Scripture Reference: Matthew 25:46, Revelation 20:10-15
Can Modern Man Believe In Hell?Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer | June 22, 1997
Selected highlights from this sermon
Meticulous. Those whose names are not found in the Book of Life will be thrown into the lake of fire—hell. But hell will not be the same for everyone. Punishment will be based on God’s meticulous judgment of what unbelievers did with what they knew.
Martin Marty, who I believe is the Chairman of Church History at the University of Chicago, said some time ago, “Hell disappeared and no one noticed.” Newsweek said today, “Hell is theology’s “H” word, a subject too trite for serious scholarship.” Another theologian says, “There is no future for heaven or hell.”
Why is hell so difficult to talk about? Well, you understand, of course, that even those who believe in the inerrancy of Scripture find it difficult to talk about hell. I believe that every word that God has spoken is true. All of His teachings are true, and hell is difficult to grasp.
As you may know, this is the sixth in a series of messages titled One Minute After You Die, and we have been talking about heaven, the New Jerusalem. We talked about Hades, but today we come to the topic of hell.
Put very briefly, the difficulty we have with hell is that the punishment does not seem to fit the crime. No matter what it is that people do, it seems incredible (even if they are criminals) that they would be subjected to a kind of torment that would last into the ages of the ages forever and ever. It seems more than we are able to absorb in our souls.
Bishop Robinson, whose book a number of years ago, Honest to God, influenced a lot of people in their thinking said, “Christ remains on the cross as long as one sinner remains in hell. In a universe of love there can be no heaven that tolerates a chamber of horrors. No hell for any, which does not at this same time make it a hell for God. He cannot endure that, for that would be a final mockery of His nature. You simply can’t reconcile hell and the love of God. It does not fit. Like darkness and light, sickness and health, those two, it seems to us, do not go together.” I’ve heard people say to me personally, “If your God exists, he must be the devil.”
One day I was witnessing to a man who had come to our home to do some work in the house, and he said, “I would not even subject animals to that kind of torture.” And I had to agree with him. Animals should not be subject to that kind of torture because animals are not moral beings in the same sense that humans are. It is a different dimension when we talk about human beings.
Well, the difficulty that we have also is it’s hard for us to grasp the notion of eternity. And before this message is over, I shall try to help us do it, but we shall never be able to accomplish it. To think about eternity, unending ages after ages is beyond our minds to grasp. We say the word, but we can’t really understand the concept.
We should not be surprised, therefore, that there are some alternate teachings that have gained some wide prominence and supporters. For example, there are those who believe in universalism. Universalism: in the end all will be saved. All will be saved! For example, the Scripture says in Ephesians 1:16 that God will sum up all things in Christ. Therefore, they say, if all things are summed up in Christ (Colossians 1:20 says it is God’s intention to reconcile all things to Christ.) why then indeed, all things will be reconciled to God, and no one will be in hell. The difficulty with that point of view is, of course, that the Bible states very clearly that Satan will never be reconciled to God. In fact, he was not included in Christ’s death at all. Therefore, no atonement has been made for him. No atonement is possible for him. And as we shall see in a moment he is going to be tortured forever and ever, the Scripture says.
But when the Bible talks about the summing up of all things in Christ, it does not mean that there will be universal reconciliation. It speaks about the fact that Christ’s authority will be undisputed, and God’s will will have been done on earth as it is in heaven. We can’t ignore the many Scriptures that talk about hell.
Universalism has never been widely acclaimed in Christendom, that is in evangelical Christendom at least. But there’s another view, and that is conditional immortality. That means that in the end, only those who have put faith in Christ are going to live forever, whereas those who do not believe in Christ will be thrown into hell. The flames will consume them and they will no longer exist. That’s why this particular point of view is often called annihilationism. Those who do not trust Christ are annihilated. They are blotted out. They are no longer conscious. That is the end of them.
Now the Scripture that is used to defend that point of view, the most popular, is Matthew 10:28 where Jesus said, “Do not fear those who are able to destroy the body, and then after that there’s nothing they can do, but fear him rather who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. So people have said that souls are going to be destroyed. They are going to be annihilated.
