Justice and Eternal Punishment
Passage: 2 Thessalonians 1:5–1:10
Justice and Eternal Punishment
II Thessalonians 1:5-9
October 26th, 2008
Way of Grace Church
I. Hellfire Outreach?
Listen to this report from the Associated Press back in March of this year:
"TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) - Bible in hand, Micah Armstrong strides into the middle of a small group of students at the University of Alabama and starts preaching. You're going to hell if you drink beer, he says. You're going to hell if you curse. You're going to hell if you smoke dope...fornicate, watch a Hollywood movie, listen to rap, read Harry Potter books or attend most Protestant churches, Armstrong says. Homosexuals are hellbound, too, he says. So are women with low-cut tops, short hair, pants or jobs. "Women have two places: In front of the sink and behind the vacuum," Armstrong proclaims. "Ooooh," moans the crowd, now swelled to at least 250 people. Armstrong springs forward on one foot, thumping his Bible as he lands...And the show goes on. For four hours."
I suspect that most of us would not consider this an effective means of reaching out to college students. I suspect most of us bristle at this kind of preaching, preaching that has been traditionally called, "fire and brimstone" preaching, or "hellfire and damnation" preaching.
Our culture and our history in this country are filled with characters and caricatures like Micah Armstrong. But such messages and messengers are few and far between these days. Most churches have rejected this style of ministry.
But in rejecting this extreme kind of preaching, have swung too far to the other side? In our rejection of hellfire preaching, have we also tossed out the idea of hell?
Brian Blount, an associate professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary states, "It's a theological problem....God is all-forgiving and all-loving, but might cast some people into a lake of fire. Theologians have been working on this for a long time."
Do you feel the same way? Is the concept of hell, the concept of eternal punishment hard to swallow? Well, I believe some of our struggles with this idea come from the fact that our concept of hell has been shaped more by superstition than Scripture.
This morning, we are concluding our study of God's justice by looking to God's word in order to understand what is so often a taboo subject: the subject of Hell. Turn with me to II Thessalonians 1.
II. The Passage: "The Righteous Judgment of God" (1:5-10)
Let me read through this first chapter of Paul's second letter to the young believers in Thessalonica. Listen specifically for what we learn here about eternal punishment:
5 This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering- 6 since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, 7 and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels 8 in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9 They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, 10 when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed.
Did you notice here that we are, once again, dealing with this concept of God's justice?
The Thessalonians' unwavering commitment to Christ in spite of persecution was a sign that God's justice would be displayed in two ways. Look back at verses 6 and 7: since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, 7 and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels...
You may remember that we have been defining justice in this way: justice is delivering what is deserved when our moral choices are weighed in light of God's moral order.
That's what we see here isn't it, in two expressions. Affliction for those who afflict and relief for those who suffer. But notice who is coming to dispense this justice. This will happen when the "Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven". Last week we saw that Jesus is God's appointee in regard to the judgment of this world.
But if we continue on in this passage, look at what we discover here about how justice will be served when Jesus repays those who were persecuting God's people.
Now notice in verses 8 and 9 that Paul broadens the scope of God's retribution here. He's no longer just talking about the people in Thessalonica who were persecuting these Christians. They, in fact, part of a larger group described here as those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.
There are those who reject God on the basis of whatever light, whatever knowledge they have, and there are those who specifically reject Jesus Christ and His gospel, his call to repentance and trust.
Remember what we concluded last week as we talked about the judgment seat of Christ. On that Day of Justice: without the righteousness of Christ, every person will be found guilty and receive a just punishment.
In failing to live for God, in failing to love God with everything we are, as we were made to do, in failing to put him at the very center of our lives, to honor God as God and give thanks to Him, we have become gods unto ourselves. And all of our thoughts, words, and actions reflect this self-centered, self-grasping perspective.
And just like we expect accountability for those who violate our society's moral order, so too will all of us be accountable to God for violating His moral order.
Notice in verse 9 the nature of God's ultimate sentence against our guilt. Those who do not have the righteousness of Christ covering them, those who stand naked in their own unrighteousness will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might...
What is Paul talking about here? He is talking about Hell.
III. Understanding Eternal Punishment
Now, before we think more about what Paul is telling us here, let me take a minute and talk a little bit about the bigger picture that Scripture paints in regard to the subject of Hell. What else do we learn from God's word about Hell?
