Tim Challies on the wrath of God and the existence of hell

Read time: 5 minutes

Tim Challies thinks that one of the most important questions that as Christians we have to ask ourselves today is “Does hell exist?” I also think that this is an important question, one that, in my view, highlights a major flaw in the way most modern Christians understand the Bible, which is why I keep hammering at it. But I am one of those who think that Tim’s “hell”—a “place of eternal, conscious punishment, a real place where real people will go for real time and face the real wrath of a real God”—does not exist. That is, at least, I do not think that this doctrine can be found in the Bible.

Tim suggests quite rightly, in the first of his series of posts on the subject, that the “question of hell is first and foremost a question about the character of God”. So he sets out to consider the question of the existence of hell by exploring the relationship between the holiness of God and human sin.

He argues that God may respond to sin in one of two ways—either in “just wrath” or in “patient mercy”.

As an example of “just wrath” he recounts the well known story of Uzzah, who made the fatal mistake of trying to keep the ark of the covenant from tipping into the mud as it was being brought back to Jerusalem. The story can be found in 1 Samuel 6:1-7. Because his unthinking action broke the rules laid down by God for transporting the ark, Uzzah is struck down dead. He was a sinner. His hands were unclean because “his heart was filthy with sin”. So “when his sinful hands touched that holy ark, God responded with just wrath”. If we are shocked by this and think it entirely unjust, it is because “we make too little of God; we make too little of his holiness and too little of our sinfulness”. A just God cannot simply overlook sin and pretend it didn’t happen. For the sake of his own integrity he has to punish it. Every sinner has to face the punishment of “God’s holy wrath”, which is “God’s intense hatred of sin”. There’s no way round it. There has to be justice.

Tim then attempts to calculate what it must mean to face the wrath of God. If we sin consciously, then the punishment must be faced consciously. But for how long? The formula is simple: because the distance between God and the sinner is “eternal” (I presume he means “infinite”), the offence is “eternal”, and so the punishment must be “eternal”. Therefore the sinner must suffer conscious punishment eternally.

The second response of God is illustrated by the story of the golden calf (Exod. 32:1-14). Moses talks God out of destroying the people as punishment for their idolatry. God is persuaded; he does not execute judgment directly, although the people deserved it; instead he shows mercy. He acts patiently and defers judgment.

So there is no contradiction or capriciousness here, Tim maintains. God will always uphold justice and punish sin. But sometimes he may choose to put off the punishment in order to show mercy to his people. “There may be patient mercy, but there must be just wrath.”

But what happens, Tim asks, when the patience runs out? This is an important question in the New Testament, and since Tim hasn’t yet got to the New Testament, I will leave it for a follow-up post. But I will make a few off-the-cuff observations on the argument so far.

1. Uzzah is punished for his folly by death, in accordance with the commandment given in Numbers 4:15: “the sons of Kohath shall come to carry these, but they must not touch the holy things, lest they die”. The ultimate punishment anywhere in the Old Testament for sin is death—from the death of an individual to the destruction of a nation. The Israelites who worshipped the calf faced nothing worse than death, even if that punishment was deferred. For Paul, of course, this is virtually axiomatic: “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23).

2. “Wrath” in the Old Testament never refers to a final judgment or punishment after death. The wrath of God is always manifested as a temporal judgment either against rebellious Israel (only occasionally against individual Jews) or against the enemies of Israel.

3. Tim’s pseudo-rational argument for eternal conscious punishment is, frankly—if Tim will forgive me for being so blunt—ludicrous. Yes, of course, we prefer it if the unjust person knows that he or she is being punished and why. But nowhere does the Bible make that an absolute requirement. The Old Testament is quite untroubled by the fact that Uzzah was struck down instantaneously, presumably with no opportunity to reflect consciously on his “sin”. The argument that a finite creature is capable of committing an infinite offence, thus meriting an infinite punishment, is nonsensical and not to be found in scripture. It should be condemned as blatant heresy. If Tim knows of a verse or line of argument in the Bible that supports his view that human sin necessarily merits eternal punishment, then he is welcome to put it forward in his defence.

