Results tagged “Hell” from Reformation21 Blog

What is the preacher to do with hell and eternal punishment? In our day and age these truths strike some as comical and others as cruel. To some, hell is a joke. It's about little devils in red tights (so teach the cartoonists). It's a place where illicit pleasures are indulged (if we believe the entertainment media, not to mention the porn industry). It conjures up images of old-fashioned, red-faced TV preachers (before they figured out that only "nice" plays on the tube) preaching the disdained "hellfire and brimstone" sermon. On the other hand, in more thoughtful settings - major universities, mainline seminaries, serious print media - the mere admission of one's belief in such a destination for the unredeemed evokes sheer horror from the enlightened. How could you possibly believe something so primitive, so backwards, so mean, so exclusive, so intolerant? A rampant relativism and universalism makes hell the only heresy.

Meanwhile, we've got our own problems with hell in the conservative Christian sub-culture. There are serious scholars of evangelical reputation who have created significant doubts in the minds of some of our finest young preachers. The traditional church teaching is not biblical, they've argued. Godly and brilliant John Stott was part of a group of British evangelicals that suggested conditional immortality as an alternative to the historic view (though he has repented into agnosticism on the question latterly). Clark Pinnock and others promoted a more thoroughgoing renovations of the hard place. Then, there are those who are in reaction against the abuse of this teaching in the days of their fundamentalist youth. They seek to ignore it out of existence. For the last few decades, some practitioners of the church growth movement have banished the doctrine from their evangelistic lexicon (along with sin, judgment and the like) because, they say, it doesn't existentially connect with our generation and repulses some from the Gospel. And, of course, Rob Bell kicked up a controversy with his book Love Wins--in which he made the case for something like universalism or universal redemption in a way that became very attractive to many.

So how do you address these difficult truths? How does the reality of hell and endless punishment make a difference in your preaching? How do you tackle them in a responsible and appropriate way? What do you need to avoid when treating them? How should we preach hell and eternal punishment (if at all)?

Address Hell Textually

To begin with, we need to be realistic enough to recognize that unless we follow a systematic plan for biblical preaching, we will likely avoid this topic. Here's where lectio continua preaching (working through Bible books, chapter by chapter, verse by verse) or teaching through the great catechisms helps. Such an approach forces the minister to treat even the hard truths, and also alleviates him of the charge of picking morbid subjects or fixing on pet issues. The minister who consecutively preaches Scripture, can look at his congregation and simply say: "this passage follows on the one we last studied and, as uncomfortable as it contents may be for some of you, integrity demands that we consider it." You may be surprised how sympathetic nervous Christians and intelligent inquirers can be to such a frank announcement.

Address Hell Decisively

Then, we need to be completely convinced of the biblical origins and contours of this doctrine. If we step into the pulpit with the slightest doubt, it will show. When certainty has been undermined by academic strictures against this teaching, then the truth must be studied until a thorough conviction obtains. Furthermore, one must begin to look at unbelievers with the same kind of pathos and compassion that Jesus and his disciples evinced when they contemplated an immortal soul and the reality of eternal darkness. "Hell" is taken up so glibly in our culture, as a low-rent swear word or a thoughtless threat, that every time the minister speaks of it, there must be evident gravitas and mercy, else we run the risk of stoking the general cynicism of the people. "A man who realizes in any measure the awful force of the words eternal hell won't shut up about it, but will speak with all tenderness," said A.A. Hodge.

Address Hell Pastorally

In this connection, let me suggest that the preacher talk to people like he would to a family about death in extraordinary circumstances (the loss of a child, suicide, cancer or some other dread disease, murder, and the like). You want to be sensitive but frank. So often folk begin trying to cope with such a loss by denial or circumlocution or euphemism. The minister, in such a situation, must neither be uncaring nor tiptoe around the obvious. He must draw attention to the elephant in the room no one is acknowledging. Strangely, this often brings great relief to the family who has already spoken with friend after friend who has not been able to speak directly about the cause of death, the manner of death, the time of death, or even the fact of death in any straightforward way. The minister's sensitive explicitness breaks the ice and enables the bereft to voice the unspeakable.

So also with hell, the minister's willingness to break silence and speak directly to hidden fears and questions, lovingly and carefully to be sure, but with manliness and conviction, can breed a certain receptivity, and even confidence in his words, in his audience. Speaking to the matter from the vantage point of strength and kindness enables the minister to address the subject comprehensively, probing into areas where an emotional knee-jerk reaction might otherwise function as an effective prophylactic against the truth of God's word.

Address Hell Correctively

There may be some in your congregation who have grown up in circles where Christian discipleship is viewed as little more as an escape route from hell. Their public professions of faith (or, often, "decisions") are sometimes made only to give them a definitive sense of relief from the prospect of eternal damnation (a so-called "fire insurance" view of Christian profession). But their interest in Christ and Christianity seems to stop just about there. They don't want to go to hell, to be sure, but describe to them a biblical view of Christian discipleship or even heaven (as a place of endless delight in God), and their heart's not in it. To make matters worse, some preachers have actually fostered this fallacy by assuring their congregations (in funeral sermons and elsewhere) of the absolute certainty of the salvation of some notoriously immoral and godless person because he "walked the aisle" when he was ten. What better way to convince people that Christianity is all about avoiding an unpleasant end, rather than glorifying God in this life and the next? The faithful minister must be aware of and tackle this problem in his teaching on hell. While the reality of hell and everlasting punishment has been used of the Spirit to shake many awake from a lethal slumber, there is always in the truly regenerate an accompanying set of spiritual motivations and desires. Hence, there will be times when the minister must address the misuse or misdeployment of this doctrine because it has frequently resulted (especially among covenant children in the environs of nominal evangelicalism) in a truncated view of what Christian salvation actually entails.

Address Hell Apologetically

We also have need to respond to popular suspicion of and intellectual contempt for this doctrine. On the one hand, you may have intelligent laypeople in your congregation, with evangelical convictions, who have come under the influence of teachers who have unsettled them about this biblical doctrine. If so, some of your preaching on the subject (while not losing sight of the main matter of expounding the text) will be designed to buttress evangelicals who are rattled by criticisms of the doctrine. This may require you briefly to respond to some of the popular/academic/evangelical criticisms of the traditional doctrine. The Westminster Divines themselves acknowledged this need. They said that the minister "if the people be in danger of an error," should "confute it soundly, and endeavor to satisfy their judgments and consciences against all objections." Furthermore they added: "If any doubt obvious from scripture, reason, or prejudice of the hearers, seem to arise, it is very requisite to remove it, by . . . answering the reasons, and discovering and taking away the causes of prejudice and mistake."

