In May National Geographic published an article entitled “The Campaign to Eliminate Hell”. The tagline reads, “A new generation of evangelical scholars are challenging the idea that sinners are doomed to eternal torment—but traditionalists are pushing back.” Annihilationism is the teaching that sometime in the future the condemned will be completely destroyed, body and soul. The historic evangelical doctrine has been that those who die without having received Jesus for salvation will suffer forever physical and spiritual torment in the lake of fire. Annihiliationism teaches that the unsaved will not suffer forever, but at some time will entirely cease from existing. Though some well known evangelical leaders have held to annihilationism, very few evangelical Christians believe the teachings of annihilationism.
The Bible states that those who suffer in hell will do so forever. Jesus describes hell as a place where, “The worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.” Those who have rejected Jesus will, “go away unto everlasting punishment”. (Matthew 25:46) Reading these statements would lead one naturally to believe the suffering of the lost has no end. Annihilationists seek to explain these passages as metaphorical descriptions of the greatness of the suffering of the unsaved or as teaching that the result of God’s judgment are eternal effects but the punishment itself is not eternal. The biggest problem with reading these passages in this way is the significant similarity between the warnings of eternal suffering and the promises of eternal joy. If the lost in hell will not suffer everlasting torment, then why should anyone believe the saved in heaven will enjoy everlasting bliss. The annihilationists cannot consistently define words like eternal and everlasting. They must define them one way when describing punishment and another when decscribing salvation.
Some arguments for annihilation are based on a misdefinition of death. Most people view death as a ending of life. Medically speaking life is over, death occurs, when the heart stops and the brain ceases to function. The Bible does not define death according to that modern, medical perspective. Death as used in the Bible is a separation. When Adam and Eve sinned they died. They died on the day of their sin just as God had warned. They suffered the first death in being physically and spiritually separated from God, the author and sustainer of life. The end result of the first death, separation from God, was physical death, separation from physical life. The person dies when the spirit and body are separated. This is why the Bible often speaks of death as “giving up the ghost”. When the spirit and the body are separated the person is physically dead. The eternal punishment for sin is called the second death. The condemned dead in the modern sense of ceasing to have existence, they are dead in the Biblical sense of separated from the presence of God. (2 Thes. 1:9) The unsaved are eternally separated from God and thus they are eternally dead.
Annihilation is emotionally easier to accept than eternal torment. The idea that God would remove His offending creature from existence is easier to accept than the idea that God would punish them forever. Appealing or not, the Biblical doctrine is that the unsaved will suffer God’s wrath, actively and consciously, for all eternity. Annihilationism is not a Biblical doctrine. Historically this doctrine has had very few defenders and discerning Christians today should reject it as contrary to the plain meaning of Scriptures.
Some view eternal suffering in the lake of fire to be as reasonable as shooting a puppy for wetting the carpet. A good, loving God would never be party to such an extreme injustice. Yet Christian teaching declares that eternal hell is just, good and necessary. How could eternal punishment in torment of flames and darkness be justice?
Justice is the legal response to wrong that brings punishment in proportion with the severity of the crime committed. Conrary to justice is revenge. Revenge is the personal, illegal act of making another endure the same pain that the injured person feels. Justice is not motivated by a desire to get even but by a recognition of the true damage done by a crime. The Old Testament law of “an eye for an eye” was not a prescription for personal revenge but a description of legitimate justice which responded to wrong based upon the extent of harm done. Similar principles of justice are still seen in courts today. The accidental causing of another’s death is treated differently from negligently contributing to the death of a person which is treated differently from suddenly striking down a person which is treated differently from planning and executing the murder of another. Premeditated murder of an adult is treated differently from the intentional murder of an infant. The intent of the crime and the innocence of the victim legitimately affect the response to that crime. Along with murder treason usually brings the severest of punishments. Though treason does not always take another’s life, such a harsh response is generally recognized as just because treason offend the dignity of the ruling power and it threatens the safety of many others within the country. Treason is a repudiation of ones former allegiances that seeks the harm of ones own country, including friends and neigbors, and thus merits stern penalties.
What does treason have to do with the justice of hell? To understand the justice of hell one must understand the true horribleness of sin. Sin is no mere accident. Sin is unintentionally committed by someone unaware that his deed is wrong. Sin is first and foremost a willful act of rebellion against the God of heaven. God is Creator of all things and sole Ruler over all creation. Sin is therefore an act of treason far greater than any national treachery. Sin is mutiny against the perfect Creator. Sin is a repudiation of God, self and fellow man. Disobedience against God is an act of treason that wrongs God, injures self and wounds others. Disobedience against God is worse than mere treason. Disobedience against God is the attempt to overthrow God as ruler of your life and to inaugurate your own self as lord of your own destiny. This treachery is not only treason it is attempt to seize power from the Divine.
