Universalism and the Reality of Eternal Punishment, Panel Discussion

Desiring God 1990 Conference for Pastors

Universalism and the Reality of Eternal Punishment

David Livingston: This question and answer portion of our conference is the last time we’ll be gathered together in any kind of a formal fashion. I’ll tell you my name is David Livingston and I’m one of the pastors on the staff, and I’m the Associate for Evangelism and Outreach. Tom Steller is all the way on my left. He is the Associate for Leadership development. Sinclair Ferguson, on my immediate left, is the professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia, and John Piper on my right is the Senior Preaching Pastor here at Bethlehem Baptist Church. Greg Livingstone is involved with Muslim Ministries with Frontier Missions.

Questioner: How should a person go about finding the balance between appropriate spiritual intensity and the pace that will enable one over the longest hall to finish the work to which God’s called one to?

Tom Steller: I think that I would want to just go back to the whole idea that God has given us individualized races to run and courses to finish. I wouldn’t want anything I said yesterday to discount something like David Brainerd’s life, so I’m trying to think if there’s anything new I would say. What I tried to argue for yesterday is that we should work hard, always abound in the work of the Lord, but to view the work of the Lord as obedience to all of God’s commands, including commands to family, and to keep guard on your own life as well as the ministry and the flock of God. A question I didn’t answer yesterday was, to what degree should we make physical sacrifices to make that happen?

Should David Brainerd have taken two years off and gotten all the medical attention he could have to be cured of tuberculosis so he could have had 60 years of life to pour into Indian ministries? Well, maybe, in one sense you would want to say yes, but in another sense you would want to say, “God knew what he was doing.” Look what he’s accomplished through the life of David Brainerd. No one should want to rust out for God. Rather, we should burn out. I want to be a burning fire of passion for God and his kingdom, and if that course that he has called me to run includes incredible physical expenditures, I want to run it with all my might.

John Piper: Here’s a verse for why the question can’t be answered. We read it this morning in worship:

Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life (Hebrews 10:35).

Some choose to die, and others choose to escape in a basket through the wall, out of Damascus. Some stay up late and some go to bed early. Some choose the life of an evangelist, where you’re away from home three-fourths of the time, and some say that’s not tolerable for the family. There’s no answer, except Tom’s answer. The Holy Spirit has a plan, but now these guys have ideas too.

Greg Livingstone: I’d just like to ask a question that comes to me. Could a rule of thumb be, if you can’t keep in the fruits of the Spirit, maybe you need to stop or slow down? Because it seems, to me, that if our task takes away from the beauty of Christ, there’s some dissonance there. If you’re rescuing people off a mountain, you might do a little yelling, but that’s sort of contextualized yelling. Nobody gets offended at that, and I find, personally, when I’m getting very negative and throwing zingers probably I’m no longer burning out for Christ but I’m just burning out, and I need to have brethren around me.

Again, I think the key is having brethren around you who can say, “Wait a minute, brother. It’s time for you to shut down.” In other words, the commands of God are almost always in the plural “you”, but because we have English that doesn’t distinguish between plural “you” and singular “you”, and because we’re already individualistic as Americans, we tend to all read them individualistically and forget that the commands are to the church. We need to ask a lot more of these questions in the context of supportive coworkers who will often tell you when you stink.

Steller: Here’s one last comment. I would ask the question, what is driving us in diligent labor? What is driving us to stay up late and get up early? I was reflecting on the psalm where it says, “It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil” (Psalm 127:2). But you can’t apply that across the board, because Jesus got up early. He stayed up all night at times. Paul had sleepless nights. Probably the key there is the phrase “anxious toil,” as if we thought somehow what we are doing is so indispensable to God that he cannot get along without us, so we must go a zillion miles an hour, ignoring the principles of the Sabbath. And so the question is, what is driving our diligent labor?

Questioner: How do we come to a place of congruence between what we believe about the doctrine of eternal punishment and how we live that out experientially and emotionally?

Sinclair Ferguson: My tendency is to think of the answer to that question as a particularization of a general question: How is this true of any doctrine, that what is part of God’s inerrant word becomes enfleshed in my personal life and then in my ministry? My answer to that would be that it happens partly through the sovereign providences of God in our lives. And that, I think, is at least part of the explanation why in every one of our ministries, there may be a general burden that’s framed to the whole counsel of God, and also a particular burden that is given to us by God in terms of the providence and circumstances of our lives in terms of the context in which we minister.

I see that as the microcosm of the macrocosm, that in the body of Christ we all have different gifts, which correspondingly means we all, carrying the same burden, may have slightly different burdens or slightly different areas in which we express it. So it seems to me to be part of Christ’s economy in the church, that while we are all under the burden of expounding to our people the whole counsel of God, in different men’s ministries for God’s sovereign purposes there may be somewhat different burdens, and it would be a mistake at that point for us, instead of thanking God for the burden that he’s given to another brother, simply to try to imitate that burden as though it were our own.

So that is a general principle, and the particular application of it in this case, I think, is that many of the providences of God make us aware of the reality of eternal judgment. God gives us intimations in the manifestation of his wrath. He has sprinkled history with intimations of the terrible nature of his wrath, and he even sprinkles our own lives with intimations of it. One might think about Brainerd in this sense, and you can think about your own sicknesses. Those sicknesses make you conscious of how terrible it must be to fall into the hands of the living God, or to feel permanently, in your being, that there is a cloud that hides the smile of God from you.

