Universalism and The Reality of Eternal Punishment: The Justice and Mercy of God

Desiring God 1990 Conference for Pastors

Universalism and the Reality of Eternal Punishment

Now yesterday evening in our first study, we were trying to survey some selection of the biblical materials that helped to lay a groundwork for this awesome doctrine of the eternal punishment of the wicked.

Seeking Divine Impressions

And perhaps I should say to you as we begin today on reflection, on last night, you would recognize that prior to coming I had made something of a conscious decision that it would be inappropriate for us as pastors and leaders of God’s people that this unusual occasion, it may be the only occasion in my life when I’m asked to give three addresses on this subject (and maybe the only occasion in your life when you listen to three addresses on this subject) and it seemed to me to be appropriate that our mode should be not the mode of dispassionate lecturing, but the mode of engaging with our hearts in the text of Scripture.

Because it does seem to me that the great thing we need to long and cry to God that we will carry away from this conference is what our forefathers called impressions — impressions of the presence of God and of his power and of his glorious and ineffable holiness. And in connection with that, you would also have realized I think that I made a more immediate concious decision as the material demanded some time for us to contemplate it together, that it were more important that I try to get to the end of the material, that we together pray for the Lord’s grace upon the ministry, then that we should stop in order that there might be questions.

I was speaking with one of the brethren this morning, and we were discussing a fellow Scot, and the thought crossed my mind that some of you may be thinking that he went on last night because he’s a Scotsman, and he doesn’t entertain questions. That may be my native instinct, but it was by no means my intention, and I hope that with the help of God today, I may be able to cease in good time, and that there may be some opportunity for questions.

Exploring the Theological Issue of the Righteousness of God

Now we are turning in this second study which is entitled, and this is the title that has been given to me, “The Justice and Mercy of God in Eternal Punishment.” We are turning to what is basically the theological issue of the revelation of the character of God and its self-consistency in the eternal punishment of the wicked and unbelievers. And the passage I’ve chosen for us to read together (and we shall study this at least in some detail in a moment) is Romans 2:1–16:

Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. Do you suppose, O man — you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself — that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.

He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.

For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.

It is axiomatic from the beginning of Scripture to the end of Scripture that the Judge of all the earth will always act righteously and in total justice, and there are two main ways in which the rest of Scripture both expounds that principle and illustrates the ways in which that principle is demonstrated in the actions of God among men.

The Righteousness of God in Redemption

Scripture expounds the principle that the Judge of all the earth will always act righteously. It expounds that principle in the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. In it, Paul has said in Romans 1:16–17, “In [that gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed.”

And of course, one of the great themes of the apostolic preaching and of the entire apostolic gospel is that God has not overshadowed his righteousness one whit in the way in which he has brought salvation to sinners. Indeed, for all of life and throughout all eternity, this will be the cause of our admiration and our song, that God has righteously wrought salvation for sinners who have been unrighteous, that he has in Jesus Christ justified sinners in a way which manifests his unadulterated and undiluted righteousness, and we are all perhaps especially familiar with this aspect of the revelation of the glorious righteousness of our gracious God.

Justice in the Condemnation of the Wicked

He is just and justifies the ungodly who believe in Jesus. But then, of course, there is this other strand of the New Testament’s teaching, that God is not only a just and righteous God in the outworking of redemption, but God’s justice and righteousness is no less plain and will seem to us in all eternity to be no less marvelous in the destruction of the wicked and in the condemnation of sinners.

You remember how David expresses this in Psalm 11 when he finds himself faced with the kind of issues that we in our own time also face? “In the Lord,” he says,

I take refuge;
how can you say to my soul,
     ”Flee like a bird to your mountain,
for behold, the wicked bend the bow;
     they have fitted their arrow to the string
     to shoot in the dark at the upright in heart;
if the foundations are destroyed,
     what can the righteous do?” (Psalm 11:1-3)

To which David gives this response,

The Lord is in his holy temple;
     the Lord’s throne is in heaven;
     his eyes see, his eyelids test the children of man.
The Lord tests the righteous,
     but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence.
Let him rain coals on the wicked;
     fire and sulfur and a scorching wind shall be the portion of their cup.
For the Lord is righteous;
he loves righteous deeds. (Psalm 11:4-7)

And just as throughout all eternity, Scripture tells us we will be lost in wonder, love, and praise for manifestations of God’s glorious righteousness and redemption, we will similarly be lost in wonder, love, and praise for manifestations of his glorious righteousness in the condemnation of ungodly men and women who have turned from the grace that might have been theirs.