Well, I think the first basic thing we can conclude from what Paul has told us here is that Hell is the eternal experience of God's justice against those who reject Him. Whatever we might imagine about Hell, what images have been etched on our minds, if we want to have a biblical understanding of eternal punishment, we have to understand that Hell is completely about what is just.
Hell is not simply eternal destruction handed out by a sadistic God who loves to watch people suffer. God asks us through the prophet Ezekiel, "Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked?" (18:23) No, Hell is a manifestation of God's perfect justice.
Second, Hell is where the devil and his angels will experience God's just punishment. There is strange, but popular view out there that the devil, that Satan and his demons reside in Hell. As if Hell was their headquarters. Well, I'm not sure where that idea came from, but it definitely didn't come from the Bible.
Jesus told his followers that on the Day of Judgment "he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels." (Matthew 25:41)
The third thing we learn from God's word about Hell is that Hell is a condition of eternal suffering.
Listen to some of the ways that Jesus describes this eternal experience of God's justice:
He often used the image of fire:
"...hell, where the fire never goes out" (Mark 9:43)
"...hell, where"‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.'" (Mark 9:48)
"...the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." (Matthew 13:42)
But Jesus also talked about Hell as darkness:
He talked in several places about those who would be "...thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." (Matthew 8:12)
The author of Revelation describes this place as a lake of fire and brimstone, where the devil will be tormented day and night forever and ever. (Revelation 20:10) We're also told that if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. (Revelation 20:15)
I think it is clear from all of those passages that Hell is both a condition of terrible suffering, and one that is eternal.
I think it's important to see that the imagery here is not necessarily literal. A punishment of darkness, combined with fire, combined with a lake, combined with worms...those don't necessarily fit together in reality. And people have developed strange ideas about Hell because they failed to understand how the imagery is used here; other people have seen fit to reject the concept of Hell because it seemed ridiculous based on such an understanding.
French Pastor John Calvin wrote, "Many persons . . . have entered into ingenious debates about the eternal fire by which the wicked will be tormented after judgment. But we may conclude from many passages of Scripture that it is a metaphorical expression. . . . Let us lay aside the speculations, by which foolish men weary themselves to no purpose, and satisfy ourselves with believing that these forms of speech denote, in a manner suited to our feeble capacity, a dreadful torment, which no man can now comprehend and no language can express."
Much of the language employed by Jesus and the other NT writers may not necessarily literal, but that doesn't mean that the reality will be any less dreadful.
IV. The Nature of Mankind, the Presence of God, and the Reality of Hell
Now, there are a number of other concepts that we could talk about in regard to Hell, but I think we need to come back to Paul and II Thessalonians 1. Remember how Paul described the fate of men and women without Jesus Christ:
They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, 10 when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed...
Did you notice the contrast presented in that verse? It's the same contrast Jesus speaks of in Matthew 25: "And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life." (25:46)
Let's be clear here. The "eternal destruction" that Paul talks about here is not annihilation. If it was Paul would not only be contradicting the rest of the NT, but he would also not need to use the adjective eternal.
No, this is an eternal punishment that involves suffering as the verse indicates.
But did you notice what else Paul emphasizes here? The reality of this punishment is that it is "away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might". Remember what David told us in Psalm 16 about God's presence:
You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore. (16:11)
To be in the presence of God for eternity is to know life, fullness of joy, and God's pleasures, because God is life and the source of all that is good. Did you know that the only reason our world that men and women, boys and girls, in our world can, apart from Christ, experience any sense of joy or peace or pleasure or beauty, any sense of life, is because of the grace of God? It's what theologians have called God's "common grace".
This "common grace" not only enables us to enjoy what is good, but it does this by restraining us from what is evil. This is why Scripture can describe one manifestation of God's judgment as God handing us over to our own desires.
So if that's the case, if people's happiness and well-being in this life, to whatever degree they experience such things, if any good in this life, or if the fact that people are restrained from not acting on every self-grasping impulse, every dark thought, or every destructive tendency, if all of this comes from the grace of God, what will happen to a person when they are shut out from such grace? What will happen "away from the presence of the Lord"?
