Eternal Punishment by J. P. Arendzen - Chapter 3

Eternal Punishment in Scripture

As the Old Testament was a progressive revelation, the doctrine of everlasting punishment for the wicked gradually gained in clearness as the time went on and approached the fulness of revelation in Christ. The Jews began with an exceedingly vague idea of the world beyond the grave. Considering that the Jews stayed for many generations in Egypt, where the ideas about reward and punishment hereafter were worked out in such minute detail and with such terrible crudity, this mentality must be. due to a deliberate refusal to entertain the thoughts of their fellow-countrymen and contemporaries, and it was no doubt the way of Providence to guard them from the fearful superstitions of the heathen world.

Moreover, as the gates of heaven were closed until Ascension day, no immediate bright future could be promised even to the saints of the Old Testament. It would have been cold comfort to Abraham to promise him two thousand years of waiting in a realm of twilight before the dawn of day. God mercifully shrouded the details of the immediate future in after-life from the Jews of the Old Covenant. As the Patriarchal and Mosaic covenant was a tribal or national one, and had only indirectly to do with the individual, the prophets delivered their message usually to the nation as such; they promised and threatened national welfare or national disaster as the immediate sanction of national obedience.

The existence of retribution beyond the grave was no doubt implied in the realisation of their responsibility before Jehovah, but no attempt was made to think out its details, and ultimate retribution after this life as a stimulus to well-doing was left to the individual. Jehovah's rewards and punishments were terrestrial; they were bestowed or inflicted here, whatever happened hereafter. The Hebrew Sheol was apparently very much like the Greek Hades, just the Nether world. That the good fared well, the wicked ill, in that abode was of course taken for granted, but seemingly one knew too little about it to give it special mention. The prophets predict a great day of judgement and final retribution. This great day of Jehovah, though often conceived as national rather than individual, does involve a final and irreversible settlement of human affairs some time in the future. Some prophets, especially Ezekiel and Daniel, clearly assert the eternal punishment of the wicked in a life beyond this earthly life.

The latter prophet writes: "At that time shall thy people be saved, every one that shall be found written in the book, and many of those that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some unto life everlasting, and others unto reproach to see it always" (Daniel 12:1,2). In the great Maccabean struggle, the certainty of everlasting retribution steeled the wills of the martyrs: "It is better," so they said to the tyrant king, "being put to death by men, to look for hope from God, to be raised up again by him: for, as to thee, thou shalt have no resurrection unto life" (2 Mac. 7:14).

Job certainly asserts the reward of the just after death, and this naturally implies the retribution of the unjust. In some Psalms, especially Psalm 48, the doctrine of eternal retribution after life is distinctly asserted. The shade of the wicked will be consumed in hell and have no other dwelling, but God will redeem the soul of the just from hell and take it with him. The Book of "Wisdom deals with the lot of the just and the unjust in the world beyond. The first five chapters are directly devoted to the doctrine of everlasting retribution, and it is set out with unmistakable clearness. The lost, reflecting on their earthly life, groan in anguish of spirit: "Being born forthwith we ceased to be, and have been able to show no mark of virtue, but are consumed in our wickedness. Such things said the sinners in hell, for the hope of the sinners is as dust that is blown away by the wind, but the just shall live for evermore and their reward is with the Lord." (Wisdom 5:13-16).

There can be no doubt that a century before our Lord's coming the Jews, as a whole, were convinced believers in an eternal sanction after death. Even the Sadducees, who did not believe in angel or spirit or in the resurrection, will hardly have extended their denial to a survival after death and a consequent retribution. In any case, they stood outside the religious development of the vast majority of the Jewish people. The reader of the Old Testament must, however, be warned that the mere use of the word "hell" in an English translation of the Old Testament cannot be taken as a proof of a belief in hell, in the Christian sense of everlasting punishment. In most cases it represents Sheol, which is the Hebrew term for the world beyond, the pit, the tomb, or the Nether world.

The New Testament opens with the teaching of St John the Baptist. "Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit shall be cut down and cast into the fire." Of Christ the Baptist prophesies: "His fan is in his hand, and he will purge his floor and will gather the wheat into his barn: but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire." "He that believeth in the Son hath life everlasting, but he that believeth not the Son shall not see life: but the wrath of God abideth on him" (Matt 3:10, 12; Luke 3:9, 17; John 3:36).