So part of our whole bearing in this matter, I think, has to do with the providences of God in our lives and our ability, rightly, to respond to them and to be sensitive to what God has invested in those providences. Then, on the other side of the answer to the question, if I can put it in John Owen’s words, which are always better than my own, he says, “I’ve discerned that those messages come with most power to my people that have come with most power to my own heart.” And I think that simply means what I was trying to say yesterday, that we have to get under the weight of what Scripture is saying, and ask the Spirit to show us the immense weightiness of it.

In practical terms, I think that means, among other things, trying to shut out of our lives as far as is wisely possible, all the kinds of influences of the world in which we live that seek to engage us away from feeling the weightiness of God’s truth. Then, to answer the more direct part of your question, yes, I think fasting is one of the ways in which that may take place.

Piper: Very practically, I think that the gap between a perceived need for an intense affection and the arrival at the experience of that affection is very often prayerfully acting the way you would if you had the affection. The reason I say “prayerful” is because there is a difference between hypocrisy — which is acting the way you would if you had an affection when you’re trying to conceal the fact that you don’t have the affection — and humble pursuit of an affection, while honestly admitting you don’t have it by acting the way you would if you had it.

Very practically, what I mean is that in the hospital calling, very often in my experience, the absence of affection for the person I’m about to go visit is begotten in the elevator or at the bedside, not in the house when the phone call comes. There’s so much irritation. There’s so much stuff you’re being broken out of, but getting up, going, and praying as you go that the affection would be begotten, happens in the going. I think the same thing would be true with regard to the lost. The times I have felt most affection for lost people is when I’m looking one in the face and talking to them, not when I’m speculating in my study how to churn up a proper emotion for them. So that’s just a little practical thing that I discovered. Doing what you ought to do with a prayerful plea to the Holy Spirit to beget a proper emotion is a good strategy for getting it.

Livingstone: That goes for having compassion, for example, on Muslims. I mean as Americans, who’s going to love those Arab terrorists? But if you know some, if you’re involved in a Muslim family that’s struggling, you may not be moved with compassion for Muslims, but you may be moved with compassion for Muhammad and Fatima. Involvement is the key to all these things.

Steller: The only thing I would add is that I think the temptation when we’re at a conference like this is to consider what I felt Friday night in response to Sinclair’s message, where I felt the weight and it was almost a physical sensation of dread and of awe, and step away from the conference and say, “Well, that’s just the hype of the moment. That’s the emotion of the moment.” I think we should have a different interpretation. I think that we are being confronted with so much truth, and we are in a position to really listen to that truth. When that happens, what you’re feeling is the evidential work of the Holy Spirit and the Spirit bringing it to bear on our lives.

Whereas two days later when we’re bringing the groceries up the stairs and the bag breaks and the eggs fall out, the thoughts of eternity will seem far from us and not very real. So I think, to answer the question, that we should just, as regularly as possible, put ourselves in positions where we’re focusing on this truth and focusing on the God of this truth. I think it’s like what we see in 2 Corinthians 3:18. It’s by beholding the glory of God that we are transformed in that image from one degree of glory to another. So I would just urge us to make fasting, prayer, and worship such a regular part of our life that our experience of that sense of dread and that sense of the delightfulness of God’s presence and the fearfulness of being away from that presence will just shape us more and more.

Livingstone: One of the things that you notice is that God made us physical. Why are the sacraments or ordinances physical? Why couldn’t we just say, “Remember the Lord”? Why the cup? Why the bread? Obviously, God made us physical and he gets truth to us through our senses. So put Scripture out there on your desk and use symbols. I just stood and looked at this mural for about 10 minutes yesterday, and I was greatly moved by it. You need to find out what helps bring those realities into your focus. We have, as Pastor John said, all these competitors for our minds, like the television and the radio and other things. If you don’t give equal time to Scripture banging into your mind, guess what’s going to win out?

It may not just be your morning reading that does it for you. You may need to put certain truths up where they can just keep hitting you. And move them around, because you’ll get used to it if you leave it in the same place. Out in India, Bakht Singh is an evangelist. Every building has huge verses written all over it. You go in the showers and it talks about the washing by the word and so forth, and it’s a very good technique in Eastern culture, to just keep soaking in the actual Scripture.

Questioner: How should we manage our multitude of demands in the ministry? What disciplines should we use to make sure we are productive?

Piper: Well, recognizing that discipline is needed, I suppose, is a great first step, and you’ve already made that one. I think, then, we should take the priorities of prayer and the word, according to the biblical model of the elder, as having those unique special responsibilities. We should put them first. I think I’ve learned from George Müller that the morning is the time when you have to get your heart happy in God, and therefore, you get up as early as you need to get up in order to be with God before you do anything else. You set aside enough time to pray so that you have covered the grounds that you need to cover and to get your heart happy in God, to be devotionally in the word.

In my own life, I distinguish a devotional reading of Scripture from a more technical study of Scripture, though they overlap into each other. So in the morning hours, I try to get alone with the Lord before breakfast, and then, again, after breakfast. The one before breakfast is so I don’t have to meet the family unprepared, spiritually. Having six people who are not morning people is a trial. Then, after breakfast, I have a season with the Lord in his word. I’m trying to discipline myself to do some theological reading, and I’ll just throw this out for what it’s worth.

I’m a painfully slow reader, probably as slow or slower than all of you. I have to reread pages in order to catch on to what’s going on. It’s been a great trial to me and a great grief to me that this is the case. I have discovered, however, that if you read a couple hundred words a minute, you can read maybe 10 or 15 pages an hour in a good theological book. If you read 15 minutes a day, you find that you could read about 20, 200 page books in a year at 15 minutes a day.

