At yesterday's Ministers' Fraternal at the Old Baptist Chapel, Bradford on Avon, Mark Stocker of Spring Road Evangelical Church, Southampton spoke on 'Preaching on Hell'. Here are some notes on what he had to say together with some reflections of my own on the subject.
For many hundreds of years it has been preached that there is a real, physical place called "Hell". That place is one of everlasting separation and deprivation, of pain and punishment, of darkness and destruction, and disintegration and perishing. This teaching is fiercely attacked by some today and is one of the most difficult doctrines for believers to accept.
Where have the attacks come from?
In personal witness people often react strongly against the idea of hell as everlasting conscious punishment. This doctrine can be a stumblingblock to faith. In the late 80's and early 90's some respected Evangelical scholars such as John Stott, Philip Edgcumbe Hughes and David Wenham questioned the traditional teaching on hell. They proposed an annihilationist alternative that denies the eternal punishment of the wicked. As a result of renewed interest in the teaching of Karl Barth, universalism is once again gaining ground in some quarters. Universalists teach that all human beings will ultimately be saved, hence no one will go to hell, or at least no one will remain there for ever. More recently, Robin Parry alias 'Gregory McDonald', the 'Evangelical Universalist' has endeavoured to make a case for universalism from a professedly Evangelical perspective.
Old Testament revelation
Relative to the New Testament, there is little material on the afterlife in the Old Testament. Sheol - 'the realm of the dead' can simply mean the grave, but in some contexts sheol is described as the destination of the wicked, Psalm 9:17 cf Ezekiel 32:17-32, from which the righteous will be delivered, Psalm 49:13-15. See also the contrast between the wicked in Psalm 73:18-20 and the righteous in Psalm 73:23-26. The distinction between the righteous and the wicked in death is made most clearly in Daniel 12:2-3, where the prophet has the resurrection of the body in mind.
New Testament revelation
A key passage is 2 Thessalonians 1:8-10, where many of the key aspects of the New Testament teaching are expressed.
The nature of hell
What are the main characteristics used to describe hell?
Sinners are consigned to hell as the just punishment for sinning against an eternal and holy God. They will be judged and condemned righteously according to their works, Mark 9:42-48, Luke 16:19-31, Romans 2:5-11, Revelation 20:12-15. The more one sins, the greater one's punishment, Matthew 11:20-24, Luke 12:47-48.
Jesus often spoke of hell as the "outer darkness" (Matthew 8:12, 22:13, 25:30). This suggests that hell involves being banished from every expression of God's goodness, to face only his wrath and displeasure against sin.
Not in the sense of annihilation, but meaning that the wicked will face eternal ruin, Matthew 7:13-14, 24-27, Luke 13:3-5, 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10.
4. Hell is eternal, conscious punishment
The Bible teaches that the wicked will suffer everlasting destruction. See Matthew 25:46, where the same word aionion is used of the eternal state of both the righteous and the wicked. The variations 'everlasting punishment' and 'eternal life' are not warranted by the original.
How would we answer those who say that hell = annihilation?
The biblical words, 'destruction' and 'perish' do not mean 'annihilate', but 'ruin' see 2 Peter 3:5-6.
In my opinion it is a mistake to make the doctrine of the eternal punishment of the wicked overly dependent on anthropology, specifically on the notion that the human soul is inherently 'immortal'. To do so is to play into the hands of those who teach 'conditional immortality', a form of annihilationalism. We must use biblical language in a biblical way. In Scripture the word 'immortal' is applied uniquely to God in 1 Timothy 6:15-16, he alone is innately immortal. He is the undying God who has life in himself. As far as human beings are concerned, according to the Bible 'immortality' is not an inherent property of the soul. It is brought to light in the gospel, 2 Timothy 1:10. Only resurrected believers are described as 'immortal', 1 Corinthians 15:50-55. Adam was not immortal before the fall - he was liable to death should he sin. Not even Jesus was immortal or undying in his humanity prior to the resurrection - he died on the cross. Only as the risen Lord is he immortal with the power of an endless life. In the Bible 'immortality' is a redemptive-eschatological category. It is at the resurrection that believers will be raised immortal in the image of the the last Adam.
So, we misconstrue the biblical teaching when we say that hell is for ever because the human soul is innately 'immortal'. That view savours more of Plato than the Bible. We must look at the issue of eternal punishment theologically rather than anthropologically. Hell is for ever because the infinitely holy God demands that sinners suffer the eternal consequences of their actions. That is what his justice requires (2 Thessalonians 1:9). At death the souls of the wicked are consigned to hell (Luke 16:19-31), awaiting the day of judgement and the resurrection of the body, (John 5:28-29, Acts 24:15). At the resurrection, the wicked will be raised to face eternal, conscious, spiritual and bodily punishment, (Revelation 20:11-15). The wicked will not be raised immortal. Their resurrection and consequent punishment in the lake of fire is described as a 'second death' (Revelation 20:13-14). As Jonathan Edwards rightly argued, sin against an infinite, eternal God deserves an infinite and eternal punishment. Note that it is the duration of this God-imposed punishment rather than an innate quality in the soul of the wicked that is described as 'everlasting', Matthew 25:41, 46 cf. Revelation 14:11. It is on this theological basis that we believe in the eternal, conscious punishment of the wicked in hell.
Advocates of annihilationism often point to the emotional impossibility of coping with the idea of the eternal, conscious punishment of the wicked. Those who hold to the traditional view of hell are not ignorant of the emotional implications of the doctrine. But we cannot allow our emotions to determine whether we will accept the plain teaching of Scripture. Emotional resolution of the problem of eternal punishment is to be found in the cross of Jesus. We must preach that hell is everlasting. But the good news is that people don't have to go there because Jesus died as a propitiation for our sins, enduring the sufferings of hell in our place. Those who believe in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.
How do we preach hell?
In the light of what Scripture teaches, what emphases and elements should we see in our preaching?
Hell is real and people need to be warned to flee from the wrath to come.
God does not consign people to everlasting punishment arbitrarily. Human beings will be judged and condemned according to their works. We can be sure that our holy God will act justly against sin. 'Will not the judge of all the earth do right?'
3. The seriousness of sin
One reason why people have a problem with hell is that they do not have a sufficiently serious view of sin. But if sin is not serious, why Calvary?
We must not make hell the singular theme of our preaching. We should preach it proportionately and appropriately, with Christlike love for the lost. He wept over lost sinners. We also need to urgently admonish the unrepentant to turn and be saved, remembering that God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, Ezekiel 33:11, 2 Peter 3:9. This note of compassion is so important when it comes to preaching on hell.
God will punish the wicked to display his power to the praise of his glorious justice, Romans 9:22. That we have been saved from hell is a marvel of God's grace to sinners. We must stand in awe of his mighty works of grace and judgement and say, Romans 11:33-36.