Once again, attractive though that point of view seems to be, the fact is that nowhere else in the New Testament does that word destroy refer to annihilation. It talks about wine skins being destroyed. That does not mean that they are annihilated. You can check the uses of the word, and you can see that it is not annihilation. In fact, the Bible talks about eternal destruction—eternal destruction. That’s why one Greek grammarian translates it as eternal misery. That’s the destruction of the soul.
Look in the Old Testament and you will find that already then eternal conscious torment or suffering is taught. In Daniel 12:2 it says, “Many that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life (and now notice this) and others to everlasting shame and contempt.” You caught it, didn’t you? Everlasting shame and contempt!
Now I want you to take your Bibles and turn to the book of Matthew. Matthew, chapter 25, and then we shall turn to Revelation, chapter 20. Those are the only two passages of Scripture I will ask you to turn to today.
In Matthew 25:46 Jesus is speaking, and He’s saying some things that we might not like to hear, but He says these words: “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” There’s not much room there for universalism. Obviously if universalism were true there’d be no need to present the Gospel to people because in the end they all would be saved. There’s not much room in this text also for annihilationism. You’ll notice that the same word eternal is used for both categories of people. “These will go away into eternal punishment, the righteous into eternal life.” If heaven is forever, then punishment is forever. There it is staring us in the face, words said by Christ, who of course, knows all things.
Now, with this background I’d like you to take your Bibles and turn to Revelation 20. Revelation 20—the Great White Throne Judgment, and what a passage of Scripture this is. Revelation 20! I’m going to pick it up in verse 10. We shall read it. Then we shall make some observations and draw some conclusions.
First of all, it says in verse 10 of Revelation 20: “And the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur (brimstone) where the beast and the false prophet were…” The beast and the false prophet are thrown in at least a thousand years before this time, and because the devil is bound a thousand years during that period and now he is loosed and he tries to make one more stand against God, which is really a miserable show of strength, the end has come for him.
“He is thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it. Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.”
What a sobering judgment! We call it the Great White Throne Judgment because it says that there is this Great White Throne. This is not the judgment of believers. You may remember I preached a series of messages on the judgment of believers, but that takes place in heaven. You know, sometimes there are those who think that when we die we’re going to stand before God, and then God is going to make the decision as to whether we go to heaven or to hell. No! That decision is made here on earth by our own response to Christ, and when we die we show up in heaven, and that’s where the judgment of believers takes place. And if we do not know Christ and have not come under the protection of His grace, we then will be here at the Great White Throne Judgement. Two different judgments! Two different categories of people! And what a judgment this is going to be.
First of all, let’s notice the diversity—the diversity of the people who come. It says, “I saw the dead, the great and the small.” I don’t think this has to do with their size physically. It has to do with their stature here on earth. It is at this judgment that the king stands shoulder to shoulder with the farmer. It is here that the store-keeper and the attorney meet. It is here that the billionaire stands right next to the pauper. The great and the small! The mighty and the weak! They all come together.
They are diverse in terms of their size. They are diverse in terms of their race. There will be a racial mix. There will be black and there will be white. There will be red and there will be yellow and any other shade in between. They all will be represented here.
They are diverse in terms of the nations. There are those who come from Asia. There are those who come from Europe. There are those who come from Israel, and from Morocco, and from Central America, and from Argentina, and from the United States and from Canada and from Australia. From all over the world all those who have died without faith in Christ, those who have not come to trust Him, Old Testament people who did not take advantage of the grace of God even before Jesus Christ came, they will be here diverse from all the nations of the earth. Rank upon rank, host upon host—multiplied millions!
They are also diverse in terms of their religion—Hindus, Buddhists, Catholics, Protestants! It is here that the priest stands with the Protestant minister. It is here that the nun stands shoulder to shoulder with a Protestant missionary. What a diverse group of people, coming from all over the whole world, those who perhaps knew the truth but never received Christ as Savior. It does not matter at that moment your denomination, whether you will be Baptist, because they will be represented. Methodists will be represented. Presbyterians will be represented. What a diverse group will gather here!