And of course, the question that instinctively arises in our hearts is the question, “How can this be? What internations does Scripture give to us, if any, that God demonstrates his righteousness, proves his righteousness in the condemnation of the wicked?”

And I want us in light of that question to look at this whole issue from four different points of view. To think, first of all, about the New Testament’s teaching on the basis for eternal punishment, which gives it its foundation in the righteousness of God. Secondly, to examine what the New Testament has to say about the integrity of this judgment. Thirdly, to see the merciful expressions of God’s patience prior to that judgment. Fourthly, before we come to some practical applications to try to think a little together, that our emotions and our minds may see the appropriateness of such eternal judgment and punishment.

1. The Biblical Basis for Eternal Punishment

What, then, is the biblical basis for the righteousness of eternal punishment? At the heart of our understanding of this, we need to recognize that vital to the biblical teaching is the biblical understanding of the foundational relationship between God and man, righteously constituted by a righteous and loving God.

Because, of course, the instinctive response that the natural heart makes to the thought of eternal condemnation and punishment is — and this is especially true in our day, because our penal system has often collapsed in this very area — our instinctive reaction is to say, “What is it that we have done that could possibly merit such punishment?”

And one of the ways in which Scripture cuts devastatingly through the response of the natural man is to tell him that in this respect at least, he is looking at the situation through the wrong end of the telescope. And one of the reasons that Scripture reveals to us so much of what eternal punishment signifies for unbelievers is to teach us that if this is the punishment, then how enormous, and how eternal, and unfathomable must be the crime that merits such punishment.

And in this area especially there needs therefore to be a radical conversion of thinking, from the thinking of ungodliness, and this worldliness, and judging God by our own fallen inhumanity to learn to see things in the light of the just punishment that God reveals, that we may catch a sense from that of the enormity of the crime that men and women have committed against him.

And it is this that Scripture lays so marvelously bear for us, and Paul at least hints at the biblical-theological background to this in what he has already said in Romans 1:18 following about “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.” This is the reason for eternal punishment, ungodliness and unrighteousness, and in the back of Paul’s mind as he expounds this, there are undoubtedly two features that dominate his thinking.

Man as a Creature of God

The first is his recognition of the teaching of Genesis that God has brought man into being in the relationship of a creature to a Creator.

Out of his own infinite wisdom and his perfect design to create a world that is not a necessary existence, but has been forged simply by the word of his power, and out of the genius of the divine imagination, God has created man primarily as his creature and given to him as his creature a natural responsibility to worship and adore him for life, and breath, and for the blessings of this glorious world in which he has set us, and the special revealed responsibility to obey the dictates of humanity that God has set in our hearts, and that he has revealed in history through his word to men and women.

He has set man with immeasurable privileges in this world but has set him to be a creature who would, in terms of Romans 1 specifically, spend the whole of his life bringing honor and glory to God. This is what we were made for. What is man’s chief end? It is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever, so that every breath we breathe was given that it might be directed towards our Creator.

Everything we see with our eyes given to us that our hearts might leap with the excitement of worship and praise. Man is set in the midst of creation to be the articulate vehicle of the entire creation, giving honor, and praise, and worship, and glory, and acclamation, and admiration to the God who made the universe and made man.

When God, who is the sole necessary existent, had no need in himself nor would have had in the future to give us life, and breath, and a world, and being, and it is because that amazing immeasurable privilege is Adam’s and ours, that every man and woman born into the world has placed upon them by their very existence in God’s world the singular duty of laying themselves bare for the glory of God, singing his praises, and making their lives a melody of song for his honor and glory.

And what does Paul say the first man did, and every man since has done in Romans 1:21? “Although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him.” That is to say the very thing for which we have been made, we have despised. The very God whose existence we are here to glorify, we have damned by our sinfulness, and it is the beginnings of the consciousness of the difference between what we were made to be and to do, and what we have done with that that lays the foundation for the just judgment of God against such rebels, that he may righteously banish them forever from his presence.

The wonder is not that there is an eternal hell at the end of life for those who have rejected the creating goodness of God. The real wonder is that we are not in hell already.

