The following is an unfinished, mostly unedited, and un-footnoted version of chapter 5 of the book I’ve been writing about final judgment for over a decade.
Chapter 5 Death: A Severe punishment
Deu 30:19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live,
“I remember the first time that my father told me, as a little boy, that someday I was going to die. Somehow the thought had just never occurred to me. But when he told me that, it filled me with terrible sadness and horror, and I just cried and cried and cried.” – Dr. William Lane Craig, theologian and Christian apologist, during a question and answer session with Ravi Zacharias at ???? college in 20??.(I have the mp3 of this and haven’t verified when and where it was recorded)
This quote was from a man who was raised by nonbelievers, so as a child, it was likely not the prospect of eternal hell that grieved him so when his dad told him he was going to die. More likely it was the thought of no longer existing. Death is indeed horrible and sad, and I think a child’s perspective is most interesting, and probably the least tainted by multitudes of theories and ideas about the afterlife with which adults have been inundated.
I can relate to Dr. Craig’s experience. I remember one day when I was young – I don’t know what age…maybe eight or nine, and I was staying at my grandmother’s house for the day during the Summer as I often did, and then we got the news that the next door neighbor had been killed earlier that morning when he was electrocuted while touching his back fence. A power line had fallen on a fence a couple of houses over and there were a number of “hot” fences in the neighborhood. I suppose I should have been most upset about the man who just lost his life, but I was a child, and I had only even seen him a couple of times, and didn’t actually know him at all. And perhaps he wasn’t all that old, but to children, all grownups seem old. To me, the elderly man next door who I didn’t know, and really couldn’t even picture, had died. I did feel sad about the man, but if I’m honest, what upset and struck me most was that me and a couple of other boys had been playing right next to the same network of fences that were electrified, right at the same time the man was killed. We literally came inches away from dying that day, and as I thought about it, I became extremely distraught. I remember crying and crying at the thought that my life had almost ended that quickly and easily, and I finally persuading my grandmother to let me call my mother at work so I could tell her about everything. Unlike Dr. Craig, I was raised in a Christian home, but for whatever reason, I just don’t think I was paying attention in church for a number of years, and didn’t come to any substantial knowledge of Christ until my teen years, and I don’t consider myself to have been saved until into my 20s, although an experience with the Lord when I was 15 was highly impactful. And when I got so upset that day, I wasn’t thinking that I may have gone to Hell, or that I should have been happy because I would have been in Heaven. I was just thinking that I almost died. My life, the only life that I could comprehend, my “eternal” life (as far as I knew), had almost ended.
Death is sad, and eternal death as a punishment is severe beyond measure.
Several years ago, early on in the writing of this book, I attended the funeral of a church friend’s mother. I didn’t know her, yet I became saddened and emotional during the service. By reading entries from her diaries and recounting conversations he had with her, the pastor gave us lots of reassurance that she was in fact saved. And although I didn’t know her, I became sure of this as well. But I was still sad – sad for the loss of her life – sad for those who knew and loved her.
It seems like God has designed us this way, even believers, such that even though we have a blessed hope, and can know that we will again see our loved ones who have put their faith in the Lord, we still feel the pain and sadness of death. It serves a purpose. The loss of this first life at the death of our flesh and the surrounding sadness is an object lesson to us of the much more grievous sadness that should be, and will be, felt for the ultimate death of a soul. If we are as sad as we are when a saved person dies, even a person that we don’t know well, or a person that we know we’ll see again, how much more grief should we have for those who will die ultimately and never be seen again? And shouldn’t this inspire us to tell those who are headed for death about Christ? Ezekiel 33 8-9 says:
“When I say to the wicked, O wicked one, you shall surely die; if you do not speak to warn the wicked from his way, that wicked one shall die in his iniquity; but I will require his blood at your hand. But, if you warn the wicked of his way, to turn from it; if he does not turn from his way, he shall die in his iniquity, but you have delivered your soul.”
It’s an approaching death that we are to be warning people of, not eternal torment. The Bible nowhere, Old or New Testament, tells us to warn of impending eternal torment for human souls, but we are required to rescue those who are perishing.
