More than thirty years ago, historian Martin Marty delivered a lecture at Harvard Divinity School entitled, “Hell Disappeared. No One Noticed.” Marty claimed that the once-prominent doctrine had almost disappeared from evangelical churches. He based his thesis off of the lack of scholarly writings on the historic position of hell in the years preceding his lectures.
Instead of discussing if Marty was correct in his assessment, we should take note that in the years since his lectures, there has been a dramatic increase in scholarly attention pertaining to the doctrine of hell. Currently, there are several evangelical resources available to Southern Baptists that describe the historic position concerning the nature, the duration of punishment, the type of punishment that the unrighteous endure, and the overall purpose of hell (for a scholarly treatment, see Hell Under Fire; for a brief but thorough treatment, see Is Hell for Real or Does Everyone Go to Heaven?; and for a quick summary, see What is Hell?, all edited by Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson).
The Baptist Faith and Message 2000 (BF&M) upholds what is called the “historic” position on hell with its assertion that “Christ will judge all men in righteousness,” consigning the unrighteous to hell and receiving the righteous into heaven. The BF&M does not hold to this position because it is the “historical” position, but rather because a clear reading of Scripture shows this position to be true and accurate.
The Final Judgment
The first two issues that need to be clarified are who is the one who judges and on what basis is humanity judged?
John 5:21–24 teaches that the Father has given all judgment over to the Son. Jesus will judge in perfect righteousness according to the will of the Father. In this final judgment, Jesus will separate the righteous from the unrighteous according to one’s belief or unbelief as seen in the Lamb’s Book of Life. Jesus will welcome all believers made righteous in Christ into the glories of heaven. Jesus will assign all unbelievers, the unrighteous, to the pain and suffering in hell.
The Omnipresence of God
While we frequently hear that hell is wherever God is not, the reality is far more profound. To grasp fully what hell is, we must understand that God Himself, as the Righteous Judge, is present in hell, eternally executing His just and holy wrath against sin.
Biblically speaking, Psalm 139:7–9 reveals that God is in the heavens above, the grave below, and even the most remote portions of hell. Matthew 10:28 is clear that the unbeliever should fear the Lord, the One whose sovereignty extends not only over life and death, but unto hell itself.
Theologically speaking, God’s omnipresence is one of the core attributes that defines His Being. This attribute affirms that God is present in all places at all times. Due to God’s omnipresence, there is not a place in creation where He is not present. His omnipresence, therefore, extends even to the regions of hell.
Hell as Torment
Understanding that God’s omnipresence extends to hell, we have to ask: what is God doing in hell?
The Bible clearly shows that God is pouring out his wrath against the unrighteous in hell.
Scripture uses a variety of images to describe hell: the lake of fire, eternal fire, outer darkness, the place where the worm does not die and the flames are never quenched, the place of wailing and gnashing of teeth, separation from the blessings of God, eternal destruction, eternal torment, death, the second death, and the place where God pours out His wrath and retribution.
If one focuses only on any one image of the doctrine of hell, then one is sure to misunderstand the overarching picture of hell. We must examine hell from a collective whole in order to comprehend the doctrine as the Bible describes it.
From the totality of these images, we can understand that hell is a place where the unrighteous undergo conscious punishment for eternity. This overarching picture of hell serves as the backdrop for Jesus’s teaching about the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31).
Hell as Eternal
Scripture vividly describes the eternality of hell.
Revelation 14:11 says, and the smoke of their torment will go up forever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and his image, or anyone who receives the mark of his name.
In 2 Thessalonians 1:9, Paul, speaking of the unrighteous, wrote, These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction from the Lord’s presence and from His glorious strength.
Moreover, Scripture highlights the eternality of heaven and hell by placing them alongside one another. In John 3:16, Jesus said, For God loved the world in this way: He gave His One and Only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.
In Matthew 25:46, Jesus says of the unrighteous, And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.
Jesus shows that the two destinations are linked in their durations. Just as heaven is eternal, so too hell is eternal.
Hell as Punishment
The unrighteous have spent their entire existence in rebellion and mockery of the living God. Throughout their days, God has made them aware of His majesty and glory through general revelation (creation and conscience) and has dispensed general grace toward them. For their part, they have neither confessed Christ as Lord or Savior nor have they repented of their sins. Ephesians 2:1–10 reminds us that all people, by their very nature, stand in allegiance with Satan and as enemies of the Most Holy God. Thus, the unrighteous are called children of wrath (Ephesians 2:3, ESV). Scripture shows that all of the unrighteous are objects of God’s perfect and eternal wrath as punishment for their wickedness against him.
This eternal punishment is just and right according to the nature of God’s holiness. Paul states, since it is righteous for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you and to reward with rest you who are afflicted, along with us. This will take place at the revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven with His powerful angels, taking vengeance with flaming fire on those who don’t know God and on those who don’t obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. (2 Thessalonians 1:6–8).
Paul is saying that God’s holiness demands that the wicked pay eternally (2 Thessalonians 1:9) for their unbelief of Christ and their evil toward the bride of Christ.
When all of the images and pictures are gathered together in order to understand the doctrine of hell from the storyline of Scripture, the BF&M aptly, yet sadly, states, “The unrighteous will be consigned to Hell, the place of everlasting punishment.” It is a place of eternal punishment and torment where God metes out His wrath against sin.
Ben Skaug is executive pastor at Immanuel Baptist Church in Highland, California, and a PhD student at Gateway Seminary of the SBC. He is writing his doctoral dissertation on the biblical doctrine of hell.