April 24, 2014 Broadcast

The Point of No Return

A Message by R.C. Sproul

Some people think and hope that God will release people from hell after they have paid the penalty for their sins, much like our criminal justice system releases people after their sentence is up. Is this conclusion warranted by the Bible? In this lesson Dr. Sproul teaches on Christ’s parable of the rich man and Lazarus to provide an answer.

From the series: Hell

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Further Study On This Topic

  1. blog-post

    4 Truths About Hell

  2. devotional

    The Point of No Return

  3. article

    Annihilation or Eternal Punishment?

4 Truths About Hell

Tom Ascol

"There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ's moral character, and that is that He believed in hell." So wrote the agnostic British philosopher Bertrand Russell in 1967. The idea of eternal punishment for sin, he further notes, is "a doctrine that put cruelty in the world and gave the world generations of cruel torture."

His views are at least more consistent than religious philosopher John Hick, who refers to hell as a "grim fantasy" that is not only "morally revolting" but also "a serious perversion of the Christian Gospel." Worse yet was theologian Clark Pinnock who, despite having regarded himself as an evangelical, dismissed hell with a rhetorical question: "How can one imagine for a moment that the God who gave His Son to die for sinners because of His great love for them would install a torture chamber somewhere in the new creation in order to subject those who reject Him to everlasting pain?"

So, what should we think of hell? Is the idea of it really responsible for all the cruelty and torture in the world? Is the doctrine of hell incompatible with the way of Jesus Christ? Hardly. In fact, the most prolific teacher of hell in the Bible is Jesus, and He spoke more about it than He did about heaven. In Matthew 25:41–46 He teaches us four truths about hell that should cause us to grieve over the prospect of anyone experiencing its horrors.

1. Hell is a state of separation from God.

On the day of judgment, Jesus will say to all unbelievers, "Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire" (v. 41). This is the same sort of language that Jesus uses elsewhere to describe the final judgment of unbelievers (see 7:23).

To be separated from God is to be separated from anything and everything good. That is hard to conceive because even the most miserable person enjoys some of God's blessings. We breathe His air, are nourished by food that He supplies, and experience many other aspects of His common grace.

On earth even atheists enjoy the benefits of God's goodness. But in hell, these blessings will be nonexistent. Those consigned there will remember God's goodness, and will even have some awareness of the unending pleasures of heaven, but they will have no access to them.

This does not mean that God will be completely absent from hell. He is and will remain omnipresent (Ps. 139:7–8). To be separated from the Lord and cast into hell does not mean that a person will finally be free of God. That person will remain eternally accountable to Him. He will remain Lord over the person's existence. But in hell, a person will be forever separated from God in His kindness, mercy, grace, and goodness. He will be consigned to deal with Him in His holy wrath.

2. Hell is a state of association.

Jesus says that the eternal fire of hell was "prepared for the devil and his angels" (Matt. 25:41). People were made for God. Hell was made for the Devil. Yet people who die in their sin, without Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, will spend eternity in hell with the one being who is most unlike God. It is a tragic irony that many who do not believe in the Devil in this life will wind up spending eternity being tormented with him in hell.

3. Hell is a state of punishment.

Jesus describes it as "fire" (v. 41) and a place of "punishment" (v. 46). Hell is a place of retribution where justice is served through the payment for crimes.

The punishment must fit the crime. The misery and torment of hell point to the wickedness and seriousness of sin. Those who protest the biblical doctrine of hell as being excessive betray their inadequate comprehension of the sinfulness of sin. For sinners to be consigned to anything less than the horrors of eternal punishment would be a miscarriage of justice.

4. Hell is an everlasting state.

Though some would like to shorten the duration of this state, Jesus' words are very clear. He uses the same adjective to describe both punishment and life in verse 46. If hell is not eternal, neither is the new heaven and earth.

How can God exact infinite punishment for a finite sin? First, because the person against whom all sin is committed is infinite. Crimes against the infinitely holy, infinitely kind, infinitely good, and infinitely supreme Ruler of the world deserve unending punishment. In addition to that, those condemned to hell will go on sinning for eternity. There is no repentance in hell. So the punishment will continue as long as the sinning does.

