The Comprehensive and Eternal Retributive View of Hell: Chapter 3 – The Systematic Doctrine of Hell

The first step in our theological investigation, our examination of the doctrine of Hell throughout Church History, revealed three major views that have existed in the Church and still exist today: Annihilationism, Universalism, and the Historical view (within which there exists a literal understanding of the fire and other imagery of Hell, or a Metaphorical understanding).[1] The second step, our Biblical survey, revealed the breadth of what Scripture has to say on the subject, but did not attempt to synthesize a doctrine. To answer the question of what the Bible teaches on Hell, to see if any of these historical views are correct, we need to undertake the discipline of Systematic Theology. This discipline has been explained many ways, but in its essence it is a discipline where we attempt to bring together what Scripture says on a specific subject into a unified statement of Christian doctrine.[2] With the data collected from our Historical and Biblical surveys we can now systematize and synthesize a cohesive doctrine on what the Bible teaches about Hell. To do this we need to look at what Scripture says about the final destination of the wicked and the righteous, is it different; if it is different, then what is the purpose of Hell and how long will it last; and finally, what is the nature of Hell, what does it look like?

 

From as early in the Bible as the prophetic books we read of a contrast between the fate of the righteous and the fate of the wicked after death (Proverbs 15:24), a more clear picture of this is found when we turn to the New Testament. After death the righteous will go immediately to paradise (Luke 23:43), and the unrighteous will go to Sheol (Hades), the netherworld (see Ezekiel 32:17-32; Prov. 9:18, cf. Luke 16:23; Rev. 20:14). After Jesus comes again there will be a day of judgment and all men who ever lived will come before Jesus and be judged (Rev. 20:11-15). In Matthew 25 Jesus recounts this coming judgment with mention of two separate paths, one for the righteous and one for the wicked; He told His audience,

34 “Then the King will say to those on His right [The sheep], ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world…. 41 “Then He will also say to those on His left [The goats], ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels;…. 46 These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”[3]

Scripture seems to clearly teach that there will be a separation in this final judgment of the redeemed and the wicked; those who believe in Jesus to eternal life, and those who do not believe to eternal fire.[4] Scripture goes into quite a lot of detail as to who will end up in Hell. In Matthew 25:41 we read that the eternal fire was prepared first for the Devil and his angels, so they will find themselves there (cf. Matt. 8:29; Rev. 19:20, Jude 6, 2 Pet. 2:4) but so will those who have not put their faith in Jesus Christ. In the 3rd chapter, 16th verse, of his gospel John writes that those who believe in Jesus Christ will not perish; it is implied here that those who do not believe will perish (cf. Mark 16:16). Our faith, belief in Jesus, will justify us and we will not be condemned (Romans 3-7, Rom. 8:1), but if a man does not believe in Jesus he will not receive forgiveness for his sins and will not be imputed with Christ’s righteousness; since all man is sinful (Rom. 1-3, esp. 3:10-18) this will result in all unbelieving men being condemned on the day of judgment (cf. Rom. 2:5-8, 12-16; John 5:29).  Throughout the NT it is said that those who commit lawlessness, false prophets, those who become stumbling blocks, and sinners of all sorts will find themselves condemned on this day of judgment (Matt. 7:15-20, 13:41-42 ). The different theological position involved in the discussion on the doctrine of Hell all agree that, at least initially, the wicked will have a separate destination than Christians. Much of the disagreement begins when the purpose and duration of Hell are discussed.

