Universalism and The Reality of Eternal Punishment: The Biblical Basis of the Doctrine of Eternal Punishment

Desiring God 1990 Conference for Pastors

Universalism and the Reality of Eternal Punishment

(The following is a transcription of the audio.)

I’m very conscious, indeed, of the privilege of participating in this conference; albeit, as you would understand, it is both a burden—in the sense of the topic that has been selected for our study—and also, as you would understand in many ways, for someone who has shrunk from being a pastor to being a seminary teacher, it is a particular burden to address a conference of pastors.

And so, I urge you to pray for the ministry of the word on these occasions, and for our own ability to receive it with meekness and also with a sense of godliness for our sanctification.

I want to ask you to turn with me to the first psalm, that we may settle our minds on God’s word and that he may bless us as we read it together.

Psalm 1

Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; 2 but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. 3 He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers. 4 The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away. 5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; 6 for the LORD knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.

It is sad that a number of years ago, certainly within the lifetime of all of us present in this room, one of the royal princesses of the realm coming out of a cathedral service in England spoke to the dean of the chapter of the cathedral, and said to him, "Is it true, dean, that there is a place called 'hell?'" To which the dean apparently replied, “Madame, the Scriptures say so, Christian people have always believed so, and the Church of England confesses so.” To which she responded, “Then in God’s name, why do you not tell us so?”

It is precisely this question that we are to seek to address together. Because if this is the teaching of sacred Scripture, then clearly few things in Scripture will have a more monumental impact upon the seriousness of our ministries and the broken-heartedness of our preaching. Few things will clarify our vision of what it means to be ministers of the new covenant than to recognize with stark clarity that our great business in life is to pluck men and women and boys and girls from the eternal burnings. And the great privilege of our ministry will one day be to see those who otherwise would have been eternally condemned before the majestic righteousness of God shining like stars in the heavens and like jewels in the crowns of our own ministry.

It is true that the Christian Church as a body throughout every age has confessed that in his eternal righteousness, God judges and condemns sinners eternally to hell. For example, my own standard of faith, the Westminster Confession, puts it like this: “The wicked, who know not God, and do not obey the Gospel of Jesus Christ shall be cast into eternal torments and be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord.”

And the great issue today, as indeed it was for the church in Scotland in the day of George MacDonald, increasingly the great issue for ourselves today as we wrestle with these questions as individual believers and as pastors and as leaders among the flocks of God’s people, is the question—and it is very seriously asked on every hand—Is this indeed the teaching of God’s Word? Or do we distort the testimony of Scripture and therefore correspondingly distort men’s vision of God by so teaching that there is a place of eternal judgment and eternal lostness, of separation from the face and presence of God?

As we have already sensed in our prayer and in our singing, there can be few themes that will make a more profound practical impact upon our spirits as gospel ministers and pastors than to recognize that men and women and boys and girls who sit under our teaching and pass through our ministry will one day stand before the judgment seat of Christ and be sent either to heaven or to hell.

My goal in this opening study we are having together, is to try to unfold a little—and it will really only be a little—of the biblical basis for the doctrine of eternal punishment. And I want to try to unpack that a little, first of all, by looking to the biblical testimony of its reality; second, by examining some objections and alternatives which claim a biblical support; and then thirdly, by saying something as we close about the nature of the punishment that is in view in the pages of Scripture.

I. The Biblical Witness to the Doctrine of Hell

First of all, therefore, we turn in our study to think about the biblical testimony to its reality. And you will appreciate that it is beyond the bounds of possibility for any of us to present within the scope of one address the wholeness of the biblical testimony to this extraordinary and awesome doctrine. It is essential for us to be selective. And of the things I have selected that we may weigh upon our spirits is what seems to me to be the single most important feature of the biblical teaching in this area, and it is this: that the great witness to the reality of eternal punishment is none other than the Lord Jesus Christ and Savior himself.

There is a mighty sermon in Gresham Machen’s book, God Transcendent, on the text in Matthew 10:28, “Do not fear those who can kill the body; fear Him who is able to cast soul and body into hell.” And the sermon begins by the repetition of the text and with these words: “These words were not spoken by Augustine, or by George Whitefield, or by Jonathan Edwards, but by Jesus of Nazareth." And it behooves us to listen to his testimony; both because this is the testimony of the Savior, and because this is the testimony of the One who names Himself as the living and true witness—who is the One who has come back from the dead to tell men that it is so.

One of the striking things that I’m sure many of you will have noticed as you have read through the gospels in a sitting, is that the testimony he provides and the warnings he gives in relationship to eternal punishment are both prolific and all-pervasive and utterly devastating in their effect.

