Future Punishment: Its Character and Duration

F. B. Hole.

There is no point within the whole compass of Divine truth where human thoughts and opinions are of any value. But at no point is it more necessary to rigidly exclude them than from the solemn subject which is now to occupy us. Immediately the punishment of sin is in question we are all of us alert and inclined to make our voices heard. We are none of us disinterested spectators, but rather in the position of a criminal in the dock being tried for his life. Now a criminal is never an unprejudiced judge of his own case, neither are we in this matter of future punishment. So let us begin by recognizing the very natural warp of our fallen reason in relation to this theme, and resolving to close our minds to our own thoughts as to what ought to be, and to listen to the plain declarations of what is going to be, given to us in Scripture by God the Judge of all.

It may be well to begin at the very beginning and enquire if the Bible indicates that there is to be such a thing as punishment at all? There are not wanting those who would do away with the whole idea in relation to God's government of His creatures, just as there are also those who are always inclined to bewail the bitter fate of the assassin when brought face to face with justice, whilst having scant sympathy, or none at all, to spare for his victim!

Read carefully Romans 2:1-16, and you will find that Scripture testifies with no uncertain sound to the reality of future punishment. There is such a thing as "the judgment of God." That judgment is going to be expressed in "wrath" in the coming "day of wrath." It is going to probe beneath the surface of things in that day and deal with "the secrets of men." And if any should enquire what exactly "wrath" may mean, we are told in further detail when it is said that to those contentious, and who do not obey the truth, God will render "indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish" (ver. 9), and that without any respect of persons.

There is nothing surprising in these statements. They are quite after the analogy of those dealings of God's government which are visible to us. He most evidently has attached temporal penalties to sins, which are often clearly to be seen in this life. Why not, then, the full and proper penalties in the life to come?

Another question now comes up for settlement. Granted that the future punishment of sin is a reality, what is to be its character? Is it remedial and reformatory, or is it penal and retributory? A very important question, for the answer to it will go a long way towards settlement of the subsequent question as to its duration. If punishment in the life to come is with the object of making its subjects better, it stands to reason that it cannot be for ever.

Is future punishment spoken of in Scripture as an instrument of reformation? Is hell to be a great penitentiary, designed to effect that betterment in recalcitrant mankind which the preaching of grace never effected? We unhesitatingly answer, No.

Not only do we answer, No, but we go further and assert that at no time do we find reformation produced by God's dealings in judgment. In Egypt God dealt with Pharaoh, increasing the severity of His strokes. Was his heart softened? No, it was hardened. Later, God dealt in the same way with His apostate people Israel as He said He would in Leviticus 26. After foretelling some of the dreadful calamities to come He says in verse 23, "If ye will not be reformed by Me in these things … then will I … punish you yet seven times for your sins." Were they reformed? No; the extremest punishments indicated came upon them as a nation. Concerning future judgment we read in Revelation 16:11 how men will blaspheme the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, and will not repent of their deeds.

Today, thank God, men do repent, but why? Because, as Romans 2:4 tells us, it is "the goodness of God" that leads to repentance. But it is this very chapter that asserts that if men do not suffer the goodness of God to take them by the hand and lead them to repentance, they will find themselves seized by the severity of God and haled to judgment.

We do not need to go outside that passage to discover what character the judgment of God bears. It is said to be "against them which commit such things," for they are "worthy of death" according to the last verse of Romans 1. The sinner is asked if he thinks that he shall "escape the judgment of God." This language is not that which befits reformation but points clearly to retribution.

The fact is, this idea that hell is a kind of penitentiary, which is hardly distinguishable from the purgatory of the Romanist, cuts right at the roots of the Gospel. Salvation never has been, is not today, and never will be by reformation. Salvation is by faith and on the ground of the penalty and retribution of sin having been borne — of old typically in connection with the sacrifices, now borne really and fully by the sacrifice of Christ Himself upon the Cross.

Salvation by a reformation which, it is claimed, the fires of hell will produce, might be conceivable IF it were accomplished today by a reformation which the Gospel produces. Since, however, it is to-day only to be found in the bearing of sin's righteous penalty and retribution by another, the Lord Jesus Christ, it could only be found in eternity by a similar bearing of the penalty, and this will never be; for Christ will not suffer again, and no sinner can take up the penalty and exhaust it. If a sinner passes under sin's penalty, under it he must remain forever.

