Topic Article #9: The Eternal Fate of Unbelievers
by Dr. Eugene Clingman, Executive Administrator
Copyright 2006, International Church Council Project
(This article may be freely distributed so long as it is not altered
and the above information remains intact.)
“There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ’s moral character, and that is that He believed in hell. I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment. Christ certainly as depicted in the Gospels did believe in everlasting punishment…I must say that I think all this doctrine, that hell-fire as a punishment for sin, is a doctrine of cruelty. It is a doctrine that put cruelty into the world and gave the world generations of cruel torture; and the Christ of the Gospels, if you take Him as His chroniclers represent Him, would certainly have to be considered partly responsible for that.” So wrote the philosopher Bertrand Russell.
I tell you the truth, I do not like the doctrine of hell. In my early Christian life I was taught the standard (orthodox) doctrine of hell that says people who do not receive Christ’s redemption go to a place where they eternally suffer for their sins. In those early years my theology was young, and inexperienced, and as I was busy learning many things, I did not stop to consider the implications of eternal hell. Soon, however, the time came, and came more than once, that I did seriously face this doctrine. As I did, I did not like it at all! Everything within me wanted it to not be true. I remember feeling, “Surely it would have been better for God not to have created than for Him to allow even one human being to go to a place where they suffer forever the inescapable torments of hell.” My mind tested many other possibilities and arguments; I thought long and often, but always I had to come back and answer the question, “What does the Bible say?” In my struggles over this issue I remember coming to the conclusion that I have been forced to many times in pursuit of aspects of the Christian faith – if I am going to believe anything seriously about the Bible, I must believe also what it says about hell (or other doctrine it teaches). Since the Bible testifies of itself that it is a unity, it is not logical to take bits and pieces of it, believing certain teachings, but rejecting others; that is simply not a logical place to stand. If what the Bible says about Jesus is true, and since Jesus testified concerning the Bible (Old Testament) that it, in its entirety is true, if I am going to believe about Jesus, I must of necessity believe what the Bible says about other issues also.
I wish I could escape the doctrine of hell. I wish eternal judgment were not true. I wish the Bible did not teach it, but it does! Jesus Himself taught more about hell than about heaven. Bertrand Russell, the agnostic quoted in the first paragraph of this article, certainly understood that Christ taught of everlasting hell. Russell did not believe that Christ is the Son of God; he did not believe that Christ is the Savior of mankind. If I were to not believe in hell, I would have to believe like Russell about Christ, for Christ taught about hell. But if Jesus is who He said He is, I must believe what He taught about hell.
Two Clear O.T. Passages on Hell
There are many passages on the afterlife in the Old Testament, but perhaps Isaiah and Daniel contain the clearest pictures of hell. The last words in the book of Isaiah (66:22-24) say that when all is said and done, when the new heavens and new earth are completed, “All mankind will come to bow down before me, says the LORD. Then they shall go forth and look on the corpses of the men who have transgressed against Me. For their worm shall not die, and their fire shall not be quenched; and they shall be an abhorrence to all mankind.” The picture is one of a continuing testimony throughout eternity of a recognition of the awfulness of sin, and the ongoing and complete extent of God’s judgment on it. It is a picture of a battlefield where God’s enemies have fallen and corpses of the enemy are strewn on the ground. The bodies are rotting on the ground. In the natural world, the worms in dead rotting unburied flesh would eventually run out of the rotting food on which it thrives, and any remaining would die. Isaiah says in this case the worms will not die, they will not run out of food, they will continue to consume, always and forever. And Isaiah says, “the fire shall not be quenched.” Fire eventually goes out, for it eventually runs out of fuel. This fire, however, will not be quenched, it will never go out. Jesus affirmed this passage from Isaiah when he spoke of God’s judgment on sinners (Mark 9:43-48).
Another O.T. passage that clearly shows an aspect of hell is Daniel 12:2 – “And 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.” Here is the resurrection which will take place on the last day (John 5:28-29; 6:39-40). We see some are raised to everlasting life, while others are raised to everlasting contempt. Both are everlasting. (Note: The passage says “many” rather than “all” because not all will be dead when the last day comes; there will be some who “…are alive, and remain until the coming of the Lord…” and who will be caught up to meet the Lord in the air (1 Thess. 4:17).
The New Testament has the more complete teaching about hell. Jesus’ teaching about hell in the Gospel of Matthew has been summarized by Robert A. Peterson, in his book, Hell on Trial like this: Hell is real (Matt. 5:21-22, 27-30; 23:15, 33); Hell is ruled by God (Matt. 10:28; 25:41, 46); Hell involves rejection (Matt. 7:23; 8:11-12; 22:13; 25:30); Hell involves pain (Matt. 13:30, 40-43, 49-50; 18:6-9; 24:51). Due to space limitations in this small newsletter, I cannot give a complete listing of New Testament passages, much less comment on them. I urge you to study these passages and consider the implications.
Why is Hell an ICCP Topic?
Why is the doctrine of hell important? Why has the International Church Council Project set itself to defend the historic and orthodox doctrine of hell from liberals, compromisers, and heretics? The doctrine of hell (eternal judgment) is a key doctrine of the Christian faith. The writer of Hebrews says that eternal judgment is part of the “foundation” of our faith (Hebrews 6:1-2). “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (Psalm 11:3). If the foundational doctrine of eternal judgment is removed or compromised, it effects other doctrines. As we saw in Isaiah, hell reveals for all eternity God’s wrath (his displeasure and judgment on sin). If we remove the revelation of God’s wrath from Christianity, it effects how we look on sin. Then we would conclude that sin is not so very bad. And then we would not recognize the awfulness of our own sin and would not recognize our need for a Savior to save us from both the penalty of sin and the bondage of sin. Eternal judgment (hell) is an essential foundation stone of the Christian Faith. In an article in Christianity Today, a certain pastor wrote – “Once we have given up wrath [eternal judgment/hell], can [the doctrines of] sin, judgment, or the Cross be far behind? Without the one, the others lose their meaning. Wrath measures sin, produces judgment, and necessitates the Cross.”