Do You Believe in Hell?

Matthew Everhard
Thursday, November 1st 2012
Nov/Dec 2012

It is taken for granted’in mainline circles, at least’that traditional belief in hell is a relic of the past. More liberal Lutheran and Reformed denominations imagine that the doctrine of God's everlasting punishment is not only unnecessary but actually contradicts a proper view of God and his gracious love as celebrated by their confessions.

Since I am a Presbyterian minister, I will obviously focus on this question by exploring the Reformed confession of the catholic Christian consensus. In short, I am convinced that a denial of hell assumes a faulty view of God's justification of sinners; in other words, it denies the gospel as God's free gift in Christ that answers the horrible prospect of everlasting death.

As a pastor who preaches expository sermons through books of the Bible, I have to confess that there are two topics I dread discussing: tithing and hell. The former sometimes causes me to feel like a televangelist; the latter makes me feel like a Bible-thumper. Nevertheless, Reformed Christians’including pastors’should be wary of being led by our emotions. On the contrary, our only foundation for faith and practice can be nothing less than the Word of God. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why we must preach the "whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27): we must preach and hold doctrines that confront our emotions directly.

Reformed theology is, if anything, a biblical theology. The Reformation slogan sola scriptura was (and continues to be) the guiding principle of our theological systematics. At the same time, Reformed theology is also a confessional theology. By this we mean that Reformed people have historically drawn up confessions of faith that are intended to be subordinate standards to guard and protect our doctrines and the Scriptures from whence they derive. If a Christian wants to understand the whole Bible's teaching on a topic, it is always helpful to begin with the summary of Scripture found in the church's confession. We will therefore begin our survey of the Reformed doctrine of eternal punishment with a brief survey of the teaching of the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647).

Summarizing the Scriptures

The Westminster Standards make reference to the doctrine of punishment in general and hell in particular, in at least five primary instances. Let us briefly survey the language the divines used. The main confession itself speaks of the fate of the lost: "The souls of the wicked are cast into hell, where they remain in torments and utter darkness, reserved to the judgment of the great day. Besides these two places [heaven and hell] for souls separated from their bodies, the Scripture acknowledgeth none" (with reference to Luke 16:23 and 2 Peter 2:9). (1) This statement is important because it immediately rules out any nonbiblical doctrines such as the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory, which is altogether absent from the Old and New Testaments.

The fate of every man will be consigned to one of these two places. Those who are justified by their faith in the blood of Jesus, whose sins have been expiated and who have received the gift of the imputation of his righteousness, will be granted entrance to heaven. Conversely, those whose own wickedness is reckoned to them will be consigned to hell. In a similar manner, the Larger Catechism likewise describes the fate of the reprobate before the final judgment: "The souls of the wicked are at their death cast into hell, where they remain in torments and utter darkness: and their bodies kept in their graves, as in their prisons, until the resurrection and judgment of the great day" (Acts 1:25; Jude 6; Luke 16:23, 24). (2)

In the succeeding chapter of the main text, the divines amplify their description of this latter place of eternal fate by adding, "But the wicked who know not God, and obey not the gospel of Jesus Christ, shall be cast into eternal torments, and punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of His power." (3) This language is important because it reveals what makes hell truly "hell," viz., that the reprobate are cut off from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his power. The divines are reticent here to define exactly what comprises the torments spoken of in this place, other than to make explicit that it is "eternal" in duration.

If one might ask how it is possible that a sinner be made liable to the eternal destruction that is hell, the Shorter Catechism gives the following reply, "All mankind, by their fall, lost communion with God, are under his wrath and curse, and so made liable to all the miseries of this life, to death itself, and to the pains of hell forever" (citing Gen. 3:8, 24; Eph. 2:3; Rom. 5:14 and 6:23). (4) Here, we see the inextricable link between the Reformed doctrine of sinful depravity and our view of the eternal state. The fall into sin is so serious that, excepting the intervention of a propitiating mediator, no remedy is given to fallen man. His relationship with God has been destroyed, his ability to uphold the covenant of works is nullified, and his creaturely status with God is placed in a position of damnable danger. In short, for the nonelect, his doom is sure. Surely, those who deny the historic doctrine of hell make the additional errors of ignoring the gravity of our sinful condition and truncating the holiness of God by minimizing its offense in God's nostrils.

When the Larger Catechism turns to the nature of that punishment to which sinners are made liable, we find that the language of the divines, while characteristically concise, is frightening indeed: "The punishments of sin in the world to come are everlasting separation from the comfortable presence of God, and most grievous torments in soul and body, without intermission, in hell fire forever" (2 Thess. 1:9; Mark 9:43, 44; Luke 16:24, 26; Matt. 25:41, 46; Rev. 14:11; and John 3:36). (5) At this point, we can see the nature of eternal punishment, as understood by the Assembly, coming into clearer perspective. This quotation adds a few things that have not yet been mentioned; to wit, the nature of the torment is both physical and spiritual ("both soul and body"), there is no opportunity for cessation of this punishment ("without intermission"), and the usage of the predominant New Testament metaphor for hell is "fire."