We can think about that testimony in the several ways.

1) First of all, it is manifestly in the gospels the backcloth to our Lord Jesus Christ’s coming and is its profoundest explanation. You remember how John wrestles with this whole issue in John 3, strikingly placing together the glory of the love of the Father and his purpose in sending his Son with the dark backcloth against which his coming shines so gloriously, and which alone explains its deepest significance.

Why did He come? The Father delivered up the Son from the bosom of his love into this broken world, says John, in order that those who believe in him might not perish but have this everlasting life. And he goes on to describe what it means to have this everlasting life. It comes, he says, to those who believe. But what if we do not believe? "What if," as Paul says, "all men do not have faith?" Then John goes on, you remember, to say that although he came into the world not to condemn the world but that the world through him might be saved, those who do not believe are those on whom the wrath of God remains.

It is this sense in the heart of our Savior Jesus Christ that the wrath of God is already revealed from heaven against men and their ungodliness and unrighteousness, and so it will remain. But he comes into the world not to condemn it but that through faith in his name men and women might be saved. But as John goes on to underline at the end of John 3, the great tragedy of man’s existence, although the Father loves the Son and has placed everything in his hands, whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life. For God’s wrath remains on him.

There is this deep certainty, already in these early sections of John’s Gospel that the only explanation for Christ’s coming is for the removal of the wrath of God against those who believe, and at the same time the insistence that there are those who remain under the wrath of God, reject the Son, and therefore will not see life.

2) And not only is that the basic backcloth which explains our Lord’s coming in the love of the Father; it is, secondly, manifestly so in the New Testament teaching and in the Gospels that this becomes the great central burden of our Lord’s own teaching.

With what magnificent parables he taught the people! With what amazing and beautiful and sometimes humorous insight he showed them what it means for the kingdom of God to come! But in those very same parables the theme is re-iterated and re-iterated—that the kingdom of God means that some will be brought into the glory of the fellowship of God’s people and, on the other hand, there will be those who remain outside.

Remember those parables in Matthew 13 that make this point so powerfully, taking up the great Old Testament themes of the two ways and the two destinations that are illustrated, for example, in the opening chapter of the Psalms.

  • The parable of the wheat and the tares, in which the tares in the parable are bound and burned;
  • the parable of the net that catches the fish in which the bad fish are then cast away and lost;
  • or, in Matthew 25, the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, in which the foolish virgins are shut out and have no access to the place where the wise virgins rejoice and flourish;
  • and the parable of the unprofitable servant who is cast out into the outer darkness;
  • and the story of the sheep and the goats in the same chapter, in which the great final division takes place among mankind. And over there on the left hand of the Savior is a place destined for the devil and his angels into which men are sent by Jesus himself because of the way they have responded to the message of his grace and the outworkings of his grace in the life of his people.

We might stand back and say, as some have said, “Yes of course these are Jesus’ parables. These are Jesus’ weapons and his warfare to incite men to judging their own selves and thus to saving themselves in response. But these possibilities that are held out in the parables are hypothetical.” Until, of course, we read on in these very same sections of the Gospel and listen to our Lord Jesus interpreting his parables in the plainest of language: “This is how it will be at the end of the age. This is no parable. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Here parabolic teaching has come to an end. And its significance for men’s lives is so extraordinarily pointed out. "As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire in the parable," says Jesus in Matthew 13:40, "so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil and they will throw them into the fiery furnace where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, while the righteous shall shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.

O, this is the broken heart of Jesus. He who has an ear to hear, will he not hear?

So it is of the very essence of Jesus’ understanding of his own parabolic teaching, that it has a direct bearing on the eternal destiny of men and women. And not only does he speak in these passages of the terrible reality of the punishment that men will receive, being weeded out and thrown into the fiery furnace of the judgment of a holy and almighty God; but he makes it explicit in those same passages in the New Testament that that destiny involves not only the reality of punishment, but this punishment is viewed by Jesus himself as eternal.

Listen to what he says in Matthew 18. He says in v.8, "If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you enter into life maimed or crippled, than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. Gouge out your eye if it causes you to sin, because it is better to enter into life as a one-eyed, holy believer than to have two eyes, unholy, and to be thrown into the fire of hell."

Again in Matthew 25:41, as he is expounding the principles of the last judgment, "Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels." And again in v.46, "Then those on the left shall go away into eternal punishment."

The very echo of the words of our Lord Jesus Christ convinces us that he believed and taught and appealed to men and women on the basis that, without his saving grace, the only destiny that awaited men and women was both penal and eternal.