No Scripture referring to future punishment treats it as a matter of reformation, and a great many of the passages are so worded as clearly to negative that idea, and show it is a matter of retribution. As an instance of this latter class take 1 Peter 4:17-18. That Apostle asks, "If it [judgment] first begin at us [Christians] what shall the end be of them that obey not the Gospel of God? and if the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?" He evidently knew well enough that no one with any show of truth could turn round and say, "Why, of course, the end of those that obey not the Gospel will be just the same as that of those who obey: the ungodly and sinners will ultimately appear, refined by age-long fires, in the same heaven as the godly and the saints."

That which lies ahead of the ungodly and sinners as their end is "judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries" (Heb. 10:27).

Now we approach the fateful question:
Does Scripture indicate that this coming fiery indignation of God against sinners will be forever? The answer is that it clearly does so.

Take as one example out of many scriptures, Matthew 25:46. The words we allude to were spoken by the Lord Himself as the climax of His description of the judgment He will execute on the living nations assembled before Him, as He begins His millennial reign. "These shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal."

That particular judgment, then, will have a twofold issue. It will be either life or punishment. Life in its full and proper sense will embrace all that aggregate of privileges, relationships, and blessings, the crown of all being the knowledge of the Lord, of which the earth will then be full. Punishment will embrace all those woes and penalties which are appropriate to the state of sin in which men generally are found, and to the individual sins of those in question, including the crowning one of the rejection of the Divine testimony through those whom the King acknowledges as His brethren. And both the life and the punishment are eternal. No one seems anxious to prove that eternal life is not eternal. Multitudes labour to explain that eternal punishment is not eternal. Why? It is simply a case of the prisoner in the dock revolting against his sentence! Apart from such prejudice — natural enough, but very fatal if indulged in — there is no reason for denying to eternal in the first half of the sentence what is freely admitted as to it in the second. Scripturally both parts stand or fall together.

This scripture is only one out of many that might be cited, from the solemn warnings of our Lord as to the worm that never dies and "the fire that never shall be quenched," in the Gospels, to the awful words as to "the lake which burns with fire and brimstone: which is the second death," in the last book of the New Testament. There really is no doubt as to what is the testimony of Scripture on the point, though the attempts to juggle with its words and make them give another voice have been, and still continue to be, without number.

With all the ingenuity that has been expended and wasted in this way only two alternatives to eternal punishment have ever been imagined. The one is that in some way or other all will finally be saved. This is known as "universalism." The other is that man naturally just dies as the beasts that perish and that endless being and existence are only his as born again and in Christ. This is known as "annihilationism" or the "conditional immortality" theory.

Now one verse of Scripture — John 3:36 — utterly destroys both theories. We read: " He that believes not the Son shall not see life." The universalist theory is that ultimately, no matter how remote the age may be, he shall see life. The Lord Jesus says he shall NOT. He added, "But the wrath of God abides on him." According to the annihilationist he is non-existent and therefore not there for the wrath of God to abide upon. According to the Lord Jesus he is there and upon him the wrath abides, without any hint of a moment when it ceases to abide.

The Lord Jesus thus, with Divine foreknowledge, negatived these specious theories of a later age.

By this denial of the two rival theories, therefore, we come back to the solemn fact, so abundantly stated in a positive way in Scripture, that there is such a thing as future punishment, that it is in the nature of solemn retribution for sin, and that once falling it endures for ever.

That the punishment of sin should be eternal is a dreadful thought. Can it be defended as just, and therefore right?

It is truly a dreadful thought, and the reality will be more dreadful still; but, then, sin is a dreadful thing. Who can measure sin's demerit? Can we embrace within our finite minds the full bearing, the uttermost ramifications, of an act of lawless rebellion against God? No, indeed. That would be as impossible as to embrace within our arms the solar system of which this earth is a very insignificant part. Who are we, then, to form and express opinions as to what may be the just and proper punishment to fit the case?

