Tim Keller at Oxford (2) The insider and the outcast encounter Jesus

To watch the lecture on video go to the bottom of the page.

A very insightful lecture on Jesus and the Samaritan woman (amazing insight) and on Nicodemus.

  • See part 1 here – A Sceptical encounters Jesus
  •  Tuesday  See video below – The insider and the outcast encounter Jesus
    • Coming Wednesday – Two grieving sisters encounter Jesus
    • Coming Thursday – A wedding party encounters Jesus
    • Coming Friday – The first Christian encounters Jesus
    • Coming Saturday – Tim Keller’s Q&A session at Oxford

The Insider and the Outcast Encounter Jesus

Each session addresses a big question. This session addresses the question: What is wrong with us (the world)? Keller explores the Christian answer to that question here. He delves into the subject of sin. Keller, „I know the word grates and it’s warranted for people to cringe when christians use the word ‘sin’, because it is a way to marginalize and objectify your opponent. Nevertheless, I can show you that the actual biblical understanding of sin is much more nuanced than that. It can be used that way, but, it is much more profound.”

„To do that we’re going to look at 2 encounters Jesus Christ had. They are in the book of John. In chapter 3 He meets a civil and religious, moral male leader and in chapter 4 He meets a social and moral outsider and outcast, a woman. Both characters are developed in great detail, the stories are full of interest. These 2 (persons) are so different on the surface, yet I think the writer is trying to have us look at both, together… Let’s look at the outsider before we look at the insider”.

1 –  Jesus and the Samaritan woman  John 4:9  

This is a very remarkable conversation-

  1. How gentle He is and what a strong radical outreach Jesus is doing at the very beginning, as He begins to talk with her. It’s not surprising to us to see this conversation, but it should be. If you understand the context you would be surprised. There’s one little reference there: it says the Jews and the Samaritans don’t get along and she is shocked that He is even talking to her. The context is that the Jews and Samaritans were bitter enemies; met centuries before when most of the Jews were taken in exile by their conqueror. Some of the Jews who stayed behind, intermarried with other Canaanites and formed actually a new race, Samaritans, who then also took parts of the Jewish religion and parts of the Canaanite religion and formed a syncretistic religion. The Jews considered Samaritans: racial inferior heretics. This is the first reason she’s surprised He is speaking to her.
  2. The second reason she is surprised is that He was a Jewish man and to speak to a strange woman was a shock too.
  3. But, the third thing is she came to draw water at noon, and what commentators over the years have pointed out is that is that that’s not when women came to draw water. They came early in the day, when it wasn’t hot yet, so they could have water for their housekeeping chores for the entire day. So, the question is, why was she there in the middle of the day? Well, she was a moral outcast, even within her own society she was a moral outcast. And Jesus Christ reaches across every single barrier that the world puts up between.

There was a racial barrier, a cultural barrier, a gender barrier and there was a moral barrier. And, according to every social convention, everything in the world He shouldn’t have anything in the world to do with her yet He didn’t care.  You see how radical He is? He reached right out to her and He wanted to connect to her.

The second remarkable thing is that He is clearly open to her, He is very warm to her. He is astonishingly desirous of a relationship with her and yet, He confronts her. He confronts her in a way I would consider gentle, certainly it’s brilliant. He says, „If you knew who I was, you would ask me for water. If you drink that water, you’ll never thirst again”.

Now, what is He talking about? He calls it eternal life. Jesus is talking metaphorically and He is referring to something as living water. If you lived in ancient times, you lived in arid climates, you would knowing something about the agony of thirst. He is saying, „I have something for you that is as basic spiritually as water is physically, without which you are lost.

Water would be satisfying- deeply satisfying. He says, „My water, if it is in you, will well up like a spring”. It comes from inside. He’s talking about deep soul satisfaction, apart from what’s happening outside of you. Now, you don’t really believe you are that thirsty (in the way He is speaking) as long as your think there’s a pretty good prospect of you achieving your dreams. And those people who do reach their dreams speak about the unbelievable emptiness they are surprised to find when they get to the top of the heap. (17:00)

Everybody has got to live for something that’s outside of you. Jesus is saying, „If it’s not me… I can give you that satisfaction and when I give it to you it will be something inside you, that has nothing to do with the circumstances. But, if it’s not me, then you’re gonna be looking at something outside of you. Whatever that thing is gonna be, you are going to have your whole life rotating around it, and whatever that is, it is going to enslave you and it’s gonna hurt you”.

Jesus tells her how to get the water

Jesus tells the woman to go get her husband. She says she doesn’t have one. Jesus tells her she had 5 but the man she is with is not her husband. Why is Jesus changing the subject? HE IS NOT CHANGING THE SUBJECT. He is showing her where she was trying to get her water. She was trying to get it through men, and guess what it’s not working.

2 – NICODEMUS John 3 

Do you notice that this is almost the opposite of how Jesus treats the woman at the well? The woman at the well, he starts off very gently, surprising her with His openness and then slowly confronts her with her spiritual need. With Nicodemus, Nicodemus says, „Ah, rabbi, I heard many wonderful things about you. People say that you really have a lot of wisdom and God is with you”. „You must be born again!” Jesus does not work off a template. Jesus is not a salesman. He confronts Nicodemus, right up front and says, „You must be born again”.

And he was as offended, as probably you would be if He said the term to you because when you hear the term ‘born again’, I think most people today, say, „Ok, that’s a kind of Christian”. Who are born again christians? Some people are more emotional, or broken and need a cathartic experience or being born again is for people who need a lot of structure in their lives, so they join these regimented, authoritarian structured religious movements. Being born again is for a kind of a person- THE PROBLEM WITH THAT IS –

  • Nicodemus is a male Jew. He is a civic leader in the Sanhedrin. He is at the top, he made a lot of money, he is very prosperous, he is not the emotional type. He is not the broken type and
  • He was a pharisee. Who would have more structure than that? And, not only that, he wasn’t a bad pharisee (today phrase has nothing but a really bad connotation). But, he goes to a man, Jesus – who is only a carpenter, no training, and he calls Him rabbi. That shows open mindedness.

This is the most admirable person possible.  Pulled together, successful, moral and yet, openminded still. Yet, what does Jesus say, „You must be born again”. Now, that’s another metaphor, it’s a metaphor for life. Jesus is talking about spiritual life again. Now He is using a different metaphor, not living water, but, being born again. To be born means you come into life. But, this metaphor has something that comes across that the other one (woman at the well) didn’t about the life that Jesus offers. And it is this: You can’t earn or contribute anything to being born. What did you have to do? Wasn’t it hard work to be born? No. Did you decide to be born?

What is Jesus Christ saying to this man who is as morally and religiously accomplished as anything? The pimps and the prostitutes, outside in the street and you are in the same place. You could contribute nothing to your salvation. You need spiritual life and it’s gonna be a spiritual gift. You’re just gonna have to ask for it. It comes free.