Man as Son in Fellowship with God

But then you notice there is another side to this, and it trickles through in the kind of language that Paul uses because he sees man not only made as God’s creature to worship and glorify him, who is the Creator. He sees — and this comes out in all kinds of subtle ways throughout Romans — that God made man as a son to fellowship with him as his Father.

He made him to have access to his loving, gracious heart, not only to serve him as one who would never be sure that his service would be accepted by his master but to have such intimacy of fellowship with him, such assurances given to him on every hand that would say to man made as his image, as his very image.

The kind of language that Genesis is going to go on to use of the relationship between a father and his son to say to man, “I have made you and set you in this garden as your home to be comfortable. This is a user-friendly world in which all things will work together for your good so long as you love me as your Father, so long as you live in harmony with me and in fellowship with me.” So that the sin of the first man and the sinfulness of all men thereafter is not simply the rebellion of a creature against a Creator. It is that more sinister and twisted rebellion of a son, a child against his father.

Oh, beloved brothers. We need to bring so many instruments of God’s truth to bear upon people that they may understand what this really means because in a sense we have lost in our society the indexes that God has given to us in family life, of the significance of what it means to rebel against a father. But there is nothing more awful and twisted in all the universe than a son who will not honor the father who begot him.

And what did man do? Well, says Paul, “Instead of giving thanks. Instead of giving thanks — ‘Thank you, Father, thank you’ — man took the gifts that his Father had given to him and despised them, and spat upon them, and then threw them in his face.” And Paul details this in Romans 1. What did man do? He withheld thankfulness (Romans 1:21). He exchanged his glory. He “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (Romans 1:23). He worshiped the creature rather than the Creator. He perverted his desires.

God had made man in a certain way, made man and woman as his image, but in that precious relationship, the union of man and woman might reflect what it means on earth in physical bodies to enjoy a measure of the harmony of God’s own all-sufficient being, and man perverted those desires and twisted his life sexually and physically. And as Paul says in Romans 1:18–20, perhaps worst of all, despised the privileges that were his.

What could be known about God was plain (Romans 1:19). All God’s beautiful attributes shining forth in the creation of the world like gifts for his children. “My son, I’ve put the stars in place, in my Son, the Logos, and I’ve brought you into existence that you may share in an unearthly way, in the joy that he has as he contemplates the splendor of his creation. I’ve given you the world. I’ve given you this garden with all its beautiful fruit.”

And instead of coming and praising the Father, as true children should do, man has withheld thankfulness from him, and the net result is that almost as if it were a part from the supervening judgment of God, Paul is able to say that man, who was made for the glory of God and to reflect the glory of God, has “fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

He has sought to climb high to the glory of God, to seize it out of his Creator Father’s hands, and trample it in the dust underfoot, and say, “I’ll be my own God because I hate you. I hate you,” and for that crime, beloved brothers, there is no punishment, no punishment that God gives in an eternal hell that is not visibly utterly righteous. And it’s only in the mercy of God, in the revelation, as I say, of the nature of that punishment that godless sinners like ourselves by nature will ever begin to feel, “Is this what I’ve done? Is this what I’ve done?”

Just as when by God’s grace our eyes are open to the mystery of redemption and his righteousness on the cross, and we hear him crying out, “God, why am I forsaken?” isn’t there something in our hearts that cries out with tears, “Oh, Father, is this what I’ve done? Is this what I’ve done?”

You see what Paul is saying is that the enormity of the judgment is dependent upon the glory of the relationship, and the glory of the relationship is the relationship of a non-necessary creature to a glorious Creator, and a privileged son to an inestimably loving Father, and both the privileges and responsibilities of these relationships man has spurned. Made for an infinite God and for infinite fellowship with him, his sin, therefore, takes on an infinite quality. Made for One who is infinitely holy, he becomes subject to infinite corruption. Made in infinite love, man displays a despite for that love that is itself infinite and merits an infinite condemnation.

That’s one of the reasons why Paul says right at the end of Romans 1:32 — and we need to believe that this is true of the conscience of every man, woman, boy, or girl who comes into the world — “Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.” They know God’s decree. They know the righteousness of God’s decree. They know that these things deserve death, and in the face of all that, they continue to do them.

You see, from the biblical point of view, the question that arises in men’s hearts about the righteousness of God in eternal judgment and punishment is a question of the mind of man that is turned in alienation and rebellion against God. It is never the question of the human conscience. The human conscience knows and fears that in the eternal punishment of the wicked, God is utterly vindicated in his righteousness.