Since sin is the rejection of God as God and rebellion against His rule sin causes uncalculable harm to the individual and others around. Sin has wreaked havoc across the world. Sin is responsible for the death of billions and for the anguish felt in every part of creation. Every person born on the planet is complicit with sin. How can such evil against one’s Creator, Sovereign and God not require the greatest of punishments? Because sin is the rebellion of creature against the infinite, eternal Creator the scope of sin is limitless. A just response is measured to be appropriate to the scope of crime committed. A limitless crime requires a limitless payment. No finite creature is able to satisfy justice through any punishment of limited duration. The only appropriate judgment for a crime of infinite severity is an infinite punishment. Hell is just.
Eternal punishment of humans in a place of fire, darkness and extreme torment may be accepted as a necessity of justice but can it really be a good thing? More importantly, can one be good who would condemn a person to unending torture? This issue has been offered by some skeptics as conclusive proof the God of the Bible is not real. This issue has resulted in Christians suggesting varieties of universal salvation (Recently seen in the book, “Love Wins”), views of mitigated judgment that results in a near universal salvation (purgatory), and pithy statements declaring it’s really men who choose to go to hell (“God doesn’t send anyone to hell, people choose to go there”). Variants of these themes abound attempting to show that God is not the bad guy.
Understanding this difficult question begins with the reality of justice. Justice is not a social construct that institutionalizes or rationalizes revenge. Justice is the proper moral response to evil. Justice measures the moral weight of the wrong done and responds with an equally weighty consequence. Justice is based on an absolute standard of morality- God’s character. God’s justice is always a reflection of God’s character. If God’s justice is capricious, excessive or petty then God Himself is capricious, excessive or petty.
Since all justice is based on the character of God and God’s justice is a reflection of His character none can argue that God’s punishment of sin is arbitrary or excessive. When God created people He warned Adam and Eve they would die if they sinned against Him. The death foretold begins with separation from God. Separation from God is the natural result of sin because God is holy to such a degree that He cannot possibly have any fellowship, friendship or relationship with that which is tainted by sin. (Leviticus 20:7; Psalm 5:4-5; Habakkuk 1:13; Revelation 21:27) The infinite holiness of God demands His wrath be leveled against all who commit sin. (Psalm 11:4-7; Psalm 34:15-16) Eternal suffering is the inevitable result of separation from God and falling under the wrath of God. God’s justice is not an arbitrary determination but the logical consequence of sin against the infinitely holy God. For God to change these consequences would be to violate His own justice. If God is in any way unjust then He cannot in any way be good.
Some will concede that God is just for punishing sin but it would be better if He were merciful to all men. The assertion effectively becomes that God is not good because He insists on justice. God would be good if He overlooked what is just to do what is loving. This argument falls down on the premise that something can be unjust and good. Injustice is never a good thing. Injustice may have a show of kindness to some, but it is inherently cruel to others. The response to recent officer involved shootings of children and adolescents illustrates this very well. Supposing an officer of the law carelessly caused the death of an innocent child, it would be evil to allow him to escape the legitimate consequence of his actions. The parents, the community and the police force would all be harmed by the denial of justice. If there are no consequences for ones actions and no retribution for the great wrongs done in this world then a persons actions in life are ultimately meaningless and God is the most evil being imaginable. For God to be good, He must also be unfailingly just.
Some believe that in making the promise of salvation God is promising to be unjust. A famous preacher recently said that God “broke the law for love”. Salvation in not unjust. The justice of God is in no way compromised by His promise of salvation. Salvation is not God’s promise to ignore a person’s sin if that person asks for forgiveness. God has never offered to forget about evil. God always punishes evil. The justice of God that always punishes sin and the mercy of God that offers salvation to men has provided a substitute to bear the punishment of sin so that sinful men will not have to bear that punishment themselves. The cross is the place where God’s mercy and justice are perfectly mingled. At the cross, God’s justice was satisfied and God’s mercy overflowed to all who would believe. At the cross mankind sees the full extent of the goodness of God goodness that is in no way contradictory to justice. A God who does not always punish evil is not the god of the Bible. A God who would not send men to hell would be unjust and evil.
Possibly one of the most difficult questions for a caring Christian to consider and answer is the fate of those who have never had the chance to hear the gospel. To many it seems an unthinkable unfairness that God would send people to hell who never had the chance to be saved. Walking carefully through the Bible’s teaching is not always easy. Despite the great emotional tensions associated with this question it can only be answered by a thorough consideration of what God has said about man, sin and salvation.