How can you say that? Here’s how He can say it. Jesus is working on a deeper understanding of sin. You look at the woman at the well and you say, „Ok, that’s the traditional understanding of sin”, Right? She broke the rules, maybe she committed adultery, she obviously was a moral outcast. Ok, I understand where christian understanding of sin, it’s breaking the law. But, why is He talking to this man like that? Here’s the answer: There’s a deeper view of sin. Sin, that Jesus is working off of. Sin  is putting yourself in the place of God, putting yourself in the place of being your own savior, your own god and master.

  1. Now, there is a secular way to do that, and that is to say, with my critical faculties, with my hard work I am going to create a satisfying life.
  2. There is an irreligious way: I’m gonna go out and break all the rules, break all the traditional models and show that I’m a free spirit and
  3. There’s a religious want to be your own savior and Lord, to say, „If I live a good life, I am moral, God will have to bless me, He will answer my prayers”. Why are you being god then? For God’s sake? No, really for your sake. Why are you doing that? To get control over God, „God will have to bless me, He will have to save me and take me to heaven.” You’re being your own savior and Lord.

There are 2 ways you can be your own savior and lord. One is by being incredibly bad, breaking all the rules, and by being incredibly good and saying, „Now, God is in my debt”. Both those people need to be born again because, ultimately they are both doing the same thing. They are self centered. There is a moral, self righteous, incredibly moral kind of person who is so self centered, bigoted, looks down on everybody that causes a lot of misery in the world. And, there’s another form of self centeredness, „I’m gonna kill, I’m gonna steal, I’m gonna rape, I’m gonna do whatever I want and this person creates a very miserable world too. But, IT’S ALL SIN and THE ONLY WAY FOR US TO BE SAVED is to a admit, whether we’re good or bad, WE NEED TO BE BORN AGAIN.

So what we’ve got in common, do you see it?

  1. Everybody’s guilty. I’ve had a lot of people say to me, „Look, I’m not religious, and I think there is a God, I guess. But, I’m a good person and that’s all that matters. Isn’t it?”  If there is a God, you owe Him everything. If there is a God, He should be the center of your life. And just because you’re a good person, you actually have a self centeredness there. You’re not letting God be God and you’re guilty.
  2. Secondly, we ‘re all enslaved because if you build your life on men, morality, money and you think, „God should love me because I’m a really good person”. But, if you lose your career, or you break up with your boyfriend/girlfriend or if you fail morally, you’ll never forgive yourself. You know why? Every other master but Jesus Christ, if you get him or you get it, it won’t satisfy you. And if you fail it, it won’t forgive you. Jesus is the only Lord that if you get Him, He will satisfy you and if you fail Him, He will forgive you. Your career can’t die for your sins

Jesus was thirsty

Why was it that she (woman at the well) found the living water? If you keep reading the chapter, she goes off and tells her friends about the living water she found. So, she finds living water. Why? Because Jesus was thirsty. If He hasn’t been thirsty, He wouldn’t have gone to the well and she wouldn’t have found the living water. Why was He thirsty? Because He ahd become human being. He was great. He was God, but He let Himself become so weak that He would become tired. She found the living water because Jesus Christ said, „I thirst”. In the book of John that is not the last time Jesus says ‘I thirst’. On the cross He said, „I thirst”. And there was more than just physical thirst going on there. Jesus was experiencing the loss of a relationship with His Father. He was paying for the punishment we deserved fro our sin. And that was to be cut off from God and lose the source of living water. Isn’t that paradoxical, but astonishing? As Jesus Christ experienced cosmic thirst on the cross, you and I can have our spiritual thirst assuaged. That’s the Gospel. (34:27)

What follows for the last 30 minutes (39:13 )is 5 questions from the audience about sin and other subject matter and ends with this epilogue by Keller:

EPILOGUE: Would you notice something that is common to Jesus and the 3 people we’ve discussed these past 2 nights( Nathanael,Samaritan woman at the well and Nicodemus) ? Nicodemus was confronted early, but I could make a case that if you get all the way to the back of the book of John, you will see him burying Jesus when it was very dangerous to do so, with Joseph of Arimathea. Nicodemus was confronted and then he was loved. The woman at the well was loved and then she was confronted. Nathanael, if you remember from yesterday (Video1) was both affirmed and confronted. To be loved , but not known is nice. But, since they don’t really know you it’s not that satisfying. To be known and not loved is our greatest nightmare. That’s why we cover up and make sure people don’t see all the stuff that’s in there. But, to be known to the bottom and loved to the sky, by the only person in the whole universe whose opinion really counts, is a solid foundation on which you can really build your life because circumstances cannot touch that. Now, the way to do that is to say, „God the Father, would you accept me and forgive me, not because of anything I have done or ever will be able to do, but, because of what Jesus Christ has done in His life and on the cross? In other words, Father accept me because of Jesus’s sake. Amen. That’s your step through the door