Death as a punishment is a dreaded and harsh one. You wouldn’t know it to hear some traditionalists speak of it. Non-traditionalists like myself, who choose to believe the multitude of Bible verses that predict death as the final end of those without Christ, are often portrayed as trying to create a softer image of God and His wrath than what in reality exists. But there’s nothing soft about a God who destroys and brings those who reject Him to nothing.
I’ll give you an idea of what I’m referring to. I’ve heard similar statements in different forms from a number of traditionalists, but one that struck me during the writing of this book was when nationally known pastor Robert Jeffress said in a radio sermon(that I heard on Oneplace.com…He’s also the author of Hell, Yes which is a book supporting the traditional view of hell and eternal torment),
“If unbelievers are simply destroyed, that takes a little bit of the sting out of hell, doesn’t it? I mean, after all, if you’re not a Christian and you’re wrong, the worst that happens to you is, okay, you die, you cease to exist. It takes a little urgency out of sharing the gospel with your non-Christian friend or family member because after all, I mean, if they don’t accept Christ, they won’t be in heaven, but they won’t be in pain forever. They just simply cease to exist.”
Simply? Ceasing to exist, the very loss of one’s soul and being is just a “simply”? For Jeffress, a judgment of death for the wicked is just not severe enough. He believes they need to be in conscious pain forever. And he maintains that there is less urgency to share the gospel if a person’s end is only death. Wow. With God’s primary form of punishment being death throughout Scripture, and with the second death of the soul being the final judgment of those who reject God’s love, it’s hard to believe that a line of thinking like this isn’t offensive to God. But Jeffress is not the only one. There are many Bible teachers who state such things, all of whom I respect as it concerns their position on and their general promotion of the gospel, but whom I’m forced to disagree with on this issue. Earlier in the same broadcast Jeffress stated that the doctrine of “annihilationism simply says that an unbeliever doesn’t live forever. After the great white throne judgment, he is cast into the lake of fire and he’s simply destroyed.” Yes, that is exactly what the Bible appears to say. There is no consciousness noted or predicted for humans after they have been cast into the lake of fire. Also in the same broadcast, Jeffress said that the suffering which will take place in hell defies description, but that the only way he “could possibly even describe it would be to say, it’s like having your flesh on fire forever and ever and ever.” I don’t know how he knows this since no one has come back to report this, and this is never predicted anywhere in Scripture, but Jeffress went on to say that God was too loving not to allow this kind of torment for all eternity. Huh? What a twisted teaching this has become in the Church. And Jeffress isn’t alone on this either unfortunately, and I’m certainly not trying to single him out. I’m sure he is a man who reveres God, as he understands Him. But he, like many others, is not accepting the plain language of the Bible, and is instead helping to perpetuate misinformation that damages people’s understanding of who God really is. God is a harsh judge, but not a twisted maniac who requires the everlasting feeling of being on fire for all eternity for those who failed to accept His grace. Death is enough. It will satisfy God’s wrath.
Others have expressed similar feelings as Jefress, regarding ceasing to exist being too light of a punishment, at least for some offenders, as if we were not all guilty before the Lord. Christopher Morgan, in Hell Under Fire, a multi-author book defending the traditional view of hell, favorably quoted Mark Talbot as saying:
“Hitler, as the ultimate perpetrator of the Nazi Holocaust, ought not to be able to escape being brought to account for his crimes against humanity by just blowing out his brains…. Indeed, something would be profoundly wrong with a world where its Hitlers could, when the time of reckoning drew near, just step off into nescience.”