The Bible’s answer can be summed up in a very straightforward fashion. Those who die without turning to Jesus for forgiveness of sin are not forgiven and remain under the judgment of God. Only when one starts with a Biblical perspective can this answer begin to make sense. Many imagine that condemnation happens after death based upon one’s sin or refusal to believe Jesus.
Condemnation does not happen after death. Men are not sentenced to hell for rejecting Jesus or for committing an excessive number of bad deeds. Men are sentenced to hell because they are born sinners who are already condemned by God. “He that believeth not is condemned already.” (John 3:18) “You were dead in trespasses and sins.” (Ephesians 2:1) The first chapter of Colossians describes all men as separated from God and enemies against Him. The third chapter of Romans describes all men as wicked, refusing to seek after God, having no good in them and filled with all manner of wickedness. The Bible consistently teaches that all people are currently guilty before God. Romans 3:19 says all the world is guilty before God. Everyone is already condemned for sin. Men are not waiting for judgment to find out if they are guilty or not. The conviction has been handed down. Sentencing is delayed to give opportunity for salvation.
The fate of those who die in their guilt is eternal separation from God in hell. 2 Thessalonians 2:8-9 says Jesus will exact vengeance on those that do not know God and have not obeyed the gospel. Jesus’ vengeance will be unending destruction apart from the presence of God and His glory. In other places in the Bible this everlasting destruction is described as a place of fire and intense suffering. Those who do not know God will be sentenced to eternal hell.
Wrong ideas about Divine judgment are abundant. Most seem to believe that if they are better people than a lot of others then they will make it to heaven. Some believe there is no hell. A growing number believe that God will not send anyone to hell (or maybe only send the really, really bad people to hell). The Biblical truth is that hell is real and only those who have turned to Jesus for forgiveness will escape hell. Those who do not do so, whether it be because of stubbornness, rebellion, ignorance or some other reason will be punished with everlasting destruction. Into this bleak assessment shines the good news of the gospel. Salvation from hell has been purchased by Jesus and is freely given to those who will turn to Him for forgiveness.
Tattoos are an increasingly popular way for people to decorate and modify their bodies. Tattoos have a history that stretches back thousands of years and today tattoos are a part of the culture of the most primitive tribes and the most advanced cities. Though in years past some have taught otherwise, nothing in the Bible describes tattoos as the mark of the beast. Tattoos are not an unpardonable sin. The presence of a tattoo on a person does not automatically disqualify him from heaven. No single sin condemns someone to hell. People are condemned to hell because of the sin nature, the natural bent to wickedness that all possess at birth. David says in Psalm 51, “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.” Even before a person exits the womb, he is a sinful creature. This sin nature is why people go to hell. Individual acts of sin are an expression of the sin nature which all people possess. Consequently, none are condemned to hell because of being tattooed.
Similarly, people do not go to heaven because they were good enough to not get a tattoo. None enter heaven because of an action taken or a sin avoided. Heaven is reserved only for those who trust in the grace of God and receive the gift of forgiveness purchased by Jesus on the cross. Because the problem is one of human nature, the solution is not behavioral. The solution is a transformation of nature. To enter heaven one must be given a new nature, a nature that is righteous and acceptable to God. The new nature that man needs has been provided by Jesus and is freely available to any who will turn to Christ to be cleansed of guilt and transformed into righteousness.
A full answer to the question of tattoos must also consider if it is sinful to get tattooed. Some tattoos are going to be sinful because of their content. That which is obscene or profane is sinful, even if other tattoos might be acceptable. Tattoos are prolific in our culture. The days of only a fringe few being tattooed are long gone. No longer are tattoos immediately connected with rebel groups or gangs. The New Testament does not give a specific prohibition against getting a tattoo. The Old Testament did prohibit the Israelites from getting tattooed. Leviticus 19:28 says, “Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am the Lord.” Leviticus 19 contains a combination of timeless commands (do not prostitute your daughter; do not seek after wizards) and temporary commands (do not round the corner of your beards; do not eat bloody meat). The command against tattoos in verse 28 is specifically addressing the idolatrous worship of the pagans in Canaan making the prohibition against inking the flesh challenging to categorize as timeless or temporary. However, the weight of the chapter is against those things associated with idolatry and includes tattoos in the category of idolatrous practices.Though the context of Leviticus 19 does not give definite clarity on whether or not this is an absolute principle, it seems to me that the burden of proof lies with those who would defend getting a tattoo.
Though I am reluctant to communicate a definite prohibition against all tattoos, I would give a couple serious warnings. If there is any legitimate possibility the tattoo is going to be associated with idolatry, wicked groups or sinful behavior, do not get it. If you have any doubts at all about the righteousness of getting a tattoo, don’t get one. If the motivation for getting a tattoo is to look cool or to gain acceptance, don’t get one. Though tattoos may be permissible, and certainly will not condemn one to hell, the Old Testament association of tattoos with idolatry, the need to live wisely in this world and the Christian’s maintaining a Godly testimony would seem to indicate it is best for a child of God not to get inked.