Reformed Theology

Like most of the Reformed confessions, our Westminster Standards draw upon and are influenced by the Magisterial Reformers in general and John Calvin in particular. Calvin treats the themes of eternal destruction, judgment of the reprobate, and hell in his Institutes of the Christian Religion (especially III.25.12):

As language cannot describe the severity of the divine vengeance on the reprobate, their pains and torments are figured to us by corporeal things, such as darkness, wailing and gnashing of teeth, inextinguishable fire, the ever-gnawing worm (Matt. viii.12; xxii.13; Mark ix.43; Isa.lxvi.24). It is certain that by such modes of expression the Holy Spirit designed to impress all our senses with dread….As we thus require to be assisted to conceive the miserable doom of the reprobate, so the consideration of which we ought chiefly to dwell is the fearful consequence of being estranged from all fellowship with God. (6)

In this section, Calvin seems to stop short of saying that these images and metaphors are to be understood as literal (i.e., fire, worm), but that their scriptural usage is designed to "impress our senses with dread." At the same time, we note that Calvin is in no way suggesting that the reality of hell is any less intense than the metaphors used, but rather that these appeals to the five senses (physical touch, smell, sight, hearing, tasting) are used in such a way that an indescribable agony’that of being separated from God’is made more tangible by human language. Again, Calvin seems to pull up just short of acknowledging a literal reality to the metaphors by adding, "Whenever the prophets strike terror by means of corporeal figures, although in respect to our dull understanding there is no extravagance in the language, yet they give preludes of the future judgment." (7) Nevertheless his position seems clear: the metaphors are designed to instill the greatest possible dread about the greatest possible reality’the torment of conscience, acknowledged separation from God and the personal bearing of his wrath.

Charles Hodge, representing the great Princeton tradition, takes a modest position with regard to the literality of the images: "There seems to be no more reason for supposing that the fire spoken of in Scripture is to be literal fire, than that the worm that never dies is literally a worm. The devil and his angels…have no material bodies to be acted on by elemental fire." (8) Yet after briefly acknowledging several unorthodox positions held by some (purgatory, annihilationism, and so forth), Hodge rejects them all and argues for the position of eternal conscious punishment in hell, as held by the Reformed as well as the church universal:

The common doctrine is that the conscious existence of the soul after the death of the body is unending; that there is no repentance or reformation in the future world; that those who depart this life unreconciled to God, remain forever in this state of alienation, and therefore are forever sinful and miserable. This is the doctrine of the whole Christian Church, of the Greeks, of the Latins, and of all the great historical Protestant bodies….Any man, therefore, assumes a fearful responsibility who sets himself in opposition to the faith of the church universal. (9)

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, Louis Berkhof distills the solidly biblical Reformed tradition with a careful approach to this doctrine: "It is impossible to determine precisely what will constitute the eternal punishment of the wicked, and it behooves us to speak very cautiously on the subject." (10) He does not, however, equivocate as to the meanness of the place nor the torment waiting for its occupants.

Some deny that there will be a literal fire, because this could not affect spirits like Satan and his demons. But how do we know this? Our body certainly works on our soul in some mysterious way. There will be some positive punishment corresponding to our bodies. It is undoubtedly true, however, that a great deal of language concerning heaven and hell must be understood figuratively. (11)

  1. A total absence of the favor of God;
  2. An endless disturbance of life as a result of the complete domination of sin;
  3. Positive pains and suffering in body and soul; and
  4. Such subjective punishments as pangs of conscience, anguish, despair, weeping, and gnashing of teeth. (12)

While not an easy doctrine to preach and teach, declaring the "whole counsel of God" surely requires presentation of these primary aspects of the nature of hell. May we encourage our people to flee to Christ, our deliverer.

1 [ Back ] WCF 32:1; citing proof texts Luke 16:23 and 2 Peter 2:9.
2 [ Back ] Larger Catechism, A #86; citing proof texts Luke 16:23, 24; Acts 1:25; and Jude 6.
3 [ Back ] WCF 33:2; citing proof texts Matt. 25:41, 46; 2 Thess. 1:9; and Mark 9:47, 48.
4 [ Back ] Shorter Catechism, A #19 (emphasis added); citing proof texts Gen. 3:8, 24; Eph. 2:3; Rom. 5:14 and 6:23.
5 [ Back ] Larger Catechism, A #29 (emphasis added); citing proof texts 2 Thess. 1:9; Mark 9:43, 44; Luke 16:24, 26; Matt. 25:41, 46; Rev. 14:11; and John 3:36.
6 [ Back ] John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, III.25.12, trans. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001).
7 [ Back ] Calvin, III.25.12 (emphasis added).
8 [ Back ] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology: Volume III Soteriology (Grand Rapids: Hendrickson, 2003), 868.
9 [ Back ] Hodge, 869, 871.
10 [ Back ] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1941), 736.
11 [ Back ] Berkhof, 736.
12 [ Back ] Berkhof, 736. Charles Hodge also has a similar list of primary aspects of eternal hell in his Systematic Theology: Volume III Soteriology, 686.
Thursday, November 1st 2012

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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