The dreadfulness of hell deepens our grateful praise for the salvation we have in Jesus Christ. Hell is what we deserve. And hell is what He experienced on the cross in our place.

Believing the truth about hell also motivates us to persuade people to be reconciled to God. By God's grace those of us who are trusting Christ have been rescued from this horrible destiny. How can we love people and refuse to speak plainly to them about the realities of eternal damnation and God's gracious provision of salvation?

Clearer visions of hell will give us greater love for both God and people.

This post was originally published in Tabletalk magazine.

The Point of No Return

Understanding the literary form of a particular passage of Scripture is essential for proper interpretation. If you read a poem like you read a narrative, for example, you may end up with all sorts of strange teachings that contradict the rest of the Bible.

Today’s passage is a parable, and so we must remember the essential guideline for interpreting parables correctly. Generally speaking, parables make one main point. Not every detail in a parable has a one-to-one correspondence with something in real life, as we expect in allegories. Some parables do have different elements that conform to different things, such as the parable of the soils (Mark 4:1–20). Yet even this exception to the rule conveys one fundamental idea. 

It is also true that Jesus would never use stories that might contradict the rest of Scripture’s teaching. For example, He would not teach us to do good deeds using an illustration based on reincarnation. This gives us license to believe the parable of the rich man and Lazarus depicts actual reality, for Jesus would have never used it if its implications denied the teaching of other texts on hell. Christ’s use of historical figures like Abraham in this parable supports this theory, as it sets the story apart from His other parables. 

Jesus begins the parable with a stark contrast between a man so wealthy that he owns the purple clothing only kings could afford and a poor man totally bereft of food and health (Luke 16:19–21). Both men die, and the rich man goes to hell, not because having wealth is evil, but because he ignored Lazarus’ suffering without remorse (v. 22). The rich man recognizes the righteousness of his punishment, for he never complains about his sentence. All he wants is a bit of water to alleviate his pain (v. 24).

We may speculate as to whether angels always escort believers into heaven or whether those in heaven can see those in hell and vice versa. However, the main point Jesus teaches here is the finality of death in relation to our eternal sentence. After death there is no opportunity to repent and change one’s destiny. An unbridgeable chasm exists between heaven and hell (v. 26).

Annihilation or Eternal Punishment?

Robert Peterson

Annihilationism is the view that lost people in hell will be exterminated after they have paid the penalty for their sins. Its proponents offer six main arguments.

First is an argument based on the Bible's use of fire imagery to describe hell. We are told that fire consumes what is thrown into it, and so it will be for the lake of fire (Rev. 19:20; 20:10, 14, 15; 21:8)—it will burn up the wicked so that they no longer exist.

Second is an argument based on texts that speak of the lost perishing or being destroyed. Examples include unbelievers perishing (John 3:16) and suffering "the punishment of eternal destruction" (2 Thess. 1:8).

Third is an argument based on the meaning of the word eternal. In hell passages, it is claimed, eternal means only pertaining to "the age to come" and not "everlasting."

Fourth is an argument based on a distinction between time and eternity. Annihilationists ask: how is it just of God to punish sinners for eternity when their crimes were committed in time?

Fifth is an emotional argument that God Himself and His saints would never enjoy heaven if they knew some human beings (let alone loved ones and friends) were perpetually in hell.

Sixth is an argument that an eternal hell would tarnish God's victory over evil. Scripture declares that God will be victorious in the end; He will "be all in all" (1 Cor. 15:28). We are told that this idea seems hard to reconcile with human beings suffering endlessly in hell.

I will answer each of these arguments in turn. First is the argument from hellfire. Many passages use this language without interpreting it. It is possible, therefore, to read various views into such passages, including annihilationism. However, we do not want to read our ideas into the Bible, but to get our ideas from the Bible. And when we do, we find that some passages preclude an annihilationist understanding of hellfire. These include Jesus's description of hell in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus as a "place of torment" (Luke 16:28) involving "anguish in this flame" (v. 24).