But let us now look at their common experience. Let’s look at the text now. It says in the middle of verse 12: “I saw them standing before the throne and the books were opened, and another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged from the things which were written in the books according to their deeds.” There are at least two books here. At least two books! One has a listing of all of their deeds, and so they are judged in accordance with those deeds. There is also the Book of Life, and if your name was not written in the Book of Life (verse 15) you were cast into the lake of fire. And I take it that all those who appear at this judgment discover that their name is not written in the Book of Life. If their name were written in the Book of Life they would not be here, but as I mentioned a moment ago, they would be at the judgment of believers, which is going to take place in heaven. What a scene comes before our eyes! They are judged according to their deeds. It says that twice so that we do not miss it.
Now I need to say something about the justice of God to those of you who struggle because you may have relatives whom you suspect did not die with personal faith in Christ, and you agonize over this text, and all of us do. It is not easy for any of us to accept. But first of all, they are judged according to their deeds. They’ll be judged on the basis of what they did with what they knew. He who knew his Lord’s will but did it not shall receive one judgment. He who did not know his Lord’s will will be judged differently.
Remember that the justice of God is going to be so delicately balanced that everything is going to be taken into account. I can assure you that hell will not be the same for everyone. There are those who are going to receive a greater judgment than others based on their response to conscience, to nature if they didn’t hear about Jesus Christ. All of these factors are going to be taken into account.
Also, bear in mind, as I emphasized in a previous message, that this judgment is going to be so meticulous that it will be evenly distributed. The child who was abused and therefore grew up in a context where he didn’t know Christ, he will be judged, but so will his parents be who did not teach him about God, who did not teach him about Christ, and who abused him.
It is here, finally, that victims are going to get their day in court because everything is going to be exposed. And in light of that exposition of all things, justice will finally be brought to every situation so that throughout all of eternity we will be able to sing, “Just and true are Thy ways, Thou King of saints.” So let me encourage you by saying God will deal justly. It will be meticulous and it will be reviewed by someone who does not have to wait for the files to be brought from another state. He will not have to call attorneys. He won’t have to call witnesses and try to sift through the evidence. All facts will be known and justly addressed.
You know, we often speak about heaven, and of course, you know that I’d rather preach about heaven, because heaven is comforting. But I want you to know today that hell is comforting too. Look at the injustices of the world. Look at what people are getting by with. Think of what they are doing and there is no justice in this life. We try through human courts to bring justice, but how often we fail, and they are getting by. Well, in the end the judge of all the earth will do right, and all will be called into account. With all the details taken into consideration! That’s their common experience. They are all judged.
But now I get to that which is even more difficult. Let’s look at their common destination. We’ve seen their diversity, their common experience, and now their common destination. Notice what the text says in verse 15: “And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” That is their destination.
Now let’s look at verse 10 because I need to make some clarifications here because Dante has misled us. A number of years ago I decided to read Dante, his Inferno, and discovered that along with biblical teaching it was confused with all kinds of legends and different medieval superstitions. For example, Dante says that in hell the demons have pitchforks and they go around tormenting people. (chuckles) Well, I want you to know today that in hell Satan will torment no one. He will be the tormented. He will not be the tormenter.
Milton was right when he said that Satan rebelled because he would rather be a king in hell than a servant on earth. Satan was sadly mistaken because there are no kings in hell. No kings in hell! It says in the last part of verse 10 that he is thrown into the lake of fire and tormented day and night forever and ever. He will hardly be in a place to torment someone else. He who strutted about the earth, trying to form his own kingdom, will now discover that he is limited to the parameters of hell, the lake of fire, the place of torment.