On the other hand, you may be blessed with the attendance of open, inquiring pagans at your public services. Some of them may have major problems with the very idea of a place of eternal torment. You will want, in this circumstance, to acknowledge the existential angst that many have about this doctrine and then turn the tables on them (ala John Piper, Tim Keller or C.S. Lewis), and remind them that it is our own peculiar zeitgeist that puts God on trial for hell and questions his existence because of pain and suffering in this world. The fact is, however, if the moral universe depicted by the Bible is the reality in which we actually live, then the real problem is not our pain but rather our happiness, not God's justice and love but rather our undeserving experience of them, not human suffering but human sin without immediate divine reprisal, not the sentence of hell but the gift of the cross.

You need to read, listen to and learn from the great Christian apologists and apologetic preachers of our time as they deal with these (and other) matters. Scavenge for ideas and angles with and from which you can surprise your hearers - to startle them into attention and engagement. For instance, one helpful and suggestive popular defense of hell can be found in a newspaper article by John Murray Macleod in the Glasgow Herald(!) called "Between the Hard Place and Satan's Spandau" [it can be accessed via www.fpcjackson.org - via the "Resources" page], another powerful and sobering presentation is found in Donald Macleod's A Faith to Live By (Christian Focus Publications).

Address Hell Exegetically

Most of "our" hearers (congregants of churches pastored by Reformation21 readers) will have high views of scriptural authority, and so, if they are shown from scripture what the Lord says about hell and eternal punishment, that will settle it for them. So, you'll want carefully to adduce from the text itself the doctrine that you want them to embrace. Furthermore, as you do, you'll want to address some connected issues that will be on the minds of your more serious students of the Bible. What did the Old Testament teach about hell, death, judgment and punishment? What are the continuities and discontinuities between Old Testament and New Testament teaching on these matters? How do the ideas of Sheol, Hades and Gehenna relate? They'll want to know what sort of a hope for the resurrection was entertained by old covenant believers (Kidner is great on this). And, bless their hearts, if they've been wading through N.T. Wright, they'll be totally confused about the early Christian conception of the afterlife! You've got your work cut out for you, but if you let the text set the agenda and speak for itself, God's word will not bring an empty return.

Address Hell Christologically

Perhaps most importantly of all, there is an urgent need for us to approach this truth Christologically, that is, in conscious relation to the doctrine of Christ. I mean that in at least two ways. First, we need to stress that hell is an unavoidably dominical doctrine. We have learned it from the lips of Jesus. No one is more responsible for laying out the main lines of the teaching which is so despised in our day regarding hell than is our Lord himself. He addressed the subject more than anyone else, and gave it more attention in the scope of his ministry than many other important themes. And its no wonder he spoke of it so often, in deadly earnest. He created it, and he alone of redeemed humanity has experienced its torment. So, in the final analysis, we believe in hell, because we believe-and believe in-Jesus. That means that if someone wants to take issue with hell, their argument is not with the preacher but with the Creator-Savior. That's not a quarrel one ought to be anxious to join.

Second, our preaching on hell must be Christological in the sense that it must be set in the context of the cross. To many, hell poses a problem for theodicy. Just as some suggest that the problem of evil calls into question either the goodness or existence of the sovereign God, so also hell is trucked out as the ultimate trump card against the love and mercy and grace of the Christian God. How can you believe, they ask, in a God who sends people to hell? Well, the answer is - look at the cross, and I'll give you a bigger problem to think about. Christ's dereliction and abandonment and forsakeness on the cross is a far greater philosophical-theological problem than hell.

Why do I say this? Because at the cross, the wrath of God is striking out at the one place, the one person, in the universe that it has no right to strike - the incarnate and sinlessly perfect Son of God. It is a far greater injustice than we can conceive. No plight was ever less merited. Hell, on the other hand, is deserved. It makes perfect sense. Its logic is inexorable. Those who forgo God in this life, forgo him also in the next. Sheer justice, even in a certain way inadvertently chosen and self-imposed. Hell is the ultimate quid pro quo - the eternal reward of all Pelagians.

But the cross, now there's a labyrinth. When we contemplate the cross adequately we have to account, not only for its brutality, but also for its injustice, in light of the Son's complete moral perfection and his exceeding preciousness to the Father. There are no intrinsic grounds for judgment against him. Considered in this context, the cross seems to contradict and call into question the very justice of God. And yet the central message of the Pauline Gospel is that this plan, which seemed at first to undercut the justice of God, was in fact the divine strategy to establish the justice of God in the dispensation of his grace. How can this be? Because though there were no intrinsic grounds for Christ's condemnation yet there were, by God's grace, extrinsic grounds located in his federal union with his people. Because of this covenantal relation he was rendered liable and vulnerable to the sin and punishment of all his sheep in his vicarious substitution. Thus the cross is redeemed from injustice and, indeed, is the divine instrument to reveal "the righteousness of God" (Romans 1:17).

The puzzles of hell, deep as they are, can't compete with the puzzle of grace. Hell is the subconscious fear of humanity, because we inherently know we deserve it, even though we grind our teeth at God about it (as do the denizens of gehenna). But grace, grace is counter-intuitive. It's the hardest thing to believe in the world.

Now we are perfectly familiar with the oft-quoted counsel of Spurgeon that one catches more flies with honey than with vinegar. But this should not be advanced as a justification for ignoring the truth of hell in our preaching. Spurgeon certainly didn't. No, hell is a reality that puts heaven-by-grace in bold relief. It says to the sinner via special revelation what he knows via General Revelation and the imago Dei - one day his soul will be required, there will be a reckoning, God's justice will be done, he will merit damnation. Then, alongside this truth of hell, the Gospel comes and says: yes the justice of God will be done-but one way or another. One may stand before the tribunal in one's own goodness or dressed in Christ's. One can receive the wages he has earned or receive the wages Christ has earned. The difference is final and eternal.

Ligon Duncan is the Chancellor of Reformed Theological Seminary and the John E. Richards Professor of Systematic Theology at RTS.

*This post originally appeared at Reformation21 in March of 2011. 

Hell to Pay

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18 years ago, I heard a sermon on Matthew 27:46--Jesus' cry of dereliction on the cross, "My God, My God, Why have You forsaken Me?" At one point, the minister who was preaching this message said, "Jesus wasn't really forsaken; he just felt forsaken by his Father in his soul." I remember sensing anger welling up within me at those words. I thought to myself, "That's a denial of the Gospel. If Jesus wasn't really forsaken, then I have no grounds to believe that I will never be forsaken." Sadly, I have subsequently come to discover that there are quite a number of Protestant theologians who have shied away from asserting that Jesus was really and truly forsaken by his Father when he hung on the cross. Nevertheless, I want to explain what we lose if Jesus wasn't, in fact, forsaken by God when he stood in our place. 