And not only so, but he further underscores this if we will remain in Matthew’s Gospel for a moment in those words that he speaks in chapter 12. He says in v.32 “Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven either in this age or in the age to come.” There is, says Jesus, a sin of such eternal significance and dimension that it is eternally unforgiven; and all of its consequences, in the subtlety and in the duplicity of man’s sinfulness, will fall upon the man whose unforgiven sin brings upon his soul and resurrected body the final judgment of our Lord Jesus Christ.

And strikingly, all of this already could be read out of those glorious words in chapter 3 of the Gospel of John. Because the alternative to perishing, says John, is everlasting life. These are two parallel opposite destinies for men and women. And Christ has come to redeem us from the one that we may enjoy the other. And if the life which we seek to enjoy is to be eternal, then the perishing of which John speaks in 3:16 is a perishing that will be without mitigation and without an end.

When John speaks in the 5th chapter of his Gospel of that great and awesome day when Jesus Christ will appear as Resurrector of men and their Judge, does not our Lord Jesus Christ confirm everything we see taught here variously in the Gospels, telling us that there will be two separate and distinguishable and permanent destinies for resurrected men and women? And one of them will be in glory, and the other will be in the most awesome and eternal shame.

The doctrine of eternal punishment is the backcloth to our Lord’s Incarnation; it is the great burden of his teaching; and thirdly, it is the great significance of his passion.

3) I need hardly spell this out for you, brethren, I’m sure. But you have grasped what is the significance of our Lord’s shrinking from the cross in the garden of Gethsemane, and especially of his words, “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.” What is the cup of which he speaks? It is of course the cup to which he had alluded earlier—the cup which he was to drink. It was the cup of which he had heard and read in the pages of the Old Testament prophets, when God had spoken of that day when he would visit them in vengeance and justice across the face of the earth, and he would make the nations to drink of the cup of his wrath that would make them stagger under the permanence of his judgment and of his casting of them off.

This of course is the reason why our Lord shrinks from death—does not go singing to death, as his followers and martyrs would do, but shrinks from it with every energy particle in his being. Because, in his perfect obedience, he has given his life to the Father’s will and comes close to the darkness of the cross in the garden of Gethsemane. He begins, as a man, as our substitute representative, to taste in ever-deepening ways the significance of what he has come into the world to do: he has come into the world to be circumcised on the cross by God himself. And he has said to his disciples, "This word of prophecy shall be fulfilled in me when the Father says, 'I will smite the Shepherd and the sheep will be scattered.'" And this was his own interpretation of his death on Golgotha. The Father, he says, is going to smite the Shepherd. And the Shepherd will cry out in the midst of a darkness unparalleled in human history, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?”

Do you remember how the Epistle to the Hebrews gives us illumination into the significance of this, by urging us to go outside the camp to where Jesus was crucified? What was it that happened outside the camp? What happened outside the camp was the event that took place as Leviticus 16 describes on the Day of Atonement when the sins of the people were confessed over those goats and one was taken and sacrificed, and its blood shed as a propitiatory offering to appease the righteous judgment of God against the people’s sins. And you remember the other one was taken out into no-man’s land, by the hand of one who was worthy and there it was released—excommunicated, forsaken—bearing the sins of the people outside of the camp.

And this is the significance of the dying of our Lord Jesus Christ, his cry of dereliction, his burden in the Garden of Gethsemane. But in order to give to damned, lost sinners the cup of salvation in which we can call upon the name of the Lord—which he urged them to take, you remember, in the upper room—he had himself to drink to the last dregs that other cup of dereliction—excommunication, God-forsakenness—which was so unique for him, because in the mystery of the transaction of the eternal Trinity, the God-man gave an eternal quality to the sufferings he experienced as a penalty for our sin inflicted upon him by the sacred hand of his own dear Father.

You see, this doctrine of eternal punishment arises not only out of the teaching of Jesus; it is confirmed by the experience of Jesus as that experience is illumined and interpreted for us by the rest of the pages of Scripture. What he suffered on the cross in his agony and shame and dereliction, hanging alone between God and man, was nothing less than the punishment of his own Father which he had taken upon himself as our representative and substitute, to which in his sacrifice of himself upon the cross as a propitiatory offering, he gave an eternal dimension, in order that he might be a Savior fitted for sinners who otherwise would experience that punishment in an eternal dimension.