There are a number of problems with this statement. First, he fails to see Satan, who the Bible calls a murderer from the beginning, as the ultimate perpetrator of the crimes of the Holocaust. Paul stated that we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against invisible forces.(Eph. 6:12) And whether or not final judgment involves true death, or whether it involves eternal torment, Hitler is no more guilty and deserving of it than any other soul who fails to put their faith in Christ. I’m not denying the concept of varying levels of punishment (possibly in Hades while awaiting final judgment, and certainly at judgment day). But we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and there is only one sacrifice that will save our souls from death. But with death being the primary and ultimate punishment meted out throughout Scripture, how can Talbot speak of it as if it is no punishment at all? I regret to say it, but I think we just don’t value life the way God does, and that’s why we come to conclusions such as these. But the other problem with Talbot’s statement is that it ignores what we studied in chapter four. We saw that the Bible makes it clear that while ultimate death is the final penalty for uncovered sin, the strong possiblility for an intermediate state of consciousness in hell(Hades), for at least some period of time, is very real, and those who have not accepted Christ will, it seems, suffer consciously there prior to judgment. And it stands to reason that those who have offended more will suffer more. So if Hitler in fact died without Christ, because of the multitudes of sins against humanity, he likely will be in great torment. But I think it is also dangerous to assume we know who is in Hades awaiting judgment and who isn’t. Remember Jeffrey Dahmer? He was the man who used to kill people, store their body parts in his refrigerator, and eat them. If you are a believer, he is your brother in Christ now, if we are to believe his testimony. This may repulse many, but he found Christ in prison before someone murdered him there. God showed him mercy. Paul, who penned much of the New Testament, considered himself to be a murderer of Christians because of how he pursued them and supported their deaths, even though we don’t know that he personally killed anyone. And God showed him mercy as well. God saves unlikely people who do very bad things. I am not defending Hitler, and I am not claiming he had a last minute conversion. I don’t know the condition of his soul at the end of his life. It’s my tendency to believe he is in Hell/Hades awaiting final judgment. But we don’t know this. So it is not only presumptuous to imply that Hitler and those like him deserve an eternal hell(when God clearly shows that he is willing and able to extend salvation to even murderous humanity), but when we make such arguments, we are saying that some people’s offenses are greater than our own, in terms of which sins deserve which punishments, and nothing could be more unbiblical. We are all guilty of the same sin of faithlessness until we turn from it in faith. And “the soul that sins, it shall die”. This is its punishment.
Sinclair Ferguson, another co-author of Hell Under Fire, wrote this, defending the reality of eternal hell:
“…if we take seriously the significance of [Christ’] death on the cross as a sacrifice of atonement (Rom. 3:25), what, short of the reality of hell, explains the necessity for and nature of his sufferings? It would be folly to think that all he went through was merely exemplary or, for that matter, unnecessary.”
Very poor logic there, unless there is simply no value to life itself. Why would it take the reality of an eternal hell to bring necessity to Christ’ sacrifice? Death is the enemy that is to be conquered, according to many places in Scripture. And the Lord is not willing that any should perish (2 Peter 3:9). He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11). He did what He did so we could ultimately escape the eternal punishment of a death from which there is no return. Ferguson is correct that it would be folly if His death on the cross was unnecessary. But His sacrifice was not made necessary because of an eternal hell, but so death would be defeated (2 Timothy 1:10).
Heb 2:14-15 Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.
We can see from this verse that Christ took death upon Himself in order to defeat death, and the dread of impending death. And once again there is no mention that Christ saved souls from eternal suffering in hell. It seems strange and almost silly to have to write this chapter, essentially reminded us that death is bad, and that the ultimate death of a soul is the grimmest, most sorrowful fate. But it becomes a necessary reminder when so many prominent Christians are claiming that the lost must be on fire for all eternity in order to bring value to what Christ did on the cross. And this isn’t new. This thinking has been handed down since some of the early church fathers.
The Sanctity of Life
I realize that my having no formal credentials has probably given some readers cause to doubt if they are finding reliable information in this book. And I realize that not quoting many outside sources, as so many traditionalists do when addressing these topics may further give readers some apprehension. Well now I’ll probably shred any remaining credibility I had when I quote a line from a secular, borderline b movie from the late 1980s, Joe Versus the Volcano. It was a quirky, cartoonishly fantastic movie, that, aside from a couple of choice four-letter words, I really loved, and found to be profound in its general message. I won’t try to give all of the background but some is necessary. Basically it is the story of a man (played by Tom Hanks) who never felt well. He had been in a boring dead-end job for a number of years, had forgotten to live life, and so was dying on the inside, and it was manifesting in physical symptoms. During one of his many visits to the doctor, he is told that he has a rare, incurable disease and a very brief time to live. Being a hypochondriac, he fails to get a second opinion, so believing that he is at death’s door, when presented with an opportunity to be a hero, though it will cost him his life, he accepts the challenge. On his way to his destination as he crossed the ocean on a yacht that was provided by his benefactor, a storm takes the vessel down, and only he and the young lady who was captaining the boat survive. They were saved because of his oversized waterproof luggage which they floated on for several days, her unconscious since the accident, and him neglecting his own needs and rationing the only bottle of water to her in capfuls periodically. The profound moment for me comes when after several days of scorching sun, no food, and no water, and on his way to his own death through heroism, if his own terminal disease or starvation doesn’t get him first, he lifts his eyes one starry night and is struck by the beauty of an enormous moon coming up over the horizon, and speaks out with almost no strength, “Dear God, whose name I do not know, Thank you for my life.” He pauses for a moment and then says slowly, “I’d forgotten how big.”