 

When looking at the Biblical data the view that seems most congruent with Scripture is that of an eternal punishment with the purpose of retribution. In Matthew 25:46 Jesus, while talking about the final judgment, declares that “[those who are accursed, the goats] will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” In this passage the eternal fate of the wicked is contrasted with the eternal life given to the righteous; to deny the eternality of the punishment for the wicked is to deny the eternality of the believer’s life. Some Annihilationists suggest that we are free to interpret the eternal punishment here as a final irreversible judgment and not as eternal conscious punishment;[5] according to this understanding this verse says nothing about the precise nature of the punishment. The word translated eternal here is αἰώνιος (aiōnios) and does not contain within its semantic range the idea of finality but of unending; it can either refer to something without beginning (cf. Rom. 16:25), without beginning or end (cf. Heb. 9:14), or something without end.[6] Earlier in this passage (v. 41) this same group is told to “Depart” into “the eternal fire” prepared for the devil and his angels. Here again αἰώνιος (aiōnios) has the sense of unending fire, we see this same affirmation elsewhere in Scripture where the fires of Hell are described as “unquenchable” (Luke 3:17; Mark 9:43, Matt. 3:12). There is no reason why, contextually or grammatically, “eternal punishment” should be taken to mean “final and completed punishment,” especially when the context—particularly the parallel with “eternal life”—and the semantic range of αἰώνιος (aiōnios) would seem to require the understanding of “unending punishment.”[7] In the Daniel 12:2 we see the same parallel between eternal life and eternal punishment; “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt.” Elsewhere in Scripture the imagery of the “worm that will not die” (Isaiah 66:24, Mark 9:48) and ever rising smoke (Rev. 14:11) also convey the idea of eternal punishment.

Scripture teaches that the punishment in Hell is everlasting, but what about the purpose of the punishment; is it retributive or restorative? Some Universalists[8] believe that we can still hope for those who are lost in Hell, for the fire is that of “God’s chastising love.”[9] “The punishment in hell is not simply retributive and punitive but curative or remedial.”[10] This understanding lacks any substantive biblical evidence,[11] and is in contrast with the explicit statements of Scripture. Scripture speaks of Hell as the place where God’s wrath is poured out on sin, seemingly in retribution and not for restoration. In Rom. 2:8 Paul writes that those who are selfishly ambitious will receive, in accordance with their deeds (v. 6), “wrath and indignation” (cf. Rev. 14:9-10). In another of Paul’s epistles he writes that when Christ comes again He will deal out “retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2 Thess. 1:8). The Universalist position of restorative judgment implies that the judgment will end, which contradicts eternal punishment in Hell, and that someone can be saved after death.[12] In addition to a strong emphasis on the choices we make in this life, Scripture seems to explicitly teach that there will be no second chances after death. In Luke 13:22-30, Jesus responds to a query pertaining to who is saved. Jesus clearly teaches against a second chance when He responds with an exhortation for the man to “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able” (v. 24). He then goes on to inform the man that when judgment comes it will be too late; “Once the head of the house gets up and shuts the door” (v. 25) those who try to enter will be rejected and will depart into outer darkness (v. 27). Later in Luke, chapter 16, Jesus tells a story about two men in the netherworld before the final judgment; this story, featuring a unbridgeable chasm separating the state of the righteous and the unrighteous (v. 19-31), would seem to impress upon the reader the unchangeableness of the situation in which the men find themselves.[13] Scripture provides a strikingly clear picture of Hell being eternal retributive punishment for those who have decided in this life that they will not turn to God, but what does Scripture teach on the very nature of the suffering in Hell?

 

The nature of suffering in Hell is where the historical understanding of eternal conscious punishment is split. The traditional position has held that the Biblical imagery of fire refers to the literal nature of Hell,[14] but since the Reformation the idea that the imagery of fire is metaphorical has rose to at least an equal level with the historical view.[15] It is conceivable for some Annihilationists[16] and Universalists to accept either of these positions.[17] The view that seems to best draw together all the affirmations of Scripture on the nature of Hell is that the suffering in Hell will be a positive infliction against both spirit beings (fallen angels and the devil) and material beings (resurrected men and women). This torment in Hell is unimaginable, described in the imagery of “fire,” “outer darkness,” “weeping and gnashing of teeth” and will be away from the presence of the LORD. The punishment in Hell varies according to ones deeds but it is for all degrees of punishment everlasting destruction and ruin.