And so you notice in passing how this doctrine of eternal punishment and the doctrine of the Savior’s work upon the cross interpret one another and, as John Piper was saying a moment ago, stand or fall together. And it that sense what is at stake in this doctrine is not simply the significance of what it means to reject Christ but the significance of what Christ has done in order to be the Savior and Redeemer of his people.

4) Fourthly, we discover in the New Testament that the doctrine of eternal punishment is the burden that lies behind the Lord's apostles' proclamation. How did they view men and women?

"Oh," says Paul in 2 Corinthians 2, "we are a savor of death to those who are perishing." What is characteristic of those whose minds Satan has blinded, as he says in chapter 4? It is that they are perishing. The reason they are perishing, says Paul, is

  1. because the wrath of God is already revealed from heaven against them, and
  2. because that wrath of God will be consumed on them in the future.

You remember how just as it’s true that there are two dimensions to our salvation—a present experience of it, and a future consummation of it—the New Testament tells us that it is the same with the wrath of God. The revelation of God is all of a piece in this sense. And wrath is already revealed from heaven against men as he gives men and women over to their sinfulness, men and women around us on every hand who mock this teaching of God’s judgment and say, “I am flaunting God’s laws and I see no sign of his judgment.”

Paul says the very way in which you are in utter bondage to your flaunting of God’s law and of giving yourself up to it is a sign that you’re already under this judgment of God and his wrath is already bearing down upon you. But he says in Colossians 3:6 that this wrath is going to come upon men in the future. And he underlines that in those words in 1 Thessalonians, in which he speaks of those Thessalonians as having been rescued from the coming wrath of God.

And that, you remember, Paul goes on to tell the Thessalonians, is both punitive and everlasting. 2 Thessalonians 1:8—He will punish those who do not know God, and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. "They will be"—listen to this, beloved brethren—"they will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power on the day he comes and his wrath is revealed," when Jesus appears in blazing fire from heaven.

And, outside of the teaching of Paul, think for example of the pastoral burden of the author of the letter to the Hebrews. In Hebrews 10:26-31, burdened as he is that professed Christians may not really be Christians who possess grace, he say, "How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot and treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him. For we know him who said"—this is God speaking—"'It is mine to avenge; I will repay.' It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God."

And that deep burden in the letter of Jude in which he speaks similarly about the terrible consequences of man’s sinfulness. "Just as was true of those angels who did not keep their position, in a similar way Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire." "They will," as Peter puts it in the parallel passage, "be paid back for what they have done."

5) And fifthly, this great burden of eternal punishment is confirmed by our Lord in his own post-incarnational revelation of himself to John. Remember how he reveals himself in the book of Revelation? The revelation of Jesus Christ which God gave him to show his servants. The revelation of Him as the great King and Ruler and Judge and Controller of the affairs of men. And as the One who will appear as their Judge. What will take place on the day when he appears? Oh, says John, the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, every slave, every free man, hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains and called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us, and hide us from the face of the One who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand? He comes with blood upon his feet, as the one who bore blood in his bosom for the salvation of men and women.

And John goes on, you remember, as he brings us to the consummation of this great vision, to speak about the judgment of the great white throne and the opening of the books. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the Book of Life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. The cowardly, he says, in 21:8, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters, and all liars; their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur, which is the second death. It is the place, as he said in 20:10, where the devil who deceived them was thrown, and where the beast and the false prophet were thrown. It is, he says, a place of torment day and night forever. And in that place, he finally concludes, there is an outside where are the dogs and those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.

All this testimony is really saying to us, beloved brethren, is what men and women fear, even if they will not confess in their consciences, that those who do such things deserve death. And one day he will say, “Depart you cursed, into everlasting punishment.”

II. Objections to the Orthodox Doctrine of Hell

Yet you would recognize, and I’m sure some of you would be much more familiar than I am with the fact, that this exposition of eternal punishment of a holy God of sinful men and women is one that has met with the most serious of objections. And I want to concentrate for a little while on two of those objections, and two particular kinds or forms of objection.

It would, I think, be out of place for us and unnecessary for us to deal with objections that are raised simply on the grounds of how men and women like to think about God. But there are two objections to this teaching which claim specific biblical foundation. In other words, there are two other kinds of objections which respond to such an exposition of eternal punishment by saying that it is not so in the teaching of Scripture.

One of these is a form of universalism, and the other is a form of conditionalism and annihilationism. And I think it’s important for me to say something about both of these.


You are familiar, perhaps, with the fact that in almost every era of the Christian church, professing Christian people have found the idea of universalism attractive. From time to time, it’s been condemned in the history of the church, almost from the beginning. And from time to time it has arisen again.