But Scripture and especially here in Romans not only speaks to us about the basis for this eternal punishment, it is at pains to express to us because, of course, Scripture is a pastoral document, and because in his mercy, as Calvin so frequently used to say, God accommodates himself to man.

The wonder of it all is that through his holy apostle, the Holy Spirit begins to explain to us in the dullness of our minds how it is that the judgment of God will be demonstrated to be righteous.

2. The Integrity of Divine Judgment

And Paul goes on in chapter two to lay down before us principles of the integrity of eternal punishment. You’ll notice in that context in Romans 2:8–9, he describes the character of those who will be thus judged. They’re self-seeking. They reject the truth. They follow evil, and there will be wrath and anger. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil, and this is a shorthand way of his description of the sinfulness of fallen man.

And in that context also, you will notice he emphasizes the nature of the judgment and the punishment. “Oh,” he says, “It will be wrath and anger, trouble and distress.” There will be violence — holy violence — in the judgment of God against sinful man. There will be retribution. There will be pain. There will be distress. There will be anguish.

Now, how does he pin down for us the manifestation of God’s character in that? Well, he puts it like this in Romans 2:5. He says, “Because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.” When God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. What is God’s righteous judgment? How will it be revealed as righteous?

Well, of course, the righteousness of God is fundamentally his integrity with himself, his integrity in all the attributes and perfections of his being, that he has revealed to us covenantally in showing himself in his word of promise to be a God who loves righteousness and his creatures, and who hates wickedness in them, who will by no means pardon the guilty but will judge them and condemn them. And this, says Paul, is manifested in a whole series of ways in what he goes on to say, and there are six principles I want you to notice in this passage that are vital to our understanding of the righteousness of God in his judgment.

Principle 1: Judgment According to Light

It is first of all, he says, a judgment that will be made according to light.

Look at what he says in Romans 2:12, “All who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law,” and he’s giving us a little hint here that God holds men and women accountable in terms of the special revelation that he has given to them.

He is not, by the way, saying that some will be saved because they received less revelation. His whole point is that no matter how little or how much revelation a man has had with the law or without the law, every single man and woman will be condemned because of their sinfulness and their disobedience to God. But what he is saying is that he will not judge men and women by an inappropriate principle, by an alien principle to the very life structure in which they have lived, but in terms of the revelation that God has given to them.

There will be those, says our Lord Jesus Christ, who will be beaten with few stripes, and those who will be beaten with many, and there will be an eternal rectitude in terms of the life situation of every single person in the judgment and the condemnation which God meets out in eternity, and all men who are lost will be lost in the face of the light that they have already received.

Principle 2: Judgment According to Reality

His second principle is found in Romans 2:6. He says there that God will give each person according to what he has done, and what Paul is saying here is that God’s judgment will be according to truth. It will be according to reality. It will be according to what the man or woman has actually done.

As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:10, speaking primarily about his fellow believers, “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body.” This is what it means for the books to be opened, and the mystery of our own lives and our own responsibility to be finally clarified in a way it never can be in this world.

The only issue at stake, he says, will be what men have done. The judgment of God will not be on the basis of theory but on the basis of reality.

Principle 3: Individualized Judgment

Thirdly, he says, the judgment of God and man’s condemnation will be appropriate to each individual. Again he says in Romans 2:6, “[God] will render to each one according to his works.” He repeats the same principle in Romans 14:12, “Each of us will give an account of himself to God,” and what, of course, he’s reaching after here to bring it out of the economy of God is the fact that in this world we never really can be judged as individuals.

We are related to one another. We have inherited from our parents. We can never really apportion responsibility in the world in which we live. We share in it corporately, and we can never ultimately individualize it, ultimately perfectly. But Paul is saying that God is able to do this, and that he will, and the judgment we will receive will be utterly appropriate to the individual that we have been.

Principle 4: Examination of Secrets

Fourthly, says Paul, the judgment of God will reach to the secrets of men’s hearts. In Romans 2:16: “On that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.”

Think just for a moment of what that means for believers, that he will judge your secrets, but the things that have been secret to you, and your longing for him. Your longing to serve him like no one else has ever seen. People have judged you according to the flesh and sometimes despised your ministry. Fellow believers have despised your ministry, perhaps. Perhaps, God forbid, fellow pastors have despised your ministry in the way they have raised their own ministry in your eyes. But one day, thank God, your secrets will be judged, and they, beloved, are safe and secure with him.