  1. Isn’t psychology moving closer, every single day, to explaining  our actions through materialistic forces, rather than spiritual forces of the soul? Answer: The idea that you can explain absolutely everything as the response of chemical reactions in your brain, that are due to the way your genetic code has been programmed by evolution (sometimes it’s called social biology, evolutionary psychology) basically saying (that) everything has a physical cause (and therefore must have a chemical/biological cause), my feeling of love, my feeling of everything actually comes from my brain, if it comes from the genetic … Let me cut to the chase. The problem with this idea that says ‘my feelings are basically just the responses of my brain chemistry- it has to be applied to your reason, as well. Alvin Plantinga has a formidable argument. What he’s trying to say is, „If you say that my moral and my emotional intuitions are nothing but a response of what I have been programmed by the genetic code – i.e. ‘I feel I have a soul, I feel I have human dignity’. His whole point is: If you can’t trust your moral and spiritual  intuitions, then you shouldn’t be able to trust your rational thought as well. It’s in his book called „The evolutionary argument against naturalism”. In other words it undermines the claim itself. If I can’t trust these (emotional and moral intuitions), I can’t trust the claim itself (the rationale of it).
  2. My sister is gay. She feels alienated and judged by christians. What should I do? Answer. That doesn’t square with what Jesus taught. However, If I was debating a Hindu man and I totally disagreed with what he said, I would not feel he was judging me. We disagree. So, this could be a case: just because this christian friend disagrees with you about something, doesn’t mean automatically that they are judging you. Because if everyone you disagreed with was judging, then you  as a non believe would be judging her, by disagreeing with her. The Bible says, a number of times, pretty unambiguously, that homosexuality is not God’s design to use sexuality. According to the bible it is God’s design for uniting a man and a woman in marriage. That’s the understanding of christianity. Of course that’s extremely unpopular. If it’s true that christianity is God’s truth, if the Bible was  actually inspired by God, then it would have to offend every culture, some place. Just because it offends our western culture at this point doesn’t mean you should write it off. Maybe you’re saying, „I’m gay and I don’t see myself fitting in christianity”. All I can say is your sexuality should not determine how you study facts. Sometimes I’ll say to a gay person, „Are you saying that because you’re gay Jesus couldn’t have been raised from the dead?” They say, „No, I’m not talking about that at all”. Then I say, „Do you know if Jesus was raised from the dead or not?” The person says, „I don’t know”. I say, „Well, you’ve got to figure that out. Christianity is based on that”. ANd so, if you’ve got a good read on christianity and you think that Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead, then who cares what the Bible says? But, if on the other hand, you’ve studied it and you say, „I think there’s really good evidence that Jesus was raised from the dead”, then I say, „Go there first, and if you believe that then go to everything else second because becoming a christian means believing in Christ first. And, if Jesus was raised from the dead, then we’ll have to look at everything else Jesus did and said and that will take a process.
  3. Isn’t it harsh that God doesn’t appreciate our good efforts at all? Why bother? Answer: Now, I didn’t say God didn’t appreciate ‘at all’. If (as a christian) I’m mad at somebody and I pick up a stone and want to smash him in the side of the head, there’s a couple of things I can tell myself to stop myself: (1) Hey, you’re a christian and you’re loved by Jesus Christ. You’re completely accepted in Him. Why is this person making you angry? Probably, the person made you feel humiliated, perhaps the person has kept you from some goal. But, in Christ it doesn’t matter, I’m accepted in Him. What people think of me shouldn’t matter. Get your heart right, you shouldn’t be this angry. I could do that. (2) The other thing I could say is, „Just don’t do it because you’ll go to jail; because you’ll hurt the person, because you’ll hate yourself in the morning. It’s likely that when I’m really angry my motives aren’t right and unless they are right, in the long run I’m not gonna become a non angry person. See, unless I get my heart right, I am not going to eventually get over my heart anger. In the short run, I think God does appreciate it if I don’t kill the person. Even if my motives are absolutely wrong. I think God cares about the misery of this world, we’re told in Psalm 145 that He loves all that HE has made. He cares for them. And if you love somebody rather than hate them, if you feed them rather than oppress them, regardless of your motives, I think God does appreciate that because He wants to see us thrive. But when it comes to your salvation and your relationship with God, I would say, „Yeah your deeds are being appreciated by God, but you’re doing them basically to stay away from God.
  4. Why is sex okay after marriage, but a sin before? Answer: That’s right, I did say that, didn’t I? Alisatir McIntyre who wrote the book ‘After Virtues’ said that the only way you can judge the morality of someone or something is if you first determine its purpose. This is really about marital sexual ethics, is because christians have a view of the purpose of sex that other people don’t share. If you’re asking me for the inner logic, I’d be happy to tell you. God sees sex as a unitive act, that is a way for you to say to another human being, „I belong completely and exclusively to you; it’s a way of communication. If you’re not married to the person, then that’s a LIE. What you’re doing is saying, „I want your body, I want you to give me your body and I want to give you my body, but I don’t wanna give you ALL the rest of my life. I don’t wanna give you myself legally, psychologically, permanently. In other words, let’s give each other our bodies but let’s keep the rest of our lives to ourselves. That is not really what sex is for. Sex is a covenant renewal ceremony. After 2 people have said, „I’m giving you my whole life”, sex is a way to renew that commitment and deepen it. It’s a kind of glue. It’s a way of creating deep unity between two people who are saying, „All the rest of my life belongs to you and physically I give myself to you”. And, that unites the whole things. So, since we understand the purpose of sex, for you to say to someone else, „I belong exclusively  to you, I’m not my own, I don’t want anybody else”, then sex is a lie unless you do it inside the context of marriage. Now, if you don’t agree that that’s the purpose of sex, you say that that’s just a big personal fulfillment, or simply just a biological process for pleasure, of course you’re gonna find that that’s too restrictive.
  5. You talked about the fundamental emptiness that people feel when they achieve a material purpose. What if we feel that emptiness because existence has no fundamental purpose or intent? What if religion, including christianity is just another one of man’s attempt to fill the void? Answer: There was a man who used to teach here, C S Lewis. C S Lewis says ‘the very fact that we want something that this world can’t satisfy is a clue that we were made for something beyond the world. Lewis says, „Why don’t animals feel that way (emptiness)? Why do we feel our finitude so strongly? ” He says, „A fish out of water knows it needs to be in water, if you’re in the water you wouldn’t feel that you’re out of your element. Human beings feel meaningless, they’re unhappy about the fact they’re gonna die. Why would you feel that way?” You can read his very eloquent argument- google C S Lewis argument for design. The very fact that you’re feeling meaningless is a clue that there’s something about you that didn’t just evolve.

Uploaded by  on Feb 9, 2012

Tim Keller speaks on the Wednesday evening of „This is Jesus”, OICCU’s 2012 main event.

–>Universalism and The Reality of Eternal Punishment by Sinclair Ferguson – Desiring God Conference 1990

The Biblical Basis of the Doctrine of Eternal Punishment

You can listen to the audio for this message here at DesiringGod.org

(The following is a transcript of the audio.)

I’m very conscious, indeed, of the privilege of participating in this conference; albeit, as you would understand, it is both a burden—in the sense of the topic that has been selected for our study—and also, as you would understand in many ways, for someone who has shrunk from being a pastor to being a seminary teacher, it is a particular burden to address a conference of pastors.

And so, I urge you to pray for the ministry of the word on these occasions, and for our own ability to receive it with meekness and also with a sense of godliness for our sanctification.

I want to ask you to turn with me to the first psalm, that we may settle our minds on God’s word and that he may bless us as we read it together.

Psalm 1

Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; 2 but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. 3 He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers. 4 The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away. 5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; 6 for the LORD knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.

It is sad that a number of years ago, certainly within the lifetime of all of us present in this room, one of the royal princesses of the realm coming out of a cathedral service in England spoke to the dean of the chapter of the cathedral, and said to him, „Is it true, dean, that there is a place called ‘hell?'” To which the dean apparently replied, “Madame, the Scriptures say so, Christian people have always believed so, and the Church of England confesses so.” To which she responded, “Then in God’s name, why do you not tell us so?”

It is precisely this question that we are to seek to address together. Because if this is the teaching of sacred Scripture, then clearly few things in Scripture will have a more monumental impact upon the seriousness of our ministries and the broken-heartedness of our preaching. Few things will clarify our vision of what it means to be ministers of the new covenant than to recognize with stark clarity that our great business in life is to pluck men and women and boys and girls from the eternal burnings. And the great privilege of our ministry will one day be to see those who otherwise would have been eternally condemned before the majestic righteousness of God shining like stars in the heavens and like jewels in the crowns of our own ministry.