Is there literal fire in hell? We don’t know that, of course, but if it is figurative, it is something that is still distressing, something that still torments. Remember that people will still have their same desires. They will be given indestructible bodies, but they will not be righteous bodies. They will be sinful bodies. And so here people will continue to crave that which they will never have. Remember that in Hades, which is to be distinguished from hell… Here it says that Hades is thrown into the lake of fire. That’s why in a previous message when I spoke on Hades (I think the message was entitled The Descent into Gloom) I stressed the fact that no one is in hell today. Hades is to be distinct from that, but here Hades is thrown into the lake of fire. When it says the sea gave up the dead which were in it, that’s a reference to the bodies of people who drowned centuries ago. God is going to resurrect them, and their spirits will be joined (Those are the spirits of those who are in Hades.) so that they will be whole people, but the same people they were here on earth.
Imagine an alcoholic craving a drop of alcohol, and it’s denied him. Imagine those with cravings and sinful desires that they so abundantly nourished here on earth, and they crave these desires, and there is no satisfaction. That would be a kind of burning, would it not be, a kind of burning, a kind of fire that lasts forever. As for Satan himself, I like what Milton says about him. He said (Satan speaking), “Which way I fly is hell. I myself am hell.” He is going to be here tormented for his own wickedness, for his own deceit, for his own rebellion, and he will have in his mind the memories of when he was a cheerleader in the ages gone by, worshipping God, and now, as someone has said, “He will never be able to sing again. He will only be able to howl.” I can assure you of one thing. His judgment is going to be far greater than that of any human being. Far greater because he has sinned against more life. He had more opportunities and he was instigating more rebellion. God is just! God is just!
How can we speak of this place, this common destination? It is a place of torment commensurate, of course, with sins committed, people living with their own desires eternally unfulfilled. That in itself is hell.
Secondly, it’s a place of abandonment. It says in 1 Thessalonians 1:9 that Jesus will come, and this is now the meek and mild Jesus that nobody seems to be afraid of in our culture. He will come in flaming fire with his holy angels, taking judgment on those who know not God and that obey not the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, who will be punished with everlasting destruction (There’s the phrase again.) from the presence of the Lord and the glory of His power.” Another translation says, “Away from the presence of the Lord and the glory of His power,” a place of abandonment.
Will those who are in the lake of fire communicate with one another? We do not know, but if the answer is yes, they probably will only increase their own misery. It’s a place of abandonment. And then I need to stress the fact that it is a place of forever, a place of eternity. Notice it says that Satan is tormented day and night forever and ever, and there’s nothing in the Bible to suggest that the lake of fire ever ends. Jesus said it is a place of fire. It is not quenched. It never dies out.
Now we come face to face with trying to understand eternity, and how do we do it? We say the word. The concept is there, but after the concept is spoken we go on to something else and we can’t grasp it, can we? So let me give you an illustration to see if we can get a handle on it, at least a little bit.
Let us suppose that you were living on this earth and every one million years (Now even that’s a long time. Even a million years is a long time. A thousand years is a long time, but now we’re talking about a thousand thousand) a bird visits Planet Earth. He doesn’t show up very often, does he? But every time he comes he takes one grain of sand and leaves to fly to another planet. One grain of sand?
So there you have some sand in your hand and he comes and he takes one small grain, and he flies away, and there you are with the sand for another one million years. And lo and behold, you look at the horizon and he is showing up again, and he’s coming for another grain of sand. How long do you think it would take before all the sand in your hand would finally be transported to another planet? Hundreds of trillions of years really! You know how fine sand is?
How long would it take if the bird were to say, “Well, now that I have taken all that is in your hand, I want to take all the sand on Oak Street Beach?” That would take a while. What about all the sand that is on North Avenue Beach and all the beaches of Chicago, and then the beaches of the world? And after he’s finished with the beaches he begins with the mountains. Now the mountains do not really have sand, but he rubs his beak until a little grain of sand falls off, and that’s what he flies away with, and he doesn’t return for another million years.
Do you know that after this whole earth were transported to another planet, eternity would not have officially begun? You mathematicians can correct me on this, but I don’t think it’s correct to talk about the starting of eternity because if you say that eternity starts you give the impression that there is an end, and there is no end, and I don’t think you can begin an infinite series. Eternity would not have even gotten started.