But oh, think of what that means for the hypocrite, for the professing believer who has no possession of grace. Think of what it means to the ungodly man that even his secrets will be judged, the fleeting thoughts that have passed through his mind, that show that what a man is really what he thinks in his heart. These two will be unveiled in the presence of the holy Judge, and he will judge us in all perfect reality, even down to the secret motions of our passions.

Every single one of them, says Paul, will be judged and will be clear before him. You see what God in his mercy does privately and individually in the reading of the Scripture and the exposition of its truth, showing his word to be a two-edged sword that penetrates to the vision into the very secret recesses of our beings and teaches us as we listen to the word of God and as we read it that God is the great kardiognóstés, the knower of our hearts.

What he does mercifully now through his word, he will do then visibly in his own holy presence, and he will unravel before men and women that they may see the justice and righteousness of his judgment. Everything that they have done and that they have ever had will be judged when the books are opened, and that you remember, as our Lord Jesus says, includes careless words and incidental actions.

We shall have to give an account, says our Lord, for every careless word we have spoken, and you remember in the great vision of his throne as he separates the sheep from the goats, you remember that he is able to do that almost on the matter of the incidentals of men’s lives.

When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you? And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’” (Matthew 25:38–40)

The incidental action in which Christ was blotted out of your mind, he says, it isn’t really incidental at all because it unveils the secrets of your heart: the thoughts that pass through men’s minds as they walked past an open-air meeting, the thought that went through their minds as someone came to their door, the thoughts that passed through their mind as they passed by a little church building somewhere and heard a group of people singing out of tune.

The incidentals of man’s reaction to the people of God are expressions of the heart of their reaction to the Christ of God and to the glory of God, and even their secrets will be judged, because that’s what they really are. It’s what a man is in himself in secret that is the real measure of the man, and Paul is saying that man or woman may take to themselves all kinds of cloaks that will cover over from the sight even of those who know them nearest and dearest, that will hide from them and their eyes the real truth about themselves, but nothing is hidden from the eyes of him with whom we have to do.

Principle 5: Consistency with Conscience

Fifthly, Paul gives us a hint of this judgment as he’s already indicated in Romans 1:32 will be absolutely consistent with men’s consciences.

He says you see at least a glimmer of this even now when Gentiles who do not have the law do by nature things required by the law. Romans 2:14, “They are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law.” Listen to this: “They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness” (Romans 2:15).

And you see this is the terrible thing about the judgment of God for the ungodly. This is the pain of it, that their own consciences will be constrained to agree with the righteousness of eternal condemnation. That’s why Paul is going on to say at the end of Romans 3:19 that in the manifestation of God’s judgment against man’s sinfulness “every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.”

There will be no plea from the ungodly for mitigating circumstances. There will be no appeal that there is evidence that has not been taken into account, because on that great day, Paul is hinting their own consciences will say, “Amen,” angrily perhaps, but amen to the righteous judgment of God, and every knee will bow before him and confess that he, the righteous Lord, righteously condemns them to everlasting separation from his presence.

Principle 6: Judgment Through Christ Jesus

And then sixthly, do you notice in Romans 2:16 that Paul indicates the final principle of God’s judgment is that it is by Christ Jesus? This will take place on the day when God will judge men’s secrets through Christ Jesus.

The Final Principle of God’s Judgment

Because, of course, the Father has placed all judgment in his hands, as he says in John 5:22. Because it is the judgment seat of Christ before which all men must appear on the last great day, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:10. But do you see the force and the power of this revelation, this thought?

It means it will be impossible for man to appeal to the distinction between the Creator and the creature, to say to God, “You cannot righteously judge me because you are the almighty Creator, and I am simply one of your poor dependent creatures. It’s not fair.” Because he will judge us by Christ Jesus.

The Incarnate Logos as Judge

It will be the incarnate Logos who will be our judge, and as men and women look into his eyes, and recognize him in his glorified humanity, and see him as he really is, they will know that because God’s judgment is meted out by the One who came into this world first of all to assume our humanity, and then in order that he might assume our sinfulness on the cross, there is no grounds of appeal on the basis that it is an infinite One who judges us, because the infinite God will judge us in terms of the man, Christ Jesus. And if he should mark our iniquity, who could stand before him?