It is true that the Christian Church as a body throughout every age has confessed that in his eternal righteousness, God judges and condemns sinners eternally to hell. For example, my own standard of faith, the Westminster Confession, puts it like this: “The wicked, who know not God, and do not obey the Gospel of Jesus Christ shall be cast into eternal torments and be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord.”

And the great issue today, as indeed it was for the church in Scotland in the day of George MacDonald, increasingly the great issue for ourselves today as we wrestle with these questions as individual believers and as pastors and as leaders among the flocks of God’s people, is the question—and it is very seriously asked on every hand—Is this indeed the teaching of God’s Word? Or do we distort the testimony of Scripture and therefore correspondingly distort men’s vision of God by so teaching that there is a place of eternal judgment and eternal lostness, of separation from the face and presence of God?

As we have already sensed in our prayer and in our singing, there can be few themes that will make a more profound practical impact upon our spirits as gospel ministers and pastors than to recognize that men and women and boys and girls who sit under our teaching and pass through our ministry will one day stand before the judgment seat of Christ and be sent either to heaven or to hell.

My goal in this opening study we are having together, is to try to unfold a little—and it will really only be a little—of the biblical basis for the doctrine of eternal punishment. And I want to try to unpack that a little, first of all, by looking to the biblical testimony of its reality; second, by examining some objections and alternatives which claim a biblical support; and then thirdly, by saying something as we close about the nature of the punishment that is in view in the pages of Scripture.

I. The Biblical Witness to the Doctrine of Hell

First of all, therefore, we turn in our study to think about the biblical testimony to its reality. And you will appreciate that it is beyond the bounds of possibility for any of us to present within the scope of one address the wholeness of the biblical testimony to this extraordinary and awesome doctrine. It is essential for us to be selective. And of the things I have selected that we may weigh upon our spirits is what seems to me to be the single most important feature of the biblical teaching in this area, and it is this: that the great witness to the reality of eternal punishment is none other than the Lord Jesus Christ and Savior himself.

There is a mighty sermon in Gresham Machen’s book, God Transcendent, on the text in Matthew 10:28, “Do not fear those who can kill the body; fear Him who is able to cast soul and body into hell.” And the sermon begins by the repetition of the text and with these words: “These words were not spoken by Augustine, or by George Whitefield, or by Jonathan Edwards, but by Jesus of Nazareth.” And it behooves us to listen to his testimony; both because this is the testimony of the Savior, and because this is the testimony of the One who names Himself as the living and true witness—who is the One who has come back from the dead to tell men that it is so.

One of the striking things that I’m sure many of you will have noticed as you have read through the gospels in a sitting, is that the testimony he provides and the warnings he gives in relationship to eternal punishment are both prolific and all-pervasive and utterly devastating in their effect.

We can think about that testimony in the several ways.

1) First of all, it is manifestly in the gospels the backcloth to our Lord Jesus Christ’s coming and is its profoundest explanation. You remember how John wrestles with this whole issue in John 3, strikingly placing together the glory of the love of the Father and his purpose in sending his Son with the dark backcloth against which his coming shines so gloriously, and which alone explains its deepest significance.

Why did He come? The Father delivered up the Son from the bosom of his love into this broken world, says John, in order that those who believe in him might not perish but have this everlasting life. And he goes on to describe what it means to have this everlasting life. It comes, he says, to those who believe. But what if we do not believe? „What if,” as Paul says, „all men do not have faith?” Then John goes on, you remember, to say that although he came into the world not to condemn the world but that the world through him might be saved, those who do not believe are those on whom the wrath of God remains.

It is this sense in the heart of our Savior Jesus Christ that the wrath of God is already revealed from heaven against men and their ungodliness and unrighteousness, and so it will remain. But he comes into the world not to condemn it but that through faith in his name men and women might be saved. But as John goes on to underline at the end of John 3, the great tragedy of man’s existence, although the Father loves the Son and has placed everything in his hands, whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life. For God’s wrath remains on him.

There is this deep certainty, already in these early sections of John’s Gospel that the only explanation for Christ’s coming is for the removal of the wrath of God against those who believe, and at the same time the insistence that there are those who remain under the wrath of God, reject the Son, and therefore will not see life.

2) And not only is that the basic backcloth which explains our Lord’s coming in the love of the Father; it is, secondly, manifestly so in the New Testament teaching and in the Gospels that this becomes the great central burden of our Lord’s own teaching.

With what magnificent parables he taught the people! With what amazing and beautiful and sometimes humorous insight he showed them what it means for the kingdom of God to come! But in those very same parables the theme is re-iterated and re-iterated—that the kingdom of God means that some will be brought into the glory of the fellowship of God’s people and, on the other hand, there will be those who remain outside.

Remember those parables in Matthew 13 that make this point so powerfully, taking up the great Old Testament themes of the two ways and the two destinations that are illustrated, for example, in the opening chapter of the Psalms.

Tares (weeds)

  • The parable of the wheat and the tares, in which the tares in the parable are bound and burned;
  • the parable of the net that catches the fish in which the bad fish are then cast away and lost;
  • or, in Matthew 25, the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, in which the foolish virgins are shut out and have no access to the place where the wise virgins rejoice and flourish;
  • and the parable of the unprofitable servant who is cast out into the outer darkness;
  • and the story of the sheep and the goats in the same chapter, in which the great final division takes place among mankind. And over there on the left hand of the Savior is a place destined for the devil and his angels into which men are sent by Jesus himself because of the way they have responded to the message of his grace and the outworkings of his grace in the life of his people.

We might stand back and say, as some have said, “Yes of course these are Jesus’ parables. These are Jesus’ weapons and his warfare to incite men to

Parable of the virgins-(depiction of 5 foolish virgins)

judging their own selves and thus to saving themselves in response. But these possibilities that are held out in the parables are hypothetical.” Until, of course, we read on in these very same sections of the Gospel and listen to our Lord Jesus interpreting his parables in the plainest of language: “This is how it will be at the end of the age. This is no parable. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Here parabolic teaching has come to an end. And its significance for men’s lives is so extraordinarily pointed out. „As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire in the parable,” says Jesus in Matthew 13:40, „so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil and they will throw them into the fiery furnace where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, while the righteous shall shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.

O, this is the broken heart of Jesus. He who has an ear to hear, will he not hear?

So it is of the very essence of Jesus’ understanding of his own parabolic teaching, that it has a direct bearing on the eternal destiny of men and women. And not only does he speak in these passages of the terrible reality of the punishment that men will receive, being weeded out and thrown into the fiery furnace of the judgment of a holy and almighty God; but he makes it explicit in those same passages in the New Testament that that destiny involves not only the reality of punishment, but this punishment is viewed by Jesus himself as eternal.

Listen to what he says in Matthew 18. He says in v.8, „If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you enter into life maimed or crippled, than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. Gouge out your eye if it causes you to sin, because it is better to enter into life as a one-eyed, holy believer than to have two eyes, unholy, and to be thrown into the fire of hell.”

