When a Friend Takes a Wrong Turn

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Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

John Stott has served the church well as pastor, writer, evangelical statesman, missions mobilizer, apologist. He made a profound impact on me in 1967 at Urbana and fanned the flames of my growing zeal for the word of God. He crafted the Lausanne Covenant which I admire. I recall Laurel Bissett’s testimony of how she was converted reading Stott’s Basic Christianity. That story could perhaps be duplicated a thousand times over. I love John Stott and thank God for his ministry.

All the more then do I grieve at his abandonment of the historic biblical truth expressed in our Affirmation of Faith: “We believe in . . . the eternal felicity of the righteous, and the endless suffering of the wicked.” He wrote in 1988, “Emotionally I find the concept [of endless suffering] intolerable and do not understand how people can live with it . . . Scripture points in the direction of annihilation.” This is a tragic defection from historic orthodoxy by one who has championed “Basic Christianity” so faithfully.

Consider what he must do with the Scriptures. For example, on Mark 9:47-48:

If your eye causes you to sin pluck 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.

If annihilation is in view, why would Jesus lay stress on the fire never being quenched and the worm never dying? Stott says that the worm will not die nor the fire be quenched “until presumably their work of destruction is done.” That qualification is not in the text. But the focus on eternal duration is confirmed in Matthew 18:8, where the term “eternal hell” is used.

In Revelation 20:10 John writes,

The devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.

Stott again struggles in vain to escape the clear intent of the eternal torments of the lake of fire. He says that Revelation 20:10 refers to the beast and false prophet who “are not individual people but symbols of the world in its varied hostility to God. In the nature of the case they cannot experience pain.”

But Stott fails to mention Revelation 20:15 where it says that “if anyone’s name (not just the beast and false prophet) was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” Similarly Revelation 21:8 says that it is individual sinners whose “lot shall be the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.” And the torment that lasts “for ever and ever” in Revelation 14:10 is precisely the torment of people “with fire and sulfur”—that is, the torment of “the lake that burns with fire and sulfur” (21:8). In other words the “lake of fire” is in view not only, as Stott suggests, when the beast and false prophet and death and hades (20:13) are cast out, but also when individual unbelievers are finally condemned (14:10-11; 20:15; 21:8).

Conclusion: “Watch at all times, praying that you may be able to escape all these things” (Luke 21:36). Pray for evangelical leaders, that they would “contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).


Pastor John