And you may be wondering just exactly what my point is. It’s that even this brief life, even when it is troubled, trying, discouraging, depressing, and sometimes just plain boring, is still a wonderful gift, and this man realized it as he was on the brink of losing it. And not only that, but he was thankful for what he had, even though he believed it was almost over. I’m sure this is the experience of many people near the end of their life. Even when we’re not at the end of life, but are thinking back on the past, we get nostalgic and usually see everything much sweeter in remembrance than we did while experiencing it. Life is so much better than we realize it is while we are living it. It is always more attractive in retrospect. Why is it that way? Is it that we are fools now for forgetting how difficult things really were in the past, or were we fools then for not appreciating every moment? I tend to think it is the latter in most cases, and I’m certainly guilty of this. This life is a gift. We should be joining Joe and constantly saying, “Dear God (and we do know His name if we trust Scripture), Thank You for my life.” God did not have to make you or I, but He did. That we exist at all is really quite amazing if we’ll ever just think about it. God dreamed us up, knew every wrong thing we would ever do, created us anyway, and goes to extreme lengths to draw us to Himself so we will inherit a life that will never end.
So this first life is a wonderful gift. But eternal life, and a tearless one at that, is then an infinitely more wonderful gift. And yet, many traditionalists don’t see the eternal loss of life the unsaved face as even enough motivation for witnessing to those who are perishing. But it’s obvious where this kind of thinking comes from. If one has it ingrained in their mind all their life that the lost will suffer in literal fire for all eternity, then losing their being, an extreme loss, can actually seem like a non-punishment to some. Can we see how Satan has so deluded us with the lie that “surely [we] won’t die”?
To this point, I haven’t had an extremely difficult life as some have. But alongside many good times and lots of blessings, I’ve lost several extended family members to death, as all people my age have, I’ve had my fair share of frustrations and disappointments, a few bouts with depression, and quite a lot of boredom, but no major personal tragedies as of yet. That could change tomorrow, though, and I’m well aware of that. In fact, I probably think far more about such possibilities than I should. But I am getting older. My body is giving out. My back and neck hurt all of the time. My joints hurt. And I’m a little burnt out at work. And on top of all of that, I could lose everything dear to me in a moment, as we all could. And such is the nature of this first life. Yet if the worst happened, and if I’m alive in twenty years, I’ll look back on these days and remember them as sweet. Life is good. Existence, our very being, is a miracle – a true gift. If a person gets one day of conscious life, it is a gift, and it is one more day than we deserve by any merit of our own. At the other end of the spectrum, but by the same token, there is nothing we can do or not do to merit an eternal existence in torment. We’ve already covered it sufficiently, but contrary to what is commonly taught, our eternal existence is not a given. It too is a gift, but unlike the gift of this first earthly life, it is given only to those who place their trust in the one true living God; and for those of us who have heard the full New Testament gospel message, eternal death can only be avoided by accepting Jesus’ death as an atoning sacrifice that puts us in good standing with the Father. There is certainly nothing one can do to earn eternal suffering. There is actually nothing one can do to “earn” eternal death either. It is the natural course of all things living, including souls, to return to non-existence (death), if God does not intervene. It’s the law of entropy. And he only intervenes for those who respond to His calling. Otherwise eternal death is our destiny, a return to the nothingness we were before God gave us this opportunity of life. And nothingness is a horrible destiny in comparison to what is available. The insistence by some well-meaning Bible teachers that eternal death is not a serious enough consequence for rejecting God is a serious challenge to the sanctity of life that we Christians claim to be such defenders of.