This teaching of the Forerunner is in a most striking way continued by Christ himself. It is almost as if he takes the very words from St John's lips and endorses them. Christ comes to men to place them before an absolute alternative, either to accept his message or take the eternal consequence. "He that shall speak against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, nor in the world to come. Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree evil and its fruit evil, for by the fruit the tree is known." (Matt 12:32-33) "He that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost shall never have forgiveness, but shall be guilty of an everlasting sin." (Matt 3:29) "I go, and you shall seek me. And you shall die in your sin. Whither I go you cannot come. If you believe not that I am he, you shall die in your sin. Amen, amen, I say unto you that whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin. Now the servant abideth not in the house for ever" (John 7:21, 24, 35). Christ closes the Sermon on the Mount, which is a summary of the moral precepts of the New Covenant, with exactly the same eternal unchangeable alternative. "Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit shall be cut down and shall be cast into the fire. Wherefore by their fruits you shall know them. Not every one that saith to me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven: but he that doth the will of my Father, who is in heaven, he shall enter into the kingdom of heaven. Many will say to me in that day: Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name and cast out devils' in thy name, and done many miracles in thy name? And then will I profess unto them: I never knew you. Depart from me, ye that work iniquity." Evil-doers, therefore, will meet a final doom "in that day." These words are graphically brought home to Christ's hearers by the comparison between the wise builder, whose house stands because it is built on a rock, and the foolish builder, whose house perishes because it is built on sand. "It fell, and great was the fall thereof." It is utter ruin; suggestion of rebuilding there is none; it is an irretrievable calamity.

The rejection of Christ by many Jews, the acceptance of Christ by many Gentiles, involves for them a definite exclusion or a definite inclusion in heaven without mention of a possible reversal of this state. "Many shall come from the east and the west and shall sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven: but the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into the exterior darkness. There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth." (Matt 8: 11, 12).

When Christ sent out the Apostles to preach, he said: "That which I tell you in the dark, speak ye in the light: and that which you hear in the ear, preach ye on the housetops, and fear ye not them that kill the body and are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him that can cause both soul and body to perish in hell" (Matt 10:28). Perdition in hell, therefore, is the death of the soul, and obviously a final verdict of damnation.

The Gospel of St Mark gives us the most explicit and fearsome warning from Christ's lips against hell-fire. "If thy hand scandalise thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life, maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into unquenchable fire: where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not extinguished. And if thy foot scandalise thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter lame into life everlasting than having two feet to be cast into hell of unquenchable fire: where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not extinguished. And if thy eye scandalise thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee with one eye to enter into the kingdom of God than having two eyes to be cast into hell-fire, where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not extinguished, for every one shall be salted with fire" (Mark 9:42-48).

On the one hand, therefore, is "life," "the kingdom of God," "life everlasting," on the other hand never-ending torment; any hazard whatever on earth must be taken to avoid the latter and secure the former.

The word "hell" comes spontaneously to Christ's lips when speaking of the utmost penalty and the last stage of depravity. The greatest threat against the man who insults his brother, is that he is in danger of hell-fire. The greatest crime of the Pharisees is that they make a proselyte two-fold more the child of hell than they are themselves, and Christ's threat against them is: "How will you flee from the judgement of hell?" In all these cases our Lord calls hell by the Jewish term Gehenna, which means literally "valley of Hinnom," and refers to a gorge outside Jerusalem, where rubbish was shot and burnt and where unclean animals fed on garbage. For about two centuries before our era, if not longer, this term had been used for the place of the reprobate, in contrast to Paradise, the place of the blessed. Our Lord used an expression, commonly used and understood even by the most simple, to express an idea of irretrievable final rejection and damnation. In the quotation from St Mark just given the term Gehenna is explained by Christ himself as "the unquenchable fire," and as the place "where their worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched." These last words are a quotation of the final verse of Isaias the Prophet. In this passage God promises Israel that "their seed and their name shall stand before him as the new heavens and the new earth, which he will make," "and all flesh shall come to adore before my face, saith the Lord, and they shall go out (of the holy city Jerusalem) and see the carcases of the men that have transgressed against me: their worm shall not die, and their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be a loathsome sight unto all flesh."

This closing verse of Isaias describing the final consummation of Messianic times, the final triumph of the just and the punishment of the wicked, seems to have gripped the Jewish mind, for we find it twice quoted in later Jewish scriptures in Eccles. 7:19 and Judith 16:21. In the latter book it is said: "In the day of judgement he will visit them, and he will give fire and worms into their flesh that they may burn and suffer for ever."

Christ taught mainly by parables. Now five great parables end with the proclamation of eternal punishment for the wicked. Christ thus explains the parable of the tares and the wheat: "The field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom, and the cockle are the children of the wicked one. And the enemy that sowed them is the devil. But the harvest is the end of the world, and the reapers are the angels. Even as the cockle, therefore, is gathered up and burnt with fire: so shall it be at the end of the world. The Son of Man shall send his angels, and they shall gather out of the kingdom all scandals and them that work iniquity, and shall cast them into the furnace of fire; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then shall the just shine as the sun in the kingdom of their Father."

The parable of the net catching good fishes and bad ends almost in the same words: "So shall it be at the end of the world. The angels shall go out and shall separate the wicked from among the just, and shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth." The parable of Dives and Lazarus also ends in this way. Dives in the nether world, being in torments, lifted up his eyes. "He saw Abraham afar off and Lazarus in his bosom: and he cried out and said: Father Abraham, have mercy on me and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am tormented in this flame. And Abraham said to him: Son, remember that thou didst receive good things in thy lifetime and likewise Lazarus evil things, but now he is comforted and thou art tormented. And besides all this, between us and you is a great gulf fixed: so that they who would pass from hence to you cannot, nor from thence come hither" (Luke 16:19 ff.).