It is, as the book of Revelation tells us, from the wrath of the Lamb that men will flee, and on that day, every tongue will confess that true and just are God’s judgments.

God’s Merciful Patience Preceding Judgment

But there’s another feature in this passage that leads us directly to our third heading, because not only is the righteous condemnation of God based on the Creator-creature and father-son relationship and manifested and manifestly righteous in terms of Paul’s teaching in Romans 2, but he also gives us a pointer to our third notion, namely that the judgment of God in Jesus Christ will be preceded by his merciful patience.

Look at what he says in Romans 2:4, “Do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” Of course, Paul may already at this point in Romans have Jews in view, but the principles that he’s enunciating do not come out of the context of Jewishness. They come out of the context of the universal principles of Scripture.

That’s why he’s able to appeal, for example, in Acts 14 and in Acts 17 to the patience of God among the nations, to the way in which he has favored us with his general providences, and as it were, set in the very created universe hints for man to show the glory of God, to indicate to us that he is to be worshiped and glorified, and how it is that throughout the course of history, he has been patient in the outworking of his plan and existentially in the present, as other parts of Scripture may clear to us, remains patient before the final judgment in order that every opportunity may be given for men and women to repent.

We see this from the beginning of Scripture in the Noahic covenant, that every time there is a rainbow in the sky we are able to remember that God remembers he is covenanted to be patient with his fallen world, to give us the blessings of the seasons, to give us the blessings of his general providence and common grace, and in his patience to wait through these things in order that they may be his overtures to pluck at the strings of our hearts and wean us from our sinfulness towards his glory and power.

His daily providence shows us the same. Should we not daily rise in amazement that we still have life and breath? Should we not daily look upon one another and praise him with all our hearts that he has given us other creatures? Should we not as creatures look upon the blessings of home, and family, of the beauty of the love of a man and a woman, the joy of children, the privilege of sharing in the continuation of God’s creation?

Should we not take as from God’s hand the munificence that we enjoy in the Western world? Should we not see the sky, and the sun, and the moon and be almost constrained to dance through life for the privileges that he’s poured out upon us in his inestimable patience with us?

He has not sent us immediately to hell. He has been patient, and in the room that his patience has created, he has filled our lives with blessing, upon blessing, upon blessing. He has even stooped down into our lives to hurt us in order that by the fire of our heart we might be weaned from our sinfulness. He’s given to men the gift of the Scriptures, the holy word of God that speaks God’s words to man in all its power and glory.

He has put into our hands, think of it, beloved, millions, and millions, and millions, and millions of copies of this holy Book that he has given to us through these servants. He has spoken through sinful man to us, and in the last days, he has sent his own dear Son. Having sent message, after message, after message, after message, he has sent his own dear Son who in many irrefutable ways was demonstrated to be the Son of God with power, and all his expressions of his glorious patience, not because he is slow concerning his promises, but because he is patient and has a desire that through his grace in Jesus Christ, men and women might repent and be saved.

Do you see the terrible thing that we do then when we turn away from the word of the gospel, when we do not listen to God’s voice as he speaks in the order of creation? Men are damned not because they have hated God’s holiness only, but because they have hated his patience. They have hated his grace. They have hated his kindness. Oh, says Paul, do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance, and patience? And that, of course, is exactly what men and women do. They show contempt for his grace.

Remember how Jonah came to understand that? Jonah, who had contempt for the Ninevites, until God taught him what he himself by nature deserved, to go down into the bottomless pit of death separated from God, and then as God in his grace meets him, and he begins to long to be in the presence of God again. Do you remember what he says either about the Ninevite or the pagan sailors, both of whom apparently he despised? Oh, he says, it cuts through my heart now that it seems it’s impossible for me to reach back to those sailors or forward to those Ninevites, is that they forsaken the grace that might be theirs. They’ve forsaken the grace that might be theirs.

Every day as the clock ticks on the wall, it ticks out the patients of God in his gracious provides, in his gracious revelation, in the message of the gospel. It shows the inevitable mercy of God to lost and hell worthy sinners. On the day of patience will come to an end, and then Edwards words will be true, “In another world God will cease to show [man] mercy” (The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 2:140). The patience of God. Oh, the patience of God.

