Judgment and Hell
By William Webster
And I saw a great white throne and Him who sat upon it, from whose presence earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and the books were opened, and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds…And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:11–12, 15)
TThe word of God warns there is a day of judgment coming when all men will stand before God. Hebrews 9:27 states: ‘And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment.’ The judgment of God is an inescapable reality, so any discussion of judgment must include an examination of the subject of hell. Our Creator is a God of love and mercy. But he is also a God of wrath and a righteous judge because he is a God of infinite holiness. Over and over again scripture emphasizes these truths about our Creator:
God is light and in Him there is no darkness at all (1 Jn. 1:5).
Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God, the Almighty, who was and who is and who is to come (Rev. 4:8).
Let the heavens be glad and the earth rejoice…before the Lord for He is coming; for He is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness, and the peoples in His faithfulness (Ps. 96:11–13).
The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men (Rom. 1:18).
God is now declaring to men that all everywhere must repent for He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness (Acts 17:30–31).
God will bring to account every thought, word and deed. He is omniscient—he knows us through and through:
There is no creature hidden from his sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of him with whom we have to do (Heb. 4:13).
His eyes are upon the ways of man. He sees all his steps (Job 34:21).
Every man’s way is clean in his own eyes but the Lord weighs the motives (Prov. 16:3).
You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of men but God knows your hearts…(Lk. 16:15).
Every careless word that men shall speak they shall render account of it in the day of judgment (Mt. 12:36).
God knows our hearts. What goes on within us matters to God. Jesus made this clear when he said: ‘I say to you, that everyone who looks on a woman to lust for her has committed adultery with her already in his heart’ (Mt. 5:28). As far as God is concerned—to think it is to do it. He hates sin and his anger is expressed in what scripture calls the wrath of God—a wrath that is revealed in the course of this life, and which will be fully revealed at the day of judgment:
The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men (Rom. 1:18).
Do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and forbearance and patience not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance. But because of your stubborness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who will render to every man according to his deeds (Rom. 2:4-6).
When the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. And these will pay the penalty of eternal destruction away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power when He comes to be glorified in His saints on that day (2 Thes. 1:7-9).
And they said to the mountains and rocks, fall on us and hide us from the presence of Him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come and who is able to stand (Rev. 6:16).
Because God is holy and just he must judge and punish sin. If we want to know God’s evaluation of sin we need look no further than the cross of Christ. The cross is a public display of God’s judgment against sin. God is a God of wrath and judgment and there is coming a great and terrible day of the Lord for all of those outside of Jesus Christ:
The sun will be turned into darkness and the moon to blood before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes (Joel 2:31).
And angels who did not keep their domain, but abandoned their proper abode, He has kept in eternal bonds under darkness for the judgment of the great day (Jude 6).
The Teaching of Jesus
Hell is a reality; a real and physical place—eternal in duration. In hell, both soul and body will be confined, separated from God in unspeakable and unimaginable torment. There are three major words in the New Testament which are used to describe hell: Hades, the Lake of Fire and Gehenna. The word Gehenna is the most thoroughly descriptive of what hell is like. John Blanchard gives us some historical background to this word:
About 750 B.C. King Ahaz was ruler of Judah. A spineless idolater, he adopted some of the most revolting heathen practices of his day. Among the worst was the offering of human sacrifices—he even had his own sons burned to death. These atrocities were carried out in the valley of Ben Hinnom, a place just south–west of Jerusalem and today called Wadi al–Rababi. Ahaz paid dearly for his sin. His political alliances came unstuck and in one battle he lost 120,000 men. His place was taken by the godly King Hezekiah, but he was succeeded in turn by his son Manasseh, who undid all the good his father had done. He rebuilt altars to heathen idols, reinstituted human sacrifices and, like Ahaz, burned his own sons to death, again in the valley of Ben Hinnom. Manasseh was followed by his equally corrupt son Amon, who lasted only two years before being assassinated.
His eight year old son Josiah took his place, and by the time he was sixteen he had begun a programme of vigorous reformation. Altars were torn down, images were smashed, and the pieces scattered over the graves of those who had bowed down to them in worship. In his crusade Josiah singled out the valley of Ben Hinnom for particular attention. From being a place of idol worship he turned it into a public rubbish dump in which all the offal and filth of Jerusalem was poured. Later, the bodies of animals and even the corpses of criminals were flung there and left to rot or to be consumed by the fire that was kept constantly burning to dispose of the stinking mass of garbage. As one writer comments, it was a place where ‘the fires never stopped burning and the worms never stopped eating.’ We can now see how this otherwise unimportant piece of land fits into the picture. The Hebrew place–name was originally Ge(ben)hinnom (the valley of the sons of Hinnom). The shortened form of the name was Ge–hinnom of which the Greek translation became Gehenna. The English word for Gehenna, with all its imagery of shame, disgrace, sin, guilt, judgment and punishment, is ‘hell’ (John Blanchard, Whatever Happened to Hell? (Evangelical Press: Durham, 1993), pp. 41-42).