Again in Matthew 25:41, as he is expounding the principles of the last judgment, „Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” And again in v.46, „Then those on the left shall go away into eternal punishment.”

The very echo of the words of our Lord Jesus Christ convinces us that he believed and taught and appealed to men and women on the basis that, without his saving grace, the only destiny that awaited men and women was both penal and eternal.

And not only so, but he further underscores this if we will remain in Matthew’s Gospel for a moment in those words that he speaks in chapter 12. He says in v.32 “Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven either in this age or in the age to come.” There is, says Jesus, a sin of such eternal significance and dimension that it is eternally unforgiven; and all of its consequences, in the subtlety and in the duplicity of man’s sinfulness, will fall upon the man whose unforgiven sin brings upon his soul and resurrected body the final judgment of our Lord Jesus Christ.

And strikingly, all of this already could be read out of those glorious words in chapter 3 of the Gospel of John. Because the alternative to perishing, says John, is everlasting life. These are two parallel opposite destinies for men and women. And Christ has come to redeem us from the one that we may enjoy the other. And if the life which we seek to enjoy is to be eternal, then the perishing of which John speaks in 3:16 is a perishing that will be without mitigation and without an end.

When John speaks in the 5th chapter of his Gospel of that great and awesome day when Jesus Christ will appear as Resurrector of men and their Judge, does not our Lord Jesus Christ confirm everything we see taught here variously in the Gospels, telling us that there will be two separate and distinguishable and permanent destinies for resurrected men and women? And one of them will be in glory, and the other will be in the most awesome and eternal shame.

The doctrine of eternal punishment is the backcloth to our Lord’s Incarnation; it is the great burden of his teaching; and thirdly, it is the great significance of his passion.

3) I need hardly spell this out for you, brethren, I’m sure. But you have grasped what is the significance of our Lord’s shrinking from the cross in the garden of Gethsemane, and especially of his words, “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.” What is the cup of which he speaks? It is of course the cup to which he had alluded earlier—the cup which he was to drink. It was the cup of which he had heard and read in the pages of the Old Testament prophets, when God had spoken of that day when he would visit them in vengeance and justice across the face of the earth, and he would make the nations to drink of the cup of his wrath that would make them stagger under the permanence of his judgment and of his casting of them off.

This of course is the reason why our Lord shrinks from death—does not go singing to death, as his followers and martyrs would do, but shrinks from it with every energy particle in his being. Because, in his perfect obedience, he has given his life to the Father’s will and comes close to the darkness of the cross in the garden of Gethsemane. He begins, as a man, as our substitute representative, to taste in ever-deepening ways the significance of what he has come into the world to do: he has come into the world to be circumcised on the cross by God himself. And he has said to his disciples, „This word of prophecy shall be fulfilled in me when the Father says, ‘I will smite the Shepherd and the sheep will be scattered.'” And this was his own interpretation of his death on Golgotha. The Father, he says, is going to smite the Shepherd. And the Shepherd will cry out in the midst of a darkness unparalleled in human history, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?”

Do you remember how the Epistle to the Hebrews gives us illumination into the significance of this, by urging us to go outside the camp to where Jesus was crucified? What was it that happened outside the camp? What happened outside the camp was the event that took place as Leviticus 16 describes on the Day of Atonement when the sins of the people were confessed over those goats and one was taken and sacrificed, and its blood shed as a propitiatory offering to appease the righteous judgment of God against the people’s sins. And you remember the other one was taken out into no-man’s land, by the hand of one who was worthy and there it was released—excommunicated, forsaken—bearing the sins of the people outside of the camp.

And this is the significance of the dying of our Lord Jesus Christ, his cry of dereliction, his burden in the Garden of Gethsemane. But in order to give to damned, lost sinners the cup of salvation in which we can call upon the name of the Lord—which he urged them to take, you remember, in the upper room—he had himself to drink to the last dregs that other cup of dereliction—excommunication, God-forsakenness—which was so unique for him, because in the mystery of the transaction of the eternal Trinity, the God-man gave an eternal quality to the sufferings he experienced as a penalty for our sin inflicted upon him by the sacred hand of his own dear Father.

You see, this doctrine of eternal punishment arises not only out of the teaching of Jesus; it is confirmed by the experience of Jesus as that experience is illumined and interpreted for us by the rest of the pages of Scripture. What he suffered on the cross in his agony and shame and dereliction, hanging alone between God and man, was nothing less than the punishment of his own Father which he had taken upon himself as our representative and substitute, to which in his sacrifice of himself upon the cross as a propitiatory offering, he gave an eternal dimension, in order that he might be a Savior fitted for sinners who otherwise would experience that punishment in an eternal dimension.

And so you notice in passing how this doctrine of eternal punishment and the doctrine of the Savior’s work upon the cross interpret one another and, as John Piper was saying a moment ago, stand or fall together. And it that sense what is at stake in this doctrine is not simply the significance of what it means to reject Christ but the significance of what Christ has done in order to be the Savior and Redeemer of his people.

4) Fourthly, we discover in the New Testament that the doctrine of eternal punishment is the burden that lies behind the Lord’s apostles’ proclamation. How did they view men and women?

„Oh,” says Paul in 2 Corinthians 2, „we are a savor of death to those who are perishing.” What is characteristic of those whose minds Satan has blinded, as he says in chapter 4? It is that they are perishing. The reason they are perishing, says Paul, is

  1. because the wrath of God is already revealed from heaven against them, and
  2. because that wrath of God will be consumed on them in the future.

You remember how just as it’s true that there are two dimensions to our salvation—a present experience of it, and a future consummation of it—the New Testament tells us that it is the same with the wrath of God. The revelation of God is all of a piece in this sense. And wrath is already revealed from heaven against men as he gives men and women over to their sinfulness, men and women around us on every hand who mock this teaching of God’s judgment and say, “I am flaunting God’s laws and I see no sign of his judgment.”

Paul says the very way in which you are in utter bondage to your flaunting of God’s law and of giving yourself up to it is a sign that you’re already under this judgment of God and his wrath is already bearing down upon you. But he says in Colossians 3:6 that this wrath is going to come upon men in the future. And he underlines that in those words in 1 Thessalonians, in which he speaks of those Thessalonians as having been rescued from the coming wrath of God.

And that, you remember, Paul goes on to tell the Thessalonians, is both punitive and everlasting. 2 Thessalonians 1:8—He will punish those who do not know God, and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. „They will be”—listen to this, beloved brethren—”they will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power on the day he comes and his wrath is revealed,” when Jesus appears in blazing fire from heaven.

