January 16, 2018

The Fire of God’s Wrath

Warren Vanhetloo

Your assignment is to explain clearly the heat and the force of the atom bomb over Hiroshima to a sixth grade class. You will be allowed to use a few visual clips and charts. You soon realize you face two difficulties: Are there words and pictures sufficient to impress on them the magnitude of the heat and power involved? Are sixth graders capable of comprehending the concepts you intend to present?

Those are the very problems God had to deal with to inform humans of the suffering of Hell: inadequate verbal terms and immature mental comprehension.

His solutions are interesting to consider. His primary speaker in making known that part of reality was the active agent of creation, His only begotten Son—One much better qualified for that task than any of us are to tell of the force of an atomic or hydrogen bomb. God did not withhold information from mankind until the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, however, but gave some prior indications.

Though much of what God revealed in early centuries is not recorded, two possible indications need to be considered. When first instructing Adam, warning him not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, God gave a forceful warning: “for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (in the Hebrew, literally, “dying thou shalt die”; Gen. 2:17).

Translations are correct; it is an expression of certainty: “thou shalt surely die.” Later revelation supports the possibility of a deeper warning: at physical death, which is certain to come, you will face a more severe death, a total, eternal separation from your Creator, as a result of your sin. That is, physical dying is followed by a greater separation.

Anthropological surveys of religious rituals around the world point to a common practice of shedding blood as a means of purging the guilt of sin, practices which may have been handed down generation after generation since the confusion of tongues, pointing to a common practice prior to that time.

Concepts of a fiery place of intense suffering also are noted in various parts of the world, similarly pointing to a belief already held by humans prior to worldwide dispersion. Though there is no indication of such in Scripture, there is really but one likely source for such universal beliefs, that is, initial information from God Himself.

What may be the earliest direct reference to Hell in Scripture is in Psalm 9:17: “The wicked shall be turned into hell [sheol], and all the nations that forget God.” This is not set forth as something new that God has just revealed through David; he employs a common term that at times refers to physical death but is used also to refer to a place of just retribution, as in the context of this psalm (cf., “the poor shall not perish for ever,” v. 18).

References in Isaiah are more clear: “Who among us shall dwell with the devouring fire? who among us shall dwell with everlasting burnings?” (33:14); and, “They shall go forth, and look upon the carcases of the men that have transgressed against me: for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched; and they shall be an abhorring unto all flesh” (66:24). It is left to Daniel, who portrays detail of the future, to speak of Hell most clearly: “And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (12:2).

An obvious lesson for us, based on God’s pattern: Do not preach hellfire and brimstone to men without making even more emphatic the love and sacrifice involved in providing man an escape from damnation. General knowledge and occasional reference are enough for the Holy Spirit to convict of sin and coming judgment. It is the gospel that is appointed to be the power of God unto salvation, not the blare about extreme suffering under the wrath of God.

The Gospels use the word “Hades” where Jesus in speaking may have used “sheol”, having the same meaning, the place of the dead (Matt. 11:23; 16:18; Luke 10:15; 16:13). More than mere use of a familiar term, however, He gave specific content: “more tolerable in the day of judgment”; “the rich man also died, and was buried; And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments . . . send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame. . . . thou are tormented. And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence. . . . lest they also come into this place of torment” (Luke 16:19–31).

Jesus more often used the word “Gehenna” in speaking of Hell. Gehenna, just outside Jerusalem, was a foulsmelling, constantly burning dump, a fitting picture of the place He revealed (Matt. 5:22, 29, 30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Mark 9:43, 45–48; Luke 12:5). When He used this word, His descriptions were clear: “fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28); “how can ye escape the damnation of hell?” (Matt. 23:33); “to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched” (Mark 9:43; cf. vv. 45, 48).

Jesus taught of the final judgment, “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” (Matt. 25:41); “And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal” (Matt. 25:46). The length of suffering in Hell is as long as the time of our unending life with God. Jesus proclaimed that those who reject Him will not go where He goes: “I go my way, and ye . . . shall die in your sins: whither I go, ye cannot come” (John 8:21; cf. vv. 23, 24). Just as Heaven is a place, so Hell is a place. Jesus returned to Heaven; those who are His will join Him there. Others go to a different place following physical death—a place just as real as Heaven.

When Jesus spoke of Hell, He was not using information received from prior written revelation; rather, guided by the Holy Spirit, He spoke of that which He had known prior to His incarnation. To doubt what He said about Hell, then, is to question His deity and to deny His veracity. The witness of no human being—other than that of the rich man of Luke 16—is of any consequence in weighing the questions of whether there is a Hell or not, whether it involves eternal suffering, or whether it is consistent with the love of God. The supreme Authority spoke clearly.

Paul wrote of that time when they “that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: . . . shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of His power” (2 Thess. 1:6–10). Jesus identified Himself to John as having “the keys of hell and of death” (Rev. 1:18). Predicting a time of future judgment, John wrote: “And the beast was taken, and with him the false prophet that wrought miracles before him, with which he deceived them that had received the mark of the beast, and them that worshipped his image. These both were cast alive into a lake of fire burning with brimstone” (Rev. 19:20). “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” (Rev. 20:10).

In his vision of the future, John also saw “the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works. And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire” (Rev. 20:12–15).

Various descriptions characterize Hell: the place prepared for the Devil and his angels, the blackness of darkness, torment in fire and brimstone, unquenchable fire, the smoke of torment, a lake that burns with fire and brimstone, death, the second death, and so on. The reality of the endless suffering portrayed is surely infinitely greater than these vivid expressions. Every Bible reference points to the reality of such a place. God and men warn against going to such a place. Jesus died that men might spend eternity with Him rather than suffer in such a place. Surely no wise man will neglect to take these warnings seriously!

The late Warren Vanhetloo, A.B., B.D., Th.M., Th.D., D.D., was Adjunct Instructor in and Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology at Calvary Baptist Seminary in Lansdale, Pennsylvania.

(Originally published in FrontLine • May/June 2007. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

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