The Bible teaches that when Christ returns there will be a resurrection of both unbelievers and believers; the believers to life, but the unbelievers to eternal suffering (John 5:29). In this resurrection the souls that were in paradise with God and those in Hades (Sheol) will be reunited with their physical bodies and in the judgment be sent to their respective destinations (Matt. 25:34, 41, 46). That the wicked in Hell will possess a physical body and that the punishment in hell will be both physical and spiritual is seen in Matt. 10:28, Jesus tells His audience to “fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (cf. Matt. 5:29-30). This is supported by what the Scripture teaches on the nature of man; we are a combination of body and soul/spirit (Dichotomy) that can be separated for a time but is naturally a unity (Conditional Unity).[18] In the intermediate state the soul and body will be separated but this is an unnatural state[19] and they will be reunited in the resurrection (Acts 24:15, John 5:29). As well as affecting the whole of man’s nature, the punishment in Hell will be inflicted on the purely spiritual beings[20] that it was initially prepared for (Satan and his angels; Matt. 25:41).

This punishment is not a purely self-inflicted torment as envisioned by some authors,[21] for Scripture teaches that the punishment in Hell is the pouring out of God’s wrath (2 Thess. 1:8-9; Rom 2:8, cf. Rev. 14:9-10) and Matt 10:28 informs us to fear Him who able to destroy both body and soul in Hell. When it comes to the exact nature of the punishment in Hell Scripture employs vivid imagery that “is meant to appall us and strike us dumb with horror, assuring us that, as heaven will be better than we could dream, so hell will be worse than we can conceive.”[22]The imagery employed by Jesus and the writers of Scripture is sometimes written off as a reference to a garbage dump existing outside the city of Jerusalem,[23] but in light of a lack of historical evidence outside of a Jewish commentary on Psalm 27—written c. 1200 AD—the imagery cannot be written off as merely referring to a physical landmark.[24] Neither does it seem that Biblical authors, or Jesus, meant to give a literal picture of Hell; this can be concluded from a few lines of evidence. If we take the imagery as purely literal we end up with a seeming contradiction; physical fire is by nature a producer of light, but Hell is also described as “darkness.”[25] Scripture also informs us that the fires of Hell were originally prepared for the Devil and his angels, but physical fire affects matter and not spirit so this would seem to indicate a metaphorical understanding.[26] In Isaiah 66:24 (cf. Mark 9:48) we read of a worm that “will not die” and unquenchable flame in parallel, to inquire into one as a literal would lead us to take the other as the same.[27] There is no contextual demand for us to take this imagery as literal, and very good reason to believe that it is metaphorical. The one Scripture that supporters of a literal understanding bring up to demand their understanding is Luke 16. In the story of Lazarus and the rich man (v. 19-31) there is claimed to be evidence for literal fire.[28] The rich man experiences agony in the flame and desires water to cool his tongue (v.24). There seems to be two reasons that caution us against taking this as evidence for the literal understanding. The first consideration is the nature of parables. When interpreting the Gospels it is dangerous to read too many details into the parables beyond what they are intending to convey. We also need to take into account what is being discussed in this parable. In Luke 16 Jesus is talking about the intermediate state, in which souls receive joy or torment apart from their physical bodies. Calvin observes that Christ seems to be describing the spiritual things of the intermediate state on the level of our understanding. “The Lord is painting a picture which represents the condition of the future life in a way that we can understand. The sum of it is that believing souls when they leave the body lead a joyful and blessed life outside the world, but that for the reprobate are prepared terrifying torments which can no more be conceived by our minds than can the infinite glory of heaven.”[29] Just as the authors of the Bible described heaven in the most vivid imagery available to them, but in no way encompassed its grandeur, they described Hell in powerful imagery that is only a shadow of the horrors found in its reality.[30] This punishment in Hell is, as well as being unimaginable, experienced “away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power” (2 Thess. 1:9). It would seem that the horrors of Hell will be experienced as the opposite of the joys of Heaven, where believers enjoy eternity in fellowship with God (Rev. 22:1-11). We do not have a clear picture of what the torment in Hell will be like, but the Bible makes it clear that Hell is a place that is terrifying and should be feared.

