The Essential Doctrine of Hell

Dear Sovereign Redeemer and other friends,

We all hold that sound doctrine is essential, and that defending sound doctrine is a key role of elders. In listing elder qualifications, the Apostle Paul ends the list in Titus 1:9, saying an elder must be a man “holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict.” To the extent that elders are unwilling or unable to perform this function, the Lord’s people are vulnerable, so elders must stand both willing and able. There are many false doctrines to be identified and opposed, and they seem to make the rounds in every generation.

One such attack against the clear teaching of Scripture is the never-ending assault on the essential doctrine of hell. In releasing his heretical book “Love Wins” mid 2012, Rob Bell only recycled the old false teaching that has been stared down by the faithful through the centuries. Frankly, it is just our turn, and thankfully, that means we have an abundance of support from faithful pastors in generations gone by who have already brought Scripture to bear. J.C. Ryle takes up this essential doctrine, and the same attacks against it, in Chapter 10 of his book “Holiness” (pgs 208-214). Give close attention to his words:

I feel constrained to speak freely to my readers on the subject of hell. Suffer me to use the opportunity which the end of Lot’s wife affords. I believe the time is come when it is a positive duty to speak plainly about the reality and eternity of hell. A flood of false doctrine has lately broken in upon us. Men are beginning to tell us that “God is too merciful to punish souls forever; that there is a love of God lower even than hell; and that all mankind, however wicked and ungodly some of them may be, will sooner or later be saved.” We are invited to leave the old paths of apostolic Christianity. We are told that the views of our fathers about hell, and the devil, and punishment are obsolete and old-fashioned. We are to embrace what is called a “kinder theology,” and treat hell as a pagan fable, or a bugbear to frighten children and fools. Against such false teaching I desire, for one, to protest. Painful, sorrowful, distressing as the controversy may be, we must not blink at it, or refuse to look the subject in the face. I, for one, am resolved to maintain the old position, and to assert the reality and eternity of hell.

Believe me, this is no mere speculative question. It is not to be classed with disputes about liturgies and church government. It is not to be ranked with mysterious problems, like the meaning of Ezekiel’s temple or the symbols of Revelation. It is a question which lies at the very foundation of the whole gospel. The moral attributes of God, His justice, His holiness, His purity, are all involved in it. The necessity of personal faith in Christ, and the sanctification of the Spirit, are all at stake. Once let the old doctrine about hell be overthrown, and the whole system of Christianity is unsettled, unscrewed, unpinned, and thrown into disorder.

Believe me, the question is not one in which we are obliged to fall back on the theories and inventions of man. The Scripture has spoken plainly and fully on the subject of hell. I hold it to be impossible to deal honestly with the Bible, and to avoid the conclusions to which it will lead us on this point. If words mean anything, there is such a place as hell. If texts are to be interpreted fairly, there are those who will be cast into it. If language has any sense belonging to it, hell is forever. I believe that the man who finds arguments for evading the evidence of the Bible on this question has arrived at a state of mind in which reasoning is useless. For my own part, it seems just as easy to argue that we do not exist, as to argue that the Bible does not teach the reality and eternity of hell.

(a) Settle it firmly in your mind that the same Bible which teaches that God in mercy and compassion sent Christ to die for sinners, does also teach that God hates sin and must from His very nature punish all those who cleave to sin, or refuse the salvation He has provided. The very same chapter which declares, “God so loved the world,” declares also that “the wrath of God abideth” on the unbeliever (John 3:16, 36). The very same Gospel which is launched into the earth with the blessed tidings, “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved,” proclaims in the same breath, “He that believeth not shall be damned” (Mark 16:16).

(b) Settle it firmly in your mind that God has given us proof upon proof in the Bible that He will punish the hardened and unbelieving, and that He can take vengeance on His enemies, as well as show mercy on the penitent. The drowning of the old world by the flood; the burning of Sodom and Gomorrah; the overthrow of Pharaoh and all his host in the Red Sea; the judgment on Korah, Dathan and Abiram; the utter destruction of the seven nations of Canaan – all teach the same awful truth. They are all given to us as beacons, and signs, and warnings, that we may not provoke God. They are all meant to lift up the corner of the curtain which hangs over things to come, and to remind us that there is such a thing as the wrath of God. They all tell us plainly that “the wicked shall be turned into hell” (Ps. 9:17).

