From time to time, we come to passages of Scripture that speak of God’s saving work in such sweeping terms that we wonder how they fit with the reality of eternal punishment. In other words, it can seem that God promises such a full redemption that there is no room left for hell. These passages lead some to universalism—the belief that all will be saved, either at death or after a time in hell. They lead others to annihilationism—the belief that not all are saved, but no one is in hell in the end because they are put out of existence if they rebel against Christ.
I have tried to give extensive biblical arguments against both of these views in Let the Nations Be Glad (Baker, 2003, pp. 111-154). The biblical witness to the everlasting conscious misery for those who have suppressed the witness of nature (Romans 1:18-20) or rejected the gospel (2 Thessalonians 1:8-9) is unavoidable.
Jesus gives us one of the most decisive words in Matthew 25:46, "And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life." And John, the apostle of love, gives us the strongest words for the eternality of hell in Revelation 14:11, "And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever [eis aiōnas aiōnōn], and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name."
Therefore, it is helpful to find a passage of Scripture that clarifies for us how this saddest of biblical truths can stand alongside statements of God’s sweeping redemption. Consider one example: Isaiah 66:22-24. First, notice that Isaiah says (in verses 22-23) that the day is coming when "all flesh shall come to worship" God.
For as the new heavens and the new earth that I make shall remain before me, says the Lord, so shall your offspring and your name remain. From new moon to new moon, and from Sabbath to Sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, declares the Lord.
That’s the kind of statement that makes us puzzle about how everlasting punishment of some people fits in. If "all flesh" will worship the Lord, then who is left who does not worship the Lord? O how careful we must be at such points when we read the Bible! We must ask: Do I have a clear sense of what Isaiah meant—and God meant!—by the term "all flesh"? It sounds like all human life, but is it? The next verse (24) stuns us:
And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.
Immediately we are brought back from our wrong ideas about "all flesh." We thought it meant "all humans who exist in the universe," but the Lord says, No, "all flesh" will look upon a part of the human race who are in torment because "they rebelled against me." Therefore, "all flesh" does not include those on whom "all flesh" is looking.
I mention this as an example of how the Bible sometimes speaks about the work of God in redemption. God is doing a global work—indeed, a universal work—of redemption that extends to all races and all peoples and all tribes and all languages and all classes and all ages. When he has finished his saving work, there will be a completeness to it. It will be a new humanity with a second Adam as its head (1 Corinthians 15:22, 45). Those who "rebel" against Christ’s redeeming work, will be outside this "all."
Perhaps that is why Jesus alluded several times to Isaiah 66:24 when warning us about hell. He said that those who spurned his message were thrown into hell "where the fire is not quenched" and cast into "outer darkness."
If your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched. (Mark 9:47)
The sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 8:12; cf. 22:13; 25:30)
No one else but Jesus uses the term "outer darkness." Is this Jesus’ way of saying: When my redeeming work is complete, and the new world is fully established (cf. paliggenesia, Matthew 19:28), the fullness of "all flesh" will be there—the whole new humanity with all its glorious completeness in Christ—and those who have rejected the kingdom will be "outside"? They will have no existence inside the new world. Their existence and their weeping and their gnashing of teeth will be in another dimension of reality. Therefore, they will not in any way diminish the sense of completeness and wholeness and fullness of the new heavens and the new earth where all is light and joy peace.
When I finished reading and pondering these things, I prayed, "O God, grant that I would feel the magnitude of my sin. Grant that I would feel unworthy of your grace. Grant that I would tremble at the truth of hell. Strip me of all cavalier thoughts, all self-exalting cleverness, all banal preoccupations, all bent toward amusing people from your sacred pulpit. Open my eyes and my heart to see and feel the wonder of saving grace, and the infinite preciousness of Christ and his love-driven obedience, even to death on the cross. Thank you, Father. Thank you. At any cost make me an instrument of your great salvation. In Jesus’ name. Amen."
Standing near the precipice, secure,