Thomas Brooks, the seventeenth century English Puritan theologian, explained why we must never downplay what truly happened to Christ on the cross. He insisted,

"The more we ascribe to Christ's suffering, the less remains of ours; the more painfully that he suffered, the more fully are we redeemed; the greater his sorrow was, the greater our solace; his dissolution is our consolation, his cross our comfort; his annoy our endless joy; his distress in soul our release, his calamity our comfort; his misery our mercy, his adversity our felicity, his hell our heaven."1

Brooks then proceded to explain exactly what happened to Jesus at Calvary, when he said, 

"Christ did actually undergo and suffer the wrath of God, and the fearful effects thereof, in the punishments threatened in the law. As he became a debtor, and was so accounted, even so he became payment thereof; he was made a sacrifice for sin, and bare to the full all that ever divine justice did or could require, even the uttermost extent of the curse of the law of God. He must thus undergo the curse, because he had taken upon him our sin. The justice of the most high God, revealed in the law, looks upon the Lord Jesus as a sinner, because he hath undertaken for us, and seizes upon him accordingly, pouring down on his head the whole curse, and all those dreadful punishments which are threatened in it against sin."2

Herman Bavinck, in his Reformed Dogmatics, stated the importance of understanding that Jesus did not merely undergo the feeling of forsakenness on the cross. Rather, Jesus experienced "an objective God-forsakenness" at Calvary. He insisted,  

"In the cry of Jesus we are dealing not with a subjective but with an objective God-forsakenness: He did not feel alone but had in fact been forsaken by God. His feeling was not an illusion, not based on a false view of his situation, but corresponded with reality."3

Charles Spurgeon explained that "hell consists in the hiding of God's face from sinners" and that God hid His face from Christ in the moment of his forsakenness on the cross: 

"Christ in that hour took all our sins, past, present, and to come, and was punished for them all there and then, that we might never be punished, because he suffered in our stead. Do you see, then, how it was that God the Father bruised him? Unless he had so done the agonies of Christ could not have been an equivalent for our sufferings; for hell consists in the hiding of God's face from sinners, and if God had not hidden his face from Christ, Christ could not--I see not how he could--have endured any suffering that could have been accepted as an equivalent for the woes and agonies of his people."4

Likewise, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, In his commentary on Romans 8:32, asserted that Jesus underwent "a separation from the face of the Father" on the cross. He wrote,

"[God] has made His Son the sacrifice; it is a substitutionary offering for your sins and mine. That was why He was there in the Garden sweating drops of blood, because He knew what it involved - it involved a separation from the face of the father. And that is why He cried out on the Cross, 'My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?'"

While the above citations ought to contain sufficiently convincing theological arguments, we still have to answer several objections to the truth that Jesus endured the infinite and eternal wrath of God on the cross. Some have insisted that Jesus didn't truly endure hell on the cross, because his human nature didn't experience complete annihilation. Others have rejected the teaching that Jesus experienced the equivalent of hell on the cross because his sufferings were temporary rather than eternal in their endurance. The answer to both of these objections is, of course, found in the mystery of the union of the two natures of Christ. 

Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 38 asks the question, "Why was it requisite that the Mediator should be God?" The members of the Assembly gave the following answer:

"It was requisite that the mediator should be God, that he might sustain and keep the human nature from sinking under the infinite wrath of God, and the power of death; give worth and efficacy to his sufferings, obedience, and intercession; and to satisfy God's justice, procure his favor, purchase a peculiar people, give his Spirit to them, conquer all their enemies, and bring them to everlasting salvation."

Here, both objections are answered. First, the divine nature of the Son of God sustained and kept the human nature from sinking under the infinite wrath of God while he was the object of the infinite wrath of God. The infinite wrath of God was poured out on the finite human nature of Jesus, while the infinite divine nature of Jesus was upholding his person. Second, the infinite and eternal divine nature of the Son "gave worth and efficacy to his sufferings...to satisfy God's justice." It was not the amount of time that Jesus endured the infinite and eternal wrath of God when he hung on the cross, but the fact that an infinite and eternal being was giving worth to his human soul as Jesus bore the wrath of God in his body on the tree. 

If Jesus wasn't truly forsaken--if he didn't really endure the equivalent of eternal punishment on the cross--then substitutionary atonement is a legal fiction. If Jesus didn't really suffer the pains of hell on the cross then the infinite and eternal wrath of God is not truly propitiated. If Jesus didn't become the object of the righteous indignation of God in our place then we are still the objects of the eternal wrath of God. If Jesus wasn't truly condemned on the cross then we are not truly justified before God. If Jesus did not objectively suffer the equivalent of hell in his body and soul then there will be hell for us to pay. Praise God that there was hell to pay for Jesus when "in my place, condemned he stood. Hallelujah! What a Savior!" 


1.Thomas Brooks, The Complete Works of Thomas Brooks, ed. Alexander Balloch Grosart, vol. 5 (Edinburgh; London; Dublin: James Nichol; James Nisbet and Co.; G. Herbert, 1867), 147.

2.Ibid., pp. 147-148.

3. Herman Bavinck, John Bolt, and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics: Sin and Salvation in Christ, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 389.

4. An excerpt from Spurgeon's sermon on Isaiah 53:10.

The 2018 Year in Review

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As 2018 winds to a close, we want to express our deep and sincere gratitude to the many faithful readers of Ref21. We continue our commitment to call the church to a reformation that recovers clarity and conviction about the great evangelical truths of the gospel and that encourages their proclamation in our contemporary context. To that end, here are the top ten posts from this past year:

1.Only For a Time

"One could argue by way of sanctified biblical logic that a lack of experiencing the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit is squarely in keeping with the biblical teaching about their cessation!"

2. Is the PCA Becoming More Unified?

"What a blessing it would be if our energies were no longer directed to inner-denominational conflict but together in a shared (or at least compatible) vision of Christ's reign through the gospel in our sin-scarred world."

3.Can the Welcoming Church Speak?

"Let us be a truly welcoming church, extending a warm-hearted invitation to sinners of all kinds, just as Jesus extended such a welcome to us. But then, for the love of Christ and those we welcome, let us plainly and thoughtfully speak the truth. For unless God and his truth are sovereignly welcome in our midst, our welcome to the lost will end up in vain."

4.Lloyd-Jones on Racism ad the Gospel

"D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who I have never heard anyone describe as a Marxist, gospel-compromising, SJW, preached a sermon on John 4.13-14, titled, "Spiritual Dullness and Evasive Tactics," in which he brought up the issue of racism."

5.Revoice or God's Voice?

"Revoice was overwhelmingly not God's voice found in God's Word. But we do need to know God's voice on these issues. There will be no place to hide in this sexual revolution and there are men and women being deceived into death by the LGBTQ+ agenda and message that we must reach with the Gospel."

