The Doctrine of Hell

By: Dr. John Ankerberg and Dr. Erwin Lutzer; ©2003
When was the last time you heard a sermon on hell? Dr. Ankerberg’s guest, Dr. Erwin Lutzer points out why it is important to understand what hell is, and who will go there.

The Doctrine of Hell

John, today we discuss a topic that is so difficult that if it were not taught in the Scrip­tures, we simply would not believe it and we’d certainly stay away from it. We’re going to be talking about the doctrine of hell.

One day we had a workman in the house doing some repairs and I was telling him about his need to believe in Jesus Christ. And we talked about hell. He said, “Do you believe in hell?” I said, “Yes.”

And then he said this—and he was such a kind man. It was difficult to hear it coming from him, but he said, “If there is an eternal hell, if that’s the kind of God you worship, I am willing to go there and simply defy Him for all of eternity.”

I’ve never forgotten that. And it’s a reminder of the fact that the doctrine of hell is very difficult to believe. So difficult, in fact, that one noted theologian said that hell disappeared and no one noticed. In fact, when was it that you heard a message on hell? I’m sure that you recognize that even people who believe in the inspiration of the Bible, even those who claim to believe the text, often avoid this difficult subject. They may believe it in a doctrinal statement, but preach on it, tell people about it? No. They say that it is such a great stum­bling block to the Christian faith. Well, I, of course, believe the opposite. It may be a stum­bling block, but we must teach what the Bible has to say on this topic.

You know, long ago as a pastor I decided that it was my responsibility to find out what the Bible said because God is God. He does not ask us as to how He should run His uni­verse. If He has a hell, if that’s the way He has set up the universe and the world, then we need to accept that and to learn from it.

People believe in Universalism because it is so difficult to accept what God has said about the doctrine of hell. We should not be surprised that Universalism comes about—the belief that everyone, in the end, will be saved. They say God is too loving and too patient to do otherwise.

You know, there are some passages in the Scriptures that are used to try to buttress this doctrine. For example, Paul says in Ephesians chapter 1, “God is going to reconcile all things to himself.” And they say, “See? He is going to reconcile these things to Himself and that means everything, even the unconverted.”

Well, does it include Satan? There is another verse that talks about the fact that God is going to sum up everything in Jesus Christ. Those verses mean simply that God is going to bring everything to completion. Jesus Christ is going to be Lord of all. He is going to be God and He is going to reign. So everything will be under His control. All things summed up in Christ. But not all will be saved and some people will be in hell forever. Shall I change that and say, not some people, but many people—millions of people.

There are others who teach what is known as the doctrine of “conditional immortality.” Now, let’s unpack it. Conditional immortality means that only those who have faith in Christ will live forever and the others are extinguished. They are brought to a point of non-exist­ence. In fact, the fire consumes them. The argument is that God throws them into the fire, the fire consumes them, and they are annihilated.

I was discussing this one time with a man who holds this very passionately and he said that his favorite verse was from Matthew where it says that, “Fear Him who is able to de­stroy both soul and body in hell.” He said, “See? He destroys the soul and the body.”

But actually, even that word destroy does not mean annihilation. It is used many times in the New Testament. For example, Jesus talked about wineskins being destroyed. It doesn’t mean that they are annihilated. It simply means, of course, that destruction is an eternal destruction. It’s the destruction of the soul that goes on forever. I don’t know how He could have said it more clearly. But in Matthew He is talking about two classes of people and He says, “If these go on to eternal life and the others go on to eternal destruction.” The de­struction is an eternal destruction.

Now, some may say, “Pastor Lutzer, you have not yet convinced me.”

Could this be any more convincing? Notice what the Scripture says in the Revelation chapter 14. This is now speaking of those who are judged as evil people: “And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever and they have no rest day and night, those who worship the beast and his image and whoever receives the mark of his name.”

Did you notice that? They have no rest day and night, those who worship the beast. The smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever. And if you still think that God is going to reconcile all things to Himself, what do you do with Revelation 20:10 where the Scripture says that Satan and the beast and the false prophet are “tormented day and night forever and ever”? And Jesus talked about a hell that was prepared for the devil and his angels, but that hell is one that He warned the people about and said, “O generation of vipers! How can you escape the damnation of hell?”

It’s not up to us to decide what is in the Scriptures or what God has determined to do. It’s up to us to find out what He has said, to understand it as best we can, and warn people of the wrath that is to come.

The problem that some people have with the doctrine of hell is that the punishment does not seem to fit the crime; they say it’s “overkill.” Yet how can we understand this doctrine to make some sense of it?

First of all, I want to remind you that those who do not know Christ as Savior will be judged on the basis of what they did with what they knew. Revelation chapter 20 makes it clear in the Great White Throne Judgment: “I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne. The books were opened. Another book was opened which is the book of life. The dead were judged from the things which were written in the books according to their deeds.” Now, let me be clear that everyone who comes to this judgment will be in hell. In fact, it says that death and hades were “thrown into the lake of fire.” But, let it also be clear that hell will not be the same for everyone. “He who knew God’s will and did it not shall be beaten with many stripes,” Jesus said. “He who knew not God’s will shall be beaten with few.”

You see, there are some people who are more wicked here on earth than others. There are those who had more light than others and yet rejected it. Certainly those who have never heard of Jesus will be judged on an entirely different standard than those who heard and did not repent and come to Him in simple faith.

I believe that God’s judgment is going to be so meticulous that throughout all of eternity we are going to sing, “Great and marvelous are thy works, O Lord, just and true are thy ways.”

I believe that pornographers will wish that they had published at least one magazine less because that would have affected, you see, the degree of their torment and punishment in hell, at least to a very, very small degree, you see?

In other words, it is much better to live as a righteous man on human terms than to be a criminal or to reject much light. But throughout all of eternity, we are going to marvel at God’s justice.

Some might ask, “Well, does that mean that we who are in heaven are going to see the torments of hell?” The Bible is not clear about that but Jonathan Edwards, I think, was right when he said that heaven will not have pity on hell, not because heaven is unloving but because heaven is perfectly loving. We’re going to see everything from God’s viewpoint.

So, first of all, it will be based on what people did with what they knew. Secondly, could I remind you today that those who do not know Christ as Savior are eternally guilty. You see, if it were possible for human suffering to somehow compensate for our sin, eventually hell would no longer exist. People would have “paid for their sins.” But may I say it very clearly: there is no human suffering that can pay for so much as a single sin. The only Person who could suffer on behalf of sin, whose sacrifice and suffering was received, is Jesus Christ because He was God and therefore He is able to give us the righteousness of God which we need to get into heaven. But no human suffering can pay for sin. Remember the words of the song, “Could my tears forever flow, could my zeal no respite know. All for sin could not atone, Thou must save and Thou alone.”

I think that oftentimes also we overlook the seriousness of our sin. You know, we say to ourselves, “Well, what I have done is not that big a deal.” Well, wait a moment. Wait a moment. It is a big deal because it was done in the presence of God and all sin is sin against Him.

What if Jonathan Edwards was right? Edwards said that the size of a sin should be determined by the size of the Being against whom it has been committed. Do you know what that would mean? Every sin of ours is a huge, infinite sin. God takes sin very, very, seriously.

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