When I point that out to people, it usually blows their mind, because I’ll bet not 5 people in this room read 20 books last year. I’ll bet not 5 people in this room read 5 books last year. I mean, it’s appalling how little pastors read. What I’m saying is to carve out 15 minutes a day to read Stephen Charnock’s The Attributes of God, for example (which is what I’m doing), takes a tremendous amount of discipline. You think, “Oh, anybody can find 15 minutes a day,” but to find it every day is difficult. It’s the every-day that’ll win. You feel like you’re making progress if you do something every day, if it’s just 15 minutes a day. So you can put reading in like that, and it’s reading that you didn’t think you had time for.

I’m just thinking out loud here about some crazy things that I do. I read while I brush my teeth. For example, I wonder if all the pastors in the church here who got the annual report actually read it. Now, pastors ought to read annual reports, right? I Think it’s about 30 or 40 pages long. When are you going to read this annual report? I’ve read it all brushing my teeth, which means I just leave it when I’m done. It lays on top of the toilet, which is useful for other times, but mainly it takes me two or three minutes to brush my teeth. I’m holding this thing, and I read a lot of junk stuff that way. I read almost all magazines that way, because I don’t ever want to sit down and waste my time with magazines. I don’t like other people setting my agenda for what I read. And that’s what magazines do. They come across with nice glossy covers that make you think, “Whoa, I ought to read this.” But brushing your teeth is throwaway time, so you can read while you brush your teeth. I don’t know if that’s the kind of thing you were asking about. But you asked about family.

In my life, from supper until about 7:15 p.m. or so has always been eating and family time. It was playtime with the boys. They lay claim to it. And I try to play with the boys for that hour and a half that we have there. It hasn’t happened during the pastor’s conference, so there needs to be some makeup time. But there are blocks of time which I’ve tried to set aside for the family. Tomorrow is a day off for me. Noël and I are going to Orchestra Hall at 10 a.m.tomorrow morning, whenever that is. And then we’re going to lunch with one of the deacons in the church. That’s a little makeup time because I haven’t been home too much in the last few days. That’s enough for me. If you want to come back you can, but I’d like to hear more from somebody else.

Ferguson: I think I can add just one or two things. First, I think something that Tom was saying yesterday has meant a great deal to me too, and that is to seek to develop a God-centered heart so that, as I think he said, you’re not necessarily thinking about God all the time, but you never think about anything apart from thinking about God. You’re living in his presence. I think that is really, in my own thinking about my own spiritual development, something that has meant a great deal.

I’m paid to read theological books, but it’s amazing how few theological books people who are paid to do it can read. But I do read a certain amount of theology, not as much as I would obviously like to. But I find I need to balance that with reading biographies, which I do. I’m not only reading biographies, but I have a few really favorite biographies that I think I can turn to almost without fail, and know that they will help me. I’ve learned from experience what they are, and some of the places where I can find them. Another thing I think that has helped me, especially in what is apparently only a semi-pastoral relationship with others, in terms of focusing my own life, is making sure that I don’t leave contact with people on the casual level in which I’ve not prayed with them.

It would be insensitive to say every time somebody is in your room you must pray with them. But I think developing both a spirit of living in the presence of the Lord and wanting to be in his presence deliberately with others punctuates the day. I think putting those punctuation points into the rhythms of the hours of the day is a great help in watering and fertilizing the whole of the day with a sense of the Lord’s presence. And that constantly helps you to see things more in the proper priorities.

Livingstone: I might just repeat that thing about praying with one another. It is a strange evangelical phenomenon that we are afraid to initiate prayer and say, “Can we just pray together?” I think we’re worried that people are going to think we’re a pharisee or self-righteous. When you think of how seldom you pray with the fellow staff members, or family members of the staff, except at the designated times, it’s kind of a shock. Why don’t we just add in the middle or at the end of a conversation about some problem to just burst into intercession for that problem. We think, “Well, we really ought to pray about this sometime,” thinking that we must block the time. And then of course you don’t get to it. But why wouldn’t it be normal for a church staff, even if you only have a custodian, or with your deacons or with your elders, to just be having these times of praying together for five minutes 10 times a day here and there? I don’t understand why we don’t do that.

Questioner: I’m not sure I’m comfortable with what I perceive to be a hard line on annihilation. It seems to me at least to be a view that we can take a look at, and maybe it can be an alternative, but it shouldn’t be something that is used to determine orthodoxy or not. Now I wonder if you’d like to just comment on that a little. Do you think universalism and annihilationism are basically the same thing? Are we willing to examine our traditional beliefs in the light of Scripture? And could you respond about how we should think about unity in relation to John Stott’s recent book that espouses annihilationism.

Ferguson: Let me try and work through them one by one, if I can. As I recall, the discussion of annihilationism came up when I was trying to deal with two objections to eternal punishment as understood as orthodoxy in the Christian Church. I think, without break from the beginning of the Christian Church to the end — I recognize that there have been those who have held other views almost from the beginning — eternal punishment has been the orthodox position.

I mentioned them not because I lump them in the same category, but because they are two views, both of which have claimed biblical support. Not all those who are universalists are interested in claiming biblical support, but some have. The categorization was not because I regard them as equal, but because I regarded them as both fitting into the category of objection. I don’t, as a matter of fact, regard them as equal. In connection, therefore, with annihilationism in particular, I think I would respond in several ways. One is that I don’t think it’s fair historically to say we ought to have a time in which both the orthodox view and the annihilationist view may be set before the church, so that the church can decide on biblical grounds, because the church has decided historically. I think that’s just a fact. The church has decided historically. So if someone wants to say we must discuss annihilationism, it must not be placed in that context as though the church has ignored the issue throughout the ages, because I don’t think it has.