God is "the Judge of all the earth" and He will do right. Let us quit the folly of attempting to pronounce upon what He ought to do, and rather pay attention to what He has stated in the Scriptures that He will do; for that, and that alone, will ultimately stand.

Is it, however, quite certain that the Greek word rendered "eternal" and "everlasting" in our version really has the force of "endless"? May it not just mean "age-long," as its derivation would indicate?

As we have before observed, the derivation of a word settles little or nothing; it is its usage that matters. It is quite true that the Greek adjective aionios is built up from aion — an age, hence age-lasting may have been one of its meanings. The word, however, acquired the sense of eternal, and this is its sense in Scripture, as a good concordance will easily show you. It is used in regard to God, the Spirit, salvation, redemption, life, and many other great verities of the faith. So that we may say that except it does denote endlessness we know of nothing at all that is endless.

One of the most conclusive passages we can cite on this point is: 2 Corinthians 4:18, where the Apostle contrasts the things which are seen with those not seen. The former, he says, are "temporal," the latter, "eternal."

Here the word eternal MUST be used in the sense of "having no end," otherwise it would be no true contrast to temporal, which means "having an end." The seen things may endure for many thousands of years — for ages, as we speak. They may be age-long but they have an end. The unseen things abide not for ages merely, but for ever. They have no end.

Here, then, we shall surely find used the true and proper word for eternal if the Greek language possesses it, and not merely a word meaning "age-lasting." We turn up a Greek Testament, and what word do we find? — aionios !

Could proof be stronger that in Scripture usage aionios means eternal in its true and proper sense?

Some people think that eternal punishment cannot be reconciled with the fact that God is love, and therefore they refuse to believe it. Is there any force in this argument?

None whatever. The Scriptures reveal equally both facts, so that those who speak thus are really levelling their accusation of inconsistency at the Bible.

As a matter of fact, however, there is no inconsistency at all, but the very reverse. The strongest possible abhorrence is quite consistent with the strongest possible affection; we would indeed go further and say it is inseparable from it. It is impossible to regard any one with deep love and not heartily hate all that imperils that person in any way.

There is nothing, therefore, incompatible with God's love in His declared purpose to segregate all that is evil in eternity. At present good and evil seem hopelessly mixed in this world. A day is coming in which they will be finally disentangled. Good will bask in the sunshine of His favour. Evil will lie eternally beneath His frown. Thus, evil, eternally shut up in its own place, and enduring its just penalty, will no longer be able to threaten the peace and blessing of God's redeemed creation.

No one regards the isolation of small-pox patients or the still more sorrowful life-isolation of lepers as measures incompatible with benevolence amongst men. Why, then, object to God acting with similar intent in eternity?

Hell is sometimes painted in such lurid colours that minds are revolted. Is there foundation for this?

Imagination has, we fear, often run riot with this solemn subject, and people sometimes mistake Dante's Inferno for the hell of the Bible. This has furnished a useful handle to those who would deny the whole subject. The Bible speaks as ever in the language of reserve and restraint, yet the glimpses it gives are full of terror and it evidently is not intended that they should be otherwise.

To be incarcerated in sin's great prison-house for all eternity in conscious torment will be a fearful thing, and it is the kindness of God that plainly warns us of sin's consequences.

Moreover, it is evidently God's way to have a memorial of sin's effects, even when those effects are otherwise not visible. During the millennial age, for instance, when the face of the earth will be smiling with abundant fruitfulness, and mankind will be richly blessed, there will be certain spots of which it is written, "they shall not be healed; for they shall be given to salt" (Ezek. 47:11), and also in some way "the carcases of the men that have transgressed" against the Lord will be preserved so that men shall "go forth and look, upon" them (Isa. 66:23-24). It will be salutary for those blessed in that delightful age to have before them reminders of sin's former havoc both in nature and amongst men.

May there not be an analogy between God's action in such matters and His action in the far greater matter of an eternal hell? Who can affirm that the solemn doom of the lost in the lake of fire may not have some such service to render throughout eternity?

Is it clear from Scripture that the souls of men are immortal? The doctrine of eternal punishment can hardly be maintained apart from that.