One of the most difficult doctrine in Christianity is the Biblical teaching about hell. The classic teachings on hell describe a place of intense pain and suffering, a place of fiery torment and a place of unending judgment. The hell described in the Bible is a horrific place. Any right thinking person recoils at the thought of anyone undergoing such horrible torture. For many, the worst part of hell is the unending nature of it’s torments. The doctrine of an eternal hell has prompted people throughout history to search for other ways of explaining hell that won’t be so terrible. Some have taught that God will not really send anyone to hell. Many teach that God will only send the worst of the worst to hell. A number of groups teach that most of those who suffer in hell will only do so for a limited amount of time. Still others deny any thing like hell even exists. Unfortunately, for those who claim to believe the Bible, hell is described in such a way that its realities cannot be denied. Consider a few passages.
And the third angel followed them, saying with a loud voice, If any man worship the beast and his image, and receive his mark in his forehead, or in his hand, the same shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out without mixture into the cup of his indignation; and he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels, and in the presence of the Lamb: And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night, who worship the beast and his image, and whosoever receiveth the mark of his name.
And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever.
2 Thessalonians 1:9
Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power
Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:
And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.
For those who believe in an eternal heaven of bliss, the doctrine of eternal hell is a necessity. The Bible could not be more plain. Hell is eternal. The same words are used to describe the length of heaven’s joy as are used to describe the length of hell’s suffering. Both are said to be “everlasting”, “eternal” and “forever”. One cannot change the meaning of these words as descriptors of hell without also changing their meaning in relation as descriptors of heaven. The righteous will enjoy heavenly bliss for the same eternity that the lost endure hell’s torment. Scriptures offer no hint that the souls of the condemned cease to exist at some point in the future. All the Bible says about hell declares that it is a place of unending, eternal torment in which the condemned will consciously endure physical and spiritual agony.
Despite the horrors of hell, God is not cruel and pitiless. In His mercy God has provided a means of salvation. He has promised those who trust Jesus alone for salvation from sin will be forgiven of all guilt and made righteous. Hell is a place of judgment, first built for Satan and the demons that follow him, and into which all those who refuse to obey the gospel will be cast. Those who do not believe are already condemned, but if any turn to Jesus for salvation he will escape condemnation and be given eternal life.
The Bible’s descriptions of God’s dealings with men leaves us with some questions and difficulties. Mankind has a hard time understanding how God can be sovereign, remain just and hold man responsible for the decisions he makes. We will not fully understand God’s dealings with man until heaven. In the meantime, we must trust God and rely on what He has told of us Himself in His Word. The Bible does describe God as being fair. Fairness is doing the same for everyone regardless of ability or what they deserve. God does not operate on terms of fairness, but in terms of justice and equity. God is just, always treating all men according to the perfect standards of His holiness. He does not modify justice to suit His desires or because He prefers one person over another. God judges all men according to the same standards. Equity is closely related to His justice. Justice is God’s dealing in relation to His holiness. Equity is God’s dealings in regards to people. God does not play favorites with anyone. The religious are not preferred by God, the wealthy are not preferred by God, and the poor are not preferred by God. God deals with all men according to His justice regardless of the personal merits of any individual.
What about those places in the Bible which describe God’s hardening someone’s heart? How is that just? One of the most familiar places which describe God hardening someone’s heart is in Exodus regarding Pharaoh. Pharaoh and others like him lived in rebellion against God. God does not judge them for His hardening of their hearts. Instead, God’s hardening of their hearts is His judgment against them for their rejection of Him.
Consider more fully the case of Pharaoh. Setting aside Pharaoh’s life of idol worship and his persecution of the Israelites, one passage will suffice to show the true nature of this case. Exodus 5 recounts when Moses and Aaron first approached Pharaoh with the request for Israel to be allowed to go into the wilderness and make sacrifice to God. Pharaoh responded, “Who is the LORD, that I should obey his voice to let Israel go? I know not the LORD.” (Exodus 5:2) Yes, God hardened Pharaoh’s heart in later exchanges with Moses, but Pharaoh’s heart was already opposed to God. God did not prevent a man from turning to Him who might otherwise have repented and worshiped God. God confirmed Pharaoh in his rebellion.
The same is true with all others who are condemned by God. Romans 1 teaches that when men rebel against God and replace Him with idols, He judges them by no longer restraining the wickedness of their mind. Every man is naturally a rebel who refuses to worship God. Only the grace of God at work in the heart is able to draw a man from rebellion to worship. Those who refuse the grace of God are justly condemned by Him.