You say, “Well, this is more than we can take. People in the lake of fire forever and ever? How so? Why? Well, the answer, my friend, is because they are eternally guilty, and catch this, no human suffering will ever buy off God or appease Him, period. And that’s why there is no end to it. No end to it! All the suffering that humans can do will never change God’s mind regarding their sin. And that’s why it’s eternal.
What if Jonathan Edwards is right when he said the greatness of the sin is determined by the greatness of the being against whom it is committed? Even little sins are great offenses in the sight of God. We call them little. You know, there are those who say, “Well, you know, I’m a little sinner?” Well, yeah, we make those distinctions, and we know what we mean. But what if a little sin is a big sin because the being against whom it is committed is so holy and so wondrous and so true and so just, and we have committed it against Him because we have turned away from what we have known? What if that were the case?
You can see the size of the sin, and even though it goes on forever and ever and ever, there never is payment made. If human suffering could pay for sin, there would be an end to this. But there’s no end to it because human suffering can’t do it.
Let me give you another characteristic. It’s a place of torment, of abandonment, a place of eternity. It’s a place of easy access but no exit. Easy access! All that you have to do is just be, and not respond to God’s grace and mercy in Christ.
Dante was right when he said, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” It is a place of unanswered prayer. You remember the man who was in Hades, which is going to be thrown into the lake of fire. You remember in Luke 16 he cried up and said, “Please send Lazarus that he may dip his finger in water and put it on my tongue because I am tormented in this flame.” And his prayer was unanswered. His prayer was unanswered.
Jonathan Edwards, who was so counter-cultural… He’s the kind of man who would not go over well in today’s society at all in our feel-good religion. Well, it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as it’s “right for you” kind of stuff. He preached a very famous message. He was an eighteenth century evangelist in Northampton, Massachusetts, the great fiery preacher who had a great deal to do with what is known as America’s First Great Awakening. He preached his famous message, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. I’d like to read just a few paragraphs and make a few comments, but I want you to catch the flavor of what Edwards preached. It is said that when he was finished people began to cry up in the congregation for God’s mercy.
He said, “There is nothing that keeps wicked men at any one moment out of hell, but the sheer pleasure of God. There is no lack in God’s power to cast wicked men into hell at any moment. They deserve to be cast into hell so divine justice never stands in the way. They are now the objects of that very same anger and wrath that is expressed in the torments of hell.”
And notice now how he emphasizes the fact that there are going to be degrees of punishment in hell. He says, “Yea, God is a great deal more angry with great numbers that are now on the earth, indeed possibly with some who are reading this book. He’s more angry with them then He is with many of those who are now in the flames of hell.” He assumed that the wicked were already there, and I differ from that, as you know, because I make that distinction between Hades and hell.
But now let us continue: “Unconverted men walk over the pit of hell under rotten covering, and there are innumerable places in this covering so weak that they will not bear their weight. And those places are not seen. There is the dreadful pit of the glowing flames of the rampant God. There is hell’s wide gaping mouth open, and you have nothing to stand upon, nor anything to take hold of. There is nothing between you and hell but air. It is only the power and the mere pleasure of God that holds you up. His wrath burns against you like fire. He looks upon you as worthy of nothing else than to be thrown into the fire. You hang by the slender thread with the flames of divine wrath flashing about, and every moment it is ready to be singed and to be burned asunder.”
Wow! We don’t have that kind of preaching today. It is so counter to our sensibilities. It’s not twentieth century America. It’s not part of our rah-rah religion, is it?