The fact that the “iniquity of the fathers” might need to be visited on the children, to the third or fourth generation, seems to me a pretty clear indication that Old Testament thought lacks a belief in eternal punishment after death. So we have the warning in Numbers 14:18 that God “will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation”. Tim is right: the guilty will be punished. But the only “punishment” beyond the death of the guilty is that their children will also suffer.

4. Tim will need to show in his next post how and why the temporal wrath of God in the Old Testament gets translated into a metaphysical wrath in the New Testament—how punishment by death gets upgraded to punishment after death. I don’t think it does, but we shall see what he has to say.

Yinka | Thu, 08/16/2012 - 02:24 | Permalink

The Spirit must be a-movin’! Because, John Shore, blogger, author and one of the most wickedly humorous minds of the Godblogoshphere, was engaged in a tete-a-tete with dear adherents of the standard evangelical reading of the famously “exclusive” Jesus sayings recently. John 14:6 was the verse in question.

The comments section, very spicy.

I assume Challies is going to get to one of these “sayings” sooner or later. What could be a stronger basis for an argument than the “words of Jesus himself ?”  A commenter sited John 3:18 a the ‘orthodox’ counter-argument:

18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God..

I was suprised John 3 wasn’t in your NT commentaries. Before the verses above, Jesus, um, said:

  10 “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? 11 Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. 12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? 13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven —the Son of Man.[e] 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up,[f] 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”[g]   

Would it be accurate to say the narrative historical lens therefore has the looming eschatological crisis of 1st centiury Judea directly in view  with these verses ?



In the second post of the series Tim Challies said, “For God to come up with a sentence less than eternal would be to say that he is less than eternal.” http://www.challies.com/articles/the-just-wrath-of-a-holy-g…

I’m confused as to what that statement means. The wrath of God as poured out onto Israel following periods of apostasy was always held out as less than eternal, as it was followed with promises of restoration, and the Bible never brought up the possibility that such a temporary time of punishment was a slur on God’s wrath.

It also seems problematic, if Jesus is considered to have paid the penalty for human sin, that Jesus’ temporary suffering on the cross would be a sufficient payment.

All in all, I think Tim’s eternality principle of punishment needs to be so qualified that it’s useless. Plus, of course, it simply cannot be found in Scripture. He begins with the intuitive need for punishment to be proportional to a crime and then tries to use that intuitive need to disprove itself. I can’t quite follow what he’s getting at.

I would be interested to see whether he responds to your post, Andrew. I’ve seen little or no actual dialogue yet between the narrative theology types and the reformed types. Perhaps I just haven’t been looking hard enough.

@Mitchell Powell:

Some good points, Mitchell. I find it very difficult to understand the mindset that can be persuaded by this sort of metaphysical logic when it is clearly neither biblical nor logical.

I doubt very much that Tim will even read my posts, let alone respond to them. I’m sure that there is some good dialogue happening between the two camps, but on the whole it seems to me that we speak such different languages from such entrenched positions that we find it extremely difficult to listen to each other.

The problem, in my view, is that the church has allowed theology and history to drift so far apart, over such a long period of time, that it has become virtually impossible to mend the division. All we can do is fire ineffectual arguments at each other across no man’s land. It’s quite depressing really.

@Andrew Perriman:


very well stated!  I agree 100%. And it too gets me down-right depressed sometimes.  Even to the point of blaming God for it.

@Mitchell Powell:

Reformed types and pretty much most evangelicals get around Jesus’ suffering/eternality issue via high christology. If ‘God himself’ died, if only for a some hours, the reasoning holds that such a ‘unique’ death could accomplish unique feats. Some camps add the ‘Jesus went to hell’ comic book story as well ! Ugh


There are a lot of things that aren’t in my very patchy commentary, but I will try and address the John passages some time.