In Scripture the adjectives "mortal" and "immortal" are applied to man's body, and we do not find the phrase "immortal soul." Yet it is quite clear that the soul, or spiritual part of man, survives death. Our Lord said, "Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul" (Matt. 10:28). He used here a word of strong force, meaning "to kill utterly or entirely." A feeble man may easily thus kill the body of another, but the soul is immortal and eludes him. The Lord added, "fear Him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell," and here He changed the word and used another, which means, "to mar or ruin, as regards the purpose for which a thing exists." It is the word used for perish in John 3:16, and for the perishing of the bottles in Matthew 9:17. It is also used in Matthew 27:20, when we read of the leaders persuading the multitude "that they should ask Barabbas and destroy Jesus." A very clear proof this, that destruction does not mean annihilation.

The whole verse teaches, first, that the soul is not mortal like the body, and, second, that in hell God intends not to annihilate, but to bring down into ruin, the whole man, both soul and body.

The soul, therefore, IS immortal, for man has it in connection with spirit, receiving it by the Divine in-breathing as Genesis 2:7 records. Becoming a "living soul" in this fashion, man is not as the beasts which perish.

There are many who argue that just as death is ceasing to exist, so the lake of fire, which is the second death, must imply total cessation of existence. Is this reasoning sound?

Viewed as a piece of reasoning, it is about as feeble and fallacious as can be. Were we to reply in reasoning vein, we should simply observe that if death is ceasing to exist then there can be no second death. You can't cease to exist in any proper sense, and yet exist so as to cease to exist in a second death! What strange things men will say in their efforts to overthrow the plain truth of God.

Yet, superficially, the statement has the appearance of being a real objection. This is derived from the giving of a false value to one of the great words of Scripture, viz. death.

This word occurs first in Genesis 2:17, and Genesis 3 is the record of how the death sentence fell on our first parents. Its use in the Bible is constant until we reach the last chapter but one of the New Testament, where we find "a new heaven and a new earth" where "there shall be no more death," and yet at the same time "the lake which burns with fire and brimstone: which is the second death." Now, right through, we affirm that death NEVER means "ceasing to exist," but always has the force of separation: either, the separation of the creature spiritually and morally from God, in which sense men are "dead in trespasses and sins;" or the separation of soul and spirit from the body, which is death physically; or yet again the final separation of the whole man, if unrepentant and unsaved, from God and all that is good and bright and worth possessing, in the lake of fire, and that is the second death.

The first use of the word death in Genesis 2 and 3 clearly bears this out. God threatened Adam with death on the day of his disobedience. Adam disobeyed and lived on to the age of nine hundred and thirty years. Was it, then, an idle threat? Not at all. The day he sinned he died, in the first sense of the word, i.e. he became totally separated and estranged from his Maker, "dead in sins." His physical death was deferred inasmuch as the Lord brought death that day upon some other denizen or denizens of the garden and clothed the guilty sinners with their skins. Centuries after, physical death supervened. Adam then passed out of all touch with this world, but he exists as regards God. As the Lord Himself said, "all live to Him" (Luke 20:38).

We therefore repeat with emphasis: Death, in Scripture, does not mean "ceasing to exist."

So many people, apparently true Christians, cannot accept the teaching of eternal punishment. Is it of such great moment whether they do or whether they do not?

Seeing that all the items of God's truth are not so many isolated fragments, but one whole, each item being like a stone of an arch, it matters much. Knock out one stone and you never know which will go next.

Suppose that, after all, eternal punishment is a mistake, then whichever alternative view we adopt we must at least conclude that sin is a matter much less grave than we had supposed; that its demerit, though perhaps considerable, cannot be infinite. That being so, we need not suppose that an infinite sacrifice is needed to atone for it, nor, consequently, that it must be necessary for a Person of infinite worth and value to become that sacrifice. Logically, therefore, we can abandon without difficulty the great truth of Atonement by blood, and of the Deity of our Lord Jesus Christ. We could quite consistently and conveniently become of Unitarian persuasion.

And as a matter of fact and history, it is to Unitarianism, full-blown, that the denial of eternal punishment has always led, though not all advance to the final conclusions with giant strides.

That is why the denial of eternal punishment is a matter of such gravity.