Then, in addition to that, I think I would want to stand by what I said in answer to a question yesterday. That it will in fact be true, because it’s historically been true, that if the annihilationist view continues to be espoused there will have an effect on other doctrines as well. So it’s not simply the question of annihilationism or not that is up for grabs, but I think it impinges seriously on other issues.

Now, in terms of my personal reaction to that, I am in a sense on record in expressing my personal reactions. Because there is on the back of Philip Hughes’s book, The True Image, a commendation of the book that I have written, in which I insisted to the publishers that they must include the sentence that there were certain things in it I regarded as highly controversial, but that it contains what I have no doubt will become in the last decade of the millennium the classic statement of annihilationism. My own spirit is not that we must immediately divide the church over the issue. And my own spirit indeed is, though I may not have expressed it very well yesterday, is that we are constantly under the command to understand what the Scriptures say, and the church is reformed and must always be reforming.

But for myself, I have tried to reexamine both the history of the doctrine of annihilationism and the Scriptures. I’ve read Le Roy Froom, I’ve read a number of other works in connection with annihilationism, and I’ve discussed it a little with Philip Hughes. I’ve gone back and reexamined the Scriptures, and I’ve come to the conclusion that the annihilationist position is a misreading of the Scriptures. And I believe that it’s a misreading of the Scriptures that may very well, if it proceeds into the second generation, have the influence of demeaning the doctrine of the atonement and seriously impede the advance of the evangelistic mission of the church.

So while I deeply appreciate what a hot topic this is, because our emotions are very much involved in this, my own desire is not to divide the church over it. But my own great concern is that perhaps not today but tomorrow, there are going to be other elements of the gospel that will be at stake. And that really does concern me.

Questioner: But has holding an annihilationist view historically caused this eroding effect on doctrine?

Ferguson: I better answer, even just to say in public and on tape that I cannot speak for Seventh Day Adventism in the United States, where it is much stronger I think than it is in Scotland, as most things are. I don’t have the impression that Seventh Day Adventism in Scotland has had the same focus on the work of Christ. I think I have to say that. I think what may also be true — and I’m speaking here purely as a hypothesis — is that there are many differences among Seventh Day Adventists. I think that may underline the point that I’m trying to make. It’s not possible overall to continue to take the annihilationist view without losing out on other aspects of the central essence of the gospel. That’s a good question for me to explore, and I’m grateful for it.

Questioner: In what sense did Jesus Christ experience burning on the cross?

Ferguson: That’s a question that potentially opens up another area, which I did touch on in that address. And that is the extent to which one views the language that’s used in Scripture as being literal or metaphorical. I hinted at it just to give ourselves some space in how we understand biblical teaching and Christian orthodoxy, by mentioning that I thought that Edwards and Calvin took somewhat different views of that. I tend myself to come nearer to Calvin in some respects in that area than to Edwards.

So I think it’s possible that the question, “How did Christ experience burning on the cross?” may be interpreted either literally or metaphorically. Literally (that is, fire) I don’t think he did experience burning on the cross. Metaphorically, I think that insofar as what he experienced was, first, the fulfillment of the covenant curses of the Old Testament. He was accursed, and that means he came under the covenant judgments of God. And second, that the messianic psalms and the messianic prophecies were fulfilled in him. Then in that sense, one may rightly speak about Christ experiencing everything that one might think of as the effects of burning on one’s person.

For example, Psalm 22 is fulfilled in the experience of Jesus on the cross. That seems to me to be an adequate fulfillment of everything that we might think of physically as bearing the hellish judgment of God. I personally do not feel constrained to be able to see in Christ’s experience on the cross as literal worms that don’t die, or a literal fire that isn’t quenched. I regard them as metaphors. The reality to which these are fulfilled in Christ’s experience on the cross is abundant in the sense that he fulfills the messianic psalms.

Piper: That was going to be one of my questions for Sinclair. What motive is there for not taking fire literally in view of the resurrection of the body and in view of its abundant attestation? In fact, I think it’s the dominant image for Jesus and John. Let me give you a personal background here that makes me skittish at not adding to separation, deprivation, and disintegration, conflagration. I’ve interacted with people on this who, for example, say, “Well, we want to be relevant today.” So one theological professor told me, “I think psychosis is the best analogy to use to help people understand the nature of the horror or the cross.” I just said, “The average person has no imaginative connection with psychosis, but all you have to do is tell him to put his hand on the red eye of a stove until the smoke comes up, and he’ll have a really clear idea of what pain is.”

This idea of making things more relevant by using contemporary terms is concerning. To me, disintegration and separation and deprivation are so hazy compared to Jesus’s language that just frightens the hell out of you. The language of Jesus is so different from contemporary restatements like these points. And I’m trying to think, now what is the motive here? What’s going on here? And to put the best face on it, I see the danger in stressing fire is that people only care about saving their skin and not about missing God. That’s a real danger to be avoided. But I just wonder whether there’s something else that makes you hesitant in view of a resurrection body that is cast evidently in a real place. That body certainly is not going to be pleasant, or is it? What’s the point of a resurrection body if it’s all spiritual torment for the wicked?