Jason | Thu, 08/16/2012 - 07:56 | Permalink

This Argument about finite Human beings sinning against an infinite God equals infinite punishment is brought up by Augustin first I think. This Idea is borne out of the cultural context of feudalism, where people where not seen as equal so that people from lower social classes  had less honor. The more honer a person had, the more punishment / satisfication had to be done/ was seen as just. God would be the being worthy of infinite honor, sinning against god requires infinite punishment from that point of view. But I think there are some problems with that, e.g. does gods honor depend on punishment or are there other ways? What about reconciliation of all things, doesn’t this bring more honor?


If I remember right, the code of Hammurabi varied punishments according to whether one injured a slave, commoner, or nobleman. While I doubt many of us would support such a classist way of constructing law now, there’s probably something to the idea yet. In my childhood family (1 father, 1 mother, 9 children), an a child physically attacking Mom would be more serious than a scuffle between two children. Punishments, I imagine, would be higher for the former, though I can’t remember any such incident myself.

So I can buy that sinning against God is in some ways more serious than sinning against a human being. It’s a long jump from there to hell being a metaphysical necessity on that account. I will be waiting to see pastor Tim follow his metaphysical speculation up with exegesis.

@Mitchell Powell:

Pastor Tim and co. don’t realize how macabre the god they offer to the world really is.

In the wake of  Kony 2012,  a  searing documentary and you-tube phenomenon about the atrocities  of a rebel group in northen Uganda, Challies affirmed and linked to a disturbing response produced by some wild-eyed refomed type. This man stressed that viewers remember an even “graver injustice” admist ( what I presume to him were garden variety) injustices like child traficking, child rape and the grooming of child soldiers. I could not believe what I was hearing. God had been reduced to a petulant 3 year old in the corner, stewing over “injustices” done to him and planning  to exact “just” vengeance. A god incapable of empathy, a positively pyschopathic deity.

Oh my. How could any well-adjusted person believe stuff like that ! And we wonder why there’s not not much dialogue between narrative types and the reformed world ? Sorry to say, these guys are simply bat-shit crazy and in  dire need of reolving  their Daddy issues, preferably with Oprah nearby.


Most reformed folk I’ve known have been sane, caring, intellectually careful human beings. I’m sorry if you’ve bumped up against people who aren’t, Yinka.

All believers, reformed or not, have the task of struggling with the notion of a God who allows horrible atrocities in the world. The world is hell for many today, so it does not take a crazy person to think that this might always be the case.

There may be some unfortunate wrong turns in reformed theology, but I don’t think it can simply be written off as “Daddy issues.”

@Mitchell Powell:

Thanks Mitchell. I should have qualified my vitriol, as I had the “neo-refomed” tribe in mind. These “wrong turns” are highly consequential however, and my opinion of them gurantees I receive the left foot of fellowship.

Believe it or not, I gave it a go at a flaghip neo-reformed, neo-puritan church in the DC area ( I know, all these  “neos”, ah, conservative hipsters….). After one year, I just had to get my sanity back. Yes, Daddy issues might be the wrong descriptor. I’ll just call it “issues” then. Major ones.

Dana Ames | Thu, 08/16/2012 - 19:05 | Permalink

Hoo Andrew, you might have let yourself in for it — You may not hear from Challies himself, but you might suffer the wrath of Reformed Calvinist types in the States who follow him and are not as measured as he in their blogs and comments.

You are right, especially because of what Jesus said:  that being “perfect” the way the Father is perfect is about loving one’s enemies, and in doing good to them the way God makes the rain fall and the sun shine on everyone.   Jesus is the difinitive revelation of “who God is,” and he never acted like a feudal overlord.  There is nothing in scripture that would keep God from forgiving to the thousandth generation.