And, outside of the teaching of Paul, think for example of the pastoral burden of the author of the letter to the Hebrews. In Hebrews 10:26-31, burdened as he is that professed Christians may not really be Christians who possess grace, he say, „How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot and treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him. For we know him who said”—this is God speaking—”‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay.’ It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”

And that deep burden in the letter of Jude in which he speaks similarly about the terrible consequences of man’s sinfulness. „Just as was true of those angels who did not keep their position, in a similar way Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire.” „They will,” as Peter puts it in the parallel passage, „be paid back for what they have done.”

5) And fifthly, this great burden of eternal punishment is confirmed by our Lord in his own post-incarnational revelation of himself to John. Remember how he reveals himself in the book of Revelation? The revelation of Jesus Christ which God gave him to show his servants. The revelation of Him as the great King and Ruler and Judge and Controller of the affairs of men. And as the One who will appear as their Judge. What will take place on the day when he appears? Oh, says John, the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, every slave, every free man, hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains and called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us, and hide us from the face of the One who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand? He comes with blood upon his feet, as the one who bore blood in his bosom for the salvation of men and women.

And John goes on, you remember, as he brings us to the consummation of this great vision, to speak about the judgment of the great white throne and the opening of the books. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the Book of Life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. The cowardly, he says, in 21:8, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters, and all liars; their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur, which is the second death. It is the place, as he said in 20:10, where the devil who deceived them was thrown, and where the beast and the false prophet were thrown. It is, he says, a place of torment day and night forever. And in that place, he finally concludes, there is an outside where are the dogs and those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.

All this testimony is really saying to us, beloved brethren, is what men and women fear, even if they will not confess in their consciences, that those who do such things deserve death. And one day he will say, “Depart you cursed, into everlasting punishment.”

II. Objections to the Orthodox Doctrine of Hell

Yet you would recognize, and I’m sure some of you would be much more familiar than I am with the fact, that this exposition of eternal punishment of a holy God of sinful men and women is one that has met with the most serious of objections. And I want to concentrate for a little while on two of those objections, and two particular kinds or forms of objection.

It would, I think, be out of place for us and unnecessary for us to deal with objections that are raised simply on the grounds of how men and women like to think about God. But there are two objections to this teaching which claim specific biblical foundation. In other words, there are two other kinds of objections which respond to such an exposition of eternal punishment by saying that it is not so in the teaching of Scripture.

One of these is a form of universalism, and the other is a form of conditionalism and annihilationism. And I think it’s important for me to say something about both of these.


You are familiar, perhaps, with the fact that in almost every era of the Christian church, professing Christian people have found the idea of universalism attractive. From time to time, it’s been condemned in the history of the church, almost from the beginning. And from time to time it has arisen again.

In the early church it was especially something that was expounded in the teaching of Origen. In the modern church, in many ways, it owes its significance to the influence of Schleiermacher. And I think it would be true to say today, that it is regarded by and large in liberal circles as the orthodoxy of our times. „It is utterly unthinkable but that God would save every human being who has ever lived out of the largeness and greatness of his mercy and favor.”

And that position is supported usually in two ways: by the use of biblical texts, and by the use of theological argument.

Objections Using Biblical Texts

Of the biblical texts, there are three categories.

1) There are texts to which appeal is made which seem to portray the idea of a universal redemption: John 3:17—”The Son came into the world not to condemn it but to save it.” 1 Timothy 2:3-6—the notion of God as the Savior of all men. 1 John 2:2—”Christ is the propitiation not only for our sins, but of the sins of the whole world.” Here, it is claimed, is a line of thought in the New Testament, which speaks about Jesus Christ as the Savior of all men.

2) The second strand of thinking is an appeal to those texts which give us a picture of universal restoration: Acts 3:2, for example—the hope of the restoration in the last days. 1 Corinthians 15:22-28; that great day when the Son will hand the kingdom over to the Father and God will be all in all. God will have reclaimed everything for himself. Texts like Ephesians 1:10 and Colossians 1:20-21 which speak of a universal reconciling work of our Lord Jesus Christ. There you have it again—Jesus Christ as the Savior of the world.

3) And then there are those texts exegeted in order to underline the principle that there are hints in the New Testament that those men and women who have not responded to the gospel and perhaps those who have never heard the gospel will receive, in the mercy of God, a second chance. Sometimes appeal is made to 1 Peter 3:18 and to Christ preaching to the spirits in prison as indication of the prospect—momentarily illumined for us in the New Testament—that, thankfully, at last, all men will be saved.

How are we to respond to these passages? Briefly let me say it’s impossible to exegete every single text. Let me simply give you three principles.

1) The first is, that universal statements in the first category of texts invariable and demonstrably have in view an antithesis different from the antithesis “some men will be saved vs. all men will be saved.” And frequently, but not necessarily always, that antithesis is that Christ saves not only Jews who are of the seed of Abraham, but Christ breaks down the ethnic boundaries of God’s ancient people and saves men and women—praise his name—from every tribe and tongue and people and nation under the sun. There is no “us” and “them” mentality in the New Testament; that is to say, it’s not that there’s something in us or our background that he specially qualified to be suitable for salvation.

2) And then in terms of the second view of text what is in view in the great eschatological restoration is the visible reign of God in which He will put everything under the feet of Jesus Christ, subduing enemies into friends and trampling in wrath and judgment those who refuse both now and then to honor him with the honor that is due to the Son of the Father. The restoration is that which is viewed in the great Messianic promises, when the world which Adam had handed over to Satan for his lordship—the prince of the power of the air—will again manifestly, and is it now really, be visibly seen to be in the hands of its creator, our Savior Jesus Christ.

That is to say, the reflection is not on the question, “Will all be saved, or will only some be saved?” The question is, “Will Jesus Christ fulfill the promises of God in the Old Testament and demonstrate his Lordship over all things?”

3) And in the third category of texts, 1 Peter 3:18 has been variously exegeted even by evangelical students of Scripture. And all would recognize, whatever the language may be and its significance, it is by no means evangelistic language. But more significantly, according to the analogy of Scripture, there is in that future world a great gulf fixed so that those who are there cannot come here, says our Lord in his story of the rich man and Lazarus. Those who are there can never cross over into the bosom of Abraham. That is, it would be to deny every canon of ordinary biblical interpretation to exegete such texts as though they sat before us the prospect of a second chance.

Objections Using Theological Arguments

There are these biblical arguments, and it seems to me that they depart from the analogy of Scripture in their exegesis. But there are also theological arguments used. And it’s both significant and important as we think of what they are that we recognize the subtle shift of gear that takes place. Because it is invariably true of universalism, that having thrown out these texts and said, “Look, there is universal salvation!,” it never pauses to seek to exegete these texts in the light of the rest of the New Testament but immediately leaps from these texts to a great, mastering theological principle—the “logic of love.”

“It would be impossible for a God of love to tolerate men and women being sent to hell. It would be the great emblem of his failure,” as MacDonald and others have maintained, “and he simply won’t tolerate lost souls.”

