Tim Challies’ final post on “The Holiness of God and the Existence of Hell” is a bit of a let-down. I was rather hoping that he would examine the biblical evidence for his doctrine of eternal conscious torment. I thought he might have considered how words like “wrath” and “Gehenna” and “Hades” are actually used in scripture—rather than in his particular modern-Reformed tradition. I was looking forward to seeing how he would account for the supposed shift from temporal punishment in the Old Testament to eternal punishment in the New Testament. Instead he defends the doctrine by way of another piece of non-biblical rationalist metaphysics.
We began this series by asking, “Does hell exist? Is it a place of eternal, conscious torment?” To ask whether hell exists is to ask if God is truly holy, if he will truly be holy in the face of sin. We find that God will be holy, which means he will be just, which means he will punish sin, which means there is a hell and it is a place of his wrath. It must be.
God is holy, therefore hell must exist. God is holy, therefore he must punish unbelievers consciously for eternity. That is a gross, theologically motivated distortion of scripture, which trivializes human experience and exposes God to mockery and contempt. That the argument can be put forward almost entirely without biblical support by an articulate and much respected Reformed pastor is at best disappointing and at worst irresponsible.
1. The first thing to say in response is that God is holy, therefore the wages of sin is death, which is quite bad enough. The punishment for transgression all the way through the Bible, from the curse pronounced on Adam and Eve to the lake of fire, which is God’s final verdict on sin, is death, destruction. Individuals are punished by death, communities and cultures are punished by destruction, often at one and the same time. It’s as simple as that. I recommend my little Kindle book Heaven and Hell in Narrative Perspective for the details.
2. I appreciate Tim’s passion for the cross—genuinely, I do. But, frankly, his account of Jesus’ death borders on fantasy. The belief that Jesus died both physically and spiritually cannot be found in the New Testament. Jesus simply died and then was raised from the dead. Nothing is said to the effect that he faced “an eternal measure of wrath for sins against an eternal being”. The New Testament just doesn’t attempt this sort of quantitative metaphysics. The extent and nature of God’s wrath against Israel is to be found entirely in the physical suffering of crucifixion. Thousands of Jews would later suffer in this fashion at the hands of the Romans when the full wrath of God fell upon his people.
3. If Jesus indeed faced “an eternal measure of wrath for sins against an eternal being”, why in the name of all that is merciful does hell still exist? Why do people still need to be punished eternally when Jesus suffered an eternal measure of wrath? If the wrath of God was “absorbed and exhausted, until every bit of justice was satisfied”, how is it that there is still sufficient wrath left over to punish vast swathes of humanity for ever? I don’t place much weight on this line of reasoning—either on Tim’s proposition or on my retort—because it seems alien to the biblical worldview. But I want at least to express my frustration that misbeliefs get perpetuated in this way.
4. One passage of scripture that does get quoted is Revelation 16:5-7. The passage refers to God’s wrath against Rome, which has persecuted the prophets and saints. This is an act of temporal judgment against an enemy of God’s people, exactly of the kind that we find in the Old Testament. It has nothing to do with hell.
5. Tim argues that in the Old Testament narratives “we see display after display of God’s patient mercy and occasional displays of his just wrath”, but at the cross we see “each in its fullness”.
We see heaven and hell—the heaven of mercy and the hell of wrath, the heaven of righteousness, the hell of unrighteousness, the heaven of Christ’s gracious substitution, the hell of facing justice without an advocate, without a substitute.
Well, that’s sort of right. But what we see is a man dying. Yes, there is no advocate or substitute. But there is also no punishment after death, there is no eternal conscious torment. There is no hell.