Yinka, I know sarcasm has a place — and there are times it gets in the way of being heard.  In the Eastern Orthodox understanding, Christ went to “hell” — understood to be “the abode of the dead” — not as some kind of comic book story, but to empty the “place.”  There is a very deep theology there.  Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev (who is in his 40s, so our contemporary) has written a good treatment of this, “Christ the Conqueror of Hell.”  He is very influenced — as am I — by the thought of St Isaac the Syrian, 500s AD, who seriously doubted eternal conscious torment and yet remains a saint in Orthodoxy (as do a few other Greek fathers).  Most Orthodox believe in some kind of “eternal” punishment but also view the character of God as good, and refuse to speculate a lot about all the judgment entails, thus upholding a kind of Paradox, something which the Orthodox are very used to…


@Dana Ames:

Mnay thanks for your note, Dana (note to self: stay away from horrid theology blogs early in the morning).

I appreciate the Orthodox resources you metioned. I am all for paradox and nuance, however, I grew with a lot of entertaining charismatics around me, hence the allusion to that great literary form :)


donsands | Thu, 08/16/2012 - 19:21 | Permalink

“You may not hear from Challies himself, but you might suffer the wrath of Reformed Calvinist types in the States who follow him and are not as measured as he in their blogs and comments.”

I guess that statement means me. And it surely must include millions of Christians down through the 2000 years of Church history.

I have no doubt in my heart that God is going to judge the “sons of wrath”, which I was one. Eph. 2

Jesus said to Judas: “It would have been better for you to have never been born.”

A disciple of Jesus, who the others thought was a good memeber no doubt.

Yet, this man was wicked. Is he more wicked than all others who have the same heart, and look to protect ourselves, and do what we think is best. Then only to find out that we are wicked, and so we long to kill ourselves.

I’ve been there. Judas actually did kill himself in a dreadful way.

“But God…..” Eph. 2:4  Hallelujah!

I now love Christ, and long to see Him. And until that day, when i die, or He returns, I shall serve Him, and love Him. And I shall reject all other false gods, and false teachings, by His grace and by His Holy Spirit, who abides with me, and in me.

Have a great day, and weekend. May our Lord bless us, and fill us with His truth, as we seek Him, and study His Word. Amen


When it comes to Judas, I’m glad you’re using his story as a call to self-examination. On the other hand, we must acknowledge that the Bible does frequently sort people into “righteous” and “wicked” categories according to their works. The vast majority of passages in which the Bible discusses wicked and righteous people give no support to the idea that all sinners practice equally severe sin meriting equal punishment.

@Mitchell Powell:

Oh, I agree Mitchell. Hell will be eternal for all who reject Christ, and yet the punishmenst will be perfectly suited for each and every sinner who dies in his and her sins.

All who say they have no need of the Cross and forgiveness will die without it, and will be judged by God.

The Bible teaches just two groups of souls though: “

“Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”—Matthew 25:32-34

How I long for this day, and yet i don’t as well. For the Lord will tell the souls on His left to depart into the devils domain of fire and darkness.

These are very scary truths from our Lord. These truths should make a soul cry out for forgiveness and mercy.

Yet many simply say, “Oh, come on. This can’t mean that.” Sad.

The fear of our Lord is the begining of understanding the truth, and then we need not have to fear, but Jesus will fill our hearts with His love and joy and peace.

Have a great weekend!

@don sands:

If you extended your “sheep and goats” quote, you’d quickly get to a part that doesn’t fit very well with the classic reformed individual eschatology. In Matthew 25, the “sheep” are separated from the “goats” on the basis of one variable: their hospitality toward the followers of Jesus.

Whatever judgment day is depicted in Matthew 25 does not closely fit judgment day as I’ve seen it preached by classically reformed types. Not one major reformed preacher that I know of preaches that we will one day all be assigned to heaven or hell on the basis of our eschatology. So when a reformed preacher preaches Matthew 25, his reading is selective: Matthew 25 is not simply read in terms of what it says, but is also transformed in order to fit with a pre-existing narrative about heaven and hell.