The Appropriateness of Eternal Punishment

But then fourthly, notice the appropriateness of this eternal punishment. You see all that Paul is saying in this passage — and indeed everything Scripture says is meant to underline to us — that the punishment really is suited to the crime. But the problem is not that we fail to understand the punishment. The real problem is that we have failed to understand the crime in the light of the punishment, and the punishment is appropriate in the sense that it is eternal, because the crime that has been committed is itself a crime invested with an eternal quality against an eternal God, and the punishment is suitable.

To men who have turned from communion with God, it means they shall have no communion with God. To men who have not seen the significance of the blessings of the earth, it means they will never enjoy the blessings of the new heaven and the new earth. To men who have refused to change in their attitude towards God, it will mean there will be no prospect or desire for change and repentance before him, and to those who have never loved Jesus Christ as savior, it will mean they will go throughout all eternity never knowing what it means to love Christ as savior, and therefore experiencing a loveless eternity.

Why Judgement Is Appropriate

Now, why is this so appropriate? Let me, on pain of being accused of being some kind of biblical numericist, suggest to you there are six reasons why it is appropriate:

1. It is appropriate because it has been freely chosen. No human being has ever been, will ever be damned against their will. They choose it.

2. It is appropriate because what men and women choose to do is to flaunt God’s law in the clear revelation given in scripture, and apparently even invested in the very nature of men, as Paul says in Romans 1:32, “They know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die.” It isn’t a choice made in ignorance. It’s a choice made in sure knowledge that this is what sin deserves.

3. It’s appropriate because men have consistently ignored God’s providences.

4. It’s appropriate because men have despised the offer of Christ, who is able to save all those who come to God through him.

5. It’s appropriate, Scripture says, because men have belittled in heart and deed the little ones Christ sent to speak to them of him. I don’t think we begin to imagine what a sin it is to despise one of Christ’s little ones. Says our Lord, “It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin” (Luke 17:2).

6. It is appropriate because it is universally true of the natural man that he seeks a heaven devoid of God’s throne and empty of God’s presence.

I’ve never forgotten the impression made on me going to speak at a meeting in Scotland once and driving, seeking something to listen to on the car radio, coming across a program made by the BBC in which an interview went round a whole series of famous people to ask them what they thought about the world to come. (I think the program was called What Will Heaven Be Like?.) Do you know I listened for that whole half hour, and not one single one of them mentioned that God would be there?

And you see the justice of God’s sending of man into the darkness and the fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels is that almost unbelievable as it seems to us who believe, this is a preferred choice and will remain so throughout all eternity. They will not have him, and therefore in the profoundest sense of the word, they will not have him.

But there is another dimension to this, and I think it’s important to say something about it, because again and again in our own thinking, and in our own ministry, and in our pastoring of people, we need to bring to bear upon our thinking a whole series of different biblical emphasis that help us to rethink the truth about man in this world, and to rethink our understanding of the revelation of the gospel because no matter how often this is expounded before us, it is true that there inevitably in a group of men like ourselves will be those who ask the question, “How can I adjust myself to this thought that the God of infinite love will send people to hell?”

4. Adjusting Our Emotions Christocentrically and Christologically

We need to adjust to that emotionally, and it seems to me the chief way of adjusting to it emotionally is adjusting to it Christocentrically and Christologically.

Not only do I mean in terms of our understanding of the significance of the cross, but in terms of our understanding that it is Jesus himself who says to us that he will send them to hell. It is he who will say to them, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels,” and we can trust him (Matthew 25:41).

Even when in our sinfulness we cannot unravel the difference between the revelation that God has given in our own confused and confusing thoughts, the one thing that we are sure of in all the universe more and more is that we can trust the Judge of all the earth to do right, because the Judge of all the earth is our blessed Savior. And though it may be true, as Thomas Boston once said, “To be damned by him, who came to save sinners, must be double damnation” (Human Nature in Its Fourfold State, 376). We know that we can trust him.

We need to adjust to it theologically as well and realign our spirits and our passions with the knowledge that God is a holy God who hates wickedness. We need to adjust to it in terms of its righteousness and let it illumine the exceeding sinfulness of man’s sin.