Ferguson: Well, I hope I’m prepared to be further instructed. My own reasoning is simply that we are given a whole series of pictures, which if literal, don’t seem to gel with one another. There is a certain hermeneutical principle involved that we follow such language to the extent that it can be contained with other language. I haven’t examined Calvin, for example, sufficiently in depth to know if that was his motivation. But that is my only motivation. I think it’s just a matter of hermeneutics, and it’s certainly something to consider.

Piper: You mean, for example, how it is referred to as a place of outer darkness while also being a place of fire?

Ferguson: Yes, particularly those two lead me to believe that they are pointing to a reality which is no less than themselves. I appreciate your point, obviously.

Piper: That is the point I think we need to make. Iff they are symbols, they are groping to express something worse than they seem, rather than something less. Whereas, all contemporary reinterpretations I think are intended to make it sound less horrid. All the use of psychological language communicates something less horrid. Whereas, if they are metaphors groping with human language towards something inconceivably horrid, we don’t advance the impact of Christ by taking contemporary, psychologically-oriented language and replacing it with flesh-burning, worm-crawling language. And my response to whether or not it’s conceivable that there be dark fire is a little bit like a spiritual body in heaven, and what happened with Jesus in moving through doors. I may not be able to conceive of all the glories of heaven and how we will enjoy them in a spiritual body, neither may I be able to conceive of all the horrors of hell and how the very body with which one is raised will participate in an unspeakably horrible torment, which John seems to use in Revelation 14.

Ferguson: I think to express my own view more accurately, it would probably have been important for me to say that while I think these are metaphorical expressions of a reality, the reality is not a metaphor.

Livingstone: On a whole different level, I think we have to ask ourselves, are we embarrassed for God? Are we embarrassed to talk about hell, so we use euphemisms because we’re really trying to defend God’s reputation? Are we really afraid somebody’s going to think he’s really an ugly, terrible being, and then it’s also going to reflect on us as being a follower of this ugly, terrible being? I wonder if we aren’t always cushioning the reality of hell with something. I know I do. I try to talk about being separated from God forever. Somehow that seems more palatable as opposed to eternal punishment. I think we fall into this trap of worrying about God’s reputation and, of course, our own, and we need to win the victory on this level so that we speak scriptural truths, even though we might have to say, “Look, I don’t like this doctrine, folks. It just so happens that I don’t get a vote on whether that’s reality.” We keep talking about it and not sugarcoat it.

Piper: Let me say again one thing I said, and I’m struggling with this and trying to figure it out. How in life, do physical phenomena help beget spiritual realities? That is, it seems to me that separation from God ought to beget in me a horror that corresponds to it. For example, I sit in front of my fireplace at home and I always think about hell. I can’t look at a fire without thinking about hell. I sit there and stoke it and think of what it would be like to have my hand in there, and I just tremble every time I do it. Now, I regard myself as somewhat deficient that I don’t have similar shuttering when I repeat that phrase “separation from God.” And so, I pray toward that. Your question, David, of moving toward the proper affections, to me, is one of the most fundamental questions.

But here’s the reason I don’t just say, “Well, let’s just chuck all that physical language because that’s misdirected affections anyway, if only you’re scared of getting your skin burned and don’t care about being apart from God.” Jesus evidently thought that was the best way to move people who were godless toward a true terror of being cut off from God. That was Jesus’s verbal tactic, That was his verbal tactic. Whatever the reason, he thought — and fire was the same then as it’s today — that telling people the worm would not die and the fire would not be quenched was not going to lead them to carnal fear but to spiritual regard for being cut off from God. I’m trying to figure out how you do that, how you do that in preaching so that you use the language of Jesus, and yet, what you have as a result of it is people who are shuttering at the loss of God, not at the loss of layers of skin.

Questioner: How important an element in Jesus’s teachings is motivation to change based on escape from hell?

Ferguson: Let me quickly say a couple of things. One is that that was why he came into the world. He came into the world to save us. And in making that statement, we have, as the background, that from which he saved us. Even in places where the explicit language is not used, I think it’s just the constant background of Christ’s coming.

I don’t think Paul uses the word “hell” anywhere for whatever reason, and I have my guesses, but I don’t think you find the word “hell” in Paul’s extant vocabulary. But once you take all of the language that’s used in the New Testament, it seems to me there is hardly a page in the New Testament where it isn’t written fairly large actually. When you take the theological background and the explicit language together, along with the constant phenomenon in our Lord’s teaching of the two ways — which even if not made explicit constantly, I think, carries with it the structure of Psalm 1 as well as the structure of the covenant relationship, which is made explicit in all its ramifications in Deuteronomy — that it’s really all over the place.

I think I would want to take your point, and maybe I should have said at some point in my addresses something about it. This is the theme of our study time together. We’re not talking about union with Christ, and we’re not talking specifically about prayer, or about the nature of saving faith, or about a whole number of things. But I guess it has been in John’s mind and in the mind of others who are concerned about these conferences, that focus on one particular area is the best way for us to get the weight of each area. And also, that we would be responsible Christian. We are growing pastors, we are all theologians, and we are constantly on the struggle to hold all of these things together and feel the weight of all of them. But we are human beings and we’re sinful human beings, and we are capable of feeling the weight of only one thing at one time normally.

Questioner: How does the doctrine of eternal punishment answer to and speak to the character of God’s love?