In fact, I’d say that the common doctrine on heaven vs. eternal conscious torment in hell on the basis of one’s belief doesn’t appear clearly in any one Scripture. Instead, it is put together like a jigsaw puzzle from a wide variety of passages, many of which have to be bent pretty far in order to make produce the common conservative evangelical understanding of personal eschatology.

Things like this are why some people are becoming less satisfied with the traditional picture of heaven and hell. It’s not that we are turning our backs on the clear teaching of Scripture; it’s that we’re finding that Scripture’s contents are often very different from what is preached.

Andrew Perriman has done some worthwhile exegetical work on the sheep and goats issue on this very website: http://www.postost.net/2011/02/judgment-sheep-goats


Don, I most certainly did not mean you.

God is good.  May he pour out his goodness on you, and us all.


don sands | Fri, 08/17/2012 - 03:20 | Permalink

You have to be abit scared from what our Lord Himself says not matter what you try to think it means.

Jesus says that when He returns and sits on His throne, and all the nations are before Him He will say this:

” Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”

That is very, very scary. I thank God every day for my salavation and His great mercy and love. For those dreadfully terrifying words could have been for me; and should have been, if not for His grace.

One thing is 100% sure, and that is that we all shall die, and we shall all have to stand before God the Father and His Beloved Son, Jesus the Christ.

Not long from now for me, with me at 59 years old. Another 20-30 years and I’m dead and gone. And according to the Gospel and my faith in Christ I shall never die the second death. Hallelujah!

I think your view of it avoids Rev 20-21 intently so that the idea that there is a judgment, and some are not spared, and the end they come to are all tossed out in spite of the absolute necessity of that event in the story Revelation tells.

@Frank Turk:

Frank, if you’re still around, are you assuming here that I am arguing: there is no hell, therefore everyone is saved? That may have been an appropriate assumption with regard to Rob Bell’s thesis, but I am not a universalist. Revelation 20-21 teaches that at the final judgment those who have done evil rather than good will be thrown into the lake of fire. Only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life will live in this new creation. But I do not think that the lake of fire is a place of endless torment for those who are thrown into it. It is a place where everything that does not belong in God’s new creation is finally destroyed, including death and satan. God’s final verdict on sin is death.

Scott | Fri, 08/17/2012 - 05:18 | Permalink

Oops — double post on other thread…

Well Tim Challies has finished his series with the following comment:

“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.”


If there is no hell, there is no need for a cross. 

I would have thought that God dealt with sin at the tree.  Those in Christ are the new creation sons and daughters of the second Adam as it were.

The question of no hell-no cross is a furphy.  The cross was needed to buy back a people for himself.  I wonder about the lack of words by Jesus Himself wrt the prupose of the cross in saving people from ‘hell’.   

Did not Adam die as a result of sin?  Where in the old testament do we see the need for Adam to suffer a second death?

@Andrew Perriman:

HI Andrew, that last made me laugh… can’t wait for the answer, to see whether ‘furphy’ is a word I can use in polite conversation…

Just to respond to an earlier comment — please don’t get depressed! I agree there seems to be a ‘great gulf fixed’ between some entrenched positions, but your excellent thinking and blogging is helping many of us grapple with and articulate subjects like this more effectively.  You may not convince those most convinced in the opposite direction, but you have some fans out here…

@Andrew Perriman:


used in the sense of a bit of a diversion story — fanciful tale. Kind of going down the wrong rabbit hole for an answer.


Another furphy definition. Story with no basis or fact. 

In her dictionary Dr Laugesen defines furphy as a rumour or false report; an absurd story and states that the word furphy “originated from the name of the firm J. Furphy and Sons who manufactured water carts in Shepperton, Victoria which delivered water. 

Troops who gathered around the water carts would swap stories, many of which had no basis in fact, hence the name furphy.