In the early church it was especially something that was expounded in the teaching of Origen. In the modern church, in many ways, it owes its significance to the influence of Schleiermacher. And I think it would be true to say today, that it is regarded by and large in liberal circles as the orthodoxy of our times. "It is utterly unthinkable but that God would save every human being who has ever lived out of the largeness and greatness of his mercy and favor."

And that position is supported usually in two ways: by the use of biblical texts, and by the use of theological argument.

Objections Using Biblical Texts

Of the biblical texts, there are three categories.

1) There are texts to which appeal is made which seem to portray the idea of a universal redemption: John 3:17—"The Son came into the world not to condemn it but to save it." 1 Timothy 2:3-6—the notion of God as the Savior of all men. 1 John 2:2—"Christ is the propitiation not only for our sins, but of the sins of the whole world." Here, it is claimed, is a line of thought in the New Testament, which speaks about Jesus Christ as the Savior of all men.

2) The second strand of thinking is an appeal to those texts which give us a picture of universal restoration: Acts 3:2, for example—the hope of the restoration in the last days. 1 Corinthians 15:22-28; that great day when the Son will hand the kingdom over to the Father and God will be all in all. God will have reclaimed everything for himself. Texts like Ephesians 1:10 and Colossians 1:20-21 which speak of a universal reconciling work of our Lord Jesus Christ. There you have it again—Jesus Christ as the Savior of the world.

3) And then there are those texts exegeted in order to underline the principle that there are hints in the New Testament that those men and women who have not responded to the gospel and perhaps those who have never heard the gospel will receive, in the mercy of God, a second chance. Sometimes appeal is made to 1 Peter 3:18 and to Christ preaching to the spirits in prison as indication of the prospect—momentarily illumined for us in the New Testament—that, thankfully, at last, all men will be saved.

How are we to respond to these passages? Briefly let me say it’s impossible to exegete every single text. Let me simply give you three principles.

1) The first is, that universal statements in the first category of texts invariable and demonstrably have in view an antithesis different from the antithesis “some men will be saved vs. all men will be saved.” And frequently, but not necessarily always, that antithesis is that Christ saves not only Jews who are of the seed of Abraham, but Christ breaks down the ethnic boundaries of God’s ancient people and saves men and women—praise his name—from every tribe and tongue and people and nation under the sun. There is no “us” and “them” mentality in the New Testament; that is to say, it’s not that there’s something in us or our background that he specially qualified to be suitable for salvation.

2) And then in terms of the second view of text what is in view in the great eschatological restoration is the visible reign of God in which He will put everything under the feet of Jesus Christ, subduing enemies into friends and trampling in wrath and judgment those who refuse both now and then to honor him with the honor that is due to the Son of the Father. The restoration is that which is viewed in the great Messianic promises, when the world which Adam had handed over to Satan for his lordship—the prince of the power of the air—will again manifestly, and is it now really, be visibly seen to be in the hands of its creator, our Savior Jesus Christ.

That is to say, the reflection is not on the question, “Will all be saved, or will only some be saved?” The question is, “Will Jesus Christ fulfill the promises of God in the Old Testament and demonstrate his Lordship over all things?”

3) And in the third category of texts, 1 Peter 3:18 has been variously exegeted even by evangelical students of Scripture. And all would recognize, whatever the language may be and its significance, it is by no means evangelistic language. But more significantly, according to the analogy of Scripture, there is in that future world a great gulf fixed so that those who are there cannot come here, says our Lord in his story of the rich man and Lazarus. Those who are there can never cross over into the bosom of Abraham. That is, it would be to deny every canon of ordinary biblical interpretation to exegete such texts as though they sat before us the prospect of a second chance.

Objections Using Theological Arguments

There are these biblical arguments, and it seems to me that they depart from the analogy of Scripture in their exegesis. But there are also theological arguments used. And it’s both significant and important as we think of what they are that we recognize the subtle shift of gear that takes place. Because it is invariably true of universalism, that having thrown out these texts and said, “Look, there is universal salvation!,” it never pauses to seek to exegete these texts in the light of the rest of the New Testament but immediately leaps from these texts to a great, mastering theological principle—the “logic of love.”

“It would be impossible for a God of love to tolerate men and women being sent to hell. It would be the great emblem of his failure,” as MacDonald and others have maintained, “and he simply won’t tolerate lost souls.”

Now what are we to say about this? Let me suggest briefly that there are six devastating criticisms of this.

1) First, it substitutes logical speculation for biblical revelation; man-made reasoning from a biblical principle for biblical exegesis of biblical texts. It is a notion that is set loose from the New Testament because it lies on every page of the New Testament that the God of infinite love is also the God who punishes sinners.