Ferguson: I think the simple answer is that a God who is both loving and just may rightly punish sinners. He is under no necessity to continue to love them, and he may rightly choose not to love them with an effectual saving love. That is a very, very awesome thing to say. His love is under no obligations. And there are other little hints I think in Scripture that he loves his glory, and he loves his justice, and he will manifest his justice in the universe to the principalities and powers and to the redeemed. He will show his justice and make a display of it.

Piper: I think when that question is asked, you need to ask a counter question, or at least make a distinction. It’s really two questions. I mean, it could be two. You have to ask which one it is. Are they asking, “Is it loving toward this person to send them to hell?” That’s one question. The other possibility would be, “If God has a heart that is essentially loving, can he send anybody to hell?” Those are not the same questions. The answer to the first one is, I think, no. It is not loving to that person to send them to hell, and God is under no obligation to be loving toward them. One of the most solemn sentences that I heard Sinclair say was, “There will come a time after which God will cease to show mercy.” God is long suffering, not eternally suffering toward the wicked. I think that’s the first answer. He’s not loving people in hell.

But that does leave a theological question of whether that jeopardizes the character of his love, and I think Mary’s comment is right to the point, at least this is the way I’ve always processed it, that in order for God to be infinitely and fully loving to as many people as possible, he must preserve and uphold for them all of his character and beauty and integrity, which we sum up in the word glory. That includes, according to Romans 9:20–21, his wrath. He willed to demonstrate his power and wrath, and therefore, he has endured with long suffering the vessels prepared for destruction. Therefore, the zeal that God has for his glory is the foundation of his love for the elect. We can strive with him that that’s not a good foundation and not the best way to love people, but I think we best not become his counselor at that point.

It just seems to me that throughout Scripture, God’s fundamental desire to vindicate his righteousness is the foundation for his love. The clearest text on that is Romans 3:25–26, where the cross must, first and foremost, be a vindication of God’s righteousness before it becomes a means of redeeming sinners, so that love is founded upon something deeper, and that includes the punishment of those who call his glory into question.

Questioner: Is it appropriate in this modern era to reintroduce a previous generation’s inclination to the sulfurous and horrifying punishments of hell? Should we include that theme in our sermons?

Piper: If we did it like Jesus and Edwards, yes, but not like the Baptist preachers I remember. The big difference is that there was a lot of screaming that went with it and a lot of emotional baggage that, in no way, captured the immensity and solemnity and horror of it, but slipped over into a railing that I think most people discerned was not the Spirit of Jesus. The reason I say Edwards with Jesus, is because it isn’t excessive. There isn’t excessive use of imagery like that in “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” There are a few places that are remarkably famous, but Edwards didn’t shout. He never lifted his voice. He read his manuscripts, and the two or three extant testimonies to the way he preached say that all of the effect came from the weight of truth and the blood-earnestness of the man.

Therefore, I think if, with the spirit of a Sinclair Ferguson and the care of expression you spoke of, it will be burning, brothers and sisters. Whether you go on and begin to become clever in your imaginative statements — “hair on the back of your neck or whatever” — but if you stick close to the Biblical limitations and let it have the balance and weight of Jesus, I most definitely think the language should be reintroduced. I really do, because I agree entirely that “eternal punishment” is nowhere near as offensive as the word “hell”, and “separation” is nowhere near as painful sounding as “undying worms” and “unquenchable fire.” Jesus did not use this language accidentally. With those qualifications, the answer I would give is yes.

Ferguson: Let me just say, from my own point of view, that I think it’s actually impossible to exegete the New Testament properly in our preaching if we don’t do that. It’s to denude our Lord’s teaching and denigrate it not to follow the expressions that he has used. It’s impossible, I think, to preach the book of Revelation like that, which in some ways in this whole area is the easiest book. If any book is easy to preach, then the book of Revelation is easy to preach in this respect. We are already given the pictures. If we had not an ounce of imagination in our presentation of the gospel, all we would need to do would be to read the Book of Revelation to people, and they would see in the divinely given pictures how awful the reality really is.

Questioner: On what basis will the person who died and never heard the gospel be judged?

Ferguson: Let me say as a kind of preface to that, that the notion has really taken hold of evangelicalism in the last 100 years that people are condemned because they don’t believe in Jesus. It is true that people are condemned who do not believe in Jesus. But the whole thrust of Paul’s argument in Romans 1:18 and following is that quite apart from the inbreaking and intrusion of Christ and the message of Christ, men and women are rendered utterly inexcusable for not yielding the whole of their lives to God in worship and service, because he has made himself plain in the things that have been made.

If you do a little examination of Romans 1:18 and following and ask yourself, how plain has God made himself? According to Romans 1:18, he has made himself startlingly plain. And by that canon alone, Paul says every one of us is inexcusable. As he goes on to tie the argument up at the end of Romans 3:20, every one of our mouths will be shut on that day in the light of the revelation that he has given in the created order, in providence, and so on. So, I think that, at least, is the light of our judgment.

And then, of course, he seems to work through that in what he says in Romans 2. Basically he speaks about what we are as the image of God. There, I think, what Calvin says at the beginning of the Institutes is just full of illumination in terms of summarizing what it means to be made as God’s image — that we just cannot escape him. He has implanted tokens of his presence — his creative power, his eternity, his deity, and his authority in the world outside — and he has even put those sensors in me as a man, so that I’m not only inexcusable because I’m running away from what he has put around me, but I’m inexcusable because I’m trying to run away from what he has made me.

Questioner: How is it that Jesus’s suffering on the cross for a period of three days can be called an “eternal suffering”?