I’ve never forgotten one of the relatively few great reading experiences I’ve ever had in my life was as a student reading and Anselm of Canterbury’s Cur Deus Homo, and he has a statement there when his companion, Boso, asks him a question. He responds with words that seem to me to be among the most theologically illuminating in all of Christian literature. He says, “My dear son, you have not yet considered the greatness of the weight of sin.” That’s the only way we can learn to adjust our thinking to the righteousness of God in this. If we think in any degree that God is unrighteous in this, it is because we have not yet considered how great the weight of sin is.

We need to adjust to it in terms of the economy of God, and see that God’s Son is so precious in his sight that he will crush as with iron boots those who are opposed to his Son’s glory and honor. Wouldn’t you do that as a father? If you sinful fathers seek to protect the glory and honor of your dear children, how much more will the glory and honor of our Lord Jesus Christ be protected by his heavenly Father?

And we need to learn to adjust to it in ultimate terms and recognize that he is the potter, and he’s able to make out of the same lump of fallen humanity vessels for honor and glory, and vessels for destruction, that we may learn that Spirit which our Lord Jesus himself had in his perfect humanity. “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to [others]” (Matthew 11:25).

The real question is you see not how can he condemn sinners. The really amazing question is how can he save sinners at such infinite cost to his own dear Son? Out of his great love when we were dead in our trespasses and sins, he raised us up together with Christ. And if we are left asking the question, “Why is it then that God who saves some does not save all,” we come to that place where the apostle says to us, “Who are you, man, to pry into the Godness of God?”

And that, of course, is part of the application of this doctrine. It is meant to point us to God’s Godness and to the holiness of his will. It’s meant to point us to our creatureliness, as we see, for example, that the very seraphim in God’s holy presence, these creatures who have never fallen, but who have from their creation a perfect holiness, still veil their faces before the uncreated holiness, before the perfect will of the sovereign Lord whose glory fills the heaven and earth.

This is what God is like in his holiness and justice. We need to learn afresh daily from this, that this is simply an index of the real sinfulness of sin in its deception of man’s minds and its destruction of man’s hopes. We need to learn to see how utterly hopeless man is apart from the grace of Christ and the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

We need, let me say it again, to see the wonder of our own salvation chosen not for good in me, wakened up from wrath to flee. That’s what we need to see, and we need to see also the necessity of personal holiness, and learn that it was our Lord Jesus himself who also told us that it is better to enter into his glorious kingdom with one eye than to allow that festering sin to so lead us to destruction that we will be cast away forever. It teaches us not out of a spirit of fear, but out of a biblical calculation to count everything that will bring us loss as loss for the excellency of the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. We need to learn this, and we can learn it only from his word and by his Spirit.

You referred to what some people call degrees of punishment in hell. What is the purpose of degrees of punishments, because it’s all so horrendous anyway?

So this is a question about degrees of punishment. I think the answer to that question must be along the lines of the basis for the judgment. That the basis for the judgment is individual in nature, and therefore the character of the fruit of the judgment will be personal and individually tailored also in nature.

Now, in a sense, some light is shed on that. More light is actually shed on that by us looking at the opposite side of that judgment, the judgment of believers. We might say, “Well, the presence of the Lord will be so glorious there will be a kind of socialistic uniformity in that glory,” and there will be a uniformity doubtless in that glory, but there are many more hints in the New Testament that the judgment, the fruit of the judgment of believers will be tailor-made to believers.

We will know one another in a way we’ve never really known one another before, and I think the flip side of that in which I think the Scripture says very little, but I think it does give us some indications that the righteousness of God is such that although horrendous the judgment may be, it will still be not done en masse but individually, and men and women will bear the individual marks of what they have been, and how God has judged them.

What are the potential consequences of preaching the gospel without mentioning the concept of eternal punishment for the lost and how does history suggest that this omission may affect future generations’ understanding of the gospel?

On occasions of preaching the gospel without any reference to the eternal punishment of the lost, and I think I would say that since I believe eternal punishment to be the New Testament’s teaching, that one would anticipate that the fruit of teaching something less than or other than everything that was set before is in the New Testament would be the same with respect to this doctrine as with respect to other doctrines.

Namely, that it is apparently possible for one generation of the church to let go of one aspect of the whole council of God and maintain, apparently, the same spirit of piety and the same understanding of the cross. But I think the testimony of history, quite apart from the general principle, is that if we let go of something that’s part of the whole council of God, then to some degree we distort the gospel. I think the general principle of history is that the next generation, and certainly the generation after it, will not only lose sight of that aspect but will correspondingly lose sight of the significance of the cross.

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