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Eternal Punishment

Eternal Punishment [N]

Divinely instituted penalty of endless suffering, including banishment from God's blessed presence.

The Old Testament. A study of God's major judgments (e.g., the flood and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah) shows that the Old Testament focuses on premature death when dealing with the fate of the ungodly, not on life after death.

If the predominant evangelical view is correct, in the Old Testament sheol sometimes refers to a netherworld to which the wicked go at death. Sheol therefore, takes us beyond the primary judgment passages and speaks of life after death, although in vague terms.

Two passages paint a clearer picture of the final destiny of the wicked. Isaiah uses earthly images of corpses beset by an undying worm and inextinguishable fire to point to the final doom of the wickedeternal punishment ( 66:24 ). Daniel teaches that whereas the godly will be raised to never-ending life, the wicked will be raised to never-ending disgrace ( 12:2 ).

The New Testament. Jesus' Teaching. The doctrine of hell ultimately derives from Jesus. He uses images of darkness and separation to communicate God's rejection of unbelievers and their exclusion from his blessed presence ( Matt 7:23 ; 8:12 ; 22:13 ; 25:30 ; Luke 13:27-28 ). Fire imagery signifies the horrible suffering of the unrighteous ( Matthew 13:40-42 Matthew 13:49-50 ; 18:8-9 ; 25:41 ; Mark 9:44 Mark 9:48 ; Luke 16:23-25 Luke 16:28 ). It is significant that Jesus uses the "weeping and gnashing of teeth" image to qualify other images: "the fiery furnace" ( Matthew 13:42 Matthew 13:50 ), darkness and separation ( Matt 8:12 ; 22:13 ; 25:30 ; Luke 13:28 ), and being cut into pieces ( Matt 24:51 ).

Jesus teaches that the suffering of the ungodly in hell is "eternal punishment" ( Matt 25:46 ; cf. John 5:28-29 ). Pictures of death and destruction speak of the ruin of all that is worthwhile in human existence ( Matt 10:28 ).

The Apostles' Teaching. The apostles reinforce Jesus' teaching, although they mention the topic less frequently. Paul combines pictures of punishment, destruction, and separation in 2 Thessalonians 1:5-9: God will "punish those who do not know God, and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power."

Jude speaks of hell in terms of fire when he cites Sodom and Gomorrah as an earthly example of "those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire" (v. 7). He employs the image of darkness when he likens false teachers to "wandering stars, for whom the blackest darkness has been reserved forever" (v. 13).

Revelation combines the Old Testament picture of the wicked drinking the cup of God's wrath (e.g., Psalm 75:7-8 ; Jer 25:15-29 ) with hell-fire to depict the perpetual, conscious torment of the wicked ( Rev 14:10-11 ). In Revelation 20 the devil is cast into the lake of fire, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown "one thousand years" earlier ( Rev 19:20 ). They had not been annihilated; in fact, John says that all three "will be tormented day and night for ever and ever" (20:10). Lost human beings share the same fate (v. 15: cf. Rev 21:8 ). The Apocalypse closes with the picture of the City of God representing God's comforting presence with his people ( Rev 21:3-4 ). The wicked are not exterminated, but are outside the city, cut off from the blessings of God ( Rev 22:15 ).

Purposes of the Doctrine of Hell. Why does God teach such a terrible doctrine in his Word? For two reasons: to provide believers with powerful motivation for evangelism, and to make us grateful to him who redeemed us by suffering the pains of hell for us, both negatively (poena damni, the deprivation of the Father's love, Matt 27:45-46 ) and positively (poena sensus, the positive infliction of torments in body and soul, Matthew 26:38-39 Matthew 26:42 Matthew 26:44 ; John 18:11 , against the Old Testament background of the cup of God's wrath ).

Robert A. Peterson

See also Destroy, Destruction; Fire; Hell; Lake of Fire

Bibliography. M. de S. Cameron, ed., UNIVersalism and the Doctrine of Hell; W. V. Crockett, ed., Four Views on Hell; W. V. Crockett and J. G. Sigountos, eds., Through No Fault of Their Own? The Fate of Those Who Have Never Heard; L. Dixon, The Other Side of the Good News; D. L. Edwards and J. Stott, Evangelical Essentials; M. J. Erickson, The Evangelical Mind and Heart; E. Fudge, The Fire That Consumes; J. Hick, Evil and the God of Love; idem, Death and Eternal Life; R. A. Morey, Death and the Afterlife; C. Pinnock, A Wideness in God's Mercy; J. A. T. Robinson, In the End God; J. Sanders, No Other Name: An Investigation into the Destiny of the Unevangelized.

Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan USA.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.

For usage information, please read the Baker Book House Copyright Statement.


[N] indicates this entry was also found in Nave's Topical Bible

Bibliography Information

Elwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Eternal Punishment'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology". . 1997.