Ferguson: Let me start by giving the systematic answer. The systematic answer is that because, in Christ, there is what the theologians have called a communicatio idiomatum — that is, a communion of the deity and humanity in what’s usually called the hypostatic union. In the one person, the divine nature and human nature are united. So the one who died on the cross was the person of the Son of God dying in the humanity that he had assumed. He didn’t divest himself of his eternal personhood in order to die, but it was the Logos who shed the blood that he had assumed on the cross, so that it’s written into the very nature of the incarnation that what he offers on the cross and what he experiences on the cross has this dimension of the eternal person of the second person of the Trinity. It’s this that invests in what he does, a quality that is eternal in its nature.

To me, the staggering element in all this is that it really did take the Logos to bring us salvation. With sin having taken place against God, salvation could not arise simply out of the mass of humanity. It was the quality that deity put into it that provided it with the efficacy for saving us from a sinfulness that was eternal and infinite in its character as being sin against God.

Piper: I thought that the misunderstanding lay in the word “eternal,” and I’m wondering if you, like I, think of that word temporally rather than qualitatively, and you’ve put the two together as an eternal quality. The way I’ve expressed it, and I just take this right out of Edwards, is by using the word “infinite” instead of “eternal.” We’re almost going to substitute the word “infinite” everywhere you’ve put the word “eternal.” There is an infiniteness to the suffering of Jesus, and that infiniteness is what corresponds to the infiniteness of eternal punishment. That is the only thing I would add. Maybe that helps clarify. I don’t know.

Ferguson: Although we don’t often articulate it, we recognize, I think, that in the nature of the case, the expression of love depends upon the expression of the will. In these instances, the expression of the will is very subtly intertwined with what I think of as the covenantal relationships that are established in the patterns that God has built into human society. I believe that’s an expression of what it means to be the image of God. And so working up from the ground level, as it were, I think it’s right for us to think this way. I think it’s also indicated to us in Scripture that the love of God is precisely the same; it’s an expression of his will.

Then when you inject the fact of man’s sinfulness into it, I think you begin at least to deliver yourself emotionally as well as intellectually from any notion that God is under any compulsion to express his love to a given individual, or to many individuals, or to all individuals. The way the Scripture constantly comes at it, and I think interestingly the way all our hymnology comes at it, is that the extraordinary thing is that in the face of the broken covenant, and our consistent and continual rejection of him, and our heart refusal to believe that he is a loving God, he expresses love to his elect people, a saving love. And he expresses, indeed, a patient love to the universe that he has made.

Piper: Why didn’t God elect everybody?

Ferguson: Again, I think one answers that in two levels. First, I can say, I don’t know. The other answer is that his concern for his love and his concern to express his love is only part of his concern to express the whole of his glory. Now, I can understand this whole thing at this level of saying that I see how other aspects of God’s attributes will be manifested in a final world order in which not all are loved. I understand that. What I know I don’t understand, and I think that Scripture doesn’t provide an understanding of why God loves these particular some and not others. And I think there one just is cast back upon Deuteronomy 29:29 that there are secret things that belong to the Lord and the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children.

The challenge and the adventure of being Bible students, human beings, Christians, pastors, and theologians — and all of us are all of those things — is the tremendous challenge of discovering in Scripture where God himself has drawn that line. Like Calvin says, again, we go as far as God has revealed. Where God makes an end of speaking, we make an end of learning.

Livingstone: I just want to emphasize from my experience among many of the world’s peoples that man is rejecting God. He doesn’t need to know the name of Jesus to reject God. Universally, man is rejecting God. Whatever notion of God he has, he’s rejected. The basic stance of man as the Bible teaches and as I’ve seen everywhere is “I don’t want anybody telling me what to do. I do not want to have this man or any man reign over me.” Religion is a thing of convenience and culture. It’s very interesting, Islam means “to submit” and Muslim means “one who submits.” I went to the mosque among the Albanians in Yugoslavia directly with that question. I said, “Sir, would you please direct me to just one person in your congregation who wants to submit to God? I would love to have coffee with him. I want to meet a Muslim who’s serious about God.”

And the guy was scratching his head. He said, “Yeah, let’s see.” And he finally sort of saved his face by getting one guy, and he said, “Would you take him to coffee?” And this person did seem to be sensitive to God to some degree, and we considered it a divine appointment. But it was interesting that he never said, “Oh man, everybody that just prayed here wants to obey God.” I mean, he didn’t believe that. So let’s get rid of this notion that people have to learn something to be rejectors.

Ferguson: It really rips the heart out of Romans to take that view. It absolutely rips the heart out of Romans. It rips the background out of John. It takes no account of the fact that the wrath of God is revealed already. What it means in a sense, if I can put it this way, is that driven to its logical conclusion, it was better that he had never come into the world at all.

Questioner: I have an understanding whether it’s accurate or not, of men being responsible on the basis of three strikes, if I can call them that. One is that coming into the world we’re born in Adam, and already on that basis we are sinful. Secondly, because of our being in Adam, we proceed to sin in many ways, rebelling against God, and have a twofold liability. And then thirdly, if we have any light, whether it be through nature or through revelation, we have a third level of liability that leaves us utterly without excuse.

We’ve been dealing in this conference entirely with the second two strikes, if I may put it that way. And certainly we’re responsible for our lack of light and certainly we’re responsible for our works, and there’s emphasis throughout Scripture that we’re going to be judged on the basis of our works. My question is, is my understanding so far accurate? And if so, is that first strike of being in Adam at the point of our conception sufficient for a person to go to hell? I realize that I’m emotionally, immediately touching a hot button issue. Where do aborted fetuses go? Where do infants that die in infancy go?

