and punishes the disobedient."

Many reject biblical teaching on hell by claiming that condemning all unforgiven sinners to eternal punishment in hell violates the principle that a penalty should always fit the crime. How, they ask, can God punish a mere earthly lifetime of sin with suffering that lasts forever? Surely those who lead reasonably respectable lives will not be treated in the same way as mass murderers, rapists, child abusers, and the like? Both questions have straightforward answers. In the first case, time spent committing a crime is usually irrelevant in determining the sentence. For example, a violent, life-threatening assault may be over in less than a minute, but would less than a minute in jail be the right sentence for such a crime? In the second case, there are no "little sins," because there is no little God to sin against.

The decisive issues are the nature of God and the nature of the sin, and every sin, without exception, is an offense against the majesty and authority of our Creator. What is more, even a highly respectable person has broken what Jesus called the most important of God's commandments—"Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength" (Mark 12:30)—and is therefore guilty of committing the greatest sin. The Bible makes it clear that there are degrees of punishment in hell—Jesus spoke of those who would receive "the greater condemnation" (Mark 12:40)—but no "respectable" sinner can take any comfort from this. Man's failure to give to God "the glory due his name" (Ps. 29:2) is an infinite evil deserving infinite punishment, and as in hell there is no opportunity or inclination to repent, God's justice requires that it go on forever.

Yet another attempt to tweak the Bible's teaching on hell is the suggestion that when the Bible speaks of eternal punishment, it is the punishment that lasts forever, not the punishing; there comes a point at which God, in effect, says, "Enough is enough," and ends the punishment by annihilating the sinner. But if annihilation is the goal of the suffering, what is the purpose of the suffering? This kind of scenario would condemn God as the supreme sadist. The suggestion also runs headlong into the Bible's clear teaching that those in hell "have no rest day or night" (Rev. 14:11). In his book The Fire That Consumes, the author Edward Fudge comes to the curious conclusion that although the wicked "are not guaranteed rest during the day" and have "no certain hope that relief will come at night," this "does not say within itself that the suffering lasts all day and all night." This sounds suspiciously like special pleading, to say the least.

All other ways of trying to limit the duration of hell collide with the simple fact that in a single breath Jesus spoke of those who "will go away into eternal punishment" while the righteous will go into "eternal life." In both cases "eternal" translates the identical Greek word—aiōnios. Why would Jesus use the same word to describe the "punishment" of the lost and the "life" of the saved if He meant that only one would be endless? More than fifteen hundred years ago, Augustine wrote, "To say that the life eternal shall be endless [but that] punishment eternal shall come to an end is the height of absurdity."

Nobody can think properly about the fearful reality of hell (let alone preach on it) and remain emotionally and psychologically unaffected. Yet hell is good news. It confirms that God is eternally sovereign, and that He has the last word about human destiny. It vindicates God's character, showing that He is utterly holy and just. It guards the new creation against the possibility of ever again being invaded by Satan or infected by sin, and ensures that the "new heavens and a new earth" will be a home "where righteousness dwells" (2 Peter 3:13) and where God's redeemed family will live in His glorious presence forever. It assures all the redeemed that in glory "death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain, for the former things have passed away" (Rev. 21:4).

It could even be said that the Bible's teaching on hell is good news for unconverted people. It alerts them to their appalling danger, and, in countless cases, leads sinners to seek the Savior and to find Him as He "who delivers us from the wrath to come" (1 Thess. 1:10).

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