And that simple principle alone—that he punishes sinners simply because they deserve punishment, not to improve them but because they deserve it—is enough to invalidate the notion that the “logic of love” leads us to a universal redemption.

2) The second that seems to me a devastating argument against it is the simple one that it ignores the biblical teaching that, outside the gates of the city of the New Jerusalem, there is a profound darkness into which men and women are sent.

You remember how Revelation puts it in 22:10-11, "Then he told me, 'Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, because the time is near. Let him who does wrong continue to do wrong; let him who is vile continue to be vile; let him who does right continue to do right; and let him who is holy continue to be holy.'"

That is to say, there is a sense in which God says to men and women who die continuing to reject Him, “Well then, continue to reject me forever.” And so Revelation goes on to speak in the next page about what is outside in the outer darkness, where there are sinners identified even in specificity of the sins they have committed.

3) The third criticism of this “logic of love” is that it provides no explanation for the clear words of our Lord Jesus Christ concerning Judas Iscariot that it were better for him to have never been born.

My brothers, if we had some sense of the ineffable glory of being in the presence of God, a million purgatories would be worth it to be there. A million purgatories would be worth it if we could one day be brought out of it into the bright light and shining face of the welcome of the Father. But if that were to be true, it never could have been said of Judas Iscariot that it would be better for him to have never been born.

4) And in addition to these reasons, let me add a fourth. Let me ask you this: What more will God do to make his love effectual in the hearts of sinners than he has already done? What more can he do? He has done everything!

5) Fifthly, if I may argue in an ad hominem manner—and I mean this seriously and not cynically or in any sense merely as a put-down—it is one of the most extraordinary things in the world that, to a man, universalists are semi-Pelagian in their views. But suddenly, after death, everything becomes Calvinistic. The love of God is overwhelming. The love of God is irresistible. The love of God cannot be stopped.

But you see the principle of the New Testament is that God does not change because we die. His love is already overwhelming, irresistible. There is no more love of God to be demonstrated, beloved, than in the work of our Savior on the cross and the zealous pursuit of his efficacious work in the hearts of men and women by the power of the Holy Spirit. There is nothing more that God can do; there is no more love he can demonstrate; there is no more irresistible grace than the grace which effects our salvation here and now.

6) And sixthly, there is the homiletical argument that, inevitably, whenever universalism is espoused, the urgency and energy of New Testament preaching is dissipated. I tell you, it is a very unusual thing to hear a Barthian say, “I beseech you, be reconciled to God.” And it is an even rarer thing to hear a card-carrying, genuine-article universalist publicly espousing the doctrine of universalism with tears in his eyes, to say, “I beg you; lay down your arms; be reconciled to God.”

The principle here is that if the gospel that is proclaimed does not produce the fruit of that gospel that is visible in the New Testament, the gospel that is proclaimed cannot be the New Testament gospel. And the very reason for the urgency of the apostolic ministry and the zeal in our Lord’s heart that was to consume him was because of the sense of the urgency of men and women repenting and believing now, or else they would be lost forever.


The second kind of argument that is used against the doctrine of eternal punishment is some form of conditionalism. And I want again, if I may, to try and deal with it briefly. Conditionalism, as you know, comes in a whole series of forms. The only form I want to treat this evening is the form in which it is espoused by some of our evangelical brethren, and it is this: that in the intermediate state God justly punishes sinners, but at the resurrection of the last day, he will raise both the just and the unjust to stand before his throne, and he will welcome the faithful into everlasting bliss, and he will send the unbelieving into a dark, annihilated non-existence.

And this position, which in many ways has gained some publicity and popularity in our own times, has four central arguments, and it is good for us to know what they are.

1) The first is philosophical. That is to say, regarding the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, which makes it necessary for the doctrine of immortal punishment to exist. If a soul is going to exist for ever, then if it is sent away from the presence of God it must be punished forever.

The doctrine of the immortality of the soul, which has been so influential, it’s argued, in the notion of everlasting penal retribution, is of course a doctrine that is rooted, it is said, in the influence of Hellenistic philosophy in the early centuries of the Christian church, and is not to be found in the pages of the New Testament.

Now you see the point that is being made: if you believe in the immortality of the soul, then it’s necessary for you to do something in your theology with that immortal soul that rejects God.

In contrast, it is claimed, the New Testament’s teaching is different. We are to fear him who is able to “destroy” body and soul in hell, and this is what he will do. And it’s vital that we have a biblical response to that.