Now what are we to say about this? Let me suggest briefly that there are six devastating criticisms of this.

1) First, it substitutes logical speculation for biblical revelation; man-made reasoning from a biblical principle for biblical exegesis of biblical texts. It is a notion that is set loose from the New Testament because it lies on every page of the New Testament that the God of infinite love is also the God who punishes sinners.

And that simple principle alone—that he punishes sinners simply because they deserve punishment, not to improve them but because they deserve it—is enough to invalidate the notion that the “logic of love” leads us to a universal redemption.

2) The second that seems to me a devastating argument against it is the simple one that it ignores the biblical teaching that, outside the gates of the city of the New Jerusalem, there is a profound darkness into which men and women are sent.

You remember how Revelation puts it in 22:10-11, „Then he told me, ‘Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, because the time is near. Let him who does wrong continue to do wrong; let him who is vile continue to be vile; let him who does right continue to do right; and let him who is holy continue to be holy.'”

That is to say, there is a sense in which God says to men and women who die continuing to reject Him, “Well then, continue to reject me forever.” And so Revelation goes on to speak in the next page about what is outside in the outer darkness, where there are sinners identified even in specificity of the sins they have committed.

3) The third criticism of this “logic of love” is that it provides no explanation for the clear words of our Lord Jesus Christ concerning Judas Iscariot that it were better for him to have never been born.

My brothers, if we had some sense of the ineffable glory of being in the presence of God, a million purgatories would be worth it to be there. A million purgatories would be worth it if we could one day be brought out of it into the bright light and shining face of the welcome of the Father. But if that were to be true, it never could have been said of Judas Iscariot that it would be better for him to have never been born.

4) And in addition to these reasons, let me add a fourth. Let me ask you this: What more will God do to make his love effectual in the hearts of sinners than he has already done? What more can he do? He has done everything!

5) Fifthly, if I may argue in an ad hominem manner—and I mean this seriously and not cynically or in any sense merely as a put-down—it is one of the most extraordinary things in the world that, to a man, universalists are semi-Pelagian in their views. But suddenly, after death, everything becomes Calvinistic. The love of God is overwhelming. The love of God is irresistible. The love of God cannot be stopped.

But you see the principle of the New Testament is that God does not change because we die. His love is already overwhelming, irresistible. There is no more love of God to be demonstrated, beloved, than in the work of our Savior on the cross and the zealous pursuit of his efficacious work in the hearts of men and women by the power of the Holy Spirit. There is nothing more that God can do; there is no more love he can demonstrate; there is no more irresistible grace than the grace which effects our salvation here and now.

6) And sixthly, there is the homiletical argument that, inevitably, whenever universalism is espoused, the urgency and energy of New Testament preaching is dissipated. I tell you, it is a very unusual thing to hear a Barthian say, “I beseech you, be reconciled to God.” And it is an even rarer thing to hear a card-carrying, genuine-article universalist publicly espousing the doctrine of universalism with tears in his eyes, to say, “I beg you; lay down your arms; be reconciled to God.”

The principle here is that if the gospel that is proclaimed does not produce the fruit of that gospel that is visible in the New Testament, the gospel that is proclaimed cannot be the New Testament gospel. And the very reason for the urgency of the apostolic ministry and the zeal in our Lord’s heart that was to consume him was because of the sense of the urgency of men and women repenting and believing now, or else they would be lost forever.


The second kind of argument that is used against the doctrine of eternal punishment is some form of conditionalism. And I want again, if I may, to try and deal with it briefly. Conditionalism, as you know, comes in a whole series of forms. The only form I want to treat this evening is the form in which it is espoused by some of our evangelical brethren, and it is this: that in the intermediate state God justly punishes sinners, but at the resurrection of the last day, he will raise both the just and the unjust to stand before his throne, and he will welcome the faithful into everlasting bliss, and he will send the unbelieving into a dark, annihilated non-existence.

And this position, which in many ways has gained some publicity and popularity in our own times, has four central arguments, and it is good for us to know what they are.

1) The first is philosophical. That is to say, regarding the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, which makes it necessary for the doctrine of immortal punishment to exist. If a soul is going to exist for ever, then if it is sent away from the presence of God it must be punished forever.

The doctrine of the immortality of the soul, which has been so influential, it’s argued, in the notion of everlasting penal retribution, is of course a doctrine that is rooted, it is said, in the influence of Hellenistic philosophy in the early centuries of the Christian church, and is not to be found in the pages of the New Testament.

Now you see the point that is being made: if you believe in the immortality of the soul, then it’s necessary for you to do something in your theology with that immortal soul that rejects God.

In contrast, it is claimed, the New Testament’s teaching is different. We are to fear him who is able to “destroy” body and soul in hell, and this is what he will do. And it’s vital that we have a biblical response to that.

And it seems to me that the biblical response to that is this: that the immortality of man—which of course is dependent on him who alone has immortality—is not rooted in a Hellenistic view of the immortality of the soul that certainly was not in the Old Testament, but is first of all rooted in the biblical doctrine of man as the image of God, created to bear his likeness and to whom he has committed himself to uphold an everlasting existence.

And on the other hand, the doctrine of the general resurrection of the dead, which otherwise must be viewed as some kind of cynical joke in the heart of this All-Righteous God, that he punishes men and women and then raises them from the dead simply to annihilate them out of all existence. That’s a little bit like having shot Socrates in the head and taking him to the emergency room in order that he may live to drink the hemlock. And there is something in it that is altogether out of keeping with everything that Scripture says about the utter integrity of God and his dealings with men and women.

But even more significant than either of those two arguments is this argument: that in our doctrine of man and salvation and God’s dealings with man there is an abiding principle by which every doctrine must be tested: if it is not true of Christ, it is not true. And this was not true of Christ—the true, genuine, full man who on the cross bore the judgment of God against our sin.

Was the judgment of God against our sin, the eternal judgment which our Lord Jesus Christ received on the cross a means of his annihilation? I might point out that Jehovah’s Witnesses who believe that Jesus simply dissolved into gases would at least have logical consistency between Christology and divine judgment. But you see the point, if Jesus has borne it all to save us from the terrible judgment of God, then he must have born exactly what that eternal judgment will be. And if annihilation is that judgment and Jesus did not experience annihilation, then from annihilation not one single one of us can be saved.

If it is not true of what Jesus did for us as our perfect representative and substitute on the cross, it is not true. So conditionalism will not stand in terms of the philosophical argument.

2) The second argument that conditionalism tends to employ is what I might call the perspectival argument. And this is the argument which accuses the orthodox doctrine of a subtle eschatological misfocus. Let me give you an illustration.

How do evangelical orthodox people tend to preach the story of the rich man and Lazarus? They tend to preach that story as if it were a picture of eternal judgment. But, says the conditionalist, what is in view there has manifestly taken place in the intermediate state; the rich man is begging for someone to be sent to his brothers, so what is in view here is indeed punishment—judgment for sin—but judgment for sin that takes place in the intermediate state prior to the general resurrection, in which general resurrection what will happen to men and women without Christ is that they will die, perish, cease to exist altogether.