(c) Settle it firmly in your mind that the Lord Jesus Christ Himself has spoken most plainly about the reality and eternity of hell. The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus contains things which should make men tremble. But it does not stand alone. No lips have used so many words to express the awfulness of hell as the lips of Him who spake as never man spake, and who said, “The word of which ye hear is not Mine, but the Father’s which sent Me” (John 14:24). Hell, hellfire, the damnation of hell, eternal damnation, the resurrection of damnation, everlasting fire, the place of torment, destruction, outer darkness, the worm that never dies, the fire that is not quenched, the place of weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth, everlasting punishment – these, these are the words which the Lord Jesus Christ Himself employs. Away with the miserable nonsense which people talk in this day, who tell us that the ministers of the gospel should never speak of hell! They only show their own ignorance, or their own dishonesty, when they talk in such a manner. No man can honestly read the four Gospels and fail to see that he who would follow the example of Christ must speak of hell.

(d) Settle it, lastly, it your mind, that the comforting ideas which the Scripture gives us of heaven are at an end, if we once deny the reality or eternity of hell. Is there no future separate abode for those who die wicked and ungodly? Are all men after death to be mingled together in one confused multitude? Why then, heaven will be no heaven at all! It is utterly impossible for two to dwell happily together except they be agreed. Is there to be a time when the term of hell and punishment will be over? Are the wicked after ages of misery to be admitted into heaven? Why then, the need of the sanctification of the Spirit is cast aside and despised! I read that men can be sanctified and made meet for heaven on earth: I read nothing of any sanctification in hell. Away with such baseless and unscriptural theories! The eternity of hell is as clearly affirmed in the Bible as the eternity of heaven. Once allow that hell is not eternal, and you may as well say that God and heaven are not eternal. The same Greek word which is used in the expression “everlasting punishment” is the word that is used by the Lord Jesus in the expression “life eternal,” and by St. Paul, in the expression “everlasting God” (Matt. 25:46; Rom. 16:26).

I know that all this sounds dreadful in many ears. I do not wonder. But the only question we have to settle is this, Is it scriptural? Is it true? I maintain firmly that it is so: and I maintain that professing Christians ought to be often reminded that they may be lost and go to hell.

I know that it is easy to deny all plain teaching about hell, and to make it odious by individual names. I have often heard of “narrow-minded views,” and “old-fashioned notions,” and “brimstone theology,” and the like. I have often been told that “broad” views are wanted in the present day. I wish to be as broad as the Bible, neither less nor more. I say that he is the narrow-minded theologian, who pares down such parts of the Bible as the natural heart dislikes, and rejects any portion of the counsel of God.

God knows that I never speak of hell without pain and sorrow. I would gladly offer the salvation of the gospel to the very chief of sinners. I would willingly say to the vilest and most profligate of mankind on his deathbed, “Repent, and believe on Jesus, and thou shalt be saved” (Acts 16:31). But God forbid that I should ever keep back from mortal man that Scripture reveals a hell as well as heaven, and that the gospel teaches that men may be lost as well as saved. The watchman who keeps silence, when he sees a fire, is guilty of gross neglect; the doctor who tells us we are getting well when we are dying is a false friend; and the minister who keeps back hell from his people in his sermons is neither a faithful nor a charitable man.

Where is the charity of keeping back any portion of God’s truth? He is the kindest friend who tells me the whole extent of my danger. Where is the use of hiding the future from the impenitent and the ungodly? Surely it is like helping the devil, if we do not tell them plainly that “the soul that sinneth shall surely die” (Ezek. 18:4, 20). Who knows but the wretched carelessness of many baptized persons arises from this, that they have never been told plainly of hell? Who can tell but thousands might be converted, if ministers would urge them more faithfully to flee from the wrath to come? Verily, I fear we are many of us guilty in this matter: there is a morbid tenderness amongst us which is not the tenderness of Christ. We have spoken of mercy, but not of judgment; we have preached many sermons about heaven, but few about hell; we have been carried away by the wretched fear of being thought “low, vulgar, and fanatical.” We have forgotten that He who judgeth us is the Lord, and that the man who teaches the same doctrine that Christ taught cannot be wrong.