Now, I want to be very clear about something. When all this is happening the redeemed are going to be in heaven, but I don’t want you to think that God is judging them by a different standard. (chuckles) That would be tempting to do, wouldn’t it? There’d be injustice with God if He were to judge us by a different standard. Do you mean to tell me that He has one standard for one class of people, and then another standard for another? Unthinkable! But here’s what happened. You see, when Jesus Christ died on the cross, He absorbed as an infinite person what finite people cannot do. His suffering accomplished in a few hours which eternal human suffering cannot do. And that is His death on the cross absorbed the wrath of God. He took the hit. You see, the Scripture says here that they are judged according to their deeds. We are judged also according to our deeds, which fall short, but Jesus Christ’s deeds met the will and the purpose of the Father, and because He absorbed all that we should have received, we then are acquitted. But we are acquitted justly because God has been appeased for the sins of those who believe in Christ. That’s why we escape the wrath of God. It’s not because we are better, or because we somehow think that God has a different standard for us. No, no, no! He is holy, as the choir sang today, and He is holy for all men, and there is no respecter of persons.
Death and the curse were in our cup:
O Christ ‘twas full for Thee;
But Thou hast drained the last dark drop,
‘Tis empty now for me.
That’s why we can say, “There is now therefore no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus.” And young people, while I’m on the topic, do you see now the unutterable foolishness of accepting what our culture says, mainly, “Well, Jesus is one option among many; there are other religions, too, you know, and they’re all kind of right”? (chuckles) Oh! People who believe that will be here at the Great White Throne Judgment. There’s only one person who died, who absorbed God’s wrath, who took the hit for humanity, and therefore says to you and me, “If you believe in Me you can be set free. You can be cleansed and you can be forgiven, and you can go directly to heaven at death and be clothed in My righteousness and be accepted by God as one of His children forever.” There’s only one Savior, you know. There are all kinds of gurus but only one Savior. One Savior! There are no other options out there. The presence of Krishna and all the others—Zoroaster, Bahá'u'lláh and Baldr! They all topple in the presence of Christ.
I like to tell that story. I used it in a message about ten years ago, and somebody came up later and said, “You know, I didn’t understand what you were getting at,” so I’ll try to be very clear. But it is that story of the prairie fire, you know, where a man, and there are different versions of the story but the truth is still there… They were walking along and they saw that in the distance there was a forest fire. And they began a fire right where they were. And they began to burn patches of ground. And then when the big fire came they were able to stand where the fire had already been and they averted certain death.
You see, what happens is when we stand at the cross, we stand with the fire of Almighty God’s judgment that has already come. We stand there, and the fire burns around us, and it cannot touch us because we have come under the banner of His protection, His forgiveness and His righteousness.
There is no other way to be saved. And listen, while I’m on the topic, there are some of you here who may even think that you are saved because you’re religious and you love Jesus. All kinds of people who love Jesus are going to be here at this Great White Throne Judgment because you think that you believe. You were brought up. You were baptized. You were told that you were saved. (chuckles) But the Spirit of God has not confirmed that in your heart. I want you to know today that unless you believe and be saved judgment awaits you. Judgment awaits you!
As many as received Him, to them gives he the power to be called the sons of God, even to those who believe on His name. Today is the day of salvation. Harden not your heart, but respond to the God who can save you while the door of opportunity is open.
And if you will, let us pray.
So what do you have to tell God today? Some of you here have hard hearts. You’ve listened to me preach for years and you’re not saved. So what are you going to tell God at the judgment? What excuse do you think you’re going to have? Some of you are trusting in your rituals. You think that you are saved, but you do not have the confirmation of the Spirit that you have believed in Christ alone. So what do you think you’re going to say? What’s the big discussion?
Father, we ask that by the blessed Holy Spirit, You will do in the lives of all who have heard this message, those who are present here, those who listen by radio, we pray, Father, that Your Blessed Holy Spirit will grant conviction and faith and a willingness to do anything to be sure that one has believed in Christ. Oh Father, we have done now what we could, and unless You do what You can, no miracles will happen, so we leave it all in Your hands.
And now before I close this prayer, would you pray and just say, “God, forgive me? I’m a sinner. Save me. Save me by your grace.” Would you do that right now?
There’s a song that goes,
Just as I am without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou bid’st me come to Thee,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.
Just as I am and waiting not,
To rid my soul of one dark blot,
To Thee whose blood can cleanse each spot,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.