What will happen is that men and women will be left to experience the full measure of the consequences of rejecting God; they will experience the full weight of their own desperate God-defying, God-denying condition.
J.I. Packer put it this way: "Scripture sees hell as self-chosen . . . hell appears as God's gesture of respect for human choice. All receive what they actually chose, either to be with God forever, worshipping him, or without God forever, worshipping themselves."
People have asked, "How can a just God punish people for eternity in light of deeds they committed during a finite sliver of time? Even if we take into account every sin over a period of sixty or seventy years, won't His justice be satisfied at some point?" Well, what we don't often understand is that Hell is not simply God's response to who we are and what we do in this life. It His response to who we are and what we do for all eternity.
There is no repentance in Hell. But human beings will continue to reject God.
Do you remember the parable that Jesus told in Luke 16 about the rich man who was in torment after he died? Do you remember the two things he requested as he suffered? They were, number one, a desire for relief (he asked if Lazarus the beggar could dip his finger in water and touch the man's tongue), and, number two, he asked if someone could warn his brothers about this place so they would repent beforehand.
Now the implication of that last request was that he himself did not have enough warning. He was wishing that someone would have warned him beforehand. But Abraham's response in that parable is that God's word was the warning, and that the rich man chose to reject it.
Do you see what is glaringly absent from the rich man's words?
There is no repentance towards God, is there? He's fixated on his suffering, he's thinking about his family, he's convinced he got a raw deal, but he is not crying out to God; he is not admitting his guilt, he is not acknowledging God's justice, and he is not pleading for God's forgiveness.
C.S. Lewis put it this way: Hell begins with a grumbling mood, always complaining, always blaming others . . . but you are still distinct from it. You may even criticize it in yourself and wish you could stop it. But there may come a day when you can no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticize the mood or even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself, going on forever like a machine. It is not a question of God 'sending us' to hell. In each of us there is something growing, which will BE Hell unless it is nipped in the bud.
No, even though every tongue will have to one day confess that "Jesus is Lord", sadly, many will do so with hearts that still cling to their own ‘lordship'. They will indeed be the masters of their own destinies, but that destiny will be one of "eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord".
Even though there will be a Day of Judgment, there will be an eternity of justice.
Hell is not some cavern full of flames rule by a red man with a pitchfork. Those depictions are easily dismissed by most people. But what cannot be easily dismissed is the reality that we, as creatures made for eternity, must come to grips with the justice of God and the consequences of our own condition.
The more we come to understand the reality of our awful condition, the darkness of our own hearts; the more we come to understand the reality of God's holiness, His righteousness, and His justice, the more we will understand the reality of Hell.
Remember the contrast in II Thessalonians 1:9, 10: They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, 10 when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed...
Don't you want to be one of those saints, one of those holy ones in whom Jesus is glorified? Don't you want to marvel at Him and know the fullness of joy that's found in His presence?
Listen to how Pastor Tim Keller explains the reasoning for rejecting Micah Armstrong and his style of preaching, but not rejecting the biblical reality of Hell.
And some can preach hell in such a way that people reform their lives only out of a self-interested fear of avoiding consequences, not out of love and loyalty to the one who embraced and experienced hell in our place. The distinction between those two motives is all-important. The first creates a moralist, the second a born-again believer.
This morning, our discussion of Hell needs to point us back the One that, as Keller put it, experienced hell in our place.
Have you ever thought about the cross that way? Jesus was cut off from the presence of God and tasted the full measure of the consequences of human choices and the full weight of the human condition. Jesus endured helll for us so that we can enjoy eternity with Him. He tasted eternal destruction so that we can drink in eternal life.
Have you turned to Him in faith in light of His incredible love? You can today. If you have responded to Jesus, are you living each day in light of not only what you've been saved from, but more so, what you've been saved for?
We cannot neglect the idea of Hell. We also cannot emphasize it or express it an unbiblical manner.
May God make us men and women who reach out in love to others, speaking the truth about our desperate human condition, speaking the truth about God's perfect justice, speaking the truth about eternity, and most important of all, speaking the truth about Jesus Christ, the One who satisfied the justice of God in order to glorify the grace of God.
Don't be afraid to talk about Hell. But talk about first in the context of what Jesus tasted for us so that, in the end, he could offer us eternal life, not eternal punishment.