If you would ever be a healthy, scriptural Christian, I entreat you to give hell a place in your theology. Establish it in your mind as a fixed principle that God is a God of judgment, as well as of mercy; and that the same everlasting counsels which laid the foundation of the bliss of heaven have also laid the foundation of the misery of hell. Keep in full view of your mind that all who die unpardoned and unrenewed are utterly unfit for the presence of God and must be lost forever. They are not capable of enjoying heaven: they could not be happy there. They must go to their own place: and that place is hell. Oh, it is a great thing in these days of unbelief to believe the whole Bible!

If you would ever be a healthy and scriptural Christian, I entreat you to beware of any ministry which does not plainly teach the reality and eternity of hell. Such a ministry may be soothing and pleasant, but it is far more likely to lull you to sleep than to lead you to Christ, or to build you up in the faith. It is impossible to leave out any portion of God’s truth without spoiling the whole. That preaching is sadly defective which dwells exclusively on the mercies of God and the joys of heaven, and never sets forth the terrors of the Lord and the miseries of hell. It may be popular, but it is not scriptural: it may amuse and gratify, but it will not save. Give me the preaching which keeps back nothing that God has revealed. You may call it stern and harsh; you may tell us that to frighten people is not the way to do them good. But you are forgetting that the grand object of the gospel is to persuade men to “flee from the wrath to come” (Matt. 3:7; Luke 3:7), and that it is vain to expect men to flee unless they are afraid. Well would it be for many professing Christians if they were more afraid about their souls than they now are!

If you desire to be a healthy Christian, consider often what your own end will be. Will it be happiness or will it be misery? Will it be the death of the righteous, or will it be a death without hope, like that of Lot’s wife? You cannot live always: there must be an end one day. The last sermon will one day be heard; the last prayer will one day be prayed; the last chapter in the Bible will one day be read – meaning, wishing, hoping, intending, resolving, doubting, hesitating – all will at length be over. You will have to leave this world and to stand before a holy God. Oh, that you would be wise! Oh, that you would consider your latter end! You cannot trifle forever: a time will come when you must be serious. You cannot put off your soul’s concerns forever: a day will come when you must have a reckoning with God. You cannot be always singing, and dancing, and eating, and drinking, and dressing, and reading, and laughing, and jesting, and scheming, and planning, and money-making. The summer insects cannot always sport in the sunshine; the cold chilly evening will come at last, and stop their sport forever. So it will be with you. You may put off religion now, and refuse the counsel of God’s ministers: but the cool of the day is drawing on, when God will come down to speak with you. And what will your end be? Will it be a hopeless one, like that of Lot’s wife?

I beseech you, by the mercies of God, to look this question fairly in the face. I entreat you not to stifle conscience by vague hopes of God’s mercy, while your heart cleaves to the world. I implore you not to drown convictions by childish fancies about God’s love, while your daily ways and habits show plainly that “the love of the Father is not in you” (John 2:15). There is mercy in God, like a river – but it for the penitent believer in Christ Jesus. There is a love in God towards sinners which is unspeakable and unsearchable – but it is for those who “hear Christ’s voice and follow Him” (John 10:27). Seek to have an interest in that love. Break off every known sin; come out boldly from the world; cry mightily to God in prayer; cast yourself wholly and unreservedly on the Lord Jesus Christ for time and eternity; lay aside every weight. Cling to nothing, however dear, which interferes with your soul’s salvation; give up everything, however precious, which comes between you and heaven. This old shipwrecked world is fast sinking beneath your feet: the one thing needful is to have a place in the lifeboat and get safe to shore. Give diligence to make your calling and election sure. Whatever happens to your house and property, see that you make sure of heaven. Oh, better a million times to be laughed at and thought extreme in this world than to go down to hell from the midst of the congregation, and end like Lot’s wife!

People of God – cling unwaveringly to the truths of His word, no matter what the voices of unbelief say or how often or loudly they say it!

Elders – arm yourselves! If ever churches needed men who are willing and able to defend the truths of Scripture, it is now. To your posts!