6.Whate're My God Ordains is Right

"We are thrilled at the arrival of our baby girl yet look towards the future with trepidation knowing that during her life our daughter will be challenged with disability. We are grieving for our set of dreams and expectations for her life and it is still an active process. There is no quick fix to this emotional pain, though every word of encouragement we have received has slowly soothed the hurt."

7.Spells Like Teen Spirit

"The better part of professing Christians in America are living in the sea of a Christian pep rally. For many, "going to church" is less about worshiping the infinitely holy God who has redeemed a people for Himself by giving up His Son to the bloody death on the cross, as it is about getting a shot of motivational vitamin-B for existential significance. Rather than being called by God into His presence by the mediating work of His Son, "Here we are now; entertain us" becomes the liturgical responsive call to worship."

8.God Helps Those Who Help Themselves

"I've heard it uttered dozens of times. Friends, family members, and strangers have looked at me, a Presbyterian pastor, and said, "Well, you know what the Bible says, 'God helps those who help themselves.'" I politely smile, but inside I've just died a little."

9.Revoice and the "Idolatry" of the Nuclear Family

"There is no male-to-male or female-to-female sexuality in God's created design. Furthermore, Genesis 2 views the creation of nuclear families not as idolatry but as a vitally significant way in which man's purpose in life is fulfilled. The words, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth" (Gen. 1:28), described not the worship of a false god but obedient faith in the one true God. If the fulfilling of mankind's creation mandate involves idolatry, then the world created by God must inevitably be a different one from that which is described in Genesis 1 and 2."

10. Imagine There's No Hell

"If there is no hell then there is no need for the atoning sacrifice of the eternal Son of God. If there is no hell, we should draw the same conclusion that the Apostle Paul drew when he put forward the logical implications of the resurrection: "If the dead do not rise, 'Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die'" (1 Cor. 15:32)! If there is no eternal punishment, then there is no magnification of the love of God."

The Incomparable Conjunction of Love and Wrath

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I was recently reading John Murray's profoundly enriching sermon, "The Father's Love"--in the newly released volume of his sermon, O Death, Where is Thy Sting?--and was struck afresh with the wonder of the mystery of the commingling of the Father's love and wrath in His dealings with the Son on the cross. This greatest of all subjects received quite a good deal of attention last year, after Tim Keller tweeted out the following sentiment: "If you see Jesus losing the infinite love of the Father out of His infinite love for you, it will melt your hardness." While I certainly share the concern of those who reacted swiftly to the idea that the Son lost the Father's love when He hung on the cross, I was disheartened to see how many of the responses lacked a strong focus on the simultaneity of the manifestation of the Father's eternal love and divine wrath directed to the Son when He hung on the cross. In his sermon on Romans 8:32, however, Murray held these two seemingly incompatible truths inseparably together. 

When he first gave consideration of the words of the text, "spared not His own Son," Murray explained:

"The Father loved the Son with infinite and immutable love because he did not cease to be the only begotten Son, and the infinite love necessarily flowed out from the very relationship that he essentially and immutably sustained to God the Father" (76). 

Murray insisted that we must distinguish between the two kinds of love that the Father had for the Son. The first is that immutable, "infinite love that flows out from the Father to the Son because of the intrinsic relationship that they sustain to one another" (75) The second is "the love of complacency that flowed out with increasing intensity to the Son because of His fulfillment of the Father's commission" (75). This second kind of love that the Father had for the Son is captured in the words of Christ in John 10:17: "Therefore, the Father loves me because I lay down my life, that I may take it again." From this, we must conclude that the Father loved the Son incarnate the most, precisely at the moment when he was voluntarily laying down His life in connection with the command of His Father in the counsels of eternity. Murray noted:

"Every detail of the suffering endured by the Son constrained the love and delight of God the Father because it was all endured by the Son in obedience to the Father's will and--in the performance of the Father's will--the Son committed no sin." 

There is, however, "an incomparable conjunction" at the cross--"an unheard-of conjunction: infinite love and divine wrath." The Son becomes the object of the commingling of the love of the Father and the unmitigated wrath of the Father. "The essence of sin's curse and judgment," stated Murray, "is the wrath of God. So, if Jesus bore sin and if he bore our curse and if he was made sin, then the vicarious fearing of the wrath of God belongs to the very essence of his atoning accomplishment" (78). Here we see that the doctrine of propitiation is of the very essence of the truth of the Gospel. 

Murray further developed the mystery of the meaning of the conjunction of the manifestation of the Father's infinite love and divine wrath at the cross in this sermon, when he noted: 

"The truth is that it is just because the Son was the object of this immutable, infinite, and unique love that he could at the same time be the subject of the wrath of God... (78)

...It was only because the Son was the object of the Father's unique and immutable love that He could be thus abandoned. No other would be equal to it. The lost in perdition will be abandoned eternally, but not one of them will be able to of have occasion to say, "My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?" The abandonment of Christ on Calvary's tree was abandonment in pursuance of the commission given him by the Father, and it was abandonment with the unparalleled effect of ending that abandonment. And because it was abandonment with this result, it was abandonment with inimitable agony and reality...(79)

...The determinate purpose of the Father's love was the explanation for the spectacle of the Son's death. But the love that the Father bore to the Son did not diminish the severity of the ordeal that creates this spectacle--the ordeal of the cross and the abandonment vicariously born" (79). 

The Father's love for those for whom the Son bears His wrath is set against the background of this wondrous conjunction of the Father's love and wrath directed to the Son. Murray noted, "The Father loved His people with such invincible love and purpose that he executed the full toll, the full stroke, of their condemnation upon His own Son. That is the Father's love" (77).

All of this should, of course, make us "stagger with amazement...the amazement of believing and adoring wonder" (77). When we come to understand that the Father loved the Son the most while making the Son the object of His full and unfettered wrath--as He stood in our place as our substitutionary sacrifice--our hard hearts are melted. It is the "incomparable conjunction" of the Father's love and wrath directed to the Son that enables believers to grasp something of the greatness of the love that the Father has for us. 

The Missing Message

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While preparing talks for a forthcoming Reformation Conference, I happened across Heiko Oberman's outstanding 1961 Theology Today lecture, "Preaching and the Word in the Reformation," in which he set down what he believed to have been the three most important aspects of the preaching among the Reformers: (1) the sermon as apocalyptic event; (2) the sermon as corporate act of worship; and (3) the relation of the written and the spoken Word of God. It is the first of these to which I wish to give further consideration. 

After dispelling the myth that preaching had disappeared prior to the Reformation, Oberman suggested that one of the things that was unique about the preaching of the Reformers was that it was an apocalyptic event, in which "the sermon...absorbed the medieval sacrament of penance." What the Roman Catholic Church had taken out of the preaching of the Gospel and put into the hands of the priests, the Reformers took out of the hands of the priests and put it back into the preaching of the Word and Gospel. The Reformers believed that in the true preaching of the Gospel the eternal realties of Heaven and Hell come breaking into time and space, by which the hearers are confronted by God. As sinners are confronted with their sin and the holiness of God, they are brought before the Divine tribunal in order to show them the need they have for redemption and forgiveness.  