And it seems to me that the biblical response to that is this: that the immortality of man—which of course is dependent on him who alone has immortality—is not rooted in a Hellenistic view of the immortality of the soul that certainly was not in the Old Testament, but is first of all rooted in the biblical doctrine of man as the image of God, created to bear his likeness and to whom he has committed himself to uphold an everlasting existence.

And on the other hand, the doctrine of the general resurrection of the dead, which otherwise must be viewed as some kind of cynical joke in the heart of this All-Righteous God, that he punishes men and women and then raises them from the dead simply to annihilate them out of all existence. That’s a little bit like having shot Socrates in the head and taking him to the emergency room in order that he may live to drink the hemlock. And there is something in it that is altogether out of keeping with everything that Scripture says about the utter integrity of God and his dealings with men and women.

But even more significant than either of those two arguments is this argument: that in our doctrine of man and salvation and God’s dealings with man there is an abiding principle by which every doctrine must be tested: if it is not true of Christ, it is not true. And this was not true of Christ—the true, genuine, full man who on the cross bore the judgment of God against our sin.

Was the judgment of God against our sin, the eternal judgment which our Lord Jesus Christ received on the cross a means of his annihilation? I might point out that Jehovah’s Witnesses who believe that Jesus simply dissolved into gases would at least have logical consistency between Christology and divine judgment. But you see the point, if Jesus has borne it all to save us from the terrible judgment of God, then he must have born exactly what that eternal judgment will be. And if annihilation is that judgment and Jesus did not experience annihilation, then from annihilation not one single one of us can be saved.

If it is not true of what Jesus did for us as our perfect representative and substitute on the cross, it is not true. So conditionalism will not stand in terms of the philosophical argument.

2) The second argument that conditionalism tends to employ is what I might call the perspectival argument. And this is the argument which accuses the orthodox doctrine of a subtle eschatological misfocus. Let me give you an illustration.

How do evangelical orthodox people tend to preach the story of the rich man and Lazarus? They tend to preach that story as if it were a picture of eternal judgment. But, says the conditionalist, what is in view there has manifestly taken place in the intermediate state; the rich man is begging for someone to be sent to his brothers, so what is in view here is indeed punishment—judgment for sin—but judgment for sin that takes place in the intermediate state prior to the general resurrection, in which general resurrection what will happen to men and women without Christ is that they will die, perish, cease to exist altogether.

And the conditionalist argument consistently is that when you turn to the pages of the New Testament and read those passages that speak about the punishment and the suffering of the wicked, it is prior to the day when through the general resurrection the wicked will perish.

What are we to say to this? I believe we may say to this, even granted that Lazarus and other passages have a focus on the intermediate state, two things are also true.

  1. One is that the New Testament sees complete harmony between the intermediate state and the final state in terms of the experience of God which men and women have.
  2. And the second thing is this: that there is abundant evidence in the passages of the New Testament that speaks about the judgment of God that follows the intermediate state and the general resurrection, beyond which judgment men and women will go into unbearable suffering under the judgment of God.

Isn’t this what Paul is saying in Romans 2? That all these things in which he speaks about the retribution man will experience, all these things will take place on the day when God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ as my gospel declares. The suffering of which he speaks—the wrath that men will experience, the trouble and distress for every human being who does evil—is not a trouble and distress that will be experienced prior to annihilation, but a trouble and distress that will be experienced following the judgment of God.

And you remember how when you gather together the materials from the closing chapters of Revelation, it tells us that the destiny of the lost is one in the same with the destiny of the devil and his angels, the beast and his prophet, where there will be torment forever and forever.

Whatever passages in the New Testament, therefore, may refer to divine judgment and punishment in the intermediate state, those passages are entirely harmonious with the indications that the New Testament gives us of the punishment men and women will experience in the resurrected state.

3) The third argument used by conditionalists we might call the exegetical or semantic argument, in which they argue that the language of the New Testament has been over-weighted in the exegesis of traditional orthodoxy. There are many illustrations of this; I mention one or two of them.

It is reasoned by a good number of able scholars undoubtedly that, for example, whenever the New Testament speaks of “eternal punishment” and uses the language of the eon that is to come, (Greek αἰώνιος) it’s speaking only of what will take place in the future, the age to come, and gives no reflection whatsoever on how long that age will be. It speaks about the quality of experience, just as they say that we all speak about eternal life, not simply as a life that goes on and on but as a life with a special quality about it. To which I think the simplest and clearest answer is: αἰώνιος means not only "the age to come," but by very definition, "the endless age to come."

