This is the 23rd installment in a series on theological terms. See previous posts on the terms theology, Trinity, creation, man, Fall, common grace, sin, righteousness, faith, pride, election, revelation, atonement, adoption, sanctification, incarnation, idolatry, the church, holiness, salvation, judgment, and heaven.
The Bible warns us that those who do not accept the gospel of Jesus Christ “will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thessalonians 1:8-9).
Away from the Presence of the Lord
If the most essential thing we can say about heaven is that it is where God is, the most essential thing we can say about hell is that it is where God is not. If the presence of God in heaven is the assurance of abundant and eternal joy, the God-lessness of hell necessarily removes all hope of joy or blessing.
But hell is far worse than merely the absence of God’s blessing. As Paul stated in the verse above, hell is also “the punishment of eternal destruction.”
Punishment implies that those who are in hell have not simply been abandoned by God. Rather, they have been actively condemned, incarcerated, and consigned to endure the just wrath of God against them for every sinful thought, word, and deed. This clarifies that when we say that hell is the absence of God, we really mean that it is the absence of his blessings and the presence of his wrath.
Eternal speaks to the duration of God’s punishment. For sinners who do not repent and believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ, God’s wrath will burn against them forever. There will be no escape; they will never repay their debt; they will never cease to exist or be annihilated. Their punishment will be eternal.
Destruction speaks to the severity of God’s punishment. The wrath of God in hell will be so severe, complete and consuming that the only way to describe the condition is utter destruction. In this place of “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 13:42), there will be no relief, no tolerance to the pain, no comfort in the company of other sufferers.
Even though the doctrine of hell is an uncomfortable truth, it ought to make us grateful for at least five reasons:
- It honors the justice of God. Our God is a God of equity, and he will fairly punish every wrong done.
- It honors Jesus Christ. Meditating on the doctrine of hell helps us understand the great price Jesus paid on Calvary and displays the magnitude of the salvation he offers.
- For believers, it keeps us aware and afraid of the cost of abandoning our faith in Jesus Christ, and in this way helps us continue following him through the difficulties of the Christian life.
- Also for believers, it gives powerful motivation to share the gospel with those facing such a horrendous punishment.
- For unbelievers, it is a powerful call to repent and believe in Jesus Christ today, while there is still opportunity to receive God’s mercy.
* I added a clarifying statement on God’s presence in hell.