Moving on from the confrontation of the word, Oberman insisted that "the function of the sermon is to provide proper doctrinal information especially as regards the first and second advent of Jesus Christ." The preaching of Christ is central to the preaching of the Reformation because, as the Reformers understood, "the sermon does not inspire good inclinations, but moves the doors of Heaven and Hell." Oberman summed up this aspect of Reformation preaching when he acquiesced with the essence of pietistic preaching: "Where the Word is preached and man encounters Christ, he is forced to answer 'Yes' or 'No.'" Since all of these things are so, we must understand that true preaching is, "God's last word, to which no syllable will be added." Oberman brought his thoughts on the apocalyptic nature of preaching to a close by explaining how the true preaching of the word brings assurance to believers. He wrote:

For this reason the Reformation could preach the certitudo salutisthe certainty of salvation, because he who will judge us is the same who fulfilled the law. In the words of Calvin: "When a Christian looks into himself he finds cause to be afraid or even to despair...[But] he will win a sure hope of eternal perseverance when he considers that he belongs to Him who cannot fall or fail." It gives pause to realize that this message which proved to lend the Reformation movement its reconciling and liberating power has virtually disappeared from the Protestant pulpit.

Here, two things stand out to me as being of prime importance. First, only the preaching of the Reformation can hold forth the assurance of salvation. The greatest of all differences between the preaching of Rome and the preaching of the Reformation lies in this: "the Reformation could preach the...certainty of salvation, because he who will judge us is the same who fulfilled the law." If that aspect of preaching is missing from our churches then we will never hold out to despairing sinners the peace for which their souls so desperately long. 

Second, Oberman made the sobering observation that "this message...has virtually disappeared from the Protestant pulpit." While recognizing that he was referring to the mainline Protestant churches of his day (which were, incidentally, at their heyday in the 1960's), we must also recognize that the same can be said of so many churches in our own day. Rome continues to be void of this all-important aspect of preaching. Liberal Protestant churches maintain the strongest possible distaste for it. Most concerning of all, however, is the realization that the better part of self-professed evangelical churches have abandoned the preaching of the Reformation. From the pulpit, churches that claim affinity with the Reformation are proving themselves to be virtually antithetical to the Reformers. In so many churches in our day, the psychological and social are trumpeted instead of Heaven and Hell, the court of public opinion rather than the Divine tribunal and a sophisticated call to self-atonement through humanitarianism rather than forgiveness of sins through the atoning death of Jesus. We should be appalled at the paltry nature of what flies under the name of preaching today. We should long for preaching that brings men and women before the eternal tribunal, that sets out Jesus Christ in His saving fulness and that calls sinners to respond to Him in faith and repentance. It is then, and only then, that we will know the same "reconciling and liberating power" that was heard and felt in the days of the Reformers. 

Of the twelve affirmations that constitute the Apostles' Creed -- perhaps the most regularly recited statement of basic Christian doctrine in the western Church of the last 1500 years -- none has caused greater uncertainty and debate over the centuries than that declaring that Jesus Christ "descended into hell." This affirmation, wedged between assertions that Christ "was crucified, died, and buried" and "rose again" on "the third day," received fundamentally different interpretations by Roman Catholic and Protestant theologians of the Reformation era. The sixteenth-century Roman Catholic Church staked out its understanding of this affirmation in the Catechism of Trent, suggesting it named Christ's visit not to "hell strictly so-called," but to that "limbo" where "the souls of the just before the coming of Christ the Lord were received, and where, without experiencing any sort of pain... they enjoyed peaceful repose." Christ, according to Rome, spent the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday -- "Holy Saturday" as it is sometimes called -- in this limbo, freeing the souls therein to enter into heavenly bliss.

The (arguably) inherent ambiguity of the Creed's claim regarding Christ's descent into hell, coupled with Rome's rather speculative interpretation of the same (itself rooted in late-medieval Christian thought which, without clear biblical warrant, added purgatory and several limbos to heaven and hell in the landscape of the afterlife), has caused (even) some Reformed churches to revise the Creed's affirmation to something less confusing (namely, "he descended into the grave"), or to omit the phrase entirely.

John Calvin strongly warned against such tampering with the Creed, even before there were many noteworthy efforts to do so. "We ought not to omit [Christ's] descent into hell," the Reformer warned, calling that descent "a matter of no small moment in bringing about [our] redemption." Calvin was decidedly keen not to deprive (Reformed) believers of the opportunity to confess their faith in the very words that Christians for centuries before them had used. He was quite sure that, properly understood, there was nothing in the words of the Creed -- every last one of them -- to cause genuine believers alarm. "We have in [the Creed] a summary of our faith," Calvin wrote, "full and complete in all details, and containing nothing in it except what has been derived from the pure Word of God." Calvin was even more keen not to deprive believers of the opportunity, every time they recited the Creed, to reflect upon a very critical aspect of Christ's saving work which, in his judgment, is embodied in the affirmation in question: "If any persons have scruples about admitting this article into the Creed, it will soon be made plain how important it is to the sum of our redemption: if it is left out, much of the benefit of Christ's death will be lost."

Calvin denied that Christ's descent into hell merely named his descent into "a grave," thus simply repeating "in other words what had previously been said [in the Creed] of his burial." He argued, rather, that Christ's descent into hell complements the preceding clause which describes Christ's death, alerting us to the spiritual dimension -- the sustaining of God's wrath on behalf of our sin -- of Christ's suffering upon the cross. God incarnate, after all, did not merely undergo physical torment and physical death upon the cross. Indeed "if Christ had died only a bodily death, it would have been ineffectual [for our salvation]." Upon the cross, rather, Christ endured "the severity of God's vengeance, to appease his wrath and satisfy his just judgment." And this, according to Calvin, is precisely what the Creed's affirmation that Christ "descended into hell" describes. "Christ was put in [the] place of evildoers as surety and pledge -- submitting himself even as the accused -- to bear and suffer all the punishment that they ought to have sustained.... No wonder, then, if [Christ] is said to have descended into hell, for he suffered [there] the death that God in his wrath [has] inflicted upon the wicked!"