That is to say, it’s not only true by means of parallelism, eternal life and eternal death; but the death goes long as long as the life goes on. In view in that αἰών-ic death and punishment and suffering is the experience of an endless age to come.

Another form of the same exegetical and semantic argument is to argue that when the New Testament speaks of various things as being “eternal,” it indicates an endless condition, not necessarily an endless action and experience. That is to say, endless death does not mean endless dying but endless condition of death; endless punishment does not mean endless punishing, but a punishment that is endless in its consequences.

Annihilation—what is the language that’s used? Of course it’s death, destruction, perishing. And again, it seems to me that the analogy of Scripture is done harm in this argument, because in Scripture, life is the opposite of death—death is not the opposite of existence.

God’s veracity is at stake here because he said to Adam, "On the day you eat of it, you shall die," but he didn’t cease to exist. And the whole flow of the Bible’s understanding of what death means is not that it’s the cessation of existence but that it’s the cessation of life and fellowship, in this case with God himself. To die is to enter into a living death, not into the end of existence.

What does the New Testament mean when it speaks about destruction? Invariably, it means not annihilation, but a loosening of all that would give significance and purpose and direction. When the New Testament speaks for example of "the body of death" of believers being destroyed, "the body of sin" being destroyed, it speaks about the loosening of the potency of sin in the life of the believer—not the cessation of existence of life—until the presence of sin is finally banished.

And when the New Testament tells us that Jesus has destroyed the devil, it doesn’t mean that he has annihilated Satan, but that he has loosened the whole grip that Satan has had on us and we now belong to our Lord Jesus Christ.

When the New Testament speaks about the new wine destroying old wineskins, it doesn’t mean that the wineskins are annihilated, but that their original function—the function for which formerly they were created—has ceased to exist. And so it is with man in his sinfulness; he does not cease to exist in the destruction, in the perishing, in the death that is the final judgment of God. But every last ounce of the blessedness of that original former destiny for which God created him which he was able to suck and, in measure, enjoy in this world he can suck no more and will never be able to enjoy again.

It seems to me in that context that the words of Paul in 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9 can never really be weighed by an annihilationist. You remember what he says? "They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and the majesty of His power." You see, if you adopt an annihilationist exegesis of that text, the adjective becomes redundant: “everlasting destruction.” And the words that follow have no force: shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of His power.

4) And then there is a fourth argument, which is a theological argument, and it is similar to the universalist argument that God will be all in all: that there will be nothing on his left hand.

But you see the whole point of Jesus’ story of the sheep and the goats is that he does have a left hand. The minor motif of the book of Revelation is that there is, permanently, an outside. That’s why Jesus says, “They will go away to eternal punishment, while the righteous go to eternal life.” And all I’m saying here is that it seems to me that conditionalism, like universalism, does not take with sufficient seriousness the whole of Scripture.

III. The Nature of Eternal Punishment

That leads us to our final consideration; brethren, be patient with me for a moment as we consider it. We’ve tried to think about the biblical foundation for the doctrine of eternal punishment, and these two forms of objection which claim scriptural foundation to deny the doctrine of eternal punishment.

Let me say a word briefly about a thing to which we will inevitably return in our studies, about the nature of eternal punishment.

And the first thing, obviously, to say, is that its nature will be utterly overwhelming. Have you ever meditated on these words in Revelation 20:11? “I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. Earth and sky fled from his presence.” Here we can but speak with awe and humility, trembling in our hearts and in our spirits.

There is, it seems to me no doubt, that the New Testament uses many metaphors to describe the nature of eternal punishment. And there, I confess, I think I side with Calvin somewhat against Edwards. But that’s a very different thing from saying that those metaphors convey anything less than the physical characteristics which are used in the metaphors.

It seems to me if anything is true, the question is not whether the sufferings of the wicked are physical or spiritual. The truth is the sufferings of the wicked will ultimately be the sufferings of resurrected men and women, and therefore will inevitably be holistic; the whole man, the whole woman will suffer.

But what does it involve?

  • It involves separation from God, being cast away from His presence.
  • It involves depravation of that which is most foundational to our existence: light.
  • It means being cast into outer darkness. Some of you may be pastors in the country; if you’re a pastor in the city, you’ve never seen darkness. But if you’re a pastor in the country, you may have been out some time late at night when the sky has been overcast and you have placed your hand to your nose and you’ve seen nothing. And you know something of the sense of utter disorientation that comes into your breast as you realize that you are lost.

is a Ligonier teaching fellow and Chancellor’s Professor of Systematic Theology, Reformed Theological Seminary.