 

Taking the totality of the Scripture’s teaching on Hell together it would seem best to affirm an understanding of Hell that would fit under the overarching ideas of the Metaphorical view of Hell. It may be best to give the understanding presented here a different name so as not to have it confused with the modern Metaphorical understanding that sees Hell as solely psychological and spiritual torment. The name that best suits the view presented here is the “Comprehensive and Eternal Retributive view of Hell.”[31] Hell is the place where the Devil, his angels, and all the unrighteous throughout the history of the world will be sent after the final judgment. It is characterized by eternal retribution against the sins of man and the pouring out of God’s wrath in a way that is unimaginable; this wrath is meted out in different degrees in accordance with ones deeds in life and is free from the presence of God and the glory of His power. This understanding of Hell makes it clear that this is not a place that we would ever want to go, nor want our loved ones to go. Jesus, in Mark 9:43-48, three times warns us to go to extreme measures against sin; contrasting the benefits of sacrifice in the effort to fight sin with the horrors of Hell. It is upon these words that Augustine reflects; “He[Jesus] did not shrink from using the same words three times over in one passage. And who is not terrified by this repetition, and by the threat of that punishment uttered so vehemently by the lips of the Lord Himself?”[32]

We now have an answer to our inquiry as to the Biblical teaching on Hell, but what of our other questions; is this view tenable in our sceptical world, does this view of Hell even affect our lives? With a doctrine formulated we are now in a position to proceed through the fourth and fifth steps in our theological investigation; for the first of these we must defend our conclusion, we must perform apologetics.

< Table of Contents Glossary >


[1] See the body paragraphs of chapter 1-The Historical Development of the Doctrine of Hell for definitions of these views. The Literal view, Annihilationism and Universalism can be found in the first body paragraph, the Metaphorical view can be found in the third.

[2] Millard J. Erickson defines it as; “that discipline which strives to give a coherent statement of the doctrines of the Christian faith, based primarily on the Scriptures, placed in the context of culture in general, worded in contemporary idiom, and related to issues of life.” Wayne Grudem defines it as; “any study that answers the questions, “What does the whole Bible teach us today?” about any given topic.” Millard J Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1998), 23. Wayne Grudem, Systematic theology : an introduction to biblical doctrine (Leicester; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press ; Zondervan, 1994), 21.

[3] All Scripture in this chapter  is taken from the NASB; New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995).

[4] As can also be seen in the picture of the chaff (Matt. 3:12) and the parables of the tares (Matt. 13:24-30) and the dragnet (Matt. 13:47-52).

[5] Clark H. Pinnock in William V. Crockett and Stanley N. Gundry, eds., Four Views on Hell (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 1992), 156.

[6] William Arndt, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 2d ed., rev. and augmented (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 28. Cf.; Gerhard Kittel, ed., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1964), 208–209.

[7] Another use of aiōnios in reference to eternal punishment in Hell is 2 Thess. 1:8-9

[8] Included in this label are so-called “hopeful universalists”, like Karl Barth, who do not go so far as to say that all will in the end be saved, but are hopeful that God’s love will bring all of man into His fold. Bloesch does not necessarily subscribe to the view that all will end up in Heaven, but sees it as a possibility and sees the restorative nature of Hell as a strong biblical theme. Donald G. Bloesch, The Last Things: Resurrection, Judgment, Glory, Christian Foundations (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 228.

[9] Ibid., 224.

[10] See the explanation of this position in; Ibid., 225.

[11] See: Ibid., 223–225.