Fire is the word used most often in scripture to describe hell. Gehenna is the place where the fire never ceases to burn. The word Gehenna is used twelve times in the New Testament with eleven of those by Jesus himself. John the Baptist gives this description of Jesus Christ as Judge: ‘His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor, and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire’ (Mt. 3:12). The book of Revelation predicts that at the last judgment ‘if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire’ (Rev. 20:15). The image of an eternal unceasing fire graphically depicts the agony and torment of hell. The descriptions of hell recorded in scripture are terrifying. They are meant to terrify us. The Lord Jesus had a great deal to say about hell which is calculated to sober and warn us:
But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever shall say to his brother, ‘Raca,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court, and whoever shall say ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell (Mt. 5:22).
And if your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out, and throw it from you; for it is better for you that one of the parts of your body perish, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell (Mt. 5:29).
And if your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life crippled, than having your two hands, to go into hell, into the unquenchable fire, where their worm does not die, and their fire is not quenched (Mk. 9:43-44).
But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne…Then He will say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels…And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life (Mt. 25:31,41,46).
Therefore just as the tares are gathered up and burned with fire, so shall it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send forth His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all stumbling blocks, and those who commit lawlessness, and will cast them into the furnace of fire; in that place there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Mt. 13:40–42; Cf. Mt. 13:49–50).
Do not fear those who kill the body, but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell (Mt. 10:28).
You serpents, you brood of vipers, how shall you escape the sentence of hell (Mt. 23:33)?
No one who takes these teachings of Jesus seriously can fail to be greatly sobered by his words. Hell is a place of unending torment—a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth, of darkness, isolation, despair—of unceasing suffering and pain. John Calvin provides this commentary on hell:
Now, because no description can deal adequately with the gravity of God’s vengeance against the wicked, their torments and tortures are figuratively expressed to us by physical things, that is, by darkness, weeping, and gnashing of teeth (Matt. 8:12; 22:13), unquenchable fire (Matt. 3:12; Mark 9:43; Isa. 66:24), an undying worm gnawing at the heart (Isa. 66:24). By such expressions the Holy Spirit certainly intended to confound all our senses with dread: as when he speaks of ‘a deep Gehenna prepared from eternity, fed with fire and much wood; the breath of the Lord, like a stream of brimstone, kindles it’ (Isa. 30:33). As by such details we should be enabled in some degree to conceive the lot of the wicked, so we ought especially to fix our thoughts upon this: how wretched it is to be cut off from all fellowship with God. And not that only but to feel his sovereign power against you that you cannot escape being pressed by it. For first, his displeasure is like a raging fire, devouring and engulfing everything it touches. Secondly, all creatures so serve him in the execution of his judgment that they to whom the Lord will openly show his wrath will feel heaven, earth, sea, living beings, and all that exists aflame, as it were, with dire anger against them, and armed to destroy them. Accordingly, it was no insignificant thing that the apostle declared when he said that the faithless ‘shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, excluded from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might’ (II Thes. 1:9)…Consequently, unhappy consciences find no rest from being troubled and tossed by a terrible whirlwind, from feeling that they are being torn asunder by a hostile Deity, pierced and lanced by deadly darts, quaking at God’s lightning bolt, and being crushed by the weight of his hand—so that it would be more bearable to go down into any bottomless depths and chasms than to stand for a moment in these terrors (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. Found in The Library of Christian Classics (Westminster: Philadelphia), Volume XIX, Book III.XXV.12, pp. 1007-8).
Each of us will die one day and we will enter eternity where we will live forever. Scripture declares that we will be in one of two places: in heaven or hell. There is no teaching in scripture about purgatory. Once we die it is too late to rectify our situation if we have not faced and dealt with our sinful state before God. We are warned to be prepared to meet our God. Thankfully, he has provided a way for us to be prepared to meet him and to be rescued from eternal judgment through his Son. This is in part why the gospel is called good news.
Through Jesus Christ, we can stand before God with confidence rather than dread. In Christ, we can be delivered from the guilt and power of sin and from this eternal hell. We can receive forgiveness and eternal life. This is the good news of the gospel. But in sharing the gospel which makes these promises we must also preach fearlessly against sin, warning men that they must turn from sin to Christ and flee the wrath of God that is to come (Mt. 3:7–8). Those who reject the gospel of Christ and die in sin will suffer eternally in hell.