What about the mentally incompetent? And this especially came to the front of my consciousness in a letter. In “The Standard,” Dr. Piper had written an article about rescue and there was a critical letter sent to the editor of “The Standard,” challenging his handling of Proverbs 24:11 and saying in the context of Proverbs 24:11, that rescue from death deals not with abortion, but it has to do with people who are consciously pursuing wickedness. I’ll quote a sentence:

Proverbs 24:11, therefore, is calling those who fear God to witness the life-giving power of God’s wisdom so that responsible moral agents, not innocent victims, can be saved from a life of self-destruction.

That rescue from death has to do with responsible moral agents being set as opposed to innocent victims. I have a concern. Are the babies in Adam innocent, and to what point?

Ferguson: This has not been a good day. I think the best place to begin is by recognizing that this is such a difficult question. The church has never agreed on it. And I would like to say in that respect, in terms of what I’m about to say, that if you are seeking light, brother, I’m seeking light, brother. The first point, and perhaps the most important point to make, is that I believe that Adam was constituted in a covenantal relationship with God and that the very nature of that covenantal relationship, like all biblical covenants, involved Adam and his seed. And that that was a righteous way for God to constitute the first man and the family of mankind. In terms of the hints of that, that God has implanted in the order of our life, we also recognize, we still even recognize in our society, our de-federalized society, that there is a certain rightness about a father being responsible for his children and a certain rightness about his children inheriting the consequences of what has happened in the family life.

We just cannot escape from the fact that we are constituted that way. So I think two things. First, it was right for God to constitute man that way. And second, Adam knew that man was constituted that way and that Adam, therefore, knew that when he fell that he was bringing down the whole human race. I see that Scripture doesn’t explain everything, but there is a framework there to show that that original relationship was righteous and the consequences righteously affected.

Another point is that this means, by theological implication, and I think by clear statement of Scripture as well, that in Adam we all fall. We share in Adam’s guilt so that from conception in the womb we are able to say with David that we are corrupt and hopelessly gone astray. By nature we are under the condemnation of God and we deserve the judgment of God, and we shall have the judgment of God unless Jesus Christ saves us.

Now, I think all Christians, right-thinking Christians ought to agree with that thus far. I think the question that then arises and on which Christians have not agreed is, “In what way does Christ save the elect? Does Christ always save the elect by means of the conscious response of faith?” And you would guess that I might well have left my Presbyterian convictions if I did not believe that, in fact, the central thing in God’s way of saving us is his sovereign regenerating act. And that act may take place in the womb, and I think there is some evidence in Scripture that in some cases that did happen. Regeneration may take place in contexts in which we have no way of measuring or perhaps even discerning what faith would look like in those circumstances. So my own first level conviction is that salvation is not limited only to those who with conscious ratiocination may receive Jesus Christ as Savior.

I think then the next question that I would build would be how the Westminster Divines said that elect infants dying in infancy will be saved. This is to me a wonderful thing, even though there may be puzzles and things in which we perhaps disagree as to how much light Scripture sheds on it. It’s wonderful to think that there will be regenerated embryos brought to their fruition and fulfillment in the transformation of the resurrection. That is such a blessed thought. To me, that is just a glorious thought. So I certainly believe in the salvation of infants.

Piper: All of them, or some?

Ferguson: John, I don’t know what the answer to that question is. I think if somebody asked me to express it, I would express it in terms of the Westminster Divines that elect infants dying in infancy will be saved. I think that’s built on several things. And to me, the chief thing is that we do have evidence of embryonic regeneration in the New Testament and in Scripture generally, I think.

Secondly, my own understanding at the moment of David’s experience with the loss of his infant is in terms that his going to the child who has died has salvific content. It means more than simply that the child has gone into the dust, and I’ll go into the dust. I think it’s an expression of faith. It’s an expression of his eschatological perspective, and it’s the thing in some measure that turns him round at that point in his life, that there is the hope of reunion.

The questions are getting more and more difficult here but my own answer to that would be in covenantal terms. It is in part an expression for all his sinfulness of his deep-seated conviction that the covenant of God extends not only to him but to his children, plus the fact that I think it’s that which turns him round at that point. His response is not simply a matter of shoulder-shrugging resignation, but a fresh determination gained from a certain conviction about the significance of the event that’s taken place.

Piper: Can I ask for feedback on an exegetical argument that all infants will be saved? The only people I’ve ever shared this with are people who are so eager to believe it that they’re not very helpful critics. The argument would go like this:

His invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God . . . (Romans 1:20–21).

Now this therefore seems to be rooted in two things at least. First, it’s rooted in the fact that knowledge of what they ought to do was available to them. And by implication, capacities to process the knowledge were also there and that removed all possible excuses as though there would’ve been some ground for excuse had the knowledge or the ground for processing it not been there.

Therefore, can I not maintain theological orthodoxy and consistency by saying the fault and guilt is there in Adam, but that it is God’s way at the last judgment always to judge according to works and according to faith, and that he will listen if there is a legitimate excuse, one of which would be “I had no natural means of having access to knowledge (I’m not talking about spiritual blindness here), and therefore you would be unjust to send me to hell on your own principles.” Therefore, God will not sentence any babies or imbeciles to hell, and therefore they are all elect.

Ferguson: I’ve never heard that argument before.

Piper: Really?

Ferguson: So I’m not going to respond to it on the spur of the moment.

Piper: Well anyway, that’s a possibility we can all think about