When the last book of the Bible describes the flames of hell, it does not speak of consumption but says the lost "will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night" (Rev. 14:10–11).

Second is the argument from passages that speak of destruction or perishing. Once again, when Scripture merely uses these words without interpreting them, many views may be read into them. But once again, we want to read out of Scripture its meaning. And some passages are impossible to reconcile with annihilationism. Paul describes the fate of the lost as suffering "the punishment of eternal destruction" (2 Thess. 1:8). Also telling is the fate of the Beast in Revelation. "Destruction" is prophesied for him in 17:8, 11. The Beast (along with the False Prophet) is cast into "the lake of fire that burns with sulfur" (19:20). Scripture is unambiguous when it describes the fate of the devil, Beast, and False Prophet in the lake of fire: "They will be tormented day and night forever and ever" (20:10). So, the Beast's "destruction" is everlasting torment in the lake of fire.

Third is the argument from the word eternal. In hell passages, it is claimed, eternal means only pertaining to "the age to come" and not "everlasting." It is true that in the New Testament, eternal means "agelong," with the context defining the age. And in texts treating eternal destinies, eternal does refer to the age to come. But the age to come lasts as long as the life of the eternal God Himself. Because He is eternal—He "lives forever and ever" (Rev. 4:9, 10; 10:6; 15:7)—so is the age to come. Jesus plainly sets this forth in His message on the sheep and goats: "And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life" (Matt. 25:46; italics added). The punishment of the lost in hell is coextensive to the bliss of the righteous in heaven—both are everlasting.

Fourth is the argument that it is unjust of God to punish sinners eternally for temporal sins. It strikes me as presumptuous for human beings to tell God what is just and unjust. We would do better to determine from His Holy Word what He deems just and unjust.

Jesus leaves no doubt. He will say to the saved, "Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world" (Matt. 25:34). He will say to the lost, "Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels" (v. 41). We have already seen John define that fire as eternal conscious punishment in the lake of fire for the devil (Rev. 20:10). A few verses later, we read that unsaved human beings share the same fate (vv. 14–15). Evidently, God thinks it just to punish human beings who rebel against Him and His holiness with everlasting hell. Is it really our place to call this unjust?

I will treat the fifth and sixth arguments together. The fifth is the emotional argument that God and His saints would never enjoy heaven if they knew loved ones and friends were forever in hell. The sixth is the argument that an eternal hell would tarnish God's victory over evil. It is noteworthy that universalists use these same two arguments to insist that God will finally save every human being. God and His people would not enjoy the bliss of heaven if even one soul remained in hell, they argue. In the end, everyone will be saved. And God would suffer defeat if any creatures made in His image were to perish forever.

I regard these arguments for annihilationism and universalism—from emotion and from God's victory—as rewriting the biblical story, something we have no right to do. I say this because the Bible's final three chapters present the eternal state of affairs. The resurrected saints will be blessed with God's eternal presence on the new earth (Rev. 21:1–4). And, interestingly for our present discussion, each of Scripture's final three chapters presents the fate of the unsaved:

And the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. (20:10)
Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown in to the lake of fire. (vv. 14–15)
But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death. (21:8)
Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates. Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood. (22:14–15)

The Bible's story does not end by saying, "And the unrighteous were destroyed and exist no more." Neither does it say, "And in the end all persons will be gathered into the love of God and be saved." Rather, when God brings His story to a close, His people rejoice in endless bliss with Him on the new earth. But the wicked will endure never-ending torment in the lake of fire and be shut out of the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, which is the joyous dwelling place of God and His people forever.

We have no right to rewrite the biblical story. Rather, we must leave it to God to define what is just and unjust and what is commensurate with His being "all in all." He does not leave us in doubt about hell because He loves sinners and wants them to believe the gospel in this life.

How kind and merciful of Him to include this invitation at the end of His story: "The Spirit and the Bride say, 'Come.' And let the one who hears say, 'Come.' And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price" (Rev. 22:17). All who trust Jesus in His death and resurrection to rescue them from hell will have a part in the Tree of Life and the Holy City of God. All who do so with all the saints can say now and will say forever:

Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for his judgments are true and just. (19:1–2)

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