Calvin has a ready answer for those who find it strange to find this affirmation of Christ enduring hell on the cross situated subsequent to the affirmation that Christ "suffered, died, and was buried." He argues that the Creed's affirmation constitutes grammatical apposition -- a phenomenon where some noun or clause restates an immediately preceding noun or clause, but adds something to it. An instance of apposition is discovered in the sentence: "This is my daughter, Kaitrin." "Kaitrin" in that sentence (who, by the way, is my daughter, not Calvin's) renames or restates "daughter." Similarly, "he descended into hell" renames or restates what occurred when Christ "suffered" and "died," but fleshes out that preceding clause with rather significant detail. "The point," Calvin concludes, "is that the Creed sets forth what Christ suffered in the sight of men, and then appositely speaks of that invisible and incomprehensible judgment which he underwent in the sight of God in order that we might know not only that Christ's body was given as the price of our redemption, but that he paid a greater and more excellent price [by] suffering in his soul the terrible torments of a condemned and forsaken man."

No wonder, in short, that Calvin felt so strongly about retaining this affirmation of the Creed. Stripped of this affirmation, the Creed fails to speak meaningfully of what Christ actually suffered upon the cross, as his eternal Father -- in light of our sins imputed to Christ -- turned his back upon him. Indeed, provided we accept Calvin's interpretation of this Creedal statement, it becomes (arguably) the pivotal affirmation of the entire Creed, the hinge upon which our salvation turns, the basis of the remarkable benefits, subsequently listed in the Creed, that belong to us ("the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting").

Of course, it takes some effort to educate believers about what Christ's descent into hell actually entails. But thus educating believers is a far better option than revising the Creed or simply omitting a statement which admittedly requires explanation (and by explanation, I mean opportunity to instruct others in the meaning of the cross).

An examination of Christ's suffering upon the cross under the rubric of "hell" also stands, incidentally, to help us understand hell itself better. Hell, like every other created reality (or perversion of the same), can only properly be understood in relation to the Creator. Our own thinking about hell should begin, not end, with attention to Christ's endurance of it upon the cross. Such is the proper path towards a theological rather than physical or metaphysical understanding of hell. Such is the proper path, in other words, towards properly understanding the horrible fate, irrevocable estrangement from God, that awaits those who reject the grace of God that is offered to us in Christ Jesus.

In short, we should continue to confess that Christ "descended into hell" not only for the sake of catholicity (though certainly for that), but also in the interest of regularly affirming the profound reality of what Christ endured for us upon the cross. To steal and tweak a phrase from J. Gresham Machen, "I'm so thankful for Christ's descent into hell. No hope without it." Indeed, no description of Christ's person and work is complete without reference to the same -- reference, that is, in some form at least to the reality that Christ has suffered hell itself on behalf of his people.

Christ inhabited hell. But not, as Rome would have us believe, tomorrow in the liturgical calendar (Holy Saturday). He inhabited hell today (Good Friday), when he drank the cup of God's wrath against our sin to the very dregs, and so freed us from ever having to down a single drop of the same. Praise be to God for Christ's descent into hell.

Hell's Horrors vs. Heaven's Happiness (Updated)

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Updated: response to Professor Helm below.

When we speak of grace, hell, heaven, etc., we must not merely speak in generalities, but as specific as the Scriptures allow us, which includes good and necessary consequences (Matt. 22:32). Someone may reference the horrors of hell or the happiness of heaven in a sermon but to little effect because they fail to explain why hell will be so horrible and heaven will be so happy. Even the popular idea that hell is "separation from God" is so misleading and wrong-headed that I'm amazed people still describe hell this way. It is quite the opposite: a God-hating sinner, who does not have a mediator, lives in the presence of a holy, righteous, and powerful God.

Christ spoke on hell more than anyone else in the Bible. But he did not merely talk about hell; rather, he also described hell (Matt. 10:28). The Scriptures don't just offer us generalities, but specifics. For example, consider the language of Luke 3:17, which ends by describing hell as an unquenchable fire. Elsewhere hell is described as a "fiery furnace" where there will be "weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matt. 13:42). Moreover, hell is a lake of fire (Rev. 19:20), an eternal fire (Jude 7), outer darkness (Matt. 22:13), blackness of darkness forever (Jude 13), and a place where "their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched" (Mk. 9:44). 

What I want to do in this post is consider the torments of hell in relation to the joys of heaven from the perspective of "time." In doing this, we might be able to understand a little better the glories of heaven and the terrors of hell. True, hell is a punishment so great and heaven is a reward so wonderful that neither can be properly comprehended by our thoughts in this life. But how do we seek to join with Paul, for example, in persuading men because of the terrors of the Lord (2 Cor. 5:11)? Here is one way.

Time has a beginning and an ending for all creatures in this world. "Time began with the creature" is a truer statement than that which says, "The creature began with time" (Bavinck). Eternity, properly understood, belongs to God alone. The marks of eternity are: 1) there is no beginning; 2) there is no ending; and 3) there is no succession of moment. 

But Christians will receive "eternal" life (Jn. 5:24), and those who do not love the Lord Jesus with an undying love will receive "eternal" death (1 Cor. 16:22). There is another word used by Reformed theologians, going back to the Medieval tradition (e.g., Bonaventure), called "Aeviternity" (aeviternitas). Aeviternity has a beginning but no ending; it belongs to angels and humans. Eternity has no beginning, succession, or ending; it belongs to God alone (Ps. 90:2). This is an important distinction as we try to understand how our "eternity" differs from God's "eternity."

Some (e.g., Bavinck) have also distinguished between extrinsic time and intrinsic time. We measure the motion of the earth, the heavenly bodies, etc., according to extrinsic time. Extrinsic time will cease in eternity.

However, there is also intrinsic time. This refers to our existence by which events have a past, present, and future. All created beings live in the realm of intrinsic time, and we cannot escape the fact of intrinsic time because we are creatures. 

As we think about time in eternity, and the manner in which we comfort the godly and warn the ungodly, preachers should remind their hearers that in hell it will feel as though there is only time - "slow" time. In this world, when we suffer, time seems to stand still. Even waiting in traffic or in a doctor's office, time does not fly by. We become more sensitive to the seconds. This happens when listening to poor sermons, too. 

However, in heaven, because we resemble Christ, and because we shall have joy unspeakable, we shall have a far different response to intrinsic time than the person in hell. Time flies by when you're having fun: imagine how time will seem to evaporate in heaven because of the joy that awaits us. Or consider the difference between speaking to your mother-in-law on the phone compared to when you were first courting your wife. For us a "year" will feel like a "second" whereas for those in hell a "second" will feel like a "year."

Moreover, in connection with this, consider:

1) As we enjoy heaven, our joy can only increase, not decrease. Knowing that our joy will not end only heightens the joy we will experience at that moment. One sadness in experiencing a joyful moment in this world is knowing that the experience is likely to end or change (e.g., this Belgium beer is almost finished). Not so in heaven. There will be no end to our joys, which will therefore cause us more joy in each successive moment. 

2) But for those consigned to hell, their despair will only increase, not decrease. As the creature in hell realizes more and more that he or she is suffering forever, the despair of eternal judgment can only increase. Hope has utterly vanished. In our sufferings here on earth, we always have the promises of God to look to (Rom. 8:18, 28ff.). But those in hell have no promises, and thus no hope, but only increasing despair. 

