The eternal punishment of the wicked
Although the gospel is good news, it is only good news to those who are being saved. For those who reject the gospel it is bad news. Although the downside of the gospel is not the focus of our preaching, we are bound to warn of the coming judgment. The idea of judgment prompts a range of questions we must answer. What does this judgment entail? Is there a Hell? How can a loving God be so cruel?
The substance of this issue centers on the final state of the wicked. Although theories abound, the Bible does not give us a detailed answer on the issue, and so we are left to wonder what the loss will entail for those who do not put their trust in Jesus. What is clear, is that the potential loss of the gift of eternal life is horrendous.
Interpreting the Bible
Part of the confusion we face on this issue is caused by the different ways we handle the Bible. A fundamentalist Christian will tend to take the Bible literally. Such a simplistic approach often forces a believer to adopt an unrealistic world view which inevitably leads to error. A liberal Christian will tend to use the Bible as a source of truth, but not truth itself. This approach ends up undermining Biblical authority, as the believer tends to accept Biblical teachings that they agree with, while rejecting teachings that they don't agree with. Such an approach is subjective and leads to error.
It is probably best to view the Bible as the Word of God when rightly interpreted. The phrase, "rightly interpreted" is the crucial statement. It is not enough to just take the words at face value, nor is right to remove words that we don't like. God is a speaking/revealing God, who speaks through his prophets. Their words are recorded for our edification. Our task is to understand the words of those who speak for God, accept the truth revealed as God's truth, and apply it in our lives, Eph.4:11-13, 2Tim.3:16.
Miles Coverdale defined well the proper rules of interpretation when he said "it shall greatly helpe ye to understand scripture, if thou mark not only what is spoken or wrytten, but of whom, to whom, with what words, at what time, where, to what intent, with what circumstances, considering what goeth before and what followeth."
So then, when it comes to an issue like "the final state of the wicked" the "with what words" becomes crucial to our understanding. If the language describing the final state is figurative, then a literal interpretation is misleading. On this particular issue, interpretive method is crucial.
The place of punishment
In the Old Testament the word "Sheol" is used to describe the place of the dead ("Hades" = below. The "abyss"). It was where the dead go. It is a place without life or being. In the later Old Testament period there grew a hope of life beyond "Sheol", beyond the grave. The New Testament clearly teaches a resurrection of the dead from the grave at the day of Christ's return. The problem is that the language used of the "last days" is very figurative (parabolic, allegorical, pictorial.... rather than literal). Clearly this age is fast passing away and eternity is before us, even with us. Those in Christ shall inherit eternity, while those without Christ will loose it. The literal details are not so easy to fill in.
Using pictorial language Jesus says the "dead in Christ shall rise" in the last day to receive the reward "well done thou good and faithful servant". The "apostate", those without standing, but who claim standing with Christ, will also rise to hear the condemnation, "I do not know you, depart from me." The wicked will rise from the place of the dead to face punishment, cf. Rev.6:16.
There will be a last judgment (eg. Matt.5:21f, Mk.9:43-48.....) - "wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God", Rom.2:8f. Yet Christ is already the "revelation of the wrath of God against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men", Rom.1:18, cf. 2Cor.5:21. For the wicked, the hour of judgment comes in the rejection of Christ in the gospel, Jn.3:36, Heb.4:12. Judgment is now, Jn.3:18f, a judgment with eternal ramifications. In the day of Christ's return only those who trust Jesus shall stand, 1Thess.5:9.
The judgment of the wicked is descriptively presented in the terms of being cast upon the burning rubbish dump of Jerusalem. The place is called "hell", which comes from the Hebrew "gehenna" - the valley ("ge") of the sons of Hinnom ("beney hinnom"), the rubbish dump south west of Jerusalem. The horror of this loss is described as "eternal fire", "the fire of hell", Matt.18:8,9. The parable of the Weeds describes it as being thrown into "the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth", Matt.13:42. John describes it as a "lake of fire", Rev.20:14,15. The Parable of the Talents describes it in terms of being cast "into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth", Matt.25:30. The imagery of the separation of the Sheep from the Goats, Matt.25:31-46, describes the apostate cast "into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels", v41. They "go away to eternal punishment", v46. The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus describes the rich man "in hell", "in torment", and "in agony in this fire", Lk.16:19-31. Using Isaiah's imagery of the rubbish dump, the wicked face a horror without relief in that "their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched", Mk.9:48.
The dominance of figurative language in descriptions of the eternal punishment of the wicked make it difficult to hold the idea as a literal certainty. "Eternal death" or "second death" (eternal annihilation), cf Rev.20:12-15, has similar Biblical precedence. What we can say with certainty is that "he who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life", 1Jn.5:12.
So eternal loss for the unbeliever is immense, but the actual details of that loss is unclear. If we lean toward the literal interpretation of scripture we will tend to think of an ongoing punishment of the wicked. If we give weight to the literary forms of scripture we will tend to think of an eternal loss of life for the wicked.
The debate on this issue will continue, but in speaking with unbelievers it does seem best to explain eternal punishment in terms of being cast out, of losing life, of death eternal. God offers us in Christ eternal friendship. If we reject his offer then the darkness of eternal death awaits us. We return to the dust and are no more. This approach answers most questions on the issue of Hell and the justice of such a punishment.
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