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Does hell really last forever?

The Biblical doctrine of hell has been gradually swept under the carpet in recent years as the concept of an everlasting punishment becomes increasingly counter-cultural – this also applies within evangelical Christian circles. People ask – does hell really last forever? – but they are either silenced or ignored. This does huge damage to the gospel and presents a defiant move away from many of the teachings of Jesus Christ. The gospel is a message of love, forgiveness and mercy – an opportunity to be saved…but saved from what?! Many Christian’s fudge over the consequences of rejecting salvation through Jesus or completely deny the existence of hell and instead adopt a doctrine of annihilation.

It surprises many to learn that Jesus taught more about hell than any other Bible character – it was clearly an important topic to Him and this should also be the case today. Jesus devoted many of His teachings to describe elements of hell, which graphically portray a terrible existence for those who follow the ‘broad path’ away from salvation through Christ.

And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal. (Matthew 25:46)

And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever. (Revelation 20:10)

One of the strongest Biblical arguments for an everlasting place of torment is derived simply through the language used, the plain meaning of the text – EVERY Christian would present heaven as a place of everlasting joy due to the descriptions of heaven in the Bible using the Greek term ‘aionios’. To be grammatically consistent, hell must also be a place of everlasting punishment as it is described using exactly the same terms. If hell doesn’t last forever, then neither can heaven – John MacArthur makes the point perfectly:

‘Punishment in hell is defined by the word aionios, which is the word eternal or everlasting. There are people who would like to redefine that word aionios and say, “Well, it doesn’t really mean forever.” But if you do that with hell, you’ve just done it with heaven, because the same word is used to describe both. If there is not an everlasting hell, then there is not an everlasting heaven. And I’ll go one beyond that. The same word is used to describe God. And so if there is not an everlasting hell, then there is not an everlasting heaven, nor is there an everlasting God. It is clear that God is eternal; and, therefore, that heaven is eternal, and so is hell.’ (John MacArthur, “A Testimony of One Surprised to Be in Hell, Part 2”)

Timothy Keller has written an interesting article – The importance of Hell – where he outlines many powerful arguments for retaining it as a very important part of the Christian faith. Although he makes four points, the one that most powerfully resonates with us is that the doctrine of hell, “shows how infinitely dependent we are on God for everything.” We are designed to live in harmony with our Creator but sin makes this impossible without the restoration available through Jesus Christ. Without repentance on our part, we remain polluted by sin and can therefore never be in the presence of a perfect, pure and holy God.

We take no pleasure in emphasising the doctrine of hell – however, it is a Biblical truth and it is dishonest to avoid it or deny it. Let’s face it – knowing the consequences of a certain decision plays a large part in the decision-making process. For example, we don’t cross the road when a car is coming because who know something horrible would happen if we did – we don’t pretend there are no consequences to getting hit by a car. Similarly, if you saw someone’s house on fire and they were unaware, it would be cruel not to tell them – the knowledge that there were serious consequences to staying in the house would provide huge motivation in getting out!

How infinitely more serious are the consequences for failing to address the reality of eternal punishment for those who reject salvation through Jesus Christ? Why is the church increasingly avoiding the Biblical doctrine of hell? This approach is dishonest and removes a very strong motivation for taking the gospel message seriously. Jesus spoke of hell frequently and so should we by lovingly pointing the unsaved towards their only hope – repentance in Jesus Christ.

Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it. (Matthew 7:13-14)

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