According to Thomas Goodwin, in hell the wicked will despair, for the "wretched soul in hell...finds that it shall not outlive that misery, not yet can it find one space or moment of time of freedom and intermission, having for ever to do with him who is the living God." The wicked will despair because there is no end to the wrath of the living God. For that reason, there will be perfect fear, because wicked souls in hell will not only be tormented by what they experience in the present moment, but also by what they will experience forever.

The only response of the creature in hell will be to blaspheme God. And because the creature blasphemes God, there can be no end to his/her punishment. God's eternity, coupled with the sinners perpetual blasphemy against God demand an eternal place of torment. 

Therefore, the concept of ever-increasing despair for all eternity, whereby the creature damned to hell can do nothing else but blaspheme a living, eternal God, gives us all the reason in the world to persuade men and women, boys and girls, to put their faith in the one who experienced hellish despair on the cross (2 Cor. 5).

If you really believe in the cross of Christ, then you have to believe there is a hell. If you believe there is a hell, then you are beyond thankful there was a cross for Christ.  

--

I'm always happy to hear from my drinking buddy, Professor Helm. I think perhaps he reads a little too much into what I wrote. I actually (vigorously) stand with him on the society of resurrection bodies in heaven. "Solipsistic consciousness" is about the last thing I'd want to ever affirm about heaven, and still can't quite understand how my post lends itself to such an interpretation. What was my point? Simply this: Tasks in heaven will not feel "painful" - i.e., we will not suffer in our work or feel bored - because we are "cheerful laborers." 

Bavinck speaks of the "abundant and exuberant life of the cheerful laborer, for whom time barely exists and days fly by. From this perspective there is truth in the assertion that in hell there is no eternity but only time, and that the more a creature resembles God and is his image, the more he or she will rise above the imperfections of time and approach eternity." 

I expect to drink better (Belgium?) beer and better wine in heaven (alcoholic, of course), and I shouldn't at all be surprised if I have to actually make the wine myself in a vineyard. Without the curse (Gen. 3) on my labor, I expect both the wine-making and wine-drinking to be pure bliss! I also expect to enjoy the wine with my drinking buddy, and we'll both see how the time flies by. 

But, and let's not forget this: I was quite serious about the solemnity of hell. There is nothing entertaining about eternal perdition. 

Results tagged “Hell” from Through the Westminster Confession

Chapter 33.2

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ii. The end of God's appointing this day is for the manifestation of the glory of His mercy, in the eternal salvation of the elect; and of His justice, in the damnation of the reprobate, who are wicked and disobedient. For then shall the righteous go into everlasting life, and receive that fullness of joy and refreshing, which shall come from the presence of the Lord: but the wicked, who know not God, and obey not the Gospel of Jesus Christ, shall be cast into eternal torments, and be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of His power. (Matt. 25:31-46, Rom. 2:5-6, Rom. 9:22-23, Matt. 25:21, Acts 3:19, 2 Thess. 1:7-10).

There are three points that should be underlined in this section. First, this paragraph rightly and wisely connects the truth of the dual destinies of all of humanity with the glory of God. The biblical teaching of the final judgment has its ultimate and climactic goal in the truth and manifestation of the glory of God.

With respect to the glory of God, the Confession has consistently maintained that this glory is the rationale for all that takes place in history, and into eternity. "From Him, through Him and to Him are all things" (Rom. 11:36). This summary of all of creation is oftentimes not given its proper due in our thinking and living, and it will help us understand the final judgment if we remember its centrality. All things are what they are, ultimately, for the glory of God. This glory has two covenantally-connected aspects to it.

1. The glory of God is just who God is. That is, the character of God is itself His glory. When Moses asked God to show him His glory, the Lord explained to Moses that if his request were granted, he would perish. No one can see God's glory and live (see Ex. 33:18ff.). This glory of God, which is His incomprehensible and refulgent character, of course, fully and completely characterizes the three persons of the Trinity, in that each is fully God. But it is not something that mere humans can have or grasp or experience. He is the LORD and there is no other. He will not give His glory to another (Is. 42:8). To "glorify" God is to give Him His due weight; it is to ascribe to Him the proper praise because of who He is. This is what man, as image of God, was meant to do; we were/are meant to show God's character, in an "image" and derivative way. 

2. The covenantal condescension (WCF 7.1) of this triune God, however, includes the condescension of His glory. So, as God relates Himself to His creation, part of that relationship includes various manifestations of His glory, which is to say, manifestations of His majestic character. When Scripture tells us that "all things" are "from, through and to Him," what it is telling us, in part, is that all things are designed to show us something of God's resplendent and glorious character.

I know from teaching the "Doctrine of God" to seminary students that the centrality of God's glory is one of the most difficult truths for Christians to digest. It seems, more often, to provoke spiritual indigestion, rather than fruitfully to nourish Christian growth. But we will not be rid of our dysfunction and sin in our daily lives and in this world unless we learn joyfully to embrace this glorious truth. Everything in this world and beyond has God's glory, and not us, in view. Anything that happens to us, for us and in us is meant to point to that glory. It is not meant to point, in the first place, to us and our lives. (In light of this, re-read chapter 3 of the Confession and notice how the Confession in its explanation of God's eternal decree and meticulous sovereignty repeats the refrain, in various ways, of the "glory of God." We struggle with election to the extent that we neglect to center it on God's character, and attempt to focus it on man).

Since God's glory is a manifestation of His character, the final judgment, in its dual modality, shows us something of the glory of God; it shows us what God is like in His dealings with men. It shows us, as the Confession says, "the glory of His mercy, in the eternal salvation of the elect; and of His justice, in the damnation of the reprobate, who are wicked and disobedient."

This leads to our second point. Every person will acknowledge that the biblical teaching of eternal damnation brings grief. That is as it should be. God Himself takes no delight in the death of the wicked (Ez. 18:23, 33:11). Christ wept over Jerusalem because of their unwillingness to come to Him (Matt. 23:37; Luke 13:34). There is no delight that emanates from the triune God when men refuse to come to Him.

But we should not allow that grief to cloud the reality, and tempt us to pervert or distort it. We may not have all the information we would like to have about why God set the world in motion and providentially directed it the way that He did. We do know, however, that His judgments are inscrutable and His ways past finding out (Rom. 11:33ff.). If we lose the true, biblical focus on eternal damnation, therefore, we may be in danger of losing the God whose glorious justice is manifest in its reality.