The parable of the wedding feast (Matt 22:14) ends with the word of the king to the waiters concerning the man without the wedding garment: "Bind his hands and his feet and cast him into exterior darkness, there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth."

In the parable of the talents the servant who hid the one talent received the same punishment. The parable of the foolish virgins ends with a final exclusion from the feast by the bridegroom, who peremptorily answers the virgins who knock: "Amen, I say to you, I know you not."

The parable of the servant beating his fellow servants because his master delayed, tells us that the master ' shall separate him and appoint his portion with the hypocrites. There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth." The Greek word "hypocrites," in this text as in several others, doubtlessly stands for the Aramaic and Talmudic term for the reprobate, the haniphin. Such servant is a final outcast, permanently separated from the good.

This ultimate separation of the reprobate from the good is graphically portrayed by our Saviour in his description of the last judgement. "All nations shall be gathered together before him: and he shall separate them one from another, as the shepherd separateth the sheep from the goats, and he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on his left. Those on the right shall receive eternal bliss in the kingdom of the Father, those on the left shall hear: Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, which was prepared for the devil and his angels. And these shall go into everlasting punishment, but the just into life everlasting" (Matt 25:32, 33, 41, 46). This is evidently a sentence without appeal, a definite verdict without possibility of reversal.

Although the Fourth Gospel represents a phase of Christ's teaching so deeply distinct from that of the three previous Gospels, yet in this point St John's Gospel is as emphatic, if not in fact more so, than the others. It is the everlasting alternative which is emphasised throughout. "Unless a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up: that whosoever believeth in him may not perish, but may have life everlasting. For God so loved the world, as to give his only begotten Son: that whosoever believeth in him may not perish, but may have life everlasting." (John 3:5, 14-16) "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them and they follow me, and I give them life everlasting, and they shall not perish for ever." (John 10:27, 28) "Unless the grain of wheat falling into the ground die, itself remaineth alone; but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. He that loveth his life shall lose it, and he that hateth his life in this world keepeth it unto life eternal." "He that . . . receiveth not my words hath one that judgeth him. The word that I have spoken, the same shall judge him in the last day. The Father who sent me gave me commandment what I should say, . . . and I know that his commandment is life everlasting." (John 12:24, 25, 48-50) "Father, glorify thy Son ... as thou hast given him power over all flesh that he may give eternal life to all whom thou hast given him." "Those whom thou gavest me I have kept: and none of them is lost, but the son of perdition" (John 17:12). The whole Gospel of St John becomes unintelligible unless the whole of mankind stands before the irrevocable choice between death or life, light or darkness, everlasting life or everlasting perdition. If the acceptance or the rejection of Christ does not involve eternal, but only temporary consequences, if Christ came to save only from a limited punishment, not from a final doom, the words of Christ in the Fourth Gospel are a shameless deception or palpable nonsense. Then the closing command of Christ on earth is much ado about nothing: "Go ye into the whole world and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptised shall be saved: but he that believeth not shall be condemned." If ultimate salvation is secure for everyone, and if no ultimate condemnation exists, these words are unworthy, I do not say of Christ, but of any truthful man.

Christ's teaching is echoed by his Apostles. St John's teaching is easily gathered from the Apocalypse. A few words must suffice. "The devil was cast into the pool of fire and brimstone, where both the beast and the false prophet shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever. I saw the dead standing in the presence of the throne. The books were opened . . . and whosoever was not found written in the book of life, was cast into the pool of fire. This is the second death" (Apoc 20:9-15). St Peter writes: "Lying teachers shall bring in sects of perdition . . . whose judgement now a long time lingereth not, and their perdition slumbereth not. These men, as irrational beasts, naturally tending to the snare and to destruction, blaspheming those things which they know not, shall perish in their corruption." (2 Pet 2:1, 3, 11)

St Paul re-echoes his Master's teaching in these words: "Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with the angels of his power in a flame of fire, giving vengeance to them who know not God and who obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, who shall suffer as punishment eternal ruin from the face of the Lord, and from the glory of his power." (2 Thess. 1:9)

It is indeed difficult to read the New Testament and maintain that it does not teach the eternal punishment of the wicked. An attempt has indeed been made to maintain that the Greek word translated eternal or everlasting really means only "agelong," designating, indeed, a long period, but not strictly an unending one. This, however, is untenable.

Our Lord, describing the last judgement, ends saying of the wicked: "These shall go into everlasting punishment: but the just, into life everlasting." In both instances the same Greek word is used, and as no one holds that the reward of the just will come to an end, it is against all reason to suppose that Christ meant the punishment of the wicked to be only agelong, but not unending. Moreover, the word occurs in the New Testament no less than seventy-one times, of which forty times refer to life everlasting, some ten times to our heavenly reward, such as everlasting kingdom, salvation, redemption, glory, inheritance, dwellings, etc., once in the phrase "everlasting God"; if then we also read "everlasting perdition," it is in the highest degree arbitrary to translate it by "agelong but not unending."