And the conditionalist argument consistently is that when you turn to the pages of the New Testament and read those passages that speak about the punishment and the suffering of the wicked, it is prior to the day when through the general resurrection the wicked will perish.

What are we to say to this? I believe we may say to this, even granted that Lazarus and other passages have a focus on the intermediate state, two things are also true.

  1. One is that the New Testament sees complete harmony between the intermediate state and the final state in terms of the experience of God which men and women have.
  2. And the second thing is this: that there is abundant evidence in the passages of the New Testament that speaks about the judgment of God that follows the intermediate state and the general resurrection, beyond which judgment men and women will go into unbearable suffering under the judgment of God.

Isn’t this what Paul is saying in Romans 2? That all these things in which he speaks about the retribution man will experience, all these things will take place on the day when God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ as my gospel declares. The suffering of which he speaks—the wrath that men will experience, the trouble and distress for every human being who does evil—is not a trouble and distress that will be experienced prior to annihilation, but a trouble and distress that will be experienced following the judgment of God.

And you remember how when you gather together the materials from the closing chapters of Revelation, it tells us that the destiny of the lost is one in the same with the destiny of the devil and his angels, the beast and his prophet, where there will be torment forever and forever.

Whatever passages in the New Testament, therefore, may refer to divine judgment and punishment in the intermediate state, those passages are entirely harmonious with the indications that the New Testament gives us of the punishment men and women will experience in the resurrected state.

3) The third argument used by conditionalists we might call the exegetical or semantic argument, in which they argue that the language of the New Testament has been over-weighted in the exegesis of traditional orthodoxy. There are many illustrations of this; I mention one or two of them.

It is reasoned by a good number of able scholars undoubtedly that, for example, whenever the New Testament speaks of “eternal punishment” and uses the language of the eon that is to come, (Greek αἰώνιος) it’s speaking only of what will take place in the future, the age to come, and gives no reflection whatsoever on how long that age will be. It speaks about the quality of experience, just as they say that we all speak about eternal life, not simply as a life that goes on and on but as a life with a special quality about it. To which I think the simplest and clearest answer is: αἰώνιος means not only „the age to come,” but by very definition, „the endless age to come.”

That is to say, it’s not only true by means of parallelism, eternal life and eternal death; but the death goes long as long as the life goes on. In view in that αἰών-ic death and punishment and suffering is the experience of an endless age to come.

Another form of the same exegetical and semantic argument is to argue that when the New Testament speaks of various things as being “eternal,” it indicates an endless condition, not necessarily an endless action and experience. That is to say, endless death does not mean endless dying but endless condition of death; endless punishment does not mean endless punishing, but a punishment that is endless in its consequences.

Annihilation—what is the language that’s used? Of course it’s death, destruction, perishing. And again, it seems to me that the analogy of Scripture is done harm in this argument, because in Scripture, life is the opposite of death—death is not the opposite of existence.

God’s veracity is at stake here because he said to Adam, „On the day you eat of it, you shall die,” but he didn’t cease to exist. And the whole flow of the Bible’s understanding of what death means is not that it’s the cessation of existence but that it’s the cessation of life and fellowship, in this case with God himself. To die is to enter into a living death, not into the end of existence.

What does the New Testament mean when it speaks about destruction? Invariably, it means not annihilation, but a loosening of all that would give significance and purpose and direction. When the New Testament speaks for example of „the body of death” of believers being destroyed, „the body of sin” being destroyed, it speaks about the loosening of the potency of sin in the life of the believer—not the cessation of existence of life—until the presence of sin is finally banished.

And when the New Testament tells us that Jesus has destroyed the devil, it doesn’t mean that he has annihilated Satan, but that he has loosened the whole grip that Satan has had on us and we now belong to our Lord Jesus Christ.

When the New Testament speaks about the new wine destroying old wineskins, it doesn’t mean that the wineskins are annihilated, but that their original function—the function for which formerly they were created—has ceased to exist. And so it is with man in his sinfulness; he does not cease to exist in the destruction, in the perishing, in the death that is the final judgment of God. But every last ounce of the blessedness of that original former destiny for which God created him which he was able to suck and, in measure, enjoy in this world he can suck no more and will never be able to enjoy again.

It seems to me in that context that the words of Paul in 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9 can never really be weighed by an annihilationist. You remember what he says? „They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and the majesty of His power.” You see, if you adopt an annihilationist exegesis of that text, the adjective becomes redundant: “everlasting destruction.” And the words that follow have no force: shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of His power.

4) And then there is a fourth argument, which is a theological argument, and it is similar to the universalist argument that God will be all in all: that there will be nothing on his left hand.

But you see the whole point of Jesus’ story of the sheep and the goats is that he does have a left hand. The minor motif of the book of Revelation is that there is, permanently, an outside. That’s why Jesus says, “They will go away to eternal punishment, while the righteous go to eternal life.” And all I’m saying here is that it seems to me that conditionalism, like universalism, does not take with sufficient seriousness the whole of Scripture.

III. The Nature of Eternal Punishment

That leads us to our final consideration; brethren, be patient with me for a moment as we consider it. We’ve tried to think about the biblical foundation for the doctrine of eternal punishment, and these two forms of objection which claim scriptural foundation to deny the doctrine of eternal punishment.

Let me say a word briefly about a thing to which we will inevitably return in our studies, about the nature of eternal punishment.

And the first thing, obviously, to say, is that its nature will be utterly overwhelming. Have you ever meditated on these words in Revelation 20:11? “I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. Earth and sky fled from his presence.” Here we can but speak with awe and humility, trembling in our hearts and in our spirits.

There is, it seems to me no doubt, that the New Testament uses many metaphors to describe the nature of eternal punishment. And there, I confess, I think I side with Calvin somewhat against Edwards. But that’s a very different thing from saying that those metaphors convey anything less than the physical characteristics which are used in the metaphors.

It seems to me if anything is true, the question is not whether the sufferings of the wicked are physical or spiritual. The truth is the sufferings of the wicked will ultimately be the sufferings of resurrected men and women, and therefore will inevitably be holistic; the whole man, the whole woman will suffer.

But what does it involve?

  • It involves separation from God, being cast away from His presence.
  • It involves depravation of that which is most foundational to our existence: light.
  • It means being cast into outer darkness. Some of you may be pastors in the country; if you’re a pastor in the city, you’ve never seen darkness. But if you’re a pastor in the country, you may have been out some time late at night when the sky has been overcast and you have placed your hand to your nose and you’ve seen nothing. And you know something of the sense of utter disorientation that comes into your breast as you realize that you are lost.

By John Piper. © Desiring God. Website: desiringGod.org

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