There must, then, be a dual affirmation with respect to eternal damnation. We must rightly grieve its existence; its existence is a manifestation of all that opposes God and His character, and it is an ugly and abhorrent place, devoid of the mercy and grace of God. But we should not grieve that existence only because some we know may be there. That is tragic, and we "think God's thoughts after Him" when we take no delight in it. But the ultimate tragedy of it is that its existence is a testimony of those whose lives were set against the holiness of God's character, and who would not honor Him for who He is. The biblical focus of the tragedy, in other words, is the opposition to God that hell displays. With this focus, we should, in turn, learn to hate and despise that same opposition to the extent that its effects still remain in us.

This brings me to a third point, which itself is not explicit in the Confession, but is implicit, and which should at least be broached here, given its influence. Why can we not hold that those who die outside of Christ simply cease to exist? Why not affirm the doctrine of annihilationism? This doctrine is not only reserved for cults, such as Jehovah's Witnesses, but has found its way into some otherwise orthodox contexts as well.

Briefly, annihilationists argue that the orthodox view of everlasting punishment misreads Scripture, in at least two important areas. They argue, first of all, that the word eternal (aionios) is assumed to mean endless, though it really means (something like) "belonging to the age to come." "Eternal" refers, they think, to a quality, and not to longevity. Thus, "eternal punishment" (Matt. 25:46) does not mean eternally enduring punishment, but "the punishment of the age to come." The problem with this is that, while the term ainios is used in the New Testament in the context of the biblical distinction between the present age and the age to come, the "age to come" is by definition endless, endlessness being an essential element in its quality.

Annihilationists also argue that biblical terms such as perishing and destruction in Scripture should be taken for what they mean, i.e., the end of existence altogether. The problem with this is that Scripture uses those terms not as the end of existence, but as the disintegration of a previously constituted state or condition. So, for example, in Matt. 9:17, we see that men do not put new wine into old wineskins, or they will be destroyed. What is destroyed here is not the existence of wineskins, but their ability to function as intended. 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9 is of special interest in this connection. It speaks of being "punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord." But if destruction means complete and total annihilation: 1. the adjective "everlasting" serves no function whatsoever, and 2. "shut out from the presence of the Lord" loses its force, since the phrase naturally implies ongoing conscious existence. Paul is speaking here of the destruction that consists in being excluded from the presence of God. Instead of implying cessation of existence, therefore, the biblical terminology actually underlines its continuation (1)

It is the glory of God that rightly focuses our view of the final judgment. All that takes place on planet earth, all that takes place in our lives, has its terminus in that judgment, and its meaning in His glory. If you are in Christ as you read this, praise Him for His grace. If you are not, now is the favorable time, now is the day of salvation (2 Cor. 6:2). 

Tomorrow we will finish with the third and final section of this chapter.

NOTES:
1. This section on annihilation is a slightly edited version of the "Appendix" in K. Scott Oliphint and Sinclair B. Ferguson, If I Should Die Before I Wake: What's Beyond This Life?, (UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2004).

Dr. Scott Oliphint is Professor of Apologetics and Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. His latest book is Covenantal Apologetics (Crossway, 2013).

Chapter 32

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i. The bodies of men, after death, return to dust, and see corruption: but their souls, which neither die nor sleep, having an immortal subsistence, immediately return to God who gave them: the souls of the righteous, being then made perfect of holiness, are received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God, in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies. And 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. Beside these two places, for souls separated from their bodies, the Scripture acknowledgeth none.

ii. At the last day, such as are found alive shall not die, but be changed: and all the dead shall be raised up, with the self-same bodies, and none other (although with different qualities), which shall be united again to their souls for ever.

iii. The bodies of the unjust shall, by the power of Christ, be raised to dishonour: the bodies of the just, by His Spirit, unto honour; and be made conformable to His own glorious body. 

The last two chapters of the Westminster Confession address the doctrine of the last things, or what theologians refer to as eschatology. WCF 32:1 clearly states that our souls are immortal. Our physical bodies "return to dust" and "see corruption," but our souls have an "immortal subsistence." It is very easy in our day to follow the conclusions of secular scientists and philosophers who assume that there is nothing beyond our physical bodies; according to them,  once we die we cease to exist. 

However, this is not what the Bible teaches. Though our physical bodies die, our souls continue to exist. This teaching should give us both comfort and a sober perspective on life in this world. When experiencing the wasting away of the outer man, as the Apostle Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians 4:16, we have the hope that our inner man is being renewed and ultimately will not perish. Likewise, when looking at the world around us, we can have the proper Biblical perspective, which is neither overwhelmed by the material or physical limitations in the world, nor overly confident in what the world can provide. 

WCF 32:1 is also very direct in teaching us that after death our destination depends upon whether or not we have received by faith the righteousness of Christ. In other words, for Christians the blessing of holiness and being ushered into the presence of God is what awaits us after death. For the unbeliever, their soul is consigned to hell and the torments that accompany it. A few implications from this teaching:

1. After death there is no opportunity to receive the gift of salvation in Christ. The unbeliever's soul is in hell awaiting the final Day of Judgment.

2. This should instill urgency in us to preach the Gospel. The opportunity for salvation is now, and it is important for us remember that hell is real and that God's righteous judgment is impending.

3. We must continue to pray. Eternal condemnation is clearly what the Bible and the Confession teaches for those who die without Christ.

Before moving on to the next paragraph, it is worth pointing out two brief statements in paragraph one. First, the Confession is explicit that after death our souls do not "sleep." This statement denies a doctrine taught by some of the early Church Fathers that our souls sleep after death awaiting the return of Christ. Second, the Confession states, "besides these two places [going to Heaven and Hell], for souls separated from the body, the Scripture acknowledgeth none." The Roman Catholic Church teaches that after death all souls are held in purgatory. The Westminster Confession does not believe that the Bible teaches a doctrine of purgatory, where individuals continue their "purging" of sin. As was stated earlier, after death there is no further opportunity for salvation.

While after death our souls are separated from our bodies, according to WCF 32:2, on the last day our souls will be reunited "with the selfsame bodies ... forever." The disembodied state of the soul is only temporary; we were created to exist with a body and soul. Likewise those believers who are alive on the last day will have their bodies changed as well. The body that we receive on the last day will have "different qualities". In other words, that body will be suitable for an eternal existence without corruption or decay. Like Jesus Christ's resurrection body, believers will be given a body that is discernable and glorified.

For the unbeliever, the last day will include a reunion with their bodies as well. The unbeliever will be raised or resurrected to "dishonor" as the Confession states. This dishonor again is the punishment that awaits those whose sins have not been atoned for by the blood of God's eternal Son. 

When is the last day? The Bible does not give us a precise date and any speculation is just that - vain speculation. Instead we are to watch and pray. This is the great hope and encouragement for Christians throughout history. There will be a great resurrection at the triumphant and glorious return of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. 

Dr. Jeffrey K. Jue is Stephen Tong associate professor of Reformed Theology and associate professor of church history at Westminster Theological Seminary.