[12] Bell, Love Wins, 107.

[13] Millard J Erickson and L. Arnold Hustad, Introducing Christian doctrine (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2001), 412–413.

[14]Modern examples of this view are: Jonathan Edwards, Sermons of Jonathan Edwards (Peabody, Ma.: Hendrickson Pub., 2005), 399–410. and; John Walvoord in Crockett and Gundry, Four Views on Hell, 11–28.

[15] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 1997), III.xxv.12.; and William V. Crockett in Crockett and Gundry, Four Views on Hell, 11–28.

[16] Only those who believe that the soul will be annihilated after a period of suffering in Hell, a form of Annihilationism Proper. Benjamin B. Warfield, “Annihilationism,” ed. Samuel Macauley Jackson, The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge (Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1908), 184.

[17] At least two Universalists believe that Hell is not a place of physical suffering, if a place at all: Bell, Love Wins, 70–77.; Bloesch, The Last Things, 221–223.

[18] Grudem, Systematic theology, 483. Erickson and Hustad, Introducing Christian doctrine, 183.

[19] Conditional Unity is the view of human nature held by Millard J. Erickson, it is very similar to the Dichotomist understanding of Wayne Grudem; it seems to be a specialized understanding within the greater category of Dichotomy. Grudem, Systematic theology, 483.; Erickson and Hustad, Introducing Christian doctrine, 381.

[20] It seems to be the safest conclusion from Scripture that angels are spiritual beings that can occasionally take on physical forms (Heb. 1:14, Luke 24:39). Erickson and Hustad, Introducing Christian doctrine, 156.

[21] C.S. Lewis’s vision of hell in The Great Divorce seems to envision a hell where you are locked in from the inside and appears to be missing the element of God’s active judgment. C. S Lewis, The complete C.S. Lewis Signature classics (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2007), 467–469, 503–504, 626. Bell, Love Wins, 70–73. Erickson describes the torment as loneliness and sorrow over failure; Millard J. Erickson, “Principles, Permance, And Future Divine Judgment: A Case Study In Theological Method,” Journal Of The Evangelical Theological Society 28, no. 3 (1985): 324–325.

[22] J. I. Packer, Concise Theology: a Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1993).

[23]Bell, Love Wins, 67–70.

[24] Lloyd R. Bailey, “Enigmatic Bible Passages: Gehenna: The Topography of Hell,” The Biblical Archaeologist 49, no. 3 (1986): 187–189, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3210000.

[25] Crockett in Crockett and Gundry, Four Views on Hell, 30.

[26] Thomas Manton, The Complete Works of Thomas Manton, D.D., vol. 10 (Worthington, Pennsylvania: Maranatha Publications, n.d.), 85.

[27] John Calvin, A Harmony of the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, And Luke, ed. David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance, trans. A. W. Morrison, vol. 1, Calvin’s Commentaries (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrews Press, 1972), 200–201. Cf. Charles Hodge, Systematic theology, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), 868.

[28] Walvoord in Crockett and Gundry, Four Views on Hell, 28.

[29] John Calvin, A Harmony of the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, And Luke., ed. David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance, trans. T. H. L. Parker, vol. 2, Calvin’s Commentaries (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1972), 118–119.

[30] Packer, Concise Theology: a Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs.

[31] What this name lacks in brevity it makes up for in clarity. This view of Hell is comprehensive because it involves the entirety of our being; both spirit and flesh. “Eternal” is included because it is vital in this day and age to validate the duration of Hell’s torments. Lastly Hell is Retributive: Hell involves the pouring out of God’s wrath against sin and not a restorative cleansing.

[32] Saint Augustine, City of God, in Saint Augustine, Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers: St. Augustine’s City of God and Christian Doctrine, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, vol. 2, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers 1 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Christian Classics Ethereal Library), iv.XXI.9, accessed May 8, 2012, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf208.html.

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